Archive for the ‘educated eating’ Category

Well folks, it’s over!!  Last Sunday I completed the New York City Half Marathon.  I was happy before (here with my friend Laura):

And still smiling after the finish (here with my friends Jeanne, Andy, Danielle, and Katie and with my parents):

My training paid off and my run was really enjoyable and energizing thanks to the support of my family and friends.  But boy have I been feeling the need to relax and catch up on the bits and pieces of life that slipped through the cracks during the weeks leading up to the race.  In short, I’ve been a busy bee these days!  I haven’t much felt like cooking elaborate meals and doing the tremendous dish washing that entails.  Simple dinners and soups (I made weeks ago and put in the freezer) have lately been playing a starring role in my kitchen.

Although I love making things from scratch and using fresh, local, healthy ingredients it’s always more of an ideal, an event that occurs a few times a week, than a daily reality.  I rarely cook every single night of the week and I probably wouldn’t want to!  I don’t really know anyone who does–unless they are a chef or they don’t work full time.

My mom is a wonderful cook who somehow managed to work and cook several times a week for her family of four.  We ate dinner together every single night and now that I’m on my own and trying to work and cook for myself, I can scarcely imagine how she juggled everything!  I’ve taken on several of her recipes and tips over time but I recently asked her to refresh my memory of our “daily dinners”, the simple things we ate that tasted special just because we were together.  Here is what she said:

When you were little, usually one night a week we had spaghetti, sometimes meatballs, and we’d get 2 nights out of that, with a big loaf of Italian bread.  We also had French toast often, kind of a ‘breakfast for dinner’ theme, or pancakes and a side of applesauce.  I know we had the oven cheese fondue at least once every 2 weeks, cause you loved it.  If I had left over baked potatoes, we’d have omelettes and I’d dice the potatoes and make homefries.  Tacos were very popular with you guys, although if you remember you did not eat veggies back in the day, so you mostly had meat and lots of shredded cheese!  On Friday nights, we often had scrambled eggs and toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches – I always tried to work in a fruit or veggie side but there was a picky eater who shall go unnamed (look in the mirror) who made nutritionally balanced meals somewhat challenging!

I couldn’t help but laugh very loudly, remembering what an incredibly picky eater I was!!  I’m sure my eating habits didn’t make it any easier for her to make healthy meals for the family.  I’m glad I turned out alright despite the fact that I refused to eat anything green up through my teens!

So here are some tips, passed from my mom and from me, to ease that ever-present question, “what am I going to eat for dinner?”:

-In my kitchen, as in my mom’s, cooking soups and stews are a weekly winter ritual.  They are perfect because unlike other dishes, they reheat beautifully.  Right after eating my dinner helping, I put some into containers for my week’s lunches and save some for the freezer.  Then when I don’t feel like cooking, I always have a delicious soup ready to be defrosted!

-Don’t underestimate the power of the carb+veggie+protein formula.  If you don’t feel like leaving the house for special ingredients or you don’t want to scour a cookbook for the perfect recipe, just use what you have. For example: if you have leftover rice (carb), a can of chickpeas (protein), a can of stewed tomatoes (veg), and pine or walnuts (protein), you can make an easy rice pilaf.  Mix it all up and throw in some spices to taste (cumin, tumeric, red pepper), some raisins or currants, and add any extra veggies you have such as cooked carrots or greens on top.  Heat it all up in a pan.  I did this the other night, and it turned out deliciously:

-Fall in love with your freezer!  Say you decide to make some pizza dough, why not double or triple it?  If you make pancakes, double that batter as well and then you can have breakfast for dinner any night of the week! The possibilities are endless…

-Eggs are highly underrated for dinner by Americans.  In France it is very common to eat omelettes for dinner–actually they are not breakfast food at all!  And think about it–you’ve got your protein right there, with fresh veggies folded in and topped with a little cheese.  A fruit salad on the side makes it a delightful meal.  All of that can be made in a snap.

-And of course, I always fall back on old reliable, the tortilla/wrap.  I try to always have some whole wheat or multi-grain tortillas in my fridge.  Often, I’ll have sauteed some veggies before just to have on hand (such as red peppers, onions, and spinach).  On half the tortialla, I spread refried beans, sauteed veggies, and shredded cheese.  I fold it in half, stick it in a warm oven and in about 10 minutes, I’m ready to go with (healthier than takeout) quesadillas.  It helps to always have salsa on hand too.

So what’s your go-to simple dinner?  I hope these tips inspire you to build up your stress-free dinner repertoire!  Enjoy!!


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Hi folks!  Here in New York spring is starting to make an appearance.  On Saturday, I was with my running group in Central Park and everywhere there were signs of her–little hints and glimpses that were just enough to make my whole being feel lighter.  The sun seemed warmer, people and dogs were out in full force, and the snow had given way to green grass.  I even seen the tops of spring flowers poking their heads through the soil.  All this is to say, it looks like the season of hearty soups is winding down to a close.  It seems like just the other day, a chill in the autumn air had me all excited to dust off the big soup pot in preparation for a lovely lentil and veggie stew.  I think the following recipe might actually be the last lentil soup I make of the season!

Although I am such a soup fan that a piece of me is sad to see soup weather go, I am definitely welcoming the spring with arms open wide.  Also, I am starting to drool over the thought of a FRESH tomato!  Ok, ok, I might be getting a little ahead of myself here, given that in the Northeast we won’t be getting our hands on any locally grown tomatoes for quite a few weeks.  But fresh spring veggies are lovely too–I’m really looking forward to mixed salad greens, garlic scapes, and oooooh fresh asparagus!  Come on, you know that asparagus grown overseas during winter just doesn’t taste right!  I’m already planning two spring time soups–garlic scape and potato soup and springtime minestrone (in which lovely in-season asparagus plays a starring role).

But let’s jump back to the present.  Every time I make a new lentil soup, I feel as though I’ve broken the mold, hit the jackpot.  I’m so certain that I’ve found my favorite recipe that I pretty much never want to try a new one.  And then, I do…..and I realize that each is more spectacular than the rest!  That’s because the lentil is delicious, filling, versatile, and (luckily) very nutritious.  This recipe is based off of one my mother gave me.  She found it in a low glycemic index cookbook.  It is a good platform for you to express yourself since it is somewhat bare bones.  I took the outline and ran with it.  It’s yummy, spicy, and best of all, super easy.  Here goes:

olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3-4 medium carrots, chopped

3 medium potatoes, whatever kind you have laying around

lots of garlic minced (say about 4-6 cloves)

1/2 tsp tumeric

2 tsp curry powder

1/2 tsp cumin

cayenne pepper to taste

6 cups water

1 1/2 cups veggie stock

1 cup red lentils

1/2 cup pearl barley

1 15 oz can of chopped tomatoes, undrained

salt and pepper to taste

Chop all the veggies, warm the oil in your soup pan.  Add onion and cook for about 10 min, until they brown slightly.  Add the garlic, carrots, potatoes, and spices.  Stir up and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Stir in the water, stock, lentils, barley, tomatoes and salt and pepper.  Simmer for about 45 minutes until everything is tender and looks good enough to eat.

Note:  red lentils are different from their other lentil cousins–they break down a lot.  Don’t be worried if they look mushy or even disappear.  That’s what happens but the texture ends up being a lovely partner to the denseness of the barley.

I hope you can make this warming, fragrant soup on a damp winter-spring-in-between day.


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Here I am in wordpress format!  For a while now I’ve been thinking about switching to wordpress.  I like the look a lot more than blogger.  We’ll see how this experiment goes….in the meantime, I also will be doing a guest blogger spot on Circle of Food.  Check it out!

Have you seen the City Critic article in the NY Times today?  All about picking out and slaughtering your own turkey.  I don’t know if I could do the actual killing part, but I think it’s really important to be connected to your food–this is one of the reasons I try not to eat meat since I think we are so cut off from any knowledge of how the animal was raised and killed.

For a long time, it was really hard for me to give up the Thanksgiving turkey although I had stopped eating meat for a while.   However, the more I learned about the way Thanksgiving turkeys are raised and killed, the less I wanted to eat of it.  For the past several years now, I’ve opted to stay away from the turkey.  The other side dishes are kind of a different story.  Last year I still had gravy; what are mashed potatoes without gravy?!?  This year, I am going to make vegetarian gravy.  I’ve got a few recipes to choose from, right now I’m leaning toward the NPR recipe.  I’ll let you know how it turns out!

From NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97137098

Note: The gravy thickens up quite a bit, so keep some warm water or vegetable broth on hand to thin it out before serving, and for leftovers.

Makes 2 cups.

1/2 cup olive oil

1/3 cup chopped onion or shallots

5 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

4 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 cups vegetable broth

1/2 teaspoon dried sage

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and soy sauce to form a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in the broth.

Season with sage, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring constantly, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until thickened.

From Martha Stewart: Vegetarian Mushroom Gravy – Martha Stewart Recipes

Makes 3 1/2 cups

1 portobello mushroom
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms
4 cups organic mushroom or vegetable stock
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Marsala wine (optional)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon thyme leaves

  1. Remove stems from portobello, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms. Place stems and mushroom stock in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; simmer for 30 minutes. Strain; set aside.
  2. Finely chop portobello cap, and set aside. Thinly slice shiitake and cremini. Place 3 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium heat; add shallots, and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add chopped and sliced mushrooms, and cook until mushrooms are soft and browned, and all liquid has evaporated. Add Marsala, if using, and cook, stirring to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Place the remaining tablespoon butter and flour in a medium saucepan over medium heat; cook until browned and fully combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the enriched stock; bring to a boil, whisking until thickened. Add the reserved mushroom mixture and thyme, and stir to combine. Serve hot.

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Ok, so I know what you’re thinking—can cookies really be both “yummy” and “healthy”?  Yes!!  I’ve finally found the intersection of yum and health, a veritable venn diagram of baking if you will.

A few weeks ago we had a girls night and I wanted to make something that everyone could eat so I was searching for a gluten free recipe.  Oftentimes gluten free baking requires all sorts of special flours and somewhat hard to find (and typically expensive) ingredients.  Because gluten is a binding agent, when you go gluten free, you have to use all sorts of other things to get the baked good to stay intact. Sometimes homemade cookies and cakes that are gfree can fall apart and don’t have the familiar consistency one thinks of when dreaming about a baked good. 

But I am here to tell you that I’ve found a recipe that bucks this trend!  Of course these tasty treats come from 101cookbooks.com, my go to source for all things healthy and tasty.  I added a few of my own touches to Heidi’s recipe.  If you’d like to spice things up as I did, go ahead and add some mashed up apples (I had some overripe little guys on hand and they were begging to be used).  Also, I added in some nutmeg.  The recipe calls for coconut oil with a possible substitution of olive oil but I used the olive oil and it came out splendidly, so don’t worry about going out to get the coconut if you don’t have that. Also, I made my own almond meal by throwing some almonds in a chopper, it’s super easy.  As Heidi notes, the consistency of the raw cookies will be quite different than you are used to, but no worries, this is to be expected.  Just keep an eye on them and go for the smell test (if they smell done, they probably are!).  Here is Heidi’s recipe and my photos follow:

(Heidi’s) Nikki’s Healthy Cookies
You can use unsweetened carob, or grain sweetened chocolate chips, or do what I did and chop up 2/3 of a bar of Scharffen berger 70%. I sort-of shaved half the bar with a knife and then cut the rest into bigger chip-sized chunks. You can make your own almond meal by pulsing almonds in a food processor until it is the texture of sand – don’t go too far or you’ll end up with almond butter. And lastly, the coconut oil works beautifully here, just be sure to warm it a bit – enough that it is no longer solid, which makes it easier to incorporate into the bananas. If you have gluten allergies, seek out GF oats.

    3 large, ripe bananas, well mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/4 cup coconut oil, barely warm – so it isn’t solid (or alternately, olive oil)
    2 cups rolled oats
    2/3 cup almond meal
    1/3 cup coconut, finely shredded & unsweetened
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    6 – 7 ounces chocolate chips or dark chocolate bar chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, racks in the top third.

In a large bowl combine the bananas, vanilla extract, and coconut oil. Set aside. In another bowl whisk together the oats, almond meal, shredded coconut, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until combined. Fold in the chocolate chunks/chips.The dough is a bit looser than a standard cookie dough, don’t worry about it. Drop dollops of the dough, each about 2 teaspoons in size, an inch apart, onto a parchment (or Silpat) lined baking sheet. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes. I baked these as long as possible without burning the bottoms and they were perfect – just shy of 15 minutes seems to be about right in my oven.

Makes about 3 dozen bite-sized cookies.

I hope you enjoy these yummy and tasty treats–as the holidays approach it’s nice to find sweets that don’t pack too much of a fatty punch.  Mmmmm healthy and tasty, who knew?!

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I’ve been thinking about butter lately.  Well it IS the holidays after all!  Ok so maybe not everyone immediately thinks holidays=butter.  But then again, not everyone loves to bake.  Oh and some people bake with butter substitutes.  Not me, I absolutely love butter.  And I’m not talking land o’ lakes butter–I mean good, yummy butter.  I love to use Kate’s Homemade Butter because it’s made with fresh organic milk by a small family farm.  At Whole Foods it is one of the cheaper good butters.  I understand why people don’t like to use butter in everything or eat it on everything; many of my family members have very high cholesterol and need to use butter substitutes.  That being said, I think maybe Americans have become too scared of butter.  I’m not a nutritionist, but if Julia Child (who loved butter and used it in absolutely everything!) lived up into her 90s, I think it can’t be the bad guy many people think it is!

Whether or not you decide to use it on your toast every morning, one place you simply cannot skimp on the butter is in baking.  Surely I know there are many lovely recipes that use applesauce or other butter substitutes.  However, if you are making a beautiful, special dessert that you want to have a sublime taste, I believe you must must use butter (good butter at that).  Oh and VERY important about baking with butter–if a recipe calls for softened butter, you really must not soften it in the microwave.  If you can, take it out of the freezer/fridge ahead of time and set it on the counter.  I read an article in the NY Times once about how the structure of butter changes if you melt it in the microwave.  Unless the recipe calls for you to actually melt butter, try to resist the urge to soften it in the microwave.

So there is a point to all this butter talk.  Recently, I’ve made some divine cookies.  Rugelach for my book club and (gluten-free) Russian tea cakes for my roommate who cannot eat gluten.  Both use loads of real butter and both are relatively easy to master.  I hope you’ll consider adding them to your holiday cookie repertoire.  Here are some pictures and the recipes:

Rugelach [from Mollie Katzen’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest]

(This is a Jewish cookie that often shows up around Christmas–this is my second year making them with this recipe and I love it!  Instead of using cream cheese, Mollie Katzen uses cottage cheese which seems weird but tastes delicious.  You won’t even miss the cream cheese!!  To make it a tiny bit healthier, I use a bit of whole wheat flour in addition to the white.)

 For the dough:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks butter), room temperature
  • 1 cup cottage cheese
  • 1 1/4 cup white four
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt

For the filling:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup minced nuts (I used a combo of almonds and walnuts)
  • 1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, group to a coarse meal 

1. Slice up butter into tiny pieces and place in a large bowl with the rest of the ingredients for the dough.  [If you have a food processor, you could actually mix this up in it, but since I don’t……] Mix the ingredients with an electric beater or a fork until it is somewhat smooth.  Toward the end, I use my hands to get the butter worked in evenly.
2.  Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and roll each into a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for at least an hour (you can keep it there overnight if you like).
3.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix up the filling in a small bowl while you wait for dough to chill.
4.  ***Work on one ball of dough at a time, leaving the others in the fridge while you work.  Roll the dough out into a circle that is about a 1/4th an inch thick on a clean counter that is well-floured. 
5.  Sprinkle the filling all over the dough and then make 4 diagonal cuts in the dough so that you end up with 8 triangles.  Working from outer edge to inner edge, roll each piece up and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
6. Repeat with other dough and bake for about 25 minutes until the cookies are slightly browned, cool for 10 minutes before enjoying.

***Note:  Alternatively, you could roll each dough ball into a rectangle and spread the filling.  Then roll the dough up lengthwise into a log and slice pieces of cookie.  I have made it both ways and although these pictures are for the latter version, I actually prefer the former.  Something about the soft middle of the crescent shaped cookies makes me happy.  But you should experiment for yourself and see which way you prefer!

 This next recipe came from Living Without, a magazine for people with food allergies.  Because the original recipe is dairy and nut-free, and my roommate is only allergic to gluten, I adapted it.

(Note: These are sometimes called Mexican Wedding Cakes, but growing up I always knew them as Russian Tea Cakes so I refer to them as that.  Regardless of what you call them, they are delicious and one of my very favorite cookies!!)

Russian Teacakes

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature 
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar (plus about 1 cup more for decorating)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour–if gluten free use a gluten-free all purpose mix
  • 1 cup nuts, coarsely ground (I used walnuts, you could use pecans or almonds or a combo)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum if gluten free

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream butter and vanilla extract together with a metal spoon, mix until smooth.  Add in the powdered sugar, flour, and nuts (and the xanthan gum if doing the gluten free version).  Mix with your hands until just combined.
3.  Roll into 1 inch balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 10-12 minutes (until just slightly brown).  Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.  Place additional powdered sugar in a bowl and roll each ball in sugar until coated.  Let stand for a few minutes and roll each ball in sugar once more.

Have fun with your holiday baking and don’t forget to use real butter! 

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    The Food Issue

    On Sunday, the NY Times Magazine released its annual Food Issue.  I finally got around to reading some of the articles in the online version and I’m very glad that I did.  I wanted to post and comment on one of the articles that resonated with me.  It is not my intent to use this blog as a political platform or a clearinghouse of news articles, but since I love food and all that it’s preparation entails, I cannot help but discuss where food comes from.  Eating is one of the most basic human necessities and the fact that it is often politicized is sad to me.  From my point of view, all people benefit when they ask themselves, “where did my dinner come from and how was it grown or raised?”.  With that disclaimer out of the way, I hope you find time to check out the articles and think a little more about where your dinner came from. 

    Against Meat is a wonderfully written piece by Jonathan Safran Foer about why he gave up eating meat.  Foer speaks to connections between family, food, and memory.  His issues with meat speak directly to mine!  Since I have never considered myself a true vegetarian, I often have trouble explaining my views around meat–it has nothing to do with my politics and it’s not as simple as saying “I feel bad for animals” or saying “I’m an animal lover”.  I appreciated this article because Foer brings to light how important, and difficult, it is to force ourselves to carry our morals over into the kitchen.

    For me, the process of becoming what some of my friends refer to as a “kitchen vegetarian” (meaning I don’t usually cook meat or eat it at home) has been a long one.  After graduating from college, I considered myself a lover of all things meat but I found myself living in intentional community in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps with a very small stipend.  Due to limited resources, my community rarely purchased meat.  Oh how the lack of lunch meats and ground beef left me sad!  Yet over time I got used to eating less meat and I began to learn more about agribusiness; I starting wondering where my food came from and making the connection between plate and farm.  As the years passed and I continued to educate myself, I stopped buying meat almost altogether, although I still buy it occasionally when I am at a greenmarket like the one in Union Square and I can talk to the farmer who raised the animal.  But things are not always black and white: when a friend makes meat for dinner, I will usually eat it.  I also tend to be loosey goosey about my meat rules if I am eating at a nice restaurant, although I’m trying to work on that.  Things get really tricky though with family and when the holidays come around.  For as Foer writes in the passage below, food is very strongly tied to cultural memory. 

    Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.

    I have incredible family memories surrounding meat.  On cold winter days my Mom would make beef stew with dumplings and when she lifted the lid, the steam rising off the pot was so deliciously fragrant!  It was hot enough to heat our bellies and the house.  Although I miss beef stew, my Mom has begun making vegetarian chili that is also warm and beautifully fragrant.  Ok, so what about Thanksgiving without turkey?  For a few years I struggled very much with that one–turkey is inextricably tied to the holiday but factory farmed turkeys live a horrific life and my family has never bought a small farm, happy life turkey.  Finally last year I stuck to my guns and didn’t eat turkey for the first time.  Honestly, I didn’t miss it!  I realized that the other foods were enough.  It felt so good sticking to my guns and allowing my everyday life to flow into my family’s holiday table.  And, it is very true that when you stop eating as much meat, you develop new tastes and let go of old ones.

    In case you don’t have time to read Foer’s article, here is a snippet of his reason for being vegetarian that closely mirrors my reason for being a kitchen vegetarian:

    According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)

    According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

    So, there you go.  A case against meat I suppose–but more so a case for understanding our food supply and learning about your place in it.  

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