Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Show me Something Sweet.

I love desserts!  I really feel that a large percent of my early weight loss success can be attributed to keeping desserts a part of my normal eating routine.  My initial approach was to merely eat less.  By breaking everything down to a points value I simply started each day with a budget and subtracted as I went through my day.  Most days I was able to eat to satiety and still have a handful of points left for a bit of something after dinner.

My favorite everyday dessert is slow churned low fat ice cream (or frozen yogurt).  Perhaps like me you tried low fat ice cream a decade ago and, threw it away.  The texture was wrong, the flavors were limited, and it just did not satisfy a craving for something creamy and cold.  Well, hallelujah, times have changed!  Now I can go into most any grocery store and pick from a vast array of reduced fat options.  I still read the nutrition label when choosing among the flavors.  Some flavors start at such a high amount of fat that even after it is reduced there is more than I want in a single serving.  I try to stick with the flavors that come in at 4 grams of fat or less per serving.

On a regular basis I like to sprinkle my ice cream with a little something just to make it a bit more fun and add texture.  It adds a few more calories, but with a little creativity there are many choices that won't break that bank.  Here are a few sprinkle ideas: smashed graham cracker, semi sweet mini chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, a few mini chocolate graham cookies, any sliced fruit or berries, a few gummy bears, or a few toasted nuts.

The key to enjoying desserts and staying on track is to measure, measure, measure your portions.  If you want to eat straight out of the carton, get an empty carton, measure your serving into it, and then go to town.  My preferred way to measure is with a food scale.  By placing the bowl on the scale and then zeroing it out, I can measure the weight of my serving, saving my measuring cups for other tasks and often I get to eat more too.  I have found that the majority of the time when I use the scale to measure it yields more food than if I had used a measuring cup.  Hello, sign me up for that!

As much as I love ice cream it is not always what I am in the mood for.  I like to keep a box of No Pudge! Fat Free Brownies in the cupboard just in case I need them; sometimes I do.  If you haven't tried these you are missing out big time, (unless you don't eat chocolate in which case I'll catch you with the next one).  Go to the store and look for the pink box.  The basic directions are good but the alternate method with applesauce is out of this world!  Seriously.   I have a small toaster oven sized baking pan that works great for a single batch.  They come out pretty sticky so I foil line the pan and then spray the foil with cooking spray.  When they come out of the oven I lift the foil out and peel it off before cutting into the brownies.

Another favorite dessert in our house is a fruit crisp.  Pretty much any fruit makes a great crisp especially when it is in season.  While there are many recipes out in the world for making a crisp, I won't share a specific recipe at the moment because I don't have one.  I tend to experiment with slightly different approaches every time I whip one up.  I can, however, give you my collection of fruit crisp tips:

  • Use Splenda or Stevia, rather than sugar, to sweeten the fruit.  A little goes a long way and once you get the topping on you won't notice a difference in the taste.  
  • Stick to real brown sugar for the topping.  Streusel is all about texture and the brown sugar alternatives that I have come across just don't hold up in that department.
  • Use a butter alternative to cut calories.  I like Smart Balance.  Also, use less butter than the recipe calls for your topping will still be toasty and buttery and you won't miss the extra fat.  If it does look too dry you can add more but it is harder to subtract.
  • Graham cracker crumbs added to the oats in your topping add an unexpected flavor.
  • Use extra oats; they get a great toasty flavor and boost the overall nutrient content.

Finally, I have no qualms about starting the day with a serving of fruit crisp over a scoop of plain Greek yogurt.  Life, as they say, is short, and it is best to eat dessert first!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Greens - Some like 'em hot, some like 'em cold

This is a great time of year for produce!  It is available fresh from local farms, at farmer's markets or in grocery stores.  There are so many different types of fruits and vegetables to choose from it can almost be overwhelming.  I have been making an effort to pick unfamiliar things when I see them in the store or at the farmer's markets.  

Last year I started buying Kale because I saw it on a list of "super foods." The leaves are thicker than your typical salad greens so it holds up to cooking very well.  I like the look of kale, the curly feathery leaves have a certain whimsy to them compared to other leafy vegetables.  It may be regional but I didn't grow up eating cooked greens.  The only leafy things that I was aware of were in a salad bowl.  After playing around with some techniques and reading several recipes I came up with a quick method that I like.

A Simple Method of Cooking Kale:  
1 bunch of kale
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
Scant 1 Tb Olive Oil
Approx. 2 Tb Balsamic Vinegar or Red Wine Vinegar
Salt & Pepper

Wash the kale and remove the thick stem by cutting or ripping the leaves off.  
Tear the leaves into large bite sized pieces.  
Drizzle the olive oil in a large saute pan and warm to medium heat. 
Add the onion and allow to cook slowly becoming caramelized.
Add the vinegar to the onions and with tongs fold in the kale.  
Keep folding / stirring the kale with the onions until the leaves soften and turn a bright green.  This should take just a few minutes.  
Season with salt and pepper to taste.  
Avoid over cooking, the leaves turn dark and loose their texture.

This preparation makes a great side dish and is easy to adjust for other greens such as chard, beet or spinach.  If you are feeling like taking it up a notch you can toss on some bacon crumbles.

Makes about 4 servings

Recently I began hearing people talk about kale chips.  I was intrigued by the prospect because I am always on the look out for lower fat and calorie snacks.  At first I was envisioning something more like the bags of prepared taro, purple potato and squash chips and I was leery of all the work that must be involved to produce them at home.  Then I bought a bag of nacho flavored kale chips at Whole Foods but I didn't think they were all that great.  Finally a friend brought some homemade, plain, kale chips to a picnic and I loved them!  They were light, super crunchy, a little salty and completely snack-able.  I bought two bunches of kale on the way home and whipped some up myself.

Kale Chips:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Wash and dry (I pulled out the salad spinner for this one) the kale
Tear the leaves off the thick stem in "chip" sized pieces

Place the leaves into a large bowl and drizzle with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil (if you like, try a flavored olive oil, I use roasted garlic)
Sprinkle a small amount of salt over the leaves, the natural mineral flavor make them taste over salted more easily start with a lighter sprinkling
Use your hands to toss the leaves with the oil and salt.  If it seems like some of the leaves have no oil on them add a touch more.

Arrange in a single layer on a large sheet pan, you may need to make two batches for one large bunch.  Place in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes, then give the pan a shake and rotate it in the oven to avoid hot spots, cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes then check for doneness.

The cooking time will vary by oven so keep an eye on them while they are cooking, the leaves naturally vary in thickness, some become very crispy and others to remain more chewy.  They are done when the edges of the leaves are crisped up but not too brown.

Once they are done remove them from the pan to stop the cooking.
I stored mine in a paper towel lined container to keep away any moisture and preserve their crispness.


I also recently began buying arugula.  It often appears in salad mixes but I had never picked it out to eat on its own.  Aside from the great peppery flavor it also packs a super nutrient punch.  I have been eating it solo with a little salad dressing or mixing it with other leafys like spinach.  It made a nice bed for some couscous the other day.  Last week I had a bunch in the fridge that was starting to wilt so I turned it into a fancy salad for company.

Fancy Arugula Salad:
4 - 6 cups of fresh arugula, washed and dried
2 Tbs, finely diced red onion
1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted
approx. 2 oz. of soft goat cheese, crumbled
*Dressing of choice (I used equal parts blackberry balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic olive oil)

Toss the first three ingredients together in a large salad bowl.  Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of the dressing over the salad and toss again.  Once the salad is dressed to your liking, sprinkle the crumbled goat cheese over the salad and serve immediately.  For extra fanciness serve each portion in its own bowl.

Makes about 5 servings

These are just a few ideas to get your wheels turning. If you have a favorite type of spring green, or a way to prepare them, let me know in the comments.  I would love to hear what other fresh and simple recipes people are cooking up!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Last Call For Soup!

Yes it is nearly summer and soup season is over until the fall, but I really wanted to sing the praises of this soup.  I tried to come up with some nerdy content about the goodness of yellow peas and how they are different from green peas but I didn't find much, so, let me just take a moment to highlight peas in general.  They are such cute little veggies!
As a kid I, remember frequently being served peas at dinner and trying to fit one on each tine on my fork; time consuming but fun when you are seven.  They are entertaining to chase around the plate and a great occupier for an early eater to practice hand, eye, and mouth coordination.  Our neighbors grew peas when I was little and we used to go and pick them right off the vine and eat them in the back yard, oh they are so good fresh!
Peas are a starchy vegetable and therefore hold up well in cooked dishes or to top off a salad.  I always keep a bag of frozen peas on hand to toss into pasta, rice or canned soups that need more vegetables.  You could even float them in gelatin for a fun and festive - wait never mind don't do that, I got carried away there.  This summer make sure to grab them fresh when they are in season.
I always liked green pea soup, but I discovered awhile back that IKEA serves a really delicious yellow pea soup.  We had always gone there for the meatballs (flat-pack furniture optional), but when I began looking for healthier options I gave the soup a try.  It does go a little heavy on the salt but is still quite a satisfying bowl of goodness.  I think one of the appealing things about pea soup, in general, is the texture; it is thicker, more chowder-like in consistency than a broth based soup and therefore has a more hearty, filling effect.  I may be slimming down, but darn it, sometimes I just need to feel like I ate something!  
I started working on my own version of the soup because a trip to IKEA from my house is a bit of a trek for lunch.  So far I am getting very pleasing results with a few basic ingredients.  I bought a bag of yellow split peas a month or so ago, and on a grey day last week, pulled them out and whipped up a batch.  It took about 30 minutes to prep and then about 2 to 3 hours of simmering for the flavors to come together.  Aside from the flavor I like to make soup from scratch, because the recipe can be tweaked to fit the ingredients I have on hand, the result is low fat, much less salty when I make it at home, and the house smells good while it is cooking.
Another highlight of this soup is the cost.  Assuming you keep some herbs and oil on hand this soup costs very little to whip up. The peas were around 65 cents and the veggies were a few dollars.  From one pot of soup we will get a couple of dinners and several lunches.  It also freezes well so you can eat half now and half when you need a quick meal option.  I wanted to point this out because I truly believe it is possible to eat healthy even when you are budgeting time and money.
The recipe below is my latest rendition.  I rarely make a recipe the same way twice, partly because I like to try new things and partly because I cook based on what ingredients I have on hand.  The quantities I list below are fairly accurate but I didn't measure everything before tossing it into my pot.  I apologize to those of you who are more comfortable with a more scientific approach but I encourage everyone to cook to their own taste.  In that vein I would suggest if it appeals to your palate to try swapping the dill I list below for curry or even some cumin.  Toss a bit in and taste, then add more to suit your taste preference.
Keep trying new things and have fun with your food.  Don't be a slave to healthy eating; love it, live it, and pass it along!
Yellow Pea Soup - A Work in Progress:

1 bag (1 lb) of dry yellow split peas
Veggies Sweating
5 stalks of celery with leaves if available
5 carrots
1 yellow onion
3-4 garlic cloves
2-3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Dry Dill
1 Tablespoon of dried herb blend (i.e. Herbs de Province or Italian Herbs)
8 cups water
2 1/2 Tablespoons of veggie base or chicken bouillon*
Salt and Pepper to taste
Approximately 1 1/2 cups of ham cubes (optional)*
  • Rinse the dry peas in a mesh strainer and set aside.
  • In a large soup pot drizzle 2 - 3 Tablespoons of olive oil and set on medium heat.
  • Peel and mince the garlic cloves.
  • Wash and dice the onion, celery and carrots to around 1/2 or 3/4 inch pieces.
  • Add the vegetables to the soup pot and allow to sweat for a few minutes until the onions begin to turn translucent.  Stir a few times.
  • Pour in the water and add the veggie base or chicken bouillon, stir.
  • Add the herbs and salt and pepper.
  • If including the ham cubes add them now and give the pot one final stir. 
  • Turn the heat to low, pop on the lid, and allow the soup to simmer for 2 to 3 hours (stir occasionally).
  • The soup is done when the vegetables are soft all the way through.  It will have a rustic texture.
Makes approximately 16 cups of thick soup.  For a thinner soup just add a few cups more water.  When reheating leftovers I recommend adding a bit of water to loosen up the texture.

*If you are serving both vegetarians and omnivores use veggie base and heat the ham separately to serve on the side.