Monday, June 18, 2012

A pure and simple loaf

Loaves of hearty, healthy, reasonably priced whole wheat bread is available at many Publix Bakeries.
Simply Living
June 18, 2012

A hearty, healthy loaf of whole wheat bread is not easy to find.

I don’t consume much bread but when I do, I want it to be as good for me as possible.  I’m not concerned with a gluten-free diet and while I’m allergic to many things, wheat isn’t among them.  I simply prefer my choice of sandwich breads to be of the one-hundred-percent whole grain variety.  I have no desire to ingest white flour misleadingly labeled ‘wheat flour’ nor do I want to eat preservatives, dough stabilizers, hydrogenated oil, additives with long, unpronounceable names, excessive salt or artificially added vitamins and minerals. 

Pure and simple loaves are what I'm after. I also want the slabs of chewy goodness to be readily available and competitively prices with other store-bought loaves.

Until recently, unless I baked it myself, purchased a frozen product or placed an order online, the type of whole-wheat bread I was looking for was practically impossible to find locally.

That isn't true in other parts of the country. When we used to visit Ralph's mother in Seattle, we frequented a Great Harvest Bread Company store where we were constantly awed by their wonderful selection of freshly-baked whole grain loaves. Great Harvest Bread is a franchise with locations across the country. Unfortunately, their sole Florida location is 147 miles away in Amelia Island. Too far to go when I crave a sandwich.

When we lived on Cape Cod in the 1970s and 1980s, Ralph and I owned a natural-food store in which we devoted a substantial amount of shelf space to whole-wheat loaves. One of our favorites was a round sourdough loaf made by a central Massachusetts company called Baldwin Hill Bakery. My husband's broccoli-cheese sandwiches never tasted as good as they did when wedged between two slices of that hearty bread.

But like many of our once-favorite products, Baldwin Hill is no longer available. Production of their signature round brick oven loaves ended when Vermont Bread Company bought the bakery. Ralph and I still reminisce about those Baldwin Hill loaves, especially when we are reading labels on commercially available breads.

"Look at this," Ralph said one day while we were checking out the fresh bread selection at the Whole Food Market in Orlando. "Hardly any are 100 percent whole wheat. They've either got 'wheat flour' in them — another word for white flour — or they're gluten-free, made from millet or some other grain. Why aren't there whole-wheat breads like there used to be?"

Why, indeed?

As it turns out, the very bread we've searched for so fruitlessly is now right there at our local grocery. I recently discovered that Publix Bakery makes three affordably priced loaves — Seeded Whole Wheat Bread from 100 percent whole-grain wheat as well as a Honey Whole Wheat and Cinnamon Whole Wheat. One-pound loaves sell for $3.19, while their 2-pound, 3-ounce counterparts are priced from $4.99 to $5.99 depending on variety.

The ingredient list for all three breads is just the way I like them to be — short and uncomplicated. The basic ingredients include whole-wheat flour, water, honey, vital wheat gluten, yeast and salt. The cinnamon loaf has the added ingredient of cinnamon while our favorite, Seeded Whole Wheat Bread, contains the same ingredients plus sunflower, sesame and poppy seeds.

That's hardly the case with most other commercially produced loaves, even other Publix Bakery loaves. The ingredients listed in those products is similar to the one found in Wonder Bread's 100 percent soft whole wheat: Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, contains 2% of less of: soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate (to retain freshness).

Why consume chemical additives, preservatives and questionable sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup if you don't need to? I want the foods I feed to my family to be as high quality as possible. Fortunately, thanks to Publix Bakery, at least a couple affordable, good tasting alternative whole-wheat breads are now available at most Publix groceries.

"Ralph," I asked politely, "do you think you could make broccoli-cheese sandwiches for dinner tonight? I got a loaf of the Seeded Whole Wheat Bread at the store today and there are some side shoots of broccoli that need picking in the garden."

He said he would and I was delighted. Not only were we going to eat a meal I knew was healthy and fresh, it would be one I didn't have to prepare.

Many people have asked for Ralph's broccoli-cheese sandwich recipe so I've included it below.  If you try it, please let me know what you think:

Recipe for Ralph’s Broccoli-Cheese Sandwich

Ingredients:  ½ cup cooked broccoli, 2 slices of 100% whole wheat bread, 2-4 slices of cheese (we like Cabot 50% Reduced Fat Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese but you can use any cheese you enjoy), olive oil, garlic oil (homemade from extra virgin olive oil and crushed garlic).  Optional additions:  slices of mushrooms and/or tomato

Assemble ingredients including a spatula and a lid for the frying pan.  Spread a light coating of olive oil on the frying pan (we use cast iron pans) and turn the heat to medium. 

Spread garlic oil on one side of each of the two slices of bread and set one slice aside.  Take the 1st slice of bread and place it on the pan with the garlic oil side down.  On top of the bread, place a slice or two of cheese, the broccoli (and mushrooms and/or tomato slices, if desired) and top with more cheese.  Place the 2nd piece of bread on top of the cheese with the garlic oil side facing up and press down on the sandwich with the spatula before putting on the lid. 

Check frequently and adjust the heat accordingly.  If the heat is too high, the bread will burn, if it is too low, it will take too long to cook. 

After about 5 minutes, flip the sandwich over – you might need to use two hands to do this - press down on it again with the spatula then continue cooking with the lid on.  Again, check frequently and as soon as it looks like the cheese has started to melt, turn off the heat.  Use the spatula to remove the sandwich from the pan.   

Cut it in half and enjoy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

It's not easy being a bird

Mama wren sits on her eggs

Baby birds have it tough. Raccoons, snakes, squirrels, opossums, dogs, cats and even other birds are among the many predators eager to devour tiny hatchlings.

Humans are also drawn to these dainty dollops of feather and flesh but for a different reason. People simply find baby birds adorable. Anybody who has watched bird eggs develop into fluffy fledglings can't help but feel a sense of delighted attachment to the tiny chirpers.

That's how Ralph and I felt about the Carolina wren babies that nested in our garage this spring. Their woven cave of bamboo leaves and small twigs was wedged in between a messy scattering of boxes and other detritus that should have been tidied away well before bird-nesting season.

Carolina wrens have a propensity to build nests in close proximity to their human neighbors. The small cinnamon-colored birds with a white stripe above their eyes are quick workers. Both partners can build a nest in about the same time it takes two people to, say…pick up supplies at Home Depot, stop at the grocery store, go to the bank and enjoy a leisurely lunch out. In other words, the wily birds took advantage of the one time we forgot to close the garage doors when out running errands.

When we came back from town, we were too preoccupied to notice the nest. By the time we did, it was too late.

"There are eggs in it!" Ralph reported after illuminating the cavernous clutch with a flashlight.

"We can't get rid of the nest now," I proclaimed, despite knowing the consequences their feathery presence would bring.

The two reasons we don't want birds nesting in the garage involve messes and wasps.

A family of birds may be adorable but they can also be quite untidy. We learned that the hard way the year a pair of mourning doves built their nest atop the garage-door opener. As it turns out, dove droppings are far from inconsequential, especially when multiplied by a family of five.

The doves also taught us how readily mud daubers take advantage of a sheltered area with easy access. When garage doors remain open so nesting birds can fly in and out, wasps zoom inside as well. The resulting dried-mud structures dot the garage ceiling and walls. Although we have rarely been stung, it's unsettling to have so many wasps living in a space we frequent on a daily basis.

Thanks to the industrious wrens, however, thwarting wasps and avoiding messes became a non-issue. Captivated by feathery cuteness, we refocused our attention on the baby birds' development and welfare.
From eggs to hatchlings, Ralph and I checked their progress daily.

"Come look!" became our morning mantra followed by such statemens as, "They're getting so fluffy" and "Watch how they open their beaks when I make a kissy sound."

Day-old wrens open wide in anticipation of food

As the babies grew bigger, so did our attachment. For about two weeks, I snapped photos while Ralph peered more frequently into the nest of the almost-ready-to-fledge birds. Then one day, as we drove into the garage after another trip to town, we found mama and papa wren in a frenzy.

"Maybe I parked the car too close to the shelf," I suggested, backing out. "I bet the babies left the nest while we were in town and are somewhere in the garage or the shed."

While we searched the garage and connecting shed for the fledglings, the parents continued to flit about and scold incessantly.

"Something's wrong," I said. "I can't find the babies anywhere."

I was right. Something was wrong but we didn't find out exactly how bad things were until the next day when Ralph called, "Come quick!"

There behind the nest — the empty nest — wedged between the wall and the back of the boxes was one sluggish rat snake with a telling bulge in its midsection.

A thin rat snake with a telltale bulge
"Oh no!" I exclaimed. "A snake got them! All of them! No wonder the parents were frantic. That's so sad."

"But it's good for the snake," Ralph reminded.

I know he's right.

In order to survive, wild animals must find food and that means one critter's meal is another's loss. Baby birds have it tough, but so do rat snakes and every other creature whose next meal depends upon what they catch today.

Losing the baby wrens was upsetting, but life goes on. The parent birds will try again in another location and perhaps this time their babies will survive. As for us, we've added one more reason to keep the garage doors closed: Prevent messes, thwart mud daubers and avoid the sadness that comes with watching baby birds die to nourish another animal's life.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Unpopular birds do important work

A wake of vultures make fast work of an unfortunate raccoon

Vultures have many names. When flying, they are a kettle. When perched, a venue, a committee or a volt. But the label I find most fitting is when a group of these large, black-feathered, bald-headed scavengers are standing around the carcass of a recently killed animal. Then they become a wake.

I chanced upon a wake of vultures as I was heading out the driveway. Although on my way to town, I put my mission on hold to investigate theirs. What I observed piqued my curiosity about these seldom-appreciated birds.

Two species of vultures live in Florida — the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Both are carrion eaters that make fast work of recently killed or decaying carcasses. The four birds I saw were all black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Each of the 2-foot tall, 4- to 6-pound creatures was fixated on the dead body of a mature raccoon. So intent were the birds on their impending feast they barely budged when I pulled up alongside and parked the car.

Vultures have bodies well suited to their role as the animal kingdom's cleanup crew. Their sharp, slightly hooked bills can tear through tough skin and fur while their featherless heads make venturing after internal organs a less sticky, messy affair. The bald heads of turkey vultures are red while the bumpy-skinned tops of black vultures are black or gray.

In addition to having different head colors, black vultures are smaller than turkey vultures and only the tips of their wings are white while the entire underside edge of turkey vulture wings is a grayish-white color. Black vultures also have white legs, a feature turkey vultures lack.

The two species have other differences as well. Turkey vultures tend to be solitary animals that use their strong sense of smell — a rare characteristic in birds — to pick up the odor of ethyl mercaptan, a gas released just after an animal dies. Once a turkey vulture picks up the scent of decay, it settles in for a prolonged feast.

Unless it is chased away by a kettle of black vultures.

Black vultures don't share their cousin's strong sense of smell or their desire for solitude. They are pack animals, traveling, feeding and roosting in groups. The food they eat is also different from what turkey vultures consume.

While turkey vultures only eat carrion, black vultures will occasionally attack vulnerable live animals like newborn calves. They are also not above frequenting landfills, gleaning road kill and stealing food away from their turkey vulture relatives.

I don't know how the raccoon in my yard died or what killed it but as I watched, its lost life provided others with a substantial meal. Rather than rush in, the black vultures stood patiently around the ill-fated mammal until one bird stepped forward to make the first move. After that, much ripping and tearing ensued as the scavengers competed with one another for prime pieces of meat.

It took about three days for the vultures (with help from ants, flies, beetles and a neighbor's stray dog) to convert the raccoon's fur-covered flesh into a scattering of bones and teeth. By then, the vultures were gone, probably neck-deep in other decaying matter.

Despite their diligent efforts to keep the planet free of decaying bodies, we humans don't think much of vultures. If we give them any thought at all, it is a dismissive disparaging one. They're ugly. They're vulgar. They are harbingers of doom. But distasteful as it may be to watch one animal plunge headfirst into another critter's carcass, these solemn stalkers of the dead and dying play a vital role in the circle of life.

No matter what they are called — a kettle, committee, venue, volt or a wake — vultures do the dirty work of keeping the world clean and for that, we should be grateful.