Sunday, December 28, 2008

Curried Squash & Red Lentil Soup with Mint

This is a vegan recipe, so it's good to serve to just about anyone. If you're a die-hard meat-eater, this would convert easily to a stew by adding some sausage to the mix. Even as is, it could be a meal in itself, since it's very hearty, but it's also a good first course.

I think this recipe received the most compliments at my Hanukkah dinner. Since it's a seasonally appropriate soup, it can keep you warm all winter long.

Curried Squash & Red Lentil Soup with Mint
2 Tbsps. safflower oil
3 leeks, chopped
2 lbs. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 stalks of celery, cut into chunks
2 quarts low-sodium veggie stock
2 Tbsps. curry powder
salt and pepper, to taste
1 lb. red lentils, rinsed and picked over
2-3 cups water
2 Tbsps. fresh mint, minced

Place the chopped leeks in a bowl of cold water and allow the grit to settle to the bottom. Using a slotted spoon, remove leeks from the water.

Heat oil over medium heat in a stock pot or dutch oven. Add the leeks, squash, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until leeks have softened, about 10 minutes. Add the veggie stock and curry powder and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour.

Using an immersion blender (or a regular one), puree the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Add the red lentils and 2 cups of water. Simmer an additional 1 hour and 20 minutes. Add more water to thin to your desired consistency.

Adjust seasonings, as needed, and add mint. Remove from heat, and serve. This soup keeps very well in the refrigerator or freezer.

Kale Salad

This recipe was inspired by my health food store's signature salad, which features raw kale. I never imagined that raw kale would taste anything but tough until I tried this salad. Then I realized that the magic of acidity would render raw kale quite tasty, without reducing it to wilted mush (like so many other salad greens).

Kale Salad
1/4 cup wild rice
1/2 cup water
1 bunch curly kale, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
2 carrots, washed and grated
1/2 cup raw almonds
2 Tbsps. raw sesame seeds
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 Tbsp. sesame oil
salt & pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan, bring the wild rice, water and a pinch of salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, or until water is absorbed. Allow to cool.

Place the kale, carrots, almonds, sesame seeds and wild rice in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, sesame oil and salt and pepper. Pour over the salad and toss.

Allow the salad to sit in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight (up to 24 hours), to give the kale time to "cook" in the dressing.

Easy Crock Pot Beef Brisket

This is a recipe that was inspired by my step-mother's bbq brisket. It's a big crowd pleaser, and about the simplest thing you can make. My only warning is that beef (organic or kosher) is quite expensive, so reserve this one for very special occasions.

Easy Crock Pot Beef Brisket
beef brisket (4 lbs or so), preferably 2nd cut
1 bottle (12 oz.) BBQ sauce - smoky or hickory favors work best
2 cups organic hard apple cider (or regular apple cider)
2 Tbsp. dried chopped onion
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
generous sprinkling of salt and pepper

Put the brisket, fat side up, into a crock pot. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl, and pour over the brisket. Put the lid on and cook for 6 hours on low. After it's done, take the meat out and let it rest for about 10 minutes on a cutting board. Slice off what remains of the fat, and then cut into thin slices across the grain. Serve the liquid from the crock pot as a gravy.

Spicy Guacamole

I admit that this is a very chunky guacamole, which is not what some are used to. I like to make guacamole that can stand on its own two feet. It doesn't need a chip, it's not dribbley like a sauce, it's something you could eat with a spoon, if so inclined. But it's also perfectly great as a condiment and a dip. For those who are not so into heat, just omit the jalapeno.

Spicy Guacamole
1 avocado
1 plum tomato, seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. red onion, minced
1 Tbsp. cilantro, minced
1 lime, juiced
coarse salt, to taste

Halve the avocado and discard the pit. Scoop out the flesh into a bowl and mash with a fork to desired smoothness/chunkiness. Add tomato, pepper, garlic, red onion, cilantro and lime juice. Add salt, to taste.

Note: For spicier guacamole, include the jalapeno seeds. For a more interesting flavor, substitute the jalapeno for 1/2 a charred poblano pepper (peel the poblano's skin after charring). For an earthier flavor, roast 1/2 head of garlic in a 425F oven for 30 minutes and squeeze roasted garlic into the mix.

This Week's Shopping List

This week was a whopper, cost-wise. No, it wasn't the bulk order of organic ground beef. That, which is only $28 for 8 lbs (what a deal!), will actually be picked up in a week or two, as it turns out. This week's high price tag was because of one 4 lb. non-organic piece of meat that made its grand entrance on our dinner table Saturday evening to celebrate Hanukkah's 7th night. The kosher brisket: sometimes, tradition costs money ... about 50 bucks, in this case.

Apart from that, it was a relatively normal shopping week. We were spared one dinner at home when we went to a cousin's house for the 4th night of Hanukkah. But we hosted a group of eight last night, so that probably evens out.

Here is the week's menu:

Lunch: Barley & Asparagus "Risotto"

- Buffalo and BBQ chicken “wings” with sweet potato chips and carrot & celery sticks (leftover from last week)
- Bean Burrito Casserole (I add chopped kale to this) with Spicy Guacamole
- Hanukkah Dinner:
* Curried Squash & Red Lentil Soup with Mint
* Kale Salad
* BBQ Brisket
* Potato Latkes with Applesauce
* Roasted Brussel Sprouts
* Soofganiyot with Cinnamon-Orange Syrup (I used margarine to keep parve)

Here is the shopping list (* indicates non-organic):

butternut squash
fresh mint
Yukon Gold potatoes
brussel sprouts*
asparagus* (1.99/lb)
pinto beans
tomato sauce ($1 coupon)
soymilk (1.77 32 oz.)
red lentils
eggs (3.99)
yogurt ($0.75 coupon, doubled)
frozen peas
apple cider
Tree Ripe OJ* (1.77)
dehydrated peas

I was unable to make the trip to my usual health food store this week because of the holiday busies, so I went to a store that isn't as well stocked in organic produce. Hence the several items that would usually be organic, but are not this week.

There were only two items on the list that I could not get: dehydrated peas and grapes. I'm sure I could have gotten non-organic grapes, but I prefer not to. I also added a few sale items: The flatbreads I had been looking for the week before were actually on sale this week (2/$5), so I picked up a couple of those. Eden canned beans were on sale (4/$5), so in addition to the pinto beans, I stocked up on some others. Seltzer was still on sale (3/$1), so I stocked up on that, as well. Frozen spinach was on sale ($2.19), so I got one of those.

The total for the week, including the brisket, came to a whopping $149.87. Sheesh! This puts us in the red by $6. We're sure to be back in black within a few weeks, but it may not be next week, as we're expecting company twice next week. We still have our ground beef order and a trip to Costco waiting in the wings, and those will also add to our food bill (but will save us considerably in the long run).

Happy and healthy new year to all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Grilled Salmon with Mango Red Pepper Salsa and Rice Pilaf with Wilted Kale

I think all the components make this recipe sound complicated, but it couldn't be simpler. Regarding the mango salsa, my father-in-law (who did not actually try or see it, incidentally) asked where I got it, thinking that such things needed to be bought. Really, salsa requires only a knife, a cutting board and a bowl ... nothing more. I suppose for very thin salsas you might want a food processor or blender, but I like the chunky variety. I'm not really sure why people buy this stuff in a jar. It can't possibly taste as good as the fresh stuff.

Grilled Salmon with Mango Red Pepper Salsa
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsps. red onion, minced
1 cup mango (fresh or frozen is fine), diced
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
2 Tbsps. cilantro, minced
1 Tbsp. lime juice
salt to taste

safflower oil spray
4 portions wild salmon fillets (4-6 oz. each)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine garlic, red onion, mango, red pepper, cilantro and lime juice in a bowl. Season with salt. Set aside.

In a large cast iron skillet (or a cast iron grill pan), spray safflower oil spray. Heat the pan on high. Season the salmon on both sides with salt and pepper. Once the pan is hot, add the salmon, skin side down. Reduce the heat slightly. Cook on each side for 4-5 minutes. Remove the salmon skin (I find it much easier to do this after cooking than before ... just place the skin side down on the plate). Serve the salmon topped with a generous amount of the salsa.

Rice Pilaf
Rice pilaf can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, and it means a variety of things in my house, depending on what I have on hand. Mostly, it's rice that is toasted prior to boiling, and is flavored with one thing or another. So, this version is just how we made it this time. Next time could be vastly different.

1/2 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup brown basmati rice
1/4 cup wild rice
2 cups low-sodium veggie broth
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp. ground coriander seed
1 tsp. dried chopped onion
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add rices and stir to coat. Toast, stirring frequently, until rice begins to get some white spots as well as some golden spots. Add veggie broth and all seasonings. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Wilted Kale
Although we made this with kale, if you prefer another leafy green (spinach, swiss chard, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens ... whatever), feel free to substitute. They're all good.

1 Tbsp butter
1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch Italian kale, washed, trimmed of stems and torn into pieces
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large stainless steel skillet, heat the olive oil and butter. Add kale once butter has melted, and wilt over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once mostly wilted, season sparingly with salt and pepper (the salt will draw out more of the moisture and will allow it to wilt completely). Serve immediately.

To serve this dish, you could have all the components separate (well, the salsa really should top the salmon), or you could get fancy and pile it high, starting with the rice, then the kale, then the salmon, then the salsa. Why not?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Whole Wheat Spinach Lasagna

This recipe was adapted from a recipe my mother made when I was growing up (though I don't think she makes it anymore). It's a basic recipe that gets lots of help from frozen, canned and boxed products ... perfect for the winter season. Although non-fresh things are not my usual, I do make some exceptions. I don't make my own pasta, so that's from a box. In winter, I often use frozen spinach, so that's the frozen part (just plain, chopped spinach ... don't go for anything that has other ingredients). During tomato season, I will sometimes make my own tomato sauce, but winter is not the time for that, so canned is a perfectly reasonable way to go. These are not highly processed foods, even if they aren't fresh.

One other note about this recipe that might disappoint some: this is not a huge, rich, dripping with cheese kind of lasagna. Remember, we're going for healthy. The whole grain pasta provides some heartiness, but really it is fairly light, and will not leave you needing to unbutton your pants after dinner.

This recipe served us (2.5 people) for 3 dinners.

Whole Wheat Spinach Lasagna
12 sheets of whole wheat lasagna (that's a little more than a box-worth)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
10 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 cup lowfat ricotta
6 oz. lowfat mozzarella, shredded
1/4 cup parmesan, shredded
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste

Boil the pasta in water, according to package directions. Better to keep them a little extra al dente, since they will cook a bit more in the oven. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a saucepan, heat the oil, and then add the garlic and onion. Cook over medium heat until the onion is soft. Add the crushed tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce over low heat for at least 15 minutes (I don't really think 45 minutes of simmering improves sauce all that much ... overnight refrigeration does a lot more good).

In a bowl, mix together spinach, ricotta, 4 oz. of mozzarella (2/3 of the total), and 2 Tbsp. parmesan (1/2 of the total), nutmeg, salt and pepper.

In a 13x9 glass baking dish, spoon a very thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom. Top with 4 sheets of lasagna, overlapping. Spread half the spinach mixture over the lasagna. Top with a thicker layer of sauce. Repeat lasagna, spinach, sauce. Add a final layer of 4 sheets of lasagna. Top with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and parmesan on top. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

I don't often make product recommendations, but here I feel I have to. There are not very many organic brands of whole wheat lasagna. There is a spelt lasagna that I like by Vita Spelt, but that's pretty dense and might be off-putting to some. There is a fairly easy to find whole wheat organic lasagna made by Hodgeson Mills. This one, at least for my tastes, is absolutely awful! Regardless of how much or little it is cooked, it always seems to come out gummy, and the taste is not great. I think when people say they don't like whole wheat pasta, this is what they're talking about. The brand we like best is Westbrae. It's a little harder to find, but your health food store should have it. If they don't, ask. They can probably order it (one of the nice things about many health food stores is that they have better customer service than most supermarkets). For those who want a lighter tasting pasta, there are brown rice and quinoa pastas that are also quite good, and quite healthy. I prefer the earthiness of whole wheat, and I even prefer it considerably over white pasta.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This Week's Shopping List

This week, we're helped a bit by having holiday parties to go to all weekend. So, dinner is covered both Saturday and Sunday. However, we might have a dinner guest one day during the week, so that will add a bit back. Any savings we might glean couldn't have come at a better time, as all of the wholesale orders seem to piling up now.

As will likely be the case for many a winter week, this week relies heavily on frozen and canned foods. Although we don't completely stop buying fresh produce in the winter, we do buy a lot less of it. We try to buy as much local produce as is available (not much ... but there are still a few potatoes around), and when we need to, we fill in with some not-so-local produce. In most cases, we try to stay continental, at least.

This weeks menu looks like this:

Lunch: Broccoli, Potato & Cheese Soup with whole grain english muffins and sardines (I mush the sardines into the muffin, as a sort of condiment.

- Whole Wheat Spinach Lasagna (leftover from last week)
- Grilled salmon with mango red pepper salsa and rice pilaf with wilted kale
- Buffalo and BBQ chicken “wings” with sweet potato chips and carrot & celery sticks

I also have some Hanukkah prep to do this week:
- Black & White Hanukkah cookies
- More healthy truffles: Trail Mix Truffles and the one you all know by now, White Chocolate Macadamia Truffles

This was the week's shopping list (* indicates non-organic):

broccoli crowns* (99 cents/lb)
white potatoes
red pepper
sweet potatoes
Florida's Natural OJ* (2/$5)
seltzer* (3/$1)
dried cranberries
pumpkin seeds
almond butter
cashew butter
safflower oil*
spelt flat breads
whole wheat crackers
Annie's cheddar bunnies
dehydrated corn
dehydrated peas
powdered sugar ($1 off coupon)
white chocolate
dark chocolate

Wow! There were so many things that were out of stock this week! Must be the holidays! These are the things I couldn't buy: almond butter, cashew butter, spelt flat breads, whole wheat crackers, and dehydrated peas. In case you're wondering, nearly all of these things are snack foods (including the dehydrated peas ... a favorite of my daughter's), and we can live without them for a week without a problem. Somehow, they all ran out at once! I did buy spelt breadsticks instead of the flatbreads, since they had those, and they were actually a bit cheaper. I also bought fingerling potatoes instead of white potatoes, because they were locally grown. Since I used a can of crushed tomatoes this week for the lasagna, and since they were still on sale, I bought one more can of that. I also picked up a box of cereal that was on sale, knowing that we would need that soon, too.

The total from regular grocery shopping came to $73.49. We also had two wholesale bills come due this week. One is from a local health foods wholesaler (Neshaminy Valley, if you're in the area) and the other is a national natural products wholesaler (Frontier Natural Products Co-Op). From Neshaminy, my food order came to $37.85 (a bunch of cheeses, salad dressings, english muffins, boxed mac n cheese [everyone has their down days!]). From Frontier, my food order came to $36.19 (flour, chili powder, tea, granola bars, decaf coffee). So, that means we're up to $147.53 for the week, which is $25.03 over our weekly budget. Thankfully, we still had a surplus of $46, so we're still in the black by about $21. Whew!

Next week, we're expecting to pick up a large order of local organic ground beef. That might also push the budget, but it should hold us on ground beef for the year. We might also make a trip to Costco for some freezer replenishments. That store has done a lot to save natural foods lovers money!

Broccoli, Potato & Cheese Soup

Soup should just about always be made from scraps and leftovers. That's really the purpose of soup ... to help get rid of miscellaneous bits of stuff you have around. It turns out that, as long as the stuff you keep around the house is pretty healthy, your soup will be pretty healthy, too. And it will keep you warm you on those snowy winter days (which we happen to be enjoying right now)!

For this soup, I use all the broccoli stalks that I've accumulated in the freezer. When they build up enough, I add just a little fresh broccoli, some homemade veggie stock (also from frozen scraps), and a few other ingredients, and voila! Soup!

Broccoli, Potato & Cheese Soup
3 cups of broccoli stems, cut into chunks
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 stalks celery, cut into chunks
1 cup thin-skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 large onion, peeled and halved
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 quarts low-sodium veggie broth
1/4 cup dry white wine (or 2 Tbsps white wine vinegar, if you prefer)
1 tsp. dried tarragon
2 bay leaves
1 cup broccoli florets, cut into very small bits
1/2 cup non-fat milk
8 oz. shredded cheese (I used Monterey Jack, but you could use anything that you like)
salt and pepper, to taste

Combine broccoli stems, carrots, celery, potatoes, onion, garlic, veggie broth, wine, tarragon and bay leaves in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 1 hour.

Remove the bay leaves. Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender), puree the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Return to moderate heat, adding the milk and cheese. Adjust seasonings. Serve.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

So, What Exactly is Healthy Eating?

There is certainly a movement toward better health in this country (as well as a movement away from it ... maybe not so much a movement as an involuntary and unplanned acquiescence into unhealth). But that movement is very fragmented into groups that vary in their purpose and theories of health. Does health mean losing weight? Does it mean extending your life? Does it mean giving you the energy and stamina to enjoy life more? Does it mean getting the best bang for your calorie buck? Does it mean being in harmony with your body's natural energies? Does it mean treating ailments by eliminating allergens and food-sensitivities? Does it mean helping your body by helping the health of the planet and all its inhabitants? Does it mean self-sustenance, as opposed to relying on pharmaceuticals or surgeries to sustain you? Does it mean making sacrifices? Does it mean making no sacrifices?

The answer to all of these questions is yes, depending on who you speak with, and they could all be right. What is healthy for you may not be healthy for someone else. And your health goals may differ drastically from someone else's. It's okay for each of us to eat differently. We should listen to our bodies, our hearts, and our traditions. Those will lead us to a healthy, honorable diet.

So, how do you know what's healthy for you? There are so many health food authorities, from your local nutritionist to nutritional physicians, like Dr. Joel Fuhrman, to major nutritional societies, like the Weston A. Price Foundation, to ancient food philosophies, like Macrobiotics and Ayurveda. Of course, there are also fad diets, like Atkins and South Beach, but those are questionable, so I discount them altogether. Any program specifically aimed at weight loss is usually not looking out for your long-term health. The only exception I've found to this is Weight Watchers, which has a reasonably balanced "menu" that encourages vegetable consumption. Still, you could easily follow the Weight Watchers diet and eat mostly nutritionally empty foods ... just not a lot of them. You'd still lose weight, but you probably wouldn't gain health, and you probably would gain the weight back.

Most food authorities have something of value to say, and they all seem to make some degree of sense, but they also generally contradict one another. We can't eat a vegan and omnivorous diet simultaneously. Neither can we eat a raw and cooked diet at the same time. And we cannot de-emphasize grains and emphasize them. So, what can you believe? There is no one answer. So, it's important to exercise your own judgment in figuring out what to take and what to leave from these experts, and that may take some serious work on your part, including really getting to know your body and your habits. I think every person or family should customize their own health goals and solutions to meet their needs. And allowing some flexibility into that will also help you to adjust to necessary goal shifts (if you've met your weight loss goals, what's your new goal?), as well as to new research that may better inform your food choices.

In my family, we are not trying to combat any major health issues that might be resolved by diet. With the exception of my daughter's peanut and avocado allergies, we don't have any food allergies or sensitivities. We are not prone to illness, and when we do get sick, we recover quickly. We are all within normal weight ranges for our heights, so we are not looking to lose weight (well, maybe a little, for vanity's sake). My husband has environmental allergies, but he chooses to treat these with medication. Otherwise, we don't have any chronic conditions (eczema, rash, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, headaches, etc.). Perhaps some of this is due to an already healthy diet. We are also fortunate to have very few genetic diseases. Although there is some cancer and heart disease in our families, much of it was developed late in life, and is therefor less likely to be hereditary, and much of it was also brought on by obesity and smoking, neither of which are concerns for us.

So, what are our health goals? Well, we'd like to remain disease-free, maintain our bones, joints, and muscle to help us stay active as we get older, keep our brains functioning well (okay, some might argue that it's too late for me on that one), make sure our daughter's development and growth are normal (especially concerning early onset of puberty), be energetic and productive people, and maintain our weight or lose a moderate amount of weight (depending on which of us we're talking about). We're very lucky that these are the only goals we need to meet. Too many people are in truly dire situations that require much more ambitious health goals. But perhaps my family's diet might work for some of those people, too.

To address our health goals, we have some broad food guidelines, and some more targeted ones. One of the easiest things to do (as is recommended by many a nutritionist) is to "eat the rainbow" every day. We make sure to eat foods of many colors, which, incidentally, does not mean eating every color jelly bean available. Sticking to naturally occurring colors in foods in the their whole form is really the way to go. The average American diet comes in various shades of brown (bread, meat, potatoes, chocolate), and there are major vitamin deficiencies that can result and cause all sorts of problems. Brown foods are also often high calorie, high fat foods, and having a diet rich in those (or exclusively those) will make it easy to gain weight, and that brings a whole host of health issues to your dinner table.

We also try to eat some of the superfoods (kale, other leafy greens, broccoli) every day, simply because they are so rich in nutrients that they cover a lot of bases. Eating all of these foods is great, but by eating organic, fresh, raw and local versions of them you are getting the most nutrient-rich foods.

We also directly target some of our health goals. To maintain/build bone health, we make sure to consume enough calcium and vitamin D. Although other minerals and vitamins contribute to bone strength, generally speaking, they can be easily consumed by eating the rainbow. For extra calcium, our go-to sources are dairy, bone-based soups (see my Turkey Carcass Soup Recipe), and canned sardines (not fillets). We certainly consume plenty of calcium in vegetable form, but these are not as easily accessible to the body as they bond with other nutrients in the vegetables that make them mostly unavailable to our digestive systems. I also take an additional calcium, vitamin D and magnesium supplement, just in case.

Vitamin D is most readily available from the sun. We try to get as much outdoor exposure as we can, with sunscreen, of course, but winter makes this particularly difficult. There are very few natural food sources of vitamin D, but among them are salmon and sardines, which we do eat fairly regularly. We also drink vitamin D fortified milk, and we take multivitamins which include vitamin D. Be aware that while most milk is vitamin D fortified, most other dairy products are not.

For joint health, the best things to consume are foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines, flax seed (must be ground to enjoy the nutritional benefits), and walnuts. These are all part of our regular diet. Omega 3s are also essential for maintaining and growing (for children) brain function, as they are the key to brain cell production.

For muscle health, the primary concern is protein. In America, the average person consumes far more protein than he/she requires, but among those of us who focus on consuming more in the way of vegetables and fruit, it can sometimes be at the expense of protein. We don't eat large portions of meat and fish (generally 3-6 oz. per day, if at all), but because these foods are so rich in protein, that's enough. We also eat a variety of other protein-rich foods, including dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

To keep our daughter's development at a normal pace, in addition to feeding her the rainbow, we are also very careful to avoid foods that contain hormones. We nearly never buy conventional beef (an exception is made for Jewish holidays when brisket is the traditional protein served ... I have yet to find kosher organic brisket) for this reason. Perhaps more important is to always buy organic milk and other dairy products since those are much more regularly consumed than meat in our household. Generally speaking, we buy organic or hormone/antibiotic-free animal products of all sorts (meat, chicken, eggs, dairy). The one exception to this rule is fish. We do buy organic, farmed tilapia, because there is no available wild tilapia, but otherwise, all the fish we buy is wild, and is therefor hormone and antibiotic-free by definition. We are also careful not to eat high mercury fish (farmed salmon, bluefin tuna, shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel), which also has negative effects on brain development and brain maintenance.

To keep our energy levels up, we make whole grains, healthy fats and proteins essential parts of our diet. All of these are slower to digest than processed carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar. The slower digestion process keeps your body busy, making you less apt to need to refuel sooner. It also gives you a steady stream of energy, rather than a sharp boost. These foods, since they keep us satisfied longer, also serve to help us cut back on our overall food intake, which can help with weight loss.

To satisfy some of our cravings and habits, we make sure to eat small portions of most foods, so that eating something less than perfect will not overburden our bodies. This also allows us to eat more frequently, which works for our appetites. I tend to eat three meals a day, lunch and dinner being about the same in proportion and breakfast being a bit smaller, and I take two snacks a day, the first in mid-afternoon (usually some fruit and some nuts) and then later in the day (some sort of treat ... but generally not the really bad stuff). The late day snack is always small.

Finally, a word about hydration. How much water you consume depends on how active you are and how big you are. I generally drink eight 8 oz. cups of water (or equivalents) a day, and I am moderately active and on the small side. If you run 30 miles a week and are 6 feet tall, you might want to consider 10-12 cups a day your norm. A good way to gauge your need for water is thirst. If you're very thirsty, you probably should have had something to drink an hour ago. If you find yourself thirsty frequently, you probably need to up your water intake regularly. In our family, we do drink fluids other than water, but we don't drink soda, "juice" drinks, excessive amount of real juice, chocolate milk, milkshakes, etc. Mostly, our alternatives to water are orange juice (6 oz. daily), decaf coffee (8 oz. a couple times a week), herbal tea (12 oz. daily), and seltzer (24-30 oz. daily). My daughter also drinks significant amounts of whole milk (16-20 oz. daily).

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a good idea to consume very many calories through drink, even if that drink is carrot juice. Most such drinks are high in sugar and low in fiber. I make two exceptions to this rule: One is that milk for my daughter is fine, as long as she is eating regularly, too. She is still at an age when the fat, protein and calcium she gets from milk are very important, and she might not otherwise get enough of these nutrients. The other exception is homemade smoothies. Commercially made smoothies tend to contain a lot of sugar and other garbage, and some barely resemble fruit at all. Homemade smoothies, with whole ingredients and no added sugar, are exactly the same as eating those ingredients, just in another form. So, I say, why not? It's a great change of pace, and it tastes like a treat!

So, now that our bodies' needs are addressed, where do we go from here? Somewhat external to the needs of our bodies, but perhaps equally important in determining our dietary habits, are our convictions about foods. We don't live in a vacuum. Food doesn't magically appear on our plates. It's something that is grown by someone, harvested by someone, processed by someone (or not, if possible), transported by someone, sorted by someone, sold by someone, and prepared by someone. That last one, I believe, should most often be the person who will consume the food (or the person in the house responsible for that sort of thing). Although I admit that I do not make my own pasta, cereals, breads, cheeses, etc., I do make just about everything else we eat. I think that contributes enormously to our health, since I don't put additives or preservatives in my food, and my food is fresh, not sitting in the freezer or on the shelf. Of course, it also makes a significant different to our finances. Perhaps of all the things I do to save money on food, making things from scratch saves us the most.

The other elements that are part of our food chain all have environmental concerns, and that is a serious concern for us. The best choice you can make to help the environment with your food buying power is to buy local, and even know your farmer (not personally perhaps, but know where your food is coming from, and how it was grown/raised). If you can get that food directly from the farm, you'll skip several steps (processing, transporting, and preparing), and that will save energy, food quality, and money. It also means you are supporting your local economy, and perhaps your neighbors, as opposed to a corporate farm machine. Investment in your community will ultimately improve your quality of life ... that's karma for ya'!

If it's not possible to get what you need locally, you have two options: do without, or buy from somewhere else. To minimize the impact of buying from elsewhere, minimize the number of products you get from very far away. For things like coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate and bananas, which generally don't come from the US, we buy Fair Trade organic products. Fair Trade is a certification that is given to products that are grown in a financially equitable manner. Workers are paid a fair wage, workers are treated fairly, the products are sold for reasonable amounts, etc. That way, we are supporting the economies of third world countries and their inhabitants. Buying organic means that we are not contributing to the depletion of the soil that produces these crops, which is an investment in the future of the land. Of course, it also means we avoid ingesting the pesticides and herbicides that would be part of conventional farming. In general, we buy organic products, even if they are local, for that very reason.

There is also the matter of food traditions to consider in forming a dietary plan for yourself. For us, since we're Jewish, we have so many traditional foods associated with holidays and celebrations. There is a certain "warm and fuzzy" that comes with eating these things with my family. It would be a serious compromise to forgo them for the sake of health. But it's okay to keep them as they were intended ... as celebratory feasts, and not every day indulgences. So, for Hanukkah, I do plan to make latkes (potato pancakes) and soofganiot (Jewish doughnuts), even though both of these are fried and are lacking in much nutritional value. Some flexibility in our diets is necessary to remain part of our worlds. It's true that I don't feel my best the day after I've indulged, but I make up for it the rest of the year, and my body will forgive me. Sometimes, I think it's more important to preserve who we are than to be so strict and unwavering in our dietary protocols.

You know, food is a complicated matter. It's something so tied to family and culture and routine and emotion. It's something that brings us such pleasure on so many levels that to restrict it in any way sometimes feels punitive. Finding your own balance is very important, I think. If you follow anyone else's diet, you may lose yourself in it. Just be honest with yourself about your health goals, and make sure you follow a plan that will get you there ... your way.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reuse Those Bags!!!

These days, I see more and more people with reusable canvas shopping bags. I think it's fantastic! But what did all those people do with the bags they already had? I know that I have a ton of canvas bags that I've collected from one giveaway or another. Those are perfectly good to use. Better yet, reuse those old plastic and paper shopping bags that you used to get from the store that are now taking over your closets! Those last a lot longer than you think!

There are innumerable environmental reasons to reuse bags. Here are a few:
- Less waste going to the landfill
- Less energy spent on recycling
- Fewer trees lost to paper production, along with all the side effects of manufacturing that pollute our environment
- Less petroleum depleted (yes, plastic is made from petroleum!)

But there is also an economic incentive to reusing bags. Most major stores, and even some smaller ones, give you a small discount for every bag you use. Most of the health food stores I've visited give $0.10 per bag. My supermarket gives $0.02 per reused store bag ($0.04 if you have paper and plastic) or $0.05 per canvas bag. Chances are, the stores you frequent give this credit, too. Just make sure to remind them of it, since they like to forget.

In an average week, I'll save $0.36, which isn't a ton, but why not keep it in your pocket? Over a year, this amounts to $18.72. Hey, I'll take it!

This Week's Shopping List

This week, I tried to get as far away from Thanksgiving as I possibly could. After all, it's been two weeks! But we'd been eating leftovers in one form or another ever since that scale-confounding day. Now, it was time for something completely different.

This week's menu looked like this:

Lunch: Macaroni & Cheese Plus

- Coconut Spinach Mahi Mahi over brown rice (leftover from last week)
- Grilled Bison Steaks with Sweet Potato Mash and Steamed Broccoli
- Baked Falafel with Israeli Salad and Tahini in Whole Wheat Pita
- Whole Wheat Spinach Lasagna

In addition to lunches and dinners, this week also involved making about 50 cupcakes for my father-in-law's birthday party, as well as some more healthy truffles for holiday gifts. These are variations on the White Chocolate Macadamia Truffles that I served at Thanksgiving:
- CB&J (Cashew Butter & Jam) Truffles
- Black Sesame Truffles
- Coconut Almond Truffles
- Chocolate Truffles

This was this week's shopping list (* indicates non-organic):

red onion
Braeburn apples (1.49/lb)
falafel mix* (not organic, but no artificial ingredients)
puffed rice cereal
Purely Os cereal
soy milk
rainbow sprinkles* (not organic, but also not artificial)
powdered sugar
frozen spinach ($1.00 coupon)
bison steaks* (not organic, but grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free)
decaf coffee, free trade (5.99) ($1.50 coupon)
whole wheat pita*
sunflower seeds

This was a rare week in that I bought everything on my list, and I did not buy any extra stuff. That never happens! The total for this week came to $91.42. I did also get a delivery from one of my wholesale clubs this week, but I haven't been billed for it yet, so we'll add that total on when it comes. I'm also expecting a delivery from another wholesale club next week, so that will be added on, too. I've been a very busy shopping girl!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mac N Cheese Plus

It seems like all kids like mac n cheese, but many of us parents are not willing to give them the blue boxed version. We'd like them to eat real food, but we'd also like them to enjoy it. Here is my recipe for an easy homemade mac n cheese that is lower in fat than most recipes, and higher in nutrients and fiber. You might even want to eat it with your kids.

Mac N Cheese Plus
1 box Eden Small Vegetable Shells (available in health food stores and some supermarkets)
6 oz. butternut squash, peeled and cubed (frozen is also fine here)
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. all purpose flour
1/4-1/2 c. fat-free milk
6 oz. shredded lowfat cheese of your choice (monterey jack mixed with cheddar is a winning combination, I think)
salt and pepper, to taste
2 Tbsps. parsley, minced

Cook the pasta according to package directions. In a metal steamer basket, steam the butternut squash until tender (about 10 minutes). Move squash into a small bowl and mash with a fork (or puree, if you're sensitive to the stringiness of the squash).

Drain pasta in a colander. In the same pot, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly for about 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup milk and continue to whisk. Allow to thicken for about 2 minutes, whisking frequently. Add the cheese, continuing to whisk. Season with salt and pepper. To loosen, add more milk until you reach desired consistency. Add the squash and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Combine the cheese sauce with the pasta. Add the parsley, mixing to distribute. Serve.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Week's Shopping List

This week's menu was helped out a bit by Thanksgiving leftovers, but everything took on new, non-Thanksgiving forms. Despite the help of leftovers, this was an expensive week, mostly because I ordered bulk nuts, which will last us several months. Because my daughter is allergic to peanuts, but not to other nuts, we have to order our nuts from a company that does not process peanuts. If we did not have this issue, I would most certainly be buying our nuts in smaller, more financially manageable quantities in the bulk section of our health food store. Oddly, the prices I'm paying are comparable, but with shipping charges, it does cost a bit more. Sometimes sales make up for this extra cost. I'm also unhappy about the environmental impact of having anything shipped to my home. At least the box and packing materials were readily freecyled (check out - get in on all kinds of free stuff; find a good home for your unwanted clutter).

This week's menu looked like this:

Lunch: Turkey Carcass Soup with Matzah Balls

- Turkey Chili (leftover from the week before)
- Leftover Stuffing Casserole
- Whole wheat white pizza with mozzarella, ricotta, fresh tomatoes and swiss chard
- Coconut spinach Mahi mahi over brown rice

The shopping list for the week went like this (* indicates non-organic):

plum tomatoes
red peppers
green pepper
swiss chard
winter squash
broccoli crowns* (99 cents/lb)
Sunspire baking chips (2.99)
Knudsen sparkling cider (2.79)
mahi mahi* (5.99/lb)
Tree Ripe orange juice* (1.49)
pizza crusts*
pine nuts

The items that didn't get bought were the sparkling cider and the mahi mahi, the former because it wasn't available and the latter because it didn't look fresh. I made two extra purchases. I bought a few clementines that were priced right. My daughter developed a real fondness for them after trying them at a friend's house over the weekend. I also bought a few more cans of canned tomatoes that were still on sale, since I used some of them in last week's chili.

You might be wondering how I plan to make a dish that calls for mahi mahi without the mahi mahi. I have some mahi mahi in the freezer, as it happens, and that's what I'll use. Although I may sometimes buy fish and use it in the same week, I know that I always need a plan B if the fish doesn't look so hot in the store. Same is true for any meat product. I'll also frequently buy fish and meat specifically for the freezer, so that I have plan B waiting for me when the need arises. So, why not buy frozen fish instead, which is cheaper? Well, you can't look at frozen fish to see if it is fresh and healthy, so you're taking a gamble in buying it, and more often than not, you're going to lose. Unless you've had consistently positive experiences with a frozen product (as I have with frozen wild salmon at Costco), you're usually better off buying fresh and freezing at home.

The regular grocery bill came to $78.88. Add on the nut order, which was $109.34 (yes, it was a whole lot of nuts!), and the total for the week is $188.22, which is $65.72 over our weekly budget. Thankfully, we had a surplus of over $80 built up over the last few weeks, so we still have $15 to spare. Next week, we will likely go into the red temporarily, since we are getting an order from one of our wholesale clubs. It's important to view your budget on a monthly or quarterly basis rather than on a weekly basis. That allows for more flexibility in your buying habits, making it possible for you to buy in bulk and save money, without being overwhelmed by the price tag. Ridgid conformity to a weekly budget will either make your overall bills higher, or it will make the quality/quantity of your meals suffer.

In the coming weeks, some changes will be in order as we adjust to winter's lack of local produce. Economizing will mean relying more heavily on frozen and canned produce. Ah, spring ...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Turkey Carcass Soup with Maztah Balls

No wonder the protein of choice for Thanksgiving is the turkey! It's such a giving animal ... weeks after Thanksgiving is over, you might still be left with frozen bits and pieces waiting to morph into new dishes. It seems to never end. Even when you're left with nothing but skin and bones, that turkey isn't nearly done yet!

The turkey carcass is probably one of the most overlooked and underused culinary gems, at least in home kitchens. Those bones have so much flavor, and so much to offer nutritionally, that it might actually make more sense to toss the meat and keep the carcass. OK, slight exaggeration, but you get my point.

Any bone broth is full of calcium, since it is drawn out of the bones into the liquid. The amount of calcium that comes out the bones can be multiplied by the addition of an acid ... in this case, vinegar. Of course, just as Mom's chicken soup will cure your ills, so will turkey carcass soup. And that's no myth! Adding to the comfort-food factor, I thought I'd throw in some matzah balls this year. They just make soup feel so much more homey. Even if you're not Jewish, try this. You'll never crumble crackers in soup again!

What amazes me most about this soup is that even when you're sick of the smell of turkey, as so many of us are after several days of leftovers, this soup still tastes amazing. You may not want another turkey dinner, but you you WILL want this soup!

A little pointer: Please learn from my mistake! I usually freeze the carcass at Thanksgiving and use it when I need it. Unfortunately, I didn't realize the size of my carcass (17 lb bird), and I should have cut it in pieces before freezing. That made it fairly difficult to fit the whole thing in my stock pot, but it worked nonetheless. A little extra wrestling and a lot of persistence, and the whole thing ended up in the pot.

Turkey Carcass Soup with Matzah Balls

1 turkey carcass (including any bits of meat, skin, and fat attached)
1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
salt and pepper, to taste
4 celery stalks
5 carrots
1-2 onions, peeled and halved
2 c. mushrooms (any you like), sliced
3 Tbsps. parsley, minced

Place the carcass in a very large stock pot. Add cold water until carcass is submerged (or in my case, to the top of the pot). Add vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cut the tops and ends off the celery and carrots and throw those into the pot, reserving the middles for later. Peel the carrots, and throw the peel in as well. Add the onion.

Once boiling, reduce to low and simmer, uncovered, for 2-2 1/2 hours. Occasionally, you will see a bubbly scum rise to the surface. Skim this off with a slotted spoon.

Strain the soup. Separate the meat from the carcass, break into bite-size pieces, and return to the soup. Discard the rest. Refrigerate overnight.

Skim the fat off the surface. You will notice that the broth is gelatinous when cold. This is normal, and it will return to a liquid state when heated.

Bring the soup back to the stove, and bring to a boil over high heat. Slice remaining carrots and celery. Once boiling, add carrots, celery, and mushrooms to the pot. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add mushrooms and simmer for another 30 minutes. Add parsley, and adjust seasonings.

Light & Fluffy Matzah Balls (from The Kosher Palette by Joseph Kushner)
1 c. matzoh meal (can be found in the Jewish food section of your supermarket ... get whole wheat, if you can find it)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 c. light oil
1/4 c. water
2 tsps. salt
1 quart chicken broth

Combine matzoh meal, eggs, oil, water and salt in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Add the chicken broth and 1 quart water to a stock pot and bring to a boil over high heat. With slightly wet hands, form the matzoh meal mixture into 1 1/2 inch balls (15-20), and drop into the boiling broth. Reduce heat to medium and cover the pot, allowing to boil for 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, move the matzah balls into the turkey soup. Reserve remaining chicken broth for other uses (you can cook rice or other grains in it for added flavor).

If you prefer, you could simply boil the matzah balls directly in the turkey soup, but they might absorb too much of the stock.

Leftover Stuffing Casserole

I find leftover stuffing one of the hardest things to use, especially when there is no presentable turkey to go with it. If you do have turkey, the stuffing can simply be a side dish. Or, if you're talking lunch, it's great on a turkey sandwich or a wrap. But short of those options, stuffing is fairly limited in its applications. Here's a recipe that I whipped up this week that uses the stuffing and makes it a meal:

Leftover Stuffing Casserole
safflower oil spray
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
10-12 oz. sausage (I used a roasted red pepper chicken sausage, but whatever you like will work fine), cut into 1 inch thick rounds
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into chunks
salt & pepper, to taste
leftover stuffing (maybe 4-6 cups)

Preheat oven to 375F. Spray a large casserole dish or glass baking dish with safflower oil.

In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the squash and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Add the sausage and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Add the peppers and continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove from heat. The squash will not be soft at this point.

In a large bowl, combine the squash mixture with the stuffing. Spoon into the prepared casserole. Bake for 45 minutes, or until squash is tender.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Leftover Turkey Chili

We all have turkey leftovers that just aren't suitable for sandwiches or slicing. This "garbage" meat is an opportunity waiting to happen. There are lots of ways to use bits and pieces. This is what we did this post-Thanksgiving.

Turkey Chili
1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced
2-3 celery stalks, trimmed of ends and chopped
2-3 cups scrap turkey meat (separate actual meat from grizzle, fat, skin and bones), diced
2 28 oz. cans diced tomatoes
2-3 Tbsps. tomato paste
salt and pepper, to taste
2-3 Tbsps. chili powder
2 15 oz. cans beans (we used aduki and kidney beans, but pinto and black beans would also work very well), drained and rinsed
shredded cheese (optional)
tortilla chips (optional)

In a dutch oven, heat oil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic and onions. Cook until somewhat soft, 4-5 minutes. Add carrots and celery, cooking a few minutes more. Season with salt. Add turkey meat, canned tomatoes, and tomato paste. Stir well. Add salt and pepper, to taste, along with chili powder. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beans and stir to combine. Serve topped with shredded cheese and tortilla chips.

If you were lucky enough to get a hold of the turkey carcass, save this, and all the fat, grizzle and bones that didn't go into this chili. You can freeze it for later use, or, if you have the energy, you can use it right away. Turkey carcass soup is one of the best reasons to have a Thanksgiving turkey. That's a recipe for another day.

This Week's Shopping List

This past week (my apologizes about the lateness of this post) my grocery list revolved almost entirely around Thanksgiving. I knew I needed an easy cooking week early in the week to free me up to make Thanksgiving preparations, and later in the week, I assumed we would have plenty of leftovers to get us by. As it turns out, we did have plenty of leftovers, but not the ready to heat and serve variety. Some creativity was required. The turkey that remained, after the traditional turkey pillaging, were scraps of not-so-palatable, fatty meat and grizzle. And, of course, there was the carcass, which no one wanted ... suckers! We also had lots of stuffing leftover, which we always do, because I just can't bring myself to make less than a whole loaf's worth.

So, this is how the week's menu turned out:

Lunch: Green salad with roasted beets and Ezekiel English muffins (was on last week's menu, but we never got around to it)

- Spinach & Basil Pesto with capellini (frozen from a couple weeks ago, so this was a heat and serve)
- Thanksgiving dinner
- Turkey chili

Thanksgiving prep:
- Sauteed asparagus spears with toasted chopped almonds and parsley
- Whole grain stuffing with apples and cherries
- Roasted butternut squash, purple cauliflower and celery root with sage
- Yams with maple-sugar struesel

The shopping list for the week was as follows (* indicates non-organic):

asparagus* (3 bunches - 1.99/lb)
shallots (2)
sweet potatoes (3 1/2 lbs.)
butternut squash
brussel sprouts (30)
granny smith apples (1.69/lb)
Bosc pears (1.69/lb)
dried cherries (1/2 cup)
dried corn
Imagine stock (2.19)
Monterey Jack cheese
Stoneyfield yogurt (89 cents)
Applegate Farms chicken sausage (2.99)
egg noodles*
Tropicana OJ* (2.44)
English muffins

There were a few items that didn't get bought, some of which were sale items that got rain checked: brussel sprouts, pears, stock, sausage. Some of this I was buying for future use, but others (brussel sprouts and pears), I was buying for current use. We made do with other fruit, and we used some other vegetables already in the house to fill in for the brussel sprouts. I also bought some canned tomatoes that were on sale at the health food store because we had none in our pantry, and the price was reasonable. Good thing, too, because they came in handy when we needed to make out turkey chili.

The bill this week came to $99.58. Nothing to add to that. It's a good thing our bills have fallen short of our max for the last couple of weeks. We will be ordering nuts soon, which will cost plenty. We'll also be ordering from one of our wholesale co-ops, which won't be a fortune, but it also won't be nothing. Next week might enjoy some savings from this week's stuffing, which will become a dinner casserole.

Enjoy those Thanksgiving leftovers!

Friday, November 28, 2008

White "Chocolate" Macadamia Healthy Truffles

This is a very rich dessert, but one that is suitable for diabetics because it is sweetened with agave nectar, not sugar. It's also not a super-sweet dessert, so it's good for those who want something less obnoxious than Death by Chocolate cake. When I came up with it, I thought it was a good adult dessert, but my 2-year-old can't get enough of them either. She must be very sophisticated.

Some of the ingredients in this recipe are hard to come by, I admit. Particularly difficult is the cocoa butter. No, not the stuff you put on your skin, although made from the same plant. You need the edible version. I was able to find food-grade, USDA organic, raw cocoa butter online in a couple of places. This is where I got mine: Cocoa butter is the solid part of chocolate. It is what both white chocolate and regular chocolate are made of. It has a consistency that can't be matched by any other substance, so I think it's absolutely essential to the recipe.

The other difficult to find ingredient is macadamia butter. You could simply buy macadamia nuts and ask your local healthfood store to grind them for you in their nut butter grinder (unless you actually have one of these at home!). You might find it already made in gourmet stores. Otherwise, you can buy it where I buy all of my nut products, at You'll find all things nuts there (except peanuts), just about all raw and organic.

Some other items you may not find at the supermarket are cashew butter, coconut butter, agave nectar, flax seed, and chocolate extract. These should all be readily available at your health food store.

One final note about this recipe: it's not cheap! If you need to go out and buy all of these ingredients, and you will only be making this recipe once, you will be spending a fortune. Since all of these ingredients are shelf-stable, and since I know I will make these many times, the expense is not wasted in my family. If it will be for yours, you might want to consider making that Death by Chocolate cake instead.

White "Chocolate" Macadamia Healthy Truffles
3/4 c. cocoa butter
1/4 c. coconut butter
1/4 c. cashew butter
1/2 c. macadamia butter
1/4 c. agave nectar
1 Tbsp flax seed, ground in a coffee grinder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp chocolate extract
1/2 c. macadamia nuts, finely chopped

In a double boiler, melt the cocoa butter over very low heat (keeping the heat low will keep the recipe technically raw, even though minimal heat is applied). Combine melted cocoa butter, coconut butter, cashew butter, macadamia butter, agave nectar, ground flax seed, vanilla and chocolate extracts in a glass bowl. Mix until uniform.

Place the bowl in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour. Remove from the fridge, and form 1 inch balls from the mixture. Roll each ball in the chopped macadamia nuts. Return to the refrigerator. This dessert should stay cold until served, or it will soften too much.

Roasted Butternut Squash, Purple Cauliflower and Celery Root with Sage

This Thanksgiving vegetable medley completely disappeared. In fact, we ran out of this one before my mother-in-law got to try it, so I should have had a bit more. I've never seen vegetables so popular ... I underestimated the number of plant-friendly people, I suppose.

This recipe, as I posted earlier, was partly a last minute brainstorm. It was originally to be squash and brussel sprouts, but as the sprouts were not available, the cauliflower and celery root stepped in nicely, thanks to my CSA.

Roasted Butternut Squash, Purple Cauliflower and Celery Root with Sage
Safflower oil spray
2 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, and cut into 1 inch cubes
large purple cauliflower (we had a small one, but a large one would have been better), cut into 1-2 inch pieces
medium celery root (we had a small one, and again, a larger one would have been better), cut into 1 inch pieces
1 Tbsp dried, ground sage (you could use fresh, but I think dry works well here, so save your money)
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

Spray a casserole or glass baking dish with safflower oil. Combine all other ingredients in a bowl, and spoon into the prepared baking dish. Spray the vegetables with some additional safflower oil. Cover and bake for 40 minutes.

This dish is a good one to prepare a couple of days ahead. Reheat in the oven at 350F for 20-30 minutes. If not for company, I would have added some garlic to the mix, but I know that's not everyone's bag, so I didn't for company. Mmm ... roasted garlic!

Sauteed Asaparagus Spears with Toasted Chopped Almonds and Parsley

Who knew vegetables could be the big winner at Thanksgiving? At so many Thanksgivings, there are lots of vegetables left, but not so this year. Maybe the dishes were better this year, or maybe I just judged portions more accurately. Either way, everyone loved the asparagus, including my "no thanks, I'll skip the greens" sister-in-law.

This recipe is about as simple as it gets, and although it does require last minute preparation, it only take about 5-10 minutes, so your guests won't miss you much. I made this while some were having seconds of the soup. There were about 60 spears for 12 people, about 5 per person.

Sauteed Asaparagus Spears with Toasted Chopped Almonds and Parsley
1 Tbsp safflower oil
2 Tbsps butter or margarine
2-3 bunches thin asparagus, trimmed of woody ends
1/2 c. raw almonds, rough chopped
salt & pepper, to taste
1 lemon, juiced
2 Tbsps. fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil and butter over medium high heat in a large, stainless steel skillet. Add the asparagus and cook for several minutes, stirring frequently. Add almonds and continue to cook for a couple minutes. Season with salt and pepper. When asparagus is bright green and has started to soften very slightly (you still want some bite), add lemon juice, toss, and turn off heat. Toss with parsley, and serve.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Root Vegetable Soup with Coconut Milk

I made this soup for Thanksgiving. The ingredients are very seasonal and inexpensive, so it's a good soup to make for a crowd. It's also very low in fat and rich in nutrients. Of course, no one needs to know they're eating healthy food. It's also a vegan recipe, so it's appropriate for just about any diner.

We had 12 people, and several people had seconds. We had no leftovers. I think that's a good sign.

Root Vegetable Soup with Coconut Milk
2 Tbsps. safflower oil
2 leeks (green & white), chopped
1 ½ c. sweet potatoes, peeled & chopped
1 c. beets, peeled & chopped
½ c. turnips, chopped
½ c. carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed
5-6 c. low-sodium veggie broth
¼ c. lime juice
½ c. lite coconut milk, divided
½ c. cilantro, minced
salt & pepper

Place chopped leeks in a bowl filled with cold water and allow to sit until grit settles to the bottom. Skim the leeks off the top with a slotted spoon, and set aside.

Heat oil in a dutch oven or soup pot. Add leeks, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, celery and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until slightly softened, about 10 minutes.

Add veggie broth and lime juice, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer at low heat for 1 hour. Turn heat off. Using an immersion blender (or regular blender), puree soup. Stir in 1/4 cup coconut milk and cilantro. Season with salt & pepper, to taste.

Ladle into bowls, and add a drizzle of extra coconut milk in the center of each bowl before serving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Menu

I've been blessed/cursed with the willingness ... no, the need to entertain, so I've always welcomed opportunities to make myself crazy with food preparations. Over the years, I've come to learn how to make things just as fun, but much less crazy for me (and all onlookers), so that I can actually enjoy my company while they're here. This year, I think I've topped myself. Today is the day before Thanksgiving, and I only have one dish to prepare tomorrow, and it's not the turkey.

I cheated a bit with this year's prep. Since my house is tiny and cannot possibly accommodate even a modest Thanksgiving crowd, my in-laws have opened their home and their oven to me. My mother-in-law is making the turkey and gravy this year, and I will handle the rest. She has even agreed to make an organic turkey ... bonus!

My prep wasn't crazy at all this year. I made and froze several things over a week in advance, including most of the desserts, the cranberry sauce, and the soup. Other dishes, I spread out over the last few days. With the exception of the asparagus, which will need to be made fresh tomorrow, everything can be made in advance, and in many cases, flavor will actually be enhanced by a couple days of sitting in the fridge.

From ideas to execution, this Thanksgiving has gone almost exactly as planned. The main substitution I've had to make was to my roasted vegetables. I had planned to make roasted butternut squash and brussel sprouts, but as the health food store did not have brussel sprouts, I needed to replace them with something else. It happens that I still had a couple of things remaining from my last CSA delivery: purple cauliflower and a mystery root vegetable, which turned out to be a tiny celery root. So, in they went with the squash, and I think it may have even worked out for the better. And what a fun color scheme!

Less of a concern was a change to my stuffing. I had planned to make a spelt stuffing, but as I couldn't find an adequate spelt bread, and I didn't have time to try to make one myself, I went with a 3-grain fresh bread. As I understand it, spelt is lighter than whole wheat, so that would have been great, but I think the bread I used will be very hearty and flavorful, so that could be just as good.

Perhaps one of the most important skills to master as a home cook is the art of substitution. As I've said before, and will likely say again, recipes are a starting point. The moment we become rigid about them is the moment we commit to buying expensive, unnecessary, out-of-season, and/or unacceptable ingredients. That doesn't bode well for the wallet or the palate. Going to the grocery store with a list, but also an open mind and some flexibility will allow you to get the best deals and the tastiest food for your family. Now, that's something to be thankful for!

My Thanksgiving menu is a celebration of the season, as Thanksgiving was meant to be. This is what all, or at least most, meals should be. Going downhill into the frost, as it were, this will be a harder mantra to live by, but when fresh, local produce is available, it's hard to find any reason not to take advantage.

Here is what I am serving (* indicates original recipes):

Red grapes

Root vegetable soup garnished with coconut milk*
Whole grain dinner rolls

Main course
Turkey with gravy
Cranberry apple pomegranate sauce*
Sauteed asparagus spears with toasted chopped almonds and parsley*
Whole grain stuffing with apples and cherries
Roasted butternut squash, purple cauliflower and celery root with sage*
Yams with maple-sugar struesel

Apple pie with half whole wheat crust
Pumpkin chocolate chip cake with cinnamon icing
White macadamia healthy truffles*

Here's to hoping the food brings the family together, and that we all have lots of things to be thankful for in the coming year! Salud!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Coq Au Vin - Waste Not Want Not

I've had a whole chicken sitting in my freezer for longer than I'd like to admit. Well, I finally decided it was time to tackle it.

I'd never taken apart a chicken before, so I googled it and came up with about a thousand video guides. Turns out, it's pretty simple (and messy). Practice will certainly make perfect, but in the end, I did end up with two breasts (also cut each breast half in two), two thighs, two drumsticks, two wings. The livers, which I don't care for (yet ... I'm sure there's some application I'd appreciate), went in the freezer. In a separate container, I saved all the scraps (neck, backbone, tushie, little bits of mistakes I made) for making stock.

I always wanted to cut up my own chickens. It's incredibly cost-effective, and it makes me feel like I've really gotten to know my food. My mother always said that chicken parts were the good parts of otherwise not acceptable chickens ... not sure of the truth in that, but I'd say it's a pretty good bet. So, I'm resolving to buy whole chickens and cut them up, going forward. The exception I will make is boneless breasts. Until I figure out how to debone a chicken, I'll stick with buying those already done (on sale, of course).

Now, in my family, I'm the only one who will tolerate dark meat chicken, so I either need to hide it, or toss it. I also prefer white meat, but I'll eat dark meat here and there. Of course, wasting any part of food is anti-economical, so I can't bear that option! I usually eat some of the dark meat, and the rest I shred and freeze. On some later date, it will be ressurected for tacos, chicken chili, or other well-seasoned, well-masked vehicles. No one will be the wiser.

I'm so much of a nut about not wasting food, that I freeze the scraps everyone leaves on their plates to put in stock, too. Incidentally, I also have a veggie scrap container in the freezer for (you guessed it!) veggie stock. So, no part (except perhaps the livers) of this chicken will be wasted.

I looked around the see what would go with this chicken, and I noticed the bottle of cabernet that's been collecting dust in my wine rack. We've gotten gifts of wine over the years, and although I like wine, I don't drink on a regular basis ... usually at social gatherings, where I wouldn't have an opportunity to open a bottle of wine from my own collection. I am also drowning in carrots and parsley leftover from my CSA share. So, this Coq Au Vin recipe was born out of this chicken, this wine, these carrots, and this parsley (with a few other things thrown in):

Totally Non-Authentic Coq Au Vin (So what? It's good!)
Oil mister (safflower, or other high heat, oil)
1 4-5 lb. chicken, cut into 10 parts (2 breasts cut in half, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 drumsticks)
4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 onion, cut into large chunks
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 stalks celery, cut into large pieces
1 cup cremini mushrooms (halve or quarter the larger ones)
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried thyme, mushed in your fingers to get the juices flowing
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 bottle dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock or broth (low sodium)
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat a large cast iron pan over high heat. Spray with a mist of safflower oil. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. When pan is hot, reduce heat slightly. Brown chicken, 2-3 minutes per side, in two batches.

Place chicken and all othe ingredients in a slow cooker. Cook for 8 hours on low. Voila. Serve with roasted brussel sprouts and whole wheat egg noodles.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Basic Beans & Rice

This recipe is one of those super easy go-to meals that's cheap, healthy and tasty. It can be made in a million different ways. This is how we made it this week:

1 c. brown rice
scant 2 c. water
salt, to taste

1 Tbsp. safflower oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 c. turnips, diced
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
aduki beans (1 15 oz. can), rinsed and drained
diced tomatoes (1 15 oz. can, or use fresh when in season)
1 tsp ground cumin
salt & pepper, to taste
1/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped

In a small saucepan, bring the rice, water and a good pinch of salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. If you have leftover rice, this is also a good use for it.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add garlic and onions and cook until soft. Add turnips and red pepper, and cook for 5 more minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, cumin, salt and pepper, and simmer for 5 more minutes. If too thick, add a little water. Stir in rice and cook until heated through. Add parsley, and serve.

This Week's Shopping List

This week's menu goes like this:

Lunch: Pasta salad (fusilli with broccoli, red pepper, carrots & cubed cheddar, dressed in a vinaigrette); Green salad with roasted beets

- Grilled salmon over salad with garlic toast (one night left over from last week)
- Coq Au Vin (totally non-authentic and easy) with roasted brussel sprouts & whole grain egg noodles
- Southeast Asian squash curry over brown rice
- Rice & Beans

Thanksgiving prep: I'm making things ahead and freezing:
- Cranberry Apple Pomegranate Sauce
- Apple Pie
- Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cake

The Shopping List goes like this (* indicates non-organic):

apples (for baking and eating - 6 lbs.)
broccoli* (2/$3)
cremini mushrooms
brussel sprouts
butternut squash
red pepper
canned diced tomatoes (15 oz.)
cheddar cheese
seltzer* (3/$1)
orange juice* (2/$5)

The bill came to: $77.14. Our CSA's last produce delivery was this past weekend, and although it was small, I do need to factor in the cost of the CSA ($14). So, that brings the grand total for the week to $91.14. The only changes that I made this week while shopping were to forgo the pears (which looked terrible) and replace the spinach with kale, which was considerably cheaper.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Making frugal substitutions

Tonight, I made a dish I hadn't made before, and I had no idea how it would turn out. Even so, I took some chances on the recipe to save money, and it all worked out fine. It usually does.

The recipe I used was Southeast Asian Squash Curry ( I chose this recipe in part because I had some leftover coconut milk in the fridge that I wanted to use up. So, that's where I started. It also happens to be a seasonal recipe, featuring late fall veggies, so that also jives with my food philosophy.

The changes I made, mostly to save money, are these:

- I used 2/3 the coconut milk because that's what I had, and opening a new can would defeat the purpose of making this recipe. To make up for the lacking liquid, I added 1/2 cup more water. The dish still had a nice strong coconut flavor. Incidentally, I bought this can of coconut milk on sale several months ago, so it was already waiting for me in the pantry.

- I used kale instead of baby spinach. I try to avoid baby spinach, and packaged veggies in general. They are pricier than loose veggies, and they are treated in ways that loose veggies are not. Namely, to reduce microbes, which are more common in bagged salads and other packaged fresh veggies, they are processed with chlorine. I don't know about you, but I'm not into ingesting volatile chemicals. I'll pass and buy the loose stuff, which tastes better anyway. I could have bought loose spinach, but kale is what they had at my health food store, and I say, one leafy green is as good as another. Perhaps the kale was a bit coarser than spinach, but the texture doesn't bother me or my family. Incidentally, the baby spinach was $3.59, and the kale was $2.19. What a bargain!

- I used considerably less Thai curry paste (1 tsp., instead of 1 1/2 to 2 Tbsps!). I did this partly because my daughter would probably not tolerate that much heat. Turns out, I wouldn't have tolerated that much heat either, and I love hot food! 1 tsp. was quite nice. Of course, reducing anything in a recipe saves you money, too, especially when you're reducing pricey condiments.

- I used raw cashews, which I toasted in a dry pan on the stove. I buy my nuts in bulk (partly because I have to order them online from a peanut-free site - my daughter is allergic to peanuts), which does save some money. If I bought roasted cashews just for this purpose, I would certainly not use the whole container, but I would have had to buy a whole container, and that would have been a waste. Nuts are expensive! The toasted cashews were delicious.

- I used ground spices instead of whole. If you are in the habit of using whole spices in your cooking, by all means, continue to do so. If not, you will spend a fortune buying spices that you may never use again if you follow recipe instructions to a T. I always substitute ground spices for whole, because those are the spices I keep in my pantry. I've never been disappointed by the results.

- I skipped the lime wedges, because I felt they were unnecessary, and they were. Nice touches like that are great when you're entertaining, but for a Tuesday night dinner, I don't need to spend more on fancy.

The bottom line for cooking from recipes is that a recipe is always a starting point. Almost all recipes need to be customized, whether to please your palate, your purse, or the season. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily the case for baked goods. Anything that requires baking is more exact, and then customization requires a little know-how.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cranberry Apple Pomegranate Sauce

A Thanksgiving recipe that will bring the family together (we hope!). Using agave nectar instead of sugar makes this a diabetic-friendly recipe. The use of pomegranate also boosts the antioxidant properties of the sauce (cranberries also have them). This year, skip the gelatinous canned sauce.

1 pomegranate (alternatively use ¼ cup unsweetened pomegranate juice mixed with ¼ cup cold water)
7.5 oz. fresh cranberries
1 large apple, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup agave nectar (or to taste)

Separate pomegranate seeds from skin and membranes. Place pomegranate seeds in a medium saucepan with ½ cup cold water. Bring to a boil. While cooking, mash seeds with a potato masher or a fork. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 8 minutes. Turn off heat and mash seeds again. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl, and mash seeds with the back of a wooden spoon until all the liquid has gone through.

Place pomegranate liquid back in the pot. Add apples, cranberries, and ½ cup cold water. Bring to a boil. Cranberries will begin to pop. Cook uncovered 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens and cranberries lose their form. Turn off heat. Add agave, 1 Tbsp. at a time (4 Tbsps. total) until you reach the desired sweetness.

Sauce can be served as is, or for a smoother sauce, blend in a blender with a little water. Serves 8-12 people.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Feeding Children Something Other Than Chicken Nuggets

I can't tell you how many times I've heard parents moan about how their children will only eat chicken nuggets and Kraft mac n cheese. There's a very simple solution for this: don't give them chicken nuggets and Kraft mac n cheese! Really, that's it. If you don't serve it, they won't eat it.

OK, so maybe that's oversimplifying a bit. There are lots of complications that can throw off a child's healthy diet, and, as parents, we need to do our best to anticipate problems and find solutions that will keep everyone healthy and happy. No easy challenge.

It's true, however, that what we serve children is generally what they will eat. So, we need to serve them healthy things ... the same kinds of healthy things that we eat ourselves (you do eat healthy things, right?). So, here is one part of the solution that will help your child eat better foods, while also saving you time and money: make one meal for the whole family. No substitutions!!!

One of the mistakes parents make in feeding their children is giving into their tastes. A 2-or-3-year-old child does not have developed tastes yet, so giving them bread, bread and more bread will only keep them from developing their tastes, even if bread is all they want. It can be very tough to avoid giving into children's requests (and tantrums) because, after all, we don't want them to starve. But the fact is that they will not starve. If we offer them food, whatever the food, they will eat it ... eventually. They may not eat it tonight, they may only sample it tomorrow, and they may take two bites the next day, but ultimately, they will eat it.

Once you have a 6-or-7-year-old child who has been raised on eating whatever he demands, you have a tougher problem on your hands, and it will take some persistence and explanation to the child to help him accept a change in his diet. Still, give him food, and he will eventually eat it. Rest assured, despite how your children may object, serving them healthy food is not, in fact, a form of torture!

Let's talk a bit about what sort of food you're preparing. Apart from chicken nuggets being a child-specific food that lacks nutrition, I also think parents who feed their kids chicken nuggets (and the like) are often parents who just don't put much effort into cooking altogether. Maybe that's because they feel they lack the skill, or maybe because they think they lack the time. Regarding skill, I think cutting yourself some slack is a good idea. You're feeding a family, not running a restaurant, so don't worry about perfection. Just make simple recipes, and you'll do fine. Regarding time, as an old professor of mine said, "Don't tell me you didn't have time! Everyone has the same amount of time! You fill your time with your priorities." So, I ask you, what are your priorities? If you're reading this blog, which it seems you are, I can only assume that on an intellectual level, at least, you think healthy food is a priority. So, now it's time to walk the walk.

Effort in the kitchen does not always equal nutritionally sound food on the table (let's face it ... you can spend all day making cinnamon buns!), but it sure helps. The more help you get with your food prep (take-out, frozen meals, boxed meals, other processed foods, deli prepared foods) the lower the nutritional value of that food, and also the more it will cost you! Raw ingredients are substantially cheaper than prepared foods. In general, these foods are also high in fat, salt, sugar, simple carbs, and possibly some of the real no-nos (See my post about Keeping Up a Pantry for a list of Must NOT Haves), and they tend to be low in whole grains, lean proteins and vegetables (no, ketchup is not a vegetable!).

So, now you're thinking ... wait a minute! I was promised a time-SAVING solution, and now I'm spending MORE time in the kitchen! OK, calm down. The time savings is this -- if you were to make healthy meals for the whole family, but make different versions to satisfy everyone, you would be cooking for a very long time. I don't think you should spend more than an hour cooking dinner (and remember, in my family, we cook for an hour every other day, in general). So, cook a simple, healthy meal that everyone will eat, sit down and eat with your family, and don't make yourself crazy trying to cater to the disgruntled.

Making one healthy, from scratch meal for the whole family makes it possible for everyone to have good food, for children to broaden their palates, and for you to save money. I can't imagine why anyone would do it any other way.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Leafy Green Pesto

4 cups leafy greens, trimmed of tough stems (I usually do 3/4 spinach and 1/4 basil, but I recently added arugula, which was great, and other leafy greens would substitute well)

6 cloves garlic, smashed

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsps. lemon juice

1/3 cup pine nuts

salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

1/4 cup grated romano cheese

In a food processor, combine greens, garlic, oil, lemon juice and pine nuts and blend until smooth. I prefer using a food processor to a blender because less oil (or other liquids) are required to make it go. Add salt and pepper to taste, and blend again. In a bowl, combine green mixture with cheeses. To thin the pesto, add hot water (if you are making pasta, use water from the pasta). Serve over whole grain pasta.

Pesto need not be served with pasta. Instead, use it these ways:

- condiment for sandwiches

- base for pizza, instead of tomato sauce, or in addition to tomato sauce

- salad dressing

- drizzle over chicken

- dip for crudite

Pesto can be frozen easily. Put it in ice cube trays to make smaller portions.

Cutting the Fat

It's fairly well known that too much fat, especially saturated fat, is not healthy. It clogs our arteries and makes us gain weight. We do need some fats, but you can get what you need without trying.

What some don't know is that fat doesn't only add to your waistline, it adds to your grocery bill. Much of America's fats come from meats, dairy and oils, all very expensive things, even more so if you're buying organic.

Quick tangent for a moment - When you must buy foods with high fat content, why buy organic? Fat is where most toxins congregate, so it's particularly important to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pesticide-free, and mercury-free (low mercury in some cases) fatty foods, when you buy fatty foods. Sometimes, this means buying organic, sometimes it means buying wild, as in the case of fatty fish (bear in mind some wild fish are still high in mercury - most notably shark, king mackerel (not to be confused with the smaller variety of mackerel, which is very low in mercury), swordfish, tilefish, and most recently, bluefin tuna).

Speaking of wild meat, I'm horribly jealous of people who hunt. I'm an urban-raised Northeasterner, so hunting is not something that has ever appealed to me (sorry to generalize here - I'm sure there are some exceptions to this stereotype), and I don't think I could ever bring myself to do it. But I see how it could be advantageous to a healthy diet, and a healthy wallet. Hunting game means getting meat that is raised by nature, on its natural diet, without any of the harmful things to which livestock are subject. It is, I believe, the most humane way to get meat. It's also illegal to buy, in many states, so for those of us who don't hunt, it's not on the menu. If you do hunt, it's about the cheapest way possible to get your meat. I just hope you have a good freezer, and you know how to butcher an animal.

There are some "up-and-coming" farm-raised animals that are generally raised hormone and antibiotic-free, and on a natural diet. These include bison and ostrich. Look for these in stores as a cheaper alternative to organic meat that still offers roughly the same nutritional value. In fact, these meats are lower in fat than most red meats.

Another way some people are able to find less-toxic and less-expensive meat is through local farmers (although I haven't found this to be the case near me ... yet). If you live in a rural area, finding such a farm might not be a problem. If you live in an urban area, check out your area farmer's markets, which are generally served by family farmers within close driving distance. Buying local also serves an environmental purpose in that it significantly reduces the fuel waste of bringing food from one place to another. Why buy a chicken from Illinois when there's a chicken farmer down the road? The key to buying locally from farmers is to find a small family farmer. In general, small farms treat their animals with a little more respect, and they are not in the mass-production, high turnover business that gives us the often disease ridden, artificially fattened, nutritionally devoid meat products you'll find in a typical supermarket. So, even if they are not organic, you are likely to get a healthier product. Also, bear in mind that USDA organic certification is an expensive, time-consuming process, and many small farmers, who would otherwise be considered organic, cannot certify that they are. The end result to you may be a less expensive product with the same high quality as certified organic meats.

Perhaps I'll rant another time about the ills of corporate, consolidated meat farming and processing. Boy, there's a lot to talk about there! Unfortunately, the one thing they do well is keep consumer costs down, but at what cost to our health, the health of local and global economies, and the health of the planet? Again ... we'll do this another time.

OK, so that was not a quick tangent. Sheesh!

Back to cutting the fat. One of the easiest things you can do as a shopper and home cook is to simply reduce the amount of expensive and unhealthy things you buy. If you are cooking from recipes, the fat (butter/oil) that you use can usually be cut down to 1/2 or 1/4 what the recipe calls for. Please, don't consider lard, schmaltz or bacon fat as a cooking medium!!! Just don't.

Many Americans have taken to using oil sprays, like Pam, to cut fat and calories. While they may serve that purpose, those products are full of propellants that are unhealthy to breathe and unhealthy for the environment. They also cost a fortune, considering the small amount of oil that is contained in each canister. And they are a disposable product, so they add to our landfills. The solution here is to use a re-usable mister, such as Misto ( This uses air pressure that you pump into it to produce a mist of oil. That way, you save the environment, your wallet, your heart, and your waistline. It's a quadruple whammy!

Fat is a helpful medium for cooking, and without some sort of non-stick surface, a mere mist of oil may not cut it. Unfortunately, the teflons and other non-stick varieties out there are not particularly healthy options either. If teflon is scratched, you run the risk of actually consuming bits of the coating, which is most definitely not food. Please recycle scratched teflon pans. Even without scratching, teflon releases toxic vapors into the air that may or may not be a hazard to our health. We do know that birds die fairly easily from being around teflon cooking, so there's a pretty good chance it would affect us humans, as well.

So, what's the alternative? Cast iron. Yes, old fashioned cast iron, or enameled cast iron (which is much more expensive), is a perfectly non-stick surface, as long as you keep it seasoned properly. It also has the added benefit of contributing iron to your diet, which is absorbed from the pan into your food. I cook eggs in cast iron, and they never stick! I think that's about the best test. Incidentally, I think cooking in cast iron adds terrific flavor, too.

Regardless of how you get your meat, reducing the amount you consume is a great way to reduce saturated fat in your diet and also reduce your grocery bill. Although some people cut meat out of their diets completely, I believe that some amount of meat is natural to our diet and therefor necessary (this is certainly debatable, and I would never tell a vegetarian or vegan to adopt my own philosophy). Our teeth are made to tear and chew meat, and our bodies need the B vitamins that are so readily available in meat. Not eating meat requires that we supplement our diet in other ways, and that can make nutrition a more difficult challenge.

Although I consider meat an essential food, meat is not the most important thing in our diets, as the typical American restaurant menu would have you believe. Vegetables and grains are not mere decoration on a plate to keep the meat company; they are the main part of a meal. If anything, meat is more appropriate as a garnish. After all, it adds flavor and texture to dishes, so what better garnish could there be? Filling your plate with grains and vegetables is far less costly than filling it with meat, so that is a clear benefit that may even convince the most committed carnivore.

In our family, meat is reserved for dinner, and not every dinner. We generally eat meat (poultry, usually) maybe 2-3 days a week, and only at dinner, and we eat fish 2-3 days a week, as well. The remainder of the week is vegetarian, sometimes vegan. The meat that we consume in any given meal is also far less than the average American would eat. We usually consume between 3-5 oz. (sometimes less) of meat or fish at dinner. When you go to a restaurant, a petite steak is usually 8 oz., just to give you an idea of how much meat we are really talking about. More often than not, we don't serve meat in a single lump. We usually cut it up and put it in sauces, stir fry, tacos, salads, etc. Serving it that way makes the small amount less noticeable. When we do serve it in a single lump, we make presentation a factor. Think like a restaurant, trying to get the best bang for your meat dollar. Pile things high, arrange things interestingly, garnish with something that takes the focus off the meat (salsa, chutney, greens). These are tricks that will help you feel visually satisfied by the amount of meat put before you. Your body will be satisfied anyway because you'll be eating a perfectly full meal.

Cutting down on fatty foods (and replacing them with healthy, unprocessed foods, not low/non-fat packaged food substitutes), along with cutting overall portion sizes, is a matter of health and economy. These are changes we should think of as improvements in our lives, and not sacrifices and deprivations. Ultimately, food should always be joyous and celebratory. That's not a luxury.