Hemp Milk and other things I’ve been making in my Vitamix

I had a Vitamix on my wish list for a few years. Every year when I didn’t get it for my birthday or Christmas, I’d spend the rest of the year telling myself that if I’ve lived this long without one, obviously I don’t NEED one. Then I finally got one this year (thanks, Smark!) and it turns out I DID need it. I use it several times a day. I’ve only had it a month and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

One thing I’ve been doing is making myself a smoothie as soon as I get home from work every day, which is great because it keeps me from binge snacking while I prepare dinner, which I’m prone to do because I come home hungry. And the neurologist I’m seeing for my headaches gave me what I consider the most awesome medical advice in the world: “don’t get hungry”. Hunger is a huge headache trigger, especially for me, so basically she just wants me to avoid the situation. So now I go around shouting, “MUST EAT, DOCTOR’S ORDERS!” whenever I’m even remotely hungry. I’m trying not to gain a million pounds while following those orders, though, so a late afternoon green smoothie is super-awesome for me.

Spinach-Pear Smoothie

3 large handfuls baby spinach
about 1 Tbsp flax seeds
1/2 cup non-dairy milk (I use homemade hemp milk, recipe below)
1 or 2 dates, pitted OR a sweetener like maple or coconut syrup, to taste
1 pear, stem removed
a few pieces of frozen banana
a couple of ice cubes
contents of a probiotic capsule (optional)

Put it all in a Vitamix and blend on high just until completely smooth.

My other current favorite smoothie I call the “Omega Elvis” because it’s full of omega 3s. What I adore about the Vitamix is I don’t even need to have peanut butter on hand. I just use whole peanuts!

Omega Elvis Smoothie

a handful or two of unsalted roasted peanuts
about 1 Tbsp flax seeds
sweetener to taste; for this one I usually use coconut or maple syrup
about 1 cup hemp milk
1 frozen banana
pinch of salt

Again, put it all in the Vitamix and mix on high until thoroughly blended.

If I didn’t have a constant supply of hemp milk on hand, I’d just put some hemp seeds and water in the blender when making the smoothies. We’ve been through many phases of non-dairy milk. I’ve gone through periods of making my own soy milk and almond milk, but I’ve fallen out of those because they are too much effort and require forethought. So I’ve been buying milk, first almond and lately coconut milk for Mark, and hemp milk for myself. I’ll probably never be able to stop buying Mark milk because he doesn’t actually LIKE milk and homemade milk grosses him out for some reason. And he likes it sweeter than I do, and also vanilla-flavored. But I hate all the packaging we are wasting, and hemp milk is pretty expensive. I actually tried to make hemp milk once before I had a Vitamix and it wasn’t very good. It had to be strained and even afterwards, I just didn’t like it. The Vitamix is amazing because there is no need to strain hemp milk! It’s completely smooth without straining. Check it out:

Hemp Milk

1/2 cup shelled hemp seeds
2 1/2 cups water
1 date, pitted
generous pinch of salt

What hemp seeds look like:

Put it all in the Vitamix.

Blend on high until smooth; 30 seconds is probably enough. It will get frothy.

Refrigerate the milk. High-speed blenders add a lot of air to mixtures, so in order to fit the milk into the jar I use, I actually blend in 2 cups of water. Later after it’s settled back down, I’ll add the additional 1/2 cup of water in and shake it up. I guess I’m obsessed with jars, but something about this jar, with fresh homemade hemp milk in it, makes me very happy. It’s one of my many vintage mason jars, which by the way, Vegenaise lids fit perfectly, so if you have a hard time finding screw-on, non-canning lids, save ’em up. (In fact, Vegenaise jars in general are really nice; that’s what I’m drinking the green smoothie above out of.)

Just shake your hemp milk before using; it does separate (another reason I can’t get Mark to drink homemade milks). This is barely sweet, which is how I like it. Add additional sweetener if you must. Sometimes I omit the date entirely. It also tastes kinda hempy, I won’t lie. If your favorite non-dairy milk is chocolate Silk, this may not be the milk for you. I don’t know that I would relish drinking it straight, but I wouldn’t relish drinking ANY milk straight. I only use it on cereal, in smoothies, and occasionally in cooking (though not often because I don’t like milky things any more than Mark does).

I’ve also been making fermented cashew cheese in the Vitamix, but I’m perfecting that, so that’s coming soon to an I Eat Food post near you.

And now for my latest completely off-topic update. Other than Vitamixing it up every day, I haven’t been cooking anything all that amazing because I have a new hobby I’ve been obsessing over. I know I’ve posted a few sewing tutorials over the years, but I’ve always prefaced them by saying I’m a terrible sewer. Which I am. I don’t even LIKE sewing. I usually only do it because there is something I want that I can’t find to buy. So sewing is kind of a chore for me. Also, sewing machines break around me, which subsequently enrages me. Just over a year ago, I mentioned here that during my annual gift bag-making blitz, my sewing machine broke and I had to buy a new one. Well, guess what happened last month while making gift bags? My year-old machine broke. And it would have cost as much as I paid for it to repair it. Now, since I hate sewing, buying a new sewing machine, especially during the holiday season, is NOT fun for me. Buying a new camera: fun. New sewing machine: NOT fun. Who wants to spend a bunch of money on something they don’t like?

So I decided to do something different this time: buy a sewing machine I DO like. One that won’t break, and if it does, won’t cost a fortune to repair, as computerized machines do. I think I’ve stated here before that I don’t trust new things, that I much prefer old things, and therefore do almost all my shopping in antique and thrift stores. It seemed natural to me, then, to buy an old sewing machine instead of a crappy new one. A mechanical sewing machine. One I can open up and see the parts working. One that’s proven its worth over many years. One that is so beautiful to look at I’ve put it on display in my living room instead of cooping it up in the spare room. THIS sewing machine:

It’s a Singer 15-91; it’s cast iron (my favorite substance!), has all-metal parts, and is completely gear driven. It’s from 1949, fully restored, and complete with table it cost me about the same price I would have paid for yet another piece of crap modern sewing machine that would break in a year. You can actually get them for $50 and under – sometimes free – if you’re willing to put some work into it (they almost always require a re-wiring as the original wiring is unsafe today). It’s a thing of beauty. I’m in love with this sewing machine. Which is a weird thing for someone who hates sewing.

But I’m trying to NOT hate sewing, and this baby makes that task MUCH easier, believe me. I trust it far more than my old machines. It will stitch ANYTHING. It’s amazing in action! I’ve made a couple of rag quilts on it and it stitched through 8 layers of fabric – without me changing from a standard 11 needle – without the slightest hesitation. THIS is a sewing machine meant for Renae! Finally! [Funny: I just read the post I linked to above where I mentioned I’d bought a new sewing machine just before Christmas 2010 – I state in that post that my “dream sewing machine” has “long been an antique Singer”…why didn’t I just follow my dream then?!]

Anyway, THAT’s what I’ve been doing. Sewing, of all things! I’m even more surprised than you are. And here is a fat squirrel:

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Blueberry Lemonade

I don’t know when I became the beverage queen, but apparently that’s what I am. In fact, my first batch of homebrew is ready today! (I haven’t tasted it yet; it’s probably going to be terrible!) I don’t usually require fancy drinks: I like orange juice with my breakfast, have green tea as soon as I get to work, drink water with lunch at work, and always have wine with dinner. I also love water and drink it throughout the day. There really isn’t time for me to be drinking anything else. Nonetheless, I’ve become addicted to blueberry lemonade this summer.

I don’t know why I never made lemonade before this year, because I love lemons, and I’ll often order lemonade instead of tea or cola if I’m out. And I always love it when my aunt shows up at the parental homestead with her homemade lemonade. But the idea of juicing all those lemons at once left me daunted. Then a few weeks ago, the grocery store didn’t have any loose lemons for sale and I was forced to choose between buying a whole bag of lemons or not having any lemons at home, and I just can’t go without lemons. I add fresh lemon juice to everything. Basically I was forced into making lemonade. So I bought a contraption: the JUICE-O-MAT! I must confess I’d been looking for an excuse to buy one. It’s the greatest!

I started making lemonade regularly and it was awesome. Then one week I had a berry overload and thought, “what if I put blueberries IN the lemonade?” So I did and it was fabulous. I mean, lemonade is awesome to begin with, and blueberries are awesome, but somehow when you put them together they are even more awesome than the sum of their awesome parts. Blueberry lemonade is the summer drink! And considering it was 95 in the shade today, I’d say it’s pretty intensely summer right now. This stuff really helps.

Blueberry Lemonade
makes about 1 quart

enough lemons to make 1 cup of lemon juice (about 6)
1 cup blueberries
3/4 – 1 cup sugar (depending on how sweet or tart you like your lemonade)*
about 1 quart of water, divided

* I’ve successfully substituted stevia for a portion of the sugar.

Make a simple syrup by putting the sugar in a small saucepan with 1 cup of water. Heat, stirring, just until the sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat.

Meanwhile, put the blueberries into a blender or food processor and pulverize.

To help your lemons yield more juice, roll them back and forth on a surface, applying pressure with the palm of your hand. Cut each in half and juice them. This is particularly fun using a JUICE-O-MAT!

Stop when you have 1 cup of juice.

Add the blueberry pulp to the lemon juice.

Add enough cold water to make 2 cups. I just do this to thin it out, making it easier to strain.

Strain.

Add the simple syrup to the juices and whisk.

Pour into a glass pitcher, straining a second time if you are picky, then add enough cold water to total about a quart (you can add more water to make a less intense drink) and stir or shake.

Chill for at least half an hour; an hour is better. Serve with ice, garnished with lemon slices.

This would probably be equally awesome made with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, or any other berry, but I’ve been so enamored of the blueberry variety I haven’t even bothered to try any others. You can also simply omit the blueberries for plain lemonade – it’s also very delicious.

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Real (or as real as it’s going to get) Root Beer

I’ve been making my own sodas for a while now. I started off cheating, which, by the way, I hear is all the rage right now. It seems like a lot of people are buying those SodaStreams and mixing the soda water they make with different flavorings. I have nothing against that, in fact, I’m planning to one day get my own CO2 tank and rig up my own version of a SodaStream so I can make seltzer. But ever since I perfected my real ginger ale recipe, I’ve been hooked on really making soda. In addition to ginger ale, I liked making root beer and birch beer, but I was daunted by the prospect of looking for roots and for a long time stuck to using extracts. The sodas I made from the extracts tasted fine, but I knew that couldn’t go on forever. I’m just not an extract kinda gal.

So I bought Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop by Stephen Cresswell. Now, I really like this book and it has a lot of great recipes I’m looking forward to trying, but nearly all of the root (and birch) beer recipes call for, well, roots. And while I’m not an extract kinda gal, I’m also not the gal who knows where to go to find these roots, how to identify them, and how to dig them up unobstrusively, and the book doesn’t go into that. One day I fully intend to make root beer from roots I have dug up, and birch beer from birch trees I have accosted (the latter seems easier, frankly), but in the meantime, I turned to my friend the internet and ordered myself some roots. The main root you need is sassafras. I bought it from Amazon, but that is way, way, way more sassafras than you need. Later I found it in smaller quantities at American Spice Company and Mountain Rose Herbs, the latter from whom I have ordered before (get the bark, not the bark powder). Sassafras is slightly hard to find, I think because the FDA thinks it’s a carcinogen or something. Don’t be alarmed: a glass of root beer every now and then is not going to give you cancer. Maybe don’t drink a gallon of it a day, but then again, don’t drink a gallon of anything a day, other than water.

I also call for sarsaparilla, though you can omit it (I made my first batch without it and it was very good). Sarsaparilla is actually a little easier to find than sassafras. I bought my sarsaparilla from Jay’s Brewing Supplies, because they are a local business, but you may find it in your own local brewing store, where you may also want to purchase bottles. (Jay’s does mail order, and I’ve ordered from them back before they had a storefront, and I can recommend them for that.)

You need champagne yeast. Stephen Creswell of Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop prefers ale yeast, but I haven’t tried that yet. Technically you can even use bread yeast, but I absolutely do NOT recommend it. I tried it ONCE the first time I made soda and it was nasty, nasty, nasty. I’m sure I did something wrong, but I’ll always use a beer or champagne yeast from now on. It’s sold in packets just like bread yeast, and you won’t need a whole packet. Just store the unused portion in the refrigerator and it will be good for a while.

Finally, you need bottles. The recipe makes about a gallon, which is 8 16-oz bottles. I strongly recommend you use swing-top (aka EZ cap or Grolsch-type) bottles. You can drink Golsch and save the bottles, or buy them. Jay’s has them. They actually hold more than 16 oz, so I always end up filling fewer bottles than I expect to. You can also buy or save non-twist-off-cap bottles and buy caps and a capper, but the reason I strongly recommend the EZ caps is I have found root beer in particular to be unpredictable in the amount of time it requires for carbonation and I like to be able to close bottles that aren’t ready yet and reseal them. I also don’t always drink 16 oz+ of soda at a time and like to be able to reseal them for that reason too.

This recipe was lightly adapted from Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop, and I’ve more or less used his technique. The author calls for mixing the sodas in a one-gallon glass carboy. I have three of these: I have two from beer brewing kits, and one that is from a gallon of apple cider. They are the exact same thing; I can’t tell them apart. Jay’s sells them too, but I paid less for the apple cider than they charge, so if you want a jug, just buy some cider. You don’t need a jug though. The jug makes it easy to shake the soda really well, but before I had jugs, I just whisked everything together in a pot.

OK, FINALLY, here’s the recipe!

Real Root Beer

1/4 oz dried sassafras root bark
2 tsp dried sarsaparilla (optional)
scant 2 cups sugar
1/8 tsp champagne yeast
about a gallon of water, divided

This is my measured sassafras and sarsaparilla.

Put the dried roots, sugar, and two quarts of water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes.

Then remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for another 25 minutes.

Strain the liquid. This is only half of it – I wanted to decant it into a clear container so you could see the color. You might be able to make a second batch from the roots – I haven’t tried that.

If you have a gallon jug, pour the liquid into the jug through a funnel. If you don’t have a jug, skip this step and just put the liquid in a 6-quart pot.

Add two more quarts of cold water, cap jug, and shake. (Or whisk well in a pot.) You want to cool the overall temperature of the soda to 70 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. You can do this by just letting it come down to room temperature naturally (if you are patient), by putting it in the refrigerator, or by setting it in an ice bath. Whatever floats your jug. Just make sure it cools down to room temperature (you don’t even really need a thermometer) so you don’t kill the yeast when you add it.

Add the yeast to 1/4 cup lukewarm water (about room temperature) and whisk. Let sit for a couple of minutes.

Add the yeast to the soda, cap the jug, and shake vigorously for a minute or two (or add to pot and whisk very well).

Use a funnel to pour the soda into the bottles and close or cap the bottles. Leave about 1″ head space at the top of the bottles.

Put the bottles in a cool, dark place – not a refrigerator, but maybe a basement. I’m not going to lie to you: explosions are possible and I’ve had root beer explode, so what I do is put the bottles in my laundry room and cover them up with a giant trash bag so I can contain the mess if disaster strikes. I haven’t had one explode since I’ve been doing that, so I think maybe it subdues them into submission. After 48 hours (maybe sooner if it’s really hot in your house), check the carbonation by opening one of the bottles. You can generally tell by how fizzy it seems when you open it, but you’ll also want to take a sip to judge it. If it’s as fizzy as you want it, move the bottles to the refrigerator. If it’s not, keep testing it every 12 to 24 hours. Every recipe I’ve ever read has made it seem as if it’s usually ready right around 48 hours, but I’ve had some sodas that have taken up to a week to be fully carbonated. If it takes that long, I usually put it in the refrigerator anyway and let it finish carbonating slowly.

Refrigerate the bottles for at least 24 hours. I’ve found that sodas really taste best after about a week of refrigeration, but bear in mind, although refrigeration greatly slows down the fermentation, it does not stop it, and your sodas will build up more and more carbonation if you leave them in the fridge. If you aren’t drinking them fast enough, open them periodically to release the pressure…although I wouldn’t keep doing that or you’ll have the reverse problem and they’ll go flat. You’d be wise to open your bottles over the sink regardless how long you’ve had them. I don’t know what it is about root beer, but some bottles in the same batch just seem to have different levels of carbonation, so I don’t trust any of them to not geyser all over me.

After it’s chilled for at least 24 hours, it’s time to drink! This is a little 8-oz bottle I saved from some commercial soda that I bought just for the bottles. I had a hard time choking down that soda, I’ll have you know. But I like to make a few small bottles to use when checking the carbonation, and also 8 ounces is about how much soda I really want to drink at a time.

Pour into an icy mug and enjoy!

Root beers and other sodas were originally created as health tonics. I’m not going to tell you that something with this much sugar is a health drink. I don’t drink that much of even my homemade soda, although it’s far less sweet than commercial soda (and the yeast consumes a lot of the sugar; it’s not as sugary as it sounds). But there is something about this homemade root beer that makes me consider it a restorative. I like to drink a bottle after a long, hard morning of working with raccoons. I come home exhausted and make a quick meal that I serve with my homemade root beer and suddenly I feel refreshed. And I came home tonight with a headache but a glass of root beer has given me the strength to go put together this baker’s rack that arrived today…which I’d better get working on!

This post is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, who I remember making root beer in his basement when I was a kid. He died years ago and unfortunately my father doesn’t know how he made his root beer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used an extract, as I don’t recall him tramping around the woods collecting roots, but making root beer reminds me of him and I think that’s nice. Wish you were here to share a mug, Granddaddy!

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Real Ginger Ale

I’m really excited about this recipe. After three failed attempts at a potable ginger ale, I have finally found the method and ratio of ingredients that works for me. Now, I have previously posted how to cheat at making ginger ale, and that’s a fine method to use if you’re in a hurry, unduly afraid of explosions, and/or like buying seltzer. I’ve taught myself patience by getting into fermentation (I make year-fermenting miso, I’m remarkably patient!), and I hate buying seltzer. It’s heavy to lug around and uses too much packaging. I even bought a soda siphon to try to make my own seltzer, but I had to go and buy an antique and it doesn’t work. (Sometimes my love of old things backfires on me.) Since I hate buying soda even more than I hate buying seltzer (it’s always sickeningly sweet), it eventually dawned on me I was going to have to do this right.

Before you follow this recipe exactly, you should probably know something of my tastes in soda, because I’m not sure if they are conventional. First of all, I’m proud to say I was raised right: I was only given soda on special occasions: usually birthdays and trips to visit grandparents, and I still consider soda a treat, not a daily beverage. Second of all, I don’t generally like most sodas. I despise diet soda of all kinds; I think it tastes like chemicals and I think it’s extremely bad for you. But I also hate sugary soda as well; it makes me feel like my teeth are rotting. Pretty much I only like ginger ale, birch beer, and high quality root beer, and even the latter two are sometimes too sweet for me. You may be wondering why I even bother with soda in the first place if I’m so hateful of it, but I do sometimes want something bubbly. Obviously the only solution is to make my own soda and control the sugar. So the first thing to know about my ginger ale is it’s not very sweet.

The next thing to know about my ginger ale is it’s definitely an “ale” and not a ginger beer. I’m not sure why, because generally I like everything in its most potent form: red wine over white, dark beer over light, intense, spicy foods over subtle, delicate foods – and I love ginger – but I don’t like ginger beer; it’s too strong. So my ginger ale is not overly gingery or spicy. It DOES taste a heck of a lot more like ginger than Canada Dry or Scheweppes, though, neither of which I think even contain ginger.

It’s also a bit tart. When I first tasted it, I thought maybe I used too much lemon juice, but now I’m positively addicted to this stuff so I must like it tart. I think the lemon adds to its intense refreshing quality. But I don’t know, some people who are used to sugary soda might find it surprising upon first tasting it.

Anyway, on with the recipe. I scoured the internet for recipes, and the ingredients are pretty much the same in all of them, though the method varies, so there’s no one I really attribute this too, however I tested the methods and proportions of all the ingredients several times before coming up with what I found satisfactory, and this is it:

Ginger Ale

scant 1 cup sugar (any kind will work: white, brown, agave nectar)
9 cups warm water, separated
4 – 6 oz fresh ginger, chopped (depending on your love of ginger)
juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (I use an entire lemon and the result is fairly tart)
1/8 tsp champagne yeast (from a brewing supply store)*

* About the yeast: several sources, including Alton Brown, say you can use bread yeast. I tried this once a couple of years ago and the result was so nasty it turned me off from trying to make my own soda again for over a year. So try it at your own risk: I’m perfectly willing to believe I did something wrong that time. I ordered champagne yeast – as well as birch and root beer extracts and empty bottles from Jay’s Brewing and they were great.

Chop or slice the ginger. There is no need to peel it.

I pureed the ginger for one batch and the result was so strong I couldn’t tolerate it. This method is much easier and tastier, to me.

Put the sugar and one cup of the water in a small saucepan and heat over medium high heat, stirring. Add the ginger slices.

Juice the lemon and add the juice to the pot. Don’t worry about the seeds; you’ll be straining the mixture later.

Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, sterilize your bottles. The easiest way to do this is by running them through the dishwasher, but if its inconvenient to do a load, just boil them in a stockpot for 10 minutes. As I mentioned, I got my bottles at Jay’s Brewing. This recipe is scaled to make 4 16-ounce bottles.

Most web sites I visited recommended newbies use plastic two-liter soda bottles, due to the possibility of glass exploding. One charming character trait of mine, though, is I never do things the easy way. For one thing, using a plastic two-liter soda bottle would involve buying and drinking two liters of soda: gross! For another, apparently sterilizing plastic involves bleach: scary! I want to make you very aware, however, that the possibility of explosions is very real. It happened to me the first time I made a batch of root beer.

When the ginger solution is finished steeping, let it cool for about 5-10 minutes (you don’t want it to be so hot it kills the yeast), then place the remaining 8 cups of water into a large pot or bowl. Whisk in the yeast, then pour in the ginger solution through a strainer.

Pour the soda into the bottles through a funnel, whisking it before each addition to keep the yeast evenly distributed. Important!: Make sure about an inch and a half of air remains at the top of the bottle, or you’re guaranteed an explosion. (You don’t want to leave too much air, though, or the soda will be flat.)

When all the bottles are full, seal them tightly.

Now, after my explosion event, I am very careful and I stick my bottles in a plastic bag in the laundry room. I sincerely suggest you do the same. So far I haven’t had any more explosions, but if I do, it will be contained.

Let the bottles sit for 48 hours, then move to the refrigerator and chill for at least 24 hours before drinking. Note that there will be some sediment in the bottom of the bottle. This is normal. If your pour the soda from the bottle fairly carefully, it will stay at the bottom and won’t go in your glass. It’s harmless if it does, though. Open the bottles very carefully! I’d do it – at least the first of the batch – outside or over a sink as it’s hard to gauge how carbonated they are. My last unsuccessful batch foamed so much upon opening that only a few ounces were left in the bottle!

It’s particularly picturesque with a slice of lime!

By the way, if a cup of sugar (I actually use slightly less) seems like a lot to you, you should be aware that the yeast entirely consumes 1/3 of it. That means that after fermentation, each 16 ounce bottle contains 2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Which means one bottle is still a source of your daily sugar intake that you should be aware of, but it’s far, far less than the average soda. One of these days, I’m going to try to substitute some of the sugar with stevia, but honestly, I don’t consume that much sugar from other sources and I’m so pleased with the way this tastes I’m wary of messing with it.

This was the perfect accompaniment to pho tonight, and when this next batch is ready, I’m going to try it with some whiskey and see how it mixes.

I hope my talk of explosions and foaming didn’t put you off making your own soda. You do need to be aware of the risks, but it’s really a surprisingly quick and easy – and very cheap – procedure and I found it very rewarding. The only downside is I don’t think I can ever drink store-bought soda again. And I’m kicking myself for not making this batch sooner because I drank my last bottle of the previous batch tonight and I can’t wait for more!

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Quick and Easy Ginger Ale

I hope everyone has had a great holiday season, regardless of the holiday you choose to celebrate. Myself, I have been sick since Christmas evening, when the “too much sugar” diagnosis I gave myself in the car on the way home from the parental homestead turned out to be wrong, or more likely, not the full story, and now I have a full-blown something-or-other that is not going away. I haven’t been sick in years, so I was a little surprised by this. For nearly a week, I’ve been lying around the house doing nothing but reading. Fortunately, my aunt gave me a bunch of books for Christmas that have kept me busy, including two cookbooks (Vegan Planet, which I feel like I should have had for years and Real Food Daily), although it has been frustrating to lack the energy or the appetite to make any of the 40 or so things I’ve marked in both of the cookbooks. (I have managed to make the mac and cheese and the veggie quinoa soup from RFD, both of which were good; Mark really liked the mac and cheese.)

One of the few times I crave soda is when I am sick. I usually like either water or wine with my meals, and water throughout the day. Most soda disgusts me. I used to like Coke as much as the next person, but now I really only like ginger ale (and birch beer, which is very hard to find for some reason). And it has to be real ginger ale, with actual ginger in it. And it can’t be overly sweet. Mark got me this Grown-Up Soda ginger ale, which I like, to help me feel better, and that was great while the 4-pack lasted. But since I was feeling well enough yesterday to finally make it to the grocery store and pick up some seltzer water, I decided I’d make my own ginger ale, which I like even better, today.

I’ve been making this for a while and I think it is the perfect soda. Others seem to like it as well, although it’s definitely tailored to my tastes and is not nearly as sweet as people may be expecting when I offer them a “soda”. But this is only a basic formula: you can certainly add more sweetener if you prefer. The only downside to it, that I can see, is that currently I still have to buy seltzer in bottles because the antique seltzer bottle I found still doesn’t work, even after I got the missing part. I think I need to replace a gasket or something. It’s on my list of things to do. I once tried carbonating on my own with yeast and that was…bad. So bottled seltzer it is for now.

I’ve made the vanilla optional because you should only use it if you have access to Trader Joe’s brand vanilla, which is alcohol-free. You may be able to substitute vanilla paste or whole vanilla beans, although I don’t know the quantities you’d use for either. What you don’t want to do is use an alcohol-based vanilla extract. I tried it once and it was NASTY, and it wasn’t because I have anything against alcohol, because trust me, I don’t.

Quick and Easy Ginger Ale

3 cups water
1 piece of fresh ginger, about 4.5 – 5 ounces
1 cup agave nectar
2 1/2 Tbsp non-alcohol based vanilla flavoring (such as Trader Joe’s) (optional)

Roughly chop the ginger. You don’t have to peel it.

Place in a pot with the water. Begin heating over medium-high heat.

Measure the agave nectar …

… and add to the pot, as well as the vanilla flavoring if using.

Bring to a fairly rapid boil.

Reduce heat somewhat so the boiling doesn’t get out of control and let cook at a steady simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes or until reduced by about one third.

Get a strainer and a receptacle ready …

… and strain the contents of the pot into the receptacle.

Don’t throw away the leftover ginger; you can use it again – more on that in a bit.

You should have about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of ginger syrup.

Transfer to a refrigerator-friendly container. I don’t like plastic, but it’s all I had and was the perfect size…

Store the syrup in the refrigerator until you are ready to make a glass of ginger ale. To prepare a glass of ginger ale, place some ice cubes in a glass. I used a lot here because the syrup was still warm.

Add 1/4 – 1/3 cup of the ginger syrup.

Top off with seltzer water.

Stir.

Garnish with a lime round if you’d like. I only had lemons. Limes are much more picturesque.

And enjoy! As for the leftover ginger pieces, as I mentioned you can re-use them. What I will do with them today is make ginger tea, which I like all of the time, but particularly when I’m not feeling well. I’ll just simmer the ginger pieces in about a cup and a half of water, with some agave nectar to taste, for about 15 minutes, then strain and drink as a tea, perhaps with some lemon.

Mark and I have a long-standing tradition in which one of us is always sick on New Year’s Eve. In our early years together, it was always me, because my body would revolt at the end of a semester of working full-time, going to school nearly full-time, and commuting a few hours a day. Once I graduated, I never got sick again (until now), so in the following years it was Mark’s turn to end up sick for New Year’s for one reason or another. This year, I guess because I’ve been thinking about, and preparing for, going back to school, the illness pendulum has swung back towards me. I bought a bottle of champagne in case I made a miraculous recovery today, but since Mark doesn’t like champagne and I’ve been too sick to make plans with anyone else to share it with and I don’t think people who desperately want to stop being sick should necessarily drink an entire bottle of champagne by themselves, it looks like I may be having ginger ale at midnight. It’s better than water anyway!

And on that note, I’d like to wish everyone a very merry new year! I have some plans for revamping this site in the new year – at a minimum finding or creating a theme that displays all the tags I’ve been meticulously applying to each post and which you can’t see. I hope 2009 finds you all happy and well-fed!

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