In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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101 Uses for Butternut Squash

With the official end of winter (at least according to the calendar), the time has arrived to clean out our cold cellars and other over-winter food storage solutions.

I don’t have a “real” cold cellar, myself. I have cardboard boxes scattered through the basement, where I tried keeping winter squash, garlic, and onions through the coldest and darkest months. I also co-opted an extra fridge (much to the dismay of my electric bill) to stash leeks, cabbages, parsnips and salsify when the ice and snow closed in, making it impossible for them to remain outdoors.

On this day, two days after the spring equinox, one sole item remains, having lasted for  almost, I KID YOU NOT, seven months since I harvested it. Beginning of September to almost the end of March. (Counts on fingers again.) Yep, almost seven.

The produce item in question is a mutant. I suspect it is a hybridization of a butternut squash and a trombetta, both of which are cultivars of Cucurbita moschata – which means they can cross-pollinate. And apparently did! If I am correct, the parent plants crossed in 2017; a fruit – which could have been from either parent, as far as I understand – ended up in our rubbish heap; and in 2018 this monstrosity, and several others like it, flourished.

monster_squash

See that guy on the lower right in the Instagram photo below? Same. Squash.

The squash weighs over 8.25 lbs.  I think its amazing survival rate in storage was thanks to its skin-to-flesh ratio, for lack of a better phrase. Most of the “real” baby butternut squash (as shown below) caved in quickly – literally – because they lost more moisture due to their small size compared to surface area.

Given how much winter squash we ended up with last fall, everyone. Is. Sick. of. Squash.

Well, except me, but I can’t eat this whole thing by myself! So here is a list of ideas for using excess butternut squash. And no, I don’t *really* have 101 uses to offer, but I must be VERY creative in feeding it (or its mutant offspring) to my family. Also most of these recipes would probably work with other winter squash as well, not just butternut.

By the way, I wanted to make this a “fancy” blog post – you know, where all the recipe links displayed a photo from the original websites? But good grief, all those photos made the post go on FOREVER. I had to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling… and that annoys me on other websites. So I ditched all the photos. Trust me, if you visit the original pages, you will see gorgeous, mouth-watering photos of the recipes in question!

1. When in doubt, roast it

This Cinnamon Pecan Roasted Butternut Squash is to die for. (Well my kids want to die each time I serve it, anyway.) You could also add some butternut squash into a roasted root vegetables recipe.

2. Stuff It

Although for this approach, you need a “normal” sized butternut squash, not the baby sized squash we mostly grew, nor the monster squash I’m dealing with now!

3. Mash It

I would suggest leaving some chunky texture in the mashed butternut squash, by the way, rather than pureeing it completely smooth.

4. There’s Always Soup

Yes, I know the “lazy squash soup” recipe calls for acorn squash, but I always use butternut squash instead. This is a great use for red onion or an apple that might be past its prime – once it has been roasted then pureed, no one can tell the difference!

5. Or Slow Cooker Soup

Which is just as lazy, in my opinion, but takes longer to cook.

6. Or Exotically Flavored Soup

Assuming you like curry, of course. Not everybody does. Especially my kids. Who thought this was the most unholy soup, combining both squash AND curry.

7. Top a Pizza with It

I mean, unless you have the sort of family that will stage an open revolt if you put vegetables (or fruit) on pizza!

8. Like Lasagna Noodles

Monster squash is a perfect candidate for this approach, by the way, because of its large size.

9. Or Even Spaghetti Noodles

OK, personally I am not likely to try this one. While I do own a Spiralizer, cleaning it is more work than I care for.

10. As a Substitute for Pumpkin Puree

I actually find this trick works well with pumpkin bread as well!

11. As a Cheese Replacement

Butternut squash lends both color and texture in replacing some or all of the cheese in recipes. I have even started using squash to replace part of the cheese in my go-to broccoli cheddar soup recipe. (Three cups is a LOT of cheese!)

12. As a Partial Sweet Potato Replacement

Butternut squash has fewer calories and carbs per cup than sweet potato, so it’s a great way to lighten up a sweet potato side dish. I wouldn’t use it for all the sweet potato in a recipe though because the difference in taste and texture may be more noticeable. Best not to tell your family if you’re pulling this trick at Thanksgiving Dinner!

13. Remember to Save the Seeds to Roast

For the record, this works MUCH better with large winter squash than my little baby butternuts. The seeds were too thin to bother with.

There you have it! 101 uses (or thirteen, as the case may be) for butternut squash. Now I have too MANY options for how to enjoy this squash… especially since it will be just me eating it!

What garden successes do you find yourself struggling to use up?


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Winter Foraging Fails, Week Ending 3/17/2019

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m not wearing green, but I do find myself surrounded by it!

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

By the time I write next week’s foraging post, it will officially be spring. Of course, no telling whether or not Maryland’s weather reflects this! Even the weather forecast is no help… whatever it says now could very well be the exact opposite seven days later.

Since this will be last ‘official’ winter foraging post, I decided to discuss the wild edibles I failed to locate this year.

1. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) – apparently also known as Eastern Teaberry, which is why we are grateful for Latin names. They let us know we mean the same plant, regardless of the common name(s). This tiny plant features leaves which can be harvested year round, but the berries themselves are only ripe in the winter. I know it grows in this area, thanks to its listing on the Maryland Biodiversity site, but I didn’t spend enough time in the woods this winter to have a decent shot at finding it. The leaves and berries taste like – you guessed it! – wintergreen flavoring, except REAL.

2. Japanese Knotweed – ok, Latin names aren’t always helpful, because there are four different Latin names for Japanese knotweed, and I never know which one is “official”. But anyone who knows this plant, knows it by its common name. Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive plants on the entire planet. I am not exaggerating. In winter time, the dead stalks look like reddish, feathery-tipped bamboo. There are photos here and a nice close up of the dead stalks here.  The spring shoots are edible, and according to a number of sources, downright delicious. Finding the dead stalks in winter would have allowed me to monitor the patch for new growth in the spring, and try the shoots when they were most tender. However, because it is so invasive, I should probably be grateful rather than disappointed that I never found any in this area.

3. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) – I have already found two plants called “cress” growing locally: Belle Island cress (Barbarea verna, also known as upland cress) and wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris, also known as yellow rocket). I figured with the extra wet year we had last year, I would have no problem finding watercress. I was very, very wrong. No watercress, anywhere.

Last but not least – I never did return to the Jerusalem artichokes to dig for whatever tubers I could find. Instead, I am doing the next best thing: ordering some commercial, garden quality tubers to plant in my own yard, and harvest next year!


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Quick, Easy and Affordable Window Insulation

I remain convinced that lower energy living is critical given our uncertain future (both in the US and on the planet as a whole), and can even can be better and more enjoyable for the people making these changes. For this reason, I have made a few modifications around the house and in my life in an attempt to consume less energy.

One of my most successful experiments this winter was insulating some of our draftiest windows. Windows can be a huge source of heat loss for a home, particularly if they are large. Newer windows often have extra features for keeping the weather outside, but our big home improvement recently was a new roof. We don’t have money leftover for all new windows!

You can also buy insulating blinds, although these can add up too, depending on the quality, brand name, window size and whether you need an expert to install them for you.

Luckily, it is super easy and very affordable to improvise curtains made of polar fleece fabric. Not only does this help cut down on heating costs, but they also make the room more comfortable by removing that underlying chill that lingers no matter how high you crank up the thermostat. Everyone in my house was amazed at how different it felt as soon as I hung the curtains.

All it takes is polar fleece and S-hooks. You can find polar fleece at local fabric stores – often on sale, or with a coupon, which makes this project even more affordable. Both times I purchased fleece, I had a 40% off coupon! Polar fleece measures 59″ wide, so a little goes a long way.

There is almost no work involved once you get the fleece home. Just cut the fabric a little larger than your windows, punch a few holes along the top edge, and use S-hooks to attach the polar fleece to existing curtain hardware. (OK, if you have no existing curtains, this will be slightly more complicated.) If you have a very wide window to cover, you might need several S-hooks, for instance one at each end and one or two in the middle.

The fleece does not need to be hemmed, or have the edges finished in any way. For the kitchen bay windows, I tried adding a hem to the curtains so they would look nicer. That was a terrible idea, as you can see in the photo below! The fleece did not appreciate my efforts at dressing it up. And it makes no difference in the effectiveness of the insulation. If we ever had “sophisticated” company who might think the fleece looked cheap or trashy, I would just take the curtains down before they arrived and put them back up the second they left! (Luckily I don’t have any of those friends anyway!)

Polar fleece window insulation

Polar fleece window insulation

Tip! Cut your fabric to the width of your curtain rod, not the width of the window. I screwed this up TWICE. Luckily I had extra fabric!

Any color of fleece works equally well. For the kitchen, I chose a color that coordinated with the existing decor. I also put fleece over several windows in less-used rooms of our house, like the laundry room and a guest bedroom. For these, I just used white.

Another polar fleece "curtain"

Another polar fleece “curtain”

In the kitchen, I unhook the curtains during the day to allow natural light in. Since the windows face north-ish, the sunlight does not provide any additional warming this time of year, although it does allow us to leave the electric lights off. In the summer, we may reverse this practice and hang the curtains to block any heat streaming in.

There you have it! Easy, quick and affordable window insulation. Now you are empowered to cut down your own winter heating bill …. just in time for Spring!


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Winter Foraging,Week Ending 3/10/2019

I am cheating slightly with this week’s post.

I hope you’ll forgive me.

I’d already posted about finding female staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) during the winter, since the lack of leaves on surrounding trees made it easier to spot the fruit clusters clinging to the ends of the branches.

Honestly, I thought that was the point to foraging staghorn sumac, because most other resources only talk about the berries, and using them for seasoning or “sumac-ade”.

This was disappointing to  me, because I have several random sumac plants growing in the less-well-tended areas of my yard. But they are all male and therefore of no interest to foragers.

Or are they? (Cue dramatic music in the background.)

Recently I (re-)read The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and he thinks sumac shoots are not just edible, but downright delicious.

A young staghorn sumac plant

A young staghorn sumac plant

The best way to get staghorn sumac shoots is from the stumps that remain when you try cutting the plants down. The sumac will send new suckers out from the stump, and these are the ideal parts of the plant to eat, according to Thayer. Once the bark is peeled, they can be eaten straight, just as they are. He describes the flavor as fruity.

So in addition to the female plants, I am now on the lookout for male ones as well. Staghorn sumac stands out in winter by its very bare, sparse appearance. The plant does not have any twigs or small branches. Younger plants may not have any branches at all. In this photo, you can see the stark contrast between the staghorn sumacs and the tree to the right with its multitude of branches and twigs.

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

The bark is smooth gray with light speckles, with periodic rounded crescent shapes where the leaf clusters of the previous year had been attached.

Staghorn sumac bark

Staghorn sumac bark

One word of caution: Thayer also mentions that sumac is in the same family as cashews and mangoes, so anyone who is allergic to those foods may have a reaction to sumac as well. I had not read that warning before, so thought it wise to pass along.

Since I am not one of the unfortunate souls allergic to mango or cashews, I will definitely try the shoots later this year and let you all know if they are as amazing as Thayer makes them sound!  The shoots are available in late spring or early summer, so I am guessing around June in Maryland. Stay tuned!


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The Dead of Winter, Week Ending 3/3/2019

The weather in central MD in early March continues to alternate between soggy and frozen… when it isn’t both simultaneously! Even today, the forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow. I have not tried to dig up the wild Jerusalem artichokes because the ground remains frozen.

Despite the cold and damp, some wild edibles continue to thrive. This week, I’ll be talking about one of the less appreciated greens available this time of year: purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is as ubiquitous as field garlic, spreading in massive tangled carpets across any disturbed ground it can reach.  Purple dead nettle is most recognizable in early spring, when the purple flowers and leaf tips blanket roadsides and fields.

Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family, and shares the characteristic square stem cross section of other mints. (As does henbit, it’s more frilly cousin, which I may discuss in a future post.) The leaves are heart-shaped, especially when younger, and become more elongated and pointy as the season progresses.  The younger leaves may be confused with garlic mustard first-year leaves, and I discuss the differences here. The leaves also look similar to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the fine hairs on the leaves do not sting – hence the name “dead” nettle.

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

As the season progresses, the tips turn purple as the flowers begin to form. At this stage, purple dead nettle is very recognizable. (You can see some icon photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site.)

Despite the small leaf size, it is easy to harvest dead nettle in quantity. If you find a healthy patch, you can collect entire lengths of stem, with the leaves attached. Once back in your warm kitchen, you can remove the leaves from the stems if you prefer, but both are edible. If using the greens in a recipe (for instance, as a replacement for spinach), I prefer just the leaves. Because of their relatively small size, they do not need to be chopped prior to use.

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Purple dead nettle is a great solution for “my recipe calls for spinach, but I don’t want to drive to the store to buy some.” Yes, I have actually done this myself! The photo above shows dead nettle used in place of spinach when I made Creamy Tuscan Garlic Chicken last week.

The cooked leaves hold their texture very nicely in sauces and offer a mild chewiness compared to other greens. The stems, in turn, are crunchy so work better sauteed or steamed with the leaves as a vegetable side dish. While purple dead nettle can be eaten raw as well, I am not a fan of the slightly fuzzy texture to the leaves.

Generally speaking, I would choose wild greens like stinging nettle or lambs quarter over dead nettle for most culinary uses. But in early March, we take whatever edibles nature sees fit to give us!


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/24/2019

Today I offer not just a foraging post, but a cautionary tale. My husband picked up a tick in the woods yesterday.

You heard (read) right.

In late February. In Maryland. An active (though very hungry looking) dog tick. Thankfully he caught it before it bit him, but we were absolutely stunned to have encountered one so early in the year. I don’t know whether it reflects the unusual weather (five inches of snow Wednesday, all melted by Friday, temps in the 30s Saturday, temps in the 60s and rain on Sunday…) or some other change in the wild animals the ticks live on. All I know is I STILL feel phantom creepy crawlies on my skin. Shudder.

Luckily, today’s winter forage does not require me, or anyone else, to make trips into the woods. In fact, if you have a lawn, or have seen a lawn, or encounter grass at all in this area, you’ve probably encountered today’s subject: field garlic (Allium vineale).

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Especially in the winter, field garlic pops out against a background of lawn grass. The grass is dormant and thus remains short, while the field garlic thrives despite the cold. Once you spot the clumps of tall “grass”, that on closer inspection are actually round stems, you will see field garlic absolutely everywhere. In fact, it’s categorized as a non-native invasive species on the Maryland Biodiversity website.

It’s also one of the few wild edibles that are best foraged in the winter and early spring, rather than in the summer or fall. Field garlic is so tenacious, in fact, that it happily keeps growing right through the snow.

Field garlic doesn't mind the snow

Field garlic doesn’t mind the snow … or rocks, or weed block

And in pea gravel. And through my weed block surrounding my garden paths, apparently.

A few other wild plants look similar to field garlic, but none of them have the distinctive garlicky-oniony that field garlic sports. Maryland does also have a native wild garlic species, Allium canadense, which is also known as wild onion or meadow garlic, but I haven’t encountered it personally. (Probably because it has been crowded out by the much more invasive field garlic.)

Field garlic spreads through clumping bulbs and through bulbils that form in the late summer from the flowers. Honestly I have never seen the bulbils because all my field garlic is well mowed that late in the year and blends in with the surrounding grass.

Every part of field garlic is edible, including the bulbils. The underground bulbs are smaller than cultivated, store bought garlic, but are just as flavorful. I prefer to harvest them on wet, muddy days – which we have had a ton of lately – because it’s easier to get them out of the ground. This also means lots of washing to clean them up before using them.

Harvested field garlic

Harvested field garlic

Ways to enjoy field garlic include:

  • Mincing the green stems to substitute for chives
  • Using the bulbs in place of store bought garlic (it just takes a lot more)
  • Flavoring for soups and stocks, where size doesn’t matter
  • Drying the entire plant, and then grinding to a powder to use for seasoning later
  • Steeping the plant in vinegar to infuse the flavor into the liquid, and then using the liquid for seasoning, salad dressing or cooking (a great use for the smaller bulbs)

My personal favorite: field garlic herb butter. The recipe couldn’t be easier. Add 1 Tbs minced field garlic and 2 Tbs of other herbs to 1 stick (1/2 cup) of room temperature salted butter. Mix thoroughly, and allow to rest a few hours for the flavors to meld. Use for any savory butter purpose, such as slathering on sourdough bread, sauteing vegetables, or rubbing on a chicken prior to roasting.

This time of year, the only other herb prominent in my yard is my rosemary bush. For whatever reason, his Mediterranean self doesn’t seem bothered by the weather, although I do need to figure out how to prune him to a healthier shape. There is also creeping thyme (cultivated) and sheep sorrel (wild), but neither are thriving at the moment. So for a seasonal- and place-appropriate herb butter, I went with rosemary and field garlic. (Disclaimer: the butter I used is not actually local butter… but it could have been, as there are local dairies around. I just didn’t have any on hand to use for this post/meal!)

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

I would love to share a photo of our Sunday dinner roast chicken with its crispy brown skin flecked with garlic and herbs. But we ate it all! Suffice to say, any “Butter Roasted Chicken” recipe (like this one) will work with this particular wild foraged compound butter.


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The Cave

No, not Plato’s Cave. I haven’t felt sufficiently philosophical lately to tackle such deep topics!

Rather, this is another post in my series about what I do to improve brain function … or at least to keep it from getting any worse! Previously I discussed my experiments with nutritional supplements and exercise. This time I will talk about a subject even nearer and dearer to my heart: sleep.

(I know, I know. You thought I’d abandoned the series because I haven’t posted on this subject in weeks. Well, I still have things to share – at least two more posts after this one. I need to prioritize writing, that’s all!)

I have always taken sleep very, very seriously, even before I started focusing on mental performance. Originally I cherished the belief that if I could get perfect quality sleep, I would need less sleep. And if I slept less, I would finally have the time to master my ever-increasing to-do list.

I even briefly tried polyphasic sleep, but found it too hard to fit around a “normal” life of a day job, commuting, and family. (Maybe I’ll try again if my life stops being normal.) All in the name of getting more done!

Even though I no longer treat sleep as the solution to my to-do list, I am still passionate about sleep. I have learned over the years that my brain function is intimately tied to my sleep quality. Some “star achievers” brag about sleeping only a few hours every night, or starting every day at 4 a.m. – even on weekends! – but this is not me. Having experimented so long with my sleep (even using a FitBit for a while), I know I need seven hours each night, no exceptions. Eight is better. I call it my beauty sleep, because I am a monster when I  get less. Ask my family!  Just last week I was wide awake for 1.5 hours in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t sure my marriage would survive the next day. And not just quantity; quality matters too. A quick internet will turn up a gazillion hits on the link between sleep and brain function … slightly more than links for exercise and  brain function!

So what have I tried to improve my sleep?

First and foremost, I manage the levels of light in my bedroom. Intensely. I basically sleep in a cave. Starting with electronics. I almost bought little stickers to paste over the lights (Head Strong mentioned them) but thankfully they were out of stock at the time. This meant I could implement the free solution instead – just remove the electronics. That’s right. No night lights, no alarm clocks, no LEDs or other insidious little sources of light, except one power strip banished to underneath the bed where its feeble light is blocked from sleeping eyes. We recently installed a new skylight with a remote controlled shade, since we had to replace the roof anyway, and that has helped keep out ambient light from the night sky as well. My smartphone is always face-down on the bedside table. Always.

Speaking of the smartphone, I always put it in airplane mode before going to sleep. I don’t know to what extent the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emanated by smart phones impact sleep, but it’s easy enough to do, so why not? Especially since the phone so close to my head anyway… better to be safe than sorry. Because it now serves as my alarm clock, I cannot just banish it from the bedroom, as much as I might like to.

I also try keeping the bedroom relatively cool, and use a ceiling fan to keep the air circulating.

In addition engineering the environment for optimal sleep, what one eats and drinks also plays a role in sleep quality.  I appear to be particularly sensitive to stimulants. I never drink caffeine after lunch, and have recently cut back to just one cup of coffee a day – occasionally followed by a cup of black tea on mornings when I am really struggling. Whenever I am sick and congested, I will only take over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine in the morning. Recently I also learned that cordyceps tea also interferes with my sleep if I drink it at any point in the afternoon. (Which means if I ever need to pull an all-nighter, I know exactly how to do it!)

I am also careful about how late I eat, and how much alcohol I consume (at least on nights when I know I have to wake up early, or high pressure days when I know I have to be on my “A” game). Both late night snacks and alcohol can interfere with how deeply one sleeps.

In my last brain-function post, I referenced several nutritional supplements that I used for brain function: n-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and phosphatidylserine (aka PS) and high dose magnesium. These work together to both help me fall asleep, and stay asleep, and sleep more deeply. I will sometimes cycle off of the supplements – which is a polite way of saying that I forget to order a new bottle before I run out, and then take a break for a week or two before buying more. These three are the ones I keep coming back to, though, because they really seem to help.

Not every technique I’ve used has turned into a habit, unfortunately. The one change I’ve struggled with the most is managing my late-evening-blue-light exposure. Late night blue light interferes with the body’s internal clock, which can interrupt sleep cycles. I spend far too long each day staring at various glowing screens – like most Americans, honestly. It’s the computer, it’s the cell phone, it’s watching TV or movie with the family. I would love to reduce my blue-screen-time, I really would. I just… you know, don’t. I tried software which adds a yellow tint to a computer screen or phone screen, but never saw enough benefit to put up with the colors looking funny. I even own amber safety glasses that fit over my regular glasses to filter out blue light wherever I look. Yeah, don’t even ask me where they are now!

Additionally, there are two sleep improvement techniques I do not plan to try. One is sleeping on an earthing mat. I’m not willing to invest that kind of money for technology to replace something that should be natural. Granted, in the winter it is particularly hard to get enough earthing time – time spent in direct contact with the earth’s surface. But buying a product to replace that natural connection just seems so wrong.

The other change I won’t make: rising at the same time every day, even on the weekend. If you can do this naturally, it indicates that you are getting enough sleep. Some folks recommend you force yourself to follow this practice because consistent sleep habits help reinforce quality sleep. Personally, I take the opposite approach. If I don’t have to wake up, then I am going to sleep until my body says it’s ready to wake up!