Sunday, October 31, 2010

Spooky Sweets and Scary Treats

I must begin this by saying that I dislike Halloween.  It is one of my least favorite occasions for celebration.  The pressure of finding a costume and dressing up is a little too intense for my indecisive nature.  I have booked last minute plane tickets to avoid having to create a costume and attend parties.  However, I am obsessed with themed foods that accompany any holiday.  So, while costume shopping and spooky decorations are not my favorite, I will jump at any opportunity to create themed party treats.

These halloween treats are the perfect addition to any ghoulish gathering.  Halloween kicks off holiday season so these snacks were designed to make sure we don't start it off on the wrong foot.  Preparing "bite size" versions of halloween classics provides all the fun with none of the guilt.  And creating healthier snacks ensures that these treats won't scare you out of your skinny jeans and into sweatpants.  

Enjoy....and Happy Halloween!

Spooky S'more Popcorn Balls
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 package of mini marshmallows
Red and Yellow (or orange) food coloring
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of milk chocolate morsels
Wax paper

Pop popcorn (preferably using an air popper or bag of butter free popcorn).  In a large pot, heat vegetable oil over medium.  Add marshmallows and stir constantly until completely melted.  Add salt and food coloring and stir in until well mixed and uniformly colored.  Add popcorn slowly, folding into marshmallow mixture.  Once all the popcorn has been added and mixed in, add the chocolate chips and mix in as well.  Do not allow to remain on the heat for very long after adding the chocolate or the chips will melt completely.  Dump mixture onto wax paper.  Allow to cool for a few minutes but do not allow it to harden.  Using your hands, form the popcorn into balls about the size of a fist.  Allow to cool completely at room temperature.  If not serving immediately, store in an air tight container. 

Ghoulish Gooey Chocolate Cherry Cupcakes
Recipe adapted from An Artful Cupcake By: Marcianne Miller "Chocolate with Cabernet Cupcakes"

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
3/4 cup red wine
Sour cherries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Sift all the dry ingredients and then add the oil, vanilla, eggs and wine. Beat mixture using an electric mixer for about 3 minutes.  Line mini muffin pans with liners.  Spoon 1 teaspoon of the mixture into the pan.  Add one sour cherry per cupcake.  Top with 1 more teaspoon of batter.  Bake for 8-10 minutes.  Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick.  The cupcakes are done when the toothpick comes out clean.

For extra halloween fun, I decorated these cupcakes with purple and green butter cream icing and painted scary faces and fun halloween phrases onto the cupcakes.

Mini Candy Apples

15 Lady apples
15 lollipop sticks
1 cup Dulce de leche
1 cup milk chocolate, melted
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped

Wash and dry the apples.  Create a space to insert the lollipop stick by inserting a knife into (or right next to) the core.  Insert the lollipop stick.  Heat the dulce de leche in the microwave for 30 seconds and melt the milk chocolate according to the instructions on the package.  Spread 1/2 tablespoon of dulce de leche onto each apple.  Then spread 1/2 tablespoon of melted milk chocolate.  Spreading minimizes the amount of dulce de leche and chocolate that would have been added if the apples were dipped.  Sprinkle peanuts and place onto wax paper.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the chocolate to set. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Skinny Sauces, Take 2

Once the first chilly fall day hits, I want nothing more than to eat a warm, savory dish.  Something hearty and creamy with pasta.  The only problem? A delicious pasta with a creamy sauce is often synonymous with fat.   As much as I love big sweaters, I am not too quick to eat food that will force me to spend the fall months hidden under bulky clothes. My solution?  Make a saucy, skinny remix.

One of the classic comfort food dishes loved (and post-consumed hated) by all is fettuccine alfredo.  Find me one person that doesn't like fettuccine alfredo.  Bet you can't do it.  Everyone loves it.  And rightfully so.  Anything with that amount of cream, butter and cheese is sure to please.

Now, find me someone that will eat it wearing nothing but a bathing suit.  Bet you can't do that either.  That stuff makes you feel instantly ten pounds heavier.  And it is always served in a never ending portion.  The second you have filled yourself to the max you immediately regret it. It is the perfect victim for a skinny sauce upgrade.

Most cream sauces are traditionally started with a roux, which is made using flour and fat (usually butter).  Even though fettuccine alfredo is not made using a roux, replicating the texture of a roux is ideal for creating a healthier cream sauce.  In order to do this, I used a cannellini bean puree.  This creates an ideal texture without using butter or cream.  Low-fat milk, garlic and parmesan cheese are the perfect additions to flavor this healthy sauce.

Paglia e Fieno is an italian pasta whose name means straw and hay.  It is a combination of egg tagliatelle and spinach tagliatelle.  Any long thing pasta can be used as a substitute, but try to use a whole wheat or vegetable pasta.

Paglia e Fieno with Parmesan Cannellini Bean Puree

1 can cannellini beans
1 cup 1% milk, divided into 4-1/4 cups plus extra if needed
1 cup of parmesan cheese, additional for finish
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of olive oil, plus some for finishing
4 bundles of Paglia e Fieno (equivalent to approximately 4 cups cooked)

Rinse the cannellini beans and place them in a food processor.  Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1/4 cup of low fat milk and puree until smooth, adding additional milk if needed.  In a pan, drizzle olive oil and saute garlic. Once the garlic is aromatic and translucent, add the bean puree and continue to heat over medium.  Add additional milk 1/4 cup at a time, whisking until an ideal creamy texture is achieved.  Begin to add parmesan cheese in small portions and whisk.  Add additional milk if the cheese thickens the sauce too much.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a pot, bring water to a roaring boil.  Add a pinch of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and add dry pasta.  Boil until al dente.  Drain and place in to a bowl.  Add sauce and mix pasta well.  Serve with fresh shaved parmesan cheese and parsley if desired.

Note:  Bean puree will partially solidify once cooled.  Store left over sauce in a container separate from the pasta.  To reheat, place in a pan and rehydrate with milk or water as needed to reestablish its creamy texture.

What makes this bite better?
Fettuccine Alfredo is a completely indulgent dish that doesn't provide much nutritional value.  Using a bean puree instead of cream and butter not only reduces the amount of fat and calories but also provides the dish with an extra dose of protein and nutrients.  Substituting vegetable pasta instead of regular fettuccine also adds some nutritional points, not to mention color.  Maintaining texture and flavor while swapping loads of calories and fat definitely makes this bite better.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Snack Attack

Being a nutrition student helps keep me on my "healthy" toes.  Sitting in class, watching other students eat their raw vegetables, nuts and salads is great inspiration for making healthy food choices.  But let's be serious.  Most people do not cut up their raw radishes and snack on them to get them through the day.  They don't have time to prepare a fantastic quinoa salad or remember to portion 15 raw almonds in little baggies before they leave in the morning.  As great as this is, it's not always practical.

People require more from a snack.  The purpose of a snack is to keep you fueled from one meal to the next and raw celery stalks are not going to do it for most.  However, snacking can also be a black hole of calories if you are not careful.  Many additional daily calories are consumed outside of regular meals and this caloric excess contributes to obesity.   Here are some of my favorite snacking options to keep you energized, fit into your busy time constraints and help you obtain additional nutrients (remember no "empty calorie" snacks).  Both snacks fit the snack profile you are looking for whether it be crunchy or sweet or savory.

Apples with Almond Butter and Honey
Makes 1 serving

1 Apple, cleaned and quartered
2 Tablespoons Almond Butter
1 Tablespoon Honey

Clean, core and quarter the apple.  Top with 1/2 Tablespoon of almond butter.  Finish with a drizzle of honey.

Rosemary Popcorn with Parmesan Cheese
Makes about 8 cups 

Note: I am obsessed with popcorn so I have an air popper.  However, most people do not.  This recipe follows instructions for stove top popping even though air popping is healthier because it requires less oil. 

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
About 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, cleaned 
1/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
Salt to taste

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil on high heat.  Place one kernel in the oil once it is hot.  Wait until the kernel pops, then add the remaining kernels, tossing in the oil to coat completely.  Place lid on top and remove from heat once popping begins to slow down.  Allow popcorn to finish popping and remove the lid so condensation does not build up.

In a small sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil to medium.  The sprigs of rosemary can remain whole or can be diced, based on preference.  Add the rosemary and saute for a few minutes to allow the flavor of the rosemary to infuse the oil.

Drizzle the oil, alternating with the cheese and tossing the popcorn to coat.  Continue adding rosemary, oil and cheese and tossing.  Add salt to taste and toss one last time.  Portion and store in sealable bags or containers.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Food for Thought: Where are you from?

Whenever we meet someone new, etiquette prompts us to ask for a name.  Most of the time, we never remember it.  However, the next question asked is almost always "Where are you from?" And for some reason we always remember this bit of information.  I guess it is because it helps give some insight into this new person, perhaps find some common ground and for some, draw premature conclusions.  However you utilize the information is irrelevant.  We always ask.

I have found that this very same question is extremely useful in acting as a guidelines for what to eat.  When debating a food, ask yourself "where is this from?"  If the answer is "a plant," or "an animal" or "a farm," then eat it.  If the answer is "a factory," or "a laboratory" or even worse "I have no idea," then don't eat it. Super simple.  I don't like diets or complicated nutritional information.  It's ineffective and most often confusing and frustrating.  So I have come up with my own tips and tricks for guiding my food choices.

Here is an obvious example.  Think about a diet coke.  Where is that from?  Hmmmm.  Good question.  If I had to guess more than two ingredients in soda I'd be out of luck and I have no idea how they get that taste into the bottle.  If you can't figure out where it's from or how it's made, do not put it in your mouth.

Obvious example on the flip side.  Think about an apple.  Where is that from?  A lovely farm somewhere.  You know exactly what it is, how it was made and that it is beneficial to your body.

A few more examples, just to drive the point home:

Where is....
peanut butter from?   Peanuts. Plant.  Yummy.
a bag of Doritos from?  That cheese is most certainly not real.  Ew.
You get it....

Now, as Halloween and holiday season approach, don't stress yourself out.  You can ask all the questions you want and provide unpleasant information in excess and it still won't stop me from eating a Reese's.  This is simply a guideline to easily help you distinguish between the foods that have a place in your diet, and the foods that should only have a place in your trick-or-treat bag.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Skinny Sauces, Take 1

One of my favorite culinary skills to practice is making sauces.  In my opinion, the difference between an average dish and a great dish comes down to the sauce.  That being said, most sauces are not on the top of the healthy list.  For example, a basic roux, which is the fundamental base for most french sauces, is made with flour and butter.  Yummy?  Yes.  Healthy? Not so much. Therefore, I decided to take some time to create some sauces that are healthy and delicious, making them the perfect finishing touches to a dish. 

Chicken with Onions, Capers and a Red Pepper Puree
Makes 2 servings

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 cup low fat plain yogurt
1 jar of roasted red peppers in water
1/4 cup of capers
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of low fat (1%) milk
1 small white onion, sliced thin
Olive oil 
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Marinate the chicken in the yogurt while you prepare the rest of the dish.  Low fat yogurt is a great, healthy marinade.  

In a food processor, blend the roasted red peppers.  Add two cloves of garlic and 1/4 cup of milk and blend again.  Taste and continue to add enough milk until it has calmed down the acidity of the red peppers.  

In a sauce pan, drizzle olive oil and heat to medium.  Gently saute the thinly sliced onions until they are translucent.  Remove the chicken from the yogurt marinade, wiping off most of the yogurt.  Do not rinse and do not worry if some yogurt remains.  Add the chicken to the pan and cook with the onions.  Allow the onions to caramelize as the chicken is cooking.  If needed, add one tablespoon of water to release the caramelized onions from the pan to prevent burning.  This will create a nice browning on the chicken and the onions.  Cook until the chicken is almost cooked throughout.  Add the capers and cook only long enough to crisp the capers and allow the chicken to finish cooking.  Remove all the ingredients from the pan and place on a separate plate.

Add the roasted red pepper puree to the pan, just long enough to allow it to heat throughout and pick up any remaining essence from the onions.  Drizzle over the chicken, onions and capers.  Serve and enjoy :)

What makes this bite better?
People usually associate dry grilled chicken with a healthy diet.  Not yummy.  This dish is a healthy way to spice up a boring piece of chicken and add some flavor.  The red pepper puree not only replaces a more unhealthy sauce made with butter, but adds a serving of veggies and the nutrients that come with it.  Capers naturally add a nice salty flavor preventing you from having to go overboard on the salt.  

Friday, October 1, 2010

Get Saucy

Summer has slipped away but we are not fully ready to welcome fall.  According to the weather and the farmer's market, we just can't seem to make the jump. End of summer vegetables are still lingering in masses as hints of squash and pumpkins begin to make their way into the mix.  This leaves the question on the farmer's market table: what to do with all the ripe end of summer vegetables?!  I happen to have a plethora of tomatoes pilling up.  The answer to my question is obvious. Duh, make tomato sauce.

Now, where I come from there are many debates about who has the best sauce, whether it is called sauce or gravy and what secret ingredients yield the perfect recipe.  In my opinion, it's all a bunch of fluff.  Everyone's answer is always the same- my mom makes the best sauce. And you know what?  Everyone is lying because my mom makes the best sauce.  However, I don't have time to let my sauce simmer for hours like my mom does and I can't put my own mom love in.  Only moms can do that.  So instead, I have a basic recipe that I use as my go to. It's a recipe that is everyone's and no one's.  There is no complexity, no secret ingredients and no extra mom love.  But, it illustrates the simplicity of italian cooking.  When you use fresh ingredients, there is no need for secrets or tricks or fake names because it always comes out perfect.  Freeze it in small bunches to enjoy all winter long.

If you don't have any more fresh tomatoes, use one can of crushed tomatoes (usually 28 oz). Rumor has it, San Marzano tomatoes are the best.

End of Summer Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 about cups

5-6 Summer tomatoes (skins removed,cored and minced)
Basil about 10 leaves, chopped
Garlic about 3 cloves minced
Sugar about 1 teaspoon

Skin, core and mince the tomatoes.  If you don't have the patience to peel the skin when they are raw, plunge them into boiling water for just about one minute.  Allow them to cool and then the skin will be much easier to peel off. Make sure you remove the seeds.

 In a sauce pan, drizzle olive oil and add the minced garlic.  Saute for a few minutes then add the tomatoes including all the juices.  This can get messy but it's part of the fun.  Add sugar, a pinch at a time, testing for flavor.  Add the basil and simmer until the tomatoes have cooked down into a sauce.   The longer the sauce is left to simmer, the thicker and richer the sauce will be.  Cook it to your preference.  Toss whole wheat pasta in the sauce and add extra on top.  Serve and Enjoy!

What makes this bite better?
When holding on to the flavors of a season, the best way to preserve freshness is to freeze the food.  It's a better alternative than buying out of season foods or ones that had to be flown all the way across the world from Chile.  So take your favorite summer veggies, cook them to perfection (or don't) and freeze away.  When you are craving peaches or blueberries or tomatoes in the middle of February, all you will have to do is defrost.