Western Iowa (Knows How to Party)

Hey there, ladies and gents. Happy Labor Day to you and yours! I’ve been having a lovely weekend. September is my favorite month (largely because it marks the beginning of cardigan season), and so far September 2011 has been marvelous. Several reasons why:

1. That new Beyonce song, “Love on Top.” It makes me want to put in a side ponytail and go rollerskating. And–did you see her performance at the VMAs? I need to know where I can get one of those sequined business suits for my eventual debut in the workplace.

2. On Friday, I went on a little getaway with two college friends to Denison, Iowa (home to the world’s largest collection of Donna Reed memorabilia, in case you were wondering). I met up with my friend Leslie in Jefferson, my hometown, and we cruised the rest of the way through the cornfields together.

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Our friend Heather met up with us in Denison, and we headed to our home for the weekend–an adorable little B&B with a really pretty view.

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If you happen to find yourself in need of lodging in Denison, be sure to check out this rural gem. It was a great deal and we had a wonderful time chatting with the owner, Clarice, and the other guests, two European fellows in town on some sort of farm-y business. Clarice told us all kinds of her cooking secrets, many of which involved adding mayonnaise to things, and we discussed our mutual love of cookbooks published by churches and small town women’s organizations.

3. While in Denison, I sang for my old roommate LeAnn’s wedding, and Leslie and Heather were the personal attendants. It was a beautiful ceremony and the reception was a grand time!

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4. On the way back from the wedding, Leslie and I stopped in Jefferson and I gave her a brief tour of the most important sites from my formative years. The tour included lunch at the ever-popular Uptown Cafe (where, for future reference, “veggie burger” = beef patty topped with pickle slices), and meeting many of my magnificent relatives.

5. I made cookie dough balls from the new Peas and Thank You cookbook to take along on our girls’ weekend (you know, for late nights talking about boys and braiding each other’s hair).

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If you have never made these, you should do so very soon. Each day that you don’t, you are doing a disservice to yourself and every cookie-loving individual in your inner circle. Here’s the recipe, now get to work!

A word about upcoming events before I sign off: We’re supposed to get the results of the bar exam sometime next week. My mom inquired today as to whether I want “the pink Andre or the regular champagne-flavored Andre” for purposes of celebrating what she clearly assumes will be good news. (She is such a champion.) So–if I do pass, you can look forward to a recipe featuring my favorite sparkling beverage. If I do not pass, I will probably take a short blogging vacation to, ummm, reflect on my life choices (i.e. cry and eat multiple sleeves of Thin Mints). Only time will tell. Until next time, folks–have a great week!

Lawyers, Plums, and Honey

THE BAR EXAM IS OVER! THE BAR EXAM IS OVER! (UNLESS I DIDN’T PASS BUT WE WON’T THINK ABOUT THAT RIGHT NOW.)

Sorry, I’ve been doing a lot of practice questions recently, and I found that when I would read these questions my brain liked to speak in all caps. (For example, “YOU ARE ESTOPPED FROM MAKING THAT CLAIM, JERKFACE” or “HEY DETECTIVE STABLER, THAT’S A @#$%^&* CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION, ARE THERE SOME WARNINGS YOU’D LIKE TO GIVE FIRST?”) It might take me awhile to return to normal. You know, as normal as I ever was.

In anticipation of my triumphant return to this cozy little virtual kitchen, I conjured up a cake recipe one night shortly before the exam when I probably should have been studying. It’s an upside-down cake (to match my priorities). I love upside-down cakes because there’s a big “ta-DAH!” at the end when you turn them out of the pan. And couldn’t life always use a little bit more “ta-DAH”?

This cake would be vegan but for the honey, because I guess honey isn’t vegan, right? You could always replace the honey with sugar, maple syrup, agave, or some combination. I’ve just been wanting some honey-flavored cake ever since I saw a commercial for that new Winnie the Pooh movie. I took the recipe for the bottom part pretty much verbatim from Eat, Drink, and be Vegan, which is magnificent, FYI. There is a whole hummus chapter. A whole chapter!

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(File photo. I like to pose with all my favorite cookbooks.)

Here’s the bottom, soon to be the top:

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I greased the pan, traced and cut a circle of parchment paper to line it, and greased the paper for easy removal and minimal fruit-stickage. Once the plums, sugar, and almonds are in place, mix up your batter, pour it carefully over the fruit so as to not disturb your pretty arrangement, and get that business in the oven!

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When you’re ready to turn it out, get some heavy-duty oven mitts and a pretty plate. Put the plate on top of the pan, flip, and carefully peel off the parchment paper.

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Lovely! AAAAAAAHHHH THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN STUDYING. The recipe is below. Have a glorious weekend…..and congrats to all of you that just survived the bar (and those of you in other states that are aaaaaalmost done)!

Plum Upside-Down Cake (serves about eight)

  • 2 plums, sliced into wedges (I would err on the side of under-ripe, since you’ll be baking them)
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar (or a little less)
  • 1/4 c. slivered almonds
  • 1 c. flour (I used all-purpose, but I bet you could use whole wheat pastry flour for a more wholesome, breakfast-y result)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 c. almond milk
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan, line it with parchment paper, and grease the paper as well. (Better safe than sorry, I say.) Arrange the plum slices in the bottom of the pan, and sprinkle with the almonds and brown sugar. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a larger bowl, whisk together the almond milk, honey, vanilla, oil, and lemon juice. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and whisk until smooth. Pour the cake batter on top of the plums, and tilt the pan a little bit to distribute evenly. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes (mine got a little toasty-looking on top so I draped a piece of foil over it for the last 10 or so). Let the cake cool for 5-10 minutes, run a knife around the edges to loosen it, turn it out onto a plate, and peel off the parchment paper. Mine was still a little gooey in the middle, but in a good sort of way.

Things that are crunchy

….because it’s crrrrrrrrunchtime. Welcome to my super-secret bar exam study bunker–I’m very excited to see you.

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This is the boardroom at my dad’s office, and I’m just going to move in until the exam (which is July 26 and 27, in case you’d like to mark that down on your calendar and say a quick prayer to your higher power of choice on my behalf). I think I might spruce up the window treatments, feng shui the furniture, build a pillow fort under the table for naps, etc.

I’ve been relying on chips and rice crispie bars for learning fuel. BUT WAIT! Not just ANY chips and rice crispie bars! First, when I’m in the mood for salty, I’ve been heavily into kale chips.

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Kale chips are the third best thing I have discovered since I started reading healthy food blogs (the best is green smoothies and the second is banana soft serve, in case you were wondering). I don’t have a real recipe for them–I just spread out a layer of kale on a sheet pan, drizzle it with a little sauce of some sort or a smidge of olive oil and seasonings, zhooge it around with my hands (I’m not sure how to properly spell the word I mean to use there), and bake for about 20 minutes at 375. Type “kale chips” into the google for many, many pages that will have far more detailed and helpful instructions. My point here is only that it’s much better to realize you just stress-ate your way through a giant pile of crispy kale than it is to realize you just stress-ate your way through a pile of deep-fat fried white potatoes.

And now–an easy breezy recipe for some rice crispie bars that are slightly more grown-up than the ones from the recipe on the side of the cereal box. You know it has to be easy, because my brain can’t handle anything with a lot of steps these days. Just put your dry stuff in a bowl. Heat up the other stuff in a saucepan until melted and pour it on the dry stuff. Stir, mush into a pan, let it set up for awhile, eat.

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Bar Exam Crispie Bars (makes about 12)

  • 2 c. crispy rice cereal
  • 1 c. oats
  • 1/4 c. shredded coconut
  • 3/4 c. chocolate chips
  • 1/2 c. brown rice syrup
  • 1/2 c. peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp Earth Balance or butter

Grease an 8×8 square pan or line it with parchment paper. Mix the cereal, oats, coconut, and chocolate chips in a large bowl. Heat the peanut butter, brown rice syrup, and Earth Balance in a small sauce pan over medium low heat just until everything is melted and combined. Pour over the cereal mixture and stir until everything is coated. Press into the 8×8 pan.

And now, dear friends, I must leave you until this test is over. But come back in August–it’ll be exciting, I promise! The blog will have its first birthday, and I won’t have to study anymoooooore! (We hope.)

“Guess what? I have flaws.”

What are they? Well, to quote Michael Scott, “I sing in the shower. Sometimes I spend too much time volunteering. Occasionally I’ll hit somebody with my car.”

(To clarify, I have never actually hit someone with my car, and if I had I would have totally disclosed that on my bar application.)

Also, I am bad at math, I always forget my parents’ anniversary, and once I took the introductory personality inventory on eHarmony and they told me I was un-matchable. (Really! Some follow-up googling revealed this interesting explanation. Ouch.)

Finally, the flaw that is pertinent here: I can’t leave “good enough” alone when it comes to recipes. My mom and I have both had success with these strawberry jelly surprise muffins from Daily Garnish. But today I decided to try making them with brown rice syrup instead of sugar, as well as a few other tweaks. It was a noble goal, but the execution was poor. I show you these pictures to dispel the myth that just because I write this blog I am some kind of wizard in the kitchen. Sometimes things go wrong, and, for example, I end up taking a partially used bottle of wine to a potluck instead of the fruit crisp I had planned because said fruit crisp looks absolutely disgusting. Anyway, back to the muffins. Things started off well…

(Dry ingredients, flax egg, wet ingredients, and the strawberry jelly with a little chopped rhubarb mixed in for pizazz.) I spooned in the batter, filling, and more batter to top them off…

…and then baked. And then…MUFFIN DISASTER.

That is a decapitated muffin, in case you couldn’t tell. These did not hold together at all, and the tops were way too crunchy.

In conclusion, just try the recipe linked above. It’s fine just as it is. And I AM TOO, eHARMONY.

Dam to Dam + Pleasantville Pig Out

Today was one for the ages, folks. I am exhausted. But before I collapse, a recap:

My alarm went off at 4:25 this morning (which really made me mad, because I was having a dream in which I inexplicably knew how to tap dance flawlessly). My dad drove my mom and I downtown so we could board a bus to the Saylorville Dam, the starting point for the Dam to Dam 20K. I did not have a great feeling about this race from the start, because I thought our numbers were kind of ominous:

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Those were not great years in American history, you know? But anyway, we both finished…nobody fainted, threw up, tripped over their own feet, etc. I did not finish with any great speed, but, unlike the last time I ran this race, I did cross the finish line before they ran out of participant medals! Progress. When we came home, I immediately collapsed on the floor, until my mom made me get up and shower. Because there was more to do!

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After I drank my weight in Gatorade, we made our way to Pleasantville, IA, for the Pleasantville Pig Out Cook-off, dressed in our official barbecue team t-shirts.

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I named the team–it is an homage to my parents’ short-lived 1970s musical venture, the Tall Dog Band. They were all the rage in rural west-central Iowa, as I understand it, but eventually decided to focus on their less glamorous but more fulfilling jobs as educators. (Also–regarding the Homer Simpson quote–I would be your friend if you brought me a salad, just so you know. I happen to love salad.)

Things were hopping at the Tall Dog BBQ tent when we arrived, and we were immediately called into action to help serve samples to the masses. Today’s offerings: smoked pork loin with a maple chipotle glaze, smoked chicken thighs with a prosciutto, shallot, and mushroom stuffing, and gator fritters. (My dad ordered alligator meat online for the occasion. This guy plays to win.)

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It was so much fun…..I love feeding people. And clearly, I come by that naturally. I had a great time hanging out with my whole family….including (CELEBRITY SIGHTING!) my Grandpa Elmer and my Grandma Neva, who made the trip all the way from Jefferson, my hometown.

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Once we ran out of samples and judging was finished, my mom and I ducked into Smokey Row, an adorable coffee shop on the town square, for a veggie sandwich. I also ate a cookie the size of my face, because, you know, I’m an endurance athlete and I needed to replenish my carbs. Then I wandered around the festival a bit–it was fantastic! Classic car show, hot-dog eating contest, bags tournament, an appearance by the Iowa State Fair Queen–it was everything a small-town festival should be.

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Once votes were tabulated, we gathered for the results in front of the Pleasantville Grocery. Everyone was on pins and needles. (Well, OK, not everyone.)

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They announced second-prize winners in each of the four categories (beef, poultry, pork, and miscellaneous) first. No Tall Dog Barbecue. Then, they announced first prize winners in each category. Again, no Tall Dog Barbecue! Finally…..they announced the overall judges’ choice award, and IT WAS US! The grand prize was a whole processed hog. This prize, in and of itself, did not particularly excite me, given my vegetarianism, but let’s be honest, folks–I like winning things. And after a day of working hard and slinging samples in the heat, I think my dad and brother deserved some accolades :) Here they are before judging (with their serious BBQ faces on) and after the big win:

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Many thanks to the judges for volunteering their time and to Brandon Bingham, festival organizer extraordinnaire! It was a great event.

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Have a lovely Sunday, friends! I need to learn some laws :(

Commencement, merriment, and avocados

Hey look—we got our law degrees!

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Somehow, in between all the cookie baking and general tomfoolery that made these past three years so wonderful, I got the job done.  And so did all of my brilliant, wonderful, hilarious classmates that I already miss like crazy now that I am moved out of my apartment and back in Des Moines, where I’ll be for the summer while studying for the bar exam.

I am excited about whatever will come next…..but I’m also a little sad.  I have always loved being a student, and law school was just so much fun.  Fortunately, we had all kinds of family over to my parents’ house tonight for a graduation barbecue, so I couldn’t spend too much time being nostalgic.  There was food prep to be done!  My brother who lives in Colorado is here, as is my cousin who lives in Florida, so it was an extra-special family fiesta.

My parents made lots and lots of delicious food, but my favorite was a new dish that I have dubbed “Avocados de los Abogados.”  (Two semesters of Spanish, thankyouverymuch.)  This is essentially a zippy little corn salad that you can throw together the day before, stuffed inside half of a lightly grilled avocado.  Yesterday, my dad grilled two ears of corn.  It was not grilling weather, but we’re brave.

Then he sliced the corn off the ears and mixed up the salad, while I took photos and offered moral support.

Tonight, while grilling various meat-stuffs for the carnivorous family members, he grilled the avocados for just long enough to soften them a bit and get those sexy grill marks.  Then I filled them with the corn salad, drizzled a little lime juice over the whole situation, and took this glamour shot:

We used 6 avocados, and the following ingredients for the corn salad (all measurements except the corn approximate):

  • 2 ears of grilled sweet corn
  • 1 c. quartered grape tomatoes
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • pinch of cayenne pepper or chipotle powder
  • lime juice, squeezed over the filled avocado halves before serving

Tomorrow I am checking out of my cozy little Iowa City apartment.  It was a happy home for three years and I will miss it…..but I comfort myself with the thought that wherever I move next will have more counter space (to accommodate the KitchenAid stand mixer I dream of buying when someone actually hires me to do some lawyering).

Have a good week, everybody!  And—if you happen to be a member of the IA Law class of 2011…..CONGRATS!

Finals doomsday diet

Hello there.  I am in the midst of preparing for my last three final exams.  Allow me to share with you a few of my favorite study mini-meals, and how to prepare them.

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Gummy vitamins: Unscrew cap.  Remove one vitamin.  Chew, swallow.  Will remind you of a simpler time when your teachers returned your tests promptly, with stickers on them.

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Otter pops: Remove from freezer.  Detach favorite color (I prefer the “Sir Isaac Lime”—puts me in a scholarly frame of mind).  Open with scissors.  Eat quickly, before you can register the fact that they taste like….chemicals.

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Frozen peas: Remove from freezer when you realize you haven’t eaten a vegetable in awhile.  Do not bother to thaw.  Also great for icing injuries (e.g. bumps on head from banging it against the wall or table).

I promise that soon I will go to the grocery store, take these tests, stop wearing the same holey t-shirt every single day, GRADUATE, and make a triumphant return to cooking real food.  But now, I return to my ongoing Celebration of Learning.  See you on the other side, friends!

Ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry prom

I’m all tuckered out from Law Prom last night.  But, there are people out there that need baked goods, and when I bake things that turn out well I feel the need to share them with you….so….look at these!

OMGdelicious!  But first—prom!  Yesterday was what we’ll call a “break” from the 21-day cleanse.  There is nothing “cleansing” about bargain basement sparkling wine from a red Solo cup.  Or 2:00 a.m. pizza with macaroni and cheese on top.

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However, I think we could say that fun and frivolity is…mentally cleansing.  So, I maintain that the day was, in fact, yet another step in my journey to health and vibrancy.

Today I made scones for a delivery later this week.  And, because the recipe worked so well (and because sometimes I’m lazy), I’m just going to give you the link and then tell you how I adapted the recipe instead of writing it all out.

Why say things over again when Ina has already said them so well?

Instead of orange-cranberry, I decided to make these cherry-almond.  Here’s all you need to know about scones: keep the butter cold, people!  Cold butter = flakiness = deliciousness.  Get everything ready to go before you take the butter out of the fridge and dice it up to put it in the dough.  If you want to be really on the ball, put your flour in the freezer ahead of time.

Roll, cut, egg wash, and get ‘em in the oven as fast as you can.  Time is of the essence!

(I don’t have a 3-inch round biscuit cutter like Ina suggests, so I used a cherry pie filling can.  Always on-theme around here.)

Here are the changes I made to the original recipe linked above:

  • Omitted the orange zest
  • Replaced the dried cranberries with dried cherries
  • Omitted the orange juice
  • Added 1/2 c. sliced almonds to the dough with the dried cherries
  • Added 1/2 tsp almond extract to the heavy cream and eggs before adding them to the dough

I’m going to freeze these and deliver them to someone later this week, but before I do I’ll let them thaw and glaze them with a mixture of almond milk, confectioner’s sugar, and almond extract. Then I’ll sprinkle each one with more sliced almonds, because baked goods need garnishes (much like cocktail dresses need accessories).

I hope you all have a marvelous week!

Chili for Justice

Today was the annual Equal Justice Foundation Chili Cook-off at my home-away-from-home, the Boyd Law Building.  Because I am an ardent supporter of law students doing public interest work, as well as any event that allows me to bring a kitchen appliance to school, I made a batch of chili.

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Alas, it was not the winning entry, but it’s still good, I promise!  See—these ladies thought so:

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There was some excellent competition–check out this line-up:

When looking for a recipe to start from, I went straight to the ultimate online emporium of deliciousness, the Whole Foods website.  I used one of their veggie chili recipes for inspiration, but modified it because it involved eggplant, and I thought eggplant in chili sounded a little sketchy.  I used acorn squash instead—roasted at 400 for about 30 minutes.

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I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, put a bit of water in the bottom of the pan, and covered with foil before roasting.  Because that’s what my mom does, and that’s a good enough reason for anything, I think.

Saute  the onion, garlic, corn kernels, and jalapeno in a tablespoon or so of olive oil for about 5 minutes, and then add the spices.

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Then add the beans, tomatoes, and veggie stock and simmer until your chili intuition tells you you’re on the home stretch.  (I’d say I let it go for about 20 minutes.)  Add the acorn squash (just scrape it out of the skin and break it up in the chili as you stir) for the last 5-10 minutes of cooking.  Finally, add the lime zest and juice just before serving and stir.

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Acorn Chili

  • 1 c. frozen corn kernels, defrosted
  • 1 acorn squash, cut in half, seeds scraped out, and roasted until tender
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 of a large onion, diced (or one small)
  • 1/2 jalapeno pepper, diced (seeds and ribs included for spice)
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 15 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 15 oz. can tomatoes (the fire-roasted kind are the best, I think)
  • 2 cups veggie stock/broth (add more towards the end if you’d like thinner chili)
  • zest and juice of one lime

Saute the onion, corn kernels, minced garlic, and jalapeno until softened and fragrant (5 minutes or so).  Add the spices and stir.  Next, add the beans, tomatoes, and veggie stock and simmer for 20-25 minutes.  Scoop the flesh of the roasted acorn squash into the chili and simmer for another 10 minutes, breaking up the squash as you stir.  Add the lime zest and juice just before serving.

In defense of the coconut

I know there are a lot of coconut haters out there.  That’s understandable, if the only coconut you’re considering is the cloying, flaky stuff inside the chocolate you just bit into hoping it would be a caramel one.  That stuff isn’t very good, I’ll admit, but the coconut has so much more to offer!  Just this week, my friends, I sauteed with it, hydrated with it, and used it to make my hair really shiny.  Allow me to explain….

1) Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is one of my favorite ingredients.  You can use it in crock-pot stews like I did here, lettuce wraps like so, or in this flan recipe that I have made a million times.  You can use it, along with almond milk, to make lactose-free, vegan ice cream!  (I plan to investigate this ice cream thing further and promise to report back when I come up with a winner of a recipe.)  I usually buy the “A Taste of Thai” brand, and almost always go for the light version (except when I make the flan, because that’s a Paula Deen recipe, and I feel that buying “light” anything doesn’t jive with Paula Deen recipes).

2) Coconut Water

I first learned about this nifty product when I went to a hot yoga class and passed out within the first 15 minutes. (Lesson: when they say “come to class hydrated” they really mean it.)  When I regained consciousness, a very nice yogi ushered me out into the cooler lobby and gave me a coconut water to drink.  I was feeling better in no time.  Since then, I’ve been trying to keep a few of these in my fridge for after really sweaty workouts.  Coconut water is a natural source of electrolytes and potassium–think of it as Mother Nature’s Gatorade–and it’s really refreshing.  Bonus: if you chug a box of it in the wee hours of the morning after a few adult beverages, your odds of waking up in Hangover City will be slim to none.  See–I told you the coconut is your friend!

3) Coconut Oil

This is my latest and greatest coconut find.  You can use it in lieu of other forms of fat in baked goods, or sautee vegetables with it.  It’s good for you because it creates fewer harmful byproducts (e.g. carcinogens and other science-y stuff I don’t really understand) when exposed to heat.

You can also use coconut oil as an all-natural moisturzer, lotion, lip balm, and conditioner.  I’m trying to use more natural, chemical-free cosmetics these days, so this was a good find.  The other day, before I went to the gym, I worked a bunch of it into my hair, left it on while I ran, and washed it out afterwards.  My fellow gym-goers now probably think I’m a total greaseball, but I don’t really care because my hair is super soft and shiny.  I didn’t take before-and-after hair shininess comparison photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

No actual recipes this week…I apologize.  I made some soup and some brownies out of chickpeas (I don’t know where these ideas come from…), but nothing was quite good enough to share with you lovely people.  I’ll try to get my act together for next time.  Happy weekend!