Five Years Plus

{July 3, 2011}   The New Crunchy

It’s been quite some time since I’ve eaten granola, save the odd emergency bar during a long tennis match. But I miss it, the comfort food of my adolescence. In 1973 my Mom returned from a visit to her family in Eastern Canada bearing gifts – a bag of a new kind of cereal called “granola” and a Neil Diamond album called Hot August Night that included the song, Crunchy Granola – “Drop your shrink and stop your drinkin’, crunchy granola’s neat!” Mom immediately got on the case and created a recipe including 12 cups rolled outs, 2 cups sunflower seeds, 1 cup melted honey, 1 cup safflower oil and more, all baked together in a big pan. It was delicious and the granola jar was just wide enough to get your hand in for a favorite after school snack.

It wasn’t long after that granola caught on across North America, touted as the new health food. Soon “being crunchy” became synonymous with being a natural type of person, referring to “the crunch of granola, which (as goes the stereotype) hippie-esque people are likely to eat”. Since the 70’s granola has become mainstream. I know this because my son used to eat granola bars for breakfast and there is a whole aisle full of nothing but such bars in the grocery store. This once “health food” may now be filled with dangerous non-foods such as high fructose corn syrup and highly processed soy protein.

But was granola ever really a health food? On the pro side, my Mom’s was made from mostly whole ingredients, processed at home and infused with a mother’s love and care. But even good granola is primarily carbohydrate including a great deal of simple sugar. Look for example at the nutritional analysis of one of the better quality commercial granolas, Bear Naked. One serving provides 140 calories: 18 grams carbohydrate (6 grams sugar from honey, maple syrup and sugar-sweetened cranberries), 3 grams protein and 7 grams fat. Watch out though, one serving is only 1/4 cup. Aside from all that sugar, granola is largely made from its namesake – grain. Mainstream nutrition literature touts whole grains as a staple, but grains can irritate the digestive system and cause a host of health problems in some people. Since having cancer I’ve cut way back on sugar (which can feed many kinds of tumors) and also cut out grains almost entirely to avoid the inflammation they can cause. So even the best granola isn’t on my menu.

Imagine my delight when last year I discovered a raw grainless version made by Lydia’s Organics. Since then, following in my mother’s footsteps, I have worked out a new recipe that is too good to keep to myself. I call this Paleola, as I follow a Paleo. It fits the bill as a vegan, raw, gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free and fat-free, thereby making it suitable for almost any eating regimen. It is delicious, healthy and yes crunchy too!


  • 3 pounds apples
  • 2 cups sunflower seeds
  • 6 dates
  • 6 figs
  • 6 apricots
  • ½ cup goji berries
  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp salt (optional)

The nuts and seeds should be raw and refrigerated before and after purchase. Ideally everything should be organic.

Making Paleola requires some organization, a food processor, a sprout jar and a dehydrator.  It is fairly labor intensive, but well worth it. If you’re planning to make Paleola on Wednesday, for example, you will start on Sunday night. Remember, this is a labor of love!

Sunday overnight: Soak 2 cups sunflower seeds in a large sprouting jar (at least 4 cups) for 8 hours. Over the next couple of days you will keep these in a dark place and rinse twice a day. Drain well after each rinsing. They will grow a tail as long as the seed in this time. In warm weather be alert as they can turn sour if you miss a rinsing or grow them too long. If the sprouts are done but you’re not ready to make Paleola you can store them in the fridge for up to two days.

Tuesday morning: The rest of the nuts and seeds should be soaked and dried before using, as they contain anti-nutrients that soaking helps to deactivate. I do each nut or seed separately a pound of each at a time so my dehydrator is full. I keep the rest on hand for using as a condiment or for the next time I make Paleola. These soaking directions come from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.

Soak the nuts/seeds in water, in a ratio of 4 cups of water to 1 tbsp salt. After 6 hours rinse the cashews and put them in the dehydrator on the hottest setting. Two hours later rinse the rest of the nuts and put them in the dehydrator. You will continue to dry the cashews as well. At this point you want to get the temperature as close as possible to 110 degrees without going over. Continue to dry the nuts in the dehydrator overnight.

Wednesday morning: Take the nuts and seeds out of the dryer and let them cool to room temperature. Take out what you need for the recipe and store the rest in glass jars. I’m not sure you need to keep them in the fridge at this point but that’s what I do.

Core and cut the apples, and grate them with the appropriate food processor attachment. After grating use the S blade attachment to gently process the apples a little more. If you miss this extra step your Paleola will be stringy. Next, use the S blade to process the sprouted sunflower seeds so they get chopped a little. It is better to process both the apples and seeds in small batches. Now, use kitchen scissors to cut the dried fruit into tiny pieces. Excessively dry fruit will need to be soaked first. Add the cinnamon, cayenne and salt and mix well. Divide evenly into your dehydrator trays and dry at the same temperature as you did the nuts, 110 degrees. Stir after about six hours. Depending upon your dryer it will be at least another six hours before this mixture is dry.

Next you mix in the dried nuts and seeds. The nuts are a feature of this recipe. You want them to be a little chunky and have a nice shape. You can chop them in the food processor, but I think it’s worth it to prepare them by hand. Pecans can be sliced into three slivers following the spine of the nut, the cashews can coaxed in half where they naturally divide. The pumpkin seeds and walnuts just need to be coarsely chopped or leave the pumpkin seeds whole if you prefer. Of course you could dry the chopped nuts with the apple and sunflower mixture and skip the separate drying step. My dryer isn’t big enough and I like to dry a lot of nuts at once for other uses. Suit yourself.

Depending how much you munch along the way, this makes about 16 cups. It is very concentrated, so use it sparingly – 1/4 cup is still the ideal serving size. Together with almond milk and currently mangoes, it makes a superb finishing touch to our Special Breakfast.

Paleola is a concentrated food and should be used as a condiment. It is also a great emergency food in my tennis bag or for travel. Eating well takes attention, time and commitment. Trust me though, once you have the knack of making Paleola it is a worthwhile way to spend a little of your precious time.


{August 6, 2010}   Milk & Cookies

This week I decided to share something that brings me great joy, that’s right, milk and cookies. I venture to say that these recipes are about as healthy as you can get. Like many good things, they take a little time and organization to prepare.

Although I occasionally eat cheese and include a little yogurt with breakfast, I aim to keep the amount of dairy in my diet to a minimum. I also don’t drink soymilk, for reasons I outlined in Soytistics. Recently however, Special Breakfast has taken on a whole new look with the addition of home-made almond milk. My friend who grew up on a dairy farm marvels at how much it looks and feels like cow’s milk, so I figure that’s a pretty good endorsement. It has that slightly slippery, thick texture and tastes slightly sweet.

Almond Milk

  • 1½ cups almonds, soaked 8 hours and rinsed
  • 3½ cups water
  • 2 cups coconut water
  • 1 tsp non-alcoholic vanilla

Blend the soaked almonds and water; a high speed blender like a Vitamix works best. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or a jelly bag. You will need to squeeze out much of the liquid by hand, as if milking the animal herself. Mix with coconut water and vanilla. This makes about five cups and will keep fresh in the refrigerator for up to five days. It will separate with an almond cream layer on top, so stir before drinking. You can make almond milk without the coconut water, however this addition makes it simply wonderful.

I have to admit, I have abandoned hacking open the fresh coconuts for this purpose (as I described in Cream of the Crop) when one of my milk batches went sour after two days. I blamed the coconut water. I just don’t how fresh it was, as the coconuts are shipped from Thailand and then sit in the store before sitting in my fridge, awaiting the right moment to put it all together. I discovered some 100% pure coconut water that comes in a convenient 2 cup Tetra Pak. The seven month old coconuts are from northern Brazil, hmm, still not local but closer than Thailand.

Now you might be wondering what you do with the soft almond pulp that is left-over, or perhaps you are just waiting to hear about the cookies. I couldn’t bear to throw away the pulp, so I created some “cookie” recipes. They are raw, gluten free and nearly vegan. I use honey rather than agave nectar since the supposed health benefits of agave were brought under scrutiny earlier this year.

Chocolate Cookies

  • Pulp from 1 1/2 cups almonds
  • 1/4 cup finely ground flaxseed
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup coconut
  • 1 tsp alcohol free vanilla
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 16 drops liquid stevia
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Vanilla Cookies

  • Pulp from 1 1/2 cups almonds
  • 1/4 cup finely ground flaxseed
  • 1/4 cup coconut flour
  • 1/3 cup coconut
  • 2 tsp alcohol free vanilla
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 16 drops liquid stevia
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped dried apricots (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Place ingredients in a small bowl, mix and then knead with your hand. Press and roll dough out on wax paper. Cut using 3 inch round cookie cutter or glass and transfer to dehydrator with thin spatula. Dehydrate for about 6 hours until dry, ensuring that the heat is no more than 108 degrees for a raw cookie. (If you don’t have a dehydrator or an oven that has this modern option, I think you could probably bake these at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.) Each recipe makes 24 lightly sweetened cookies.

One of the difficulties of transitioning to a healthier diet is the loss of treats. Using foods like almond milk and cookies in moderation can give us that sense of comfort we all enjoy at times.

{July 18, 2010}   Six Months

This week marks the first 6 months of this blog. That’s 26 posts, 2,269 views and 78 comments. In this time I have learned to insert hyperlinks, pictures and do internet research at lightening speed (lol). I decided it was a good time for a review to provide a summary for my regular readers and introduce new readers to the discussion thus far. Hopefully the links will easily direct you to the posts you want to read or reread.

It was a lot of fun to review, as I clearly remember writing and the events preceding each post. It ended up taking quite awhile to read through all of the posts and make some kind of order out of the smorgasbord of my life. As such, I want to thank my #1 supporter, my husband Chuck. He initially set up the blog and is my editor and problem solver. He also patiently endures the times (like now) when I spend “our” Saturday night at the keyboard.

I began Five Years Plus in the dead of winter, on the eve of the five year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. The act of starting the blog spun me into a period of over-excitement and sleep deprivation which I chronicled in Good Night Sweet Princess.  The response to this on and off-line was striking, with people sharing their own mood issues so openly and honestly. In my third post I introduced my struggles with over-eating and the constant vigilance it takes to feed myself properly.

The subject of eating is a big part of my life and has likewise been featured in a number of blog posts. In Special Breakfast I introduced the general idea of food as medicine and that eating well is an act of self-love. At times I included recipes which reflect the changing seasons, such as cabbage soup in winter (a reminder of the simple good things in life) and coconut ice cream in summer. I have written about foods that I use, like eggs or the sugar substitute stevia, and those that I’ve moved away from for health reasons, such as soy.

With the coming of spring I got fired up about eating locally, writing a series on this topic and coming up with four keys to get started:

  1. shopping at local farmers’ markets
  2. sourcing local pasture raised meat and eggs
  3. subscribing to a CSA (community supported agriculture)
  4. supporting local foods restaurants

As summer and berry season rolled around I think it’s appropriate to add a fifth key: pick local (organic) berries

Currently there are further options for both budding and experienced “locavores”. Tomorrow is the first day of Madison County’s “Buy Local Week” which includes an opportunity to discover some of the 33 local farms that are opening their gates to visitors on Saturday, July 24. There is also a new I-phone app that directs one to local foods in upstate New York.

In addition to being dedicated to eating locally whenever possible, I am committed to the Paleo diet that features meat, fish, eggs, plenty of vegetables, fruit and some nuts and seeds, thereby resembling what our Paleolithic ancestors may have eaten. Although I was a vegetarian for many years I now choose to include meat in my diet. I have to admit, I find it an ongoing challenge to eat in accordance with my intentions, especially when eating out or on vacation. Even so, I have managed to lose 10 pounds and am maintaining a comfortable healthy weight. One of my most enjoyable eating journeys and something I would like to explore further was a period of paying deep attention to the way I eat.

When we think about taking care of ourselves, diet and exercise come to mind first. Moving my body is fundamental to my own well-being and my work outside our home is dedicated to teaching others to be present in their bodies through yoga and tennis. I credit tennis with helping me “get back into life fully” after my breast cancer treatment and continue to better myself through competition. The desire to play tennis well helps fuel my motivation for working out two or three times each week. I am so happy every time I effortlessly move from a deep squat to standing, as this is an improvement that is a direct result of working out.

Although my experience with breast cancer has infiltrated every aspect of my life, I see that only a few posts relate specifically to cancer or medical issues. I outlined ideas for getting started on an alternative path when first being diagnosed and written some advice about do’s and don’ts when dealing with friends who have been diagnosed. I touched on iatrogenic (medically) caused illness and the uncertainty of imaging techniques through a story about my beloved cat. I am also well aware that I have not settled my inquiry into breast screening techniques and that my next oncologist appointment is approaching. I have already started researching the effects of ionizing radiation (i.e. mammograms) on breast tissue health, so you can expect to see this soon.

Writing this blog does take a tremendous amount of time and determination. In return, it helps me to live a more examined life and to believe that perhaps through my efforts I am making a difference. As I reflect over this past six months I recognize that I have made positive changes in my life. My diet has improved, my workouts are regular and my sleep and moods are in equilibrium. At the same time I see there are areas where I continue to struggle and need more awareness and self-love.

I really appreciate you reading Five Years Plus, commenting and passing the link along to others who might enjoy it. If you want to have each weekly post automagicallly delivered to your Email inbox, fill in your address and click on “Email Subscriptions” on the right side of this page. Beware though, you need to open a confirmation Email which may end up in your “junk” folder. I believe we all have a great deal to share with one another and I intend to continue to learn to harness the power of the internet to benefit all of us.

{July 11, 2010}   The Cream of the Crop

This week we have experienced extremely hot, humid days that remind me of living in the tropics. In 1991 I spent the summer in Mysore, India, studying yoga with Pattabhi Jois. On my bike ride home after each morning’s vigorous sweaty practice, I stopped at the coconut vendor’s stand to replenish my energy with the satisfying fluid and white succulent flesh of a young coconut. My coconut vendor knew I preferred plenty of water and a minimum amount of flesh. After tapping a number of the round, green coconuts to listen to each ones distinctive sound, he would choose one, hack it open with his cleaver and let me pick out a colorful straw. After I had savored the sweet, clear liquid I would hand it back, asking him to “open”. He would carve a scraper from the coconut husk itself and expertly split the coconut  into two for me to scoop out the thin layer of slippery innards. (This photo by Vikas Kamat shows a common method of coconut transport in India.)

Now, nearly twenty years later, my husband hacks open the young coconut I buy from our grocery store with the precision gained from a couple of months of practice. These coconuts appear to be an off-white color because the outer skin has been stripped away to give a flat-bottomed and pointy topped shape (see photo below from Melissa’s website). Inside this lies the seed of the coconut. The water inside is completely hygienic and under slight pressure. The amount of flesh clinging to the inside of the nut varies considerably; when scraped away it can yield between a couple of tablespoons to a cup or more of pulp. Coconuts with more pulp generally contain less water. These tender coconuts are picked before they are ripe when the liquid inside is sweet, almost clear, and the flesh is soft, thin and easily separated from the shell.  Mature coconuts from which the familiar dessicated coconut is made are different. They have thick white flesh and a cloudy, perhaps bitter liquid inside.

Since I committed to a Paleo diet, young coconuts have found their way into our diet. Coming from Thailand, I realize that they are a long way from local but I make an exception because they are such a wonderful healthy treat and remind me of my years living in India. I chose coconut as the base when I decided to create a raw, vegan, paleo, sugar-free ice cream recipe. I recommend using whole young coconuts if you can. They taste so pure and you can blend both the pulp and coconut water together, rather than only getting the blended meat that canned coconut milk is made from.

The coconut oil in this mix is not only good for the hair and skin, but also bestows a plethora of health benefits, contributing to stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, bone strength and dental health. Coconut oil has also been associated with improvements in conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV, and cancer. The main active ingredients providing these benefits appear to be lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid which show antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Specifically, digestion converts lauric acid into monolaurin which appears to be active against the viruses causing influenza, herpes, AIDS and others. It also appears to thwart disease caused by harmful bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia.

Ginger Coco-Cream

  • 2 young coconuts – use all the pulp and up to 1½ cups of the water (or 2 – 13.5 oz cans of coconut milk)
  • 4 tsp ginger juice, grated ginger or ginger powder
  • 4-6 soaked, pitted dates or 2 tbsp xylitol
  • 8-12 drops liquid stevia

With cleaver, open the coconut and drain out liquid. Chop coconut in half. This takes some force, as if splitting wood. Use an upside down spoon to peel the flesh out of shell. Remove any hard bits and rinse if needed. Blend flesh from the 2 coconuts with 1.5 cups of coconut water. You will probably end up with extra water which you can drink straight or add to homemade almond milk. If you have a juicer, simply juice the whole ginger root – no need to peel. Add remaining ingredients and blend thoroughly. Freeze using an ice cream maker of your choice. Makes about 4 one cup servings.

Chocolate Coco-Cream

  • 2 young coconuts – use all the pulp and up to 1½ cups of the water (or 2 cans coconut milk)
  • 6 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 4-6 soaked, pitted dates or 2 tbsp xylitol
  • 12-16 drops liquid stevia
  • ½ cup lightly chopped raw macadamia nuts (optional)

Follow directions as above. I make this recipe with a raw cacao powder that is grown and produced in Bali, Indonesia. Its flavor has incredible depth that is makes this product well-worth the effort to find.

Coco-cream is meant to be enjoyed in small quantities. Although made from top quality ingredients, it is a concentrated high calorie, high fat food. I serve it in small ceramic bowls so we get the feeling of eating a full dish. It is best to eat it right away as the texture is best right out of the ice cream maker. Because it does not contain emulsifiers, it will freeze solid if you put it in the freezer. In this case, simply let it soften up at room temperature before eating.

Making your own ice cream takes a considerable amount of effort and equipment. However, it is very satisfying to create such a delicious treat and you know exactly what is in it.

{June 27, 2010}   Strawberry Fields

Strawberries are the most popular berry worldwide and are available all year round from Californian or imported sources. Here in upstate New York the local strawberry season is brief,  sandwiched between  summer solstice and the fourth of July. I have picked berries with my good friend Bodhi for three years now. Yesterday we finally found a day we were free and Cobblestone Farm’s organic strawberry patch was open. By chance Deb and her daughter Mel were able to join us.

Strawberries are one of the foods I aim to always eat organic, as conventionally grown ones are heavily sprayed. In fact, this year strawberries are number 3 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. This list rates the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables most likely to contain high pesticide residues, even after washing. Eating organic (where pesticide use is prohibited) or eliminating these most contaminated foods can reduce ones exposure to pesticides by 80 percent. It’s really worth following the link to check these foods out; for those of you who want to read it here, starting from the worst, here are this year’s “dirty dozen”: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, kale, cherries, potatoes and grapes.

According to the Environmental Working Group, up to 59 pesticides were detected in residue on strawberries. The PAN Pesticides Database is a document that quantifies the amount of 50 common pesticides used on Californian (the primary strawberry growing state) fields. In 2008 a whopping 9,686,580 pounds of pesticides were applied, amounting to an average of 7 pounds of pesticides for every acre of strawberry fields treated (some acres are treated more than once).

"A dense canopy of leaves"

Methyl bromide, one of the pesticides used on conventionally grown strawberries, has received a great deal of attention worldwide. It is a colorless, odorless gas that is used as a soil fumigant to help control weeds, soil-borne diseases, nematodes and insects. Respiratory, kidney and neurological effects are noted health risks and farm workers are particularly susceptible. Methyl bromide is also a recognized ozone depleting chemical. In response to a 2002 amendment to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, its use is being phased out for all uses in all countries. While this was intended to be completed by 2005 in America, a “critical use” exemption has extended this deadline in some areas. The PAN report shows that 2.7 million pounds were still being applied to Californian strawberry fields in 2008. The irony is that organic growing methods are available, can be even more profitable than conventional methods and do not use chemicals that are toxic to the ozone, the earth, farm workers and consumers.

I picked about 30 pounds of chemical-free berries in just over two hours. Not only is picking strawberries physically demanding, it’s a bit of a hunt. The berries are hidden under a dense canopy of leaves and especially in the case of organic strawberries, weeds. I alternate between bending over with a straight back, squatting and later in the morning, picking from my hands and knees. This latter method only works when the berries are plentiful, which fortunately for us, was the case yesterday morning. Below are some picking tips I have developed over the years:

  1. Arrive early.
  2. Remember to bring containers to put picked berries in and a few extra just in case you strike a bumper day.
  3. Resist the temptation to pick the berries where the pointy tip is still green or white. They aren’t ripe and strawberries won’t ripen further once picked.
  4. Pay attention to your body mechanics and stop before you drop.
  5. Remember it takes at least as long to prepare the berries when you get home as it did to pick them.

Deb & Mel: the "straight back" method

Of course, strawberry grazing on the field is one of the highlights of the pick your own experience. I find biting into a strawberry an adventure. Even when choosing that perfect berry to sample, I never know for sure whether it will be bursting with the essence of sweet, deep strawberry-ness or be mouth-puckeringly tart. Each berry is a little different and I pay attention to its unique flavor even as I continue to pick.

Bodhi: the "squatting" posture

What do I do with all those berries, you might ask? I like to eat strawberries year round, as according to Ann Louise Gittleman[1], they contain a cancer-protective agent called ellagic acid and a phyto-nutrient that helps the liver break down excess toxins. So besides a two week in-season feast, I mainly freeze them whole with stems removed to use in smoothies and with Special Breakfast.  I am taking the extra time to first freeze them flat on a cookie tray before bagging them, as last year they stuck together, retained a lot of moisture and became icy. I am also planning to make ice cream (more about this in a future blog) and some strawberry-rhubarb jam for my sister. In the meantime each time I open my fridge I am transported back to the strawberry field by sight and smell. Summer is definitely here.

[1] Fat Flush Foods, New York: McGraw Hill, 2004

{June 6, 2010}   Locavore

By the time the bakery at the main intersection in Cazenovia closed, Chuck and I were already sourcing grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry and eggs and choosing organic food whenever possible. We wondered for weeks what would be revealed when the brown paper came off the windows of the new restaurant boasting “New American Cuisine”. When finally unveiled in February 2006, we were delighted to find Circa, a hip cozy restaurant that filled an culinary niche in the community which had been empty since the old Wheatberry closed over a decade before.  My first meal there was a succulent lamb stew, which was so good, we decided to adopt the place and become regulars.

Alicyn Hart, co-owner and chef of Circa, had traveled the world, sous-chefed in numerous restaurants and taught the culinary arts. She was certainly ahead of the curve to open a local foods restaurant at that time as the local foods movement in the United States was in its infancy. This was two months before the publication of Michael Pollen’s groundbreaking Ominivore’s Dilema (April 2006), before the word locavore (someone who eats exclusively local food) made it into the dictionary (it was named the Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2007) and long before a survey by the National Restaurant Association ranked locally-grown produce and locally sourced meats and seafood as the top two restaurant trends for 2010.

Like many new businesses there were challenges in the beginning. Shortly after opening the restaurant, Alicyn became pregnant and at this time she was often the only one in the kitchen. I recently asked her what made her want to start a local foods restaurant in the first place. “It’s not that I really planned it,” she said matter of factly. I’m just committed to providing local, whole food. It simply tastes better and for me is the right way to eat.”

There are good reasons why local food tastes better. Grocery store produce travels an average of 1500 miles from the farm where it was grown. Foods grown outside the country may take two weeks before arriving at the grocery store. To survive the travel and extend the shelf-life, food is often picked under-ripe and varieties must be chosen to withstand the beating of rail and road. In contrast, farmers who sell their food locally can concentrate on freshness, maximum nutrition and taste.

Much of our conversation centered on how she and her husband/co-owner Eric Woodworth source the food we eat at Circa. “In the beginning we had to search the area for local food,” Alicyn remembers. Now she has a team of local suppliers who deliver their fresh products directly to the restaurant. Eggs, chicken and more recently beef come from Ingalside Farm in Greenville. Lamb comes from Meadowood Farm located only a few miles from the restaurant. Our local beekeeper Robert Thorp supplies honey and apples. Micro greens (such as pea shoots and sunflower sprouts) are provided by of Fresh Herbs of Fabius and Finger Lakes Fresh is a not for profit greenhouse in Ithaca that produces salad greens year round. Alicyn and Eric also produce some of the restaurant’s food. Last year Eric raised six pigs and tended a half acre of vegetables (that’s a lot of weeding!).

The recent increased interest in local food is good for business, but can create difficulties for the food supply to Circa. As demand for local food increases, some suppliers turn from the truly local market to the more lucrative trade from New York City restaurants. Also, more local people are buying directly from the producers for use at home, sometimes leading to shortages. This is great for the local economy and ultimately for Circa, but it means that a lot of time goes into sourcing on an ongoing basis.

I asked Alicyn whether local vegetables are more difficult to source year round than meat and poultry. “Absolutely,” she replied, “meat has no season.” Local grassfed and pasture raised meat is frozen immediately after processing. Local chickens are available fresh for much of the year and in the winter she procures indoor free range chickens from Murray’s in Pennsylvania. In the winter she features vegetables that can be frozen (e.g. corn, peas, beans) or cellared root  vegetables and winter squash. There are time when she needs to purchase canned organic tomatoes and uses non-local romaine lettuce for the Caesar salad. Sometimes in the winter she resorts to purchasing non-organic greens or spinach when the organic produce is simply not up to a standard she can comfortably serve. “This is a business too,” she considers.

Cazenovia is a small and conservative market but fortunately, there is a core of foodies who appreciate Alicyn’s vision and the reliability of Circa in serving only top quality meats and vegetables in their dishes. Business has picked up in the last year. For the first four years Alicyn was in the kitchen preparing food alone for much of the time. This made it challenging to get meals out in a timely manner when the restaurant was busy. Now she can afford to hire more kitchen help and this year has the additional help of two interns who wish to study the culinary arts on-site. But even so, Alicyn spends about 70 hours per week working in the restaurant. Cooking with whole foods takes considerably more time and skill than that required in restaurants that serve primarily pre-prepared, often frozen foods. Alycin has found that even graduates from culinary schools may not know how to carry out certain basic skills like de-boning a chicken and making stock.

Over the years Circa has become an important community resource and gathering place. An attractive deli display offers a variety of local and imported items for sale including cheese, eggs, olives and olive oil. Alicyn will sell just about anything you might need that she has on hand. “I would sell my last loaf of bread. It’s just the right thing to do” she explained, and in fact, one time I did buy her last fresh baked pie. She also does a fair amount of catering or just selling prepared food for take-out. But I think our favorite thing about Circa is that any day or evening we walk in, there is someone we know eating there.  The sense of community, of sharing lovingly prepared local food with our friends and neighbors is a constant draw. This past year, Chuck and I threw our joint birthday party at Circa, with a great local band and all our friends in attendance and in April, Alicyn hosted a lively going-away bash for Jenn, a key staff member and favorite waitress who is moving on and getting married. This summer, we’re looking forward to many “Taco nights” with together friends gathering for a Sunday feast.

In supporting our local foods restaurants on a regular basis we also sustain our local farmers. At the same time we bestow our bodies with fresh, whole foods that nourish us on a deep level.

Cazenovia is bustling this morning on what must be the perfect farmer’s market day at 72 degrees with a light breeze. Marcia Hahn’s poem captures the scene at  today’s Cazenovia Farmer’s Market just about right:

Cazenovia Farmer's Market

A lively, entertaining event…
at an easily accessible location
so farmers can keep their transportation costs low,
and customers will find plenty of free parking nearby,
along with colourful, inviting displays
hosted by a diversity of
friendly, compliant vendors
who have brought just the right mix and quantity
of fresh, home grown quality products
to sell for a reasonable profit
to a constant flow of savvy, loyal shoppers
eager to spend their money on local food and
willing to learn about the newest specialty products,…
wanting to come back week after week
– topped off with picture perfect weather and
plenty of shade.

In the usually quiet strip of green called Memorial Park (formerly known as Cannon Park for the piece of artillery placed there), right beside the main street in town, an array of vendors have set out their wares. The market is bursting with bright colors from a vast array of perennials and annuals, vegetable seedlings (for those desiring to grow their own) and locally grown vegetables (for those who don’t). Today I sampled asparagus, radish, salad greens and spinach. There are always plenty of tempting home-baked cookies, pies, and breads, pasture-raised meat, fresh fish, herbs and preserves as well as local artists and artisans with beautiful hand-made wood furniture and cutting boards, drawings, photographs, pottery, jewelry and more. We buy some greens and herbs from Alison at Frosty Morning Farm, home-baked chocolate macaroons from Jim at Raindrop Farms, pasture-raised lamb and beef from my step-daughter Hayley who is working this summer at Meadowood Farms. Chuck tries the delicious yogurt, which they will have for sale along with sheep’s milk cheese in about two weeks. Last week we bought bacon from Drover Hill Farm, and some excellent scallops from Julien Polge the fish vendor.

Hayley & Kathy

I meet perhaps a dozen people I know as I stroll along the sidewalk as well as the regular vendors, many of whom also feel like friends. This was never the case when we used to navigate the tight parking and crowded barns and stalls of the enormous Central New York Regional Market (New York State’s largest farmer’s market – in business continuously since 1933) to buy our grass fed meat. Tiny by comparison, our village market holds a certain appeal. In fact, today I overheard, “We live only 10 minutes from the Regional Market but it’s so crowded there it’s worth it to come to Cazenovia.” As Cazenovians, our village market is always our first choice but we also love the larger Hamilton Farmer’s Market and the fabulous Ithaca Farmer’s Market which has permanent buildings, musicians, food stalls and a lovely waterfront setting.

Aside from the idyllic feeling and social interaction, there are some seriously good reasons to be a regular weekly customer of your local farmers market:

  1. Know where your food comes from. Talk to the farmer and find out how and where the food is grown. Some markets are large enough to attract resellers of non-local food. Getting to know the story behind the food we eat nourishes us in more ways than one.
  2. Boost the local economy. Spending dollars locally multiplies prosperity for the community. Farms and pastures make a beautiful “green belt” around a community, but are not economically feasible if you don’t support them by buying their products.
  3. Better fresher food. Farmer’s market produce is picked when it’s ripe and ready, often within 24 hours (versus days or weeks at the Supermarket) of your purchase.  Fresh ripe food tastes better and is more nutritious. Supermarket fruit is picked green because ripe fruits can’t withstand the transport and handling. Hard green supermarket tomatoes are gassed to turn them red at their destination. The farmer’s market will have a greater variety, many from seeds the growers have developed personally.
  4. Stay in touch with the seasons. Local food is only available in-season. I am passionate about savoring seasonal produce – asparagus in May, cherries, strawberries and blueberries in June and July, corn in August, apples and pears in September and pumpkins and squash in October.  Eating food in season connects us to the land and allows our bodies to harmonize with the earth’s rhythms.
  5. Avoid disease. Local food is less likely to encounter harmful contamination on its way to your home. The freshness and diversity available at the local market provides a larger range and quantity of nutrients and disease-fighting phytochemicals including carotenoids, flavonoids, inositol phosphates, lignans, isothiocyanates, phenols, selenium, saponins and sulfides which act as antioxidants and co-factors in metabolism. Local food may literally boost the immune system, stabilize estrogen metabolism, kill cancer cells and repair damage to DNA caused exposure to toxins such as cigarette smoke or industrial chemicals.

Alison "braving the weather" May 15

The beginning of the Farmer’s Market is a Rite of Spring – it marks the boundary between the warm part of the year and the cold. Being a regular customer of the local farmer’s market week in and week out is important. We vote with our dollars much more effectively than at the polls. That which we support thrives and that which we don’t dies. The vendors work a long hard day, brave the elements, load and unload the produce, set-up and tear down displays. It’s the regular customers who provide the base to make their efforts worthwhile and economically sustainable. Shopping regularly at the local farmer’s market is one of the four keys to eating locally along with sourcing local pasture-raised meat and eggs, subscribing to a local CSA, and supporting local-foods restaurants. I leave you this week with a farmer’s market tip: arrive early for the best selection, arrive late for the best price. But whatever time, make sure you arrive!

{April 24, 2010}   An Edge on Hunger

For most of my life, I have eaten as if my life depended upon it. It seems to me I was practically born into needing to overfeed myself to feel satisfied. Perhaps this was influenced by my parents’ participation in Dr. Spock’s experiment in childrearing that recommended prescribed eating times for babies, rather than feeding me when I was hungry. The family story goes that I would be upstairs crying in my crib while my parents and three older siblings were downstairs eating dinner. “But she’s hungry”, my 3 year old brother would lament. “It’s not time yet”, my mother would gently but firmly explain. Whatever the psychological or physical reasons, I was a kid and then an adult who ate quickly until I couldn’t any more, either because there wasn’t any more or because I was uncomfortably full.

My readers know by now that I have lived in an ashram in India and practiced meditation for many years. Nonetheless, I resisted bringing eating into the realm of formalized meditation for all that time. I didn’t want anyone telling me how I should eat. I told myself that I usually ate consciously, just getting out of control at holidays or when going out to eat. But it does get old, waking up about three in the morning, holding my belly and groaning, “Why did I eat so much?” Well all things change eventually, even the ones we hold onto the tightest.

About six months ago, without realizing exactly what I was getting into, I purchased a CD called Sacred Nourishment by Alison Gaines. The photograph of the pear on the cover caught my attention – pears are one of my things. I began listening to it in bed at night before going to sleep. The CD’s centering exercise: Take three deep breaths while I scan my body and emotions, and asses my level of hunger, and then give a little prayer of gratitude, seemed really simple and beautiful and I tried to remember to do this before taking my first bite at meals. Then the Christmas holidays hit and I was swept into the “holiday spirit” which for me is a perennial bout of sugar-charged unconscious overeating. I’ve been working hard to conquer this once and for all since mid-January and have even blogged about it (The Eating Roller Coaster and Losing Weight is a Beach). Ten days ago I finally pulled the Sacred Nourishment CD out of my nightstand drawer and put it to work at mealtime instead of bedtime.

The part of the CD designed to be listened to during meals is a five minute centering exercise followed by another ten minutes of encouragement to eat with awareness, with simple tips such as remembering to breathe while eating and noticing when fullness is reached. Whether it was fortuitous timing, Gaines’ calming voice, her skillful use of words, or all of the above, I found that I was able to let go of my resistance to “conscious eating” and surrender to the process of eating differently. I started listening to it with nearly every meal. At a dinner party a week later a long-time friend noticed that my eating behavior had dramatically changed. “You were always such a frantic eater” she observed. “I’ve never seen you take your time before”.

“The edge of hunger” is a concept I particularly like about this CD and I’ve been steadily exploring it. It involves relaxing my belly, putting my attention on my stomach and rating my level of hunger on a scale of one to five: 1) uncomfortably hungry; 2) hungry; 3) neither hungry nor full; 4) full; 5) uncomfortably full. I experience the five levels as significant points on a continuum of sensation. For example, my ideal is to eat when I’m hungry (2) and stop when I’m full (4). With this simple act of awareness, I’ve consistently avoided eating to uncomfortably full (5). I’m still working on noticing that middle point when I’m neither hungry nor full (3). I notice that if I wait to eat until I’m uncomfortably hungry (1), I begin to feel panicky and I have to work hard not to shovel in my food to alleviate that feeling.

I’ve also noticed that allowing enough time to eat without rushing and relaxing for a few minutes after to receive my meal helps my digestion, avoiding the nausea I frequently experienced about an hour after breakfast. It seems that in terms of having a comfortable digestive experience how I eat at least as important as what I eat.

One of Alison Gaines’ contributions is the recognition that how we eat reflects how we live our lives. Now that I am regularly relaxing my belly to check my edge of hunger I am noticing times during the day when I tense my belly as a response to stress. Now that I practice putting my fork down in between mouthfuls to pay attention to the food I have in my mouth rather than preparing for the next bite, I find myself being more present at other times of the day too. When I give myself the time to eat without multitasking and a few minutes to relax after eating to fully receive the meal, I feel a great sense of self-love. Last Sunday, I decided to share this experience with our meditation group. Thirteen of us sat around a table resembling a holiday feast and ate consciously. It was a beautiful experience, but more importantly for me, sharing this with my community has given me a sense of confidence that I can take advantage of this new edge in my lifelong relationship to hunger.

{April 17, 2010}   Confessions of a Carnivore

At some point in the cancer journey I started to wonder: “Why me”? Is it genetic? Did some medical intervention 20 years ago such as a biopsy or chest x-ray lead to this? Did I somehow cause this through my diet, lifestyle or even my thoughts? While in the throes of cancer treatment, the best advice is probably not to worry about why, but just get on with getting better. However, to give myself the best chance that cancer never comes back after the initial treatments are completed, I believe it is important to understand what may have created it in the first place.

I’ve turned over many stones looking for a cause: from blood, urine and saliva tests to spiritual soul searching. However, it appears that there is not likely to be a single cause; many factors influence the development of cancer.  To this day I never hesitate to incorporate new information which might provide another piece of my unique puzzle. One factor that I can control is my diet and recently the medical establishment has officially acknowledged some links between diet and breast cancer. So how might my diet have contributed to my disease?

I always thought of myself as having a healthy diet. I grew up with an unusual degree of dietary awareness. My mom had a background in health and was always cooking up new healthful concoctions. At first meeting many people assume I am vegetarian because I have that lean yoga teacher look and some know that I lived in an ashram in India for five years. My mother and I discovered vegetarianism together in the late 70s when a friend gave us a copy of the then new Moosewood Cookbook. In college the horrors of dorm food convinced me to give up meat “for good”. I ate pancakes, hummus, tofu, and cheese with plenty of cookies for dessert. I made vegetarian lasagna, homemade yogurt, baked my own bread and learned to grow sprouts. I put soy milk in my coffee. I believed that being a vegetarian was good for both the planet and my health.

One of the first consultations I had after my cancel diagnosis was with a nutritionist. Among other things, she recommended that I watch a DVD called Eating for Optimal Health by her colleague David Getoff. This DVD made sense to me and I committed to following its recommendations which stressed adequate consumption of good quality protein and fats and cutting out sugars. I also began to suspect that vegetarianism might not be as healthy as I had been led to believe. Perhaps the “healthy” high-carb, high-sugar, low-protein vegetarian diet I maintained for 18 years before moving to Upstate New York might have contributed to the growth of cancer in my body.

The word “protein” comes from a Greek root meaning “of first importance”. In his DVD Getoff points out that the quality of proteins and fats that we eat are as important as the quantity. He and many other food scientists believe that we need animal protein to be healthy.[i] When I was vegetarian I didn’t worry much about protein as I had read that there were sufficient amounts in brown rice especially when paired with beans or lentils. While lack of protein in itself has not been directly linked to cancer, the imbalance of high carbohydrates and sugar to low protein in my former vegetarian diet probably played havoc with my body chemistry, weakened my immune system and created perfect conditions for cancer cells to gradually grow into a tumor over the next 15-20 years.

I must confess that by the time of these realizations, my vegetarian days were already five years behind me. A few days after arriving in Upstate New York in 1999, Chuck took me out to a fine dining restaurant. Inhaling the tantalizing aromas from the kitchen, I reminisced about the thick slices of roast beef I had savored as a child. Chuck encouraged me by saying, “you can order a steak if you want one” and I did just that. After awhile I started to cook meat at home, partly in response to the preferences of my step-kids. First I added ground beef to spaghetti sauce and then learned to roast a chicken and broil a steak. Recently to Chuck’s delight and my amazement, I successfully prepared lamb’s liver with bacon and onions. But even with the help of my well-worn cookbook The Grassfed Gourmet, I have had my share of catastrophes attempting to recreate the roast beef of my childhood from the wrong cut of meat.

As I began to embrace the consumption of meat as part of a healthy diet, Chuck and I tracked down sources of locally produced grass fed or pasture raised meat and poultry. This is important to us for humaneecological and health reasons. The way in which animals are raised determines the quality of the protein their meat provides. For example, grass fed meat is naturally leaner and contains much more of the beneficial Omega 3 essential fatty acids than grain fed meat. I’m also motivated to avoid the hormones used to fatten-up “factory bred” animals because of the associated increased risk of tumor growth.

These days I take the time to carefully consider how I can get some high quality protein at every meal, balancing this with fruit at breakfast and plenty of vegetables at lunch and dinner. I eat beef and lamb  provided that it is grass-fed and hormone and antibiotic free. I also enjoy pasture-raised chicken, eggs and most recently, pork. Organic whey powder and certain kinds of fish are my other sources of good quality protein.

Ever since that first steak of my adult life, I’ve become more and more of a meat-lover. Quite honestly, I enjoy the look of incredulity as the people who assume I’m a vegetarian watch me bite into the pink flesh of my medium-rare filet mignon. There are limits though. While Chuck relishes sausage and organ-meats, I am a little squeamish in that regard. It may stem from the childhood trauma of finding the beef tongue sandwich my mother had packed in my school lunchbox. But I continue to discover new dimensions to my love of meat, including “wild-crafted” venison ribs and a whole-goat feast. I am grateful to these animals and hope to be worthy of the gift of life and nutrition that they provide.

Check out the venison link for the full story

[i] See for example, Sally Fallon’s discussion of protein in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions.

{April 3, 2010}   Losing weight is a beach

Who doesn’t love to go on vacation? Well me, sometimes. I have always been particular about what I eat and drink, even more so since facing cancer. Eating healthy (i.e. the right foods in appropriate quantities at the right times) is even more challenging when away from home. Growing up in my family, special foods were associated with being on holiday. As a child, I delighted in having multicolored Fruit Loops for breakfast and stuffing roasted marshmallows into sandwiches of graham crackers and chocolate[1] while sitting around the campfire.  Perhaps these childhood memories feed the idea that being on vacation means taking a vacation from healthy eating and drinking. Who hasn’t gotten into “vacation mode” and wound up overeating on unwise foods only to feel lousy and come home depressed, bloated and having gained two, three or more pounds? So this is the challenge: “Is it possible to go on vacation, have a fabulous time and still lose weight?”

This week was my annual girls’ trip to Hilton Head with ten other women who have at least one thing in common: love of tennis. This trip has been happening for about 25 years, though I was first invited to join shortly after my cancer diagnosis five years ago. Chuck bought me the air ticket as a Valentine’s Day present to give me something to look forward to after my surgery. I’ve been going every year since to celebrate with friends the beginning of spring and outdoor play.

My doubles’ partner Anne Marie and I conceived and participated in this year’s eating challenge. While we don’t always choose the same foods, we have similar goals and the ability to develop strategies and analyze what is working and what isn’t. We decided on three basic principles for losing weight on this trip:

  • Eat regularly to keep blood sugar stable
  • Avoid bread and other high-carb items like crackers, chips and desserts
  • Be physically active

It’s easy to be active and prepare most of our own meals, as we stay in condos that back onto the Har-Tru courts where we all play doubles each morning. We spend the afternoons in smaller groups biking on the beach, watching tennis on TV, reading by the pool, golfing (not me) or shopping (that’s me and Anne Marie).

The first few days of the trip I am extremely tired. Perhaps it is being outside all day for the first time in months. I accept the tiredness, give myself time to rest and stay with my eating plan which begins with Special Breakfast at least an hour (ideally more) before tennis. During the second hour on the court I usually drink a low-sugar sports drink that contains some whey. Sometimes I nibble on a few nuts. After tennis I make a low-carb lunch of salad and hard-boiled eggs, perhaps with avocado and once with left-over steak – yum. We also eat some of Anne Marie’s blended veggie soup which provides additional vegetables and hydration.

The second half of the day is trickier, as part of the tradition is to eat together at home or a carefully chosen restaurant, usually around 7:30pm. With six or seven hours between lunch and dinner, there is a risk of getting overly hungry and overeating. I employ the tactic of conscious snacking mid-way through the afternoon; perhaps I eat an apple or half of banana with almond butter. Now here is the key: before going out to dinner I snack on veggies prepared at lunch – cucumber, radish, carrots, celery and red pepper – dipping them in salsa or hummus. This helps me to avoid the very tempting crackers and high fat dips. Since I am not starving when I get to the restaurant it is more likely I will be able to resist the bread. One evening I helped myself to a little bread because I wanted to taste the interesting looking bean dip. “Hmm,” I said to Anne Marie, “once I start its hard to stop.” Without saying a word she discreetly slid the black candle holder between the bread and my eyes. It worked – out of sight, out of mind.

Ordering at a restaurant takes awareness and a little luck. Usually a salad followed by a small plate or shared entrée is about right for me. If my entrée is going to be rich, I avoid a salad with cheese and nuts. Otherwise I choose whatever salad I want. I might ask the server to substitute the starch in my main course for extra veggies while other times I want to try the dish as conceived by the chef. If there is a lot of starch on my plate, I aim to leave some of it, though having grown up with parents in the Clean Plate Club generation, this is difficult.

Drinking alcohol or not is a very individual choice. I like to drink, especially good wine. The downsides include the additional calories of the drinks themselves (20 for each ounce of wine) and the fact that drinking increases the likelihood that I will overeat, leading to a good chance of disturbed sleep and feeling lousy the next day. I decided to limit myself to one drink before dinner because when I am eating cleanly, I am much more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

I had an absolutely fabulous time on this vacation, enhanced by the fact that I didn’t feel the guilt or physical symptoms of overeating or being over-served. On the third afternoon, I felt inspired to do some yoga on the beach. This practice was a turning point and I had a lot of energy for the remainder of the trip. Another high point occurred the second to last day on court when I experienced a renewed sense of strength and flow throughout my body. During the week I stayed healthy and slept well without any pharmaceutical or herbal support. For the record, I did not lose weight. Anne Marie did though, and I didn’t gain any! Regardless of the outcome, I’m reminded that it is the journey that is important, not the destination. Setting goals gave us direction and I enjoyed the trip much more as a result of not overeating.

[1] Isn’t is interesting that S’mores embeds in its name their inherently addictive quality?

et cetera