Friday, February 27, 2009

Healthy Snacking

The question of what to eat for snacks has come up on more than one occasion for me. Whether to snack or not is a matter of personal nutritional philosophy, so I won't try to tackle that issue. Clearly, I'm of the mindset that snacking is a good thing. That is, if the snacks you choose are healthy and relatively small.

A snack can really be anything, including things you might have as a meal, like pasta or salad. What makes a food qualify as a snack rather than a meal has only to do with quantity. The idea of a snack is mostly to get your body through to the next meal, so it should ideally be something that provides an energy boost. Of course, anything with calories would qualify there, although some calories convert to energy faster than others (fast conversion is actually not necessarily a good thing, as it also means a fast drop in energy afterward).

The unfortunate part of a typical American's snacks is that they consist mostly of junk foods. This is why snacking gets such a bad rap. Potato chips, m&ms, corn chips, cookies, and cheese doodles don't have nutritional purpose. They are basically emotional indulgences that do no service to our bodies (or our emotions, for that matter). Snacking this way will almost certainly cause you to gain weight, have higher cholesterol, have higher blood pressure, and be more likely to develop type II diabetes. Indulging very occasionally in these sorts of empty calories is probably forgivable, but making a regular habit of it will put you on a sure course to poor health.

Unfortunately, even the health conscious consumer can easily be duped into buying and eating things that have no business being ingested into a human body. The biggest scams in the snack food industry are the fat-free processed snacks, the sugar-free processed snacks, 100 calorie snack packs, and even many whole grain processed snacks. These give the consumer the illusion that they are eating something that is perfectly healthy for them, and unfortunately, that also creates the misconception that they can eat more of this junk. The reality is that instead of consuming fat or sugar, you are consuming chemicals and fillers that are likely worse for you than plain old fat and sugar. Artificial sweeteners don't make snack cakes healthy; they make them unhealthy in a different way. Products that say they contain whole grains may only contain a small amount of whole grains, and they may still be full of fat and/or sugar.

Reading labels is crucial, whether you're talking about snack foods or any other packaged food. The longer the list of ingredients, the more likely something unhealthy is hidden in that list. Unpronounceable ingredients are most often unhealthy chemical concoctions. Still, the practice of reading labels can be confusing and time-consuming, and labels do not tell the whole story. You will never be privy to the process of manufacturing as a consumer, and you will never know the origins of the various ingredients in the product. You will also be left in the dark about the exact proportions of ingredients in the product.

There is really no way to eat processed foods, junk or otherwise, and have control of your own health. But sometimes processed foods are hard to avoid. We're human, and most of us don't have the time to make everything from scratch. The key is to limit those processed foods that you do rely on to ones with short, simple lists of ingredients, with nothing objectionable or unpronounceable on those lists. Things like yogurt, granola, rice cakes, dried fruits and vegetables, can be perfectly reasonable processed snack foods (but read the labels!).

The best snack foods are not processed at all, and fortunately, they also require little or no preparation. Here is a list of those:
- fresh fruit (apples, grapes, oranges, pears, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries, berries, etc.)
- fresh vegetables (carrots, celery, bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, grape/cherry tomatoes, etc.)
- raw nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts)
- raw seeds (sunflower, pumpkin)

Here are a few ideas for homemade snacks that require some prep, but are still pretty simple:
- hard boiled eggs (thanks to my friend, Rose, who brought this to my attention today)
- baked sweet potato chips (Thinly slice a sweet potato. Spray a cookie sheet with safflower oil and spread the chips on the sheet. Spray the chips with a bit more oil. Bake at 250F for 1 hour, or until crisp.)
- homemade granola (I loved this recipe that I found recently. Add nuts, seeds and dried fruit, as desired)
- toasted nori (on a dry baking sheet, bake nori sheets at 350F for 10 minutes, or until bright green)
- trail mix (any combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit)
- smoothies (so many varieties ... I'll be sure to talk about this in a separate post)

Here are a few processed foods that we buy that meet our health standards:
- Just Tomatoes products (organic peas and corn mostly)
- unsulfured, low- or no-added-sugar dried fruit (raisins, figs, apricots, papaya, mango, pineapple)
- Annie's Bunnies crackers
- Lundberg's Brown Rice Cakes
- Stonyfield Farms or Seven Stars yogurt (plain, lowfat is best)

Snacks can be an important part of healthy living, if they are not abused. For adults, they are a great way to bring in small tastes of foods that don't usually make their way onto your dinner plate, which can help to balance out your nutrient intake. For kids, they can be a great way to get them to eat healthy foods, as so many kids tend to be more open to grazing on healthy foods than sitting down to a meal of them. Giving kids cookies and other such junk as snacks is, at best, a missed opportunity for healthy eating. At worst, it's a great way to contribute to the national childhood obesity crisis.

So, snack away! But keep to the good stuff!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coconut Shrimp Quinoa "Risotto"

Shellfish is almost never in my house. My husband doesn't like it, and since we're Jewish, there's a little weirdness about cooking something so blatantly non-kosher at home. Nonetheless, I love shellfish, and I've been craving it constantly during this pregnancy. My daughter seems perfectly happy eating it, too.

I happened to buy a 2 lb. bag of frozen shrimp at Costco last week, most of which will be used to make a dish to bring to a friend's house after her baby is born. But the remainder of the shrimp needed a home, and we found it this week in lunch.

I was inspired by a Ming Tsai recipe that I happened to catch on TV, Creamy Risotto with Shrimp and Bok Choy. I stole the shrimp and the bok choy, but I changed most of the rest of the recipe.

Since my version of this risotto uses quinoa (making it not really a risotto at all, save the cooking method), it needs something to create the creaminess of risotto that usually would come from the starchiness of the rice, and of course, the cheese and butter. Wanting to make this lighter, both in consistency and fat, I went with light coconut milk and a little coconut butter. The end result has a strong resemblance to risotto - the quinoa maintains bite because it is a whole grain, and the "sauce" is creamy and flavorful. Still, the flavors are not at all traditional for risotto.

Coconut Shrimp Quinoa "Risotto"
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 cup quinoa (red, white, or a mix)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 15 oz. can light coconut milk
1 quart homemade or low-sodium veggie stock, brought to a simmer
2 large heads baby bok choy, thinly sliced
1 sheet of toasted nori, cut into thin strips, and then cut in thirds
1/2 lb. frozen shrimp, thawed, peeled and deveined
1 Tbsp. lime zest
2 Tbsps. fresh lime juice
2 Tbsps. coconut butter
salt, to taste

In a large stainless steel skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, cooking for about 2 minutes. Add the quinoa and toast for about 2 minutes. Add the wine, and allow the wine to absorb into the quinoa, stirring frequently. Once mostly absorbed, add the coconut milk, and allow that to absorb, stirring frequently. Once that is almost completely absorbed, add one ladle of stock at a time, allowing each ladle to absorb before adding another, continuing to stir. Once the curly "tails" of the quinoa grains are showing, the quinoa is fully cooked.

Add the bok choy and nori, and cook until each is wilted, adding small amounts of stock when necessary to loosen the risotto. Add the shrimp, cooking through, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat off. Add the lime zest, lime juice, coconut butter and salt. Whip the risotto briskly with a wooden spoon until it is very creamy. Serve hot, as either a main dish or side dish.

Serves 4-8.

This Week's Shopping List

Sometimes, menus just come to me. I look in the fridge and see what's left, and there are obvious solutions that will carry me through most of the coming week, if not all of it. This week was not at all like that. I stared at the wall for what seemed like an eternity, having no clue what to make. It's times like these that I usually come up with my most creative ideas, and I think that's what happened this week (you be the judge).

Lunch: Coconut Shrimp Quinoa "Risotto"

- Homemade veggie burgers with alfalfa sprouts, tomatoes and avocado with sweet potato and yukon gold latke crisps
- Whole wheat penne with mahi mahi, grape tomatoes, brussels sprouts and feta
- Watercress salad with mango and shredded chicken served with pan fried potstickers

The menu above is the final menu for the week, but it started out a little differently. I had planned to use lettuce for the burgers, and mixed in with the watercress salad, but I found some very inexpensive alfalfa sprouts, grown locally, so I nixed the lettuce idea while shopping. In the penne, I had planned to use blanched green beans, but since none were available, I went with the more seasonal option which I hadn't though of before, brussels sprouts. Finally, I had intended to use canned pineapple chunks in the watercress salad, but when I saw the price tag, I thought twice about that, and decided to use some frozen mango that was already sitting in the freezer at home. Pineapple would have worked better, but the mango was still very good.

It's so important to go shopping with an open, creative mind. Looking just for what you need, and ignoring the rest of what's available, will undoubtedly leave you spending more money, and eating a narrower variety of foods. Look around. Check out the prices of different options, the look or feel of the produce, where the stuff came from (distance does a number on food quality, and the environment). Then, make your decisions and adapt your recipes. There is some skill involved in doing this easily, but it's something anyone can master with practice.

This is the shopping list for this week (* indicates non-organic):
bok choy
cremini mushrooms
lettuce (changed to alfalfa)
yukon gold potatoes
sweet potatoes
grape tomatoes
green beans (changed to brussels sprouts)
granny smith apples (1.69/lb. sale)
braeburn apples (1.29/lb. sale)
green lentils
kalamata olives
pineapple chunks (changed to mango ... already at home)
cashew butter
boneless chicken breasts (6.99/lb. sale)
orange juice*
burger buns

Most of the changes I made to the list were due to price or unavailability. In addition to those items already mentioned, I was also unable to get the braeburn apples which were on sale. That turned out to be a blessing. My local health food store happened to have gala apples on sale for $0.99/lb. ... even better! We also spotted cereal on sale at the more distant health food store, so I bought a couple boxes of that.

Price-wise, this was a bit of a hefty week. I admit that I splurged a bit with some fancy veggies, like watercress, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts, and we did buy two varieties of cheese this week, and two packages of chicken (which will be used in future weeks), and a $15 jar of cashew butter. That last one is a killer, and something I've put off for quite some time, but since my husband doesn't eat shellfish, which was on the lunch menu this week, I needed to get him something he could make for himself without much trouble (enter cashew butter sandwiches).

The total for the week came to $119.15, which is only $3.35 less than our weekly budget. That means, our deficit is still lingering around $55. Next week, it will most certainly go up, even substantially, as our order from Neshaminy Valley will be in. Being that we will not be putting another order in for a good 3 months or so, the order is quite large. To help the budget along, we might need to do something drastic for next week's menu.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Meat Saag

Prior to this week, I had only made Saag Paneer, which involves making your own cheese, a laborious and time-consuming task. It's also among the fattiest of Indian dishes, since the cheese is full fat and is fried in oil, and the spinach sauce (saag) is loaded with cream. This is one of those times when going with meat can actually lighten the fat load. Bizarre!

Now, I did not have very much meat available in the freezer that would work in a saag, and I was hesitant to buy more meat, since none was on sale and we're trying to fit into our budget. So, my choices were a very meager amount of chicken (8 oz. to last 2 nights for 3 people), or ground beef. Beef would have never been an Indian's choice, for obvious reasons, but since we do eat beef, I thought this would work out OK. Now, this was ground beef, and not cubed, making it a double-exception to the meat rule. Saag traditionally employs cubed meat (or cheese). I could have made meatballs from the beef to achieve a better resemblance to the original, but as I was sick (and tired), I really couldn't be bothered.

If I had a little more budget room to play with (and this is a matter of timing in the cycle of our budget more than anything else), we might have gone with another meat. Some of the best choices would be: bison, lamb or chicken, but I think pork would also work. Make sure to get tender cuts of any meat (so even if using beef, choose cubed sirloin, not stew beef), because this is not a slow-cooking recipe.

Half of the fat issue is addressed by the meat. Leaner cuts of meat also tend to be more tender. Also, because the meat can be cooked using little fat other than its own, frying oil can be kept to a minimum, or left off entirely. The remaining fat issue is the cream in the saag. I solve that by using low-fat yogurt instead. Nonfat wouldn't give you the creamy consistency you're looking for, but low-fat has enough fat in it to make the sauce a bit creamy (though certainly not as unctuous as cream). It's not authentic, but it does taste quite good. Clearly, I'm not shy about compromising authenticity for the sake of health.

This recipe is fairly loosely based on this one. My version is below:

Meat Saag
2 bunches fresh spinach, washed well and trimmed of stems
1/2 c. water
1 Tbsp. safflower oil
1 lb. cubed meat of your choice
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. ginger, minced or grated
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
4 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced
3/4 cup lowfat plain yogurt
salt, to taste

In a large saucepan, cook the spinach and water over medium high heat, covered, for about 5 minutes, or until spinach wilts. Put the cooked spinach and water into a blender and puree until relatively smooth.

In the same large saucepan (dried), add the oil. Brown the meat over medium high heat for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and onion. Cook until the meat is well coated with the spice mixture, and the onions are translucent. Add the tomatoes, cooking until they soften and start to fall apart. Add the pureed spinach, cooking about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens a bit. Add the yogurt and season with salt. Serve over brown basmati rice.

Serves 6-8.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chicken Soup

Yes, this is the kind of soup your grandma used to make. I say, if it ain't broke ...

With the whole family sick during various parts of the week, what better way to heal ourselves than with a good, brothy chicken soup? Apparently, the ability of chicken soup to help make us well is not just an old wives' tale. There is some truth to it (see here). At the very least, the warmth of the broth will make you feel temporarily better, and the liquid in the broth will help to hydrate you. It certainly can't hurt.

For vegetable matter in this soup, I use a traditional mirepoix (fancy French word for onions, carrots and celery). You can feel free to add or replace additional veggies. Some of the best are root veggies, such as turnip, celery root, and parsnip. If the soup will be frozen, I'd stick to heartier vegetables like these, but if you'll be eating it quickly, you could include leafy greens, like spinach, kale, or swiss chard. For a twist on the traditional, you could add some stewed tomatoes, grated horseradish, cabbage, or any other number of things that pop in your head. I find it a very versatile soup.

The addition of vinegar in this recipe helps to draw the nutrients from the chicken bones into the broth. It's a great way to boost you calcium intake from a natural, and very bio-available source (but make sure you also have enough vitamin D coming in, so you can actually make use of that calcium). The vinegar also adds a little acidity to the taste of the soup, which means you'll need less salt to achieve the same depth of flavor.

Chicken Soup
1 3-4 lb. whole chicken, innards removed
3-4 carrots, peeled and sliced (halved lengthwise if carrots are very thick)
3 stalks celery, trimmed of ends and sliced
1 large onion, peeled and quartered (ends left in tact to avoid separation)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
2 Tbsps. white wine vinegar
3 bay leaves

Add all ingredients to a stock pot. Add cold water to the pot until the whole chicken is submerged. Heat over high heat until boiling. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered for 2 1/2 hours. During simmering, skim the "scum" off the top of the broth every so often. This will prevent your broth from becoming cloudy.

Cool the soup somewhat. Remove the chicken, onions, garlic and bay leaves from the pot. Discard the onions, garlic and bay leaves. Pick apart the meat from the bones of the chicken. Discard the bones. Add back however much chicken meat you'd like in the soup, and store the rest for another use.

Adjust seasonings in the soup. Refrigerate overnight or until the fat in the soup has risen to the surface and congealed. Remove the fat from the top. Heat and serve.

Note: If you'd like, you can add some cooked brown rice, wild rice, couscous, egg noodles, barley, or any other grain you like. I'd keep these separate from the soup to avoid them over-absorbing your broth, making them soggy and the soup too thick. Just add them when serving.

Serves 8-10

Friday, February 20, 2009

This Week's Shopping List

It's winter (nearing the end, finally!), so I guess it only makes sense that at some point, illness would strike. And so, it has. Starting with my daughter near the end of last week, then adding my husband last weekend, and finally me today. The beast has stricken us all. It's only a cold, but it's still making us all a little miserable. So, given the state of things, I started out the week's menu with a plan for lunch: chicken soup. That and a couple of sicky soup days (Ramen Noodles) have made life a little more tolerable.

The rest of the week was almost an after-thought. The chicken soup was clearly the key to making it a happy eating week. The rest is gravy. Nonetheless, here is the week's menu:

Lunch: Chicken Soup with english muffins

- Grilled Salmon with Spicy Soy Glaze over coconut brown rice and steamed bok choy (leftover from last week)
- Spaghetti with marinara sauce and zucchini
- Beef Saag over brown rice

I know, I know, beef saag sounds strange. After all, beef is not exactly served in India. Nevertheless, it's what I have in my freezer, and lamb is a bit pricey. Since when do I worry about authenticity? As long as it takes good ...

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

Bosc pears (1.69/lb sale)
crushed tomatoes
brown rice
frozen mixed veggies (1.89 sale)
ramen noodles ($0.95 sale)
english muffins ($0.35 coupon)
Annie's cheddar bunnies

The only item I was unable to get this week was the parsley. That was for the chicken soup. I used dried parsley instead, and that worked out fine.

The grocery total for the week came to $75.19. That would have brought us back to the plus side of things, but unfortunately we also had two other shopping bills this week: Costco and Frontier. The Costco trip came to $50.96 and included these items: cereal, wild salmon, shrimp, and bread. Although I don't generally make shellfish (in fact, I just about never make it since my husband doesn't eat it), I bought the shrimp in anticipation of cooking it for a friend and her family after she gives birth to her second child. She's due in March, so I thought I'd better be prepared. The Frontier order, consisting only of tea and coffee, came to $31.10.

So, the grand total for the week is $157.25, which is $34.75 over the weekly budget. Unfortunately, that means we sink further into the negative column. The deficit is now $58. We should be able to make a good dent in that next week. After that, we'll have yet another challenge: a big order (to last several months) is going in to our wholesale food co-op, Neshaminy Valley. Following that, we should have a few regular shopping weeks to look forward to, which should help to bring us back up to budget.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Baked Tofu Fried Rice with Peas, Carrots & Broccoli

Immediately, you see "fried" in the title and assume that this means fatty. Well, I'll be honest, there is fat in the dish, as there is (or should be) in almost all dishes. The trick to making this a healthy dish is to avoid most or all animal fats. The oil, which is used as a cooking medium, makes up nearly all the fat in the dish. Since the fat in the oil is unsaturated, and since the oil is kept to a minimum, the dish is actually quite healthy, despite the frying!

Fried rice, in its take-out form, is one of those very-bad-for-you dishes that I just love. It's probably not Chinese in origin, as is the case for so much so-called Chinese food in America, but I don't have any history on it. So, I'll just call it an American comfort food. It's greasy, salty, starchy ... just what we Americans love to wallow in. Taking this food which seems to have very little to offer, nutritionally speaking, and making it a healthy, nourishing dish, which still strongly resembles the original, is quite the challenge. I think I've done just that (pat, pat on the back to me ... hee hee!).

The first issue to address is the fat itself. In most fried rice, lots of oil is used, and I can understand why. It's easier to fry in lots of oil ... less burning and sticking. To keep the oil to a minimum, a careful eye must be kept on the heat, and the food should be almost constantly shifted in the pan. In many versions of fried rice, meat of some sort is a main element. Here, that is not the case, so that fat is completely nixed. The other source of fat in fried rice is egg. In my recipe, I've kept one egg in the dish (which is optional), mostly for authenticity, but this is considerably less than the amount used in standard fried rice.

The salt factor is mostly brought on by soy sauce. To keep authenticity, I used tamari (a type of soy sauce), but I used the low-sodium version, and very little of it, so the sodium is considerably reduced.

The starch in fried rice is fairly obvious ... rice! But it's ordinarily white rice, which will give you that insulin spike that so many carbo-phobes protest. Switching to brown rice is very easy in fried rice, since your eyes will already expect the color to be brown. The extra bite given in brown rice also adds some nice textural contrast. The brown rice adds fiber to the dish, making you fuller with less, so maybe you won't eat quite as much of it. You also won't get Chinese Food Syndrome (ie. you won't be hungry an hour later), since the brown rice will keep you going longer.

The final issue in making fried rice healthy is to throw in a few extra veggies and some vegetarian proteins. Those can be anything. To keep with tradition, I used peas and carrots, but these are not requirements. Add as many and as varied veggies and proteins as you can find. I also added broccoli and baked tofu to the dish, and they got along just fine with the rest of it.

This recipe is also a great garbage pail, as many of my recipes are. Since it's so versatile, you can use almost any leftover you have in the fridge. I'll often throw this together for lunch when I have some extra rice in the fridge from last night's dinner. This week, I served it for dinner itself. It is also a great side dish, and can even be served cold. Please, make the dish your own. Here is the way I made it this week:

Baked Tofu Fried Rice with Peas, Carrots & Broccoli
1 c. brown rice
1 3/4 - 2 c. water
salt, to taste (optional)
2 Tbsps. safflower oil, divided
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
2-3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 c. broccoli, cut into small, bite-size pieces
1/2 c. frozen peas
1 egg (optional)
8 oz. baked tofu, diced (I'd love to one day make this on my own ... but that is a subject for another day)
3 Tbsps. low-sodium tamari
2 Tbsps. mirin (Asian rice wine - available in many supermarkets)

In a small saucepan, bring the rice, water and salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until all water is absorbed. Less water will make the rice more al dente and more water will make is softer.

In a wok, heat 1 Tbsp. safflower oil over medium high heat. Add garlic, onion, carrots and broccoli. Stir fry until the onion starts to soften. If the vegetables begin to stick, add a tablespoon or two of water to loosen things. Add the frozen peas and fry for one more minute.

Move the veggies to the outer edges of the wok, leaving an empty space in the center. Add 1 Tbsp. safflower oil in the center. Add the egg, piercing the yolk, but allowing the egg to simply set for a minute or two. Begin to break up the egg slowly, allowing the uncooked part to reach the pan's surface. Once mostly cooked through, break up the whole egg into bits, and stir it together with the veggies.

Add the tofu and stir fry for 2 minutes. Add the cooked rice, tamari and mirin, mixing them in well. Remove from heat, and serve.

Serves 4-5.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Grilled Salmon with Spicy Soy Glaze, Steamed Bok Choy, and Coconut Brown Rice

This dish is one that has become part of my regular rotation. Granted, my rotation is pretty big, so that means we have it a few times a year, not a couple times a month. It's one of my go-to salmon dishes. It's very simple and requires very little chopping and prep, for those who like to avoid that sort of thing.

This week, I served this salmon dish with coconut brown rice and steamed bok choy (below). The bok choy is something that I thought would present well with the dish, especially given the subtle Asian flavors. The coconut brown rice was honestly a way for me to use up a small amount of coconut milk and veggie stock leftover from other recipes. It is not a traditional Thai coconut rice, and it is certainly not a sticky rice. That's still on my list of things to figure out. It is basically a slightly sweeter, creamier brown rice than the simple boiled variety. The flavor is very subtle.

The Spicy Soy Glaze is an recipe, but I make a few modifications. The recipe below is my version.

Spicy Soy Glaze
safflower oil spray
1 shallot, minced
2 Tbsps. low-sodium tamari
2 Tbsps. water
1 tsp. honey
1/2 Tbsp. peach preserves
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
dash of allspice
dash of hot pepper flakes
zest of one lime, grated
juice of half a lime

In a small saucepan, spray safflower oil to coat the bottom and heat pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the tamari, water, honey, preserves, ginger, allspice, and hot pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, until slightly reduced. Remove from heat and add the lime zest and juice.

Grilled salmon
4 4-6 oz. fillet portions of wild salmon
safflower oil spray

In a large cast iron skillet or grill pan (or outdoor grill, if you're so inclined), spray with safflower oil and heat the pan over high heat. Once hot, reduce the heat to medium high. Add the salmon portions, skin side down. Baste the top (flesh side) with the Spicy Soy Glaze. Cook undisturbed for 4-5 minutes (depending on thickness of the fillets). Turn the salmon portions over and remove the skins (should come off easily at this point). Baste the skin side (minus the skin) with the glaze, and cook for another 4-5 minutes. Turn the salmon one more time just to sear the glaze to the other side of the fish, cooking no more than one minute on the skin side. Remove from pan.

Steamed Bok Choy
1 bunch bok choy
salt and pepper, to taste
juice of half a lime

Trim the bottoms off the bok choy (save these for stock). Separate the leaves of the bok choy, leaving each leaf whole. In a medium covered skillet, add enough water to the pan to just coat the bottom. Add the bok choy leaves, season sparingly with salt and pepper and squeeze half a lime over the top. Cover and steam over medium low heat for about 5-7 minutes, or until the green parts have wilted and the white parts are still somewhat firm.

Coconut Brown Rice

1 c. brown rice
1/3 c. light coconut milk
2/3 c. homemade or low-sodium veggie stock
1 c. water
salt, to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed.

Serves 4-5.

Tomato Salsa

This recipe goes with my Bison Fajitas, but it can be used as a dip or for any Mexican or Southwestern dish as a condiment.

Tomato Salsa
3 plum tomatoes, finely diced
1 Tbsp. red onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 jalapeno, finely minced (optional)
1 Tbsp. lime juice
salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients.

Bison Fajitas

I love making quick and easy Mexican food, and this is about as quick and easy as it gets. It's also full of very healthy things: whole grains, avocado, tomatoes, bell peppers, and even the bison, which is about the leanest red meat you can find.

Bison Fajitas
1/2 cup beer (avoid anything too fruity or heavy)
3 Tbsps. cilantro, chopped, divided
2 Tbsps. red onion, minced, divided
3 cloves garlic, minced, divided
12 oz. bison steaks or medallions (available in many supermarkets)
tomato salsa
safflower oil spray
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into large chunks
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into large chunks
1/2 red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
12 small whole grain tortillas

In a small bowl, combine the beer, 3 Tbsps. chopped cilantro, 2 Tbsps. minced red onion, and 3 cloves of minced garlic. Whisk to combine. Marinate the bison in the mixture for at least 1 hour, and up to 8 hours (any more and it will taste more like beer than meat, unless you like that sort of thing).

Spray or brush a cast iron skillet with safflower oil. Heat the pan over medium high heat. Grill the marinated bison steaks for 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on thickness and desired doneness. Allow to rest on a plate.

Using the same skillet, spray a bit more oil. Add the chunks of green and red peppers and red onion to the pan. Cook over medium high heat for about 5-7 minutes, tossing frequently. Remove from heat.

You can warm the tortillas in the oven on a cookie sheet at 250F, but that's optional. Slice the bison against the grain into thin slices. Assemble the fajitas with a bit of meat, peppers & onions, guacamole and salsa.

Serves 4-5.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baked Mac N Cheese with Cauliflower, Cilantro & Tomato Sauce

Mac n cheese might just be the ultimate American comfort food, and cold winter days make for the perfect setting in which to eat it. It's relatively easy to make from scratch, but most Americans don't bother. Somehow, we've been made to feel that it's simply too complicated for ordinary humans to tackle, so we go for the blue box time and time again. Ick! I hate the blue box, and I'd never serve it in my house.

I've made a number of different varieties of mac n cheese, one other of which appears in this blog. I make them a little differently every time, mostly based on what I have around the house. Mac n cheese makes a pretty good garbage pail (that is, you can throw just about anything into it). Since I try to make even the most unhealthy of foods healthy, I stick to whole grain pastas, I try to use low-fat or non-fat dairy products, and I always add veggies to the mix. This is not exactly diet food, but it is full of nourishing, non-empty calories, and it's a far cry from the fat-packed version you might find in your neighborhood diner.

This recipe developed out of my desire to make something other than soup, which is nearly all we've had for lunch all winter long. It happened that I had some leftover tomato sauce and cilantro in the fridge, and I thought they would give the mac and cheese a nice little twist. It worked out quite well. The tomato sauce gives it a little acidity and edge, making the flavor somewhat unexpected for mac n cheese. The cilantro adds that fresh flavor that processed mac n cheese always lacks. The cauliflower was just because I love cauliflower and look for opportunities to use it (my husband doesn't care for it, so lunch is a better time to try to get away with it). Baking it gave it a little crunch and gives the cheese a little extra something that you can only get from oven exposure.

Baked Mac N Cheese with Cauliflower, Cilantro, & Tomato Sauce
1 box kamut/quinoa twists (or other small, whole grain pasta)
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 Tbsps. butter
1 1/2 Tbsps. whole wheat flour
1/2-3/4 c. skim milk
8 oz. shredded lowfat cheese (cheddar, jack, other semi-hard cheese)
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 c. tomato sauce
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
1/2 c. whole wheat breadcrumbs
2 Tbsps. grated parmesan

Cook the pasta according to package directions. When the pasta is almost done, add the cauliflower to blanch it. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Melt the butter and whisk in the flour, cooking over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup skim milk and whisk in, continuing to cook for 3-5 minutes, or until thickened. If the sauce thickens too much, add additional milk to thin to desired consistency. Add the shredded cheese and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Add tomato sauce and stir until incorporated. Remove from heat, and stir in the pasta, cauliflower and cilantro.

Pour the pasta mixture into a rectangular glass baking dish. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve

Serves 6-8.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Week's Shopping List

I'm very happy with my menu for the week. I look at it and drool ... can't wait to start cooking (in about 15 minutes)! Maybe it's the Bison that's making me ga-ga. After all, it's red meat, and I can't seem to kick that craving.

So, here it is, the week's mouth-watering menu:

Lunch: Baked mac n cheese with cauliflower, cilantro and tomato sauce

- Grilled salmon with Spicy Soy Glaze over coconut brown rice and steamed bok choy
- Bison fajitas with grilled peppers and onions, guacamole and tomato salsa
- Baked tofu fried rice with peas, carrots, and broccoli

The shopping list for all this scrumptious stuff goes like this (* indicates non-organic):
bok choy
red onion
broccoli* (1.29 sale)
red pepper
green pepper
whole wheat crackers
kamut/quinoa twist pasta
rolled oats
cereal* (2/$6 sale)
whole wheat pasta (4/$5 sale)
plain yogurt
safflower oil*
bison steaks* (2.99/12 oz. sale)
orange juice* (1.49 sale)
seltzer* (3/$1 sale)
baked tofu

Once again, I bought everything on the list. I must be on a lucky streak! My husband keeps telling me I ought to play the lottery ... maybe I should!

I bought a couple of extra items that were on sale at the health food store: brown sugar and whole grain udon noodles. As it happens, they also had quite an assortment of cauliflower - white, purple and orange. I'd never seen orange cauliflower before, so I went ahead and bought that. It was a little smaller than the white, and a little cheaper. I'll post about how that works out for the mac n cheese I'm making this week.

The grand total for the week came to $96.88, which is $25.62 below the weekly budget. That brings the deficit down to $23. Woo hoo! I wish I could say that we'd be back in black by next week, but that may not be the case. Next week, we have a co-op order, and although I'm not anticipating any big spending, we may be at or around our weekly budget next week. The week after, we should finally get our heads above water. Holiday madness will finally be behind us! I can almost taste it!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cooking with Kids

I'm an enormous control freak! Needless to say, it's very hard for me to give up power to anyone in my kitchen, particularly a 2-year-old mess beast. But I know how important it is to let kids in on the cooking fun, and I know how much my daughter really wants to help. So, I changed me and let the mess and the many mistakes happen.

About a year ago, when my daughter was nearly 2-years-old, she became very interested in cooking. After all, I cook all the time, and children want to emulate their parents. We bought her some kiddie kitchen stuff: a little kitchenette, some pots, pans, and utensils, and some wooden play food. This held her for a while, but she wanted the real thing. I finally gave in.

My daughter's first cooking talent was peeling garlic. I gave it to her thinking that she would struggle with it for a while and then just leave it and find something else to do. Nope! She worked that clove! In about 10 minutes, she had a bruised but perfectly edible, peeled clove of garlic, and I chopped it up and used it!

Next, she became my leafy green processor. I sat her down on the floor with a bunch of leafy greens, told her that she needed to put the leafy part in the salad spinner (we wash leafy greens in there, too), and to put the stems on the side. She did a fabulous job! Then she saw what fun it was to actually spin the leaves dry, so that became her job, too. Along with learning some skills and being a genuine help to me, she also became very interested in leafy greens. As she was doing her work, she would sneak little bits and pieces into her mouth.

My daughter is very interested in cutting things, but she knows she can't quite handle a knife yet. We've taken to calling my small frosting spatula her "special knife", and she has her own cutting board. Often, while I'm cooking dinner, she'll sit on the kitchen floor working on a piece of bell pepper or a carrot or some ginger with her special knife. So far, she's managed not to obliterate anything so much that it was unusable in any way (admittedly, sometimes it goes into soup).

We started doing more baking together about 4 or 5 months ago when she was nearly 2 1/2. I measure, and she dumps things in the bowl. She stirs, but I usually need to give everything a few more strokes after she's done. She's also done a fair amount of decorating of cookies. We use products that don't contain artificial flavors and colors, like Sprinkelz, and we make our own piping icing out of chocolate or white chocolate (fair trade & organic, of course) and a little shortening (Spectrum makes a good non-hydrogenated one). Today, we made some granola together, which she loved, since the mixing could be done with her hands! What fun!

When we make food together, or even if she's just playing in the kitchen while I'm cooking, my daughter is well aware of what goes into her food. No sneaky chef here. Even when I use the food processor, it's never to mask vegetables ... it's always for the sake of texture. My daughter often asks for tastes of various ingredients while I'm cooking, some of which are a little weird to eat on their own (one of her favorites lately is noshing on cilantro ... well, it's not bad for her!).

I've noticed my daughter's food vocabulary blossom incredibly. Even her knowledge of technique is impressive, I think. When I boil water for pasta, she always reminds me to salt the water. When we do cut-out cookies, she tells me that we need to press hard, and gets very excited when she almost goes all the way through the dough, saying "I made an impression, Mom!" She tells me whether ingredients are sharp, spicy, crunchy, etc. She's got a great sense of kitchen safety. "Don't go near the oven, Ma. It's on right now." "Be careful with the knife, Ma. Don't cut yourself!" She's my little safety watchdog!

I've discovered, partly through observing my daughter and partly through conventional wisdom, that cooking with kids is so much more than teaching them how to cook. Sure, that's a valuable skill on its own, and one that will help kids grow up with self-reliance and the tools to keep themselves healthy. But learning about food also helps kids expand their palates, learn about greater issues of health, learn about foods in their natural state and where they come from, and learn how to relate to food. Celebrating food and its preparation with children lets them understand the miracle of it so that they don't take it for granted, and so that they feel the honor in every bite. That lesson alone will help them make the right choices for their bodies and for the planet that grows their food.

Poached Mahi Mahi with Kumquats, Lemon & Rosemary

This is a recipe that I came up with out of an overwhelming need to cook with kumquats. I have no idea what came over me, but sometimes such urges must be satisfied.

The recipe sounds fancy and complicated, but it's not at all. It's just about the quickest meal I've ever prepared, which is a nice bonus, and it's very easy and simple. Pair this with some wilted greens and some whole wheat couscous, wild rice, quinoa or millet, and you've got yourself a beautiful, tasty, light and healthy 20 minute meal.

Poached Mahi Mahi with Kumquats, Lemon & Rosemary
1 quart homemade or low-sodium veggie stock
1 cup dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small onion, cut into large chunks
1 lemon, sliced
6-8 oz. whole kumquats
salt to taste (somewhat generous)
pepper to taste
1 tsp. dried rosemary, crushed in a mortar & pestle
1 1/4 lbs. mahi mahi fillets, skinned and cut into 3-4 oz. portions
1 Tbsp. butter

In a large skillet, combine the veggie stock, wine, garlic, onion, lemon, kumquats, salt, pepper and rosemary. Over medium high heat, bring to a bubble. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add fish portions and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, turning the fish once in the middle. Two minutes before the fish is done, remove 1/2 c. of the cooking liquid to a small saucepan. Boil for 2-3 minutes to reduce slightly. Turn off the heat and add the butter, whisking until melted and well incorporated.

Serve the fish atop the couscous or grain. Drizzle both the fish and couscous with butter sauce. Garnish with kumquats. Add wilted greens on the side.

This recipe serves 4-5 people.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Butternut Squash & Noodles

This is a recipe I've made for many years, and I loved it when I was able to make it as spicy as I like it. Now, with children, I'm at a little bit of a loss. My daughter has more tolerance for heat than many children, but she's not happy about full-on, in-your-face fire. It still tastes good, but it's not as flavorful as it used to be. I'm hoping that in a few years, we'll be able to bring back the heat.

One of the best things about this recipe is that it's already healthy and needs very little tweaking. I make the recipe mostly as is. The only changes I make are these:

- replace the olive oil with safflower - olive oil's flavor does not go with the rest of the ingredients
- use homemade veggie stock
- omit the jalapeno (didn't do this pre-babes)
- use 1/2 tsp. red curry paste (didn't do this either pre-babes)
- use whole grain udon noodles
- add 1/2 c. chopped, toasted cashew nuts at the end
- use stainless steel pan, instead of nonstick

Chicken Korma

I love eating Indian food, and I love to cook it. It fills the house with such warm, inviting smells. Contrary to what many people think, Indian food is not necessarily hot, but it is most often spicy. To clarify, spicy foods have flavor derived from spices, which could include sweet things, like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, etc. Whereas, hot foods actually create a burning sensation in the mouth and can be the cause of digestive difficulties for some people. Most hot foods are flavored with chilies, and there are many varieties of these. Many Indian foods are actually quite cooling (the opposite of hot) because they use yogurt, cream, and mint as key ingredients in many dishes. It's simply a matter of knowing one dish from another. If ordering in a restaurant, always ask if the dish is hot ... and if you're sensitive to it, avoid the Vindaloo at all costs!

Indian food is typically full of vegetables, while meats are downplayed. This sounds like a good combination for healthy food, and it would be, except for one issue. At the base of most Indian cooking is Ghee, clarified butter, and lots of it may be used. Other fatty dairy products commonly used in Indian cooking include full fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and cream. These can add quite a bit to the fat content and calorie total of your meal. To keep these factors in check, you have a few options that may work, depending on the recipe:

- reduce the amount of fatty dairy called for
- use oil instead of ghee to avoid saturated fats
- substitute reduced fat or nonfat products for full fat (if you're making paneer, Indian cheese, it will not work with reduced fat milk)
- substitute lower fat products for higher ones, such as substituting yogurt for cream

The recipe that I use for Chicken Korma is very much a guide for me. I use it to help me get a good balance of spices, but I make the rest of the recipe my own. Oddly, this recipe uses oil and does not call for ghee. Perhaps that speaks to its lack of authenticity. Whatever the case, it tastes authentic to me. This is how I make it:

Chicken Korma
2 Tbsps. safflower oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. ginger, julienned
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
2-4 carrots, peeled, diced and steamed
4 yukon gold or white potatoes, peeled, diced and steamed
salt to taste
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 boneless breasts of chicken (grilled, fully cooked), cut into strips or chunks
1 c. water
1 1/2 tsps. garam masala
1/4 c. heavy cream OR 1/2 c. nonfat yogurt
1 Tbsp. cilantro, minced

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onions, garlic and ginger, cooking until the onions begin to get color. Add the salt, turmeric and ground cumin, cooking until well incorporated and fragrant. Add the tomatoes, steamed carrots and steamed potatoes. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until the tomatoes start to fall apart.

Add the chicken and stir to incorporate. Add the water, garam masala and cream or yogurt, and cook for 5 minutes on medium low heat. Remove from heat. Serve over brown basmati rice. Garnish each dish with cilantro.

Note: To make this dish vegetarian, simply substitute tofu, tempeh or seitan for the chicken, and cook exactly the same way.
I added the tomatoes, carrots and potatoes to the dish, but many other vegetables would do just as well: cauliflower, turnips, winter squash, summer squash are a few others.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dining Out - Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant

Yesterday was my husband's and my 5th wedding anniversary, and as has been our annual tradition, we went out to a nice (read: pricey) area restaurant to celebrate. The little one stays home with her Grandma and Grandpa, who keep her well occupied while Mommy and Daddy have some much needed adult time.

This year, we tried Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ. It was very well reviewed in the NY Times, so we thought we'd give it a go.

No, no, no. Please don't go! Ms. Cook, the NY Times reviewer, had no business giving this restaurant a positive review. I was mostly underwhelmed by the food, but some of it was so awful that I could not eat it. Now, the review we read was over a year old, so maybe things have changed a bit. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt there. Still, could the food have gone from fabulous to forgettable in that short a time?

I'll take the restaurant element by element, as Ms. Cook did. Upon entering, my initial impression was that the restaurant is going for snooty chic. That's not really my thing. I don't want to feel like eating in a particular place means that I'm an elitist. The ambiance was neither romantic nor business-appropriate. The decor, which is spare, steely-looking and cold, along with the focus on the bar, suggest that they are looking to attract young, Wall Street types (apologies to my brother who happens to fall in this category, technically speaking) with nothing but BS to spew. Now, since the restaurant is nowhere near Wall Street, that crowd was entirely absent. Instead, there was an eclectic mix of ages, occupations, social stations, etc, much like you might see at a Friday's. This did not appear to be a clientele best described as discerning. OK, so now I'm really sounding like an elitist!

Maybe the lack of distinguished palates led Mr. Drake, the chef, to be unconcerned with the quality of product that left his kitchen. Maybe Mr. Drake is spending too much time at his other restaurants and isn't babysitting this one enough. Or maybe he just called in sick yesterday. Who knows? Whatever the problem in the kitchen, the food was certainly lacking for a restaurant where a dinner for two costs more than my weekly grocery bill.

All of the dishes on the menu are said to be small plates. The wait staff encourage you to order 2 of the smaller small plates and one larger small plate for each diner. And the plates are all intended to be shared. The problem is that this is purely a gimmick to make you order more than is necessary. If they followed through with this concept, it might actually make for something interesting. Instead, the small plates were the size of an ordinary appetizer, and the larger small plates were the size of an entree. The truth of the matter is that two small plates OR one large plate would have been sufficient to fill most stomachs, even American ones. I truly resent being misled just for profit's sake. This was not the unique dining experience they described. They simply used different names to describe the same things, much like Starbucks did with their drink sizes.

The dishes were also not presented in a such a way that sharing was always easy. These were not served in true family style fashion, but rather plated as if a single person were going to eat the whole thing. Sure, you could share, but you might also make a mess in doing so, and once it got to your plate, the look of it would be more take out and less fine dining. The bottom line is that they need to lose the gimmicks and get back to making good food.

It also struck me as odd that there were no specials to be had. What self-respecting chef doesn't have something interesting they'd like to showcase based on the day's market? That showed me that this was a place run on routine, not innovation and drama, and I personally think that routine is not generally worth steep prices.

We ordered 3 small plates and two large ones, thinking that was a conservative move. Not so much. I had wanted to try the octopus salad, but it was not available that evening. Instead, we started with a cheese plate. A soft goat cheese was made in house, and was actually fairly good. The other cheeses ranged from boring to somewhat tasty. Still, for 18 bucks, those 6 or 7 small slices of cheese ought to have had my tongue dancing!

Next, we had their brandade fritters and the crispy duck leg confit. The fritters, which were essentially salt cod that was battered heavily and deep fried, were absolutely flavorless. They reminded me of frozen fish sticks, although somewhat lighter in texture. They were horribly under-seasoned, as was the red pepper sauce that they sat in. I was only able to discern flavor from the sauce when tasting it without the fritter, and even then its taste was barely noticeable.

The crispy duck leg confit was the highlight of the evening, and was actually quite enjoyable. The salad of julienned granny smith apples and greens paired very well with the duck. The skin was rendered very well and provided some nice texture contrast. The duck was a bit on the salty side, even for a confit, but I found that forgivable in this dish.

Our two large plates were the pan seared arctic char and the braised short ribs. We had asked the waitress for a suggestion between the short ribs and the ribeye, and she suggested the short ribs. She said that we can get a steak anywhere (not a good one!), and the way they make their short ribs is particularly flavorful. Hmmmm. The short ribs were fine, not fabulous. We had made our own short ribs last summer when we had a bbq. I think ours were more flavorful, and that was my first time cooking short ribs. Although the ribs were tender, they were not terribly juicy. Probably the biggest problem with these ribs is that they were boneless. I can't imagine why anyone would make a slow-cooking meat off the bone. The plate had four ribs, and I only ate one. There was also a quinoa and root vegetable combination laying beneath the ribs, which I quite enjoyed. The quinoa was done well and was flavorful. The only root vegetable I noticed was potato, and unfortunately, the chunks of potato were large enough to be distracting and out of place mixed in with the quinoa. Quinoa really lends itself more to finely diced vegetables, and I don't think potatoes are the best pair for it.

The arctic char was inedible. I ate a few bites and couldn't take it anymore. It was somewhat overcooked, and incredibly over-salted. Yuck! The mashed potatoes and capers that accompanied it were tasty, but didn't go at all with the fish. The roasted red peppers that accompanied the fish added color, but the flavor also seemed out of place.

We also ordered a side order of vegetables romesco, which the waitress described as roasted root vegetables in tomato sauce. We liked the romesco quite a lot, but the waitress needs a bit of a lesson in root vegetables. Eggplant, the main vegetable in the dish, is not a root vegetable. And the presence of tomato sauce was very subtle and thin, which was a good thing. I was actually a bit put off when it was described because of the tomato sauce, but that turned out to be a non-issue.

We ended the evening with some coffee and dessert. I had originally wanted herbal tea, but the waitress said they did not have any, except green tea. Yes, I explained to her that green tea is not herbal, and that it is in fact a form of black tea. There were a few teas on the menu that sounded like they were herbal to me, but she insisted that they were not. My husband had plain black coffee, and seemed unscathed by it. I had a reasonable decaf cappuccino, but it was served in a bizarre cup that was difficult to hold.

The desserts were an assortment of ice creams and sorbets and a peanut butter mouse with chocolate glaze and raspberry sauce. The desserts were actually quite good, but the "assortment" of ice creams were a little silly. Of the four scoops, two of them were vanilla. Did the chef neglect to make a fourth option? There was only one sorbet, which was clearly lime or key lime, but the waitress said it was lemon. Hmmm.

The wait staff were very polite and cordial, and they were certainly attentive, which is a good thing. Clearly, they need better lessons in the foods they are serving. My waitress spoke with great confidence about the food, but more often than not, her descriptions were inaccurate or misleading. That's a real problem in a pricey restaurant. Who wants to pay nearly $30 for a dish, only to have it taste nothing like it was described?

There were some enjoyable elements at Daryl's, but it was so hit and miss that I just couldn't recommend going there. Perhaps I wouldn't mind so much if the prices were more in line with the quality, but they're not, so I do. At the very least, the kitchen staff needs a refresher in seasoning, and maybe the chef himself needs to brush up also.

For those interested in how this experience figures into our family food budget, it doesn't. This is our anniversary gift to one another. We don't eat out often, but when we do, it's usually for a special occasion, and it's often pricey. It's one of the luxuries we allow ourselves, since food is really an interest for both of us beyond the obvious appetite satisfaction. It's akin to the way some regard art or sports. It would also blow through a week and a half of our food budget in one fell swoop, and I'm not sure we could recover from that kind of excess.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

This Week's Shopping List

I am mostly excited to use my kumquats this week. Yay! A citrus fruit that can be eaten whole, peel and all! ... that's my kind of fruit! It goes so well with just about any meat or fish. And what better to pair with a Florida fruit than a nice Floridian fish - mahi mahi. Oh, I'm so excited!

We did another little world tour with this week's menu. I'm starting with Indian, moving to Thailand, and jumping back to Florida. We've faced the fact that a real vacation won't be in the cards for us for quite some time, so this is how we put on our traveling boots.

On the menu for the week are:

Lunch: leftovers

- Chicken Korma over brown basmati rice
- Butternut Squash & Noodles with Coconut, Lime & Cilantro Sauce (with chopped, toasted cashews)
- Poached Mahi Mahi with Kumquats, Lemon & Rosemary over whole wheat couscous with wilted swiss chard

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

swiss chard
butternut squash
mahi mahi* (5.99/lb sale)
dehydrated corn
honey* (local)
yogurt ($0.80 sale; $0.50 off one coupon)
cheese* (local)
orange juice*

I must be on a roll. I managed to buy everything on the list this week, yet again. There were a few worthwhile sales at the healthfood store that I also took advantage of: soba noodles, whole wheat pasta, and pomelo (not technically on sale, but much cheaper than I've seen them).

The total for the week was $80.35, a refreshingly cheap week. Whew! That's a whopping $42.15 below the weekly budget, and it brings our tab down to $49. Now, that's what I call making a dent!

Next week, we have nothing particularly exciting to look forward to, which is a good thing. I hope to cut another $30 or $40 off the tab, and bring us into reasonable range before our next co-op order goes in. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel ... finally!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

HFCS - It's not just bad for your health

The high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) ad campaign irked me from the start. A blogger explains particularly eloquently just what's wrong with it in this post. HFCS doesn't just increase your chance of developing diabetes; it's also a vehicle for social and economic inequity. Who knew?

Meaty Chili

I've been making this recipe, or some variation thereof, ever since I was in college. Sheesh! ... I'm feeling old already! I had an off-campus apartment, and was thrilled to play house with my roommates. Instead of each of us fending for ourselves, I asked everyone contribute to a weekly grocery pot, and I and one other roommate went grocery shopping every week, and we cooked regular meals for the whole house. At that time, we were living on $20/week each, and that often left us with a surplus in the "food fund", as we called it. Ah ... memories. So, I've been a bit of a Susie Homemaker right from the start. We ate better than any other college kids we knew, so I think it was well worth it. For frame of reference, I graduated from college in 1995.

This recipe evolved out of some trial and error with one other roommate, and has continued to evolve ever since. I'm not sure a Texas chili competition would even give it a second glance (or a first), but my family enjoys it, and that's what counts to me.

Meaty Chili
2 lbs. ground meat (beef, bison, ostrich, dark meat turkey, dark meat chicken)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 red pepper, cored and diced
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
1-2 Tbsps. chili powder
salt & pepper, to taste
2 15 oz. can beans (kidney, pinto, black, aduki), drained and rinsed
shredded cheese (cheddar, monterey jack, jalapeno jack)
tortilla chips (optional)

In a dutch oven or other heavy, deep pot, brown the meat over medium heat. There is no reason to add oil as the meat will have its own fat. Once browned, drain excess fat. Add garlic, onion, carrots, celery and red pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until onion is translucent and soft. Add canned tomatoes, chili powder, salt and pepper. Bring to a bubble, but not a true boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beans and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Serve topped with shredded cheese. Use tortilla chips as a scoop to eat with.

Note: You can easily throw in other veggies that you need to use up. This last time, I threw in the few leaves of kale I had left. I just tore them up and threw them in the pot.

This recipe serves about 10-12 people, so feel free to cut back if you don't want to make so much. It's also a great recipe for parties. Just put it in a crock pot on warm, and let people serve themselves. We did this at my daughter's last birthday party, since I thought it would satisfy the pizza and burger crowd without actually getting pizza and burgers. I made it in advance and froze it, so it wasn't a bother at all. It was a big hit!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup

I was looking for a creamy, wintry soup to make, and came up with this. The spices were an experiment that I thought would work, but differently than they actually did. I consider this spice combination fairly Caribbean in origin (if not downright Jamaican), and I think they also pair well with the sweetness of butternut squash. Halfway through simmering the soup, I was sure I'd overdone it with the cloves, but by the end it mellowed very nicely. As it turns out, the soup doesn't actually resemble anything Caribbean in the least, which is fine. The spices are perfect, no matter the nationality.

The heavy cream could be cut back, although it's delicious as is. I wouldn't go with less than 1/4 cup heavy cream if you're wanting to lighten the dish. Alternatively, you could use the heavy cream strictly as a garnish, adding a little bit to each bowl as you serve, but that's too fancy for lunch with the family for me. To make the soup vegan, you could substitute a soy creamer or coconut milk; both will result in a different flavor, but I think will still be good.

This is one of my favorite soups of all the ones I've come up with recently. My daughter devoured it, so that's always a good sign. My only regret about it is that it made less than I anticipated. Most of my soups feed 10 easily. This one is more likely to serve 6. So, double up if you want a big, lasting pot of soup, or if you're cooking for company.

Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup
2 Tbsps. butter
1 1/2 lbs. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, sliced
5 c. homemade or low-sodium veggie broth
3 c. water
2 bay leaves
2 tsps. dried thyme, crushed
3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
salt & pepper, to taste
2 Tbsps. apple cider vinegar
1/2 c. heavy cream

In a stock pot or dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the squash, carrots, onion and celery. Sweat the veggies over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent.

Add the broth, water, bay leaves, thyme, nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. Add the vinegar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Remove the bay leaves.

Using an immersion blender (or a regular one), puree the soup. If you prefer a very smooth texture, you can force the soup through a fine mesh strainer. Add the heavy cream. Adjust seasonings. Remove from heat and serve.

Honey Wheat Oatmeal Cookies

This recipe comes from one of my favorite baking books, Country Baking by Ken Haedrich. The book does not market itself as particularly healthy, but it should. It's loaded with whole grain recipes and alternative sweeteners (this one uses honey and molasses instead of refined sugar). Many recipes use carob as a replacement for chocolate (a lower fat, no caffeine, naturally sweet alternative). Haedrich utilizes vegetables in many savory and sweet baked goods. It also helps that many of the recipes are kid-approved, having been taste-tested in his family's own kitchen. I find that I need to do very little, if any, alteration to these recipes to make them meet my standards. Needless to say, I highly recommend the book!

We brought these cookies to a 3-year-old's birthday party. I was nervous that they might taste a little too much like health food cookies, but I was complimented on them by many people (and my daughter ate four of them ... eek!). My daughter and I made these together ... yes, it's a very easy recipe.

Honey Wheat Oatmeal Cookies
1/2 c. (1/4 lb.) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 c. honey
1/4 c. unsulphured molasses
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. rolled oats (not instant)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. (4-5 oz.) coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 c. dark raisins

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, honey, molasses, and vanilla with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl, stir together the whole wheat flour, oats, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda, and blend them into the creamed mixture. Stir in the walnuts and raisins. Let the dough sit for 10 minutes and, in the meantime, lightly butter 1 or 2 large baking sheets, preferably not dark ones.

Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of dough onto the buttered sheets, leaving about 3 inches between them. Bake, one sheet at a time, for 12 to 14 minutes. When done, tops will be a little soft and squishy to the touch and the edges will be a shade darker than the rest of the cookie. In general, however, the entire cookie will be on the dark side. Let them cool briefly on the sheet, then transfer them to a rack to cool. Store in a covered container.

Makes about 24 cookies.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

This Week's Shopping List

This week was full of good, old fashioned winter comfort foods. Winter is the reason I, and many other cold-climate folks, put on weight (who said a couple extra pounds of insulation is a bad thing? You'll take it off come spring time!). It's not a time for bright and light flavors. It's a time for slow-cooked, warming, filling, snuggle-up-with-your-honey kinds of foods. Two of the menu items for the week easily exemplify that: Chili and Squash & Carrot Soup. The rest still works as comfort food, I think, but minus the slow cooking element.

The menu for this week goes like this:

Lunch: Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup with english muffins & sardines

- Ground Beef Chili with tortilla chips
- Whole Grain Italian Bread Pizza
- Salmon Stir Fry with Broccoli & Baby Corn

Dessert to bring to birthday party: Healthy Oatmeal Cookies

It's been a very long time since I've made chili with beef. I've mostly made it with ground turkey, but I really do prefer beef. Of course, since we got our ground beef so cheaply, I thought, why not make the real thing this time? That impulse paid off, since it made this comfort food intensely comfy in my tummy. I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the beef. It was so red and there was almost no fat in it. After browning the meat, there was nothing of note to drain. I can't even say that of the ground turkey I usually use. As I've said before, I'm craving lots of red meat this pregnancy, so if I can get my red meat fix without much of the fat usually associated with it, I can feel that much less guilty about it.

We had a lunch and dinner guest this week, my mom. So, that added a minimal amount to our bill. She seemed to really enjoy the soup (what little of it my daughter let her have) and the chili. My mother is generally a light fare eater, even in winter, so I take it as a great compliment that she finished her bowl of chili (and ate my daughter's leftovers).

The shopping list for the week goes like this (* indicated non-organic):

butternut squash
red pepper
broccoli* ($0.99/lb)
tortilla chips ($1 off 2 coupon)
Clif bars* ($0.50 off 2, doubled)
quinoa (white & red)
Kashi cereal* ($2.89 sale + $1 coupon)
Traditional Medicinals Tea ($0.75 coupon, doubled)
Tamari soy sauce ($4.49 sale, $.055 coupon)
heavy cream
monterey jack cheese
boneless chicken breasts* ($4.49/lb sale - antibiotic, hormone-free)
baby corn*
frozen spinach
orange juice* (2/$5 sale)
whole grain fresh Italian bread*

I have to make a comment about the Clif bars. They are a "treat" for my husband, and I periodically buy bars of some sort for him. He eats them sometimes as a snack, but mostly as breakfast when he gets up too late and needs something quick to take with. I prefer this to him buying something at Dunkin Donuts, for sure, but I'd still love to find a better solution. One of my goals this winter is to find or create a recipe for a bar that will make him happy, our budget happier, and make our processed food list a little shorter. Any suggestions? I'm open!

I was able to buy everything on the list this week, and I bought only one extra: some kumquats, to be used next week ... I'm so excited! And I had a bonus $2 store coupon at the healthfood store. I feel so much better when I get to use coupons, but the reality is that I hardly ever use them. There just aren't many products that we buy that have coupons. That's partly because we buy mostly fresh produce, dairy and meat/fish, and we buy a lot of local products made buy small producers. It's the mega manufacturers that make packaged and processed stuff that offer coupons, especially for junk packaged foods. No wonder so many people feel encouraged to buy them, and no wonder we have a health crisis in this country!

The grand total for the week came to $109.65. Since there was nothing to add to our bill this week (no co-ops, buying clubs, warehouse shopping, etc.), the total stands. We fall $12.85 below the weekly budget, bringing our deficit down to $91. We'll get there, slowly but surely.