Tag: lifestyle blog

Take the Leap

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s a phrase I heard many years ago in a motivational speech and it has replayed in my head over and over again, countless times since.

I’ve now been working at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio as a kitchen assistant for almost five months. (Is that even real?! How is that even real??). I’m still pinching myself and I probably will be for a long time. My glass is definitely more than half full but I’m still trying to find my confidence and footing in a professional kitchen. As they say, all good things take time and I know this journey is no different. However, until that confidence is gained, I’ve got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with making mistakes, receiving honest feedback… and, truth be told, I’m starting to.

Anyone that has ever begun something new, knows the feeling I’m talking about. You want to be helpful but you’re not entirely sure what the next move is and you’re pretty sure you’re just getting in the way. Push through it. Much of the time, it’s just you overthinking anyway.

I listened to a podcast recently that resonated with me and I want to share a few snippets with you:

“Rejection… it’s just redirection… how often do we compare the behind the scenes crap to other people’s highlight reals and go, oh well, forget it then. You know, they had it and I don’t… [They’re probably] doing exactly what I’m doing and it just worked for them faster. No. You didn’t see the fifteen albums of garbage before they got signed. You don’t see all the work.

Ed Sheeran says, ‘Everybody looks at my work now and goes, Wow, every song you write is amazing. First of all, that’s not true. You don’t hear all the songs I write that don’t get released. When I started writing music it was like this brown sludgy water and I had to stomach how uncomfortable I was when the music wasn’t what I wanted it to be the first, second and forty second time. I had to sit through that feeling.’

Ira Glass says there’s a gap. You have good taste but then your ability to make the thing that you can identify as great is going to take a second. So really, if we could be way kinder to ourselves, maybe there is so much brilliance that we could uncover. Maybe the trick is to make mediocre things and keep making things, seeking out that feedback, and perhaps you’ll be that next brilliant maker. But you might need to give yourself five whole minutes. Maybe that’s okay.” – Cathy Heller, episode 215 on the Creative Pep Talk podcast by Andy J. Miller.

Pretty good stuff, huh?

I want to stress the importance of feedback for a minute. Feedback is integral to growth but it can be a scary thing. If I were to pick out one thing that holds me back and I’m consciously working to change, it’s not fear of feedback itself but more fear of the failure that feedback might reveal. No one wants to be wrong and no one wants to look stupid. I am by far my toughest critic.

I’m fortunate to be in an envrionment where a wrong answer or a mistake is not a condemnation (though not often, I’ve been in situations where it is… it makes true learning very difficult if not impossible). Instead, it’s viewed as a learning opportunity and something that paves the way for future growth. And yet, even with this, sometimes I still hold back… an answer that I’m not certain about, a question that I have but perhaps should know the answer to (or maybe not). Every so often I let the fear of being wrong, of potentially looking stupid slow me down and I shouldn’t. Neither should you.

(Also, if you happen to be in an environment where you spend 8-12 hours a day, 5-6 days a week with the same people, they’re bound to see plenty of your mistakes and listen to loads of your dumb questions anyway so you’ve got nothing to lose by giving it all you’ve got).

One night at work, not long ago, as we were finishing up for the day, almost through with our daily “break down” routine, I was talking about some of my recent mishaps and mistakes with the guys. I was a little down on myself and they knew it. As usual, their advice was spot on.

Keep in mind, they reminded me, that you’re comparing yourself with people who, combined, have over three decades of experience in the industry. They are great at what they do. That experience doesn’t come all at once and the knowledge is acquired over years and years of hard work and research. There are endless concepts to explore but first, you MUST learn how to hold the brush.

Spot on.

Last week I stepped down from my position at Wooden Horse Corporation to devote 100% of my time and energy to this new passion and way of life. It was hard because I loved what I did with the Equicizer and while I’ll still be involved from afar, I was at a crossroads and something had to give.

Summer is coming and things are really picking up at CVI. When you’re working 50-60+ hour weeks at one job and still trying to juggle another, they are both going to suffer. It’s not fair to your employers and it’s not fair to you. So, I made the leap. One down, so many more to go. Bring on the mistakes, the feedback, the opportunity for growth. I’m ready. I’m all in. Let’s do this.


Recent Recipes

In my last post I promised to share with you some of the things I’ve been cooking up recently. Cooking at home serves many purposes for me. It is, first and foremost, educational, but it is also therapeutic and FUN. It gives me the opportunity to work on kitchen skills, try new things and photograph them all… the good, the bad and the ugly. Yes, some of it turns out ugly. It is what it is.

It also supplies me with blog material. It works out well. I get to play around in the kitchen, practice my creative eye with the help of my Canon and then share it all with you on my blog. I love it when passions naturally meld together and perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a new recipe or two yourself!

Basically Croque Monsieur

This classic French sandwich is SO cheesy and if you’re a cheese lover like me, this has your name all over it. This was the perfect compliment to my Saturday afternoon. You might, however, need a quick nap afterwards. You can find the recipe here: https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/basically-croque-monsieur

Shepard’s Pie

While it’s nothing fancy, if you’re looking for a quick and easy weeknight meal for the family, shepard’s pie fits the bill. Someone mentioned it not long ago and I was curious, so I tried it myself.

You could easily prepare the ingredients for this dish the night before or the morning of and have it ready to pop into the oven when you get home from work. This is a highly customizable dish. You likely already have the ingredients and if you’re missing something, don’t sweat it. A quick google search will provide a plethora of recipes to choose from, but this is the one I used: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/shepherds-pie-recipe2-1942900

Paleo Gluten-Free Apple Cake

I love dessert. This shouldn’t and likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I’ve been baking for as long as I can remember. My first memories in the kitchen involve more than one something sweet. These days when I’m baking for myself, I try to put a healthy spin on it. This cake is a good compromise, it’s delicious and it’s not too bad for you.
https://joyfoodsunshine.com/paleo-apple-cake/

Vanilla Funfetti Birthday Cake with Buttercream Frosting

This cake is sugar. Pure and simple. Sugar, eggs and butter. So many eggs. But it’s also delicious. I made this for a special little girl’s 4th birthday party, hence the overwhelming amount of pink. I was a bit ambitious but I was determined to get my pink four layer funfetti cake. I doubled the recipe and had plenty of extra batter for cupcakes as well. Most of a day and a few mishaps later… voila. https://sugarspunrun.com/funfetti-cake-scratch/

The sprinkles can easily be omitted from this recipe if you prefer. Either way, this cake is addicting and so is the frosting… you’ve been warned.

Carrot Cake Cheesecake Cake

I love cheesecake. It’s one of my favorite desserts. I also love finding ways to incorporate a cheesecake element into other desserts. This carrot cake cheesecake is incredibly rich and so good. https://www.shugarysweets.com/carrot-cake-cheesecake-cake/

Word of caution: there are multiple steps and the cheesecake needs to be made in advance so read over the recipe a few times and game plan accordingly. (Also, don’t forget to refrigerate your cheesecake layer if baking ahead of time… yes, I forgot. Well, I slept through my alarm. And I had to run to the store the next morning so I could bake another one. It happens!)

I’m always game to try something new; send me some of your favorite recipes!

Cooking Up A Storm

Now that I’m pursing a career in the culinary field, I often get asked what my favorite thing to make is. The truth? I don’t have one! (No one is satisfied with that answer.) My favorite thing to make is the thing I haven’t yet made. Yeah, that’s definitely an oxymoron but it’s true.

We all have our go-to’s, those make up the majority of our weekday lunches and dinners. When we exhaust our list of staples, what do we do? We run through them again. My week is usually pretty packed and the meals I make reflect that. They don’t take long to make and they’re pretty simple (I think I’ve said it before, but leftovers are SO underrated).

Baking with Grandma and little sis, Emma (right), circa 2004

The kitchen has always been a therapeutic place for me. Whether I was baking with my grandma’s or concocting my own creations; I was constantly coming up with substitutions for ingredients (like eggs) because we were often short of something integral to a recipe (I write that with a smile on my face – love you, mom!). The kitchen is, in many ways, a safe haven for me. A place where creativity can shine and memories can be made.

Right now, I have the best of both worlds. Technically, thanks to my day job, I work in a kitchen all week long, and I love it, but it’s different than cooking in your own kitchen. It just is. The environment is faster paced and mistakes come at a higher cost. It’s where I go to learn, to push myself out of my comfort zone and to grow. It’s expanding my mind in so many ways, yet, I still crave that quiet time in my own kitchen.

My kitchen is where I go to clear my head and de-stress. From a professional standpoint I’m still very much in the stage where I don’t know what I don’t know and everyone knows it, which is something I am very aware of. I’ve been graced with such a patient, open minded learning environment but that fact also makes me want to try harder. It’s a total blessing to have people investing time and energy into teaching you but it makes me want to show up tenfold in return. At work, I take things very seriously, myself included.

When I have a day or two off sometimes other things take priority but I usually find time to cook up at least one or two new recipes. Those are my favorite ones. So many people get in the rut of making the same meals over and over and over again… year after year after year. If that works for you then keep on keeping on, but it just doesn’t jive with me. There’s so much potential, so many different kinds of food. I actually freak out a little when I think about all of the ingredients I pass in the grocery store that I’ll never notice or get a chance to try.

A few weeks back I took advantage of an extended weekend and immersed myself in the kitchen. I come across a lot of recipes online that I put aside for an opportunity when I can make them, or I’ll see one in Bon Appetit, the monthly magazine I’m subscribed to. More recently, as I continue to learn about different kinds of foods and various cuisines I’ll challenge myself to come up with something I would normally only get from a restaurant or buy from the store, then I’ll do some research and make it. Easy as pie, right? Not always, but it’s a learning experience and that alone makes it rewarding.

These times in the kitchen, by myself, with the music blaring – no where to go and nothing pressing to do – will always be some of my very favorite. On my own, I love to experiment and lost in my own thoughts, I’m free to do just that. The recipes, for now, provide an often needed guide but liberty is always taken and so are lots of photos (because nothing’s better than the chance to combine two of your passions).

I just bought my first chef’s knife and it is SO SHARP. (I’m told – repeatedly – that fingers grow back so there’s not much to worry about.) Honestly, I can’t wait to put it to use. My knife skills are sorely lacking and I’m more than ready to remedy that situation. I look forward to continuing to share my journey and my food, with you, the reader. I regularly share posts and story updates on my adventures in the kitchen (at work and at home) via my Instagram and Facebook pages. Follow along and send me a photo of your latest creation! Check back soon for some of the things I’ve been cooking up recently.


Busy is a state of mind.

Yes, but you are busy, I get it. Just hear me out. Someone I have a lot of respect for recently asked me about my blog. They were curious why I hadn’t posted an update in a while. I kind of brushed it off with the usual “I’ve just been really busy.” (That’s a cope out, by the way). Without missing a beat they replied matter of factly, “Busy is a state of mind.” I didn’t know what to say and I thought about that statement for hours afterwards. I’m still thinking about it. Busy is a state of mind. Is it really? I mean, I am busy… I think…

If it weren’t for the fact that the person who said this to me is one of the busiest people I’ve ever met, I might not have thought much more of it. My mind has replayed my own current daily agenda over and over as I’ve analyzed that statement for days on end and tried to figure out how I could sneak some more time in to my days.

Photo Creds: Michelle Demuth-Bibb of
http://www.michelledemuthbibb.com/

On a weekly basis, between my two jobs, I work on average 4 days that range from 10-14 hours each and an additional 1-2 days with a more typical 8 hour window. On days or evenings that I’m not working I try to catch up on life, spend some time with my horse, cook up some things in the kitchen, work on my blog, do some culinary related studying and relax my brain. I’m busy. Aren’t I? Aren’t you? Aren’t we all??

Busy is a state of mind. The more I thought about that statement the more I came to understand it, in my own way. Let’s stop for a second and think about what “being busy” really means. When someone says they’re “busy” the connotation is usually a negative one.

Don’t agree? How often do you hear someone exclaim how “busy” they are with a pep in their step and a smile on their face? Never. It doesn’t happen. Busy is usually followed by “I can’t” – “I don’t have time” – “I’m just too busy right now”. At one time or another, we’ve all used “busy” as an excuse. Valid or not. The negative association is strong and as such cultivates feelings of anxiousness and stress; a ball and chain type of mentality. It is indeed a state of mind.

How many of us spend a majority of the day thinking about how much we have to do and how little time we have to do it? I bet it’s more than most of us care to admit. From a mental standpoint, we’ve already set ourselves up to fail. Busy is a word that we need to retrain our brains to think about. On top of everything, some are busy just for the sake of busyness (we all know this person). Others feel like they’re living their life on a hamster wheel, in which case perhaps a step back for a moment of re-evaluation is necessary. You have the power to change your life if you’re truly unhappy with it.

Shortly after, I was discussing the subject with a friend. He agreed. Most of us have a lot on our plate, and I’m not taking that fact away from anyone, but the manner in which you approach that fact can really dictate how you live – and how much enjoyment you get out of – your life. How many of us go into a frenzy when we have a list of things that need to be done?

By most standards, yes, I am busy. You are busy. We’re all busy. But maybe it’s not about cramming more hours into the day – that’s impossible, by the way – or cutting corners – which, for me, isn’t and hasn’t ever been an option I can live with anyway.

If we really stop to think, a lot of us can probably come up with at least one way we can make our productive hours, well, more productive. I’m not saying you should always be in the “go gear”; I strongly believe in the importance of giving our bodies and minds a chance to recharge, ideally, on a daily basis… even if it’s just a couple of minutes at the end of a long day. We should, however, make sure that the times we are “on” are put to the best uses possible.

When faced with the dilemma of what to tackle next out of a list of options, I’ve started mentally rating them on a scale of one to five, with one being the most important and five the least. Sometimes laundry takes precedent, other times a book (or bed) does. It’s helped me prioritize and realize what’s the most important in that moment (point in case: sometimes it’s clean clothes, other times it’s a well rested mind). To be fair, that’s dumbing it down a bit but I’ve started using this strategy for almost everything and I’ve found that sometimes, the most trivial things are the ones I need the most help deciding between.

Don’t get me wrong, life is undeniably overwhelming but we all have a choice to make it more or less so. If you can re-wire your brain to think about your life and the responsibilities there-in differently, I really believe it will make a huge difference. You might find that you’re more productive and that you do indeed have some extra time to spend on things you feel you don’t currently have the time for or maybe you’re already at 100% efficiency and you don’t see any changes at all on that front (I think you will).

If nothing else, with time and persistence, a little conscious re-wiring will most certainly improve your mental and emotional well-being. The trickle down impact of which can not be overstated.

Lobster… and More.

Last Thursday I had to face one of the challenges I knew, entering the culinary field, would present itself sooner or later. We had a two day Valentine’s Day dinner event. The menu? Some of our Valentine’s Day favorites.

Course 1 included a Chef’s Garden Salad with crouton, parmesan, shaved ham, carrot, cucumber, nasturtium and dijon emulsion.

Course 2 was a creamy bisque with lobster, carrot, celery, chive, chervil and tarragon.

Course 3 was prime beef new york strip steak with an accompanying veggie plate that consisted of sunchoke purée, carrot, confit potato, brussel sprout, beet, root spinach and amaranth.

Course 4 was called Textures of Chocolate and included a delicious dessert showcase created by visiting Pastry Chef, Melania Castegnaro. Pliable ganache, pistachio mousse, warm chocolate cake, aerated chocolate and chocolate tart made up this final course.

The problem, for me, was the lobster. Forty of them.

If you’ve ever bought live lobster you know what I’m talking about. As a highly empathetic person and an animal lover to boot, I have a hard time killing anything. Let alone a rather large, squirming crustacean. Times forty. I learned that the boiling water method is one way to go about it but it’s arguably more inhumane and drawn out than simply swiftly putting a knife through the creature and carrying on from there. Either way, I struggled with the task but I did it. And I learned how to properly clean and utilize the entire lobster from there. That’s quite a lesson and one I’m grateful for.

Honestly, the entire process really made me think. I’ll be completely transparent, I stuck with rice and veggies for dinner that night. I couldn’t stomach anything more with the knowledge that it only gets harder from here. And we go about it in the most humane, non-wasteful way possible (if you haven’t heard me say that I LOVE my new job, you’ve had your head buried in the sand).

I love how conscious and appreciative the chefs I get to learn from are for the ingredients we use to create our dishes, from the most common ingredients to the most underrated ones. They really care and I think due in part to their awareness, are more grateful for the sacrifice that’s made and more cautious about accruing waste than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s definitely made me more mindful as well.

This, however, leads into a subject that I want to delve into a little deeper.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

What about the rest of the meat we as a population eat? The meat we are not humanely raising and killing ourselves, which is, like, all of it. So many people want to indulge with blind eyes. And for a long time, I’ve been one of them.

A stock in the works for the base of our lobster bisque.

I’m not saying you need to be able to slaughter your own animals to partake guilt free in tonight’s dinner. Not by a long shot. All I’m asking is that you eat with awareness. Eat with the awareness of the sacrifice that was made so that you can have that 12oz steak and with the awareness that there are humane ways to go about it and there are very inhumane ways. Which are you supporting? Consciously or not. Every time you purchase. These are questions I’m now asking myself.

Over the coming months I’m planning to take the plunge and educate myself on the process that is carried out prior to meat being delivered nicely packaged into our grocery stores. Factory farming is something I’ve been wanting to dig into but it’s been something I’ve been putting off learning more about because I know that once I do, I can’t un-do. I feel like a hypocrite.

I do make an effort to buy meat that is organic, grass fed and if possible free range. It doesn’t always happen, it’s not always available, but I’ve been buying organic whenever possible for a while now. Now that I think about it, I’d like to actually learn more about what “organic” “grass fed” and “free range” really mean. It sounds pretty self explanatory but what are the requirements that have to be met in order to be able to label something “grass fed” or “free range”? I’m curious.

I don’t have a problem with eating meat that was humanely raised and euthanized. I do have a problem with supporting an industry that does not abide by those standards. I would never quiz anyone on the sourcing of the meat they’re serving, I’m not that person and as I already said, I don’t always abide by the standards I strive to live by myself. My goal isn’t one of judgement, but rather one of expanding an awareness.

This summer I’m also going to be looking into partaking in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Basically, you purchase a “share” from a local farm and get a varying weekly bounty of fruits, vegetables, meat and more directly from the farm you’ve chosen. I’ve done some research already and there are tons of family owned, organic farms near me to choose from. I bet there are some near you as well. You support the local farmer and in return, you get fresh, seasonal, sustainably harvested food. It’s a win/win! If you’re interested in learning more, this article breaks it down nicely.

The Chef’s Garden also offers home delivery with an insanely large supply of fresh vegetables to choose from year round. These are the very same vegetables we use at the Culinary Vegetable Institute and that are used in fine dining establishments around the world. I highly encourage you to check them out. I have never seen or tasted more beautifully delicious vegetables. Their quality is of the very highest. And that’s the truth.

The point of this blog post is not to upset or start controversy but to simply make people think. It took killing nearly forty lobsters to push me to finally acknowledge something that I’ve been avoiding for a long time. To make the decision I need to learn more about an industry that I’ve been pretending doesn’t exist. An industry that makes it so convenient to forget where the food you’re eating even comes from. We can all do our part, as large or small as that is, to make the world a better place to live in. Step one, I believe, is the awareness that we have the power to do so.

New Year, New You?

New Year’s Resolutions. Did you have any? Have you stuck with them? Statistically speaking, according to one poll, 80% of New Year’s resolutions have fallen to the wayside by February… 80%!! Only one month in. That’s tomorrow, by the way. February starts tomorrow. How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along?

I always liked the idea of New Year’s resolutions, maybe for some of the same reasons you do. The idea of a blank slate after what’s often been a long year full of ups and downs as years are prone to have, is refreshing (I’ve noticed that for some reason, the downs seem to stick out more prominently in people’s minds when reflecting on the year that’s passed).

I think the concept offers a mental cleansing for many of us. But it also comes with a heavy load. What happens when February 1st hits and you’ve either not started or not consistently kept up with those New Year’s resolutions? What if you’re part of the 80%?

Perhaps you’re thinking this is a little late in the game to be talking about New Year’s resolutions. After all, by now, you’ve either made them or you haven’t and most likely, you’ve stuck with them or given up until next year. Which is precisely why I wanted to have this discussion now. One month into the New Year.

At this point, clarification might be helpful. It’s important to constantly strive to improve yourself and your life, in whatever ways that be needed. If that manifests itself in your mind in the form of making a resolution, so be it. But don’t set yourself up to fail. Don’t get trapped into the mindset that the New Year is the key to beginning again.

The only “New Year’s resolution” I’ve made this year is one of an open mind and a continuing commitment to self love and acceptance. These are areas I’ve already made progress in but ones that I constantly want to be aware of and work to strengthen. Instead of beating myself up over areas I wish I were further along in, I’m choosing to stop stressing and start doing… with the awareness that the goal might change and the timing might not be right and that has to be okay. All the while, always keeping in mind, it’s never to late to start fresh or to start over. January 1st is just a date on a calendar.

My goals with my health remain the same, to continue working towards balance, listening and learning from my body as I go along. It’s also very important to me that I continue to push myself out of my comfort zone. That’s where growth happens and it’s something that gets easier with practice… and the last year has provided opportunities to practice. I ended 2018 and began 2019 grateful. For life, for health, for you – my friends and my family. I hope you’re able to stop and reflect on how blessed you are too.

What “resolutions” are you making?

Finding Balance

Balance is such a tricky thing. On the one hand, it’s very straightforward. Take a balance scale for example. To achieve a balanced scale two items of equal mass are required. Add or take away from either mass and an immediate unbalancing occurs. Life, however, isn’t so simple. The scale is much larger, the additions and subtractions more subtle, the concept of balance itself much more elusive.

That being said, as I enter my 24th year, I have never been more aware of my own need and desire for balance. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the last two years of my life have been focused on almost nothing but. My healing journey has been largely a quest to find and maintain balance… physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s not been easy and I’m far from there but I am becoming more aware. For me, that’s a major step.

As I write this I’m simultaneously pondering on the irony. While I’m more aware of what balance means to me (if you haven’t already, defining that for yourself is a good starting point), I’m also just as aware of how far I am from achieving it.

I’m in a season of change, of transition. I’m hustling to juggle two jobs whose lines between part time and full time have become blurred (I’m so grateful for them both). While those jobs are taking up a majority of my time, I still have my horse and other animals that require daily care. I’m doing my best to maintain two blogs while also trying to squeeze in extracurricular learning and activities to get the most out of my work experiences. And amid all of the other normal day to day tasks required of us all, I badly want to re-incorporate a yoga practice but have yet to figure out how… or when.

I’m trying to give myself some room to breathe and unwind each day because I’m finding more often than not, I need that, especially at the end of a long day. I’ve been asking a lot of a body that I’ve been incredibly careful with for two years now and while the reminders are there, it’s responded to my requests better than I could have hoped. I am aware however that what you withdraw, at some point, you must put back in. I’ve learned that, if nothing else. Honestly, it’s been a bit overwhelming but in the best way possible. Perhaps you can relate.

There are lots of people (you are likely one of them) that have just as much if not way more on their plates than I do. For me, learning how to fit all of the puzzle pieces together is a challenge but one that I welcome with open arms. During these transitions in life, I think we need to allow ourselves the space and grace to readjust. How often are we our own toughest taskmaster? Breathe and just flow with it for a while.

A calm has been washing over me when it starts to pile up because I know that I’ll figure it out. I know I’ll find the balance that I’m looking for. Whether in the form of a daily cup of tea, a chapter in a book that’s purely pleasure, or a few minutes in the morning devoted to some stretching and meditation, the opportunities are there for the taking. I guess my hope is that if nothing else, this will remind you to look for those opportunities too but also give yourself the time you need to find them.

How do you find balance?

My Year in Review

As I sit here writing this on the first day of January, 2019 (*cough*… procrastinator… but I have been busy) I’m reflecting on the year that’s passed and the one that’s now upon us. I’m thinking about the places I’ve been blessed enough to travel to, the experiences I’ve had and the beautiful people I have met. And WOW… what a year it has been.

On the health front, more progress was made.

  • I began 2017 with a diagnosis of Adrenal Fatigue and an almost daily battle to just “get through”… to get through the grocery store, the trip to the barn, the anxiety, the day in general. I started a new supplement regime aimed at improving gut health, sleep and energy in appropriate proportions, upped my self-care game on the physical, mental and emotional front and began to heal. Over the last month I retested and learned that my adrenals have significantly improved from one year ago. A welcome surprise and wonderful confirmation that the work I’ve put in over the last year is paying off.

This year I had many different opportunities to travel.

  • In March, I spent a week in Georgia visiting my parents and siblings and I flew down again over Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with them.
  • In May, I traveled to the Maryland / Washington DC area for a business event combined with an afternoon of sightseeing and then went on to New York City to deliver an Equicizer to the personal assistant of Bernadette Peters, who, at the time, was starring in the Broadway show, Hello Dolly. While in New York I got to attend a performance of Hello Dolly, my first Broadway show, and afterwards had the opportunity to tour backstage.
  • As my health improved with the weather, my love of traveling became a desire to do and see even more. I applied for a passport and planned a trip to a place that has been romanticized in my mind since I was a little girl… Prince Edward Island which is situated off of the coast of New Brunswick in Canada. I drove myself 21 1/2 hours, stopping halfway to spend a few days with my family in Massachusetts where we took a day trip up to Boston before I continued on my way.
  • I spent five and a half weeks on Prince Edward Island, traveling the island and exploring it’s beautiful coastline. I even got the chance to spend a day in Nova Scotia driving around the gorgeous countryside. I tried my hand at waitressing and realized I wasn’t half bad. Ultimately, PEI was everything I had dreamed it would be and it allowed me to grow and expand as a person.
  • I took three trips home to Michigan this year. One in the springtime to visit my grandparents, another in the fall where my siblings and I made great memories camping among the sand dunes off of Lake Michigan on the western side of the state (I wonder how often we forget to appreciate the beauty in our own “backyards”?) and a third over Christmas to spend the week with my family.

I had a few personal milestones as well.

  • In July I decided to finally bite the bullet and start that blog that I had been sitting on for a solid year. I wanted a creative space that was my own where I could share what I’ve learned on my journey with others who might be struggling to find their own way through. Which brings me to thank YOU. I hope you know how much I appreciate your support and I look forward to this next year together.
  • This fall I started working on developing healthy recipes for myself and others, which also opened the door for me to work on my photography, a budding passion. In the process, I started to fall in love with real wholesome, nutritious food.
  • I was also able to dabble in the rescue work I love so dearly (aka re-affirmed my title as the crazy cat lady) with the rescue and re-homing of a couple of feral kittens. Then Archie came into my life. My miracle kitten. He’s been a joy and a testament to what a relentless spirit and some TLC can do.

Finally, I made some rather big decisions concerning my future.

  • As we entered fall, I began researching culinary schools and I discovered the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. I became fascinated with their commitment to health supportive cooking. I took a trip back to Massachusetts to visit family and while there I took a day trip to Manhattan to tour the school and speak with the Director of Admissions. That trip cemented my desire to attend. Once they release their starting dates for this year, I’ll be applying to their 11 1/2 month fall training program.
  • In December I began to look for a part time job to save up for culinary school and stumbled upon the Culinary Vegetable Institute at The Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio. I interviewed for a position as a dishwasher and I’ve been accepted with open arms into a loving new community. I end 2018 blessed with two jobs that I love and a family of friends that continues to grow.

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​When I look back on this year it feels like three condensed into one. Until I stopped to really think about it, I didn’t realize how much I actually got done, how many places I traveled to, and the countless ways I’ve grown as a human being. Of course there were plenty of mistakes and tears along the way but that’s just life. I try to focus on the positive.

2018 was a great year for me. This post allowed me to reflect back on the many adventures and experiences it brought but there is one more point I want to make. Not every year will look this. And you know what? That’s okay. You might have had a stellar year or to the contrary, perhaps it didn’t go quite as planned. Maybe you didn’t get that job and the trip you hoped to take just didn’t come to fruition. Such is life.

By most accounts, 2017 wasn’t my best year. I was virtually forced to put everything on hold as my health finally screamed loud enough to grab my full attention and I decided early on that accepting the cards I had been dealt was the only way through it. It was a process. It was tough. I struggled and I still do. I wondered why and particularly why me but I didn’t give up and in retrospect, I can see now what I couldn’t always in the moment. My struggles strengthened me in ways I’m still not fully aware of and directed my path towards the passions I’m now consumed with. What a blessing 2017 was.

I find it helpful to think of life in terms of growth spurts. Some years you are going to have big, life changing events and opportunities that allow for growth that is obvious to anyone paying attention. Other years will pass more quietly but don’t underestimate the small, subtle growth that is still occurring, even if you’re the only one that can recognize it in the moment.

Healthier Holiday Treats

Christmas is fast approaching! We are less than 2 weeks out and I’m about to buckle down on my holiday baking. This year my naturopath is hosting her first annual Christmas Cookie Exchange geared towards those with food allergies, sensitivities and dietary restrictions of every kind! How BRILLIANT is that. I think it’s awesome and a great way to include those who might otherwise feel left out around the holidays.

I just ran a couple of test batches of the cookies I will be making and gifting this year. I’ve selected Snickerdoodles and Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookies. Snickerdoodles because Christmas and Mocha Chocolate Chip because we all need some chocolate in our lives (do you like how I made that all inclusive? Ok maybe I need some chocolate in my life, at all times…). YUM! The best part? They are both Gluten & Refined Sugar Free, Paleo and Vegan… and they taste awesome!! That’s right, no all purpose flour, butter, eggs, milk, OR white sugar but still delicious.

I use to be a baking machine but when I initially got sick, baking became the least of my worries and was the furthest thing from my mind. When I started feeling better and the urge to bake came back, it became much more challenging to do so because of my newfound dietary restrictions. At first, it was very discouraging. In reality, my experience with and exposure to baking with healthier, alternative ingredients was non-existent and I simply needed a little education on the matter (aka trial and error). 

I’ve tried a variety of recipes from various bloggers over the last year and I’ve struggled to find someone whose recipes could not only suit my ever changing dietary needs but also consistently tasted fantastic (I was a baker and come from a background of sugar and flour, winning combinations in the taste department… I have REALLY high standards with the things I create and refuse to let “healthy” translate to “less than stellar”). If you’re looking for healthier alternatives to your favorite holiday treats, I honestly think I’ve found the perfect girl for you. 

Enter Rachel Connors and her blog, Bakerita. I seriously encourage you to check out Bakerita and the story behind it. I made one of her recipes when I was in Georgia visiting my family over Thanksgiving and was pleasantly surprised to find that the recipe I choose was both delicious AND doable. By that I mean there weren’t any crazy, only going to use once a year ingredients (another pet peeve with health geared recipes… ugh!).

Since nixing refined sugar, I’ve stuck with using pure maple syrup and honey as sweeteners for dessert recipes. I’ve now expanded that to include organic maple sugar and coconut sugar and that opens up the door to things like COOKIES, which really rely on the granulated texture that sugar normally brings to the table. All of the new recipes on Bakerita are gluten, refined sugar and dairy free.

This is a great article on baking with sugar alternatives, if you’d like to learn more. 

Whether you have your own specific dietary restrictions this holiday season, are trying to cook or bake for someone with them or simply want to enjoy food that tastes good and incorporates more health conscious ingredients, you need to know that it is possible and it doesn’t have to be hard.

Last Christmas was an overwhelming one for me on the food front. I knew what I couldn’t eat but I really didn’t have any idea what foods I could eat. By that, I mean I just wasn’t aware of all of the options that are out there – 
in both the sweet and savory departments! – for someone trying to avoid some of the most common ingredients. This year will be a different story for me, and it can be for you too.

Check back soon for a post on pantry staples for health conscious baking!

How To: Homemade Vanilla Extract

We’re already almost through November. Can you believe that?! I realize we’re only a week post Thanksgiving and most people don’t want to start thinking about Christmas yet but it is less than 4 weeks away. If you haven’t already, many of you will soon be starting your Christmas shopping lists and trying to come up with something creative to get those special someones on your list.

I’m a giver by nature and I love Christmas shopping for my family and close friends. It brings me so much joy. I’m the kind of gift giver who may or may not ask for recommendations on things you want but always strives to find a gift that will be extra special and meaningful for everyone on my list. This brings me to last year’s gift which is the subject of today’s post.

Have you figured it out?? (The title is a bit of a giveaway…) That’s right! Last Christmas I decided to make homemade vanilla extract for my family and friends. Let me tell you, it was: So. Much. Fun. From researching and purchasing the vanilla beans to selecting and finding the perfect glass bottles to creating my own little gift bags, it was hands down the most fun I’ve ever had in preparing Christmas gifts. This is coming from a self proclaimed non crafty person.

From my grandmas to my aunts my family loves to bake so I knew this would not only be a meaningful gift because I was making it myself, it would also be a gift that would get used over and over and over again as it would last quite a long time. The coolest part was that I had enough beans to give away bottles of vanilla to a multitude of people.

I’ll outline the process I followed below:

First – the beans! This one requires a little bit of research. There are various types of vanilla beans that you can purchase, depending on the flavor profile you’re interested in creating. Here are the main types of vanilla beans, taken from beanilla.com:

    • Madagascar Vanilla – rich and creamy
    • Mexican Vanilla – bold, dark, smokey
    • Indian Vanilla – full, chocolate
    • Indonesian Vanilla – mild, well balanced
    • Tahitian Vanilla – floral, cherry-chocolate
  • Tonga Vanilla – earthy, fig, raisin

I personally wanted the classic creamy flavor typically found in vanilla (but 10 million times better when made yourself) so I opted for Madagascar Vanilla beans, the most commonly used. I purchased my beans on Ebay (50 count) because I found a good deal, but there are many bean suppliers out there. They can be expensive, so shop around.

Grade A, B or C? While I found that there are some differing opinions on this one, I ended up going with Grade B vanilla beans. Grade A beans are considered gourmet and are ideal for cooking purposes. Grade B beans are generally smaller and drier; some may even come cracked. Grade B beans have a lower moisture content and are considered “extract grade”.

Alcohol – This again is personal preference but I used Vodka for a more neutral flavor. Other options include bourbon, brandy and rum. I didn’t buy top shelf stuff either, the alcohol is simply a solvent used to extract the vanilla flavor from the beans.

Bottles – This is where you can start to get creative. There are many different bottle sizes and shapes that you can choose to store your vanilla extract. The color can be a factor as well. I debated between amber bottles, which are great for light sensitive liquids, and clear glass bottles. I eventually went the clear glass route as I wanted my family and friends to be able to watch the vanilla change colors – to me, that’s part of the fun. I simply recommended that the bottles be stored in a dark, cool place, away from direct sunlight.

I ordered my bottles off of SpecialtyBottles.com but Amazon has a good selection as well. I ended up using a couple of these 8 oz bottles because I had plenty of beans, and I gave those to the avid bakers in my life. For the rest of my giveaways, I went with these 4 oz bottles.

Instructions – There are many different vanilla extract recipes available online. They’re all very similar with slight variations here and there. This was the recipe I used to make my vanilla extract. It’s very straightforward and quite simple. There’s really not much to it; no need to over complicate the process!

I made my vanilla on December 10th, just a couple of weeks before Christmas. It’s recommended you let your vanilla brew (giving it a gentle shake every now and then) for at least 8 weeks. You can make it as far ahead of time as you’d like, but I wanted my family and friends to be able to see the progression as the beans slowly turned the alcohol into a deep amber color, even if it meant they had to wait a little longer to use it.

Labels, Tags & Bags – This is where you can really get creative. Maybe you don’t have a lot of extra time and decide to purchase pre-made gift packaging for your vanilla bottles or perhaps you’d rather not wrap them at all. It’s really personal preference. I ordered some cute labels from Etsy for my vanilla extract bottles. While the labels I ordered appear to no longer be available, Etsy offers many other variations (or if you’re feeling craftier than I was, perhaps you’ll be inspired to create your own!).

I used this online template for my bottle tags. (She’s also included a label template if you prefer to print your own rather than purchasing them.) I then went to my local craft store and purchased a couple of sheets of thick decorative paper which I used to print the tags on, as well as some shiny string to secure the tags around my bottles, with the help of a hole punch.

While I was at the craft store, I bought a roll of material and some ribbons for my gift bags. After I got home I measured my bottles, cut the material down accordingly, grabbed a glue gun and went to work! Once I had created the gift bags, I placed a bottle inside each of them and finished each gift bag off with a beautiful ribbon. Voila!

In conclusion, I’m so glad I decided to bite the bullet and learn how to make homemade vanilla extract and by making a large batch, I was able to gift a bottle to my closest family and friends.

Can you keep a secret? Before I decided to learn how to make vanilla myself, I’d never even given a thought to the fact that anything other than imitation existed… I know… I KNOW! Now that I’ve learned how to make the real stuff, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use anything but. Store bought vanilla extract is also quite expensive. In the long run, it’s much more cost effective to make your own.

Aside from the heavenly smell of homemade vanilla extract, the flavor is impeccably pure. You’ll thank yourself and every time your family and friends use your thoughtful gift, they’ll thank you too.