the tea experiment.

So it’s March 5th and clearly I’m already dropping the ball regarding my daily photo. Rain and sudden 30-degree weather are not an inspiring setting for practicing photography.

Ugh. Now it sounds like I’m making excuses, which I am.

Also. This week I’m attempting to quit drinking English Breakfast tea. Oh it’s so hard, people!!!

Not as hard as coffee, I keep reminding myself of that. Remember when I quit drinking coffee last year? It is difficult to put into words what that first horrid week felt like.

But it worked!

I drink virtually no coffee today. The most I’ll do is a very occasional espresso shot in a latte or soy chai, or a half-cup at church Sunday morning. Although even that will set my heart to racing and sometimes upset my stomach so it’s practically ceased to be worth it.

Did you ever think I would quit drinking coffee?

My brother-in-law Alex was my inspiration and I’ll forever be grateful to him, because it’s been so good for me. It’s helped with stress/anxiety and helped me sleep better. I won’t say it took away my anxiety disorder or removed my need for medication, but I’ve been able to reduce meds and now the first question I ask someone when they tell me they struggle with anxiety is: How much caffeine are you drinking?

Well my habit-forming-personality self immediately subbed English Breakfast tea mixed with two spoons of raw sugar and milk, two-to-three times a day. I think that was fine, for this year. I needed a gentle transition.

But I really need to be off dairy. I’ve known that since my first gluten-free experiment. It upsets my stomach and exacerbates my allergies and I have a rash on my upper arms and I’m almost positive dairy is the culprit because I had none of that when I was dairy-free.

I also suspect I should be off sugar. Because I have weird blood sugar reactions when I eat a lot of it. Also mood swings. Also low energy in general lately.

And I’d like to reduce my caffeine consumption even more.

I know all this sounds extreme. When people ask me about health and diet choices I tell them to just make small changes. It’s a process. Don’t go overboard with this whole lifestyle overhaul that you can’t sustain.

This is how it looks for me right now. Instead of saying “I will no longer consume any dairy or sugar,” I’m saying, “I will stop drinking black tea with milk and sugar every day.”

A small change, but this week at least it feels like a big change. It may or may not be making me sleepy and restless and a little grouchy (sorry, family).

I’m experimenting with Bigelow green tea. With a scant spoonful of raw honey. What do you think?

I really struggle with tea I’ve decided. I love, love black tea because it’s full and strong and dark. But all the herbal and fruity stuff — even rooibos tea — just aren’t cutting it. I’d rather drink nothing (which is not an option at the moment. i know, i told you i have a habit-forming personality.).

So I brewed myself a cup of green tea on Tuesday morning and was surprised to find that it wasn’t terrible. I drank the whole mug and another in the afternoon. I don’t love it but the earthiness is pleasant. I think I could maybe learn to enjoy it.

I can envision myself making pitchers of iced green tea all summer, sipping from my mason jar with a sprig or two of mint fresh from our garden.

Any other words of wisdom or inspiration about kicking the black tea habit?

And I’ll return with some daily photos!



the daily salad.

IMG_1536I used to eat salads because I felt like I should. Now I eat salads because I love them.

I thought I’d tell you why.

I’m pretty sure I first started craving salads in South Asia — when actually creating something like the photo above was an all-morning affair. We were supposed to avoid raw vegetables that hadn’t been treated with some sort of disinfecting rinse. So every vegetable purchased at the market had to be soaked for 15 minutes and rinsed for 15 minutes and dried.

Sound simple? Try doing this with every component of your salad: lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers. Then do it with all your fruit. But you can’t use your tap water – so be sure to fill up big plastic bins with the impossibly slow drip of your water filter. Every time you come home from shopping (which, in and of itself, is an exhausting process).

Very soon you lose the will to make that salad.

When we moved back home my nutritionist urged me to get as many raw fruits and vegetables into my diet as possible since we were focusing on rebuilding my immune system, and she suggested a daily salad for lunch as a great habit.

Over the last year and a half of practicing this habit, I’ve begun to sing its praises for two reasons: 1. My daily salad tastes great, and 2. I feel great afterward.

Here’s what I suggest: start with your greens. Please, please do not ever buy Iceberg lettuce again. It is a sure guarantee to make you hate your salad (unless you slather it with tons of Ranch dressing, in which case you are eating Ranch dressing and not a salad). I like Romaine, but prefer Red Leaf or Bibb lettuce. Or a combination. I also add spinach as often as possible (or just use spinach as the whole base as shown above).

Side note: I’ve learned to chop and wash my greens in a salad spinner when I get home, dry on cloth or paper towels on the counter, then roll up in the damp towel and store in the fridge in a ziplock bag. My lettuce has kept for up to two weeks this way.

Next, chop your veggies: Carrots and radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes in the summer. Raw broccoli. Grated beets. Grated sweet potatoes or cabbage.

And now, here’s where it gets fun. Leftover roasted veggies from last night’s dinner in the fridge? Go ahead and throw them on there (roasted sweet potatoes. yum.). Leftover brown rice or quinoa? Yup.

I always like a handful of something crunchy: chopped nuts or sunflower seeds.

Definitely, definitely olives if you have them (but please not canned, please buy the nice jarred olives or the package in the Publix cold imports section). It’s okay if you don’t like olives though.

Want to know something weird about me? I hated olives my entire life. As in, they made me shudder. David’s family always served them for appetizers with cheese and crackers and I never touched the things. Then, in South Asia I was diagnosed with low blood pressure and told to consume more salt. And at about exactly this time I began to adore and crave olives. And ever since I can’t get enough of them. Now at Gentino family gatherings I’m always looking for the olives.

Anyway, back to our salad.

Cheese is optional. I try to limit dairy, but I seem to be fine with it in moderation — especially with hard cheese like Parmesan, or goat cheese. Get a really good-quality Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and add a couple shavings to your salad (or soup. or scrambled eggs. or anything really). I learned this from Mark Bittman and it’s been a revelation. It’s more expensive of course. But because it’s so much more flavorful you only need a tiny bit.

At this point I usually chop a hard-boiled egg to sprinkle on top because for me the extra protein helps the salad to last longer in the afternoon (although I always need a snack before dinner).

Another revelation: learning from my friend Erika how to properly cook an egg (submerge in a pan of water, heat to boil, turn heat off and set timer for 9 minutes, immediately drain and rinse in very cold water to stop the egg from cooking). Your egg will taste soft and flavorful — rather than like something you could drop on the floor and watch bounce.

Once everything is assembled it’s time to season and dress your salad. How did I make it almost 32 years of life without learning to put salt and pepper on my salad? I don’t know, but fresh-ground sea salt and black pepper make all the difference.

Finally, I’m going to suggest something that may be hard for you to hear: I want you to try to stop using store-bought salad dressing. I know. That’s shocking. Maybe going too far. Once my friend Josh said his wife Sarah refused to ever eat bottled salad dressing and I thought she was crazy (sorry, Sarah!).

Alas. Now I’m converted.

In my opinion (and I’m sure Sarah’s too), you never get to enjoy the actual taste of your salad with those dressings. I should know: the only way you could get me to eat a salad before was to cover it with Ranch. I loved the stuff. But now I realize what I said before: it kind of just makes everything on your plate taste like Ranch.

I had to give up almost all bottled salad dressings when I went gluten-free (which should be your first hint: Why do you need wheat in something like a salad dressing? Because it’s a preservative, that’s why. It’s what makes your dressing last for months weeks in the fridge).

It was hard at first. But my nutritionist gave me some great suggestions: extra virgin olive oil is wonderful (again, for salads you really need to buy nice olive oil in the dark green bottle). With a drizzle of good-quality Balsamic vinegar. Or, my personal favorite: a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

I’ve looked up lots of recipes and made homemade salad dressings several times. They were always simple and delicious. And don’t get me wrong: a made-in-house Caesar salad dressing is one of my all-time favorite things. But I think creamy, heavy dressings like that are better saved for special occasions. You just don’t need them to make your daily salad good.

The velvety smoothness of extra virgin olive oil and the bright tang of lemon juice are the perfect accompaniment to a salad. David and I like this combination so much we rarely use anything else.

And there you have it. Your daily salad. I never get tired of it, because you can always switch things up here and there, based on what’s in season or what you have in your fridge.

And like I said, the very best part about my salad is the way I feel afterward — light, energized. Rather than sluggish and sleepy like if I eat a big, heavy lunch.

I know, I know, you may be thinking: That’s all well and good for you, Julie. But you stay home. You get to make your lunch every day. But I have to go to work.

I hear you. However, my mom has been taking salads to work for years and certainly way before I ever considered salad as something I’d want to eat. I pack my and the kids’ lunches for Classical Conversations each Monday and find a salad is a great portable lunch (it just takes a tad more foresight. but it’s worth it, i promise!).

Okay, enough from me. Now it’s your turn: what, in your opinion, makes a good salad?



pinterest.

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I’ve had a Pinterest account for over a year now but I could just never get into it. Pinterest seemed to me like one more temptation to waste my time.

While it definitely can be that, I’ve had several friends urge me to use it as a way to get organized. And lately I’ve been asking for and dispensing lots of recipes and homeschooling advice, so I’ve begun to realize how nice it would be to have one place to keep all of that information.

I adore researching topics that interest me (natural house cleaning, food, homeschooling, etc.), but sometimes I don’t do a good job of documenting the helpful research and have trouble going back to find things I want. Before I just used “bookmark” tabs on my laptop if I wanted to remember a website or recipe or searched back through my emails, and while that works okay it’s kept me feeling a bit scattered and not really helpful for sharing information with other people.

So. I spent this week working on my Pinterest page. It’s actually been so much fun and I really do feel way more organized. Some new boards I created include: “gluten free baking”, “tried and true dinners,” “kindergarten curriculum,” “favorite cookbooks.”

For those who have asked, I pinned instructions for how I wash my hair without shampoo to my “health and beauty board.” My all-time favorite board has to be “recipes to try” though, and I plan to pick one recipe a week from that board for my meal planning. The other meals can come from “tried and true dinners.” Meal planning is one of my least favorite parts of the week (how is it that after almost ten years of cooking on my own I still have absolutely no idea what to make for dinner?). So hopefully this will give me some inspiration for 2014.

If you’re on Pinterest, find me (Julie Gentino) so we can swap ideas!







pasta night.

My brother Danny recently moved back to Columbia and last night we got together to cook.  He’s been working in the food industry for years and years, so he’s the real deal when it comes to all things food.  It was his idea to make pasta (believe it or not, I’m not so good at branching out and trying new things, and the very idea of homemade pasta terrified me).

Danny did the research and found a gluten free pasta recipe he felt was authentic, then I went to Whole Foods and assembled the ingredients.  We put the kids down, poured a glass of wine, and got to work.  Pretty soon our minuscule kitchen counter was covered in flour and we were laughing at my sorry attempts to separate egg whites with my bare hands (Danny assured me this is the way to do it and made me practice until I got it down).

We measured and whisked and mixed it all together in the Kitchenaid, added another egg yolk and a splash of olive oil, and the Gluten Free Girl’s secret ingredient: a pinch of nutmeg, until the whole kitchen was fragrant with it.  Once the consistency was right, we wrapped our little mound tight in plastic wrap and let it rest while we enjoyed the evening June breeze on the front porch.

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I love the rich golden hue of the pasta dough, which comes from the garbanzo fava flour and the sprinkle of nutmeg.  Danny showed me how to cut the dough into sections, then roll it thin enough that you could just see the counter underneath.  I sliced wide pappardelle strips while Danny whipped up a simple sauce of butter, chopped garlic, and fresh basil.

In addition to separating eggs, I learned how to chiffonade basil, and that the pasta rolls more evenly if I place my hands on the actual rolling pin rather than its handles.  I also learned that properly salted pasta water should taste like the sea.

Fresh made pasta needs only a couple of minutes to cook.  Danny tossed the first handful of cooked pasta quickly in the sauce, then spooned it onto a kid’s Ikea plastic plate and we stood there and devoured it in about thirty seconds.  It was piping hot and salty and creamy and oh. so. delicious.  I could’ve cried with the joy of tasting really good pasta again.

Before I knew it, Danny had grabbed a hunk of Romano cheese out of the fridge and was grating it for ravioli.  He rolled the pasta dough and cut squares, then showed me how to drop a lump of filling in the center–Romano and fresh basil held together by a drop of sour cream–cover it with another square, then press the edges together without tearing them.

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David came in just in time for a bite of ravioli fresh from the pot, and we swooned over it.

We never ended up sitting down to dinner, because no batch of pasta lasted long enough to make it to a dinner plate.  Danny cooked and tossed and served me handfuls of pasta, and I filled my belly as I rolled and cut the rest of the dough.  We ended up with another meal’s worth of pappardelle that I stuck in the freezer for later this week.

What a night.  My brother is good for me because he senses my innate caution and fear of failure which tells me that he should cook and I should stand back and watch.  He doesn’t stand for this, and instead makes me try each of the steps.  By the end of the night I wondered who this thirty-one-year-old woman was who deftly rolled and sliced pasta as if she knew what she were doing.

I can make homemade pasta!

It was an adventure.  It was fun.  But the best gift of all that Danny gave me was this: inspiration.

I’ve been having a big old pity party since I went gluten-free, feeling left out, feeling like I’m drudging away in my kitchen in order to be healthy.  But Danny showed me that my new diet doesn’t exclude me from marvelous food–and it certainly isn’t an excuse to sit and mope.  Instead, we find alternative recipes.  We learn new skills, together.  I learn to laugh when I make mistakes and I try again.  I keep working at it until I feel the joy of cooking come flooding back.  I felt a big ray of it last night.

Thanks, D!

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gluten-free take two, and a moment of truth.

I’ve been gluten-free for over a month now, and wow, do I feel so much better.  It makes me wonder why it took me so long, but oh well.  We had a few things going on.

The last time I went gluten-free was in South Asia, in a desperate attempt to get to the bottom of my illness, and I blogged about it here.  I can’t even describe how much easier it is to follow a gluten-free diet in the U.S.  It’s not just the access to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, with their glorious gluten-free aisles, but it’s also having several friends around me who follow a similar diet, with whom I can regularly debrief, commiserate, and get inspired with.

But I will never, ever forget my girl friends in South Asia: Keli and Maggie and Asha and Alison and Priya and Amanda.  Those amazing ladies cheered me on and cooked for me and scoured our city for gluten-free products.  And I’ll never forget my friends and family back home, who encouraged me and spent their hard-earned money to send me gluten-free care packages.  I still get a little teary when I think about how well-loved I was in those hard, hard days.

So anyway.

I feel great.  While my headaches and my stomach feel much better, the biggest difference is a little hard to describe: it’s this clearness in my whole body.  I guess the opposite would be feeling like I was achey and in a fog before.  I’m gaining more and more energy, and when I go jogging I have so much more stamina.  It feels wonderful.

I’ve cheated several times, at least once a week probably (it nearly always happens when we’re eating out).  But I feel so crummy afterward (usually a bad headache the next day), that the temptations to cheat are losing their power.

I’m also for the most part dairy-free.  For some reason that’s the hard one this time around.  Mostly because English Breakfast tea had replaced my morning cup of coffee and I must have milk in my English Breakfast tea.  I haven’t found a coffee-replacement I just love, and that’s hard.  I treat myself to decaf sometimes when I’m out, but there’s still a low point every single morning when I wake up and face the lack of coffee.  Pathetic, I know.

Are you ready for the moment of truth?

I’m tired.

I love feeling so great, I love our journey toward a whole foods diet.  But, friends, it’s hard.

I wish I could write a post that tells you it’s every bit as easy to cook from scratch and eat a healthful diet.

But I can’t.  It’s a lot more work.  The latest thing I did away with is breakfast cereal.  Just went ahead and stopped buying it.  So now I wake up and my day starts with cooking–a full breakfast for my kids (usually fruit and eggs and homemade bread).  I’m not asking my family to eat gluten-free this time around, so often mealtimes involve cooking separate things for them and myself.  And although there are endless gluten-free options in the supermarket, most don’t fit the definition of “whole food” (single ingredient), or “minimally processed” (five ingredients or less, no preservatives).

We have no dishwasher.  So between the cooking and the washing dishes, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

I realize that I sound so whiny right now, or like I’m trying impress you with my domesticity.  I’m not at all.  Just trying to keep it real.  It’s a lot of work and some days I bitterly resent the work.  Some days I bitterly resent pulling a loaf of piping hot whole wheat bread from the oven and not even getting to taste it.

There.

But you know what?

Somehow, even with all the work, I feel more committed than ever to our food journey.  I’m seeing the results in our family, and I like what I see.  Not only am I feeling way better on my diet, but taking away packaged/processed foods is slowly but surely changing the kids.

They are willing to try new things more readily.  Both have become huge fruit fans.  It’s a slow process, mind you, filled with lots of complaining.  But I really, really do see a difference in them.  I love having conversations about why it’s important to eat whole foods regularly and save others just for fun treats, how it fuels their body and helps them grow big and strong.

And, underneath all the tiredness and complaining, I find I’m enjoying food more than ever now.  I’ve come alive to the taste of all the fruits and vegetables we’re eating, I’m enjoying trying new recipes.  Cooking becomes simpler with quality ingredients.  Food genuinely inspires me in a way it never did before.

So why am I telling you all this?  I guess just to say: I’m a real person.  I love our new lifestyle, but I also get exhausted by it.  To those of you who beat yourselves up for not making more changes to your family’s eating habits: don’t.  To my friends who are working full-time or preggo or nursing a baby or running around after a toddler, I say, “Give yourself a break.  You have your hands full as it is!”  You can make these changes when the time is right.  Or very slowly.

David regularly brings me back to reality by saying, “Remember, let’s focus on the positive–let’s still enjoy that Five Guys burger and also keep trying to slowly add good foods to our home.”  And he also brings me back by saying, “I think it’s a boxed cereal kinda week.”  I’m so thankful for him.



i quit drinking coffee: a testimonial.

I quit drinking coffee cold-turkey a month ago.

Maybe it seems out-of-the-blue, but it’s been an idea niggling at the back of my mind for about a year.

Soon after I began seeing a counselor for my anxiety disorder several years ago, she told me that for people who suffer with anxiety even a single cup of coffee can push them over the edge into full-adrenaline, fight-or-flight mode.

Seeing as how I brought a full travel mug into every afternoon counseling session I quickly dismissed her.  “Well that may be true, but there’s no way I could ever quit drinking coffee.  Ever.”

Then I came back from South Asia last June and my anxiety was in a really bad way.  I started seeing a psychiatrist and went on more medication and that really did help a lot.  I continued to go to counseling.  Also I began seeing a holistic nutritionist for my other health problems.

When my nutritionist learned about my issues with anxiety she immediately said: “Julie, for a person like you, even one cup of caffeinated coffee can be really harmful.”

I listened.  I despaired.  I thought, Okay, I hear you, but I can never quit drinking coffee!  I can’t. But I did reduced my intake to (usually) a travel mug-full a day.  Sometimes more.

Also I remained pretty skeptical.  My anxiety was clearly serious; how could a hot beverage really have that much effect?  Plus my new meds were helping enormously.

But the idea stayed with me over the months.  I tried to go one day without coffee.  I got a splitting headache and snapped at my kids and then had to lay on the couch for a nap at 10 a.m.  I caved in and turned on the coffee maker at noon.

Over the months I stumbled across a couple of articles about the harmful component of caffeinated coffee, including this excellent one by a former barista and coffee addict: that the caffeine is like a shot of adrenaline that sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, just like what happens if you are in physical danger.  And I realized that, even well-medicated, that’s often how I feel.  I feel like I’m living right on the edge.  Like a small crisis or frustration will send my blood pressure up, my heart racing, my body tensing.

But.  It’s coffee!  I’ve been a daily coffee drinker for at least thirteen years.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s apart of who I am.  My passions are good books and good coffee.  I love connecting with people over coffee, love lazy Saturday mornings with my husband sitting on the front porch with our French press, love my weekly afternoon out ritual with my laptop and mug.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but we love strong coffee so much that our friends and family sent us enough Starbucks care packages to cover all eighteen months we lived in South Asia (we have good friends and family).

I’m one of those people that gets up to have a morning quiet time because I know a cup of coffee is involved.

So, to sound even more cheesy, I started praying.  “Lord, this is so pathetic. I can’t quit drinking coffee.  But if it would be good for me, please help something to become more important to me than coffee.”

Then we took our latest Pennsylvania trip and hung out in Philly with David’s sister and family.  At some point my brother-in-law Alex told me they’d quit drinking coffee.  I asked him about it and he described the ways he felt better as a result: more energy, less sluggish, and—get this—way less impatient with his kids.  He said, “Now, if I even have even one cup of coffee I get so irritable and frustrated with them.”

I resonated with everything he said.  I’m frequently irritable and impatient.  I get frustrated way too easily, especially with the kids.  I have low energy (which I consistently try to boost with more coffee).

That was it.

God gave me my way out.  He gave me something more important to me than coffee.

Of course.  I would quit drinking coffee for my kids.  I would quit drinking coffee for the hope of having more energy and less frustration as their mom.

Then God gave me bronchitis.  It was miserable, it laid me out for over a week.

It was the perfect time to quit drinking coffee.

I quit cold turkey.  I’m not sure if I advise that.  Especially if you have a job.  There are plenty of other ways to reduce the caffeine, bit-by-bit.

After quitting, it was 7 full days of awful.  Of truly splitting, mind-numbing headaches.  Of wanting to sleep all the time.

But I was already home sick and it was gray and cold out, so I don’t think it felt as bad as it could’ve.  The kids and I laid around and watched a lot of Netflix.

And from almost the first day, I began to feel the difference inside me.

My body, on the inside, started to relax.

And it just got better and better, folks.  The adrenaline surges and late-afternoon panic attacks were gone.  The racing thoughts and overwhelming feelings of shame were gone.  The on-the-edge frustration eased.  I felt more laid back about life in general.

And when that happened, I died to drinking coffee.

Seriously.  I miss it.  Sometimes I walk into the kitchen after David has brewed his morning cup and want to cry at the smell.  In the early days I was known to open the jar of coffee beans and take a huge whiff.  But I’ve never been tempted to drink it—not once—since I quit.

I feel so good that resuming my addiction pales in comparison.

Of course I don’t believe caffeinated coffee was the cause of my anxiety disorder.  But, just as if you have diabetes, there are foods you eat that can make your illness worse.

Also, even though I miss that ritual, was I really so shallow to think coffee was the base of all these relationships I have?  The base of my enjoyment of hanging out with people?

No.  Giving up coffee has not negatively affected my quality of life one bit.

In fact, I love brewing my pot of organic non-caffeinated herbal tea in the morning and calling out, “Do you want a cup, Ams?” and hearing her say, “Yes Mommy!” and pouring her half a cup in her little vintage Winnie-the-Pooh mug.  What could be more bonding than that?

My anxiety is so much better that, with the help of my psychiatrist, I’ve begun slowly reducing my medication dose.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go completely off it, but I’m okay with that.  Just knowing that I’m moving in that direction is heartening.

Here’s the other thing I’ve discovered.  It’s enormously liberating to realize you can give up something you thought you could never live without.  Enormously.  It’s downright empowering.  Now I look at other areas of my life and think, You know what?  I could change that!

So that’s my story.



grill night.

I think it may just be finally getting warmer here in South Carolina. It’s been such a strange month . . . usually we’re pulling out the t’shirts and flip flops in March.

We’ve instituted a weekly “Grill Night” since David got a charcoal grill for Christmas.  It’s been a little hit or miss due to the weather, but he’s already produced some amazing meals.  Looking forward to many more grill nights to come!

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