Tuesday, August 30, 2011

5 Reasons Why You Should Have an Aloe Vera Plant

I swear I put sunblock on my shoulders. I mean, I'm the one always reminding (okay, nagging) everyone in the family about sunblock. How, then, did I manage to get the most painful sunburn I've had since the blistery awfulness I experienced back in the summer of 2001?  Luckily, this most recent sunburn was only on my left shoulder. Still, it was pretty painful. So, of course, I turned to my reliable aloe vera plant.

Since I was slathering on the aloe vera goo on my shoulder for days, I couldn't help but think that I should write a post about this amazing, dare I say magical, plant. It is so beneficial and so useful. As my husband put it, it's one of those things from nature where God comes close to giving Himself away, a big hint that He exists -- a plant that awesome couldn't happen by accident. (Kevin also maintains that ripe watermelon is also one of those kinds of creations. Mmmmm...watermelon...) 

Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years, the earliest mention of it from a Sumerian tablet dating back to 2100 BC.  References to the plant have been found in the early writings of various cultures -- from India and China to Greece and the Roman Empire. It's a plant full of vitamins and minerals, making it not only useful but great for your health.

But why mention aloe vera plants on this blog? Because this ever-useful plant doesn't cost much. And since it's a living thing, your plant justs keeps on giving and giving.

Here are a few of the reasons I love having aloe vera plants around the house:

{Note: While I may be explaining some health benefits of this amazing plant, I have to just say up front that I'm no doctor (surprise!) and that all of these remedies are things I've found that work for me or that I've learned through my own research. Basically, follow all of this at your own discretion, with your own needs and history in mind.}

1.  Sunburn relief
There are a bunch of different kinds of creams, gels, and sprays on the market for sunburn relief. They work  well (Solarcaine got me through the infamous, aforementioned sunburn from my college days) and do their jobs, but I've found that using the gel from an aloe vera leaf works just as well -- in some cases, even better. You simply clip off a piece of the leaf (I usually just snap a section off with my hands), open it up, and rub the gel over the affected area. Instant relief.

From the limited research I did for this post, I learned that aloe has over 200 naturally occurring nutritional substances, along with seven of the eight essential amino acids the body needs but can't produce. In terms of skin repair, it hydrates the skin and actually accelerates the repair due the vitamins, zinc, and polysaccharides (full disclosure: I have no idea what polysaccharides are) that reduce inflammation and stimulate epidermal growth. In fact, I even read that aloe vera has been used on skin cancer patients with pretty impressive results.

One great tip for using aloe vera on sunburns: clip off a big section of the leaf and stick it in the fridge. When you're ready to use it, it's delightfully cold on your skin. Ahhhhh. Sweet relief.

2. First-aid in the kitchen
Just yesterday I burned myself making lo mein.  The second I put the onions into the hot canola oil, a few drops splattered up. Burns in the kitchen are common enough for me that I keep one of my aloe vera plants in the kitchen. So, whenever I burn myself, I just snap off the tip off a leaf, squish out the gel onto the burn, and feel better in seconds.

3.  Enhance your natural beauty
It's said that the beautiful Egyptian queen Cleopatra used aloe vera on her skin daily. Aloe vera can be used in a variety of ways in your personal hygiene and beauty regimen. It's a great skin refresher and moisturizer. You can use the gel straight from the plant onto your skin or you mix up a homemade moisturizer with it.

To make an aloe vera moisturizer, mix 1/2 tsp or so of the gel with 1 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil. Spread an even layer on your face in the morning and/or at night. Leftover moisturizer can be stored in a covered container in the fridge for about five days.

For more beautiful ways to use aloe vera in your personal hygiene routine, check out this helpful link that I found.

4. It's edible!
I've seen bottles and even jugs of aloe vera juice sold at the health food store and I've wondered how it's used. Turns out, taking aloe vera internally is really beneficial. It's said to help with a whole host of health issues, ranging from arthritis to gastrointestinal problems to kidney stone prevention to hair loss and dandruff to diabetes to even cancer (some believe it actually stops tumor growth). I read that Ghandi credited aloe vera juice as one of the main reasons his body could withstand long periods of fasting. I've never tried taking aloe vera as a health supplement, but I'm intrigued. You can find lots of information about the benefits of taking this herb internally here and here.

5. Purify the air in your home
A while back I came across an interesting book called How to Grow Fresh Air. Using the research found by NASA scientists (in their efforts to figure out how to keep air clean on moon bases in the future), the author compiled a list of fifty houseplants that are ideal for air purification. As you can probably guess, aloe vera is one of those plants. One of the reasons it's such a good air purifying plant is that, unlike most plants, it actually releases oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide at night. For this reason, the author of the book recommends keeping an aloe vera plant in every bedroom (which we do).  So not only does it clean the air while we sleep, but we have plenty of aloe vera on hand whenever the need for it arises.

One other note about aloe vera: it's a really easy plant to grow. While I'm a pretty good gardener, I'm a notorious houseplant killer. I haven't killed an aloe vera plant yet. All three of our plants have survived numerous clippings and long periods of neglect (read: me forgetting to water them). To take care of your aloe vera plant, keep it in a sunny (or even semi-sunny) area, watering moderately in the spring, summer, and fall; water sparingly in the winter.

So buy an aloe vera plant of your own -- you can find them at nurseries, health food stores, and even the supermarket.  I get mine at Ikea for three bucks. With a little bit of water and hardly any work, you can reap the benefits from one of nature's amazing botanical gifts.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meatless Monday: Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes, my husband's lunches catch the attention of his co-workers. As you can imagine, I enjoy this sort of validation, so whenever Kevin gets any sort of comment about his lunch, he passes it on to me. Anyway, one day my husband was eating leftovers for lunch and someone saw him and said, "Is that homemade macaroni and cheese? I haven't had that since I was a kid!" Then someone else dropped by his office for a minute, noticed his lunch, and said, "Is that homemade mac and cheese? I'm going to make that tonight!"  Another co-worker, "Homemade macaroni and cheese! Wow!" Those leftovers got more attention than they deserved. Sure, it was yummy, but even when mac and cheese is made from scratch, it doesn't make much time or effort to make.

I love homemade macaroni and cheese for lots of reasons besides it being one of those tasty comfort foods.  I initially got the recipe from a Rachael Ray cookbook years ago (incidentally, I'm almost certain this one was the only recipe I made from it) and have since tweaked it a little. I always have the ingredients on hand so it is one of my go-to recipes when I'm low on energy and/or ideas for dinner. If I can't think of anything to make, I'll just whip up this recipe, throw in some frozen vegetables, call it a meal, and everyone's happy and fed. Not only does this make it a convenient and delicious dinner, but a frugal one, too.

As I mentioned before it's really easy to make -- I can whip it up in about 15 minutes (that is, if you don't count the time waiting for the water to boil).  And, in my humble opinion, the homemade macaroni and cheese is way better than the neon orange stuff that comes in a blue box. Just sayin'.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese -- adapted from Rachael Ray's recipe in 30-Minute Meals 2

16 oz. macaroni (I buy it 1 lb. boxes so I don't have to worry about measuring), cooked and drained
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (I don't really measure this one -- just a couple swirls around the pan)
3 tbsp. flour
1 1/2 cups milk (see below for more detail on what kind of milk to use)
3 cups of shredded cheese (If you want to be traditional, go with cheddar. But I say, use whatever you think would work. We really like it with colby jack cheese. )
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
fresh or frozen vegetables (optional)

To start, in a dutch oven, bring about 6-8 cups of water to a boil (just fill up the pot about 3/4 of the way). Once boiling, add macaroni and some salt. Cook according to directions on box. One variation: since I usually just serve this as the main course, I like to mix in some vegetables. In the past I've used broccoli, peas, cauliflower, and green beans. {The picture above features our dinosaur variation -- I told Max once that the broccoli are little trees and now he always pretends to be a very hungry, plant-eating dinosaur.} Whenever I add vegetables, I'll throw them in the pot with the pasta just a couple minutes before the cooking time is up (meaning I'll add the veggies at the 9 minute mark since it takes 11 minutes for the macaroni to be al dente). Drain.

Meanwhile, as the pasta is boiling...

Over medium-high heat, add the butter and olive oil to a deep skillet. Once the the butter has melted into the oil, add the flour. Whisk this together and cook for just a minute or so. FYI, this mixture is called a roux. Just thought I'd mention it. Don't you feel all culinary and fancy now?

Gradually add the milk and stir constantly until mixture becomes bubbly and starts to thicken.

Note: The recipe I first followed called for whole milk, but I've used 1% and even skim milk before. The lower fat content makes it take longer to thicken and it's not as creamy, but it works. When I made it most recently, I mixed 1 cup of 1% milk with 1/2 cup of cream. It gave it a nice consistency and it thickened pretty quickly.

Once the sauce has thickened, add the cheese. You can measure out the 3 cups of cheese, but I usually just measure by handfuls -- two to three big handfuls works well. As you can see above, my little sous chef went a bit crazy with the cheese. Oh well. Who has ever said, "Hmmmm. This macaroni and cheese is just a bit too cheesy."?  In any case, stir the cheese until it combines and melts into the sauce. Add the nutmeg (sounds weird but add it) and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix in the cooked pasta (and vegetables, if using) and stir until the noodles are evenly coated in sauce.

There you have it -- homemade macaroni and cheese. Not only is it easy, but just about everyone loves it...

...especially hungry little boys..I mean, plant-eating dinosaurs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Squeaky Clean for Pennies: How to Make Foaming Hand Soap

Have I mentioned my love for Dr. Bronner's castile soap on this blog yet?  I'm sure I have. In any case, it bears repeating: I'm a big fan of castile soap, both in bar and liquid form. It is useful in so many ways - for personal hygiene, cleaning, laundry, and more (newest discovery: it got rid of the cradle cap on my baby's head. Hooray!).

A few months ago, I came across a blog post about using castile soap to make foaming hand soap. My interest was instantly piqued, especially when I read that a bottle of the homemade stuff costs about 20 cents. Before I read that post, I routinely bought the more expensive all-natural hand soaps. Just following this simple soap solution was going to save me a bunch of money!

To make your own foaming hand soap, you'll need a foaming soap dispenser (I just reused one once it was empty), some liquid castile soap (I used the almond scented kind), and water. To make it, fill the dispenser almost all the way with water. Add 1 tablespoon of the castile soap. (You may need more or less soap, depending on the type of water you have and/or how big your dispenser is. According to the post I read, if it seems hard to spread around your hands, you need to use more soap. If it seems too slippery and hard to rinse off, you need to use less.) Put the pump back on the top and give the bottle a good shake to mix it up. Sure enough, you get a nice, foamy dollop of lather with each pump!

I made our last batch of this about a month ago, so I can attest to it lasting a while. Not only is this soap all-natural (no triclosan in this soap), but it's also kid-friendly, easy to make, and it has a nice, subtle smell. Plus, you just can't beat the price. Ah, yet another reason to love that castile soap...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back Again

It's been a couple weeks since I posted. If you haven't made the hummus recipe that's been at the top of my blog for that time, well, you're missing out.

Anyway, it's been a stressful few weeks at my house as we all passed around some variation of strep throat. First my four-year-old got it, but we caught it early, got him on an antibiotic, and heaved a sigh of relief that no one else caught it. Ha ha.  A week later, I came down with it and got it worse than I ever remembered getting strep throat before. I was sleeping under four blankets in July because of the crazy chills I got. My tonsils are the worst (Seriously, the doctor looked at them and said, no joking, "Eww. These look awful." It's pretty bad when a doctor says, "Eww."). To top it off, I still had to nurse the baby when I could barely move AND my husband had to go out of town for a few days. Thank goodness for my mom -- I don't know what I would have done without her. And just when I thought I was out of the woods, my husband and baby got sick on the same day last week.  Sigh.  The second half of July was absolutely no fun at my house.  That's what I get for tempting fate -- I made the mistake of pointing out how many months it'd been since anyone in our house was sick.

So, yeah, I'm still here. I'm glad you've checked back even though I haven't had anything new on here for a while. More posts to come, I promise.
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