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.