Healthy Eating, Mostly, or Not

Easy Sweet Potato Lasagna

Serving of sweet potato lasagna on white plate with basil leaf garnish.The other day I saw a recipe for sweet potato lasagna online that looked good and would also be an excuse to use my Vegetable Sheet Cutter, so I uploaded it to my recipe planner, thinking I might make it and share it here if it turned out well.

A few days later I opened up the recipe and actually read the ingredients and, in what seems to be an emerging pattern, immediately changed everything about it and made a completely different thing. At least it still has sweet potatoes.

In all fairness to me, the original recipe contained tofu and nutritional yeast, a combination that I had a Very Bad Experience with once. I’m not vegan, so I’m gonna leave that trauma in the past where it belongs.

The other thing is, the recipe wanted me to make sauce from scratch. I get it; lasagna is kind of a big deal thing that grandma made and it can be very special. But most of the time my M.O. with cooking is to streamline things as much as possible. There are so many great organic jar sauces available now, so I say save the extra work for a weekend when you have access to good tomatoes.

In the end, I didn’t use the Vegetable Sheet Cutter. I had very large sweet potatoes and it looked like it was going to be a battle to get the skewer through them, and I was afraid of damaging the attachment or skewering myself. The next best thing would be the mandoline, but I hadn’t used mine in a long time (confession: I’m afraid of it) and discovered it was broken. I ended up slicing the potatoes with a trusty chef’s knife. Alton Brown would approve of my lack of gadgetry. That said, I’d recommend the mandoline because you’ll need to get the potatoes very thin.

Note: You can use an egg in the filling. Since we have the egg allergy, I used VeganEgg egg substitute.

Easy Sweet Potato Lasagna

Olive oil
VeganEgg egg substitute (recipe for 1 egg), or 1 large egg, beaten
16 ounces shredded mozzarella, divided
15 ounces ricotta
Pinch of grated nutmeg
3 cups baby spinach leaves
1 pound ground beef
1 32-ounce jar of marinara sauce
8 ounces sliced button mushrooms
Italian seasoning (optional: I like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset)
Freshly grated Parmesan
2 very large or 3 medium white sweet potatoes, sliced thin

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 13×9-inch baking dish with olive oil.
Mix the egg substitute. (I use a blender.) In a food processor combine the egg substitute, ricotta and 8 ounces of shredded mozzarella. Grate in a pinch of nutmeg. Process until just combined. Add baby spinach and process until all the spinach is chopped, but don’t overprocess.
In a large skillet, brown ground beef, breaking into small pieces. Add sauce and mushrooms and cook over medium heat until mushrooms are cooked but not overcooked. Sprinkle in Italian seasoning if desired.
Spread a thin layer of marinara sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Cover bottom of dish with a layer of sweet potato slices. Top with a layer of spinach mixture, followed by a layer of the marinara mixture. Repeat with remaining layers. Top last layer of marinara mixture with remaining shredded mozzarella.
Cover with nonstick aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. Uncover and increase heat to 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until cheese is melted and lightly browned. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

 

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Panko-Crusted Chicken with Creamy Lemon Sauce

Now that I’m at an age where my body seems to be pretty much stuck in rebellion mode, I try to watch my carb intake most of the time, though I suffer from occasional attacks of half-marathon training and then I’ll eat more carbs until I get injured and lose my excuse.

My approach to pasta dishes goes in stages depending on my current seriousness-of-diet situation, ranging from zoodles (desperation) to gobs of white flour (out of control), and looks something like this:

Zoodles or spaghetti squash
Butternut squash or sweet potato noodles
Half zoodles, half brown rice pasta
Half zoodles, half whole wheat pasta
Brown rice pasta
Whole wheat pasta
Stealing my son’s mac and cheese

As I live with two guys who’d rather stay near the bottom of the above scale and I don’t like making extra dishes if I don’t have to, I usually end up making whole wheat pasta and just eating a small portion. If it’s a special occasion or a weekend, I might bust out the pasta maker and crank out some whole-wheat pasta. Otherwise, my family really likes Alma’s whole wheat pastas, an Italian brand sold at Publix. The Organic Whole Wheat Angel Hair works well with this recipe.

This is sort of a mish-mash Frankenrecipe riffing off of a recipe for Creamy Lemon Chicken Parmesan from eatingwell.com. I simplified the chicken a bit, removed the eggs (due to son’s egg allergy) and cooked it in the air fryer. I also threw some cornstarch into the sauce to help thicken it.

Two pieces of fried chicken breast with lemon sauce over angel hair pasta

Panko-Crusted Chicken with Creamy Lemon Sauce

1 cup whole wheat panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning 
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 to 1 1/4 pound thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Cooking spray
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
1 package whole wheat angel hair pasta
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. Combine panko, ¼ cup Parmesan, Italian seasoning garlic powder and salt in a shallow dish. Pour 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil into another shallow dish.
2. Preheat air fryer for 3 minutes at 375 degrees on the Air Fry setting. Spray air fryer and multi-layer rack lightly with cooking spray. Dip each chicken breast in oil, then panko mixture. (You may want to use a deeper bowl or large plastic bag for the panko so you can shake the chicken and thoroughly coat it.)
3. Place a layer of chicken on the crisper plate, spray the tops lightly with cooking spray, then add the multi-layer rack and place the remaining chicken breasts on top. Cook for 10 minutes, pause the air fryer and carefully turn the chicken over. Cook another 5-8 minutes until golden brown.
4. While chicken is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth, lemon juice and salt to the pan. Bring to a boil. Whisk flour and cornstarch, if using, into half-and-half and add to the broth mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced by about half and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions.
5. Place chicken over pasta, spoon sauce over and sprinkle with parsley and grated Parmesan.

My Paleo Fail-eo and Other Diet Misadventures

Bookshelf filled with different diet cookbooks

My cookbook shelf suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Here’s a picture of the cookbook shelf in my kitchen. You may notice that it suffers from multiple personality disorder. At any given time, I could be on the South Beach Diet, paleo, Whole30, vegan, vegetarian, whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is, then make gumbo with Emeril. I am nothing if not adaptable.

With the diets, I think it’s the lure of the fresh start. Clean out the fridge, buy shiny new healthy things and have someone else give you all the rules so you don’t have to make decisions. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, fresh starts wear off after a few days and then you’re stuck with withdrawals from whichever of your favorite things you’re not allowed to have and you start questioning your life decisions.

My husband and I started doing the South Beach Diet years ago. This involves two weeks of a strict low-carb plan followed by a more moderate period where you can have whole grains. My husband would drop 900 pounds the first week, partly because he is a better person than I am and never cheats, and partly because he is a man and life is not fair. Meanwhile, I’d struggle through the entire two weeks of Phase 1 and lose 4 pounds.

I still have all the South Beach cookbooks because the dinner recipes are tasty and simple and can easily be adapted to other clean eating plans. I don’t do the diet anymore because Phase 1 includes some high-sodium items and dairy, both of which I find it best to avoid. Okay, I find it best to avoid dairy but mostly don’t do that.

Let’s just get the vegetarian thing out of the way. I just can’t. I even failed at Meatless Mondays, though there are two recipes that we did really enjoy when we were trying that: portobello mushroom pizzas (also great for low-carbing) and these Spiralized Sweet Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas from when I got the Inspiralizer.

The Whole30 is a miraculous, life-changing eating plan in which you lose a million pounds, cure all your health problems and get glowing skin and shiny hair, and all you have to do is give up basically everything you like for an entire month. Just kidding. You can have coffee. Black. The food is actually really good; there are plenty of cookbooks (I like “The Whole30 Fast and Easy”) and recipes online, and if you’re already eating clean you’ll find it’s not a drastic change; you just have to avoid sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy. I know. It is kind of a lot. But by eliminating foods that cause inflammation and other issues, you can learn which things really affect you so you can avoid them. I’ve done a Whole30 and a Whole … um, like 19. Sometimes I’ll do a Whole week. That’s not approved by the Whole30 people, but the world is a little safer for us all if I can have some chardonnay.

Paleo is basically Whole30 but with more wiggle room. (“Paleo for Beginners” is a great book to start with if you’re interested.) For example, one day I got an email from a Paleo website with links to recipes. I clicked on one and among the ingredients were Greek yogurt and feta cheese and I was all “whaaa?” and went straight over to Google to see what magical hocus pocus would make these items not dairy. I landed on a discussion board where I learned there is a thing called “primal” where some  dairy is allowed. And then a whole bunch of people are just not following the rules.

I may be one of those people, or maybe I’m more of a cherry picker of diets. All of the cookbooks have good, healthy recipes in them, so as long as you’re cooking with clean, whole-food ingredients as much as possible, it’s all good. As for gumbo with Emeril, well that’s just fun.

My Kitchen Gadget Addiction

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See how nice and neat these egg and avocado slices are? Because gadgets!

Confession: I have a kitchen gadget addiction. I hoard everything from the tiniest garlic chopper to counter-hogging “small” appliances like the air fryer. I have a particular weakness for the little plastic single-purpose thingies that are among those celebrity chef Alton Brown despises and rants against in this hilarious video.

He’s right. I know he’s right; all you really need is a great knife. It’s just that he’s coming from the perspective of someone who’s had years of training and experience wielding pointy kitchen utensils, probably drinks less wine than I do and is definitely not perimenopausal, which lends a charming unpredictability to all of my endeavors, kitchen and otherwise.

I used to be firmly anti-gadget, constantly battling clutter in my too-small kitchen. Somewhere along the way my resistance evaporated and here I am, contemplating a cake pop maker.

Here are my current favorite kitchen gadgets in order of favoriteness. (Note: These are just little handheld gadgets, the gateway drug to small appliances and mixer attachments, which are posts in themselves.)

OXO avocado slicer. Yes, I own the exact same gadget that appears in the above video. I eat a lot of avocados. They present varying degrees of cooperation ranging from mushy to underripe, and if you’re dealing with an uncooperative, underripe avocado, pulling the pit out and trying to peel the skin off with a knife can be time-consuming and, for me at least, dangerous. Enter the OXO avocado slicer. It has a perfectly adequate yet not life-threatening blade on one end—the kitchen version of kindergarten scissors—and a slicer on the other end that gets all of the avocado out of the peel in nice thin slices, perfect for toast. Even when you want chunkier pieces for a salad or smoothie, the pit remover in the middle is a great way to avoid accidental amputations.

KitchenAid egg slicer. This is basically the same thing as the strawberry slicer in Alton’s video. I saw the cute red gadget on the wall at Target and grabbed it mostly because it was cute and red. Then I realized how much fun it is to slice eggs and other things as well: Strawberries and olives are frequent flyers. Sure, slicing with a knife is not hard, but this is more fun and satisfies my obsessive-compulsive desire for neat, same-sized slices.

Lekue microwave omelet maker. I picked this up at Publix on a whim when we were eating low carb, which meant making a lot of mini “quiches” in muffin tins for breakfast. I was tired of cleaning the muffin pans, and sometimes we’d run out of mini quiches before the end of the week. I thought it would be nice to throw some eggs and veggies into the microwave for a couple of minutes. It’s been great for those (many) times that I don’t get around to advance go-breakfast prepping.

Genius Nicer Dicer. I own a much simpler, older version than the kit they offer now, but same principle. It’s another great gadget for OCD foodies because it cuts perfect little same-size squares, which make a beautiful mango salsa, for example. The smaller size is perfect for dicing hot peppers without getting the oil all over your hands. It also dices onion neatly (as opposed to the food processor. Or me.) and eliminates all the crying.

Avocado Toast

1 slice Ezekiel 7 Sprouted Grains Bread, toasted
1/2 tablespoon Chosen Foods Coconut Oil Mayo (or your favorite mayo; I just like this one)
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced thinly
dash Penzey’s Sunny Spain seasoning

Spread mayo on one side of toast. Slice avocado and fan across toast. Sprinkle with Sunny Spain seasoning.

Eggless Zucchini Cannelloni

When I was single and lived alone, I ate a lot of frozen dinners. They had names that included “Lean” (because low-fat was healthy) and “Healthy” (because healthy was healthy), so clearly this was the right thing to do. I remember running into someone at the grocery store with my cart full of low-fat frozen dinners, low-fat snacks and diet sodas and they commented, “Wow, you eat healthy!” and they weren’t even being sarcastic.

These days I don’t eat a lot of frozen dinners, but I was recently reminded of one I really liked back in the day.

I got a KitchenAid Vegetable Sheet Cutter attachment for Christmas and was searching for things I could make with zucchini that my son would eat. I ran across a photo of beef-filled cannelloni with a white sauce and immediately recalled that favorite frozen dinner, and became obsessed with trying to create a zucchini version of it. I think this comes pretty close. It is not low-fat ’cause I’m not into that anymore. It is eggless, so you could probably throw an egg into the filling and make it more firm if you’re not trying to feed a teenager who’s allergic to eggs and suspicious of vegetables. He ate it all, so I’m calling this one a win.

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni by Laurie Sterbens

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni with Bechemel Sauce

Cannelloni

1 pound large zucchini, sliced into sheets
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup minced carrot
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces lean ground beef
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup beef broth
1 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Bechamel Sauce

1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 dash paprika
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Slice zucchini using Vegetable Sheet Cutter. Cut into 4- to 5-inch sheets and place on paper towels. Sprinkle with a little salt and set aside, then press with paper towels to remove excess moisture before filling.
3. Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet. Add onion, celery, and carrot, and cook over moderate heat until softened. Add the garlic, and cook 1 minute. Add beef. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is no longer pink. Add wine, and reduce for 1 minute. Stir in broth. Add herbs, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Uncover, and reduce until almost dry. Discard bay leaf. Set aside to cool.
4. Transfer the cooled meat mixture to a large bowl. Stir in mozzarella.
5. To make bechamel sauce: In a small saucepan, add milk. While whisking, slowly add in flour. When blended, add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and and stir in Parmesan.
6. Spoon 1/4 cup of the filling down the center of one zucchini slice, roll to enclose the filling and place in a buttered gratin dish. Repeat with the remaining zucchini slices and filling, arranging in single layer. Ladle the bechamel sauce over the cannelloni, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with a bit of paprika.
7. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Run under the broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 2 minutes, or until golden.

Adventures in Air Frying

I recently got a new air fryer and I love it. Loooove it. (It’s a Ninja.)

When I first got it, I uploaded some of the more appealing recipes from the product website into my meal planner and went looking on Amazon for a cookbook. There aren’t many—this is a fairly new gadget and air frying is apparently still kind of Wild West as far as recipe development and cookbook publishing.

Then I started looking around for things I already make that would be better in the air fryer. (At this point watch out; stand still for too long in my kitchen and I will air fry you.)

There have been more hits than misses, but here is what I’ve learned so far:

Holy salt shaker, Batman. Some of the recipes I tried from the cookbook I found had waaaay too much salt. Admittedly, I try not to use too much salt when cooking, but I also eat out a lot and I know the difference between well-seasoned and way overboard. My theory here is the early air-fryer adopters are people trying to reform unhealthy diets that probably included things like fast food and they’re used to a lot of sodium. Question the salt quantities in some of the recipes out there.

Everyone is right about the chicken wings. Some people don’t use this machine for much else and that’s understandable. You could keep yourself busy making all kinds of delicious chicken wings. The first time I made air-fried buffalo wings, my picky 14-year-old gobbled a whole plate of them and pronounced them better than his second-favorite wing purveyor. I guess that makes me tied for first, but since I’d never tried to make wings before, I was pretty happy. Skin-on chicken thighs are also amazing in the air fryer.

Fried fish is going to be a learning process. Or I may just respect the fish and throw it in the deep fryer, which I’ll have to drag out anyway for the hush puppies.

Vegetables can be strange. So far I’ve cooked two non-potato vegetables: Broccoli and brussels sprouts. Here’s the thing. I actually like these vegetables. Some people don’t, so for those people it could be an improvement to blast them to ashes, I don’t know. I found them … interesting as an appetizer, maybe, but I think I prefer my brussels sprouts roasted and my broccoli gently steamed or stir-fried. Maybe I should air-blast some beets. I hate beets.

The air fryer makes the best baked potatoes ever — crispy skin, fluffy inside, and they cook in under half an hour. We like the skins with olive oil and salt, but I found that with the air fryer the skin gets crisper if you do this after cooking them.

I also had great results with panko-crusted chicken breasts, which turned out nice and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

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Air-Fryer Panko-Crusted Chicken Breasts

Cooking spray
1 1/2 cups whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (the powdery jar stuff)
2 teaspoons Penzey’s Northwoods seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Combine panko crumbs, Parmesan and Northwoods seasoning in a shallow bowl and stir well. Add olive oil to another bowl.
Preheat air fryer to 375 degrees on the Air Fry setting. When preheated, spray cooking tray and multi-layer rack with cooking spray. Cut chicken breasts in half, then dip each in olive oil and toss in panko mixture. Arrange half of chicken pieces on bottom of the air fryer, add the multi-layer rack and place remaining pieces on top. Cook for 10 minutes, pause and carefully turn pieces over with tongs, then cook another 8-10 minutes.

2 Great Recipes Using Cauliflower Rice

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Cauliflower rice works great in Jambalaya.

In my last post  I shared how I make cauliflower rice that’s more al dente and less cruciferous-crunchy than other recipes I’ve tried.

You: Why are you still talking about this? I hate cauliflower.

Don’t worry; I won’t keep trying to push cauliflower on you if you’re staunchly pro-starch. That would be dysfunctional. Besides, I’ll be busy trying to get my husband to like bacon so I can make this meatloaf. However, if you’re on the fence, haven’t tried cauliflower rice yet or just learned how to make it and aren’t sure what to do with it, here are some ideas.

Cauliflower rice is perfect with stir-fries, especially with a few healthy sprinkles of coconut aminos (or soy sauce, if you’re not avoiding soy and sodium). But try throwing it into a Cajun recipe and the cauliflower flavor takes a backseat to the spices. You may not scream, “You’re lying! This is rice!” but you’ll save a lot of calories and carbs without feeling like you’re choking down a bowl of vegetables.

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Nutritional information from http://www.calorieking.com.

You can also sub pureed cauliflower for the grits in your favorite Shrimp and Grits recipe. I like this recipe for Deep South Shrimp and Sausage from Cooking Light. Serve it over cauliflower pureed with a tablespoon of butter, an ounce of half and half and a half cup of shredded Parmesan cheese.

If cauliflower’s working for you and you want to step up your game, you can try cauliflower pizza crust or cauliflower tortillas. I’ve only tried the pizza crust once with modest success. You have to make sure to squeeze as much water out of the cauliflower as possible to make it work, and you need to let it cool first so you don’t burn your hands. I may have skipped that last part. Ouch.

And then there’ s cauliflower “steak.” Okay, here I have to draw the line. Not even the most imaginative application of umami-inducing seasonings is going to make me look at a slab of cauliflower and confuse it with sirloin. That said, roasted cauliflower can be a great thing. Clean Eating offers up its take on cauliflower steaks here.

Jambalaya with Cauliflower Rice

1 recipe Cauliflower Rice 

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
2 tablespoons sliced green onions

Prepare cauliflower rice and set aside.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 6 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir in bell peppers, paprika, salt, oregano, ground red pepper and black pepper; sauté 1 minute.
Stir in broth and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Add shrimp, sausage and cooked cauliflower rice; cover and cook 5 minutes. Sprinkle with green onions.

Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry with Cauliflower Rice

This recipe (minus cauliflower rice) is from Paleo Grubs, where it’s called Simple Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry. It’s delicious and not difficult, but since it involves more than 5 ingredients and chopping and mincing, not including the cauliflower rice, I deleted “simple” from the title when I saved it to my recipe planner.

1.5 lbs. sirloin, thinly sliced
4 tbsp coconut aminos, divided
4 tbsp red wine vinegar, divided
3 tbsp chicken broth
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp arrowroot flour
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
4 carrots, diagonally sliced
3 tbsp coconut oil, divided

1 recipe Cauliflower Rice

Place the sirloin in a small bowl with one tablespoon each of red wine vinegar and coconut aminos and toss to coat. Let marinate for 15 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile, whisk together 3 tablespoons each red wine vinegar, coconut aminos, and chicken broth. Stir in the garlic, ginger, arrowroot, honey, and sesame oil. Prepare a separate small bowl with 1 tablespoon of water and set it next to the stove along with the garlic sauce.

Melt 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the steak in the skillet in a single layer. The meat should sizzle; otherwise the pan is not hot enough. Cook for 1-2 minutes per side to brown, and then transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil to the skillet. Stir in the broccoli and carrots, cooking for 2 minutes. Add the water to the skillet and cover with a lid. Let cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove the lid and cook until all of the water has evaporated.

Add the garlic mixture to the vegetables and stir to coat. Add the beef back into the pan and toss until the sauce thickens and everything is well coated. Serve immediately over cauliflower rice.

 

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