Tag Archives: steak

How to Shop for (and Eat) Whole Foods

22 Sep

A few weeks ago, I asked some of my Facebook friends for thoughts on posts and Laura, who writes the blog Shaped by My Life (a fellow IC writing alum) suggested posting a sample shopping list with an eye towards cooking with whole foods. I thought this was a great idea. So often, people don’t buy whole foods because they aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Also, I really love grocery shopping, and making lists, so this is post will be particular fun for me.

I thought I’d start with my general grocery shopping philosophies for whole foods trips.

First, don’t expect to get everything all in one place. I know it seems inconvenient at first, but the massive corporate chain grocery store that stocks everything does so to the detriment of other features like locality, quality, and health. Cheap products that can sit on shelves for months at a time are highly processed — if you want to begin avoiding corporate foods, processed foods and to prioritize local and organic foods, you’re going to have to go outside the big box. The good news is, you will likely quickly develop a routine that is not inconvenient: produce at the market, bulk grains and legumes at the co-op, meat at the local butcher, all in the same amount of time you’d normally spend weaving your way through the fluorescent aisles.

Second, don’t be scared off by the higher price tag. You will spend more in a single trip on whole foods than you are used to at the grocery store. But again, there’s a silver lining here! A single trip to the co-op will stock you up with more food that will last longer, and needs only to be supplemented with weekly produce additions. When you shop at the grocery store, you’re buying food that is pre-packaged to make a single meal. When you buy whole foods, you’re buying the pieces for lots and lots of meals, instead.

In general, a good method for figuring out what to buy involves thinking of the big categories of whole foods, and choosing the individual parts you like in those categories. This will give you lots of options for mixing and matching ingredients into many different meals. I’ve provided a list of the categories here, with a sample of what I would normally buy in each — but keep in mind that’s limited to my tastes, so the categories should be your guidelines.


You can buy grains either in bulk (where you fill your own container) or pre-packaged. Some of my favorites are:

  • Israeli & French couscous (Israeli for deconstructed couscous salad, french for Parmesan couscous)
  • Arborio rice (for risotto)
  • Pasta! (I usually get a smaller shape that holds sauce for baked mac n’ cheese and a longer pasta for tossing in lighter sauces)
  • Orzo/wild rice/brown rice (for pilafs, stir fries or beds-of kind of recipes)


This is where a normal person would buy lots of bulk lentils and legumes. But I don’t like those, so I spend most of my energy here on nuts for snacks or meal garnishes and seeds for salad topping.:

  • Cashews!
  • Whole or slivered almonds
  • Sunflower seeds (great on spinach salads)
  • Walnuts (for crusting oven-baked chicken)
  • Pecans (for chicken salad)


I’m not a fan of canned vegetables, and frozen veggies don’t have as much flavor for me, so I try to buy mostly fresh produce. The few exceptions I make are:

  • Frozen fruit for smoothies (though you can just freeze fresh fruit)
  • Frozen corn and peas
  • Canned refried beans if I’m in the mood for Mexican
  • Dried fruit for salads and granola

For fresh produce I always try to get a mix of:

  • Leafy greens
  • Green stalk veggies, like green beans, asparagus (or again, for normal people, broccoli)
  • Tomatoes and a variety of peppers
  • Carrots and celery
  • Lots of onions (I always get at least one red, white and yellow) and garlic!
  • Portable fruit like apples, oranges and bananas
  • Berries, watermelon or pineapple for chopped up snacks/cooking

And then I toss in a few extras depending on what’s there and what looks good seasonally, like cauliflower, zucchini/summer squash, red cabbage, or alfalfa sprouts. Obviously, the possibilities are endless here, so I suggest you figure out your most used veggies, and pick those up each time, and then supplement that with one or two other veggies each trip. This way, you have variety  but don’t overwhelm yourself and end up throwing lots of produce away as it’s spoiled.


Meat is a lot like produce for me — I pick up the same few things each time, and then add in a bit for variety. I try to get a mix of meat types so I’m not consuming a ton of red meat, and to work in some seafood. My staples are:

  • Chicken breasts (not a fan of the low meat content of other chicken parts, but wings and thighs are best if you like dark meat)
  • Pork chops and/or tenderloin
  • White fish like tilapia or cod (this is a purely Marissa-picky thing, as it’s the only kind of seafood I really like)
  • Ground beef or lamb and/or some fancy form of these like ground buffalo, lamb shanks or sirloin steaks
  • Meats you can use for deli sandwiches. If you’re lucky, your co-op will sell nitrate-free ham, or sliced chicken and turkey. But if not, it’s really easy to buy and cook a chicken or turkey breast and slice it up yourself!


Dairy covers a lot, and those things have variety in them (like cheeses!) so here’s a breakdown of what I buy:

  • Milk and/or soymilk. I usually get regular milk for drinking and cooking, and soymilk for smoothies
  • Butter (which I always get in stick form because it measures easier for baking, but can still be used on toast, etc.)
  • Sour cream for sauces
  • Yogurt (I get a large, vanilla container for smoothies and then smaller individual packages in flavors for midday snacks!)
  • And cheese galore! I try to get one or two hard cheeses that work for both sandwiches and grating, like sharp white cheddar and Gruyere or another Swiss, plus fresh mozzarella for salads, Parmesan for pasta, plus some orange cheddar or something else that will melt into a cheddar sauce well.

Baked Goods

Now, by baked goods, I don’t mean cookies and snacks. I make those myself! I mean things that are made in an oven, mostly forms of bread. I usually keep:

  • Whole grain bread sliced for sandwiches
  • Wheat tortillas (for enchiladas, lunchtime quesadillas and wraps)
  • English muffins or bagels for breakfasts

The only things not considered in these categories are sauces, condiments and drinks. Once I’ve stocked up on the basics, I assess the recipes I know I have in my cart and get the corresponding condiments (mayonnaise for sandwiches, mustard for everything, BBQ sauce for pulled pork, vegetable broth, peanut butter, etc.). I basically don’t buy drinks at the store because I consume pretty much exclusively water and milk, but I know that co-ops often stock really delicious local root beers or soda waters, as well as adult beverage treats.

I’ve also not included the things I have in my pantry on a regular basis that don’t need to be purchased on each trip to the store: baking goods like flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, etc; spices and seasoning, like dried herbs, lemon juice, balsamic and other vinegars; honey, and lots and lots of olive oil. Never run out of olive oil.

I know that changing your shopping habits might seem daunting at first, but I promise you that lists become routine very quickly. And you’ll really enjoy getting to spend time creatively piecing together different pieces to make your own meal.

Cooking with whole foods means more than cooking in a more healthy way — it means learning to think about how foods fit together. I know that can seem overwhelming, especially for people who want cooking to be easy, something they can do at the last minute. Once you get the hang of it, and get used to stocking your house with a variety of whole components, it will be easy! I usually take some meat out of the freezer in the morning, and then decide what to do with it when I get home, depending on what I have, and how hungry I am/how fast I want the cooking to go.

The pride I feel when I can open the fridge and freezer and think: Hmm, I’ve got walnuts, chicken, spring green mix, orzo — hey! I can make that walnut-rosemary crusted chicken on a bed of orzo pilaf with lemon-sprinkled salad greens! is unparalleled. Give it a shot!

Ok — what did I forget? What are your whole food staples, and what are your favorite recipes to go with them? Leave a comment and share with readers, as I know my taste and cooking style are limited!

How to Eat Your Veggies

10 Jun

The subtitle of this post should be “Especially if You Don’t Like Them.” Picky eaters, I feel your pain. A truncated list of the vegetarian staples I dislike includes pinto beans, garbanzo beans (and therefore hummus), cauliflower, eggplant, summer squash, butternut squash, olives, artichokes, tofu and mushrooms. I gag over the grimy paste of lentils mashed between the flat plates of my teeth, the slimy flesh of an eggplant slipping towards the back of my throat. Once, in a nice restaurant in California, I accidentally put a slice of mushroom in my mouth—masked under the thick alfredo sauce on my manicotti, which I had ordered without mushrooms—and the gritty edges of it, its slickness against my tongue, made me so sick I had to run to the bathroom to spit it out in a trashcan.

Did I mention I was a vegetarian for seven years? Right, go see how well that worked for me.

So at the request of Lindsey, I decided to compile some of the lessons I’ve learned as a picky eater, unhealthy vegetarian and ethical omnivore about how to best incorporate more vegetables into your diet. Bear in mind, these are tips for people who struggle with this, or who find themselves resistant to veggies, even though you know they’re good for you. If you love vegetables and have no trouble eating any of the things detailed above—awesome!

But if you want to do better (because you know, in your heart, it truly is better for you) this advice might be the place to start.

1. Incorporate veggies into existing meals.

One of the most frustrating things to me, as someone who really loves to cook and bake from scratch, is the dreaded recipe rut. You develop a list of old standbys that you make every five days or so, over and over. And that gets boring.

One way to change that up is to find veggie add-ons, an easy way to rotate one standard dish into many variation. My favorite personal example is this homemade baked mac and cheese recipe. Aside from being really easy and much better than a blue box, it’s easy to switch up. I’ve added in  garlic chicken and sliced red onions, or, the favorite, cubed ham and frozen green peas.

2. Find small ways to substitute vegetables for meat.

This is more of an anti-tip, and is specific to the picky eaters or meat lovers out there. Don’t try to replace your meat staples with veggies. If you love black bean burgers, great! Keep it up! But if you love a nice grilled buffalo burger or homemade Juicy Lucy, don’t try and sell yourself on a black bean burger. You’ll only be reminded of what you’re missing, and that’s the path to a strong dislike of vegetables.

Eating veggies doesn’t work if you always feel like you’re being deprived. Instead, try to swap out meat where you won’t notice it. I found I much prefer a hearty, chunky vegetable bolognese, instead of a meaty one! Less heartburn, too. This is so flavorful and chunky you won’t miss the meat — you might even prefer this version.

3. Tack veggies onto existing meals

This seems overly simple, but sometimes having vegetables on hand and always thinking about adding them is all it takes. Keep your fridge stocked with the makings of a simple salad (go for spring greens or spinach rather than iceberg) and a variety of toppings. I love blue cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries, but chopped avocado, egg and cheddar, feta and black olives, etc. work too. Other simple vegetable side dishes like these Israeli carrots make adding vegetables easy. That way, when you’re planning chicken and rice, or steak and potatoes, you can add a couple handfuls of veggies.

4. or – Tack meat onto veggie meals!

Can’t take credit for this one—comes straight from Scott. He’s always said one of his biggest hangups when it comes to eating vegetables was feeling like a meatless meal just isn’t complete, even if it’s filling. So if you find eating salad a chore, try sliced flank steak on top! Not a fan of brown rice stir fry? Try adding cashew chicken. You might be surprised at how you expand your vegetable-heavy entrée options by doing the counter-intuitive thing and adding meat to round out the meal.

This also works as a way to transform vegetable-oriented side dishes that you enjoy into whole meals. The avocado-mango salsa I made for last weekend’s gathering has also made a well-received appearance on top of a piece of pan-fried tilapia with rice, a meal that could have easily appeared “complete” without the produce.

5. Try new veggies – then try them again

Now we get into the suggestions that involve less concrete advice and more of a shift in your mental state. A willingness to expand your horizons is key. I went into more detail on this in my ode to swiss chard, but I have countless examples. As a picky eater, I spent most of my life defiantly standing my ground against changing my diet, adamant in my belief that no one else had the right to tell me what I did or didn’t like.

But sometimes, our tastes change. Sometimes, we don’t even know how or why we dislike something. Sometimes we just don’t like the look of a vegetable, so we never learn what to do with it, or how wonderful it could be. Giving it a shot can make all the difference.

A few months back, I drooled over a recipe in Cooking Light, by Mark Bittman, for chicken and Gruyère quesadillas with mustard greens. I’d never had mustard greens and they sounded like they would be bitter and pungent. But then, the very next week at the co-op, bunches of shiny mustard greens waited for me fresh from a local farm. I figured – why not? I already had a recipe in mind.

You know what happened? I discovered I like mustard greens. Bittman’s a great chef, and he knows what he’s doing with these ingredients. The greens, wilted in garlic and tossed with the sweet, sharp cheese, are mild and savory, delicious.

But that’s a first-time-around success story. What happens if you try a recipe with a new vegetable – and you hate it?

Try another one.

Most vegetables have multiple preparation possibilities, and taste different in each one. The first few times I cooked kale at home, tossed with sausage and tomato into a pasta with lemon juice, or baked into a chevre macaroni and cheese, Scott was not a fan. But a few months later, he had a kale salad at a restaurant and loved it. While this may be because that chef possesses greater culinary talent, I choose to believe it’s because raw and cooked kale taste very different.

Expanding your horizons might take time. You have to be willing to acknowledge the possibility of liking something you didn’t think you could.

6. Learn how to prepare vegetables well

This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip. If you don’t know how to steam or saute asparagus, or what on earth to do with a kohlrabi, one of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to skip trying this vegetable (kohlrabi) or you’re going to let someone else do the work (asparagus). That is, you’ll buy frozen or canned vegetables instead of the fresh, seasonal options in the produce section.

Do not succumb to this. While I usually keep corn and peas in the freezer, I believe vegetables belong in the crisper, not the icebox, because the difference in taste between the two is enormous. A fresh, crisp green bean beats the pants off the soggy, microwaved frozen version. If your vegetables don’t taste good, you won’t like to eat them. And it’s important to remember they really can taste good!

A simple Google search will give you plenty of recipes and preparations. Seek out those from sources whose food you usually like. I rely heavily on Mark Bittman, Jamie Oliver, Cooking Light and the epicurious group of magazines, because I trust them to know what they’re doing. Or, you could always ask me!

7. Don’t be afraid of deciding you don’t like something

We come full circle, back to picky eating. While it’s important to keep an open mind about vegetables, and to dig your hands into figuring them out, and learning the best way to prepare them to their ultimate deliciousness. But if you do all that, and you still can’t stomach a brussel sprout?

Well, ok. You don’t like brussel sprouts.

You don’t have to eat every vegetable on the face of the planet. But there are a lot – way more options than for grains or meat. I’ll bet most of us eat only a fragment of available produce. Once you’re willing to give things a shot, a real shot, you can also be willing to cast them aside.

This is key, because it keeps eating your vegetables from feeling like a chore. Like something you have to do. Like all those nights I couldn’t leave the dinner table until 9PM because I hadn’t finished my broccoli (which I still don’t like!) You won’t eat your veggies if they don’t taste good, and you won’t do it if you feel like you’re being forced to.

The only way to know what you don’t like is to try a lot. And then try them again, and try some more. Eventually, you’ll discover it’s actually pretty fun. Every trip to the store becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

My next adventure: parsnips. This is my “I have no good reason for not eating this vegetable” vegetable. People love parsnips. I even have bookmarked recipes. But they just don’t look appealing to m: the key is, I know now that’s not a good reason not to try something. So next week, I’ll be giving them a shot. I’ll let you know how it goes!


What advice do you have for incorporating more vegetables (or fruits!) into your diet? What are your favorite vegetarian or vegetable-oriented main dishes? Have you overcome your dislike of some food to later discover you loved it?

Auction Meat

2 May Steak

A firm believer in the notion that  sometimes, the simplest things are the best things, my first “recipe” here at the blog will not be a recipe at all, just the brief recounting of a pretty basic meal: sirloin steak, mashed potatoes & green beans.

Fresh from beneath the broiler–a nice crisp on the outside, still steaming & juicy on the inside. Medium-rare, edging on rare, just how I like it. My favorite side dish in the universe, mashed potatoes. (Perhaps someday, the story of mashed potatoes on the ceiling will make its way onto the blog.) And fresh steamed green beans because, let’s face it, our tummies need a little help digesting meat, and green veggies are good for us.

Simple. No frills.

But of course, why would I post about a steak that didn’t have a back-story? And this is a good one. Because I bought this steak … at an auction.

Yes, you read that correctly. I bought meat at a live auction.

Here’s the whole story: Every year, Flyway , the literary magazine run by my MFA program, (Iowa State University’s one-of-a-kind MFA in Creative Writing & Environment) hosts a live auction as a fundraiser to keep publishing the magazine. It’s your standard low-key but nighttime affair: cash bar, jazz musicians, a poetry slam, etc. but the night culminates in a live auction wherein attendees (mostly graduate students and faculty members) bid on donated goods.

This past November, some kind soul donated five boxes of grass-fed, antibiotic-free, organic meat. Each box was estimated to be worth well over $150.

Not long ago, the idea of bidding on a box of meat at an auction would probably have been something I would have attempted to make a joke about. But after a couple of years of co-ops, buying clubs and very, very high price tags (again, for a grad student) that cardboard box of frozen flesh was looking pretty good for the low, low starting bid of $20.

I used my very best puppy-dog eyes on Scott, who had the checkbook and the auction card, who also loves a good grass-fed Juicy Lucy or slow cooker jambalaya with organic pork sausage (recipes to come!) and he flashed that bidding number like it was nobody’s business. Because there were five boxes of meat, and only about fifty people present, we walked out of the Flyway benefit auction that night with a whole roast chicken, four top sirloin steaks, four packages of maple breakfast sausage, four gigantic pork chops, a pound of ground lamb, a pound of ground beef, and a full lamb shank–all for just 36 bucks. We are STILL working our way through that box of meat.

And that is your introduction, dear readers, to just how far I will go for good, local meat. That’s what I call a victory.

Though I have to say, I also consider it a victory that I made it through this entire post without snickering to myself about the term “meat box.”


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