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Learning from Leon

30 Apr
by Deanne

Prior to our trip to the UK last November, I briefly connected with The  Intolerant Gourmet, author and blogger, Pippa Kendrick  via twitter.Photo of Leon Front End

She offered suggestions on several places in London that work well for people with food allergies or food intolerance.  One particular restaurant called Leon looked interesting to us because they do quick service food in a way that incorporates good ingredients and tasty food. That caught our attention because we were hoping to adapt  the menu of our new restaurant to better meet the needs of people on a variety of diets.

Steve and Luke visited the Regent Street location in London during the very busy lunch hour. Here are some pictures of the food they ordered:

Photo of Grilled Meatballs on a Seasonal Salad

The food was fresh and flavorful and the service was quick.

Back in our little restaurant we have added our own version of the rice box. We call it the Flavor of the Day Rice Plate.  The response has been surprisingly good.  Whenever I take a rice plate out to the dining room heads turn and people ask to know more about the dish.

Photo of Garlic Chicken Rice Box


Real Food Is…

8 Mar

by Deanne

Real food is….food prepared in a kitchen using simple culinary skills and whole food ingredients. For flavor, real food utilizes dried spices or fresh herbs instead of added salt, sugar, and fat. Photo of spices

-as defined by owners of Solar’s Real Food

In our last post we asked how you define real food.   We didn’t get much conversation going, but a lot of views on the blog.  While the definition may change as we venture into the world of real food, we are starting small by making a distinction between food that is prepared vs. food that is processed.  

Processed food is …. a food-like substance engineered in a lab, prepared in a factory and re-heated or combined with other ingredients in a restaurant or home kitchen. Processed food became a larger part of our collective lives during the 20th century.  Now in the 21st century, processed food is under increased scrutiny for health concerns.

Last week Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us was published by author Michael Moss.  The book tells the fascinating story about the business of selling food. If you don’t have time to read the whole book you can read this excerpt called The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.

Most food companies are doing what businesses do: maximize profits by meeting customer’s needs. Unless they are a smaller food company with a distinct mission, they are probably not set up to give us healthy food choices, those choices are for individual consumers sort out for themselves.

Link to Photo from nytimes articleLike most people, I didn’t pay much attention to all this processed food.  In fact I remember when Oscar Mayer came out with Lunchables. I actually got excited about the ease of use and bought them for special treats.

According the the excerpt from the book, many of us have been buying food that has been engineered to taste good, convenient, and as affordable as possible. As a result, we have become addicted to these food choices. That is really good for food companies and their shareholders but maybe not so good for us  in the long run when it comes to our health.

When enough people want something different, the food companies will scramble to change so they can continue to make money. However because of the addictive nature of processed foods, change is really hard.

I know I have felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of processed foods in our  busy lives and cravings for tasty convenient food. Confession time…as I write this, I am nibbling on empty sugar calories.

This summer our business will run a mostly real food cafe. We hope people discover that real food can taste good.  Our new menu will feature both real food and processed food on the menu.  When meeting the needs of people with allergies and  food intolerance, and those on special diets,  real food with simple ingredients, makes it easier for people to determine what to order.

As an example, a person could order chicken strips and fries…a fairly traditional fast processed food or a Southwest Rice Plate which is less processed and prepared in our kitchen. The ingredients for the rice plate will be listed on the menu and include things you might find in your own kitchen.  The ingredients on the bag of the chicken strips is not as easy to understand but we do make it available for those that ask.

Solar Gardens-1

In the summer, when the farmers market returns and our garden is producing, we will also feature FarmerChef specials like we did last year.  Change is slow but because we are starting to want these kind of choices when we eat out and travel, we want to provide them to our customers.  

How about you, do you look for restaurants that offer more real food options?

What is Real Food?

27 Feb
by Deanne

RealFood_LogokitcafeOur new business is called Solar’s Real Food: Kitchen and Cafe.  The name brings about two implicit questions: 

  1. Who the heck is solar?
  2. What is real food?

Solar Drive-In was the name of our family’s first restaurant . We originally named the restaurant Solar because we installed solar panels. We had really good luck in the restaurant business. The food tasted wonderful, the customers supported us immensely, and the employees where bright-eyed.  

Following our passions, we planted a raised bed garden outside our building and the food grew really well with just a  few challenges.  This beginners luck soon began to take on the name “Solar Magic.”  With all of that going for us you can see why we would want to hang on to the name solar.

Photo of fresh food and quote from Julia ChildAs for real food, we could say a lot.  But  before we explain our own perspective. It would be great to know what others think?  Perhaps it needs no definition, perhaps we all intuitively know.   Here is a quote by spunky Julia Child to help us ponder the question:  What is real food?

Bats, Berries, and Burdock Root

25 Feb
by Deanne

Yesterday I returned from my first MOSES Conference. While it might sound like a religious gathering, MOSES is a conference about organic farming. For the last 24 years this conference, held in February in La Crosse, Wisconsin has become an event that many organic farmers set aside as their time to learn and socialize. Francine and I first heard about the conference last year from some of our neighbors who are organic farmers.


A reflection of what makes organic farming unique, the conference has two elements not easily found in other gatherings: real food and happy people. The food selections included wholesome organic yogurt, juice, fair-trade coffee and chocolate, veggies, meats, cheeses, fresh baked muffins, bars, and breads. I think the people are happy because they work toward a passionate cause:  contributing to a healthy planet.  Many come as families which is a refreshing change from most professional conferences I have attended in the past.  The meals are as enlightening as the workshops due to the conversations that take place.   I heard stories about health epiphanies that brought people to organics and met young people eager to get access to some land so they can farm.

As I buzzed through the trade show on Friday afternoon I encountered a lady wearing a black cape with a plastic bat glued to her cheek. At first I was confused because I thought bats were pests not something essential to a healthy sustainable watershed.Photo of Bat House

 Me: Do you capture bats? (Bats are bad, right?)

Bat Lady: (Pointing to a slim black rectangle) These are bat houses and I make them.

Me: (Catching on to the fact that she thinks bats are beneficial) So you attract bats?

Bat Lady: Bats are an essential part of a healthy environment. They can be an important part of insect-control strategies aimed at reducing pesticide use, thus reducing pesticide contamination of our watersheds. One little brown bat can catch 1,000 mosquito-size insects in an hour!

In a few short minutes I was impressed enough to check out her  website and there I learned more:

Unfortunately, many bat species are declining in numbers at an alarming rate. They are slow to reproduce; most bat species have only one “pup” per year. Bats suffer from habitat loss and human fear based on myths. I have three (3) bat house models, all of which are certified by Bat Conservation International (BCI) — meaning they have passed all the criteria years of research by BCI has determined goes into the success of a bat house.

Would I buy a bat house and should everyone have a bat house? These are worthy questions to be pondered. However, at a conference, things happen fast and pondering comes later.honeyberry

Moving along, I stumbled upon a guy with an open jar of jam giving taste tests of honeyberry jam. He sells the plants and I wondered if growing some on the side of our lot might be possible. Again I was impressed enough to check out his website.  It seems that it is possible to grow these berries in our area.  Should we plant some?  Another point to ponder.

On Saturday, the last day of the conference, I must have been thinking about my self-imposed job of marketing and promoting our business venture. I stopped at Fairshare CSA Coalition’s booth and learned about how they collaboratively market community supported agriculture farms.   I am venturing into a similar project in our area soon. I bought their cookbook and turned to page 40 to find a description of an unusual vegetable called Burdock Root. The book explains:

Gobo (Burdock Root) has been an important vegetable in Japan, cultivated there since the tenth century. The Japanese believe gobo to be a strong blood purifier, a support to healthy liver function, a tonic after sickness, and an aid to arthritis and skin diseases.

It went on to explain that in our culture we see this plant as a weed because it creates those burrs that attach themselves like Velcro to our clothing and our pet’s fur.


Burdock root stood out to me in much the same way the bat information stood out: We tend to dismiss things that might actually be beneficial and in this case, tasty. There are several recipes that I might need to try after a trip to an Asian market to pick up this interesting root.

How about you…Would you ever buy a bat house? Has anyone out there heard of honeyberries or burdock root?

The Fancy Food Show

15 Feb
by Deanne

SellSpecialtyFood_2Our foray into the world of specialty food manufacturing has been insightful. We learned a lot about cooking without the top eight allergens and discovered new-to-us ingredients like chia seeds.

We still dream about creating a product that is helpful to people who have food allergy and intolerance and yet tasty to the rest of the people in their family.

To fuel this aspiration Steve and I attended the 2013 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in mid January.  We signed up for two classes about getting started in specialty food manufacturing.  Sitting next to me in one class was the guy that instigated our visit to the show:  Stephen Hall.  He is the author of a very useful book for anyone who wants to break into the food business.

A short conversation with Stephen left us with the take-away message :  A person can make money in the specialty food business if they do not become too rigid.  Pondering this conversation more, Steve and I realize that flexibility seems to be key to success in business or life in general.

Specialty Food Show Image

My rigidity of thinking….the habit of seeing myself as not knowing enough was shaken when I read this article.  It highlights a product that we tried while we were at the Fancy Food Show.  Previously, when we were considering labeling for our products we met the article’s author, Carol Harvey from a company called Palate Works.  We found her to be very helpful and professional.  Our lesson from her article is:  People, even those who have a product called Holy Crap, don’t have their  #@$! together when it comes to labeling.  According to Harvey, they made health claims that would put the product in the category of a drug and therefore subject to different rules and testing.

I am sure they have the best intentions and it isn’t a competition, just a realization that there is a lot to learn when one ventures into new territory.

More insights from our one day at the show include:

The world has enough specialty cheese, olives, pasta sauces, candy and chocolate. Aisle after aisle of the show told us that.

The businesses using traditional foods from around the world which are naturally gluten and dairy free did not market their products in that way.

Photo of Joia We had a chance to taste Joia Soda, a product from Minnesota that we’d like to include in our new restaurant offerings this summer.

Soy wraps can be used to make walking salads…..instead of walking tacos. (Walking tacos are popular in our area…a bag of taco chips with hamburger and cheese added to the top.)

There is a really cool orange juicer from Vienna, Austria that is starting to be sold for US retailers. photo of orange juicer

We tasted honey vinegar and thought it could be a local thing and it was very good.

Coconut milk and water were very big at the show.  However, they tasted different each time we sampled them.

Grapefruit flavor is really nice.  We wondered if we could incorporate that into our foods.

We tasted a green tea frozen yogurt made from a mix. It convinced us that we don’t want to carry that product.

We saw Angie’s, another Minnesota business, this one from our neck of the woods: Mankato.  Her products were also in all the stores we shopped in California too.  Go Angie!

Photo of Angie's Boom Chick Pop

At the end of the day, Steve and I found a couch and took notes of all we learned.  Overall, it was an eye-opening experience to see so many people trying to make it in the world of specialty food manufacturing.

Visiting Herriot Country

11 Dec
by Deanne

Growing up, Francine heard a few stories from her Dad (Steve) about a young veterinary surgeon and his work among the farming community of North Yorkshire. Because of Steve’s fondness for James Herriot,  we shared some of his books for children, like Moses_the_Kitten Moses the Kitten, during Francine’s childhood.  When planning our trip to visit her in the UK, she was sure to include a trip to Yorkshire. She sought out the area that is now called Herriot Country.

Steve was a boy in 1973, when James Herriot became an overnight sensation in the United States. Herriot’s first two books, If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet were combined into one volume called All Creatures Great and Small

Reading these books helped to shape Steve’s decision to study animal science.  Later, as a young married couple, Steve and I often watched the BBC television series starring Robert Hardy and Christopher Timothy.

James Alfred Wight used the pen name of James Herriot in accordance with veterinarian professionalism and changed the names and details of his clients, the source of inspiration for the characters he brought to life.  The real location of his practice is in the market town of Thirsk and we decided to seek out the visitor attraction called The World of James Herriot.

The visitor attraction located in a house at 23 Kirkgate has been restored to its original 1940’s decor.  This allowed us to visualize what it might have been like to live and work in this space as a veterinary surgeon during that time.  The upstairs has been converted to a museum.  There we learned about how the original veterinarians were farriers who made and fitted horseshoes.  They combined some blacksmith‘s skills (fabricating, adapting, and adjusting metal shoes) with knowledge of anatomy and physiology of horse’s limbs and hooves.

Visiting Yorkshire, with it’s seemingly endless landscape and unique beauty was a dream come true for both Steve and I.  We thank Francine for planning it and Luke for capturing the memories  through his photographs.  We had the opportunity to experience for ourselves this quote:

And the peace which I always found in the silence and emptiness of the moors filled me utterly.James Herriot


Black and White Photo of Yorkshire

The Magic of Yorkshire and a Proper Pot of Tea

6 Dec
by Deanne

Photo of Bridge

It’s as if a magic wand has been cast over the surrounding countryside to make it so beautiful. Rolling hills, crystal-clear rivers, butterflies taking flight from meadows, fiery sunsets over the moors and quaint, sleepy villages mesmerise outdoor lovers, ramblers and artists alike.

This quote, pulled from a travel article, speaks to the magical transformation we felt as we left the Lake District and drove across Yorkshire Dales Park before the early winter sunset.  The Lake District fells were wild and untamed and what we saw unfolding before our eyes was sweeping and panoramic.  Both are beautiful in their unique ways and make a person want to get outdoors even in the cold month of November and then huddle by the fire with a cup of tea at the end of the day. Photo of Yorkshire Dales

After the sun went down we found our way to a sweet bed and breakfast and had some Yorkshire Tea in front of a roaring fire made with coal.  We also had a tea lesson and learned that in Yorkshire it is proper to have a pot of tea with another pot for hot water if the tea is too strong. Milk of course is necessary.

In the morning we checked out the livestock in the barn and the other surroundings around Mt. Pleasant Farm near Richmond.

Photo of Cattle at Mount Pleasant

To summarize this aspect of our trip, we drove through the Yorkshire Dales, stayed in Vale of York, and got a tiny peek of the Yorkshire Moors Park with a visit to the market town of Helmsley.

Photo of Helmsley

 Another BIG THANKS to Luke Bryce for all the pictures