The Mess Hall

Rants and ramblings on all things edible, wearable, doable, or usable with a focus on Home and Health. Home is fun, easy on the wallet, and “gool” for the greatest game of tag ever (Life). Welcome to my home, the Mess Hall. Get in the Mess!

30 Aug

Garlicy Beets

Posted in Makin' Food on 30.08.10 by Octopi

This post is a Mess Hall: Northwoods edition.  Hanging at my Mom’s house for a weekend, I was Messin it up in her kitchen (which I’m sure gave her a bit of apoplexy).  I got to play around with some ingredients from new veggies she tried in container gardens this summer: beets! 


We got some nice little baby beets from her garden and whipped them up for a side dish with dinner.  When asked if she would Container Up the beets again next year she gave a thumbs up because it was fun!  Beets are so pretty when they’re all cooked up too; I love that royal jewel coloring!

Garlicy Beets


  • 3 regular sized beets (we had about a dozen baby beets)
  • 1-2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped


Makin It Happen

  • Boil the beets for about 45 minutes, until soft
  • Roast chopped garlic cloves
  • Peel the beets and slice them
  • Mix in olive oil, red wine vinegar, and garlic cloves with beets
  • Serve it up.  Tasty goodness!


Nutritional content information is here.

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28 Aug

Mess Hall Must-Haves: Top 25 Kitchen Staples

Posted in Makin' Food, Mess Hall Must Haves on 28.08.10 by Octopi

Since A and I have lived together, we’ve slowly been identifying our Must-Haves.  As long as we have these items in our kitchen inventory, it’s pretty easy to roll in and cook up some Tasty Goodness. Basically it’s a guarantee for no excuses: if you have these there is no way you can ever say “I have nothing to eat” when you get home.

This list may be a bit like a “top 10 favorite songs of all-time” list. There are several songs that will be on there for life but the rest may switch up a bit depending on your mood. I mean, just because I loved Ice Ice Baby back in middle school doesn’t mean that I love it now. OK, maybe I do but it’s most def not in the present-day Top 10.

Same goes for these items. We’ll revisit this list every once in a while and let you know what we’ve crossed off the list, what we’ve added, etc. Wherever our whims lead us, we intend to keep this list to 25 items. 

Mess Hallers: What would you add to this list and why? 

Cupboard Staples

  1. Olive oil
  2. Flour (Regular All-Purpose Flour)
  3. Baking Soda
  4. Baking Powder
  5. Yeast
  6. Sugar
  7. Beans (dry or canned)
  8. Pasta
  9. Rice
  10. Balsamic or other kind of flavorful vinegar
  11. Onions
  12. Garlic
  13. Honey
  14. Salt
  15. Pepper


Fridge Staples

  1. Milk (soy or regular)
  2. Mustard
  3. Butter
  4. Cheese
  5. Eggs
  6. Soy Sauce
  7. Hot Sauce



  1. Lemons
  2. Tomatoes
  3. Other random veggies


For a printable list click Mess Hall Must Haves Top 25 Staples. Keep it in your reusable grocery bag, purse/wallet or share it with a friend or frenemy.

Looking ahead:

  • We’ll start posting some “Top 25” Recipes in the near future.  That is, recipes that only use ingredients from this All-Star list. 
  • We’ll also start introducing some substitution examples (like Whole Wheat Pastry Flour for regular flour, etc.) for those who want to move to Stage 2 of Mess Hall Madness and get into healthifying options.

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25 Aug


Posted in Healthy Body, Healthy Living, Makin' Food on 25.08.10 by Octopi

SFS: Sugar, Fat, Salt

I’m reading a book called The End of Overeating: taking control of the insatiable American appetite by David Kessler.  Dr. Kessler was Commissioner of the FDA for most of the 1990s, during which time the FDA began requiring standardized nutrition labels on food among other things.  Everybody knows that we ARE typically drawn to those foods with Sugar, Fat and Salt; that’s not rocket science. His book is focused on understanding WHY we are pulled to foods with SFS.  The summary of research in the book explains what those things are doing to our BRAIN and how it responds to food.

So far, in the chapters I’ve read, Dr. Kessler has made his point about how the food industry (manufacturers, restaurants, etc.) have been playing upon cues our brains use to ingrane SFS into us.  And we’ve taken this into how we make food at home too.  He talks about loading and layering.  Loading foods with SFS and then Layering them with more SFS. 

For example: Nachos.  Menu Description: crispy (AKA fried) tortilla chips with cheese and sour cream.  Translation: fat on fat on loaded fat and salt.

I’m only part-way into the book now, but it definitely has me more focused on responding to this SOS on SFS.  I’m a big proponent of sustainable lifestyles and believe big changes in any part of a life (diet or otherwise) are likely not sustainable in the long-term. 

So what kind of small or incremental changes can I make regarding SFS?  The way I see it, I could eliminate a “load” or a “layer”.

  • Sugar: I stopped putting sugar in my coffee this past winter.  In this case, I think it’d be considered eliminating a Load.  Big deal, right?  Au Contraire! Calculating out 1 tsp per cup, 3 cups a day, just for work days, that’s about 7 POUNDS of sugar annually.  Holy Sugarbuckets Batman!  That’s almost 11,000 calories, which translates to over 3 lbs fat equivalent (One pound of stored fat in your body provides approximately 3,500 calories of energy).    Did you follow that?


  • Fat: For salads that I order, I will ask for the dressing on the side and I will NOT order creamy dressing (eliminating fat layering).  
  • Salt: For my incremental change here, I’m not going to add salt to my lunch food.  Instead maybe I’ll add some red pepper flakes for a little extra flavor. Here, I’m trading a layer for a lesser evil.


SFS Challenge: OK Mess Hallers, are you feeling up for a bit of a challenge?  How about picking one of the 3 SFS and a small goal to reduce that element in your diet?  If you take the challenge on, be sure to mention your goal in comments!!  We can do it!!


23 Aug

Cupcakes Part 1: Battle of the Baking Powder

Posted in Makin' Food on 23.08.10 by Octopi

I love recipes. That is, I love using them as a very general guideline to baking and cooking. Sometimes though, it’s best to actually follow the recipe because there is actually science to that food.

For example, let’s say I’m making cupcakes. I find a recipe and before you know it I’ve traded some of the regular flour for WWPF, switched out some of the sugar with agave nectar, and tricked it all out with some lavender fresh from the porch. Sounds great, right? Except when they come out flat as a pancake and you don’t know which of the embellishments was the culprit.

Bat (Octopus?) Signal to the Mess Hall Research Squad to figure out what went awry.

The Problem: Flat cupcakes. Crumpets? Sure, we can call them that. What ARE crumpets, anyway?

The Hypothesis: Baking powder’s gone bad.

The Test: Make half batches with baking powder (the original used and a newly purchased container) serving as the variable. Used regular sugar in both test batches.

The Result? The problem wasn’t the baking powder.  Both test batches came out fine.  Could have been the sugar substitute or general baking conditions (it was really hot and humid that day in the Hall).   

Next Steps:  New hypothesis: The sugar substitute, agave nectar, was the masked villain.  Future testing to come….I know you all anxiously await the results.

Testing Baking Powder: You don’t need to go through the crazy baking test I did to see if your baking powder’s lost its groove.  There is a simple test of putting a teaspoon of baking powder in hot water. If it bubbles, it’s still got its mojo.  If not, time to find a new baking powder.  This test and other good info on baking powder (proper storage, how it works, substitutes) is here.

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21 Aug

Grazin’ on Green Beans

Posted in Grazers, Healthy Body, Healthy Living on 21.08.10 by Octopi

I’m a grazer. I’ve always been one. When I’m busy I don’t get the urge, but if I’m sitting around an office or cooped up at home, it’s really easy for me to want to make a move for something to nibble on. I’ve been trying to find some good, light snacks lately and have discovered the wonderful world of raw veggies. Specifically green beans. Sound weird? Let me make my case. With a haiku.

Spring Green Beans: lanky

Crunchy, sweet, sinewy, strong

munch like a bunny

Well, it’s almost a haiku. Don’t think the American Haiku Society would approve, but you get the point.

So have I sold you on grazin’ on green beans?  They’re cheaper veggies than other tasty snacks like snow peas.  They’re more socially acceptable at work than sippin’ on gin and juice.  They’re healthier than things like The Bane of My Existence Because Chicago Kids Think They’re a 7th Food Group: Cheetos Flamin Hots.  What’s a favorite snack or grazer of yours? Let the Mess Hallers know! You could write a haiku about it too!

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19 Aug

The “R” in F..FEVER: Repeat Crops

Posted in Urban Farming / Gardening on 19.08.10 by Octopi

So the letter of the day is “R”, and if Cookie Monster was singing a song about it he’d be singing about the Repeat crop of spinach on our porch.

We got going a little late in the season growing our plants from seed, but we still harvested our first batch of spinach a while ago. A number of weeks ago I took a spin by our neighborhood garden store and picked up a last packet of spinach seeds in hopes that we can squeeze out one more crop this year.  Luckily they still had seeds this late in the season, Home Depot didn’t. 

Survey says: looks like it’s working!! The image is from when we first planted, but now we have one more fresh salad. And it’s fun to watch grow on the porch! Spinach or leaf lettuce is perfect for container gardens because of their fast growth and shallow root systems.  There are different varieties of spinach though, so check the back of the seed packet and choose one that has one of the shortest growing periods.  We’ve got Bloomsdale Spinach that is ready in 39-60 days.

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18 Aug

How Green Is Your Clean? Drain Unclogging Products

Posted in Green Your Clean, Healthy Living on 18.08.10 by Octopi

A couple years ago I started to ask myself, “How green is my clean?”  Every time I picked a household cleaner up I started to look at its contents and started to get scared at the “ingredient” list.  I’m putting THIS down the DRAIN?! I have THIS in my HOME?!

So I decided to do something about it.  No, I didn’t collect my arsenal of cleaning products and light them all up out in the alley or bury them in my neighbor’s yard.  But when it came time to go buy some more, I took some time to ask these questions:

  1. What is this for?
  2. Does this product seem bad to be around my household or put out into the environment?
  3. Is there something greener I already have that can do the same job?
  4. If not, what can I get to do the job?
  5. Will the new product be able to take care of other things?


I’m going to have a series focusing on particular products and alternatives.  First up: clog removers for drains.  The Dranos and Liquid-Plumrs of the world. 

  • What is this for?
    • Unclogging drains
  • Does this product seem bad to be around my household or put out into the environment?
    • Plenty of nasty chemicals in these types of products.  Warning labels like “Keep out of reach of children.” “Can cause burns on contact.” “Harmful if swallowed”
    • Verdict: Nasty for people and nasty for the environment
  • Is there something greener I already have that can do the same job?
    • Yes!! For preventative maintenance, use baking soda and white vinegar.  Dump some baking soda down the drain followed by just enough white vinegar to make all the baking soda fizz out.  Let it sit for 5-10 minutes while you’re boiling up some hot water in a tea kettle (or use the extra hot water from the kettle after you’ve made some coffee/tea in the morning).  Dump the boiling water down and good to go.  I try to do this every couple weeks.
    • Also, in the bathroom, you can use hair catchers to prevent stuff from going down the drain in the first place.  And a bent-out old metal hangar still does the trick when you have to go digging to unclog.
  • Will the new product be able to take care of other things?
    • Both baking soda and vinegar can be used to get rid of unpleasant odors
    • Vinegar can be used with water (equal parts) as a general cleaner.  It serves as a disinfectant.  Use the same “equal parts” vinegar/water combo to clean windows (wiping down with newspapers for streak-free clean).
    • Use vinegar and baking soda on lemon wedges to use as a scrubber for surfaces.


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    17 Aug

    The “E” in F..FEVER: Efficiency = Square Foot Gardening

    Posted in Growin' F...FEVER, Urban Farming / Gardening on 17.08.10 by Octopi

    So you’ve got the Growin’ F…FEVER?!  Let’s focus on the “E” in F…FEVER, or one of them.  E fficient Use of Space.  Some of you may have a big yard to accommodate an equally large garden (my family did when I was growing up, which my bro and I had the, um, honor?, of weeding all summer). City livin’ can present some challenges though. We don’t have a yard. We’ve got a string of concrete on either side of our building and parking in the back. So what’s a girl to do?

    Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is one approach to gardening that seeks to maximize the efficiency of your gardening space.   It’s been around for a while but it’s new to us so we thought we’d give it a whirl.  SFG was popularized by a guy named Mel Bartholomew back in the early 1980s.  Mel generally promotes SFG as an alternative to “row” gardening, reducing the amount of space required so you only use 20% of the space you’d need for a regular garden. 

    SFG overview:

    • Uses a strategically sized area (4′ X 4′ squares at the largest), which is broken down into 1 foot squares.  In our case, we were working with a narrow area along the building, so we built two 2′ X 4′ above-ground gardens.
    • Each veggie has its own efficiency ratio, if you will.  That is, the number of plants that can most efficiently go in one square.  Tomato plant is one per square, spinach is nine per square, etc.
    • There is a specific combination of mix to use for planting.  The rich mixture (vermiculite, compost, and peat moss) reduces the amount of depth you need for your garden.  In our case, we were able to create an above-ground garden that sits on top of our concrete sidewalk, but only 6 inches deep of mix is needed to have healthy, growing plants.  I was pleasantly surprised by this.  I though there was no way a big ol’ tomato plant was going to grow in 6″ (OK, maybe 5″ for us) of mix.  But it did.  It’s also lighter than straight soil, which helps if you are creating above-ground gardens.  Dirt is heavy, man. We got a work-out just with the mix.
    • Oh yeah, and there’s very little weeding.  Except for a couple trees that started trying to make a home in the garden, we haven’t had to weed.

    I’m sure Mel B wouldn’t want us to give up all the secrets to his method, so you can consult his book and website for details.  Go ahead and assess your space situation now, which will help prep for next year’s garden!  If you are ambitious or bored, you could even create your space this fall.  Then all you need to do is drop in your mix and plants in the spring.

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    13 Aug

    You say toe-MAY-toe, I say toe-MAH-toe

    Posted in General, Urban Farming / Gardening on 13.08.10 by Octopi

    image from the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA)

    Image from the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA)

    Tomatoes:  mmm, mmm good! Especially home-grown!  But, honestly, I’ve never taken the time to really give the T in BLT some TLC.  So, talk to me Tomato.  Tell me a story.

    Once upon a time there were some Tomato Gangs.  The Determinates and the Indeterminates.  The Determinates are kind of a short and bushy bunch, typically fruiting from the top of the vine and producing fruit in a short period of time (two weeks or so) before dying off.  The Indeterminates are a lanky, tall viney bunch.  They’ve got complex personalities and could be blooming, growing fruit, and ripening all at the same time (and all through the season). 

    Big Boy was an Indeterminate.  He and his cousin Beefmaster were out one night and got entangled with a group of Determinates in a showdown of garden knowledge on the sidewalk.  Beefmaster dealt a high sucker (pruning) to the  Determinate gang’s leader, Roma, to get away. Determinates HATE to get suckered (pruned) above the first flower cluster, and Beefmaster’s suckering reduced Roma’s fruiting potential later in the season.  Needless to say, all hell broke loose and a raucous fight ensued; tomato juice and seeds flying everywhere.  Some old Heirloom Tomatoes, old Brandywine and Persimmon, finally stepped in and broke up the fight, but tensions were running high in the Veggie Garden after that Monday night mayhem.

    In the meantime, Roma’s sister, Celebrity, was working with his fiance in a garden supply store.  One night at a neighborhood dance Celebrity and Big Boy meet each other, and it’s love at first sight.  They lock stems, but Roma is furious that Celebrity has the hots for an Indeterminate and declares a Food Fight.  It’s all set up for Roma to fight Beefmaster (cuz Big Boy’s officially not a gang member anymore).  Celebrity freaks out and asks Big Boy to get the Food Fight cancelled before somebody seriously gets hurt.

    Big Boy shows up to the big showdown (secretly planned back by the pea plants) and tries to stop the fight.  Roma taunts Big Boy, calling him a Vegetable.  Beefmaster gets furious while defending his cousin, shouting “He’s no Vegetable, he’s a FRUIT!” and pulls his paring knife.  Roma pulls his too and they start circling each other like tomatoes in a homemade spaghetti sauce.  Big Boy tries to hold Beefmaster back from killing his beloved’s brother, but Roma takes Beefmaster’s vulnerable moment and deals a deathly blow straight into his locular cavity (where the seeds of the tomato are found).  Big Boy is enraged, grabs Beefmaster’s paring knife and slashes Roma across the petiole (where his leaves and branches connect), killing him too.  Both Gangs go crazy and before all is done, the streets are running red with, well, tomato juice.

    In the meantime, Celebrity has no idea that any of this is going down.  Roma’s best friend, Rutgers, arrives to deliver the terrible news that her bro is dead.  Big Boy arrives later, and at first Celebrity is beyond the moon furious.  But their love is still strong and they make plans to run away to escape the Veggie Garden and move to a Container Garden far far away (though as a Determinate, Celebrity will handle container living better than Big Boy). 

    However, Rutgers is still enraged that his bud Roma has gone to the Veggie Patch in the Sky and decides to hunt Big Boy down with his garden clippers in revenge.  At the same time, rumors get out that Rutgers has clipped Celebrity at the stem, but it’s not true.  Big Boy doesn’t know that, thinks his true love is gone, and seeks Rutgers out so he can get clipped too.  He finds Rutgers and then sees Celebrity coming down the vegetable patch.  But it’s too late.  Rutgers draws his clippers and fatally cuts Big Boy at his main stem.  Celebrity sees it all happen and can do nothing about it.  Both Gangs see her grief and come together to make amends, finally, though too late for Big Boy and Roma.

    Additional Info:

    Pruning Tomatoes

    Parts of a Tomato Plant

    Heirloom Tomatoes

    Types of Tomatoes

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    12 Aug

    Whole Wheat Honey Pancakes

    Posted in Garbage Recipes, Makin' Food on 12.08.10 by Octopi

    Pancakes...a Garbage Recipe

    I love pancakes.  They’re so easy to make and you can make so many different kinds.  We’re big fans of base recipes like this; we call them Garbage Recipes because you can open your fridge or cupboard and just dump random ingredients into the base recipe.  We’ll be presenting more Garbage Recipes down the road. 

    First Focus: Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (WWPF) I’ve been experimenting with WWPF lately. It can be kind of a pain in the arse to track down, so if you’re on the health kick like we are, you can do the traditional “substitute half the regular flour with regular whole wheat flour” thing.  The nice thing about the WWPF is that it’s ground finer than regular whole wheat flour so you can pretty much use it as a 100% substitute for regular flour in baking.  Obviously, it tastes like whole wheat flour though.  So if you make cookies with all wheat flour, they’re going to taste a little different.

    Second Focus: The Glorious Pancake  Pancakes are great. Make a huge batch on the weekend, split them out into single servings in bags/containers, and grab them as an on-the-go breakfast during the week.  They freeze well too.  I bring them to work and eat them like finger food.  I think they taste good cold, but you may wish to heat ’em up.  To each her own.

    The Recipe:

    Base Ingredients

    1 cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
    1/2 tsp Salt 
    2 tsp Baking Powder
    1 tbsp Honey
    2 tbsp Vegetable Oil
    2 eggs
    1 cup Light Vanilla Soy Milk

    Garbage Ingredients

    1/4 cup Mini Chocolate Chips (opt.)
    1/4 cup Ground Walnuts (opt.)

    Making it Happen:

    • Mix all ingredients together / Heat non-stick pan to medium high
    • Drop batter into heated pan (batter should spread to about 4 inches in diameter). You shouldn’t need additional oil if it’s a non-stick pan.
    • Cook on one side ’til the top of the pancakes are bubbling and edges are getting firm. Flip. Cook a bit more. Check underside and if it’s brown, then take them off heat.
    • Serve with syrup or just eat ’em barefoot!
    • Tasty Goodness!



    • Right now the recipe is using 2 tbsp of vegetable oil.  I’d like to get it down to one (without having to put additional oil in the pan so the pancakes don’t stick to the pan.  If the next iteration works, I’ll update. If YOU try, let me know the results!
    • I’m trying to cut down on extraneous calories, so no butter for this girl on these. Personally, I don’t think they need it. Or syrup, and I LURV Wisconsin syrup. 


    Print Recipes here…

    Whole Wheat Honey Pancakes

    Whole Wheat Honey Pancakes Index Card

    View nutritional content here.

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