Barbecue Chicken Pita Pizza

I’m not too proud to buy the reduced price items at the market. In fact, I’m a bit of a proud cheapskate. Why not take advantage of sales like that when they cross my path?

It’s a fun, exhilarating game to me, to scour the market and find amazing deals on things I actually buy. (I don’t coupon because coupons typically are not for things I’d buy. Someone call me if they ever start offering produce coupons, though!)

One thing I’ve been able to find on sale consistently is pita bread. A market that I frequent has had pita on sale the last couple of times I’ve been in the store. Four for a dollar! I bought a couple bags each time.

I had been using the pita for a vegetarian lunch, of pita, hummus, and a salad, but I’ve also made pizza with the pitas as well, like I used to when I started Weight Watchers. But recently I decided to mix things up, with a barbecue chicken pizza. Here’s how:

image

Your favorite barbecue sauce, 2T

1.5-2 oz. chicken breast, diced or shredded (leftover chicken works perfectly!)

1 pita–whole wheat, plain, or garlic

1 oz. part-skim mozzarella

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread the barbecue sauce on the pita. Top with the cheese, and then the chicken. I then spritzed the pizza with a little cooking spray, to keep the chicken from drying out so much, but that’s optional.

Heat the pizza in the oven until the cheese is melted to your liking.

Notes: I first encountered barbecue chicken pizza at an Italian restaurant around my way, and they also put red onion on the pizza. That’s another option for you. In place of the barbecue sauce, you could go with light or fat-free ranch dressing–that’s another tomato sauce alternative I’ve seen for chicken pizza.

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?

Lasagna Pie

LasagnaPieI’m not a big pasta eater, but I do love the taste of ground meat, spaghetti sauce, and cheese. This led me to think of other ways I could enjoy this combination, short of diving into a bowl of the stuff with a spoon.

What I came up with was a pie. There are a lot of recipes out there for spaghetti pies, and they are delicious, but they typically don’t have an actual crust, just the baked bits of noodle that stick to the bottom of the pan.

I didn’t want to sacrifice any of the cheese or meat in that manner while trying to do this without noodles, so I opted for an actual crust. And I went with the easiest kind of crust that I could think of to that with.

Recipe

  • 1 package lean ground turkey
  • Half of a 15-oz container of fat-free ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/2 c part-skim mozzarella
  • 2 c spaghetti sauce
  • 1 tube of crescent rolls

Heat your oven to 350. Spray a pie pan with cooking spray, and form a crust out of the crescent rolls by pressing the triangles into a pie pan and up the sides..

Cook the ground turkey. I sprinkled it with garlic, oregano and dried onion, but you could also add fresh diced onion and minced garlic (or even green pepper, if you’d like). I didn’t add any salt because I knew the cheese would have pretty plenty of salt in it.

Add the cooked turkey to a mixing bowl, then mix in the ricotta, 1 c of the cheese, and 1c of the spaghetti sauce. Spread the mixture on top of the crescent roll crust.

Top the turkey mixture with the rest of the spaghetti sauce, and then the cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 20-30 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the crust turns golden brown.

Cut into 6 slices when it cools. Eat with a salad with fat-free or reduced-fat dressing to keep things reasonable.

Notes:

  • You could go with lean ground beef rather than the turkey.
  • I’d also experiment with making dough from half an envelope of just-add-water pizza crust mix, as an alternative to the buttery sweetness of the crescent rolls.

Product Review: McCormick Bruschetta Chicken Spice Blend

One fun (nosy?) thing that I like to do from time to time is to walk the aisles of grocery stores to see what new products are available, or what things I have never noticed before. A perfect place to do this is at the Walmart superstore.

I finally had enough time to really scope out the aisles, rather than zero in on a particular item, jewel thief style, to get in and out as fast as I could before going into work. Being able to browse at my own leisure, I saw a lot of interesting items.

One was this item, pictured, a packet of Italian blend spices to use on  chicken and tomatoes, to be roasted and served with pasta. I’m not sure if it was the mention of “all natural” that drew me in, (all of the ingredients have names I can pronounce) or the name conjuring up the taste of bruschetta in my mouth, but either way, this packet went home with me, for well under $2.

The recipe calls for 1 lb. of chicken, 1/3 cup of oil, 10 plum tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and pasta. I opted against the pasta when I used the packet yesterday, pairing a double measure of chicken and tomatoes with couscous instead. (I figured adding more meat and tomatoes would make better use of the substantial amount of oil called for, and provide more leftovers!)

image

Here’s what I did:

  • Cut the chicken breast into strips, as requested on the packaging. (Or you could use raw chicken tenders.) Cut the tomatoes into lengthwise quarters, also as originally requested. Placed the chicken and tomatoes in separate 13×9 baking pans, sprayed with cooking spray.
  • Mixed the seasoning with the oil, and added the vinegar at this time. (The package says to hold the vinegar to the end, when you would’ve been mixing everything with the pasta, along with 3 tablespoons of the spice mixture, but I thought using the vinegar upfront couldn’t hurt.)
  • Brushed the spice mixture over the chicken and tomatoes, and then topped with a bit of kosher salt–the mix didn’t have much salt in it. I suppose that’s a good thing, though, as spice blends are often overly salty.
  • Baked the pans in a 425-degree oven until the chicken was done, per package instructions. Let the pans cool, then attempted to dice the tomatoes as requested. But I ended up smashing the tomatoes a bit with a meat tenderizer before cutting, to avoid a juicy mess as much as possible.
  • Added the chicken and tomatoes over top of couscous cooked in the microwave. (I went with a half-cup of couscous for myself, and served the dish with sauteed spinach.)

Notes: I think McCormick’s intended recipe would be good as well, as roasting the tomatoes and mixing with pasta would yield a nice, fresh pasta sauce. They also suggested topping with parmesan, which you can never go wrong with doing!

Here are some other ideas I had:

  • If going in pasta mode: top with some slivered fresh basil.
  • If going in couscous mode: try adding golden raisins and olives to add another sweet/savory dimension.
  • I’d consider grilling the chicken, but I’d let it sit in some of the spice mixture for a bit, as a marinade. I might use a bit more balsamic (or even red wine vinegar) for a marinade.

Roasted Zucchini, Spaghetti-Style

Call it a remnant of having done the South Beach Diet more than a decade ago, but I don’t eat a lot of pasta. I guess in a Weight Watchers frame of mind, I’d rather not spend so many points on a small serving of pasta and sauce.

Thankfully I think I’ve found a good pasta alternative, in zucchini. I was inspired to make this by a recipe in an old issue of Weight Watchers magazine. The recipe called it zucchini fettucine, but used raw ingredients and a vinaigrette-type dressing to make a salad. I took my version to the oven, though, and dressed it up like your garden variety wheat noodles.

Recipe:

  • 4 zucchini, peeled of skin
  • Minced garlic to taste
  • 1T olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 to 3/4c of your favorite spaghetti sauce
  • Shredded parmesan (optional)
  • Shredded basil (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350. Take a vegetable peeler and shave the zucchini into strips. Stop peeling when you hit the seeds.

Toss the zucchini with the oil, garlic and salt and pepper. Place in an oven-safe pan and roast until mostly tender, but with a little chewiness still.

Add your pasta sauce after taking the zucchini out of the oven. Top individual servings with 1-2T parmesan and a bit of the basil, if desired.

Notes: Leaving behind the skin and the seedy center, I got approximately two 1/2-cup servings out of this recipe. My suggestion would be to double this recipe for leftovers!

Looking into the nutritional value of zucchini, the Whole Foods Web site says that zucchini may retain more of its nutrients when it’s cooked by steaming. I think I’ll try that when I make this again.

Kick Up the Flavor to Eat Less?

I read an interesting New York Times article a few weeks back, which said that people may be less likely to overeat if they are eating foods with strong flavors. The theory, posed by food author Peter Kamitmsky, is explored in his new book, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (and Really Well). He shares the idea of FPC, or flavor per calorie, encouraging people to eat more foods that have bold flavors in fewer calories (and to avoid high-calorie foods that are more bland).

Foods he likes: anchovies, chickpeas, capers, plain yogurt, olive oil, roasted almonds, bacon, butter, Italian sausage and dark chocolate. The New York Times author points out that Kaminsky is promoting small quantities of some of these foods, like a few crumbles of sausage or bacon in a lentil stew.

I don’t think this concept is suggesting something totally off the wall. I agree that it’s more satisfying to eat foods that richly satisfy the taste buds, and it’s definitely important to find the intersection of flavor and modest nutritional profile to avoid weight gain. Here are a couple of ideas I’ve tried out recently to do just that:

Jalapeno mustard: I found this in the market, and as a lover of spicy foods, I had to give it a whirl. It tastes like regular yellow mustard, but with a lot more attitude. One teaspoon is 0 calories.

Salad rocking the jalapeno mustard vinaigrette, with a lunch of black-eyed peas and ham with rice.

What I’ve done with the mustard so far is to use it in a relatively light vinaigrette: 2T of the mustard, mixed with 1/2 T agave nectar and 1 T apple cider vinegar. It made a slightly sweet, all-bold presence in a salad made of spring greens, grape tomatoes and vidalia onion. I think it would also be good on a turkey hot dog, served on a light hamburger bun. Add pickled jalapenos to give it even more punch. I’d also like to try making a potato salad, with the jalapeno mustard in place of good old yellow, and some southwest spices, to take this picnic classic into a new direction.

Balsamic vinegar: I have had balsamic vinegar in my house for a long time, occasionally using it in sauces for chicken dishes, and making a pretty standard salad vinaigrette out of it. I love the rich, subtly tangy taste of it, but I didn’t know what else to do with it. Then I got a mint plant, and I my brain pulled into focus on a simple dessert idea that many people enjoy: strawberries and balsamic vinegar.

A handful of sliced ripe strawberries; a few leaves of mint, shredded; a packet of Splenda, and a teaspoon of the balsamic vinegar is all you need. Mix the ingredients together, and enjoy the complex richness of this simple meal-ender.

I second Kaminsky’s suggestions for bacon and dark chocolate. I’d also add cheese to that list. A tablespoon of real bacon bits on a salad can be yours for 30 calories. A small piece of dark chocolate, alone or with fruit, is a good dessert or pick-me-up snack. The same goes for an ounce of a flavorful cheese, like a smoked gouda, chipotle cheddar, or havarti with dill. You could eat the cheese with an apple to make this snack a little more substantial.

Spaghetti With Chicken and Tuscan Vegetables

I am not the biggest pasta eater in the world, but I was looking for a change of pace with meals for this week. This recipe was inspired by a sale on the Tuscan vegetables at my supermarket.

Recipe

  • Chicken breast tenders (I grilled a 2.5-oz bag of raw tenders, but I intended to have leftovers for other uses. You should count on having 3-4 oz of chicken for each pasta serving. Also, rather than grill your own chicken, you could buy a package or two of Italian flavor precooked, sliced chicken breast.)
  • 1/2 box of spaghetti (I used whole wheat thin spaghetti, but go with your favorite.)
  • 3 boxes of Pictsweet Tuscan Vegetable Medley (or 2 boxes of Bird’s Eye Tuscan Vegetables in Herbed Tomato Sauce)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup of spaghetti sauce per serving (This will be needed for the Pictsweet vegetables, but not necessarily for the Bird’s Eye brand vegetables, as the Bird’s Eye ones are prepared in a tomato sauce.)

Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Grill or heat through the chicken. Heat each individual package of vegetables in the microwave according to package instructions.

Serve 1/2 cup of pasta with 3-4 oz. of chicken. Add a serving of vegetables, and then your pasta sauce, if you’re using it. Mix well.

Notes: I marinated the chicken breast for a few hours in a mixture of salt, pepper, oregano, minced garlic, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Rather than go with a tomato sauce for the pasta, you could experiment with garlic and olive oil instead. You could also top this dish with cheese, if you’d like–parmesan or mozzarella. Another possible addition to this meal: a salad or a side of spinach or broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and olive oil.