Touring California Walnut Country

I recently had the great pleasure of touring California’s walnut county on behalf of the California Walnut Commission. The tour was quite an adventure that spanned two days – two days of learning about walnut harvesting and processing, as well as the many great benefits that walnuts hold.

My adventure started at the beautiful Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento where I joined a group of 20-25 other journalists and walnut experts for an elegant dinner. Prior to dinner, we watched cookbook author Mollie Katzen and Chef Michael Tuohy from Grange restaurant whip up some very easy pesto.

We all proceeded to get our hands a little dirty making Chef Tuohy’s own version of white walnut pesto. This was, by far, the best pesto I have ever tasted and not just because I made it. I am not a huge fan of pine nuts or basil in pesto, which are standard ingredients for many restaurant pestos. But Chef Tuohy’s white pesto was made with a base of cheddar, olive oil, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard, and, best of all, ground walnuts! Again – the best pesto I have every tasted! Don’t worry, I do plan on posting the recipe in a few days!

Our cooking demo was followed by a three-course dinner, with walnuts playing a starring role. We also were very fortunate to hear award-winning researcher and author Dr. Brian Wansink discuss some of the pitfalls to American eating, much of which was discussed in his book, Mindless Eating.

The next morning, we were treated to a walnut-studded breakfast at Old Soul Co. in Sacramento, which included walnut scones, banana walnut sweet bread, and even spinach and goat cheese quiche with walnuts.

After breakfast, we headed to the main event – a tour of the walnut trees at Fedora Farms in Meridian, CA. Here we learned about the varieties of walnuts, how they are shaken from the tree and collected, and how they are hulled and dried before being sent to the processing plant. What I was impressed by most about Fedora Farms was how much time and care they put into harvesting quality walnuts – it really is a great source of pride for the Fedora family and for walnut growers in general. Like Fedora Farms, most walnut farms/orchards are experiencing a fantastic harvest this year. According to the California Walnut Board, California will produce a record harvest in 2010, estimated at 17% larger than that seen in 2009.

Lunch was a gourmet meal underneath the walnut trees provided by Chef Patrick Mulvaney, owner of Culinary Specialists Catering. Chef Mulvaney prepared a first-class lunch for our tour, right in the middle of the walnut orchard – very classy! Oh, and did I mention the menu included 4 uses for walnuts, including the chocolate pudding!

After lunch, we headed to Yuba City to visit the Sacramento Valley Walnut Growers, where they process, package, and distribute the walnut grown in the area. What surprised me most about the processing and packaging of the walnuts was how many steps are in the quality control process – I counted at least four but I’m sure there were more!

For dinner, we headed back to downtown Sacramento to The Kitchen Restaurant, touted as one of “the most entertaining and distinctive dining destinations in Sacramento.” This meal and whole experience truly lived up to the hype. Not only was the atmosphere like no other that I had experienced (when do you ever get to go into the kitchen of a restaurant and just hang out?) but the food was unbelievable! Granted, I did not eat all of the 6 courses because they included seafood and beef, but the presentations were extremely entertaining and amazing looking!

Aside from the highly interactive dinner preparations, I was really impressed with the fact that each dish could be, and was in my case, tailored to fit each guest’s likes/dislikes. Don’t care for frog legs? No problem! They will just replace them with tender breaded chicken made to look like frog legs – so  you don’t feel completely left out! Furthermore, as a testament to the Chef’s creative genius, 5 of the 6 courses included walnuts. After my 5-hour culinary experience, I was quite full and ready to fall into a deep, walnut-induced food coma.

Overall, the California Walnut Harvest gave me a new perspective about the growth, harvesting, and processing of walnuts. It’s not every day that I get to see a food that I love go from the tree to the table. And, although I have written about the many health benefits of walnuts before, this tour reinforced how healthy these little nuts are and how incorporating them into any meal is possible and easy.

If you don’t know by now, walnuts are one of the best, if not the best, nuts in regard to nutritional value. Don’t believe me? Check out the California Walnut Commission to see the full details!

Vermont Soap Giveaway!

Vermont may be know for maple syrup and skiing, but it is also home to this organic soap company!

I recently received a box of homemade soap products courtesy of Vermont Soap Organics, the purveyors of everything soap – from cleaners to wash your counters to sultry body soaps for your shower and tub. If any of you follow my other site Bistro Chic, you know by now how much I love soap products, especially little guest soaps, so I just couldn’t pass up a sample or two. And, after doing some research about the product, reading about the ingredients and history, and more, I was smitten with the little soaps.

Like the name says, the products are made from all organic ingredients, handmade from hypoallergenic vegetable bases like coconut and palm oil. The facial and hand soaps are made to fit any skin type from sensitive to dry. Plus – and this is my favorite part – many of their soap products come in a number of scents, including lavender, citrus, butter, and honey. Ooh la la!

Vermont Soap Organics Giveaway!

Now, I have quite a selection of soaps on hand, too many for me to use – so I have a great idea! Why not give some away and let you try them!

One reader will receive a selection of soap products from Vermont Soap Organics, including:

  • Liquid Sunshine for cleaning
  • Lemongrass Zen foaming handsoap
  • Shea nut butter to soothe chapped lips
  • Little bar soaps

To enter, go to Bistro Chic and leave a comment on Bistro Chic telling me which Vermont Soap Organics scented soap intrigues you the most. Or, you can always Tweet or Retweet the Bistro Chic post!  You must enter the giveaway by 9 PM Eastern on Wednesday, October 13, 2010.

Good luck!

Warm Up With My Mighty Leaf Tea Giveaway!

The official start of Fall is just a few days away. You all know how I love the fall – especially for fall running. But the cooler weather is also a great time to start drinking my favorite teas again. I drink tea quite a bit in the Fall and Winter months, mostly because it keeps me warm on those cold days but also for the fantastic health benefits. However, I tend to slack off a little from April-August when the temps start to rise. I know that many people drink hot tea all year long (like this guy), but when it is warm outside, a cold Starbucks coffee just hits the spot.

A few months ago, on a rare occasion when I was drinking tea in the summer, I bought my first box of Mighty Leaf Tea. I had tried the tea at a restaurant a few days prior and just had to have a box for myself. The organic breakfast from Mighty Leaf has a classic taste – similar to an English Breakfast, completely full-bodied and delicious – particularly with a little cream.

Mighty Leaf Tea Giveaway

Fast-forward to the present where I am very excited to report that Mighty Leaf Tea has kindly sent me a few of their products to giveaway. Here’s what one lucky reader will get….

  • A stainless steel Tea Top Brew Travel Mug – (still in the box!) It’s awesome for drinking your tea in the car on the way to school or work!
  • 12 pouches of Mighty Leaf tea – 3 each of Green Tea Tropical, Orange Dulce, Organic African Nectar, and Organic Detox Infusion
  • A copy of Green Tea Living – This is a freebie from me! It’s an awesome book about the health benefits of tea and all the awesome things you can do with it!

To enter, you can either:

  1. Leave a comment on this post telling me what your favorite flavor of Mighty Leaf Tea is or which flavor you’d most like to try. OR
  2. Tweet/retweet this post over Twitter

You have until Tuesday, September 21, 2010, at 9 PM Central to enter the giveaway. I can’t wait to hear all your comments! You are seriously going to love these giveaway items!!

Late Summer Harvest

This weekend was full of laid-back fun – perfect for Labor Day weekend when you’re not supposed to be “working”. In just 3 short days, I was able to…

  • Take a road trip to the touristy town of Lake Geneva where I experienced my first olive oil and vinegar tasting
  • Enjoy dinner with Scott’s brother and sister-in-law and their family
  • Go hiking in a forest preserve
  • Try to teach my 5-year old how to ride his bike sans training wheels
  • Run an unofficial 10K

I still can’t believe it’s Labor Day. Where did the summer go? I feel like just yesterday I was planting my vegetable garden and opening my pool. Oh well, that’s one thing I love about living in Chicago – the change of the seasons.

Another thing I love about the change of the seasons is that most of the veggies in my garden are ready for picking – including a bunch-load of carrots! Unfortunately, most of my carrots turned out really small – no bigger than the length of my fingers. But don’t they look cool? Very harvesty. I think the problem with the carrots was either a) I planted too many seeds close together or b) I didn’t plant them in sandy enough soil.

Aside from carrots, the green peppers grew amazingly well, as did the cucumbers, roma tomatoes, and jalepeno peppers…

It’s such as awesome feeling to go out to the garden to pick veggies for salads, salsa, stir-fry, or other veggie-based dishes. I definitely think planting a garden is worth the effort, if you plant things the right way and continue to take care of it over the summer.

Tomorrow, it is back to reality and a TON of work. We are set to launch a huge initiative in 7 weeks in San Francisco, so I’ve got to get moving!

Have a great night all!

Carrot Farming

Today was my second-to-last Friday off from work (next week is the final Friday). For nearly 3 years, I have had the majority of Fridays off, and working 35-40 hours a week in 4 days. All good things must come to an end. Even though I was technically off from work, I felt like I worked the ENTIRE day! I have been going non-stop from 5:30 AM until now, and that’s after going to bed at 11:30PM! Sometimes, I just don’t know how I do it.

If you’ve been following me for the last few months, you will know that at the end of May/beginning of June, Scott and I planted a vegetable garden. We’ve had an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers – pretty standard garden items. But what I’ve really been waiting for are my carrots. Unlike the tomatoes, cucs, and green peppers which were planted from seedlings, I planted the carrots from seeds. On the packet, it said it would take about 90 days to grow. The carrots would be ready to pick when you could see about 1 inch of the orange carrot top. The carrot sprouts (the green parts) have been flourishing for over a month, but no sign of orange – until a few days ago. I finally saw about 1/2 inch of orange sticking out of the ground and was so excited I called Scott and the kids out to see it. This was no false alarm either – like the other time I thought I saw orange, only to discover it was an orange leaf.

I hesitated to pick it for a couple of days, knowing it could probably stand another week in the ground. But, after a particularly rough day and work, I felt like pulling the head off of something, so it may just as well be a carrot. So, I gave a good yank and out popped the 4-5 inch carrot. Even though the carrot was on the small side, I still felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that something that started from a seed grew into a full-fledged, edible vegetable. I don’t know anyone who has ever grown a carrot in their own backyard, let along from a seed. I was so proud of myself, for a quick second I thought about quitting my job and becoming a farmer. I mean when you think about it, many times I work longer hours than farmers. And beside, I love farmer’s markets. Hmm…maybe not. I don’t really have the patience  – hence the short carrot – and I’m not very good with farm machinery.

After taking about a zillion pictures of my pride and joy, I peeled it and sliced it up. It was much lighter in color than the carrots you buy from the store and not as sweet, but still very good. Right now, I have about 15 other green carrot “stalks” that have yet to poke their orange heads out of the ground. Ahh, I can just smell the cream of carrot soup in the air. Ok, I have to stop thinking about it.

I don’t know how farmers do it. Patience, please, patience.

Cool and Classy

Morning everyone! I went to another Farmer’s Market yesterday. This time, it was a market located at a Chicago train station. Overall, I was fairly underwhelmed by the market – or “French Farmer’s Market” as they were calling it. There were probably 20 stands at the most, plus no cheese stand. Still, it was fun to take the kids there for the first time. I had explained to Mr. C that we were going to a Farmer’s Market. When we arrived he said, “Mommy, this is a strange looking farm.” Yeah, and not a very good one at that!

I ended up buying 4 tomatoes for the salsa we made for our BBQ. It was $3 for 4 medium tomatoes – not bad. There just happened to be a Starbucks at the train station too…notice how big my smile is 😉

Although I was disappointed by the market, I was once again impressed by the freshness of the flowers. And, that they were giving away free ones! Ok, only to kids – but that means I snagged two flowers!

How funny is that sign!?

After the market, we got the house ready for our afternoon/evening guests, then hopped into the pool for the rest of the day. Dinner included pasta salad (healthy), homemade salsa with tortilla chips (healthy), corn on the cob (healthy), and Polish sausage (not so healthy). Well, 3 out of 4 isn’t bad! Oh yeah, and before dinner even started – we enjoyed some awesome appetizers – cheese and homemade sangria…

Classy and cool – and that’s all she wrote!

A Berry Good Day

Back in May, when Scott and I planted our first vegetable garden, we had also talked about planting raspberry bushes. Unlike Scott, who grew up picking wild raspberries in his backyard, I was deprived of this simple joy. As an adult, I had always wanted some sort of berry or fruit plant/tree for the simple pleasure of being able to pick ripe fruit without having to spend any money. After planting our garden, we decided to hold off planting the berry bushes – we had heard that once you plant them they are hard to control, plus they have pickers!

Well a few days ago, I saw an older couple stop to pick berries off of a tree just beyond our property line. I had always known that there were berry trees in the area but assumed they were poisonous – too many castaway movies where people would get sick from eating bad tropical fruit! After talking to the couple, I learned that the berries were actually mulberries (ie, here we go round the mulberry bush…) and they had been eating them for YEARS! Come to find out, that our whole street, which borders a golf course, is loaded with mulberry trees just ripe for the picking! OK, and it gets even better than that. A few days later, my brother-in-law, who is quite the outdoorsman, was walking along the same street bordering the golf course and noticed we had several wild raspberry bushes. He picked a few and we ate them just to see if they were good. OMG, they tasted just like the black raspberries from the store!

I can’t believe that I’ve lived here for almost 9 years and have never once attempted to eat our local berries. And the best part is that with so many berry bushes just steps from our front door, we won’t need to plant any ourselves!

BTW – those are the first snap peas picked from my garden – woo hoo!

Sneaky Ways to Increase Your Metabolism

(Photo Source)

In my early 20s, it seemed like I could eat whatever I wanted and still either lose or maintain my weight. Sure, I was exercising on a regular basis back then, just like I am now, but in college, losing and maintaining my weight just seemed easier. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has finally acknowledged that our metabolism does slow down as we get older. On average, women gain 1.5 pounds a year during adulthood, which can easily translate into 30-5o extra pounds by the by we reach 50! Ugh – that’s not what I wanted to hear either!

Luckily, there are ways to prevent this age-related weight gain. There are obvious ways to help keep the weight off, including reducing daily calorie intake and increasing cardiovascular exercise. However, according to Prevention magazine, there are other sneaky things that can do to help rev up our slow metabolism and help us avoid mid-life weight gain, including:

10 Ways to Increase Your Metabolism

  1. Eat More – It’s true, we do want to reduce our calorie intake as we get older, but we don’t want to drop below 1,200 calories a day. Consuming less than 1,200 calories can cause our body’s metabolism to slow down and burn precious muscle for the energy that your diet is not providing.
  2. A Cup of Joe – Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and helps speed up metabolism. But, like anything else, you don’t want to go overboard on the caffeine either.
  3. Go Whole or Go Home – We all know that white breads, pastas, and carbs in general have very little nutritional value, particularly in the fiber area. But what you may not know is that fiber can help increase our fat burn by 30%! So, limit the white carbs and go for the fiber-rich whole grains. How can you tell if your bread is whole grain?
  4. Embrace the Cold – Drinking cold water and other calorie-free beverages may help to raise our resting metabolism – possibly because we expend more energy to heat the cold water within our bodies.
  5. Avoid Pests – Research has shown that people who consume large amounts of food treated with pesticides may experience a dip in their metabolism and may be more at risk for weight gain. Although it’s unrealistic to assume that you can always buy organic produce, you may want to consider buying the more pesticide-heavy produce in their organic form. What are the best foods to buy organic?
  6. Eat Your Protein – Research shows that protein can increase our postmeal calorie burn. Furthermore, our body needs protein to maintain lean muscle, which also helps increase our metabolism and calorie burn.
  7. Pump Some Iron – No, I don’t mean weight-lifting, although that’s important too. I’m talking about the mineral iron. We need iron-rich foods to carry the oxygen our muscles need to burn fat. By nature, women lose iron each month during menstruation. If we don’t replenish our iron stores, we run the risk of having low energy and a sluggish metabolism.
  8. Get Your Vitamins – Vitamin D helps preserve our muscle tissue that speeds up our metabolism. Afraid you’re not getting enough? Try these great sources of Vitamin D: fortified milk and cereal, salmon, tuna, and eggs.
  9. Limit Booze – Alcohol burns less fat and what it does burn, it burns more slowly than most foods/drinks.
  10. Increase Calcium – Research shows that calcium deficiency may be linked to slow metabolism in women. So make sure you’re drinking your milk and eating your yogurt! What has more calcium, Greek or regular yogurt?

Now, get that metabolism cranking!

Red, White, and Blue Breakfast

I continued my quest to be the ultimate weekend warrior. Well, it’s not really a quest, but I seem to be doing a lot of weekend projects lately. I knew the day was going to be a busy but good day. My 7-mile run was kick-ass, ended up running it with 8:10 minute miles, woo hoo! That is faster than I ran on Friday when I ran a 5-miler. I felt so energized after my run too, probably because of the cool mist that followed me on the road.

Next was breakfast – a bowl of 16 g of fiber! In other words, I had a cup of Kashi Go Lean crunch with a full cup of raspberries and blueberries. It was a very patriotic breakfast, don’t you think? Plus, I finally got to open my brand new box of Mighty Leaf tea! After trying the citrus flavor last weekend, I’ve been on a mission to find Mighty Leaf’s version of English Breakfast. I went to both of my local grocery stores, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Target – no luck. But yesterday, after I met Anne B for lunch, I made my way to Nordstrom for shopping. I just happened to pop into the cafe where, there it was – Mightly Leaf Organic Breakfast in a box!! Who would have thought I would find my treasure at Nordstrom?

So anyway, back to the tea. The tea, when brewed as directed, is a moderate to strong black tea, much like English Breakfast. I added a little milk and I was well on my way to tea bliss. What I really love about this tea, aside from the bold but not bitter taste, is the cute little sachet bag that holds the full tea leaves. Harney and Sons tea sachets are still favorite, but this new sachet is a close second.

I spent the rest of the day outside. Seriously, I was outside from about 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM. I weeded our never-ending mess of a garden (actually a combination of 5 gardens) while Scott mulched all over the place. I was not practicing the “bend at the knees” way of gardening, so I know that my back will be killing me tomorrow. But a little back pain is worth it when I know I’m going to have an awesome garden in the end! Really, just wait until you see the before and after photos!

See you all tomorrow!

Are You A Tea Snob?

I attended a conference over the weekend and had the extreme fortune of trying my first ever Mighty Leaf Tea. As you all know, I am a tea-loyalist, with my faves being Tazo Awake, Harney and Sons Paris tea and English Breakfast. But I have to admit, Mighty Leaf Tea really threw me for a loop – the chamomile citrus was fantastic – so fantastic that I actually swiped an extra one to take home with me! Like Harney and Sons tea sachets, Mighty Leaf uses whole leaves in their cute little sachets, which makes the tea rich with flavor and very classy. Mighty Leaf also carries organic brands of tea which I think is very cool.

I’m actually headed out to Whole Foods today to see if I can find the English Breakfast sachets. Wish me luck!

By the way, do you consider yourself a tea snob or tea loyalist? What’s your favorite tea?