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.

Healthy and Convenient? Here, It’s a Yes

On the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday, I had jury duty. Basically I sat around for four hours, watching morning shows and reading from the Sherlock Holmes anthology. (High point: learning five ways to make nachos from Rachel Ray for guilty pleasure moments. Low point: when a couple of potential jurors spoiled some Downton Abbey plot points for me.)

When the jury pool’s “babysitter” announced that it was time for lunch, I happily left the courthouse, not just in excitement at the opportunity to stretch my legs, but also because I was excited to check out the restaurant offerings in the area.

The courthouse is nestled in a quaint, burgeoning trendy community, with lots of restaurants. I wanted to check out a Mexican place (naturally), but I ended up going to a local produce/food spot instead.

I had duck confit and a parsnip salad, both delicious. While I was savoring the food, and marveling at the fact that I would get a juror discount for it, I overheard the owner say that she was opening another location in a suburban shopping center…and that it would have a drive-through window.

It sounded like an interesting idea: fresh ingredients, local food, available for a few bucks (she was planning for a lower price point than the restaurant I was in) and a quick lean out my driver’s side window for it all? I would love to check it out.

This restaurant would be taking over an old KFC building, which explains the drive-through window. I don’t how many restaurants there are like this, but I hope to see more of them.

Imagine how much easier it would be to eat healthy if you could get something healthy–food as close to your own cooking as it gets, food that doesn’t have “extreme,” “super,” or “grande” in the name–quickly and with little effort. (This is me assuming that the restaurant won’t cut corners with its new endeavor.) I would love to have options besides rotisserie chicken or salad, and I would love for it to cost less than Whole Foods. (I gotta say that Trader Joe’s has economical options that come together with minimal effort, but unfortunately I don’t have one nearby.)

I’d like to think that I’m not wishful thinking. If I had a wand to wave, I’d turn food deserts into healthy food oases, and I’d have a convenient, wallet-friendly healthy eating spot next to each regular fast-food joint. It would be nice if our neighborhoods actually reflected the healthy environments that we claim to want.

In the meantime, I’ll have to track down this mythical healthy drive-through and see if the reality lives up to my imaginings of it.

Super Bowl Sunday and My Dad’s Burger Trick

Super Bowl Sunday coincided nicely with my usual weekend cooking routine. I shifted the menu to turkey burgers and grilled chicken and beef, for burritos and salads, to add a little pizzazz alongside the roasted chicken, broccoli rabe, rice and honey-glazed carrots I’d also made.

image

As I was prepping the burgers (see recipe below!) I couldn’t help but think of my father. While I’ve gotten my interest in health from my mom (who introduced me to wheat germ as a child, takes an apothecary’s worth of vitamin and mineral supplements every day as a relatively spry near-octogenarian, and phased out red meat from my childhood home), I’ve gotten my love of cooking from my dad, who once worked as a short-order cook.

I wasn’t ready to grill the burgers right away, so I individually wrapped them in waxed paper, just like he used to do. I thank him for teaching me how to prep things like burgers and chicken for future use–cutting whole chickens and leg quarters into parts. What else have I gotten from him about food?

I thank him for letting me know there’s nothing wrong with putting sugar in grits (though I prefer the savory kind… Note to self to make shrimp and grits sometime soon!)

I thank him for instilling in me an interest in grilling–though I still have to bow down to him on charcoal, as I’m a gas girl.

I thank him for teaching me how to make scrambled eggs (and I thank Julia Child for teaching me how to make omelets!)

I thank him for encoding into my genes the kind of rapid-fire, assembly line cooking and prep needed to keep a family well-fed for road trips and beach and amusement park outings.

My dad passed away more than 10 years ago, but I bet that if I had asked, he would have helped me to understand football when I was younger. But I guess there is something fun about learning football in fits and starts during the Super Bowl and other lower-priority, regular season games. Just as it was this past Sunday. Regardless of the state of my football knowledge, though, I know he would have been proud of the burgers.

Here’s my recipe for the turkey burgers I made (serves 8):

2lbs lean ground turkey
2 envelopes onion soup mix
4 capfuls of liquid smoke

Mix the ingredients. Plan to grill right away, or marinate for a bit by  forming patties and individually wrapping them in waxed paper. (Bundle the patties in a foil parcel.)

When ready, grill the burgers to desired doneness, place on a light hamburger bun, and add your favorite toppings.

Hoodwinked by Pinterest

Pinterest is typically a place where I love to hang out, a place where I find good ideas. Whether I’m browsing slowly through a boatload of pins on a weekend day, or I’m taking a quick peek during a slow period at work, it’s always entertaining and educational.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came across two recipes in one week that totally bombed for me. I’m used to recipe links leading to dead ends, but getting a recipe, trying it out, and being underwhelmed? That was new…and disappointing.

Which recipes were the ones that failed me?

Whipped cream icing. The promise with this one, which consists of a box of vanilla pudding, a cup of milk, and a container of whipped topping, is that you can have a light icing in minutes. What I got was a delicious vanilla soup instead, or a sauce or dip for fruit, not something that will adhere to cake or cupcakes as I imagined. (To be fair, maybe it would have worked better if I hadn’t used the fat-free whipped topping.)

Popcorn in Pyrex. The claim: place 1/4 c of popcorn kernels in a Pyrex bowl, top with a ceramic plate, zap for nearly 3 minutes, and voila! The reality for me? Nothing but hot kernels, hot Pyrex, and an extremely hot plate. Not one kernel popped. The recipe said you could zap the popcorn again if any wasn’t popped, but I decided not to try again. The recipe didn’t specify a microwave temperature, however; be my guest if you want to experiment.

Those recipes definitely disappointed me, but I’ll be back on Pinterest in no time. Here’s hoping for no more letdowns anytime soon!

Question of the day: Have you ever had a Pinterest fail? What did you make? What happened?

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?

Between a Vegetarian and a Paleo

My eating tends to be all over the place. By that, I mean that I don’t play favorites with the kind of food that I eat–from being a South Beach Diet follower, to dabbling with vegetarian eating in my 20s, there aren’t too many modes of eating or kinds of food that I turn my nose up at. (With the exception of sardines and okra…I don’t know that there will ever be hope for me with those two things!)

Because of that, I’m not surprised that my Pinterest food board reads like a split-personality eater. I follow a lot of vegetarian and vegan pinners (here’s one of my favorites), and their mealtime picks are heavily represented among the things I like and the things I’d like to try. But on the flipside, I have posted some paleo recipes, and there’s one grill-master in particular whose ideas I’m always excited to see come up on my timeline.

As someone who has had weight loss and healthy eating on her mind for a few years now, one of the most important things that I do is to keep looking out for new foods, new recipes, and new ways of creating meals that are designed for the most nutrition in the most modest amount of calories possible. In my pursuit of new ideas, I’m don’t harbor any biases about the kinds of eaters who are supplying those ideas. I’d encourage you to look beyond the cookbooks, Web sites and pinboards that focus on the kinds of food you typically eat and look to the people who combine ingredients in a different manner to still generate tasty, nutritionally sound entrees.

Here are some things that have caught my eye on the Web lately:

  • Tofu steaks with chimichurri and baby spinach, from Stone Soup: I never knew how to fry tofu, but from the picture, this recipe seems to offer the alternative protein with a beautiful crust. Plus, the chimichurri recipe can be repurposed for a lean steak.
  • Roasted garlic sweet potato and poached egg, from Naturally Ella: Breakfast tends to be the meal that’s hardest for me to consistently come up with good ideas. I like the sound of this because it sounds filling, and the carb is coming in the form of a vegetable.
  • Roasted Dijon chicken, from Framed Cooks: I like that this recipe creates meat and a side. It helps to take the guesswork out of pairing up items on the menu!
  • Kale with oranges and mustard dressing, from MarthaStewart.com: I am a big fan of leafy greens, and I’ve heard of the kale-citrus one-two punch before. I’m curious to try it!
  • Crockpot Indian-spiced lentils, from The Diva Dish: I love Indian food, and I was excited to find a recipe to make some by setting and forgetting.
  • Red snapper Azteca, from Paleo Plan: Fish is always an excellent lean protein choice. In this recipe, it gets a flavor boost that sounds tasty.

I am glad to know that no matter what kind of food I’m looking for, there are tons of people out there with delicious ideas. Happy hunting to you!

Question of the Day: How has your diet changed since you’ve started eating healthy? What foods are you eating that you never thought in a million years would touch your plate?

Love Notes From the Cutting Board

I don’t know what came first for me–a love of food, or a love for cooking. I remember being in elementary school, making scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches under the supervision of my father, and watching him and my mom make fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, pork chops, and hamburgers. When I got older, a few years before my dad passed away, he was thrilled to see me attempt to make collard greens with fresh ingredients. He gave me pointers on which parts of the leaves to cut and discard, and which ones were keepers.

Along with what I observed from my parents, I picked up cooking skills from watching cooking shows on public television and, in recent times, from the Internet. I spent many Saturday afternoons parked in front of the TV, watching Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, Marianne Esposito, Lidia Bastianich and many others prepping and cooking delicious meals.

I began to cook my own meals at home after college, and this is when I really got to take advantage of those lessons I’d apparently filed away in my head. My mom was one to cut onions with a paring knife, but I opted for a cutting board and a chef knife instead; today, I’ve graduated to a santoku knife.

I’m nowhere near as fast or precise as the TV chefs, but I feel pretty efficient with my approach, and I am truly one of those people who finds it enjoyable to cut up a bunch of vegetables. Seriously. And, I believe preparing your own food makes a difference in losing weight or maintaining a weight loss. You know what’s going into your meals, you control the quantity of ingredients, you can make substitutions for dietary needs as appropriate. And you get the satisfaction of feeding your body and your creative spirit.

What are some things I’ve picked up over the years with knives or other cutting gadgets? I’d like to share a few today, along with when I use these techniques.

How to Chiffonade: this is when you stack, roll and slice leaves. I’ve done this for things as small as mint leaves (in dessert made of strawberries, mint, Splenda and balsamic vinegar), or for leaves as large as collard greens (though you have to be a little more aggressive with the leaves, pushing against the stems to get them to flex over and over again into circles as you roll them up.) I’ve also used this technique for grain salads with baby spinach leaves. It’s a quick, simple way to make uniform, small slices of leaves.

How to Cut a Mango: I have my husband to thank for teaching me this one, and it has come in handy this year, as I went back again and again to capitalize on dollar mango sales at many different markets I frequent. (Here’s a video from Mango.org on cutting techniques.) There are gadgets you can buy to cut mangoes, but IMO, you don’t really need them. Basically you’re cutting down the sides, avoiding the seed in the center. (You’ll feel it with your knife and can adjust your knife’s position accordingly.)

How to Cut a Pineapple:This is one fruit for which I do use a tool.

(Lifted this one from my Instagram page. Profile: dcangah.)

I chop the ends off, making sure that the area of the fruit exposed on both ends is wide enough to accommodate the circular cutting tool. Then I push the tool through the pineapple, and push the fruit back out of the tool. That’s my corer pictured above, but in researching this post, I see there are tools out there that may be easier to use. (I think I’ll eventually buy one of those.) One other piece of advice: place your pineapple in a dish or a pan before slicing, to catch the juice that you’ll lose when using the tool.

How to Cut an Onion: There are a lot of onion-cutting techniques that people use, but what I like to do is cut both ends off, take off the top layer, slice into rings, and then dice. (This Gordon Ramsay video, however, says to slice lengthwise through the onion, keeping the root attached, to avoid leakage from the onion and teary eyes. I may try that to see if it’s true. I do agree 100% with Ramsay to let your knife do the work for you–a nice, heavy knife that gives you power behind the blade.)

How to Cut a Pepper: I saw this technique on a cooking show, and I like it because it makes pieces of pepper that are the most convenient to cut, with the least amount of waste.

Cut off the ends, slice vertically through the ring, cut out the ribs and seeds inside, slice into strips, and then dice.

Then, dice the top and bottom of the pepper, too, popping out the stem from the top portion.

How to Cut a Jicama: I like the fresh, crispy taste of jicama paired with lime as a snack. Other people also eat jicama in salads, thinly shredded. However you want to use your jicama, it’s pretty much like preparing a potato.

Jicama and papaya, with lime.

Peel it, cut it into large chunks, then cut those chunks into whatever shape/size you want.

How to Spatchcock a Cornish Game Hen: I love to grill Cornish game hens and serve them with barbecue sauce, because if you serve a half of a hen, it’s a nice, portion-controlled way to get a little taste of all of a full-sized chicken’s parts. (And because the hens usually cost less than $2.75 each where I live, the price is also right.) The easiest way I’ve found to grill them is to spatchcock them first. This is a technique I saw in Steven Raichlen’s How to Grill. Here’s a video of Raichlen showing you how to do it. Rather than using poultry shears, though, I use a butcher knife.

What are some knife techniques that you use, or guidance you’ve found to prep your favorite healthy foods? Drop a line!