Thursday, June 27, 2013

Carrots and Dill

Carrots and dill have a natural affinity. They come from the same family (it's a big food family - cilantro/corinader, anise, fennel, and parsley all belong) and taste right together.

In this case, fresh or frozen dill is the best choice. Dried dill, like dried cilantro or parsley, doesn't have the vibrancy of the fresh. As I've mentioned before, you can freeze herbs to get the most from your purchase. Rarely do I use all the herbs in a bunch, but I always chop any leftovers and freeze them in a small plastic bag. They're just like fresh.

Carrots and Dill
(serves 4-6, costs $1.60)

6 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 3" lengths, then cut into ¼'s (see Note)
½ teaspoon salt + a little bit more
½ Tablespoon sugar (optional)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the salt and the carrots. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until tender (try one - that's the best way make sure they are done to your liking). Drain the carrots and return to the saucepan and place over a low flame. If the carrots are not particularly sweet, you can add the sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the butter. When it has melted, season with a little additional salt, pepper, and fresh dill. Stir and serve.

Note: You can use "baby carrots" which are actually full-sized carrots whittled down to baby size. They are usually cut into 3-4" lengths so you just need to cut them in quarters. You need about 5-6 baby carrots to make 1 medium carrot.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Stretching Shrimp: Shrimp with Onion, White Beans & Tomatoes over Pasta

Shrimp is not a cheap food. It's not lobster, but it's not exactly budget. Here's a recipe that takes some shrimp and stretches it with some canned white beans. It's based on an Italian dish from Tuscany, though that dish is not a sauce for pasta. I had some feta cheese so I crumbled it on top for garnish. This is a totally un-Italian thing to do. Italians think grated cheese on seafood is sacrilege for the most part (and they certainly wouldn't use feta). Hey, I'm not Italian and it tasted good!

For this dish, you will saute some chopped onions. This is what they will look like when you are ready to proceed to the next step. You don't want them to brown.

The timing in this recipe assumes you are using regular spaghetti, not angel hair. If you substitute another pasta shape, you'll need to tweak the cooking time.

Shrimp with Onion, White Beans & Tomatoes over Pasta
(serves 6, costs $12.65)

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
¾ pound chopped Roma tomatoes or 1 14-oz can chopped tomatoes, undrained
1 15-oz. can white beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup dry vermouth or white wine
1 pound medium to large peeled and deveined shrimp
1 pound spaghetti (whole wheat or regular)
crumbled feta cheese for garnish (optional)

Heat the oil in a large skillet with a cover (see Note) over medium heat. Add the onions and saute for about 5 minutes. While the onions are cooking, get a big pot of water started for the pasta. When the onions are light golden (see picture), add the crushed red pepper, tomatoes, and white beans. Stir and cook until tomatoes start to soften, about 5 minutes. Use a fork or potato masher to break the tomatoes into small pieces.

By now, your pasta water should be boiling. If not, cook the tomatoes until the pasta water does come to a boil. Reduce the heat for the sauce to medium-low. Drop the spaghetti into the boiling water and add 1 teaspoon of salt. Set the timer for 6 minutes. When it goes off, add the vermouth and shrimp to the tomato mixture. Stir and cover the skillet. Set the timer for another 5 minutes.

When the timer goes off again, add about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water to the shrimp and stir. This will make a sauce. If it doesn't seem saucy enough, add some more water; it will thicken up from the starch in the pasta and the beans. Check to see if the spaghetti is done. Continue cooking it another minute or two if it's still crunchy in the middle.  Taste the sauce and add salt if needed (shrimp is fairly salty so you don't need much). Drain the spaghetti and mix with the sauce. Serve with crumbled feta cheese, if desired.

Note: Don't have a cover for your skillet? Use a cookie sheet.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

What's in Season Now: Blueberries

Blueberries, those tasty little packages jam-packed with nutrients, are in season right now. I got them this week for $1.49/pint. And, when they are that cheap, I snap them up and stash a bunch in the freezer for the winter. Out of season, they can be absurdly expensive, but they freeze beautifully. To freeze, give them a rinse, drain well and gently roll them on some absorbent toweling. Put in a freezer bag and label. They will be there when you want some home-made blueberry muffins. You can thaw them and mix them into plain yogurt with a bit of granola. Any place that you use fresh blueberries, you can use frozen berries. In most recipes, you don't even have to thaw them.

This blueberry muffin recipe can be made with either frozen or fresh berries. They are not very sweet but have a good hearty flavor. I recommend you use muffin cup liners because it's really annoying to lose the bottom of your muffins in your muffin tin. The liners are cheap and will save you a lot of aggravation. You can freeze the baked muffins, if you can't eat them all within a couple of days. Especially in the summertime, muffins will mold quickly so I freeze most of them after they have cooled completely.

Blueberry Lemon Muffins
(makes 10, costs $2.50)

1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour (regular or pastry)
2 Tablespoons wheat germ (optional)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (use 2 teaspoons at sea level)
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar
1 egg
¾ cup skim or lowfat milk
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
½ Tablespoon fresh or frozen lemon zest, about ½ lemon
10 paper muffin liners

Place the muffin liners in a muffin tin. Preheat oven to 400°F.

Mix together the flours, wheat germ (if using), baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, beat the egg with a fork until well-blended. Add milk and oil and mix to combine. Pour the liquid mixture over the flour and mix until just combined and there are no big lumps of flour. Toss the blueberries with the lemon zest. Add to the batter and gently incorporate the berries, mixing only to distribute them in the batter.

Evenly divide the batter in the 10 muffin cups. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Remove the muffins from the tin and cool completely before freezing or storing in a plastic bag.

Adapted from Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of small breads by Bernard Clayton, Jr., Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Using up Cottage Cheese: Pancakes

I recently posted a quick pasta dish that uses cottage cheese. If you need a way to use up the remainder of that tub of cottage cheese, these pancakes are the ticket. They are light, somewhere between a thick crepe and a pancake. They are delicious with a pile of sliced strawberries or peaches, yogurt, and a drizzle of maple syrup. They are very puffy fresh from the griddle and then they deflate as they cool, becoming more crepe-like. They reheat well but they won't be puffy.

My advice, having made these many times, is to keep them small. That's actually my advice for most pancakes. Big pancakes are tough to flip and they can get tangled with their neighbors on the descent.
These guys are ready for flippin'
How do you know when to flip them? Bubbles will form and pop. If the hole from the bubble doesn't fill in, it's time to flip. Also, the edges of the pancake won't be liquid and sticky anymore.

Cottage Cheese Pancakes
(serves 4-6, costs $2.90)

1 cup low-fat cottage cheese (a little less or a little more is fine)
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk or ½ cup buttermilk and ½ cup skim or lowfat milk (see Note)
1 Tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons wheat germ (plain or toasted)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

non-stick cooking spray

Whisk together the cottage cheese, eggs, milk, honey, and vanilla extract in a large bowl. Stir together the flours, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the flour mixture to the large bowl and mix to just combine and there are not dry lumps.

Heat up a large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Spray with cooking spray. Using a measuring cup or large cooking spoon, drop ¼ cup portions on the griddle. Leave a bit of space between the pancakes as they spread. When bubbles form, pop, and leave a hole, flip and brown on the other side. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat too high because these will over-brown before the inside is cooked. Respray the griddle with cooking spray between batches to prevent sticking.

Serve with sliced fruit, some yogurt (or whipped cream if you are being decadent), and a drizzle of maple syrup. Any leftovers can be refrigerated or frozen. Reheat in a 350°F oven for 5-10 minutes until hot. They lose their puff but still taste good.

Note: You can find powdered buttermilk in most supermarkets now in the baking aisle. It's a great way to have buttermilk on hand all the time without having to figure out what to do with the rest of a carton of buttermilk. Follow the instructions on the package to reconstitute.

Adapted from Jane Brody's Good Food Book by Jane Brody, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1985.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Caribbean Grilled Chicken

Here's a boldly flavored marinade/BBQ sauce. Most of the sauce is used to marinate the chicken. It's a quick marinade so you don't need to think far ahead to make this on a summer night. The rest of the sauce is drizzled on the cooked chicken.

You can use all lime juice, or substitute some lemon or orange juice for some of the lime juice.

Caribbean Grilled Chicken
(serves 4, costs $9.35)

¼ cup chopped fresh basil
2 Tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger
¼ cup fresh lime juice or ½ lime and ½ lemon, or orange juice
¼ cup oil
2 Tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup soy sauce
2-3 teaspoons Siracha or Asian chile sauce
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 to 1 ¼ pounds boneless chicken breast or thighs

Combine all the ingredients except the chicken in a 2 cup measuring cup. Mix well to dissolve the sugar. If the chicken breasts are thick, cut into 2 thinner pieces by slicing the breast in ½ horizontally. This increases the amount of marinade in contact with the chicken and speeds grilling. Place the chicken in a glass dish or plastic bag. Pour on ⅔'s of the sauce, reserving the remaining sauce to serve with the cooked chicken. Marinate the chicken for 15-30 minutes, and no longer than 1 hour (the lime juice will make the chicken mushy). While the chicken is marinating, heat up the grill on high. Just before placing the chicken on the grill, reduce the heat to medium. Grill the chicken about 5 minutes per side. Serve with remaining sauce.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Processed food, you never know where it will turn up

They distract you with this prominent "Naturally Produced" while they add all sorts of things that don't "naturally" occur in cottage cheese
Went shopping for cottage cheese for this week's Meatless Monday recipe. I am a bit OCD about reading labels because sometimes you are surprised. Like the organic yogurt that is thickened with cornstarch and two other gums. What? Yogurt thickens on its own from the cultures but thickeners are used to keep it from separating. Also, this organic yogurt didn't say anything about live cultures, so there probably aren't any. The live cultures are the little beasties that are good for your digestion (you have probably seen the ads for a certain brand of yogurt and their "special" cultures which they claim are better for you). In this case, is organic better? I have my doubts.

Is all this stuff really necessary?
In the case of the cottage cheese, nearly all the low fat cottage cheese at my supermarket had a long list of ingredients such as:
  • Malodextrin or food starch, 
  • corn syrup or dextrose (sugar is just in everything), 
  • titanium dioxide (a whitener),
  • artificial flavors,
  • extra salt (about 25% more),
  • a host of gums and thickeners, and 
  • preservatives. 

Here's what I bought. Pretty darn simple, isn't it?
The cost on the various brands was the same to within a dime of each other, which works out to a maximum difference of 2.5¢ per serving. For most folks, this is insignificant.

Read the labels. Seek out the brands that contain the least number of ingredients and contain things that you recognize as food. Avoid those that add a bunch of extra stuff. Be a savvy shopper.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Meatless Monday: Pasta with Cottage Cheese, Basil and Feta

This is a simple uncooked sauce - great for summer. It has basil and garlic, like pesto, but the cheeses are totally different. Cottage cheese gives it volume and feta gives it tang and saltiness. You don't need a food processor to puree it. It's not smooth like pesto. If you want a smoother sauce, you can puree it in the food processor.

In order to eliminate the chunks in the garlic, it's smooshed with the flat side of a knife with salt. The salt acts as an abrasive, grinding up the garlic into a paste. At first, the garlic and the salt don't want to combine, but with a little elbow grease, the garlic and the salt come together.

Pasta with Cottage Cheese, Basil, and Feta Sauce
(serves 4-6, costs $8.60)

3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 large pinches salt
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
1 cup lowfat (2%) cottage cheese
½ cup finely crumbled feta cheese, 4 to 5 ounces plus a bit more for garnish
2 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 ½ pounds broccoli florets
16 ounces fusilli or rotini

Place a large pot of water over high heat.

Sprinkle the salt over the garlic on a cutting board. With the flat side of a knife, press down and smoosh the garlic and salt together. Keep doing this until the garlic and salt form a smooth paste, using the knife to bring the garlic back into a tight pile periodically. Pile on the chopped basil and chop until the basil is finely chopped and well combined with the garlic paste. Place in a medium bowl. Add the cottage cheese, feta cheese, olive oil, and black pepper. Mix to combine and set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta, stir, and set the timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, add the broccoli and set the time for another 5 minutes. Check the pasta when the timer goes off. Cook for 1 more minute if still chewy. Reserve ¼ cup cooking liquid and drain the broccoli and pasta. Place in a large bowl. Pour on the cottage cheese sauce and add the reserved cooking liquid. Toss together to coat the pasta and broccoli. Serve, sprinkling with a little bit more feta cheese, if desired.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Using Bell Peppers as a Container

No, not for cooked stuffed peppers. Use them raw as a container for tuna salad or egg salad. Peppers are sweetly crunchy. They are sturdy so they won't fall apart. Use whichever color you prefer. I like red, yellow, and orange. Core them, dumping out the seeds, and cut them into big chunks. Fill up the inside with the salad. It's a nice alternative to bread for a summer time lunch or snack.  Garnish the pieces with olive slices or drained capers. You can also serve these as a little appetizer.

It's a great way to get some more veggies into your diet!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Guest Post: Maintaining Healthy Eating While on Vacation

Today, a guest post from Cole Millen, an avid traveler with some useful tips on sticking to healthy eating while on vacation (or any time you find yourself away from home). If you are like me, you like to splurge a little while you are on vacation. There is nothing wrong with a little splurge now and then but don't use your next vacation as an excuse to throw all caution to the wind, eating-wise. When I travel, I love to experience new food (hey, if you don't try the gelato when you are in Italy, you are definitely missing something), but I try to balance the splurges by really sticking to a more healthy eating pattern most of the time. Don't forget that trying new food extends to preparations for local fruits, vegetables and fish, all part of a healthy eating plan. Last summer, I traveled to Provence. The fruit there in summer is so sensational that it needs no embellishment, and I felt no need to indulge in rich sweets.
Maintaining a Healthy Eating Plan While on Vacation
Taking the time to unwind while on vacation is a necessity and can help you relax from the daily stresses of job and everyday life. However, it shouldn’t be an excuse to ditch your healthy lifestyle by consuming junk food and skipping your workouts. The following tips will help you have a memorable and exciting vacation without the added pounds.
Pack Your Own Snacks
Whether you’re flying, driving or taking another mode of transportation, you can stay ahead of the game by packing your own snacks. Portable healthy options can include fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, string cheese, whole grain crackers, and trail mix and granola bars. Peanut butter and hummus are other healthy alternatives that satisfy cravings and keep hunger at bay. If you’re at an airport terminal, you can walk around and check out the various cafĂ© items until you find something that is both pleasing to the palate and good for you. 
Planning Ahead
The most important aspect of staying true to your healthy lifestyle is ensuring the area and hotel you are staying in has the options available to allow you to do so. Doing a little research before hand can go a long way in this aspect. In my extensive research I have found online reviews to be extremely helpful. I recently found a site that bundled information on restaurants, hotels, things to do, and even a travel guide for the area. With this help I was looking through the list of hotels in Las Vegas and managed to find one that had not only the amenities I desired, but a gluten free restaurant in its lobby. With a little research and the help of reviews, you will find eating healthy on vacation easier than ever.
Ordering Room Service
Just because you’re ordering room service doesn’t mean you have to make unwise choices. There are a number of safe items on the menu such as salads, turkey breast sandwiches and baked chicken breast. You can also ask for low-fat dressing and condiments to be placed on the side. When you check in, leave the min-bar key at the front desk since fattening treats will only tempt you. If you have doubts about the nutritional content on a particular meal or food item, you can ask. Most hotels have the information at the ready for their guests. 
Prepare Your Own Meals
Dining out can be costly on your pocketbook and waistline, so you don’t have to eat out for every meal. Ask for a room with a microwave and refrigerator, so you can keep groceries on hand. When you first check in, you can head to the local grocery store and stock up on some healthy necessities. This makes it easy to take healthy treats when you’re on the go too, so you won’t be tempted by fast food. 
Dining Out
Eating out can often sabotage the healthiest of eaters. Try doing a bit of research before heading out and find restaurants that offer better choices on their menu. You may also want to check out an establishment that provides nutritional information, so you can plan accordingly. Starting your meal with a salad or soup will help curb your appetite. Since restaurant portions are large enough for two or more, you can offer to split a meal with another diner at your table. The breadbasket is another area that can pack on the pounds, so you can tell your waiter ahead of time that you would like to skip it. When ordering, look for items listed as broiled and baked instead of smothered and fried. You can also trim carbs by asking for a side of streamed broccoli instead of french fries. Everyone enjoys something sweet at the end of a meal, and you can still indulge. Instead of cake loaded with a side of ice cream, you can opt for sorbet or a fresh fruit and cheese platter.
Cole Millen is an avid traveler and foodie who never forgets that life's best memories are made through real life appreciation of legitimate "experiences." You can read about health and his travels at his personal blog.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Meatless Monday: Curried Quinoa Salad

Quinoa, this year's superfood! I don't go in for this superfood stuff, but it is pretty special. It is higher in protein than any other grain and that protein is complete, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. In a varied diet, this isn't quite as important as it sounds. (For more on protein, see this post.) If you are sensitive to gluten, it contains none. And, you can say you are eating the ancient grain of the Inca. Imagine you are at Machu Pichu. :-)

Quinoa has soap-like chemicals in its seed coat so it is important to rinse it well, swishing it around a bit in water, before cooking. Otherwise, it may taste a bit soapy and bitter. Generally, the flavor is pretty bland, making it a good choice for a salad because it readily soaks up the flavors of the dressing.

Quinoa is quite a bit more expensive than more common grains. I've seen it in the bulk section for $3.99/pound which is more than double the price of rice, even fancy rice like Jasmine. It does expand a lot (4 times its dry volume), bringing the cost way down. Compared to many forms of meat, poultry, or fish, it's quite economical.

Curried Quinoa Salad
(serves 2)

2 cups water or vegetable stock
½ teaspoon salt (omit if using salted vegetable stock)
1 cup quinoa, rinsed well and drained

¼ cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon mango chutney, chopped if very chunky (see Notes)
1 ½ teaspoons mild or medium curry powder
¼ teaspoon dry mustard
1 big pinch of salt and pepper

1 cup mango or cantaloupe, peeled and diced (can use thawed frozen mango too)
1 cup peeled cucumber, seeds scooped out with a spoon and diced
2 green onions
2 cups baby spinach, packed
2 Tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted (see Notes)

Bring water or stock and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, 12-20 minutes (definitely takes closer to 20 at altitude). Transfer to a medium bowl.

Mince the white part of the green onions and slice the green part. Whisk together oil, vinegar, chutney, curry powder, dry mustard, salt, and pepper. Mix in white part of green onions. Pour ¼ cup over quinoa. Add in mango, cucumber, and sliced green onions. Toss. Divide the spinach on 2 plates. Mound quinoa on spinach. Drizzle with remaining dressing and sprinkle 1 Tablespoon of almonds on each place.

Mango chutney lasts a very long time in the refrigerator. It's good mixed in rice or alongside Indian bean dals, or as a spread on sandwiches. Very tasty with cheese.

To toast almonds, place in a skillet over medium heat until just golden brown. Watch carefully! They burn quickly.

Adapted from Bon Appetit Fast Easy Fresh Cookbook by Barbara Fairchild.