This year, I've tried to pay a bit more attention to my diet and take any easy steps I can make to improve the quality of food I eat. I've certainly made no huge upheavals, but I'm trying to take small, simple steps to cut back on refined sugars and gluten, for starters. Although I have no immediate health concerns causing these dietary restrictions, it seems that cutting back on these foods is a healthy choice for anyone and it's also a small attempt to change my eating habits to clear up my never-ending battle with acne.
One of the small and simple steps I've recently taken to cut out sugar is growing my own stevia - a highly-beneficial natural sweetener. Stevia is both carb- and calorie-free and it even helps with digestion, fighting cavities and gingivitis, and has a host of other benefits. In experimenting with other natural sweeteners, I've had several friends bring me over agave nectar from the U.S., but have recently discovered that the store-bought stuff is no better than high-fructose corn syrup, so I'll continue with my own home-grown, home-made sweetener - stevia!
I now have 9 small stevia plants, slowly growing in my herb garden. The man who sold them to me said stevia loves nitrogen, so this morning I collected some poop from our chickens - a great source of nitrogen - and spread it around the plants, hoping for faster growth.
Harvesting the stevia for use in the kitchen is simple. I cut the leaves from the plant, making sure to clip it just above another set of leaves, so it will "V" out from there and produce more shoots. I then dry the leaves on my indoor gardening bench that Eric had made for me, where they get plenty of sunshine and can dry out quickly.
After a day or two, the leaves are dry, shriveled, and crispy, so I put them in my magic bullet blender to turn them into powder. You could also use a mortar and pestle to grind them.
Voila! You now have a natural, healthy sweetener to use in your coffee or tea, to use in making salad dressings, ice cream, and in baking. A simple google search of stevia recipes will give you lots of ideas to experiment with. Remember that stevia is 30 times sweeter than sugar, so a good rule of thumb is to use 1 tablespoon for each cup of sugar. I prefer growing my own stevia to buying in the store because, for starters, I live in Uganda and can't find it in a store, but I'm also weary of buying white stevia powder that is no doubt bleached with chemicals and who-knows-what. It's a shame that companies turn a simple, natural ingredient into something harsh and unnatural.
Although I haven't yet tried it, it seems simple enough to make your own liquid stevia from your plant leaves and a little vodka.
To learn how to propagate your stevia plant, read this.
And for those of you in Uganda, you can contact Julius, who will sell you a few plants or find him at the Prunes' Saturday farmers' market. He also sells some great locally-made essential oils and pure, organic honey. His email is email@example.com