Tag Archives: technique

Adventures with an Ingredient: Polenta

23 Apr

Today’s recipe post includes meat, but is really about the base grain ingredient here: polenta. Polenta is a misunderstood and often under-used ingredient, I think, because it requires a certain kind of attention to do it right. I’ll cover some of the basics and then get to the recipe at hand.

First, what is polenta?

Polenta is actually ground cornmeal — just like the stuff you buy to make cornbread, but ground to different consistencies. You can buy polenta either coarsely or finely ground. Coarse ground polenta is a grits-consistency, while fine-ground moves closer to cornmeal, and then to corn flour, with additional grinding.

You can buy polenta in many different forms, too. If dry, you will have to boil the polenta to make it edible. But many stores now sell precooked polenta (usually in a tube) which has already been boiled, and then shaped.

There are two different preparation types for polenta: creamy or solid. This recipe features creamy polenta, so the steps are included, but consists basically of a mashed potato consistency product. (And yes, you can produce creamy polenta from precooked polenta, by adding more liquid and boiling it, or you can just slice it and prepare as baked polenta, below.)

Baked polenta takes creamy polenta and transforms it into a solid by spreading it in a casserole dish (like the kind you’d bake brownie batter in) and either baking or chilling it to harden. From there, you can grill, fry, or slice the polenta into any shape you’d like. Some of my favorite solid polenta recipes include polenta sticks and polenta lasagne.

But I’ve always had textural issues with creamy polenta, so lately I’ve been determined to try a recipe that would make it work for me. When I came across this one for parmesan polenta with spicy sausage, it sounded just right. I thought the chunky sauce would mix well with a flavorful creamy polenta and I wouldn’t mind the mush.

And it worked! I definitely recommend mixing the parmesan into the polenta. It doesn’t have much flavor on its own. I used Italian-flavored pork sausage for the recipe, not the turkey sausage it calls for, but otherwise, stuck to the directions, figuring I could eat the leftovers for lunches this week.

Hopefully this edition of Adventures encouraged you to try something new!

What are your favorite polenta recipes? Leave a comment and share your tips! And as always, if you have any requests for ingredients to see showcased here, ask away!

How to Make Your Favorite Recipes Healthier

29 Feb

In Monday’s post on how simple it is to make good ol’ tomato mozzarella pizza at home from scratch, I mentioned that I try as much as possible to make my own versions of recipes, in order to keep them healthy. While pizza is a great example of this — delivery from Domino’s being high not only in calories and fat but in processing and preservatives — the truth is, it’s often easy to make even smaller modifications to recipes you already make at home to transform them into healthier alternatives. Here are a few of my favorite ways…

1. Use whole ingredients

I know this seems like a no-brainer here on We*Meat*Again, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get caught up in the “usual routine” of a recipe and never think to make an easy substitution. Instead of a store-bought jar of tomato sauce (which may contain corn syrup, especially if you’re budget conscious) buy a jar of diced tomatoes or some fresh ones and simmer them into your own.

Really think about the ingredients list on your favorite dishes. Use Velveeta in your homemade baked macaroni and cheese? Canned condensed soups for slow cooker casseroles? You’d be surprised what an easy swap actual cheddar cheese or pureed carrots could be. Play around, think about the texture and consistency of the ingredient you’re substituting, and the treatment it will receive in the recipe (heat, melting point, etc.) and brainstorm a whole ingredient that you can reasonably expect to behave the same way. You might even create an interesting new flavor profile!

2. Find smarter substitutes

When these trade-offs work, it’s not only healthy, it’s exhilerating! You can feel proud to have come up with a clever trick to reform your recipe — and most of these substitutions will not dramatically affect the flavor of the recipe (or will do so in a positive way!) Some of my favorites include applesauce, mashed banana or yogurt for eggs , butter or oil (reduce fat, add nutrition!), crushed walnuts or rolled oats for bread crumbs (an easy high-carbohydrate trap), and vinegars in place of salad dressings.

But smarter substitutions don’t all have to be completely off the wall. Trade-offs as simple as milk for heavy cream, or whole wheat flour for bleached white flour make a difference, too. By subtracting an unhealthy ingredient, you often get the chance to add in some extra nutritional benefit.

3. Reduce the fat content

This is really a subset of the above idea. One of my favorite magazines is Cooking Light, and they are a fantastic recipe resource for healthier versions of things. But the strategy the editors and kitchen testers there follow is to avoid substituting ingredients, and instead find ways to reduce fat or calories.

They usually achieve this by reducing the amount of fat ingredients, such as butter or oil, swapping egg whites for eggs and cutting back the amount of sugar in a recipe. And in doing so, they’ve found that most recipes, including those for baked goods, can be made equally as delicious without any “weird” or vegan ingredients, just by including a little less.

For example, you can reduce the amount of sugar by one-third to one-half in most baking recipes, and instead, add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or flavorings such as vanilla extract or almond flavoring to boost sweetness.

I tend to prioritize finding other ingredients over using less of an unhealthy ingredient. Partly, this is because I also try to avoid processed foods. I’d rather use cheddar cheese than reduced fat 1/3 all “natural” cheeze product simply because it’s “reduced fat.” I embrace a little fat here and there. But a marriage between tips #2 & #3 can go a long way to overall reforming your diet.

4. Cut out the unnecessary

One of the most flawed aspects of following a recipe you find blindly (especially if that recipe comes from any chef featured on the Food Network) is that you can get caught in a cycle of unnecessary unhealthiness simply because the ingredients make the cooking process a bit easier, a bit fattier in flavor or texture (and therefore more mass-market appealing) or a bit more familiar.

Example: I’m working on reforming a Rachel Ray recipe for shepherd’s pie with a mashed potato/parsnip topping to include buffalo meat. (It’s going to be epic. I promise to post it soon.) But the woman has the following included in the mash: potatoes, parsnips, milk, butter, sour cream AND two whole cups of shredded cheddar cheese.

Now, I have made delicious mashed potatoes many many times, and I can guarantee you don’t need four different ways to make them creamy. In fact, a combination of milk and vegetable stock gets a creamier and flavorful mash pretty easily, and with the least amount of fat possible (and trust me, mashed potatoes are my absolute favorite food). But if you are so freaked out by experimenting with new ingredients, you might just follow the recipe to the letter without questioning such a bizarre overuse of fat.

A few simple steps here and there, and a focus on whole, fresh foods, is an easy way to begin the process of transforming your diet into a whole, healthy, sustainable one. While eating well is a lifestyle commitment, you can take baby steps to get there, and this is a great place to start!

What are your tips and tricks, readers, for transforming the recipes you know and love into better versions of themselves? Leave a comment and share your ideas with the rest of us!

How to Motivate Yourself to Cook

13 Jan

As I gear up for another semester teaching and trying to finish the book simultaneously, I thought it seemed timely to tackle this question, from my friend Ariane via Facebook:

As an academic, how do you motivate yourself to cook and not make something quick? I’m always buying food and then not using it or forgetting it and it goes bad – tips? Good sources of recipes?

In my first year of graduate school, I lost 12 pounds. And though I had been trying to lose that weight for awhile, and was glad I did, it wasn’t in a good way. I dropped that much weight that quickly because I had all but stopped eating. Often, I would rush out of the house without breakfast, or with just a granola bar in hand, and would spend the entire day at my school office, not eating again until I returned home at night. The only thing that saved me was that I lived with a boyfriend at the time, and so we were able to cook together, so I ate at least one meal a day.

So I understand how easy it is to give in to the demands of a schedule and forget about cooking–or even eating. And in fact, I think this demand applies to people who work 9 to 5s as well as those of us in academia (which is, in fact, a full-time job, even if you see your professors go home for lunch). We all have at least eight to ten hours or work to do in a day, and often feel so mentally exhausted by the time we return home at the end of the day (many of us with work still to do) that we’d rather watch TV than do anything — especially cook.

Here are some of the things I’ve found that work for me to eat well, to cook whole foods, and not to completely destroy myself with business in the face of a demanding schedule.

Shop for Less — More Frequently

I’ve heard so many of my friend extol the virtues of shopping for specific recipes, both for being more budget-conscious and for making best use of the food you have. If you keep staples like grains, frozen meat, oils and other condiments around on a regular basis, and then do your produce shopping once a week or so, you can buy for specific meals. This will also likely have the added benefit of encouraging you to shop at the market, rather than the grocery store. So you’ll also be buying more locally and seasonally.

Plan Ahead

This shopping style also allows you to plan your meals when you have the time to think — on the weekends. When you shop for specific meals, there’s less mental energy to spend on figuring out what’s for dinner tonight. Planning ahead also helps you break the habit of thinking of your food only when you’re hungry, at the end of the day.

My idea of planning ahead is usually as simple as deciding in the morning what I will make for dinner that night–but just picking the protein. Will I use that pork chop? Chicken breast? Or go vegetarian? Once that call is made, I can spend the day brainstorming what I’ll do with the chicken breast and the other ingredients I know I have — and then making that meal is less effort than thinking of something else to do when I’m hungry.

Cook in Big Batches

As I said, we all have more time on the weekend — so take advantage of it! I have to admit, when I was whining about having to bring my lunch to school based on my schedule this semester, Scott is the one that reminded me I could make big batches of something to take with me each day. And it’s a great idea, but I have a weird aversion to leftovers. But when you make a big batch of something to eat over the course of the week, as Scott reminded me, it’s not technically a leftover — you haven’t eaten it at all yet.

This is a good mental trick for me. I usually spend my Sundays cooking a few things that will help me get through the week without having to cook too much, but won’t leave me with the microwave every night either. I bake loaves of bread. I make fresh pesto or other sauces. I make big batches of snacks like homemade cheez-its or granola bars (recipe coming soon!) or soups and stews. I can draw on this cooking all week without feeling like I’m just eating one meal for dinner every night.

Expend Your Energy Once a Day

This goes hand-in-hand with the last piece of advice. As I said, I prefer to cook in big batches things that I can use to create meals, rather than whole meals themselves. The truth is, this works for me because I tend to use those foods during the day. This week, I made a loaf of Spinach-Cheddar bread and homemade cranberry sauce, so I could have easily and super-delicious brie and cranberry sandwiches all next week. Knowing that lunch is taken care of gives me more energy to cook at the end of the day. And since I prefer fresh food for dinner, this is a great way to combine cooking ahead of time, with new meals every night.

Save the Feasts for the Weekend

In order to really make cooking during the work-week work, you also have to be honest about your time constraints. This semester, for example, I will be teaching a yoga class one night a week until 6:20pm. Which means I’ll get home, hungry, around quarter to seven. I won’t want to make a 45-minute feast — nor should I try. That means dinner dangerously close to “too late” (a subjective standard of mine where eight is the cutoff), and it sets me up for failure. If I know I have a cook-fest waiting for me at home on those nights, nine times out of ten, I will stop at Jimmy John’s on the way home rather than cook a big meal.

So when you’re planning your weeknight meals, take the schedule into account. Which nights will you have the time to start cooking around five? Which nights do you have to bring work home to complete after dinner? There are plenty of amazing meals you can make in less than twenty minutes with whole foods: orzo, barley or couscous salads, skillet pork chops, stir fries, etc. You can even go back to the planning ahead advice and use the slow cooker to get something like BBQ pork sandwiches ready in the morning. Make sure your cooking time will be realistic.

Learn to Love Cooking

This is We*Meat*Again, so you knew you were going to get some abstract “change your paradigm” advice here, too. The truth is, in order to really eat more healthy, whole foods, you have to cook more. Not everyone likes to cook, however. So the best advice I can give is to figure out what it will take for you to enjoy cooking.

Honestly, I used to think I hated cooking. I was really bad at it for most of my life because I’m a flighty, spastic kind of person and I couldn’t stay focused on cooking for the amount of time it takes to not burn water. When I got older, and I decided to eat this way, and had to become a cook, I discovered that all that personality that made me a bad cook when I was younger was exactly why cooking was so good for me. It forces me to focus on one thing at a time. I have to slow my breathing and concentrate. Cooking for me is really meditative, and so even on the days I don’t feel like cooking, I push through, knowing that once I have, I will feel better. Like exercising, cooking has a way of recharging my battery.

I know it might not work this way for everyone, but I guarantee there is some way that everyone can create a positive mental space for cooking. For some, it might be finding a few things you can make that are so good that you want to keep cooking them. For some, the challenge of a new ingredient might be mentally stimulating at the end of an office day. For others (and I’m in this group as well) cooking for other people can be really wonderful. If inviting a friend over for dinner is what it takes to get yourself to cook and eat better — well, bonus.

How do you motivate yourself to cook?  Have a secret we should all try, or a recipe source that helps you along? Leave a comment and share your idea!

And in case you missed it, We*Meat*Again is celebrating our upcomign 1000th site visit by giving away a copy of Michael Pollan’s new, illustrated Food Rules book. Check out this post for details on how to enter!

Adventures with an Ingredient: Red Cabbage

16 Nov

Like many people out there, I’ve struggled with incorporating vegetables into my diet. I’m a very picky eater, and reticent to try new things, so I often stick to the old standards at the grocery store. I’ve written before on the blog about what happened to my weight and health as a non-veggie eating vegetarian, and given some advice on how to incorporate more veggies into your diet, generally.

But this week, as I stared into the crisper drawer of my refrigerator, I was inspired to try something new. To write a series of posts, perhaps, as how-tos on certain, possibly under-utilized vegetables. I was inspired by my head of red cabbage.

Image copyright Ian Alexander

I have a weird love of red cabbage. Since the salad bar days of my youth, when I first tried red cabbage, I couldn’t get enough of its sharp, tangy crispiness, the way it jazzes up a salad. Sometimes I even just chop up red cabbage, toss it with a little balsamic vinegar, and eat a bowl of it for a snack. But even as much as I like it, this is all I’ve ever done with it. Staring at the half-used head of it there in the crisper, I realized I had no idea what to do with red cabbage.

And if I, someone who will actually buy it and enjoy it, don’t know how to cook red cabbage, then what are the odds too many people out there are enjoying all that red cabbage has to offer?

So here’s the lowdown on red cabbage, and a recipe for an outside-the-box way to use it.

Red Cabbage vs. Radicchio, courtesy of FoodBlogga

First, red cabbage is not radicchio (which is also delicious). Radicchio is a “leaf chicory,” the same family as Belgian endive, with a bold, slightly bitter natural flavor. Whereas red cabbage is, well, a cabbage. I prefer the red variety to the green because it’s a bit sweeter, and less pungent (though when cooked, it still has that distinctive cabbage taste — and smell).

Red cabbage in particular, and all cabbage in general is a super-health food! While cabbage offers high Vitamin C and anti-oxidant benefits, red cabbage includes a newly-understood group of plant pigments known as anthocyanins, which early studeis suggest offers cancer protection, improved brain function and heart health.

So what can you do with it?

In my searching for an answer to that question that went beyond “gnaw on it raw like a bunny,” I came across this great article on cabbage and its many uses from Wise Bread (a great frugal living resource staffed in part by my friend Meg Favreau!).

It probably comes as no surprise that many cabbage recipes involve turning it into a slaw or sauerkraut — the ingredient has strong German heritage — and many may have heard of cabbage soups, made popular by a 90s fad diet (which, while stinky, probably worked). But I was intrigued by the casserole idea, so I went forth to find a recipe that would make good use of my red variety.

Enter scalloped cabbage with cranberries and turkey. I made a few modifications based on my pantry. I don’t have any fennel, so I skipped that. I used orange juice instead of cranberry juice. I had sliced deli turkey breast on hand, which worked just fine, and of course, I used red, rather than green cabbage.

What a surprising treat this recipe turned out to be. When cooked, especially with the fruit juices and salty broth, the red cabbage’s sweetness took on a new complexity. The turkey helped keep the dish from being overcome with sweetness — very much like when you mix together everything on your Thanksgiving plate, with your grandma’s crunchy sauerkraut thrown in. I’d add this to my list for next week — would be a great, creative way to use some Thanksgiving leftovers without being repetitive to the original meal.

Hopefully, you’ll all think about picking up a head of red cabbage next time you’re at the store. Don’t be put off by its size — I used about half a small head for my scaled-down version of this recipe, so it’s easy to use up fast. And if all else fails, at least you know tossing some raw red cabbage in a bowl with ranch dressing works — and is a lot better for you than doing the same with a head of iceberg.

What are some of your favorite ingredient secrets? Are there vegetables, fruits, meats or even non-traditional ingredients you love, and believe may be under-appreciated? Or, what ingredient do you always pass by warily at the store? What ingredient have you always wondered — what the hell would I do with that? Leave a comment and share your recipes or fears, and you may be featured in a future “Adventure’s With an Ingredient” post!

 

Turkey Meatball Reubens — Superfast Meets Superhealthy!

26 Oct

In an earlier post about How to Eat Your Veggies, one of my pieces of advice was not to try and “fake it” with veggies too much. If you love burgers, find a healthy way to make a burger or enjoy them in moderation, rather than trying to substitute a black bean burger all the time. You’ll just end up feeling disappointed and defeated. You will become one of those people who thinks there’s no such thing as healthy food that tastes delicious.

Well, today, I’m going to take an ingredient — ground turkey — that many people think of as a healthy alternative and turns it into something really yummy: turkey meatball reuben subs.

Ground turkey gets a bad reputation as the classic health food bait & switch. Turkey burgers (when badly made) can be dry and flavorless. And I’ll hand it to beef & sausage — ground turkey is just not cut out to be the basis of a chorizo or a zesty Italian marinara.

But it is good at some things, and finding those purposes, the recipes specifically suited to a particular ingredient, will better help you appreciate all that healthy foods can become.

These subs are just the ticket. By using ground turkey to make the homemade meatballs, you get healthier, and less chemically-induced meatballs than pre-made (which, on top of being made with fattier ground beef, would be loaded with preservatives) and you get to add in the spices that give these subs their reuben flavor. So you’re finding a use for a lean meat like turkey that celebrates, rather than apologizes for, itself.

The only time-consuming part of this recipe is making the meatballs — that is, mixing the spices into the turkey meat and rolling them into meatballs. That takes maybe ten minutes, depending on how many meatballs you make.

Italian side note: There is only one right way to make a meatball. None of this using a spoon crap. Get your hands in there, grab three fingers-full of meat, and roll it quickly between your palms. It’s worth the slime, I promise. You’ll get adorable little meatballs with no split seams, perfectly round and smooth.

You will also get hands that look like this (from the paprika).

While the meatballs are broiling, you have more than enough time to prep the sub buns (I highly recommend taking the recipe’s suggestion to hollow-out the bread — you can actually pick up and eat the sub that way!), and make the coleslaw while the meatballs are broiling. In fact, you’ve got enough time that I’d even advocate making your own coleslaw — just use the vegetable peeler on a couple of carrots, chop or shred some lettuce, cabbage, whatever you have on hand, and toss it with the dressing.

You end up with a filling, well-rounded meal in about twenty minutes start to finish. And you can enjoy that meal knowing what’s in it — no mystery ingredients, no chemicals, and a lot less fat than your average burger, with none of the flavor removed.

Recreating Recipes

18 Oct

Last night, as the temperature dipped for the first time this year low enough that I considered turning on the heat (I haven’t given in yet!), I set out to make one of my favorite soup recipes: my version of the (never home)maker’s veggie corn chowder.

Ashley & Stephen at (never home)maker are good personal friends of mine and so I love many of their recipes, but this one has been in the rotation for years. When I moved here to Kansas from Iowa, I finally trashed the paper version of the recipe I had (stained and sticky as it was from years of use) thinking, correctly, that I follow most recipes online these days anyhow. But last night, I couldn’t find the recipe in my bookmarked tabs on the computer.

No big deal, I thought. Ashley & Stephan have a killer recipe index on their site. I’ll find it that way.

Until I remembered that this recipe, so tried-and-true I’ve forgotten how old it was, came from an earlier, now-dead incarnation of Ashley’s food blogging.

No longer available online.

For a moment I was paralyzed and devastated. I strongly considered calling Ashley to get the recipe, but we have a mutual phone-minimizing pact, plus she’s super-pregnant and probably was asleep at 7pm when I needed it.

And then I realized: I’ve made this recipe dozens of times over the last few years. I know all the ingredients off the top of my head, and the portion sizes for most of those. I could probably remember when to cover or uncover the pot. When to boil and when to simmer. Come to think of it, once I’ve made a recipe a couple of times, I rarely follow the recipe unless it’s a baked good.

So I winged it.

Here’s my best recreation — I’ll let Ashley correct me.

  • Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add about a half cup diced onion and about a cup of celery, and sautee a few minutes, until crisp-tender.
  • Add about two cups diced potatoes and one cup chopped carrot, along with one cup of broth. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then reduce heat and simmer ten minutes, covered, until vegetables are slightly soft.
  • Add one can of cream-style corn, and one cup of fresh or frozen corn kernels. Here Ashley’s recipe called for a can of — I think? — garbanzo beans. But I don’t like those, so I add a can of green beans instead. Heat, stirring occasionally, about ten minutes.
  • Meanwhile, whisk together two cups of milk and two tablespoons of corn starch. Add to soup mixture, stirring, and simmer over medium-low heat ten minutes, or until heated through.
  • Add salt & pepper to taste.

I honestly don’t know how accurate I am here, and I know I modified the original version a bit as I made it, so I’m sure it’s not identical to the original. But the chowder hit the spot for a chilly, rainy October night, and I got to feel like I was in the kitchen with an old friend helping me along.

Have you ever had to recreate a recipe from memory? Did it fall under the category of pride for how well you did, or does it belong in the comments section of last week’s kitchen fail post? Leave a comment and let us know how you cope with missing recipes, lost to the sands of time.

Tomato-Corn Pie and Mayo Fail

4 Oct

Well, it was bound to happen.

I’ve written extensively here on the blog about my true domestic roots as a major kitchen flop. A mashed-potato-blending, smoke-alarm-setting, crying-over-the-piecrust flop. Sooner or later, I was bound to try to make something to share with you all… and fail at it.

The culprit this time (as I assure you, there will be more times like this in the future) was my first attempt at homemade mayonnaise. In trying to decide what to make for dinner this weekend and scanning the refrigerator, I discovered some really delicious frozen local sweet corn and a couple of farmer’s market tomatoes.

The last rays of summer sun were slanting through the blinds, and the temperature was a comfortable mid-70s. What better than a creamy tomato-corn pie?

In fact, the only ingredient I didn’t have for the pie was mayonnaise, a crucial component to the rich, lemon filling. Rather than run to the store and buy something full of preservatives, starches and other corn products, I decided to get out the eggs and oil and try my hand at whipping my own mayo. I found this recipe and ran with it, as it used exclusively olive oil, which I love more than any other oil, and which I had more of than canola, got out the whisk and went to town.

See that? That’s what “split” mayo looks like — when the oil doesn’t successfully emulsify into the egg, you get something that tastes like mayo, but looks like a runny mess. The internet tells me this happens when you add the oil too quickly while beating the eggs.

So I tried it again, adding the existing oil mixture drop by drop to a new egg, and used the electric hand mixer to beat more quickly. But to no avail. The mayo was just not meant to be.

Luckily, since in this recipe, the mayo is cooked and used just as flavorful pie filling (rather than as a spread) I was still able to use the runny mayo to make the pie. Still turned out delicious — just less fluffy and pretty than it should.

Of course, there’s always a silver lining here on We*Meat*Again. I may have failed this time around at making homemade mayo, but it gives me a chance to address something I know we’ve all felt at one time or another: kitchen shame.

No matter how far past my clumsy, undomestic girlhood I have come, no matter how radical a feminist I am, no matter how much I write about it, I still feel disappointed and angry with myself with I can’t succeed in the kitchen. The failure permeates. I pout. I pore over articles on the internet and then feel frustrated seeing the same answer over and over again, and think but I did that! in my best petulent, whiny voice.

But you know what? Who cares! We’ve all failed sometime or another, whether in or outside the kitchen. And my parents, like hopefully all of yours (assuming you had parents who met your basic needs) told me that mistakes are worth something only if we learn from them.

So I will attempt to learn how to make mayo again — I don’t stop trying something when I don’t get it right in the kitchen. I find another recipe, try with a little more patience, or help. But more than that, the lesson I take from my kitchen failures is that this is worth trying.

Homemade mayo (even if only hypothetical at this point) will be so much better for me, my body and my planet, than super-preserved store-bought mayo. No matter how many tries it takes, I will get this right, because there’s something real at stake here. And the only real failure would be not trying to succeed on something this important (Michael Jordan taught me that).

And if making my failures public to the world encourages all you to give it a shot, too, then all the better.

Alright, spill it! What are your funniest, clumsiest, or most frustrating kitchen fails? Let’s laugh at our misfortune together — and then give each other advice! Anyone know how to make mayo?

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.

Grains

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)

Legumes/Nuts/Seeds

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)

Produce

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.

Meats

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

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!

The Big Picture of Food’s Future (Links)

16 Sep

Lots of coverage this week of the USDA’s new E. coli ban, so there isn’t too much breaking-news style policy to cover in our links round-up. But I’m rather happy for the respite, as it gives us a chance to reflect on the general state of the food movement, and where we go from here. So here are some big picture question & answer links for your weekend reading pleasure.

First and foremost, here’s a quick & easy action link you should all follow right now.  Remember how last week I wrote about the food industry push-back against the voluntary request of the federal government to please stop selling junk food to kids? Well, the folks at EWG are collecting signatures on a letter that will go to 13 CEOs. You can sign here, and the spread the word to your social networks to add your voice to the (perfectly reasoned and quite polite) fray.

Now on to the future…

The food movement grandaddy, Michael Pollan (who hopefully doesn’t think that I’m calling him old), has a fantastic piece in The Nation this week on the next big challenge for the food movement, transitioning from a shift in the public consciousness to systematic, policy changes. His interesting take? Our greatest ally may be the healthcare industry, also, as we know, in need of serious reform.

And there are a few exciting activities that might help us get there. Saturday, I will be doing my own version of Slow Food USA’s $5 challenge, in which we’re tasked with preparing an awesome slow food meal for only $5 a person — less than the cost of a fast food “value” meal. Take the pledge to join in, or find a potluck near you!

Even if you don’t want to be an “official” participant, here are a few great resources — from Eating Well magazine and NPR — with tips for cooking healthy on the cheap, always useful information.

Finally — and this, I have to say, I am majorly food-nerding out over — the announcement came this week of the launch of a new day of action and awareness: Food Day. Modeled after the Earth Day campaign, Food Day will be an annual event on Oct. 24th full of information and action: policy campaign kick-offs, cooking lessons, farm tours, film nights, public or private dinners in homes or public spaces, school curricula, filmmaking contests, protests, declarations of new city priorities, and announcements of changes to institutional food-buying or vending practices.

WOW, RIGHT?! I can’t wait to be a part of this new phase of action in a movement I believe has the potential to shape our future in meaningful ways.

Hot Nuts

6 Sep

I can’t help it. I have the sense of humor of an eighth grade boy.

As you may all remember from last week’s Homemade Cheez-Its (without the Z) post, my newest kick is making delicious, healthy snack foods. At the co-op this weekend, I acquired some bulk raw nuts that I wanted to convert into fast, easy, portable snacks. I took on two nuts at once (Oh! Somebody stop me!): cashews & almonds.

I adore cashews. When I was a kid, I’d spend most of the day on any major holiday picking through the crystal dish of mixed nuts my grandparents always set out, hunting for the cashews — so often, in fact, that they eventually just started buying me my own can of Planters’ Cashews.

Then, a few years ago, I started buying dry-roasted salted cashews at Wheatsfield and, oh my god. When I thought my favorite snack couldn’t get any better, it did. The next time I took a road trip and bought a bag of roasted cashews at a gas station, I could barely finish them. The difference in flavor and texture between roasting in oil and without was unbelievable. But without a bulk option for dry-roasted in my new home, I decided to tackle them myself.

After a little internet research, I learned that dry-roasted cashews is very easy and hands-off — but time-consuming. In order to more evenly flavor the cashew with salt and provide enough moisture for the nut to withstand roasting, you have to marinade the cashews in a small amount of salt water for 5-6 hours before roasting. But other than that, spread them evenly on parchment paper on a baking sheet, stir a few times and you’re done!

At the same time, I had some raw almonds leftover from my homemade granola, so I thought I’d try roasting them with a spice paste for variety, because who likes to eat the same nuts every day? (Ok, seriously, Marissa, your parents read this blog.) I modified this recipe from Sprouted Kitchen by scaling it down and altering the ingredients based on what I already had. My spice paste was a clove of fresh, grated garlic, 1 tsp. of crushed red pepper, 1 Tbsp. each of dried oregano and thyme, 1 Tbsp. raw cane sugar and crushed black pepper and sea salt liberally across the top.

Just toss the raw almonds in a frothed, whipped egg white, mix in the spice paste, spread into an even layer on parchment paper and roast.

There’s no way to really scale down an egg white, so I had a bit of extra liquid, which led to the almonds baking into almost a brittle form, but that turned out to be a pleasant surprise — several would stick together, but I think that’s a pretty delicious savory treat.

You’ll note that both of these nuts are roasted over a very low heat, and that’s important. Since the bits are so small, you want to keep a close eye on time and temperature, without opening the oven too often, to make sure they don’t burn around the edges of the sheet.

I’m very pleased with how both of these turned out, and happy to be taking more and more unknown ingredients out of my diet, especially when it comes to providing myself with in-between meal snacks. I know myself well enough to know I’m the kind of girl whose never going to stop reaching for a handful of nuts (*snicker*) whenever I can, so I might as well make sure the ones I get my hands on are as good for me as possible.

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