Thursday, September 23, 2010

I'll Take Unknown Grains for 100

One of the things I love most about cooking is exploring new foods, particularly ones I have never cooked before.  Grains, in particular, are usually always exciting and sometimes feel like I am discovering hidden treasure.  This is because grains can provide healthy swaps for other starchy options like rice, pasta or bread.  They up the nutritional value and provide more fiber. In addition to better nutritional value, they often bode unique flavors and textures.  

This week's unknown grain- farro! Farro is an ancient grain that originated in Italy.  It is a whole grain from a farro plant and is similar to barley and spelt.  It should be soaked before cooking and it is cooked as a traditional grain. 

I put my thought wheels into motion and I decided to use farro in a fresh summer salad.  When it comes to salads, texture is key.  I need to have clean flavors, savory elements and lots of crunch.  Cooking the farro and then baking it provides a perfect amount of bite, adds nutrients and fiber.  The farro replaces other starchy options like croutons and adds a nutty, savory flavor the replaces fats in other salads.

If you are a traditional Caesar salad eater, try this salad.  It has a similar flavor profile but is of course, healthier and yummier. The parmigiano reggiano cheese, lemon and olive oil provide the same essence as a caesar dressing without the additional fat.  The string beans and farro add the crunch instead of fried croutons and the corn adds bites of sweetness.  You can use any type of lettuce and I used a mixture of spinach, arugula and mesclun. 

Crisp Summer String Bean Salad with Farro, Corn and Chicken
Makes about 4 servings

2 cups farro (can be prepared days in advanced)
2 boneless chicken breasts, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 pound summer string beans, cleaned and cut into 2 inch pieces
Lettuce, 1 container (about 8 oz or a full head)
1 cup of corn (preferably cut from a summer cob, if not canned will do)
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 Tabelspoon lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
Parsley, cleaned and chopped about  2 tbsp.
Olive Oil, 2 tsp plus extra for cooking
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Soak the farro in cold water.  Allow it to soak for at least an hour and you can leave it soak up to overnight.  Bring about 3 cups of water to a boil.  Add the farro and allow the water to return to a boil.  Then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Allow farro to cool completely and then spread evenly onto a baking sheet.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, mixing frequently, until the farro has developed a nice crunch.  Do not over cook the farro or it will be impossible to eat.  

Clean and cut the string beans and combine with the corn.  Add 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and set aside to marinate.  

In a pan, drizzle olive oil and heat on medium.  Add minced garlic and saute.  Add chicken strips and allow to cook about 5 minutes.  Add parsley and finish cooking.  Cut open a piece of chicken to test for doneness then immediately remove from heat.  The chicken will continue to cook for a minute or two after it is removed from the heat and there is nothing worse than over cooked, dried out chicken.

Clean and chop the lettuce.  Add parmigiano reggiano cheese, lemon juice and olive oil and toss to coat evenly.   Salt and pepper to taste.  The key to making a good salad is to start by adding half of your ingredients and then test and taste as you go.  You can always add more, but you can't take away oil if you use too much. 

To assemble, add the chicken, corn, string beans and farro to the dressed salad and toss to mix.  Top with additional farro.  Serve and Enjoy :)

What makes this bite better?
The element of exploration!  One of the biggest problems with people's diets is the uniformity and lack of variation.  Diets that have the most variation are the healthiest.  In order to achieve variation, you must be willing to try something new.  If you have never tried farro, give it a go.  If Caesar salad is your all time favorite, it's time to break the bond and reach out to try something new. Who knows, you might just find a new, healthier favorite food.  


Friday, September 17, 2010

Pesto Please

I love cooking easy weeknight dishes where I can get all the components of a meal into one dish.  Having pesto on my mind from Herb Envy, I decided to make a pasta with chicken, string beans and fresh pesto.  The crisp bites of the green beans complement the al dente pasta and fresh herb flavors.  The chicken adds protein and the vibrant green color of the pesto is very appealing.  Pesto has a wonderful ability to make a dish light from the refreshing basil essence while also maintaining a savory element from the oil and cheese.  It's very satisfying and there is nothing better than making fresh pesto and cooking with it right away- amazing.

I used filei pasta because it is more like macaroni and holds the pesto better than other types of pasta.  Plus its an interesting shape and really fun to eat!  If you can't find filei, trofie or rigatoni also work well.

Filei with Chicken, String Beans and Pesto
Makes about 5 servings

3 cups Filei
2 Chicken breasts, cleaned and sliced thin
1/2 pound fresh string beans, cleaned and chopped into 2 inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Olive Oil
1/2 cup Fresh Homemade Pesto (checkout my homemade nut-free pesto)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grate to finish

Heat a pan to medium and drizzle olive oil.  Add garlic and saute.  Add chicken and cook until almost done.  Then add string beans and saute for an additional 2 minutes.  Add the pesto and mix well and allow the ingredients to finish cooking.

At the same time bring a pot of water to a roaring boil.  Add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.  Add the pasta and allow it to cook for 4-5 minutes.  The pasta should be al dente, it should be firm but not too crunchy.  Remove it from the stove and drain.

Add the pasta to the pan and mix with the chicken, string beans and pesto.  Finish with a sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano cheese.  Serve and enjoy :)

What makes this bite better?
When people are on a diet the first thing to go is usually fat.  While fat is the least needed macronutrient, it is still important for maintaining optimal health.  Fats are required by the body for cell growth, function and repair.  They also help regulate blood pressure and provide a significant calorie source.  Fats provide 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram.  This is why adding some fat to your meals will help keep you fuller longer.  The best source of fat is from an unsaturated fat source such as oil or fish.  In this recipe olive oil serves as the fat source, providing the essential fatty acids that the body requires in addition to many other health benefits.  Don't go overboard, but don't be so quick to cut healthy fats from a dish.

Source: Wardlaw G. and Smith, A.  Contemporary Nutrition.  6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2006.  164-165.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Party Pleaser

Figuring out what dish you are going to contribute to a party is always a little stressful. That is why a few sure to please dishes never hurt anyone. This eggplant dip is purely delicious and a perfect contribution to any party.  The presentation can vary based on the type of party and it is always a hit!

I traditionally make this dish with regular eggplant, but I saw some beautiful japanese eggplant at the greenmarket and I couldn't resist. Eggplant should be salted for about 30 minutes before it is cooked.  After it is sliced, sprinkle it with salt and place it in a colander.  Salting helps remove the excess water and bitter flavor in the eggplant.

Eggplant Dip
Time: About 35 minutes
Makes about 3 cups 

1 regular eggplant, sliced about 1/4 inch thick (or 2 smaller eggplants)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
About 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped 
1 small onion, sliced thin
1/2 cup red wine
Olive Oil, enough for brushing

After the eggplant is sliced and salted, rinse it under water and pat dry with a paper towel.  Brush the eggplant on both sides with olive oil and place it on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle minced garlic, basil, salt and pepper over the eggplant.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Make sure the eggplant is soft by poking it with a fork.  

In a pan, drizzle some olive oil, heat over medium and add the onions.  Saute the onions until they are golden brown.  Then, deglaze with the red wine and reduce to about half.  Place the eggplant into a bowl and add the onion-wine mixture.  Smash the mixture together, using a knife if necessary to cut the eggplant skin.  The dip should be smooth enough to spread on a cracker but still maintain some texture.

Serving Suggestions
Spoon dip onto a crostini for a perfect hors d'ouerves or serve as a dip with a multigrain chip or cracker.  The dip is best served at room temperature. 

What makes this bite better?
Everyone knows that parties are the perfect place to binge on foods that you really shouldn't be eating.  This dip is fantastically flavorful and does not have the fat, additives or meats that usually accompany traditional party dishes.  Plus, this dish is vegetarian so any meatless eaters will be able to enjoy as well.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fabulous Fish

I love buying cookbooks.  However, I get easily frustrated when perusing the selection- fast dinners, five ingredients or less, healthy, gourmet, seasonal, holiday entertaining- the list of cookbook claims goes on and on.  I find this irritating because I don't want just one type of recipe for one type of food.  I want it all, all the time.  Every time I prepare food, I think it should be simplistic, delicious and healthy.  And that is exactly what this fantastic fish dish is.  It is amazingly flavorful, super easy and absolutely healthy.  The fresh ingredients along with the parsley pesto create a party in your mouth.  For this preparation I used baby heirloom tomatoes but grape or cherry tomatoes could be substituted.  A mild fish is ideal and I was able to find some delicious fluke at the fish market.  Fluke is a white fish with a thicker filet, mild flavor and nice hearty flake.  However, I have used tilapia, flounder and grouper in the past and all have worked wonderfully as well.  

This dish is perfect if you are cooking for a crowd. It is my go to dish for dinner parties or holidays.  The dish requires very little preparation and everything cooks together in the oven.  You can make the parsley pesto as far in advance as you want because the longer it marinates, the better it is.  Make as many trays as you need based on the number of people.

Fluke with Heirloom Tomatoes, Cannellini Beans and Parsley Pesto

1 pound of fluke, rinsed, patted dry and sprinkled with salt and pepper
1 can of cannellini beans, rinsed
1 package of baby heirloom tomatoes
1 tablespoon of parsley pesto (see recipe from "herb envy")
1 Lemon, slices for the fish and remaining juice

Clean the tomatoes and remove the stems if necessary.  Cut the larger tomatoes in half.  Any tomatoes that are too small to cut in half, leave whole. Mix the cannellini beans and the tomatoes together with the parsley pesto.

Cover a baking sheet with wax paper or aluminum foil leaving excess on both sides to be able to cover the tray.  Place the tomato bean mixture onto the sheet, spreading evenly.  Place the filets of fish over the mixture, spacing them evenly.  Place a lemon slice on each piece of fish and sprinkle the remaining juice from the remaining lemon over the fish. Cover and bake for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees.  Monitor the fish and beans to make sure they do not dry out.  Frozen fish will take longer.  

Serve and Enjoy :)

What makes this bite better?
Essential fatty acids are named as such because they are necessary to maintain optimal health.  The essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, must be obtained through the diet because the body does not have the ability to make them on its own.  Fish is the best dietary source of essential fatty acids, providing not only omega-6 but also omega-3s (EPA and DHA).  These fatty acids have been known to decrease blood clotting, aid in immune system and nervous system functioning and reduce risk of heart disease.

Wardlaw G. and Smith, A.  Contemporary Nutrition.  6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2006.  164-165. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Herb Envy

The weather is cooling down, Labor day has flown by and it is time to savor the last bits of summer.  In order to preserve the essences of summer I am posting three staple recipes made best with fresh summer herbs.  All of my herb recipes are inspired by one of my most favorite places to visit-my best friend Gabby's house in Delaware.

Now normally Delaware is not your go to vacation destination (no offense to the delightful tax free little state).  But Gabby's house has something special, her mom Grace.  Grace is the ultimate cook and her garden puts Better Homes and Garden magazine to shame.  You won't find a better selection of herbs anywhere on the east coast.  We're city girls, so a weekend in suburbia with a big pool, a rose garden and a personal chef is so far removed from a typical weekend that it seems like light years away from New York City.

One of the things I find most frustrating about living in New York City is my lack of ability to have a garden.  Mind you, I definitely do not have a green thumb, but I love cooking with fresh herbs and it is just not as easy (or as fresh) when you have to buy over priced bundles from the supermarket.  I have my little plants growing on the windowsill but when I see Grace's garden I am instantly envious.

When in Delaware, I am always assigned to be on herb duty.  Grace sends me out to cuts tons of fresh herbs from her garden.  The mint for the water.  The basil, lemon thyme, oregano and parsley for dinner.  The rosemary to infuse the olive oil for bread.  And at the end of a beautiful herb filled weekend Grace will send Gabby and I back to New York City, armed with our own little herb plants.  And then without fail, we kill them.  I would say that between Gabby and I we have successfully killed upwards of 10 herbs plants.  Now we don't try to kill them and some resilient plants are still hanging on.  The basil and the rosemary seem to take best to city windowsills.   But there is just something about the city that they resist and even when you can keep them hanging on, it's just not the same.

These recipes are inspired by gardens, by city dwellers who grow plants, and of course, by Grace and her garden.

Basil Pesto
To preserve into the winter months, pour into an ice cube tray and freeze.  Traditional basil pesto is made with pine nuts, but my best friend Erika is allergic so I leave mine nut free.

1 bunch fresh basil
3 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano cheese
Olive oil
salt, sprinkle to taste

Clean and remove the basil leaves.  Place them into the food processor with the other ingredients.  Add the oil slowly to create a nice thick pesto.  You do not want the pesto to be too sauce like.  It should hold form when scooped with a spoon.

Parsley Pesto
To preserve, place in a jar and store in the fridge.  The older it is, the better it is.  And unlike basil pesto, it won't go bad.

1 bunch fresh parsley
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon of salt
Olive Oil, about 1/2 cup

Place all the ingredients into a food processor.  There is no need to remove the stems from the parsley, just the bottoms and any pieces that do not look fresh.  Add olive oil as needed to create a nice sauce.  Place into a jar for storing.  Make sure the oil level is higher than the parsley.  If not, pour more oil.

Mint Water
Unfortunately there is no way to hold on to this recipe.  But you can continue to make it all winter long to remind you of the refreshing taste of summer.

1 Lemon
2 Limes
Fresh Mint

Slice the lemon and limes.  Clean the mint and then to release the flavor place it between your palms and slap them together once or twice.  You can put the whole stem in or remove the stem and just use the leaves.  Add ice cubes and water.

To make this better, use sparkling water.

To make this even better, add vodka to create a delicious fresh, low calorie cocktail.

What makes this bite better?
Cooking with herbs infuses food with tons of flavor that's healthy!  There is no need for extra salt, cream, butter, oil or cheese in food that is well seasoned with herbs.  Learning how to cook with herbs is a great way to create healthy, fresh meals.  In addition, many alternative schools of medicine rely on herbs for their medicinal purposes.  Great flavor and an overall health boost- can't go wrong with that!

Lots of recipes with these pestos will follow :)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Better Breadcrumbs

Have you ever thought about how sliced bread is able to stay on the self in the grocery store for so long?  Most people probably haven't.  But I have.  I have decided recently, after my last bread buying excursion, that I was going to abandon prepackaged bread for good.  It's too confusing to see which bread is really made of whole wheat flour (most breads have some whole wheat flour but are mostly enriched white flour);  to search labels for added sources of sugar (aka high fructose corn syrup); and to ponder the fact that sliced bread can sit on the grocery store shelves for a month, and then on my counter for another two weeks, without going bad.  I'll say no thanks to the highly processed, preservative drenched loaves for now.   It all makes me a little uneasy.

The solution- I buy only fresh baked loaves from the bakery or I get them from the bakery at work.  I know they use whole wheat flour and lots of nuts and seeds.  Yum.  However, when you are not cooking for a crowd and you do not eat every meal at home, it is hard to go through a whole loaf before it goes bad.  So what to do with all the extra bread?!  When life hands you fresh baked bread....make bread crumbs.

The breadcrumbs in this post are made from a multigrain, multi seed boule.  Actually, the leftovers from my breakfast bruschetta.   In addition to being resourceful, these homemade breadcrumbs are super delicious thanks to the extra essence from the nuts and seeds in the loaf.

I really only use breadcrumbs to make chicken cutlets.  However, chicken cutlets are one of my favorite foods so I needed to test out my new better breadcrumbs to see if they could hold up to the packaged ones.  I also baked the chicken in the oven to prevent having to use lots of excess oil.  Not only did the chicken cutlets stand up to my expectations, they surpassed them.  The proof is in the chicken cutlets- the better breadcrumbs really are "better."

Better Breadcrumbs

Whole wheat or multigrain bread preferably with nuts or seeds (if not, you can add some)

I make breadcrumbs with excess bread or bread that is about to go bad.  However, you can make them with a fresh loaf.

Bake the bread until it is crispy to the touch and all the moisture is removed, but don't burn it.  Then place the bread crumbs in a food processor.  That's all-super simple!  Store them in an air tight container.

Chicken Cutlets

Better Bread crumbs, about 1 cup
4 Chicken breasts, trimmed and pounded to an even thickness
1 egg
1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1 Tablespoon parsley, chopped 

Clean and trim the chicken and then pound it to make sure all the pieces are of even thickness.  Spray olive oil on a glass baking pan.  Mix the parmigiano reggiano and parsley into the breadcrumbs.  Scramble the egg and place it in a separate dish.

Dip the chicken into the egg and then into the breadcrumbs.  Coat well on both sides and place in the glass dish.  Do not overlap or layer the pieces of chicken.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your chicken.  Make sure to wash your hands and all surfaces that have touched the raw chicken.

What makes this bite better?
Rather than eating breadcrumbs made from highly processed refined flour, these breadcrumbs are made from a multigrain loaf and include nuts and seeds to up the nutritional value.  This not only adds a nice flavor, but also more vitamins, minerals and fiber.  Rather than frying the chicken cutlets, baking them saves tons of calories and time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Strawberry Skewers

I decided to celebrate my Labor Day by sleeping until noon, tackling an endless pile of laundry and making reservations at an awesome NYC restaurant that I can't normally get into when beach weekenders and hamptonites are back in town.  But that is not what most people did to celebrate their holiday.  Most people's holiday was marked with BBQs and parties.  This got me thinking about the typical foods that people tend to bring to a summer party- dips, veggie platters, pasta salads, hot dogs, hamburgers and my favorite- the fruit salad.  I love the fruit salad because it is someone's helpless attempt at making sure there is something "healthy" to make the spread of mayonnaise and meat based selections less offensive.  And without fail, there is always at least one person who chooses the fruit salad over all the other desserts to try and negate the fact that they spent the entire day eating crap and drinking.  Now, I'm not saying that fruit bowls don't have a place at summer BBQs.  I'm saying that I think people should put a little more thought and creativity into the healthy options to make it just as appealing as Aunt Sue's homemade brownies topped with fudge and M&Ms.

So, I give you Strawberry Skewers!  This fruit dish is sure to wow at any party- summer or not.  It's flavorful, fun to eat, easy to make and hits the healthy spot on the nose. 

Strawberry Skewers
Modify based on size of party

1 pint of fresh strawberries- tops removed, halved
1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 lemon- 2 tablespoons of juice, 1 slice for garnish and zest for finish
1 container of Mascarpone cheese
2 Tablespoons of honey
Black Pepper

Wash and cut the strawberries in half.  Preserve the tops for the skewers.  Marinate the strawberries in 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes.  Combine the mascarpone cheese, lemon juice and honey.  Whip to create a dip texture.  Place in a bowl with a lemon slice garnish and keep it cool while you make the skewers.  You can use toothpicks for small bite skewers or large griller skewers.  Place the tops of the strawberries on the skewer as a garnish.  Put strawberries onto the skewers and arrange on a plate.  Do not stack the skewers.  Ground black pepper to  lightly sprinkle over the strawberries.  Finish by adding a sprinkling of lemon zest.  Serve with the mascarpone dip and enjoy :)

What makes this bite better?
Let's be honest- most people skip the fruit bowl because they find it boring.  Why have a melon when you can have cake?!  But if you can have fruit in a form that is just as yummy and appealing as a cupcake, you're more likely to choose it, enjoy it and skip the other sweets. No one likes dessert guilt.  Be the one who brings the guilt free dessert to the party- you'll be a hit!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Going Green

"Going green" is buzz term right now that everyone seems to be dropping.  In an effort to "go green" you might have bought energy saving light bulbs, sworn off disposable water bottles or committed yourself to a completely local diet.  But, sustainable living is not the only important aspect of "going green."  Another important place to "go green" is on your plate!  What was the last green food you ate?   Green vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals to the diet and are often considered to be the most nutrient dense.  This means you get lots of nutrients in very few calories.  Green vegetables are also very high in phytonutrients.  So, make your efforts extend from your earth friendly practices to your healthy plate practices and "Go Green!"

In this recipe, the kale provides lots of antioxidants and vitamins A, C and K.  It is one of my favorite greens for its texture boasting a firm stem that offers a crispiness and curly leaves that do not easily wilt.  During this time of year, kale will have a more bitter flavor but after the first frost will become sweeter and will remain available through the winter. Adding walnuts to this dish provides a nice texture and delicious nutty essence.  If you have never cooked tofu before, the trick is to cook it in a separate pan, using just a little bit of olive oil, to get it to crisp lightly on the outside.  If not, it will be a mushy mess and break apart.  You can also add chicken to this dish if you prefer it over tofu.

What makes this bite better?
Often times people have the good intention of "eating green" but they are overwhelmed by the selection of leafy greens presented to them at the grocery store or green market.  This recipe makes it easy-try kale.  And once you have tried kale, you can substitute any other leafy green into this recipe.  Cook it over and over again with spinach, swiss chard or collard greens.  Even better, if you have always by passed tofu because it freaks you out, try that too.  It's a recipe full of new foods for most people, and that in itself is awesome.  Secondly, kale is packed with vitamins and minerals making it a one of the healthiest, most nutrient dense greens available.  And if you like it now, you can continue to eat it all through winter.

Kale and Tofu with Walnuts
Makes 2-3 servings

1 bunch of fresh Kale
Olive Oil
1 small onion, sliced thin
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pack of extra firm tofu in water, rinsed, patted dry with a paper towel and cubed
About 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts

Drizzle a little bit of olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of a pan, or lightly spray with cooking spray.  Place the tofu in the pan so all the tofu is touching the bottom of the pan to brown.  Cook over medium heat, rotating sides so the tofu crisps nicely on all sides.

In a separate saute pan, drizzle olive oil in the pan and sauté onions and garlic until they begin to brown slightly.  Wash the kale under cold water, remove the thick part at the base of the stem and cut into chunks about 2-3 inches in size.  Place the kale into the pan and rotate until it begins to cook down.  If extra moisture is needed, add water in small amounts to help steam down the kale.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the kale is soft but not wilted or mushy.  Add the walnuts and tofu and toss to allow the flavors to blend.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve and Enjoy :)