Healthy Habits: Blueberry Oatmeal Cake

“How do I….?”

My oldest has been in Germany since the beginning of August, and if I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have cried so much when she left! Though she is across an ocean, I have heard from her every single day. The reason? To pepper me with questions about how to cook this or prepare that. Now that she is on her own for the first time in an apartment, she has to cook for herself, and every evening, as she prepares her dinner, she texts or calls with several questions.

So, not only am I not missing her because we speak more than we did while she was in college, but I have been happy to note that she is doing all she can on a limited budget with little cooking supplies to still try to eat as healthy as she can. In fact, she has an app she uses to help her make sure she gets all the nutrients and vitamins she needs from the food she eats. I am pleased that some of the lessons I imparted actually took root!

In the past couple of weeks, I have been working on those same lessons for healthy eating and revamped a couple of cake recipes for an uncle who is diabetic. He likes his sweets but white flour and sugar products don’t like him! Since dessert is something he often looks for, though, I put my hand to creating a couple of cakes which might be slightly better for him to consume.

To make a healthier cake, I chose to begin with whole grain, whole rolled oats because they contain a lot of fiber and protein. Then, I removed the sugar, opting instead to use smaller amounts of coconut sugar and/or agave and fruit like blueberries and chunky applesauce which contain fiber as well. My last change was to reduce the fat by swapping a reduced amount of oil for the usual butter and to use egg whites instead of whole eggs.  And of course, I made them gluten, dairy and tree nut free so I could eat them as well!

Below is the blueberry oatmeal cake recipe.

Blueberry Oatmeal Cake

Ingredients:

2 cups gluten free, whole grain, whole rolled oats

2 cups boiling water

1 cup gluten free flour blend

1 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup agave

1/2 cup extra light olive oil

1/2 cup liquid egg whites (or two whole eggs if you’d prefer or 2 tbsp ground flaxseed mixed with 6 tbsp water if you want it vegan)

1 cup to 2 cups fresh blueberries (depends on the ratio of cake to berries you want and the size of your berries)

Optional Topping:

In a pan, melt 2 tbsp of vegan butter, add 1 cup of whole rolled oats with 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 1 tbsp agave or coconut sugar. Mix well and cook for another minute. Sprinkle on top of the cake before putting it into the oven to bake.

Baking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 9 x 13 pan with parchment paper or grease as you prefer.
  2. In a bowl mix the oats with the boiling water and let them sit until the oats have absorbed all the water. Usually only takes about five minutes.
  3. In another bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
  4. In the bowl with the oats, add the agave, olive oil and egg whites and mix well.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix well.
  6. Fold in the blueberries.
  7. Spread the batter into the prepared pan (adding the optional topping if you’d like now), and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cake is puffed, golden, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  8. Enjoy!

 

Hashing it Out: Veggie Hash

“You seem to like to take the easy way….”

Folks who have been following this blog know that every once and a while I branch out of baking to post “how-to’s” about food other than baked goods. Usually that is because someone asks me a question which I think others might like to know the answer to as well. This week someone read a couple of posts of mine and asked an interesting question about hash.

If you are not familiar with hash (or know it only as the shorten form of hashish, a stronger form of marijuana), hash is a dish that began as a way of stretching meat during times of scarcity. You take leftover meat, dice it up, and add diced potatoes (because potatoes were filling and cheap) and anything else you can dice to make the dish more satisfying. Almost every country has its version of hash, which comes from a French word meaning “to chop”.

Over the centuries, the versions of hash recipes which exist has exponentially grown with every type of meat or poultry and potatoes variations being explored. In more recent years, folks started adding vegetables and tofu and legumes to make the hash more “healthy” and edible by non-meat eaters. This week, someone asked me, though, “The recipes for hash seemed to require so much work! All that cutting and chopping. You seem to like to take the easy way. How would you make hash quick and easy?”

I just had to laugh. Someone who knows how lazy a cook I am! School nights are always a rush at dinner time because of the children’s activities or my and my husband’s meetings, so yes, I do find ways to make meals quick and easy. Folks who have read other posts know that I love my crock pots, and many days of the week, meals are crock pot dinners which were assembled in the morning and ready to eat at dinner time. When that is not possible, though, then something like hash for dinner is perfect as long as you have ready-made items on hand.

For quick and easy hash, I keep diced potatoes in the fridge. Simply Potatoes is the brand I usually purchase at the store because it stores well in the fridge. Because we usually make a vegetarian version, I also stock the freezer with frozen, chopped kale or swiss chard or collard greens or spinach, and I keep cans of no salt and no sugar added petite diced tomatoes in the pantry. In the spice cabinet I have freeze-dried fresh herbs, onion powder and pepper, and in the fridge, I keep diced garlic. All this is all one needs to make a quick and easy vegetable hash. Should you want a meat version, then make the hash on a night when you have leftover meat or poultry from another meal which you can just add near the end of the cooking time. When I make hash, I can have dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.

Vegetable Hash

Ingredients:

Olive oil

two 20 oz packages of Simply Potatoes with Onions (or another brand)

one 20 oz package frozen, chopped kale, collard greens, swiss chard or spinach

one 29 oz can of no salt, no sugar added petite diced tomatoes

Freeze dried or fresh Herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, dill, rosemary, marjoram, etc…; if you use dried herbs, you should add them with the potatoes so that the flavors have time to meld)

Black pepper

Onion powder

minced garlic

Optional: add leftover chopped meat or poultry or rinsed, canned beans or tofu

Optional (which is how we eat it): Serve the hash with a cooked egg atop of it

Cooking Instructions:

  1. In a large, shallow pan, on the stove top, put just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the diced potatoes and cook the potatoes until they are browned on all sides. To brown potatoes well, you need to let them just sit and cook. They will stick to the pan, but that’s what you want. That is how the crispy coating is formed. Just use your spatula to unstick the potatoes and turn them. Any browned crusty pieces which stick to the bottom of the pan will come up later when you add the greens and tomatoes.
  2. After the potatoes have browned, add the frozen chopped greens and cook through, stirring frequently, until the  greens have thawed.
  3. Drain the canned tomatoes and add the tomatoes without the juice to the pan, along with herbs of choice, black pepper, onion powder and minced garlic, all to your taste liking. (I don’t add salt because the store bought potatoes have more than enough salt in them for the entire dish, but if you like things saltier, that’s your call.) Mix well and let the hash simmer, stirring every once and a while, for about five minutes until the browned crusty pieces have come off the bottom of the pan and mixed in with the hash.
  4. If adding the meat, do so now and cook just until everything is thoroughly warm.
  5. If eating as a vegetarian dish, serve as is. If eating it as we do, fry eggs hard or over-medium and place one on top of each serving of hash.
  6. Enjoy!

 

 

Healthy Habits: Aquafaba

website souffles

“What?”

I travel to libraries to give workshops on allergy friendly and healthier baking. Last weekend, at a workshop, I spoke with a group of about 30, and I received an email this week with a follow up question about aquafaba.

If you have not heard about the new rage, aquafaba, it’s apparently the words for water and beans and refers to the liquid you find in a can of chick peas or after you cook dry chick peas.  The chemistry of the liquid is yet to be determined but what is known is that it makes for a wonderful egg and dairy substitute. You can whip it like eggs to make meringues or replace eggs in baked goods or mayo or waffles and more.  You can whip it like heavy cream to replace dairy in whipped cream, mousse, or ice cream and more.

For my workshops, I always bring samples so folks will know that I’m telling the truth about being able to “have your cake and eat it, too”, and I try to provide a variety of desserts which are gluten, dairy, nut, peanut, soy and egg free. Depending on the season, the particular items I bake vary. For this workshop, I made meringues with the aquafaba and a chocolate cream pie with an aquafaba topping so folks could see how the aquafaba worked as both an egg and a heavy cream substitute.

The participant in the workshop who had emailed me did so because she was looking for the meringue recipe which wasn’t actually on this site. So, I’m remedying that situation by including it below. *grin* I’m also including some other tips for how you can use aquafaba in recipes.

Tips for using aquafaba:

  1. Purchase no salt, no sugar added versions of the chick peas if you are using canned chick peas. This helps you to control the sodium and sugar levels. You simply drain the liquid into a bowl and use your chick peas for another recipe at another time. If you prefer to use dry beans, soak them until doubled in size, bring the water to a boil, then simmer until the beans are soft. Drain the liquid into a bowl for your use and save the chick peas for another recipe.
  2. To use the aquafaba as a regular egg sustitute, simply measure out 1/4 cup per egg needed and whisk the egg with a fork just until frothy. Then use in your recipe as you would an egg. Works well for baked goods and French toast.
  3. To use the aquafaba as eggs which need to be whipped for angel food cake or Belgium waffles, start with room temperature aquafaba, add between 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cream of tartar and whip with the whisk handle of your mixer until stiff peaks form (as pictured above). Fold into your mixtures are indicated in your recipes.
  4. If you want to whip the aquafaba for a meringue topping or meringue cookies or to use as a whipped cream topping or as a substitute for heavy cream in ice cream, when you add the cream of tartar to the room temperature liquid, you should also add your sweetener at the same time. If you try to fold in the sweetener after you’ve whipped the aquafaba, it will deflate and soften. I find that powdered sugar works the best because it’s the lightest weight. Depending on how sweet you like your foods, 1/2 cup to 1 cup of powdered sugar per 15 oz can of liquid works well for most recipes. After you have added both the cream of tartar and powdered sugar, then you can whip the aquafaba to the desired stiffness. It’s best to check if the sweetness is to your liking when soft peaks have begun to form so you can add more if needed before you reach the stiff peak stage.

How to Make Aquafaba Meringues:

To make the aquafaba meringues you simply need a 15 oz can of chickpeas.  Drain the liquid into your mixing bowl and put the chickpeas in the fridge for another use.   Add at least 1/4 tsp and up to 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar.  Then add powdered sugar to your liking.  Start with 1/2 cup to 1 cup of powdered sugar. You can always add more later if you find it’s not sweet enough for you. Add 1 tsp of vanilla alone or with 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder if you want vanilla or chocolate flavor.

After you’ve put everything into your mixer, use the wire whisk handle to whip the aquafaba until it looks like the picture above.  It usually doesn’t take very long.  (When the peaks are still soft, check the sweetness to see if you need to add any more before whipping to stiff peaks.)

After it’s whipped to stiff peaks, put some into a gallon zip lock bag and snip off the end.  Preheat your oven to 250 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using the ziplock bag, pipe meringues onto the parchment paper.  I usually make them about tablespoon size. I also like to make the meringues pretty by sprinkling a mixture of unsweetened cocoa powder and powder sugar on top of each meringue before putting them into the oven.

Once you’ve filled the cookie sheet with your meringues, pop them into the oven and bake them for at least an hour.  Then check them.  When they are done, they’ll be hard and dry.  If they’re not quite done, cook them longer for 15 minutes at a time until they are.  (If you make them tablespoon size, they’ll be done after an hour.  If you made them larger, they may take more time.)

Once they’re done, turn off the oven and let them cool in the oven for half an hour.  Then take them out and let them cool completely on a wire cooling rack.  When you go to take them off the parchment paper after they’ve cooled, carefully lift them off and place them into a tupperware, using parchment paper or plastic wrap to layer them.  They’ll keep for a good while in the tupperware.

Cooking Techniques: No Leaf Teas

tea

“My throat hurts!”

School as barely begun and already the sick germs are flying around. First my son came to me at the beginning of the week complaining of  a sore throat and nose congestion.  Then yesterday my high school aged daughter was sent to the nurse in the middle of French class because she seemed off to the teacher, and this morning my husband woke up and said he wasn’t feeling well either!

For the entire family, whenever we’re not well, I treat the symptoms as organically as I can. My goal is always to minimize the need for doctor intervention. So, all week my son has been doing salt water gargles, using the neti to clear his nose, taking apple cider vinegar to balance his system, using honey to soothe his throat, and drinking my homemade teas so he has enough fluids and vitamins to help his immune system. This morning, I started the same regimen with my daughter.

Over the years, I’ve made countless pots of what my children call “special tea” which I learned from my Korean mother. Growing up, we rarely had tea made from tea leaves. Instead we had tea which my mom brewed using fresh ingredients like orange peels or ginger root or cinnamon sticks or roasted barley or sweet rice mixed with barley powder. I was in high school before I realized that an individual cup of tea could be brewed using tea bags and that most teas were made with tea leaves.

As a grown up, I love tea, and if you come to my house you’ll find an assortment of teas to choose from which rival the nearest grocery market tea aisle, everything from black teas to white teas to green teas to herbal teas to holiday teas to specialized sore throat or digestion teas. When my children, husband or I are sick, though, I always turn to the natural teas my mother taught me to make. The fresh ingredients have nutrients, vitamins and minerals which are helpful to the immune system and naturally relieve symptoms like sore throats, nausea, and congestion.

In addition, I’ve learned through friends that not everyone can drink leaf tea, that for some it causes terrible gastrointestinal or allergic reactions. If you talk to the specialists, they say that there are usually two reasons for having issues with leaf tea. The more usual is that people are reacting to the caffeine, theanine and/or tannins in tea which are compounds found in tea which people can have sensitivities to. The other reason is that if you have environmental allergies to plants, you’re likely to have allergies to the plant ingredients in tea like hibiscus and rose petals. So, for these friends I often make my mother’s teas because they can then enjoy tea without the reactions.

Making homemade teas from natural ingredients is very easy. You simply throw your ingredients into a pot, fill it with water, and brew until the water has changed color and is infused with the flavor of the ingredients. The teas can then be kept in the fridge in a container and rewarmed as needed, or as in our case, left in the pot on the stove top, drunk within a few hours, and more made to replenish what was drunk.

Since I know that some folks really appreciate more specific recipes, however, I’m going to post below a couple of my favorite versions.

Cinnamon Ginger Tea

In a pot filled with 6 to 8 cups of water, put a fresh piece of ginger root, about 3 to 4 inches in length, with 4 large cinnamon sticks. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain out the ginger root and cinnamon and drink the tea warm or cold, plain or with a drizzle of honey if you prefer to sweeten it.

NOTE: I keep ginger root frozen in my freezer which I just pull out and plop into the water whenever I need it. Also, you can reuse the ginger root and cinnamon sticks several times before they need to be thrown out, so after straining them out of your tea, put them into a container in your fridge until needed for their next use.  Also, ginger tea is great for upset tummies!

Citrus Peel Tea

In a pot filled with 4 to 6 cups of water, put fresh orange peels from two large oranges, or four tangerines or clementines, or three mandarin oranges or four lemons or limes. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then turn off the water and let the peels steep for an hour or so. Serve warm or at room temperature.

NOTE: I usually use the whole peel, including the white pith because so much of the nutrients are in the white pith, but some folks find that to be too bitter. If you use a peeler to peel the outside of the citrus peels, you’ll avoid the pith and get more of just the outside peel. You can also dry citrus peels by simply letting them sit on a rack until they dry out and then store them in a tightly sealed glass container until you need them. If you’re using dried peels versus fresh, though, you usually only need half the amount for the tea because the flavor is more concentrated. Citrus tea is good for coughs and chest congestion.

Korean Barley Tea (Bo-ree-cha)

In a pot filled with 8 cups of water, put about 1/2 cup of roasted barley which you have rinsed well. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat and allow the tea to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. With this tea, the barley will settle to the bottom as it steeps. Strain out the barley and allow the tea to cool. We always drank it cold or at room temperature.

NOTE: I usually buy my roasted barley at the Korean grocery store but I’ve noticed that you can now find it at regular grocery stores, too. Barley tea is strong and not sweet. If you like a sweeter tea, you can purchase roasted corn and mix that with the roasted barley. You can also simply make a roasted corn tea which my mom used to make as well. Barley tea has a lot of antioxidants, and many folks swear by its ability to help with digestion and regulation of the body.

 

 

 

Cooking Techniques: No Bake Cheesecakes

“But they’re really more like suggestions than hard and fast recipes….”

Once again some friends were telling me this week that I needed to write a cookbook….. And once again, as I thought about it, I realized that the problem with a cookbook is that it presumes you believe your recipes should be followed…. And I don’t!

I personally never follow recipes. Even the ones I put on this blog, I’m always re-creating to see if I can either make them better or differently. To me the goal of this blog is to give folks enough tips and techniques and knowledge that you can then be as creative as you want. My recipes are supposed to be jumping off points, not “hard and fast, you must follow this to the T” types of experiences. That’s why I write at length about the “how’s” of each recipe I give, and it’s also why there are so many posts on this site which give no recipes and only “techniques”.

To illustrate my point today, I thought I’d use no bake cheesecakes: Right now they’re all the rage because they’re versatile and summery without the use of an oven. I could certainly give you a recipe for a no bake cheesecake but the fact is that there are so many different ways to make them that I’d hate to limit you to just one recipe.

For instance:

The crust: For a no bake cheesecake, you can use just about any type of crust you’d like: a crust made from graham crackers, cookies (any type there is from ginger to lemon to sandwich cookies to chocolate chip to oatmeal to you name it!), pretzels, crackers,coconut, goldfish, vanilla or chocolate wafers, nuts, etc…. What type of crust you’ll make will depend on what you’re making for the filling. If you want a traditional cheesecake, use graham crackers. If you’re making a cheesecake with chocolate in it, you might want to use chocolate wafers or a cookie with chocolate pieces. Maybe you’re making a lemon cheesecake which might go well with lemon or vanilla cookies. You can experiment and see what tastes you prefer. If you have allegies, you can use allergy friendly versions of all the above which you can now find in any supermarket.

What’s key is that you should process whatever you’re using into fine crumbs and mix them with a binder such as melted butter or vegan substitute or coconut oil or a nut oil or plant oils such as olive or safflower. Rule of thumb: about 1 1/2 cups of finely processed crumbs will cover the bottom and sides of a traditional pie pan. How much binder you use depends on your tastes and health: I tend to use a low amount, about 2 tablespoons, just enough to moisten the crumbs so they’ll adhere to one another. Many recipes will call for 4 to 6 tablespoons. You can also begin with two and add more if you think it’s needed. What you use can depend on your tastes and health and allergies. If you’re allergic to dairy or have health issues, you may opt to use a plant oil instead of butter. Or maybe you want just the taste of the cookies you’re using to come through, so you might use a more neutral canola oil. Or maybe your cheesecake will do well to have the complementary flavor of a nut oil.

Whatever you choose for the crumbs and the binder, for a no bake cheesecake, the crust should be made first. You then can either pop the crust into the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes or put it into the fridge for an hour or two. Either way, you want the binder to get cold enough to keep the crumbs together so it won’t crumble when you cut into your cheesecake. So, make sure the crust is solid before making and adding your cheesecake filling.

If you’re looking to make things even easier, you can use store bought crusts. Now they even make gluten, dairy, nut free versions which you can purchase at the regular grocery stores.

The cream cheese: For folks with no allergies, regular cream cheese is what most cheesecake recipes call for. if you’re trying to watch the fat, using a light or fat free version of the cream cheese is acceptable.  If you have dairy allergies, you can use the Tofutti vegan cream cheese. If you’re allergic to soy, you can puree tofu or soaked cashews to replace the equivalent 16 oz of cream cheese.  What’s important is that if you’re using cream cheese, any version, you should bring it to room temperature so it will blend more smoothly without chunks. If you’re using the tofu or soaked cashews, make sure to puree them completely so they’re as smooth as they can be. For a traditional pie pan, two packages of cream cheese or two cups of a replacement is enough to fill the pie pan once you’ve added the rest of the ingredients.

The sweetener: Most no bake cheesecake recipes call for the use of either sugar or powdered sugar in quantities ranging from 1/2 to 1 1/2 cup. You can use either, varying the amount to your particular tastes. If you’re like me and don’t use sugar, you can substitute coconut sugar or stevia or agave which usually require half to less the amount you’d use of sugar. I’d suggest beginning with 1/4 cup and tasting to see if you need to add more. What’s important to know is that no matter what you use for the sweetener, you should add it immediately after you’ve creamed your cream cheese smooth, and you should combine the sweetener well so the cream cheese is not grainy. If you using Agave, keep your mixer going on low while you slowly pour the agave in a little at a time.

The flavor: A no bake cheesecake can be whatever you want it to be: chocolate, lemon, mint, berry, peanut butter, etc…. What’s important to keep in mind is that whether the flavoring is an extract or peel, or chunky like chopped chocolate pieces or mint cookies or pureed strawberries, or if you opt to use jello or pudding mix for the flavoring (see below), add it AFTER you’ve made your cream cheese or substitute smooth and after you’ve added the sweetener.  The first thing you always do with a no bake cheesecake is to make the cream cheese smooth. Then you want to add the sweetener, and then you can add the other ingredients, with the binder being the final ingredient.

The no bake filling binder: When making a no bake cheesecake, you don’t use eggs which is what usually helps to solidify the cheesecake as it bakes. What you can use in the place of eggs varies, though. Some recipes use heavy cream. Others use a combination of sour cream and whipping cream. Some use condensed sweetened milk. Others use whipped topping. Still more use pudding mixes or jello/gelatin or even marshmallow creme. This is why I’d rather not give you a recipe, because you may want to use one or the other depending on tastes, allergies/health, and/or what you have in the house.

What I can give you, though, are tips and information to help you: So, for example, if you are going to use heavy cream or sour cream or whipping cream or whipped topping or marshmallow creme, the ratio is usually two 8 oz containers of cream cheese to 3/4 to 1 1/2 cups of whichever you use. What’s important is that they should be added at the end after you’ve mixed the rest of your cheesecake ingredients, just before you put the cheesecake into the fridge. The quantity will depend on the type of consistency and taste you want for your cheesecake: the more you put in, the airier, lighter and less cheesecake-tasting the cheesecake will be. The less you put in, the more dense cheesecake-like and tasting it will be.

If you choose to use gelatin or pudding mix, the ratio is usually two 8 oz packages of cream cheese to one package of jello or pudding (3 oz size) or one envelope of unflavored gelatin. What’s important is that if you’re using jello or pudding mix, you have two options for how to use them.  One is to simply mix it in really, really well with the cream cheese so it’s smooth. Another is to make up the jello or pudding and let is slightly set before mixing it in with the cream cheese mixture.  If you’re using an unflavored envelope of gelatin, the gelatin needs to be dissolved according to directions (usually a couple of minutes over a tablespoon of cold water and then stirred with a tablespoon of hot water until dissolved) and added to the cream cheese mixture at the end.

For people with allergies, So Delicious makes a whipped topping out of coconut which you can substitute for whipped topping. To substitute for heavy cream you can puree an equal amount of silken tofu; or mix 2/3 cup soy milk with 1/3 cup melted vegan butter for one cup of heavy cream; or use coconut cream in a one to one ratio; or make a cashew cream (soak cashews for a day and puree really, really well) where about one and 1/4 cups of soaked cashews purees into one cup of cream.

The topping: A no bake cheesecake can be simple with just the above ingredient choices mixed together and poured into a crust, but you can also jazz up the cheesecake with toppings. You can pipe whipped topping in designs. You can melt chocolate and drizzle it over the cheesecake. You can chop up cookies or chocolate and carefully place the pieces on top. You can chop berries and put them on top. You can spread jam on top. You can cook a fruit compote and pour it over the cheesecake. The ideas are endless. Let your creative side have fun.

For folks who do like a recipe, below is one a version I made recently.  It does have coconut and soy, though if anyone has allergies to either, you can substitute with anything I’ve written about above!

Lemon Blueberry No Bake Cheesecake

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup gluten, dairy, nut free graham cracker crumbs (I pureed Midel graham crackers)

2 tablespoons vegan butter, melted

two 8 oz containers Tofutti vegan cream cheese, at room temperature

2/3 cup coconut sugar (I like things tart; you may want to sweeten it more)

one tablespoon lemon juice (Meyer lemons are sweeter)

one tablespoon lemon peel (optional, grating fresh lemons are better; store bought dried peel can be bitter)

one teaspoon gluten free vanilla

one cup So Delicious dairy free Coco Whip

one cup fresh blueberries

1/4 cup water

one tablespoon Agave

one tablespoon cornstarch

one tablespoon water

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and mix until the crumbs are completely moistened. If you need to add a bit more melted butter, do so. Carefully press the crumbs in a glass pie pan to cover the bottoms and sides. Place into the freezer for half an hour.
  2. In a mixer, blend the cream cheese until smooth. Scrape down the sides and bottoms.
  3. Add the coconut sugar and blend for a couple of minutes until completely smooth and not grainy.
  4. Add the lemon juice, lemon peel, and vanilla. Mix well.
  5. Add the Coco Whip, and mix just until blended. Pour into the prepared crust.
  6. In a small saucepan on the stove top, mix the blueberries with the water and agave and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  7. Once boiling, mix the cornstarch with the water and blend until smooth.  While stirring the blueberries, add the cornstarch mixture and keep stirring until the blueberries thicken. Remove from the heat.
  8. Carefully places spoonfuls of the blueberry mixture on the top of the cheesecake. Use a knife to run through the berries to create a pretty pattern and to mix the berries a bit into the top layer of the cheesecake.
  9. Refrigerate for at least four hours.
  10. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

The Scoop: Zucchini Bundt Cake

“Please let me do that….”

I am envied by many of my female friends because my husband is a godsend. He washes dishes even if I don’t ask. If clean laundry is sitting on the bed, he will fold and put his away instead of moving it to ironing board so he can get into bed. Because of his job, he’s home during the witching hour and will help set the table or drive the children to baseball, dance or guitar lessons. On Saturday mornings when we clean the house as a family, he vacuums and dust mops.

I thank God every single day for him because I know that I’m blessed to have such a husband. There are two things, however, which I rarely ask my husband to help with – cooking and making the bed – for the same reason. Both require an attention to details which my more conceptually-minded husband often forgets.

With the beds: Growing up as a military brat, I believe beds are to be made with tight corners and nary a wrinkle in the sheets. My husband thinks that if the sheet is mostly covering the bed, he’s done well.

With the cooking: The idea that you have to actually pay attention to what you are cooking is foreign to my husband. We have been together 23 years, and he still burns his grilled cheese sandwiches because when an academic thought pierces his brain, he forgets that he’s grilling a sandwich and walks away to his computer, only remembering the sandwich when either the smell of burnt bread reaches the office or I discover the sandwich on the stove with no husband in sight.

Paying attention to details is important… especially when it comes to baking. I was reminded of this when I received an email about a disaster a friend had trying to make a Bundt cake. Bundt is a trademark name for a pan with fluted ridges and a tube in the center of the pan. Nowadays you can find a myriad of differently shaped Bundt pans on the market. Bundt pans are designed to distribute heat more quickly and more evenly to the cake batter, and the tube in the center allows denser batter to cling and rise more effectively.

As such, recipes designed specifically for Bundt pans tend to be moister, denser cake batters. They often include fillings like fruit or nuts and tend to require more eggs than regular cake batters. Because this is the case, if you try to bake a Bundt cake recipe in a regular flat cake pan, you’ll usually get a cake which hasn’t risen as well and which is usually more cooked at the edges than the center. If you decide you want to make a Bundt cake recipe in a regular cake pan, you’re better off dividing the batter between two smaller pans over trying to cook the Bundt cake recipe in regular 9 x 13 pan, even though the batter amount will fit such a pan.

The converse is not true, however. If you have a regular 9 x 13 cake recipe, you can substitute a Bundt pan without fear of a cake disaster. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using a Bundt pan, though:

One, it’s very important to prepare Bundt pans well. The same ridges which make for a beautiful Bundt cake, also make for a disaster if the cake sticks to them and won’t come out of the pan. With most cakes, I don’t grease; I simply line the cake pans with parchment paper. With Bundt pans, however, I not only grease, I grease so that not a single crevice, line, spot on either the sides or the tube is missed. Then I carefully and evenly coat the grease with flour, cocoa powder or coconut sugar, depending on what type of Bundt cake I’m making.

The second important consideration is cooling the cake before removing it from the Bundt. If you try to remove a Bundt cake from the pan while it’s still warm, the cake is more likely to stick. If the pan is prepared well, however, and you wait until the cake is mostly cooled, the cake will release from the pan more cleanly. It also helps to run a butter knife around all the edges, including the center.

To help my friend with her Bundt cake disaster, I decided to create a recipe of my own using the original as a jumping off point. She had wanted to make her recipe gluten free but the brown rice flour blend she used wasn’t as structurally sound as one needs for a sturdier Bundt cake.  As such, I created my own flour blend which combined sorghum, fava bean, garbanzo bean, oat, sweet rice, and tapioca flours with just a little bit of xanthan gum. The heartier high fiber, high protein flours would lend depth to the cake.

Her recipe had came out a bit oily because the large amount of oil just soaked into the brown rice flour blend.  I opted to include ripe mashed bananas into the recipe and reduce the oil to 1/2 cup of safflower oil. I also replaced the sugar with Agave which allowed me to reduce the sweetener amount to only 1/2 cup. My friend’s cake was supposedly a Spice Bundt cake but it only called for cinnamon. I added cardamom and also decided to include shredded zucchini because veggies are a wonderful way to add moisture to a cake as well as natural vitamins. My last change was to swap out 1/2 cup of allergy friendly mini chocolate chips for the cup of chopped nuts, because unfortunately I have a tree nut allergy.

I didn’t change the eggs because we don’t have any allergies or health issues related to eggs but folks who do can always swap liquid egg whites for the whole eggs or ground flaxseed mixed with water.

The resulting cake, of which I made two, were met with appeals for the recipe when I served them at a workshop and at a bible study on the same day.

Zucchini Bundt Cake

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cup gluten free flour blend* (recipe below)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips

1 cup mashed ripe bananas

1 cup shredded zucchini

1/2 cup safflower oil

1/2 cup Agave

3 whole eggs (or 3/4 cup liquid egg whites or 3 tbsp flaxseed mixed with 9 tbsp water)

1 tbsp vinegar (white or apple cider)

Baking Instructions:

 

  1. Thoroughly grease and then flour a normal 12 cup Bundt pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt. Add the mini chocolate chips. Set aside.
  3. Mix together the bananas, zucchini, agave, oil, and eggs.
  4. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet, adding the vinegar. Mix well, until everything is incorporated together.
  5. Pour the batter evenly into the Bundt pan and bake until the cake is golden, risen and a toothpick in the center comes out clean, usually about 30 to 35 minutes. (I usually check around 25 minutes and go from there.)

*Gluten Free Flour Blend:

1 cup tapioca flour, 1 cup sorghum flour, 1/2 cup garbanzo bean flour, 1/2 cup fava bean flour, 1 cup sweet rice flour, 1/2 cup gluten free oat flour, 2 tsp xanthan gum. Mix well. Make enough flour for two cakes.

Autumn Fruits: Easy Marinara Sauce

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“Are you going to do something with those tomatoes?”

A couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law generously gave me several pounds of home grown tomatoes, the last picked of the season before the weather became cold. I was thrilled, but then my son became ill, and a week was lost at the hospital and helping him to recover at home.

Over the weekend, my husband looked at the tomatoes still taking up space on our counter, and asked, “Are you going to do something with those tomatoes or am I going to have to compost them?”

The idea of composting all those lovely tomatoes horrified me, so I quickly grabbed a cutting board and went to work….

Folks who have been reading the blog for a while know that I’m a big fan of the least amount of effort for great results. So, what’s something easy one can do when you have pounds of tomatoes and no idea what to do with them? Marinara sauce.

Marinara sauce is just a sauce made from tomatoes. If you make up a huge batch, though, you can freeze it and use it in a variety of ways: the base for a thicker spaghetti sauce, sauce for pizza, in Spanish rice, for ratattouille, the base for a cocktail sauce, for soups, to top enchiladas, in Sloppy Joe’s, the list is pretty never-ending. And what’s lovely is that unless you’re allergic to tomatoes, it’s allergy friendly, too – no nuts, dairy, egg, gluten, sugar, peanuts, etc….

Easy Marinara Sauce

  1. The Tomatoes: I simply cut the tomatoes into fourths and cook them as is, seeds, peels and all.
  2. The Flavoring: Whatever you’d like. I usually throw in about eight to 10 whole garlic cloves, two purple scallions quartered and a chili pepper.
  3. The Herbs: Whatever you’d like. I like basil, oregano, and thyme. Use dried herbs. If you want fresh herbs, those can be added when you actually use the marinara sauce for a recipe.
  4. The Pan: I have a lovely Circulon pan which is 12 inches in diameter and three inches deep which I use for making marinara sauce. I recommend a larger, shallower pan over a deeper but smaller pot, which is the use recommendations. The reason? Because the shallower pan allows all the tomatoes to cook down quickly without you needing to continually stir to get the top tomatoes down to the bottom where the heat source is.
  5. The Cooking: If you cook the tomatoes in the shallower pan, you only need to cook the tomatoes, with a lid on, for about 20 to 30 minutes.
  6. The Consistency: If you want a chunky marinara sauce, simply let the cooked tomatoes cool as is. If you like a smoother marinara, puree everything up in a blender or food processor. If you don’t like the seeds, strain them out after pureeing. If you want a thicker marinara sauce, add tomato paste or cooked, pureed vegetables like squash or carrots or pumpkin which also add another flavor dimension.
  7. The Storing: Marinara sauce will keep for weeks in the fridge and for years in the freezer. To store in the freezer, make sure the sauce is completely cooled and then put the sauce into freezer friendly containers or bags. I prefer to put two cups of sauce into freezer bags because that’s the amount I tend to use for most recipes and because the bags will then lie flat in the freezer, taking up less space.
  8. The Use: If you know ahead of time you want to use frozen marinara sauce, simply take the containers or bags out of the freezer the day before. If you decide at the last minute to use sauce, the sauce easily defrosts as it cooks in the microwave or in a pan.

 

Creative Cooking: Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

“They do look older!”

In our school district the fifth graders spend a week away from home, experiencing nature and science with their teachers. Having been through this before, when my youngest left for his trip, I wasn’t overly concerned. Some of the other parents, however, were anxious because this was their first time sending off a child, and they didn’t know what to expect.

I found, though, that sharing simple reassures from my own experience helped – the 1 to 8 teacher to student ratio, the highly competent and skilled onsite staff, being with friends and teachers whom they’re already comfortable with….

And I promised them that when their children returned, that not only would they have survived but that they’d come back having grown from their experiences. In fact, I told them that, even physically, their children would look older when they step off the bus. So, I had to chuckle when we picked up our children, and sure enough, several parents said to me, “They do look older!”

When I received an email this week, asking how in the world someone could create their own allergy-friendly recipe, it occurred to me that my response would be the same as it was to the parents….

Reassurances: Once you begin experimenting, the knack will come to you. As with everything, practice is the key, and you already have what you need. Refer to the early posts on this site about the standard ratios and patterns which exist for all baked goods. Re-read the information about individual ingredient substitutions. When you know that a cake always takes about 2 cups of flour and that you can substitute a ready-made gluten free flour blend in a certain ratio, experimenting does not need to be scary.

Promises: You will grow in your ability to create your own recipes simply by experimenting. The practice itself will give you a feel for what does and doesn’t work. Might a recipe fail? Maybe… but as Thomas Edison said about the light bulb, “I have not failed. I just found 1,000 ways that didn’t work.” Culinary mishaps are simply learning lessons.

I know, though, from many, many conversations, that folks will still be apprehensive about “experimenting” despite reassurances and promises, so I thought I’d walk folks through a recent experiment of mine.

Over the summer, I thought I had a coup because an online site was selling the allergy friendly chocolate chips I like for a ridiculously low price. I ordered several bags but was dismayed when they arrived because the company had simply shipped them in a plain box despite the 90 degree weather. The chips had completely melted and then re-solidified in square lumps. The company credited my money back to me, but I was still left with chocolate chunks instead of tiny individual chips.

Last week, my husband asked me if I could bake something for a colleague at work. I decided cupcakes would be good because they’re portable, and I could give some to the colleague and still have some for the children at home. I looked in the fridge and the pantry to see what I had on hand. Several zucchini were beginning to look a little sad, so I figured I should use them, but I wanted to jazz them up a bit. Mini chocolate chips would do the trick, but of course, when I went to the pantry, I only found my solid chocolate blocks.

Thinking I could break it, I started whacking at the block with a hammer, only to discover that the solid chocolate was stronger than me and the hammer. The few chunks I managed to break apart told me that I’d be there forever trying to created little chips. So, I pulled out my food processor. Obviously that would do the trick. I popped the chunks in and whizzed the blade.

Well, let me tell you now: When chocolate has been melted and re-solidified, and you pop it into the food processor with the hopes of creating little chips… you won’t get chocolate chips. You’ll make your very own sweetened chocolate powder. A 10 oz block will make 1 1/2 cups of chocolate powder, in fact. 1 1/2 cups of chocolate powder which I didn’t want to waste but wasn’t quite sure what to do with.

Not to be deterred, though, I plowed on. An average cupcake recipe usually takes about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of flour. I knew that if I swapped out 1 1/2 cups of that for the chocolate powder, my recipe simply wouldn’t work, because the chocolate powder wasn’t dense enough and lacked leavening, so I decided I’d just have to add it to the flour and then increase my liquid ingredients, because I knew that in cake recipes, the dry and liquid ingredients are always equal.

The chocolate powder plus the flour (I used a homemade mix of garbanzo bean, sorghum, potato and tapioca flours) came to 3 1/2 cups so I opted to use 1 cup of a homemade soy buttermilk (to add protein and help with leavening), 1/2 cup of unsweetened orange juice (to complement and bring out the zucchini and chocolate flavors), 1/2 cup safflower oil, 3 eggs (increased them from the usual 2 to 3 because the eggs and flour ratio are usually the same and whole eggs because I wanted a moist, dense cupcake), and 1/3 cup of agave (wanted a little sweetener but didn’t need a whole lot because the chocolate powder was sweetened).

My next consideration was the leavening powders. I knew that one needs about 1 tsp of baking powder and/or 1/4 tsp of baking powder per cup of flour, so I’d need something equivalent for the 3 1/2 cups of flour/chocolate powder. I decided to use a mixture of 2 tsp of baking powder with 1 tsp of baking soda (because I wanted my cupcakes to rise but not rise so high that it would sink, and a mixture does that best). I opted to add some spices – cinnamon, allspice and clovers – as well because they’d complement the chocolate and orange flavors nicely.

The final step was to think about the “sugar”. Most cake recipes call for two cups of sugar. I had already added 1/3 cup of Agave, so I knew I could cut back on the sugar to about 1 cup, but I didn’t want to use sugar because I never bake with it. Increasing the Agave at this point, though, would mess up the ratio of dry to liquid ingredients, plus make for a denser cupcake than I wanted; so I decided to use coconut sugar (which would help brown the cupcake nicely).

My experimental recipe was done, and I could only pop it into the oven and hope for the best.

They came out delicious. The chocolate powder made for a milder chocolate taste and for a lighter cupcake than if I had used melted chocolate.  My kids want me to make them again and sooner as opposed to later.

Yes, they could have flopped because it was an experiment, but using the knowledge I had about recipe patterns and ratios, I could methodically work my way through the changes, and the results were worth it.

If you begin experimenting, I both reassure you and promise you that you will find the same results.

Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup chocolate powder*

2 1/2 cups gluten free flour blend**

1 cup coconut sugar

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

1/2 tsp ground cloves

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

3 eggs

1/2 cup safflower oil

1/3 cup agave

1/2 cup unsweetened orange juice

1 cup soy milk mixed with 1 tbsp lemon juice***

2 cups loosely packed shredded zucchini

Baking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 24 muffin cups with liners.
  2. Mix the chocolate powder, flour blend, coconut sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.
  3. Blend the eggs, oil, agave, orange juice and buttermilk well and the zucchini to the wet mixture.
  4. Combine the dry and wet ingredients until the dry ingredients are fully moistened.
  5. Evenly divide the batter among the muffin cups. They will be quite full.
  6. Bake until the cupcakes are puffed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Check at 15 minutes and adjust the time accordingly. Mine took about 25 minutes.

* A 10 oz solid chocolate bar processed in the food processor will yield the desired amount of chocolate powder.

** I made a homemade blend of garbanzo bean, sorghum, potato and tapioca flour, but you can use what you’d prefer.

*** It doesn’t have to be soy milk; you can use whatever type you’d prefer. Just be sure to add the lemon juice to make it a buttermilk.

 

 

 

 

Summer Veggin’: Spinach

website spinach

“Don’t you want to be strong like Popeye?”

My generation was one of the last to grow up on a diet of Popeye cartoons and canned spinach. We’d dutifully watch Popeye eat his spinach so he could be strong; and then our parents would pile canned spinach onto our plates, believing we’d magically like it simply because we watched Popeye eat it.

When I became older, I realized that it wasn’t spinach that I didn’t like. It was “canned” spinach which was the problem. As a general rule, canned vegetables are less appealing because the process necessary for canning makes the vegetables lose their vibrant color and natural vegetable smells and gives them a softer texture and a tinny taste.

There are valuable socio-economic reasons for canned vegetables, though, so I’m not here to knock canned vegetables. I am, however, saying that if you were a child of certain generations you may find that you actually like particular vegetables you never have before if they are freshly prepared as opposed to canned.

Spinach is one of those leafy greens which is not only quite high in necessary nutrients your body needs but it is extremely versatile. As well, if you still find that you’re not all that fond of the taste of spinach, even in it’s fresher form, spinach is easily disguised.

There are basically two general types of spinach, a thicker, more rippled variety and a smoother, flatter variety with hybrids of every variation in between. For folks who have may have some concerns about their spinach liking, I’d advise trying baby spinach first. Picked at a younger stage, baby spinach is more tender and slightly “sweeter”.

A common mistake folks make with spinach is overcooking it. Whether you boil, steam, saute, grill or broil spinach, you should always remove the spinach as soon as it begins to wilt. If you do so, the spinach will continue cooking from the residual heat and be at the perfect texture. If you let the spinach continue to cook until it’s entirely wilted, then when you remove it from the heat, it will continue to cook and become overdone.

Another mistake is that folks forget that fresh spinach will cook down to a fraction of the volume. A pound of fresh spinach will yield about a cup of cooked spinach. So, if you’re using a recipe that calls for cooked spinach, you need to make sure to purchase the appropriate corresponding fresh amount.

A cost-saving tip: If you are simply adding spinach as part of a cooked dish, like a soup or a lasagna or a frittata, go ahead and use frozen chopped spinach. It’s cheaper and just as nutritionally beneficial. Frozen spinach has also already been “cooked” so you don’t need to do anything to it, other than add it straight to your recipe.

Some ideas for using spinach:

1. Fresh in salads: Adding fresh spinach to a salad bumps the nutritional value of your salad and adds another dimension of taste. You can also make straight spinach salads. My children like to mix arugula and spinach, top it with roasted chicken and strawberries, and drizzle with a little bit of balsamic vinegar.

2. Additions to a main dish: You add flavor, texture, and nutrients if you add chopped spinach to just about anything you already make: lasagna, frittata, soup, seafood cakes, hamburgers, pasta salad, casseroles, bean dishes, etc…. There is no limit to what you can add spinach to. I especially like spinach on a pizza.

3. In desserts: Adding vegetables to desserts not only increases the nutritional value, but they tend to make moister desserts which also have a depth of flavor you don’t get without them. Pureed spinach can be used in cakes, cupcakes, brownies, puddings, etc…. Nowadays many recipes with spinach can even be found online, so you won’t even have to create your own.

4. Additions to dips and sauces: Spinach adds texture and flavor to any dip, salsa, or sauce. If you have a white sauce you really like, turn it into a spinach white sauce. If you have a sour cream dip recipe you like to make, add spinach. If there’s a salsa recipe you enjoy, add spinach. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll actually like these with spinach in them.

5. To boost smoothies: Smoothies are the popular thing now. Adding spinach to whatever type you’re making adds nutrients which you wouldn’t get just from a fruit smoothie.

6. Simply as is: Sauteed spinach is a wonderful side dish to a meal, and what’s really great is that you can create any flavor combination you want for sauteed spinach. You can saute spinach with a little bit of olive oil and garlic. You can saute spinach with sesame oil, ginger, and soy sauce. You can saute spinach with curry powder and butter. You can saute spinach with mustard seeds and chili peppers. You can saute spinach with other veggies like mushrooms or carrots or onions. Your creative cooking imagination can really kick into gear as you experiment to see what tastes you prefer.

 

 

Happy Fourth: Berry Crisp

website berry crisp

“I want something easy….”

Happy Fourth of July! I received an email yesterday, asking for a dessert that could feed a large amount of people, would be allergy friendly, was Fourth of July-ish, and would be easy to make. Fortunately, I had just the suggestion.

Berry Crisp. It’s one of my children’s favorites, and my son always says that it reminds him of the Fourth of July because of the color of the berries. What I love is that if you keep frozen berries in your freezer, you can whip this up quickly and easily any time of the year.

Berry Crisp

Ingredients:

one 16 oz pkg frozen blackberries*

one 16 oz pkg frozen raspberries*

one 16 oz pkg frozen blueberries*

one 16 oz pkg frozen strawberries*

1/4 to 1/2 cup favorite GF flour (I use either garbanzo bean or sorghum or GF oat flour because they have more fiber and protein than others; use the smaller amount if you want a juicier crisp and the larger amount if you prefer a drier crisp)

1/2 cup Agave (if you like a sweeter crisp, increase this to 3/4 c)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ginger

4 cups gluten free whole grain oats

1/2 cup GF flour (I use either garbanzo bean or sorghum or GF oat flour because they have more fiber and protein than others)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ginger

1/2 cup melted vegan butter

1/4 cup Agave

Baking Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease an 11 x 15 pan with your favorite method. (If you don’t have a large pan like this, you can use several smaller dishes like the three pictured above.)

2. Empty into and mix all the frozen berries in a large bowl with the flour until they’re coated.

3. Combine the agave with the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and coat the berries with the agave mixture.

4.  Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, and bake the berries in the preheated oven for about half an hour until the berries are warm and soft and starting to bubble a little.

5.  While the berries are cooking, mix the whole oats with the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Mix together the melted butter and agave, and mix the oats with the butter mixture. Set aside and let the oat mixture cool.

6.  After the berries have cooked for the half hour, remove the foil from the pan, and reduce the oven to 325 degrees.

7.  Give the oat mixture a good stir. (The oats should be cooled now and have formed little clumps.) Evenly spread the oat mixture over the berries.

8.  Bake the crisp in the lower heat oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, just until the oat mixture has begun to crisp up and brown just a little.  The berries will be bubbling. (Be sure to check after 15 minutes because the oats can become too toasty very quickly.)

9.  The crisp can be served while warm with vanilla “ice cream” or “whipped cream” or just plain. It can also be eaten room temperature or cold.

If you have leftovers, you can wrap it and leave it on the kitchen counter or you can put it into the fridge.  My son thinks it’s a great breakfast food!

* NOTE: Obviously, if the season is right or if you simply prefer and don’t mind paying more, you can use fresh berries instead of frozen. If you use fresh berries, then you don’t need to use very much flour at all, so reduce the flour coating to about 2 tbsp or leave it out altogether, depending on how juicy or dry a crisp you prefer.

Menu Munching: Avocados

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“The best is an orchestra.”

At a recent event for writers, a gentleman shared a story about his grandfather who said that people should be like an orchestra, each complementing one another in harmony to make the world a better place for everyone.

I thought about this when I received an email this week asking me about the hype around super foods. If you look at the list of super foods, you’ll see that they’re fruits, nuts, veggies, beans, whole grains, fish, and spices – essentially and simply an orchestra of naturally existing, non-processed, complementary foods which when eaten make for better health.

It’s not that they’re super. It’s that we unfortunately have fallen away from eating them, and our bodies are craving them. For some folks, it’s the cost. The fact is that the natural foods are a lot more expensive than processed. For others it’s the maintenance. Fresh foods don’t last as long, so they need to be eaten quickly and replaced more regularly which requires more trips to the store. For many it’s that our lives are busy, and we need food which have longer shelf-lives because we’re simply not home to eat the fresh food in the fridge.

The fact, though, is that our bodies need certain vitamins and nutrients to function optimally, and eating a wide variety of fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, beans, fish and spices provides what our bodies need in ways that processed foods simply cannot.

In the email, the question was specifically about avocados and why the hype and how to incorporate it into one’s diet.

Avocados are high in fiber, nutrients like potassium, vitamin K and folate, and the good monounsaturated fats our bodies need, so yes, people are advocating it as a super food. Like all the foods on the list, though, it needs to be a part of a healthy varied diet to have any benefit. If you’re eating unhealthy all the time, simply adding avocado to your menu isn’t going to make your body super.

As an addition to a healthy diet, though, avocados can add variety if you’re in a food rut. You can add them onto salads and sandwiches, make soups with them, stuff them, put them into smoothies, and you can even add them to cake recipes. For most folks, avocados mean guacamole, though, so I’m going to focus on that today.

Guacamole often gets a bad rap because it’s most always associated with the tortilla chips people tend to eat with them. It’s the tortilla chips that are unhealthy; not the guacamole. Guacamole is actually a combination of super foods: avocado, garlic, onions, citrus juice, jalapeno peppers, and sometime tomatoes. So, eating it is a good thing, though one should eat it as a veggie dip or a sandwich spread as opposed to a tortilla chip dip.

Making Guacamole:

1. Purchase good avocados: You want avocados which are dark green, soft to your touch, but without any brown, overly soft spots. When you go to the store, though, the avocados are almost always unripe. So, look for ones which are green with no brown and/or soft spots in them, firm to the touch and heavy in your hand. When you bring them home, put them into a paper bag, and check them after a day or so. When they’re ripe, they’ll be soft when you press into the skin with your finger. If you have the time to wait, you can also simply leave the avocados in a bowl on your counter, and they’ll ripen over time.

2. Prepare the avocados: Avocados are easy to cut. You simply cut in half around the pit and twist. When the avocado is ripe, the seed will simply slip out with very little aid from a spoon or knife. If the pit is sticking to the avocado flesh, it’s a clear sign that the avocado isn’t ripe. When avocados are ripe, you can put a spoon around the edge between the skin and the flesh and the avocado flesh will simply fall out of the skin. If the flesh is sticking to the skin, it’s either unripe or overly ripe.

3. Decide on the ingredients: Guacamole is usually a combination of avocados, citrus juice, garlic, onions, and jalapeno peppers with folks sometimes adding tomatoes, too. You can decide what you want to use. Since I don’t always have fresh jalapeno peppers and onions in the house, I often use dried red pepper flakes and onion powder. I also prefer to use Meyer lemons over lime juice, and since my children don’t like tomatoes in their guacamole, I don’t include it. You can decide whether you want to use all fresh ingredients or some dried like me. You can choose whether you prefer the taste of lime or lemon juice. You can decide whether to be a purist or to add tomatoes or even experiment with other additions. Some folks like to add herbs like basil to their guacamole. Most add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Begin with a basic recipe: A basic recipe I follow is:  Put the flesh of two avocados into a large bowl. Begin with 2 tablespoons of squeezed citrus juice, 2 tsp of minced garlic, and 1/8 tsp each of onion powder, black pepper, salt, and red pepper flakes. Mash the ingredients into the avocados so everything is combined but the avocados are still chunky. Taste and see what you need to add more of to your liking. If you’re using all fresh ingredents, start with 2 tsp of minced onions and seeded, jalapeno peppers and then see if you need to add more or not.

 

Cooking Techniques: Potato Salad

website potato salad

“I’m turning into you!”

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest was home from college, so I asked her to help me at a concert my middle child was performing in. At the end of the concert she came to me in the concession kitchen and said, “I’m turning into you! I just did a sweep of the auditorium, cleaning up everyone else’s trash, and now I’m behind the counter serving cake to everyone!”

A parent who overheard my daughter’s remarks, commented on what she had said, and it sparked a conversation among a few parents about the types of folks who helped behind the scenes. At one point, someone said, “No one thinks much about the custodian until he’s out sick, and the trash isn’t emptied.”

I was reminded of that comment this weekend as I prepared food for a cookout we were going to have. I had asked my middle child what she thought I should make to go with the burgers, hot dogs and chicken, and she replied, “Potato salad.” Her answer surprised me because she doesn’t like potato salad.

When I questioned her about her reply, she said, “It’s a barbecue. If you don’t have potato salad, people will ask where it is.” As I thought about what she said, I realized, she was right. No one has ever asked me to actually make potato salad, but there have definitely been plenty of times when I’ve had a barbecue without potato salad where someone has said something like, “Oh, no potato salad, huh?”

It may be because people are just used to potato salad being at barbecues. It may be because potatoes have always been a tasty complement to meat, which is what usually serves as the main course at barbecues. Whatever the reason, potato salad is the humble dish, which like the sick custodian is usually only noticed if it’s missing.

Potato salad, however, is a dish which folks should consider with more thought. Potatoes are high in fiber if you eat the skin, have nutrients like potassium and vitamin C, and are a good source of complex carbs. Potato salad in particular is nice because it can be inexpensively made, easily stretched to feed a crowd, and can be made in a variety of ways to suit different tastes. Potato salad is also very allergy friendly because unless you’re allergic to potatoes, how you choose to dress it and what additions you add can easily be done around any food allergies you might have.

Potato Salad Tips:

1. Type of potato: The choices abound for potato salad. Traditionally, potatoes are categorized as starchy (think Idaho potatoes), waxy (think red potatoes) or all-purpose (think Yukon-Gold potatoes). Starchy potatoes fall apart easily, so if you prefer a creamier, more mashed type of potato salad, these work best. Waxy potatoes hold their shape well, so if you prefer a firmer potato salad with squares of potato to bite into, you’ll want to use these. If you’re looking for something in between, all purpose potatoes are just the thing. You can also mix different types of potatoes which is what I do, because the starchier potatoes form a creamy base for the firmer waxy potatoes which provide something to bite into.

2. Potato cooking method: There are basically three ways to cook potatoes for potato salad – boiling, baking or high heat roasting. If you prefer your potatoes to be a little wetter, boil them. If you want them to be fluffier, bake them. If you want a concentrated potato flavor, roast them.

If you want your potatoes to have a firmer texture while boiling, mix the water with vinegar, about 2 tbsp for every 2 cups of water you’re using. If you bake the potatoes, you can choose whether you want to scoop the insides out of the skin or make the potato salad with the skin. If you roast the potatoes, the crunchy skin adds a nice complexity to the potato salad.

3. Additions to potato salad: Anything goes with potatoes. You can add vegetables of any type – celery, zucchini, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes…. You can add meat – sausage, bacon, chicken, eggs…. You can add fruit – apples, pears, mangos…. You can add cheese. The only limit is your imagination. Experiment and see what you prefer taste-wise.

4. Seasonings: Potatoes are versatile. You can flavor them as you’d like. Dill, oregano, thyme, rosemary are more traditional. Cumin or coriander or turmeric add a new and different taste. Paprika and black pepper and parsley and dry mustard are always good favorites. As with the additions, experiment and see what your taste buds like. Adding leeks or chives or garlic punches up the flavor. Sticking with just salt and pepper allows more of the potato to come through. Adding something like a zucchini relish adds a twist to the flavor. What’s great is that you can choose.

5. Dressing: Dressing the potato salad is always fun. You can make a creamy dressing which usually utilizes ingredients like mayonnaise or yogurt or cream cheese or creamy salad dressings or sour cream. You can also make a vinaigrette dressing which uses plant-based oils like olive oil or safflower oil mixed with vinegars like red wine or apple cider or white. Sometimes I like to simply add fresh lemon juice to slightly mashed potato salad, and it’s quite lovely.

Dressings can be tangy or sweet or zesty or mild. You choose and change it up as you want. What’s important is to mix your dressing with the potatoes while they’re still slightly warm so the flavors will meld with the potatoes while the potato salad is cooling in the fridge. If you making a creamy dressing with yogurt or mayo, let the potatoes cool slightly longer so the dressing doesn’t melt and separate.

6. Garnishes: When you’re ready to serve your potato salad, it’s always nice to add a little something because the flavors, though, they meld in the fridge, do tend to flatten out a bit. So, give your potato salad a good mixing after you remove it from the fridge, and add a little something to freshen the flavor, whether it’s a little bit of mint or chopped up pieces of bacon or a little more dressing or a drizzle of fresh lemon juice. And then enjoy!