Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Having a Happy Chanukah (Falafel) Ball!

In Beans, Bread, Greek, Holiday, Jewish, Salad, Vegetables on December 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Don’t judge me.  I cannot find my menorah that my grandmother got me from Israel.  In fact, I think I go through this same panic every year after having moved back from college.  Yet, have I looked in my mother’s house?  Have I considered buying a new one?  Do I have time for either of those options?  I always seem to find the time to call my mother for her Latke recipe, but never remember to also ask about my missing menorah.  I guess you can can see where my priorities are.

In the spirit of this Holiday, I decided for the first night to cook something that can be found on both Jewish/Israeli and Greek menus: Falafel.  I think it fits the theme of the holiday very well!  I know it’s not traditionally served on Chanukah, but I suspect nobody would object to another deep-fried delicacy during this eight-day-miraculous-oil celebration.  Plus, there are only so many fried latkes and sufganiyot I can handle.

If you know me, and you read my blog, you might be surprised to find that falafel would warrant a wholesome, healthy blog post.  The key to enjoying this treat-in-a-pita-pocket is to make some slight modifications.  First, serving in whole wheat pita is a step in the right direction.  Second, filling it up with tons of fresh veggies adds bulk and nutrition.  However, saving the best for last, baking the falafel instead of deep frying will turn this drunken street food into a nutritiously delicious weeknight meal.  I actually found this recipe through Hunry Girl.  I’m not usually a fan of her recipes, because everything is substituted with chemical non-fat cheese, splenda, or other low-calorie/high chemical ingredients.  However, I really liked this recipe because it was all wholesome ingredients.  I really wish she would put out some more like it!

When I make this dish, I usually serve it with an Israeli salad – small diced tomato, cucumber, pepper, onion, parley, and lemon juice.  However, I decided to try something different this time.  At a lot of falafel joints, there is usually a salad bar, which will include the Israeli salad as well as pickled veggies, fried eggplant, and coleslaw.  I generally love to use the purple cabbage salad, because it is so bright, crunchy, and has the least amount of mayo or oil.  Here is my attempt to recreate that salad.

I cut the head of red cabbage into quarters, and then I cut out the core.

Then I shredded the cabbage, some carrots, and celery in a food processor using the grater blade.  The best invention ever.

I mixed the shreds in a bowl with some thinly sliced scallion.

Then, to make the salad more crispy/less soggy, I massaged in about 1 tsp salt.  Then I grabbed a handful at a time, squeezed out the liquid, and placed the dry cabbage in another bowl.  Look how much water came out!

To ensure no excess fluid was left behind, I topped the salad with a plate, and then pressed with a tea kettle.

After about an hour, I removed the pressing equipment, and there was no extra liquid.  I guess I did a diesel job squeezing with my hands.

Okay, so now on to the falafel.  The recipe called for 1 can (15.5 oz) of chickpeas.  I haven’t really been buying canned beans, so I had to actually soak and cook the chickpeas.

I added everything to the food processor, except the chickpeas.  This included a whole onion, about 1/4 cup each fresh cilantro and parsley, a squeeze of lemon, some cumin/parika/salt/pepper, baking powder (NOT SODA my friend MG – which is what most people have on hand, used in the fridge for freshness – powder is found in a tin can), and I subbed garbanzo/fava flour for whole wheat flour.

It turns into a paste (like pesto).

Then, I add the chickpeas, and just pulse a couple of times.  You want to be able to see some of the chick pea pieces still intact.

I transferred the batter into a bowl, and then divided the contents into 8 even sections.

Each section yields 2 balls.  Just a warning, you may want to take off your rings to roll the balls, as it can get pretty messy.  You basically grab a section, divide in half, and then press one of the halves between your hands until firm, and roll like you would a meatball.  Then you place the balls on a pre-sprayed nonstick baking tray.  Because it was so messy, I couldn’t take pictures of the process.  Here is what they all looked like before being cooked.

You top off the balls with another spray of olive oil spray.  Yes, it is still olive oil, but you don’t really use that much.  Much better than the deep fryer!  Baked at 375 for 15 minutes each side, they come out just a little bit browned, so don’t worry if you still see green when they’re finished.

What falafel dinner is complete with hummus and babaganouj?  I got this awesome hummus quartet from TJs, and each flavor is so good.

I had a lot of cabbage salad, some falafel, and a couple spoons of hummus and baba.

For Nick, I warmed a whole wheat pita, and cut it in half.  Each half I spread some roasted red pepper hummus and baba.

Then I added the falafel and cabbage.  So pretty.

I did the same for the second half, and served it on a plate to Nick.  He loved it, but also doused it with hot sauce and complained his mouth was on fire.

You can also see that this whole process makes your kitchen very messy!  All that batter falling all over the place.  Even though it’s messy, it’s really fun to make and even funner to eat.  Hopefully you cook this for someone on cleaning duty so you can have your falafel and eat it, too:)

What’s your favorite messy food to eat?


Hale & Hearty Ain’t Got Nothing on Me

In American, Bread, Saving Money, Soup, Vegetables on December 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm

I love soup.  I’ve talked about it here, here, and here.  That’s probably why back in the day I’d used more than 10 Hale & Hearty bean counter cards a year.  With the average medium sized (12 oz) soup calculating in at $7 a pop, and only 10% of those were redeemed for free, my soup habit became really, really expensive.  For seven dollars, I could make enough split pea soup for 20 medium servings.  All you need are dried split peas (the organic kind are usually $1.99/lb), a carrot, celery, onion, and water.  That’s it.  Just to give you a visual, a pound of split peas renders about ten 1/4 cup servings, which cooked is 10 1/2 cup servings.  Making that into soup doubles the volume, so you have 80 ounces (nearly 7 servings) of soup, and only for $1.99 + a few cents extra for the veggies.  That’s why they can afford to have somebody serve you soup, AND another person to serve you bread or crackers.

Sticking with the split pea topic, until I met my husband I never knew that split pea soup wasn’t automatically vegetarian.  I just assumed that unless chicken or beef was in the title, I was pretty safe to order it.  However, most people make this soup with either a ham hock, or some other smokey pig product.  I suppose that could make the soup more expensive, but probably not that much.  When I make it, it’s still vegetarian, but Nick will sometimes sprinkle in bacon bits to garner that ham hock flavor.  The trick I’ve learned to make split pea soup really flavorful is to cook it slow and low.  If you have a slow cooker, even better, but a stove top version will do.  Just a warning, it takes at least 4 hours, so I usually only make it when I’m home for the day or on a weekend.  I also make sure to make enough to freeze for later.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, this post will chronicle split pea soup making.  Shocking, I know.  But I had not explicitly mentioned it yet, so I don’t want anyone to be confused :).  Earlier that morning, I soaked the peas in some water.  This helps to ease the cooking process later, and prevents the pot from drying out.  Then I drained/rinsed the peas, and added some carrots, celery, and onion.  Then I added enough water to cover about 2 inches above.

I brought the soup to a boil, and skimmed off some of the foam.

After 5 minutes, I covered the pot, lowered the heat, and let it simmer for 4 hours.  I checked on it every 30-45 minutes or so, just to give it a quick stir and make sure it wasn’t drying out.  When it was done, it looked like this.

You could serve it as is, but sometimes I like it more pureed.  I used an immersion blender for that purpose.

To accompany the soup for Nick (I was back on track and not eating grains for dinner) I decided to make a grilled cheese sandwich.  I usually use whatever cheese I have on hand.  Since I had mozzarella and parmesan leftover from the last night’s meal, I knew I’d use those.

I also wanted to add some tomato and onion, since Nick loves both of those.  Unlike diner grilled cheese, I actually cook the veggies separately before adding to the sandwich.  I hate getting a cold tomato slice wedged in between 8 slices of non-melted cheddar.  So unappetizing.

After sauteing those veggies in a nonstick pan, I removed them to the side, and began to prepare the sandwich.  I melted some butter to brush on to bread.  I find it required less butter (and more evenness) using this method than trying to spread solid butter with a knife.  I also used some hearty whole grain health bread, instead of white bread.  This makes it more nutritious, filling, sturdier, and less likely to burn in the pan.

Now begins the assembly.  I placed one slice butter side down on the nonstick pan, and layered the mozzarella.

Then I added the tomato…

…followed by the red onion…

…topped with sliced parmesan…

…and finished with the second slice of bread, butter side up.

To give it a panini flair, I used the lid from another smaller pan to press down on the sandwich and apply pressure.

Once I could see that the mozzarella was melting (about 3-4 minutes), I flipped the sandwich over to brown on the other side.

I cut the sandwich in half so you could see the insides!  It’s also easier for dunking, if so desired.

Paired with the soup, this provides an excellently comforting meal, and much cheaper than its retail counterparts.

I have to admit, I missed eating that sandwich, but the soup was so yummy and filling I was more than fine without it.  I felt like I was treating myself to an expensive chain store soup, only my wallet didn’t notice the difference.

What are your favorite retail foods to replicate?

Another Italian Feast

In Dessert, Italian, Pasta, Potato, Vegetables on December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

During our honeymoon trip to Italy, we took this amazing cooking class in Florence at In Tavola cooking school.  The class was split up into smaller groups, and each group had an instructor.  Everyone learned to make the same 4 dishes – the only exception was our group.  Since I was vegetarian, I wouldn’t be able to eat the chicken secondi, and thus was placed with  Chef Ali who taught me to make a vegetarian entree instead.  Combined with 2 French speaking ladies, and 1 unattached lady, our group of 5 lucked out with the huge back kitchen, instead of being cramped with the rest of the cattle…I mean students…at the test kitchen stations.

I took lots of pictures during our class, to serve as visual reminders of what and how we cooked.  We were given the recipes at the end, but let me tell you, I was glad I took those photos.  Let’s just say our chef did things his own way.  Both came in handy 2 Sundays ago when Nick and I tried to recreate the meal for our friends John and Kaila in our apartment.  I’ve found the best way to get people to come to Brooklyn is to offer them food and/or shopping.  This occasion was no exception.

The four courses were an eggplant dish (layered with cheese and a mixture of potato and zucchini), gnocchi served with either tomato sauce or bolognese, chicken with mushroom and zucchini, and tiramisu for dessert.  My vegetarian entree was another eggplant dish, but using different cheeses, and more similar to an eggplant parmesan.  It was actually much better (and less complicated) than the antipasti version, so we opted to serve that instead.  We also chose only the tomato sauce, instead of making both, for this dinner.

Since we didn’t want to be slaving away too much while our guests were there, we got a head start by first preparing the tiramisu cream.  You separate two eggs, mixing the yolks with sugar until the color is a pale yellow and everything looks creamy.  Then you add marscapone cheese (Italian cream cheese) to the egg yolk mixture.  The whites are whipped with a hand mixer until they are firm, then a little bit of sugar is added.  You know the whites are ready when you lift the bowl upside down and nothing falls.  This photo is not edited and depicts an actual upside-down bowl of egg whites.

Then you gently fold in the whites with the yolks, and let it refrigerate for at least an hour.

While that chilled, I prepared the eggplant dish, but let me fast-forward to the finishing assembly of the dessert.

Using chilled coffee, Nick dunked in lady fingers (broken in half), and then placed 1 each into small ramekin dishes.

Then, the fingers are topped with the cream, and the finishing touch is a sifting of cocoa powder on top.  We put the ramekins back in the fridge until they were ready to be eaten.  It was hard to take the pictures while we were both cooking, but I remembered to take a shot as I was eating it later 🙂

Now back to the eggplant dish.  I sliced the eggplant into 1/4″ thick slices.

I brushed the slices on both sides with EVOO, and then using an indoor grill over two burners, I grilled the eggplant on both sides.

While the eggplant grilled, I prepared the tomato sauce, which would be used both for the eggplant and for the gnocchi.  It was very simple:  garlic (sauteed in a lil EVOO), DOP San Marzano tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper.

It only takes about 10 minutes to get the sauce ready and cooked for the eggplant dish, but we let it continue to simmer until it was ready for gnocchi.  Now came time to prepare the individual antipasti, which we could slip into the oven just before ready to eat.  We layered crocks with the eggplant first.

Then the eggplant was topped with some fresh mozzarella.

On top of the cheese we added some of the sauce, then some breadcrumbs and parmesano reggiano.  This was only one layer of each, whereas in the cooking class it was a double layer of eggplant/sauce/mozzarella.

I forgot to take a picture of it after it was cooked, but here’s one from the version we made in the cooking class.  My homemade version wasn’t as…shiny.

Okay, so that’s 2 dishes down, 2 to go.  We worked next on the chicken, leaving the gnocchi to be prepared with our free labor…I mean guests…later.  In a saute pan, I browned some sliced white mushrooms in EVOO.  The trick we learned in the class is not to mix it around to much to allow for better browning.

While the mushrooms cooked, I cut up some chicken breast (the recipe called for a whole chicken cut into pieces), and dredged in flour.

Then I heated up a large saute pan with both EVOO and butter, and added the chicken.

I flipped the chicken over to brown on the other side.

Then I added the mushrooms, some sliced zucchini (which I had cut up while cutting the eggplant), and a sprig of rosemary.  I mixed it all up and then added about 1/2 cup white wine to deglaze.  I ended up adding another 1/2 cup because it looked a lil dry.

I covered the pan, lowered the heat, and let it hang out while we finished up the gnocchi.  The dish looked like this when it was served.  The flour really helped thicken up the gravy.

Okay, so now on to the most complicated part of the menu.  Potato gnocchi are made with potato, 2 types of flour, corn starch, and egg yolk – according to our class recipe.  We made sure to go to the Italian market to get the Double Zero chef grade flour and also the semolina (pasta) flour.  In a bowl we blended the flours with the corn starch.

The next step was to take baked rusest/idaho potato, cooled and peeled, and mash it with a potato ricer.  We had some technical difficulties and it took a lot of John’s strength to use our cheap ricer.

I was tempted to just use the food processor, but I’ve heard it just makes things really pureed and mushy.  Once all the hard work was done, we did a rough mix in the bowl before putting the batter on the counter.

Then we floured the counter, dropped the dough ball, and Nick began to need the dough until there were no cracks (about 5 minutes).

The big ball was divided into 4 portions, so we could each get one.

Each quarter was cut in half, and each of those halves were used to make a rope’s worth of gnocchi to be cut up.  You have to roll it out with your hands to get it nice and thin, and then use a cutting tool to evenly cut the pieces up.

Each piece is placed on a fork, and using your thumb, you push down and roll the dumpling to imprint the lines.

Once all were made, you just have to add them to boiling water, and cook them until they all float to the top (about 3 minutes).  Then you take them out of the pot with a slotted spoon, add to a platter, and top with sauce.  Mmmmm.

After all that hard work, everyone sat and enjoyed the food and wine (of course).

I topped my gnocchi with some parm.  Amazing.

This came out pretty well for our first try.  It wasn’t as soft as in the class, but that’s probably due to our inexperience.  It actually was softer the next day when I reheated it.   Everything else was just like class, so I was happy to successfully replicate our experience.  For those of you coming to our New Years party, you will be lucky enough to enjoy these dishes!  Just make sure to bring us some wine 🙂

If You Try to Knock Me You’ll Get Mocked…

In Chinese, Rice, Vegetables on December 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm

That’s the line that comes before my hubby’s obligatory singing when I make a stir fry.  I’ll say to him “I’m making chicken stir fry,” and without hesitation he says “I’ll stir fry you in my wok.”  A lot of his jokes and lyrical expressions get old, but that one always makes me laugh 🙂

One of my go-to stir fries is actually fried rice.  I know anything that has fried in it sounds bad.  But really, very little oil is used (maybe 1 tbsp between 4 servings), and the heat of the wok gives the food all the crispiness it needs.  One of my favorite recipes comes from Elie Krieger, and it’s a vegetarian brown rice version that has peppers, carrots, corn, edemame, and tofu.  Since I can’t eat the last two, this recipe has been out of my repertoire as of late.  What I love about it, though, is that there are so many veggies used, and not so much rice.  Back in my chicken eating days, I would make this with some pre-cooked chicken.  For today’s version, I did that, but I only ate the veggies and egg.  Let me show you how it’s done.

I chopped up the chicken into 1/2 inch pieces first, using a separate cutting board.  I sauteed the chicken in some toasted sesame oil (maybe 1 tsp), salt, and pepper.  Then reserved the cooked chicken for the end.

While that cooked, I chopped up all the veggies.  I finely chopped red pepper, carrot, onion, scallion, and green beans.  I cut the broccoli in to small florets.  Then I smashed some garlic.  Don’t the colors make this display look awesome?

To make room for mushrooms, I started to stir fry these initial veggies in the wok with 1/2 tbsp EVOO and 1/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil.  Then I chopped up some baby bellas.

Once everything was browned to my liking (about 5 minutes), I created a well in the center for 2 egg whites.

I scrambled the eggs with some tongs, and then mixed everything together.  Then I sprinkled with some soy sauce, and removed half (my portion).

Now comes the rice/chicken part.  Normally, you would save the egg towards the end (after adding rice and chicken), but since I wasn’t eating either of those I scrambled the eggs first.  Then I added a cup of brown rice leftover from the night before and the chicken.

I mixed it all up, added some  more soy sauce, and tada!

Here’s a picture of mine.  Doesn’t really look all that much different!

I have to admit, although my version was delicious, I was left feeling hungry an hour later.  I know that normally Chinese food does that, but I was REALLY hungry, probably from running earlier that day.  I ended up having a string cheese (not ideal) but it helped me get through the night.

This was the third meal this week following my new challenge plan.  It’s getting harder to come up with ideas, but that’s the point of a challenge I suppose!  The rest of the week I did not cook, but I did make a huge meal on Sunday (which I will report later), so I did manage to cook 4 meals in a 7 day period 🙂

Just Roll with It

In Beans, Mexican, Rice, Vegetables on December 14, 2011 at 1:11 pm

If somebody asked me what my favorite cuisine was, it would be a tie between Italian and Mexican.  This night’s meal (which I actually made last Tuesday – so much for punctual blogging) belongs in the latter category.  Although Mexican is commonly associated with cheesy-fried-carbs and fatty meats, one actually has multiple healthy options when enjoying comida Mexicana.  Case-in-point: the fajita (can be pronounced fa-heat-a, or as we like to say fa-gight-a).  Fajitas are usually made in a cast iron skillet, and include onions, peppers, and chicken/beef/pork (or extra veggies for vegetarians), all seasoned with traditional Mexican spices.  Very little oil or fat is generally used, and the tortillas (usually corn) are served on the side.  Sometimes a restaurant will offer fajita burritos, enveloping all the fajita goodness with a large flour tortilla that has the diameter of a newborn child’s length.  Submitted for your approval, I present a dinner that offers fajitas for both the carb lover and carb curbers.

First step, I cooked some brown rice in a rice cooker using this method.  I examined the veggie drawer in the fridge.  I had the minimum pepper and onion available.  I also had a carrot, some spinach, and a handful of purple kale.  Ideally I would also like to add some broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, and chickpeas, but since there were none, I did not include them.  I sliced up the onions, peppers, and carrot into thin strips.  Then I smashed some garlic.

I sauteed them first in a tbsp of EVOO, since the leafy greens take less time to cook.  After about 5 minutes, I added some cumin, chili powder, coriander,  cayanne, salt, and pepper.

After cooking another minute, I added some veggie broth to deglaze the plan.

Then it was time to add the greens.  I combined everything, lowered the heat, and let simmer while I prepared everything else.

I took some frozen pinto beans and nuked them for a minute.

Then it was time to make some guacamole!  I scored half an avocado.

Then I used to a spoon to scoop into a bowl, mixed in some lemon juice, red onion, tomato, and salt.

Just as I finished with the quac, I grated some cheese and checked on the veggies.  They were done!  Mmmmmmm.

Now it was time to assemble Nick’s burrito.  I used a whole-grain one (healthier than traditional white flour), warming in the microwave for 15 seconds.  Then in long rows I added some cheese, pinto beans, fajita veggies, brown rice covered with salsa, and some guac).

Then came time to roll it up.  I’m sure that most of you have had messy burrito/wrap-rolling experiences in the past.  These are some of my tricks.  First, you can see above that I centered the fillings into a square space.  I know it is tempting to overflow with ingredients, but trust me – it’s not worth it!  If you really want extra, just reserve the excess filling for a side dish.

The next step is to fold over the top and bottom, perpendicular to the direction of the filling.  If you start the other way, you will have a different item in each bite as you progressively make your way through eating.  Doing it the way I suggest will allow you to ingest as many of the fillings in one bite as possible.

Next I folded the left side over to begin rolling from West to East.

Once you are almost towards the end, just the tortilla showing, then you pinch in the corners to prevent any spillage.

And then….the burrito is rolled up and ready to inhale.

My platter version had the fajita veggies, salsa, beans, and guac.  Still really yummy.  You could also always mix in some lettuce for a salad, but I preferred this dish just as I ate it.

The next day, I ate the same thing for lunch, but just added a lil bit of brown rice to make it heartier.

I’m two for two with this new dinner-time plan.  Stay tuned for the next installment!

It’s All Greek to Me

In Greek, Potato, Salad on December 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm

With my new challenge this month, an easy transition meal is salad.  Salad, like soup, can contain nearly anything.  It can be a yummy, light side to a heartier meal, or the main attraction on your dinner plate.  The former option holds true for Nick, and the latter for moi.  A regular old garden salad doesn’t do the trick for an Elain-inspired big salad, so I decided to make my go-to Greek salad.  It is a great, filling dish that is super flavorful.  Feta is really salty, but it is also one of the lower fat/calorie cheeses (asside from the Laughing Cow 20-ingredient wedges), so it packs a nice punch.

For the side dish, I decided to make roasted potatatoes.  This was because I had so many potatoes left from the last CSA share, and I did not want to let them go to waste.  Also, Nick loves potatoes.  Traditional Greek roasted potatoes usually have lemon and dill, neither of which I had.  There’s always the Lipton onion soup mix option, but I stopped buying those because of all the chemicals and high sodium content.  Besides, this homemade version is so much better!

I preheated the oven to 450 degrees.  Then I quartered the potatoes.  They were the small ones, so that wasn’t really necessary, but it was late and I wanted to cook them in a shorter period of time.

Then I prepared the dressing.  The original Lipton recipe requires 1/3 cup of oil for 2 pounds of taters.  That’s almost 6 tbsp of oil (which is over 80 grams of fat)!  I used only 2 tbsp.  The rest of the moisture comes from the other ingredients.

I grated 1/4 of a very large red onion (would be 1/2-1 whole of a smaller sized one) with the microplane side of my box grater.  Since this was a red onion, it looked like pretty purple cotton candy.

Then I grated 2 gloves of garlic, and added some salt and pepper.  Then I whisked it with a fork until it was an applesauce-like consistency.

I dressed the potatoes, roasted for about 35 minutes, and tada.

While the potatoes roasted, it was time to assemble the salad.  The key ingredients are lettuce (usually Romain), tomato, cucumber, red onion, bell pepper, feta cheese, kalmata olives, and a red wine/oregano vinaigrette.  I had baby spinach, no pepper or olives, and no oregano (but marjoram, which is closely related).  Regardless, I had enough to make due.

I mentioned in an earlier post that buying pre-shredded or crumbled cheese is exorbitantly marked up.  What I do for feta is cut the 8 oz package into 8 even (as possible) portions.  I generally use 1 oz per person, but sometimes 1.5.  Once I have the portion, I will cube it and have my very own crumbles.  The remainder are left in the package and sealed in a ziplock.

For my salad, I created a bed of spinach, topped with cucumber, tomato, onion, and feta.  Then I sprinkled pepper (no salt – because feta is already salty) and marjoram, and drizzled some plain red wine vinegar.  I think that making it a vinaigrette is unnecessary, and I’d rather have more of the good stuff than oil.

Nick’s plate also had the potatoes, and he felt very full on just a little amount.  We also finally got our dinner plates!  Since nobody bought them from our wedding registry, we opted to get them ourselves.

Even with the potatoes, this is a pretty light meal.  However, I am sticking to my guns with the no-starch dinner approach.  Maybe I had 1 or 2 wedges, but they don’t count because they weren’t on my plate :-/

Salad is always a healthy go-to for me, but eating salad every day – especially in the winter – really gets boring and does not satiate my belly.  I’ll be trying other cooked dishes this week to spice things up!

What are some of your favorite salads?

Next Challenge – Battle of the Bulge

In Challenge on December 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm

I know, I know.  You’d think with my half vegetarian, half vegan, all organic diet I wouldn’t have to worry about packing on the pounds.  Unfortunately, it’s Holiday season, unofficially known as “I-Don’t-Give-a-!@#$-what-I-Eat” Month.  Not only are people hosting “comforting” holiday meals and parties, but everyone also makes all these yummy baked goods that “you must try.”  Quotes are being used because I am actually directly quoting people who have used these lines on me.

Yes, the occasional treat or self-forgiveness at airport food selections may be granted.  However, I’ve noticed not only has some excuse or another been applied at least 3 days a week, but I also neglect my culinary convictions for the greater part of the week’s remainder.  You did notice that I made nachos for dinner one night, right?  I’ve also significantly reduced my actual cooking and shopping in the past 2 weeks.  Coincidence that Turkey Day was 2 weeks ago?  You be the judge.

With the New Year just around the corner, I had been reflecting on the prior’s year resolution.  It wasn’t anything drastic, just to maintain my level of physical fitness and physique.  The year prior to that I had really changed my lifestyle and lost about 30 lbs, 5 of which I intentionally gained back.  The best part of my transformation was not the lower jean-label number, but my ability to feel healthy and energized.  Case in point, I could do REAL pushups, which in nearly 10 years of exercising I was never able to do.  I was also able to reduce my running pace by nearly 1 and a half minutes per mile for a 10k race.  Well, with 3 and 1/2 weeks left this year, my hopes for starting 2012 the same as 2011 seem a little out of reach.  This is not just a vanity or weight issue (although it would be nice to be 5 or so pounds lighter), but I really want to recommit myself to the lifestyle changes that helped me achieve my goals in the past.

There are a few steps and stages to achieving both short and long term goals.  They are supposed to be written out “SMART” goals (corporate HR lingo) – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant/Realistic, Time Bound.  I am still working on spec’ing them out (and I have a new fitness buddy/coach system to keep my accountable), but I know for sure one of the means by which I can achieve my goals is by modifying my diet.  It’s important for me to go back to eating those 5-6 smaller meals, refraining from processed foods like bread and cereal (which although I rarely eat have begun to increase in frequency), and avoiding grains at dinner.  The difficulty with the last part is creating flexible meals for both me and my husband.  He needs starch at dinner.  If I don’t feed him any nutritious whole grains, he will eat popchips or tortilla chips and salsa later that night when I’ve retired.

As a result of all of these circumstance, I’ve decided for my next blog-challenge to make dinner options that are starch-free for me, and carb-friendly for the hubby.  I’ve had experience with this before, but sometimes it takes some creativity.  I will pledge to cook at least 4 dinners per week and report the results to all you readers until the New Year arrives. I will sporadically blog about other meals/snacks, as well as athletic endeavors, but the majority of the posts will chronicle dinner de”lights”.  Since the CSA deal is on hold until June, I am left to fend for produce at the farmers’ markets and regular stores, so it will be interesting to see how that affects my time schedule and my wallet.

Another side goal is to maintain a 5-veggie-servings-per-day minimum.  Most days this is not an issue.  However, I noticed that the day I flew back from the LBC that there were no veggies for purchase at all.  I ended up buying a snack pack that had some dried fruit, nuts, crackers, and hummus, but no veggies.  I had a fruit smoothie for breakfast, so that was a missed opportunity for veggie consumption.  Although I may not blog about it, it is definitely on my list.

I already have two dinners to blog about…so hold on to your horses!

What are some of your healthy eating goals?

How to Succeed in Breakfast Without Really Trying

In American, Beans, Bread, Lentils, Millet, Quick Meal, Saving Money, Vegetables on December 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Back in my corporate ladder days, I don’t think I ever made lunch, let alone breakfast.  I usually bought a coffee for the train ride, and then stopped by either the company caf or the deli down the block for an egg/cheese sandwich or oatmeal w/ dried cranberries.  Then I proceeded to sneak over to my desk and eat my late breakfast with the hope of nobody noticing my tardiness.  Lunch was usually cafeteria buffet or salad, or soup from Hale and Hearty.  By the time 3:00 PM rolled around, and I was on my second cup of coffee (and maybe a cookie or 2), I had probably spent a good 20 smackaroos on overpriced, over salted, fattening and underwhelming provisions.  Even with an impending Caribbean vacation-inspired diet, I only managed to bring leftovers for lunch maybe 1-2 times a week.  I was also usually exhausted after traveling 45 minutes each way to midtown, working 9-10 hours, having conference calls when I got home, and attempting to work out and/or cook dinner.

Life is about balance; all work and no play makes Lauren a sad lady.  Now with my more modest job, I not only have more free time to prepare meals, but I also find that saving money via home-made meals and snacks helps compensate for my lower salary.  One of the keys to a happy, healthy lifestyle is nutrition.  The age-old saying “you are what you eat” is so true in so many ways.  Being food-prepared is essential to maintaining that lifestyle, especially during the work week.  However, most Americans are so busy that they don’t really have time to commit to a weekly preparation schedule.

In my short time on this Earth, I have learned a few tricks (some of which I’ve already shared on this blog) to easily, conveniently, and economically nourish my body and soul.   A few of these include:

  • Having lots of containers for individual and large size portions (you can buy a 6 pack of gladware for about 3 dollars)
  • Cooking in bulk, freezing for later
  • Making double-dinner, so I have a yummy lunch the next day
  • Washing and packaging veggies right away
  • Buying pantry items (broth, canned tomatoes/beans, bulk dry items) on sale
  • Using what I have on hand instead of making multiple trips to the store (usually a bunch of cilantro turns into 30 dollars worth of junk food or gourmet sauces)

Although I ideally like to sit at the table for all my meals and snacks, sometimes I am strapped for time.  This is usually most applicable to breakfast.  I could resort back to my old habits of bringing breakfast to work, but by the time I’d actually eat it I will have been awake for about 2 or so hours.  It’s always best to eat breakfast as soon after waking up as possible.  It’s called breakfast for a reason – your body hasn’t eaten in (hopefully) 10-12 hours, and it is key to start the day off on the right foot.  My personal experiences of eating a later breakfast are usually days when I ate a late dinner the night before, making me less hungry in the morning, making me eat less earlier in the day, and then being starving at night and overeating.  It’s a vicious cycle, and I’ve found a good way to break it is the art of eating breakfast while preparing lunch.

In a prior post,  I mentioned one of my favorite quick breakfast options is toast with smashed beans, avocado, tomato, and lettuce.  It has the feel of a BLT, only no meat or cholesterol.  It takes about 2 minutes to make, and I can eat it while I make lunch.  You can use canned beans, or leftover frozen beans (another time-saving trick – make a big patch of beans or soup and freeze into individual containers for later use).  If canned, just spread on the toast; if frozen, nuke for a minute while the bread toasts in the oven.

Then I top with avocado.  The trick to getting the most out of avocado is to squeeze some lemon or lime on the exposed flesh that is leftover after taking the desired portion.  I also leave the pit in, and the leftover lemon half, and put in a ziplock.  I can usually use an avocado 3-4 times.

Then I slice some tomato, which should be kept on the counter until it is used.  I used half of a plum tomato for this meal, so the other half was refrigerated after (and used the next day for the same breakfast).

To top the sandwich off, I layered some crisp leafy lettuce.  This lettuce was from my CSA share from 10 days prior!  It goes to show you how washing and prepping veggies can really lengthen their lifespan, as well as spare you from throwing out half a head of lettuce every week.  I also like using lettuce because it helps to really make it a sandwich without a second slice of bread.

This particular morning, I ate this sandwich while preparing my lunch.  Another trick I’ve learned is making smoothies.  It’s easy to sip and use both your hands for other things.  I almost always make one after a run to ingest in the shower, which is not only a time saver, but makes sure that I refuel ASAP and mitigate any excruciating hunger/body pains later.

Curious what I had for lunch?  Well, it took me 2 minutes to prepare, and by the time I got my coat on and out the door I still had half my sandwich left.

I started with pea shoots from the last CSA share.  They were still green and crisp.  This is also one of my lunch tricks – greens.  They are so easy and require very little preparation for a whole lot of flavor and nutrition.  When I go to a deli that has hot food and get that much cooked spinach or greens, it may cost me 3-5 bux, whereas I’ll use a $3.49 bunch of kale for 5-6 meals (about 50ish cents/serving).

Then I added some millet pilaf from Sunday.  This was not only quick and cheap, but it helped me chip away at the leftovers to reduce the amount of it being wasted in the trash.

To make things a lil more fun, I’ll add some salsa or leftover sauce/gravy from a prior meal.  Just 2 tbsps does the trick, and there are practically 10 calories and no fat.

If I were a good girl, I would have maybe added some extra beans and called it a day.  However, this pilaf had some lentils in it, and I felt it would be overkill.  Instead I sliced up some low-fat/reduced sodium cheese.  I’d used this before when making nachos, and combined with the salsa (nuked for a minute) this meal has a nacho-feel, but without the deep fried tortilla after-effects.  I always buy blocks of cheese, never shredded.  The latter nearly doubles the price, and reduces the shelf life due to greater surface area for bacteria.  Buy yourself a 10 dollar grater and be done with it.  This also applies to salad crumbles.  An 8 oz block of feta costs the same as a 4 oz container of feta crumbles.  You do the math.

Now, you may ask exactly how much all this hullabaloo cost me.  I could whip out Excel and do the math, but that would take me longer than the whole meal-making process.  My quick mental estimation is $1.25 for breakfast and $2.25 for lunch, totaling $3.50 for the day.  Even adding on one cafe-made coffee, that’s about $5.50 for the whole day.  Further, every ingredient used is organic.  Try going to any NYC deli and eating that much conventionally-grown food for such a bargain, let alone a Whole Paychex buffet.  All it took  was forward-thinking to prepare extra, clean my veggies, and be creative with leftovers.  When all was said and done, I spent less than 5 minutes assembling both, which is probably less than half the time you’d spend walking to an eatery and picking up your dishes.

Next time you think you are strapped for time and can’t manage to have a healthy, quick, and cheap meal, just read this blog.  It will make you and me smile 🙂

What are some of your money-saving tricks?

Veggies in a Coma? Make Some Soup.

In Beans, Italian, Pasta, Sweet Potato, Vegetables on December 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm

After a weekend of heavy holiday eating, it was really important to eat light last week.  I definitely got my fill of salads and steamed veggies, but sometimes that just won’t suffice.  That’s where soup comes in handy.  You get condensed nutrition in a warm, delicious bowl.  It is also an opportunity to use up any veggies left at the end of the week (or in this case, before going away for a 4-day trip).

What I had left was a leek, some kabocha squash, a sweet potato, carrots, a turnip, red potatoes, and kale.  I also had vegetable broth and canned crushed tomatoes, which are great for making an Italian minestrone-style soup.  Traditionally, minestrone also has celery, zucchini, green beans, and both white and garbanzo beans.  I had no celery, so that was definitely out.  No zucchini either, as it wasn’t in season and didn’t come in my share, so I opted for winter squash as a sub.  I did have some white beans in the freezer (leftovers from making beans for the Thanksgiving Pizza), but no chickpeas.  Either way, I was confident that soup would be molto delizioso.

I took two 1/2 cup servings from the freezer, and let them sit in water to defrost (while still in the bag).  Then I chopped the leek as I had done for Sunday’s roasted veggies and let them soak in water while I chopped the other veggies.

I peeled both the sweet potato and the carrots, and then cubed them, along with the red potatoes and the turnip.  I had no more room left on my board, so I emptied them all into the soup pot, and then used 1/2 of the leftover 1/2 kabocha squash.  I used everything except the kale, which I would add towards the end to maintain crunchiness.

When everything was in the pot, I added 1 box of vegetable broth, and 4 cups of water.  I also added the beans.

Then I opened up a can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes.  This brand is not D.O.P. (like when I made football pizza), but it is good for soups, stews, or chilis.  When you want to make a pasta or pizza sauce, it’s better to get the D.O.P. kind.

I added the tomatoes to the soup, giving it a nice red color.  I also added a lot of salt and pepper.

I let the soup get to a boil, and then I covered and let simmer for about 1.5 hours.  Normally, I would let the soup cook for 4 hours, but I was strapped for time.  That is also why I used some broth instead of just water.  Then, I added some chopped purple kale and let that cook for another 30 minutes.  The contrast from the purple makes the soup appear a little bit more orange.

While that finished cooking, I prepared some pasta for Nick.  I personally felt the potatoes and sweet potatoes provided enough starch, but I think he needed more of an al dente bite in his.  I used whole wheat gobbetti, because the shape and ridges really absorb the broth nicely.

When the soup was done, it was so bright and aromatic.

I helped myself to a few ladels full.  I took a close up, just so you can 1) see the details and 2) not see exactly how much I ate 🙂

This soup was even better the next day for lunch.  Even though I didn’t have all the traditional ingredients, it was still a hit – even sweeter and more savory than the original recipe!  Luckily I made enough to freeze for a later date, probably on a frigid January night when all I want to do is cuddle under a blanket.

What are some swaps you’ve made in a recipe that actually came out better than the original?