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I hate peeling. Anything. Anything at all. I will cut up fruits, veggies and meats all day long, but I cannot stand peeling. Not a great thing, considering my profession. Dishwashers and prep cooks peel for me at work. But who peels at home? Well, usually, no one. I buy mostly Yukon gold potatoes and use them skin-on, the same for apples, pears, and almost anything else. Even carrots I cut up to use in stocks or sauces, peel on. Most of the nutrients reside on the outer surfaces of produce anyway, so my laziness translates into more nutrition for me! Yay! I really do prefer the taste and texture of fruits and vegetables with the peel on, in most instances. But, through experimentation I found one item in which the peel only takes away from the result. Applesauce. I do not mean the nasty baby food purée sold in jars on supermarket shelves. Gross. I mean homemade, tart and chunky applesauce with just the right amount of cinnamon. Unsweetened and untouched by chemical processes. If only someone would peel the apples for me. A freezer full of homemade applesauce waiting for me year-round? Heaven. I remember helping my mom with this freezer staple on sweltering summer and early fall days. Fine, “helping”. My definition of help included whining about how much I hated peeling apples, moping, and taking early tasters from the finished batches. Mom did not especially appreciate this kind of help. She told me if I wanted to snack, to make my own applesauce and not eat the batches she just slaved over. She also reminded me of how much I enjoyed eating the applesauce on my pancakes, waffles and french toast during the winter months. If I wanted to partake of those treats in the season where produce only comes from the grocery store, I must help her. I grudgingly agreed, and proceeded to sulk as I peeled endless mounds of green, red and yellow fruit. I appreciated all this effort when breakfast time arrived, and a pile of oatmeal pancakes topped with applesauce appeared on the table. Just hard to remember when elbow deep in apple peelings. Mom always microwaved the batches, but I remember how many boil-over issues this caused, which also led to the dreaded microwave cleaning. Ever tried to scrub cooked-on apple bits from the inside of a box? I do not recommend it. I prefer the stove top version. More time-consuming, but less mess. I love this applesauce stirred into oatmeal, as a sweetener for granola, with yogurt, breakfast foods (as mentioned before), topped with toasted nuts or simply by the spoonful. Not even close to the store-bought version, and outside of the peeling, very easy as well.

Cinnamon Applesauce

Yields 4 servings (If you can share!)

4 ea apples (I used organic Fuji apples, but almost any tart apple works. Combinations work best. Granny Smith, Gravenstein, etc. Just please do not use Red Delicious. More like Red Flavorless)

1 cup water

1 tsp cinnamon

Peel and quarter the apples. Core the quarters and cut each quarter into four pieces. Add apple pieces to a large pot. Add water and cook covered over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until apples soften and mush when stirred. Add more water if necessary. The cooking process can take up to an hour and a half, just be patient and keep and eye on the pot. Add the cinnamon and stir well. Remove from heat, cool slightly and serve immediately. The applesauce can also be made in large batches and refrigerated or frozen. Great to make when apples are plentiful in the summer and fall.

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I grew up in the land of canned beans. Black beans, re-fried beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, great northern white beans, even green beans, all from the can. I helped my mom can peaches, pears, cherries, green beans and plums in the summer heat. We took out our frustrations on large batches of strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, smashing them into submission with generous quantities of sugar for homemade freezer jam. We peeled and sliced apples in the fall for homemade chunky applesauce and my mom’s famous apple pies. So much work, but so worth it. My mom conquered these challenges with grace, but found dried beans intimidating. She found them too time consuming (right, homemade canned pears take no time!), and thought they never tasted right. Funny to me now, that such a simple ingredient can scare even those with the greenest thumbs and greasiest elbows. Now, guess my favorite kitchen staple. Yes, dried beans. So versatile, tasty, nutritious, satisfying and inexpensive! Even my mom no longer fears cooking this wonderful nutrient source.  Currently, black beans, pinto beans, great northern white beans and pink beans all line my shelves. If I cook the beans myself, I control the amount of salt and flavorings added, not some giant corporation. I can cook the beans with onions and garlic, and let them absorb all the wonderful flavors. Just don’t add salt or anything acidic (tomatoes, vinegar, lime juice, etc . . .) until the last five minutes of cooking, after the beans soften. Salt and acid toughen the beans if added too early. Smash pinto beans with sautéed onions and garlic for homemade re-fried beans not even close to the canned variety that always taste like vomit (at least to me). Puree navy beans with roasted garlic or roasted red peppers for a delicious mayonnaise replacement. Stir great northern white beans, spinach and homemade pesto into chicken soup instead of  pasta. So many possibilities, I never need to make the same recipe twice. My latest bean adventure includes homemade tomatillo salsa, diced tomatoes and avocados, cilantro, green onion and queso fresco. Serve with chips for a yummy dip, or on top of spinach leaves for a cold taco salad. If your bean fear stems from a less than desirable side effect (to put it nicely!) that only means you need to eat more beans! Believe me, the more you eat, the more your body builds up a tolerance to them. So, step away from the canned food aisle and into the land of heavenly, homemade beans.

Pink Bean and Tomatillo Salsa Salad

Yields 6 to 8 servings

1 cup beans (I used pink beans, but pinto beans or black beans work too)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Cover the beans with water and soak them overnight. They will expand, so make sure to use plenty of water and a large container.  Drain the beans and rinse them well. Place them in a large pot and cover them with water. Add the garlic cloves. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook them at a fast simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking for 5 more minutes. Drain the beans, but do not rinse them. Discard the garlic. While the beans are cooking, prepare the tomatillo salsa.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

1/2 lb tomatillos, soaked in water and husks removed

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 bunch green onions, washed and roots removed

1/4 bunch cilantro leaves, washed

1/4 cup water

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roast the tomatillos and garlic on a rimmed baking sheet for about 15 minutes, or until tomatillos soften slightly and change color. Remove from oven and cool briefly. Puree the tomatillos, garlic, green onions, cilantro, water and salt and pepper until smooth. Pour the warm salsa over the warm, drained beans, and refrigerate until cold. Combining the salsa and beans while they are still warm lets the beans soak up more flavor. While the beans are cooling, prepare the rest of the salad ingredients.

1 poblano pepper

2 roma tomatoes, diced 1/4 inch

1 avocado, peeled and diced 1/4 inch

1/4 bunch cilantro, minced

1/2 bunch green onions, thinly sliced

6 oz queso fresco (1/2 of a wheel)

Roast the poblano pepper under the broiler, turning occasionally until the skin is black and blistered. Immediately put the pepper in a plastic bag and refrigerate until cool enough to handle. When cooled, peel off the blackened skin and remove the stem and the seeds. Cut the pepper into 1/4 inch dice. Combine the diced pepper, tomato, avocado, cilantro, green onions, and queso fresco with the salsa-marinated beans. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with corn chips.

When did pizza turn into a greasy pile of cheese, soggy dough and too many low-quality toppings? Such a beautiful concept turned ugly by millions of crappy restaurants and cheap chains. Trader Joe’s to the rescue! Wandering through the aisles, I spotted gooey balls of whole wheat pizza dough. I couldn’t help but put a couple in my cart, along with a bag of arugula, some heirloom grape tomatoes, a log of mozzarella and a bottle of olive oil. I love planning dinner this way. I don’t need a recipe or website for help, just the inspiration of fresh and inviting ingredients. Okay, maybe I cheated a bit. I can make pizza dough, and better pizza dough than they sell in stores. But, I try to avoid my nemesis (flour) at home where no dishwasher (human!) awaits to sweep up my mess. Pathetic, yes. Lazy, definitely. But, after a day of cooking for other people, sometimes I need a shortcut. At least this shortcut includes whole wheat flour! Healthier, and tastier. My first attempt did not turn out the way I planned. Do not attempt new recipes while starving! I sprinkled cornmeal on my baking sheet, but did not grease the pan, or line it with anything. Stupid, stupid, stupid! The smell of garlic and roasting tomatoes wafted through my apartment as I attempted to scrape the pizza off the baking sheet with a spatula. I succeeded, partially. The crispy part of the crust remains stuck to the pan, and the pan still sits in the sink taunting me. “Do not even attempt to clean me! Only failure awaits you!” The top of the pizza tasted wonderful, but did not include the contrast of a crispy crust. My next try included lining the baking sheet with foil, and greasing it liberally with pan spray. The result: a perfectly crispy crust topped with sweet roasted tomatoes, melting mozzarella with just enough of a caramelized crunch, and pungent arugula for a fresh contrast. So good I ate it three days in a row. Freshly made each time, of course.

Tomato, Mozzarella and Arugula Pizza

Yields 2 servings

1 tbsp cornmeal

1 lb pizza dough (you can find this in most grocery stores, or you can make your own! I prefer whole wheat dough)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

8  slices of mozzarella from an 8 oz log

16 grape tomatoes, halved

1/2 cup arugula, cleaned

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper

flour (I used whole wheat)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil, spray generously with pan spray, and sprinkle with 1 tbsp of cornmeal. Heat the pan in the oven while you assemble the pizza. This will help crisp the crust. Meanwhile, sprinkle a cutting board with flour  and roll out the pizza dough to a quarter inch thickness. Make sure the dough does not stick to the cutting board. Add more flour if necessary. You can also divide the dough in half and make two individual pizzas. Brush the dough with 1 tsp of olive oil and sprinkle with the minced garlic. Top with the sliced mozzarella and the halved tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the preheated baking sheet from the oven, and carefully slide the pizza on it. Put the baking sheet in the oven, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Let the pizza cool for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, toss the arugula with 1 tsp of olive oil and salt and pepper. Top the pizza with the arugula, slice the pizza and serve.

You can also use a pizza stone instead of the baking sheet, but if you have a pizza stone, you probably know how to use it! I do not own one . 😦

I love ice cream. Way too much. I can’t help it. I love  the creamy consistency, the tongue-coating richness of the cream and eggs, the way the flavors intensify as it slowly melts on my tongue. I can savor it slowly, or eat it quickly, guiltily, chewing each mouthful while keeping an eye out for witnesses. I cannot keep any in my freezer, or it will call to me all day while I am at work. “Sarah, come and eat me, I taste so good.  My magical powers will erase every bit of depression from your day.” My mouth waters and I start day dreaming of dark chocolate, fragrant mint, soothing vanilla, brownie bits, fudge swirls . . . I get off track and drift into a dream world of low-productivity. Best to keep temptation far away from me. But what about when (not if!) the ice cream cravings attack me? I need a solution. Something creamy, sweet and cold. Something to satisfy my cravings, without side tracking me from my goal of healthy eating. The answer: Banana Ice Cream. Not really ice cream, closer to sorbet. But, close enough to ice cream to replace the calorie-filled evil banished from my freezer.

Banana Ice Cream

All you really need is a blender, a freezer, and bananas. Feel free to improvise off of this “recipe”. I am sure cinnamon, vanilla, lemon juice, lime juice, nutmeg, etc . . . would all work great in addition to the basic banana. Freeze however many bananas you would like to purée. I recommend peeling the bananas first, then laying them on a cookie sheet so no banana touches any other banana. Then freeze them. At this point, you can put them in Ziploc bags or freezer containers, and save them for banana bread, muffins, cake, or ice cream. Or, you can remove them from the freezer and let them thaw just long enough so they do not completely pulverize your blender. They should still be plenty cold, and icy, but not rock hard. Add them to the blender and purée. You can add some liquid if the bananas don’t want to behave. Water, milk, soy milk, juice, etc . . . Puree until smooth and serve immediately. You can freeze it if you want a firmer consistency, but come on, who can wait when an ice cream craving strikes? No added sugar, or fat, just naturally sweet fruit and a little man-made power.

Driving to my parents’ house on a wonderfully sunny day (rare enough in Oregon, right?), I realized the temptations awaiting me in fifteen miles. Two of my brothers still live at home, and my mom always keeps the pantry (or garage in her case) stocked with enough junk to satisfy two teenage boys. Not a good idea to show up hungry. I would head straight for the frozen pizza or mac and cheese. Very sad, I know, but something about Kraft and Totinos evoke great childhood memories. My mom cooked us three meals a day, healthy and portion appropriate. Only occasionally did she pop a frozen pizza in the oven or stir powdered cheese into butter, milk and noodles. We looked forward to those days (pathetic, I know) because of their rarity. My poor mom. Slaving away daily to offer us healthy, home-cooked meals, and her ungrateful children only thanked her when packaged crap ended up as part of the meal. I know better now the standards by which to judge a meal, but I still have a hard time avoiding those chemically enhanced treats when in my parents’ house. So, I stopped by Spicer’s, a year-round produce stand on the way to see the folks. April in Oregon means limited local produce items, but at least I could buy from a local business. Piles of apples, pears and citrus greeted me as I entered the canopy-covered part of the store. I grabbed a few Opal apples, a new variety for me, and then noticed the local asparagus. So versatile, so delicious. I immediately grabbed a bunch and decided on stir fry. I supplemented my finds with a small head of broccoli, a few large button mushrooms, green onions, an all natural stir fry sauce (I felt lazy), and a bag of Bob’s Red Mill brown rice. I love Bob’s Red Mill! The best store ever. I purchased my finds and continued on my way. Fresh apple slices and a filling vegetable stir fry prevented me from even craving any of the junk within easy reach.

Vegetable Stir Fry with Brown Rice

Yields 3 to 4 servings

1 cup brown rice

2 1/2 cups water

1 tsp kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 to 55 minutes, or until rice is tender.

1 bunch asparagus

4 large button mushrooms

1 small head broccoli

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 bunch green onions, thinly sliced

1 tbsp vegetable oil

2/3 cup stir fry sauce (I used Soy Vey brand Veri Veri Teriyaki)

1/2 cup water

1 tbsp cornstarch

1 tbsp cold water

Cut the tough ends off of the asparagus bunch (about the bottom two inches), then cut the remaining tender section into 1 inch pieces. Cut the broccoli into small florets. Peel the tough outer skin from the broccoli stalk, and cut the rest into 1/4 inch pieces. Thinly slice the mushrooms. Heat a wok or large sauté pan over high heat. Add the oil and then the mushrooms. The key to golden brown mushrooms is in not moving them around much. Add them in an even layer and don’t touch for a couple of minutes. Stir when you can see the edges of the mushrooms start to brown. Add garlic, cook for 30 seconds. Add the broccoli, asparagus, stir fry sauce and water. Bring to a boil and cook briefly, until vegetables are crisp-tender. Combine the cornstarch and water until smooth and then stir into boiling stir fry mixture. Bring back to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in green onions. Serve over brown rice.

I started wondering where my food comes from yesterday. Ok, so I have thought about it before, but never made it the top priority on my shopping list. Price, calorie count, and my taste buds always came first. Then I saw Food Inc. Yes, a movie on PBS convinced me when culinary school, seven years cooking professionally and my mom could not. Sad, I know. But, that’s not important right? Now I think my head might win in the daily fight with my stomach. Not an easy battle, especially when my job surrounds me with sugary pastries, muffins, cookies, cakes, cobblers and candies, chemical-laden meats, veggies and fruits, and crispy, deep-fried potatoes with chipotle aioli, red pepper aioli and . . .  ok, I need to stop before I raid the freezer! Even words make me hungry now. At least I made it through one day, right? Let’s see how long I can keep this up. The mental pictures of dead chickens piled in a backhoe and cow carcasses receiving the Scarface treatment very effectively cure my lust for all things non-organic and corn-fed. For now. I just need to focus on those images, without feeling deprived. I love healthy food, but I also love unhealthy food! I love the crunch of a freshly tossed salad, complete with sharp cheese, homemade vinaigrette, fresh fruit, and salty-sweet nuts. The caviar-like explosion of perfectly ripe grapes. The tender bite of garlic roasted zucchini and grape tomatoes, with just enough olive oil, salt and pepper. A fresh, warm tomato picked straight from the bush. Oh, the memories that brings back! So much local bounty in Oregon! Why should I support giant corporations when I can receive weekly deliveries of local, organic produce? Yes, I will screw up. Especially in the freezer aisle, when all the creamy, sugary treats start calling my name. Or at dinner with friends, when the healthiest item on the menu includes prepackaged salad mix and factory made croutons. I need to try though. I am tired of my lethargic, bloated lifestyle. Time for a change. Starting with a complete purge of my kitchen, of all things unnatural or outdated. Time to start fresh, without temptations. Outside of work, anyway!