Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A lesson in patience

I'm not sure whether it's an inherited personality trait or a result of the fast paced culture that we live in, but I am not a very patient person.  

I get annoyed when I have to stand in line at the grocery store or I have to wait to be called in to see the doctor.  I get irritated at drivers who drive too slowly in the fast lane while refusing to allow other driver's to pass.  I don't even like waiting for spring to arrive so that I can plant flowers in my yard.  The fact is that I don't have a lot of patience in my life.  I'm not saying that my impatience is a good trait, I'm simply stating the fact that it exists in my life.

The truth is that I would love to take things more slowly and I often try to make a conscious effort to slow myself down during the day.  There are so many things that I either miss or don't take the time to truly appreciate and enjoy because they're just fleeting moments in my day.  Dinner time with my family for example, can come and go without me even engaging in the event.  Some nights it takes so much effort to get dinner on the table that by the time we sit down to eat, I'm either exhausted or I'm focused on the rest of my things that I need to accomplish before the evening is over.  I need constant reminders to stay "in the moment". 

Even though I don't like to wait on  - well - anything, the fact of the matter is that some things are just worth the wait.  My culinary training has taught me to exercise more patience because an impatient chef is never going to have good results.  Of course, I learned that lesson the hard way - by ruining a lot of meals.   I baked a batch of Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread this week from the America's test Kitchen Cookbook and it was definitely a test of my baking patience.  It took about 30 hours to make two loaves of bread.

Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
2 cups flour
1 cup water, warm
1/2 teaspoon yeast

3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup honey
4 teaspoons salt
6 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons oil

Combine flour, water and yeast in a large bowl.  Stir with a wooden spoon.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature overnight.  (8-24 hours)

Combine flour, wheat germ and milk.  Stir with a wooden spoon.  Turn out only counter and knead 2-3 minutes.  Return to bowl and cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate overnight.  (8-24 hours)

Tear soaker apart into 1 inch pieces and transfer to a standing mixer. 


Add biga, honey, yeast, salt, butter and oil.  Mix on low speed with dough hook for 2 minutes.  Increase speed and knead dough 10 minutes.  Turn out onto counter and knead by hand for 2 minutes.  Shape dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl.  Cover and let rise 45 minutes.

Press down center of dough.  Fold partially risen dough over itself by lifting and folding 1 edge toward the middle.  Turn bowl 90 degrees and repeat 7 times.  (8 folds total)  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise 45 minutes.

Grease 2 loaf pans.  Divide dough in half and pat each half into a 8x17 inch rectangle.


Roll dough starting with a short side, into a cylinder.  Place loaf, seam side down into loaf pan.  Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let rise 1 hour.



Heat baking stone in 400 degree oven.  Fill an empty loaf pan with boiling water and place in the bottom of the oven.  Make 1 slash lengthwise down the center of each loaf.  Place loaves on top of baking stone and reduce temperature to 350.  Bake until crust is dark brown.  (40-50 minutes)  Cool bread in pans for 5 minutes then remove from pans and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. 

This bread was really delicious.  It really did make great sandwich bread but I have to admit that after waiting for the bread to rise - 3 times - I was pretty disappointed to see it deflate.  I don't really know what went wrong.  Once I made the slit in the top, the loaf sank in the middle and never recovered.   The awkward appearance didn't seem to affect the baking time or the taste but I had envisioned perfectly rounded loaves. 


The next time I feel like my life is spinning out of control and I need to step back and slow things down a bit, I'll get this recipe out again.  (Trust me - it won't be long  before that happens.)  This bread really is a good lesson in patience.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Flautas Revisited

Last Sunday night I surrendered my role as head chef and I took on the role of sous chef.  My son was tasked with making flautas for his Spanish class so I got to assist.  (It's great to watch my kids take the lead and express their creativity in the kitchen.)  I love the role of sous chef - I could definitely get used to this. 

Ryan's flauta strategy started was very simple -  heat, fill, roll and fry.  Why makes things more complicated than they need to be?

I had grilled a couple of extra chicken breasts for our dinner so we would have some leftovers to use in our flautas.

The first job was to shred the chicken in the food processor. 

He also heated some oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Once the oil was warm, he dipped each tortilla in the oil to soften it.  (The heat part of the process.)

Next - fill each tortilla with chicken. 

The trickiest part of the whole process is the roll.  It's almost impossible to roll them immediately because they've just come out of the HOT oil.  (A lesson I learned after burning almost all of my fingertips during my first flauta attempt.) You don't want to wait too long to roll them because if they cool too much, the tortillas become brittle and crack. 

My son did a great job of rolling his flautas.  (They looked way better than the batch of flautas that I made a couple months ago.) 

The final step was to fry his flautas. 

In the words of my son "Frying just makes everything taste better."

He took the flautas out of the oil and drained them on paper towels.

We put 3 dozen flautas on a baking sheet to take to school and we got to eat the rest.  A sprinkle of queso fresco and some shredded lettuce is all the adornment that he added to his flautas. 

They were really good but I was a little worried that they would get soggy overnight in the refrigerator.  (That is also the reason that we didn't put any beans over the flautas.)  I wrapped the entire pan in aluminum foil and heated it in the oven for about 15 minutes at 300.   To my surprise, the flautas crisped up nicely.

Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner - you may just want to celebrate with flautas this year.  


Monday, February 27, 2012

Packable Peanut Butter

It goes without saying that weekends at our house are anything but relaxing.  We have two active teenagers - need I say more?   I was hoping that our schedule would open up a little once wrestling season ended.  Quite the opposite has proved to be true, now that we've transitioned from wrestling meets to baseball and soccer games, our schedule just got even a little more chaotic. 

Baseball and soccer tournaments and games have absolutely consumed our Spring schedule this year. That means that other things on my usual "to do list" are going to get neglected.   My house won't always be dusted, my yard is going to have a few more weeds and my car will definitely not be washed until after the season.  (Do those things really matter anyway?) 

Both of my kids are natural athletes (A trait that they inherited from their father.) and it's a joy to watch them on the field - in their element.  I'm really going to miss it when we don't have anymore meets or games to attend.  For now, I'll just be thankful that they're healthy teenagers who love sports.  And if it means sacrificing my time to go and cheer them on, it's totally worth it.  I can't think of anything better to do with myself or any better way to support my kids. 

We may not be home much over then next couple of months to eat our meals at the kitchen table, but that doesn't mean that I stop cooking.  Spring sports season means that we eat packable meals at the field a lot of the time.  This week marks the start of baseball and soccer season so I made a batch of Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies to take to the first games.        

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies
Cookies                                         Filling
1 1/4 cups peanuts                        3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
3/4 cup flour                                 3 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon baking soda                1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 Tablespoons whole milk (I used 2%)
1 egg

Pulse peanuts in food process until finely chopped.

Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.

Whisk butter, peanut butter, sugars, milk and egg.

Stir flour mixture into peanut butter mixture with rubber spatula.

Stir in peanuts.

Using a cookie scoop, place scoops of dough on silpat lined baking sheets.

Bake 18 minutes at 350 or until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Let cookies cool on sheets for 5 minutes.  Transfer to racks to cool completely.

Microwave peanut butter and butter for 40 seconds.  Stir in powdered sugar with a rubber scraper.

Place 1 scoop of filling on the bottom of a cookie and top with another cookie.

 Gently press cookie until filling spreads to the edges. 


These are the cookies that I packaged to give as a thank you gift.

This recipe came from the March/April issue of Cook's Illustrated.  These cookies are a big contrast to the traditional peanut butter cookies that I usually make.  They're thin and crispy and loaded with peanuts.  The smooth, buttery filling really makes these cookies extra special.  After sampling the cookies, I couldn't help but think that the only thing that could make these any better would be a little chocolate.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize until after I had made the filling that there was also a milk chocolate version of the filling that can be substituted for the peanut butter filling!  I definitely foresee another batch of these yummy treats in my near future - and next time with chocolate filling. 

These cookies were amazing but don't take my word for it - make a batch for yourself.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Love Your Heart

When I came up with the idea of hosting a heart healthy dinner party, I had envisioned sharing a healthy meal with some friends who had shown an interest in changing their diets and eating healthier.  The concept was to prepare only foods that were good for our hearts and to prove that foods that are nutritional and healthy can also be delicious.  (Sounds simple enough, right?) With a swarm of ideas and recipes in my head, I sat down to plan out the details of the evening and it didn't take long before I had one of those "What was I thinking?" moments.  Even though I consider myself to be a very "healthy" cook, I realized that I was not adequately prepared to cook an exclusively heart healthy menu for my guests.   I needed to educate myself about foods that are truly good for your heart so I spent some time on the internet researching what a heart healthy menu should look like.  This dinner party menu proved to be a bigger challenge than I had anticipated.  (Not the first time that this has happened by the way.)

After hours of research, I felt like I had learned a lot about heart health and about heart healthy foods.  I put my newly acquired knowledge to use and created a menu that excluded all oils, butter, dairy products, eggs, meats, fish, poultry, white flour and had only minimal salt.  I know what you're thinking - "What else is there?".  (My thoughts exactly.)  I referenced the Mayo clinic website, a vegan cookbook that I borrowed from a friend and I modified a few of my own recipes to come up with what I thought was the perfect heart healthy menu. 

My menu for the evening
Red Wine
Cranberry Spritzers

Corn and Black Bean Salsa served in Endive Cups
Ezekiel Wrap Pizzas with grilled vegetables
Spicy Roasted Sweet Potato Fries 

Salad Course
Strawberry Spinach Salad with Meyer Lemon Drizzle
Whole Wheat Italian Bread
Marinated Grilled Portobello Mushrooms
Quinoa Pasta with Tomato and Olives
Whole Wheat Pasta with Marinara
Grilled Asparagus

Poached Pears
Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

(All of the recipes are listed at the end of this blog post.) 

Even though I had not intended to create a vegan menu - that is exactly what I ended up with.  I had never intentionally prepared anything vegan before and I was about to prepare an entirely vegan meal for my friends - at a dinner party!  As the party drew near, I started to lose confidence in myself and I began to question whether I was really adequately prepared to cook vegan food.  I had doubts about whether anyone would even like this heart healthy food that I was going to serve.  A lot of the food on this menu was completely new to me and I was about to prepare it for the first time - for my friends.  (Another one of my "what was I thinking?" moments.)  Even though I was having anxiety about the party there was no backing out - my guests had already been invited and Foodbuzz had already agreed to sponsor the party.  I was determined to follow through on my plan to host a spectacular heart healthy dinner party. 

Party preparations started the day before the party.  I had planned a very ambitious menu so I needed to do as much of the prep work as I could, in advance.  I like to get all of my food organized the day before the party and I even set the table a day ahead of time.  Red roses, red linen napkins and a red table runner on top of a crisp, white tablecloth and white plates set the theme for a heart healthy dinner.

Once the table was set, it was time to get the food ready for the party.  I started by putting together my corn and black bean salsa.  I modified the original recipe and I left out the tomatoes, oil and the salt to make it more heart healthy.  I didn't add the tomatoes because I find that they get mushy if I add them too far in advance.

I also glazed some walnuts for the strawberry spinach salad.  To make these sweet and crunchy nuts, I simply melted some sugar over low heat in a small skillet.  (The key is to not stir the sugar while it melts.)  Once the sugar is melted, I tossed the nuts into the pan to coat them with the sugary glaze.  I poured them onto a piece of foil and once they were cool enough to handle, I pulled them apart to create little nut clusters.  (Warning: Watch your sugar carefully while it melts because it can burn really quickly.)

I whisked together the Meyer lemon dressing ingredients too.  I didn't add any oil to my vinaigrette - lemon juice, white wine vinegar and sugar was all that I used.  It was pretty good even without the olive oil but it was still missing something so I threw in a few poppy seeds to add a little crunch. 

Once salad preparations were complete, I moved on to the herb mushroom marinade.  I ended up making almost 8 batches to have enough marinade for 32 baby portobello mushrooms.

Next I put together the stuffing for my acorn squash.  I cooked brown jasmine rice with half unsalted vegetable stock and half water.  The jasmine rice, the fresh herbs, the walnuts and the cranberries are a really great flavor combination.  It was so good that I actually took a break from the party preparations and sat down to have a bowl of rice for lunch. 

I had planned to buy prepared pizza and spaghetti sauce just to save me from having to make it but I couldn't seem to find what I was looking for in my grocery store.  All of the sauce that I found had either salt or oil or both.  After 15 minutes of reading through ingredients on dozens of cans, I decided it would be easier to make my own sauce.   I bought a couple of cans of "no salt added" tomato sauce to make my own heart healthy sauces. 

To make my pizza sauce, I added basil, oregano, garlic powder and a pinch of sugar to the can of tomato sauce.  It was almost as easy as buying a can of pizza sauce. 

My oil-free spaghetti sauce took a little longer but it was totally worth the effort.  I sauteed some chopped onions over low heat then added my tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and some sugar.  I let the sauce simmer on the stove for about 30 minutes.  The result was a thick and hearty marinara that quite honestly was a little bland.  I ended up adding just a pinch of kosher salt and that made all the difference.  I was pretty happy with my heart healthy marinara - maybe I should bottle it and sell it.

To finish off my day of prep work, I made the raspberry sauce for the poached pear dessert.  I love this raspberry sauce so much that I should just keep a bottle of it in my refrigerator.  A drizzle of raspberry sauce just makes everything better. 

After my day of food preparation, my refrigerator was absolutely jam packed with marinades, stuffing, dressing and sauces.  At the end of the day, I headed to bed feeling pretty good about all that I had accomplished. 

The day of the party had arrived and there was still plenty for me to do.  I started by putting together my spinach salad.


Next on my to do list: finishing the corn salsa.   I added the tomatoes and spooned it into the endive boats.  (I love serving appetizers in edible containers.)

Before lunchtime, I had roasted my acorn squash, cut my sweet potatoes into wedges, marinated my mushrooms and poached my pears.

After lunch, it was time to fire up the Big Green Egg.  I started by grilling the Ezekiel wraps for the appetizer pizzas.  Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate and it was drizzling while I was grilling. I had a lot to grill and a limited amount of time so it was grilling in the rain for me.  I heated the grill to about 400 and the wraps browned really quickly on top of the pizza stone.  I browned one side, flipped them over and added pizza sauce.  When the wraps were toasted, I started grilling the vegetables for the pizzas.  I had sliced them pretty thin so they cooked really quickly.  I topped each pizza with the grilled vegetables and sauteed mushrooms.  It makes me a little nervous to try new recipes for a dinner party but I'm happy to report that these turned out really great.   

Before I turned off the Big Green Egg, I grilled my mushrooms and my asparagus.

With party time quickly approaching, I had lots of last minute preparations.  I warmed my squash on a baking sheet in the oven and reheated the stuffing separately in the microwave.  Once they were both warmed, I stuffed my squash to get it ready for serving.


I sliced up the whole wheat Italian bread

 I also defrosted my vegan cranberry oatmeal cookies.  They did have some vegan shortening in them but I figured it was alright to add a little fat to dessert. 

I started by cooking the whole wheat pasta about 20 minutes before my guests arrived.  While I waited for the water to boil, I reheated my marinara sauce in a saucepan on the stove. 

I cooked the quinoa pasta as soon as the whole wheat pasta was finished.  I put together the broccoli, sun dried tomato sauce while the pasta cooked.  

The last thing that I did before my guests arrived was to bake the sweet potato fries.  I put the "fries" into parchment paper cones to serve them.

Once the food was ready to serve - it was finally time to party.  The appetizer table was set.

My brave dinner guests started to arrive sporting their red shirts for our heart healthy dinner.

I set up a self serve drink station so my guests could refill their own drinks throughout the evening. Cranberry spritzers were the signature drink for the evening.

Of course there was plenty of red wine at our heart healthy party.

The moment of truth had arrived. 

The dinner was a big success.  Everyone seemed to enjoy all of the heart healthy dishes.  Everyone had a different opinion about what they thought was the most delicious heart healthy food.  My personal favorite was the brown rice stuffed squash.  Shockingly, it was my husband's favorite as well.  I really liked the quinoa pasta too - it tasted just like semolina spaghetti.  Unfortunately, even though the pasta was delicious, the dish was a little bland.  In retrospect, I think I should have added the grilled mushrooms and the asparagus to the quinoa pasta to add some depth of flavor to the dish.

As we finished up our heart healthy meal, I breathed a big sigh of relief as I looked around the table at all of the empty dinner plates.  It was obvious that my dinner guests had really enjoyed the meal and I could finally put all of my fears to rest. 

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Cranberry Spritzers (Mayo Clinic)
1 quart reduced calorie cranberry juice
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 quart carbonated water
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup raspberry sherbet (optional)
10 lemon or lime wedges

Refrigerate cranberry juice, lemon juice and carbonated water until cold.  Mix together all ingredients in a pitcher and pour into tall glasses.  Garnish with lemon wedges. 

Spicy Sweet Potato Wedges
3 sweet potatoes                    1/8 teaspoon red pepper
1 teaspoon sugar                    dash of black pepper

Peel potatoes and quarter lengthwise.  Spray with cooking spray.  Combine remaining ingredients and sprinkle over potatoes.  Bake on a cookie sheet for 10 minutes at 500.  Turn.  Bake 10 minutes longer.

Grilled Ezekiel Wrap Pizzas
1 package frozen Ezekiel wraps
homemade pizza sauce
grilled vegetables (I used zucchini, squash and mushrooms.)

Grill each wrap on the pizza stone until crisp.  Flip wrap and add pizza sauce.  Top with grilled vegetables and cut into wedges.

Grilled Vegetables for Grilled Pizzas
2 green zucchini, cut in ¼“ slices             1 ½ teaspoons mint
2 yellow zucchini, cut in ¼” slices           ½ teaspoon black pepper
2 cloves garlic                                           ½ teaspoon red pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano                           
Arrange zucchini and squash on cookie sheet.  Spray both sides with cooking spray.  Sprinkle both sides with garlic, mint, oregano and peppers.  Arrange zucchini on grill and cook 3-4 minutes on each side.

Stuffed Acorn Squash           
2 acorn squash, halved                   1/8 teaspoon sage
2 tablespoon olive oil                      2 cups brown rice, cooked
1 small onion, minced                    ½ cup dried cranberries
½ teaspoon basil                             ½ cup chopped walnuts
¼ teaspoon oregano           

Bake squash cut side down in a baking dish with ½” of water until tender.  (30 minutes at 375)  Cool.  Spray skillet with cooking spray and saute onions 5-6 minutes.  Add basil, oregano and sage.  Cook 2 minutes.  Add cranberries and walnuts and rice.  Stuff squash and serve warm.

Herb Marinade for Grilled Portobello Mushrooms (williams sonoma)

1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic
black pepper
1 Tablespoon water
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon fresh parsley

Sun Dried Tomato and Broccoli Quinoa Pasta (
8 ounces quinoa  pasta (I had to order mine from amazon because I couldn't find it at the grocery store.)
2 Tablespoons water
3 cups broccoli, cut
2/3 cup sun dried tomatoes, sliced
1/4 cup kalamata olives (I left the olives out and passed them seperately.)
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cook pasta according to package directions.  Heat skillet and add water and broccoli.  Cook 2 minutes.  Add tomatoes, olives, garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 2 minutes longer.  Add drained pasta and sprinkle with lemon juice and pepper. 

Heart Healthy Spaghetti Sauce
1 onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cans no-salt crushed tomatoes
1 Tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon sugar

Spray skillet with cooking spray.  Add onions and saute 3 minutes.  Add garlic and cook 30 seconds.  Add remaining ingredients.  Simmer sauce for 25 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Pears with Raspberry Sauce
1 package frozen, sweetened raspberries
1 Tablespoon sugar
4 medium pears
2 cups white grape juice
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons lemon juice

Puree raspberries in blender.  Strain, reserving juices.  Add sugar and pour into a bottle for drizzling.  Core pears from bottom.  Peel.  In saucepan bring grape juice, sugar and lemon juice to a boil.  Add pears.  Cover and simmer 5-7 minutes.  Drain.  Drizzle raspberry sauce on each plate and top with a pear.

Disclaimer:  I am not a doctor, a registered nurse or a dietitian.  My menus and recipes are strictly based on my own research and opinions about nutrition and heart health.  I strongly recommend that anyone who wishes to change their eating habits consult their doctor before making any drastic changes to their diet.