Food that makes you hungry

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was strongly emphasized. We did some obsessive calculations to make sure our menus do not contain more than 30% of calories from fat (this may not seem very low, but it is when you consider that fat contains twice more calories, per weight unit, than protein or carbohydrates). Cholesterol was to be feared, hated and avoided at all costs: thus, low-fat meat and dairy products, yolk-less omelettes, and not a word about cream and butter.

On the other hand, there was a surprisingly lenient attitude towards sugar and refined carbohydrates, and in general the outlook on food was very skeletal, taking into account primarily the basic units of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The underlying message was that it’s acceptable to eat an overprocessed, nutrient-deficient diet and compensate for it with supplements and artificially enriched foods. Some of our professors went even as far as to say that in the modern world, it’s virtually “impossible” to get all the essential nutrients without a multivitamin supplement.

My attitude is vastly different today, years after I first came across Nourishing Traditions and other literature that emphasized the deficiencies of modern nutrition. I am now an advocate for wholesome foods prepared in the home kitchen from basic natural ingredients and consumed in their whole, unrefined state. I quit being a vegetarian, we eat a lot more animal fat than we used to, particularly more butter, and in about five or six years since starting this dietary change, we haven’t seen an increase in either weight or cholesterol levels.

The low-fat dietary trend does seem to be sputtering out in the professional circles, but decades of propaganda aren’t so easy to ignore. A lot of people are still wary of eggs and think margarine is superior to butter because it doesn’t contain cholesterol. On the other hand, there is little discussion of how to avoid refined sugar, and the prevalent opinion is that a bit of indulgence in that quarter is harmless unless you are a diabetic. What people don’t seem to realize is that type 2 diabetes doesn’t just spring out of the blue; it takes years of unhealthy eating and insulin imbalance to get there, and if you indulge in sugar, you are at risk.

Reading Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, made me acknowledge two important facts: one, sugar really is addictive, and two, I’m one of the addicts.

For many, many people, eating one square of chocolate, one cookie or one scoop of ice-cream isn’t enough. They want more and more, until they feel sick. There are two reasons for this. The first is that eating sugar causes an upsurge of insulin, which makes sugar enter the cells quickly: thus, the blood sugar level peaks and then quickly drops, making you want to eat more sugar. When your blood sugar is low, you feel hungry; sugary foods will never make you full and satisfied in a healthy, wholesome way.

The second reason is that sugar acts upon a reward center in the brain. “Normal” food acts upon it too, making us feel satisfied after a good meal, but sugary food has a more powerful effect. And when you get used to sugar, it gets more and more difficult to stimulate the reward center with normal food (just like in Narnia, when Edmund wants nothing but Turkish Delight after tasting the enchanted sweet). It takes a period of detox to rewire your brain and make it possible to appreciate and enjoy simple basic food again.

Sugar addiction is not of a kind to make you crouch in a dark alley, looking for a dealer. It isn’t about to send you into rehab or make the social workers take your children away. The stuff is waiting for you everywhere – at supermarket aisles, coffee shops, family dinners, children’s birthday parties. It looks innocent and inviting and is socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, if you spend hours thinking of and longing for the dessert you are going to eat, or battling your sweet cravings, that is addiction.

What I find really helpful is to have alternative “reward foods” around in place of sugar – fresh and dried fruit, unsweetened fruit leathers, nuts of all kinds, good cheese, very dark chocolate with no added sugar. These take away the emotional aspect of feeling deprived when you can’t have your favorite treats. I do hope that my husband will become, in time, as convicted about the issue of sugar and refined carbohydrates as I am, and that these unhealthy foods will disappear from our pantry shelves forever.

Because of early conditioning, I am probably going to continue fighting my sugar cravings for the rest of my life. But at least now I know what I’m up against, and also how important it is to win this battle. A chocolate bar is on one side of the scale. On the other side are my health, strength, well-being, energy and mood. Put this way, the choice really is obvious.

Foraging for edible goods

There’s an ongoing debate about whether growing your own food in your backyard is really profitable (in terms of money – there’s no doubt it’s healthy, educational and satisfying). If you are aiming for a productive vegetable garden that will reduce your grocery bill, it is important to stay focused on the goal, as with the prices of seeds/plants, potting soil and water, the scale really may tip.

Fortunately, no such considerations exist when it comes to foraging for wild-growing bounty – whether actually wild plants or domesticated species that grow in your area with little to no help from anyone. There’s no excuse not to pick up good food that is right there for the taking!

Every fall, our family gathers olives to pickle, from trees that had been once planted by someone but are now untended. There’s also a bounty of grapes, pomegranates, figs and carobs – all plants that grow well locally, require minimal water and care, and keep producing almost without effort once they are up and going. There are also old, productive pecan trees most people don’t bother with, because they like their pecans shelled and neatly packaged.

Figs are my favorites – they are easy to pick and process, delicious eaten fresh or made into jam or pie filling, and I love them dried, too, though I have not yet been able to gather enough for drying.

figs

Photo: the first figs of the season are ripe, and there are plenty more to come!

Furthermore, in many urban neighborhoods there are citrus trees planted for decorative purposes, which are actually insanely productive. Most people don’t bother picking those oranges and grapefruits because they somehow think the effort is beneath them or just not worth it. A year and a half ago, we spent a memorable morning picking miniature oranges. Though January, it was a warm day, and I was fagged soon – no wonder, as my son Israel was born a little more than 24 hours later! The oranges kept in the refrigerator for several weeks without spoiling, and they were still in perfectly good condition when I finally recovered from giving birth and found the time to make jam out of them.

Another local fruit to be picked around here for free is the prickly pear, an introduced species that has done so well in Israel it has become one of the symbols of the country. It grows practically everywhere, and its season is almost here now. Those who live in Western US and Mexico are surely familiar with it as well.

In every area of the world there is some wild food growing free for the taking, to be enjoyed by all who can appreciate the thrill of getting delicious goodies with very little effort: greens, fruit, nuts, berries, mushrooms. So why not pick up a basket and go exploring? Lots of fresh produce is waiting out there, all for free.

By the way… I am now on Earthineer. You can find me there as SmallFlocksMom. I’d love to connect with you! 

The secrets of soap

I had wanted to make soap for a long time, but was stopped by the mysterious ingredient called “lye”. I had no idea what it was or where to obtain it… until by pure chance, I discovered that lye is actually the caustic soda we always keep on hand to take care of severely clogged pipes.

We also had a bottle of olive+unspecified vegetable oil we once bought to light Hanukkah candles and discarded because it smoked. So it just sat for years on our pantry shelf, not fit for human consumption, lighting, or much of anything really. It was the perfect candidate for my soap-making attempt.

I started reading about soap-making and realized it’s a whole science/art, with all sorts of oil combinations with different properties, essential oils, etc. I decided to just do something basic for starters. I followed a very simple recipe, omitting the essential oil and using, instead of the different oils, the one I had on hand.

I’m far from figuring out all the intricacies of soap-making just yet. I didn’t use a scale. My measurements might not have been 100% accurate. My batch of soap never showed a proper “trace” and took forever to set. There was probably too much liquid. Nevertheless, the oil did turn into soap and I was thrilled, because I made something useful out of something useless.

soap.jpg

Above: soap cut into bars and set out to cure

These soap bars might not look very shapely, but I’m making good use of them for laundry. I cut off a piece of appropriate size and simply place it in a little mesh bag, which I then toss in with the load of clothes. It really works! It doesn’t have the potency of a commercial laundry detergent, but it’s fine for clothes that are slightly sweaty/dirty.

I intend to go on and learn more about making soap, and will keep you posted as I progress.

Chicks, seedlings and useful reading

Here is one of our newest chicks, hatched this week. Our current resident rooster is a Black Brahma, so we get a lot of black chicks with cute-looking feathered legs. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Black Brahma hen (I’d love to get one, so we can have pure-bred chicks), but in the meantime I’m hoping to get good birds from crossing the Black Brahma with our best hen, a mixed New Hampshire (I think). She’s a nice big brown hen and gives us plenty of big brown eggs. So hopefully I can get some pullets who will be beautiful, good-sized, and good layers.

brahmacross

Black Brahma cross chick held by Shira (7 years old)

seedlings

Above you can see a mixed tray of cherry tomato, pepper and melon seedlings. I realize it’s rather late in the season to have seedlings indoors, but I’m counting on the long, warm days we usually have well into October and even November. Either way, I have nothing to lose, right? The tomatoes, peppers and herbs we already have planted outside seem to be doing nicely. We’ll see how they fare and whether we get any produce by the end of the season. I can hardly wait.

In my spare time (ha ha) I’m catching up on a bit of useful reading. My current read is The Backyard Homestead, and I must say I’m greatly enjoying it. It has everything outlined in such a clear, straightforward way – gardening, raising small livestock, useful landscaping – and it really showed me that, rather than wish we had more land (which of course would be nice), we should instead work towards making the best of what we do have – and I know that, being creative, we can do much, much more.

When Children Fight: book review

When Children Fight, by Miriam Levi, was a very timely read for me this week. Sibling fights have been the perennial challenge in our house for a couple of years now; we have two girls, currently 7.5 and soon to be 6 who, as a friend of mine very aptly puts it, “will fight over dead air space”.

children-fight

“Do you imagine that nobody else’s kids fight the way yours do? “Hearing shrieks and screams, I stormed into the playroom ready to screech, ‘What’s going on here?!’ But stopped myself, remembering the lessons from Miriam’s workshop. Lo and behold – the next thing I heard was – silence!”

Don’t get me wrong, most days I really appreciate having two girls close together in age. It really simplifies things when doing school, crafts, or any special activities – most of the time they can do anything together (of course with expected age-appropriate differences). They also always have a playmate, which is especially important because in the area we currently live, there really aren’t very many girls close to their age, and as you know, not all children of the same age hit it off together.

The problem is, sometimes my two daughters don’t hit it off together either. There are few things more frustrating than a sudden episode of loud whining, screeching, name-calling, hitting, taunting, etc, especially when a baby or toddler is having a nap, or you are trying to get dinner done – and especially when, after digging in, you realize this fight is about some scrap of a chewed-on pencil, or because someone looked at someone not quite the right way.

First I’m ashamed of my children acting this way. Then I’m ashamed of myself for yelling.

Since we homeschool, sibling antagonism is exacerbated. Yes, pretty much all families with more than one child deal with sibling rivalry, not just the homeschooling ones, but because we are together so much more, problems can’t be brushed aside or misted over by lengthy breaks from each other. They must be dealt with, promptly and effectively.

So yes, you can imagine the title of Miriam’s book spoke right to me when I grabbed it from the library. I whizzed through it in two days – it’s a compact, practical, straightforward, easy-to-read Judaism-based guide to dealing with those draining and exhausting sibling fights. Miriam doesn’t dig deep into complicated psychological theories: she gives slice-of-life examples of unhealthy sibling dynamics and their solutions.

I think the most important thing I gleaned from When Children Fight is that I don’t need to interfere in every single fight, every single time. I can’t prevent all fighting; it will always be there at some level, and not every dispute will be settled in a 100% fair, harmonious way. That’s life. Try to let your children solve the problem themselves, Miriam says. I tried that, drawing a red line at hitting and offensive name-calling. I withdrew from trying to personally solve every dispute of “but I had it first” and “she will never let me use it”, and let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised by how creative my daughters can be at resolving their conflicts when they know they are on their own.

One thing I do have to say, though, is that this book is like a home first-aid medical kit: it contains some band-aids and iodine, but not things needed to treat more serious injuries. That is to say, it deals with a generally normal, well-functioning Jewish family where sibling dynamics are a little jarring. It doesn’t go into more complicated real-life issues such as severe, persistent disobedience, behavioral problems, ADD, or issues that spring when a family deals with trauma due to divorce, illness, or loss of a loved one.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed When Children Fight and no doubt will return to it for reference in the future.

* Illustration image: oliviamainville.com

Small-scale farming in Israel: reclaiming the land

In the course of history, many Jews have become very much detached from their Biblical agricultural past with its complex laws connected to seasons, years and the Holy Land. In modern Israel, agriculture was reclaimed to a certain extent, but it is generally highly commercialized, industrialized and mass-scale. The urban and suburban areas are very densely populated, leaving people little space for home gardens and a personal connection to the land.

There is, however, a rising movement – in particular among Orthodox Jews living in the less populated areas of Israel – of small-scale, organic, family-run farms, oil presses and wineries, belonging to people who have seized the opportunity to till their own gardens, pasture their own sheep, make their own wine, and embrace – with modern innovations that make life easier, of course – the Biblical version of living off the land.

view

Image: typical view of terraced hills and olive trees 

And of course there are people like us, who don’t really aim towards doing anything on a commercial scale, but want to grow or raise a significant part of their own food, and see this as an opportunity of being good stewards of the land and resources we were given.

So what makes an Orthodox Jewish homesteader or farmer in Israel different from any other homesteader or farmer? Generally speaking, it’s adherence to the Halacha – the Jewish Law – with the specific Biblical rules and regulations pertaining especially to the land of Israel.

Disclaimer: what I have written below describes the relationship between the Jewish farmer, the Jewish law and the land of Israel in the broadest terms; if you wish for detail, there is plenty of further information out there. We are not a rabbinical authority, nor are we mistake-proof.

Shabbat – No working the land, moving plants, picking or watering is allowed on the Shabbat day, which starts on Friday at sunset and lasts until Saturday nightfall. An automatic drip system is a good gardening solution, but we don’t have that in parts of our garden, and we have to water manually there. Last week, a tomato plant died because we had a very hot Saturday and couldn’t water until nightfall, by which time it was much too late.

The Sabbatical year – Unlike the Shabbat, which is observed by Orthodox Jews around the world, the Sabbatical year applies to Israel only. Every seventh year, the land is supposed to rest, which means no tilling, no planting, no working the land in any way. Gardening in containers is allowed, as is basic plant maintenance (such as, watering the trees so they’ll survive) and, with certain restrictions, picking produce. It is also possible to nominally sell the land to a non-Jew just for the year, which makes it possible to work it as usual, but the latter is less practical for backyard gardeners and owners of small homesteads.

Tithing – Jews are required to give a tithe out of their agricultural produce. This means that even if we grow one single tomato, we are under obligation to set aside part of that tomato. Since it is impractical to seek out needy people and offer them one slice of a tomato, backyard tithes are usually just set aside and respectfully disposed of.

The firstborn male – when we kept goats and had one of our does kid for the first time, with a little buckling, we were surprised to discover that this little male goat does not in fact belong to us, but instead should be given to a Cohen (priest). However, since we do not have a Temple today and much of the original function of priesthood had been temporarily lost, such a gift cannot be really used (butchered, purposefully used for breeding, etc). Too late, we found out that what we were supposed to do was nominally sell part of the pregnant doe to a non-Jew, to avoid such a complicated situation. In the end the little buckling was shipped off to a petting zoo.

Regional conflicts and safety – Because of the ongoing Jewish-Arab conflict in Israel, the Jewish homesteader or farmer living on an isolated hill somewhere, or in the middle of the desert, is in a precarious position. To put it bluntly, if you hear an intruder in your farmyard in the middle of the night, you have no way of knowing whether their principal purpose is stealing your sheep or murdering your family. Therefore, the only reliable way for Jewish farmers and homesteaders to protect themselves is to shoot first and ask questions later. Fortunately, after the Shai Dromi acquittal, the law is on the side of honest men who take up arms to protect their lives and property.

Some will say that such local, small-scale homesteading and farming ventures are impractical, labor-intensive and complicated, and that it’s simpler and cheaper to just buy what you eat from big farmers, or import produce, but I disagree. Money is not everything, and nothing beats the satisfaction of eating real food grown by real people living on the land they love.

Why I love raising chickens

IMG_9900

Our love affair with chickens started a few years ago, when my husband surprised me with a box of baby chicks. Those little ones all turned out to be males, but no matter – the chicken bug was already there. Ever since, we’ve had a chicken coop wherever we lived.

So what makes chickens such a popular choice for almost everyone? They are kept by big and small farmers, country dwellers and urban homesteaders alike. Here is why I personally like my chickens so much:

1. Eggs – need I say more? Fresh homegrown eggs are about the best source of high-quality animal protein out there. They are full of essential nutrients and their taste is far superior to the bland egg factory product. In winter, when our hens went off laying and we had to buy eggs from the grocery store, we were actually shocked at the contrast in taste after getting used to our superior home-grown eggs.

2. Pest and weed control – chickens love to eat all sorts of insects, bugs, worms and weeds in their young green stage. All this goes into the eggs and makes them healthier and better-tasting – and helps with yard maintenance. Of course, chickens will also go for many garden plants, so you have two choices: either keep a fence around your vegetable patch, or learn which plants you can grow without competing with your chickens. Generally we find that herbs (such as mint, sage, rosemary), certain vegetables (onions, garlic, potatoes) and fruit trees are safe with chickens.

3. Entertainment – just sit back and watch your chickens for endless hours of fun. Observe how they interact with each other and with you. I can entertained a 1-year-old for up to half an hour by making a rooster jump and snatch tricks out of the air. Keeping chickens is one of the best fun and educational experiences we’ve ever done.

4. Easy maintenance – once you get into the routine of chicken-keeping, it’s incredibly easy. Basically what chickens need is access to food, water and a sturdy sheltered coop that provides protection from the rain and wind and can be locked at night against predators. Depending on the climate in your area and the breed of your chickens, you might have to provide a source of heat during the winter. We usually don’t need to do this as we keep sturdy breeds and temperatures here don’t often fall below freezing.

You can greatly reduce the cost of chicken feed by giving your chickens your kitchen leftovers (old bread, rice, pasta, cores and peels, etc) and by allowing them to free-range and find their own food.

%d bloggers like this: