27 June 2010


Some lessons in life I seem to need to learn and relearn and then relearn again.
One of those lessons for me is about coffee. Specifically, it is about caffeinated coffee. This beverage, which functions wonderfully in many peoples' bodies...for me, just makes me feel like every cell in my body is ejecting its contents into the cell next to it.
Caffeine screws up the nervous system in a variety of ways. It messes with the endorphins and stress hormones in the brain. Meaning, it creates anxiety. It blocks the good stuff and makes more of the bad stuff. So, if you already have an anxiety problem (me) and are drinking coffee--you are just asking to have a bad day.
It may be recalled that I am trying to pass on some of the principles in Skinny Bitch (by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin). One of their principles is to give up coffee.
I know. It seems impossible. These are the same girls that have titles to their chapters like "Give it Up!", "Pooping," and "Sugar is the Devil," and "Stop Being a Pussy." They are hardcore...but bear with me here as I believe I can offer a compromise.
Other than the obvious bad results of caffeine already mentioned here, there are several others. According to SB caffeine can cause "headaches, digestive problems, irritations of the stomache and bladder, peptic ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, anxiety and depression....affecting every organ system, from the nervous system to the skin.....{it} raises stress hormone levels, inhibits important enzyme systems that are responsible for cleaning the body, and sensitizes nerve reception sites." (p. 15 and there are footnotes for all of this)
The caffeine is not the only issue with coffee, however. The possibly more deadly aspect of coffee is the high acid content of it and the resultant health detriments. When a person creates a higher than normal acid environment in the body (whether through coffee, sugar or refined flours, etc), the body makes extra fat cells to protect the organs from the extra acid. These fat cells are normally placed around the internal organs, and it is this fat that is of the highest concern for future cancer. The more internal fat (this is different from the fat on the appendages or ass), the higher likelihood of cancer developing in that body.
Here is where I have to start whining a bit. "But I LIKE coffee....its warm and cuddly and makes me feel happy in the morning."
The caffeine problem is easily dealt with--just get decaf (although get the decaf that is not made decaf by the use of a chemical bath of the beans if possible).
Ok, that is one problem. How about the acid issue?
The highest acid level in coffee is found in regular old, office-variety brewed or percolated coffee. For some reason, this method of extraction results in the highest amount of acid. Ever get a huge caffeine buzz as well as heart burn after a regular cup of joe? Well, this is probably why.
The next option is French press. Most coffee snobs will say that French press makes a much superior final product than drip coffee makers. It may possibly also contain less acid, but this is largely variable since the amount/grind/etc of the beans in French press changes drastically from person-to-person depending on preference.
Espresso has many advantages and tends to be touted as the superior method for making coffee--obtaining the most volatile oils from the beans (i.e. flavor) while minimizing caffeine (as compared to drip coffee).
There is a lot of conflicting data on this fact. I can offer my own experience only. I can have two shots of espresso (made at home with non-doctored beans, thank you very much Starbucks) and be FINE, but if I have one cup of drip coffee--I will be a jacked up mess for at least five hours.
Espresso, however, still contains a high acid content which is the problem that I am trying to address.
Tada: enter cold brew coffee.
Yes, you can brew your coffee in cold water that is never heated at any point in the process. (You can do the same thing with tea...it just takes a little time).
Cold brew coffee offers the benefit of having 60% less acid than any of the other extraction methods mentioned here. It has the additional benefit of retaining much of the flavor of the bean without the "bite" or bitterness inherent in the acid. It both smells and tastes sweet. It requires no sweetener. I can also personally say that I notice the benefits of caffeine without any of the negative side effects thereof.
So, how is cold brew coffee brewed?
Well, you can purchase an expense electric cold brewer to sit on the precious real estate of your countertop. OR you can just use an old pitcher, a colander, a coffee filter, some cold water, some grounds, and some time.
Here's how I do it.
A 4:1 ratio of ground coffee to water is required. Most cold brew sites say to use a coarse grind. After a month of experimentation I have to say I completely disagree with this recommendation. The coarse grind results in a weaker brew--and I feel that you need to maintain some of the body of the bean that you are otherwise loosing to less acid in the final product.
So, I do a *mixture* of very fine grind, medium grind, and coarse grind. The coarse grind helps stick to the finer grinds when you are straining so that you do not end up with the sludge at the end.
Grind the coffee thusly, and put it in a pitcher with filtered water in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. The longer you leave it to think about it, the better result you will achieve.
When you get to the point where you can't wait anymore...
Put the coffee filter into the colander, and put the colander over a clean bowl. Slowly shake and pour the coffee mixture into the strainer and let it do its thing. It will take awhile. The last little bit will need at least 20 minutes to finish straining through. Don't skip this last part--this is where the flavor is.
Toss the filter/grinds and wash out your pitcher.
Pour the filtered coffee back into the pitcher, but not before you put some in a glass over ice with some great organic milk, maybe a little cream, and some Stevia. Shake it like a martini and enjoy!
I read that it is also possible to then heat the cold filtered coffee (you will not make it acid by doing this since the beans have already been removed). I have not tried that yet because it has been too hot.
I also read that cold brew (aka Toddy coffee) coffee is superior for cold coffee drinks as it does not get the diluted character that espresso tends to get when poured over ice. I have not noticed a huge difference with this.
Cold brew coffee is milder and sweeter. So, if you are looking for a cup that packs a punch, this may not be your very day drink.
But, it is a way to avoid much of the acid in the coffee, thereby giving yourself better health while still enjoying its amazing flavor--as well as retaining the morning ritual of making and drinking your favorite concoction.

07 June 2010

Haunted by Houses

It has been a bad day. It is drizzling and raining. The cat has been continually barfing. The dog has been in the cat box. And we have been dealing with insurance. Blech.
Additionally, our house in Fargo still has not sold. I am headed there tomorrow to deal with the dandelion problem, air the place out, and re-stage some rooms. Apparently people can't picture a bedroom as an office and cannot imagine life wherein guests have to walk through a bedroom to get to a bathroom. I hate homebuyers. They are picky and stupid.
I just want the house to sell. I am emotionally removed from it--from our "old" life in Fargo (except for our friends who we miss dearly). We are ready to move forward with our plans. The house is clean, staged, updated, priced well. Complaints include the size of the kitchen--well we can do nothing about that. We have done all we can do.............and we wait. And we pray. And we ask other people to pray. And we call our realtor for news. And nothing. Not a word. Nothing has happened. Nothing seems to be happening. It's completely disheartening.
So, we wait in our temporary home (ironically the house I grew up in that I could swear was haunted) in the hopes that we can still afford to buy our dream home--which we can literally see from our yard at the temporary home. Haunted by the future.
In the meantime, Billy and I have been doing a lot of exploring in the country. I love exploring--going on adventures. I have been rebuked by my brother that I should at least let someone know where I am going when I go out to drive on low maintenance roads or break in to abandoned houses so that they will have some idea of which well I may have fallen into when I don't show up at night. My solution now is to drag Billy along.
There are all of these amazing old houses that dot the countryside here and there. Some of them are amazing because of their architecture. Others because of their location. Still others because of their sheer smallness and rude construction techniques. But they all HAUNT me.
To live in this land--on the open prairie where the wind blows and blows and the winters are deadly icy--this takes tenacity. It takes will power. It takes everything a person has to give. The people who homesteaded each of these quarters were required to erect a structure of some kind. Many of them build sod huts or even dugouts into the sides of hills. Others built stick-built homes. Some people even took the time to add character and beauty to their homesteads. Some homes have gables, mouldings, embellishments. Other homes look like they were "newer"--maybe constructed as the "real" house once the homestead was established--and those are the ones that are really pretty.
Except that, somewhere along the line, the property owners either would not or could not take care of these homes anymore. Maybe the property was tied up in probate. Maybe the owners moved to a more "modern" ranch home in the 1950's and left the old farmhouse to rot. Maybe in the drought years of the 80's, the owners simply couldn't afford the property and abandoned it.
But these houses--many of them still furnished stand empty of people--eyes looking out to the land. They look lonely. They look like they were once beautiful ladies who aged and were no longer considered worthwhile. Skunks and deer and racoons go through the broken windows and make nests in old bedding, mattresses and magazines. Food still sits in jars and cans in the kitchens and in the basements. One house I know of even had an old pump organ that was left to the elements where it disintegrated to nothing.
I hate it. I am a person who values old things. I love the idea of and also the act of restoration of anything--including a home. But these homes are, even for my optimistic eye, beyond hope. Maybe that is why they haunt me--they were once beautiful but now lack any future except to fall into the ground.
Obviously the houses themselves don't know this. But I wonder about the people who owned them--whose blood, sweat and tears built them from the ground up--probably of their own design. What happened that they had to leave the houses--and why did they not pass them on or sell them to someone who could use them.
The extreme irony of it all is that now many young couples are moving back to the area, and there is a housing shortage. Nowhere decent to live. If only this trend could have happened 40 years ago when these houses could still have been salvaged.
So I have been ruminating on these houses for about a week, and then my mom showed me a very cool website about ghost towns in North Dakota.
I believe I will help them increase their archives with a few more pictures of some old places I know.

02 June 2010

Lilacs, fasting, credit cards, sunsets

Lilacs are everywhere near our little house on the prairie. In fact, there are so many of them, that if you stand out in the yard these days, you can literally hear the hum of scadzillions of bees that are enjoying them, maybe even more than me.
But that is nearly impossible because lilacs are pretty much my favorite thing in the entire world.
Now, I know that I say that type of statement a lot. I am a person of extreme views. I have probably a top 10 absolutely favorite things. But lilacs are definitely in my top one favorite things. :-)
The bad thing about lilacs is that they last for so little time. They are a precious mini-season in the spring that is over far too quickly. So, I thought to myself, "What do I do to extend the life of the lilac?"
So, I went on a quest to discover this at my local google.
I learned some interesting facts about lilacs.
Did you know that the lilac is actually a member of the olive family?
Did you know that lilacs only bloom on old growth? And if you trim them, the new growth will not bloom for 3-4 years?
The genus name of lilac is "syringa" and there are 20-25 different species within that genus. It is one of the hardest woods in the world, and has typically been used for making smaller, ornate objects like instruments, knives, etc.
The lilac color symbolizes a doctorate in dentistry in the academic world.
There are several areas of North America that have lilac festivals including Mackinac Island, MI, Spokane, Lombard, IL, and Rochester, NY.
And I had one all by myself in my own house when I discovered all of the wonderful things that can be made with lilac flowers.
First, I created the beginnings of lilac wine. This consisted of picking an enormous amount of lilacs. Then, the lilacs were washed in cold water and the flowers were stripped off of the rest of the branch. These were then put in to my primary with hot water.
Once that was done, I made lilac sugar by layering lilac flowers with sugar in a container. This is a very old recipe--like from colonial times--and the directions stated that the sugar could be continually renewed by adding more sugar--and that the sugar will continue to absorb the lilac scent indefinitely.
After that I made a lilac simple syrup to be used in the most incredibly wonderful cocktail. I got this recipe off of a Minneapolis citypages website.
2 cups water, 2 cups organic sugar, 2 cups lilac florets (I think that's a kind of weird word, but I will let it slide for now). Boil for 15 minutes, strain. Cool.
Then create your Lilac Gin Blossom thusly: 2 oz gin, 1-2 oz lilac syrup, 3/4 oz lemon juice--shake these in a shaker with ice. Pour into a tumbler glass (more ice optional), and then top this mixture with prosecco or cava or champagne.
Additionally, I garnished the drink by sugaring the rim of the glass with the lilac sugar. I also "candied" some full lilac blossoms by tossing them in more organic sugar--and I used this as the garnish for the drink rather than the suggested cherry--which I thought was lame.
The final thing I made was lilac jelly. I found several recipes which I then adapted for my own purposes.
So, 2-4 cups of lilac florets--put these in a bowl that can be covered. Boil 2-4 cups of water--pour this over the florets and allow them to "steep" for 24-48 hours. Strain the mixture, toss the dead flowers, reserve the liquid.
Get your stuff ready for canning (water bath, sanitize jars, get jar lids, sanitize those, get a pot for the jelly). Boil the lilac liquid with 1/4 of lemon juice per 2 cups of liquid. To this, add a package of pectin. Then, add 2 cups of sugar for every one cup of liquid with which you started.
Boil. Rolling boil to be precise.
Jar the jelly. Water bath those suckers for at least 5 minutes in boiling water.
Pray for good seals.
The lilac wine will take at least 6 months to fully be completed. I will be posting a separate blog on that complete with pictures and directions when I am nearing completion of the process.
You might think "eating a flower--gross!!!" But I assure you, many edible flowers can be made astonishingly tasty when given the proper treatment (i.e. the right amount of sugar and sometimes alcohol). The Lilac Gin Blossom is now one of my favorite drinks. It is very refreshing, not overtly lilacish, the perfect drink for a beautiful Memorial Day party outside in the yard. Which is how the drink was first implement and then approved by wanton naysayers to said drink.
The lilac jelly turned out to be a gem-like honey color. We will ignore the fact that there might.........might possibly be the presence of very, very, very small nats in it. We will pretend these are seeds or stamens or something scientific like that.
The lilac sugar rocks. I think it would be perfect in tea--iced or warm. It will also be a good garnish for other baked goods.
The lilac wine must be amazing because Jeff Buckley said it was able to make him see what he wanted to see and be what he wanted to be.
So, I promised to talk about various principles in the Skinny Bitch book that I think could be easily implemented by nearly anyone. The subject of today is fasting.
Yes, fasting.
I mean not eating.
Yes, you can eat for even long periods of time and not die.
Fasting is actually a very healthy, cleansing practice for the body. Digestion takes a lot of your body's effort. When you are not digesting, the body is able to stay in the same "cleansing cycle" that it is in while you sleep (thus, breakfast is literally breaking your fast).
SB suggests that we all fast. This is not so much for weight loss purposes as it is to give your body a chance to clean house and rest.
I have been fasting on a pretty regular basis since high school, and I would also like to give it high marks. The funny thing is that after the initial phase of the fast, I don't feel hungry anymore. I tend to feel pretty euphoric, actually, when I am fasting. In a good way. I am able to give my attention to other things instead of preparing and eating meals (which, when you make everything from scratch takes quite a bit of time). So, I sleep. I pray. I catch up on odds and ends.
Specifically, I have experienced the enhancement of my prayer life during a fast. Whereas during normal life, I do not have the concentration for extended prayer or meditation, during a fast, I feel that only a short period of time has gone by, when in fact an hour, sometimes even hours, has passed. I also feel a strange amount of mental clarity about my life, my priorities, and the re-ordering thereof during a fast.
Physically, fasting seems to have different results for me every time. Sometimes I don't notice any side affects of "cleansing." Sometimes, though, if I fast for a long time, I get headaches, runny nose...mild things like this...just for a short time. Experts on fasting say that this is the result of extra toxins being flushed out of the body. Skeptics say that is hogwash and that the body cleanses itself naturally without fasting, and that these unhelpful symptoms are signs of the body not eating anything.
Well, it is a fact that toxins are stored in fat. And it is a fact that when you are fasting, your body will use fat for energy. So, it makes sense to me that as those fat cells are used, the toxins therein would also be expelled.
After a fast, I usually notice myself feeling lighter, my skin is more radiant, and my abs are usualy flatter. And that alone is enough of a reason for occasional food deprivation.
Bottom line: I recommend fasting. Even just a morning through late afternoon fast once a week can have major benefits.
Speaking of benefits, "would I like to hear about all of the benefits associated with this credit card?"
No, I would not. I am calling to close the account.
"Oh, but it is good to have at least one credit card for emergency purposes."
Not for me. I didn't want to go into the Dave Ramsey plan with this plastic robot.
More arguments, more arguments, more pleading. Me getting nasty:
"No, I do not want to do a balance transfer to this account. This is my only account. And I don't want to argue about it. You will close the account now."
Late last summer, Billy and I closed all of our credit accounts and paid all of them off as part of the Dave Ramsey plan. (More about that later, but check out www.daveramsey.com for more details). The plan--or the step we are working on is to be totally, completey debt-free. Yes, it is possible--people do it every day. In fact, some good friends of ours just completely paid off every last red cent of debt they had. So, I know it can happen. And that is the goal.
So, as I was saying, I closed all of the accounts. Except for one. One last little "life line for emergencies" that I stowed away in the way, way back of a closet behind a bunch of junk that I knew I wouldn't want to make the effort to move just in case I became desperate for shoes or travel or did some wine-induced ebay surfing. Or any other number of things that lead to a problem with plastic in the first place.
The card has had a credit balance. No problem. It's just there "in case" we needed it.
In the mean time, we made an emergency savings of just over 1k. And you know what--we've had to use it a few times, but we have never exceeded that dollar amount. We have never needed the credit card. And soon the savings will be 3-6 months of income. We don't need the plastic.
The plastic companies don't like this, so they make plastic robots to harass you when you call to close your account. I hate the plastic robots.