Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Smoky Salad With Grilled Eggplant and Steak

Last night I made a new salad with a homemade dressing. It had a unique flavor and tasted like something from a chic bistro.

I had leftover arugula and baby spinach leaves so that was the base of my salad. I had used the greens for a salad a few days ago and it still had a few carrot and radish slices in it. But I didn't want to add more or anything else because I didn't know how it would all come together with the dressing.

Side note: I used my awesome-tastical food processor to slice the carrots and it was easy and perfect! I highly recommend purchasing (or asking for as a present) a good food processor. I've had bad/cheap ones for years that never worked well. This one wasn't that much money but is much better quality and does everything I ask it to do. Stay tuned, it makes another appearance later in this post.

For the dressing I used a recipe from my fav recipe site eatingwell.com. Rather than repeating it, you can find it here. I did modify it a little. I used red wine vinegar because that's what I had on hand and it worked very well. I also used about 1 T of chopped green garlic since it is season right now rather than the typical clove it calls for. Also, I would recommend cutting down the amount of oil just a little. It was a bit too oily for me, so I added more of the rest of the ingredients and it tasted better. If you do not have a good smoked paprika, I highly recommend it. You never want to use too much, but it can add some great flavor to dressings, sauces, rubs, etc.

I put all the ingredients in my processor and let it go for awhile to make sure it was smooth.

After the dressing was done I added it to the greens in a large bowl (I don't have a salad bowl yet but it'll be on the registry!) and tossed it together to coat.

I served it onto the dinner plates and then topped it with a bit of smoked chevre I just got at the farmer's market. Goat's cheese was perfect and the smoky flavor augmented the taste of the paprika in the dressing.

To go with the salad we grilled slices of eggplant, zucchini and (for the meat eaters) steak. For the veggies we cut them, salted them to tenderize, let them sit for about 10 minutes, sprayed them with olive oil and then grilled them for about 10 minutes.

For the steak we used a homemade concoction of a rub using paprika, red pepper flakes and various seasonings we had on hand. We grilled it until it was medium rare or so and then let it sit, covered, for 5 minutes to avoid losing much juice.

All of the components of the dinner went well together and were quite tasty. The zucchini was purchased and used because it was on discount and the steak was on sale. Overall the dinner cost a little more than we usually spend, but still only cost less than $20 for three people including the steak, veggies, cheese (which we still have over half of), and greens.

Do you have a good recipe that uses paprika?
How about a fun salad recipe?
Would you like to learn more about preparing eggplant and some good recipes?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is Your Produce More Well-Traveled Than You Are?

Some food for thought...err....facts to chew on....uhm....things to consider from the NC Office of Environmental Education:
  • The avg meal in the US travels 1,500 miles before reaching your plate
  • A head of lettuce traveling from CA to NC uses 36 times more fossil fuel energy in transit than it provides in food energy
  • Farmers' markets enable growers to keep 80-90 cents per dollar spent vs 9 cents via the grocery store
  • Produce not sold locally is in transit or storage for days or weeks
For more information on eating locally and food travel (from more than one perspective), I highly recommend the book Moveable Feasts.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Easy As Indian

I love trying new recipes. I love ethnic cuisine of all types: authentic Mexican and Latin, Lebanese, Greek, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Indian. The latter two are my ultimate favorite....and the hardest for me to replicate in my home kitchen.

So I cheat.

Last night I was going to make veggie enchiladas but I just wasn't in the mood. So instead, while on the drive home I thought about what I have in my fridge that I could use for a different meal.

We had (not intended to be all inclusive):
  • Strawberries
  • Mango
  • Yogurt
  • Bread
  • Various frozen veggies
  • A bit of fresh spinach
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Discounted mushrooms
  • Discounted bell peppers
  • Onions
  • Tofu
  • and the usual pantry items.
I don't know why it popped into my mind but it occurred to me that I could easily make Indian. So I stopped at the HT and got a few extras for dinner. Rather than try to prepare Indian sauces, which I know would be difficult and would not even compare to the real thing, I bought a prepared sauce in a jar. They are usually called simmer sauces, meaning all you do is add meat and veggies to the sauce in a pan and let them simmer for a few minutes. They had a few different kinds to choose from. (I know they have even more at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's but I was at HT.) They range in flavor and spiciness. Some are very mild and not really "Indianish" at all for those fearful of ethnic foods. I also bought a discounted zucchini and stuff to make light homemade cream cheese frosting for cupcakes a made the night before (I never said I don't eat sweets...just in moderation and lighter versions when possible without compromising the integrity of the item.) Hmmmm....maybe I'll post about the cupcakes next.

At any rate, this is how to make the meal I prepared with the sauce and aforementioned ingredients I had on hand:
  1. Chop onion, pepper, zucchini and whatever veggies you have on hand and want to include.
  2. Saute onion until fragrant in a large pan.
  3. Add remaining veggies (except spinach) and saute until cooked through...I like mine just a tad past al dente but still crunchy.
  4. Add tofu or whatever meat you like (chicken works especially well but make sure it is cooked thoroughly, a worry non-existent with tofu).
  5. Add sauce to the pan.
  6. Simmer for at least 5 minutes. Cakewalk had to work late, so I left mine to simmer for about 30 minutes. Add spinach or greens near the end so they will be cooked through but not overdone.
  7. Serve over rice, with naan or bread, or by itself.
This is one of my favorite cheap, easy, healthy, quick meals. I've probably even mentioned it before, but that's what happens when I don't have new topics to post about...hint hint. ;)

Can You Boil Water? Learning To Cook The Realistic Way

I cook a lot. I'm by no means a chef, but I know a lot about food, meal prep, menu planning, and cooking in general. And, in this era of foodies, the food network and the internet, it seems more and more people want to learn how to cook.

If you do not know how to cook but would like to learn, or if you would simply like to learn more, here are my personal recommendations:
  1. Buy a copy of the Best Recipe Cookbook. I know I've mentioned it before, but I really can't say enough on the value of this book for someone who does not know much about cooking and also for those who want to learn more. It provides concise information on food science principles, food prep and cooking techniques. While it is much more than a cookbook, it also gives excellent recipes with explanations of them and modifications. If you want to learn how to cook brussel sprouts, for example, you simply look under B. There you'll find information on what a brussel sprout is, how to prepare it and a handful of the best brussel sprout recipes. Other cookbooks are more flashy and have prettier pictures and are penned by cooking personalities, but this one is the best overall reference to have on your shelf.
  2. Watch the food network. I would especially recommend watching Good Eats with Alton Brown. He presents food science basics in a fun and easy to understand manner. In this way, you learn how to cook not just how to prepare one dish per episode. But, if there is another show/personality you like, watch that! (I really like Healthy Appetite and sometimes Everyday Italian.) But don't just watch and then go out to eat. Record the shows and use them as guides. DVR can even help you learn to cook!
  3. Subscribe to a food magazine. I have subscriptions to Cooking Light (although I haven't gotten any since I moved so I think something got messed up, grrrr!), Vegetarian Times and Eating Well. I'm thinking about getting Marsha Stewart's Everyday Food. I know it seems like subscriptions are expensive, but over a period of time, they really aren't. Usually a subscription is about the same price as just 2 or 3 full priced magazines off the shelf. Plus, you can often find them discounted through certain websites or special offers. Go to Barnes and Noble and flip through a bunch of selections in the magazine section. Find one you that has a lot of recipes you really like or would like to try. Then do a little research to see if there's a good deal on it, and buy a subscription. It will give you good ideas every month. And, when you forget it's coming, as I sometimes do, it's like getting a present in the mail!
  4. Use the internet. When I don't know how to cook something or want a new recipe, I google it. Sometimes all you get is gobbily gook, but sometimes you'll stumble upon something you never thought of making or a really cool technique. There is soooo much information out there. Just tap into it.
  5. Ask me! If you would like a new recipe or have a specific cooking question, ask me. I may not have the answer, but I might or I might know where to find it. The more specific/concise your request, the better.
I'd like to advise that when learning to cook, you really just have to dive in and try it. You may make mistakes and you may make some really vomitous meals. Only a couple of weeks ago I burnt some artichokes, stinking up my kitchen, ruining a good pot and messing up my dinner plans. But it is the best way to learn and, more than likely, you'll surprise yourself. You can't be afraid of messing up. And you'll never be completely prepared or have all the info you'll need. So just jump in!

Finally, I wanted to share a link I just received from a friend and fellow cook. It discusses the basic tools needed in the kitchen.

Any questions???

Now go make something yummy!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sunday Morning Breakfast Revisited

I have very fond memories of my grandma's weeekend breakfast spread. Much of it was salty and fried. Yum!

Many years ago some friends and I restarted the tradition of cooking and sharing a large Sunday breakfast/brunch. We would make biscuits (with gravy of course), scrambled eggs (with cheese), bacon, sausage, some kind of fried potato thing and more. We'd eat until we were so stuffed all we could do was lounge on the couch and watch tv. It was fun but it wasn't healthy.

Now Cakewalk (for new readers, Cakewalk is my fiance) and I like to make our own Sunday breakfast. But we try to keep it healthy yet still tasty and filling.

This past Sunday we made a meal largely composed of local, fresh ingredients. We made light french toast with fruit and scrambled eggs on the side.

For the french toast we started with a light bread. We have two types of bread on hand usually. We have a thick, hearty loaf with lots of fiber. And we have a light, low calorie loaf for light lunches and meals such as this. For this recipe we used the lighter bread so that it would crisp up nicely.

We also have two types of eggs. We have store bought cage free eggs and we have cage free eggs from the farmers market or a local person. I swear I used to think an egg was an egg. But I am not convinced that is not the case. Eggs purchased at the store, regardless of whether they are cage free or organic or what, will usually all taste the same. I purchase cage free based on personal, moral preference not based on health or taste. However, fresh, local eggs do taste a lot better. They maintain a firmer, plumper, brighter yolk and, in my opinion, have a richer, more buttery taste. So we use the former for baking and recipes and the latter for scrambled eggs, baked eggs, etc. Right now we actually have green eggs from a local farmer. (Only the shell is green....and no, I am not also eating ham with them.)

I love fresh fruit. I eat at least 4 servings a day. How many do you eat a day? For this meal I sliced up some fresh strawberries from the market along with some kiwis I got on sale (while I prefer to buy local or organic when possible, I am also thrifty and realistic, so I buy produce at the local grocery and don't pass up a good bargain when I see one.) The berries are good, but will be even better soon. It's almost strawberry season!

Instead of syrup or sugar, we used a touch of homemade jam on the french toast. I had strawberry and cherry that a friend made for me. I topped each sliced with a bit of jam and then ate it with a piece of fresh fruit.

As for the scrambled eggs, I have to say myself that I am the best scrambled egg maker in the whole wide world. Ok, maybe not the absolute best, but I do make a mean egg. I start by only using fresh, local eggs. Then I add a bit of S&P, a splash of milk if I have it on hand (which I didn't for this meal but they were still delicioso), and herbs if I have them. Well I had them! I got thyme, oregano, and dill from my herb garden, chopped them up finely and then added them to the eggs prior to cooking. Then I cooked the eggs in a nonstick skillet, just until cooked and no longer slimy/liquidy but not until dry and hard.

If you are watching your calories or cholesterol intake, you could do the same thing but with egg whites, or mostly egg whites. One trick I learned doing diet educations at a hospital was that you don't have to eat ONLY egg whites. You can break three eggs, put the whites from 2 in a bowl and put the entire third egg in, discarding the other yolks. This will cut down on the "bad" stuff but will give the same color and similar texture as the full deal. I do eat egg whites when it is an option, just to cut down on unnecessary calories. Did you know that 1 whole egg has about 90 calories while an egg white has only about 25 calories??? That's a significant difference! Simply by switching to all egg whites for a three egg omelet will save you nearly 200 calories (all toppings and such being equal).

I would like to note that I used real butter in cooking my eggs. But I don't use a lot. I think real butter can be used sparingly to add a rich flavor to certain meals/foods. Rather than use a lot of margarine or something that tastes like credit cards, I choose to use a little bit of butter, but I am very careful about the amount and frequency. For my eggs I melt 1/2 a tablespoon in the pan before I add the eggs. It adds a great flavor and really doesn't add many calories.

Finally, I wanted to note that I used my new-ish cast iron skillet for the french toast. It gave it a very nice taste and crunch. Cooking with cast iron can be good for your health, especially if you have low iron levels.

I had 1.5 pieces of french toast with preserves and fresh fruit and 2 scrambled eggs. I estimate that entire meal was about 4oo calories and I'm probably overestimating.

It took us about 10 minutes to make the entire meal. I chopped fruit and made the scrambled eggs while Cakewalk made the french toast.

I don't have an monetary estimte for the cost of this meal, because many of the items I used we already had. The fresh eggs cost about $3 for the dozen. The fresh berries were $4. The bread cost maybe $2. But we only used a fraction of these items. Eating at home is soooo much cheaper than eating out! For a similar (but heavier and fattier) meal out we probably would have paid $15 with tip.

What do you like to make for Sunday morning breakfast? Or any breakfast, for that matter???

Friday, April 16, 2010

Now That's A Garden Salad!

We are in the process of planting our vegetable and herb garden. We planted herbs and a couple of the plants that can withstand cold a few weeks ago and they are already shooting up. I just purchased a bunch more plants at my local farmer's market and I will be planting them this weekend.

I prefer to buy from the farmer's market when I can. The plants seem to be a better quality, it supports local agriculture, and it's cheaper! All of my vegetable plants were $1.50 for 4 plants. Who said eating fresh produce was expensive?!?

I plan to grow as organically as possible. We are using organic planting soil to augment our dirt and have started a compost pile. We've already reduced the amount of trash we put out at the curb just by collecting our compost!

Gardens are a fun and cheap way to add fresh produce to your diet. They do take a little bit of work, but it doesn't have to be too labor intensive to get a decent harvest.

So far, here is what we have or will plant this weekend:
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Mint
  • Dill
  • Cilantro
  • Rosemary
  • Lots of German Johnsons (my fav)
  • Lemon boy tomoato
  • Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato
  • Hillbilly heirloom tomato
  • Some small tomato that produces a zillion at a time
  • Okra
  • Patio Pickle cucumber
  • Finger eggplant
  • Kentucky Blue Pole Beans
  • Banana Peppers
  • Rainbow Bell pepers
  • Red Globe Peppers
  • Pineapple (this was just for fun)
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • and probably another something or another that I can't remember.
I can't wait to make a salad!

Do you have a garden or do you plan to start one? What's in your garden?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Are You Smarter Than A Kid When It Comes To Food?

I'm reviewing books for kids that discuss food and nutrition for a project.

As I read these it occurred to me that many adults may not even know some of these basic facts about what we eat and where food comes from.

Here are a few fun facts from one book:
  • There are more than 4,000 kinds of tomatoes
  • The most popular type of cabbage is white.
  • People in Persia may have been the first to have lettuce farms in 550 BC.
  • Broccoli only takes about 110 days to grow from a seed to the edible plant.
  • Strawberries and roses belong to the same family.
  • The peas inside a pea pod are seeds.
  • Cucumbers grow on a hairy vine. The vine's leaves are shaped like triangles.
  • Radishes can be round or look like icicles. They can be red, white, yellow, pink, purple or black.
  • If green peppers are left on the plant they turn red, yellow and purple.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Yo Quiero Tacos

Last night we had tacos for dinner.

At the grocery store Monday night we found a bunch of reduced price produce including green peppers, poblano peppers and mushrooms. Without a recipe or plan in mind, we purchased them...I knew I'd come up with something.

Then last night I was about to leave work when it occurred to me that I didn't know what I was going to make for dinner. I remembered the produce and went to my favorite recipe planning service, google. I googled "poblano mushrooms" and the first thing to pop up was tacos. I didn't even read the recipe or follow the website link...I knew what I was going to make.

I stopped at the grocery on the way home to pick up some last minute needs for dinner. I bought hard taco shells. I quickly examined the boxes of a few different brands and varieties to find the ones with the lowest calories per serving and the least amount of added ingredients. I found some that were 130 calories for 2 tacos AND only had 4 ingredients AND only cost $1.99 for 10. Score.

Then I headed for beans. I was planning to do black beans mixed with salsa as a side to the tacos. But then I saw refried black beans. Refried beans aren't always unhealthy. Upon examination of the can I found that they were about the same amount of calories for the same serving size as regular black beans AND only had a few ingredients.

Finally, I got an extra jar of salsa. I always have salsa on hand, but I usually have more than one type at home. I keep a jar of cheap but mediocre salsa for cooking or recipes and I buy tastier, creative, but not always more expensive varieties for toppings. I knew I had a container of local, organic and fresh salsa for topping the tacos, but wanted to get a jar of cheapo stuff to mix with the beans. A large jar was on sale for $1.99. Bingo.

At home I put the beans into a sauce pan on the stove, mixed in some salsa and put it on low just to heat through. Then I chopped my veggies. I sliced the green and poblano pepper into large flat pieces for the grill. Then I chopped an onion (I always have onions on hand at home), the mushrooms and a green onion I had leftover from last week's Papa Spuds and sauteed them together in my new cast iron skillet.

When you are chopping, slicing, dicing, etc a pepper of any variety other than bell, please wear gloves or immediately wash your hands with soap and warm water after you are done. Many years ago I made the mistake of skipping the handwashing after chopping a jalapeno and rubbed my nose. Oh the pain. Last night I made the same mistake because I assumed the poblano would not be a problem since it isn't a hot pepper. Not fun, I assure you.
Back to the tacos...

When Cakewalk got home he fired up the grill and cooked the pepper chunks. Then we sliced them up into usable pieces.

And dinner was ready, with only a little assembly required. For my tacos, I took a shell (which had the handy flat bottom so it could stand up), put a couple of pieces of green and poblano pepper in it, then put in some of the onion/mushroom mixture, then topped it with fresh salsa and a sprinkle of real feta. On the side I had a small bowl of the refried black beans with the salsa mixed in.

Totals for the meal:

Caloric total for 2 tacos and a half cup of black beans ~350 calories

Monetary total for the meal ~ $8
(Not including items I already had on hand, but also doesn't take into account that I had leftovers for lunch today, extra shells for another meal and almost a full jar of salsa left)

Total time required ~30 minutes including prep

I assure you that this meal was filling and satisfying. But if you wanted to add meat or shredded cheese or something, you certainly could. Try cooking a chicken breast and shredding it with a fork or grill a steak and slice it up for steak tacos. The key is to use what you have on hand and what you find on sale or put together a quick, easy, cheap and healthy meal.

While the dinner was very tasty, the best part of the meal was when Cakewalk got home and saw the taco shells and said "Yes! Tacos!!!" like a little kid. ;)

And I apologize....I would've posted a picture of me eating a taco but I was so hungry after my lunch time workout that I scarfed them down before I thought to take one. But this one is probably better anyway.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Small Victories

Yesterday I set a new PR.

No, I didn't run a sub 3 marathon.

I did 7 full push-ups and a 45 second plank.

Strength training is very important, especially for women, especially as we age. For this reason, and because I LOVE it, I take a ladies only strength/weight/circuit training class that kicks my butt twice a week, which I believe I've mentioned before. At the beginning of each six week session we do a baseline test to see how many reps we can do or how long we can hold a certain position. Then, we do the same "test" again at the end to see if we've improved. I know not to expect drastic changes, because it takes a long time to actually increase your strength and build muscle. So any small improvement is a victory to me.

I have a super strong lower body. I can squat and lunge until the cows come home and can run for long periods of time. But my upper body and core have room for improvement. When I first started the class last December I couldn't do a full push up (although I could do the girl ones) and I could barely hold the proper plank position for a few seconds without shaking and falling. So yesterday, when I was able to do 7 full push-ups with perfect form (I stopped when I wasn't doing them perfectly or able to go all the way down) and hold a full plank in perfect form for 45 seconds, I felt accomplished....especially since I was still sore from an earlier workout and probably could've done a tad more otherwise.

I've also improved my overall fitness, improved my running pace, lost a bit of weight and I'm starting to see more definition all over. It isn't much, don't get the wrong idea, I'm no GI Jane. But it's the little things....

And that's what we need to remember when it comes to fitness, nutrition and health goals. Set realistic (but worthwhile) goals for yourself and make them specific. And remember that some of them will take time. It might take you 6 months to lose 15 pounds or to gain a little muscle...but it will happen if you are consistent and patient.

Challenge yourself!

And, if you want to do a proper push-up, this video is a good visual representation.

Food Myths

Is bottled water better than tap?

Is wild caught fish better than farm raised?

Are baby carrots safe to eat?

Do onions cause food poisoning?

Is canola oil toxic?

Is organic better than conventional?

Have you recently received an email warning you not to eat this or that?

Have you heard that you should avoid a certain food at all costs?

Have you seen commercials or heard people swearing by a miracle food?

Professors in my department have started a website designed to debunk food myths and search for answers within food/nutrition controversies called Food Myths and Memes. They pull topics from emails, the news, personal experience, etc. They research the topic to find the most accurate and evidence-based information. Then they post their findings on the site.

If you have a burning food/nutrition question or food myth and you'd like some reliable answers, let me know! I'll pass it along. You may even see your question on the webpage!

Health & Wealth Behavior Change Strategies

Rutgers Cooperative Extension is launching a new online Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ Challenge called the “SSHW Spring 2010 Challenge.”

When? Five week program held from Sunday, April 11 through May 15th.
How much does it cost? It's free.
What do I get? You may learn a new strategy for improving your health and/or wealth AND prizes will be awarded for participants with the highest point totals.
How do you sign up? Enroll online at the website.

The Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ program was designed to motivate participants to take action to improve their lives. There are 25 behavior change strategies that each come with a fact/information sheet with "action steps" and a worksheet, allowing you to apply the strategy to your life.

It is recommended that each person choose up to 3 or 4 strategies from the below menu. Choosing any more may become overwhelming and ineffective.

Here is the menu of strategies to choose from:
1. Track Your Current Behavior
2. Unload Your Childhood Baggage
3. Put Your Mind to It
4. Commit to Making a Change
5. Defy Someone or Defy the Odds
6. Think Balance-Not Sacrifice
7. Control Your Destiny
8. Make Progress Every Day
9. Get Help and Be Accountable
10. Meet Yourself Halfway
11. Say “No” to Super-Sizing
12. Convert Consumption Into Labor
13. Compare Yourself With Recommended Benchmarks
14. Use Easy Frames of Reference
15. Automate Good Habits and Create Templates
16. Live “The Power of 10”
17. Take Calculated Risks and Conquer Your Fears
18. Appreciate Teachable Moments and Wake-Up Calls
19. Weigh the Costs and Benefits of Changing
20. Step Down to Change
21. Kick It Up a Notch
22. Control Your Environment
23. Monitor Your Progress and Reward Success
24. Expect Obstacles and Prepare For Relapses
25. Set a Date and Get Started…Just Do It!

To learn more about each and to download the corresponding worksheets, visit the SSHW website and scroll down.

This can be a great way to take charge of your health and/or wealth situation and kick start your spring!