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.

Start a Love Affair With Food

Eating is serious business, no? As we gear up for Valentine’s Day, who e’ll likely have visions of sumptuous meals to share with loved ones…or maybe visions of something tasty and a single fork or spoon if we are trying to treat ourselves independent of the holiday.

There’s clearly a sensual component to eating. All of our senses can be employed: the sound of a sizzling fajita plate; the scent of your favorite food instantaneously entering your nostrils and unlocking memories as soon as you enter your family home for a holiday meal; the tantalizing sight and taste of your favorite food; the feel of the tender morsel of crab that you gently pull from the shell, or the weight of a juice-laden orange in your hands. Good food grabs ahold of your brain and takes up residence there, in your short-term and long-term memory.

And yet we sometimes try our hardest to run on the opposite direction from the aspects of dining that are more art than science. In Michael Pollan’s noteworthy book In Defense of Food, he shares that President Martin Van Buren lost his re-election bid, in part, because he had hired a French chef for the White House, a move that was seen as being too highbrow, too focused on food as something other than fuel.

I have written about relegating food to fuel status, but I’m learning that making the experience enjoyable and treating the food lovingly, rather than giving it a cursory once-over with your utensils, goes a long way, even for healthy food. As does sharing a meal with someone you love. If you’re partnered up for Valentine’s Day, when it comes to your first date, the combination of the restaurant, the food, and the conversation–the experience in its entirety–all made the event memorable.

Tomorrow, many of us will smile a little brighter when we think of Valentine’s Day. If you don’t already have a love affair with food–eating the best ingredients, opting for flavorful accents whenever possible, or otherwise paying attention to the quality of the food you eat–why not start on one of the most love-focused days of the year?

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.

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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.

How to Feed a Hungry Man…and Meet Weight Loss Goals

I stopped by the Pathmark yesterday evening to get dinner and check for sales. I scored on both points! I got $4.99/lb. salmon, a beef tenderloin for $20 (first time I’ve seen them for less than $40 or $50 bucks!) discounted bread, and a rotisserie chicken. I felt like the woman in the Ikea commercial who feels like she just committed a heist.

While I was getting out of my work clothes, my husband proceeded to snatch up half of the chicken for himself, with a healthy serving of rice and beans. What did I eat? A little chicken on two corn tortillas, with a little chile powder, cumin, cayenne, garlic powder and salt sprinkled on, and a dollop of Greek yogurt, with a salad topped with salsa. (My son had soft tacos, too, with cheese.)

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Yes, it is possible to feed a hungry significant other or child while you’re trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle. It just calls for flexibility and moderation. Here’s how I make that happen every day:

Grill, baby, grill. I’ve never met as voracious eater who didn’t like grilled meat. Grill chicken breast, pork loin chops, lean cuts of meat, shrimp, fish, turkey burgers…There are lots of options!

You have your carbs, and I have mine. My husband loves white rice. I don’t eat a lot of brown rice, even. Neither of us is a major pasta eater. While I eat mostly corn, carrots, green peas and sweet potatoes, I make the rice for him and my son, and mashed potatoes. When they eat bread, I often eat corn tortillas instead.

Smaller portions. For things like my skinny lasagna, I eat a serving with a salad, and everyone else eats as much as they want. Problem solved!

This is the remix. Even when I splurge, I still tread lightly for myself. For example, while I might make a chicken cheese steak for my husband on a proper roll (Philly stand up!), with cheese, mayo and ketchup (the only way to do it, IMO), I make mine with a little less cheese and serve it in a fat-free tortilla.

For me, there’s nothing better than being able to put together something that’s stock and has universal appeal for my family. What are you favorite loved-by-everyone meals?

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?

Meet Your Eating Muscles

My son went to a football practice for the first time this week. We wanted to give him a chance to check out team sports and meet new children. He had a blast that night, running and crouching with a bunch of other kids.

But by the next morning, he shared that he didn’t want to go back, because he felt sore. (Did I mention this was an extra-lengthy session for some reason?) I tried to explain that he might feel sore because he was using muscles that he doesn’t normally use, that his body was “practicing” and getting used to moving in the ways he was moving at the practice. Even with this explanation, though, the end result is still no more football.

The experience of stepping out of one’s comfort zone for physical activity has a counterpart in what’s needed to change eating habits. You have to exercise your “eating muscles,” so to speak, by getting used to eating new foods and getting used to eating less food.

I often hear people complain about being hungry on diets, or not wanting to try to lose weight because they don’t think they can survive on less food. My arguments would be, one, that choosing the right healthy foods can be filling, and two, you’ll be surprised by how easily your mind and body adapt to eating less if you let them. It really is a matter of giving your body practice time with a new way of life.

And guess what? “Practice” means that sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. It means there’s ample opportunity to learn and change what doesn’t work. It means challenges aren’t failures, just part of the learning curve.

You haven’t stretched your healthy “eating muscles” before now. Be patient, be persistent, and reap the results.

Nourishment With the Other Kind of Food

My son recently graduated from preschool (full ceremony, diploma and all, no lie!), and when the teachers were giving out personality awards, he was dubbed most creative. Although part of me raised an eyebrow at this set of feel-good awards, he really is creative, and I am really in awe of the creative things that he does–picking up lyrics to songs he hears, singing his own “compositions,” having jam sessions on empty oatmeal cans, boxes, aluminum baseball bats–whatever’s handy. And he also likes to draw and make figures out of clay. I don’t know who he will become in life, but I hope he never loses sight of this side of him.

I have been reconnecting with the value of creativity in my life, and this blog has been a big part of that for me. Aside from wanting to share my story and inspire people to consider that you can have delicious food while eating healthy (for losing weight or maintaining weight loss), I also found it necessary to write to give myself a creative outlet.Cooking has been another creative outlet for me–scoping out ingredients at the market, playing out possible combinations and ideas in my head, and then, hot or cold, bringing them to life on a plate.

I think that part of getting settled into a healthy life is making sure that you have other sources of nourishment, not just food.

When my life whizzes by too fast for me to ensure my inner life is being fed, I’m usually also feeling stressed and prone to seeking that sense of satisfaction and nourishment through food. Knowing my penchant for eating for reasons other than hunger, I’m convinced that there are others who are languishing in eating patterns they can’t get out of because they are not feeding their creative spirit.

How often do you take time to sit and daydream? To organize thoughts for writing stories, poems, songs? How often do you let your body get lost in the groove of a song, or your hand, equipped with a paintbrush, get lost on a canvas? How often does an idea shake you out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, only setting you free when you’ve gotten it captured sufficiently in your medium of choice? How often do you crawl in to bed, exhausted after working on something you can’t let go? Some of us need to expend our energy in a similarly productive way. I think even people who don’t feel particularly creative would be surprised by how satisfying, how nourishing it feels to pull some sort of idea out of the ether, dress it in feathers of color, sound, words, movement or images, and let it take flight to inspire and comfort others.

Have you taken on other activities or challenges during the course of your weight loss journey? What are you doing? What has inspired you? How does it make you feel?