Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cooking techniques: how to blanch vegetables

Cooking techniques: how to blanch vegetables

What is blanching? Blanching vegetables is a simple cooking technique that includes cooking vegetables very briefly in boiling water and then submerging them in ice-water or running them under cold water to stop the cooking. You're left with very brightly colored vegetables that are like al dente pasta; crisp tender and lovely. You have also taken apart (ie denatured) the enzymes in the vegetables, so they'll stay fresh for longer.

I demonstrated this technique with asparagus, but it works well with green beans, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots too!

What do you do with these veggies? Lots of things; blanched vegetables make a great base for simple salads when tossed with a vinegarette. Blanched veggies also look prettier on a vegetable tray; you can try dipping them into balsamic black bean hummus.

You can also use this technique to prepare vegetables for storage in the freezer. If you didn't take the time to blanch the produce, it wouldn't last as long in the freezer. Place blanched veggies into zip top bags and remove as much air as possible to prevent freezer burn. By saving seasonal produce for later, we get to take advantage of the produce at its peak of freshness and nutrition and best price.

I also like to pop an over-easy egg on top of blanched veggies for a simple meal.

Trim ends from veggies

Drop into boiling water just long enough to develop bright color and to soften

Run under cold water or submerge in ice water; your veggies are ready to go!
Blanched asparagus topped with an over-easy egg and feta cheese
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Fruit "Ice-Creams" more delicious treats

Strawberry-Banana "Ice-cream"

This is such a cool trick! Using frozen fruit and your food processor, we make a ice-cream-like treat that satisfies your sweet tooth without ruining your healthy eating plans!

Low-cal Sundae!
This is a follow up to the original recipe that used only banana; most taste testers loved it, but my dad thought it was too "banana-y", which isn't surprising as it was the only ingredient! For this version, I made two batches; one with half strawberries and half banana, one with banana flavored with cocoa powder and vanilla. I scooped both flavors in a cute dish and topped it like a sundae with sliced strawberries and mini chocolate chips. Delish!

Simply freeze fruit of choice; bananas work well, but so do strawberries, mangoes, peaches and more!

Place fruit in food processor (most blenders won't cut it for this recipe) and puree until smooth and creamy. Some fruits might need a splash of milk, but plain bananas will not. Add flavors if you wish, such as cocoa powder, peanut butter, vanilla extract or cinnamon.

Scoop into your dish and add toppings if you like, or enjoy plain!

Freeze fruit
Half-way there!

Creamy and delicious "ice-cream"; thick enough to scoop!

Do you have a food processor in your kitchen? They're such a great tool to have and last for years. This one is well rated on amazon and is Amazon Prime eligible.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Great pseudo-grains: curried quinoa pilaf

Great pseudo-grains: curried quinoa pilaf

Have you tried quinoa yet? It is an excellent nutritious food that is rapidly gaining popularity. It goes well in both savory dishes, such at the pilaf below, and sweet. Quinoa is a good alternative to oatmeal in the morning; try it warmed up with fruit and milk.

The funny thing? It isn't technically a grain. According to the whole grain council, it is a "psudo-cereal" (isn't that a great term?).
"Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, or goosefoot) is in fact not technically a cereal grain at all, but is instead what we call a "pseudo-cereal" - our name for foods that are cooked and eaten like grains and have a similar nutrient profile. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach, and in fact the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It's a testimonial to how far quinoa has come in the last five years, that most people now know it's pronounced KEEN-wah, not kwin-OH-a." -http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org
Whatever you call it, quinoa is a nutrtion powerhouse. Loaded with protein, it will keep your tummy full for a long time. Try the recipe below as a take-along to your next picnic or BBQ and I doubt you'll be bringing home leftovers. If so, warm some up for breakfast and put an over easy egg on top. Breakfast of champions!
Curried Quinoa Pilaf

  • 4 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock (a one quart box)
  • 2 cups of quinoa
  • 1 cup onion, diced, (about 1 medium onion)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups carrot, diced
  • 1.5 Tbsp. coriander
  • 2 Tbsp. cumin
  • 1.5 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder (to taste)
  • 2/3 cup dried fruit (cranberries or raisins)
  • 2/3 cup chopped toasted nuts (pecans or pistachios)
  1. In stock pot, bring quinoa, stock, garlic and spices to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until quinoa is tender and has sprouted "tails" about 15 minutes (....if you haven't cooked quinoa before, you'll see what I mean when you're done cooking!). 
  2. Stir in fruit and nuts and dig in! This recipe is good both hot and cold.  
Gather your ingredients
Don't those veggies look heroic?

Simmer quinoa, broth, veggies and spices until quinoa is tender
Stir in dried fruits and nuts

Kitchen tip: when using turmeric, choose your cooking utensils carefully as this brilliant yellow spice will stain wooden and (some) plastic spoons. If you don't like the "well loved" look for your kitchen utensils, choose metal.
Turmeric: top right

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Breakfast of Champions: Baked peanut butter and berry french toast

Breakfast of Champions: Baked peanut butter and berry french toast

French toast is a great way to turn stale bread into something extraordinary; and making baked french toast gets the work done the night before and you away from the stove. Baked french toast is a great brunch idea and is also a healthy and filling breakfast to have throughout the week.

For this recipe I started with a foundation of whole grain bread and bumped up the eggs from traditional recipes. More eggs means more protein and will keep you going until lunch. Try to find eggs from your farmers market so that you're getting eggs from happy hens and that are more nutritionally dense.

For this recipe, I cubed the bread; I like having it this way so that it makes it easier to select the portion you need. If this is a part of a brunch menu, you probably want smaller pieces. But if this is the main dish for breakfast, you're going to want a bigger piece.

Allergic to peanuts? Try almond butter instead. Allergic to almond too? Poor thing: try soy nut butter.

Baked peanut butter and berry french toast
Serves four; easily doubled - use 13x9 pan
  • 4 slices of your favorite whole grain bread
  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 cup low-fat milk or plant based milk (soy, coconut)
  • 1/4 cup non-hydrogenated peanut butter
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen berries (thawed)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray square pan with non-stick cooking spray
  2. Cube bread and place into prepared pan
  3. Using a whisk, mix together eggs, peanut butter, milk, vanilla and cinnamon in a medium sized bowl. It doesn't have to be smooth, I like having small chunks of peanut butter.
  4. Pour egg mixture over bread cubes. Top with berries (stopping here you can pop this in the fridge instead and bake in the morning)
  5. Pop into the oven and bake until egg custard is set; about 40 minutes. When is it done? The french toast will pull away from the pan a bit, the top will be browned and the whole thing will puff up a bit. Also, a knife stuck into the center will be pretty clean
Get your ingredients together!

Cubed whole grain bread

Peanut butter batter to soak the bread cubes
Berries on top!

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I like the pan below because it comes with a cover; this makes it easier to take this dish for an office party or brunch as your friends house! And if you don't have a whisk, it is a great kitchen tool!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dinner tonight: cashew tofu stir fry

Dinner tonight: cashew tofu stir fry 

I am a huge fan of any cookbook written by Mollie Katzen. She has written many and they all have the sense that you're cooking with her in the kitchen; the pages are all hand written, the directions are clear as a bell and she draws pictures and doodles to keep you entertained. The recipes are also delicious!

This cashew stir fry is inspired from a recipe found in The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest. You marinate the tofu in a flavorful sauce and then saute the veggies with the tofu and serve the whole delicious dish over some rice, topped with cashews. To save time, you could marinate the tofu the day before and even cook the rice too. 

1 pound firm tofu, cut into cubes
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons honey
1 tsp freshly minced ginger
4 medium cloves garlic
black pepper
2 teaspoons peanut oil
8 scallions, minced (whites and greens)
bell peppers, in strips
1 cup julienned carrots
1 pound mushrooms, quartered
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup toastes cashew pieces

1. Mix together marinade ingredients; lemon juice through black pepper. Add cubed tofu and let marinate for a few hours or overnight. You can also cook your brown rice the night before.
2. Preheat wok or heavy skillit over high heat. Add peanut oil and veggies. Saute veggies saute for a few minutes. Add tofu and all of themarinade and cook over medium until everything is hot and bubbly; total cooking time is not to exceed ten minutes
3. Serve stir fry over cooked rice and top with cashews
Chopping the veggies!

Marinating the tofu cubes

Saute the veggies

Did you know cooking in cast iron increases the iron content of your food?
Dig in!

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mama's Recipes: Taco seasoning blend

Mama's Recipes: Taco seasoning blend

I didn't know that you could buy taco seasoning until I went to college and roommates were bringing it home from the store. My mom always made her own and kept it in an ancient tupperware container in the cupboard. While it isn't hugely expensive to purchase taco seasoning from the store, it is more expensive than homemade, involved extra packaging and some have an extraordinary level of salt and some also have MSG. Making your own skips all of the gross stuff!

This is not salt-free as chili powder contains salt, but it is significantly less than store bought.

Money saving tip? If you can find spices in an ethnic food store, they're often available in plastic baggies and cost a whole lot less than buying from the big-bog grocery stores. 

Taco seasoning blend

Mix the following in a small glass jar or tupperware container. Use 2-3 tablespoons per pound of beef, turkey or soy crumbles.

1/4 cup dried onion flakes
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup chili powder
2-3 teaspoons cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
1 tablespoon dried minced garlic
2-3 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

Putting this mix into a cute jar could be a simple gift.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

All about pesto - food of the gods

Pesto - food of the gods - what a great way to start the week!

Pesto is so delicious! Born in northern Italy, pesto is traditionally made with fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan. What was once done by hand using a mortar and pestal is now accomplished in moments using a food processor or blender. 

You may have noticed, though, that pine nuts can be pricy! Per pound, pine nuts can be up there with selling your kidney or your first born child. I think that pesto is just as delicious when made with toasted almonds, and a lot more affordable. So, grab a huge bunch of basil from your back yard garden, your herb pot or local farmers market and whip up some pesto to use now and freeze some for later.

Another money saving tip? Ok! If you don't have quite the volume of fresh basil you'd like, you can stretch this recipe using fresh spinach or arugula (aka rocket if you're on the other side of the pond).

To toast your nuts, simply place in a dry skillet over medium-low heat and stir around a bit until they smell good. You're not going to see too much change in color until it is too late and they're scorched. Let your nose tell you when they're done and don't walk away from the stove. 

This recipe is really accomplished by "touch and feel", so exact measurements aren't given. Some folks like pesto more cheesy than others, some like it to be thinned with more olive oil, others skip the garlic. Up to you!

Basil Pesto - a big batch

Toasted nuts (1/4 to 1/2 a cup per big batch)
Fresh basil, augmented with spinach, if needed (Fill up the food processor container)
Parmesan cheese (1/4 to 1/2 a cup per big batch
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil (about a cup)

Toasted almonds
Food processor stuffed with fresh basil
Handful of Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper
Drizzling in olive oil
Fresh basil from the garden: future pesto!

Drizzle a thin layer of olive oil on top of fresh pesto to prevent browning
Pesto served on toast with goat cheese, an egg and tomato

Where to use my pesto? The possibilities are truly endless, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
  • Tossed with hot or cold pasta, rice, barley, quinoa or gnocchi
  • tossed with hot or cold zucchini pasta
  • Stirred into scrambled eggs or tofu
  • Drizzled onto a fried egg
  • Thinned with balsamic vinegar to dress salads and roasted vegetables
  • Mashed into potatoes
  • Tossed with freshly popped popcorn
  • Schmeared onto a bagel with cream-cheese
  • As a substitute for mayo/mustard on your favorite sandwiches or subs
  • Drizzled onto hot soup or cold gazpacho
  • Take your grilled cheese up a notch
  • Mixed into tuna, egg or chicken salad
  • Spread on toast with goat cheese
  • Spread onto cream cheese for a quick party dip for crackers, pretzels or crisp breads
  • Marinate your chicken before grilling or baking
  • As a sauce base for your homemade pizza or drizzled on top after baking...or both
  • Tossed with blanched green beans, broccoli or cauliflower
  • On a spoon...

All about storage
In the fridge: pour a thin layer to cover your fresh pesto to prevent excessive browning
In the freezer: scoop pesto into small jars (leaving room for expansion) or spread into an ice-cube tray to freeze smaller portions

Nut allergies?
Try this with toasted soy "nuts" 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dirty dozen: when vegetables are on the black list

Dirty dozen: when vegetables are on the black list

Many folks are interested in buying groceries with fewer chemical additives; no more artificial fertilizers, no more pesticides! The common concern though is cost; sometimes organic produce can cost significantly more than their conventional chemical - laden cousins.

Turns out that there is some produce we can skip going organic on without huge concern, but there are 12 in particular that we should focus on getting organic.

The Dirty Dozen
  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Blueberries
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Lettuce
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
The clean fifteen are those fruits and vegetables with the lowest amount of chemical residue when grown conventionally.

The Clean Fifteen

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Cabbage
  • Cantalope
  • Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet Peas
  • Sweet Potato
  • Watermelon

If you would like to see the full list of produce evaluated, you can see that here.

For a handy-dandy wallet card with this information, please click here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

We be jammin: Basil Blackberry Jam

We be jammin: Basil Blackberry Jam

Fresh blackberry basil jam on crisp bread with brie. Heaven!
I recently spend a lovely (albeit humid) morning picking fresh blackberries at a local u-pick orchard called Butlers Orchard. It was a fun morning spent chatting with my friend, sampling the berries and eavesdropping on the families in the surrounding rows. I quickly accumulated several pounds of the plump fruit amongst the chatter of children ("I'm a princess") and their parents ("more picking, less talking!"). Picking my own fruit was fun, and significantly less expensive than picking up fruit from the local grocery store ($2.50 vs. $12.03/pound).

 Making jam has become an annual tradition. I used my mom's equipment when I was in Ohio and when I moved to DC, I managed to get the enormous pot home on my bicycle. Yes, I got some weird looks.

Canning aligns with my values of supporting local farmers and preserving food for when the growing season is over. And while jars of jam probably aren't going to save me during the zombie apocalypse, nor are they a dietitian's first choice for healthy eats, it is immensely rewarding to see the jewel colored jars in my cupboard.

Canning has gained loads of popularity. Driven by the economy, interest in where our foods come from, seeking "real" food and in being more self-sufficient. I also like the flexibility to use lower-sugar recipes so that the fruit remains the star of the show.

There are many excellent guides available; the most important thing is to keep your preserved food safe. Follow directions carefully to prevent food spoilage or contamination. One great place to start is Pick Your Own or purchasing your own guide. Feel free to use my recipe, but be sure to follow canning directions for safe processing.

Basil Blackberry Jam
Makes 4 pints

5 1/3 cups crushed blackberries
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons low-sugar pectin (made from apples)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, minced

  1. Set your Pandora station to Bob Marley.
  2. Very carefully wash jar funnel, jars, new lids (do not reuse lids) and rings in scalding hot water or sanitize using your dishwasher.
  3. Fill canning pot with water and bring to boil; the goal is to have the water just cover the jars once they're placed in the canner. I like to estimate how much water I'll need in the canner and also fill a teapot and bring both to a boil. Once I get the jars in the canner, I can add extra boiling water as needed.  
  4. Pick over fresh fruit to remove any debris and rinse off under running cool water
  5. Place fruit into large liquid measuring cup and crush using a potato masher, spoon or bottom of a water glass
  6. Pour fruit into large sauce pan.
  7. In a small bowl, mix pectin powder with a small amount of your granulated sugar; add this to sauce pan.
  8. Over medium-high heat while stirring frequently, bring fruit to a rapid boil. Try not to be lulled into a fruity daydream by the heavenly smell.
  9. Once fruit has reached a rapid boil that cannot be stirred away, add fresh basil, lemon juice and rest of sugar. Boil for one full minute and remove from heat.
  10. Check for flavor and gel thickness. If your jelly meets your rigorous standards, it is time to quickly fill your jars; using a ladle and the canning funnel, fill your jars to within 1/2 of an inch of the top. Wipe rim with a clean washcloth. Place new clean lid and loosely close with ring.
  11. Using jar lifter (looks like something from Star Wars), place filled jars into boiling water. 
  12. Once all jars are filled and are in canner, start timer. My pint jars needed five minutes, but follow package directions. If you have a partially filled jar, don't can it; jars must be full for safe canning. Pop left overs into the fridge.
  13. Carefully remove jars from water bath canner and place on towel away from drafts; you know your jars have sealed when you hear that magical 'pop' sound. Don't touch, budge or bother your jam for for 24 hours. 
  14. The next day, check the jars for a seal; if the lid doesn't give when you push on it, you have done it! The jars are sealed! Label your jars with the date and contents and store in a cool, dark place.   
Fresh blackberries; beautiful!

Clean jars kept upside down to prevent dust or germs getting in

Crush fruit with potato masher and measure carefully

Mix pectin with small amound of sugar before adding to fruit; this helps prevent clumps
Add pectin to fruit

Fresh sweet and purple basil from my garden

Sitrring in the fresh basil, sugar and lemon juice

The rack helps prevent the jars from cracking by bouncing on the bottom of the pot

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