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!