Archive | October 2011

Cooking can save your life.

Cooking at home can be beneficial in so many ways, and here are just a few:

  1. It saves you money from eating out at restaurants or fast food chains.
  2. You tend to cook healthier foods that you might not eat at said restaurants.
  3. Your relationships with loved ones can improve greatly – kids can help (and learn) and your partner will look sexier than ever in an apron.
  4. Food is Love. (see #3)
  5. Cooking brings people together.
  6. It can give you a set of skills that adds to your value in life.
  7. Finally, cooking at home can add years to your life by keeping your brain exercised, active, focused, and filled with endorphins.

The following is my story of how cooking has saved my life this past year.

 

I’ve found that creating a meal of some sorts has become my way to distract myself from, well, myself. Sounds crazy, right? You see, I tend to ruminate over things in my head until I am physically worn out. I wouldn’t say I’m a worry-wort of sorts, just an introvert with an analytical mind that needs to always be figuring things out. I’m a curious old soul trying to live in this modern world and filled with lots of questions. The downside is that I like to figure out all the answers myself, which is exhausting.

A good metaphor might be a person with a lot of static physical energy that needs to run marathons, bike, climb mountains, and travel the world around and around again. These physical athletes can literally become depressed if not for physical exertion found in working out/sports. Their bodies must be exercised a certain way for vitality and continuity. For me, my mind has a lot of static energy that can really cause a lot of negative effects if it’s not used correctly. If my mind isn’t exercised correctly, it loses strength in muscle and neuron activity, thereby decreasing my effectiveness in real-life situations and self-confidence. I’m serious.

Enter in cooking.

My new form of brain exercise! My aunt once told me early on in this cooking adventure that, “If you can read, you can cook. No excuses.” And she’s so right. When people say they can’t cook, they either have no patience or they just don’t have the will to really do it, because cooking is just buying ingredients and cooking them according to a recipe.

Having recently completed a degree at a very rigorous academic institution, I’ve found that I’m not getting the mental stimulation my brain is trained to sustain since leaving university. While studying in such a competitive environment, I found out that I actually thrive on mental challenges. My first thought? grrreeat….. I’m officially a nerd.

My brain and cognitive skills became exercised to handle full-on mental marathons for 2 years. And just like running marathons, once you stop for a few weeks, it feels like you’ve lost your good muscles and lung capacity, and you actually start to feel down about yourself and life. You lose those endorphin-enriched highs. Cooking can give you those same endorphin-enriched highs, and without them, life just doesn’t feel as great! Cooking allows you the opportunity to overcome personal challenges, like the fear of touching raw meat or baking a cake. It allows you to learn something new every time you cook a recipe. And it allows you (and your family) to be proud of your kitchen accomplishments.

For me, cooking has been a saving grace. Not only for my body’s nutritional needs, but for keeping my mind actively engaged and firing on all cylinders. Cooking helps to keep my mind sharp, in shape, and even helps to learn new neuron connections through sight, smell, taste and problem-solving, all at once. Like doing crossword puzzles, going for walks, and actively engaging in activities, I believe that cooking can save your life and even add years to it (as long as you stay away from high doses of sugar & butter).

 

My suggestion for you, especially with the winter coming up, is to find the time to cook up a homemade meal at least twice a week. It will bring your mind & body back to a synergistic place and leave you with a smile on your face.

 

The next time you sit down at a meal, you can say, “Pass the endorphins, please!”

 

 

Fall Foods Recipe #5: Butternut Squash Risotto

Cooking risotto is on my bucket list because, to me, it always seemed like a real high-class type of dish. If you think about nurturing a cup of pasta for an hour, it must be something really special, right? That was my thinking! Proving the point further, for our 3rd anniversary we went to a popular restaurant, Portland City Grill, and what did I order from the fancy menu options? Risotto, of course!

It was absolutely, positively HEAVENLY. Definitely a top-notch meal. That’s when I logged the ingredients and flavors in my head (thanks for the good memory DNA, mom & dad) and decided to replicate it at home. My version was good enough to be served in our 777sf apt, on Target plates, with “silverware” and a paper towel napkin, yet it was far from competing to the original chef’s version.

A few weeks later, when I came home with a nice butternut squash from the farm, I knew I would have many options to use it. Half of it went into the Cozy Chicken & Vegetable Casserole recipe and the other I used for this second risotto attempt. This came out much creamier than I wanted, and I believe it was because I cooked the squash in a pan before putting it in the risotto. The result was the squash cooking down too much and with all the stirring, it started to get “mushy” and hence, became too creamy.

Normally I would always encourage a cook to have the confidence to try altering a recipe if you think it can be done differently or better, but when it comes to risotto, just follow the what the directions say. There’s no award when a risotto comes out  mushy. However, you do get bragging rights when a risotto comes out perfect – to all your friends, family, and co-workers who will forever become impressed with your cooking abilities!!

So the next time you feel like sprucing up your cooking talents, print out this recipe, pick up a butternut squash, bottle of white wine, shallots and arborio rice. Then grab a stool and get ready for a nice hour of hanging over the stove. And remember: success will bring great rewards. Good luck!

 4 servings, about 1 1/2 cups each
Total Time: 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 5 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth, or vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium shallots, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups chopped peeled butternut squash (into itty-bitty pieces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

Place broth in a medium saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat so the broth remains steaming, but is not simmering.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in squash; cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, salt, pepper; cook for 30 seconds. Add rice; stir until translucent, about 1 minute.
Add wine and cook, stirring, until almost absorbed by the rice, about 1 minute.
Stir in 1/2 cup of the hot broth; reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid has been absorbed.
Continue adding the broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until all the liquid has been absorbed, until the rice is tender and creamy, 30 to 40 minutes total. (You may have some broth left.)
Remove from the heat and stir in cheese.
Serve immediately and enjoy with a glass of the remaining wine!

Apple Cider Muffin Tops

Some of you might have stopped in to hear the results on my Apple Cider Muffins. Or perhaps you wondered if I traveled by foot to pick up fresh apple cider from New York, since my last post did leave you with, “be back with the details shortly!”

My only reason for it taking 2 weeks to get back on here is being just plain busy. Life! Ha! Interviews, redecorating (assembling furniture & sewing), haircut, day trips, and then the sun came out for a few days!! I figure I have all winter when it’s gloomy & rainy to stay inside cooking & blogging. But don’t you think for one moment I forgot about making the Apple Cider Muffins (muffin tops in the end)!

Take a look at the finished product! After trying a few different batches, I couldn’t stop eating these. They are perfect 4-bite wonders that can put a smile on any face. Guaranteed!

 

To keep up with my goal of using local ingredients, the apples and apple cider are all from Hood River, Oregon, and were picked/processed fresh the week before use. The egg was organic and from Oregon. I used King Arthur Flour and made the apple puree, however, I would have used my homemade applesauce too! That’s right, folks – buy a dozen apples this week and make a couple quarts of applesauce. You can keep it in the fridge and eat all week, or go big and can it for winter storage. Support your local farmer, either way. Think of them of like their your neighbors, even if they are a few hours away!

 

Apple Cider Muffin Tops

Dry ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cup  white whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup applesauce or apple puree (below)
  • 1/4 cup apple cider
  • 2 Tbsp. vanilla yogurt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon canola oil

Apple Puree (for instant applesauce):

  • 1 small-medium sized cooking apple
  • 1/4 cup apple cider

Topping:

  • cinnamon
  • sugar

Directions

If you decide to make the apple puree, prepare it by simmering the diced apple and 1/4 cup cider over medium-low heat until broken down, about 10-15 min. Puree with immersion blender if you have one, or you can mash it up with a potato masher or fork. You should have 1/4 cup puree. If you have more than this, return to heat and simmer until reduced. Let cool. This can also be made ahead!

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray cookie sheet lightly with cooking spray or line with parchment paper.

Combine the dry ingredients and whisk/stir well together in a small bowl. Whisk together wet ingredients in a medium bowl. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir until just combined. Add the mixture by the tablespoon-full to the baking sheet leaving about an inch between the cookies. Flatten the mounds so they can spread out and hold the topping. Mix together enough cinnamon and sugar (to your liking) and generously sprinkle it over the tops of the dough mounds.

Bake 10 minutes or until cooked through and golden color on the bottoms. Remove from the oven and turn onto cooling rack. Repeat with remaining dough. Serve warm and with a glass of leftover apple cider! It will be a blissful experience!!

Apple Cider Muffins vs. Apple Cider Donuts

With my strong New York stock it’s hard not to know all about the Apple Cider Donuts found at the apple orchards in early Fall. New York is the apple capital of the world…. right? The best place to go when I’m visiting home for these life-changing treats is LoveApple Farm. You can’t miss this place or these donuts because the intoxicating smell draws you in from miles away. I am completely serious!

They are a kind of right-of-passage which can lead one to truly understanding the Fall season in the Northeastern parts of the great USA. The sugar crystals left along your lips after you bite down into a pillow of apple and cinnamon flavors laid inside a bed of moist cake-like fried dough leaves you wanting more every time. And of course they must be washed down with a Dixie cup filled to the brim with a caramel-colored, slightly sweet and mildly tart apple cider.

I’ve craved the chance to relive this culinary experience out here in Oregon, but none of the nearby farm stands have apple cider donuts. Can you believe it? I can’t! Then late one night, while staring at my bags of apples I recently picked up and trying to figure out what in the world to do with them, I had a brilliant idea – I should just make the donuts myself!

I found a recipe fairly quickly, but I couldn’t bring myself to fry anything (completely submerged in oil) in our home. The act of deep-frying just doesn’t fit our kitchen. It’s like a dress that wasn’t made for your body type – it just doesn’t fit you and it wasn’t meant to be. The same goes for deep-frying in our home. I’m a Yankee, not a Southern Belle 🙂

Deflated and quickly losing those tantalizing flavors I’ve dreamt about, I took one deep breath and closed my eyes.

And then it came to me: Why not try to make the recipe into a muffin?

The pros: Baked, not fried. Larger portions. Possibility to include apple chunks. Sugar on top is good no matter what it’s on!

I’m off to try this out…. I’ll be back with the details shortly. But in the meantime, you should try to find some of these donuts at your local orchard or farm stand and then come back to tell me all about your experience!

This entry was posted on October 5, 2011. 4 Comments

Cozy Chicken & Vegetable Casserole

What happens when you cross a Chicken Pot Pie with a Shepherd’s Pie?

You get my version, a Cozy Chicken & Vegetable Casserole!

Last night I made this dish thinking it would be a healthier version of a truly classic comfort food. After 2 hours (at least) of pivoting on my toes from the counter, the sink, the garbage and the stove/oven (our kitchen is really that small), I was eating my second helping of a really, really delicious meal.

I couldn’t wait to share it with you today!!

The adapted recipe is from a traditional Chicken Pot Pie dish, yet I added a mashed potato crust on top instead of a bread dough crust. I thought that since potato is a vegetable, it would be better than a bread crust. But then I remembered all those dreaded carbs & starches that get packed into potatoes and wondered how healthy they are. Wasn’t it the starch that made the potato turn a purplish-blue color when iodine is added to it?

After some internet research, I found that whole wheat grains would actually be the better choice….

At first I was sad. Then I was ambivalent.

Next, I got up, took another bite of those creamy mashed potatoes on top, and said, “There’s no way I could change this to a bread crust – This is DIVINE!”

And then I continued to down a few more spoonfuls and decided to close down the computer altogether, erasing my internet search history, and pretended I never saw those articles declaring whole grains are a healthier option than a potato.

So here I am today. It’s like it never even happened. Potato all the way, Baby!

(Next week I’ll make be sure to eat lots ‘o rice and whole wheat bread to make up for those lost whole grains)

Cozy Chicken & Vegetable Casserole

Serves: 6-8, depending on the appetite 🙂

Filling:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 celery stalks, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • Kosher salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
  • about 2 lbs skinless chicken thighs (or 7-8 pieces)
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock, (preferably homemade)
  • 2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 6 sage leaves, finely chopped (or 2 tsp dried sage)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Crust:

  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1″ rounds
  • 1/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk

Directions:

In a medium saucepan, add potatoes to water and bring to a rolling boil. Boil until potatoes are soft when poked with a fork (8 minutes). Drain and add in buttermilk. Mash until a smooth consistency, adding in butter and cheese. Place to the side while you make the filling.

For the filling, coat the bottom of a stock pot lightly with olive oil put over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and the carrots and sprinkle with salt, to taste. Saute the vegetables for 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sweat for another 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt, then add the chicken and the chicken stock. If the stock doesn’t cover the chicken, add water until it does. Bring the stock to a boil, over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

While the chicken is simmering, add the butternut squash to a large bowl, drizzle with some olive oil, adding salt to taste and 1/4 tsp of the nutmeg. Toss to coat the squash with the oil and transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast until the squash is cooked but still has some texture, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve.

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the stock and put into a large bowl. Reserve the stock by pouring in into another bowl. When the cool enough to handle, remove the bones from the chicken and stir into the vegetables. Add the roasted squash to the chicken and vegetables. Stir to combine and season with salt, if needed. In a small saucepan, add the peas into 1 cup water and boil bring to boil. Immediately drain and add peas to chicken and vegetables. Stir in sage.

For the gravy, melt the butter in the stockpot used to cook the chicken and vegetables over low heat. Add the flour and whisk to combine with melted butter. Cook while whisking frequently until the mixture is the consistency of wet sand and is starting to turn a little beige, about 6 to 7 minutes. Gradually whisk in the reserved chicken stock. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed, adding in pepper and the remaining nutmeg. When the stock is combined into the roux, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until it has a gravy-like consistency, about 25 minutes. If the gravy reduces too much and becomes too thick, whisk in a little more chicken stock or water.

Add the chicken mixture into a 2-quart casserole dish. Ladle the “gravy” over the chicken mixture until the dish is 3/4 filled. Spoon the mashed potatoes over the top, gently spreading it out to fully cover the filling. Place dish on a foil-lined baking sheet.

Bake in the preheated oven until the crust begins to get a golden brown color and the inside is hot and bubbly, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve hot.

Fall Foods recipe #4: Creamy Leek & Cauliflower Soup

Cauliflower is one of those pesky vegetables that people avoid. Yet, they have wonderful advantages when added to your diet. This recipe will turn any hater into a lover very quickly. Check out this nutritional breakdown of cooked cauliflower.

FOOD SUMMARY

The good:This food is low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Protein, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Phosphorus and Potassium, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Folate, Pantothenic Acid and Manganese. Mildly anti-inflammatory

The bad: A large portion of the calories in this food come from sugars.
Caloric Ratio Pyramid

64% 16% 20%
Carbs Fats Proteins

Fats & Fatty Acids

Amounts Per Selected Serving – 1/2 cup of chopped pieces
Total Fat   0.3g
Saturated Fat  0.0g
Monounsaturated Fat  0.0g
Polyunsaturated Fat  0.1g
Total Omega-3 fatty acids  104mg
Total Omega-6 fatty acids   31.0mg
Vitamins
Amounts Per Selected Serving                     %DV
Vitamin A                                      7.4 IU     0%
Vitamin C                                   27.5mg     46%
Vitamin D                                         ~
Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)        0.0mg       0%
Vitamin K                                    8.6mcg    11%
Thiamin                                      0.0mg       2%
Riboflavin                                    0.0mg       2%
Niacin                                          0.3mg      1%
Vitamin B6                                   0.1mg      5%
Folate                                        27.3mcg     7%
Vitamin B12                                 0.0mcg     0%
Pantothenic Acid                           0.3mg      3%
Choline                                       24.2mg
Betaine                                         0.1mg

Creamy Leek & Cauliflower Soup

Serves: 6

Total time: 35 min

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced and rinsed
  • 4 cups chopped cauliflower florets (from 1 medium head)
  • 2 1/2 cups low-fat milk, divided
  • 2 cups water (you can substitute with chicken broth for extra flavor)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Directions

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring, until very soft, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, 2 cups milk, water, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is soft, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup milk and flour in a small bowl. When the cauliflower is soft, remove the bay leaf and stir in the milk mixture. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the soup has thickened slightly, about 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat. Stir in cheese and lemon juice.

* you may want to season your individual serving with something spicy, like cayenne pepper or extra pepper, to add some more dimension to the flavor.

* for a nice texture and a salty contrast to the dairy, I cooked up a few slices of bacon and chopped them into small bits, sprinkling them on top.

Nutritional info for this prepared recipe, from Eating Well:

Per serving: 186 calories; 11 g fat ( 5 g sat , 3 g mono ); 27 mg cholesterol; 13 g carbohydrates; 0 g added sugars; 10 g protein; 2 g fiber; 488 mg sodium; 198 mg potassium.

Vitamin C (45% daily value)

Calcium (27% dv),

Vitamin A (15% dv).