Healthy Eating, Mostly, or Not

Kinder, Gentler Cauliflower Rice

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This recipe for Cashew Chicken is an excellent reason for cauliflower rice.

About a year ago, my husband and I did a 30-day Paleo challenge.

  • Pros: Lost some belly fat, found great new healthy recipes.
  • Cons: Lots of planning, prep and cooking, not super travel-friendly, not cheap. Also not supposed to have dairy or alcohol. More on that later.

For the uninitiated, the Paleo Diet is based on what humans ate before the Agricultural Age and way before our current era, the Additive Age. The theory is that the human body wasn’t meant to process agricultural products, especially now that the food production industry has turned even originally healthy foods like grains into bionic alien pseudo foods. You’re supposed to eat clean, grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish and organic produce and avoid processed foods, grains, legumes, dairy and refined sugar.

I eventually failed dairy because coffee and cheese, but I definitely felt better without grains. Now I just try to eat Paleo during the week with limited dairy. Also not sure which era was when we learned about fermented grapes, but I’m pretending that happened.

paleo_house_divided

A house divided: Not everyone was on board with the Paleo plan.

The first thing you’ll learn when you go Paleo is that there are a lot of recipes out there trying to make something good you used to eat, like pasta, out of a vegetable you’re not that attached to, like zucchini. That low-carb classic, faux mashed potatoes made with cauliflower, is still around. Rice is another Paleo problem, and people have turned to cauliflower to solve that, too.

At first I was not a fan. Rice is a starchy comfort food, so, ideally, it shouldn’t break your teeth. Most recipes say pulse it in the food processor until it’s the size of rice, then saute it in oil, but all I got was warmer, oilier, mostly raw cauliflower.

I found that partially steaming the cauliflower first results in a softer, more rice-like texture.  Here’s how I make it now:

Cauliflower Rice

1 head cauliflower, cored and chopped
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon coconut or olive oil
Salt and pepper

Place the chopped cauliflower in a microwave-safe dish with 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and microwave on high for 8 minutes. Remove immediately, uncover and allow to cool.

Place 1/2 of cooled cauliflower in a large food processor and pulse until it resembles rice. Repeat with remaining cauliflower. Heat coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add cauliflower to skillet. Saute 5 minutes or until desired tenderness. Add salt and pepper to taste.

(Note: When this post was first published, cauliflower rice was a new thing. Now you can find pre-riced cauliflower in the produce section, which takes you right back to the non-steamed, too-crunchy problem. However, now there are also bags of cauliflower rice in the frozen vegetable section, which you can just throw in the microwave, and they are a win. I like Green Giant. The bags are small, though, so I usually use two.)

 

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Root Beer Pulled Pork the Hard Way

Pulled pork sandwich on a white plate with sweet potato fries.

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork and sweet potato fries cooked in the air fryer because I like to use as many gadgets as possible.

If you cook at home and are inclined to things like pulled pork, you’ve probably heard of root beer pulled pork. Easiest thing in the world: Throw a bottle of root beer in the slow cooker, plop a pork roast in, cook. So I don’t mean to be misleading with that headline. Slow cooker pulled pork is not difficult.

However, it’s not without its issues. For one thing, root beer. Option one is to buy a six-pack of pricey craft-brewed root beer, then figure out what to do with the other five since we don’t normally drink soda, and never with sugar. Hey, we may eat pork and throw chemicals on it, but we have some rules to live by.

The other option is to buy a 2,000-pack of diet root beer, and then we end up drinking diet root beer until it’s gone, which is even worse than drinking five fancy root beers.

I found my solution when I went to a party where a friend was drinking hard root beer. You see where I’m going with this. Huge epiphany. Root beer, pork, alcohol — there’s no going wrong here, and leftover hard root beer is not a problem because alcohol.

Actually there is one way to go wrong here. The first time I tried this, I used a pork loin roast. This is a lean cut and, of course, healthier. It made pulled pork with a nice root beer flavor, but it was not as tender as it could have been. Use a pork butt or pork shoulder roast instead.

Serve with whole wheat hamburger buns and sweet potato fries to try to maintain some nutritional dignity.

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork

1 2-pound pork butt or pork shoulder roast
1 bottle hard root beer
Sea salt and and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce
Hamburger buns
Shredded cabbage if desired

Place roast in slow cooker. Pour root beer over roast. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours. Drain liquid from pan. Pull meat apart with two forks until all shredded. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir. Serve on hamburger buns, topped with barbecue sauce and, if desired, shredded cabbage.

 

Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

Heart-shaped ravioli and chicken parmesan with red sauce on a white plate.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine’s Day.

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Today I want to talk about chicken Parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken Parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*
Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
*There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Uncooked ravioli squares lined up on parchment paperRecently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and FamilyThe Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.
8 ounces ricotta
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley
Pinch nutmeg
Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

When Life Hands You Peppers, Make Salsa

I only have one little jalapeno plant, but it has kept me busy making salsa.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I am a sort of a hapless gardener. I’ve been at it for about a year and a half, and in the beginning I even killed squash. I thought anybody could grow squash. Now I’m kind of hit or miss, but I have found that peppers seem to be pretty much Laurie-proof. I have a randomly planted collection of bells, hot bananas and jalapenos that just keep growing and going. Now I’m starting to wonder about the bell peppers. Maybe I should ask somebody about whether the plants are supposed to get as big as trees. I was sort of envisioning large-houseplant-sized units that would give me a few peppers over the summer and then die so I could plant pumpkins. Now I have a small pepper orchard. Not that I’m complaining.

I only have one jalapeno plant, but it is very energetic. Lately we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa, which is a healthy snack, except that it goes on chips, which aren’t so much. We like Archer Farms Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Flaxseed. Organic, whole grain, a little flax, not bad on sodium. We do what we can.

The great thing about salsa, besides being healthy, is that even if you start with a recipe, it’s almost impossible not to make it your own. And even if you end up with something different every time, it’s probably going to be good.

Speaking of variations, here’s a link to a recipe for Mango Salsa that I make whenever there is an occasion for mango salsa, such as fish tacos, grilled fish or grilled chicken. It’s good on chips, and I’ve learned that if you give me access to mango salsa and whole wheat Ritz crackers, someone will need to plan an intervention. My secret weapon for making this chunky salsa is my Genius Nicer Dicer, which quickly makes perfect diced mango and bell peppers, and has a smaller size that’s great for the  jalapenos. In fact, it’s worth the price of this tool just to avoid dealing with onions and peppers.

Fresh Tomato Salsafresh salsa by Laurie Sterbens

4 large tomatoes
1/2 bunch cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 bunch green onions or 1/4 sweet yellow onion (or combination of both)
2 cloves garlic
2 large jalapeno peppers with seeds, stems removed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon stevia sweetener
Salt and pepper to taste

Quarter tomatoes and roughly chop cilantro, onions and peppers. Combine with remaining ingredients in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. (I don’t recommend a blender; the salsa will emulsify and turn beige. Tastes the same, just not pretty.)

Strawberry Pie Recipe Filled With Memories

Slice of strawberry pie on a white plate.

A buttery crust lined with cream cheese holds a filling made with fresh strawberries. Top with whipped cream and “be happy,” as my mother said.

I made my great-grandmother’s strawberry pie for Father’s Day, so I thought I’d share this, which appeared in my “Across the Table” column in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 8, 2009.

During my last couple of trips to the farmers market, I’ve been confronted with an undeniable fact: It is time to make strawberry pie.

My foodie tendencies have long been tempered by health-nut tendencies, so I don’t make a lot of desserts. But if you ever have an occasion where you need to make eight people happy real fast, pie is the way to go. And since it’s usually made with seasonal fruit, the health nut is happy, the pie eaters are happy; it’s win-win.

I have a short rotation of go-to pies that change with the seasons – apple for fall into winter and any occasion involving my father-in-law; strawberry for spring; key lime whenever key limes happen and/or somebody visits from the north.

My strawberry pie recipe was passed down from my great-grandmother, “Mush,” to my mother, so it is called “Mush’s Strawberry Pie.” Mush was a master baker of all sorts of things, but I remember her as a sweet, spunky little lady who usually wore red, with a big red bow in her hair at Christmas, so of all of her recipes, strawberry pie seems to represent her best. My version of the pie has changed over the years. Mush didn’t have to go to an office all day; if she had and there had been the option at the time, I like to think she would have said, “Bring on the Cool Whip!”

If there’s an original copy of her recipe, I don’t have it. My copy came in a series of e-mails from my mother.

There are two problems with this. First of all, there are two kinds of cooks in the world, and my mother was mostly the other kind. You know who you are: “Oh, I never measure anything. I just throw in a little of this, a little of that.”

I own a set of measuring spoons for “dash,” “smidgen” and “pinch” – and I use them.

I have a confusing collection of handwritten recipes from my mom with directions like “Put in oven and bake.” Um, at what temperature? For how long?

The second problem is my mom and e-mail. She was not yet on friendly terms with the computer when the strawberry pie conversation took place. She sent the recipe in a series of brief dispatches because, she said, the computer kept “good-bye-ing for no good reason.”

So now, in a photo album I use for collecting recipes, there is a page with four strips of white paper, lined up one beneath the other, that together form my strawberry pie recipe.

“Spread cream cheese, softened with some cream (the ingredient list was unclear … I forgot, it’s real whipping cream) over cooled pie shell…”

It was during the year we were planning my wedding, so between the filling and the crust there is talk of our plan for a honeymoon cruise.

“Sounds great, the cruise. I don’t think you can mess up a cruise too much, unless it sinks! Just takes two happy people!”

I suspect Mom learned to make the pie from Mush without using a written recipe. If has had a recipe for the crust – Mush probably would have used shortening – she had found one she liked better.

“I did a butter-mostly crust. It was heavenly.” This was followed by instructions for “Easy Pie Crust.”

We lost my mom to cancer in February of 2008, so there was no strawberry pie last spring. But this year, it seemed that there were strawberries everywhere and it was time to make pie. So I bought some berries and pulled out the recipe, rolling out the dough with a lot of memories, and made the pie, just as the e-mails directed.

“Serve with whipped cream. And be happy!”

Mush’s Strawberry Pie

1 cooled 9-inch pie shell
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened with a little cream or half and half
1 quart fresh strawberries
Splash of lemon juice
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Spread the cream cheese in a thin layer on the bottom and sides of the cooled pie shell.

Hull berries. Place some, point side up, around cheese-coated pie shell.  Mash remaining berries with potato masher in medium saucepan. Mix together sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Bring strawberries to a boil and slowly add the sugar and cornstarch. Cook 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture is translucent and thickened. Cool and spread over uncooked berries in the pie shell. Chill in refrigerator until cold. Top with whipped cream and serve.

Easy Pie Crust

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cake flour
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chilled shortening
3 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Blend first four ingredients in a food processor. Add butter and shortening and pulse until mixture resembles course meal. And ice water and process until moist clumps form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if needed. Gather dough into a ball, flatten into a disk and refrigerate for 1 hour. Soften dough slightly at room temperature before rolling out. Roll out dough on floured surface to a 12-inch round. Transfer to a 9-inch glass pie dish. Fold edges under and crimp.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick the bottom of the pie shell all over with a fork. Line the shell with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes, and then remove foil and beans. Prick shell again with fork. Continue baking until golden brown, 5-10 minutes more. Cool completely before filling.

Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious and Healthy

glass bowl filled with cranberry compote

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It’s also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line—the checkout lane—with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be that person who holds up the grocery line.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to confess I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Nutritional Superfood

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

… And Pancake Topping!

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe adapted from the Cranberry Orange Compote in “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I have in the past split the difference and used half sugar, half Splenda. These days I’d probably go with half sugar, half stevia.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup water
1/2 cup granular sugar substitute OR 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

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