My Chili: A Spicy Hot-Button Issue

I have been making chili for nearly 20 years now, starting with a simple recipe I’d seen in the 800+-page Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. It started off innocently: diced onions and peppers, garlic, canned tomatoes, spices, and some ground beef or turkey.

I’ve since experimented with the spices recommended in that initial recipe, and I’ve also switched up the beans (from kidney to pinto or black beans) and added corn and fresh cilantro. But one modification I made ended up being a point of contention between me and an old boyfriend.

That was leaving out the meat. I had a quasi-vegetarian stage immediately after college, eating many vegetarian meals a week, without committing to that diet in full every day. So it made sense to me to modify the chili recipe, as the beans in the recipe were already providing protein. So I made a batch of chili, brimming with a supporting cast of vegetables and a blend of seasoning that was spicy and bold, but not hot to the point where you no longer tasted the flavor.

I mentioned to my boyfriend at the time that I had made vegetarian chili, and he was not amused. He basically wanted to know “where’s the beef?” like the original Wendy’s commercial. I made my disappointment known that he wouldn’t try something different. But I kept making the chili the way I wanted to; we just agreed to disagree.

Fast forward about 15 years, and I’m about to make vegetarian chili again today. I made it for a while after that tense conversation, but most often since then I’ve made it with ground turkey. This time around, though, I am prepared to accommodate my vegetarian version and a ground turkey version for my husband–I’ll be cooking the ground turkey separately, and he can mix it into the chili.

Mind you, my husband doesn’t have reservations about eating vegetarian meals–he’s eaten the chili sans meat before and has heartily eaten the soy chorizo and potatoes I’ve profiled. He also is a fan of vegetarian riblet sandwiches. Offering the meat is (1) me learning to not be pushy about my food preferences and (2) something that was going to be cooked anyway, for my son who won’t eat the chili (too spicy) but loves ground meat, only unadorned by any kind of sauce (no sloppy joe sandwiches, for example). 

Walking the line of eating the way that maintains your own health and still satisfying the palates of those who do not subscribe to your preferences is one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with eating healthy. But I realize now that it’s not fair to badger people into eating things they don’t want to (think the recent Bud Light beer commercial where the man is baffled by the quinoa patties that his girlfriend has brought to the tailgate party). I welcome the challenges that come with meeting the needs of different eaters, because it keeps me fresh on coming up with new recipe ideas.

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These Cooking Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Last night, I was preparing fish to bake. It was a 2-lb bag of tilapia fillets, and I planned on doing half with salt, pepper and garlic, and half with Cajun seasoning. While visions of dusting the fish fillets with their respective spices danced in my head, I noticed a warning on the plastic that wrapped each fish fillet. It said that you should remove the fish from the plastic before thawing.

Too late! I routinely thaw the fish individually wrapped, in the main packaging, in my freezer. And they taste just fine, whether I’m baking them or grilling them. No harm, no foul.

Just like my fish experiences, there are other times when you can break the rules that recipes scream at you. Here are 8:

  1. Use your favorite vegetables. When you’re making a casserole or slow cooker dish, go with the vegetables that you like (or the ones that you have on hand), as long as you time their cooking in a way that ensures they get cooked to appropriate doneness.
  2. Go with yogurt. Fat-free Greek yogurt can stand in for cream, or for sour cream. Try topping your nachos or baked potatoes with some, mixing some into your chicken pot pie stuffing, in soups–the possibilities are endless!
  3. Alternatives for desserts. Diet lemon-lime soda and liquid eggs in yellow and white cakes. Diet cola and liquid eggs in dark cakes and brownies. Pumpkin puree in spice cake. Fat-free Greek yogurt works here, too.
  4. Ditch the butter and oil. No, you won’t get the same flavor, but if you want to save on fat and calories, opt for cooking spray or water for sautéing (or nothing at all, if you don’t have your temperature super-high).
  5. Tweak the spices. Fresh or dried? Go with what you have, using more dried if the recipe calls for fresh. Leave out the salt if you have high blood pressure, or switch to a low-sodium salt, because if you’re cooking with certain items (like spaghetti sauce, cheese, or broth), you’re still getting sodium in the mix anyway. There’s a reason many bloggers (myself included) don’t give exact measurements for spices–part of the art of cooking is figuring out what works best for your taste. Experiment and go with the proportions that work for you.
  6. Switch up the meat. Rather than a pork shoulder, try pork loin. Instead of high-fat ground beef, try lean ground beef (93% lean) or learn ground turkey. Don’t be afraid to make a recipe vegetarian, either–for many dishes, you’ll be safe opting for beans or textured vegetable protein (TVP).
  7. Take shortcuts. As a rule, or in a pinch, you can buy rotisserie chicken or rotisserie turkey breast. Or, get the person at the seafood counter to steam the shrimp or crab for you, before tossing with grains, vegetables, or pasta. For vegetables? Buy pre-cut veggies from your produce section, or even frozen peppers and onions from the freezer section.
  8. Don’t braise meat for slow cooking. As with using butter or oil for sautéing, braising does add another dimension of flavor, but if you want to cut corners on time, you can get along fine without doing it.

Whether you’re starting to cook more healthy now as part of a resolution, or you’re plugging away at healthy eating as a long-term lifestyle, there are areas where it’s perfectly fine to bend or break the cooking rules to bring your food to the table faster, or more in line with your taste preferences. I wish you hours of happy rabble-rousing in your kitchen!

Question of the day: What rules do you break in the kitchen? What tips do you have for making your life as a cook easier?

Review: Mexican Weeknight Easy

I read. A lot. Whether it’s reading what my digital peeps and Tweeps are up to, reading music blogs, scouring Pinterest for new recipe ideas, or trying to make a dent in my Kindle book pile (I’m currently reading the Sherlock Holmes collection, in hopes of getting ideas in how he survived the fall on the British show), I’ve always got words whizzing by my eyes for some reason.

Sometimes the writing comes from magazines that I’ve picked up at the market. That’s how I got my hands on Mexican Weeknight Easy, a magazine devoted to Mexican cooking for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as information on spices and produce that figure prominently in Mexican cooking.

I probably confess to my Mexican food addiction just about every week, but let me tell you, I still learned a lot from this publication.

Here are the 5 most useful things I got out of parting with $5.99:

image

One of the five things I learned was how to make this!

  1. How to make sophisticated chips. I routinely microwave tortillas into crispy chips, but I typically don’t spruce them up with anything more exciting than salt. I will, however, be trying the smoked paprika, cumin and salt chips, as well as the lime jalapeño ones.
  2. How to pickle red onions. There’s a pretty easy recipe for picking red onions in citrus juices and spices that sounded interesting. A little web research told me that picked red onions, aka cebollas encurtidas, pair nicely with a variety of foods. I have a weak spot for onions, so I will definitely be doing this!
  3. How nachos (supposedly) got their name, and other tales. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I really enjoyed this, and the other factoids that run throughout the magazine.
  4. What to do with a chayote. I’ve seen this puffy pear-looking piece of produce in the market, but I didn’t know it was (technically) a fruit. Or that I could cook it like squash.
  5. How to make a delicious, healthy Mexican breakfast. Huevos oxaqueños, eggs poached on a bed of vegetables, will become a staple dish for me, served with corn tortillas and a little cheese.

I’d recommend this magazine to anyone who likes Mexican food like me, or anyone who’s looking for new ways to make flavorful meals with tons of fresh ingredients. I’m looking forward to expanding my Mexican repertoire!

Keeping the Balls in the Air

I’ve stepped into a very busy work period lately. That’s because I’m trying to juggle 3 projects at the same time. And write this blog. And maybe get some time in with my family, and some time for myself as well. It’s trying, but I’m making the best of it that I can. (One thing I’ve done for myself is to halt the kebab challenge I wanted to embark on this summer, making a kebab recipe a week for this blog. Sorry, maybe I’ll pick it up again next year.)

I found myself finishing up my work yesterday, with no dinner or complete lunch for the next day on deck. I quickly decided on grilled chicken breast and turkey chili.

I bought chicken and ground turkey from the store, and some cheese to go with the chili. (Thankfully I keep beans, crushed tomatoes, spices, onions and garlic handy, so this wasn’t a major shopping expedition.)

At home, I pounded the chicken uniformly flat, then marinated it with spices, a little olive oil, and vinegar. I chopped some onion and smashed and minced garlic. Then, I went to sit in with my husband and son for reading practice. It’s a special treat when I’m home early to get to be part teacher, part cheerleader!

After that, it was back to the kitchen. I turned on the grill and heated my skillet. I rinsed and drained my beans while everything was heating. Then I threw the chicken on the (indoor) grill and began on the chili. Fast forward about 30 minutes, and everything was ready. We live to eat again another two or three days, and I also get the satisfaction of knowing that my loved ones are well fed with quality food.

That’s a glimpse into how I pull healthy meals together, how I juggle kitchen duties, how I make room for family time, and what I keep in stock to make life easier for myself. But I know I’m not the only person juggling life needs and a desire to eat healthy. How do you keep all the balls you have to juggle safely in the air? What are your quick, healthy go-to meals?

Things I Learned From a Month of Salads

My 2012 started off with me stocking up on lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, red cabbage, peppers, and other kinds of raw vegetables to turn into salads. In the month of January, I embarked on a challenge to eat a salad a day.

I was sick and missed dinner on Day 7, and on Day 26, the realities of salad fatigue had set in. But after those two missed days, I ate two salads on the following days. So I eventually crossed the finish line into February, today, with 31 bowls of veggies and proteins having made their way through my body in the month before. Someone figure out how to turn a radish into a medal for me!

I am happy to have completed my challenge with minor hiccups. I will be glad to get back to not having to limit my food options, but I think I will incorporate more salads into my life in general. I came up with a bunch of tasty ideas that I won’t let go to waste!

Besides filling up my mental recipe box with ideas, I learned a bunch of other things about salads and their place in my life. Here are 10 of those things: Continue reading

How I Fight Hunger Every Day

Congratulations to you if you are starting a weight loss program for the new year, resuming one from last year, or continuing to soldier on with an ongoing program! Losing weight is challenging, but planning ahead makes it much smoother going.

One thing that I hear people complain about (and a thing that was hard for me when I started on Weight Watchers more than three years ago) was dealing with hunger. When you start to lose weight, you’ll be eating less than you’ve been used to. But there are different things you can do to successfully fight hunger. Here are things that I do every day:

Don’t skip breakfast. Medical professionals tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it helps to spread your calories out in a more balanced manner throughout the day, it is kinder to your body after having not eaten overnight, and because it can help to boost your metabolism. I eat breakfast, and I make sure that it’s well balanced. (Examples: 2 eggs “fried” in cooking spray on a light hamburger bun, turkey deli meat on a toasted slice of whole wheat bread spread with reduced fat cream cheese, a fat-free tortilla spread with 1/2 cup of fat-free refried beans and 1 oz. of reduced-fat cheddar cheese. I typically eat these things with a piece of fruit and coffee.)

Eat a snack or two (with protein). I know some people swear by eating five or six small meals during the day, but I typically eat three meals and a snack or two, depending on how hungry I am (or how light my meals are). I’d eat one snack before lunch, and another before dinner. I generally eat a protein with a fruit or serving of vegetables. (For example, a piece of reduced-fat string cheese with an apple, a serving of turkey pepperoni with carrots, a half cup of fat-free plain Greek yogurt with fruit, or a Kashi granola bar, with or without a piece of fruit.)

Eat a small dessert. Not only does eating something extra contribute to fullness, but it helps me to not feel deprived during the day and week. I typically eat something sweet after lunch and maybe after dinner, too. I’ve gone into more detail and given light dessert recommendations here.

Choose carbs wisely. Rather than white potatoes, rice and pasta being a staple in my diet, I eat starch vegetables most days to keep myself full and maximize nutrients. Here is a list of different options. If I eat a salad, however, I might be more likely to eat a refined carb (like a serving of mini pretzels or baked chips or tortillas), because I can load up on vegetables instead to add the filling component to the meal.

Eat something when you’re hungry. This sounds obvious, but how many times have you tried to ignore the rumbling in your stomach when it came an hour or so before mealtime? As you’re getting a routine down, it’s better to eat something when you’re hungry (really physically hungry, as opposed to wanting to eat for emotional reasons) than to let your stomach suffer in silence. Have a snack with protein if you haven’t already, or a handful of raw veggies (or a piece of fruit) with some tea if you have. You can always refine your eating patterns later, but don’t leave your body in the lurch in the now.

These strategies have served me well over the past several years, and I know I’ll be leaning on them heavily as I incorporate more salads into my meal plans this month. I also hope to start exercising regularly, and that also will require that I use strategies to keep hunger at bay to their fullest. These are my suggestions, but definitely experiment to see what works for you! And please let me know if you have other ideas that have served you well.