My First Garden-Part 1

This post is for my Dad.  This is the first garden that I’ll plant and grow myself in my new home.  For part of my birthday gift, my parents let me go rather crazy with the seed catalogs… and I ordered a bunch of stuff from Burgess Seed & Plant Co.  A starter pack of vegetables and a starter pack of herbs, plus asparagus, a set of 4 dwarf fruit trees, a blueberry bush, as well as butterfly and bee flower garden sheets–all this will keep me busy for some time.  I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

I also ordered two sets of raised garden bed boxes from Amazon on the recommendation of a coworker, and one of the early start tent enclosures to go with the boxes.

Assembly of the boxes was quite easy; the sides slot together and are held in place with plastic clips.  They seem like they’ll hold up.  They can be stacked, so I actually have two stacked sets for deeper planting and two single depth beds.

Raised bed boxes and tent enclosure.

I sorted my seeds into a few groups: the things that needed an early, indoor, or hot start (which I planted this weekend), the things that would need to grow in hills, and the seeds that plant in rows.  I picked up starter trays from my local Lidl (yes, it’s a grocery store) and potting soil from Lowe’s.

The boxes have not been filled yet–that’s a project for after the Spring 2018 term ends and I have more free time to DIG.  I have a huge amount of mulch and rich, peaty composted soil/leaf matter.

As far as vegetables go, I got the tomatoes seeded, along with peas, garden beans, and mixed lettuces.

Most of the herbs went into containers; many of them (basil, thyme, oregano) will grow well in pots and even did well in the apartment I lived in before.  I also had a very limited number of starting trays, since I bought the last pack.  You work with what you have!  I started the dill in the trays, and the rosemary will need replanting later.  I killed 3 rosemary plants in my apartment, so I’m hoping the seeds start well.  It grows wonderfully here–many people have giant bushes of the stuff in their backyards, with no idea of the treasure they have.  I love the smell of rosemary.

Starter trays with peas, beans, tomatoes, mixed lettuces, bell peppers, and dill. Pots contain sweet & thai basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.

I decided a bit later to start the mints as well, because summertime = mojitos.  The mints went into a long planter box:

Peppermint, Spearmint, Lemon Balm

Right now, one of the recipes that I’m mentally drooling over is a lentil salad with tomato and dill that will use some of the tomatoes, dill, and basil.  Fresh herbs make all the difference on that, and it’s one of my favorite summertime recipes!  I can’t wait to make it with my own home-grown goodies.

Starting plants in the tent enclosure box


Nutritional Showdown: Steel Cut Oats vs Rolled Oats

How many of you have seen, read, or heard that steel-cut oats are healthier for you than regular oatmeal?  I know I have.  I assumed that there must be some sort of nutritional difference between the two: more fiber perhaps, or just less processing.  Recently, as part of my weight-loss efforts, I tried a fridge oats recipe.  Since I didn’t have any regular (rolled) oatmeal on hand, I figured I’d be extra-healthy and substitute the steel-cut oats that I did have on hand! Yay me! Bonus healthy points!

After a week, I learned that I don’t love fridge oats.  I prefer my oatmeal warm.  The super-chewy texture of the steel-cut oats was also not so much awesome.  I wondered just how much of a difference there was. Observe:

Quaker Rolled Oats vs Kroger Steel-Cut Oats
Quaker Rolled Oats vs Kroger Steel-Cut Oats

Now, I understand that it’s very difficult to read those nutrition labels from the photos. Allow me to transcribe:

 Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats Steel-Cut Oats
 Serving Size 1/2 cup 1/4 cup
Calories 150 150
Total Fat 3 g 2.5 g
Saturated Fat 0.5 g 0.5 g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1 g 1 g
Monounsaturated Fat 1 g 1 g
 Cholesterol 0 mg 0 mg
Sodium 0 mg 0 mg
Total Carbohydrate 27 g 27 g
Dietary Fiber 4 g 4 g
Soluble Fiber 2 g 2 g
 Insoluble Fiber 2 g 2 g
Sugars 1 g 1 g
Protein 5 g 5 g

The only measurable difference is serving size.  The steel-cut oats have the same nutrition, just more densely packed.  My roommate commented “but steel-cut oats keep me fuller longer!” Yep–you’re eating twice as much food in the same volume!  Of course you’re fuller longer!

But, you argue, Look at the fat!  There’s a half-gram difference in total fat! Why yes, that does appear to be true.  However, when you look at the distribution of those fats, they’re identical, and 2.5 rounds up to 3.  Thus, that difference is probably either a trace difference or rounding difference, therefore, nutritionally NULL.

Oh–one other important (to me) thing: regular rolled oats cook in about 1 minute in the microwave in the morning.  I do not have to soak them overnight to make them chewable.

I’m going back to my regular rolled oats.


Healthy Moments Challenge Day 3

Today’s challenge was deceptively simple: eat veggies at every meal.  I interpret that as meaning at least one serving of veggies (not just a garnish).  In this case, the two health challenges I’m doing directly conflicted with one another!  The planned breakfast for the FitGirlsGuide 28-day jumpstart has cherries, but no vegetables.  I expect that’s going to happen occasionally.

Embracing the “progress, not perfection” mantra, I grabbed a handful of baby carrots with my breakfast and skipped my snack during the day.  Normally, I’m quite happy to incorporate vegetables into my eggs.  Especially onions or shallots.  Also tomatoes.  And maybe spinach sometimes.  I like the combination of tomatoes and eggs–especially something like salsa!

For lunch, veggies were already included: 1 cup of roasted vegetables.  Mine was  a mix of roasted pumpkin, carrots, and onions (because that’s what I had on hand when I started the challenge).  There’s also a handful of steamed kale in there.

Dinner also already had vegetables included: the pita pizza party called for mushrooms, bell pepper, and spinach in addition to the marinara sauce.  I found that I really missed onions on my pizza.  I also think that next time I try that recipe, I might put the toppings IN the pita pocket since mine slid off and made  a horrible mess… but still a fairly tasty mess.  If it had been photo-worthy, I’d’ve taken a picture for this post, but nooooo….

Fuyu persimmons, one of several varieties and definitely NOT a vegetable.

Special bonus round: tonight’s meal was also to be accompanied by a half cup of fruit.  I had a persimmon.  If you’ve never had a persimmon, they taste like jam and they’re heavenly.  My spousal substitute just had a bite and I swear I think his eyes rolled back in his head–and he’s a carnivore.  You can learn more about one of my favorite seasonal treats over at the Botanist in the Kitchen!

Influenster Product Review: Weight Watcher’s Ice Cream

Weight Watchers GIANT Chocolate Cookies & Cream Bars
Weight Watchers GIANT Chocolate Cookies & Cream Bars

Summer and ice cream go together, it’s as simple as that.  Earlier this summer, I received an Influenster VoxBox with two coupons worth $4 each to try Weight Watcher’s Ice Cream.  Honestly, I was slightly surprised: I knew about their frozen meals and other food products, but I didn’t know they did ice cream.  I am calorie-conscious, so this seemed like it might work well.  I had tried other brands of reduced-calorie ice creams and usually found them to have an odd flavor or poor texture, but I was willing to give these a try.  Hey, free ice cream!

I went to the grocery store and purchased two different flavors: the English Toffee Crunch bars and the Snack Size Vanilla Fudge Swirl Ice Cream Cones (neither pictured).  The snack-sized cones were rather small and didn’t last very long!  I found that they were actually pretty good–better than I expected.  The consistency was creamy and soft, probably a little closer to soft-serve than some ice creams.  The flavor was fine and the chocolate syrup actually tasted like chocolate, not fake chocolate.  There’s a difference.   The English Toffee bars were also a bit surprising: I really only expected the toffee bits in the crunchy chocolate shell, but the ice cream itself was toffee-flavored as well.

These were so good I went back to the store and bought two more packages out of my own pocket: another box of the English Toffee bars, and the Chocolate Cookies & Cream bars (pictured above).  I don’t usually go for chocolate ice cream.  Remember those ice cream bars when you were a kid that had the brown-and-white cookie crumb speckles on them?  Or strawberry pink-and-white?  I loved those, and these made me think back to those and hope that they’d be similar.  I was a little disappointed since the cookie crust was finer and less crunchy than the old-fashioned bars, but they’re still very tasty and a great summer treat.  They’re just large enough to satisfy a craving and make you feel not-deprived.

Honestly, I’m seriously considering buying round 3 of these: they have a cherry-chocolate variety that I still want to try.

They’re not going to get me to give up my Häagen-Dazs (ever), but I’d really like to see scoopable ice cream, too.  It’s great with fresh fruit.

Full disclosure: I received these products complimentary for testing purposes.

Plated Meal: Peruvian Lomo Saltado Steak Stir-Fry with Potatoes & Mexican Hot Chocolate Pudding

We had an issue.  There were too many tasty meals on this week, so we had a midweek delivery!  Not common for us.

The Ingredients

The Cooking

There were a lot of vegetables to cut up.  The potatoes were fairly small and didn’t take long, but those bell peppers were HUGE!  The potatoes were boiled first, then stir-fried with the other vegetables, which was interesting-I’ve never stir-fried potatoes before.  The quantity of vegetables was such that it barely fit (heaping) in my largest skillet.  If I were going to do this again (and I will), I’d start the bell pepper before the rest, as it took long enough to cook that the onions were limp by the time the peppers were tender.

Mistakes in the Kitchen

I had two issues with the dessert.  First, it required AN EGG, and we were completely out of eggs.  Oops.  After my roommate graciously ummm… volunteered was voluntold to pick up some eggs, I started to prep the pudding.  The instructions clearly stated to add an egg YOLK to the milk.  Perhaps I should have read the instructions because I added the whole egg and whisked it in before I realized my error.  Of course, although I now had more eggs, I did not have more milk.  This dessert was doomed.  I did substitute my Mexican vanilla, which was great in this recipe, and I’d do it again.  When I added the flour and other dry ingredients though, I was not able to get a smooth texture despite continuous (and vigorous) whisking.  It also thickened significantly faster than the directions suggested, which might have been because of the egg whites <ahem>.

The Results

The Peruvian Steak dish was really good!  It had a more subtle and well-blended flavor than we expected, but needed a touch more pepper.  I hadn’t added any because I wasn’t sure how spicy that aji amarillo paste was going to be.  The textures were interesting, but again, I would have added ingredients in a different order so that the onions could have been less limp.  The potatoes, too, ended up a bit more soggy/soft than I would have liked.  The cilantro was actually fantastic in this dish: it gave it a bright, fresh note that helped a more stew-like dish transition to spring.  I might actually consider a dash of lime juice in the future.  Overall, we all rated this a solid four stars out of five.

Peruvian Steak Stir-Fry
Peruvian Steak Stir-Fry









The Mexican Hot Chocolate pudding did not have a great texture, to be honest.  I would compare the lumpiness to tapioca pudding.  The flavor, however, was a subtly spicy rich milk chocolate that we all loved!  The blend of cinnamon and chili powder didn’t make it spicy-hot, but it added depth and complexity.  This led to a lengthy discussion of the merits of instant pudding mixes.  This might have been the first non-mix pudding that I’ve made (I don’t count flan/custard as pudding per se).  It was quite easy to prepare and I really look forward to trying this again (without the egg white)!

Mexican Hot Chocolate Pudding
Mexican Hot Chocolate Pudding

Plated Meal: Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage, Brown Butter, and Sage

The Ingredients

The Cooking

This recipe was strikingly simple, especially since it had so few ingredients.  Despite that, it took the full 30-40 minutes described to finish the dish.  Here’s why: boiling a pot of water takes forever.  Cooking the pasta, only 10 minutes.  Adding the pasta water to the dish to create a sauce–the instructions said 1 Tbsp at a time.  Since I had a double batch, that meant adding 32 Tbsp, which takes quite a while.  In all honesty, I gave up and started splashing in small amounts after a few additions.

The Results

This was SO good, and SO easy, we will definitely be doing it again. Rave reviews all the way around!




Frosty VoxBox

This month (December 2014), I received a Frosty VoxBox full of goodies to review.  These products were provided free from Influenster, and I agree to review them online.  In this box, I got a bunch of stuff to review.

Product Reviews

  • No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum from Boots Beauty USA.  Claims to “be even more effective at reducing the appearance of fine lines for younger looking skin in just two weeks.” This is a foil packet that contains 3 mL of product.  I’m not sure how I’m going to make that last for 2 weeks without drying out or if there is enough of the product in the little foil pouch, but I will start using it.  Feb 2015 UPDATE: I used this until it dried out.  I couldn’t see much difference.  It did make my skin feel like I’d kind of rubbed glue on it–that sort of tight, filmy feeling.
  • Rimmel Gentle Eye Makeup Remover: “Gently removes all eye makeup, including long-lasting and waterproof makeup, with no oily residue.” Unlike some eye makeup removers, this one isn’t biphasic or oil-based.  My first impression was that it required more scrubbing than I like to get the mascara off and it left my skin feeling very dry and tight.  I didn’t like that feeling.  However, that mascara has been notoriously difficult to remove, so I will try with another mascara too.  Removing eyeliner and shadow, however, was a breeze.  Feb 2015 UPDATE: I have been using this more.  I read a tip that you should hold the remover-soaked cotton pad (or cotton ball, whatever you used) on your eyelid for 15 seconds to let it penetrate the makeup and saturate the area.  Works much better that way.
  • Rimmel Scandaleyes Waterproof Kohl Kajal Eyeliner: “Gives instant colour impact with its high intensity pigments.  The ultra-smooth and creamy formula glides on easily.” You got that right!  This eyeliner was unusual in that it required almost NO pressure to apply, so it didn’t drag.  It also didn’t smudge and it wore very well.  It’s quickly become the eyeliner I tend to grab first when I grab a black.  Very light application can actually get you a dark grey color that is soft rather than a harsh black line.  I’d buy more of these without a doubt!  Feb 2015 UPDATE: still gets occasional use when I remember to use eyeliner.  Definitely one of my more reliable ones.
  • NYC Expert Last Lip Color in Sugar Plum: “Get intense, amplified color and shine that lasts up to six hours!  Our moisturizing formula glides on easily for  a silky, smooth, velvety finish for all day wear.”  I like the color of this lipstick a LOT.  It does apply well and is highly pigmented, so I get great coverage with a single swipe.  What I did not get was six hours wear or moisturizing.  In regard to those claims, this lipstick was about average for me, but I have NEVER found a lipstick that actually lasts six hours.  I think I lick my lips a lot.  Feb 2015 UPDATE: Wear this a lot even though it’s not super moisturizing.  The lid has a very annoying tendency to come off.  Love the color.
  • Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane Decaf Green Tea: Why decaf?  Why oh why would you send me decaf?!  I am the caffeine queen!  I’m not a tea drinker usually, but I do like green tea.  This one promises to be a nice holidayish treat.  Feb 2015 UPDATE: Tried this when my stomach was really upset.  Tasted WONDERFUL; not really like candy cane in my opinion but absolutely pepperminty.  Great cold weather warm up tea!
  • EcoTools Hair Brush: “EcoTools has the brush to tame any hair style with a variety of five brush head shapes and bristle designs specially crafted to suit every need.” The brush I received was a giant round brush that was hollow.  It looks like exactly the kind of tool that you use for a blowout.  I tried that.  My hair turned scary.  Feb 2015 UPDATE: Nope.  Hair still turns scary.
  • McCormick Gourmet Thyme: I DO love to cook!  It’s one of my favorite hobbies.  It’s probably my only creative outlet.  This thyme smells delightful.  I really just want the whole McCormick display case from the store for my home.  I swear I own half of it already… Feb 2015 UPDATE: I used this in a Mustard Chicken Stew Recipe from Epicurious.  It was very tasty, but it didn’t look like the picture and I was too embarrassed to take a picture: mine was, um, brown.
  • Fruit Vines Bites: I got the cherry flavor of these candies.  I have a problem with candy: it disappears really fast.  I have no self-control.  At least this was low-fat and preservative-free, and 150 calories per 10-piece serving.  They’re softer than other “vine-style” candies that are also red (you know the ones I mean) and chewy.  I found myself pulling the little trio of vines apart.   They’re artificially flavored, but the flavor is a pretty good intense cherry flavor.  However, they do have a somewhat plastic flavor that I find off-putting.  I don’t honestly think I’d buy these, but it didn’t stop me from gobbling up the bag…  Feb 2015 UPDATE: haven’t found these locally anywhere.  That’s probably a good thing.


I received these products complimentary from Influenster for testing purposes.

Birchbox Book Club: December 2014

JoyTheBakerThis month’s book was holiday-appropriate: a baking cookbook!  This one is Homemade Decadence: Irresistably Sweet, Salty, Gooey, Sticky, Fluffy, Creamy, Crunchy Treats by Joy Wilson.

I don’t know exactly how one reviews a cookbook.  My writing classes did not cover this as a skill.  However, here is what I can tell you:

I got the Kindle version.  Yes, of a cookbook, which will necessitate having an electronic device with me in the kitchen while I bake.  It won’t be the first time almost all my devices have served me in this capacity at some point.

I didn’t find the cover to be breathtaking, but that’s ok.  It’s fun and imparts a feeling of low-key, low-stress, fun desserts.  Interestingly, this is a fair indicator of the style of writing regarding the recipes themselves.  The blurbs included with each recipe are fun to read and lighthearted.

As I turn to a random page in this book, I find a recipe for Breakfast Cobbler with Oatmeal Drop Biscuits.  I’m trying very hard to convince myself that oatmeal is a breakfast food, right?  And cobblers are made with fruit, right?! So this would be a brilliant idea!  The author’s written description says:

“In my family, cobbler is a big deal.  It’s a big deal when my dad starts to root through the kitchen cabinets looking for the large cobbler pan.  This dessert is usually reserved for the big Easter arty, the all-family cookout, or Christmas.  You know there’s going to be a lot of happy gathering when that special pan emerges.

Leave it to me to find a way to turn cobbler into breakfast.

Breakfast is totally a special occasion, right? In this cobbler incarnation, we’re combining juicy berries and drop biscuit batter.  It’s sweet and juicy, hearty and special.”

This is what I love about cookbooks. The power of food and descriptions of the origins of those foods, their stories.

Since I randomly chose this recipe (location 542 of the Kindle ed.), this will be the recipe I test this month for the book club review!  The only things I don’t keep on hand: 4 cups of fruit (frozen, thawed and drained is ok) and buttermilk.  I need to hit the grocery store.

Doesn’t this look divine?

I woke up grumpy and not really wanting to cook breakfast.  That is normal.  I do not like breakfast.  The recipe looked more daunting than I remembered: “16 ingredients? How many bowls and dishes am I dirtying?! Really?!  This early in the morning…”  Despite my internal grumbling, the recipe was really easy to follow and assemble.  I used a frozen fruit blend with cherries, blackberries, and blueberries.  I also (mistakenly) grabbed the fat-free buttermilk at the grocery store.  It did not take very long to prepare (the longest part was probably finding the cardamom in my spice cabinet).  Interestingly, this recipe had you pre-bake the fruit, then add the drop-biscuit topping, and bake again.  The drop-biscuit dough alone was yummy.  After the second baking, it needed to cool for 20 minutes.  This is a form of torture, but is a really good time to go do some yoga or something.  If you’re a morning person, clean up after your cooking.

I’m not as good at staging food photos as I’d like to be.  Maybe I’ll take a class.

This was very tasty, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that I wanted a scoop of vanilla ice cream with it and that it was dessert.  It was also a little too sweet.  If I were to make this again, I would reduce the amount of sugar and probably eliminate the salt.

Calculated by MyFitnessPal based on ingredients list
Calculated by MyFitnessPal based on ingredients list

My one complaint about this cookbook is that it does not have nutritional information, even a basic calorie count.  Granted, if you’re eating cobbler for breakfast, calories probably aren’t something you’re worried about, but I prefer to know.  So here is the nutrition facts label for this recipe (courtesy of MyFitnessPal): And holy geez!  I knew with a stick of butter that this was not a healthy dish.  The most shocking thing in this dish was the sodium level–half a day’s worth!  That’s why I would reduce or eliminate the salt next time around. It’s also half a day’s worth of fat, so that’s pretty high too, but I expected that with a stick of butter and buttermilk in the ingredients list.  This was calculated with low-fat buttermilk, and your choice of fresh/frozen fruit may also cause the calorie content to vary.  For the love of your blood pressure, make sure you use unsalted butter.

Would I make this again?  For dessert, sure, with less sugar and sodium.  And half a serving.

How does this reflect on the book?  Good question.  A randomly-chosen recipe turned out tasty and was easy to make and follow.  The dish looked just as good as the picture promised, but required no creativity on my part.  The calories etc. put this dish firmly in the “rare treat” category for me.  I couldn’t help but think of the story while I made and ate this dish, so that too was a success.  I like the book, but I think it will be used rarely since these are self-described Decadent Treats.