Living Life Hands-On

Living Life Hands-On

Did you ever think about how disconnected most of us are from the processes that sustain our lives? Food…air…water…clothing…shelter. Those are the things that keep us alive. Without any one of them, we wouldn’t last long, but most of us outsource them all.

We spend most of our lives in homes and offices with artificial air brought to us through heating and cooling systems. Our water comes through a system of reservoirs and pipes and ducts and, we hope, effective filtration plants. Our clothing is made in far-off places, and few of us consider the sources of the fiber that forms fabrics or the dyes, the processes, the people behind the hands involved in the work or the transportation that brings the garment to a local store. And not many of us build our own homes, that’s for sure! What is drywall made of, where does it come from? Insulation, siding, window panes? Before it even gets to the builder, the elements of our homes have passed through many hands and traveled much ground.

How about food? What most of us know is that it comes from boxes and bags we get at the supermarket, sometimes so disconnected from its source that it’s not even food anymore. We don’t know where it grew or how, who nurtured it, who harvested it, their names or what their lives are like. We don’t know the animals behind the flesh pieces wrapped neatly in styrofoam and plastic,  their names, how they lived during their unnaturally short lives, what they experienced and felt. We don’t know how items in the supermarket got from the ground or factory farm to the supermarket or what resources went into making that happen. We have nothing to do with any of it. We often don’t even connect with our food at the very end of the supply chain, in our homes, cooking it.

I sometimes wonder how this disconnect from the basic work of being alive changed our psyches. Surely it did. Surely there is a difference between a person who grows up drinking fresh water from a mountain stream, water they get for themselves by cupping their hands or making an earthen vessel to scoop it in and a person who turns on a tap and has no idea where the water originated or what might have been added to it or removed from it. As the example of Flint, Michigan teaches us, we can’t always trust what comes to us through intermediaries. There has to be a psychological difference between living your life experiencing water as pure and life-giving or experiencing it as a source of distrust and uncertainty.

There has to be a difference between people who sit down together to share a meal they worked hard to bring from the earth and then cook, and grabbing some commercial food product on the fly and eating it in isolation. Even more so as we learn these products we thought were safe and nutritious are causing devastating diseases.

What massive shifts in worldview might we attribute to this change in how we manage our basic necessities?

Many years ago, I discovered something quite by accident: I felt better when I cooked my own food from real, whole plant foods. I felt better yet when I grew the trees and plants, then cooked their produce into something I knew was tasty and nutritious. I don’t just mean physically better, although there was that. But there was a spiritual component. Perhaps it was participating in the cycle of life, being part of something much bigger than myself.

I felt spiritually fulfilled, content, occasionally exhilarated. Grateful. Whole in a way I never felt when I turned on the tap or or picked up one of those styrofoam and plastic wrapped packages in the store.

I wonder, would the world’s great religions with their profound insights ever have emerged if people two, three and four thousand years ago been able to outsource their basic needs? Turn on a tap? Or did it require that different pace, a constant drawing from the sources, to generate the creativity that inspired the Bible and Hinduism?

Since I made my discovery so many years ago, I have always tried to live my life hands-on as much as I can. There was a time I hoped to spend my life on a farm. That time has passed, but I had the good fortune last spring to discover a farmer who moved into the area, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). At first I thought I might just do as most people do, buy a share, receive a 3/4 bushel box of produce each week and experience the changing season through the produce and the foods I would make with it. Then I noticed they had a worker’s share, and I signed on for it. Now I go each week to help with the seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting, washing and packing. It’s hard work, but it fills my soul.

This year I’m back in the fields, but I get to do something else as well: I will put together a weekly addition to Farmer Bob’s newsletter providing an alternative to the “meal kit” craze. How about Meal BOXES!!!??? A week’s worth of nutritious, delicious family meals (and more than likely some to share and some for dried or pickled treats in the off-season) for just $34.50/week ($690 for the season, 20 weeks of delicious, crazy fresh, organic, local produce).

So if planting seeds and pulling weeds isn’t your thing, you can still get in on this amazing experience, get back to the sources, share food with your family and friends and be part of a way of life that inspires appreciation, confidence, fulfillment and hope.  Check out the information about Bob’s Fresh and Local here. There are several pickup sites, so contact Bob through his website if you’re in Geneva, Elgin, Dundee, Cary, Algonquin, Crystal Lake, Woodstock or anywhere in between.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Less is more – but for whom?

In The Woodstock Independent, 2013

Fatoush with a Tahina dressing.
Fatoush with a Tahina dressing.
The lower picture is Fatoush with a lemon and extra virgin olive oil dressing. That time, I used a bag of “value added” veggie trimmings from Costco. The bag contains shreds of Brussels sprouts, broccoli stems, bits of kale and carrot.

As the only vegetarian cafe in the area, I have many health-conscious customers. Increasingly they ask for gluten-free products. Most of my food is, in fact, gluten-free naturally. For those who want some kind of bread with their meal, though, I stock gluten-free crackers.

Last week we ran out of our regular product, and I had to run to a local store to pick up a substitute: $7.00 for a small box of rice crackers with just enough in it to provide a few small crackers to four customers. $7.00 for a product that has little nutrition, no fiber and is high on the glycemic index. This same $7.00 would buy me seven bags of whole wheat pita, each with 10 “loaves” of six inch pitas, from a small bakery in Chicago that makes the bread fresh on their premises. Enough for 70 customers. Wheat with protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and good fiber content. Why does it cost so much more to get so much less? This question aggravated me all week.

I understand some of us need gluten-free products — yet I cannot help but feel we are being duped by a food industry that creates a health problem and then offers “solutions” from which it profits enormously. Gluten-free sales reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are now expected to exceed more than $5 billion by 2015. (Source: Packaged Facts, 2011). On the other hand, I wonder if many of us go gluten-free thinking it’s healthier but choose “substitutes” that are not only more expensive but nutritionally inferior.

Two years ago I first heard the term “value added product.” I wasn’t familiar with this term so did a little research. “Value added” refers to any step in the production process that improves the product for the customer and results in a higher net worth. I suspect the operative words are “production process,” which in my experience results not in added value for the customer, where value should be defined as enhancing health, but for the food industry, where value is defined as profit.

Those rice crackers I bought might be considered “value added”. They are simple grains of rice subjected to a series of steps involving water, heat, expensive machinery and sprayed on seasoning. Chicken McNuggets would also be an example of a “value added product.” A few weeks ago, a report revealed the real content of a Chicken McNugget, renaming it “Chicken Little.” The Nuggets turn out to be no more than half chicken “meat” and the rest fat, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and nerves.

While the real content of Chicken McNuggets may disgust some of us, there is nothing inherently wrong with using otherwise unusable parts of a chicken to create tasty food. People have always found ingenious ways to make the inedible edible: witness chit’lins (chitterlings) and gribenes. Chit’lins are the intestines of a pig, stewed for several hours and sometimes fried into what some consider a delicious treat. Gribenes are a by-product of schmaltz making. Excess chicken skin is cut into small pieces and sautéed in a pan until the schmaltz (fat) is rendered. The “cracklings” are removed, and caramelized onions and seasonings added for a treat that in pre-low-fat diet days was well-loved by many Jews.

Now that we know that fat, even animal fat, is not the cause of weight gain, diabetes and sickness in our American diet, who knows? These items may become popular once again. Coming soon to a summer near you: Gribenes and chit’lin stands!

What we do know is that when a “value added” product comes to us via the food industry, we can assume the way the product was turned into something that will “add value” for the industry probably decreases value for us. We can expect the raw food is subjected to heat and/or speedy, mechanized processes that result in undesirable changes in the food product (from the health standpoint), or cheap oils high in omega 6s are used or sugar or undesirable chemicals are added.

A real value-added product is one made from scratch with the best, whole food ingredients. An example is “Fatoush,” a way that Middle Eastern cooks found to use up stale pita. For a gluten-free version, leave out the pita. Although delicious with it, it is substantial, satisfying and delicious without it. A few chickpeas thrown in will replace the protein and B vitamins of the wheat, some avocado or olives will add fat, and walnuts will add crunch. No designer gluten-free products needed, just real food!

Fatoush means “crushed” or “broken” and refers to the Pita croutons that are a prominent feature of this salad.

Romaine, 1 “head”
Spinach, 1 quart
Radicchio, 1/2 “head”
Plum Tomato, 4 large
Cucumber, 1 large or 2 small
Green Onions, 1 bunch
Radishes, 5-6
Mint, 4-6 sprigs (1/4 cup chopped)
Garlic, 1-2 cloves crushed (opt.)
Lebanese Pita, 1 quart pita strips
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/4 – 1/2 cup
Lemon Juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon
Sumac, 1 TB
Salt, to taste

Cut 2 Lebanese pitas into 2″ x 1/2″ strips and toast lightly or dry in oven. Set aside. Shred (slice thinly) the Romaine, spinach and radicchio. All greens should be in 2″ x 1/4″ strips. Deseed tomatoes and cucumbers. Petite dice (1/4″-1/2″ dice) radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. Chop green onions and mint. Crush garlic. Toss the veggies, garlic and pita croutons together gently with the sumac. Toss again with extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste. Gluten-free: leave out pita and add chickpeas, avocado, olives and/or walnuts.

Happy, healthy eating!

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

Vegan Spinach Pesto

Vegan Spinach Pesto on Homemade Challah with Tuscan Bean Soup

OK, I’m in love. I made a Shabbat dinner for our scholar-in-residence weekend, and the visiting scholar was the first (and only) female rabbi in Italy. Of course I decided to make an Italian inspired dinner. Of course it had to include pesto.

Now I used to make a number of dishes with a delicious organic pesto I found at Costco. If you know me, you know I use almost no commercial food products, but this one passed muster with me since it was organic, had few ingredients, none that were unpronounceable and none that I didn’t recognize as real food. Then I started working on this vegan thing. Couldn’t use it.

In researching for this meal, I found the following recipe in Pinterest, provided by Baker by Nature.  I enjoyed the preview you see here — with a bit of my homemade Spelt Challah and some of the Tuscan Bean Soup I made for the dinner. The recipe didn’t use the requisite Parmesan cheese, and I was a little uncertain, but the result was, nonetheless, amazing. I couldn’t get enough. I hated to have to use the quart I made for the dinner and can’t wait to make my own quart to consume at home!  Oh, I doubled the recipe to get a quart.

It does occur to me that I didn’t miss the cheese partly because of the extra virgin olive oil (use a good one!) and partly because of the pine nuts, a traditional part of this recipe. Those pine nuts are ridiculously expensive, though. I may try it another time with peeled almonds or perhaps raw cashews (cashews because, like pine nuts, they are soft and rich). For now, tho, this is how I made it, and it’s wonderful!

Vegan Spinach Pesto

  • Spinach leaves, 2 very big handfuls
  • Basil leaves, 1 very big handful
  • Pine nuts, 1/3 cup
  • Garlic, 5 cloves
  • Salt, 1 tsp.
  • Pepper, 1/2 tsp.
  • Crushed red pepper, 1/2 tsp.
  • Lemon, juice of one small (about 1/8 cup)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 3/8 cup (max. 1/2 cup)

I rarely use black pepper in anything, and I usually opt for hot paprika over crushed red pepper. Honestly, I don’t remember for sure what I did in this case, but I would guess I did use the crushed red pepper, perhaps a little rounded, and skipped the black pepper.

I chopped the spinach and basil very slightly and put everything into a food processor, starting with the garlic and pine nuts, then the greens, and finally the seasonings. I pulsed it all a few times until it was evenly chopped, then ran the processor until everything was granular and even. I added the oil and lemon, then pulsed again. The original recipe called for more oil, but I like it better with a little less.

As I said, I’m in love! Can’t wait to make this again.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

Let’s Talk (No) Turkey

Vegan Stuffed Pumpkin -- happy for you and happy for our turkey friends!
Vegan Stuffed Pumpkin — happy for you and happy for our turkey friends!

“Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless.
Christmas dinner’s dark and blue.
When you stop and try to see it
From the turkey’s point of view.” – Shel Silverstein

If you are vegetarian and the rest of your family and friends are not, you will likely come to that moment when you need to figure out how to serve an important . . . say, holiday . . . meal.

For many years, I prepared two meals. Difficult. I like to cook and take pride in good results. Cooking without tasting is like, well, driving a car with your eyes closed. Don’t much want to go there.

One year I decided to bite the proverbial bullet. I relented on my principle of no manufactured food and bought a soy “turkey”, a brand which will remain unnamed. Shaped like a ball with twine around it, it looked like a basketball. It even had its own little package of (no)turkey gravy.

I made everything else my family loved: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, cranberries, breads, desserts. Then there was the (no)turkey.

Back in the kitchen, I arranged my (no)turkey as nicely as one can arrange a basketball on a platter. It still had the appearance of a basketball but a nicely arranged and decorated one. Everyone was waiting. I brought it out and placed it on the table. Stunned silence. Finally one of my sons spoke. “Really, Mom?”

Another of my sons, old enough to know better, did what one usually does with a basketball. He “passed” it to his brother, who unfortunately missed it. It landed on the floor, and my beagles, who would eat anything without even sniffing, rushed toward it…stopped, sniffed, and walked away!

OK, so that didn’t work. After that year, though, I was determined to find a delicious, festive vegetarian Thanksgiving entree. These Stuffed Pumpkins sell out every year in my (former) cafe. The perfect entree for a veggie crowd, they are also an impressive side dish for people who require a real turkey.

Pumpkin and Stuffing (serves 4+ as a meal, many more as a side)

  • 1 Sugar Pumpkin
  • 2 Cups (Pre-cooked) Brown Basmati Rice
  • 2 Cups (Cooked) Chickpeas
  • 4 Cups Almonds/Raisins/Craisins/Apples
  • 4 TB Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 TB + 2 tsp. Sugar
  • 2 tsp. Cinnamon
  • Pinch Hot Paprika

Cut off top of pumpkin. Cut stem to 2 inches. Scrape out seeds. Season inside of pumpkin with olive oil and honey (unfiltered sugar for vegans). Rub outside of pumpkin with olive oil. Roast one hour at 350.

Cook two cups brown rice. Set aside. Sauté almonds, raisins, craisins and apple slices with olive oil, sugar, cinnamon and a pinch hot paprika. Add to rice with chickpeas. Stir together and re-season. Set aside.

Apples and Cranberries

  • 3 Baking Apples
  • 6 Cloves
  • 1 LB Bag Cranberries
  • Pinch Cinnamon
  • Juice of 1 Oranges
  • 2 TB Honey (Unfiltered Sugar for Vegans)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 Cup White Sesame, Toasted

Halve and oil the apples. Bake with cinnamon and cloves.

For sauce, juice orange and add 2+ TB honey (or sugar). Reduce sauce. Add cranberries and cook very briefly. Remove cranberries. Reduce sauce further. Recombine sauce and berries.

Assembling Pumpkin Meal
Fill pumpkin loosely, replace pumpkin lid, wrap loosely in foil. Roast one hour at 325. Warm remaining stuffing and apples separately.

Plate pumpkin and surround with extra stuffing. Place roasted apples on stuffing around pumpkin. Top apples with cranberry sauce. Garnish with white sesame.

Healthy, happy Thanksgiving to you and to our turkey friends everywhere!

Slice from top to bottom of the Stuffed Pumpkin, and serve up this beautiful and delicious Thanksgiving meal.
Slice from top to bottom of the Stuffed Pumpkin, and serve up this beautiful and delicious Thanksgiving meal.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

Peppers Stuffed with Pesto Couscous

These delicious peppers are a great favorite with all my friends. They are NOT vegan. I needed to make something for a friend who is neither vegetarian nor vegan nor wants to be so decided to make these, which I knew they liked.

The recipe came originally from the New York Times and is readily available on the internet. Just search on Stuffed Yellow Peppers with Israeli Couscous and Pesto.

I’ve modified and simplified so I can put it together very quickly and easily. First of all, I use a commercially prepared pesto. As most of you know if you follow foods I make, I almost never use commercial products. Every once in awhile I find one I like and that meets my standards, though, and this pesto is one. I can get it at Costco, and it’s all organic ingredients, all real food, no distressing additives and tastes very good.

I roast the peppers first. The yellow are really pretty, but red or orange or a mixture would be fine. Green would be fine, for that matter, but they taste a little different to me. I cut off the lid of each of the peppers and trimmed away seeds and extra pulp on the inside of each pepper. I rubbed oil lightly on the outside of the peppers and roasted them in a pre-heated, hot oven (550 degrees) for 10-15 minutes until they had a few brown spots and appeared slightly wrinkled and done.

While the peppers are roasting, I prepare the filling, which is just a matter of cooking some whole wheat Israeli couscous and adding some salt and lots of pesto to it. I added a little extra Parmesan cheese as well.

For the sauce, I still prefer homemade to commercially prepared, and it’s so easy to make tomato sauce. I don’t peel the tomatoes — just wash them. I put them in a pot with a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and chopped fresh basil, put the lid on the pot, bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, and cook until well-stewed. If you like a little heat, you can add in some crushed red pepper, and if you love that basil flavor, add in a little more chopped basil at the end of the cooking time.

That’s it! Here are some quantities for 4 peppers:

  • 4 yellow, red or orange peppers
  • 1 cup dry whole wheat Israeli (toasted) couscous
  • Half of a 16-ounce jar of pesto or an equivalent quantity homemade
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup extra Parmesan cheese, opt.
  • Salt, to taste

If you’re looking for easy and yummy, this is it. I’ll try to come up with vegan version in the not-too-distant future.

For more, visit my blog,, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

7-Grain Spelt Bread

buns rising 04_sm

I love this beautiful comment from a post in the Weston Price website. The author is contrasting modern bread-making methods with the ways grains were traditionally handled and breads made:

“Grains comprise a wholesome category of foods that must be respected for the complexity of nutrient contributions they can make to the human diet, and must always be prepared with care to maximize those nutrients’ availability as well as neutralize naturally occurring antinutrients. . .

“Growing and preparing food ought to be a sacramental service. It should not be based on violence, as is most of modern agriculture, factory animal farms and factories that produce finished food items like bread. All those processes are based on “conquering” the food item and forcing it into a form defined by commerce. There are no more subtle energies in these debased foods, let alone mere measureable nutrients or soul-satisfying taste and vitality.

“Food is holy. Its preparation and enjoyment constitute a daily opportunity to experience happiness, satisfaction and gratitude.”

I make this 7-Grain Spelt Bread weekly. Spelt is an ancient, easier-to-digest grain. My recipe uses little or no sugar and about 1/3 the yeast in most contemporary bread recipes. Allow plenty of rising time, at least 1-1/2 hours each time. I’m anxious to test out a sourdough version!

(Makes about 40 buns)

  • Bob’s Red Mill 7-grain cereal, 2-1/2 cups (14 oz.)
  • Boiling water, 5 cups
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup
  • Sugar, 1 tsp. (opt.)
  • Dry yeast, 1 tsp.
  • Spelt flour, 4 cups (1 lb. 5 oz.)
  • Unbleached white flour, 3 cups (1 lb. – if you’re happy with a denser texture and longer rising time, replace white with spelt flour)
  • Salt, 1 TB


  1. Boil the water, stir the 7-grain cereal into it.
  2. Let the cereal soak for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add oil, sugar and yeast to cereal mixture. Stir in and let sit.
  4. Mix flours and salt together.
  5. Mix flours into cereal mixture.
  6. Knead the entire mix on a smooth, lightly floured surface or knead mechanically for 10 minutes. I use my Kitchenaid mixer.
  7. The dough should be very slightly sticky. Keep as light as possible.
  8. Knead dough by hand into a smooth ball.
  9. Place in a well-oiled bowl and oil top of dough. Cover with non-porous material. Plastic garbage bags work. I clean and re-use the same bag every week.
  10. Let rise 1-2 hours. Punch down. Let rise again if there’s time. If not, continue to next step.
  11. Using a 1/4 cup dry measure, pull off a piece of dough and pack it into the cup.
  12. Remove from cup, knead slightly, press smooth side down into cup. Tap firmly on counter to remove from cup and place on baking sheet.
  13. Repeat this process until all buns have been formed.
  14. Cover buns and let rise.
  15. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
  16. Remove from oven, cool, enjoy.