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.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This Week's Shopping List - How to

Since this is my first shopping list post, I want to clarify how I go about making a shopping list. First, check out the previous post regarding keeping up a pantry, specifically regarding making lists. Whenever I find that I am running out of something, it goes on my list on the fridge right away, before I forget.

When I make a particular week's shopping list (as opposed to the running list that stays on the fridge), I start by looking in my fridge to see what I already have, what's about to go bad, and what can keep, if need be. Then I plan my meals for the week.

Breakfast always includes the same choices, so I don't need to plan that. Our breakfasts are really very typical of the American diet, I think, except that they are all whole grain and mostly organic. These are the breakfast options in our house (some are more for special treats, and some are for every day):

- Cold cereal with milk
- Oatmeal with fruit (fresh, dried or frozen), cinnamon, ground flax seed, agave and milk
- Eggs or omelette with toast or english muffins
- Whole wheat pancakes with or without fruit, with real maple syrup
- Whole grain waffles (a frozen indulgence)
- Whole wheat bagels with cream cheese (neufchatel, really) or sliced cheese
- Drinks include milk, orange juice, coffee, tea and seltzer

Snacks, like breakfast, stay about the same every week (although things come and go off the list):
- Fruit (generally whatever is in season)
- Dried fruit (raisins mostly, and mostly for my daughter)
- Yogurt (my daughter and I eat plain yogurt, and my husband eats the sweetened kind)
- Smoothie pops (blended and frozen mixture of frozen fruit, plain yogurt, ground flax seed, veggie powder and milk)
- Dried veggies (From a company called Just Tomatoes ... typically we get the peas and corn)
- Brown rice cakes and Multigrain cakes
- Toasted Nori
- Crackers
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios)
- Granola
- Pretzels

Lunch varies from week to week, but as a rule, I make a pot of something and make it last the week, or almost all week, and then I improvise the rest. In most cases, I make soup, and I make nearly every variety of soup you can imagine, but other possibilities are good for lunch, too. I make green salads, pasta salads, mac n cheese (no, not Kraft!), bean salads, rice & beans, and many others. I try to keep lunch vegetarian for the most part. This is great for cutting costs, since meat is so expensive, and it means that we are not over-indulging in animal fats. I will sometimes add some fish, like sardines, to lunch, but that is very inexpensive and high in Omega 3 fatty acids (as well as calcium), so the exception is warranted. Typically, lunch is also heavy on the veggies.

Dinner is much more variable. I don't have the typical family rotation of 5-10 things I cook. I relish making new things, and often forget that I can make them again. That's my thing, though, and it's certainly not necessary to being healthy or saving money. But it does help make cooking fun, and eating even more fun! Most weeks, I plan to make 3-4 dinners, and eat leftovers the rest of the week. That makes it possible for me to not cook some days. For the odd occasion when I'm just too tired or busy to cook, and there are no leftovers, we do have some bulk foods in the freezer that are reasonably healthy, and not too expensive. We try not to use them, though.

Just as I have a rule to stay vegetarian for lunch, I also have rules about proteins at dinner. I usually make 1 dish with fish (wild Alaskan salmon is most common), 1 dish with poultry, and one dish that is vegetarian. If I make four dishes in a week, the last could be a repeat of a protein, or I may cook bison. Almost never do I cook beef. All of this serves several purposes:
- We don't spend a fortune on meat because we don't buy very much of it.
- We don't overindulge in animal fats, which are generally saturated fats. This also serves an environmental purpose, as well as serving our hearts, as livestock are key contributors to global warming, deforestation, and water pollution.
- We don't overindulge in fish that may contain high levels of mercury (although wild fish has low mercury by comparison to farmed fish), while also giving us enough fish to satisfy our need for Omega 3s
- We give non-animal proteins a role in our diets that allows for greater diversity of nutrients.

It probably goes without saying that almost everything we eat is made in our house. Not everything, but just about all our dinners and lunches, and many breakfasts and snacks. Since we are using a lot of fresh ingredients, it's important to be familiar with what is actually fresh. This means getting to know seasonality of foods. If you know what's in season, you'll have a good idea of what will look good at the market, and you'll be able to plan your meals ahead of time. Just go with the idea that you might need to make substitutions if something on your list looks really lousy.

So, this week's meal plan is as follows:
Lunch: Sort of minestrone soup with beet green and aduki beans (it's what I had around, and it worked pretty well!) with english muffins and sardines
- Grilled salmon over salad with garlic toast
- Chicken breasts (bone-in) with butternut squash, yams & dried apricots over whole wheat couscous
- Stir fry with broccoli, carrots, cashews, egg, turnip greens, onion, garlic and ginger over brown rice
- Spinach and basil pesto over whole wheat capellini (this may get frozen or pushed off to next week if it's not needed this week)

To make my list, I determine what ingredients are needed for everything I will be making. In many cases, I already have what I need, and in some cases, I may need to buy a few things. Then I look over my refrigerator list and see what needs to be bought this week, and what can/should be put off (mostly to wait for sales). Then I look over the supermarket sales flyer (if your health food store has a sales flyer, great! Mine doesn't.) and make a note of the items that are worthwhile buying, along with sizes and prices. Don't just write the sales items on your list. I don't know how many times I've seen sale items not marked as such at the store (especially in the meat department), so make sure you're getting the right price. Next, I look through my coupons, which are very few at this point. I'll get into the art of coupon clipping in a future post. And that gives me my list. I usually re-write the list in the order they appear in the store, just so I don't waste too much time while shopping.

My weekly shopping is typically done at three stores: local supermarket, local health food store (in the same strip mall), and a larger, better health food store about 20 minutes away. These are not the only places I get groceries, however. I shop through two wholesale co-ops, one wholesale club (Costco), and I am a member of a CSA (Community Support of Agriculture) that provides a weekly box of locally grown organic vegetables. So, all of these things factor into my budget, as well. I'll go into each of those in more depth on another ocassion. For now, we'll focus on the list for the supermarket and health food stores. Here it is (all produce is organic, except the broccoli):

red pepper
butternut squash
fresh basil
broccoli crowns (99 cents/lb.)
golden delicious apples ($1.69/lb.)
cranberries ($2.99/pk)
leaf lettuce (99 cents bunch)
dried apricots
canned diced tomatoes (28 oz.)
Sunspire baking chips ($2.99 10 oz.)
puffed corn
Earth's Best waffles ($1.99 box)
sliced cheese
plain yogurt
split chicken breasts ($4.99/lb)
orange juice
fresh bread

I was able to buy everything from this list, except the apples, raisins, puffed corn and waffles (always get rain checks for out-of-stock sale items). Knowing my pantry, I also bought a bag of organic brown sugar that was on sale and good-looking grapes that were a good price at the health food store. Everything I bought (most of which is organic) came to $82.25. My CSA share (although it's already paid for at the beginning of the season) costs me about $14/week. Since we need to spend less than $7 per person per day (figuring my daughter counts as a half person), we have $122.50 per week to spend. That leaves us with $26.25 to spare for the week. I'm about to put in a big food order with one of my wholesale co-ops (mostly spices and such). That will put me over for this week, but that spending will save me plenty in the months to come (spices last a loooooooooong time!).

Friday, November 7, 2008

Keeping up a pantry

One of the reasons people spend too much money on groceries is that they allow themselves to run out of things they use on a regular basis. This means that they're always buying out of desperation and will likely pay more.

An easy example is buying milk. I've always found that convenience store milk is more expensive than supermarket milk, but when you need it now, and you don't have time to do a full shopping, you go to the convenience store to save time, and lose money. Ironically, you're not saving any time either, because rather than buying your milk during a regular, planned shopping excursion, you've had to make a special trip to buy just one item (and maybe a pack of gum and a cup of coffee, while you're at it ... adding to the bill).

If you cannot anticipate your food needs, you also cannot appropriately take advantage of sales, coupons, etc. I say "appropriately" because sales and coupons dupe so many people into buying things they don't want or need. Not every sale item is worth buying. Not every sale is truly a good buy (20 cents off a $5 item is hardly a bargain!). Most manufacturer coupons are for products that are way too expensive to begin with. And discount and wholesale stores (like BJs, Costco, and Walmart) may have some good deals, but you can't assume everything is a good deal. Still, some sales and coupons really are to your advantage, and if you plan well, you can save money using them.

Grocery shopping requires organization and planning, and it starts with knowing your pantry. Every pantry is different, of course, based on what sorts of foods you prepare and what your family likes to eat. Nevertheless, I think there are few must-haves and must-not-haves in a healthy pantry:

Must Haves
SALT - Sea salt, kosher salt and soy sauce
Wait a minute! Isn't salt supposed to be the UN-healthy? Not exactly. If you have or are prone to hypertension (high blood pressure), then yes, you should limit your salt intake. You should not, however, eliminate it altogether. If you are not prone to hypertension, you might suffer from fluid retention if you take in an enormous amount of salt, but normal appetites should produce no effect.
Salt is an essential mineral - we cannot live without it. When you drink a sports drink that is said to replenish your electrolytes, they are talking about salts. If you are stuck in the desert and drink only water, you will die! Eat a pretzel, drink some coconut water (nature's own sports drink - yup, it's the liquid inside the coconut), even have some Gatorade, if you must!!!
Why sea or kosher salt or soy sauce? Please, forget the table salt. You'll get your iodine from better sources. Sea salt and kosher salt are less processed, provide more minerals, taste better, and dissolve more easily than table salt. Tamari, a type of fermented soy sauce, is a good salt substitute (I buy the low-sodium variety to avoid unnecessary sodium) that works better in some dishes. Iodized table salt (and products that contain it) is how most Americans get their iodine, which is a vital mineral. It is, however, not the most bioavailable source of iodine, and it is certainly not a natural source. Sea vegetables are really the way to go in that regard (for all you sushi lovers, you're halfway there already!), but more about that later.

GRAINS - Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates to fuel our bodies. They don't result in the blood-sugar spike that simple carbs are known for, so they don't make us feel energized and then slow. Rather, they give us sustained energy that will carry us easily to the next meal. Whole grains are also a good source of protein, fiber, and many minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, folate, etc.). I personally think that grains should appear in just about every meal.
Which whole grains you choose depends mostly on your tastes. Some are more nutritious than others, but all have value. Some good choices are brown rice, quinoa [not technically a grain, but functions as one], barley, bulgar wheat, oats, millet, teff. I also count whole grain pasta, couscous, noodles of other kinds, breads, cereals, and the like in this category, even though they are processed.

BEANS, LENTILS & NUTS - These are your wallet's, as well as your body's, best friends. Nuts are not at all inexpensive, but a sprinkling of chopped almonds or hazelnuts can add so much flavor to a dish, while giving you healthy fats, protein and fiber, along with many vitamins and minerals. Beans and lentils can easily be the star of the meal, in stews, soups, dips, burgers, casseroles, burritos, salads, one-pot meals, and even in baking. They are so versatile, and there are so many varieties, that it would be hard to get bored of these tiny miracles. They are also supremely dirt cheap! Dry or canned will work (I use both), but dry is your better bargain, and many say they are better quality, too.
We keep these beans and lentils in our pantry: green lentils, red lentils, black beans, aduki beans, garbanzo beans, canellini beans, butter beans, kidney beans. We also keep these nuts in the house (freezer is really where they live): almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamias, pecans, walnuts.

OMEGA 3 FOODS - Canned sardines and canned salmon are both excellent sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, important for brain and heart health. They also happen to be very good sources of calcium and protein, so they kill several birds with one stone. Preparation? None. Expense? Minimal. What more could you ask for? Incidentally, we also have flax seed and fresh salmon (high Omega 3 foods, as well) in our house at all times, but those are items for the fridge/freezer, and we're focusing on the pantry for now.

FLOURS - Whether you bake cookies, bread, or you just need it to make an occasional roux, flour of some sort is an essential pantry item. For me, since I do bake, I have a variety of flours (whole wheat, unbleached all-purpose, brown rice, corn, bran, quinoa, coconut, etc.). I think anyone who wants their kitchen to be healthy needs to think about desserts in healthy ways, too. Incorporating whole grain flours into baking can add a healthy element to an otherwise barren indulgence. Still, as indulgences go, better to have a homemade oatmeal cookie that lacks hydrogenated oils, genetically modified ingredients, and various unpronounceables, than to have a pantry full of Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs.

SEA VEGETABLES - This is an essential pantry item in part because sea vegetables are very nutrient dense AND shelf stable - something than cannot be said of a bunch of kale. As mentioned earlier, sea vegetables are also our primary source of natural iodine, which is essential for thyroid health. The sea vegetable that is probably best known by Americans is nori, the dark green wrap used to hold sushi rolls together. Nori is also one of the most easily used sea vegetables at home, because it can be made into crisp chips (bake a sheet of Nori on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, and break into pieces) - my daughter asks for these several times a week. Kelp is also a good sea vegetable that incorporates easily into home cooking. It is a powder that can be sprinkled into sauces and stews and soups. Another sea vegetable that I have in my pantry is wakame. Although I like wakame, I think it is more of an acquired taste. It goes particularly well in miso and fish-based soups. One note of caution about sea vegetables. Although iodine is an essential nutrient, it is easy to consume too much. Limit your intake of sea vegetables to one serving per day.

OIL & VINEGAR - Salad anyone? Yes, this pair does do well to help you create your own salad dressing, but they are essentials for quite a lot of meals well beyond salads.
Oil is a good cooking medium, although keeping the oil to a minimum is also a good idea to keep the fat content down (try Misto oil sprayer( ... it creates a mist of oil without any alcohol or propellants ... healthy for you and the ozone layer). Oil is also a good flavor enhancer, since it does have fat, but again, proceed with caution. The oils that I think are essential are extra virgin olive oil (for salads, sauces and low-heat cooking), safflower oil (for high heat cooking and baking), and sesame oil (for flavor). Oils are also expensive, and like most other expensive things, you need to use them sparingly, for your health and your wallet.
Vinegar, like oil, is also about flavor enhancement. Vinegar is an acid and acts in our mouth somewhat like salt, brightening and energizing the flavors that are already there. Vinegars vary so much in their tastes that I keep a whole lot of them around. I tend to use red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, and rice wine vinegar the most. Other less used vinegars in my pantry are balsamic, champagne, and sherry.

DRY SPICES & HERBS - Contrary to what chefs and foodies will tell you, you can use dry spices for a very long time with very good results. You're running a household, not a restaurant. Spices and herbs, while expensive, can go a long way, and can help make an otherwise dreary meal into a pleasure. Healthy cooking is often thought of as bland, but that's only because what passes as healthy (mostly taking fat and salt-laden recipes and cutting out the fat and salt) is all give and no take. Real flavor comes from seasoning.
Again, which spices and herbs you choose depends on your tastes. These are a few that frequent my pantry: garlic powder, chopped onion, basil, oregano, parsley, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, rosemary, black peppercorns, chili powder, red pepper flakes.

NATURAL SWEETENERS - How can sweeteners be a part of a healthy diet? Well, sometimes they can't. But there are lots of sweeteners out there, and they don't all possess the evils of sugar. None of them really add much to your health (although arguments have been made that honey has anti-bacterial properties and molasses is a great source of iron), but some do more to detract from it than others. In general, the more processed a food, the worse it is for you. Nothing could be a better example of this than white sugar. White sugar is very high on the glycemic index, so it is more likely than lower glycemic foods to contribute to weight gain and the development of type II diabetes .
The reason I consider sweeteners a must-have, despite their waistline-expansion agenda, is that I think we are all human, and we need something sweet here and there. I don't advocate daily indulgence in sweets, but every so often, we might need a little something.
How can we lessen the blow? I do keep white sugar in my pantry, but I use it very rarely ... only in certain baking recipes when it is absolutely necessary. For the most part, my sweetener of choice is agave nectar, which comes from the same cactus that brings us tequila. Agave is very low on the glycemic index, especially as sweeteners go, and it has a light, subtle taste. I use it in coffee, in baking, in savory recipes that call for a little splash of sweetness (think stir fry), and in my daughter's oatmeal almost every morning. Agave is also expensive, but remember, you're not using much of it because you're trying to be healthy, right?
Other sweeteners that might work for you (some of which are in my pantry, too): honey, brown rice syrup, stevia (a natural no-calorie option), maple syrup, maple sugar, fruit juice concentrates.

HERB TEA - How could this be essential in anyone's pantry? Well, I guess it's not, but I think herb tea is a great way to get variety into your drinkables, which makes us feel a little less relegated to plain old water. There are so many varieties of herb tea these days, many of which have antioxidant properties and other beneficial side-effects. You will certainly never get bored with what you drink. Herb teas are not actually teas, per se, but they are brewed in the same way, and packaged in the same way, and enjoyed in the same way, so why not call them by the same name? They lack caffeine, so you can drink all you want, in most cases. You can make very inexpensive pitchers of iced tea from herb teas, or you can have them hot. You can use tea as an ingredient in baking recipes (try substituting a fruity herb tea when juice is called for), or you can make a healthy dessert, like poached pears infused with herb tea. And imagine all the fruit drinks (which are high fructose corn syrup and water, plus artificial color and flavor), sodas, energy drinks and overpriced coffee drinks you'll easily forgo when you can have almost any flavor you want in the form of herb tea.

So, now that you know what you must have in your pantry, let's look at some major must-NOT-haves:

Must NOT Haves
HYDROGENATED OILS (aka Trans Fats) - There should be absolutely no hydrogenated oils in your pantry ... no exceptions ... not even partially hydrogenated oils. The scariest thing about hydrogenated oils is that they can cause increased levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), which can harden your arteries and cause heart disease. Heart disease is still the #1 killer among women ... higher than breast cancer! We don't need any help raising our cholesterol in this country! Hydrogenated oils also contribute to obesity, and by extension, diabetes. They have no nutritional value whatsoever because they are an invention of science. Anything that does not occur in nature is not likely a healthy part of your diet (you'll see that sentiment repeated often here). To avoid these, and many other sneaky little bastards, you'll need to read labels well. Limit the amount of products you buy with long lists of ingredients. Chances are, something's hidden in that long list, and there's more than likely a whole lot of processing going on. There are no raw materials (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats) that contain hydrogenated oils. Stick to those, and you'll know you're safe.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) - These "foods" are all around us. Most non-organic soy, corn and wheat are most definitely GMO. Essentially, the term means that science has created, through artificial means, DNA that has some advantage (not to your health, of course), usually to farming, transportation, or other money-making ends. There are so many problems with GMOs, I'm sure to miss some, so please excuse me for being incomplete. Regarding health concerns, GMOs are not naturally occurring, and are therefore an unnatural part of our diet. What the effects of that will be may not be known for decades. Even now, it seems that American food allergies are on the rise, particularly to wheat and soy. Some say that they can digest these foods with no problem when in the other countries, but not here, in GMO-land.
Unfortunately, like it or not, you cannot eliminate GMOs from your diet entirely! Buying organic produce and meats can limit the amount of GMOs you'll ingest, but it won't do away with it altogether. While GMOs are not part of organic farming, in reality, that's a technicality. When the farm next door has GMO soy, and your farm has organic soy, what's to stop a busy bee from carrying pollen from the GMO soy over to your pristine organic soy and fertilizing your unsuspecting crops? And so, nature is swallowed up by profit margins. This has obvious environmental concerns, as well, as the more pest-resistant GMO crops overtake other natural crops, we could lose biodiversity, which would leave us increasingly susceptible to disease outbreaks, such as spinach and scallions contaminated with E-coli and salmonella (sound familiar?).

ARTIFICIAL COLORS & FLAVORS - Can you say ADHD? Several clinical studies have shown that artificial colors and flavors negatively affect the behaviors of children, decreasing their ability to focus, and increasing hyperactivity. Children with ADD and ADHD, after eliminating these products from their diets, saw marked improvements in their behavior. Even children who don't suffer from ADD or ADHD can display negative effects after consuming artificial colors and flavors. Consider how a child behaves after a typical birthday party that features cake with some obscenely colored icing. Yes, there's load of sugar in the cake, and that's no good either, but does your child bounce off the walls after a cookie as much as they bounce off the walls after eating fire engine red icing? Feel free to conduct your own experiments with these, if you wish, or don't and play it safe.
Once again, these are chemical inventions, and do not occur in nature, so I say, best to leave them out of your bloodstream.

NITRATES, NITRITES and SULFITES (preservatives)- Nitrites are mostly found in processed meat products - cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage and smoked/cured fish. The major health concern regarding nitrites is that it can lead to low oxygen absorption in the blood. Although very high quantities of nitrites would need to be consumed to have very ill-effects in an adult, children, especially babies, are very susceptible to poor health and even death as a result of too much nitrite intake. So, it's critical that pregnant women, babies and young children not consume these products that are so often given to children.
From an environmental standpoint, nitrates, which are commonly used in fertilizers and are also in high concentration in the excrement of livestock, are getting far too abundant and are making their way into our drinking water and our produce. Nitrates, when consumed, are converted to nitrites in the body, and are adding to the already high quantities in our bodies. This raises ethical questions about consuming farmed meat (but more about that another time).
Sulfites are used primarily in wines and dried fruit. In wine, it is part of the fermentation process (or rather ending fermentation), but in dried fruit it is a purely cosmetic issue. The concern with sulfites is that some people can have allergic reactions, which can be fatal. It's more likely to be serious among asthma-sufferers. Since most of us have had wine made with sulfites at one point or another, we probably know if we react to sulfites. Still, I avoid them in dried fruits simply because they are an additive I don't need, and they serve no purpose.

ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS - This is another instance where I say, nature didn't make it ... I don't want it. Artifical sweeteners have been shown to cause cancer, cause tumors, and are even correlated with weight gain (that's right, drink diet soda, GAIN weight!). Splenda, which does so much to convince the unknowing public that it's actually sugar, minus the calories, is probably the scariest one of all. It is processed with chlorine, making it an organochloride, a highly volatile and unpredictable, unnatural compound. We have no idea what it could do. Splenda is in the same category as other organochlorides that are produced by countless manufactures as by-products to manufacturing, polluting our soil, water and air. Why would I ever want to put something in that class into my body?

Now that you know what must and must not be in your pantry, it's your job to fill in the rest with what ever else your family likes, wants, and needs, and the possibilities are vast. Once you know what you must have in your pantry, here are your next steps:

Always have a back-up - Don't run out of anything in your must-haves. These are generally non-perishable items, so if you open a new bag of rice, even though you just opened it, you need a new bag of rice.

Make lists - Put a list of things to buy in a conspicuous place (fridge, peg board, marker board, whatever you prefer). When you need to buy a back-up, put it on the list right away, before you forget. Train your family to do the same. Putting something on the list doesn't mean you'll need to buy it right away. Sometimes, if you know that a bag of rice lasts you about a month, you can put off buying that rice until a good sale comes along, or until you have a less expensive shopping week. Just don't wait so long that you run out of that old bag of rice!

Keep a mental inventory - Know, at least approximately, how much you have of each of your must-haves. That way, if you an encounter a good deal, you can take advantage of it (or leave it alone, if you have more than you know what to do with).

Keep the clutter out - Try not to allow too many non-essentials to invade your pantry. Doing so will help you avoid impulse buying, as well as buying those foods that are interesting, but not practical. It will also help you keep your pantry orderly and easy to use.

Keeping up your pantry will give you some peace of mind, but it will also make meal-preparation and planning more predictable, and it will cut your costs because you'll be deliberate in everything you buy.

Hopefully, this wasn't information overload. I'll be sure to post this week's shopping list (mine, that is) soon. Happy shopping!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Not another healthy food blog!!!

What would possess someone to blog about something that is already so painfully beaten to death? Well, I blame my mother. She, being the proud and boastful mother that she is, feels that I must have something to share with the world that they don't already know. Perhaps I do.

Some background: I'm a relatively new mother of a 2.5 year-old daughter. As so many new mothers will do these days, I found myself growing interested in issues of personal health (food and other wellness issues), as well as the health of the world. I want the best for my daughter, so that she can avoid the common American pitfalls of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and many others. I also want to make sure that my children and grandchildren have a world to live in, and that this world isn't stricken with famine, drought, flooding, or other extreme conditions that may making living a horror. My generation may not enjoy the standard of living of my parents' generation, but my children's generation may be left fighting for much more than the preservation of middle class mediocrity.

Little by little in these last 3 years (since all this started while my daughter was in utero), I have learned a good deal to help me on my quest to better my family and the world. And in typical fashion for my family, I am doing it all with a small, disciplined wallet (once again, credit to my mother is due here). It's all well and good to buy organic and fair trade products ... but having a bigger conscience doesn't give you a bigger bank account. We all have the reality of money to deal with, and my family has found a way to have our organic turkey (with Thanksgiving approaching) and eat it, too.

Back to my mother ... She e-mailed me this article ( from the NY Times, and thought it was right up my alley, encouraging me to share my knowledge with the public. I'm not sure this article really speaks to my own experience. My family is middle class, and I don't know what it's like to live on food stamps. Perhaps that would be an experiment for another time. I am, however, amazed that the average American spends $7/day to eat, and they eat mostly junk. They must be eating an awful lot of junk because junk isn't that expensive! I wonder how much of the American food budget is squandered on quantity at the expense of quality. Perhaps our bodies wouldn't need endless gorging if we gave them what they are really craving ... nutritious, whole foods.

So, a blog is born, inspired by mom and the NY Times. I intend to post typical shopping lists for my family, meal planning tips, alternative places and ways to shop, recipes, tips to get kids to eat their veggies, and the occasional rant about the ills of society. I hope you'll indulge me, and enjoy! And please teach me, when you know something that I need to learn.