Unexpected Conversions

In the introduction to Beginning to Pray Bloom tells a story of his own conversion to Christianity.

“I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet of  Galilee was true, and the Centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God.’”

He goes on to say “. . . the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event in history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact.”

In many ways I share this story.  Like Bloom, the liturgical seasons played a role in my conversion. He was brought to a talk about Christ during the season of Lent (the season a few weeks before Easter). For me it was during Holy Week (the week of Easter).  That season, a time of preparation for the church, was for me, a time of preparation for my own change of heart.

My parents divorced while I was a teenager and my world view began shifting. I no longer relied on anything that I had been raised to believe. My thoughts were consumed with skepticism and doubts.  At the same time, I had good friends who were concerned about my spirit.  They were praying for me and bringing me to their church services. But I was distrustful of both of the Orthodox faith I had been raised with and the evangelical teaching I was now coming into contact with.

Seeking to explore all this more I began to read the Gospel of Luke.  I was struck first by how much of what I had heard in both churches was there, written down, 2,000 years earlier. And also with how powerful I found it. Something was stirring in my spirit, though at the time I was only reading out of interest and did not at all desire to be converted.

Alone in my room one Thursday afternoon, a totally ordinary day, I was struck with a sense that I wasn’t alone. In fact I was certain that God was there. I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff. To jump was to fearfully accept God. To decline was to stay on the cliff, to stagnate and die. It didn’t feel like I a choice anymore than it is a choice to breathe. I had to jump.

That night I went to my Orthodox church, and as they always do on the Thursday before Easter, they read the stories that lead up to Christ being crucified.  I was teary eyed and trembling. The story had become real. Now I was part of it.

It has stayed real. In all my doubts I return to this moment. An encounter that I can’t explain but that changed completely the trajectory of my life.

It is at the same time comforting yet uncomfortable to make decisions everyday based on an experience and an understanding of the world that I can’t explain.  But like Bloom says, I am certain that something happened that day and is still happening in me. It is undeniable and so for me Christ in me in undeniable.

Croutons (aka how to turn stale bread into an irresistible treat)

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Once I started baking my own bread I began to get very sentimental about the slice or two that got stale before it was eaten.  I would try my best to use it up, which resulted in a freezer full of French Toast pieces that still haven’t been eaten.

Recently I was making a family recipe for Italian Wedding Soup (recipe to come) which is our traditional meal for Christmas eve.  As I was putting the finishing touches on I remembered that my aunt would always serve it with homemade croutons.

An hour before dinner was to be served I called my Yiayia to get the recipe and twenty five minutes later the croutons were done. In fact they smelled so good and were so tasty that half of them were eaten up by family walking through the kitchen before I could serve them.

I find store bought croutons to be too hard and crumbly.  When you make your own you control the texture.  You can take them out of the oven while they are still a little chewy (my favorite) or you can bake them until they are good and crunchy (my husbands preference).  Croutons hot from the oven smell and taste great. They are a favorite finger food of my daughter and we often take them with us as a snack in place of crackers or other savory snacks.  When served along with a bowl of olives and a few cheese slices they can make for a quick and delicious appetizer. And they can turn a simple soup into a heartier meal.  All this with an end of bread that was about to be thrown away.

So here is what you do according to my Yiayia.

Start with bread. Here I have several different types of bread, and baked them all together.  I tried left over beer bread, sandwich bread and a light wheat bread that I make. This was sort of an experiment for me and if it is your first time you may want to start with one kind of bread as the cook time can vary depending on the bread that yo start with.

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Set oven to 400 degrees.

Slice and dice the bread. Keep in mind that smaller croutons will bake faster and get crunchier more quickly.  Larger ones will stay chewy longer and take longer to bake.

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Season.  I usually use a garlic powder and Italian seasoning. I’ve also added grated Romano Cheese. I season pretty heavily (as in I hand my daughter the bottle and let her shake and pour for a few minutes).  You can make them as flavorful or as mild as you like and there is a big range of what tastes good here so experiment to see what tastes good.

Pour seasoning over diced bread and mix with a spoon or with your hands.

Melt butter. You can use olive oil alone but I usually start with butter and then add some olive oil if they still feel dry.

Recipes I get from my Yiayia are always a bit vague.  When I asked her how much oil or butter to add she says simply “You just go by the feel.” And though this is a bit intimidating,  I followed her advice and was able to do this successfully. So I’ll give the same advice to you. Slowly pour butter or oil over diced bread. Stir with a spoon or with your hands. You want the bread to feel coated with butter or oil but not soaking. Sort of like buttering popcorn.  For this batch I used a whole stick of butter plus a few splashes of olive oil.  Experiment to see what you like.

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Spread evenly on parchment and bake. I stir and turn them two or three times throughout baking. This large batch took about 40 minutes, smaller batches with smaller croutons will take less time.  Test one every few minutes and see if you are happy with the texture, if you want them crunchier then keep baking.

 

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Remove them from the oven, let cool a minute so you don’t burn your fingers and then enjoy.

Of the varieties I made here the beer bread croutons turned out chewy with a great texture. The wheat bread was also good with a heartier and crunchier result.  The sandwich bread in this batch was quite thin, I over cooked it and it became too dry. The lesson here was, try to keep your croutons equal in size or some will be over done.

 

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If for some reason you don’t use them all up smash or grind them and keep as bread crumbs.

 

Baked Croutons

Ingredients:

Bread

Olive Oil or Butter (melted)

Seasoning (Italian Seasoning, garlic powder, grated cheese, or anything else you like)

Directions:

1. Set oven to 400 degrees.

2. Dice bread into crouton size of your choice.

3. Mix in seasoning

4. Stir in melted butter or oil until coated.

5. Bake on parchment paper until desired texture usually between 20-40 minutes.

6. Cool and enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Seed Catalog

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I ordered a couple seed catalogs recently to get ready for the upcoming growing season on the farm. My first one arrived the other day from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. The catalog, from rareseeds.com, specializes in heirloom seeds (no GMO or hybrids). In the past couple of years I’ve had a summer garden and planted a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes but have always wanted to try more with time and space being my main two obstacles. I’m really excited to be able to try more plants and varieties. I love to cook and try new things so heirloom plants are particularly of interest to me. They generally are more colorful and flavorful than conventional plants. Plus, as the name suggests they have been passed down from generation to generation and are a link to the past. I love that the plants I’m eating or growing have been around for hundreds of years and been circulating through a community of growers for generations. I recently learned that my husband’s grandfather has a jar full of bean seeds he’s been saving from his father. Maybe I can convince him to grow them this year! With heirloom seeds you can also be sure that the plant is exactly how nature intended it to look and taste because these plants are open-pollinated (more on that below). Looking through my seed catalog at the uniquely colored tomatoes and watermelons, I can’t help but think about how creative, artistic and loving God is to give us such variety. I’m excited to see and share what I learn about the order God designed in regards to nature by living off the land and taking a bigger part in how I’m feeding my family.

Seed Catalog_Tomatoes

Below is a little crash course about seeds. I’m learning too and will hopefully be able to pass along more info.

Heirloom Seeds: An heirloom seed is produced by open-pollination (birds, insects, wind, etc). They are considered “true” because their seeds will produce the same plants as their parent plants. Heirlooms are usually a little less consistent but generally offer more flavor and variety. The plants can adapt over time to grow and thrive in a specific climate or soil. They then can become resistant to local pests or extreme temperatures. Generally to be considered an heirloom the variety must be older than 50 years old.

Hybrid Seeds: Hybrid plants are grown when two different but similar plants are cross-pollinated to make a new plant variety. Farmers and gardeners have been doing this for thousands of years to make plants that may have better yields, are more tolerant to adverse conditions, or other desirable characteristics. There is nothing too sketchy here but the biggest downfall is that you cannot replant the seeds from your plants. The new plant will not “reproduce true” and will not have the same desired traits as the original hybrid plants. This makes gardeners reliant on seed companies to get new seeds every growing season.

GMO or Genetically Modified Organism: This is any organism (plant or animal) whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered by adding new favorable traits and removing unfavorable ones from a food. An example would be a tomato that can be harvested from the field but won’t ripen until a later time. Most GMO plants are “cash crops” like corn, soybean and canola plants. They are engineered for insect resistance, fungal resistance, changed nutritional content, and improved taste and storage. These seeds make plants that would never show up in nature without humans interfering with their genes.

Bottom Line: GMO = BAD NEWS. Hybrid = it depends. Main problem is reliance on seed companies because you cannot reuse your seeds from harvested plants. Heirloom = better plant diversity and flavor. Keeps rare plants in circulation. Can be passed down seeds to next generation.

Seed Catalog_Watermelon  Seed Catalog_Corn

As I’m flipping through the catalogs I’m itching for the weather to warm up and get planting but unfortunately I’ve promised myself that for our first growing season on the farm not to do anything new but just observe and be a part of what is already happening. Hopefully I can stick to it.

Happy Gardening!

Marinated Beets

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As a kid beets were one of the only foods I didn’t eat. My family was Greek and Italian and there were lots of other cultural pockets in Canton,  Ohio, a mid-sized, industrial town outside of Cleveland, where I grew up.  My mom would often send me to school with a lunch box filled with domathes (stuffed grape leaves), Feta Cheese and other strong smelling, strange looking foods. I didn’t get many offers to trade at lunch time, but I  did have the opportunity to develop a palate for a wide variety of foods.

However, my mom didn’t like beets. Because she seemed to like everything else, including liver (something I still can’t get into), I assumed they must be pretty nasty.

I actually had my first one while traveling. I was in India, working on a public health project in graduate school.  I was served beets, fresh from the garden, and they were delicious.  Of course, I assumed it was a fluke. Maybe because I was out of the country? I figured there was no way this was something that anyone didn’t like and that the ones in the US must be totally different.

After another year or two went by I began to get curious about beets again.  They were always so bright red sitting there at the salad bar. I started sampling them and to my surprise, every time, they were good.

One day Michael’s brother (he is often the inspiration for my cooking endeavors) brings over a jar of pickled beets. He says it is a new favorite of his. Admittedly, even after all my recent good experiences, I was still skeptical and so was my husband.

But he was right. They were great.

He instructed me on how to roast them and the rest is history. I make this recipe  just about every week and there is almost always a dish of marinated beets in my fridge.
This is one of the easiest and most versatile dishes. It keeps for at least a week in the fridge and goes with everything. My family’s favorite is on fish tacos or other Mexican food. But it makes a great side with a roast and other root veggies, on top of a salad, really with anything.

Beets have a beautiful color that brings energy and pizazz to any plate.  You can eat the greens. You can use them to dye your clothes or lipstick. They are really good for you with lots of vitamins like  folate, manganese, potassium and high in fiber.  (Plus they often turn your pee pink, which is a great incentive to get your three year old to eat up, my daughter loves to check the potty after eating them!)  Beets can be grown year round, so getting fresh in season beets is much easier than almost any other vegetable.

First buy some beets, preferably, fresh and organic. I usually do 2-3 large beets or 5-6 small ones at a time.  There are all sorts of varieties (red, Chiogga, golden and white) but keep in mind that red ones will dye the lighter beets if you mix them together.

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Trim the greens to about 1/2 inch from the beet and trim the little root tip off.  Then wash, until you remove the dirt.

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There are several different ways you can cook the beets. I sprinkle my beets with salt and rub with olive oil. Then wrap each in foil.

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Place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour. You will probably need less time for smaller beets and often up to an hour and a half for larger ones.

Check by stabbing one with a sharp knife ( I just go straight through the foil rather than trying to unwrap). When they are soft and the beet is pierced easily all the way through, it is done.

Remove beets from oven and let cool.

I usually start this recipe early in the day, or the day before I plan on eating them so there is plenty of time for them to cool. But in a pinch you can carefully unwrap them to speed cooling.

Once cool, unwrap. Then peel with a pairing knife. The skins should be soft now and almost slip off.

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Now cut them up.  Beets have a great texture, they are soft but won’t crumble which makes them very easy to cut. I usually just dice them, but wedges look nice too.

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Place them in a bowl or serving dish and add a sprinkle of salt and a few splashes of either red wine or apple cider vinegar.

That is it.

These are great served warm, at room temperature or cold.

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There are lots of variations you can try. I often chop a tablespoon or two of onion to add a crunch.  You can also add herbs or ginger. I have read that Walnut oil is really good with beets, though I have never tried it.  Also, most other recipes call for olive oil, to be added a few minutes after you add the vinegar (if added too soon they don’t absorb the vinegar flavor as well).  I skip this step because I usually keep this in the fridge for a week at a time and I don’t like how the oil solidifies.

Enjoy!
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Marinated Beets

5-6 small beets or 2-3 large beets
olive oil
salt
apple cider or red wine vinegar

1. Set oven to 400
2. Trim the root and leaves if they are still on your beet
3. Rinse well
4. Rub beets with a splash of olive oil and a dash of salt
5. Wrap each beet in foil and place on a baking sheet
6. Bake until soft usually 45 minutes for small beets, 60-90 minutes for large ones, test by poking through the foil with a sharp knife, if soft it is done.
7. Remove from oven and let cool
8. Once cool unwrap beet and peel.
9. Chop beet
10. Toss with vinegar and a dash of salt.
11. Serve warm or refrigerate