Spicy dill refrigerator pickles

Lately, I've been super into cucumbers.

I've always liked cucumbers. They add fantastic fresh flavor to my Tzatziki on some creamy-crunchy Black-Eyed Pea Falafel. A few slices of cucumber and a squeeze of lemon juice transforms ordinary water into sippable spa heaven. Sushi isn't really sushi without some cucumber strips inside. But lately I can't get enough crispy cukes. I'm totally intrigued by Joy the Baker's Cucumber Gin Salt and Pepper Cups. I keep dreaming of cucumber salads and cucumber with red onion and cucumber with radishes and it's getting weird.

Here's hoping some homemade pickles cure this strange craving.

Homemade pickles are crazy simple to make and their flavor is unmatched by grocery store brands. Kirby cucumbers are classic for pickling, but Persian cucumbers also work well. I used mini snacking cucumbers and they were excellent. No matter what type you choose, just make sure they are firm and unwrinkled - fresh cucumbers will make crisper pickles.
Cucumbers don't pack in as much nutrition as other green vegetables, but they still have some great qualities. One cup of cucumber has only 16 calories and they are about 95% water, making them a hydration-promoting food. They contain sterols, a compound that competes with dietary cholesterol for absorption in the gut and may help lower blood cholesterol as a result. Cucumbers also make great breath fresheners! Enjoy tossed in salads, shaken into infused water, or dipped in yogurt sauce for a healthy snack. Mix with fresh dill and you can't possibly go wrong.


Crispy kale salad with avocado and strawberries

I dreamed up this dish last summer when all I wanted was vegetable-rich salads every day. The farmer's markets in Denver were fantastic, and I was constantly inspired to eat all the veggies I could get my hands on. Honestly, I prefer this salad without dressing - the crunchy kale, sweet strawberries, and creamy avocado all provide so much flavor on their own that a dressing is not necessary. But salads always have dressings, so I felt the need to provide one. Feel free to try it dressing-less or simply drizzled with a bit of balsamic vinegar.
Summer is the time to get your fill of berries while the prices are low and the flavor is unbeatable. Strawberries - the heart-shaped members of the rose family - make the list of top 20 antioxidant foods and are known for helping to improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and fight against cancer. One cup of strawberries provides 112% of your daily free-radical fighting vitamin C, and they are high in phytonutrients that help lower C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker raised by stress. Additionally, their high fiber content helps give them a low glycemic index, so they won't cause a spike in blood sugar.

Not to mention they're delicious.

Eat up!


Green on green salad

It's always interesting to me to hear about what people do when they get stressed. Some people bite their nails. Some eat a lot. Some don't eat enough. Some people run. Some do yoga. Some people call a friend. Some just sit and think about how stressed they are.

I work in a treatment center for eating disorders, and there are times when the job gets stressful. Emotionally exhausting, really. It's a highly confrontational environment where staff is constantly noticing and correcting rituals, redirecting conversations, and helping sick people change the thought processes that feed into their disorders. I'm naturally a trusting person, so it's still a little strange to me to always be asking myself "Is he/she telling the truth, or is their eating disorder telling them to be deceptive?" It's a job where I have to muster up boldness, sometimes second-guess myself, and always wish I could do more.

When the stress from work or just life in general starts to get to me, I find myself longing to be outdoors. Sometimes, a quick barefoot run around in the grass is all I need to get myself grounded again. I realize this may make me sound like a tree-hugging hippie, but laying on a blanket on a lawn or cartwheeling down a grassy hill can quickly and completely change my mood. I'm not sure why this is: it might be because I spent a lot of time running around barefoot as a kid, but I think a more likely reason is that it reminds me of how big the world is outside the things running through my head. This is one reason why it was so tough to move away from Colorado last year - the stunning nature is always in your face, demanding attention. Someday I'll live in a beautiful place again, but for now, my little lawn is doing a great job of keeping me sane.

This salad reminds me of the things I love about the outdoors: lush shades of green, a variety of shapes and textures, and sharp flavors and smells. Use whatever greens you like. The arugula and Tuscan kale here add a bitter edge, so use milder spinach and lettuces if you want a more neutral flavor. The creamy avocado dressing is the star, so don't be afraid to let it shine.
We all should eat more leafy green vegetables.

Before you roll your eyes and move your mouse toward that red X, hear me out. Salads are not the answer to good health. For some reason, salads are touted to be the gold standard of healthy meals, but most of the salads I've seen in my life are more loaded with junk than they are loaded with nutrients. So please, if you're going to eat salads, make them beneficial. Put away your iceberg lettuce, your creamy dressings, and your bacon bits.

Leafy greens - particularly dark leafy greens like spinach, swiss chard, arugula, and kale - are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to fill our bodies with great nutrients. The darker/richer the color, the more nutritional goodness they have to offer. They've got fiber to help fill your stomach and keep you feeling full longer, vitamin C to help ward off illness and create healthy collagen, and beta-carotene to support healthy eyes and protect your skin from environmental damage. They also contain high amounts of folate, a B-vitamin important during pregnancy for promoting healthy spinal development of growing babies. Some leafies like kale and bok choy are good sources of calcium. One study, in fact, showed our bodies' absorb calcium better from these vegetables than from milk. Impressive!

Salads can be crazy-awesome or nutritional failures. Let's make 'em great!


Ancient grains granola

I always cringe a little inside when I pass bags of granola on a grocery store shelf. Somebody out there is making a killing by selling a little package of oats, oil, and sweeteners - ingredients that cost next to nothing - for $8.

We can do better. Making it yourself is cheaper and healthier- and you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry already.

Granola is always marketed as a healthy choice, however many varieties offered in grocery stores are high in added oils and sugars. Making your own granola at home is crazy easy and allows you to control the ingredients and nutritional value of the final product. This recipe is incredibly simple to make, however if you'd like to start with more straightforward ingredients and a shorter baking time, I've been making this one for years and I highly recommend it. Happy granola-ing!
"Ancient" grains have received much attention in the past year. Grains that fit this category include farro, kamut, spelt, amaranth, quinoa, millet, and others. The three ancient ingredients in this granola - buckwheat, quinoa, and chia - are actually seeds, but they tend to get grouped in under the grains umbrella. All three of these seeds have some pretty impressive qualities. Buckwheat, despite its misleading name, is free of wheat and gluten. The proteins in buckwheat can help reduce blood pressure by curbing the activity of angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE). This is the same action that Lisinopril, a popular blood pressure medication, uses. Quinoa is remarkably high in flavonoids quercitin and kaempferol which assist in metabolic function and scavenge for damaging free radicals. Chia contains fiber and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a precursor to omega-3 fatty acids. Don't expect "superfoods" such as these to change your life or your health in any drastic way, but when they taste as good as this granola, why not include them in your diet from time to time?

All of the grains/seeds in this granola are naturally gluten-free, but oats are almost always processed in wheat-containing facilities. If you need to avoid gluten, make sure you look for oats that are certified gluten-free (Bob's Red Mill sells a good one) to ensure a truly gluten-free final product.


Hibiscus-mint popsicles with raspberries (Recipe Redux)

This month's Recipe Redux theme is Floral Flavors. Participating bloggers were instructed to create healthy recipes utilizing edible flowers and share them with the internet world. There are a lot of flowers that add beauty and flavor the the culinary world: roses, lilac, saffron, squash blossoms, and lavender to name a few. I elected to use hibiscus: I love their beautiful, rich, red color and tart flavor. The sticky, hot weather in the Midwest has had me craving fruity popsicles lately, so this was a great opportunity to create a sweet and tart floraly treat.
Step aside, green tea, there's a new king of healthy beverages: hibiscus! Hibiscus tea, popular in Jamaica, Africa, Egypt, and Sudan, has a beautiful deep red color and a strong tart flavor (think Tazo Passion tea) and is used for refreshment and for medicinal purposes. Hibiscus flowers are packed with more antioxidants than green tea leaves, giving them amazing free-radical fighting power. Few clinical trials have tested the benefits of hibiscus flowers, but some reported health benefits include improvement of blood pressure and cholesterol, fewer cold symptoms, less muscle tension, improved vision, and relief from mild constipation.