Grateful Heart

Hi there, friends!  It has been some time since I posted to this blog.  I would say that I lost my steam over the summer, but it would be more accurate to say that the steam was directed elsewhere.  This is a blog about food, but this summer my energy went into making food.  And I don’t just mean cooking it.  Take a look.
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Petunias are not food.  Not that I’m aware of, anyway, but they were beautiful and colorful and they thrive in the heat.  So, while they’re not edible, they are a summer staple.  Side note: I have recently discovered edible flowers at my local grocery store.  Any tips on using them?

Now to the food.  I had a modest but productive balcony garden this summer.  I tried my hand at growing herbs again, with much more success, although it turns out cilantro is a wild and unpredictable beast.  Meals were incredible this summer, full of fresh thyme, rosemary, and basil, basil, basil.  I’m sad to report that after moving inside, my little potted herb garden died, but over the summer it was in full force.  I also grew cucumbers, a project that probably cost less than buying them at the grocery store.  They were not as large, but they were delicious and refreshing.
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Can you imagine how amazed and delighted I was to find this in the garden that I grew myself?  I squealed like a child on Christmas when I discovered the first tiny cucumbers growing and then again, louder, when I found this hidden under its big leaves.
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Not bad for a pack of seeds, some dirt, water, and sunshine. And love.  Lots of love.

Also bees.  (Save the bees – plant a garden.)

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And they were oh so refreshing! Cucumber water is one of my favorite summer beverages, hydrating and more cooling than anything else I’ve tried.
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I used my cucumbers mainly in salads and for fancy water, but the herbs did much more work, small and delicate though they are.  I’ve cooked dishes without salt and pepper because the herbs were that good.  I am partial to basil, especially since it grows like a weed, and two of my favorite uses were on pizzas, both regular and eggplant.
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In addition to planting things, I also learned more about regrowing kitchen scraps, one of my favorite things.  I’ve saved and regrown green onions before – talk about something that grows like a weed!  Below, I give you the results of saving and watering the base of a celery heart.  Yes, celery is inexpensive, but it’s the principle of the thing.  In this small way, my kitchen is self-sustaining.

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None of this was difficult to do.  It was fun, therapeutic, as they say, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to go outside to gather some of your ingredients for dinner.  After nurturing your plants, hoping and praying they make it, and finally bringing them into the kitchen, you can feel nothing but the most profound gratitude.  Toward the end of the summer, a gardener told me you can grow virtually anything in a pot on a balcony.  Look out, summer 2016! 

The Friday Salad

Two Fridays ago, while visiting Steve’s family, I had lunch at The Backyard in Milton, DE.  I’ve been there a few times before and enjoyed such treats as cauliflower steak and avocado fries (yes, you read that right), but this last time took the cake.  I knew I wanted to try and stay gluten-free (always a challenge at restaurants), and that quickly cut down on a lot of options.  Mostly I’m choosing from salads these days, but when there’s something like a black bean mango salad on the menu, I’m not complaining.  This was the mother of all salads.  It started with quinoa, included a somewhat spicy tomato and pepper salsa, black beans, barbecued chicken, and mango.  And in case that’s not enough, it came with a side of spicy ranch dressing.  So, creamy dressing and your feelings on meat aside, this is a pretty healthy meal.  As soon as I finished it, I knew I’d be making it myself soon.

Exactly one week later, I set out to recreate this little delight.  It actually doesn’t cost too much to make; the most expensive ingredients are the quinoa and the chicken, and you’ll have leftovers of those for other meals.  I always keep black beans in the cupboard, and I usually have some version of the Rotel tomatoes and chilies on hand too.  I’ve been working my way through a bag of quinoa for some time, and this was a great way to finish that up.  So when I started this, I needed mangoes, chicken, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing.

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The beginning of something great.

Here’s what I did: I started the chicken and quinoa first.  The chicken needs to be absolutely slathered in barbecue sauce and baked at 350 (flipped once halfway through) for about 35 minutes.  After that, I turned the broiler on for about 5-7 minutes, flipping it halfway through that as well.  I wanted a really good coating of sauce on these because I’d be slicing them later on.  While that was baking, I cooked the quinoa in vegetable stock – that takes a total of about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I combined the black beans and Rotel in a saucepan with a little bit of diced red onion to punch it up.  I cooked this over low heat really just to combine the flavors.
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Once everything was cooking, I sliced up two mangoes and waited for everything else to finish up.  I did let the quinoa and the black bean mix sit and cool off for a few minutes, and I let the chicken rest for just a few minutes as well.  I didn’t necessarily want anything to be piping hot – it is a salad, after all.

And then it was just a matter of plating – my favorite part!  The only thing you can’t see here is the quinoa, but it’s hiding under there.

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I have to say, this was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever made.  I enjoyed it, Steve enjoyed it, and I will absolutely be making this again (Friday, perhaps?)!  I topped mine with some ranch dressing – not the healthiest, I know, but it balances the spicy flavors so well.

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Now is that a summer meal or what?

Mango Black Bean Salads

Ingredients

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 ripe mangoes, sliced

1 cup quinoa

1 can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies

1 can black beans

8-10 ounces barbecue sauce

Ranch dressing

Optional: 1/4 red onion, diced

 

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

2. Place chicken breasts in glass baking dish; cover and toss with barbecue sauce

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, flipping halfway through

4. While chicken bakes, cook quinoa according to package directions (typically, boil in vegetable stock 12-15 minutes and let sit until liquid absorbs).  Let cool.

5. In a saucepan, combine black beans, Rotel, and red onion (if using).  Cook over low heat for 8-10 minutes stirring regularly.  Let cool.

6. When chicken is cooked through, turn on broiler and broil for 5-7 minutes, flipping halfway through.

7. Once chicken is finished, let sit for a few minutes, then slice.

8. In each serving bowl, combine one large spoonful of quinoa and one of bean mix; arrange chicken and mango on top and top with Ranch dressing

 

Enjoy!

Zebra Print Frittatas

I am all about the breakfast lately.  I’ve written about this before, but when I get a good, healthy start to the day, it’s motivation for me to stay healthy all day.  Basically, I don’t want to have a great breakfast and then screw things up.  I normally eat yogurt with granola and nuts, oatmeal with a bunch of toppings, or those dandy little granola bars I made not too long ago.  But stepping away from the crunchy side of life for a minute, I’ve got another super quick and easy breakfast dish for you today: muffin frittatas.

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This doesn’t look easy, I know.  On early mornings, I can’t even mange to make oatmeal.  The trick to this breakfast, as with all great meals, is planning ahead.  And in this case, making ahead.  But even though there is work involved, they are pretty easy to put together.  I used eight eggs this time and got ten muffins.  I added in red pepper, red onion, scallions, mushrooms, and of course, cheese.

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This is already looking pretty good.

The first time I made these, I just diced, chopped, and stirred everything into the eggs.  They were good, but I started thinking about how much better they would be if I sautéed a few things first.  Now I’m convinced this is the only way to do it.  And what’s not to love about sautéed mushrooms and peppers?

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If you don’t make a mess, you’re not doing it right.

After I had my veggies prepped, I whisked up the eggs in a big bowl, added a tablespoon of baking powder (it makes all the difference – trust me), 1/4 cup of milk, a little salt and pepper, and the vegetables.  After lining the muffin tin with cupcake wrappers, I filled each one and topped with some shredded cheddar, making a fine mess of my tin in the process.  These went into the oven at 350 for about 25 minutes.

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Obviously, zebra print wrappers are a must.

And here they are – cute, delicious, nutritious, and ready to eat in the morning in no time.  All the qualifications of a brilliant breakfast!  They were really puffed up when they came out of the oven, but they deflated as they cooled; the final taste and texture is exactly what you want in eggs.  Try them out!

 

Muffin Frittatas

Ingredients

8 large eggs

4-5 scallions, diced (hint: use kitchen scissors)

1/2-1 red pepper, chopped

1/4-1/2 red onion, diced

1 8-ounce package sliced white mushrooms

1/4 cup milk

1/4-1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon baking powder

Salt and pepper

Cupcake wrappers

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees; line muffin tin with wrappers

2.  Sauté pepper and mushrooms over medium-high heat for about 8 minutes

3. While the pepper and mushrooms cook, whisk eight eggs with milk

4. Stir in mushrooms, peppers, scallions, red onion, baking powder, and salt and pepper to taste

5. Spoon egg mixture into lined muffin tin; top with cheese

6. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes

7. Let cool completely before removing

Word to the wise: if you use a cupcake wrapper with any kind of metallic lining, be sure to take that off before microwaving in the morning!

I hope you enjoy these!  I’m looking forward to experimenting with all different kinds of veggies, but this combo is working pretty well for me right now.  Happy cooking!

Dating

Before I went gluten free, I’d grab a granola bar for breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up in a minute.  Obviously they had to go out the door with the gluten, but there was another good reason to ditch them.  Two words: added sugar.  Like so many other processed foods, so-called “health bars” are usually loaded with sugar, preservatives, and other, well, stuff.  So it wasn’t really a tragedy not to have them anymore.  Still, I like the idea of a granola, health, or protein bar as long as it’s made well.

I’ve heard of people making granola bars before, but I never tried it until a couple weeks ago.  Here’s what started this: I bought the wrong kind of granola to put in my yogurt.  It had banana chips in it, so picky me went back to the store to buy the right kind.  I didn’t want to waste the banana chippy granola, though, so I thought I’d turn it into bars.

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I know what’s in my granola bars!

I searched the internet and specifically The Food Network, but all the recipes I saw included wheat germ.  Finally I found a fantastic gluten free recipe here.  It was really easy to follow and, like all of my favorite recipes, open for suggestions.  I followed the recipe but subbed in a little bit of my leftover granola for some of the oats and added chocolate chips per Steve’s request.

I haven’t been eating them for breakfast, but I’ve had them for an afternoon snack, and more than once they’ve saved me from going for something really bad like a candy bar or “candy coffee” (Hi, Starbucks.).

The ingredients were really easy to find – they came from the bulk and organic sections of Wegmans, and most of them are things I keep in my pantry anyway.  Except dates.  Can we just talk about dates for a second and how they look like bugs?   I’m not one to get squeamish with raw chicken or mysteriously congealed leftovers, but these?  Yikes.  I like them much better when they’re pulverized.

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Dates… charming, aren’t they?

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Pulverized

Weird squishy things aside, this recipe turned out really well.  The only cooking involved is melting the honey and peanut butter together on the stove and roasting your almonds and oats – if you want.  Once it’s all mixed up, it goes into a square baking dish and freezes for a while. Super easy and super tasty, although I must admit my bars probably had a little bit more sugar than they should have because I used honey roasted peanut butter instead of regular, but I could just cut down on the honey and take care of that.

FullSizeRenderThese are quickly becoming a staple around here.  You should definitely check out the recipe or find one that you like and try it.  Just don’t make the same mistake I did a few days ago and buy regular dates with pits in them (or if you do, remember to pit them first).  Your food processor won’t like it and neither will you.

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Ta-da!

 

The Ingredient Chain

If I had a nickel for every time I said or heard “Grocery budgets are all about planning ahead,” I wouldn’t have to plan anything.  Unfortunately, life is not so simple.  Since I’ve started trying to eat at home most of the time, I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with planning meals.  I might have a vague idea of what I want, go shop without a list, and then realize I’m missing ingredients, or I might have the fridge and pantry fully stocked only to have my work hijacked by dinners out or busy days turning into exhausted nights when I’m grading papers instead of cooking dinner.  This can be irritating for many reasons, but the main problem for me is that I hate to waste money and food.  I can’t stand having to throw away something that was perfectly good because I forgot to cook it, but what bothers me just as much if not more is having to throw away the leftover food that I didn’t need for a recipe.  It seems like such a waste to have to buy more than I need of something and not have a plan for the rest.  And since grocers tend to frown on you slicing off what you need in the produce department and leaving the rest behind, we need a better idea.

I don’t have all the answers (or so I’m told), but I have recently come up with a kind of a solution to this problem.  This was really just a last-minute epiphany before I went shopping, but with more planning than I put in, it could really become a long-term groove.

It’s getting a little warmer outside (yay!), so I was in the mood for a burger.  Not just any burger, though – a black bean burger.  I have a pretty amazing recipe that includes sweet potatoes, leeks, and lots of spices, and I actually have started to prefer that to a “real” burger.  The problem is that this recipe calls for two tablespoons of finely chopped leaks.  I present to you what you can buy at the grocery store:
IMG_6708Yeah, so not exactly two tablespoons.  I’ve wasted leeks before, but this time I started thinking: what else can I do with them?  Is there a way I can use those leftovers to make another meal?  Well, yeah.  Potato and leek soup.  Just my luck, a five-pound bag of potatoes was on sales for $1.99 this week.  Into the cart they went.

IMG_6712-2But then came the next problem.  I don’t need five pounds of potatoes for soup for two people!  I also have found through trial and error and wasted food that I don’t need five pounds of mashed potatoes for two people.  Problem solved.  I decided to use the leftover potatoes that I didn’t need for the soup made from the leftover leeks to make a smaller batch of mashed potatoes and have it with chicken.

IMG_6716You see where I’m going with this.  You might be thinking “But wait, three chicken breasts for two people doesn’t add up either.”  Well, it doesn’t, but I’ll still cook the third and one of us will eat it for lunch. I usually cook chicken paillard, which is quick and easy, and for that you cut off the tenders.  I’ve used the leftover breast and tenders to make a version of chicken marsala served with rice or GF pasta, or I’ve cooked it and tossed it into a salad.  My point is, I’m not worried about the leftover chicken – it will find a place.

So what’s my point here?  If you can look ahead a few days – realistically look ahead, that is – you can actually plan meals with overlapping ingredients and save money and food.  I first had the idea of cooking the burgers, and when I started considering my leftover ingredients, I let those guide me to my next dinner.  It sounds like a Food Network challenge, doesn’t it?  (You heard it here first.)  In reality, I’m in a stretch of having great meals with just enough left over for lunch the next day and using everything I can.  Let the cycle continue!

What Gluten Free Looks Like

I made the decision to try a gluten free diet about six months ago with great results, but lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism of the GF diet.  Let me be clear: I do not have Celiac disease, and I have not been diagnosed with a gluten allergy.  I won’t go through this entire story again, but I learned that gluten (and perhaps more notably the chemicals used to treat wheat) can lead to inflammation, an underlying cause of several issues I’ve dealt with, including horrible sinus problems.  So I decided to try the gluten free diet to see if any of my symptoms let up, and they all did within a few weeks.  I honestly didn’t know I could feel so good, breathe so deeply.  Talk about a new lease on life!

So what’s my problem?  My problem is what I hear on TV, what I read in the newspapers, and what I hear from other people when I mention gluten.  “A gluten free diet is not for everyone.”  “A gluten free diet can be dangerous.”  “Doctors warn against gluten free products.”  When I first started hearing these claims, I listened.  After all, I don’t know everything, and I might have missed something in my research.   But here’s what I found: all of these claims assume that GF people are substituting every morsel of gluten with a GF substitute.  They fail to consider what else a GF diet can look like: tons of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, dairy, and naturally GF grains like rice and quinoa.  Depending on where you come down on meat and dairy, this list doesn’t look harmful.  When I first went gluten free, I didn’t run to the store to replace every wheaty product in my kitchen.  I began thinking about other foods I could eat instead.  So my problem is that many critics of the gluten free diet are completely ignoring the various other options – the bounty – that people can eat instead.

As I have continued along this gluten free path, taking many detours cheating along the way, I have purchased some gluten free products.  I’ve cooked gluten free pasta, and once in a while I will buy gluten free pizza dough.  There is a loaf of gluten free bread in my fridge right now.  Do I like being able to eat the same foods without suffering side effects?  You betcha.  But these are no longer staples for me.  Chicken is a staple, albeit more like a once-or-twice-a-week staple.  Tomatoes, bananas, apples, avocados, walnuts, almonds, beans, brown rice.  These are the things I’m buying every week (and much more – you should see my last grocery bill).  Since I went gluten free, I have eaten more fruits and vegetables each day than I have at any other point in my life.  One of the best things going gluten free has done for me is to seriously limit the processed foods I can eat.  Not only do they contain wheat, but they also tend to contain all kinds of yummy preservatives and other chemicals that make gluten look like child’s play.  Eating better and avoiding gluten has alleviated my inflammation, and it has also forced me to cook at home, helping me discover new recipes and ingredients along the way.

It’s frustrating to say the least to see people making such generalizations and assumptions about what a gluten free diet looks like and ignoring other possibilities.  I’m not advocating for anyone to go gluten free or vegetarian or vegan or anything else.  But I do want people to think about the foods they eat and to realize there’s more than one way to dodge the wheat and many, many other real foods to eat instead.  And tis the season – with farmers markets opening soon, it’s about to be easier than ever to eat real, good food.  Find your markets.  Befriend your farmers.  Thanks for listening.

Lesson the Third: Make Dinner

Well, here it is, as predicted: the post on dinner!  Last night, I really didn’t feel like making dinner, but I’m glad I forced myself because 1) I have a fridge full of food thanks to my Friday night Wegmans adventure; and 2) I made cheesy potatoes.

Over the weekend (really since Thursday), I ate SO well.  I didn’t necessarily have anything exciting – there was mango guacamole, which, to be fair, is pretty exciting, black beans and rice, salads – but I ate a ton of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and it felt great.  I surprised myself by going four entire days without eating meat.  I didn’t set out to do this; it was really just sheer laziness, but it felt good and got me eating other great stuff.

So last night, while we still had a pretty healthy meal, I decided to indulge a little.  I went BACK TO WEGMANS yesterday afternoon for two non-food things and left with potatoes, cilantro, avocados, mangoes, and artichokes. Oy.  I’d purchased some salmon Friday night that I planned to cook either Sunday or Monday for dinner, and when I saw the artichokes I thought they’d be a perfect side.  I wanted a little starch to go along with that, so I got 20 (I counted them when I started cooking, not in the store – I’m not completely nuts) small, red potatoes.  I was originally planning to cook them as I usually do, which is to cut them in half, boil them, and toss with butter and thyme, but I thought I’d try something different.  It’s been a while since I got creative.

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I decided to do a cheesy potato bake, so I knew I’d have to slice the potatoes thin – almost chip-thin.  I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I have a really hard time getting potatoes to cook.  Baked sweet potatoes?  Forget it.  So I made sure these slices were skinny.  I sprayed the bottom of a round baking dish with olive oil and then just barely shingled the potatoes around.  I learned that term for layering food slices this year – pretty neat!

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Once the first layer was down, I salted, peppered, thymed, and parmesaned.

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I kept going for four layers – I had exactly enough potatoes – crazy! I topped the whole thing off with cheese and put it into a preheated 400-degree oven for 45 minutes, checking every 15.  Once a knife slide out easily, I knew it was done.

IMG_6544And done it was.  This was so good and such a great side dish for the fish.  Since fish is light, I like to balance it with something a little bit heavier.

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Meanwhile, I steamed the artichokes with some lemon (not the ones below – the steamed lemons turned to mush and were just for flavor and aromatics) and cooked the fish.  The whole thing took right around an hour, but it was so tasty and filling that it was worth every slice, every chop, and every dirty dish.

IMG_6620As you saw, the potatoes definitely took some prep work, and the artichokes did as well.  They’re not that hard to steam, though – you just have to snip the thorny ends off and open them up a bit.  The fish is ridiculously easy to cook – put on baking sheet, season, and put in oven.  Yes, there are fancier things you can do with salmon, but since I was going to town on the potatoes, I kept the rest simple.  Sometimes those are the best meals.  I’m so glad I didn’t skip out on cooking dinner last night.  It was filling, nutritious and fun to cook (and let’s be honest – fun to photograph).

Till next time! 🙂

 

Cheesy Potato Bake

Ingredients

20-30 red potatoes, thinly sliced

1/2-3/4 cup shredded parmesan

1-2 tablespoons dried thyme

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees; spray bottom of round baking dish with olive oil or cooking spray

2. Arrange a layer of potato slices on the bottom of the dish in a spiral, slightly shingled

3. Top potatoes with salt, pepper, and thyme, then sprinkle with a layer of cheese

4. Repeat layers until you reach the top of the dish or the potatoes are gone; finish with seasonings and cheese

5. Cover and bake for 45 minutes

Enjoy!