Thursday
Oct302014

Apple Cider Syrup #Unprocessed

Since our trip to the pumpkin patch earlier in the month I've had apple cider doughnuts on my mind. Even if they are made from scratch, they aren't considered unprocessed so I wondered if I could make a less processed version at home. I've been in recipe development mode all week trying to get the right balance of flavors, but while the doughnuts taste good, they aren't great — yet. I'm ready for a short break from this project so I thought I would put the recipe on the back burner for now and move on, but I didn't want to leave you without a recipe of some sort.

It just so happens that another recipe came out of all of my kitchen experiments and it happens to be an unprocessed sweetener. Apple cider syrup isn't something I was familiar with, but I stumbled across it on the King Arthur Flour website and thought, hey I bet I could make that. It's really quite simple, you take a half gallon of unsweetened apple cider and boil it down until it thickens. The resulting syrup is incredibly sweet and can be used as a topping for pancakes or an addition to baked goods to give them more apple flavor. It's quite versatile and has the added benefit of making your entire house smell like autumn.

Apple Cider Syrup
makes approximately 8 ounces or a half-pint

Ingredients

½ gallon fresh apple cider *see notes

Directions

  • In a large pot bring the apple cider to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-high. Continue to simmer the cider for approximately 2 hours or until it has reduced in half. 
  • If you accidentally cook your cider down more than you had intended you can save it, just add a small amount of apple cider back into the syrup, stir until well combined and cook down more if necessary.
  • This recipe can be stored in the refrigerator for several months or canned using a water-bath. Pint, half-pint, and quarter-pint jars will be processed for 15 minutes. For complete canning instructions you can visit my Crock-Pot Applesauce recipe the process is identical.

Notes

If you're looking to use this as a natural sweetener you'll want to use an apple cider that doesn't contain preservatives or other added ingredients. Many of the varieties sold in the store contain Potassium Sorbate or Sodium Benzoate, which is used as a preservative. I purchased a gallon of cider from one of our local farms that is unfiltered, unsweetened, and has no preservatives.

Wednesday
Oct292014

October #Unprocessed - Week 4 Update

Week 4 Update

It's the end of the month, which means that October #Unprocessed is almost over. While I wasn't able to eat unprocessed the entire month, I did manage to keep my diet unprocessed about 90% of the time. This was much better than I expected considering we were traveling at the beginning of the month and had several outings towards the end of the month that would involve eating out. It took a lot of advance prep work to stay on track, but I'm glad I decided to take the challenge. I've learned a lot this month. I was able to focus on issues I had never given any thought to and make some of the changes to our diet that I had been putting off. Many of the changes I've made will be sticking around permanently, although I will be bringing back taco night ASAP. I gave it up during the challenge because I wasn't able to find pre-made tortillas or taco shells that passed the kitchen test. Both of those items are on the list of foods I want to learn how to make, but until then I'll be sticking to a processed version. I've really missed taco night.

What Did I Hope to Accomplish This Month?

First and foremost I wanted to better educate myself about the food I feed my family. I learned an incredible amount about the preservatives and non-food ingredients that are added to our food to increase shelf-life and cut costs. I still have a lot to learn, but I've made a lot of progress in this area and worked to eliminate some of the more troubling ingredients from our life.

By the end of the month I wanted to reorganize my pantry and separate any foods containing processed ingredients. Some of the items were donated to a friend, but most we will consume slowly and not purchase again. During the reorganization I made a list of any items that will not be allowed back in our pantry after the challenge and another of unprocessed alternatives. I like to keep a few convenience items on hand for busy days so I'm not tempted to pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store instead of cook. For now I'll be focusing on replacing my favorite convenience items with healthier alternatives.

Budget was another item I wanted to consider during the challenge. For the last three years our food budget has been roughly $250 a month. In the past I've had no trouble sticking to that, but I've noticed a huge increase in food prices this year and we're no longer able to keep our food costs that low. With my husbands recent raise we were finally able to increase our budget to $350 for our family of 3. I still need to do some grocery shopping tonight, but we should come in right at budget this month even with the items I need to purchase for my son's Halloween party.

Since I have a horrible sweet tooth I wanted to determine how much added sugar I consumed in a week (which I found nearly impossible to do) and work to decrease the overall amount of sugar in my diet. To help me with this goal I experimented with home made condiments. I replaced my favorite jams and jellies with fruit butter because it uses significantly less sugar. This Pumpkin Pie Spiced Apple Buttermade with turbinado sugar was a huge hit, both in our house and with readers. I also tried my hand at home made ketchup so I could avoid one of the few items in our house containing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). It was an incredibly time consuming project and one I'm not likely to repeat, but the flavor of the ketchup was better than anything you can buy in a store.

Above all else I wanted to learn from my mistakes and I won't lie, I made quite a few. Sometimes I forgot to read a label, or thought I had and missed an unacceptable ingredient. Other times I was suffering from food cravings I couldn't ignore. In these cases I focused on consuming processed items in moderation and tried to pay more attention the next time I was in the kitchen. Even a mistake can become a teachable moment, so rather than beat myself up over something I've done wrong I choose to learn from it.

Deliberate Exceptions to the Challenge 

Before the challenge started I outlined my goals and any exceptions to the kitchen rule I was willing to make. I decided to allow baking powder, citric acid, enriched pasta in limited amounts, extremely limited amounts of cane sugar, and soy lecithin (but only in chocolate.) Most of these exceptions were made so I could bake my own bread without having to change the recipe I use or to consume foods I've canned myself (I occasionally use citric acid to prevent browning.) It also seemed silly for me to ban enriched pasta when I take a multi-vitamin containing many of the same ingredients, but I did limit the amount of pasta I consumed during the challenge. Soy lecithin was something I would have loved to completely eliminate, but I couldn't see myself going without chocolate for an entire month. This exception was purely to maintain my sanity, trust me, there are certain times of the month when I need chocolate. Ladies, I'm sure you understand.

As I said before, I intended to not make changes to this list, but I ran into a problem on day 1 of the challenge. I went to 3 or 4 different stores in the attempt to find canned diced tomatoes that didn't contain Calcium Chloride. I wasn't able to find them, even organic varieties use it to keep the tomatoes firm. If tomato season hadn't already been over I would have canned some myself, but I couldn't find good quality tomatoes and decided to allow one last exception to my list since this is an important staple in our diet. We allowed Calcium Chloride, but only in canned tomatoes and no more than once a week.

Once I had my exception list in place I focused on menu planning to help me with the challenge. I made a 2-week menu plan and reused it for the second portion of the month. To make things even more simple I added meals to the menu that only needed small changes to become unprocessed. Becoming unprocessed wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be and many of the changes I made didn't noticeably affect the flavor of our meals. The biggest exception to this was when I tried to use something other than corn starch to thicken my beef gravy. 

Health Issues and Weight Loss

I don't have a lot of health issues, but for the last year I have been suffering from severe migraines and joint swelling. Numerous visits with doctors and specialists haven't managed to narrow down what is causing either of my problems. The doctors have attributed it to my seizure medication and have encouraged me to switch to something different or take pain killers. I've made it clear that I'd rather focus on what is causing the problem rather than treating the symptoms with more medication since I've already had one disastrous experience trying to change my seizure medication (I ended up in the hospital three times in less than two months.)

Early on in the challenge I realized that I hadn't had any pain in my ankles or knees, which were causing me the most trouble. The rest of my joints were slowly showing improvement over time and I've not been suffering from migraines recently. This leads me to believe that my diet may have been contributing to the problem in some way. I have a list of the items and ingredients I've removed from my diet this month so I'll be working in reverse to slowly reintroduce them until I notice a problem. My new goal is to find out which ingredient or ingredients are causing me a problem and avoid them at all costs. It could be that I'm sensitive to a particular preservative or perhaps have an allergy to an ingredient that I'm unaware of. Hopefully this slow reintroduction helps me determine what was really causing my problem so I can work to avoid it in the future. I'm just going to cross my fingers and hope that it isn't a new food allergy, I have enough of those already.

Another thing I've noticed during the course of the month is that I'm slowly losing weight. I keep a close eye on what I eat and usually track it with MyFitnessPal. The number of calories I've consumed this month hasn't changed, yet I've managed to lose nearly 7lbs. The only noticeable change in my stats is that I'm consuming less sugar and more fiber. Everything else has stayed the relatively the same. While weight loss wasn't one of my goals for the month, I'm glad to see I'm on a downward trend again.

Future Goals

I have several new goals for after the challenge, one of which is decreasing the number of commercially canned foods I rely on. I've been focusing on canning my own foods so I can reduce our amount of household waste, eat locally year around, and reduce my sodium intake. I'd also like to continue learning about GMOs. I don't feel like I'm informed enough at this point in time to determine whether they should be completely eliminate from my diet or not. Wading through the conflicting data available is taking more time than I had anticipated, so for now, I'll continue learning and remove them when it is affordable to do so. Hopefully by the time October #Unprocessed rolls around next year I will have learned enough to determine wether or not it is something I should focus on during the challenge.

Tuesday
Oct282014

Tuesday Tea - Organic Assam Tonganagoan Estate Black Tea - Arbor Teas

Tea Description:

This exceptional organic and Fair Trade Certified black tea from Assam, India is a limited edition tea.  The dried leaves present a plethora of coppery golden tips which combine with the tightly twisted dark leaf to produce a unique reddish brown liquor that has a more complicated and heartier aroma and flavor profile than our classic organic Assam. With scents of herbaceous yeast, it offers a dry, malty cup that has notes of barley broth and rich sweet mushroom. Sourced from the Tonganagoan Estate in India at the low elevation of only 200 ft, this organic 2nd flush Assam SFTGFOP1 from 2013 is produced by the family-owned, professionally managed Chamong Group that is now into its 6th generation.

Ingredients: organic Indian black tea

Other Information:

Leaf Type: Black

Where to Purchase: Arbor Teas

Suggested Brewing Tips:

Serving Size: 1 level teaspoon per 8oz serving

Water Temp: 212°F

Steep Time: 3-5 minutes

Review:

Up until recently Arbor Teas was a company that was familiar with in name only. I knew through word-of-mouth that they were an excellent source of Fair Trade certified teas so I decided this month would be the one where I finally tried them out — it is Fair Trade month after all. I kept my order small since I'm currently swimming in tea and ordered the Organic Assam Tonganagoan Estate Black Tea, which I will be reviewing today, as well as the Organic Thai Iced tea.

It's a bit out of character for me to order black tea, I don't typically count it among my favorite. But, as I was reading through the description and staff opinions it caught my attention that one of the staff thought this was similar in taste to oolong. It's quite intriguing to come across a black tea with characteristics of an oolong, so into my cart it went. I just want to say that I love that Arbor Teas lists staff opinions on their website. It lets me know that the staff has actually tried the teas they sell, which is surprisingly not always the case, and gives me more insight into how a tea tastes. This makes it easier for me to decide if it's something I'd enjoy or something I should pass on. I'd like to see more companies provide such helpful insight to their teas.

When my tea showed up bright and early Monday morning I immediately brewed up a cup. While I don't feel it tasted much like an oolong, I was impressed by the flavor. It doesn't taste like your typical Assam. Instead of the bold flavor I was expecting, it was mellow with slight hints of barley and malt. It has a surprisingly sweet undertone to it and didn't turn bitter or astringent, even when steeped for five minutes. This is one of the rare teas that I could drink a lot of, either hot or iced, and not be bored with it. I don't say that often about unflavored black teas. 

My Rating: 89/100

Would I order this again? Absolutely. This was a fabulous black tea. Arbor Teas, if you're listening, please have an excellent Black Friday sale so I can order some more!

Disclosure:

I'd like to be open with my readers and let you know up front when I have been provided something for free to review as it does happen from time to time. In this case, I was not provided with anything from Arbors Teas and paid for this with my own money. As always, all opinions are my own.