Breakfast

Over the last four years I have dropped more than forty pounds and four inches in my waist size. While some of this is due to the daily workouts I’ve done over the last eight months, I believe the primary reason is the morning protein smoothie I drink for breakfast which fills me up enough that I no longer eat lunch. At first the base was organic coconut milk but I have improved this by alternating with organic plain yogurt containing live probiotic cultures to support my digestive system. Proteins are added with three raw organic eggs and whey protein powder. Maca root powder, a superfood grown in the Peruvian Andes is also included.

Flavor and antioxidants are added with frozen wild blueberries. I’ve recently begun adding a second fruit for added flavor, vitamins and antioxidants. Often a banana, but sometimes other fruits in season such as pear, pineapple, peach, blackberries or raspberries. The most recent additions are golden flax seeds and turmeric. Golden flax seeds taste better and are more nutritious than dark seeds and are a strong source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and micronutrients. Turmeric is well known as an anti-inflammatory and has many other health benefits.

This is the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. I used to have what I thought was relatively healthy, sugar-free whole grain cereal with milk and fruit for breakfast. I w0uld be hungry again in two hours. When I was getting up early and working long hours in my nursery business I would get hungry again by late morning. I’d get a bite to eat and would get hungry again by mid afternoon. What with working long days and having dinner late, I would eat what I called my second lunch. No wonder I had gained weight.

I often have a healthy snack during the day, usually a handful of nuts, sometimes a piece of nitrate-free jerky or a protein bar. Since giving up refined sugars and all grains, along with this breakfast, I am in the best shape I’ve been in decades. Dozens of times recently when I run into friends the first thing they say is, “You look good. You’ve lost weight.” I didn’t realize that what I jokingly called my Buddha belly was so obvious. I feel good and look great. This breakfast smoothie tastes good and is healthy and nutritious. I recommend that you try it and change your life.

The Year of National Parks

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Cathy and I love to visit National Parks. The backstory here actually started the day after we got married in 2013. We left on a 6000 mile road trip honeymoon during which we visited Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Olympic National Parks. We also drove up the spectacular Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area as we headed back east toward Colorado.  Before the year was out, we also visited Padre Island National Seashore and Big Bend National Park. In 2014, National Parks weren’t the main destination of our trips, but we managed to visit a few along the way. On a February trip to the Tucson Gem Show we visited Petrified Forest, Painted Desert and Saguaro National Parks.  On a May trip to help Ideawild.org with an annual benefit, we visited Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Mt. Rushmore National Memorial.  Our longest trip that year was to the Hamptons on Long Island with no National Parks in the plan although we did manage to visit the Indiana Dunes National Seashore on the way home.

2015 became the year of the National Parks when we registered for a seminar in San Jose, CA and decided to make it a road trip with an extra week to visit several National Parks. After the seminar, we started our vacation by whale watching in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  We then headed for our National Park destinations. Our first stop was Sequoia which was awe-inspiring for me as a tree lover whose longest career period involved being a tree artist owning a bonsai tree nursery for more than 20 years. We love to go on hikes during our visits and the hikes in the Olympic rain forests and in Sequoia are among our favorites. We left Sequoia National Park by driving through Kings Canyon National Park and continued on to Yosemite.

It was cold, rainy and foggy during our visit to Yosemite. We couldn’t even see Half Dome because of the fog and low hanging clouds. The best part of Yosemite was the waterfalls were full and spectacular. The fog made this a mysterious adventure with every view shrouded by the fog.  Our original intent was to travel through Yosemite, coming out on the east side of the Sierras, travelling south to perhaps visit Death Valley before heading home.  Even though it was mid-May, the pass over the mountains was closed because of snow. That night, sitting in our hotel room we looked at maps and discussed our options.  We decided to drive south to visit Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree was a delightful surprise.  The trees were unique and spectacular but we were also amazed by the wildflowers including blooming cactus and the spectacular rock formations.  Our best hike here  was to the 29 Palms Oasis.  A three mile roundtrip hike through desert hills uncovered a hidden pocket of green.  There were beautiful red-spined cactus scattered across the hills but the intense green of the oasis was an incredible contrast to the desert colors of tans and reds. Our hike back out was to a beautiful desert sunset.

Our path home was through Utah giving us several more National Park opportunities. Our first stop was Zion and I understand why everyone who has visited there raves about it. We only had one day and resolved to return another time and spend more time there. Our next stop was Bryce Canyon National Park. Southern Utah is just a never ending panorama of spectacular rock formations in every shade from white through tans, browns and reds to black. Everywhere we looked was another picture opportunity. Cathy took more than 500 pictures on this trip and I couldn’t resist taking many of the same shots with my phone even though our camera took better photos.

We had two more stops on our route through Utah. I had been to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in the past but it was fun to share them with Cathy. We went on numerous hikes to see the sights and my favorite was to Delicate Arch even though it was a crowded trail and location.  Delicate Arch is one of my favorite places.  On my first visit there with a high school friend, we backpacked in, spent the night in the bowl beneath the arch and had plenty of time there to ourselves, including a sunset and sunrise. Cathy and I also spent time in Canyonlands with its spectacular views, including a visit to Deadhorse Point State Park. Technically outside the National Park, it has the most spectacular viewpoint in the area and is a must stop if you visit Canyonlands.

Our next trip was to another seminar in Los Angeles.  We didn’t have the extra time we took on our previous trip, but did stop to visit Grand Canyon National park. We did a several mile hike down into the canyon on Bright Angel trail, something I had wanted to do for a long time, hiking back out to a beautiful sunset over the canyon. On our drive back through northeast Arizona, we had a delightful experience when we saw a hand painted sign on the side of the road along U.S. Highway 160 saying dinosaur tracks. We pulled off to find an undeveloped site on an Indian reservation where we had an entertaining young man guide us out on a hike to see tracks and dinosaur bones in situ. He gave me 4 pieces of fossilized coral from the area. We left him with a tip and Cathy picked out several pieces of jewelry from his relatives that had a stand there.

Our last stop on this trip was Mesa Verde National Park. We got there late in the day, but had time to do a couple hikes and visit some of the ruins. It had sure changed since I was there many years ago. We had to buy tickets to visit Cliff Palace the next morning on a guided tour. Mesa Verde has become so crowded since my first visit as a teenager that the buildings were being damaged just from all the traffic and several of the sites were ticket only tours with some areas off limits. It was still a fascinating visit and we went on several hikes to visit ruins and overlooks.

Our next trip was a short adventure to celebrate our second anniversary. We spent a night in Pagosa Springs with a delightful evening at the hot springs there. On the second day we visited a silver mine near Creede and ended our day in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park at sunset. We spent the next day hiking around Crested Butte and made a stop at Marble, Colorado on our way home. Marble is the source of some of the best, pure white marble in the world and is the source of much of the marble used in monuments around Washington, D.C. We collected some small pieces of that marble to add to our rock collection.

Our last trip of the year was to yet another seminar in Los Angeles which was the topic of my last blog post. After the seminar, we spent a day in Death Valley National Park. Such an interesting landscape, we were there with a temperature of 67 degrees on the day when a massive snowstorm closed schools and businesses in our hometown. That finished our year of the National Park visits and we spent nights in Las Vegas and Santa Fe on our way home. I’m not sure what new parks we may add to our total in 2016, but we do have several trips planned back to Los Angeles again.

 

The Story Alchemy Workshop

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My wife Cathy and I registered for a workshop with Dr. James Key, an award winning professor of rhetoric and did a road trip to California to attend. His goal is to help entrepreneurs create their “gold story,” the story of their life and business that would encourage potential clients to work with them. It was an inspiring three days with a master storyteller. It began with learning the elements of story.

A story is “a character who wants something, overcomes obstacles to get it (and) is forever changed in the process.” The story itself consists of the backstory, an inciting incident, the story spine, the crisis/climax and a resolution. The first day lasted twelve and a half hours, covering technical details of the different parts of story, the audience and how these parts relate to each other. After a long day crammed full of information, we spent the last part of the day watching the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz. We then analyzed the movie through the rest of the weekend with a partner, in small groups and with Dr. Key lecturing and leading the whole group in discussion.

Dr. Key livened things up by dressing in costume during the weekend. During lectures he dressed in classic professor robes, switching to a lab coat and goggles when we switched to “lab” work, analyzing the movie and story elements. We finished the weekend with writing exercises and working with a partner, describing the basic elements of our own “gold story,” what results we desire from creating this story and the obstacles we face in creating our story. Cathy and I were both inspired by with our weekend experience and Dr. Key. We will return to the Los Angeles area to work with him again in a small group limited to twelve people. In that workshop we will create our gold stories with feedback from Dr. Key and the others in the group. We will also learn to present our story in several different timed lengths to match these to specific audience opportunities while getting feedback from others to refine our presentations.

We topped off our California trip with a fun day in Disneyland and a day exploring Death Valley National Park. We love to visit National Parks and my next blog will discuss our busy year of visiting many National Parks. Death Valley is an interesting landscape and we were there with a temperature of 67 degrees on a day when our home town of Fort Collins had a massive snowstorm that closed schools for the first time in over two years. After our day in Death Valley, we spent a night in Las Vegas and a night in Santa Fe on our way home.

Night Walks

 

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Most nights I go for a walk before bedtime, usually between midnight and 2am. In the summer when it is warm, my wife Cathy usually accompanies me. When it is cold, I walk by myself. Fort Collins has an extensive trail system and the Rendezvous Trail runs right by our home. It has a fairly wide open area along the trail with a creek that runs through it. Except when we are going through a drought, one can usually hear the babbling brook during the walk and depending on which route I take, I can cross it several times. It is a peaceful time to walk, seldom seeing anyone except occasionally on weekend nights during the summer.

Even here within the city I can see plenty of stars, sometimes meteors and planets. Often the moon lights my way, giving me a moon shadow. Sometimes I walk in the rain and during the winter there can be snow on the ground or falling. It is not as dark out when there is snow on the ground to reflect light from the night sky and streetlamps. It is especially bright when there is a near-full moon. Snow falling is always beautiful, quiet and peaceful as long as there is no wind blowing it into my face.

There are also wildlife encounters at night. Besides the natural area along the trail, when I reach the farthest point from home I am within a mile of several large lakes and the Cache la Poudre river. Often there are owls hooting, usually more than one calling back and forth. Sometimes I hear a pack of coyotes howling in the distance. Especially during winter, I hear Canadian geese honking every night, both from where they are spending the night on lakes and often flying overhead although they are seldom visible when flying at night. One memorable night I was walking with Cathy along the trail with the neighborhood townhouses on our right and the open area on our left. Suddenly a red fox came running out from between the townhouses, crossing our path and entering the open space carrying a rabbit in its jaws. That summer we often saw a red fox and the kits she was raising in the open space.

On rare occasions there is a little excitement. One night I was walking on the trail next to the townhouses when I came across a bicycle lying next to the path with a flashing headlight and nobody around. It was a dark night and off to the right, the ground drops off into a water retention hollow before rising up again and then dropping off into the creek. I didn’t see anyone but it was too dark to see if there might be someone injured down in the ditch. I jogged home, told my wife what I had seen and grabbed a flashlight to check the ditch. I couldn’t find anyone and continued walking down the trail. Near the spot where I turned around, there was another bike lying beside the trail. On the way back the bike with the flashing light was still there.

As I neared home, I could hear someone yelling. My neighbor and his girlfriend were in the driveway between his garage and mine. My wife had heard all the fuss and had come outside to see what was up. Someone had stolen three bicycles out of my neighbor’s garage and he was very angry. I told him what I had seen and all four of us took off down the trail. Sure enough, that was one of his bikes flashing next to the trail.  We continued down the path, searching both sides of the trail with my flashlight until we came to the second bike. We never found the third bike which he said was the most valuable one. Later that night he called the police and filed a report although that bike was never recovered.

A few weeks later, I was on my nightly walk when I reached a point where sometimes I turn around or have to cross a road and a bridge over the creek to continue along the trail. There was a police car parked on the bridge. Another patrol car pulled up and the officer got out. I decided to turn around and head back when the two officers, flashlights in hand started rapidly following me down the path. I stopped to wait and see what they wanted. One of the officers was the one who responded to my neighbor’s call about the bicycles and knew I often did late night walks.  Apparently, someone had called in a complaint, claiming they heard a loud noise that sounded like a gunshot. They asked if I had heard anything. I hadn’t and they turned around to go back to their patrol cars.

Most nights it is a quiet, peaceful walk that relaxes me just before bed. I especially enjoy the summer nights when I walk hand in hand with my wife. Those nights are also quiet and peaceful as we seldom talk, just enjoying the night air, beautiful sky and each others company.

 

Summer of Salads

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Burgundy kale, garlic chive flowers and peppers.

It has been a great summer for salads.  We have been eating a large fresh salad every day for months.  It started with spinach, lettuce and rainbow chard leaves from last year’s fall garden that overwintered.  I even picked spinach on Valentine’s Day.  Early in the spring we planted more lettuce, curly and burgundy kale, carrots and large leaf basil indoors(in late February) that we were picking for salads before it was warm enough to plant that basil outside.  When the lettuce and spinach was done by early summer, we continued with kales, chard leaves, carrot greens, basil and garlic chive leaves.   By midsummer, we were adding grated carrots and ripe tomatoes, starting with heirloom cocktail varieties that ripen early and peppers, especially the varieties that ripen early like Gypsy and Jimmy Nardello.

By late summer we were adding tomatillos and a large variety of ripe peppers including a new favorite, Chocolate bell.  A couple of larger varieties we like that ripen earlier than bells are Aconcagua and Giant Marconi.  Not only are they delicious raw in salads, but when they ripened in quantity, we stuffed some of them with a mixture of onions, garlic, herbs, nuts and shrimp mixed into a soft cheese and baked them in the oven.  One of my favorite dinners with, of course, a large salad on the side.   A bonus in late summer was the flowers from garlic chives.  Garlicky yet sweet, they are delightful sprinkled on top of a salad.  We even sautéed garlic chive flower buds with shishito peppers as an appetizer.

As someone who doesn’t like vinegar or ranch dressings, it has always been hard for me to find any salad dressing I can enjoy.  We had been using an organic tomato-based dressing that was okay when my wife Cathy decided she could do better.  She started making our own dressing in the blender using fresh tomatoes as a base but also adding onions, garlic, various peppers, tomatillos and herbs, adding a fresh mix every time the dressing container got low.  With a little sea salt and olive oil added after blending, we’ve discovered a thick, fresh tomato-tasting dressing that is superior to any other dressing we have ever tasted.  We also enjoy sprinkling some grated cheese over our salads and have even added grated parmesan to the dressing sometimes.

In the first week of August, we planted a fall cool season crop of lettuce, spinach and edible-pod peas.  We were already picking spinach by late September.  Here in the first week of October, we hope to continue our fresh salads for a couple months with those crops as well as the kale, rainbow chard, grated carrots and garlic chives which will tolerate cold temperatures below freezing until we hit very cold winter temps.  I’m also about to start basil indoors to grow in the bright south-facing window in my office that should give us fresh basil until well after the fall garden freezes.  This has easily been the best summer of salads I’ve ever experienced.

Tomato Season

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Indigo Sun tomatoes

This has been an up and down season for tomatoes.  A cool, wet spring and early summer slowed down growth, probably caused an increased incidence of blossom end rot and may have led to around a third of our 25 plants showing what may be a mosaic viral disease and never developing or bearing tomatoes properly.  Fortunately, we planted 9 cocktail plants in 8 varieties and only one of them had that blossom end rot problem early in the summer and it has diminished as the weather improved.  Since moving to Colorado I’ve always planted lots of cocktail tomatoes preferring a mix of heirloom varieties.  Because of the shorter, cooler summers in Colorado, large tomatoes often don’t ripen until August and September.  When I was learning to grow tomatoes as a boy in Missouri, our goal was to pick ripe tomatoes by the 4th of July and we usually managed to do that.  By growing cocktails that ripen much sooner than traditional larger tomatoes, we were picking ripe tomatoes by mid-July here in Colorado.

I have a long history with growing tomatoes.  When I was a boy our family had a large garden with 500 tomato plants as well as other vegetables.  My parents both grew up on truck farms and producing much of our own food was an important family value.  We froze and canned lots of our produce but my brother and I also had  a tomato stand to raise money.  We were allowed to keep all the money from sales but were required to work in the garden every morning.  I remember getting up at 6am and picking up to 15 five-gallon buckets of tomatoes.  My grandfather would watch our stand in the afternoons while I spent time at the swimming pool where our family had a membership.  We sold our tomatoes for 3 to 10 pounds per dollar, depending on the time of the season and current local prices.  My brother and I made and split as much as $1000 a summer with our tomato business.  That was when I learned how to work hard and grow a garden.

Tomatoes like warm soil and the cool nights we have in Colorado, even in mid-summer are a big factor in delaying production of ripe tomatoes compared to the climate in the Midwest where I grew up.  One way I’ve compensated for that in the past is to grow cocktail tomatoes in large black plastic pots that are 3 feet in diameter.  Our bright sun here heats up the soil in these pots faster than the ground, helping those tomatoes to produce ripe fruits earlier than plants in the ground garden.  In very hot summers, these potted tomatoes may burn up and reduce production in late summer and fall but are a nice compliment to a ground garden in prolonging the ripe tomato season by yielding ripe tomatoes weeks earlier than plants in the ground.  I’ve also moved those potted plants into a greenhouse in the fall and picked ripe tomatoes into the New Year.

Cocktail tomatoes bear heavily as well as early and planting a large portion of our garden with these varieties has saved our production this year.  We have been eating tomatoes every day in our salads for 2 months now as well as using them in cooking whenever we desire.  My wife, Cathy, has canned a batch of sugar-free catsup using stevia as a sweetener to satisfy my desire for catsup while reducing my sugar consumption since commercial catsups have plenty of added sugar.  We have also frozen 10 and a half gallons of tomatoes for use this winter.  I’ve frozen tomatoes for years and believe that preserves fresh tomato flavor for cooking better than canning.  We don’t bother to scald and peel tomatoes as the peels contain valuable fiber and antioxidants that are a healthy part of our diet.

It is easy to thaw and blend tomatoes for use in cooking although sometimes Cathy will toss frozen tomatoes into a cooking dish and then use a tongs and scissors to chop them up as they thaw.  Perhaps our most innovative use for tomatoes is with making our own salad dressing.  As a person who doesn’t like vinegar, ranch or mayonnaise, I’ve always had trouble finding any salad dressing that I like.  We have been blending tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatillos sometimes with various herbs and then adding olive oil to create a delightful salad dressing with a fresh tomato taste.  We plan to use our frozen tomatoes to continue making salad dressing this winter.

As someone who has always liked green salsa, it is somewhat surprising that last year was the first time I ever grew my own tomatillos.  We have been adding chopped tomatillos to our salads creating great flavor and a crunchy texture that has led to them becoming one of my favorite fresh garden vegetables.  We’ve canned a batch of green salsa and have a gallon of tomatillos in the freezer.  Tomatillos will always be a part of my garden in the future.

While I haven’t done it this year, I also have several vintages of tomato wine in our cellar.  The best version of that was fermented with onions, garlic, bell pepper, basil and oregano.  I named it Tomato Italiano and it is a delightful wine with a taste like marinara sauce.  I’ve used it as a substitute for vinegar in creating salad dressings.  The most fun I’ve had with tomato wine is when I served that wine as a cocktail at a wine tasting party.  I served it with a cocktail sword piercing a mini venison meatball and a cherry tomato placed in the glass.  I had introduced that wine previously to a group of friends in a blind tasting, asking them if they could guess what it was made from.  Several wanted me to call it spaghetti wine but a good friend who knows my wines well was mystified.  He finally asked if there was meat in it.  After we all laughed and I revealed the ingredients he said the only thing missing was a meatball.  In his honor, I named that cocktail, Matt’s Meatball Martini.

Perhaps the prettiest tomato we’ve grown this year is a new variety for me, Indigo Sun.  A cocktail with purple shoulders over a golden globe, when the stem cap is removed it exposes a yellow star where the cap protected the tomato from the sun.  The purple coloration indicates a high level of anthocyanin which is an antioxidant flavonoid better known from blueberries, elderberries and other purple foods that have great health benefits in one’s diet.  This is in addition to the well known benefits of lycopene, the main flavonoid found in tomatoes.  While we have had some issues in our garden this year, I have to be satisfied with our tomato and tomatillo production.

Fall Approaches the Pepper Garden

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Chocolate habanero

Our garden has done well this year. Our peppers in particular are spectacular. We’ve had enough peppers ripening to be able to use fresh ripe peppers daily and the plants are loaded with green peppers. Out of more than a dozen varieties, shishito is a new one for me that we find especially pleasing. We first came across shishitos in a restaurant in the Hamptons last summer and have since had them in high end restaurants in San Jose, Los Angeles and here in Fort Collins. We were excited to see plants available at one of our local nurseries and planted two of them. Not only do they bear heavily, but they ripen early and we have been eating them regularly, either sautéed by themselves or added to dishes. We really like the green shishitos we’ve had in restaurants, but ripe red ones are even better. I believe we will plant more than 2 next year.

I’m growing 2 new(for me) superhot varieties this year to use in my series of hot pepper/citrus wines. The chocolate habaneros have begun to ripen and I may have already picked enough for a 10 gallon batch of wine with plenty of peppers still growing on 3 bushes. I’m going to pair these with Mandarin oranges and cocoa bean hulls to make Mandarin Chocolate Chocolate Habanero wine. The other variety is called brain strain which some have described as possibly the hottest pepper in existence. I will have to be careful with this one. Our 4 plants are full of peppers and the first ones are turning ripe. They are destined to become a batch of Tangerine Brain Strain wine. This sounds like a psychedelic 60’s experience which seems appropriate after reading descriptions of how this incredibly hot pepper earned its name. My ghost pepper plant last year didn’t produce much so I purchased some ghost peppers that will be used in an Orange Ghost wine. These wines will be done in time to be described in my upcoming book, Craft Wines to be published by Story Press.

Two of our favorite mildly hot cooking peppers are Mexibells and Mole peppers. Mexibells are small, about 3 inches in diameter and ripen early with a nice heat level for adding a whole pepper to a dish for two. Moles are a longtime favorite for me with a smoky, earthy flavor and medium heat. They bear heavily and we’ve just started picking the first ripe ones that have a beautiful chocolate brown color. I’ve often described this as my favorite cooking pepper and have used it several times to make Orange Mole wine that also includes chocolate. I grew this variety for the first time in 2007 after finding seeds and knowing I wanted to make a mole wine that included chocolate like the traditional Mexican mole sauces. My first mole wine was made in 2008 and it has become a favorite wine in the cellar.

Our sweet peppers have also done well with a long time favorite being Gypsy which is a tapered pepper that bears heavily and ripens early with a sweet flavor. This is our second year growing Jimmy Nardellos which is a long skinny pepper which ripens earlier than any other sweet pepper I’ve grown. This is one of my wife Cathy’s favorites. A new one we really like is Aconcagua which is a large, long, tapered pepper that also ripens before typical bell peppers. We will be planting them again. They are a good pepper for stuffing and baking. Our favorite recipe for that is a stuffing made from goat cheese, shrimp, garlic and an assortment of herbs.

We’ve had fresh peppers to use daily for over a month now and we will have an impressive harvest of peppers at the end of the season to use in cooking and wines all winter long. The superhots will produce enough to make a 12 gallon batch of wine every year for the next several years, leaving room in the garden to grow new varieties next year. Last year’s superhot, Devil’s Tongue made perhaps the best hot pepper/citrus wine I’ve made out of 30 different hot pepper/citrus wines over the last 23 years with enough Devil’s Tongues left in the freezer to make a couple more batches. All things considered, our pepper garden has been extraordinary this year.