Bio Chemistry

Sept 24 2013 pumpkins 006

Three reminders have come my way today about the power of food to heal or to hurt us.  Receiving the same message three times leads me to reflect, and to share a bit of this powerful information.

First, a friend sent an email warning about the unsanitary conditions of food production in a certain large Asian country.  It was graphic and disgusting.  Since I gave up eating meat in the mid-80’s, and haven’t eaten any fish or other seafood since I was 4; I’m not overly concerned about Tilapia production practices in Asia.  The point is well taken, though, that imported foods may not be as clean or healthy for us as we might assume.  Lately we must assume that a lot of imported food has been exposed to chemicals, radiation, waste, and contaminated water in its production and packaging.  A powerful reason to eat locally, and organically, as much as we are able.

The Nixon family has their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand at 3004 Ironbound Road, near the Five Forks Farm Fresh, near Jamestown, Virginia.

The Nixon family had their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand this autumn.

Then, I found an email from another friend detailing the powerful healing properties of a number of foods.  Not surprisingly, nearly every food on that list was plant based.  It used to be common to hear older folks encourage us with, “Let your food be your medicine.”  There is tremendous truth that what we eat, or don’t eat, is the most important factor which determines our overall health, and our ability to resist disease.

Plant foods are packed with chemical compounds to keep us healthy.  We make new discoveries every day about the powerful “phytochemicals” found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, roots, and leaves.  These are harnessed to produce many medicines, like aspirin, which was originally made from the bark of the willow tree.

But good health just doesn’t come from a bottle.  It is something we build or destroy bite by bite, and sip by sip.

I read a book a number of years ago by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, titled, Eat To Live.  Dr. Fuhrman styles himself as a doctor of “last resort.”  Most of his patients have already been told they won’t recover from their condition, and they come to him with heart disease, diabetes, cancers, gout, and other severe diseases in a desperate bid to extend their lives.Eat to Live Cookbook: 200 Delicious Nutrient-Rich Recipes for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Reversing Disease, and Lifelong Health

Dr. Fuhrman’s patients are desperate enough to “do anything” to extend life, and are therefore willing to take his advice on diet.  He has an enormous success rate with those who follow his guidance.  And, as you might expect, he counsels his patients to give up meat and meat products, along with processed foods.  His book is fascinating because he details exactly how certain foods affect us biochemically.  He helps us to understand what our bodies require for good health, and which foods provide these substances.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients.  Their seeds are also healthy to eat.  Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients. Their seeds are very healthy to eat. Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Now I was raised in the 1960s at the height of the USDA’s outreach to public school students about what to eat for good health.  The old version was concocted primarily to prop up the meat and dairy industries.  My parents were firm believers that meat must be served at every meal, and all children must drink milk through their teen years.  I promise you that made our family meal times far from peaceful, as I disliked both from an early age.

Of course my mother also believed in serving dessert with every meal, even breakfast many days; and so peace was generally restored in some sweet fashion.  My mother is a wonderful cook, an inspired pastry cook especially.  She is known for her delicious meals.  And yes, all of us children were overweight in elementary school.

The accepted wisdom of what is or isn’t good to eat has shifted dramatically over the last 50 years.  We now know more than ever before about maintaining good health, and yet harmful foods are easier and cheaper to get with each passing year.

Diabetes runs through our family, and so I’ve been keen, since my teens, to avoid it.  My first rebellion, in sixth grade, came at the dinner table.  I drastically changed what I would and would not eat, began my own exercise program, and lost more than 50 pounds that school year.   I was proud of that accomplishment, but a neighbor developed anorexia nervosa around that time, and so my parents put an end to my “diet.”

I had to learn that it is more important to eat the “right” foods, than it is to avoid the harmful ones.  Our American diet, so often handed to us in a sack from a fast food window, is based more on what we like to eat than on what maintains our good health.   We are constantly tempted by amazing foods, while also seduced to try the latest diet plan.  Whatever sells, right?

Mushrooms.  These are different from shelf fungus because they are soft, have stems, and release their spores from gills, located under their caps.  These are growing nearby at the base of a Hellebore.

Edible mushrooms provide many health benefits, contain no fat, and are low in calories.  They’ve been used medicinally for many thousands of years.

So I’ve been on a long term quest to learn what to eat for optimum health.  However much I’ve learned from Dr. Fuhrman’s book, and others, I haven’t successfully adopted his diet plan.

Why?  It isn’t easy.  And, I cook for others, so I have to consider others’ tastes and wants along with my own. Our meals are bonding times when families gather together.  Agreement about our food; what, how much, how it is prepared; brings us together, or splits us apart.  Rejecting a dish or a meal is a rejection of the cook.  It is personal.  Deliberately preparing a dish your loved ones won’t or can’t eat carries the same message.  It is hard to change your own diet, to care for your own health, when your friends and family enjoys eating differently.  A different diet sets us apart.  It takes a great deal of self-confidence, and strength of will to maintain.  And often relationships suffer from it.

We Americans use food as recreation and entertainment.  We “treat ourselves” and give in to our cravings for this or that.  We celebrate our holidays with particular menus, regardless of how those foods affect us.  We gather to eat:  pig pickings, covered dish suppers, barbecues, cocktail parties, fish fries, birthday dinners; we are expected to eat and drink the same as everyone else.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

“There comes a point when we accept responsibility for our own health, and the connection between our health and our diet.”  That was the third message today from a guest on Fareed Zacharia’s GPS show on CNN.  Another medical doctor, he has consulted with the Japanese, and others, on how to combat the affects of radiation poisoning.  I missed much of the interview, but it seems he is another “doctor of last resort” who helps those in dire straights recover through wholesome food.

Which brings us back to gardening, and plant based foods, and my friend’s email about foods which heal.  Many of the healthiest foods are crops we may raise ourselves- even in pots on the patio.  We can grow these foods for ourselves organically and inexpensively.  We know how they have been handled at each step along the way.  An abundant supply of fresh food growing at  home tends to influence our choice of what to cook, and what to eat.

What are these super foods which bring us health?

Dark, leafy greens  Dr. Fuhrman’s diet suggestions build meals around spinach, kale, collards, lettuces, and other fresh, raw vegetables.  He explains how these vegetables pack in proteins and other necessary nutrients with very few calories.  He builds a good case for calorie restriction as the cornerstone of longevity.

There is great truth to the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

There is great truth to the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Beans  Many cultures use protein rich beans as their main protein, and the mainstay of most meals.  Beans are versatile enough to use in many different types of dishes and to flavor in many different ways; from beverages through to dessert.  Bean seeds are easy to grow in pots or in the garden.

Fruits   Every sort of fruit is good for us.  Although some pack more sugar than others, all contain antioxidants to protect our health, keep our cells younger, and make us feel more vibrant.  Each sort of fruit has its own particular gifts, including fiber.  They are high in vitamins, many help us maintain a healthy alkalinity, and they are delicious.  Keep in mind that many vegetables, like tomatoes and squash, technically are classed as “fruits.”

Garlic  Garlic offers many benefits, and is one of the healthiest food/medicines out there.  One worth mentioning is its anti-viral properties.  Eating it regularly helps our bodies fight off illnesses to which we’ve been exposed.  There is some evidence that it also has antibiotic properties, and helps protect the heart.  Onions and shallots share many of the same health benefits which garlic offers.

Herbs   Herbs can raise metabolism, protect us from viruses, settle the stomach, improve our memories, along with many other wonderful things as they flavor our foods.  Herbs are very easy to grow, easy to use, and are beautiful in the garden.



Other health-giving foods, that we might not be able to grow for ourselves, include coffee, tea, coconut oil, honey, mushrooms, ginger, dark chocolate, red wine, and tumeric.  All have been in the news recently and have been the subject of various studies.

Coffee is said to ward off depression, especially during the winter.  Tea and chocolate are both rich in antioxidants.  Honey is an antibiotic and an antiviral substance.  Whether rubbed on the skin to heal a wound, or drunk in tea to soothe a sore throat, it speeds healing.  Red wine slows aging.

Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and settles the stomach, but also controls the fats which clog our arteries.  It is used in Indonesia to treat blood clots.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

When I taught middle school, I took Echinacea daily, and kept a bottle in my desk drawer.  Children think nothing of sneezing on their homework or quiz paper and then handing it in.  I used Echinacea and Vitamin C to fight off all of the little “bugs” the children brought in with them each day.  You may know Echinacea as Purple Coneflower.  Native Americans have used it for centuries as a medicinal herb.  Purple Coneflower is easy to grow and beautiful in the garden.  It attracts butterflies and gold finches.

Our gardens can be our greatest resource for health and healing.  As we plan our 2014 gardens and place our orders for seeds and plants, let’s keep in mind the wonderful healing properties of the plants we grow.   In some cases we might begin using things already in our gardens, like rose hips and Echinacea roots, which we’ve never used before.  Or, we might try growing something new, like ginger or Goji berries.  I’m planning to give Goji berries a try this year, and hope the squirrels will leave them alone….

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Make the House Smell Good

Apple pecan loaf, hot out of the oven.

Apple pecan loaf, hot out of the oven.

One of the nicest things you can do for yourself, and your friends and family, on a cool and windy autumn day is to make the house smell good with baking.  Baked cinnamon speaks to comfort, home, and autumn here in Virginia, as it must in many other places as well.

We got an early start here this morning with four dozen cinnamon rolls made for friends at our favorite garden center who sponsored a festival today to benefit the Ways and Means Auxilliary of our local Sentara Hospital.  Since it was way too early, and I was too rushed this morning to get photos of those beautiful cinnamon rolls.  We’ll make them again sometime soon and get photos for a future post.  Instead of my usual simple topping of confectioner’s sugar mixed with coconut milk, I was tempted by Michael’s posting of his Devil’s Food cake last night to make a variation on his cream cheese frosting for my simple little rolls.  Short on cream cheese, I added in some sour cream to round out the little bit I had on hand, and made a smaller batch of frosting.  It was the perfect topping to let melt over the hot from the oven cinnamon buns before loading them into the car to head over to Homestead Garden Center, where we added them to their bake sale.

The house smelled so good when we got back, that after washing up all of the pans, I started melting butter again, pulled out the mixing bowl, and began mixing a fresh apple loaf for friends.   They have had a rough week after some medical issues.  Back to normal diet again, this healthy little apple cake will be my gift to them this afternoon.  You know what they say about apples….

Do you see the bits of fresh apple and pecan baked into the loaf?  The topping is cinnamon and raw sugar.

Do you see the bits of fresh apple and pecan baked into the loaf? The topping is cinnamon and raw sugar.

When you think about it, our good health is our treasure.  The more we cook for ourselves and our loved ones, with simple healthy ingredients, the more good health and strength we enjoy.  After many decades on the planet, we realize just how important it is to take good care of ourselves so we can really enjoy the years ahead.

This is a simple recipe, but we break it out into several steps, preparing each ingredient before combining them.  We base this recipe on one of those standard “go to” formulas that we “Zen” cooks cherish.  My formula, good for everything from biscuits and scones to cornbread, cobblers, sweetbreads and fruit muffins begins with self-rising flour, butter, sour cream, and liquid.  Add in what you will, this is the basic mix.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Step 1:  Roughly chop 1/4-1/2 c. of raw pecan halves or pieces while heating a skillet over medium high heat.  Add 1-2 TB of butter to the skillet, and when it melts, add the chopped pecans, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a sprinkle of raw (unrefined) sugar.  Stir as the ingredients come together to coat the nuts.  When the nuts have deepened in color and smell good, remove from the heat and allow the pecans to cool on a plate.  Keep the pan handy to use again immediately.

Step 2:  Thoroughly wash and finely chop (1/4″ dice) 2 medium apples, peels left on.  I used Golden Delicious.  Add about 1/4 c. brown sugar and the apples  to the pan, and return to a medium heat.  Sprinkle with cinnamon, and toss the apples in the sugar as they begin to heat through.  When the apples are well coated and begin to look a little shiny and translucent, remove from the heat.

May I cut a slice for you?

May I cut a slice for you?

Step 3:  Melt 1/2 of a stick of butter.  (An egg in this recipe is optional .  Use it if you like eggs, I normally skip the egg and use 1/4 c. more liquid or apple butter.)  In a large mixing bowl, whisk 1 egg until light with the melted butter, 2 TB sour cream, 1/4 c. honey, and 1 c. apple cider.

Step 4:  Stir the apples into the mixing bowl, add 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. cardamon, and 1/4 tsp. ground cloves. Scoop 2 c. of self-rising flour on top of the mixture; and measure 1/4 tsp. baking powder (and 1/2 tsp. sea salt, optional)  onto the flour.  Mix very gently with a rubber spatula just until the liquid and flour are combined.  Add up to 1/2 c. water as you mix to keep a loose consistency.   Pour in the seasoned nuts, mix gently and pour into a greased loaf pan lined with waxed paper.  Sprinkle the top of the batter with more cinnamon, and drizzle with honey or lightly sprinkle with raw sugar.

Step 5:  Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.  Turn onto a rack to cool, remove the waxed paper, and enjoy with butter, cream cheese, or some fresh apple butter.

Baking this apple loaf is guaranteed to make your kitchen warm and cozy, and to make your  whole house smell nice for the rest of the day.  As the autumn breezes blow, we have all earned a bit of a cozy rest indoors with a good book or blog.  When you feel ready for a little more “Zen” cooking, switch out the apples for peaches or bananas.  Substitute coconut milk or freshly brewed chai for the cider.  Throw in a handful of dried cranberries, currants, cherries, or raisins.  Substitute walnuts for pecans.  Bake it in muffin tins rather than in a loaf pan.  Or skip the fruit entirely, pour the batter into a 9×9 baking pan, and top with your favorite preserves.  It’s all delicious, and all relatively healthy.   We will burn off those delicious calories raking and mulching our leaves one day soon, won’t we?

Happy Weekend!

More leaves falling each day.  Time to dust off the rake and mulch those leaves!

More leaves falling each day. Time to dust off the rake and mulch those leaves!

Photos and recipe by Woodland Gnome 2013

Love Your Local Beekeeper

The Nixon family has their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand at 3004 Ironbound Road, near the Five Forks Farm Fresh, near Jamestown, Virginia.

The Nixon family has their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand at 3004 Ironbound Road, near the Five Forks Farm Fresh, near Jamestown, Virginia.

We are so happy that Jerry and Martha Nixon have their fall harvest of honey bottled and ready for sale at their farm stand on Ironbound Road in James City County, Va.  Isn’t their label pretty?October 4 shopping 001

The Nixons have offered a steady supply of produce all summer.  Some they grow themselves, and some they source from local farmers.  At the moment they have beautiful ripe tomatoes grown a few miles away in Hanover County; apples from the Shenandoah valley; boxes of muscadine grapes; South Carolina peaches; freshly roasted peanuts;  and delicious home made cakes, cookies, jams and pickles.  When the fruit is too ripe to sell, Martha takes it home and makes jelly.

October 4 shopping 003Now they also have a lot full of pumpkins, gourds, cornstalks, and chrysanthemums.  It makes you happy just getting out of the car!  And now, at last, their local honey is ready for sale.

Local honey is considered by many to be a wonderfully healing food.   Many allergy sufferers swear that it offers relief, since honey made from local pollen sources can help one build up immunity to the allergy triggering pollen in your own local area.   A spoonful or two a day does the trick to help build immunity over time.  In additional, honey has antibacterial properties.  It provides relief for sore throat and cold symptoms, can be used topically on wounds, and does good things for the skin.  We know that honey has been used as food and medicine for as long as we have written records of humankind.  It was important to the ancient Egyptians, and we find more and more information about its use as we translate Sumerian tablets, and other very old manuscripts.

Love your local beekeeper, and support their efforts to produce good local honey.  Industrial honey, often imported from other countries, will not be as pure.  It will not have the specific pollens to offer protection to allergy sufferers, and it won’t be produced with the love and care your  beekeeping friends and neighbors invest in its production.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013October 4 shopping 002

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