Monday, September 29, 2014

What's Wrong with Halloween, Anyway?

Pumpkins & Candy - Traditional Halloween Fun
The observance of Halloween is a cause for endless controversy amongst Christians. Some love it, some hate it, and everyone gives reasons.

Members of the "love it" camp tend to make these arguments:
  • The kids enjoy it, and I don't want to take their fun away.
  • What's wrong with enjoying an American tradition?
  • Dressing up and eating candy - what's not to like?
  • This was the traditional way for Christians of the British Isles to denounce the Evil One, by pretending to "scare him away" on the Eve of All Saints Day (All Hallow's Eve)
  • What's wrong with dressing up as a Princess or a Fireman?

In response to the "love it" arguments, I think: If something is good, I want to do it. But I don't want to just "go with the flow" to fit into our culture if something is not good. I'm skeptical of the "Godly origins" argument for the holiday - it just doesn't seem consistent with the general aura of the day (or, month, really - since the observations start more than a month in advance nowadays). We can dress up and eat candy without using this for an excuse. 

And, as for the Princess and Fireman, I've noticed that these disappear in very early childhood to be replaced by things less innocent. They're rather like "gateway" costumes.

Members of the "hate it" camp tend to make these arguments:
  • Halloween has evil origins.
  • Creepy & Scary aren't Christian virtues.
  • Too much candy rots kids teeth out, and causes other health problems.
In response to the "hate it" arguments, well, every post I've seen on the evil origins of Halloween seems to indicate that Christians need to live in fear of the Evil One - as if his power could rival that of God's if we just tip the scales the tiniest bit. They often even detail things that Christians should never discuss (Ephesians 5:12) or post pictures that should never be put in front of Christian eyes (Psalm 101:3). All of this makes the Evil One look powerful and glamorous, when in reality, he has been defeated by the Cross of Christ.

And, I'm much less concerned about the history of Halloween than about the current practice. 

Besides that, I let my kid eat more sugar than she should at Christmas, too. If sugar were the only issue, I wouldn't worry about it.

I've never been really comfortable with either set of arguments, to be honest. 

I dislike Halloween, but I've never been able to put my finger on why well enough to explain it to my little one. I don't want to give her nightmares by trying to explain to her about all the creepy stuff other people do on this holiday. And, I think the Bible clearly instructs us NOT to give a lot of attention to wrongdoing (Luke 10:20), nor to try to oppose the Evil One by ourselves, but to depend on the Lord to do so (Jude 1:9-10).

As C.S. Lewis said so profoundly in the Preface to The Screwtape Letters,
"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the
devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to
feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally
pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same
delight."


So, while I always want to avoid what is evil, I also do not wish to give that evil undue attention, nor to make my daughter fear what Christ has already defeated for her (Matthew 10:28). 

A couple of years ago, my conversation with my little daughter went something like this:
"Mom, why don't we celebrate Halloween? I like playing dress up and eating candy."
"Okay, let me explain it like this, honey, what do we celebrate on Christmas?"
"The Birth of Jesus"
"What do we celebrate on Pascha (Easter)?"
"The Resurrection of Jesus."
"And, what do people celebrate on Halloween, I've never told you, but can you figure it out?"
"Evil?"

Well, that should probably be enough to explain it. But, it was always more of a niggling feeling than something I could put into words. Until this year, that is.

This year, we have had the uniquely Christian experience of saying goodbye to a beloved devout Christian friend on his way from this life into Eternal Life. He prepared for his journey by participating in the Sacraments of the Church. As we lived this experience with him and his family, we touched the miracle of Jesus' Victory over Death. We said "Goodbye" not forever, but until we could meet again. We see our friend's body as Sacred - it will rise again at the Last Day, as the Scriptures say. We said prayers for him, his body was anointed, we made our Cross before his casket, we kissed his body, we kissed the Icon of the Resurrection, and we interred his body in the earth, like a seed awaiting Spring. Although every moment was filled with grief for our loss of him, every moment was also Holy, Sacred, a preparation for Eternity with Christ.

The following day, I went to the grocery store and I was slapped in the face with what Halloween really is. There, on prominent display, was a creepy model of a skeleton of a human being with distorted features, covered in cobwebs. The plastic image did not remind us that this was the body of a human being, meant to be reunited with Christ at the Last Day, a seed to be planted in the earth and one day to be united with Christ. Instead, it was made to look loathsome, creepy, scary - horrifying. Not at all consistent with the Christian view of the reality of death.

And then, I realized the true function of Halloween in our culture.

The function of this so-called "holiday" (regardless of historical facts about its origin) is to make human beings repulsed and terrified at the idea of death and entering Eternity. And, in fact, to focus so much on either thinking about their fear of death, or refusing to think about death at all, that they completely fail to prepare for eternity. It is easy to notice on a moment's reflection that nearly every Halloween image is a distorted image of death - a lie about death.

Rather like someone who is terrified of flying, and must move to move to a new country, they could easily spend so much time thinking of their fear of the flight, that they completely forget to prepare to pack the right things in their suitcase, or give proper care to arranging for a place to stay upon arrival.

The Saints of the Church tell us "Remember Death" which is to say, keep our eyes on being properly prepared to enter an Eternity with God.

But, Halloween teaches us to be so frightened and repulsed that we avoid thinking about death at all costs. We cannot prepare for what we do not think about.

And, although I always hear people say, "It's just make-believe" the reality is that the fear that is engendered in human hearts through make believe, or fiction, often has just as strong an effect on the human psyche as does reality. We all know countless people who have developed strong fears by watching "horror movies." And, once those fears are planted in us, especially in childhood, but also in adulthood, they are incredibly difficult to overcome.

Even though the Evil One has been defeated by Christ's Death on the Cross, WE can choose live as if that defeat had never happened, to give the Evil One a place that is not his, by cowering and pretending he has a power he does not have.

Instead, we should see Death as what it is, now that it has been defeated by Christ. It is the door that opens when we enter Eternity. We need to live our lives preparing to walk through that door and enter a Holy, Eternal Life with Christ, rather than imagining that it is too scary to think about.


So, whatever your decision about whether your kids dress up as Princesses and Firemen and eat Candy the neighbors give them  - or don't - keep your focus on the reality. Be aware of the effect that the images of this season can have on the human psyche.

Eternity is what comes next. We're all going to "walk through that door" one day, if Christ should tarry.

Let's focus on being prepared, and as the Saints advise "Remember Death."

Here's a video I really like - perhaps you'll enjoy it too (it's only about 5 minutes.)

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew

This stew is delightful - a slight departure from the norm, without seeming too strange to less
adventurous palates. Our whole family enjoys this one, and, like most of my recipes, it is really easy to make.

It's great any time of year, as it is not too heavy for a Spring or Summer meal, but can be pleasantly warming during the cooler weather of Fall & Winter. 

I adapted this greatly from another recipe a few years back, but I cannot recall where I got the original recipe.

Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew
Sort, rinse well, and drain
1 1/2 cups Red Lentils (Split Masoor Dal)
Place in a large pot with
2 Cups Water
1 Cube Bouillon
1 Cup Chopped Onion (1 large Onion)
1 teaspoon Minced Garlic
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Bay Leaves
2 Cans Chopped Tomatoes (not drained)
1 (15 ounce) can Artichoke Heart Quarters (OR 1 9-ounce bag  frozen)
Dash Cayenne
Simmer till lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.
Add to taste
Lemon Juice (about 2 Tablespoons)
Salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)
Pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Serve with Green Salad & Crusty Bread


Red Lentil & Artichoke Stew in the Slow Cooker
For even easier preparation, prepare in Slow Cooker with pre-made Yachni Sauce from your freezer:
Place in Slow Cooker:
3 Cups Yachni Sauce, thawed
1 1/2 Cups Red Lentils, Rinsed well & Sorted
2 1/2 Cups Water
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Ground Coriander

1 (15 ounce) can Artichoke Heart Quarters (OR 1 9-ounce bag  frozen)
Dash Cayenne
Cook on High, 3 to 4 hours, till lentils are tender

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Monday, September 8, 2014

3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce

3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
My daughter's Godmother often has us over for dinner, and Spring Rolls are often a special little extra that she makes just for me when others are having meat. The other night, she sent us home with a nice box full. When I went to heat them to serve them for dinner tonight,
I discovered that I had no appropriate sauce. Nor did I have the Pineapple Juice that is a featured ingredient in the Sweet & Sour recipe I had on hand.

So, I did an Internet search, and from a recipe on Food.com (which was not vegan, nor did it quite match my tastes - but it was a great starting place), I created my own super-quick, no pineapple juice, microwavable Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce. It can easily be whipped up from ingredients that most homes have on hand most of the time. And, it was a big hit : )

This recipe calls for boiling a sugary liquid in the microwave. For that reason, you'll need a larger cup than you might expect for the amount of liquid (I used a largish microwavable teacup). You'll also want to use care not to spill the boiling liquid on yourself when removing it to stir it, etc.

A little of this goes a long way - the small batch here satisfied our small family & was sufficient for about a dozen Spring Rolls.


3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
Stir Together in large microwaveable cup:


1 Tablespoon Water
1 Tablespoon Catsup (or, Ketchup, if you prefer ; )
1 Tablespoon Soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Sugar
2 Tablespoons Vinegar (I used Rice Vinegar)
1 teaspoon Tapioca Starch (Or Cornstarch)

Microwave 30 Seconds, Stir, and microwave 30 more seconds, or till very bubbly. Stir. If needed, microwave another 30 seconds. Stir & Serve. 

Large Batch 3 Minute Sweet & Sour Dipping Sauce
Stir Together in large microwaveable cup:


1/4 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Catsup (or, Ketchup, if you prefer ; )
1/4 Cup Soy sauce
3/4 Cup Sugar
1/2 Cup Vinegar (I used Rice Vinegar)
1 Rounded Tablespoon Tapioca Starch (Or Cornstarch)

Microwave 30 Seconds, Stir, and microwave 30 more seconds, or till very bubbly. Stir. Repeat 30 second increments, stirring each time the microwave stops, until the mixture is very bubbly. (Total cooking time should be less than 2 minutes) Stir & Serve. 

Note: If you have no microwave, this can be cooked in a small saucepan on the stove top. Stir it constantly until it boils - which won't take long. 

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Moroccan Carrot Soup

Moroccan Carrot Soup
This is an everyday favorite soup in our house. It's filling, tasty, packed with nutrition & not packed with calories. A win-win sort of soup.

I like to have it as an appetizer course, a light meal with some bread, or even as a side dish (I can't be the only one who gets tired of salads and steamed veggies in the side-dish spot, can I?).

It's called "Moroccan" because it uses spices typical of that cuisine, not because the recipe itself actually comes from Morocco. 

It's easy to make a big batch, and freezes well in single portions so that you can have a nice bowl anytime the mood hits you!

Moroccan Carrot Soup
Simmer until fork-tender
2 pounds Carrots (I use a 2# bag of baby carrots for convenience, but you can also clean & chop regular carrots)
Water Just to Cover Carrots
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
When carrots are tender, add
1 rounded Tablespoon Almond Butter
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 teaspoon Salt
puree soup in pot with immersion blender
Taste - you may want to add a dash of sweetener here, if your carrots weren't naturally sweet enough.
Adjust seasonings (Salt & Lemon Juice) to taste
Add more water if needed for desired texture.

Serve.

I LOVE to garnish this one with Sambal Oelek, which is a wonderfully complex hot sauce with a relish-type texture. Use another favorite hot sauce if desired.  My little girl loves it with no hot sauce at all.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Southwest Black Bean Burgers

These Black Bean Burgers are so simple to make, and tasty. They freeze well, too, so that you can keep them on hand in the freezer for times when you want a quick meal.

You can either serve these with traditional burger toppings, or you can be inspired by the "Southwest" theme and top them with your favorite Southwestern ingredients, like Salsa or Guacamole.


Southwest Black Bean Burgers
Adapted from a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (I don't recall which book - but I highly recommend all his books!)
 
Pulse  in food processor till chopped up, but NOT until it becomes a smooth puree:*
 1 (15 oz) can black beans, drained in Sieve
OR 1 1/2 cups home cooked Black Beans
1 (15 oz) can Diced Tomatoes, drained in Sieve
1 cup chopped Carrots
1 cup cilantro (or a 1/2 bunch - the measurement doesn't need to be precise here)
1 Tablespoon Taco Seasoning
Stir in
2 1/2 cups Oats
Form into patties
Cook on Nonstick Electric Grill (such as a George Foreman or Wolfgang Puck model) for about 10 minutes, till firm 
OR
Bake 400 degrees on cookie sheet, 8 minutes, turn, bake 2 minutes more.
OR, cook in nonstick pan

Note: These can stick to a grill a little - especially if you try to open the grill before they're completely done. For best results, don't remove them from the grill, or open the grill before they're completely done - and you may wish to lightly oil the grill. If they do stick to the grill & fall apart, they can simply be pressed back into patty shape while cooking- and they will stick together again.

*My food processor is a small model (2-3 cups capacity) so I pulse these things in batches, then stir them together with a spoon.

Freezer/Bulk cooking tip: These burgers may be made in advance & frozen for when you need them. They can be frozen either cooked, or raw! If you cook them before freezing them, wrap them in double layers of waxed paper (or your other favorite method to keep them from sticking together when frozen), then simply reheat briefly in microwave when you're ready to eat them. 

If you prefer to freeze them raw, wrap them in double layers of waxed paper (or your other favorite method to keep them from sticking together when frozen), and just pop them into your favorite electric indoor grill to cook - no need to thaw before cooking! : ) 

Tip for dining with Omnivores: Of course, traditional Hamburgers are great to serve to the Omnivore at your table, when the Vegans are eating these. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why I Ditched My High Speed Blender

Do you really need a high speed blender in order to prepare healthy food?
As I read various blogs and articles on the internet, I am constantly faced with advocacy for high speed blenders. This or that author will say, "You must have a high speed blender. It is the only way to do this job!" or "I just love my high speed blender." or, "You don't need a high speed blender if you want to eat processed junk. But if you want healthy, whole foods you MUST have a high speed blender."

One of the distinctives of my blog is a focus on frugal, healthy cooking. Perhaps you've been led to believe that healthy cooking requires expensive equipment like a high-speed blender. If you're trying to decide whether you need one of these devices, perhaps my experience will help you decide. 

Many years ago, we had one of the coveted High Speed Blenders. It was a Vita Mix. When we first got it, we were totally sold on its benefits by the infomercial-style salesman at the state fair exhibit hall. Why, it could even take a WHOLE RAW EGG and grind it up smooth- shell and all - so that you could add it to a smoothie! We were convinced that it was a "must have" to make lots of delicious food. I have to say that when we bought it, we really weren't very healthy eaters. Not at all, in fact! But, we were sold on the idea that owning one of these appliances would make our diet healthier. It didn't.

Over the years, I became more and more interested in home cooking and preparing whole foods. Over time, I stopped eating meat & became vegetarian, I reduced my junk food consumption, I increased my whole foods intake, I lost a fair amount of weight. And, as all of this happened, I found that I didn't use my high speed blender more, on the contrary, as all this happened, I used it less.

First, it lost its prime real estate on my kitchen counter,and it was relegated to a cupboard. Then, as I found I used it less and less, it lost its place in the cupboard, and was exiled to our storage room. Once in a long while, I would pull it out to do some job that it seemed particularly well-suited for, only to find out that it was no more effective at the job in question than my other kitchen tools, but it took up a lot more space, and could perform fewer functions than the others! Finally, I decided to simply give it away- and that's what I did!

Why did it keep getting demoted? I found that other, smaller & cheaper kitchen appliances were not "just as good," but rather, they were BETTER!

If I wanted to make Hummus or another thick dip or spread, my little food processor could do the job faster & better (over the years, I have had three different small food processors that hold 2-3 cups of food - my current is a Sunbeam Oskar similar to this one - I got it at a thrift store for $2.99). I had to stop the high speed blender and scrape down the sides repeatedly, but the small food processor didn't require this special treatment. I could gradually add liquids to either machine as it ran if I needed it to. And, the small Food Processor could also chop, slice or shred a variety of vegetables much more effectively than a blender could!

If I wanted to puree a hot soup, I had to risk splashing myself with boiling liquid to do it in the high speed blender, or I could simply stick an immersion blender (also known as a stick blender - pardon the pun) in the pot and do it on the spot. (I have a Braun similar to this one that I bought at a thrift store - brand new still in the box - for 2 or 3 dollars). Even better, the immersion blender is super-easy to clean in the sink - whereas the high speed blender was a tough cleaning job. (The salesman said you could just blend soapy water in the machine & rinse - but  that cleaning method wasn't always so effective for us.)

If I wanted to grind a grain or spice (which, let's face it, is a pretty rare need in most kitchens), I can always pull out the coffee grinder - once again - a purchase that was 2 or 3 dollars. And, as it is a smaller machine, I don't have to fill it so full to reach the blades - that's a real advantage when grinding spices.

The salesman said that the machine could crush ice - and it can - but the cubes get caught under and around the blades now and then and have to be dislodged - which isn't always easy. We found ourselves resorting to our previous smack-with-a-heavy-ice-cream-scoop method.  And, let's face it, who wants to pay a few hundred dollars for an inefficient ice crusher?

So, after years of wanting to love our High Speed Blender - and hearing from others how wonderful it was - I finally concluded that I simply had no use for one.

Now, I understand that there are fancy models that can freeze your smoothie while they blend it, but if I keep my bananas in the freezer, I can just make the frozen smoothie in my food processor - and I don't have to worry about the bananas spoiling if I don't get to them fast enough.

And, similarly, the fancy models can heat my soup while they blend it. But, it's a simple matter to heat my soup on the stove top, and the immersion blender is so much easier to use & clean! And, I don't like all of my soups pureed, anyway. 

Now, when I see people share that they are trying to save up several hundred dollars to afford a High Speed Blender, I cringe inside.  I haven't found a single kitchen job that can be done by a High Speed Blender that cannot be done more easily, conveniently, and cheaply with standard kitchen equipment. It is true, the high speed blender does do one job my other machines can't. It can grind a raw egg with its egg shell - but I don't eat raw eggs or egg shells! Truth of the matter is, I have absolutely no need to grind up a whole raw egg, shell and all, and add it to a smoothie!

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Five Traditional Breads to Make Without an Oven

In the Summer, I like to keep the oven turned off, that keeps the house cooler - which is more comfortable. And, that's better for the environment - and for my budget - since I'm not using fossil fuels to both heat and cool my house at the same time! 

There was a long period of time in my life during which I lived without an oven. I searched for oven-free breads and couldn't find any (this was pre-internet). If you're in the same situation, you might like these recipes any time - not just in Summer. 

And, most of these recipes (with the exception of the slow cooker bread) will make a couple of servings of bread much more quickly than the oven ever could - that can be a huge advantage on a busy night ANY time of year!

On top of all that, if you're on a budget, homemade bread can save as much as 90% off of store bought (assuming $4. for a loaf of Artisan bread from the store, or .40 cents for a similar - but tastier - bread made at home) 

Best of all, these recipes are easy and delicious! All of the breads are freezer-friendly IF you have leftovers - but I'll bet you won't ; )

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