Soup’s On

Four years ago we began a new tradition for our annual larger family gathering. Rather than prolong the holiday menu of big meats and fancy dancy appetizers, we raise our soup ladles in unity for an annual Soupfest.

Soupfest is now one of my favorite events of the season. This pleasant weekend at my brother’s home nestled in the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota becomes a nice balance of activity and sloth, games, senseless humor, five canine chaos…and of course, really, really good food. A perfect way to start the new year.


Sledding is also involved. Give those brave souls some soup!

A soup/stew buffet is an easy, inexpensive and heartwarming way to feed lots of people well with plenty of leftovers.  You can make it in advance to prevent too many cooks in the kitchen. In fact, some soups taste better the second day after the flavors have had a chance to hang out and get to know each other.

This year I made corn chowder with grilled and frozen corn I helped raise this summer. Add a little Nueske’s bacon, roasted peppers and some heat, and you’ve got yourself a perfect marriage between the Southwest and the Frozen Tundra. These measurements are estimates, because making soup is an experimental free-for-all.

1 medium red onion, diced
8-10 strips of bacon, chopped
2 cups fresh or roasted bell pepper, mixed colors, diced
1/3 cup flour
3 medium red potatoes or 1 large sweet potato
About 6-7 cups of corn
6 cups broth (for a great lesson on making broth, check out Queen Jeanne’s tips)
Salt, pepper (1 tsp), cumin (2 tsp), brown sugar (1 Tblsp), hot sauce or peppers*
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh jalepeño, chopped cilantro and green onion, minced

Fry bacon in bottom of soup kettle, adding onion after about 5 minutes. (You can drain the bacon fat before adding the onion, but then add butter or olive oil. I cook the rest of the vegetables in the bacon fat for more flavor.) Throw in peppers and cook for about 7 minutes. You want some juice from the peppers and onions to still be in the bottom of the kettle. Sprinkle on some salt, brown sugar and cumin and stir well. Remove kettle from heat and add flour, stirring until it forms a paste. Cook on lower heat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom.  Slowly add broth, whisking well to avoid lumps. Turn up to medium-high heat and add corn and potatoes. Bring to just under a boil. Lower to medium-low heat and let it simmer for about an hour. Adjust spice, salt and pepper levels. Add cream and top with fresh jalepeño, cilantro and green onion.

*Everyone has a different heat tolerance. I love chipotle pepper sauce in corn chowder for its smoky flavor. Green chiles or cayenne also fare well. Some people, like my tender mother, are just fine with a sprinkle of black pepper. 


Frozen, store-bought corn will work for this recipe, but the best flavor comes from fresh-picked corn you’ve grilled and stored for the winter. photo by alvimann


Real hot chocolate and last minute gifts

Here they come….my action-packed cooking days. ‘Tis the season to play Iron Chef and give the gift of flavorful, seasonal food. Some nutritious, some just plain naughty. There really are no redeeming qualities about English toffee, save for that sprinkle of almonds I threw on top.

On the menu with a very, very white Christmas we Wisconsin Johnsons will have this year is real hot chocolate. Lots of instant cocoa mixes come with partially hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and a troublesome ingredient named acesulfame potassium which has shown to cause a bit of cancer in unfortunate lab rats. This kid is not an unfortunate lab rat. He is Snow Ninja. And he needs hot chocolate fast:

snow ninja

This recipe shows up in my eGuide to Healthier Holidays. I recommend you double the dry ingredients and keep them in a jar for easy grabbins.

Real Hot Cocoa, New Mexican style
1 cup sugar               
1/2 cup quality cocoa powder 
1 tsp cornstarch           
cinnamon stick*
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
pinch of cayenne or ground chipotle pepper
4-5 cups milk
2 tsp. vanilla or orange liqueur

Mix the dry ingredients—  Add milk (amount depends on how strong you like it. Substitute 1/2 water if you don’t want all that milk) and cook on medium heat until it scalds. Do not boil. Remove from heat and add vanilla or other liqueur. Serve with real whipped cream instead of marshmallows.

*Ground cinnamon has a tendency to get slimy at the bottom of hot beverages, but you can use 2 tsp. ground cinnamon if you don’t have the stick.


Once you try this recipe, you’re going to wonder what else is in this amazing eGuide to Healthier Holidays. You will want to buy it, or give it as a last-minute eStocking Stuffer. Here’s what you do:

Click here to get to the guide page.

Click Buy Now. This will take you to PayPal. Follow their instructions for payment and upload. The guide should automatically come up on your screen once you hit a confirmation button. It takes a bit of time, so be patient. DON’T FORGET TO SAVE THE PDF!

I receive notification of payment and will send you a follow-up confirmation email and  a link to the document in case you forgot to SAVE THE EGUIDE!

If you are giving this as a gift – you can forward it to your recipient or provide me with their email and I will put together a festive little message along with a link to the eGuide.

If you have any questions, technical difficulties or feedback about the guide, contact me at localbites3(at)

Along with talking about the benefits of seasonal eating, healing ingredients, grocery lists and promoting homemade cooking , I give you lots of nice recipes:



Go ahead…give a gift of homemade goodness to yourself or those you love this holiday season. It’s the REAL hot cocoa thing to do.

eGuide to Healthier Holidays

I meant to deliver this to my people before Thanksgiving. But it kept growing and it was hard to finish. It’s still not finished. It’s hard to put the knowledge you take for granted into words. 

Today, I give you the introduction free-of-charge. If this intrigues you…buy the entire eGuide in a nice, safe way over at PayPal.

Introduction to Guide to Healthier Holidays:

“Once the holidays are over….then I’ll start”.  It’s much too hard to behave over the holidays, right?

 The holidays are the perfect time to start. Most people have already cleared the first big hurdle; shaving time out of their busy schedules to devote to cooking. Why not revisit and reinvent the menu with healthier options?

 But what is healthy?

Healthy is hard to define because it’ s incredibly subjective. That warm slice of homemade, whole grain bread could be heaven to me, but a gastrointestinal nightmare to someone with wheat allergies. A one mile walk is a nap for the 10k runner but a major milestone for a morbidly obese person.

 We all bring unique health histories, energy levels, food traditions, physical limitations and personal tastes to the table. How can you address all of those? 

You can’t.

 All you can do is create your own definition of healthy; one that best fits your lifestyle, your body, your preferences and your budget. 

This guide is based on my definition of healthy. It is based on three big ideas I believe to be true for me and my family:

 1. Homemade is healthier: I believe that health care reform starts at home. I believe in cooking with ingredients whose primary intention is to nourish the body, not maintain three-year shelf lives. Ingredients like monosodium glutamate and benzoyl peroxide scare me more than fat and carbs.

Cooking from scratch does not mean assembling processed and preseasoned foods, it means using whole, unprocessed foods as close to their original source as possible.

2. Seasonal eating is healthier: Tomatoes taste bad in February for a reason. Foods at their peak taste better and give your body the nutrients it needs for that season. Each season presents produce that is more readily available and costs less. (Have you priced raspberries in January?)  Seasonal eating is also better for the planet. It takes a lot of resources to force food to grow in the cold or to ship them to less sunny locations.    

 3. It’s only healthy if you can access it. No matter how nutritious a food is, it won’t be if you can’t afford it or find it in your area. This guide is for good cooking, not culinary snobbery. You will not need white truffle oil or $40 pinches of saffron. These are lovely ingredients, but they are beyond the scope of this guide and most pocketbooks. I hope that most of the food here can be easily found and made without fear in the average kitchen.

 What is this guide?

This guide is primarily for the culinary-challenged; those who get intimidated by fresh herbs or get stuck in habits of assembling processed ingredients. It is an introduction to bringing fresh, homemade flavors into your holidays. 

This guide tries to answer “why” and “how” to showcase late fall and winter seasonal ingredients; to reap their health benefits and flavors.

 It identifies the dangers of holiday eating and how to navigate them. It helps you acknowledge your areas of weakness so you can plan a little damage control. 

 This guide is NOT going to analyze recipes for calories, fat content or grams of protein. It will not tout statistics. (Because the minute you do, someone finds research to refute it). It is not fat-free, gluten-free, vegan or lactose intolerant. It might not always be politically, socially or environmentally correct.  You may not always agree, but even disagreeing helps you clarify what you need.

 Most importantly, this guide is about using common sense. Sometimes we obsess about counting calories or using all-organic or only sustainably raised food. But the science, the price tag and the lack of availability excludes a great deal of us. It is possible to promote certain beliefs without practicing them 24-7. It’s about finding balance and being flexible.  It’s about doing what you can when you can. 

 One of the biggest gifts you can give this holiday season is to treat yourself and your loved ones to balanced, homemade seasonal food and flavors. The sooner you give that gift, the better you will feel.

 Please use this guide as the inspiration to feel better before January 1st.  



Registration Open! Healthy Holiday Workshop

Arm yourself with common sense tips for healthier, tastier holiday cooking and eating with this interactive workshop. Topics include:


  • Defining “healthy”. What does it mean to you?
  • Navigating those holiday potlucks and buffets where we often overindulge
  • Recipe makeovers for holiday favorites
  • Cooking demos* & yummy samples

*due to location restrictions, this is not a very “hands-on” cooking class. I will do most of the cooking with some minor assistance from participants. But you’ll still have fun. 

Salads in winter? It can be done.

When: Tuesday, December 11th or Wednesday, December 12th
Where: Stepping Stone Learning Center, Poynette, WI
Time: 6:15-8:00 pm
Cost:  $10  What a bargain!!


TO REGISTER: Click on link below to download registration form.  Complete and submit (directions on form). Please contact me at if you have any questions!  


Healthy Holiday Workshop Registration Form

Why You Pay for Namaste

Mind Body Green is a website I frequent. Betwixt the sometimes poorly written ramblings of unpaid contributors and photos of beautiful white women holding windblown fabric, there are kernels of useful information about medicinal teas, getting back on the wagon and other pragmatic goodies.

Yesterday I was lured in by “Why is Yoga so Expensive?” It’s a common question, not just about yoga, but about many “healing arts”, wellness products and organic food. Go on, read it. But come back, because I have some answers.  

The author makes some solid points. Yoga is preventative medicine that cuts costs in so many other areas. Prioritizing (and paying for) your health might seem selfish on the surface, but the benefits go beyond you. More people need to do it if we want to reduce health care costs. I wholeheartedly agree that yoga is a sound investment of both time and money.

Here’s my beef. The author spends her two cents defending a personal decision to spend up to $240/month on yoga classes. It’s not expensive, it’s simply a choice. I respect and agree with her choice. But for me, it’s SIMPLY EXPENSIVE and NOT a choice right now. The article and comments cover a lot of abstract discussion about priorities and paying for what you value. But no one really answers the question.

Let’s clarify. Yoga IS expensive, IN STUDIOS. Why?   

Insurance is expensive. Most instructors carry liability insurance.  Running a studio, having employees and hiring independent contractors just add to the bill. Some yogis argue that a wise instructor will do no harm and don’t need insurance. I say in this litigious country, that’s just crazy talkin’. Any instructor working with bodies needs to cover their ass and has to recoup that cost. Besides, if you don’t own a studio, most facilities won’t even rent you a space without insurance.  

Facility costs. Owning a studio space comes with A LOT of overhead. Most studios are in larger cities where costs are higher. Even renting ain’t cheap. I am trying to set up wellness and cooking workshops in my tiny town. Holding a mere discussion will cost me $25-$40 per class. In metropolitan areas, it’s not uncommon to pay $100 per class to rent a yoga studio space.

 Yoga training and certification doesn’t come at a slash rate of $89.99. Looks like it’s over $2-3K for basic training. This does not include travel, lodging, advanced training and continuing education.  

Marketing and promotion cost money. If you don’t make that investment, you don’t get customers.

Most yoga instructors teach because they love yoga. They want to share its benefits. I doubt a lot of them are charging higher rates to show up on the Fortune 500 list. In discussing “donations only” classes, yoga powerhouse Bryan Kest finds that the average donation is $5.50. The suggested donation is $15. It is not uncommon for teachers to actually lose money.

But I do think lots of well-intentioned yoga instructors and other wellness professionals gloss over the issue of cost and inaccessibility just as much as those who complain about cost ignore the abstract but important concept of investing in and prioritizing health over other purchases.

As with most health topics, I suggest a marriage between personal responsibility and industry advocacy.     

  • Understand that yoga is expensive in certain places. Just like haircuts. Seek classes outside of studios and urban areas. Look in small towns, community centers, hospital wellness programs and continuing adult education courses.  
  • Start a home practice. Check out free DVDs from the library or swap with friends. Invest in ones you like.   
  • Spread the word. Invite friends over. Introduce kids to down dogs.
  • Ask for classes for birthday and holiday gifts instead of material goods.
  • Save those pennies you spend on items you don’t really need and splurge on a class. Nothing beats face-to-face instruction to improve poses and build that sense of community.
  • If you join a yoga studio, shop around first. Many offer free first sessions and invite you to check  out the space before buying. Don’t jump at the first beautiful space you see, you may pay more for that beauty.
  • If you ARE making a profit from studio classes, occasionally pay it forward by offering less expensive or “donations-only” classes at locations where yoga is not readily available.  
  • Acknowledge the price, rather than minimizing or defending it. Lose the assumption that people don’t have their priorities straight if they don’t spring for the studio class or the $20 bottle of Chinese herbs to supplement their $75/session acupuncture. Phrases like “it’s not expensive, it’s simply a choice” or “don’t you think you’re worth it?” are messages that actually turn us off. They discount the fact that cost IS a huge factor, the service IS expensive and we might choose to prioritize elsewhere.   
  • Help make the abstract more concrete. Give customers tips on how they can work classes into their budget. Compare your rates to the cost of other products people use to for self-improvement. Educate us. A little bit of teaching on your part can mean a larger, dedicated customer base for you.
  • Offer payment plans or sliding scale fees.

Do you think you pay through the nose for yoga or pilates? How do you cut costs elsewhere?


A warning about Meatless Mondays

I don’t actively practice Meatless Monday. I refuse to let witty alliterations be the boss of my menu planning.  Besides, Mondays are more like Leftovers Monday.  And some leftover meat is best not left for Taco Tuesday.  

The concept of Meatless Monday has been around for a while to encourage people to start the week off right by making healthier meals. Now, I don’t necessarily agree that eating meat starts your week off all wrong, but I just can’t imagine eating meat with every single meal. I doubt I could even afford to. So although they may not fall on a Monday, meat-free meals make their way into our house more than once a week.

If you live in a carnivorous household and wish to sneak in more vegetarian meals, heed my warning.


Don’t tell them. Especially in response to “What’s for dinner?” or “Omigod I’m so hungry”  

Eliminate the words vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and quinoa from your response. Refrain from family meetings or soliloquies about the importance of limited, lean proteins, natural fiber and supporting local, sustainable farming practices.    

Because the minute you tell them something is missing, it increases in value. They weren’t even thinking about the sausage, but now that you mention it’s….not…… Suddenly, the sausage is Extremely Important.

Total mutiny. This meatless meal has left a subconscious void. They search to fill it. Soon after dinner, fingers probe into the cupboards and the cereal supply.  We’ve had no real sustenance….help us… help us kind Cheerios.

Meatless Monday Fail: Area man reacts to wife’s proclamation that the family “become more aware of their meat intake”.

Just cook it and serve it. Normalize all meals, treating them as equals.  And when your family likes it, you can enjoy a private moment of accomplishment. 

Is the discussion important? Absolutely.  But unless they’re paying for it, not everyone appreciates a lesson with their meal. They just want to eat. There are plenty of opportunities for conversations about food choices. When grocery shopping or teaching your kid to cook. When looking at a slimmer food bill. When your spouse becomes as virile and energetic as a hairy-chested centaur.

Practice meatless meals more often, steadily and silently on any day of the week. They will become commonplace without all the drama of fanfare and resistance. 

Do you recognize Meatless Mondays? Do you get resistance to healthy menu changes?  









Clinging on to summer like a monkey to its mother

Summer is winding down here at the ol’ homestead. Yes, I say this in mid-October because despite a few cold snaps, it was almost 70 yesterday. Summer lingers. 

 Last year by this time, I was so done with gardening. This year I hug these days like a tender baby Rhesus monkey. Don’t let go. You would too if after years of fumbling you finally pulled in a wheelbarrow of honest bounty like this.

and this was just one load!

 There’s more out there. Carrots and beets still grow in the ground, kale and Brussels sprouts thrive above it. Mint has finally decided to come out of hiding after triple digits beat it down.  I am grateful. No winter is complete without chocolate mint tea.  

I am proud of my accomplishments this summer. Yes, there were some failures. The tomatillos never bore fruit. Despite their beautiful biomass, the Yin Yang (Calypso) beans only yielded 1.5 cups of food, proving why you need multiple 10 ft. rows for some crops. My Japenese Shoya cucumbers, last years’ showstopper, rotted on the vine. My bottom lip still quivers just thinking about my loss.

The drought took its toll. But it gave me that evening when I turned on the sprinkler after a particularly blistering day. I busted open a cold one two, pulled my chair into the Splash Zone and just stared at my new corner garden patch. I’m hoping none of my neighbors witnessed this, lest they realize I’m truly bats.      


I bid a bittersweet adieu to the growing season but review it with pride. I learned quite a bit. I OD’ed on Sun Gold tomatoes.  My pepper patch has never been more successful.  

The moral of the story?  You can grow a lot on less than ½ an acre. These are not the successes of a woman frolicking through idyllic rural farmland. These are the success stories of one living smack dab in town.  Small spaces be damned. Rise to the challenge and see what you can grow.


What was your gardening success this year? Do you have good ideas for small gardening spaces?