Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sometimes Simple is Soooo Satisfying!

A few funny things happened in high school Home Ec class...

1.  I was the only person to get injured, it happened on pie day...there was blood.

2.  Our final projects were assigned to us based on what was assessed to be our (then) current culinary aptitude.  A boy named John had to roast a turkey.  I was asked to bake muffins from a box.

3.  Each student had to contribute a "family favorite recipe" to the class for discussion.  I believe mine started with "open a can of..."  My best friend's got published in a local cookbook.

Now, this recipe that "got published," I should warn you would likely not meet Martha Stewart's standards for a gourmet meal, but in my book it's a weeknight wow!  Kylee's mom used to make this all the time, and I always loved it.  It really couldn't be easier.   It's a great starter recipe for anyone who's learning their way around the kitchen, and it tastes so much better than it sounds.  Below is the original recipe, (from Kylee's mom) and I couldn't help myself...the last time I made it, I tweaked it a bit to cut back on the salt, sugar, and preservatives.  I made my own "Catalina" dressing and "Lipton" onion soup mix.  My version is listed under the original.  Try either, or both and see what you think!  I love this dish with rice or mashed potatoes and a vegetable of course.  I made it last week with roasted cauliflower (recipe also below) and some sautéed kale.  Best of all, either recipe takes no time at all, hardly dirties any dishes, and it's colorful and seasonally appropriate!

Kylee's Mom's Cranberry Chicken:

1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts (don't worry about how many lbs, just go by how many you are cooking for, and what fits in your pan!)
1 can (16oz.) whole berry cranberry sauce
1 bottle (8oz.) Catalina dressing
1 envelope Lipton onion soup mix

What to do...
Heat oven to 350.
Place chicken in a baking dish.
Mix all other ingredients in a bowl.
Pour over chicken.
Bake for 1 hour.

Really...that's it!  My recipe isn't even that much more complicated...In fact the directions are exactly the same...EXACTLY.  But there are different ingredients.  Check it out.

Jen's Cranberry Chicken:

1 package boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 can whole berry cranberry sauce
1/2 cup catsup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup grated onion
1 tsp paprika
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp minced dried onion
1/4 tsp celery salt
black pepper to taste.

You be the judge!

Roasted Cauliflower:

1 head of cauliflower, trimmed (you know, flourets cut off...stems thrown away or composted)
About 2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp Italian herb mix
S&P to taste

What to do...

Preheat the oven to 450.  Toss the cauliflower with the other ingredients in a roasting pan.  Roast 35 - 40 minutes, or until the cauliflower starts to brown.  By the way, you can roast this at a lower 350, for longer...about 50 minutes to 1 hour, if you want to cook it at the same time as the chicken in the recipe mentioned above!  Just keep an eye on it, and stir it from time to time.  It's done when the it starts to turn a bit brown.

Friday, October 7, 2011

C'est Delicieux!

This may come as a surprise, but where I grew up, French Onion Soup was an exotic treat.  I actually remember the first time, and place that I tried it.  I was probably around 7 or 8 years old and my Grandfather ordered a bowl at a restaurant a few towns away from ours in Quechee, Vermont.  He offered me a bite, and I wanted nothing to do with the brown soup because it contained onions, which at the time, I thought I didn't like.  After some careful persuasion and no doubt bribing, I reluctantly tried a bite of the cheesy, gooey, earthy soup and was hooked.  From that day on, the simple soup has held a special place in my heart. 

It never really occurred to me to try to make French Onion Soup at home until I found a recipe for one made in a slow cooker.  I later read that French Onion Soup was traditionally considered peasant food, or food for laborers, because of its inexpensive ingredients.  How fitting, I thought, since I am trying to watch my wallet these days! 

My dear friend Amy, with whom I've enjoyed many lunches often over, would you believe, French Onion Soup, encouraged me to give it a try. Since she is, to date, not only my biggest blog supporter and fan, but also my go-to-gal for technical support and often inspiration, I figured I'd give it a shot.  She also reminded me that she happens to be representative of the target audience for this blog, and pointed out that as of yet I have not blogged about a single recipe that she would try to make!  Mea culpa.  I am sure that with a little practice and some great recipes in her pocket she will be a terrific cook, so I kinda owe it to her to start providing those recipes!  This one's for you Amy, and if you don't have a Crock Pot yet, I'm buying you one so you can make this's soooo easy!!! 

I had this soup for lunch yesterday, but you could easily pair it with a hearty salad and make a quick and easy weeknight meal.  I found a Fall Delicata Squash Salad  recipe on that would likely be fantastic.  I haven't given it a try, but it sounds heavenly to me. 

Slow Cooker French Onion Soup:


1 lb bag of yellow onions
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp black pepper
4 cans (14 oz) or 3 boxes (17oz) beef broth (buy low sodium if you can) (don't worry about using cans versus boxes, just get as close to 50 ounces of broth in total as you can!)

1 French Baguette, sliced about 1 inch thick
Fontina or Gruyere cheese, shredded, about 2 Tbsp for each bowl of soup.  (I like Gruyere, Matt likes be the judge!)

1. Slice the onions.  I like to cut them in half the long way (through the root end) then peel them and cut into half-moon slices, but you don't have to be fancy for this recipe.  TIP:  To avoid the tears while cutting onions, we keep a pair of swimming goggles in our kitchen!!! It sounds insane I know, but if you wear them while you're slicing, you won't cry!!!

2.  Add the onions to the slow cooker and drizzle the olive oil over the top.

3.  Cook the onions on high for about 40 minutes alone in the slow cooker.

4.  In a small bowl, whisk the flour, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, pepper, and about 1/4 cup of the broth together.  Add this mixture to the slow cooker on top of the onions with the remaining boxes or cans of broth.

5.  Mix and walk away!!!  Cook the soup on high for 4-5 hours or on low for 7-8 hours.

6.  When you are ready to eat the soup, toast a few pieces of bread under the broiler before serving the soup.

7.  Ladle out the onions and as much broth as you like into an oven safe bowl.  Place the toasted bread on top, and the grated cheese on top of the bread. 

8.  Put the bowl on a cookie sheet so the cheese doesn't bubble over and make a mess in your oven!!!  Broil the whole thing for 5 minutes while watching carefully so the cheese doesn't burn.  Once the cheese is melted, serve and enjoy!!!  Be careful, the bowl will be very hot!!! 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bitten Off More Than I Can Chew??

Close to a year ago now I guess, a fellow foodie friend and I were talking about breakfast breads and muffins and how absolutely nutritionally misleading some of them can be.  A blueberry muffin (they look so innocent) must be a better breakfast choice than a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich right?   Common sense can really lead you astray here folks.  That cute little muffin can pack a punch, and sadly, it isn't even likely to leave you feeling full and satisfied when you are done with it.  To make matters even worse, I've seen some ingredients lists that include "blueberry flavored fruit pieces" instead of blueberries!  Anybody got a clue what that means?  I sure don't!  So to recap, if you are not careful, a blueberry muffin may not contain antioxidant rich blueberries, and may have more fat and calories than a greasy breakfast sandwich.  Need proof?  The Dunkin' Donuts website has a really easy to navigate nutrition table of all of their products.  According to their table, a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin will set you back 370 calories and 18 grams of fat while a blueberry muffin's gonna cost you 500 calories, and 16 grams!  The muffin redeems itself only in that less of its fat is saturated, and it has about half the sodium of the sandwich (but still clocks in at 500 grams!)

But I digress, our conversation was not about what to order at Dunkin' Donuts (that's a topic for another day) it was about how whether or not it is possible to make a healthy muffin.  My friend recommended that I check out a recipe she'd found that was guaranteed to be both healthy and satisfying.  The original recipe came from a blog I love called Peanut Butter and Julie, which I highly suggest you check out. 

I'd been waiting to take a crack at this recipe because, A: you already know how I feel about baking, and B: it requires a lot of ingredients that I don't normally keep on hand (apple sauce, shredded coconut, and wheat bran for example.) and I kept forgetting to pick them up while shopping.  This week I finally found myself in possession of everything I needed to make the bread, and I have to say I was a teensy bit overwhelmed when I saw all of the ingredients lined up on the counter!  I think there were 18 in total!

I'll warn you, the recipe in its entirety makes BOTH a loaf of bread AND 12 muffins...something I didn't exactly pick up on when I read it the first time.  I cut the recipe in half, (mostly because I realized I didn't have enough eggs to make the full amount!) and made only the muffins.  There is also quite a bit of pre-production work to be done when making these.  Chopping the nuts and fruit and grating the apples takes a bit of planning.  One of the reasons that I really am not the worlds best baker is that I have an absolute lack to patience, it almost always leads me to mistakes!   When I got going, I forgot that I was halving the recipe and I still used 2 apples.  No harm done though as far as I can tell, they were still great!  I do wish I'd used my food processor rather than a box grater to grate the apples, that proved to be a bit of a pain in the you know what!  A bit of advice, follow the recipe's advice and keep these in the fridge.  I wasn't keen on the idea at first, cold muffins seemed weird to me, but it made all the difference in the world.  They really are so moist and dense that I think they would spoil quickly if left out.

Even though the recipe was a bit intimidating, the finished product was seriously worth all the work.  They were tasty and filling, and I might add, quite satisfying over all as they really are dense and took quiet a bit of chewing!  If you're up for dirtying every bowl and measuring cup you own you should really give this recipe a try and you too can have a healthy morning!

"Healthy Morning Bread:"
Adapted from an Original Recipe from the website: Peanut Butter and Julie
Visit the Peanut Butter and Julie site for more great info about this recipe.

When I tried this, I cut the recipe in half and only made muffins, not bread (12 muffins total.)
I used chopped dates, but cranberries, raisins or apricots would probably be yummy as well. Pecans or almonds could easily be substituted for the walnuts if you prefer.

Healthy Morning Muffins and Bread

Makes one 10-inch loaf and 12 muffins

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup flour
2 1/2 cups wheat bran
1 tablespoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2 large Granny Smith apples, coarsely grated
2 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2/3 cup honey
2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons flax seeds
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
1 cup dried fruit
1 cup lightly toasted chopped walnuts

-Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Spray a large loaf pan and one 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick baking spray.
-In a large bowl, whisk together the whole wheat flour, flour, wheat bran, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt.
-Squeeze the excess liquid from the grated apples and place the apples in a separate large bowl.  Add the yogurt, honey, applesauce, eggs, and vanilla and stir to blend.
-Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, mixing until just blended.  Stir in the flax seeds, coconut, dried fruit, and pecans.
-Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan and muffin tins.  Bake at 375F until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 20-25 minutes for the muffins and 55-65 minutes for the bread.  Let the pans cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes and then carefully un-mold.  Cool completely.
-Store the bread/muffins in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic wrap or sealed in zip-top bags.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Thoughtful Process

Trans fats are bad, very it!  Most of us seem to be receiving that message loud and clear.  In fact, the subject of what NOT to eat is often front-page news.  But what ARE we supposed to eat?  Given that I am now the proud holder of a graduate degree on this very topic, I tend to think that I have a pretty good handle what makes something a good food choice (which is not to say that I always pick it!)  Every now and then, even I catch wind of a tidbit of information that throws me for a loop, and makes me pause and think critically about what I am hearing.  Some people are able to make very compelling arguments regarding their food beliefs.  Sometimes, the information they provide is accurate, and sometimes it is not. It can be tempting to believe things that are presented energetically, and surrounded by “facts” that sound convincing, but are not often based on real science.  I’m grateful that I can debunk most food myths that I come across, and I encourage you to take in new nutritional information with healthy skepticism.

Case and point:  Olive oil.  Good guy right?  Rich in heart healthy “good fats” that we hear about, like essential Omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s cholesterol free, and trans fat free making it a much better cooking oil choice than margarine, butter, or palm oil.  So why did someone try to tell me recently that people should avoid olive oil because it is a processed food?  Huh?

I got myself involved in a conversation about a new program that promotes cooking with, and eating strictly unprocessed foods.  Foods that are, shall we say…Whole.  Sounds good right?  I was told that a tenet of this program is to avoid cooking with all oils, including olive oil.  Why?  Because olive oil is refined, and therefore does not fit into the philosophy that one should eat only unprocessed foods.

Red Flag, Red Flag…but olive oil is good for you, no?  When I mentioned the various health benefits of cooking with, and consuming olive oil, I was told by the program’s representative (who is incidentally NOT a credentialed health or nutrition professional) that program participants are encouraged to eat olives (unprocessed) for their healthy fats, rather than rely on their (processed) oil for health benefits.   Um…again…what?!!!?  Olives that we buy for eating have been brined or cured…they have to be to be edible.  As far as I can tell brining and curing are not only processes, just like pressing olives to make oil.  Additionally, brined and cured olives have a heck of a lot of sodium by nature, as salt is used in both "processes."  We are all supposed to be avoiding excess sodium right?  I say this program's philosophy is hooey, and we should cook with oil and limit your consumption of brined and cured olives.  Who’s right here?

Lately, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that processed foods are to be avoided, but work still needs to be done so we can all adopt a definition of what is meant by "processed foods."  

I think you would agree that planning a diet free of ALL processed foods is completely impractical and probably impossible (isn’t chopping a process?)   Instead, peruse the grocery aisles critically, and apply a little realism to your decision-making.  It’s also never a bad idea to consult with a registered dietitian if you have questions about the nutritional quality of foods.

If I had my druthers, and an idyllic life, I would grow my own food, raise my own animals for meat, milk my own cows to drink their milk raw, and bake my own bread.  Unfortunately, I’m just as busy as the rest of you, and it’s not likely for any of that to happen anytime soon.  I do however take the time to apply a critical eye to the foods that I eat, and the information that I come across.  And I compare food choices in search of those that are as minimally processed as possible, within reason! 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Five Alive!

Shrimp and Watermelon Salad ~ A treat for all 5 tastes!
Today I offered to cook lunch for a friend of mine who is also a nutrition professional.  When she arrived, my whole apartment smelled like BACON.  This could have been seriously embarrassing.   As luck would have it we both appreciate great tasting food, and live by the mantra: "everything in moderation."   Thankfully, she was not appalled to learn that I featured bacon in our light summer lunch: Shrimp and Watermelon Salad with Fizzy Mandarin-Hibiscus Iced Tea.   My afternoon could have gone very badly if I had served this dish to mixed nutrition-ista company!  Bacon doesn't exactly scream health food. 

I hate to disappoint, but you should stop reading now and check back in with me next week if you are anticipating a declaration that bacon is health food.  I am not going to preach that bacon has health benefits.  In this dish though, it does provides another B word...balance.  This recipe has only two slices of bacon in it, and serves 4 people.  So, even though bacon has become the universal measurement against which unhealthy things are compared, it only plays a supporting role here.  It is not the main event and is not to be feared unless you are on a strict diet.  It provides a salty balance to sweet watermelon, which, in turn, mellows bitter arugula, whose flavor is brightened by a squeeze of fresh lime juice, the acidity of which is mellowed by shrimp's delicate umami.  See, I promised you balance.  Each ingredient in this recipe serves to boost the flavor of another.  Isn't food fun! I love that this recipe appeals to all 5 of our tastes.  I'll admit, it's definitely intended for the more adventurous eaters among us, but trust me, if you can get past the fact that the ingredients don't seem like they would be school-yard friends, you will be amazed at how delicious it is!

Mandarin-Hibiscus Fizzy Tea

The fact that I can make and enjoy this recipe is a  testament to just how far I have come in the kitchen, and how sophisticated my palate has become.  There was once a day when I would have not gone near a shrimp, had never heard of arugula, and wouldn't eat a thing that was the slightest bit spicy or bitter.  It is also representative of why I am writing this blog, so that I can attempt to provide an ounce of inspiration to anyone out there that believes that they can't cook, or that they are stuck being a life-long picky eater.  You can is not anywhere near as difficult as you might think, trust me!  And, believe it or not, your palate can be trained to like just about anything you set your mind to!   

The recipe for becoming a great cook for yourself, your friends, and your family is this:  

Step 1: Bravely blend 1 part curiosity, 1 part determination, a dash of passion, and a heaping handful of humility.   

Step 2: Be prepared to receive compliments!  

That's it.  Don't believe me?  When I first made this dish, I had no recipe...but I had determination and passion, and...I wanted to eat it, so I had to make it.  Let me explain.

I have taught myself to cook.  Out of necessity...and frugality I suppose.  I have spent the past 17 or so years working in a variety of restaurants.  It's been the food from these restaurants that I have learned about (and have been encouraged to try) over the years that has inspired me to learn to how to cook.  I have always eater well at work, (a restaurant industry perk!) and wanted to eat well at home too!  I began to snoop in the kitchens of great chefs, and watch their every move.  After some time, I got brave and started emulating their moves in my kitchen at home.  At times I had success, at others, I had failures.  I noticed after a while that my food was tasting better and better!  I began to be my own inspiration to try new things, and I hope to pass some of that along.

When I first met this salad a few years ago in a wonderful restaurant in Boston's Back Bay, I fell in love with it and new I had to try to write my own version of a recipe for it.  It was too good to only have once!  I cannot, and will not claim to be as skilled or creative as the award-winning chef whose dish inspired me recreate this.  I will however, humbly say that my copy-cat recipe makes a dish that provides a rare adventure for your taste buds that is not to be missed!

Shrimp and Avocado Salad :
Serves 4

2 pieces bacon, or panchetta
20 frozen cooked shrimp (thawed)
1 package arugula
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
2 cups cubed watermelon (save any juice that might linger on the cutting board from cutting the melon)
1 avocado (cubed)
1 can butter beans rinsed and drained
1 tbsp chili oil (or extra virgin olive oil + 1 tsp red pepper flake)
Juice of 1 lime
Salt & pepper to taste

1.  Cut the bacon into small (1/4 inch pieces)
2.  Saute the bacon in a medium sauce pan until crispy.  Drain the oil from the pan.
3.  Off of the heat, toss the shrimp in the pan with the bacon.  Set pan aside.
4.  In a large bowl lightly toss the arugula, rinsed and drained beans, basil leaves, watermelon, and avocado together
5.  In a small bowl combine the watermelon juice, lime juice, chili oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and drizzle over the arugula mixture.
6.  Top the salad with the shrimp and bacon.
7.  Serve immediately.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fill 'Er Up!

One of the things that I love and hate about nutrition is that it is always changing.  You know what I day you see an article that says something is good for you, and the next day it seems like someone is reporting that it is bad.  Believe me, I get that it can be confusing and frustrating to know what to eat.  Part of what makes my job fun is that I get to sort through all of the information that gets published, and use my trained mind figure out what information is backed by scientific proof, and what information is spun by the media to make for good news.  Researchers are still learning so much about what our bodies do with food.  So, yes, from time to time, the facts do change, and we have to accept that this is progress. 

It can be hard to understand why experts are constantly changing their minds about what is good for us, but it's not opinion, it's science.  It's important to remember that this sort of change and discovery happens in all areas of science from time to time.  Need I remind you of poor know, used to be a planet, now...not so much?  I know, I know, we have a much more personal relationship with food than we do the planets, so we tend to get a bit more bent out of shape when the science of what we are supposed to eat changes.  Here's my advice on how to handle confusing (and sometimes conflicting) information...I strongly believe that you should follow your gut, literally.  The trick though, is that first you and your gut need to learn to speak the same language!!  I'm also a fan of employing a little simple logic to any food related situation.  If something makes good, honest sense...then do it! 

One of the things that has changed is the advice on how to stay properly hydrated, and what exactly that means.  I know as well as you how life can sometimes get in the way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it can be so easy to forget to hydrate.  In the summer months though it becomes increasingly important NOT TO FORGET!   

So there I was the other day, all stressed out about one thing or another, tired, and on my way to work in 90+ degree weather.  What did I do, I grabbed a GIGANTIC iced coffee...I mean huge.  Did I know better? OF COURSE!!!  Should I have had a nice big bottle of water instead of the iced coffee?  YES!!!  But I lived, and learned, and that's the point of all this share my own trials and tribulations, so that you know that I'm human, and I make mistakes from time to time just like everybody else!  It is my hope that I can gain your trust and give you some valuable advice so you can avoid the same pitfalls that I have fallen victim to.

Now, we used to be told that 8 glasses of water a day was the key to hydration, but now scientists have conceded that we may not need quite that much, and that even beer and caffeinated beverages can help a person stay hydrated...WHAT!  Ok, Ok, let me decode this for you.   You may not need as much liquid as was once thought (unless you are living in an extreme situation or participating in an extreme activity) and all liquids provide you with at least some level of hydration.  This is all true, but it also needs to be applied to real life on a case by case basis. 

Back to me and my iced coffee.  I consider working in a restaurant in 90 degree weather with less than optimal AC to be kind of an extreme situation, so I should have consumed more liquid than I would in an average day, according to the recommendation above, and I did not.  Lets call that mistake #1.  Also, I can tell you from a bit of my own scientific research that if you don't water a plant for days, it gets limp and lifeless, and I can also tell you that if you then water it with iced coffee (or beer) does not bounce back, it DIES!!!  Ok, mistake #2 = giant iced coffee instead of water.  

What did I learn? Well, I was thirsty and tired so I thought I was listening to my "gut" by getting an extra large caffeinated beverage.  In fact, I was assuming my gut speaks English...not so much.  I should have applied some logic before imbibing, and gotten an extra large H2O instead!!!  If my car runs out of gas would I put iced coffee in the tank!!!  No!!  Duh!!! 

Your body looses 6-10 cups of water on a normal day (from breathing, sweating, peeing, and so on and so forth) and more on a really hot and humid day, so shouldn't you put that much water back in at least?  I think it's not a bad goal.  If you plan to consume other beverages (the cafinated or alcoholic kind in particular) then consider them bonus liquid intake and don't forget to drink the water as well, it will make you feel far more refreshed in the long run than even soda or sports drinks.

I have probably lost a few people preaching about the virtues of water consumption, but hopefully you think I am an amusing read, so you have gotten this far anyways...yes/no?
So lets just say that you're not big on water, not fond of it, not in the mood to drink it, bored with it...whatever.  Well, you are not alone, I hear that lots of people feel that way.  But I beg you, don't give up...find a creative way to get it into you.  Some simple tricks are to add lemon, orange, or cucumber slices to give it some flavor, or even a tablespoon of fruit juice or so.  And don't forget, caffeine free iced tea (unsweetened of course) is just flavored water, so drink up!!! 

This may surprise you, but food can provide you with water too.  Typically, we take in about 20% of the hydration that we need from food without even realizing it.  There's no reason that you can't make that a higher percentage by eating more hydrating foods.  You can kill two birds with one stone by eating great nutritious fruits and veggies that also have a high water content.  These things won't replace the fact that you need to drink fluids, but they'll certainly help you to hydrate if you're having a hard time remembering to drink lots of water on a hot summer day!  How do you find hydrating foods?  Well, apply a bit of logic again here.  When you cut or bite into something does it leave the knife wet or does juice run down your chin? If the answer is yes, then it contains a high water content and eating it transfers that water into you!!!  Bonus!  Here's a few things to try:

Watermelon (of course right?!)
Citrus fruits
Bell peppers

And a few more no brainers...Remember, if it started watery, or is made of water, it will help to keep you hydrated, just think outside the box!!


Friday, July 29, 2011

The "Skinny" on Ramen

Friend or Foe?
Let me be the first to admit that planning a meal can sometimes be stressful, even for me!  When I cook I often have lofty goals.  I am usually trying to balance the need to: make it quick, make it healthy, make it nutritious, make it cheap, try not to dirty too many dishes, make it delicious, make it look good, generate as little waste as possible, and be mindful of my carbon footprint.  Seriously, how am is anyone supposed to do all that?  I find it helpful to prioritize my goals, and pick just a few from the list to strive for when preparing each meal.  I also LOVE it when I find creative shortcuts and great products that don't compromise taste or nutrition, and I try to remember that my priorities don't have to be the same for every meal.

Today is one of those days where being thrifty seems like a pretty good idea.  It's getting close to rent time and I'm only "getting close" to having it!  Our CSA bounty for the week is just about used up, and I need to whip up something for lunch.  The weather has finally reached a more reasonable summer temperature here in New England, and there is a nice breeze so soup seems like not such a bad idea.  My solution: I head to my pantry to grab a packet of Ramen noodles.  That's right, read the last line again if you must, but I said Ramen.  I'll let you in on a little secret.  I may have a degree in nutrition, but one of my "must have" pantry staples is good old Maruchan Ramen noodles.  You got it...the kind that costs about $.40 and have quite a bad reputation for being the quintessential unhealthy food that college kids live on.  Am I crazy...most certainly, but also quite crafty if I do say so myself!

Have I lost you yet?  Let me clarify.  Ramen noodles (when prepared "as is") ARE NOT a healthy food option, I will not dispute that, nor do I recommend eating them.  The label confirms that they are high in fat, low in nutritional value, LOADED with sodium, and that they contain MSG and other potentially undesirable preservatives and flavor enhancers.  I think what is most horrifying to me is that the package claims to be 2 servings!  Come on now, please let me know if you have ever managed to save half of a bowl of Ramen for a later meal.  I probably shouldn't admit this, but I'm eating the whole questions asked.  

So what gives?  Why am I even suggesting that you keep such a vile little "food" stocked in your pantry.  Well, with a bit of tweaking, Ramen noodle soup makes a cheap (very cheap) fast, delicous and nutritious meal, and I only have to dirty 2 or 3 dishes!  Curious yet?

First things first.  Here are some fun facts for you.  Inside the little package you will find 2 things:  dried noodles, and a packet of "soup base."  That seasoning packet is the devil.  That's where the MSG, some of the fat, and almost all of the 1780mg of sodium is hanging out.  (For any of you that are paying attention, or are interested, that is 280mg of sodium more than is recommended in an ENTIRE day.)  So... here's Step 1 of my Ramen recipe.  THROW THAT PACKET IN THE TRASH!!!  I know, it seems wasteful, but no good can come of what's in there.  Now, we begin.  You may now follow the package directions.  Boil 2 cups of water and add the noodles.  Cook three minutes. (I like to do this right in a wok, but any medium sauce pan will do just fine.)  Now stop.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200.  Here's Tip number 2:  Pretend you have just made pasta and drain those noodles in a colander.  Now rinse them off with cold water.  Why?  You may have noticed an oily layer floating on your cooking water when the noodles were done.  If you continue with the directions on the package, that oily water will become your soup broth.  Most of the fat found in the package is in those noodles and a fair amount of it tends to be released into the water as the noodles cook.  If you drain and rinse them, your soup broth will be free of a large portion of that oil, and therefore the fat.  This is kinda like sopping up your pizza oil with a paper towel.  Same idea.  Did you know that by doing that you actually save your self from eating quite a bit of fat?  I digress...
Not a bad looking bowl of soup I made for lunch huh?  I added a few more pantry and freezer staples back into my wok and boiled a fresh two cups of water.  When I added my rinsed and drained noodles back in I had a do-it-yourself healthy Ramen soup that no doubt will keep me full for quite some time!  So I succeeded in making a fast, cheap, nutritious (and low sodium!) lunch while only dirtying 3 dishes!  I'm calling that a WIN!   See the full recipe below. 

Grown Up Ramen Noodle Soup:
1 Package Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup
1/2 Cup frozen broccoli pieces (really any combo of frozen vegetables will work nicely)
1/4 Cup frozen edamame
1/4 Cup chopped scallions (or just use an onion if that's what you've got)
1 Tbsp Ginger People Minced Ginger
1 Tbsp minced garlic (I use jarred here too for convenience and speed)
1 Tbsp Bragg Liquid Aminos (A fantastic low sodium alternative to soy sauce)
1/4 Tsp sesame oil
1/4 Tsp Chinese 5 Spice Powder
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp Siracha (you can use less, or omit it entirely if you don't like life a bit spicy!)

-Cook the noodles according to package directions in a wok or medium sauce pan.
-Drain and rinse noodles.
-In the same pan, over medium heat, add sesame oil, frozen veggies, scallions, ginger and garlic.
-Cook 1 minute.
-Pour 2 cups of water over veggies in the pan and bring to a boil.
-Add the noodles back into the pan and the remaining ingredients.  Heat just until noodles are warm again.  About 30 seconds.
-Pour contents into a large soup bowl.

Friday, July 15, 2011

'Cause Sometimes A Girl's Just Gotta Brag

It feels like it's about time for me to explain myself a bit.  The whole reason that I started doing this (aside from coming into some free time!) is that I wanted to find a way to express my feelings, and I have many, about cooking, healthy eating, and the relationship that I believe the two have with one another.  I've noticed that it is possible for cooking and eating well to go hand-in-hand, but also to sometimes be at odds. The state of the relationship seems to depend on who's doing the cooking, and who's doing the eating!  I have found that there are some folks who are fantastic cooks, but don't know a lick about eating well, and conversely, there are many people who recite healthy eating trends, but don't execute them because they think they can't cook!

Since the beginning of my adventure in the study of nutrition, many people have asked me if it is possible to eat healthy without cooking.  At times, some have even told me that they simply have no hope of eating healthy foods because they "can't cook."  It has also not been uncommon for people to tell me how "lucky" I am that I am a great cook, because that must be the reason that I eat so well.  Ugh!  I have struggled, and continue to, with how to respond to the assumption that you have to be a great cook in order to be a great eater.  See, here's the problem:  I do think that most people have a better shot of eating a well-balanced, healthy diet that is packed with nutritious good stuff if they prepare it themselves, but I also recognize that our busy lives aren't always conducive to cooking all day.  I also believe that in our country, it has become increasingly difficult to select menu items when eating out that are not only healthy, but are also not secretly unhealthy.  I decided that I could do one of two things: I could blog about restaurants, and how to  select healthy food when eating out, or I could blog about how easy it can be to learn to make a few healthy things for yourself.  Note the word LEARN.  Clearly I have chosen Plan B here.

Let me begin by addressing those that say I am "lucky" that I can cook.  Luck has had NOTHING to do with my ability to cook!  (Unless you count those few times that I was "lucky" that I didn't burn the house down!)  Here's the thing, I never thought, or even dreamed, that I could cook, quite frankly, I still have a tendency to modestly deny that I can.  I have spent A LOT of time devoted to the study of nutrition and healthy living, but I have also spent many, many years teaching myself how to cook.  The only thing that I have been blessed with is a curiosity about food, and a love of eating.  The rest has come from blood, sweat, and tears, literally.  I too was once a slave to take out, grab-and-go pastries, pre-made sandwiches on the run, and gourmet dinners out.  There are, no doubt, many former roommates of mine out there who I'm sure will scarcely believe that I have learned to boil water, and that I own a food processor, forget about the fact that am proud to say that I am able to make quasi-gourmet meals from scratch.  I do not come from a "cooking family," and I used to be a culinary train wreck...really.  If you're not hooked yet, stay tuned, and in later weeks I promise to divulge all of my deepest darkest secrets.  That's right, all of the skeletons are coming out of my kitchen!  Sure I have made mistakes, BIG ones, but I'm not ashamed.  Those mistakes made me keep trying harder to learn to make great food, and there are many things that I still have to work hard at.  All that being said, I had this silly notion that if I shared some of my kitchen disasters, and success stories, I might get just one person to try to make just one thing that might inspire them to make one more thing.  If that happens, then I know they will be well on the way to eating well at home.  'Nuff said?  Questions, comments, concerns?  I can only hope!

I am pleased to announce at this stage of the game that I can cook, and pretty well if I do say so!  I promise to share, as I said, my blunders, but I also want to allow myself to share some successes for inspiration.  I must say that one recent success was a picnic dinner that I packed for Matt and I to take to the banks of the Charles River.  There are so many great things about living in a city like Boston, but one of the things that I try not to take for granted is all of the public green space that we have.  It's not uncommon to be able to find a nice cozy spot all to yourself to picnic, read, toss a softball, or do some yoga (if you are brave enough to do that sort of thing in public!)  That being said, Matt had a fantastic idea the other night...dinner out...outside!  Now, my mind immediately saw dollar signs as I imagined us going to Whole Foods and packing a Parisian themed picnic of exotic cheeses, fresh bread, berries with creme fraiche, and of course something bubbly!  As I was about to poo-poo the whole adventure in an effort to save money, Mr. Matt insisted that we cruise the fridge to see what we already had that we might be able to throw together.  Reluctantly, I cruised.  Aha!  Poo-Poo Parisian theme, we had an Asian smorgasbord available for the making!  While Matt whipped up some Red Zinger (hibiscus flower flavored) iced tea, I got to slaw making!  We had a kohlrabi from our CSA left that I previously had no idea what to do with, some very colorful carrots, a few scallions, some celery and some frozen edamame.  I always keep a stock of Asian condiments in the pantry (hoisin, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sesame seeds, hot sauces of all kinds.) I find that these items come in handy for all kinds of quick and easy week night meals.  With our leftover produce and a few condiments I was able to make a very quick vitamin rich kohlrabi/carrot/scallion slaw, and a protein packed salad of edamame, sliced celery, more scallions, and sesame seeds.  I also steamed some packaged Trader Joe's Cilantro Chicken Dumplings and toted along a bottle of TJ's Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette to dip them in.   We also brought some sliced strawberries tossed with basil and a hint of balsamic vinegar for a light dessert.  I'll post the recipes under my recipe tab, but check out the meal we made!

Not too shabby for a weeknight affair thrown together by a self taught cook huh?  Some intuition and a little bit of Google went a long way in putting together this meal, and it was a success!!  Oh, and the chopsticks are a fun touch, but don't go thinking that I was born with those in my hand either... a ton of practice and some serious determination, that's all I have to say about that.  I have to admit that I have become pretty skilled, but if I hadn't saved those from some Chinese delivery one night, a knife and fork would have done nicely!

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Waist" not Want Not

I should probably have my head examined.  It's been the hottest week of the summer so far here in New England, and I have been...baking.  Have I mentioned yet that I am not incredibly fond of baking?  No?  Well now you know.  I am not fond of baking.  I'll do it, but I won't like it.  Matt's the baker in the house, and he's good at it.  I on the other hand, really have to be in the mood for a challenge before I even touch a recipe involving a greased and floured surface.   A good tangle with my oven usually leaves me feeling defeated, frustrated, angry, and impatient.  There are a few things that I have made so many times that I can manage a successful final product with some level of consistency, but those items are few and far between.  Blunders are the norm for me when it comes to baking.  For example, on Matt's 30th birthday, I decided to play the hero and bake a German chocolate cake (his favorite) to feed a crowd of about 20.  The rumble that I had with the oven that day was so legendary that we now we refer to the beast of a creation as simply  "all day cake,"  as in, "Jen tried to make that cake once, and it took her ALL DAY!"  Hey, we all do things sometimes that aren't exactly a 10 right?

This week I faced our oven in an effort to do the right thing by some zucchini.  We decided this year to split a CSA share from nearby Langwater Farm with a friend.  So far our bounty has been both plentiful and exciting.  I (who fancies herself a bit of a veggie expert) have learned what to do with previously unknown green thingies like garlic scapes and kohlrabi.   For those who feel a bit out of the loop, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  The basic idea behind buying a CSA share is that you give a farm some money in the spring (that they need,) and in return, you get a season's worth of fresh veggies (that you need) to pick up from the farm each week.  The fruits and veggies from the farm are a selection of whatever is growing in the moment.  At this particular moment, zucchini seems to be bountiful, and thus, we have quite a few on our hands.  After several hobo packs, stuffed zucchini, stir fries, and a lot of pasta primavera, I realized that I needed another use for the stuff.  And then it hit me...zucchini bread!  Of course!!  Now I know what you're thinking..."baked goods from the nutritionist???"  Sounds suspect huh?  But really, this recipe is packed with good stuff and makes a great breakfast on the go!  I promise you that not all baked goods are created equal.  A slice of this bread (and you should get about 10-12 generous slices from a loaf, depending on whether or not you like the end pieces!) paired with some fresh fruit and coffee or tea can be quite a healthy breakfast option.  Scroll to the bottom of the post for some fun nutrition facts if you don't believe me. 

The original recipe I followed came from my mother (incidentally also not a whiz with the baked items...maybe it's genetic?) who showed me that practice can make perfect, because she got quite good at making this bread.  This recipe makes enough for 2 full sized loaves of bread.  I sometimes make both and freeze one, but this time I cut the recipe in half.  I struggled a bit about how exactly to use half of 3 eggs, and decided to crack the 3 into a liquid measuring cup, whisk them, and pour out half.  Voila, 1.5 eggs!  I saved the other in the fridge for a quick scrambled egg breakfast for Matt in the morning!  I modified the recipe just a bit (the items with an * have nutrition notes following the recipe) to beef up the good stuff that this quick bread can offer and here's what I came up with:

3 Eggs*
2 Cups sugar
1 Cup vegetable oil*
2 Cups grated zucchini (a box grater works great for this, but you can use a food processor if you prefer)*
3 Tsp vanilla extract
3 Cups flour (I used half white flour and half whole wheat)*
1 Tsp baking soda
1/2 Tsp salt
1 1/2 Tsp baking powder
3 Tsp ground cinnamon*
1/2 Cup chopped walnut pieces*

Box grater
Measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a liquid measuring cup
Large mixing bowl
Mixing spoon
Electric beater
Something to sift flour (I use a metal strainer)
1 or 2 bread pans depending on whether or not you are making the full recipe

As aforementioned, I bake...reluctantly.  In order to avoid repeating travesties that I have committed int the past, I have developed a few methods to lessen the pain.  First, I read the recipe multiple times.  I have made the mistake too many times of starting to bake and then realizing that I don't have an ingredient, or that I have done something in the wrong order.  So, read and reread I always say.  Second, I only bake when I already know I have to clean my kitchen...I tend to make a gigantic mess with anytingh involving flour and or a mixer.  So, i find that it helps to be mentally prepared for kitchen carnage, and give yourself enough time to tidy up.  Lastly, get your ducks in order!  Really, everyone ever says to "mis en place" pre

So, that being said...Start by preheating your oven to 350, and hitting your baking pan with either some Pam cooking spray, or a good old smear of butter and a flour dusting.  Then...

1. Grate the zucchini.  I use a box grater set on top of a cutting board, but if you have a food processor you can use that instead.  I found that a large zucchini makes just about 3 cups of grated stuff.  Here's a tip for the extra.  Put it in a zip lock bag and squeeze out the air.  Store it in the freezer and use it again to make another batch of bread in the future!  Just make sure you let it thaw in a colander so the excess water can drain out. 

2.  Crack the eggs into your mixing bowl (or measuring cup if you are splitting the recipe...see note above on my little trick for that) and beat well with mixer on low speed.  Add sugar and beat that some more.  Add the oil, and beat a bit longer.  This shouldn't take you more than 2 minutes or so, you just want to combine everybody that wouldn't normally want to get along! 

3.  Put the mixer down and pick up the spoon.  Mix in the zucchini and vanilla. 

4.  Next comes the sifting business.  You can use a proper sifter if you happen to own one, I do not happen to own one.  I have a metal strainer with a handle and a relatively fine metal weave to it.  I place it over the mixing bowl and add the following ingredients right into it:  flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  I shake the strainer until all ingredients are "sifted" in and then stir to combine with a spoon.

5.  Lastly, add the nuts and mix just to combine.  The thing about these breads I've been told, is not to over mix them.  A few lumps are supposed to be ok.

6.  Pour the mix into 1 (or 2 if you are making the full recipe) greased baking pans (I like the 9 x 5 x 3 typical baking pan size) and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

7.  Check for doneness by using a toothpick (or in my case BBQ skewer!) to see if anything sticks to it or not.  Sticky dough on the pick = cook 5 more minutes, no sticky dough = you are done!  Let the bread cool in pan for a bit then loosen the edges with a knife and turn it out onto a cutting board. Enjoy!

So, here are some fun facts for those of you who like this kind of thing.  I will confess, I am as guilty as the next gal (or guy) of sometimes eating breakfast on the go.  I know, I know, I should know claim to know better, but hey, us nutritionists are human too you know!  I have found though that it is shocking how just a tiny bit of thought can spare you from consuming excess fat and calories that you might not even know about.  For instance, if you made this bread on a weekend and sliced it up, did you know that you can freeze the individual slices and take one out the night before you want to eat one in your car on the way to work?  If you did this instead of grabbing a comparable piece of loaf bread from a place like Starbucks, you'd save yourself 260 calories at breakfast!  Amazing I say!  You'd also save yourself a few pesos, but that's just a bonus!  I plugged the ingredients from this recipe into a handy nutrition analysis software program, crunched out some data, and compared it to some of the quick breads that are available from places that you can buy them on the go.  Check this out...

My Zucchini Bread vs Starbucks Banana Loaf

230 Calories vs 490 Calories
29g Carbs vs 75g
12.5g Fat vs 19g
Sodium 78mg vs 210mg

Wow!  If I do say so myself, I'm standing behind my bread in a nutrition battle!  All of the extra stuff in the store (or restaurant) bought breads come from the fats and additives that make the stuff last longer on the shelf.  Like I said, it just takes a little forward thinking and your bread made at home can be as quick to grab in the morning as theirs!  As an added bonus, I made my bread with ingredients that incease the "good fats" like Omega-3 (from the walnuts, vegetable oil and eggs,) that we hear about in the news, and added whole wheat flour for a kick of fiber.  Also, my bread has has a other nutritional bonuses.  The zucchini provides a dose of calcium, vitamins A, B, and C, and magnesium and potassium, and cinnamon contains natural phytochemicals including beta-carotene, vanillin, limonene, and phytosterols that may help prevent cancer and aide in digestion!  Bonus!  Just goes to show you...all baked goods are NOT created equal!  

Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's Getting Hot in Here

I have a rather serious obsession with hot sauces.  I have no idea where it came from, or when it started, and truth be told, it extends to all things that can be called condiments (rubs, shakes, spreads, dips, I love it all!)  I took stock recently of the sauces that line our refrigerator door.  Lets just say that I found proof that I may in fact be a hot sauce hoarder.  I just can't get enough.  On this year's vacation to Barbados, I sweat the entire plane ride home, fearing that the 5-ish bottles of hot sauce I collected from various local shops might collide and turn my summer wardrobe into a capsaicin soaked mess that I would have to wash wearing rubber gloves and a gas mask! Luckily, I found no such fate when I unpacked my suitcase!

So, yeah, I like it spicy!  To date though, I still have not come across a sauce that can rival the addictive heat of the Thai Chili Sauce made at the former Restaurant L where I used to work.  This sauce had a sweetness up front that seemed innocent enough, but the fire that followed left you with only two options; weep like a child, or keep eating more to delay the inevitable burn.  It's been several years since Restaurant L closed, and I still miss that sauce.  It crossed my mind again last week when I saw that the Boston Globe Magazine published a summer BBQ menu featuring Thai flavors.  The recipes looked good, but cried out for a spicy kick.  No time like the present, I thought, to stop longing for an old friend, and try making my own Thai Chili Sauce!! 

It seemed a daunting task. I do have a recipe (at its loosest definition) that I cobbled together from watching the sauce be made, but I had never thought that I could replicate that magical green goo myself.  I am pleased to report that a wee bit of kitchen intuition and some elbow grease resulted in a pretty close replica. Here's what I came up with:

20 Thai chilies (I wanted to use all green, but Matt insisted we add some color! So I thew a few red ones into the mix!)
1 Peeled clove of garlic
10 Cilantro leaves
3 Limes (juiced)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 Tsp fish sauce (more on that later)

Cutting board
Mortar and pestle (again, more on that in a bit)

Cut the stems off of the chilies.  Place the garlic clove, all 20 chillies and the sugar into the mortar (bowl) and grind the heck out of the whole mess until you have broken the chilies into fairly small pieces and the garlic has been pulverized.

Next, add the lime juice, fish sauce, and cilantro into the mix and stir gently.

Transfer the sauce into something for storage or serving.  It's a good idea to use a glass or ceramic receptacle because the acid in the lime juice can react with anything plastic and do some strange things to it. (Ever used a plastic container to store tomato sauce?  That's what we're talking about here too!)

Ta Da!

I served my sauce with some white rice and a version of the Thai grilled chicken that was featured in the Globe.  I also made the cucumber salad from the same article.  The link to these recipes is right here if you are interested in preparing the whole meal.

I caution you though, the portion sizes are a bit wacky in the recipes so I scaled the ingredient quantities back a bit, you might want to consider doing the same.  For instance, what 6 people do you know that can consume 8 cucumbers in one sitting? Just sayin...

I think I will make this again in the future and use it as a condiment for rice dishes, stir fries, grilled meats, and maybe even Asian style soups.  Did you know that adding a little bit of spice to any meal can provide a little help for those of us with a portion control issue?  Many studies show that the phytochemical compound that makes peppers spicy (capsaicin) can make us feel fuller faster.  What a bonus!!!  Most unfortunately, this particular sause doesn't seem to keep for more than a couple of days, as the cilantro tends to turn brown.  At just pennies to make though, I think I'll be grinding up a batch quite often!  If you are not planning on using it right away, I would omit the cilantro from the recipe and add some in just before using it.  It might keep a bit longer that way.   

A quick note on some things listed above that I promised to clarify...

I absolutely hate snooty recipes that assume the reader has access to exotic ingredients and/or fancy equipment, so, I pledge here and now to always explain myself if I feel that I am treading dangerously into the realm of food snobbery.  That being said, I am fully aware (having grown up in very rural Vermont) that not everyone has access to a swell Asian market like the Super 88 here in Boston.  Fish sauce and for that matter Thai chilies may be hard to come by.  If you are having trouble locating peppers called "Thai chilies" you can substitute another small chili pepper (here's a hint for you: As a rule, the smaller the pepper, the spicier it is!)  I wouldn't use a jalapeno, because their flavor tends to be a bit too bitter, but a habanero might work nicely, or even a fresno.  Fish sauce is a very popular ingredient used in many types of Asian cooking.  It was once described to me by a friend from Laos as "liquid Asian table salt," which is basically how it is used.  A little goes a LONG way, and trust me when I tell you not to smell it on its own.  Just trust me.  If you can't get your hands on fish sauce, it's quite fine to omit it all together, but if I were you, I'd add about a quarter teaspoon of soy sauce, or better yet, Worcestershire sauce as a substiture.  Unorthodox, I know, but worth a try.  I've heard many rumors about how fish sauce is made, including one that describes a process involving hot sun and train cars full of rotting fish.  I think it's best not to think too hard about these things, and accept that sometimes food is just delicious, and we don't need to wonder why!

Lastly, about this mortar and pestle business.  Yes, I have one, and yes, I really used it to grind up all of those chillies with my very own elbow grease.  If you don't have one, or are possibly not interested in a little manual labor, you can, of course, use a blender or food processor.  True confession... I bought mine years ago because I thought it looked cute!  I never intended to use the thing, it was a kitchen decoration as far as I was concerned!  Now I have seen the light!  I use it all the time to grind small amounts of spices and create sauces like this one.  I say it is definitely worth the investment (and it can be a small one...I got mine at Marshall's for around $9.)  Just think about it...isn't something that has been used for centuries by many many different cultures worth having in your home?  No one had a George Foreman grill 100 years ago, but they were using a mortar and pestle in Italy to make pesto (hence its name) and in Mexico to make guacamole, and in India to grind spices for curries and garam masala.  Just sayin...that's staying power!