Friday, January 30, 2009

A Little Something for Valentine's Day

Here is a healthy chocolate truffle recipe that you might want to make for your sweetheart this Valentine's Day. Enjoy!

Chocolate "Truffles"
3/4 c. raw cocoa butter (make sure to get food grade, available online)
1/4 c. coconut butter
1/4 c. cashew butter
1/4 c. raw agave nectar
1/4 c. dutch processed cocoa powder, divided
1 Tbsp. ground flax seed
1 tsp. chocolate extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Chop the cocoa butter into small pieces or shavings. In the bottom pan of a double boiler, heat an inch or so of water to boiling. Turn the heat off. Place the cocoa butter in the top part of the double boiler, and place over the steaming water. Heat stirring constantly, until just melted. Remove from hot water to cool.

In a medium glass bowl, combine melted cocoa butter, coconut butter, cashew butter, agave, 2 Tbsps. of cocoa powder, ground flax, chocolate extract and vanilla extract. Blend well. Place the bowl in the refrigerator until the mixture is solid, but still somewhat pliable (about 2 hours).

Using a metal spoon, scoop out the mixture 1-2 Tbsps. at a time, and form into 1 inch balls. Using a small mesh strainer, dust the balls with remaining cocoa powder, turning the balls to coat evenly. Indulge!

- For fancy presentation, place the balls in small paper candy cups (available at specialty cooking stores or craft stores - used for candy or mini-muffins).
- The cocoa powder on the outside of the balls will not be sweet. I prefer this bitter taste, but if you want yours sweet, just mix in a Tbsp. or so of powdered sugar into the cocoa powder before dusting.
- Store these balls in the refrigerator!!! They will soften too much at room temperature, and the nut butter and flax will go rancid if kept out for several days.

Nitrites Revisited

So, my good friend and blogger for Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Gerry Pugliese, posted a good piece on his blog,, today. It was about the health risks of consuming foods containing nitrites, and I admit that I didn't know some of this, so it's definitely worth reading the article, found here. I'll make one point of commentary on the subject, though. Although Dr. Fuhrman certainly discourages meat consumption, and would say no to any hot dog or cured meat, there are much healthier varieties available than the standard Oscar Mayer stuff. Eaten in moderation, I think these are OK indulgences, as with any meat. There are uncured versions of ordinarily cured meats that contain no nitrites (bacon, pancetta, cold cuts, hot dogs, smoked salmon, etc.). I only buy these products, and you can easily find them in the health food section of your supermarket, or in health food stores. The meats are also often organic, and the salmon should be wild (check ... even some health food stores carry Atlantic smoked salmon, which is farmed and high in mercury).

For those who are new to this blog, or just never bothered with my LONGEST BLOG POST EVER!!!, I would recommend reading Keeping Up a Pantry. It contains a list of pantry "Must Haves" and "Must NOT Haves". Nitrites were one of those food additives that I listed as a no-no. Gerry's new info does not appear there, but there's a lot of other related information that might interest you, if you're into that sort of thing (that is, if you enjoy getting very scared about the things you've already consumed).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Making Budget-Friendly Friends

In this day of internet meet-ups and support groups for every interest and issue on the planet, we all have access to like-minded people, if we bother to look them up. If you like to crochet, you can find a local group to do it with. If you like to play basketball, you can find adults in your area who play. If you're a computer geek, you can find people who will talk tech with you. Why do we join these groups? Well, partly for the whole kindred spirit thing, and partly for a social outlet, but also because we have a genuine interest in these topics. We are better hobbyists and enthusiasts when we have others to advise us, guide us, and even commiserate with us.

I'll add one more ulterior motive to this list (and hopefully, I'm not alone in this): to save a few bucks. Organizations that support a common interest or cause often have access to great group rate deals, co-ops, buying clubs, etc. At the most public level, there are organizations, like AAA or labor unions, that strike bargains with a large variety of service and consumer goods suppliers and retailers. Just for being a member, you get to save some money when you buy your car insurance or stay in a hotel or take out a loan. As long as the price of membership doesn't exceed the savings (or other non-monetary benefits), then why not join?

The same can be said about smaller, more local organizations. Assuming that you're reading this blog because healthy living, green living, cheap living, etc. are interests of yours, there are groups that can help you accomplish those goals. Nearly every locale has an environmental action group. There are groups for people with an interest in cooking, gardening, alternative medicines, organics, etc. In these groups, you will undoubtedly find local information and resources that will help you buy smarter, cheaper, and better quality. These are the folks who know where the good farmers' markets are, or what CSA you should subscribe to, or what farms sell free range eggs direct to customers, where to find local honey, who has bulk discounts, what health food stores have the best buys and the best quality produce, what supermarkets support local farming, etc. These folks are also likely to have buying clubs and co-ops set up for their interests. An environmental group might be able to get you a good discount on organic landscaping, or an energy-efficient furnace. A foodie group might be able to organize a scavenging tour with an expert in local mushrooms. The members of a holistic society might qualify for group discounts with certain alternative health practitioners.

For myself, I've been able to find all of the resources that I'm looking for through my local Holistic Moms Network chapter. We have two buying clubs for both food and other products (toiletries, holistic medicines and supplements, etc.). One of our members recently organized a bulk organic ground beef order, which saved us a ton! I get tips from other members about where they've found things at good prices, or of good quality. My annual membership fee ($45) is easily paid for by all this savings. Of course, I've also found wonderful friendships, great educational resources, and parenting support, which are invaluable to me.

Just to be clear, I'm not recommending that you join an organization just for the perks, especially small, local organizations (you can go ahead and join AAA just for the perks). Have a genuine interest in what goes on in the group. But it doesn't hurt to make budget-friendly friends.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Pasta

I've adapted my lasagna recipe to work for stuffed shells or manicotti. The main downside to making this recipe is that there are no whole grain large shells or manicotti, so you're stuck with white flour pasta. For variety's sake, I'll make this every once in a while, but normally, I stick to lasagna, which I can make in whole grain form. Of course, the other downside to this recipe is that it's impossibly difficult and time-consuming to fill manicotti, and even shells.

With that said, it's still a tasty dish.

Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Pasta
1 box jumbo shells or manicotti
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
28 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
10 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 cup lowfat ricotta
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste
4 oz. lowfat mozzarella, shredded

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.

In a bowl, mix together spinach, ricotta, parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

In a 13x9 glass baking dish, spoon a very thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom. Stuff pasta with the ricotta mixture and lay in a single layer in the baking dish. Top each piece of pasta with a good dollop of tomato sauce. Sprinkle mozzarella over the sauce. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Serve with extra sauce.

Your Basic Taco

OK, I admit it. I've always enjoyed those little packets of taco seasoning that you toss in with some ground meat. Now, there are "wholesome" versions of those little packets available (Simply Organic's comes to mind), but even that's cheating, really. Besides, it's more expensive than making your own. My confession really boils down to this: when I make tacos, I'm aspiring to make something that resembles junk food. Ohh! It feels dirty just saying that! Some part of the foodie in me just died.

The reality is that my tacos would never be recognized as such in Mexico, or in Texas for that matter, but they're seriously quick and easy, they cost very little, they're fun to eat, and they make everyone in the family happy and satisfied. And, despite the aim to taste like lesser food, they're actually healthy! What more could you ask for in a home-cooked meal?

This is less of a recipe and more of guide. I try my best to use ingredients that I need to get rid of, or that are leftovers from something else. That's especially true for the meat (I often use already cooked shredded chicken or turkey leftover from some other meal or soup), but I will often use a few leftover leaves of kale or beet greens that aren't enough to use as a side dish for another meal.

So, here is it:

Your Basic Taco
1 Tbsp. olive oil or oil spray (optional)
1 lb. meat, poultry or fish (ground, shredded, diced, flaked)
1 Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsps. cumin
1 Tbsp. onion powder
2 tsps. garlic powder
salt & pepper, to taste
1 cup water
1 15 oz. can beans (pinto, black, aduki)
several leaves of shredded raw greens (lettuce, kale, chard, beet greens, mustard greens, etc)
4-6 oz. shredded sharp cheddar
6-8 small whole grain, sprouted grain, or corn soft tortillas (bring to room temperature)

In a medium saute pan, heat oil over moderate heat (the oil is necessary for fish or already cooked meats, but not for raw, ground meats). Add animal protein (if raw, you'll need to cook through). Add chili powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and combine well. Heat for 1 minute, until spices become fragrant, but not burnt. Stir in water, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.

In a small saucepan, heat beans. Set out guacamole, shredded greens and shredded cheese in bowls. Using one tortilla at a time, assemble by adding a little of each item: meat, beans, guacamole, greens, cheese. Enjoy!

Note: If you add some cooked brown rice to this, and use larger burrito-size tortillas, you could make burritos instead.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cooking with Quinoa

Quinoa is a grain (technically, a seed) that I think is full of character and texture, which makes it an easy substitute for other grains (rice, bulgar, barley, millet). It actually pops a bit in your mouth as you chew it, which I really enjoy. The taste is nuttier than most rice, but still quite subtle. I tend to cook it in stock rather than water, just to give it a little more depth of flavor. For visual interest, I tend to combine the red and white varieties of quinoa.

As my daughter pointed out, quinoa is a lot like Moroccan cous-cous (the small variety) in its shape and appearance, so kids who like rice and cous-cous will likely go for quinoa, as well. My husband, on the other hand, is not a big fan. He's an old dog, set in his ways, I guess. So, for his sake, I don't cook it as regularly as I would like. I'm still hopeful to convert him.

In addition to quinoa's use as an easy side dish, it can also be used in its whole form to make hot breakfast cereals and salads. Cold quinoa, combined with some peppers, olives, and raw zucchini could make a nice summer picnic salad. Or toss it with garbanzo beans, tomatoes, cucumber, crumbled feta cheese, and a little parsley for a Mediterranean side dish. Make it warm with cut green beans and some chopped, toasted hazelnuts.

There are also quinoa products that are easy to find in most healthfood stores, including quinoa pasta, which has the advantage of being gluten-free (wheat pastas are not), and quinoa flour, which can be used in baking recipes.

Of course, the main reason so many people are starting to eat quinoa these days is that it's a bit of a super food. It is a very high source of vegan protein, and it contains high amounts of a number of essential minerals. It is said to be particularly good for maintaining cardiovascular health. Although grains (and again, this is not really a grain) are mostly consumed as a source of energy, quinoa delivers so much more.

This is the basic, super-easy way to prepare quinoa:

1 c. quinoa
2 c. water or stock
generous amount of salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan with a lid. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until water or stock is absorbed. Fluff and serve.

This Week's Shopping List

Wow, I feel so balanced this week! I made foods from all over the world, and still managed to avoid Asian foods altogether, much to my husband's relief. Well, it's arguable that the fish I made is Asian, but not obnoxiously so. This week, we had a taste of Mexican, some Italian, and some new American (or Native American, if you count quinoa as ethnic). Everything in my stomach is getting along just fine. It's shame that isn't the case in the surprisingly more volatile climate of the world (I thought my stomach was pretty volatile ... maybe not).

The menu this week is as follows:

Lunch: Leftovers

- Ground Turkey/Shredded Chicken tacos with shredded lettuce, guacamole, cheese & pinto beans
- Grilled Mahi Mahi with oranges & sesame over quinoa with steamed broccoli
- Stuffed manicotti with spinach

Some explanation is due regarding the tacos, I think. The ground turkey was a 1/2 pound that was leftover after last week's meatballs. The shredded chicken was 1/2 pound of chicken odds and ends from the freezer (some from leftover Coq Au Vin, some from chicken soup). Each of these made a good portion for one night's meal, but we usually try to do things for two to three nights, so we had one night of turkey, one night of chicken. For those surprised to see me use leftover Coq Au Vin, which has a strong taste, in another very different dish, I was a little nervous, too. But it turned out quite well. The spices used (mostly chili powder and cumin) to season the meat overpowered the taste of wine in the chicken, and you'd never know the difference. You know I can't waste anything!

This is the shopping list for the week (* indicates non-organic):

red onion
mahi mahi* (5.99/lb.)
Imagine chicken broth ($1 coupon)
cheddar* (local, grass-fed)
cream cheese
eggs* (local, free-range)
safflower oil*
manicotti shells*
frozen spinach
orange juice*
whole grain tortillas
english muffins ($0.35 coupon)

The only thing I was unable to get on the list was the chicken broth. Oh well, that would have been a good bargain. I also bought a couple of items not on the list that were on sale at the health food store: canned tomatoes and ramen noodles. Yes, folks, I bought ramen noodles. In the days before I cared what I put in my body, I ate ramen noodles all the time, and heartily enjoyed them. When I was sick, I wouldn't turn to homemade chicken soup, I'd make myself some ramen noodles (or Lipton noodle soup). Now that I'm trying my best to put good stuff in my body, I've found it very hard to manage when I do have the occasional cold. What should I eat that would give me that same feeling? Well, lo and behold, this week, I saw organic, completely sound and reasonable ramen noodles on sale at the health food store. Woo hoo! So, I stocked up, just in case illness strikes. Hopefully, they'll sit in the pantry for a long time.

The total for the week came to $114.16, which is less than our weekly budget, but more than we typically spend in a regular grocery shopping. That's bad news, because this week, we also had a delivery from one of our co-ops. The good news, is that this will be the last of these bulk/wholesale purchases for several weeks. That will give us a chance to repent.

The co-op order included the following items: tea, coffee, bulk wild rice, bulk all-purpose flour, and bulk whole wheat flour. The order came to $45.58. So, the grand total for the week comes to $159.74, which is $37.24 over our weekly budget. We sink deeper into the hole, standing now at negative $104. Sheesh! We might have to eat those ramen noodles sooner than I thought! With a few weeks before the next of these sorts of orders, and with regular grocery bills averaging around $90, we should be able to bring that deficit down nicely, without resorting to college fare. Relax .... we're sure to balance this budget well before our new president has made a dent!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spinach Risotto

Although my usually MO is to use whole grains pretty exclusively, I make an occasional exception for risotto, which really can't be made with any variety of brown rice (well, it can, but it just wouldn't be risotto). Although I do sometimes cheat and make barley risotto, that is really a misnomer, as well. The only suitable grain for risotto is arborio rice (and a few other less available, lesser known rice varieties), and that is, unfortunately, a white rice.

Spinach risotto, I think, is a great way to make a warming, comforting winter dish that doesn't rely on fresh, warm-weather produce. I use frozen, chopped spinach, and it works out quite nicely. This could be a meal of it's own, or a side dish.

Spinach Risotto
2 Tbsps olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
10 oz. frozen, chopped spinach, well drained
1 c. arborio rice (unwashed!)
2 quarts veggie stock
1 Tbsp. dried basil
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 c. grated parmesan
2 Tbsps. fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the veggie in a saucepan until boiling. Remove from heat.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until onion is translucent. Add spinach, and saute for 2 minutes. Add rice, and toast until rice begins to become translucent. Do not brown the rice! Add enough stock to almost cover the rice. Stirring frequently, allow the stock to absorb. Add the basil. Once stock is almost absorbed, add another 1-2 ladles of stock. Continue this process until the rice has absorbed enough to still have some bite, but not be hard. Season with salt and pepper, as needed. After the final addition of stock has been absorbed, there should be enough liquid left to make a somewhat thin sauce (which will firm up once off the heat). Remove from heat, and add the butter and cheese, stirring vigorously to create a smooth, creamy sauce. Add the parsley and stir to incorporate. Serve immediately, with additional parmesan as a garnish.

Banana Carrot Bread

This is another recipe that my mother made when I was a child (and still makes), but I've made it my own with a couple substitutions and additions. It turns out that this bread is a great hiding place for vegetables (far beyond carrots and zucchini), which is useful information for parents of picky eaters. Inspired by my friend, Rose, who hides all kinds of greens in muffins, I thought I'd give this a shot with my own recipe, and I've really enjoyed the results!

Although my mother made this recipe, and made it her own, it was originally from a cookbook (who knows what!). The original recipe called for applesauce and walnuts, which would also be wonderful. My mother substituted bananas for applesauce (a great use for rotting bananas) and carrots for walnuts (much less expensive than walnuts, with a more nutritionally-packed punch). Almost anything could be substituted, really. Something moist could replace the bananas, and something dense and crunchy could replace the carrots. And as I've recently discovered, the recipe will tolerate the addition of even more stuff, without getting dry or falling apart.

I've also made this recipe partly whole grain, as I do with many baked goods. I think it gives this bread a heartier, homier taste and texture, and I actually prefer it to the all white flour version. Of course, the whole grains make this indulgence a little less guilty.

Incidentally, this one also appears in Growing Healthy Families.

Banana Carrot Bread
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. all-purpose unbleached flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsps. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. bananas (I never measure this - just use 2 bananas), very ripe (or applesauce, zucchini, pears, etc)
1 c. carrots, peeled and sliced (or walnuts, sweet potatoes, beets, etc)
3/4 c. packed greens (kale, spinach, swiss chard, collards, etc) (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Sift both flours, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda and salt into a large bowl.

In a food processor, puree the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and banana. Once smooth, add the carrots and continue to puree until relatively smooth. Add the greens, if using, and puree until incorporated.

Add liquid mixture to dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Don't overmix (a little lumpiness is OK). Grease a loaf pan and pour batter in, smoothing out the top for even baking.

Bake for 40 minutes. The bread is ready when a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

Note: When those bananas on the counter are starting to get so brown that no one will touch them, you don't need to run to the food processor and make this bread right away. Throw the old bananas in the freezer, and use them when you're good and ready.


This recipe is one that I grew up with. My mother served it at just about every occasion, and still does. As any college student will tell you, it's cheap, easy, and full of good stuff. This recipe also appears in the Holistic Moms Network's Growing Healthy Families cookbook.

4 cloves garlic
1 (15 oz.) can chick peas, drained (reserve juice)
1/4 c. chick pea juice from can
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
salt, to taste
3 Tbsps. tahini
2 Tbsps. fresh parsley (my mother used dried, but I prefer fresh)
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 tsp. hot pepper mix (Shug is a great brand) (optional)
paprika, for garnish (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Dust with paprika, if desired. Serve with warm pita wedges, pita chips, or crudite.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lentil Soup

This recipe is directly out of a book that is, incredibly, still in print. I received it as a gift many moons ago, when I was in college, and I've found that it has a few recipes that I really like. They are almost all very simple, light, and healthy. Unfortunately, I don't have much opportunity to cook with shellfish, or I'd make much better use of this book. It's called Coastal New England: Summertime Cooking, by Sherri Eldridge.

Lentil Soup

1 lb. package lentils (green)
10 cups weak vegetable bouillon broth (I use 6 cups homemade veggie broth and 4 cups water)
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup peeled and diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 clove garlic (I use more like 3-4), minced
2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon curry
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (I often double this, just because I love cilantro)
1 1/2 cups chopped stewed tomatoes (diced or crushed canned tomatoes work well)
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons vinegar (I use white or red wine vinegar)

Rinse lentils in cold water. Combine all ingredients in a large covered pot (I reserve the cilantro for the last 5 minutes of cooking). Stirring occasionally, simmer about 3 hours, adding water if needed. Discard bay leaves. Adjust seasonings to taste (salt!!!). Serve hot.

Lemon Granita

So, this is basically frozen lemonade, or a not-so-sweet version of Italian ice. It's super easy, very refreshing, and a low-cal dessert option. You could easily serve this to guests, and they might even be more impressed with it than if you baked a cake. Just garnish with a sprig of mint.

1 Tbsp lemon zest
5 lemons, juiced
1.5 quarts cold water
1/2 - 3/4 c. agave nectar, depending on how sweet you like it

In a tall pitcher, whisk all ingredients until well combined. Pour into a glass baking dish, cover with plastic wrap, and put in the freezer. Every 1-2 hours, scrape the mixture with a fork to break up ice crystals. If you let it go longer, just let it sit out for a bit before attempting to break it up. Serve frozen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vegetarian Pad Thai

This recipe is based on a recipe from (see here), but I made some adjustments that simplified the dish, cut down the fat, added some veggies, and reduced the protein (which I think was excessive!). I made a few ingredient substitutions that were healthier, in some cases, easier to find, in others, and available in the pantry, in others still. One substitution that I made that you might not want to make is that I used cashews instead of peanuts. This is to accommodate my daughter, who is allergic to peanuts. We also left off the hot stuff to make it more child-friendly.

My Version, Vegetarian Pad Thai
14 oz. brown rice fettucini, prepared according to package directions
3 Tbsps jarred tamarind paste
1 c. hot water
1/2 c. low-sodium tamari
1/4 c. brown sugar
3 Tbsps safflower oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
10 leaves of kale, taken off the stem and torn into small pieces
4 eggs
1/2 package extra firm tofu, cubed
1 bunch scallions, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
2 c. bean sprouts
1/2 c. raw cashews
2 Tbsps cilantro, chopped
1 lime, cut into wedges

Soak tamarind in hot water for 5 minutes. Pass through a strainer to get any grit out. Combine with tamari and brown sugar. Set aside.

Heat 2 Tbsps of oil in a wok over high heat. Stir fry the shallots and garlic. Add the carrots and kale, cooking until kale wilts.

Make a hole in the center of the pan and add the last tablespoon of oil in the center. Add the eggs in the center, allowing them to cook without stirring for a minute or so. Start to break up the eggs somewhat, allowing uncooked parts to shift and get cooked. After another minute or two, break up the eggs into bits and begin to mix into the rest.

Add the tofu and scallions. Add the noodles, stirring gently to avoid breaking them up. Add the bean sprouts and cook for 1 more minute. Add the sauce (start with half, and see how much more you want to use). Remove from heat.

In a small stainless steel saucepan, toast cashews over medium heat until fragrant. Remove to a cutting board and chop.

Serve noodles garnished with cashews and cilantro, and offer lime wedges.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This Weeks' Shopping List

This week has required a fair amount of cooking, but nothing too time-consuming. In fact, one of the things I made this week, the Banana, Carrot & Kale Bread, gave my daughter and me an opportunity to make a mess together in the kitchen. That's always a fun bonding experience. With snow coming down outside and temperatures in the teens, what better way is there to spend the day than with something full of cinnamon baking in the oven?

My Asian obsession continues, but I've now been warned by my husband that this must stop at some point. Really, only one Asian dish this week means that I'm trying my best to keep my inner infant quiet.

The menu for the week goes like this:

Lunch: Lentil Soup with english muffins and sardines.

- Hummus with pita and crudite
- Banana, Carrot & Kale Bread

- Vegetarian Pad Thai with kale & carrots (cashews replace the peanuts)
- Broiled Salmon with apple-date chutney (changes made: grilled salmon fillets in a cast-iron pan, skipped the olive oil, skipped the apple juice) served with sweet potato mash
- Greek meatballs (changes made: substituted ground turkey for other meats, finely diced onion) with spinach risotto

Dessert: Lemon granita

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

bean sprouts*
sweet potatoes
broccoli crowns* ($0.99/lb)
brown rice noodles*
orange juice* (2/$5)
ground turkey* (free range)
white wine*
brown rice wine vinegar

I was able to buy everything on the list this week, and I bought no extras. How about that! The total for the grocery bill was $74.10, way under the weekly budget. But, what would a week be without some sort of complication?

This week, I pick up my ground beef order. One of the mothers in my local chapter of the Holistic Moms Network arranged for a group order of 50 lbs. of local, organic ground beef. I am taking 8 lbs. of it, at $3.50/lb, for a total of $28. That's rock bottom cheap! I hope I bought enough. This brings the week to a grand total of $102.10, $20.40 less than our weekly budget. We're beginning to nibble away at our deficit. We are now down to $67 in the hole.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Basic Easy Stir Fry

There is nothing I can think of that is easier to make and healthier than a stir fry. Done right, it should be mostly veggies, and since the veggies are cooked without water, there is no dilution of nutrients. Even steaming dilutes somewhat. Some form of protein should be added. And serve the whole thing over brown rice. Very filling, very nutrient-dense, and fairly economical. Best of all, stir fry is extremely versatile. Nearly any vegetable or protein that is left over in the fridge can be tossed into a stir fry, so it's great for cleaning out the fridge. It's not really a seasonal meal, because it can so easily change with the seasons. So, winter, spring, summer or fall, you can easily turn to it when your brain is scrambled and you can't think of what to make for dinner.

There is no need to buy the high salt, high additive stir fry sauces that are typically sold in the supermarket ethnic section. There is also no need to buy those frozen stir fry veggie mixes. These products are seriously expensive, and in many cases very unhealthy. They're also completely unnecessary! Stir fry is an easy do-it-yourself meal, so why take short cuts that will only serve up a second-rate meal?

The "recipe" below is based on one that my mother made while I was growing up. I apply the same principles to any stir fry I make, but I change all the main elements.

This recipe will serve 5.

Basic Stir Fry
4 portions of protein (1 lb. chicken, beef, fish or shellfish, or 4 eggs, or 1/2 cup nuts, 3/4 box of extra firm tofu, 1 package tempeh, etc.) - you could use a combination of proteins, to make things more interesting

Cut the protein (if appropriate) into bite-size chunks. Marinate for 30 minutes to 2 hours in a mixture of the following:
2 Tbsps. low-sodium tamari (or other soy sauce)
2 Tbsps. dry sherry (or rice vinegar)
2 tsps. corn starch

Vegetables can include any number of things, but I usually include the following items or categories:
garlic - 3 cloves, sliced thinly
ginger - 1-2 inches, peeled and julienned
onion family - could be white onion, scallions, chives - cut into medium-sized pieces
leafy green or cabbage family - kale, bok choy, napa cabbage, broccoli are all good choice - cut into bite-size pieces
root vegetable family - carrots, turnips, parsnips - cut into thin, short strips
Asian vegetable - snow peas, beans sprouts, baby corn, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots - many of these are only available in cans
miscellaneous fridge veggies - whatever else you have that is on the verge of spoiling can be tossed in for good measure. Often, I find that's a red pepper.

Prepare a sauce before starting to cook:
3 Tbsps. low-sodium tamari (or other soy sauce)
2 Tbsps. dry sherry (or mirin, for a sweeter version)
2 Tbsps. brown rice vinegar
4 Tbsps. water
1 Tbsp. sugar or agave nectar (if using agave, make sure the sauce is heated gently, so it doesn't burn)
1 tsp. chinese chili paste (optional)

To prepare, heat 2-3 Tbsps. safflower oil in a wok over high heat. Add protein and stir fry until just about done. Remove the protein and set aside. Add garlic and ginger and stir fry for about 2 minutes, until golden. Add remaining vegetables. Stir fry until wilted/brightly colored/cooked, but still somewhat firm. Return protein to the wok and incorporate. Add the sauce, and remove from heat. Serve over brown rice.

Lemon Bars

Florida is not exactly local to me, but it's the closest to local I can get for citrus fruit, and it's still better than Mexico or California, so it passes for regional in my book. This time of year is great for getting all types of citrus: oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pomelos, etc. During a fairly barren season, citrus is a glimpse of nearly local freshness that could very well keep us all sane, till the spring time.

The mood struck for lemon bars, so I consulted my very old, very trustworthy Better Homes and Gardens Home Baking book. I routinely use conventional recipes and try to make them a bit healthier. Sometimes, desserts just don't lend themselves to healthy, and this was one of those times, as it turns out. I made this recipe, using half whole wheat and half all-purpose flour, and the crust came out a bit too dense, though still tasty. Next time I'll use only 1/3 whole wheat; that should do the trick. This is the recipe as I made it, adapted from the aforementioned book.

Lemon Bars
1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
2 eggs
2 Tbsps all-purpose unbleached flour
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. baking powder
powdered sugar, for dusting

For crust, in a medium mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until softened. Add 1/4 cup of the sugar. Beat until thoroughly combined. Then beat in flour (except the 2 Tbsps) on low speed until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Press mixture into an ungreased 8x8x2 inch baking pan. Bake in a 350 oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, for lemon mixture, in the same mixing bowl, beat eggs with an electric mixer on medium speed until just foamy. Add the remaining sugar, 2 Tbsps flour, lemon juice, baking powder, and 1/8 tsp. salt. Beat on medium speed about 3 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Stir in lemon zest. Pour lemon mixture over baked crust. Bake in 350 oven for 20-25 minutes, or until center in set. Cool in pan on a rack. Sift powdered sugar over top. Cut into bars. Store covered in refrigerator. Makes 16.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Roasted Red Pepper, Asaparagus & Brie Quesadillas

This recipe is my own, but it is featured in Growing Healthy Families.

This makes 5 quesadillas.

Roasted Red Pepper, Asparagus & Brie Quesadillas
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed of woody ends
1 pkg. whole-wheat tortillas (burrito size)
1 jar roasted red peppers (in water)
1 wedge brie cheese (don't waste the fancy stuff on this)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bunch cilantro or other herb, torn
1 T. oil

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan large enough to fit asparagus spears. Blanch the asparagus (leaving it in the boiling water for no more than 1 minute), and then remove it to cool (you can "shock" it in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process).

Lay out one tortilla and place slices of the roasted peppers in a circular fashion around the tortilla, leaving enough room for other ingredients. Between slices of peppers, lay asparagus spears. In several places around the tortilla, dot chunks of brie and add torn pieces of cilantro. Sprinkle salt and pepper, to taste. Cover with a second tortilla. Repeat this process with remaining ingredients.

Brush or spray a thin layer of oil on the bottom of a cast iron skillet or griddle, and pre-heat. Be careful not to allow the oil to get so hot that it smokes. Grill the quesadillas one at a time (or two if you have a two-burner griddle), brushing with additional oil in between. Each side will only need 1-2 minutes in the pan. Once done, slice quesadillas into 6-8 wedges and serve immediately.

Note: This is a great for parties as an hors d'oeuvre, but it must be cooked immediately before serving. Re-heating does not work well with this. For a spicy version, add rings of jalapenos inside the tortillas.

Salmon-Noodle Casserole

This recipe is from Growing Healthy Families, a cookbook put out by the Holistic Moms Network, of which I am a member. The book is a collection of member-contributed recipes (some are mine).

I am posting the recipe as it was originally written, but I did make a few modifications when I made it. I used whole wheat egg noodles, 2 stalks of celery, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 Tbsp olive oil to saute the veggies, 2 Tbsps butter for the roux, 2 Tbsps whole wheat flour for the roux, and skim milk. I also used 2 cups chopped broccoli which I blanched quickly in the water from the egg noodles. For the canned salmon, I used red salmon, which is higher in nutrients than pink, and I left the bones in (which are all edible) to boost the calcium content.

This casserole feels a lot like the sort of casseroles you might have had as a kid (maybe you had tuna casserole or turkey casserole ... same idea). It's thick and creamy, and it's definitely home-style food. It won't win any awards, but it will fill up the family for very little money, and using healthy ingredients. It's also very kid-friendly, as almost anything that includes noodles and cheese is. This is a high protein and high calcium dish. The canned salmon is a great source of both of these, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, and you can't beat the price!

Salmon-Noodle Casserole
8 oz. egg noodles, cooked
1/2 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
5 T. organic butter, divided
1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
2 c. milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can wild salmon
1-2 c. vegetables (examples: peas, carrots, broccoli)
1 c. cheddar cheese

Stir fry onion, celery and garlic in 1 tablespoon butter. Make a white sauce by combining the remaining 4 tablespoons butter and whole wheat flour in a sauce pan, slowly whisk in milk and simmer (do not boil) until it begins to thicken, add salt and pepper. Combine cooked noodles, salmon (large bones removed), sauce and veggies in a casserole dish. Top with cheddar cheese. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

This Week's Shopping List

This week had no extravagances, but the pantry and freezer are starting to get bare. So, a trip to Costco was in order. The latest challenges of pregnancy have also made our menu for the week very baby-centric.

The week's menu is as follows:

Lunch: Various leftovers

- Salmon noodle casserole with broccoli (leftover from last week)
- Chicken stir fry with kale, carrots, red peppers, broccoli & ginger served with brown rice
- Cold soba noodles with carrots, zucchini, red peppers & tofu with sesame sauce

In retrospect, that last item on the menu was clearly the influence of the fetus. Never in a million years would I have craved such a cold, summery dish at this time of year on my own. I think I've got to get this little elfling under control.

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

extra firm tofu
Cascadian Farms cereal (2.99)
soymilk ($0.69 with store coupon)
Traditional Medicinals tea ($2 coupon)
yogurt ($0.67)
dehydrated peas

I was able to buy everything on the list this week. Yes, even the dehydrated peas! Woo hoo! I also bought a few sale items at the health food store: aseptic single-serve milks (these are helpful when on long outings with my daughter), tomato sauce, and diced tomatoes. The total for this minimalist shopping excursion came to $59.74.

This was a fantastically short list with a price tag that promised to do some real damage to the budgetary hole we dug last week. Unfortunately, it doesn't include all of the pricey bulk stuff that we needed to get at Costco. That included the following items:

Frozen spinach ravioli (for emergencies and lazy days)
Frozen wild salmon
Frozen wild blueberries (my daughter's breakfast addiction)
Organic raisin bran
Organic whole wheat bread (we freeze it till we need it)
Organic canned soups (also for emergencies and lazy days)

For the long-term savings this will provide, we dropped $69.58. That brings the grand total for the week to $129.32, which is $6.82 over our weekly budget. Oh well, we sink slightly deeper into the red. So, we now stand at minus $87. Some penny pinching weeks are ahead of us. We'll see how creative we can get.

Even Unborn Children are Picky, Apparently

Food is a complicated matter with children. It's not easy to get them to eat what we know they should, or what the rest of us are eating. The challenge is all the more so when the child doesn't speak or understand much. Sometimes, a child's demands become so overwhelming that we just have to give in. Now, is one of those times in our family.

We are now working with a bit of an extra food challenge: unexplained and often unreasonable food cravings and aversions. That's right, folks. I'm pregnant. My appetite has increased, well, too much. We may need to adjust our budget to include the little bean growing inside, since it's taking a good 300 calories per day of my food. We'll see how the spending goes and if that really proves necessary. Menu planning has clearly been influenced by the bean, as well.

Here are few of my food cravings and aversions (some of which have subsided now):

Asian foods
red meat
warm milk

agave nectar
poultry (mostly turkey)

With my last pregnancy, I had only food aversions, the strongest of which was to baby lettuces. I'm glad that one has not affected me this time. So far, I haven't had any vegetable aversions with this pregnancy.

In many ways, it's easier to manage a child who is still in the womb (they have a built-in carrier that works pretty well), but even so, those little stinkers can be pretty demanding!

Accounting for Company

When I started this blog, the intention was to demonstrate that $7/day per person (the average that Americans spend on food) is plenty of money, even when buying organic/natural foods and eating a healthy, fresh foods diet (not the average American diet). I counted myself and my husband as two people, and my daughter as a half a person (not that I think any less of her), so that gave us a weekly budget of $122.50 for the family.

Now, the question arises, do we alter our budget in some way when we feed extra mouths? When we entertain, we can't be expected to stretch our daily allotment of $17.50 to feed eight or ten people dinner, can we? No, we really can't be expected to do that. But for the purposes of this blog, I consider it a challenge to myself to make up for spending beyond our budget over the long run. So, unreasonable as it is to be so strict with our spending, since part of our goal is to save money, it's important that we view these splurges as part of the whole, so they don't simply get written off, making us forget the realities of our financial situation.

We will not have to starve or compromise our health in any way to make up for our temporary excesses. But we will have to be smart, and patient.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Last Week's Shopping List

Oh boy! So, the first thing I need to do is apologize for the severe lateness of this post. Between New Year's entertaining and winding down the festivities with a nasty cold, time and energy have been lacking, to say the least.

Next, I have a confession to make: cooking for company makes me do things I shouldn't do. Namely, I splurge on guests, and I just can't help myself. I can cook "on the cheap" for my immediate family with no problem at all, but when other people enter my home, even if those people are my mother and my brother, all the rules go out the window. Then, the adding machine comes out and I realize that I need to get back to reality, back to coupon clipping to get our budget back on track. So, although our Hanukkah entertaining blew through a fairly substantial surplus and put us only marginally in the red, last week's entertaining dug a much deeper trench that we will need to climb out of over the several weeks (hopefully not months) ahead. I suppose we all splurge in one way or another during the holidays. I saved on presents by making my own, but I paid for the luxury of pricey ingredients.

As you'll see, sacrifices of all sorts were made ... not just monetary ones. I also chose to forgo the rules of seasonality. Occasional exceptions like these are not the end of the world, I think.

Last week's menu went like this:

Lunch: Use up various leftovers.

- Leftover brisket with sweet potato latkes and leftover brussel sprouts.
- Spaghetti with marinara & zucchini
- Salmon Noodle Casserole with Broccoli

New Year's Entertaining Lunch:
- Muchies: Brie w/crackers and grapes
- Grilled bison sausages, hot dogs and veggie dogs with peppers & onions
- Sweet Potato Latkes
- Green salad
- Lemon bars

Post New Year's Entertaining Lunch:
- Munchies: Edamame and Pistachios
- Roasted Red Pepper, Asparagus & Brie Quesadillas
- Guacamole with tortilla chips
- Healthy Truffles

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

sweet potatoes
red peppers
green pepper
grape tomatoes
granny smith apples ($1.79/lb)
veggie dogs ($1 coupon)
Mahi mahi fillet* (5.99/lb)
Barbara's cereal* (3.29 + $1 coupon)
yogurt (67 cents)
kosher salt*
whole wheat egg noodles*
Tropicana OJ* (2/$5)
seltzer* (3/$1)
powdered sugar ($0.75 coupon)
whole wheat tortillas
tortillas chips
dehydrated corn
dehydrated peas
safflower oil*
roasted red peppers
bison sausage* (hot & sweet Italian) - bison is a grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free meat, even when not organic
whole grain hot dog buns

I was able to buy everything on this list, except for the dehydrated peas, yet again. I bought a grapefruit that was priced right and a few extra boxes of cereal that were on sale. For whatever reason, stores don't always advertise all of their sales. Yet another good reason to know your pantry well, so you can stock up when the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately for my wallet, this week was not a great one for spending extra on pantry items. Oh well.

The grand total for the week was $195.90. Yikes! That puts us in the red by about $80. How will I ever repent for this? Well, it's going to take lots of praying and belt tightening. I expect things will get worse before they get better. A trip to Costco this week (in an upcoming post), plus the ground beef order, plus a soon approaching order with Frontier will surely make cost-cutting a challenge for the immediate future. Still, these are the times that I need to remind myself that buying in quantity now saves money later.