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Day Two.

Well, I made it through the first day of no sugar. One of the most difficult things is deciding to what extent you’re going to quit sugar. What about carbs? What about fruit? What about ….?

So I spent a great deal of yesterday figuring all of that out. I am not giving up carbs. Of course, by way of giving up sugar, my carbs will be reduced but carbs are not my Lenten focus. Fruit. I’ve decided that, for these 40 days, I’m going to avoid fruits that are super high in sugar density (bananas, mangos, grapes) but I’m going to feel free to eat raspberries and grapefruit and oranges and the like. I’m going to read labels and avoid eating anything that has any of those “ose” words in it and bread is actually quite low in sugar so I’m not giving it up completely, though I may find that I want to chose my bread wisely. And milk/dairy. No way I’m letting that go. Bring on the lactose, Baby.

Thats the thing about “giving up” something like sugar. Everyone has to decide what the rules are for themselves because sugar is in everything. It’s not like giving up soft drinks or cigarettes or red meat, where everything seems black and white. I’m sure there are people that give up lactose, all fruit, all carbs and such but I’d rather not. Thanks.

Yesterday, I had a solidly sugar-free day. Egg omelettes for breakfast, a funky quinoa/tuna salad for lunch. I really struggled on the line at work. My dinner usually consists of eating a bite of this and a bite of that from a black plastic spoon during service but my choices were strictly limited. I had a few bites of blanched broccoli and a small chicken leg (that’s cooked in oil, salt and pepper only). Consequently I was starving at the end of the night. I got to the All-Star Movies resort where my husband was working and bought an over-priced bag of mixed nuts from the gift shop as my late-night snack. In the past, I would have gone for milk and Nutter Butters so I felt triumphant.

I was surprised at my willpower. I’ve been walking around for two days with boxes of Girl Scout cookies in my bag and I wasn’t tempted even once. Also, I had prepared myself for raging side effects of sugar withdrawal but that didn’t seem to happen, really. I felt very sleepy from about 2:00 on and at about 5:30, I developed a headache that was helped greatly by ibuprofen.

But I slept better than I have in a long time. And I slept for a long time. I don’t know if that was the lack of sugar or just the end of a very long week but I was thrilled. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten 8 1/2 hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep. And I had read that today, on day two, I’d have flu-like symptoms and feel like crap. But so far, I feel great! Maybe I wasn’t as addicted to sugar as I thought. Or maybe, the shoe just hasn’t dropped. Either way I’m just taking it one day, one meal at a time.

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Quitting Sugar, Day One.

My blog here has been neglected, nearly abandoned and occasionally glanced at wistfully as I plow through my very busy real-life that has taken shape around me over the past several years. It’s been nearly 3 years since I made the move from Texas to Florida. In that time life has been busier, tougher and all-together more beautiful than it had in a very long time.

But the blog.  Oh the blog. I think at one time I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let it go. But then I realized that I had blogged mostly for me, and suddenly, I didn’t need it so much anymore. But now I’m back, for a short time anyway, because I’m facing a challenge that scares me and I could use the support and the commitment that this blog facilitates.

Several years ago, I adopted the tradition of Lent into my life. I was not raised liturgical and for many years, I paid little attention to Lent. But then I did it once and realized the benefit in setting aside 40 days each year to make some sort of sacrifice, and commit more to my spiritual well-being, my relationships to those who share my space and my personal fulfillment, which often gets placed on a back burner to earning a paycheck and doing mountains of laundry.

Last year, I made the commitment to give up red meat, which I thought would be a challenge but within a couple of weeks I was almost feeling guilty at how not-a-sacrifice that felt. In fact, Easter came and went and I think it was several months before I even considered eating a piece of bacon or steak. I didn’t even miss it.

So this year, I decided to make up for it and go nuts (literally in some respects). I had been thinking for some time about how my sugar intake had creeped up over the years and I worry about it. That much sugar can’t be good for anyone. I plan to live a long and healthy life, I’m incredibly active and I should eat to support that. No doubt I’ve become addicted to the sweet stuff. So I’m giving it up for Lent. 40 days sugar free. I’d love to say that I’ve spent weeks researching and coming up with recipes but I’m busy, I’m tired, I haven’t. I’m going in on a wing and a prayer and just making it up as I go. It’s not going to be easy or comfortable and there will be times that I question my sanity and that’s where the blog comes in. I’m less likely to break my commitment if I’m accountable to something or someone. So read it, or don’t read it. This is for me.

It’s 8:46 am on Wednesday, February 18 and I’m officially sugar-free. Better get the Girl Scout Cookies out of my cabinet.

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I’ve Fall-en for this Soup!

Fall has been my favorite season for as long as I can remember. I think it has something to do with growing up in Texas. Sometime in early October, the oppressive summer temps give way to cooler nights, less humid days and brisk air. It is the season of blessed relief and always welcome. I remember getting a lighter feeling my step and a happiness beyond belief at the first signs of fall – the scarecrows in the stores, the pop-up pumpkin patches on corner lots and the magazines on the shelfs – full of oranges and browns and recipes for apple cider and pumpkin delights.

In my early 20's, I took a trip to New England in October and my love for fall was cemented in the bright red foliage of the maple trees and the tributes to witches in Salem, Mass. In fact, were it not for the brutal winters, the fall in the Northeast might be enough to draw me there permanently.

As it is, I now live in Florida. The summers aren't as severe but the falls aren't as delightful either. Our boringly consistent temps simply drop a degree or two each week. There are no state fairs or jacket-worthy mornings. There don't seem to be pumpkin patches on every corner and the surest signs of fall we have are the billboards for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and Mickey's Halloween Party.

But there is still the food. With the onset of my favorite time of year, I'm obsessed with fall produce, braised meats, stews and soups and things that warm us from the inside out. This week, as our highs slowly dipped out of the 90s, I indulged the fantasy of fireplaces and sweatshirts and hot cocoa. I turned up the A/C, threw on jeans and a sweater and came up with a soup to make us forget the hot sun just outside the door. It's based on a recipe for an Italian Meatball Soup but I was in “quick and easy” mode and opted for simply ground sausage. It was delicious enough that every member of my family ate it joyfully, my youngest even ate the vegetables in the soup with rave reviews. And don't worry about precise ingredients. I threw in vegetables that I needed to use up, your refrigerator might have other things that would be delicious in this soup. Just toss them in!

If you're lucky enough to be in a cool location, enjoy. If not, just turn on the A/C, wrap up in a blanket and fool yourself into thinking you are. Either way, it's still good.

Italian “I'm Too Lazy to Make Meatballs” Soup

  • 2 pounds Italian sausage, removed from casting and crumbled (I used a combination of mild and spicy)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 1/2 cup beef stock
  • 2 (14 1/2 oz) cans Italian stewed tomatoes
  • 2 cans Cannellini beans, undrained
  • 3 carrots, cleaned and sliced
  • 3 parsnips, cleaned and sliced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • sliced mushrooms, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 10 oz. baby spinach
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot or dutch oven, brown sausage. Add onion and cook until translucent, add garlic and cook an additional 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add in beef stock, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zucchini, mushrooms, celery seed and thyme. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Stir in spinach and season to taste. Cook an additional 5 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

 

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Moving Up, Moving On

Keep Moving Forward

It seems that I've typed that before. I may even have another blog with the same title. It's merely coincidence that it's a phrase coined by Walt Disney himself. Yet, that coincidence has given me much comfort in the past few weeks as I've had to make and come to terms with a very difficult decision.

As most of you know, this whole Disney thing has been a crazy, fun and almost unbelievable experience from the start. I've now worked in three different kitchens at three very different locations. First I did my Culinary Program at Port Orleans Riverside. At that time, my only goal was to be hired on as a “regular” castmember. In August, that happened. At the time, my only option was to go part time and put my name on a waiting list for full-time employment. I agreed and was sent (with an enourmous amount of apprehension) to the All-Star Movies Resort. I was pleasantly surprised by that kitchen and enjoyed my short time there. Three months later, I received a call from Casting that a full-time position had opened up at Fort Wilderness in Pioneer Hall. The idea of the location (a campground AND a show) excited me and I couldn't wait to get there. Little did I know that this location would excede even my high expectations.

In a kitchen job the key to a great location is all in the people – and the people here are, for the most part, outstanding. I adore the sous chefs here – even my “least favorite” is charming and sweet. My “favorite”, Michael is someone I would just take everywhere with me if I could. He's smart and funny and kind but cares deeply about this place and expects people to work hard and work right. I've learned things from him that I will never forget. My executive chef, Ernie is equally as wonderful. I'd love to just go have a beer with these people and am so honored to work for them. Most of my co-workers are simply amazing. I love the laughs we share, the teamwork we nurture and the fun we have while working long and hard. These people have become a weird sort of family to me in such a short time.

The downside of working here is the work itself. In my current classification, I get to work 4 stations. I can work the buffet, where I transport food from the kitchen to the buffet line and take dirty dishes back to the stewards, I can work ribs for the show (my favorite), where I cut ribs, bowl up beans and make a few salads for the buffet, I can work salads for the show where I put together buckets of salad, followed by plates of strawberry shortcake (repeat 3x) or I can work chicken – the only station that allows me to really “cook” and the one that nearly breaks me every time I do it.

So a few weeks ago when I received a phone call offering me a promotion and a transfer to the Garden Grill at EPCOT, I was instantly conflicted. The idea of being at EPCOT, of working at a restaurant that serves things like Beef tenderloin and sustainable fish of the day as opposed to fried chicken sounded great. Leaving these people I love – not so great. And so began long agonizing days of weighing pros and cons. One day I'd feel certain that I would take the transfer – the next, certain that I'd decline it. There are very valid arguments for both decisions and either would be “acceptable”. Then I remembered a conversation I had with one of my very first chefs here, Rafael. At the time, I was on the culinary program and was discussing with him my desire to come on full-time and “do more”. I had noticed that many many people had been at that location for years and years, doing the same thing everyday. I was concerned that this was the “norm” and asked how to avoid that. His response was that people tended to get comfortable in one spot, doing one thing and grew complacent. They stopped moving forward. I didn't understand that at all, until I got here. You see, even though I find the work rather blah, I love coming to work each day because of the people. It's scary to think that I might jump overboard into an ocean of awfulness and wake up everyday with regret. But I've been scared, taken risks and jumped overboard so many times in the past couple of years that it would be crazy to let that fear stop me now. I have yet to regret anything, at all.

So all of that to explain to you that I'm taking another leap. As of June 16, I'll be over at The Land Pavilion at EPCOT (home of the ever-popular ride, Soarin') and the Garden Grill. The Garden Grill is a great little restaurant that imparts a theme of farm-to-table, fresh, green eating. I'll let you know if this is even remotely true or just pure Disney show. I'll be making new friends and learning new things and hopefully growing in the process. I'm going to Keep Moving Forward – until I can move no more.

 

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I’ll See Your New Fantasyland and Raise You a Duff Beer

When you live in Orlando, the ongoing battle between the two most major attractions is evident almost constantly.  For the most part, Disney and Universal have a symbiotic relationship.  Many people flock to this area and visit both while they are here.  Disney has Universal beat on size, hotels, sheer capacity to house and move thousands and thousands of people on a daily basis.  What Disney doesn’t seem to have, however, is the cool factor and in the most recent announcements of expansion, this is more evident than ever.

Now before you Disney nuts go all Grumpy on me, let me clarify that Disney is super cool in it’s own Disney way.  Their image is pretty well established and the things they do need to fit into that image.  The things that Universal is announcing wouldn’t necessarily work at Disney and the same is true in reverse.  They are two separate theme resorts with two different feels.  Still, while Disney still holds the cards in the fight for guests, I see Universal creeping up slowly – and doing it well.

ImageThe two big things that have been announced at Disney are the conversion of Downtown Disney, a shopping, eating, entertainment district, to Disney Springs, a larger, shopping, eating, entertainment district, and the transformation of Camp Minnie Mickey at Animal Kingdom into Avatar Land.  The acquisition of LucasArts has lead to some wild speculation but nothing has come of it, or will come of it soon.  New Fantasyland just opened and it’s a great expansion with two attractions, two restaurants and a shop that serves LeFou’s Brew – a good attempt that, from what I understand, falls short when compared to the Butterbeer at Universal.

ImageUniversal Orlando, however, has recently announced an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  They’re creating Diagon Alley.  The Hogwart’s Express will transport you between the two areas.  Harry Potter has been a huge boon for Universal and the buzz around this is pretty intense.  But it’s the most recent announcement promises to set the two theme resorts apart even more – A Simpson’s Expansion.  Yep, you heard it.  You’ll soon be able to visit Springfield, eat at Krusty Burger, grab a do-nut from the Lard Lab and even grab a beer from Moe’s Tavern and sip it while resting under the statue of Jebediah Springfield.  They’ll sell slushies at the Kwik-E-Mart, the Comic Book Guy’s store will even be there.  Once your Krusty Burger has settled, you can take a spin on “Kang & Kodo’s Twirl n’ Hurl” as well as the existing Simpson’s ride.  According to the press release, this will make Universal, “The Krustyest Place on Earth”

Okay, Disney.  Your move.

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Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul

Flu and other assorted viruses seem to be rampant these days.  When my boys returned from Texas, they brought back with them severe colds.  They were sick for a few days and now it’s my turn.  If I have what they had, I can be comforted knowing that it’s only a 2 or 3 day thing as opposed to the the flu.  Earlier in the week I made a batch of Chicken Noodle Soup and thought about posting the recipe.  It’s the best I’ve found.  I didn’t but now it seems I have a second chance.  It’s all I want to eat and I’ll be making it again tonight.

Even though the healing properties of Chicken Noodle Soup were long considered to be folklore, it turns out that, scientifically, there is some validity to the arguments.  Studies have shown that it helps to break up congestion, inhibits white blood cells that trigger the inflammatory response, causing sore throats and the production of phlegm (mmm.. bet you’ve never seen that word in a food blog before) and when the chicken is cooked, it releases an amino acid called cysteine that thins out mucus (another great food blog word) in the lungs and aids in healing.

What I mostly love about this soup is how amazingly easy it is.  When you or your family is sick, do you really want to be in the kitchen all day?  I use several shortcuts (including a rotisserie chicken) that turn this into a quick and easy comforting dinner.  You won’t use what little energy you may have to make it.  And it’s delicious to boot.

I’ll post pictures later (Ty has run to the store for a few ingredients) but wanted to get the recipe up now.  Sick or not, you’re sure to love this soup.  It’s a keeper

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 carrots, peeled, cut into small dice

2 celery ribs, sliced thin

1 medium onion, small dice

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 cloves garlic

3 quarts chicken stock (I like to use Knorr Homestyle Chicken Stock)

8 oz. wide egg noodles (I like the Muellers rustic wide noodles)

1 rotisserie chicken, skin and bones removed, meat diced

Salt and pepper to taste

First, heat up the oil in a soup pot.  Then saute the onion and celery for a few minutes.  Add the carrots, bay and thyme and continue cooking until everything is tender.  Add the garlic and saute until just fragrant (about 30 seconds).  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Add the noodles and cook 5 minutes or until al dente.  Stir in the chicken and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve.

See?  Easy.  And if you’re sick it’s sure to help.  Enjoy!

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My Day at the Farm

Do you ever think about where your food comes from?  You probably do.  What do you picture?  What does a farm look like in your mind?  Today I had an opportunity to visit a farm and I jumped at the chance.  The company is B&W and what they farm is watercress and arugula.  Even better than ordinary arugula, what they farm is a species of arugula more common in Europe, known as Rocket (Raw-KET) or Roquette.  They have farms up and down the east coast because these greens are more than a little finicky where weather is concerned.  Right now, however, the farm in Florida is in full swing and I was thrilled when one of my sous chefs asked if I’d like to take a tour.

My day began in the office of a VP.  I commented that the packaging looked familiar to me and learned that B&W ships to HEB and Central Market.  We talked a little about the grocery business and waited for the other members of our party to arrive.  Once everyone was gathered, we jumped on an old bus that brought back memories of church camp and being broken down on the side of the road and headed out to the fields.  B&W leases their land from AgSun – a company that deals mostly with citrus.  The fields that we looked at were surrounded by orange groves and judging by the sweet smell in the air, they’re just about ripe.

Rocket field ready for plowing

Rocket field ready for plowing

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Rocket

Rocket

First we stopped by a roquette field.  B&W owns several 350-acre parcels and their crops are rotated through, giving the land a rest when it needs it.  What is the difference between arugula and roquette?  Arugula leaves are a bit broader and the tips rounded.  The flavor is bitter but mellow.  Roquette, however, is shorter, spikier and more peppery.  Their roquette takes about 45 days from sowing to harvest.  They use an exclusive seed that they purchase from California which is produced specifically for B&W so you won’t find the same product from anyone else.  Refrigerated seed banks are keep the seeds chilled to the ideal temperatures at all times for optimum success.

Watercress being harvested

Watercress being harvested

After a short Q&A, we boarded the bus and headed to the watercress field.  B&W produces three types of watercress.  One is a food service grade that is sold mostly to Asian outlets.  It’s larger, heartier and will hold up to cooking better than the other varieties.  Evidently Asians cook and consume almost twice the watercress of other cultures.  Another is smaller and what you’d probably more commonly see at HEB – more delicate and ideal for consuming raw.  The third was red watercress.  Beautiful, delicious.  I had never seen red watercress before and it was, by far, my favorite.  We were able to pick and sample the varieties of everything right out in the field.  While arugula grows in traditional plowed fields, watercress grows in beds of flowing water.  For this, beds are laser-leveled to be perfectly flat and then the grade is altered to provide a very slight slope.  A water source is placed at the high end of the bed and water is allowed to constantly flow through during the growing process.  Since this farm is just west of Vero Beach, water sources come from a series of canals that have been dug around all of the beds.  This also allows for easy nutrient delivery as they can be placed directly into the water.  Today they were actually harvesting watercress for bagging so it was fun to see that process.

Red Watercress

Red Watercress

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Freshly harvested and ready to head to packing.

As I mentioned earlier, there are 6 seasonal  farms up and down the east coast, stretching as far north as Pennsylvania.  B&W hires only full-time legal workers as they believe that this gives them better quality control and a better product.  As the farm activity moves, so do the workers.  B&W provides them with year-round housing and transportation at farm locations.  All employees are provided with fair wages, insurance and education incentives.  From an agriculture standpoint, I found this commendable.

I was also constantly aware of the waste.  Slightly discolored roquette leaves, bruised watercress, etc.  They actually produce several tons of green waste each week.  It turns out that a good-hearted person has also leased land from AgSun and developed an elephant refuge for former circus performers and other long-trunked pachyderms passed their prime.  He takes all of the waste from B&W and the elephants live out their elder days feasting on delicious bitter greens.

Once we were done in the fields we headed back to the plant to see how the greens go from farm to market.  I was first impressed with the attention to sanitation and safety.  We were asked to remove all jewelry and leave all personal items behind.  Then we donned lab coats, head covers and scrubbed our hands up to the elbows.  The inside of the entire plant is kept at a constant 34 degrees.  Sadly, we were not allowed to take photographs here.

The process is pretty simple and yet remarkably high tech.  The greens are brought in from the field and immediately placed into a vacuum cooler that will cool them to 34 degrees almost instantly.  Heat is the enemy and all crops when harvested develop whats known as “field heat”.  For every one hour of time that the product stays above 35 degrees, it supposedly looses one day of shelf life.  B&W knows that it’s product will take some degree of abuse after leaving the facility (truck doors left open, etc) so it does everything it can on it’s end to get it cooled fast and keep it cold.  Once the vacuum cooler has done it’s job the greens are fed into a sorter that uses state of the art laser technology to measure chloroform in each leaf and identify those that do not meet the predetermined standards.  A puff of air then takes out the less desirable leaves and drops them to the floor.  Once the greens have made it through there, a worker goes through by hand and removes any other pale or bruised leaves that were missed by the laser. A Quality Control person takes handfuls every 15 minutes and checks them.   The conveyor takes them into the next room where they’re washed with purified water and then sanitized with a slightly chlorinated water.  The leaves must then be dried.  They go through a belt dryer that first shakes water and then blows them.  Usually greens are dried in tumble dryers but these leaves are so delicate that this can cause bruising.  The belt dryers work well.  We were able to look in the dryer windows and see the leaves as they passed through.  From here, the leaves are carried up the belt to packaging, where they are bagged, once again checked by employees and packed in boxes on pallets, ready to be shipped.  When it’s time for the trucks to be loaded, they back into the dock and then a special seal inflates to the size of the truck.  The doors can then be opened with no warm air creeping into the building.  The drivers are not allowed into the loading area but they go into a special waiting room with monitors where they can watch the product being loaded via cameras.

The entire process was fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the tour.  When we were done with the plant, we, once again, boarded the bus and were taken to a secluded picnic area in a grove of palm trees and fed lunch.  Sandwiches with watercress, roquette and pea tendrils (another of their products), salad, chips and cupcakes.  A wonderful relaxing end to a great day.

Our sweet little lunch spot.   It was perfect.

Our sweet little lunch spot. It was perfect.

I hear that there might be a tour of a strawberry farm coming up in February and I’m excited.  Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to learn about how our food goes from farm to fork.

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