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.

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:

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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!

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?

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

Six-Word Weight Loss Stories

As an avid user of Twitter, I’ve come across six-word stories before. The grandchildren of an Ernest Hemingway urban legend that has eluded verification, six-word stories and the clear meaning packed into the meager word count are perfect for the Twitterverse.

I decided to try my hand at six-word stories related to weight loss, as an elevator pitch of inspiration and encouragement for my fellow “losers.”

Here’s an anthology of these stories for you. I think I will add to this list from time to time. Please check back, and feel free to share yours, too!

For undercover nutrition, just add spinach.

Always plan to have a snack.

No-fat yogurt; low-fat cheese.

Omelets for a quick, easy breakfast.

Depriving yourself is a dangerous thing.

Want French fries? Bake them. Seriously.

An indoor grill: a valuable investment.

Always avoid in-a-rut eating.

Don’t forget to drink your water.

If you like it, eat more seafood.

You control your eating, not others.

Reward weight loss occasionally, but meaningfully.

Food is not a good reward.

Filling snacks have protein and fiber.

Use measuring tools for honest eating.

When you want chocolate, eat chocolate.

Portion control and moderation are key.

Salad dressing is not a necessity.

Have a dining out game plan.

Slow and steady loses the weight.