What’s Cooking: Custom Hot Chocolate Mix

cocoa heart Artistic hot chocolate

My morning writing ritual includes a cup of hot chocolate, something that you might consider decadent unless you know that caffeine, even in the tiny amounts contained in decaf coffee or tea makes me sick. To stay healthy, I avoid all of those caffeinated drinks  I used to love. Instead, I drink hot chocolate.

It turns out that my hot chocolate habit is healthier than you might think. As an article in Mother Nature Network reports, Cornell University researchers studying the anti-oxidant levels in chocolate found that hot cocoa is a great source of antioxidants.

Chocolate chip hearts Chocolate is heart-healthy; cocoa powder has even more benefits than the solid form

In fact, hot cocoa’s antioxidant concentration is twice as high as red wine, and two to three times stronger than green teas, as well as four to five times stronger than black tea. Since cocoa lacks the fat of a chocolate bar (even dark chocolate is high-fat), it’s a healthier way to eat the antioxidants.

And heating the cocoa releases more of those cancer-fighting, age-fighting, free-radical-neutralizing antioxidants, says Professor Chan Yong Lee, the lead author of the study.

Other health benefits: cocoa’s flavonoids help you process nitric oxide, thus improving blood flow (including blood flow to the brain, which helps prevent dementia), lowering your blood pressure, preventing clots, and improving heart health.

Don’t buy commercial hot chocolate mix though. It’s full of unhealthy corn syrup in various incarnations and saturated fats. And it’s expensive on a per-serving basis. Instead, make your own healthy (and cocoa-rich) mix in bulk. It’s ridiculously simple. (There are only two ingredients!)

Two ingredients: cocoa powder and sugar Two ingredients: cocoa powder and sugar

Health-Rich Hot Chocolate Mix

2 cups organic sugar
8-9 T organic cocoa powder (I use Savory Spice cocoa–it has a lovely flavor)

Mix the sugar with the cocoa powder until it is combined. (Add more cocoa if you like a richer mix, more sugar if you prefer sweeter hot chocolate.) Store in an air-tight jar or tin. Add two to three heaping teaspoons to a cup of hot milk. (Use skim or lowfat milk to keep the fat content from counteracting the health benefits.) Stir and enjoy!

As you sip your healthy hot chocolate, thank the Mayans, who invented chocolate drinks many millennia ago. (Cacao beans are native to South America. They’re one of the Americas’ great native crops, along with chiles, corn, beans and squash.)

GIFT IT: Put the mix in a pretty jar, add instructions for making hot chocolate on a hand-made card, and give it to someone you love for Valentine’s Day.

A little artistic expression of how I feel when I drink my heart-healthy hot chocolate.... Valentine’s Day and hot chocolate makes for happy hearts!

Ruffled red lettuce, mache, and arugula, all from Renee's Garden Seeds.

What’s Growing: spring snow

Ruffled red lettuce, mache, and arugula, all from Renee's Garden Seeds. Summer lettuce blend, mache, and arugula, all from Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Monday evening at about six, in a break in my long work day, I went out to the kitchen garden, un-clipped one side of the row cover fabric on the raised bed that holds my winter planting of spinach and mesclun and did a quick thinning and harvest. So quick, in fact, that I didn’t stop to shoot a photo of the growing tapestry of greens and reds.

The weather bureau had changed the forecast for the next day from 30 percent chance of less than a tenth of an inch of snow to 80 percent chance of 2 to 4 inches. I thought I’d better harvest before the storm hit. Just in case.

I yanked crowded mache, pinched back arugula, and thinned ruffled red and green lettuces, pulling up small plants, cutting off the roots with my garden scissors, putting the leaves in my garden basket and tossing the roots to the compost pile. In ten minutes, I had a basketful of fresh greens, the row covers were clipped tightly bed over the bed and the wind was rising.

I carried my harvest inside, weighed it (3/4 of a pound), dumped the greens into the sink, washed them in cold water, and spun them in the salad spinner.

Organic greens, fresh from the garden—yum! Organic greens, fresh from the garden—yum!

Then I made myself a simple green salad, my favorite spring meal:

1 bowl mixed salad greens, freshly harvested
1/4 avocado, chopped (organic, Mexico)
1 hard-boiled egg, chopped (uber-local, from Maggie’s hens 6 blocks away)
1 T chopped roasted pecans (New Mexico)
1 T grated Rocking W Swiss cheese (Ploughboy Local Market)
1/2 T lemon-infused Stonehouse olive oil (organic, California)
2 tsp balsamic vinegar (organic, Italy)
pinch salt
fresh-ground black pepper

And went back to work on a landscaping-for-wildlife project that will launch later this spring. I worked until bedtime, did yoga, brushed my teeth, washed and creamed my face, and fell into bed. (That’s my life: sleep, yoga, eat, work–either writing, consulting, or carpentry, take a walk, eat, yoga, sleep, repeat….)

Three inches of wet snow and more coming.... Two inches of wet snow and more falling….

When I got up in the morning, I was very glad I had taken the time for that quick harvest. Because snow blanketed my garden. The greens bed is the middle one in the photo, with its row cover hanging down.

We’ve had almost no snow all winter and spring and my valley is desperately dry. So I didn’t complain as the wind blew and the snow fell–and fell, and fell, all morning, all afternoon. I didn’t complain as I shoveled, heaving a layer so wet and heavy that water came out as I pushed it off my half-block of sidewalk. I didn’t complain as I shoveled the second time, when the temperature, 35 degrees F at dawn and dropping steadily all day, was down to 20 degrees.

Salida with snow. The forested summit in the background is Methodist Mountain, one of our small peaks, at "only" 11,707 feet elevation. Salida with snow. The forested summit in the background is Methodist Mountain, “only” 11,707 feet elevation.

When the snow quit last night, I measured almost eight inches (twice the forecast amount). The total moisture came to four-tenths of an inch. Which may not seem like much to you, but it’s significant in this high-desert parched by years of drought.

This morning, the sun came out, and the snow began melting, sinking straight into the thirsty soil. By afternoon, it had vanished and the birds were singing happily in my native grassland yard, including a small flock of western bluebirds, the first I’ve ever seen here. They foraged energetically for grasshopper nymphs, grabbing and swallowing them head-first. (Chow down, bluebirds.)

Snow's already melted, footer forms appearing.... Snow’s already melted, footer forms appearing….

Later, I snatched a few minutes for a break and took a brisk walk by the new house site. I figured the snow would have prevented my concrete guys from starting to lay out the forms in the footer trenches. Wrong.

There’s the street view of my tiny house-to-be, looking toward what will be my side porch and kitchen wall. Woo-hoo–I can see it emerging!

What’s Cooking: I’m playing with my food again

Paris Market Mesclun, a gorgeous and delicious mix of lettuces, other greens and herbs, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my adventures with cooking and eating local food, not because I’ve stopped growing or eating local food. It’s the cooking part. After Richard died, my interest in preparing food deserted me. When I felt like eating, I ate well thanks to the deli at Ploughboy Local Market, but I rarely had the energy or creative drive to make my own meals.

Lately though, my enjoyment of playing with food (which is how I see preparing whatever is fresh and handy) is returning. I’m not back to where I was before, but I’m better. Maybe my renewed drive to create my own meals stems from summer’s approach and the revival of my organic kitchen garden, which despite this year’s serious drought, heat and wind, is now producing bountiful pickings of spring greens and herbs, strawberries, and asparagus.

Maybe it’s just that I’m getting used to cooking for one–one whose appetite varies widely depending on whether I’ve managed to find middle gear for the day, or whether I’ve run fast and hard and my energy has crashed. In the former case, playing with and eating food seems like fun; in the latter, neither the playing nor the eating are worth the effort.

Yogurt cheese, a soft, spreadable and tangy cheese that’s much tastier–and healthier–than cream cheese

Whatever the reason, this week I made the first batch of yogurt since last November, and when I lifted the jar out of the water bath and scooped up a thick, creamy and tangy spoonful, I wondered how I could have forgotten how delicious it was. From there, it was an easy project to make a pint of my favorite yogurt cheese, and then I was off and running.

Friends had invited me over for dinner, so I used the yogurt cheese to invent a new dessert: Stuffed Plums Go Ginger and Chocolate. It’s pretty simple, if you have a source of sweet dried plums (you could use prunes or dried apricots, but if you can find sweet dried plums, you’ll be glad you did).

Dried plum topped with ginger yogurt cheese and a toasted pecan half

Stuffed Plums Go Ginger and Chocolate

26 dried plum halves or whole prunes split down one side and flattened
1/2 cup yogurt cheese
1-1/2 T Mayan cocoa (cocoa with ground red chiles and cinnamon)
2 tsp fresh-ground ginger
4 tsp sugar
26 pecan halves, toasted

Divide yogurt cheese between two bowls. Mix Mayan cocoa into cheese in one bowl, adding 2 tsp sugar to sweeten. Mix ginger into cheese in other bowl, adding remaining 2 tsp sugar. Turn plum halves pit side up (make sure none have pits!) and flatten. Using a small spoon, put a dollop of one kind of cheese on each plum half, making sure to cover the fruit. Fill half the plums with the cocoa cheese and half with the ginger cheese. Press a pecan into the cheese on each plum. Arrange plum halves on a platter, serve, and enjoy the contrast between the two flavors of dessert cheese! (Serves six for dessert)

Here’s another easy recipe using yogurt cheese.

Pesto Quesadillas

8 corn tortillas (fresh ones are best)
1/2 cup yogurt cheese
1/4 cup pesto

Spread yogurt cheese on each tortilla, and then add a dollop of pesto and swirl it into the yogurt cheese. Arrange tortillas, yogurt cheese side up, on baking sheets; broil for two to three minutes, or until cheese mix is bubbling and has begun to turn golden at the edges. Remove from the oven, cool, fold in half, and serve. Yum!

A yogurt cheese and pesto quesadilla with a tossed salad from the kitchen garden

I ate my quesadilla with a simple tossed salad of mesclun picked from the garden (thank you, Renee’s Garden, for the “Paris Market” mesclun mix!), dressed with lemon-infused olive oil and red wine vinegar, and topped with dried cherries, a chopped hard-boiled egg (uber-local, thanks to friends Maggie and Tony’s chickens) and toasted slivered almonds.

It looks like my yen to cook is coming back. Not every day, but often enough that it feels good. I take that as a sign that I’m finding my rhythm in this new and unplanned-for role of Woman Alone. I hope Richard is smiling about that.