Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Butternut Squash Bliss

This weekend, my friend Sarah offered me her entire crop of butternut squash…because she didn’t know what to do with them. Sarah, you don’t know what you’re missing! This delicious squash has a simple, light, nutty butter flavor of its own but also provides a wonderful base for sweet or savory additions.

As we are on the cusp of Fall and the morning and evening temperatures are cooling, I’m ready to start on soups, and butternut squash soup is hands-down my favorite! Luckily it’s also the one I can’t seem to screw up despite the fact that I don’t measure…ever!

Here’s what you’ll need for my savory version of the soup:

  • Butternut squash: peeled, seeded, and diced
  • Sweet onion: peeled and quartered
  • Carrots: cleaned and chopped
  • Garlic: one whole pod peeled (not one clove, but the whole pod of 10-12 cloves)
  • Stock or Cream: up to 8 cups, depending on your preference
  • Spices: Salt, Black Pepper, Ginger, Cumin, Coriander Seeds

Get all the veggies cleaned and cut. I usually do this while watching a movie, a method I “developed” from my days living in a tiny Brooklyn flat with no kitchen counters. If you’re using fresh ginger, peel, dice, and add that to the roasting mix.

Spread them all out on cookie sheets, making sure everything is in just one layer. Dust with salt, pepper, and spices; use as much or as little as you like. Roast at 400°F for 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and let them sit for another 15 minutes.

Dump all the veggies carefully into a large stock pot. Here’s where I’ve got to talk you through some options.

Option 1: Stock or Cream

The difference between a soup or a bisque is the use of stock or cream as your thinning or thickening agent. There are a few other options besides cream for a bisque, but that’s the traditional one. Vegans can choose vegetable stock or soy or rice milk. For the least flavor interference, use homemade vegetable or chicken stock. For a richer, velvety flavor, use beef stock. For the sweeter version of this soup, use ham or veal stock. And you can always use just plain water, especially if you are looking for a thicker consistency and not worried about having to use too much.

Option 2: Blending Method

If you’ve watched chefs on cooking shows make soup, you’ve seen the two methods: blender or immersion wand. Both can achieve the same level of smoothness, but the traditional blender will get you there faster; just make sure the veggies have cooled to room temperature before using the traditional blender. Me, I like the convenience of the immersion wand because I can pretty much put all of the veggies in at one time and both see and feel the consistency as I’m blending; it offers a level of control that you don’t get with the traditional blender.

I like my soups with a strong “mouth feel,” which usually translates into thick or stew-like. I know it makes the blended soups look like baby food and/or baby poo, which, by the way, reminds me to tell you that this is exactly how to make your own baby food; studies show that children who eat the same food and same seasonings in their baby food as their parents have on their plates aren’t as picky during their formative years, making meal time much easier to deal with.

When my Mom insists on the sweeter version of this soup, it goes something like this:

  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Onion
  • Cream
  • Ginger, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Brown Sugar (during blending)

This version comes out similar to sweet potato soufflé (aka sweet potato casserole) with Thanksgiving spices and sweetness. I just don’t happen to like that very much.

Note for Sarah: other ways I use butternut squash:

  • Oven or deep fried fries…similar to sweet potato fries
  • Winter Veggie Salad with b. squash, zucchini, carrots, onions (or mix with orzo or rice or risotto)
  • Mashed butternut squash
  • Ravioli or Lasagna filling
Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Greek Penicillin–Greek Lemon Chicken Soup

There’s this new local soup and sandwich shop Ladles in Sweetgrass (the new Harris Teeter off Hwy 17 N) that serves up a fantastic Greek Lemon Chicken Soup…not tart, but fresh lemon flavor, hint of garlic, and just oh so comforting…even in the hot Lowcountry summer, which has gotten an early start.

But it’s not always convenient to go get it. And I needed something to make for my lunches this week that would make a little extra for one of our dinners. And…I’m a soup fanatic. Love it….hot or cold weather…but not really many cold soups.

So…what makes Greek Lemon Chicken Soup special? Well, to tell you the truth, it’s basically homemade chicken noodle soup with a special touch right at the end. Here’s how it goes.

Ingredients:

  • 6 large chicken breasts, skinless and boneless (about 4 lbs)
  • 64 oz (8 cups total) chicken broth (homemade is best; for corn free, use Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken Broth or Harris Teeter Organic Chicken Broth)
  • 4-6 large carrots, cleaned and roughly chopped
  • 1-2 large sweet onions, roughly chopped
  • 3-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper as desired
  • 2 cups Israeli couscous (little tiny pasta balls)–or 2 cups white rice which is more traditional and naturally gluten free
  • 3 eggs
  • juice and zest of 2 large lemons (alternate: 1 cup lemon juice)

Place the chicken, carrots, onions, garlic, bay leaves, and salt and pepper in a stock pot; cover with 32 oz of chicken broth (about 4 cups). Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. This is to cook and flavor the chicken.

Remove the chicken and add the couscous and another 32 oz of chicken broth (about 4 cups). Cover and simmer while you shred (or chop) the chicken.

Add the chicken back in and stir well.

At this point, you have a fantastic and well-flavored Chicken Noodle Soup…and might very well choose to stop here.

Or…you can make and add the “Greek” part.

Whisk together three eggs and the juice and zest of two large lemons (about 1T zest and about 1/2 cup juice) in a large bowl. Be sure to use a large bowl, much larger than you think you need, because next you are going to add 2 cups of soup broth while whisking.

Get 2 cups of hot broth out of the soup pot; it’s okay if there’s some onion or couscous in it. I dip the broth out with a soup ladle and into a large measuring cup with a pour spout. This will come in really handy as I pour it into the egg mixture.

Now, take the measuring cup of broth in your left hand and your whisk in your right hand (or vice versa if you are left-handed).

Start whisking away gently.

Dribble the hot soup broth into the egg mixture very slowly, whisking the whole time.

It will take about five minutes, so be patient and DO NOT rush this  step. This is called “tempering” the eggs, warming them up without cooking them so that when you add the mixture to the soup, it will become naturally creamy from all of the proteins!

When you’ve incorporated all of your broth, take the soup off of the heat and add the mixture to the soup. Taste and see what you think.

If you want more lemony taste, add some more lemon juice.

NOTE: this recipe is based off of one posted by Whole Foods for Greek Lemon and Chicken Soup.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

The Bliss of Homemade Popcorn

About five years ago, I took a chance and made popcorn in my own soup pot on a gas stove; you see, I was trimming the budget, and a bag of loose kernels is much cheaper than 24 bags of the microwave stuff (that’s an equivalent amount of popped corn).

And it couldn’t be simpler.

In your big soup pot (the lighter weight the better, if you have a choice), pour in cooking oil to cover the bottom of the pot, perhaps 1/8 inch. Dump in about half a cup of popcorn kernels and maybe 2 tablespoons of salt.

Then the secret: snap the lid on tight and don’t you dare open it up again until the popcorn has all popped.

Gently slide the pot back and forth over high heat. Don’t worry, be patient. You will definitely know when the action is heating up. You’ll hear the sizzle of the oil just a second or two before the first kernels pop. And they will pop up and hit the lid. Don’t be scared…and don’t you dare open the lid. Not only will you let out the heat and steam necessary to pop the corn, but you may lose an eye.

Keep sliding the pot back and forth as you hear the popping speed up. But listen carefully for the first signs of the slow down. When you can hear only one kernel at a time pop, it’s time to take the pot of the heat entirely.

Lift the lid carefully. You may get to enjoy the surprise of a few more kernels popping up and out of the top layer, which is a special delight for kids if you’ve got them helping with this!

Transfer the popcorn into a large bowl to let it cool off.

Now, if  you’ve used a good quality cooking oil, you will not need any flavoring. But…if you must, melt a whole stick of butter in the microwave and pour it over the popcorn; stir immediately but gently.

Other seasonings, which I recommend you add prior to popping:

  • 1/2 sugar or Splenda for sweet kettle corn
  • cayenne and chili powder for spicy
  • cumin for smokey
  • curry and sesame oil for earthy

Oh, and if you are on Weight Watchers and enjoy your 5 cups of 97% fat free microwave popcorn, just imagine what it’d be like to have delicately butter-flavored popcorn (same 5 cups) for 2 points…and feel so much more decadent!

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

Super-simple Sloppy Joes (and a tiny soapbox moment)

I have a love-hate relationship with sloppy joes. I do love the flavor, but there’s a soupiness threshold for me. Sure, it’s easy to buy a can of Manwich or some other pre-made sauce mix, but I think when you know what the sauce basic are, you just might want to try your own.

Brief Soapbox: The key reason I object to canned sloppy joe mix is that they all use corn syrup because they are tomato-based. I’m on a less-traditional bandwagon against corn syrup–and I don’t really care if it’s high- or low-fructose. First, why in God’s name does tomato sauce need sweetening? If the tomato is picked at the peak of ripeness, rather than forced into ripeness chemically, then they wouldn’t be bitter when cooked. Second, like milk allergies 15 years ago and nut allergies 10 years ago, the newest mass produce allergy is to corn; while research is too young to be conclusive, the prevailing medical, biological, and horticultural opinion is that this is because these products/industries are the first and largest to move into GMO production.

Okay, lesson over…for now.

Aside from that, don’t you want to be able to control the flavor of your sloppy joes! All they are is ground meat, tomato sauce, tomato paste, Worchestershire sauce, and seasonings. Sure, you can add other stuff like onions, peppers, tomato chunks, heat, etc., but that’s the basic recipe.

Ingredients (in the order they’ll go in the pan)

  • 1 lb ground meat–whatever you like, but tonight we have turkey
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 cups of tomato sauce (about 1 can)
  • 2T of tomato paste (often contains corn syrup so steer towards the international tubes of tomato paste like Amore)
  • 2T Worchestershire sauce (make your own GF/CF/SF with this recipe!)

After that, whatever you add is essentially your personalization of the basic sloppy joe:

  • green peppers
  • diced onion
  • crushed or diced tomato
  • chilis
  • bbq sauce
  • honey
  • any variety of spices

Serve this delicious concoction on a hamburger bun (traditional) or in a hot dog bun (practical). We are especially fond of eating them with a whole green onion. And tonight, our sloppy joes are paired with tater tots and fresh cooked green beans.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

My Favorite Summer Pasta Salad

It’s summer, which for many means that all the best produce is in season, fresh, and readily available. Definitely true for all of the ingredients of my favorite summer salad.

It couldn’t be any simpler or take any less time or effort…and you’ll find it very versatile:

  • 1 package of your favorite shaped pasta, cooked, drained, and cooled (try an all-rice pasta for gluten free and corn free needs)
  • Equal volume of your favorite medley of fresh veggies (equal volume to the cooked pasta)
  • Seasoning: salt, pepper, thyme
  • Olive oil, about 1/4 cup for the whole salad
  • Lemon juice, or other acid like apple cider vinegar (to keep some of the veggies from turning brown)

Me…this week I’ve paired rotelle (spiral) pasta with what I think of as my classic medley: 1 pint of grape tomatoes, 1 large hothouse cucumber (seeded), 1 orange bell pepper, 1 red bell pepper, and 2 small Hass avocados. I love how the avocados, regardless of how firm they are when you cut them, start to “melt” and become part of the dressing, keeping everything nice and lubricated without extra oil in the dressing! And I went with 2 T of herbs de provence to season everything nice and brightly…it’s the lavender flowers that I love best in the American version from Whole Foods.

Some alternative combos:

  • artichoke, orange, red onion with red wine vinegar
  • broccoli, cauliflower, shelled sugar snap peas with grapeseed oil

Sometimes I add a small bag of edamame, organic and non-GMO, if I don’t have any regular protein to go with it (either freshly made or leftover). But this week, I’ve cooked up several chicken breasts with herbs de provence.

The chicken, salad, and a banana will comprise my lunch for the week…all made in about 30 minutes.

But this salad is fantastic to make up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and just have in the fridge as a quick side or even late-night snack. With the sweet and crunchy veggies, it’s often an acceptable alternative to your palate’s oreo craving at 10:30 pm.

Finally, this is my regular go-to contribution to any summery potluck, especially if I know any vegetarians will be attending; I make a special point to let them know I will be bringing the salad and how I prepare it so they can be comfortable eating it. I’ve had several vegetarian friends attend a potluck for the first time because they knew there’d be something for them other than just what they brought. (In the winter, I do a mushroom risotto for my vegetarian friends.)

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

The Closet Italian makes Italian Meatloaf and Meatballs (Momentum/PointsPlus 5)

My passion is cooking, but my bliss is cooking Italian…anything Italian. Since I happened to swing by the specialty grocery store today, I went ahead and picked up the ground veal and ground sausage (both organic and corn free) to make Italian meatloaf.

Now most folks know meatloaf as that hearty, budget-saving dinner staple: a ground beef, egg, ketchup, bread crumbs and spice mixture, perhaps with some diced veggies thrown in and a quick ketchup or bbq sauce carmelized (or burned) on top. Yep, I sure love that too. My PaPa’s recipe is still our family favorite.

But this is Italian meatballs made into a mini-loaf; it’s also much more dense than traditional American meatloaf. And it’s also perhaps the second hardest recipe for me to transfer. You see, there are no measurements…none, whatsoever. So I’ll do my best with guidance.

The thing to remember is that if you mix and combine to your taste, there’s little chance of going wrong.

Ingredients (this comes from the very first time I made this):

  • 1 lb ground beef (for hearty flavor and density)
  • 1/3 lb ground pork (for sweetness and fat)
  • 1/3 lb ground veal (for the smooth, silky texture)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp Worchestershire sauce (make your own GF/CF/SF with this recipe)
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely diced onion
  • 1-2 T each: basil, oregano, hot red pepper flakes (depends on how you like the flavors)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Dump all of this into a large mixing bowl. Wash your hands thoroughly. Using your hands, mix and blend and squish everything together, working the mixture for about 5 minutes.

Now, here’s where the rubber meets the road in making meat mixtures…you need to taste it…yes, while it’s still raw. This is why it is so important to use organic meats, local if you can get it so you know exactly where the meat comes from. Just a tiny bit, now, to make sure you’ve got a pleasing blend of herbs and spices.

And now come the options. This is originally an Italian meatball recipe, but is wonderful for a variety of presentation options:

  • Meatballs–shape very small spoonfuls into 1-inch meatballs and bake at 350 for 30 minutes
  • Meat Muffins–shape into 3-inch balls and bake in a sprayed muffin tin at 350 for 30 minutes
  • Meatloaf–shape into a log or in a loaf pan and bake at 350 for 45 minutes (for mini-loafs as well)
  • Meat Cut-outs–“roll” out the meat mixture to 1-inch thick (or just pat it out with your hands if you want) and cut out with large, simple cookie cutter shapes; this is great for getting kids to eat meatloaf. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes
  • Stuffed Meat Loaf–select a “filling” such as any sauteed veggies (or combination), cheese, nuts…or all of these mentioned. Using half of the meat, make a “bowl” and fill with your filling. Shape the remaining meat over the top and seal the seam well. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

And then there are the sauce options. Tonight, I’ve gone “nude,” but typically I’m a classic Roman when it comes to dressing my Italian meatloaf…it has to be traditional Roman marinara: roasted tomatoes, anchovy paste, garlic, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper. I’ve had a couple of requests to share my marinara technique, and I will; just waiting on my local fresh tomatoes to come into season. When that happens, I’ll buy about 60-80 pounds of tomatoes and make about 4 gallons of basic marinara. I use this as spaghetti sauce base, bolognese base, in cabbage soup, in gumbo and jambalaya, in taco soup, and more!

Italian dishes to come: traditional Roman marinara, risotto (northern Italian), homemade pasta (egg, no-egg, whole wheat, flavored), white/cheese sauces, and more!!!

This recipe made six (6) mini-meatloafs for 5 points each, Momentum or PointsPlus.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

Hot Chocolate in 5 Minutes (Momentum 4/ PointsPlus 4)

What’s better for relaxing you when you’re all twisted up over a man? Sure, it’s a trick question. For me, though, warm, rich hot chocolate is the best medicine, especially when it’s after dinner and approaching bedtime and I’m probably wishing he was with me.

Oh, sure, you’ve probably got packets of hot chocolate mix in your cupboard. It may even be the premium stuff. But if you’ve read my perspective on natural ingredients, you know what I’m about to say. Icky-poo icky to all of those chemicals created in a laboratory to taste and smell like chocolate but aren’t chocolate at all. Especially when it takes the same amount of time and effort to make your own rich, creamy hot chocolate.

Seriously! In the same time it would take to wait for the water to boil in the kettle to mix with your packet, you can have real, homemade, ingredient-controlled hot chocolate…and you guarantee that it’s exactly the strength and sweetness you want it!

Ingredients:

  • 8 oz of your favorite kind of “milk” (cow, soy, almond, rice, goat)
  • 1-2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon of instant espresso
  • 1-2 tablespoons of sugar (or equivalent artificial sweetener of your choice)
  • optional: 1 teaspoon natural vanilla, hazelnut, almond, or cinnamon extract (especially if you use cow milk and/or unsweetened versions of soy, almond, or rice milk)

Start with your milk, cocoa, espresso and extract in a small saucepan on medium heat. Whisk briskly to blend the ingredients and loosen any lumps in the cocoa or espresso (or sift these if you feel like taking the time). As you blend and see the brown and white gradually transform into a beautiful chocolatey color, you will notice a light bubble foam developing on the top; this is normal and should not be confused with the beginnings of a boil-over.

Stop and taste the mixture with a teaspoon to check for the sweetness level. If you are a true “dark” chocolate person, you will not desire any added sweetness; the “edge” of the unsweetened chocolate and the espresso will tickle your tastebuds just right. But if you are like me and need sweetness to untangle your evening nerves, begin by adding 1 teaspoon of sugar (or equivalent artificial sweetener). Again, whisk briskly and taste. Continue adding up to 1 tablespoon of sugar in small sprinkles until you achieve your desired flavor.

Remember, never allow the chocolate to boil…EVER! If you do, you will burn the milk, create a skin from the carbohydrates in the milk (all milks have carbs!), and the drink will become slightly (or more) chalky.

I like to use a combination of 4:1 of organic vanilla almond milk to skim organic cow milk for optimal creaminess for me. Others will appreciate the slight tang of goat milk. Regardless of which milk you use, please use organic, non-gmo milks and go very light on soy milk, which in significant quantities (more than 2 oz per day) can accelerate puberty in girls, delay puberty in boys and lead to a number of later life health problems, which have been confirmed by long-term studies only recently concluded.

Momentum Points (using 7 oz almond milk, 1 oz skim milk, and 2T real sugar) = 4

PointsPlus (using 7 oz almond milk, 1 oz skim milk and 2T real sugar) = 4

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking

Quick and Easy Hummus (Momentum 1; PointsPlus 2)

I’ll go for long periods of time not even thinking about hummus, but as soon as someone says the word, I start craving it.  What’s not to love…a lightly flavored bean blended into a rich creamy dip, with whatever add-in you’d like.

It’s cheap…perhaps .89 per can of chickpeas.

It’s low-fat…at most 3 grams of fat for the whole can.

It’s low-carb…only 15 or so complex carbs per serving…that’s one of four complex carb servings for your day.

NOTE: the above three statements are decidedly NOT TRUE about store-bought hummus.

And it’s soooooooooo simple.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cans of garbanzo beans (or chickpeas), with juice drained into a cup or container
  • 2-3 roasted garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Dump all of the ingredients into your food processor or blender; doesn’t really matter which you use, but I happen to prefer the food processor. Blend until the mixture gums up and sticks to the sides of the processor.

Pop the lid off and scrape down the sides. Then blend again, this time adding about half of the juice from the beans (about 1 cup).

Pop the lid off again and see where you are. At this point, your hummus is pretty well blended for flavor, but a little thick and textured. If this is how you like it, you’re done.

If you want a thinner, smoother hummus, blend some more, adding more of the juice, but much more slowly. It won’t take much now to thin and smooth. For this batch, I added about 1/2 cup more juice, and my hummus slides nicely off of a spoon, but in a “scoop”. You can also test with the chip you plan to eat it with; I can easily load up a bagel chip with some of the hummus hanging but not dripping off of the side.

Now, sure, you could go all authentic on me and insist on tahini and olive oil as essential ingredients. Unless you are looking for the nutty flavor from the tahini and you find that using the liquid from your beans doesn’t get your hummus smooth and loose enough, then fine, insist on tahini and olive oil and call mine bean dip. But if you add those two ingredients, be sure to account for the added fat and carbohydrates WITHOUT a balance of fiber and protein.

Momentum Points = 1 point per half cup serving

PointsPlus = 2 points per half cup serving

NOTE: Store-bought hummus is on average 1 point per tablespoon of hummus, which would be 8 points for the equivalent 1/2 cup serving.

The plated picture shows a single 2 oz serving of homemade bagel chips, for a Momentum 4-point snack or a PointsPlus 6-point snack.

Alternate 0-point flavorings: 1 can of artichokes, 1 package fresh or thawed frozen spinach, 1 package thawed frozen asparagus, 1 jar roasted red peppers, 6-8 cloves roasted garlic, 2 fresh roasted tomatoes, handful of fresh basil, crushed red pepper,

Alternate 1-point flavorings: 1 oz olives, 1 tsp sesame oil, 1/4 cup reduced fat feta cheese, 1 tblsp sugar (with cinnamon, clove,  nutmeg, ginger) for a sweeter option