Thursday, July 14, 2011

How To Make Hummus - Easy, Inexpensive & Tasty!

When money is tight, I hate to compromise my healthy lifestyle to save on groceries.  Over the years, I have learned the quality and quantity of certain things are better homemade.  Hummus is one of those.  While I will purchase store-bought hummus sometimes, often the price point is higher than I would pay and sometimes it contains preservatives I don't like.  So, I harkened back to my days working in a French bakery and dug out a recipe I learned there to make hummus, and which I have modified to make my own.  I have distilled down the basic recipe for hummus here, and will talk a bit about making gourmet hummus (adding mix-ins and flavors), as well, for fun.

When you make hummus for the first time, don't be intimidated.  It's super simple.  You just need a food processor or a blender, a rubber (silicon) spatula, and your ingredients.  For my part I don't mind 'cheating' with canned, organic garbanzo beans (chick peas) as long as they have no added preservatives.  My family size is small, so I just use one can and that makes enough.  If I have people over, I might make more than that.   Now, there are some real purists out there who like to use dried and soak and cook them before they make hummus.  I can't fault them for that - I have done that in the past. It shows dedication and a concern for the quality of what goes into your food.  However, when I am trying to be time-efficient as well, I find the good quality canned beans are just fine and the result is the same.

Hummus is a great, nutritious sandwich filler and snackfood.  Often, I will make hummus to have with salad, or in a pita for a quick cold supper on hot Florida summer nights.  And one of my favorite sandwiches is a pita or flatbread with hummus inside, and sliced cucumbers, sprouts, tomatoes and lettuce. (I also have one variation of this sandwich that incorporates cooked, diced zucchini, sauteed onions and eggplant for a different twist)!  Hummus is made from garbanzo beans, or chick peas, and they are high in B vitamins (folate), zinc and protein.  They are low in fat and high in fiber, and like lentils they are rather inexpensive to buy if you're on a budget or watching your health.

I will also have hummus on crackers as a healthy snack.  I make hummus and spread it on a cracker and top it with fresh diced red or green pepper, or a slice of cucumber or carrot.  I will dip carrots, sliced cucumbers and squash into hummus.  And to make sure I don't get too bored with it, I will change the flavor of hummus from time to time.  Some mix-ins I have used are roasted red peppers minced, artichoke hearts minced, eggplant diced and cooked, spinach cooked and chopped, pine nuts, pecans, walnuts or almonds chopped.  I have added chopped seeds like sunflower or pumpkin (done in a coffee grinder), and I have added tobasco for spiciness (also cayenne or jalapeno peppers), paprika, oregano, basil and cracked black pepper for flavor.  One of the keys to successful flavoring is to slightly blend or process the mix-in and add that to the hummus first, then fold in the rest toward the end after all blending has been done.  This allows the flavors to mingle and keeps the hummus recipe from getting too lumpy.

So, there you go - a quick tutorial on how to make hummus, with a recipe for hummus (and a lot of different varieties), too!  Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My Top Five State Parks (And Nature Spots) In North Central Florida

Below, I am providing a list of my top five state parks in Florida, and nature spots.  I live in North Central Florida, so these state parks and nature spots are one that I have direct or very near access to.  These are places that are kept close to nature and which my family and I love to visit when we want some low-cost fun.  We tend to favor places that are near fresh or salt water, but there are also state parks listed that are not near water, as well. Most state parks in Florida charge a nominal entrance fee, but many other nature spots are free.  Florida state park fees are an indication, however, of how Floridians feel about their state parks.  Most are fiercely protective of these pristine, natural spots as they represent the best of the wildlife and wooded areas Florida has to offer.  We are happy to pay to maintain them and frown on littering and destruction of wildlife habitats.

  1. Rum Island Park:  Rum Island Park isn't really an island and there's no rum there, either.  It's one of the idiosyncrasies of  the South.  It is a small spring and outcropping on the Santa Fe River in North Central Florida in nearby Columbia County.  It is located just past High Springs and is a wonderful place for swimming, drifting down the Santa Fe River, picnicking and just enjoying nature.  This is a free park, and it is closed on Tuesday mornings until noon for park maintenance.  It is very rustic:  There is a set of steps to get down to the spring, a boat ramp, trash cans and there are a couple of picnic tables, but there are two porta-potties and no official bathroom facilities other than that.  Overnight camping, alcohol and dogs that aren't leashed are prohibited. There is no entrance fee to this state park.
  2. Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park:   Located off County Road 232 in Alachua County, The Devil's Millhopper is a sinkhole and hiking trail state park that is popular amongst many visitors to Florida.  The sink leads down 120 feet to a minature rainforest, complete with waterfalls.  The stairs are steep, and going up can be difficult, so this part might be difficult for those with health conditions, but the remainder of the park contains very walkable hiking trails that give visitors a sampling of native Florida wildlife and forests.  The entrance fee to this park is nominal; it's $3.00 per car and it's on the honor system.  You put your fee into an envelope, drop it into the receptacle and take a ticket that hangs from your rearview mirror.  The park is closed on Monday and Tuesday, but open the remaining days of the week.
  3. Anastasia State Park: Most visitors to Florida state parks expect that they'll hit the beach at one point of another.  Anastasia State Park is located in St. Augustine Florida, off State Road A1A. This particular park includes the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, and St. Augustine boasts the honor of being the oldest continuous settlement in the United States.  This FL state park is very popular and the fees range from $2.00 per person for pedestrian traffic, to $8.00 per car and overnight camping is $28.00 (which includes electric and water hook up).   This park has many amenities, including full bathroom and camping facilities, hiking and fishing.  This park is open 365 days a year.
  4. San Felasco Hammock State Park: Located between Gainesville and Alachua, FL San Felasco Hammock State Park is located off of US Hwy 441.  It is one of the newest ones added to our list of favorites, and we recently discovered it on a trip to Rum Island.  It contains both horse-riding and biking trails.  The bike trails can be shared with hikers, but hikers must yield to the bikers.  There are picnic facilities, bathroom facilities and horse-care facilities (for grooming and washing down horses).  This park has a $3.00 per car entrance fee and very good maps and trail markings.  There is a one mile trail (the one we hiked) and a five mile trail, on the bike side.  We did not access the horse-riding trails, but I hear they are beautiful .  We were struck by the pristine beauty of this hidden spot and had passed the entrance to this state park before, but never tried it.  We will certainly be going back.  
  5. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park:  This state park is also located on US Hwy 441, but going south towards Micanopy.  Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park was Florida's first preserve, established in 1971.  This state park offers camping and hiking facilities, including cabins.  It also boasts ranger-led activities on the weekends.  The park is open from 8:00am until sundown, 365 days a year and the average fee is $6.00 per carload of people.  The prairie is breathtaking and boasts horses and a large herd of bison.  It has several hiking trails that showcase a variety of different Florida ecosystems and is a great spot for camping.  Camping fees are $18.00 per night, and include water and electric hook ups.
So, there you have it, my top five state parks in Florida. This list was difficult to compile because there are other spots we definitely enjoy, like Lake Alice on the University of Florida campus, and several of the local parks such as the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail.  However, in the interest of simplicity I kept it to my top five state parks and nature spots, otherwise I could keep going.  There are many more we haven't seen and would be interesting in learning about as well, because Florida's state parks are worth exploring and preserving.