Tuesday, December 28, 2010

101 Things to Do with Leftover Christmas Ham

Okay, so I may not know of exactly 101 things to do with the 3 pounds of Virginia ham I have leftover from the holidays, but I'm on a mission to use every salty scrap - and no one in this family is going to eat another ham biscuit or ham roll to make it happen (especially not me since I'm back to wheat-free living after a gluten-ous holiday). So I'm still basking in the glow of what I threw together tonight: Risotto Milanese southern style. Heavenly, IMO.

What I love about risotto is that it is like a blank canvas - like pizza, when you use this method of cooking you can add whatever herbs, vegetables, meats, and cheeses you have on hand and it will probably be good as long as you don't add too many. And you can make it with whatever grain you have on hand. I have successfully made risotto with bulgar wheat, brown rice and the standard Arborio rice. The one challenge is that it demands attention, so having a two-year old running around is not always optimal... but slightly older kids can easily participate by stirring the rice constantly.

While the traditional Italian risotto Milanese is made with prosciutto, I made it using country ham. For those of you who haven't experienced a Virginia ham, this salt-cured specialty is a tradition dating back to early American colonialists. It's very salty and, unlike a honey-baked ham or others, I look at this ham as an accompaniment, not a main dish - a little goes a long way - very much like Italian prosciutto which is dry-cured. That's why it's perfect for this dish. Additionally, I threw in some peas to make this a complete meal, but it would make a rich side-dish for just about any meat.

Risotto Milanese Southern Style

2 T olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Large pinch saffron threads
1/4 cup chopped ham
1 cup Aborio or other short- or medium-grain rice
Kosher salt and black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
4-5 cups hot stock
1 T butter 1/4 cup fresh grated parmesan
1/2 cup cooked fresh peas

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high in a nonstick skillet. When oil is hot, add onion, ham and saffron, cooking until the onion is soft and translucent.
  2. Add the rice and cook until it's glossy and coated with oil, about a minute or two.
  3. Add the wine to deglaze the pan and let the liquid cook off.
  4. Add stock (I prefer chicken but you can use vegetable or beef) 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition. When the stock is just about evaporated, add more stirring frequently. Be careful to keep the rice moist enough that it does not stick to the pan.
  5. Taste after about 20 minutes. When the rice is tender but is still slightly al dente, after 20-30 minutes, add peas with last 1/2 cup of stock and season with salt as needed. After most of the liquid is absorbed, remove from heat and add one tablespoon of butter, pepper and cheese to taste. Serve immediately.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Basic Gluten Free Banana Bread Recipe

In my quest to plan for a gluten-free, vegan Christmas dinner that suits various family members (not an easy task, might I add), I came across this simple banana bread recipe that meets both requirements on the Book of Yum blog (if using egg substitute). I like this recipe because it doesn't require ten different flours and xanthan gum like most g/f recipes. I can say it was a success and I'm now enjoying a most piece of banana bread, my first in a long time. YUM is right.

For this recipe, I made my own rice flour by washing, drying and grinding basmati rice in my coffee grinder. I will say that although it feels smooth to the touch, it tastes a little gritty when used in baking. I may soon break down and buy either a grain mill or actual rice flour, but for now it's so cheap and easy (with a little planning) to do make my own this way - especially when I've already purchased 1000 lbs of rice at my favorite wholesale warehouse! I'm just thrilled that I may not have to forgo all my favorite quick breads in my efforts to avoid wheat... Smile.

Mission Impossible Week Two: A Spending Freeze

Week two is long over and once again, my budget was blown this week after my husband went to Costco. Without me. He took my short list and decide to add to it quite a bit. I can't say I blame him, though, for buying that box of sweet potatoes (although I already had ten of them sitting on the counter) or the five pound bag of frozen blueberries (despite the fact we had one-and-a-half bags in the freezer already). We do eat a lot of them. And he was easily seduced into grabbing the gourmet frozen meatballs after that little sample he and our son tried - although I already bought pounds of ground beef and ground turkey to make homemade meatballs... Whatever. If I did the math and had an accountant to amortize all of the food he bought, then we'd probably be a-o.k. budget wise.... so I'll try not to sweat it this month. (cringe)

One of the reasons he was so excited to "stock up" at Costco (a.k.a. Disney World for adult men) is because we recently purchased a chest freezer. In our previous house we had two refrigerators which was a Godsend. Now we have the world's smallest refrigerator. We debated on whether we should get another one or just a freezer and the freezer won out - mostly because of the cost. Chest freezers are much less expensive than refrigerators (we bought ours at Sears for $170) and with a little know-how, one can freeze a lot... and save a lot of money.

By my calculation, buying a freezer was the most economical decision. I figured it costs us $.46/day or $3.26/week in its first year - and by then it's more than earned it's keep. Buying wholesale chicken breasts alone saves us $3/pound! My other favorite meats to freeze are inexpensive stew meat and pork shoulder - both are great crock pot meats and can be used in stew, tacos, and bbq recipes, among others. Suffice it to say, after the last trip to Costco I will not be buying meat for months.

Meat is not the only thing the freezer is good at preserving. I freeze just about everything - here are a few items we freeze that save us a ton of money:
  • Cheese: split up a 5 lb bag of shredded mozzarella into ziplock bags (2 cups each) and you're set for many pizza nights to come! Once thawed, use quickly since the extra moisture can lead to quick mold growth.
  • Vegetables: Whenever I have extra onions and peppers that are getting old, I slice or dice them and freeze them flat on a cookie sheet. Once they are frozen, put into a ziplock bag and use when needed. They work well in cooking but are not so great fresh.
  • Mashed Potatoes, cooked rice: make extra and freeze in ziplock. Put in boiling water to thaw when ready to use. Saves lots of time!
  • Extra broth and soups
  • Any leftovers: I always freeze one or two servings of leftovers we really like in individual serving containers - that way I can pull them out quickly when I don't feel like cooking or my husband can take them for lunch.
  • Bread: make bread crumbs from the heels of a loaf of bread and freeze.
Here's a quick guide to freezing just about anything!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food as medicine: going gluten-free

I know it's trendy but I've done it: I've gone gluten-free. It's all the rage, believe it or not. A couple of months ago, when I was toying with the idea, and article in the Wall Street Journal talked about the gluten-free "diet" that many without celiac disease are going on to lose weight... and it's not effective.

But wheat and gluten sensitivity are real issues. According to WSJ, as many as twenty million Americans have a gluten sensitivity without having full-blown celiac disease. Symptoms often include depression, mental fogginess, and mood swings, to name a few. Those that know me may say that, at times, I might be sensitive to wheat, based on those symptoms alone. And they might be right... and I never knew it.

My journey to a wheat and gluten-free diet was driven less by my mood swings and mental fogginess and more by problematic skin that I've had since I was a kid. I can remember going to a dermatologist in fourth grade and on every birthday I thought, "This is going to be the year my skin clears up." So a few years ago I went to yet another dermatologist after years of having used every possible over-the-counter, prescription and cosmetic treatment out there. It didn't take long before the doctor diagnosed me with two problems: 1) I was a 20-something hormonal woman for which there was no hope and 2) I was sensitive to wheat. Well, number one was no big shock but I was a bit skeptical of number two... There was little formal testing except some sort of questionable "muscle response" test that involved me holding wheat in one hand while the doctor tested my muscle response on the other. And from that she determined a diagnosis.

I quickly asserted that 1) the doctor was a quack and 2) there was NO WAY I could give up wheat - what would happen to pizza night and pancake morning? Late night bowl of cereal? And let us not forget beer!

Wheat/gluten-free just wasn't gonna happen.

Fast forward to three years and one baby later: my skin was still not clear after becoming a thirty-something. So I did a little research. Much to my dismay I found claims that eliminating wheat can be effective treatment for skin problems. So I tried it... and I lasted a few days. But admittedly, it did seem to help a little. Grrr...

After a sun-and-alcohol soaked vacation in August, my skin was wrecked. Now, thirty years old, I was determined to find a cure. First stop: I made a commitment to going gluten-free. For real.

Not knowing if it is the wheat or gluten that affects me, I decided to eliminate sources of gluten and wheat - both of which are often used in processed foods as fillers and preservatives. I invested in pounds of quinoa and made sure I was stocked up on gluten-free oatmeal. I looked up recipes and swapped potatoes for bread. My expectations were low but I was hopeful... and miraculously, it worked!

My skin was noticeably clearer within a few days. I cheated the first weekend with "real" pizza, french toast casserole and soy sauce with my sushi, at which point my face was inflamed again, but went back to being "free" two days later. And you know what? After two weeks it's gotten a lot easier. Sure, I've had to be creative (and today I did eat the crust of my son's grilled cheese sandwich), but for the most part it's not so bad after all.

I'm still exploring foods that work for me and foods that don't - including if non-wheat sources of gluten (i.e. oats) have the same effect as wheat gluten. And the truth is that I'll probably have to cheat a little more this holiday season because I can't fathom going through it without pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie and gingerbread cookies - and, sorry folks, gluten-free flours just don't have the same quality and consistency. (Thank God this isn't life or death.)

In the meantime, I'll be sure to share with you my favorite wheat and/or gluten-free concoctions, starting with oatmeal squares (or 'momma's cereal bars' as they are known around here). These are great as a snack, or top them with sauteed apples and a little syrup for a hearty breakfast.

Baked Oatmeal Squares
(adapted from Virginia Bed and Breakfast Cookbook)

4 cups rolled oats (read the labels for gluten-free oats)
1/2 cup flour (I use oat flour that I make by grinding oatmeal in my coffee grinder until very fine)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup raisins
1/2 stick melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar or syrup (maple or brown rice pancake syrup)
1 egg
2 cups milk
Cinnamon and sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate. Stir in melted butter and mix well. In a small bowl, beat eggs and milk; add to oats mixture and stir well. Pour mixture into a greased 8x11 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until set in center and edges are brown. Cut into 12 squares and serve warm. Freeze leftovers if desired.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sweet Potato Lentil Stoup

Borrowing a Rachel Ray term, this is more like a "stoup" (soup/stew). Soup is difficult for my two year old to eat and since this cooks up nice and thick, I like to serve it over rice. In our house it's called "orange rice" - and, for whatever reason, the kid loves it! So do the adults.

Sweet Potato Lentil Stoup


1/4 cup butter or olive oil

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

3 large carrots, peeled and chopped

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, pressed

3/4 cup red lentils or yellow split peas

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red curry paste or 1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

plain yogurt for garnish


1. Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Place the chopped sweet potatoes, carrots, apple, and onion in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and stir to cook the apples and vegetables until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a minute.

2. Stir the lentils, ginger, ground black pepper, salt, cumin, chili powder, tomato paste, curry paste, and vegetable broth into the pot with the apple and vegetable mixture. Bring the soup to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes (or longer if you are using split peas). Adjust seasoning as necessary.

3. Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, filling the pitcher no more than halfway full. Puree in batches until smooth and pour into a clean pot. Alternately, you can use a stick blender and puree the soup right in the cooking pot, or just leave as is.

4. Return the pureed soup to the cooking pot. Bring back to a simmer over medium-high heat, about 10 minutes. Add water as needed to thin the soup to your preferred consistency. Serve with yogurt for garnish.

*Note: if it gets thick and the lentils are still "al dente", add boiling water a half cup at a time and cook until tender. You may need to adjust the seasoning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Meat and Vegetable Lasagna

A few things about me and lasagna:

  1. I like to hide vegetables. Take your pick, but I like to use mushrooms, eggplant and spinach in this dish.
  2. I don't like to spend a lot of time and energy making lasagna, so I cheat with a pre-made, jarred spaghetti sauce. Don't be a hater.
  3. I sometimes use a cup of cooked quinoa in place of the lasagna noodles as a gluten-free, super nutritious alternative. Very yummy.
  4. I like to prepare two of these and freeze one for a night when I don't feel like cooking - it bakes twice as long when it's frozen but it's very budget-friendly
  5. If you like your lasagna a bit saucier like my husband, try adding a can of tomato sauce and Italian seasoning to your meat sauce.
Meat and Vegetable Lasagna

1 lb ground beef or turkey
1 jar favorite spaghetti sauce
8 oz mushrooms, small diced
1 eggplant, peeled and diced
1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed
8 oz frozen spinach
2 cups ricotta
1/4 Parmesan cheese
1/2 t Italian seasoning
1 cup mozzarella
1 egg, lightly beaten
9 no-cook lasagna noodles

  1. Grease a 9x13 inch casserole dish and preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Combine four cups of water, frozen spinach and pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 4-6 minutes. Drain water.
  3. While spinach is cooking, heat olive oil in a heavy dutch oven . Add mushrooms, eggplant and garlic - season with kosher salt and cook until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add ground beef and cook until browned. Drain fat if necessary. Once beef is browned, add spaghetti sauce and heat through.
  4. Combine cooked spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, Italian seasoning and egg in a bowl.
  5. Spread about 1/4 of the meat sauce on the bottom of the pan. Layer 3 noodles on top. Layer with 1/3 cheese mixture, 1/3 meat sauce and 3 noodles and repeat, ending with sauce on top. Top with mozzarella and sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired.
  6. Bake for 35-40 minutes.

Mission Impossible Week One: Recipes

Week One is over but two of the recipes I made will be here forever:

  • Rich and hearty Beef Porter Stew, made with root vegetables, stew meat and Porter (or other dark beer) - great when paired with a spinach salad and toasty bread.
  • Not just meaty, it's veggie, too: Meat and Vegetable Lasagna is a well-rounded meal that the whole family will like. How can anything be bad when it's topped with cheese?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mission Impossible Week One: Grocery Shopping on a Budget

One week down in my mission to eat good food on a budget and I’m already discouraged. The grand total spent on groceries this week: $161.19. If I continue to spend this much I’ll be on track to spend $645 this month, well over my goal of $500/month.

Here’s my menu before going grocery shopping for the week:

Here’s my menu after:

So what changed? Well the week started with a quick trip out of town on Sunday so we had “catch as catch can”, or whatever we could scrounge up for dinner that night. I had planned to do my shopping for the week on Monday but my son got sick and threw up on me as we walked into the grocery store - we again searched the freezer for frozen food and ended up with mini taco appetizers from Trader Joe’s for dinner. So much for my grand plans to stick to a plan.

That evening I finally made it to the store and learned lesson #1: never go grocery shopping on Monday.

This is not a news flash for most people - I actually knew this already - but I became acutely aware of how important it is NOT to shop on Monday’s when several of the items I purchased went bad or had a sell-by date within a day or two of purchasing them (e.g. milk, turkey sausage, french bread, eggs) because nothing had been restocked after the weekend. Shelves were bare and produce was sad looking.

Despite the lack of food on the shelves, I was afforded some flexibility because of lesson #2: be flexible and think long-term.

Fortunately, I brought along the menus for the entire month so I was able to look ahead and do some shopping for next weeks menu items and change my plans. For instance, when I saw that chicken breasts were $5.29/lb at Giant, I decided not to have chicken this week, knowing that I can buy chicken for $2.99/lb at Costco. I decided to make an egg/cheese/sausage strata instead - although that plan was eventually thwarted by moldy bread and expiring sausage. Had I seen chicken breasts on sale, I may have stocked up for a future meal.

The real key to shopping on a budget is lesson #3: make a list, remember your list... and stick to it!

Another no-brainer but I’m notorious for making a list and leaving at home. And since becoming a mother I’ve found that more often than not I walk into a store and can’t remember why I’m there if I don’t have a list in front of me. It is so important when it comes to sticking to a budget. With that said, it’s important to stick to your list, unless you see some good deals (see lesson #2). In addition to planning menus for the month, I have planned grocery lists for each week, too, which I also bring along with me to the store. One more thing about making a list: be realistic. Like a dummy, I didn't anticipate spending $20 on beer this week - but still haven't been (and will probably never be) able to convince my husband to give that up for the sake of our budget!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Need a quick fix for that Halloween potluck? Try this Jack-o-lantern Veggie Pizza

Over the weekend we had our first of a few Halloween parties to attend - a potluck at a local park. I wanted to steer clear of sweets since I figured there would be plenty of desserts there, but I also needed a dish that would "age well" sitting out on a picnic table without a chafing dish AND be kid-friendly. Oh, and I wanted it to be fun, in keeping with the Halloween theme.

After hours of scouring recipes for something other than "mummies"(a.k.a. pigs-in-a-blanket) or chicken fingers that look like human fingers, I decided to create my own. The cold vegetable pizza was one of my mom's go-to appetizer recipes that I remember her making. There aren't too many variations of this but in my jack-o-lantern version here, I decided to hide the broccoli in the cream cheese spread and limited the toppings to those that are orange. You could also add some food coloring or pureed carrots to the cheese spread to give it a deeper orange color. Have fun!

Halloween Vegetable Pizza Appetizer

2 cans crescent rolls
1 8 oz block cream cheese
1 packet ranch dressing mix
1 cup mayonnaise
1 broccoli crown
1 orange bell pepper
4 carrots
1 can chopped black olives

Arrange crescent rolls to cover round sheet pan in the shape of a pumpkin, including stem - trim edges as necessary. Bake according to package directions.

While the crescent crust is baking, finely chop pepper and carrots using food processor. Do this at the same time so pieces are uniform and well blended. Scrape vegetables into bowl. Fine chop broccoli in food processor. Reserve 1/4 cup of the broccoli - it will be used on the pumpkin stem. Add cream cheese, mayonnaise and dressing mix to food processor. Blend well.

Once crust is cool, spread cheese mixture on top. Spread reserved broccoli on stem and cover the rest of the crust with the pepper/carrot mix. Add black olives for eyes, nose and mouth of jack-o-lantern.

Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Food taxes take a bite out of family budgets

Just as many families are struggling, many municipalities across the country are also facing economic uncertainty. To alleviate financial woes, many of these cities and states have already, or are considering, increased or exise food taxes disguised as "health initiatives" to reduce obesity. Most of these proposed taxes target sugar-sweetened beverages and "junk food." But while politicians argue that these taxes support efforts to promote healthier lifestyles by limiting unhealthy choices, the bottom line is that it's a government money grab – and they're stealing from the mouths of babes.

Currently 31 states exempt food for at-home consumption from the state sales tax, though many of those pay local food taxes instead. Eleven states tax groceries at a lower rate, and five tax at the full rate but offer rebates. Two states provide no off-set for food and tax at the full rate. According to the Center on Budget and Policy priorities,

For a family of four that spends the lowest amount considered necessary for a nutritious diet and lives in a typical state that taxes food, sales taxes on food cost some $350 a year. That amount is more than a week's income for a family at the poverty line.

That was in 1998. One can only imagine what food taxes cost families now that we've seen record taxes increases at every level. Additional taxes, like the soda tax, only serve to make already tight budgets even tighter.

One might argue that if the unhealthy foods are more expensive, people will buy less of them and more healthful foods. But the truth, according to a recent study, is that the cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by 200% since 1983, 3 times greater than the increase seen in sugars and sweets, and roughly 6 times the increase seen in carbonated beverages. Like it or not the reality is that if the cost of unhealthy foods goes up, people will just be spending more money buying less of any food – not ideal in these economic times.

Yes, sometimes I'm stunned and saddened when I see families at the grocery store with a cart full of "junk" food. There's nary a person out there who doesn't know that soda is full of sugar, that chips and Oreos are laden with fat, and that fruits and vegetables are good for you. So, I ask myself, why are they feeding themselves and their children junk and avoiding fruits and vegetables? And then I remember that those five seconds I spent looking at those people with that cart are just a snapshot of their lives –I have no idea what's going on at home or what food lands on the dinner table - and I'm in no position to judge.

The bottom line is that year after year, studies have shown that when it comes to what drives consumers to purchase certain foods, taste usually wins out (albeit just slightly) over price – and one could argue that chips are tastier and cheaper than spinach. But cost is still a huge factor. So why don't we cut the taxes and let people have more money to choose healthy foods?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mission Impossible: Eating good food on a budget

Is it me or does it seem like the cost of food has gone up - way up - lately? It seems that I'm getting fewer items with a higher price tag every time I walk into the supermarket. Granted, I've been making more frequent shopping trips and planning less than I used to, but I still can't fathom how two bags of groceries can cost $60.

Though I've looked at our food costs per month in the past, it's been a while. Like everyone else, I noticed money's been tighter these days though between the economy, a recent job change, and a move, I accepted it and moved on. But you can only ignore the facts so long - and the fact is our spending seems to have gotten out of control.

So I decided to look at our food purchases over the last 8 months. Fortunately, I purchase everything on my Costco American Express card* which a) results in a nice, fat cash rebate at the end of the year and b) automatically itemizes your spending into categories, like "groceries" and "restaurants" and puts into a nice graph and spreadsheet in their on-line account management site. (*Note: this is only smart if you pay your credit card off in full each month.) While the numbers aren't totally accurate - I had to add a percentage of "wholesale" purchases into my "groceries" amount since we buy a lot of bulk food at Costco - it gave me a rough idea of how much money we're spending per month and saved me a ton of time.

I was shocked when I realized that we have more than doubled our spending on food since spring to nearly $1000 per month for a family of three (one of whom eats more pretend food than real food). I am not proud of this number but I know I am not alone.

Amongst my friends, some report spending upwards of $1200/month on food on a family of 3 or 4! My budget-conscious friends have told me they are able to keep grocery bills to around $400/month, which is where we were just 8 months ago. So I set out to create a 4 week menu on a monthly budget of $500/month.

The challenge here is eating good, wholesome, nutritious food on a budget. In truth, I feel like I can keep this under $500/month but I don’t want to be so unrealistic that I fail miserably - and at this point any reduction in spending is good. I’ve allowed some room for increased food costs (both wheat and soy costs are expected to continue rising, among others) and I’m not prepared to compromise too much on quality. There are some more expensive items that just taste better and it’s important to me to provide a variety foods my family likes because, well, we live to eat.

So here’s the plan: each week I’ll post my menu, selected recipes, grocery receipts and notes on sticking to a budget. I’ll test the waters first and you can jump in when you’re ready!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cooling off with mint iced tea

It's been hot in Virginia already. And humid... so humid. But one thing I love about those hot days is the opportunity to drink something refreshing like mint iced tea. Mint aids in digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties - both mint and tea are packed with antioxidants. And, based on the fact that I have mint growing in a planter outside, it's easy to grow. (I have chosen peppermint but there are at least 16 varieties to choose from, including chocolate, lavender, apples and lime.)

Here's a run-down on making a simple mint syrup to complement your tea. You may also substitute basil for mint and iced tea or lemonade.

Mint Iced Tea

1 Handful of mint
1 cup sugar
Brewed iced tea (I use Tazo Black Iced Tea)

To make simple mint syrup, heat sugar and one cup of water on med-high heat until sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes, without stirring. Remove from heat and add mint. Let sit for 5 minutes and remove leaves.

Depending on your sweet tooth, add syrup to tea to taste. Syrup may be stored in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks. Enjoy served over lots of ice!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Things you should know before you get married, Part 2: How to make a molten cake

When we were dating, my husband took me to Morton's for dessert and drinks after dinner one night. We sat in the bar and I ate my first ever chocolate (Godiva) molten cake. This experience was one of many that made me feel like I'd been living under a rock - where had this cake been all my life? Seriously, lava cake is the quintessential chocolate fix and can make any occasion special.

So after we were married I set out to make this cake for my hubby to celebrate the end of his first semester in law school. What surprised me is that it is SO EASY (shhh, don't tell the husband) and SO GOOD. Knowing how to make this cake is a must for anyone getting married because I'm convinced that it's molten-y goodness can melt any troubles away.

After trying a few different recipes, I've settled upon this one from Martha Stewart which makes 2 small ramekins of cake. Should you want more, you can easily double the recipe and you may keep the leftovers in the fridge for the next night. This batter can be made ahead. And if you don't have espresso powder or instant coffee on hand, you can use a dash of leftover coffee from the morning's pot.

Molten Mocha Cakes

Serves 2.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for ramekins
  • 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for ramekins and serving
  • 2 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • Pinch salt
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter two 6-ounce ramekins, then dust with sugar. Place butter and chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high in 20-second increments, stirring after each, until melted. Let cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together egg, egg yolk, sugar, espresso powder, and salt. Add chocolate mixture; whisk to combine. Add flour, and whisk just until combined (do not overmix). Pour batter into prepared ramekins. (Recipe can be made ahead up to this point.)
  3. Bake until a toothpick inserted 1/2 inch from edge of ramekins comes out clean, and a toothpick inserted in center comes out wet, 10 to 12 minutes (do not overbake). Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack. Run a knife around inside of ramekins to loosen. Invert cakes onto serving plates. Dust with sugar; serve immediately.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Things you should know before you get married, Part 1: How to correctly cut an onion

My husband and I enjoy eating together. We enjoy the idea of cooking together but in actuality, doing so has proven to be a challenge... unless there is lots of wine involved (and then things get dangerous). There is such a thing of "too many cooks in the kitchen." As trite as it sounds, many of our disagreements in the kitchen prior to marriage stemmed from our two different methods of cutting an onion. I was afraid he was going to cut his fingers off and he was afraid of being wrong about something, so we argued. I finally decided that if we were going to start marriage off on the right foot then we needed to skip the pre-marital counseling and go right to Skill Development Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. My wedding gift to him was the skill of cutting an onion - not his way or my way, but the correct way. Romantic, eh?

Believe it or not, my husband was thrilled about our culinary vacation. We learned the basics through hands-on training in the kitchen and we learned from the best, while immersing ourselves in the frenetic excitement of cooking at the renowned CIA. He only managed to slice his finger open once during our two long days in the kitchen, and we still reminisce about the amazing food we made and ate while there.

Cutting an onion the correct way - and there is a correct way - is scary at first, I'm not going to lie, but practice makes perfect when it comes to knife skills. In the long run it's must faster and easier (and safer!) than other methods you may be using. This quick video does a better job than I can at walking you through the steps it takes to get that perfect mince, dice or chop. Once you've mastered the onion, you can move on shallots, garlic cloves, tomatoes, etc.

Monday, April 26, 2010

When life gives you milk, make yogurt

Today marks my second attempt at making yogurt. Both times have resulted from having an abundance of whole milk because my son became ill and didn't drink it for two weeks. I can't stand to waste food. Sometimes, in these situations, I let it turn to buttermilk and make loads of pancakes or scones, but with all the fresh strawberries out there right now I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have fresh plain yogurt and strawberries drizzled with honey at a fraction of the cost.

The first time I used this recipe and made yogurt entirely in the crockpot and it wasn't really suitable for eating. Sure, it was great for using in recipes but it's thin, runny consistency and lack of "tanginess" wasn't all that appetizing. I think this was mostly due to not keeping the crockpot warm enough. This time around I was hoping for something closer to Fage Greek yogurt, or atleast Yoplait custard-style, so I tweaked the directions a little.

  1. First, I pre-heated the crockpot while I combined a half gallon of milk and 2/3 cup of nonfat dry milk in a saucepan and heated until almost boiling, about 200 degrees.
  2. Second, I turned off the crockpot and wrapped it in a fleece blanket while I let the milk mixture cool to 110 degrees. I then scooped out 1/2 cup of the milk mixture and added it to a 1/2 cup of Fage yogurt. After gently mixing, I added it back to the milk and transferred to the already warmed crock pot and rewrapped it in a blanket.
  3. Finally, I waited. And waited.... and, well, I'm still waiting. Periodically I check the temp to make sure it is still around 110 degrees, but I am doing my best to leave the yogurt undisturbed so those little bacteria can multiply.
So I'll update you tomorrow with the results.

But in the meantime, I'm hopeful this turns out well because some one in the house has been sick every day for the last month - and yogurt is fantastic at supporting a healthy immune system. Unfortunately I can't afford to buy the yogurt I really like (Fage 0%) all the time, and now there are few other yogurts that will suffice. It's also a great source of protein and calcium, and easier on the stomach than milk. Even those who are lactose-intolerant can enjoy yogurt because the live culture actually aids in digesting lactose.

One sweet way to use plain yogurt is this quick and easy dessert that tastes like ice cream without the guilt if you use nonfat yogurt. This is a recipe I stole from the Sneaky Chef (yes, a cookbook for kids) and have subsequently used as a base to create my own flavors by adding frozen berries or other fruit, or flavors like espresso or Kahlua. But you can't go wrong with the following (IMHO)!

Choco-banana Frozen Yogurt
  1. Stick a ripe banana in the freezer for 20-30 minutes.
  2. In a blender or food processor, add banana, 1/2 t cocoa powder, 2-3 T yogurt and 1 T sugar.
  3. Blend until smooth.
  4. It will be soft - if you like your frozen yogurt a little firmer, put it in the freezer for 20 minutes.
This morning I awoke to a creamy yogurt that has just the right amount of tang! Good stuff. Now, my next step is getting it to the consistency of Greek yogurt by straining it through a dishtowel-lined strainer. You can use a coffee filter for this process however I don't have any so I improvised. Regardless, this is a yogurt I can eat as is without this step but, hey, why not experiment?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Our national security depends on school meals - say what?

In my former life, B.C. (before children), I worked hard at "creating a healthy school environment". That was my job. I spent most of my time working with schools to improve school meals and incorporate more physical activity into the school day- a la Mrs. Obama's push with with her "Let's Move" campaign- with a mostly volunteer organization called Action for Healthy Kids. (I won't tell you about how much time I spent banging my head against the wall.) So I am not surprised when I see stories like "School Lunches are a Threat to National Security, Retired Officials Say " that focus national attention on the failings of school meals, as they seem to get the brunt of the blame when it comes to childhood overweight. According to this article, unhealthy school lunches are "leaving 27 percent of young adults 'too fat to fight'" and is jeopardizing military recruitment. The report, released by a non-profit group called Mission: Readiness, calls for more federal funding for school lunches in a time when funding for anything is clearly at a premium.

While I whole-heartedly support efforts to provide healthful school food and to get kids moving, I am skeptical when it comes to blaming the schools for our national security problems as they relate to obesity. Just as I believe teachers are not the reason that why we are apparently dumber than the rest of the world (a charge I've heard before), I think there is significant learning of behaviors that takes place in the home, outside the classroom or in cafeteria. The question is: when are we as Americans going to take responsibility for our children and stop blaming others?

In my visits to school cafeterias I often saw children with lunches packed at home that were nutritionally void. They often included fat-filled "Lunchables" and sugar-filled soft drinks. And for many of the students who had school-prepared meals, that lunch was unfortunately the main source of their nutrition for the day as it was likely their only meal of the day. Many of those students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. So for them, they were lucky to obtain 40% of their calories in a day from school food, as this article suggests. You see, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding children, especially when it comes to school food. Some kids are underweight despite what they eat, and some overweight, too. We're all individuals with individual needs that are not going to be solely addressed through school lunch.

Maybe it's unrealistic to believe that in this day and age parents still have "role model" status for their kids. I still believe they do and that's why I try to teach my child "all things in moderation" and introduce new foods and activities even at this young age. Now that I have a child, I see what a challenge it can be to get children to eat those vegetables. And I see what a mimic my toddler is - he picks up on everything and imitates me constantly. In fact, I've learned more about my unflattering traits in watching him grow than I ever knew - apparently I roll my eyes and say "umm" a lot more often than I thought.

Let's face it: with school and work demands, traffic, technology and the general safety issues that face us now, we all move less and we eat more. What's more is that schools can't afford to provide that activities time for kids to exert those calories and I certainly don't see the kids in my neighborhood running around outside, playing like we did when I was young (probably because they're racing from one after-school activity to another). But the key to maintaining a healthy weight is "calories in= calories out".

I wish that we could address our nation's security through healthy school meals but I think it's going to take a much more concerted effort on the part of parents to make sure this country is safe. This is just one woman's opinion but I'd feel much safer if we worked to set positive examples for our kids at home instead of relying on schools that already have endless child-rearing duties to do it.

Recommended readings on this subject: Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"It is a true saying that a man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him." Miguel de Cervantes, 'Don Quixote'

Today, a red flag went up when I read this on the HHS web site: using $15M in stimulus funds "NYC will also work to set policies and create environments that reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and overly salted foods". Additionally, the FDA is considering regulating the amount of salt that can be added to processed foods like canned foods, cereal, and cheese, as well as the amount used in restaurants. I'm a registered dietitian and health and nutrition is my passion - logically I would support this. "So," you ask, "why the red flag?"

Well I'm also a self-proclaimed "foodie." And I like salt. A lot. Don't get me wrong - I'm aware of what happens when you eat too much of it (e.g. high blood pressure combined with obesity may lead to heart attacks, strokes, etc.) and I'm actually very salt-sensitive (I still blame Panera's soup for my "water-weight" gain during pregnancy). But since discovering Kosher and sea salt I've become a better cook, not to mention the umami factor in soy sauce. Salt is a flavor enhancer; food with salt just tastes better.

So it rubs me the wrong way when someone who doesn't know me wants to decide how much salt I can consume. And who decides what is "overly salted"? I'm in great health; I work out, eat a variety of foods and actually have very low blood pressure. Shouldn't I be exempt from salt restrictions? Shouldn't I be able to make that decision for myself, knowing the state of my health? And even if I was in poor health but my dying wish was to eat salty french fries, shouldn't I have that right? I recall, while working in a nursing home as a dietetic intern, the bland, tasteless, low sodium food that was served to residents who had deteriorating health conditions. Food is a simple pleasure and these folks, when faced with death, couldn't even enjoy that - it was out of their control. The food was beyond uninspiring.

Admittedly, I don't eat a lot of processed foods and that is really where these policies will have an impact. I am not going to preach about the demerits of processed and fast foods - I think people should have access to whatever food is available. I think we are lucky to have foods of convenience and so many choices (with salt and without). My job, as an RD, is to provide science-based education about nutrition and let people make their own choices accordingly. Interestingly, there is some doubt that the science backs up such policies. Dr. Michael Alderman was quoted in a recent Heartwire article as having some doubts that limiting sodium intake is the magic fix to the high blood pressure issues facing the U.S.:

"My stance is based on what I see of the science of the issue," he told heartwire. He argues that although there is no doubt that reducing sodium intake reduces blood pressure, salt also has a myriad of other biological effects. The clinical-trial evidence that reducing salt actually affects hard outcomes such as heart attacks and strokes "is all over the place; the whole thing is kind of a mess," he says. "Advocates of salt reduction believe the only thing that matters is the BP effect, but skeptics like me say, 'Wow, that's a stretch.' "

He maintains that a US policy to slash sodium intake at the population level would be "an experiment" and that there is no way of knowing whether it would be beneficial or indeed harmful: "There are many very committed, well-meaning, and zealous partisans for people's health who say, 'Let's go ahead and try it, let's get everyone to lower their sodium intake. We can't be sure what's going to happen—we don't have any direct evidence—but we are so firmly convinced that the BP effect will rule all that we will go ahead and do this,' " he continues. "This strikes me as kind of rash and is based on a firm belief in something that hasn't been proven.

"In folks with a diet like that in the US, there are some studies that show an inverse association—less salt, more heart attacks—so the data are conflicting, and it's a problem," he states. He was involved in some of the analyses he refers to, however, and they have attracted some criticism with regard to methodology.

The article continues to say the Finland has reduced incidents of stroke and heart attack through policies limiting salt. And while I have no doubt that consuming less salt could be beneficial for many Americans, the looming question is: do we need someone else to make that decision for us? And, if a decrease in salt is mandated, what's next? Where do we draw the line?

"With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt."
Moses, Leviticus

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cooking with Calphalon

I was recently asked to review some Calphalon products - a 10" non-stick omelette pan and three knives (8" chef's, paring and a utility). Honestly, I'd never used Calphalon and have never been too picky about my cookware or tools: my favorite cooking vessel is my Lodge enamel cast-iron dutch oven (thank you, dear hubby, for that Mother's Day gift) and I love my Cuisinart santoku chef's knife (purchased at TJ Maxx). I like quality but I don't have a ton of money to spend. And, frankly, Calphalon cookware has always been out of my price range. But that's why I was sooo excited to try it (and keep it)!

Lemme tell ya, quality cookware does make a difference. I am convinced of this after using the Unison omelet pan. Its non-stickedness was phenomenal compared to my analon cookware. The omelet could literally slide right out of the pan and I used very minimal butter - just enough for flavor. And it's one pan I can just throw in the dishwasher and know that it will be okay - it says so on the package! So I did it. And it survived. It worked just as perfectly for my next omelet.

I like the knives, too. They came at the perfect time as I just downsized our knife supply and gave several away to Goodwill that we never use. These are sturdy and have a bit of heft. The 8" knife is actually a bit large for me to use for chopping onions, but it was an expert at cutting through the ham for Easter (below) and trimming the pork shoulder I made yesterday. Likewise, we like the fruit and veggie knives and have used them on everything! I know my santoku's are feeling a little left out... and maybe a little scared that they may be headed to Goodwill soon!

And while we're talking about knives, I want to share one of my other favorite kitchen tools: the Wusthof 2-Stage Pocket Knife Sharpener. At $6.99, it's the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to keep my knives sharp and ready to chop! Sharp knives make all the difference. If you invite me over and I use a dull knife, you can be guaranteed to have one of these arrive in the mail, courtesy of me and Amazon Prime (just ask several members of my family).

Where have I been?

I was surprised to learn that a few people actually read my blog. And those few people are wondering where I've been. Mostly, I've been busy being a mom and wife... but I've also been spending my free time reading actual books instead of the internet (crazy, I know!) and being crafty with my sewing machine. Oh yeah, and one other thing I've been doing: packing up our house to move.

Moving is by no means fun but I anticipate that I will like our new place much more than our current SFH. So, I am excited. The ONE thing I will miss (other than the neighborhood) is my gas stove. (Do you know how difficult it is to find a gas stove in a townhouse? ) This is funny because the first week we moved in the pilot light went out on this old stove and we awoke one morning to dog vomit and gas fumes that had been leaking all night. Needless to say, as a highly emotional pregnant woman, I raised hell with our landlord and debated on re-packing our boxes and moving out because of this stove. In the end, the old gas stove has made many a wonderful meal.

Now that our move is right around the corner, we've taken on the task of eating everything in the house so that we don't have to move it 4 miles down the road. The premise sounds fun: don't go grocery shopping for weeks for anything but milk, fruit and vegetables, and use what's in the not one but two refrigerator/freezers and on the cupboard shelves. But what meals come of this method are interesting, to say the least. One of those meals actually turned out decent. I'm calling it "mock lasagna".

Mock Lasagna or Ravioli Casserole
(*Note, there are no measurements because I used whatever I had)
Frozen cheese/spinach ravioli (I used whatever was left in the bag of costco ravioli)
Provolone cheese slices
Fat-free sour cream
Shredded mozarella
Spaghetti sauce

Hubby bought a bag of chopped broccoli from Costco so I steamed several cups, chopped it up, and threw it back into the saucepan with the spaghetti sauce. Then I added some frozen meatballs (homemade from the Sneaky Chef cookbook-which means more broccoli and spinach-but Trader Joe's has great meatballs) and heated through until I could break up the meatballs to resemble ground beef.

I poured some sauce in the bottom of a 9X13 casserole dish and topped it with a single layer of ravioli. I then added a single layer of the provolone, spread on some sour cream and topped that with the broccoli/meat/spaghetti sauce mix. I only had enough ravioli to do one layer, but if you have more (or no-cook lasagna noodles) you can repeat. I topped it all off with mozzarella cheese and baked at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

The best part about this meal is that it took less than 20 minutes to throw together. I won't show you pictures because it's not real pretty, but it helped me clean out the fridge, tasted pretty good and was nutrient-packed - all in all, a success!