It's always a good time for chai!

>> Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mmmm...chai.  My love affair with chai began many years ago when I was a graduate student in Colorado.  My husband and I were fresh from Mississippi and happy to try all of the ethnic foods that were at our disposal in Boulder.  Chai tea at our favorite Indian restaurant was always a treat.

Fast forward a decade or so.  Suddenly chai tea lattes are all the rage anyplace that sells coffee or hot drinks and for good reason!  While I often buy chai lattes when out getting a hot drink, I find that almost all coffee house chai is too muted for my taste.  Coffee house chai lacks the spicy strength that first enamored me to the drink long ago in those Indian restaurants.

My solution - both for my taste buds and my pocketbook - is to make my own chai.  A couple of years I came across a wonderful recipe for chai that was my staple until just recently.  I spent some time reading about chai and came up with my own recipe, and I'm happy with the results.  I start with whole spices and water and boil them to get every bit of spicy goodness into my tea.  The result is a wonderfully fragrant drink that I can enjoy when I want at home without breaking the bank.

This recipe for chai makes a lot - 3 quarts of wonderful, spicy chai tea.  The spices steep in water for a long time, so it's nice that it makes such a big batch.  I love that I have enough chai to last me a week (or, um, 2-3 days when it's really cold out).  I use decaf English breakfast tea, but you could use whatever tea makes you happy - a nice Earl Grey, a simple orange pekoe, rooibos or whatever.  I find that an English breakfast tea compliments the spiciness without overwhelming it. 

Last, this combination of spices isn't magical.  Try substituting coriander seeds for the allspice.  Add some nutmeg.  To keep that true chai flavor, don't skimp on the cardamom seeds. 

If you've only had coffee house chai, make a batch of this chai!  You might be surprised by the difference!




Cathy's Chai

2 heaping tsp of whole cardamom seeds
4 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp of allspice
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
1/2-1" of a small knob of ginger, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
12 cups of water
10 single-cup bags English breakfast tea or tea of choice

Add all of the spices to a large pot.  Top with water.  Note the level of the water.  Bring to a rolling boil, and let boil for 20 min.  Add water to bring back to the original level and reduce heat.  Let the water/spice mix barely simmer for another hour. 

Remove from heat and add the tea bags.  Let tea bags steep for 5 min.  Add water to original level.  Pour the chai tea through a strainer into a large pitcher.

Add sugar and milk to taste.  I like to use demerara sugar cubes and just a splash of skim milk.

Do you make your own chai?  What combination of spices do you use? 

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Pumpkin in granola bars!

>> Thursday, November 18, 2010

I roasted a pumpkin for the first time ever last weekend.  It was easy, but time consuming, and frankly not much cheaper than buying canned pumpkin*.  Honestly, unless I find a stellar deal on pumpkins in the future, I'll probably stick to using canned pumpkin.

After roasting my pumpkin, I pureed the cooked pumpkin and used it to make pumpkin muffins and these yummy granola bars from Meal Makeover Moms.  I tweaked the recipe to suit my tastes, but it remains true to the original recipe.  One nice thing about this granola bar - the fat is fully replaced with pumpkin!  I am not opposed to fat in the granola bars I give to my kids (as long as it isn't partially hydrogenated), but I love the fact that they're getting an extra dose of super-nutritious pumpkin when they have one of these bars. 

These bars are good - full of pumpkin, but they don't have an over-the-top pumpkin taste, which means that even a non-pumpkin fan like myself will find these enjoyable.  Enjoy!



Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
adapted from Meal Makeover Moms

3 1/4 cups rolled oats
3/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
2 TBSP flax meal
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree *
1/4 cup honey (a little less is fine too)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Spray a 7"x11" baking  pan (I used a Pyrex pan) with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk oats, spices, flax meal, and salt together.  Set aside.  In a medium bowl, whisk the brown sugar through vanilla extract together until smooth.  Pour over oats mixture and stir until combined.  Stir in chocolate chips.

Evenly press oat mixture into prepared pan.  Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown.  Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes.

Cut into bars with a sharp knife.

Makes about 15 small bars.

Want some more pumpkin recipes?  Meal Makeover Moms has lots of great tips and recipes for using pumpkin puree!

*Many thanks to Elana for reminding me that pure pureed pumpkin and pumpkin pie filling sit on the grocery store shelf next to each other and look almost exactly alike!  When buying canned pureed pumpkin make sure that the ONLY ingredient is pumpkin!

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Kitchen tips

>> Sunday, November 7, 2010

Did you miss me?  I'm back, and today I'm going to share just a few random kitchen tips that I use quite often in my cooking.  I'll admit, these are not rocket science, but sometimes even the obvious is not so obvious until someone points it out.  Maybe one of these tips will resonate with you!

  • While I adore any cream laden recipe, my husband does not tolerate cream very well, and let's face it, cream is high in fat and calories!  My solution?  I substitute lowfat evaporated milk for cream in cream-based sauces.  This substitution won't work for every dish, but it makes a remarkably good sauce in dishes where cream is used but is not the main sauce component.  Evaporated milk works better than plain milk because it has a more luxurious mouth feel - even without all of the fat - than regular milk.  
 
  • Here's an obvious tip - use twice the cinnamon called for in a recipe for a more pronounced cinnamon kick.  I like an intense cinnamon flavor, and often recipes just don't quite have enough cinnamon umph for me.  So, I just double the cinnamon.  In general, it doesn't change the overall flavor profile, just gives a little more cinnamon-y goodness.
  • Trying to increase the amount of whole grains in your diet while still indulging in baked goods with a light texture and flavor?  Revamp your baked goods recipes by substituting white whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour.  White whole wheat flour has all of the nutrition of regular whole wheat flour (read more about the differences and similarities between the two flours) but with a much milder wheat flavor.  Because whole wheat flours have much less gluten than all-purpose flour, the texture of whole wheat baked goods is different.  By substituting only half of the refined flour, the texture of the baked good will be mostly preserved.
  • Have a recipe that calls for buttermilk but you don't have any?  Try this old buttermilk substitute - add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of milk.  Stir and let sit for 5 minutes or so.  Works like a charm every time!  You can also use lemon juice, but because the acidity of lemon juice could change from lemon to lemon, the results may not be as consistent.
  • I love using completely all natural, plain jane peanut butter.  I don't like the layer of oil the separates on the top, though, because it splatters and is messy when I stir it in.  I could pour it off, but then I'm pouring off the good-for-you fats and am left with a dry peanut butter.  A friend clued me in on an easy solution recently - simply flip the jar upside down and store in your pantry until ready to open and mix.  When you open the jar, the oils will all be in the bottom, making it just a little easier to mix the oil in without splattering it everywhere.  
  • Another natural peanut butter (or any nut butter) tip - after you mix the separated oil in completely, store in the fridge.  The oil will solidify and won't separate (or at least will take a very long time to separate).  As a bonus, your peanut butter will also stay fresher longer!
  • Last, what do you do if your child goes to a school that has banned peanuts?  Don't fret over lost peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!  Just quietly make the switch to almond butter.  It's an awesome peanut butter substitute.  Jarred almond butter is more expensive than peanut butter, so look for store ground almond butter to keep the cost down.  And if nut butters of all sorts are banned, check out sunflower seed butter or soy butter. 
What's your favorite kitchen tip?  

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It's Pumpkin Muffin Time!

>> Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I've posted these muffins before (um...many times before), but they're just so right for this time of year that I'm posting them again.  Full of pumpkin-y goodness, they're a nice foil to all of the sweets that are making the rounds this week.  Plus, these muffins are surprising kid pleasers.  I haven't met a kid yet who doesn't scarf these muffins down. 

As a bonus, you can frost these with a simple cream cheese frosting for a delicious and more healthy cupcake.  I served frosted pumpkin muffins at my son's Halloween party last year.  The kids loved them!

This recipe remains basically unchanged, but I seem to keep upping the amount of pumpkin I add to my muffins.  I like them packed full of pumpkin, but you could use a little less if you wanted. 

Enjoy!

Pumpkin Muffins

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1- 15 oz can pumpkin (be careful not to get a can of pumpkin pie filling!) or about 2 cups roasted pumpkin puree
1/3 cup olive oil
2 large eggs
2 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line mini-muffin pan with muffin cups.

Mix together pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin-pie spice, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl until smooth. Mix together flour and baking powder and add to the pumpkin mixture. Mix until just combined.

Add batter to each muffin cup so that each cup is about 3/4 full. Bake until puffed and golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean, about 18-20 min.
Makes about 3 dozen.

If you don't have white whole wheat flour on hand, you can use regular whole wheat flour for a final product with a slightly wheatier taste or change the flour proportions to 3/4 cup all-purpose flour and 3/4 cup regular whole wheat flour.

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Cowboy Pizza

>> Friday, October 15, 2010

Do you like applesauce?  Then you'll want to read about the new applesauce offerings from Musselman's on A Life Less Sweet Reviews!  These applesauces will undoubtedly become pantry staples for snack time at my house.

This past weekend we took a trip up to West Yellowstone, MT to play tourist and visit the geysers.  A friend of ours told that we absolutely had to try the BBQ Pizza at the Wild West Pizzaria in West Yellowstone.  What makes this pizza special?  Baked beans!  A pizza with a BBQ sauce base and baked beans - it definitely peaked our interest.  We did visit Wild West Pizzaria, but we ended up getting other pizzas instead of the BBQ Pizza.  I was too skittish about the baked beans (I'm pretty picky about my beans), and I must admit that I greatly prefer pork BBQ to beef brisket BBQ, which is what the restaurant uses.

Of course, the first thought in our head was that we could make it at home using the ingredients that suited us.  We did, and let me tell you, this is one good pizza!

The Meat
We put our own spin on it by using pork BBQ.  My husband and I are both from Mississippi originally, and if there's one thing that we love, it's pork BBQ.  I don't have the time or inclination to babysit a pork shoulder slowly cooking on the grill all day, so I cheat and use a crockpot.  The result is delicious, juicy pork BBQ meat.  Simply put a bone-in pork shoulder or butt in a crockpot and cook it on low for 10 hours or so.  I add a little BBQ sauce on top and sometimes a little liquid smoke (which is literally smoke that has been condensed and collected) at the beginning.  When it's all finished, the meat should be super tender and practically falling off of the bone.  Cut it up or use a couple of forks to shred the meat.  What we didn't use on the pizza tonight I plan to freeze for future use.

I think that this pizza is divine with shredded pork shoulder meat on it, but it would also be good with shredded beef brisket, BBQ chicken, or even thinly sliced sausage.  Choose what works best for your palate and time constraints.

The Sauce
Take a stroll down the BBQ sauce aisle and take a look at the ingredients.  One thing you'll instantly notice is HFCS.  It's rampant in BBQ sauces.  There are a few good ones out there that are cane sugar based instead, though.  Stubbs uses cane sugar instead of HFCS.  Bullseye does as well.  Both are tasty, but we typically buy Bullseye BBQ sauce.  Bullseye is what I used as the BBQ sauce base for this pizza.

You could, of course, make your own BBQ sauce.  Honestly, I haven't had much luck with making a BBQ sauce that really suits my taste buds.  I tend to go the easy route when it comes to BBQ sauce and just buy it.

Whether you choose to buy or make it, watch those ingredients!

The Beans
I've said it before, but I am not a huge bean fan.  I do, however, like baked beans - at least some of the time.  As with BBQ sauce, I go the easy route with baked beans and buy them in a can.  One of these days I'll get around to trying my hand at making them, but not yet.

Baked beans are another item that often has iffy ingredients.  Partially hydrogenated oils and HFCS are common ingredients.  I like to use Bush's Baked Beans, which are cane sugar based and have no trans fat.  Because I am not completely content with the flavor straight out of the can, I add some ketchup, mustard, and sometimes just a little brown sugar. 

Now it's time to put it all together!  We made this as a grilled pizza which really was a good choice for this pizza.  The grilled flavor definitely complimented the ingredients.  It would still be good as a plain ole pizza cooked in the oven, though!


Cowboy Pizza

BBQ sauce
shredded, cooked pork shoulder (or meat of your choice)
baked beans
thinly sliced onion (to taste)
shredded cheddar cheese (to taste)

Spread 2-3 TBSP of BBQ sauce (adjust the amount to your own personal taste) on pizza crust.  Top with thin layer of baked beans, meat, and onion.  Sprinkle cheddar cheese on top.  Finish grilling or cook in oven.

If this is your first time grilling pizza, zip over to my post on Grilled Pizza for some tips.  You'll also find the breadmaker pizza dough that I like to use.  It's good for grilled pizza or pizza cooked in the oven!

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The Snack List

>> Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plain and simple, this post is all about snacks.  Here you'll find most of the snacks that I turn to day in and day out.  Healthy snacking is still tasty snacking!  I am by no means perfect.  When I'm tired or in a rush - or when my kids pester me enough - I all too often head straight for the crackers or the few processed snacks that we keep around.  As you'll read, I think that crackers and processed snacks can and do have a place in healthy snacking, but they should be just a small part of the snacks that are served.  (You can read a good article about crackers and snacking at It's Not About Nutrition.)

I hope that this snack list will give you some ideas or inspiration.  And I hope that you'll share ideas with me too!



Fresh Stuff
Fruits and vegetables really should be the first snack offered, but I'll admit that they too often play second banana (excuse the pun) at snack time around here.  To combat that, I always send fresh fruit or vegetables as one of their school snacks and afternoon snacks are automatically the fresh stuff most of the time.  If you set a rule that afternoon (or morning) snacks will only be fruits or vegetables, it becomes the way it is and the grumbling is at least manageable.  Some ideas:
  • Carrot sticks, celery sticks, sugar snap peas served with or without dip
  • Celery stuffed with Laughing Cow cheese, nut butter, or pimento and cheese
  • Edamame!
  • Apple wedges with peanut butter or cheese
  • Fresh fruit smoothie (keep it simple and mostly fruit!)
  • Fruit kabob
  • Pomegranate seeds are always fun and tasty

Nutty Granola Bars
Baked Goods
I love my simple baked goods!  These are great for snack or even for breakfast.  Wrap in aluminum foil, and they make a great school snack.  (See my caution about buying prepackaged goods below.)

Nuts and Seeds
Packed full of protein and good fats, nuts and seeds are a great midday pick-me-up.  You can serve them plain or mix it up a little.  Pre-shelled nuts and seeds can be salty, so look for nuts that are low or no salt.
  • Homemade trail mix - mix some nuts, seeds (pumpkin and sunflower seeds are staples here), and dried fruit...and maybe some dark chocolate chips if you're feeling like a super-nice mom.  (See my caution about dried fruit below.)  Add some Cheerios or other cereal if you want.
  • Almond Butter Balls - these are super easy to make and highly addictive. 
  • Nuts in the shell - for some reason, nuts still in their shell are a hit with the kids.  There's nothing like the challenge of breaking the shell to liven up snack time!
Make it fun!
Snacks often are no-nonsense out of necessity, but sometimes it's ok to have a little fun with them too.  Take an ordinary snack and put a little twist on it.
  • Use Nutella (or other chocolate/nut spread) sparingly for some fun snacks.  Favorites here are graham crackers with Nutella and almond butter, and tortilla wraps with Nutella and sliced banana or strawberry.
  • Chocolate covered strawberries are a snack that will leave your kids smiling.
  • Serve cheese cubes or cut up fruit with a fancy toothpick.  My kids love to spear cheese or fruit with little plastic sword toothpicks that I found at the grocery store.
  • Cut out snacks with cookie cutters for fun shapes

Packaged foods have their place
Crackers.  Need I say more?  Packaged or processed foods do indeed have their place at snack time, but it is so easy to rely on crackers and other processed foods too much.  When you buy processed foods, be sure to look at the ingredient list and understand what you're buying.  HFCS and hydrogenated oils are automatic no-nos for me, but ideally the processed food would have a simple ingredient list that is not too high in bad fats, sugar, or sodium as well.  All of those make foods taste good, though, so it's common for packaged foods to be high in one or all of them. 

Don't feel bad about using packaged foods as part of snack time, but understand what you are serving and make sure that packaged foods are just a small part of snack time!

A few packaged goods that stay in my pantry:

Caution!
Some processed foods always sound better than they actually are.  If it seems too good to be true, well, it probably is.  A few to look out for:
  • Yogurt-covered anything sounds so good, but it rarely is.  Read the ingredients!  That yogurt covering has little resemblance to the yogurt you buy in containers.  Instead, you get a product that either contains partially hydrogenated oil or some other weird oil (like fractionated palm kernel oil) that is high in saturated fat.
  • Granola bars seem to be breeding grounds for sugar of every kind - corn syrup and HFCS if you're buying a conventional granola bar, high maltose corn syrup and cane sugar if you go organic.  Plus, they often are high in added saturated fat and a playground for weird ingredients.
  • Dried fruits.  While some are simply fruit that has been dried (like raisins and prunes), so many dried fruits have added sugar.  Many even have HFCS in them!  Pineapple and papaya are often packed full of extra sugar.  I still use many of the added sugar dried fruits, but I try to use them appropriately and not as the main part of the dish. 


Don't forget that you are in control of snack time!  If you don't want you or your child to eat something at snack time (like a sack of Cheetos), don't make it an option.  Get it out of the house or lay down the law that snack time is for healthy foods.

And if this list of snacks doesn't satiate you, check out the blog Fix Me A Snack.  Cindy has pages and pages of delicious, healthy, fun snacks to choose from (including our beloved Almond Butter Balls).  She even has 101 uses for yogurt - a snack option that I didn't even begin to touch on here.


Now, tell me...what's on your snack list?

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Homemade taco seasoning - easier than you think!

>> Thursday, October 7, 2010

When you make tacos, do you buy the little packets to taco seasoning at the grocery store?  That's certainly what I did up until a few months ago.  Buying the little packets of taco seasoning would always drive me bonkers.  I would spend way too much time reading ingredients trying to find the packet with the least offensive ingredient list.  Partially hydrogenated soybean oil, BHT, malic acid, monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin (the first ingredient in Old El Paso brand taco seasoning!) - what are these ingredients doing in powdered taco seasoning?!?

The obvious solution?  Make my own!  Now I have a little container full of homemade taco seasoning that sits at the ready.  It's a simple mix of seasonings with just enough salt to suit our taste buds and a little cornstarch to help thicken the juices a bit.  I might try adding just a little cocoa powder next time to give it an unexpected twist and a little depth.

This is great on any kind of taco, but we've found that our favorite way to use it is on chicken tacos.  I finely dice cooked chicken breast (maybe a pound), and then add a tablespoon or two of taco seasoning and about 1/3 a cup of water.  Bring to a boil, and you've got fantastic taco meat!

The next time you think of making tacos, don't reach for that packet of taco seasoning.  Make your own!  It will taste better, and you'll know exactly what is in it.


Homemade Taco Seasoning

4 TBSP chili powder
3 TBSP paprika
3 TBSP ground cumin
2 TBSP onion powder
1/2 TBSP garlic powder
2 tsp salt
2 TBSP cornstarch

Mix well and store in an airtight container.  To use, add 1-2 TBSP along with 1/3-1/2 cup water in place of store bought taco seasoning.

And if you just can't bring yourself to make your own taco seasoning, consider using McCormick Taco Seasoning Mix, which has a very simple and straight forward ingredient list.

Read more...

"Corn Sugars" - Coming soon to an ingredient list near you?

>> Tuesday, October 5, 2010

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you probably have already read the news.  The Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration to change the name "high fructose corn syrup" to "corn sugars."  The reason they give for wanting the name change?  Audrae Erikson, president of the Corn Refiners Association says,

Clearly the name is confusing consumers.  Research shows that 'corn sugars' better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose, and the sweetness of the ingredient. (1)
Take a moment to either stare at that quote incredulously or to laugh hysterically.  I think that I did both.

Why the change?  Could it be that sales are down?  Much as "dried plums" sound more appetizing to the buying public than "prunes," the Corn Refiners Association is betting that "corn sugars" will appease consumers.  "Corn sugars" does sound nicer than high fructose corn syrup, doesn't it?  And there is the added plus that many who question whether they want HFCS in their food because of bad press (or maybe the ridiculous HFCS ads from the Corn Refiners Association) might not notice the name change and will buy foods with "corn sugars" in the ingredient list.  (All of the above is my own opinion and conjecture.)

HFCS factory
Let's review how HFCS is made.  Where do these "corn sugars" come from, anyway?  Are the kernels that they use to make HFCS just bursting with sugars waiting to be harvested?  Um...no. High fructose corn syrup is made from corn starch.  The corn kernels go through a series of mechanical and solvent washing steps to separate the corn starch from the rest of the kernel.  The corn starch is then converted to dextrose (aka glucose) by acids and/or enzymes.  The glucose is further converted to fructose enzymatically. (Read more on corn syrup production at the Corn Refiners Association and HFCS production at SweetSurprise.com.)

Got that?  Those "corn sugars" are not found naturally in corn in any appreciable amount.  "Corn sugars" are really corn starch that has been chemically converted to glucose and fructose.

Frankly, if the Corn Refiners Association wants to clear any confusion for the American public, they should change the name to glucose-fructose, which is the terminology used in Canada and much more representative of the actual product, in my opinion.  But, glucose-fructose doesn't evoke the same fuzzy feeling as "corn sugars."

When is the change coming?  The FDA has 6 months to rule on the name change.  If they agree to allow the name change, products will slowly shift to using the term "corn sugars" instead of high fructose corn syrup over the subsequent 12-18 months.

Want to read more?  Just a few of the articles on the subject that have been posted over the last couple of weeks.  Read and come to your own conclusion on the name change!

(1) A New Name for High Fructose Corn Syrup from The New York Times
One More Time:  Corn Sugar Chemistry from Food Politics by Marion Nestle
Help Rename High Fructose Corn Syrup from The New York Times
Fortunately, 'Corn Sugar' Has Become a Sticky PR Mess from Dr. Andrew Weil
CornSugar.com from the Corn Refiners Association


What do you think about the name change?

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Meatless Monday - Meatless Meals for Carnivores

>> Monday, September 27, 2010

Ah...Meatless Monday!  We have been committed to the concept of Meatless Monday (though our meatless day is not always on Monday) for over a year now.  You know what?  It was an easy transition.  But what do you do if you are a committed carnivore who likes the idea of going meatless but are afraid that finding tasty vegetarian meals will be hard? 

Enter the cookbook The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook:  Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour.  If you can't find good recipes on this blog ('cause there are a lot of great meatless recipes in the A Life Less Sweet archives - just do a quick search on Meatless Monday), then this is a great cookbook to turn to.



The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook is filled with recipes that made my husband and I drool.  The recipe organization is unusual, but it works.  There are 52 "menus" - each with a main dish and at least one side dish - divided among the four seasons of the year plus a few "wild card" menus that are great anytime of year.  I wasn't sure what I thought about this layout at first, but I find that I really do like the "menus" even though I'm just as likely to make a summer dish in winter as in summer.

Another thing I like...no fake meat!  After all, if you're a carnivore, why bother with fake meat?  These recipes don't have to rely on gimmicks to be good.  They are delicious vegetarian recipes that will appeal to vegetarians and carnivores alike. 

Each recipe is keyed with icons for gluten-free, kid friendly, dairy optional, vegan, and leftover bonus.  The key is a quick visual that is nice for those with special dietary limitations, parents looking for some thing kid-friendly, or a busy cook that wants a meal that will stretch more than one day. 

For our taste test, I made three recipes from the book.  We tried one of the summer menus - Zucchini and Corn Studded Orzo, and Goat Cheesy Roasted Pepper - and supplemented with a side from another menu - Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce.  All were excellent.  The kids loved the orzo.  So did my husband who still waxes poetic about that dish.  The sides were excellent too, though my goat cheese hating son didn't appreciate the Goat Cheesy Roasted Pepper, and neither of the kids were thrilled with the cauliflower (the adults were, though!). 

Zucchini and Corn Studded Orzo, Goat Cheesy Roasted Pepper, and Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce from The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook
All in all, I am very pleased with this cookbook.  The recipes we tried were easy to follow and very tasty.  There are many others in the book that will be going on our menu soon!

And now a couple of recipes from the book!  The Tempeh Hoagie-Letta is the amazing looking cover photo recipe and the Kale Chips are the accompanying side.  We haven't tried these yet, but if the sandwich tastes half as good as it looks, it will be a winner!

Tempeh Hoagie-Letta
From the book The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel.  Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2010

Tempeh:
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp sesame oil
juice 1/2 lime
1 clove garlic, chopped, plus 1 whole clove
1 tsp hot sauce of choice (optional)
1 (8 oz) package soy tempeh (multigrain or flax is fine, too), sliced into thumb size pieces, about 1/2" thick
3 TBSP vegetable oil
salt
4-6" hoagie rolls (look for something soft)
olive oil, to moisten the rolls
A few slices of smoked Gouda or provolone cheese per sandwich (optional tasty treat)

Fixins Salad:
1/2 medium size onion, cut through root in half, then slice into half moons
1 tsp dried oregano
2 TBSP olive oil
1 large or 2 small celery stalks, washed thoroughly, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1/2" slices
juice 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup good quality olives (green and/or black), pitted and roughly chopped
1/4 cup pepperocini or your favorite pickled pepper, chopped roughly
1/4 cup roasted peppers (1/2 to 1 medium sized pepper), chopped roughly (jarred is fine)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped finely
salt and ground black pepper

In a shallow baking dish, combine the soy sauce, mustard, sesame oil, lime juice, garlic, and hot sauce (if using) and whisk with a fork to blend.  Add the tempeh, making sure it's covered in marinade.  Allow to marinate about 30 minutes, turning to coat the second side after 15 minutes.

In a medium size mixing bowl, combine the onion, oregano, oil, celery, and lemon juice and stir.  Allow to sit about 15 minutes.  The onion will mellow out a bit with the citrus.

Stir in the olives, pepperocini, roasted peppers, and parsley.  Taste for salt and pepper, and season accordingly (the olives and pickled peppers are salty, FYI).

Can be made several hours or day in advance.  The salad gets better the next day.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat.  Remove the tempeh from the marinade and transfer to the skillet to pan-fry.  Don't crowd the skillet; if necessary, cook the tempeh in batches.

Cook until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes.  With tongs, transfer to a paper towel to drain.  Sprinkle immediately with salt. 

Slice the rolls in half (but not all the way through; keep attached along one edge).  In a dry skillet or under the low setting of your broiler, toast the rolls, cut side toward the heat source, until slightly crisp on the inside.  Remove form the heat and rub the insides with the whole garlic clove.

Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on each roll half to moisten.  Add the cheese, if using, followed by 1/2 cup of salad, topped off with four pieces of tempeh.  Push the tempeh down to meet the salad, squish both sides of the foll, and dig in.

Makes 4 sandwiches


Kale Chips
From the book The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel.  Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2010

1 bunch (4 to 5 cups) Lacinato kale (also sold as Dinosaur kale)
1 TBSP olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

With a sharp knife, remove the stem and middle rib of each kale leaf so that all you have left are leaves.  Wash the leaves, then dry thoroughly, preferably in a salad spinner.  With a knife, cut the leaves into small pieces (ideally 3" long, 2" wide).

Transfer the leaves to a medium size mixing bowl and add the olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes (if using).  With your hand, coat leaves with the seasonings; the leaves will glisten a bit.

Place the kale in a single layer on a baking sheet, giving the leaves plenty of room to roast.  Cook for 8 minutes, maybe a few seconds more.  Remove from the oven and enjoy.

Makes enough chips for 4 sandwiches or a bowl of TV snacks.  Best eaten within 24 hours, stored in a paper bag.

Many thanks to Da Capo Lifelong Books for providing a sample copy of The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook for review.  All opinions held in this review are my own.

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Saving Summer's Bounty

>> Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm at it again.  Summer is gone - has been for a while here - and fall is full force.  And so starts my yearly ritual of buying beautiful, in-season produce from the Farmer's Market and other sources and freezing them.  There is nothing better in the middle of winter than pulling out a pack of corn that was frozen the summer or fall before.  The taste is so different from the frozen corn that I can buy at the grocery store.  And so, every year I have a few things that I like to tuck away into my freezer.  This year it was raspberries (thank you previous homeowners who blessed us with a huge, mature patch of raspberry canes!), corn, carrots, basil, and peaches.  (You can see how I freeze these foods in my post on freezing from last year.)


Carrots - I froze carrots for the first time last year, and what a treat they were in the middle of winter!  Carrots from the grocery store are great, but the carrots I can get at the end of summer, both from my own garden and from my favorite local farm (Evergreen Farm in Star Valley, WY, in case you're interested) are so tender and sweet and very unlike those at the grocery store.  I simply slice the carrots into coins, place the coins in a single layer on a baking sheet, and freeze.    Once they're frozen, I'll transfer them to a container and use them all winter in soups and other recipes. 




Basil - Amazingly, this is my first year to freeze basil.  There is nothing quite like fresh basil, but fresh basil in the middle of winter is expensive!  I have high hopes that freezing the basil from my own garden will be successful.  I'm trying it two ways.  Both ways start with finely chopping the basil in a food processor.  In the first way, I drizzle in a little olive oil as well and then freeze in small portion sizes using an ice cube tray.  In the second way, I put the chopped basil in an ice cube tray and then cover with water.  So far, the basil in both methods looks great!  We'll see how they fare in the middle of winter.


Peaches - I've talked about peaches before.  This year, I took my plethora of peaches from Palisade, CO and made a peach BBQ sauce, peach bread, and these fabulous peach crisps in a jar and froze them all.  I first came across the recipe for Peach Crisps in a Jar on a fabulous (and now gone) blog called Eating Well Anywhere.  I make several (10 this year) and pop them in the freezer to eat later in the winter.  It's a fabulous treat when there is snow on the ground outside.  This year, I added some fresh blackberries to the filling.  Any berry or stone fruit would work well in this recipe.





Peach Crisps in a Jar
from Eating Well Anywhere


3 peaches
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp sll-purpose flour
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1 TBSP all-purpose flour
1 TBSP brown sugar
1 TBSP cold butter
pinch salt
3 half pint canning jars

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Peel peaches.  Place one sliced peach into each canning jar.  Sprinkle each jar with 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp flour, and 1/4 tsp cinnamon.  Shake the jar a little to let the flour settle.  Cut brown sugar, butter, and salt into butter.  Top each jar with 1/3 of the mixture.


Bake for 40 minutes or until juices bubble on a baking sheet.  Let jars cool completely.  Cap and place in freezer.

To reheat, I simply put the frozen jars into a 400 F oven and bake until it reaches the desired temperature - usually 20-30 min. 



Anyone else trying to save a bit of summer for the middle of winter?  What's going in your freezer or pantry?

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Chicken and Vegetable Soup that will make your mouth happy!

>> Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'm still here!  As much as I love writing this blog, it's always a little hard to get back into the swing of things after taking a self-imposed break.  But, the kids are back in school, and I have a lot of ideas on the back burner, so hopefully you'll see more posts here in the near future. 

My husband is a huge soup fan - HUGE!  Me, well, not so much.  I like my comforting tomato soup, but I usually have a hard time getting excited about soup.  My kids would agree.  They groan when they find out I'm making soup, which turns out to be quite a bit during the colder months.  This soup, however, has grown on both my kids and me, so much so that my son declared, "This soup is delicious!" upon eating it recently. 

I like to go all the way when I make this soup, and it becomes a two day affair.  I start by making a simple chicken stock.  The cooked chicken goes back into the soup the next day, and I'm left with a flavorful soup base that is way better than any broth or stock from a box.  One advantage of making the stock the day before is that I can let it cool in the fridge overnight and then skim off the solidified fat layer the next day.  If you're vegetarian, you could start by making a vegetable broth and forgo the chicken, of course.  And, if you don't have the time or inclination or are just feeling lazy (we've all been there), you could skip making the stock altogether and use canned or boxed broth instead.

The second day is reserved for actually making the soup.  The vegetables cook for a good hour, which lets the flavors really meld.  If you don't have the exact vegetables listed in the recipe on hand, use what you have or what you like...but the combo of vegetables in the recipe really does make an amazing soup.

Oh, and the name?  I don't know where the soup recipe originally came from, but my version is a permutation of a soup recipe from my husband's cousin Susan.  I've changed it up a bit to suit our tastes, but this soup will forever be Susan's Chicken and Vegetable Soup to me.



Susan's Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Stock:
1 whole chicken (I tend to get as small a chicken as I can find, which is still pretty big)
3 quarts water
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
1 TBSP peppercorns
2 carrots, chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 stalk celery, chopped

Place all ingredients in a large stock pot.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer covered until the chicken is fully cooked.  Turn off heat, remove chicken, and let cool.  When cool enough to handle, remove meat from the bones and chop.  Set cooked chicken aside for the next day.  Place the bones back into the stock pot and bring to a boil again.  Cover and simmer for another 40 min.  Pour liquid through a colander or strainer into a container.  Refrigerate overnight.  The next day, skim the congealed fat layer before continuing on with the soup.

Soup:
stock from above
2 lbs corn (frozen is fine)
2 lbs tomatoes (or 2-15 oz cans diced tomatoes with juice)
2 cups chopped okra (frozen is fine)
2 cups baby lima beans (frozen is fine)
1-2 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, chopped
3-6 cloves garlic, finely chopped (to taste)
1 TBSP sugar
2-3 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
reserved chopped chicken

Add stock through pepper into stock pot.  Bring to a boil and cook uncovered for 1 hour.  Add chicken about 15 min before serving.

Serves 8-10

This makes a lot of soup!  I take the extra and freeze it to use on a night when I don't feel like cooking.  If you halve the recipe, freeze the extra stock for another day.

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Don't be fooled by a pretty label!

>> Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I have gotten pretty darn good at spotting foods that contain HFCS and those that don't.  But...sometimes even I am fooled.  A couple of weekends ago my family and I were dining at a favorite restaurant of ours.  My husband bought a root beer. 

Henry Weinhard's Root Beer - Gourmet Soda, Draught-Style Head

We could have a whole separate discussion about the negatives of sodas in general.  But, I'll be the first to admit that I like a good soda.  Once upon a time I loved Coke.  Not so much anymore.  Cokes taste too sickly sweet to me now, and I almost always regret it when I order one.  But, there are cane sugar based specialty sodas out there that do float my boat (Virgil's Real Cola, for example).   I rarely buy sodas, but I do occasionally like to indulge in a soda as a special treat. 

But I digress.  My husband bought a root beer.  It was a nice looking root beer with a fancy label.  A label that screamed cane sugar and not HFCS to me.   I liked it so much (a rarity with root beer) that I traded my iced tea for his soda.  As always, I flipped the bottle to look at the ingredients.  I can't help it.  It's what I do.  You can guess what's next, right?  Take a look at the ingredients:


In case you can't quite read that, the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup.  Curses!

So, lesson learned.  Don't be fooled by pretty labels.  Looks can be very deceiving!

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Terra Chips Review and Giveaway!

>> Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Every now and then I am contacted by a company about reviewing their product, and I can't help but get excited because I know that it's a good product.  This is one of those times.  I love TERRA Chips and was thrilled when they contacted me to do a review and giveaway.

Head on over to A Life Less Sweet Reviews to read the review and enter the giveaway!  This is a good one!

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Ranch vs Ranch

>> Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My son has decided that salads are not a bad thing...as long as he has his ranch dressing.  He likes one very specific kind of ranch - Annie's Naturals Cowgirl Ranch Dressing.  That's it.  Try to substitute with Hidden Valley Ranch, and he'll turn his nose up.  (I know.  I tried just last week when we were out of Annie's ranch.) 

Sometimes I get in a rut buying things because I know that they're HFCS and trans-fat free, so I buy them without even thinking about them.  I realized this was the case with my son's salad dressing.  So, I thought it was time to do a little investigating.  On that note, let's take a look at the ingredients lurking in both Annie's Cowgirl Ranch and Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. 




Annie's Naturals Cowgirl Ranch Dressing
Canola oil, water, apple cider vinegar, buttermilk powder (cultured nonfat buttermilk), sugar, sea salt, whole egg powder, onions, garlic, chives, xanthan gum, parsley

Wow!  Not bad!  They even put their ingredient list in plain site on their product page - always a good sign.  The only ingredient that gives pause is xanthan gum. 


What is xanthan gum?  Xanthan gum is an additive that is used to thicken and stabilize foods.  Xanthan gum is especially useful in products that require an emulsifier like salad dressings.  Xanthan bum is found in toothpaste, foods, and even medicines.  It has a remarkable thickening ability, so just a little xanthan gum can thicken a large amount of salad dressing.

Xanthan gum is made by fermenting sugars (glucose and fructose) with the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris.  The resulting polysaccharide (or many sugars chemically bound together) is precipitated and ground into a fine powder.  Liquid is added later to form the gum.  Xanthan gum can be made from a variety of sources - wheat, soy, corn - but corn syrup is the most common starting material in the US. 

Am I worried about xanthan gum?  Not really.  Do I wish it wasn't in Annie's salad dressing?  Well, sure, but it seems to be the price we pay for buying a shelf stable salad dressing in all honesty.  For the most part, I think that Annie's has done a great job keeping their ranch salad dressing as free from "strange" ingredients as possible. 

Ok, now let's look at the competition:



Hidden Valley Original Ranch Topping and Dressing
Vegetable oil (canola and/or soybean oil), water, egg yolk, sugar, salt, cultured nonfat buttermilk, natural flavor, spices, less than 1% of garlic (dried), onion (dried), vinegar, phosphoric acid, xanthan gum, modified food starch, monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, disodium phosphate, sorbid acid and calcium disodium EDTA as preservatives, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate.

That's quite a difference, isn't it?  In addition to the xanthan gum, there are a host of other preservatives and "strange" ingredients.  I don't recognize many of the additives in the ingredient list, but frankly, I don't feel compelled to become familiar with them right now. 

Needless to say, I'm happy that my son likes Annie's ranch dressing over Hidden Valley ranch!

Do you have an ingredient that you'd like to know more about?  Have a food question that you'd like answered?  E-mail me!  I love learning about the foods that we eat and am always looking for ideas.



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Pasta Primavera

>> Sunday, July 25, 2010

Just a short and sweet note today to recommend this wonderful Pasta Primavera from Meatless Monday.  We ate it tonight using roasted squash, red bell peppers, onions, sauteed onions, and topped with chopped fresh basil.  Delish!  If you're looking for a relatively quick, light, easy meal that all will enjoy, this Pasta Primavera fits the bill!

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Our new drink obsession

>> Saturday, July 24, 2010

This post is really about my husband's drink obsession, but it's a good one.  The inspiration was from a friend of mine.  This friend would keep pitchers of water with submerged orange and citrus slices in her fridge in the summer for a light drink with just a little citrus kick.  I love this idea!  But while this is a great idea for home, it isn't always convenient when you're on the go.

The solution?  A product called True Lemon.  These little packets with crystallized lemon juice are easily portable and really do have a fresh-squeezed lemon flavor.  When I first bought some True Lemon to try, my husband was underwhelmed to say the least.  It's grown on him in a BIG way.  He adds a packet (or 3) to his water at home.  He adds a packet (or 5) to his water bottle before a big hike.  He adds True Orange to his hot chocolate for an orange zip.  He is totally addicted.



True Lemon and its companions, True Lime and True Orange, have simple ingredients - always a plus.  True Lemon contains:  citric acid, evaporated cane juice, lemon juice, lemon oil, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).  If you want a truly sugar-free product, well, this isn't it, but I don't mind the small amount of sugar in the packet.  I suspect that it helps carry the flavor through in a more pleasing way, and it's better than using an artificial sweetener.  The box says that each packet is the equivalent of about a tablespoon of juice.

My husband likes True Lemon the best with True Orange a close second.  I like True Lime the best.  True Orange is all smell and no flavor for me.  The kids, well, they're not sold on these.  In fact, they don't like them at all.  They also don't like water infused using citrus slices either.

If you want a refreshing citrus zip in your water, tea, or whatever drink you're imbibing in and don't always have fresh citrus on hand for the task, give True Lemon a try.  You can even go to their site and request a free sample.  I've got a few packets that live in my purse now for those times when I want a little flavor in my water without all of the sugar or sodium.

(Oh...and this isn't something that you have to limit just to drinks!  My husband likes to use a packet on peas, and True Lemon has a whole section devoted to recipes using their products.  I won't be replacing fresh lemons with these little packets, but they do have a valid place in my pantry!)

I have no affiliation with True Lemon.  All samples were purchased with my own money, and all opinions are my own.

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Meatless Monday - Grilled Pizza

>> Monday, July 12, 2010

I've been intrigued by the thought of a grilled pizza for a while now, but I've also been a bit intimidated by them.  I shouldn't have been!  As long as you prepare all of your toppings ahead of time, grilled pizza is easy and fast - a perfect meal for a summer day.

If this is your first time to grill a pizza, zip over to Slice, the pizza blog from Serious Eats.  They have a wonderful tutorial on making grilled pizza.  I have three tips from my experience grilling pizza.  First, I was glad that my pizza dough was not a super soft dough.  Having a slightly stiffer dough made it easier to get the dough on the grill.  (You can find the recipe for the dough I used at the bottom.  As always, it's a breadmaker dough for simplicity.)  A pizza peel is nice, but not entirely necessary.  We would have been fine using just a pizza pan and some tongs to get the crust on and off of the grill.

Second, preparation is key!  Have all of the ingredients for the pizza chopped and ready to throw on the dough quickly.  Once you flip the crust, you want to get the ingredients on as fast as possible to give them a little time to cook.  This pizza is done in minutes, so take your time beforehand to do a nice mise en place

Third, if the ingredient needs to cook, do it ahead of time or make sure that they are cut appropriately.  As I said before, the pizza is done in minutes.  There simply isn't much time for the ingredients to cook.  So, you might want to consider slicing your onions paper thin or else roasting or sauteing them ahead of time; otherwise, you'll be eating hunks of warm, raw onion, which may or may not be what you're looking for.

We made a plain cheese pizza for the kids and a Greek pizza for us.  They both turned out absolutely delicious.  (I actually forgot to add roasted red peppers to our Greek pizza.  It was still great, but the roasted peppers would be a nice addition.)  Next time, we'll be making a BBQ chicken pizza at my son's request.

If you have a grill, give this a try.  Grilling a pizza is surprisingly easy and definitely tasty - and it keeps the heat out of your house on a hot summer day to boot!



Grilled Greek Pizza
(See How to Make Grilled Pizzas for a lesson on the process)

Sauce:
3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup tahini
1 clove garlic, minced
juice from 1/2 of a lemon, about a TBSP

Mix together ingredients and set aside until ready to use.

Toppings:
black olives, chopped
green onions, chopped
sliced roasted red bell peppers
feta cheese to taste

Shape pizza dough as desired.  Cook pizza dough on a medium hot grill (350-400 F) for a couple of minutes.  Flip the pizza and add the sauce and toppings as quickly as possible.  Close the grill lid and let the pizza cook for another couple of minutes or until cheese is melted and the dough is cooked as desired.  Use a pizza peel or some tongs and a pizza pan to remove the pizza from the grill and enjoy!



Breadmaker Pizza Dough

1 1/3 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 TBSP sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp gluten
1 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast

Place all ingredients in your breadmaker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Program for Pizza Dough and press start.  When the machine beeps at the end of the cycle, immediately remove the dough from the bread machine and place in an oiled bowl.  Let rise for another 30 min.  Use the dough for pizza or pizza rolls.

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Meatless Monday - Quinoa Burgers

>> Monday, June 28, 2010

I am not a fan of fake meat.  I generally don't like the taste or texture of fake meat - especially when they're bean based.  Plus, I'm not a vegetarian.  If I want to eat meat, I'll do just that.  I don't need the fake stuff.  (Shameless admission - the kids and I do actually like - yes, like - Quorn nuggets.  At one time they were a favorite lunch around here for the kids, and I would happily do clean-up duty on leftovers.  But as they're uber-processed little chunks of corn smut pretending to be chicken, we try to limit our use of them now.) 

And yet, today I'm writing a post about quinoa burgers...a patty that my son still thinks has meat in it somewhere despite being told the contrary.  A friend brought these to the playground a couple of months ago and let me try one.  It was love at first bite.  These patties do have a meaty flavor thanks to the portobello mushrooms in them, but these are not patties that pretend to be meat.  The quinoa gives them a distinctive, wonderful texture.  These patties are great on a bun like a burger or just on their own.  I like to munch on them cold the next day.

Do you know about quinoa?  Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is a nutrient-dense seed that has a kind of nutty flavor when cooked and an interesting slightly crunchy flavor.  Quinoa is protein rich, and unlike most plant-based foods, the protein in quinoa is a complete protein.  Quinoa is gluten free and a good source of fiber, as well as other nutrients such as manganese, magnesium, iron, and phosphorous.  Once a relatively unknown seed, I've seen quinoa recipes popping up in abundance lately.  For this recipe, I used Inca Red Quinoa from Ancient Harvest Quinoa, but my kids seem to prefer the traditional, light-colored quinoa in other recipes.




Quinoa Burgers
(I mixed in shredded zucchini in my burgers, but I think that shredded carrots or red bell pepper would also be good.)

2 portobello mushrooms (8 oz), stems removed, cut into 1" pieces
1 small zucchini
1/4 cup minced shallot (or substitute chopped onion and garlic)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
3/4 cup quinao, cooked according to package directions (about 2 cups cooked)
3/4 tsp salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup fresh whole-wheat breadcrumbs*
1/2 cup oats (I pulsed mine in a food processor to give them a crumb quality.  May use 1/2 cup breadcrumbs if you prefer.)

Pulse mushrooms in a food processor until finely chopped.  Transfer to a bowl.  Shred zucchini, and squeeze out excess moisture in a towel.  Add to the mushrooms.

Heat 2 TBSP olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add the shallot and red pepper flakes and cook until softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and zucchini and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan, quinoa, and salt.  Let cool completely and then stir in egg, breadcrumbs, and oats.  Cover and refrigerate until cold and firm, about an hour.

Heat a TBSP of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Shape the quinoa mixture into small patties of the desired size.  My patties were between 1/4" and 1/2" thick.  Cook about 3 min on each side until crispy on the outside and cooked through.

Serve on buns or by themselves.  Makes about 15 small patties.

*To make fresh breadcrumbs, break bread into pieces and put into a food processor.  Pulse the food processor to make breadcrumbs.

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The disturbing reality of how our brain works

>> Thursday, June 24, 2010

I'm back!  The family and I made our yearly trip back to Mississippi to visit family, eat fresh stuff that is a long way from being in season here, and reconnect with our Southern roots.  While traveling, I had an opportunity to read a book that had been provided to me through a book reviewer program.  (They provide the books, I provide the opinion.)  I found the book to be fascinating, so I hope that you'll indulge me as I give you my review!



The Invisible Gorilla:  And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

Are you the type of person that notices and reliably remembers little details?  Are you a good multitasker?  Do you have vivid, detailed memories of events in your past?  Are you an excellent driver even while talking on the phone?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, this book will rock your world.  Chabris and Simons break down these misconceptions to show how single-tasked our brain is and how malleable our memory and perception are.

The title comes from a psychology experiment that the authors performed.  They filmed a basketball game using their students as actors/players.  They then asked volunteers to count in their heads the number of passes made by players of one team while ignoring the passes of the other team.  Halfway through the one minute video, an actor in a gorilla suit came to the center of the screen in the video, thumped her chest, and then walked away.  The gorilla was on screen for a full 9 seconds.  After watching the video, they interviewed the volunteers and asked them, among other things, whether they noticed anything unusual in the film.  Half of the volunteers didn't notice the gorilla at all!  This kind of single-minded attention - when we are so focused on the task at hand (in this case, counting passes) that we miss things we think we couldn't possibly miss - is shown to be anything but unusual.

This book is not a textbook, but rather an intriguing and entertaining exploration of how the mind does (or doesn't) work through anecdotes that illustrate scientific studies.  I found it to be a quick and somewhat disturbing read.  I don't like to think of my memory as an ever-changing kaleidoscope.  I like to think that I'm decent at multitasking.  I'd like to hope that all of those people driving around and talking on phones - hands free or not - really can react the way they need to.  Reality and current research, however, don't support these misconceptions I have about myself and others.

Don't read it expecting answers on how to change the way you think to overcome these limitations of our brain.  Instead, this book makes you recognize your limitations, and by recognizing these limitations of our brains we can perhaps approach the information constantly streaming at us and adjust how we interpret it. 

Many thanks to PTA Interactive for providing the book for review.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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Meatless Monday - Homemade Pizza Sauce

>> Monday, June 7, 2010

If you're like me, you're sometimes torn between fixing a meal that your kids will eat and like and fixing something more "adult."  I'm a big believer that not every meal should be what is typically considered kid-friendly.  How are our kids' palates supposed to expand if they don't try new, complex foods?  And yet, it's oh so nice when adult and kid-friendly collide. 

To that end, I give you this pizza sauce.  Pizza - as kid friendly as it gets.  Homemade pizza sauce - more complex than what they'll get at Pizza Hut or from a pre-packaged sauce, and yet they still love it!

I've adapted a pizza sauce recipe that originally came from a wonderful, but now gone, blog called Eating Well Anywhere.  It's a surprisingly super-simple recipe that starts with tomato paste.  The recipe calls for red wine, but if that is not a staple in your household, an old trick of mine is to replace red wine with broth and balsamic vinegar.  Just a little balsamic vinegar - try a tablespoon or two - does a decent job mimicking the complexity that red wine adds to a recipe. 

If you're looking for a good pizza sauce, give this one a try!  It makes a lot and freezes well.  I tend to make a double batch and freeze the extra in ice cube trays so that the sauce is ready to use in small portions.  One of the best things about this sauce?  I know exactly what is going into it!  No worries about HFCS (which is rampant in pre-packaged pizza sauce) or other undesirable ingredients.



Homemade Pizza Sauce

1 TBSP olive oil
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup red wine
1/4 cup broth of your choice
1 6-oz can tomato paste*
1/4 cup water
1/2 TBSP brown sugar (more or less to taste)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 TBSP chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried oregano
salt to taste
5-6 fresh basil leaves, chopped (I'm not a fan of dried basil, so I just don't go there)

Saute olive oil and garlic in a saucepan over medium heat for about one minute.  Add red wine and scrape up any bits of garlic from the pan.  Add broth and tomato paste and stir until combined.  Add remaining ingredients through the salt.  Stir until combined and then cook for another couple of minutes.  Add water or broth to thin to the desired consistency.  Stir in basil at the very end.

You can leave it chunky or put the sauce in a blender (or use an immersion blender) to make the sauce smooth.  If you have picky kids, blending is probably a good idea.  My kids were a little put off (but not for long!) the first time they saw the bits of herbs in their pizza sauce.

*If you're concerned about the chemical BPA in canned tomato products, look for tomato paste in a tube.  And Muir Glen has announced that they are switching to a metal can packaging that does not contain BPA starting with the next tomato harvest. 

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Nutty Granola Bars - better than one from the store!

>> Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Have you ever looked at the ingredients on a box of granola bars?  While there are definitely some bars out there with decent ingredients, the ones I seem to see the most in lunch boxes have ingredient lists that disgust and shock me.  Take, for example, Quaker Oats Chocolate Chip Chewy Granola Bars, a staple in our household before we started really paying attention to ingredients: 

GRANOLA (WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS, BROWN SUGAR, CRISP RICE [RICE FLOUR, SUGAR, SALT, MALTED BARLEY EXTRACT], WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED WHEAT, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN AND COTONSEED OILS* WITH TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID ADDED TO PRESERVE FRESHNESS AND/OR SUNFLOWER OIL WITH NATURAL TOCOPHEROL ADDED TO PRESERVE FRESHNESS, DRIED COCONUT, WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, SODIUM BICARBONATE, SOY LECITHIN, CARAMEL COLOR, NONFAT DRY MILK), SEMISWEET CHOCOLATE CHIPS (SUGAR, CHOCOLATE LIQUOR, COCOA BUTTER, SOY LECITHIN, VANILLA EXTRACT), CORN SYRUP, CRISP RICE (RICE FLOUR, SUGAR, BARLEY MALT, SALT), INVERT SUGAR, SUGAR, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, GLYCERIN, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL*. CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF SORBITOL, CALCIUM CARBONATE, SALT, WATER, SOY LECITHIN, MOLASSES, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, BHT (PRESERVATIVE), CITRIC ACID.
Holy moly!  Partially hydrogenated oils are listed not once, but twice!  But, of course, they can still claim to be trans fat free because the total amount of trans fat is less than 0.5 g per serving.  They make a big deal out of being "Made without high-fructose corn syrup" but the bars still contain invert sugar (sucrose broken down to glucose and fructose) and corn syrup solids.  It's not all bad, but it certainly isn't good either.  But, to make up for the massive ingredient list, the taste is a definite kid pleaser.

Well, guess what?  The taste of my homemade granola bars is also a definite kid pleaser, and I can control exactly what goes into them.  They're a cinch to make, and probably cheaper per serving than store bought granola bars (though I haven't done the economic analysis to actually confirm that statement).

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've seen my granola bars before...more than once even.  I've tweaked it just a bit and wanted to share the latest and greatest (in my opinion) incarnation of this recipe.  For this latest version of my granola bars, I've replaced 3 tablespoons of butter with applesauce.  This replacement did not significantly change the texture or flavor.  (I should note that I tried using even more applesauce and less butter, but I did not like the end result.) 

Feel to use whatever nut butter you like or leave the nut butter out all together.  I've had friends and readers tell me all sorts of wonderful modifications they've made to this basic granola bar recipe - mashed banana, coconut, raisins and other dried fruits.  You're only limited by your imagination!  (And maybe your child's taste buds.)



Nutty Granola Bars

3 cups rolled oats (quick oats are fine)
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon (optional)
5 TBSP butter, softened
3 TBSP unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup honey
3 TBSP and 1 and 3/4 tsp packed brown sugar
3 TBSP nut butter of choice (optional)
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
3 TBSP flaxseed meal or wheat germ (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Lightly grease a 9"x13" pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well.

Firmly press mixture into the prepared pan. Bake at 325 F for 20 min or until golden brown. Let cool for 10 min and then cut into bars. Let bars cool completely in pan before removing or serving.  (This is so important!  They'll be very crumbly until they are absolutely cool.)  On hot summer days, might want to store in the fridge so that they're not as crumbly and the chocolate doesn't melt.

Makes about 24 bars

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More HFCS-free ketchup options!

>> Monday, May 31, 2010

It's Memorial Day - a day to remember and honor those men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.  Take a moment to remember those people who gave their lives while serving your country where ever you should happen to live.

Memorial Day is also the traditional unofficial start of summer.  It doesn't matter that we were watching a parade in parkas and occasional spits of snow just two days ago, it's summer!  Tonight we will be firing up the grill and enjoying a slice of watermelon (my family's Memorial Day tradition).  For us, ketchup and grilling seem to go hand in hand, so I was thrilled to see that we have more ketchup options.

When consumers speak with their pocketbook, companies listen - at least the smart companies do.  Hunts is the latest company to remove HFCS from their products.  The entire line of Hunt's ketchups is now HFCS free!  Hunts' ketchup now consists of five simple ingredients:  tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and other seasonings - no HFCS, artificial ingredients or preservatives.  Hunts says that the switch is "in direct response to consumer demand."  We have a bottle of Hunts ketchup sitting in our fridge now, and it is a good ketchup. 



Once upon a time, the only ketchup we bought was Heinz ketchup.   My husband was in love with the texture and flavor of Heinz ketchup over all other ketchups.  Then we gave up foods containing HFCS, and Heinz was no more in our household.  Most Heinz ketchups still contain HFCS, but they now have two HFCS-free options.  The first has been around a while - Heinz Organic Ketchup, a good but expensive ketchup.  The second is a new offering - Simply Heinz Tomato Ketchup.  The ingredients in Simply Heinz are basically the same as Hunts - simple with no HFCS, artificial ingredients or preservatives.



Kudos to Hunts for changing it's entire ketchup line and Heinz for introducing another ketchup that is HFCS-free with simple ingredients!  

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What kind of syrup do you buy?

>> Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back when we dined in blissful ignorance on HFCS-containing foods, our favorite syrup was Log Cabin. The first ingredient in Log Cabin's list at the time was HFCS. So, we switched to pure maple syrup.  I am happy to report that Log Cabin has since removed HFCS from it's syrups, but we've stuck with real maple syrup even though it is more expensive.  (If you're avoiding HFCS, read those ingredients!  Most artificial maple syrups still use HFCS.)

Using real maple syrup has its advantages.  First, it isn't nearly as viscous as Log Cabin and the other artificial maple flavored syrups, and with the thinner consistency a little maple syrup goes a long way - and that's a good thing because it's expensive! Second, did you know that maple syrup actually has some health benefits? It contains a ton of manganese and zinc - two trace elements and natural antioxidants that are good for your health. It's also loaded with calcium - the same amount as whole milk! That just blows my mind - in a good way.  Of course, hopefully you're not consuming a glass full of maple syrup, but it is nice to know that it's in there.   Last, it has fewer calories than corn syrup.  (Though it doesn't have fewer calories than the "light" artificial maple syrups out there.  That "light" designation often comes at a price, though, as the "light" syrups are often full of other artificial ingredients.) With all of that going for it, I can overlook the steep price, I suppose, and not feel so bad when we have a syrup laden breakfast.



You might think that maple syrup is maple syrup, but not so. There are different grades and different classifications within the different grades, and they all have different flavors.  When we first switched to maple syrup, I was used to the more subtle maple flavor of the artificial syrups.  The flavor of the Grade A Dark Amber real maple syrup that I could find in my grocery stores was too intense for my taste.  With just a little digging, I learned that Grade B actually has a stronger flavor than Grade A, and that Grade A Medium Amber and Grade A Light Amber are most commonly used as table syrups.  It strikes me as funny that Grade A Dark Amber is what I can find in grocery stores.

Amazon came to our rescue, as usual.  We were able to order some Grade A Medium Amber maple syrup, which had a much less pronounced maple flavor that was just right.  We have since come to enjoy a deeper maple flavor and now buy Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup.  I won't lie, it is expensive.  I buy in bulk (a gallon at a time either through Amazon or directly from the farm) and store the extra in my fridge to save money.  A little goes a long way for us, so I don't feel bad paying the money for the real deal.

Just why is maple syrup so expensive?  Maple syrup has not always been so expensive.  Prices have gone up dramatically in the past five or so years.  The increase in prices isn't a conspiracy by the maple syrup producers.  We can blame the weather for the stiff increase.  Maple syrup is produced from sap collected from certain maple trees.  This sap collection depends on freezing cold nights and warm days.  Recent warm springs have played havoc with sap collection.  Add to this increasing demand for the real deal, and prices remain high. 

Ah, well.  I'm still content to be buying real maple syrup.  The benefits outweigh the cost in my household.

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Meatless Monday - Roasted pineapple and sugar snap peas

>> Monday, May 17, 2010

Now that we are fully committed to eating meatless at least once a week, I bought a subscription to Vegetarian Times last December.  This past month there was a recipe that just jumped out at me.  It practically begged me to make it.  So...I did, of course.  The crazy thing about this dish, pulled from the book Supermarket Vegan:  225 Meat-Free, Egg-Free, Dairy-Free recipes for Real People in the Real World, is that it's main component is pineapple.  With it's natural sweetness, Hawaiian-Style Sweet-and-Sour Roasted Pineapple and Bell Peppers definitely stretches how I define a main dish.  Served over brown rice, it works.  The only change I made to this dish was the addition of basil as a garnish.  The basil was a great addition and kind of cut the sweetness a bit.  I think that cilantro would work well as a garnish too.

Step out of your dinner comfort zone, dear children.  This is a thought that I express to my kids often.  If they had their way, it would be pizza and macaroni every night.  Alas, mom has different ideas about dinnertime.  My son thought that this dish was so-so.  He didn't love it, but he didn't hate it either.  My daughter steadfastly refused to eat it, but once she took her mandated bite, she declared that she liked it.  (She still didn't eat it all, though.)  My husband and I liked this pineapple dish a lot and will have it again.

We served the pineapple dish along with some sauteed sugar snap peas.  My kids seem to like raw sugar snap peas better than the sauteed version, but I think that they're both tasty.  To saute, simply heat a little butter or olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat.  Add the sugar snap peas and saute until they turn a bright green.  Don't over cook or they'll be mushy!  Add salt to taste.



Hawaiian-Style Sweet-and-Sour Roasted Pineapple and Bell Peppers
closely adapted from Vegetarian Times magazine

3 cups cubed fresh pineapple
1 medium red bell pepper, cubed
1 medium red onion, cut into thin wedges
1 TBSP tasted sesame oil
1 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP brown sugar
1 TBSP sweetened coconut flakes (optional)
1 TBSP lime juice
finely chopped basil (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Arrange the pineapple, bell pepper, and onion on a baking sheet.  Drizzle with the sesame oil, olive oil, and brown sugar.  Add salt to taste.  Toss to coat

Roast pineapple mixture for 30 minutes or until lightly browned, turning once.  Remove from oven and sprinkle with coconut flakes and then drizzle lime juice.  Toss well.  Serve hot or at room temperature over rice.  Garnish with basil if desired.

Serves 6

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Sweet potato in cookies? Really! And it's GOOD!

>> Thursday, May 13, 2010

You read the title right...sweet potato cookies!  These cookies get two big thumbs up from both of my kids.  Moist, delicious cookies that are LOADED with sweet potato.  It's a good match when you think of it.  Sweet potatoes do have a lot of natural sweetness, and the sweet potato's flavor is not so in-your-face.  It blends nicely with the rest of the ingredients, and you don't really realize that you're getting a hit of sweet potato.

Before you get too excited, these are still cookies in all of their sugary, refined flour goodness.  (Wait, is that an oxymoron?)  I'm with Cindy at Fix Me A Snack - sometimes a cookie just needs to be a cookie.  But that doesn't mean that you can't sneak some good stuff into it, right? 

If you remember seeing this recipe in the distant past, well, I've changed it ever so slightly.  I replaced just a little of the butter (ok, a whole 1/4 cup!) with applesauce.  I can't tell the difference.  I used a combo of cinnamon chips and white chocolate chips in my last batch, and only made half of the cookies with raisins (a nod to my raisin-hating little boy, who is actually slowly but surely making peace with dried grapes even if he will never be a fan of them).  I love the addition of the raisins.  While I think that a chocolate chip would overpower the subtle flavor of the cookie, feel free to use whatever chip or dried fruit makes you happy.  (And see my note at the very end about chips.)

These cookies are very moist, and they get their moisture from the sweet potato.  I go all out and use a full 3 cups of mashed sweet potato.  It's a forgiving recipe, so you can get away with as little as a cup of mashed sweet potato.  They get moister as they sit overnight, so put a layer of waxed or parchment paper in between the layers of cookies in your cookie jar.



Sweet Potato Cookies

1-3 cups sweet potato, cooked** and mashed
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup margarine or butter, cold
1/4 cup applesauce
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup quick cooking oatmeal
1 cup raisins (optional)
cinnamon or white chocolate chips to taste (optional)
2 TBSP flaxseed meal (optional)

Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs and dry ingredients. Mix in mashed sweet potato and then any optional ingredients. Drop by teaspoonful onto a greased baking sheet (or use parchment paper without grease). Bake at 350 F for 10-12 min. Let cool completely and store in an airtight container.

**For those that aren't cooking inclined, there are lots of different ways you can cook your sweet potato. You can roast in the oven, unpeeled, at 425 F for about an hour or until tender when pierced with a fork. Or you can peel and boil or steam sweet potato chunks until tender. Or you can cut into small cubes and microwave the cubes with about a 1/3 cup of water in a microwave-safe container for about 12 min.

Note on chips:  Be careful when you buy your chips!  White chocolate and cinnamon chips so often contain trans fat (in the form of partially hydrogenated oils).  I used Ghirardelli's white chocolate chips and King Arther Flour's cinnamon chips.  Both are blessedly trans fat free!  So, flip that bag over and check the ingredients before buying your chips.  It would be a shame to ruin an otherwise wonderful cookie with a dose of trans fat!

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