Thursday, May 31, 2012

Raw Chocolate Pecan Energy Balls

I think one of the biggest obstacles to living a healthy lifestyle is a resistance to change. The family hears healthy and thinks "it tastes bad" or "we are going to starve and we have to give up all of our favorite foods". Healthy doesn't have to be boring or mean you have to give up what you love. It is about smart substitutions over time. Give up soda or change your latte to an iced coffee with skim milk and you will be shocked how easily you will lose some weight without "even trying". You are trying but you are finding it easy to adjust when you make the changes slowly. 
One of the hardest things for me to give up are sweets. I LOVE SUGAR but sugar does not love us or our bodies. When I gave up sugar within weeks people started commenting how much younger I looked. That was enough to keep working! When the desire for something sweet does come fruit is a great option but sometimes you want something different. This is where my energy balls come in. All the taste of a dessert but not devoid of fiber and nutrients. Win, win! Variations of this recipe have been floating around food blogs this past year in bar or ball form. Again this is about finding what you like. Add flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, whatever you love! This is just a good base to start the customization from. Raw chocolate is full of all the amazing antioxidants you need. If you can not find raw cocoa powder or don't want to pay the hefty price tag just use traditional unsweetened cocoa powder. Skip the dutch processed as that removes some of the antioxidants. 
When I started working on this recipe in my mind all I kept hearing was variations of Chef singing "My chocolate salty balls" and SNL Schweddy Balls skit. Yes, sometimes I am a 13 yo boy. I bet it is stuck in your head now too. 

Raw Chocolate Pecan Energy Balls
Adapted from Rawtarian
Approximately 24-1 inch Balls

2 Cups Whole Pitted Dates, (organic if you can find them)
2 Cups Whole Raw Pecans
3-4 Tbsp Raw Cocoa Powder
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Shredded Coconut
2 Tbsp Grade A Maple Syrup (do not use the fake HFC stuff at the supermarket, it needs to be real) or Agave
1/4 tsp Sea Salt

Begin with the dates in the food processor and chop until small but not clumping together or pasty. Add pecans and chop until small pieces but again not a paste. Add the rest of the ingredients and process until it clumps but it not completely smooth. You want there to be some texture. Using hands form into 1 inch balls and place on a parchment lined plate. Chill in the refrigerator 30 mins. I prefer them cold and straight from the fridge but they can be served either way. 
Once they are chilled you can store them in Tupperware in the fridge for 5 days or freeze any excess balls for later. 


Hearty and Healthy Vegetable Soup

Odd that I chose to start getting excited about soup as it gets warmer but as the farmer's markets open and all of the produce starts appearing I got inspired by veggies. Something I hope you have learned by now about my cooking is that there is no special formula. You can put in what you like and leave out what you don't. A recipe doesn't have to be a formula followed to the letter. When I read criticism of recipes on various sites it is often a result of the recipe not meeting that particular person's personal taste. The beauty of cooking is, you are the master of your own kitchen. Hate fennel? Leave it out. Love basil? Add another handful. The only sin is under seasoning your food so taste along the way and you will always end up with something great! 

I prefer to graze on small meals and broth based soups are a perfect way to get in your vegetables, control hunger and keep your weight under control (or going down in my case). This recipe isn't from any particular source, I just added things that we happen to love in our house. I chose to leave out starches such as potatoes and corn but you can certainly add them if you prefer. Try to choose organic vegetables whenever possible but if you can't buy everything organic at least follow the dirty dozen rule. 

Vegetable Soup
Servings: 12 Cups

1 Bunch Kale, ribs removed, wash and chopped into large pieces
2 Large Leeks, white parts only washed and chopped
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Medium Carrots, peeled and cut into slices
1 (10 oz) Package Frozen Peas
1 (15 oz) Can Red Kidney Beans, low-sodium, washed 
12 Medium Cremini Mushrooms, washed, stems trimmed, cut into quarters
1 (28 oz) Can San Marzano Tomatoes, crushed
8 C Chicken or Vegetable Broth, 99% fat free, low-sodium 
2 Low Sodium Vegetable or Chicken Bouillon Cubes
2 Tbsp Canola or Olive Oil
Fresh Cracked Pepper
Sea Salt
Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (Optional)

In a 8 quart stock pot heat oil over medium heat. Add leeks, carrots, and garlic and saute briefly. Add crushed tomatoes, kale, mushrooms, broth and bouillon cubes. Simmer until veggies are cooked through. Add peas, kidney beans, and salt and pepper to taste and heat through. 

Serve hot with a tablespoon of Parmigiano-Reggiano (splurge on the good stuff at the grocery store and grate it as needed, trust me the flavor is worth it and you only need a tiny bit so it lasts a long time). 


Monday, May 14, 2012

Sexy Baked French Fries

French fries are a great American love and sadly also one our most consumed sources of vegetables. I know, I don't consider it a vegetable either. Ketchup technically qualifies as well. I know, I know. When I decided to start eating a healthier diet I thought french fries were a thing of the past, an occasional treat, but I was wrong! We can have our fries and eat them too! I actually enjoy these more than most restaurants fried versions and definitely more than fast food places. I generally let the potato be my portion guide and plan on using one potato per person. If they are big fry fans you might want to up it to 1.5 per person. The spice mix I use is based on a local organic restaurant that I love. It took me a few visits to figure out what they were using but I did it. I thought it was just magic but nope, the secret is thyme. Sounds weird but trust me, it really adds something. If you think the kids won't eat it you can always do half and half but I find the grown up version to amazing. So amazing in fact I ate 2 servings last night for dinner. Don't tell anyone ;)

Sexy Baked French Fries  (Adapted from The Comfort of Cooking)
Servings 2

2 Large Russet Potatoes
4 Tbsp Canola or Olive Oil
1 Tbsp Dried Thyme
1 Tbsp Garlic Powder
Sea Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper 

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. 

Wash potatoes and slice them into even size slices. Place in a large mixing bowl and cover with hot water for 20-30 minutes. Place 3 Tbsp oil on a heavy rimmed baking sheet and spread out evenly with a pastry brush or coat with cooking spray. (I find the oil works much better) Set aside

Drain potatoes and pat dry with paper towels. Dry out bowl and put potatoes back in bowl with 1 Tbsp oil, thyme, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Place on oiled baking sheet in a single layer. Cover with foil and bake 5 minutes (this step is important because you cooking the potatoes through at this point). Remove foil and baked 10-15 minutes. My oven runs very hot so I go more to the 10 minutes. Remove from oven and flip fries over, rotate baking sheet to ensure even browning and bake an additional 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and blot on paper towels. Add additional salt and pepper if needed. 

Serve immediately with your favorite ketchup or dipping sauce. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wheat Berry Salad with Garden Vegetables

Yesterday was a strange day to say the least. My intention was do some recipe testing but after a series of unfortunate events I was left in a funk. Combine that with the almost constant stream of rain this May and really all I wanted to so was sulk and play with the computer. In fact this morning a friend sent me a text and I stared at it for a full minute looking for the like button....I wish I was kidding. Maybe that was a clue I needed to unplug for a bit today. Just maybe. I did however find a lot of good inspiration for brownie flavors so it all worked out in the end.

The crazy thing about baking constantly is that you suddenly start to CRAVE healthy food. You would think that the constant smell of butter and sugar with really great chocolate would be enticing but I am absolute proof you can get tired of it. Who could have dreamed? One of the interesting things about me is I like baking and cooking equally. People generally lean towards one direction or other. Rule makes versus rule breakers. I like both. Sometimes I want the comfort of following the directions. The precision. The science of baking speaks to the biologist in my heart. Cooking is the creative force that lets out my wild child. The part of me that can't be tamed. This just got a little too deep for a Wednesday afternoon.

One of the great joys of food is discovery. When I started making healthy eating a priority I started learning about grains and and vegetables I had either never tried or was convinced I didn't like. Wheat berries are the whole kernel of wheat and when cooked properly have a pleasantly chewy texture and nutty flavor. They also have a good amount of protein and fiber and especially for vegetarians or vegans they can make a hardy and filling main course or a substantial side dish.

This leads me to the point of my part time vegetarianism. I am not looking for a debate on the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. We each make our own choices and need to respect not everyone else agrees. For me this has come from a  few places. My love of animals, my desire to alleviate the burden on the planet and from wanting to eat a healthier diet. It is easy to rely solely on meat for interest in a meal and the more I learn about the meat raising practices of this country as well as the burden raising feed animals on the planet I decided to start eating vegetarian at least several days a week. This is going to have an influence on this blog which I don't think is a bad thing. Regardless of your personal preferences you can always add meat or use the recipe as a side or skip meat and use it as your entree. Problem solved. All that I ask is that people think about where there food comes from. All of it and try to buy the least processed, best quality products they can afford.

This recipe is dedicated to my friend Becky who is battling Crohn's disease and finds marginal relief in a vegan diet. I hope you like it.

Wheat Berries with Garden Vegetables
2 Entree Portions or 4 Side Portions

1 Cup Red Winter Wheat Berries
3 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock, Low-sodium
Garden Vegetables- This is where this recipe can be made your own. I love recipes that are clean out your pantry kind of dishes. I used..
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1- (14 0z) Jar Artichoke Hearts, drained and cut into 4ths
2 Cups Sliced Fresh Mushrooms, use a mix of whatever you like. I was being cheap so I just bought one kind. When did mushrooms start being $18.99 a pound?
1 Large Carrot, peeled and diced
3 Cloves of Garlic, peeled and minced
1 Cup Diced White Onion
Salt and Pepper

The morning before you want to cook the wheat berries soak them in a bowl with water just to cover. They will be ready when you get home that night.

Place wheat berries and stock in a small sauce pan and simmer over low heat until stock is absorbed. 60-90 minutes.

Saute in olive oil the onions and carrots until the onions are translucent. Add artichoke hearts and mushrooms and let caramelize over medium-low heat until all the veggies are cooked and are slightly brown. Add the wheat berries and mix thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm with crusty bread or entree of your choice.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Buffalo Blue Cheese Chicken Dumplings with Avocado Cilantro Yogurt Dip

One of my favorite appetizers in the whole world is dumplings. All kinds of dumplings, stuffed with kimchi or pork and leeks, or shrimp at dim sum. I am into all of them. Only recently did I jump into making them myself with the help of Andrea Nguyen's fantastic cookbook "Asian Dumplings"and her fantastic blog Asiandumplingtips. The first time I tried them was a Saturday night after we had been out for the entire day. I got home around 8 PM and THEN decided to start, from scratch. It was a bad idea. Fast forward to me and my fiance bickering over how this was not the time and he was too tired and just wanted to sit down. I stood over the bowl grumbling to myself and attempting to roll out dough and stuff enough dumplings to actually make a meal. They were pretty ugly but the taste was incomparable to the frozen variety and I was hooked. Next time I just gave myself a lot more time.
Now that I am laid off and have a lot of time on my hands I decided to attempt an idea that had been swirling around in my head for a few months. I am pretty excited to say they came out fantastically. I used store bought wonton wrappers because I didn't want to go through the entire process of making and rolling out dough if the recipe wasn't going to work out. Because I am a food nut I bought organic chicken thighs that were boneless and skinless and used my grandmother's old fashion meat grinder to grind them up myself. You can certainly by ground chicken if you want but I think the dark meat holds up better to the recipe and doesn't come out dry. If you do use ground chicken breasts I would add a tiny bit of oil to the recipe to help keep them moist inside. I made 2 batches to test my theory they would be better with the blue cheese inside than as a dip on the outside and they were unanimously voted the winner. To offset the spiciness of the chicken and the earthiness of the blue cheese I wanted a dip on the side that would be both cooling and tangy. The Avocado Cilantro dip was born and also a surprising winner in our house. It does come out a bit thick due to the Greek yogurt but you can thin it out with a bit of water. I tried it both ways and it came out great.

This recipe is uniquely my own so if you do repost it I would appreciate you giving me credit. Thanks!

Buffalo Blue Cheese Dumplings by Simply Tasteful Eats
Makes 48 dumplings

1 Package Wonton Wrappers (I got them in the vegetarian section of Whole Foods)
1 lb. Organic Chicken Thighs, cleaned (You can ask the butcher to grind them for you or just buy ground chicken but I do think the recipe will come out better if you use dark meat)
1/2 C Crumbled Blue Cheese
5 Scallions, Green Parts Only, Chopped
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tbsp Melted Organic Butter
Salt and Pepper (I leave the amount to personal preference)
2 Tbsp Cayenne Pepper (use less if you want it mild, it has quite a kick)
4 Tbsp Franks Hot Sauce
1 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce

Avocado Cilantro Yogurt Dip
6 oz 0% Fat Plain Greek Yogurt
1 Ripe Haas Avocado, pitted and diced
1/2 tsp Fresh Lemon Juice
Splash Worcestershire Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Roughly Chopped
3 Tbsp Cilantro, Chopped
1 Tbsp Local Honey

To Make the Sauce:
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until use. Can be made the night before. 

Dumpling Assembly:
1. I used my grandmother's old meat grinder to grind up the thighs by hand. It was rather labor intensive but I felt it was worth it. For those of you that are smarter than me any reputable butcher will do it for you and it will not be quite as messy! Combine ground chicken through Worcestershire sauce in a medium bowl and mix thoroughly. 
2. Place one wonton on a cutting board or other flat surface. Have a small finger bowl of water for sealing edges. Keep the rest of the wontons covered with a cloth or paper towel. Spoon 1 tsp of filling into the center of wrapper. (Do not over fill. It can be tempting as these are labor intensive but they will fall apart when cooking) Wet 2 edges of the wonton wrapper and fold over making sure to press out any air. They will hold together much better and look more attractive if you get the air out. Place on a cookie sheet covered with parchment. Make sure to keep assembled dumplings covered as well so they do not dry out.  Repeat with remaining wrappers. 

These freeze quite well after assembly. Just make sure to freeze them on a cookie sheet in a single layer and then you can put them all together in a freezer safe bag after they are frozen. 

I made these 2 ways. For healthy preferences we eat our dumplings steamed 99% of the time and these were not exception. However they were significantly less attractive when steamed so the next day I tried them fried as well. 

To Steam: Place dumplings on a steamer sprayed with cooking spray or covered with parchment inside a dutch over an inch of water. Steam for 5 minutes. They will cook quickly. Room and serve immediately with dipping sauce. 

To Fry: Fill a large dutch oven with an inch of canola oil and heat to 350 degrees. When oil is hot fry in  small batches until golden brown. It happens quickly and with the small amount of filling they are cooked through rapidly. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with dipping sauce. 

I hope you like them. This has become a new party favorite in our house! 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Grammy Geddes Brownies

Once upon a time I was married to my high school sweetheart. I grew up with his family as my family and truly loved them like they were my own, especially his grandparents. Grammy Geddes was a tiny woman who did not cook often but she was known for her brownies. At any family gathering it was expected that she make them and there was never a crumb left over. When we got married in our early 20's she gifted the recipe to me and I tucked it in to my recipe box carefully and then promptly forgot I had it. As time passed and we grew up and grew apart we eventually divorced which was difficult because of families were so intertwined. 
When my own beloved grandmother passed 2 years ago now I learned that Grammy Geddes had passed not long after our divorce and I was sad that I never got to properly say goodbye to her. A few days later something told me to look through my old recipe box and her brownie recipe popped out at me. I don't know what possessed me on that 90 plus degree day to fire up the oven and bake a batch of her brownies but I did. As I was mixing I noticed the odd quantity of baking powder, 1/2 cup, and thought to myself "I have never seen a recipe like this".  I didn't want to alter the recipe in any way so I continued on but it bothered me the whole time. 
As my now fiance and I sipped a glass of wine and waited I told him about how much he was going to love the brownies that we were about to enjoy and then he looked at me and said "Is that smoke?". I ran into the kitchen to find smoke POURING out the door of the oven. I threw open the door to what looked like a volcanic explosion from my 5th grade science project and I burst out laughing. My intuition was right! She had written down the recipe incorrectly and it had risen so much it ran over the sides and all over the bottom of my oven. 
A few days later after having cleaned my oven I googled brownie recipes with the suspicion it should be 1/2 tsp and that seemed to be similar to what I found online. When I made it again it turned out just the way I remember. To this day I have not altered the card because whenever I look at it I smile and think of her. She would be happy to have me share it with you. 

Grandma Geddes Chocolate Brownies
Servings: 9 or 16 Squares depending on how you cut them

3/4 C melted unsalted butter
1 1/2 C granulated sugar (I use raw cane sugar)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 C AP flour
1/2 C Hershey's unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder :)
1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8 inch sq pan. 
2. Blend butter, sugar and vanilla. Add eggs and beat well with spoon. 
3. Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt and mix with a whisk.
4. Gradually add to egg mixture until well blended. 
5. Spread in pan and bake for 40-45 mins or until it begins to pull away from the edges of the pan. Cool on a wire rack and cut. 
6. Wrapped tightly in plastic they will last 3 days on the counter or 1 month in the freezer. 

I hope your family enjoys them as well! 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Vermont and King Arthur Flour Visit

Last Saturday we got up at 5 AM and headed off to Vermont. From Boston the area we were going it is around 137 miles or 2 hours 45 minutes but with 2 giant cups off coffee and some salsa music we were excited to be getting out of the city. One of the ways we bonded from the day we met was taking road trips and just chatting and learning together. Five years later it hasn't changed! Originally the plan was to go Friday but I wanted to find another activity in the area because it seemed quite far just to visit the King Arthur Flour store in Norwich so when I went online and saw Saturday was the opening day of Billings Farm (A Vanderbilt property) in Woodstock we decided to change the plans and I am happy we did. 

For those of you who don't know, I have a love of farms and especially the animals that live there. If I were to own one I would most likely be a vegetarian as I get so attached I could never eat something I had raised. When I was 10 I volunteered at a farm up the road and lovingly cared for 2 piglets for several months and was absolutely stunned when my father came home with a ham that was a "gift" from the farmer for all my hard work. I cried and refused to take one bite of that ham and instead stared at it with contempt from the doorway. That was a hard lesson in real farm life that day! Luckily Billings Farm has been a working dairy farm since the 1800's so no danger on this trip. 

We pulled into the King Arthur Store's parking lot about 10 minutes early and it was a brisk 40 degrees but there were already people waiting in their cars. Most were locals waiting for coffee but I have to admit I was surprised. The last time I had been up there was maybe 10 years ago and they are renovating the whole property at the moment but everything was moved over to the new space and it looked like mostly cosmetic work was being worked on. It is gorgeous and very modern looking with a cafe and coffee bar when you walk in and then the store just beyond. I wish I could say I was blown away by the store but it wasn't as special as I remember it being the first time around. You know how you have something from the past you remember as being truly amazing and the when you go back to relive the moment or the taste it just falls short and disappoints? (For me it was these crazy delicious hand cut honey dip donuts at this family place in my hometown. They were square because he literally cut the dough by hand and they were light as air. The shop still exists but when they automated the donuts it was never the same) Think Williams-Sonoma but more expensive. I wish I was kidding. There were some whole grain flours I wanted to buy to make bread, 3 lbs for more than $10. That is just an example. As we walked around my fiance commented to me he was shocked by the prices as well and as he is a chef he had been pretty excited to maybe find a treasure or two himself. I did grab some things that I can not find outside of mail order. 
Espresso powder adds richness to chocolate baked goods and is one of those little secrets. Hard to find at most standard markets or even Whole Foods. Caramel bits that I thought would be interesting but unfortunately did not turn out as I would have liked. When baked they lacked caramel flavor and stuck to the bottom of the pan. Not up to my standards but live and learn. It was worth a shot. I do think they would be OK in cookies and maybe I will try that with the rest that are left over. I liked the photo of them!

I picked up several extracts such as hazelnut, coconut, mint and almond. I like their extracts because they are very high quality and not synthetic tasting. The shot glass in the front is not for drowning my failures but is a liquid measure for Tbsp/tsp for liquids like vanilla and the brown bag on the left is powdered low fat milk for bread baking. One of the last items I grabbed was a live piece of sourdough starter that was 250 years old! All I had to do was feed it and see how it compared to the one I made last week. My fiance added a digital thermometer and we were off but not before I treated him to a cup of coffee and we split a chocolate croissant. The croissant was absolutely delicious. The coffee was OK but that wasn't really why we had gone there. I felt a bit disappointed because I remember finding great deals and interesting items on my last trip. This was now dedicated more to the elitist home cook and they had quite a bit of mixes and items that weren't really true baking all at a very steep price tag. Ho-hum. 

When we went to the car I was glad we decided to add the farm into the trip because it would have been quite a long drive for such a short trip. Woodstock was just 19 miles down the road it was a nice winding trip through the country as we chattered about the beauty of the scenery and excited to see the farm. We have been debating purchasing some land in NH or VT on which to build our retirement home as prices in Boston have just gotten ridiculous and I don't see buying a tiny place for too much money there. Part of this trip was finding a town that would be right for us. All I had known previously about Woodstock was its shared name with the music festival in NY. Turns out it is one of the weather towns in VT and had quite an adorable downtown and was flanked by many stunning homes.

Billings Farm is still a working dairy farm and we were the first to arrive. In my excitement I failed to take as many photos as I would have liked but there are a few to share. In the first pasture I met Violet as I named her. She was around 7-8 months old and was very friendly.
Here she is peeking at me when I first approached and then sticking her nose out for a rub. She was so gentle and sweet I wanted to take her home with us but I doubt a backyard in Boston would be a better place for her!

We entered the horse barn but they were all out on the farm already either plowing or giving carriage rides. It made me miss my horse days. Don't they look so regal!
We opted out of the carriage ride as it was mostly screaming kids and strollers and instead finished walking the grounds and exploring the original farm managers home that they hard restored to the late 1800's which was very interesting. There was a nursery for the new baby cows, one of which was 10 days old and I got to see the new bull who at 8 months old was already several hundred pounds and quite adorable. He was one of the lucky boys on the farm as most males get sold off. The chicken barn had several baby ducks which I LOVE and hope to own a few some day as well as some standard chickens. It was full again of kids so I could barely see them and got frustrated and left. In the sheep barn they had some adorable baby sheep who were very curious. 
He was like a model posing for every shot and with his watchful momma munching her hay. Unfortunately the farm was not licensed to sell to the public so one of the locals recommended a farmers market on the edge of town. We headed off in search of some real dairy, meat and eggs and saw much of the damage from the devastating floods awhile back. They are still rebuilding which is shocking when you realize it was so long ago. Makes you realize how truly horrible the damage was. When we entered I was surprised to see such a progressive shop in such an isolated area. We grabbed dinner for that night as well as two dozen local eggs and a liter of milk in an old fashioned glass bottle. The quality of everything was indescribably superior to super market items and we had a fantastic dinner that night. My fiance also drank almost all the milk by breakfast and I had to fight to get a glass for myself! The drive home went by quicker than I would have expected and it was wonderful feeling to get out of the city and indulge our love of food and nature.