Can I Keep an Air Plant Alive?

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I am notoriously bad with plants and I know exactly why. I habitually neglect my plants’ basic needs after a short period of caring for them. Even when I’m really trying, I seem to always overwater, underwater, or place the plant in too much or too little sunlight. After a while, I give up and decide that if I can’t keep my vegetables, herbs or flowers safely away from the brink of death even when I’m trying my hardest, I just won’t try at all.

By the end of the summer, my yard and porch look like the aftermath of a disaster, with just a few hardy and hopeful sprigs hanging on to life. Only the plants that can survive with no human intervention will make it. So I have a four year old thyme plant and a bunch of chives that come back to life every year, and a persistent mint plant, and not much else to show for my minimal effort and abundant good intentions.

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I feel somewhat guilty about this, but not guilty enough to actually change or improve my gardening skills. It makes me sad that I can’t be surrounded by thriving flora, because I do really like plants. And not just in the way that a bacon lover likes pigs. I would like to keep some non-edible plants around me, because nature makes me happy, so what I’m searching for is a hardy plant that requires very little skill or effort to keep alive.

My sister gave me this beautiful geometric brass plant hanger for my birthday this year. It’s supposed to house air plants, which are supposed to be very easy to care for. They require no soil and very little sunlight. You only have to water them once a week, which is a process that entails soaking them in water, drying them off, and putting them back in their home. Sounds easy right?

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Fear of failure with the air plants has prevented me from going out and buying one for four months. I feel like this is my last shot at gardening and I don’t want to blow it. My Pinterest and Instagram feeds are flooded with cute minimalist shots of air plants in modern planters on white backgrounds, and I know that I will probably eventually face the truth that I’m not hip enough to be a part of this trend, but I also feel compelled to try. Last weekend I bought two Tillandsia plants at The Great Big Greenhouse, a local nursery and plant store in Richmond. I’m giving it a try.

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This whole thing stresses me out in a way that modern minimalist design is really not supposed to do, right? Why do I have such anxiety about whether I can make this work? Come on geometric air plant hanger, SPARK JOY, why don’t you?

I might not be very good at this hip modern thing. Time will tell if I can be cool and keep the dream alive. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for something old fashioned.

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Orange Cranberry Old Fashioned

This is a basic old fashioned, made with orange cranberry ice cubes for a little holiday flavor. I used a garnish tool to peel strips of orange rind, then I juiced the orange, and poured the orange juice with bits of orange peel and dried cranberries into an ice cube tray to freeze.

cranberryorangeiceInstead of watering your drink down over time, these cubes will flavor your drink over time. Could this be the new old fashioned way?

  • 1.5 oz. bourbon whiskey
  • 2 tsp. simple syrup (or 1 tsp. turbinado + 1 tsp. boiling water, stirred until dissolved then cooled)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 orange cranberry ice cubes (see description above for instructions)
  • 1 slice of orange

Mix first three ingredients, pour over ice cubes in a glass and stir. Garnish with slice of orange. Enjoy!

Homemade Holiday Gifts

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D.I.Why?

If you’re on a tight budget, you like to get crafty, or you want to give a unique gift that you can’t find in a store, a homemade gift might be just the thing you need this holiday season. There have been a few occasions over the last few years when I have wanted to do something a little extra special without spending a fortune. I have collected a few ideas to fuel your DIY dreams. I have made almost all of these gifts myself, and I am solidly in the Beginner level of crafting, so you can bet these projects are totally achievable, even for those who are not artistically inclined. Happy crafting!

Chalkboard Wine Glasses

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This is a quite classy alternative to red solo cups and magic markers. These were super easy to make with chalkboard spray paint, plastic wrap and tape. The host or hostess in your life will appreciate how these will eliminate confusion over which glass belongs to which guest at their next dinner party or gathering. Gift with a couple of pieces of chalk wrapped in bakers twine. Can be adapted for pint glasses for beer drinkers too. Find the tutorial here.

Grown Up Hot Chocolate Kit

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Simply combine hot cocoa powder and miniature marshmallows in a mason jar and add a miniature bottle or two of of Irish cream or coffee liqueur.

Spa in a Jar

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I deviated from the instructions a bit to personalize these to the tastes of the recipients, but they were a cinch to make and a hit with my friends and family. I included in my jars: mini manicure kit, nail polish, nail polish remover, body lotion, aromatherapy bubble bath, lip balm, detoxifying face mask, peppermint foot scrub, and a gel eye mask.

The tutorial includes a printable label and has some more great ideas for sample and travel size ingredients for this gift. Find it here.

Bourbon and Whiskey Tasting Kit

I know, I know, again with the jars. I was really into mason jars in 2013 and I was recovering from breaking my right hand and left wrist at the same time, so I was in two arm braces and these were a lot easier to manage than wrapping paper! This one went to my brother in law, who at the time was a loyal Jim Beam drinker and was trying to branch out and try new bourbons and whiskeys. I combined a set of whiskey stones with four or five miniature bottles of liquor in… you guessed it, a mason jar!

Date Coupons

 

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I got this idea from Pinterest, where you can find several different versions of the concept. I created 12 different date ideas specific to our interests and the city where we live, printed them up and glued them to index cards with scrapbook paper trim, and stored them all in a recipe card box that I bought at the craft store. If your significant other is the kind of person who likes to invest in experiences rather than physical things, or even if your dates are becoming routine and you want to shake things up, this is a fun gift that you can enjoy together all year long.

Flannel Throw Blankets

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I haven’t done this one yet but it’s on my list for this year. It looks super easy and I had a lot of fun picking out the fabrics from the Plaiditudes line at Jo-Ann Fabrics this weekend. I don’t spend a lot of time in craft stores, but I did learn from comments online to look out for this heavier weight double sided plaid flannel and to skip the “snuggle flannel,” quilting flannel and shirting flannel when I got to the store. I have a good feeling about this one! Read the tutorial here.

Check out some more of my favorites on Pinterest, and if you have any more suggestions for DIY, budget and homemade gifts, please leave them in the comments!

Masala Chai Spiced Tofu and Coconut Kale

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I used to work in an office with one of my best friends. We didn’t actually work together much, but we worked in the same office. We started a daily ritual of having tea every afternoon around 2:30, taking a quick five minute break to steep some tea and check in to see how things were going. I really enjoyed the ritual of taking a break to patiently wait four minutes for the tea to steep before bringing it back to my desk. It calmed and refocused me to have a productive afternoon. In the culture of instant gratification in which we live, there is something special about the daily ritual of forcing yourself to wait for the tea leaves to work their magic in your mug.

So lately I have been thinking a lot about patience and slowing down. And, naturally, as my thoughts often drift to food, I have been thinking about tea and crockpots and marinades and slow roasting. I had this idea to marinate tofu in very strong tea to infuse my cooking with the same flavors that I usually reserve for my mid-afternoon tea breaks. It took two attempts to get the method right, and the end result is a masala chai spiced tofu that is bursting with flavor.

Either I am more attuned to the tea popping up all around me, or there is a similar trend going on in the craft beer world, because the same weekend I made my first attempt at chai spiced tofu, I tasted this delicious brew:

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Local Richmond brewery Ardent Craft Ales released its Earl Grey Brown Ale to a packed tap room last month, and it instantly became one of my new favorite beers. I’m happy to see so many craft breweries playing with this style, because while I love a good IPA, how many IPA’s do you need on your menu? I’ve seen some great creative brown ales in the last couple of years, including this tea-inspired one.

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Ardent Craft Ales Tap Room

Then a couple of weeks ago, Kyle and I picked up Japanese Green Tea IPA, a collaboration beer from Baird, Ishii, and Stone Brewing Company. It tastes exactly as you would expect it to. An India Pale Ale infused with the taste of matcha green tea powder. Citrusy, bitter, floral, herbal. . . it’s a lot a flavor in a glass. If you like green tea, please try it.

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So, enough about what we’ve been drinking. Back to what we’ve been eating. I found some purple kale at the farmers’ market, and I made a coconut curry kale recipe to go along with my chai spiced tofu. It turned out beautiful and tasty, so I jotted down the recipe and included it below. So let’s get cooking!

Masala Chai Spiced Tofu

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Ingredients:

  • 6 masala chai tea bags
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 – 14 oz. block of firm tofu
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Preparation:

  1. Drain and press tofu. Cut block into six slices.
  2. Heat water almost to boiling in a teapot. Combine tea bags and 2 cups of hot water in a jar or bowl. Steep for 4 minutes, then remove tea bags.
  3. Arrange tofu slices in a glass dish. Pour concentrated tea over tofu. Marinate tofu for one hour at room temperature, turning tofu once halfway through marinating.
  4. Drain tea from tofu, and reserve 1/2 cup of tea marinade.
  5. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of tea marinade, soy sauce, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and honey. Stir to mix the sauce thoroughly.
  6. Heat 2 Tablespoons of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.
  7. Add tofu slices to hot pan and cook until browned, about 5-6 minutes per side.
  8. Add sauce to pan and cook until reduced by at least one half. Suggestion: serve tofu while hot, over basmati rice and cooked greens like Coconut Curry Kale.

Coconut Curry Kale

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 bunch of curly kale
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 teaspoons madras curry powder
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut or unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Remove stems from kale. Chop stems in bite-sized pieces and tear leaves into a separate bowl.
  2. Heat coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  3. When coconut oil is melted, add chopped kale stems and garlic to pot. Saute for five minutes.
  4. Add kale leaves, ginger, and curry to the pot. Saute until kale is bright green and slightly wilted.
  5. While kale is cooking, in a small pan, heat shredded/flake coconut over low-medium heat until toasted. Remove pan from heat.
  6. Add lime juice, toasted coconut, and salt and pepper to the kale. Toss and serve immediately.

Vegetarian Michelada

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My parents just got back from a two week vacation in Mexico. While we suffered through rain, ice and snow here in Virginia, we occasionally received photos via email of palm trees, clear blue water, and sunny sandy beaches. So one night last week, we cranked up the heat in the house and whipped up some tacos and spicy micheladas for dinner.

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A Michelada is a Mexican beer cocktail that Kyle and I first tried in Portland, Oregon, of all places.We encountered the michelada on several restaurant menus in Portland, including Pine State Biscuits, where it may have actually been billed as a “beer bloody mary” and Por Que No Tacos.

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It appears that micheladas hang out at authentic Mexican restaurants and hipster havens. I’ve never seen a michelada on a restaurant menu in Richmond, but I’m sure I will soon. I would venture to say they became really hip in Austin eight years ago, in Brooklyn four years ago, and in Portland two years ago. So at that rate, the hipsters in Richmond started drinking them last year and I’m just now finding out about them. We’ll all be drinking them at Sunday brunch by next year.

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The next time you are in Portland, please make sure you throw on a flannel shirt and get to a Pine State Biscuits location before you leave town. Their egg and cheese biscuit sandwich with a fried green tomato was a heavy, delicious breakfast that kept me full while sightseeing until mid-afternoon.

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Their Stumptown Coffee is also excellent.  If you’re on vacation, get yourself a cocktail too. The beer cocktail that Kyle ordered came with a can of Rainier beer on the side, which we figure is the PBR of the Pacific Northwest?

We decided to try our own recipe for a michelada last week, because most of the recipes I found included some type of fish sauce, clam juice, anchovy or oyster sauce, which we generally try to substitute out if we can. So here is our recipe for vegetarian micheladas, which is still a work in progress and completely adaptable for your own tastes. I only measured to develop the recipe, but I doubt I will ever measure the ingredients again. Customize the number of dashes of each ingredient you use to suit your mood that day. Stir, taste, and season again if it’s not quite right the first time.

Also a note on beers: I tried these with lighter beer (Pacifico, Modelo Especial) and dark  beer (Negra Modelo), and while these are most commonly made with the lighter Mexican adjunct lagers, I prefer a darker beer in mine.

Vegetarian Michelada

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Ingredients:

  • 1 lime wedge
  • Sea salt
  • Chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid aminos
  • 1/2 teaspoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 dashes hot sauce (Tapatio)
  • 2 pinches ground black pepper
  • 12 ounces of cold beer

Preparation:

  1. Mix equal parts sea salt and chili powder in a bowl.
  2. Rub the lime wedge around the rim of a pint glass.
  3. Dip the glass upside-down in the chili powder salt mixture to make a chili-salt rim.
  4. Add the lime wedge to the glass. Add lime juice, tomato juice, liquid aminos, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and black pepper to the glass and stir.
  5. Top with 12 ounces of cold beer. Stir, taste, and adjust seasoning.

A Farmtastic Weekend

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It has been really cold in Richmond for the last week, and I have gladly stayed bundled up indoors at work for a few days. I broke out my fleece-lined tights for the first time this winter, and I wore scarves in my office every day. Towards the end of the week, it started to warm up (a little bit), and a peek at the forecast revealed that we were expecting a sunny, chilly weekend, followed by a few days of icy rain. Early Saturday morning, I decided to seize the day and take full advantage of the sun while it lasted. First stop: South of the James Farmers Market!

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I wrote about my history with Haas Mushrooms last week, and writing that post made me realize how much I missed visiting the market every weekend. The stark difference between the cold weather outside and my warm and toasty bed inside has prevented me from making the trek to Forest Hill Park for several weeks. However, I used to make it to the market by 7:30 every Saturday, rain or shine, so this week I decided there was no room for excuses! It was below freezing while I picked out my mushrooms this week, but they were totally worth it.

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How cool is this funny looking guy? This is a lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus), also known as a sheep’s head, hedgehog, or pom pom mushroom. I picked up a mixed bag from Haas and researched this odd looking mushroom that I found in my bag when I got home. Like many mushrooms, it has remarkable anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties. This type of mushroom contains 20 percent protein and is specifically well known for its unique nerve regenerative properties. One article that I found particularly interesting was this one from Paul Stamets for the Huffington Post blog: “Lion’s Mane: A Mushroom that Improves your Memory and Mood?” The healing properties of food never cease to amaze me. I am so looking forward to experimenting with cooking this cool find.

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In other weird food news, it’s Romanesco Season! I could not resist picking up this gorgeous head of romanesco from Walnut Hill Farm Produce at the market this weekend. It was so cold out there that this thing had tiny icicles hanging from its florets.

After returning home and thawing out, I packed up my car, picked up a friend, and headed west to Powhatan State Park for a hike. It was only in the thirties, but the cloudless sky provided plenty of sunshine, which made me feel a little warmer on my trek through this fairly new state park.

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This park is about a 45-minute drive from Richmond and it offers hiking and mountain biking trails, campsites, playgrounds, canoe launches, and beautiful views of the James River. Established in 2003 and still under construction, the park’s facilities are in great shape. I paid $4 to enter the park and there were very few cars in the trailhead parking lots. My friend and I only saw one other hiker and one cyclist while we were there. We took the Turkey Trail and River Trail to a few gorgeous views next to the icy river.

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As the sun started to fall closer to the horizon, we headed out of the park and drove about 15 miles to Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery for their release of the Vanilla Virginia Black Bear Russian Imperial Stout.

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The brewery is located on a beautiful farm surrounded by rolling hills. We made it there in time for the sunset, and the enormous fire pit was our favorite amenity, especially as the sun faded away and the temperature started to drop. I have wanted to visit the brewery ever since they opened but had not made it out to Goochland to check it out yet. The farm and the brewhouse were beautiful and the beer was delicious. The owners and the other beer nerds in attendance were very friendly and the whole release party had a very laid back vibe.

I think I’ll really enjoy visiting the farm again when the weather warms up in the spring. I believe their next big beer release is in March. Now that I’ve had my fill of the great outdoors, and the forecast promises icy rain for the next two days, I’ll be drinking my stout indoors, in fuzzy bear slippers, until next weekend rolls around again. Cheers!

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Embracing the Mushroom

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There was a time that I wouldn’t touch mushrooms. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick them off of a pizza; I would just reject the whole slice. If mushrooms had come in contact with my food, that food was no longer edible for me. A friend in college once served me mushroom flavored Top Ramen and tried to pass it off as a different flavor by dousing it with condiments. I took one bite and called her a dirty liar.

I was not allergic to mushrooms, and to my knowledge, I had no traumatic mushroom-related experience in my childhood. I just did not like them. If you replaced “green eggs and ham” with “mushrooms” in the classic Dr. Seuss tale, you would have an accurate depiction of my relationship with edible fungi for the first twenty-five years of my life.

“I would not like them here or there, I would not like them anywhere!”

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People just could not believe that I did not eat mushrooms once I became a vegetarian. I have to admit it was pretty difficult. It’s hard enough to find a meatless meal in some places, and harder still to find one with no mushrooms. I had an issue with the texture. I know, I know. . . how I ate tofu but not mushrooms is a mystery to me too. I also had an issue with the idea of eating fungi in general. Large mushrooms scared me. Portobellos? Way too big. Scary. Nothing good can come from eating a fungus that large, am I right?

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But then, everything changed during the season that I worked at the GrowRVA South of the James farmers’ market. I volunteered at the Chef Demonstration tent with Chef Samuel Baker* from May through November of 2012. You can see my posts about that gig here on Vegology in the Market Chef section. I discuss a foraged mushroom called Chicken of the Woods in a late September post. This pricey little gem changed my mind about mushrooms. Sauteed in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, the bright orange and creamy white Chicken of the Woods mushroom tastes just like chicken, no lie. It was incredible, and I was hooked.

“I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am.”

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After consuming the gateway drug that is Chicken of the Woods, I started trying other mushrooms too. My next favorite find was the Maitake mushroom (“hen of the woods,” coincidentally) and that one is still a favorite in my kitchen. I gradually worked my way up to the mighty portobello, and fell in love when I had the perfectly prepared marinated and grilled portobello burger last summer. Now I’m unstoppable and I have made a full recovery from my fear of mushrooms.

One of my favorite recent finds was Tosca Reno’s Pesto-Stuffed Portobello Pizzas, pictured above in this post. This dish is fantastic. I served it on Christmas Eve with a wilted kale salad, and my house guests didn’t even miss the meat from the meal.

Another favorite is Terry Walters’ Grilled Polenta with Mushroom Ragout from the Clean Food cookbook, available for purchase here. Sorry I don’t have an Internet version of the recipe, but maybe Google it?

And, just one more, which is a little out of season but can totally be made on an indoor grill if it’s chilly outside. My favorite recipe for Portobello Mushroom Burgers. It’s all about the marinade!

I guess the moral (morel?) of the story is this: try new things. You might surprise yourself. And if you’re still looking for a New Years Resolution, that might be a good one to try out.

*Chef Samuel Baker is now working at The Betty on Davis in Richmond, VA and you can follow the progress of his food adventures on his Facebook page.

Kick off the New Year with Cafe Gratitude’s “I Am Resolved” Bowl

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2015 is right around the corner and I cannot wait to see what next year has in store. The last two years have been pretty tough for me, and I am hoping for some good surprises next year!

I am not an extremely superstitious person, but I’m usually up for a few good luck rituals just for fun. One tradition I have adopted is eating “lucky” foods on New Year’s Day. Who knows if it has had any positive effect, but I really enjoy the tradition. After the excesses of the holidays, who can argue with starting off the new year with a big plate of greens?

I found a great dish earlier this year that is perfect for the first day of the New Year. It incorporates both black-eyed peas and collard greens, which are traditional symbols of luck and prosperity for the coming year. Add to that creamy pureed sweet potatoes, tender brown rice, a sprinkle of spicy Cajun seasoning and a drizzle of darkly sweet maple syrup, and you’ve got a top notch meal to kick off the new year.

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Cafe Gratitude calls this the “I Am Resolved” bowl (<-click for recipe), with a subtle nod to New Year’s resolutions. I first tested this recipe out in September. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is definitely worth the effort. Kind of like a New Year’s resolution.

Start soaking the black-eyed peas when you head out for your New Year’s Eve party, and prepare the rest of the dish in the mid- to late afternoon on New Year’s Day, to sweat out any remnants of your NYE hangover.

Although I do not plan to be sweating out a hangover this week or recovering from a NYE party, I do plan to make this dish on New Year’s Day. I’ll work hard to make 2015 an awesome year. . . but I’ll also take all the luck I can get!