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?

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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?

The 10-lb. Ham Challenge: Two Days, Seven Recipes

Around Easter time, I learned that I qualified for a free ham from my grocery store. But I had no plans to cook it for the holiday, so off it went to my freezer.

Every market day since then, I found myself staring at the 10-lb. ham in my freezer when I went to store other items, marveling at how much space it was taking up. This past weekend, I vowed to do something about it. I brainstormed and made a list of recipes, gathered some necessary groceries, thawed and boiled the ham, and made these items. (Note: If you don’t happen to have a 10-lb. ham lying around, don’t eat ham, or want to make these dishes a little lighter, you could substitute in turkey ham instead.)

About 2lbs. of the ham have been accounted for at this point.

Split Pea Soup

I made the soup to the specifications of my recipe using turkey ham, just substituting in a pound of the ham and using the water from the ham in place of water or fat-free chicken stock. (Next time I think I’ll do half ham water, half regular water, or just the chicken stock, to lessen the fat content.)

Ham and Apple Salad

  • 2-3 oz. ham, diced
  • 1 oz. of a smoky and/or sharp cheese–I went with gouda
  • 1/2 Granny Smith apple, diced (Go with your preference for peeling. I kept the skin on.)

Add the ingredients on top of a bed of spinach (as I did) or lettuce. I ate it without dressing, but if I had it handy, I would’ve used low-fat honey mustard dressing. Thinly sliced red or white onion also would’ve been a nice addition.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

This one also uses the recipe I usually use for turkey ham. The only substitution this time was using the ham.

Ham and Pineapple Grilled Cheese Sandwich

This is similar to an earlier recipe I posted, with bacon and fat-free American cheese. This time, I’ve used the ham instead and given a foodie-worthy upgrade to the other fillings.

The before pic.

  • 2 oz. ham, thinly sliced
  • 1 light hamburger bun
  • 1 slice smoked cheddar
  • 2 thinly sliced pineapple rings
  • 1T I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light

Preheat a nonstick pan to medium-high. Separate the bun halves. (You’re going to use the bun inside out, so the butter toasts the bread better.)

Add the slice of cheese. Top with a pineapple slice. Add the ham, then the other pineapple slice, and close the sandwich.

Spread 1/2T of the butter spread on one of the buns (again, on the white side, not the brown side). Add the sandwich to the pan, butted side down, pressing down on it a bit. Add the rest of the spread to the unbuttered bun half at this time. Flip the sandwich when the part that’s cooking is brown enough. Repeat with the other side.

The after pic.

Notes: The only thing I’d change with this would be to let the pineapple get to room temperature. Mine came from the fridge and it didn’t get warm, even though the cheese did melt.

Jerk Ham and Pineapple Hash

  • 1lb ham, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • Approximately 2c diced pineapple (fresh or canned in juice and drained)
  • 4-5T jerk marinade
  • 4-5T apricot preserves
  • 2T balsamic vinaigrette

Heat the onion in a pan (with or without oil) until it’s translucent. Add the ham; heat through.

Mix the marinade, preserves and vinegar together while the ham and onions are heating. Add the pineapple to the pan once the ham mixture is heated through. Pour the jerk mixture into the meat mixture; heat everything through.

Notes: I used the vinegar because I didn’t have a full bottle of jerk marinade. But if I did, I would’ve used two more tablespoons of the marinade and omitted the vinegar. (The vinegar didn’t dramatically alter the taste of the sauce, though.)

Serve the hash over brown or white rice or whole wheat or regular couscous, or as is, with a starch vegetable. Another interesting idea: Serve it as a burrito/wrap sandwich, with black beans and rice or arroz con grandules.

Creamy Spaghetti With Ham and Garlic Peas

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I was inspired to make this by a gigantic pasta cookbook I got as a wedding present. Pasta with ham, peas and a heavy cream sauce or a boatload of parmesan cheese seems to be a beloved Italian meal; this is my attempt at making something skinny and also quick to bring to the table. (Again, using turkey ham instead of pork would lighten things up a bit more.)

  • 1/2 lb. of ham
  • 1 package Birds Eye Steam Fresh Garlic Baby Peas & Mushrooms
  • 1/2 jar light Alfredo sauce (I went with Classico, but Ragu makes it, too.)
  • 1/2 package whole wheat spaghetti

Cook and drain the spaghetti. Heat the vegetables in the microwave according to package instructions, then heat the ham in the microwave in a microwave-safe container.

Mix the pasta, ham, vegetables and sauce together. Voila!

Note: I typically don’t cook with Alfredo sauce and I was a little afraid scorching it, so I didn’t heat it up. Feel free to heat it if you’d like. Also, in researching it a bit, many recipes I’ve seen use a chunky pasta, like shells or bowties, or fettuccine over thin spaghetti; you can always go with your favorite pasta shape.

Epilogue: After making these recipes over the course of two days, I set aside a pound of ham for miscellaneous use (including omelets and other salads), and I gave the remainder to my mother, along with some of these things I made. In the future, before freezing the ham, I think I’ll cut it into 1-lb. and 1/2-lb portions, using my food scale as my guide.

I doubt I’ll find myself in this predicament again, but at least I know there are simple ways for me to make a ham disappear!

Slow Cooker Barbecue Pulled Turkey

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This is another simple way I’ve made use of turkey thighs. In the past, I might have just dumped a bottle of barbecue sauce over the raw thighs and called it a day, but in the interest of refining the taste and cutting back on the sugar and calorie content of the barbecue sauce, here’s what I’ve started doing lately:

  • 2 turkey thighs
  • 1 cup barbecue sauce
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • Barbecue spice rub, to taste (I probably used a tablespoon or 2)
  • Minced garlic to taste

Add the turkey thighs to the slow cooker. In a bowl, mix together the barbecue sauce, vinegar, liquid smoke, spice rub and minced garlic, and pour the mixture over the turkey. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, or until meat is tender. Remove skin, shred with forks, and add back to the remaining sauce, mixing well.

Serve 3-3.5 oz of the meat on light hamburger buns. You could top the meat on the bun with 1/4 cup cole slaw, if you’d like. I ate the sandwich with 1 oz. of light potato chips and 1/2 unsweetened applesauce on the side.

It All Started With Chicken and Salsa

While tooling around on Pinterest, I found a recipe for slow cooker cilantro lime chicken, originally from the Pip & Ebby Web site. It sounded like an easy, flavorful recipe, and so I decided to try it out.

But I realized I didn’t have lime juice or cilantro, so I remixed the recipe as follows:

  • 6 chicken breast halves
  • 24-oz jar of salsa
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • Chili powder to taste
  • Garlic powder to taste
  • Cumin to taste

I placed the chicken and the salsa in the slow cooker and added the onion and spices after the fact, but next time I think I’ll add the chicken and onion first and mix the spices into the salsa before pouring it on top of the chicken. In any event, I cooked it on low for 7 hours.

Once the chicken was ready, I deviated from the recipe again by shredding the chicken, taking the breasts out of the sauce and storing the sauce separately.

And this is where the fun starts. I have 10 ideas for using up the savory chicken you get from this recipe:

  1. Eat it over rice, mixed with some of the sauce.
  2. Add it to a fat-free tortilla for a burrito. With the chicken you could add rice, fat-free refried beans, or veggies. You could also smear the tortilla with a tablespoon or 2 of guacamole (or reduced fat guacamole, made with avocado and green peas), queso or fat-free sour cream (or fat-free Greek yogurt) as a condiment.
  3. Use it for tacos. Hard shell or soft, with or without reduced fat cheese and/or lettuce and tomato.
  4. As a salad. Eat 3 oz. of the chicken with 1 oz. of reduced fat cheddar and additional salsa and guacamole/sour cream. Top with baked tortilla chips, or eat them on the side.
  5. Tortilla soup. Pour a cup of chicken broth into a bowl, add a bit of the reserved sauce from the chicken (approximately 1/8 of a cup). Add 2-3 ounces of chicken, and some finely diced red onion (optional). Crumble in baked tortilla chips (about 1/2 ounce) . Heat through in the microwave. Mix in reduced fat cheddar if you’d like.
  6. Nachos. Top baked tortillas with 3 oz. of the chicken, and top that combination with queso sauce and guacamole, sour cream and/or salsa.
  7. Quesadillas. Add the chicken and some reduced-fat cheddar (1/2 to 1 oz.) to one half of a fat-free tortilla. Fold the tortilla in half, and heat both sides on a grill or in a nonstick pan sprayed with cooking spray until crisp. Cut into wedges.
  8. Baked flautas. Roll the chicken up in small tortillas (I think flour would probably work best, but go with corn if you have them), and place them in a baking dish. Spray with cooking spray. Heat in a 400-degree oven until crisp.
  9. Enchiladas. Heat the reserved sauce, and dip corn tortillas in it. Add some of the chicken to each tortilla; roll up the tortillas and place them in a baking dish. Top with any remaining sauce, and reduced fat cheddar. Bake in a 350 oven until everything is heated through and the cheese is melted.
  10. Lasagna. Spread half a 24-oz jar of salsa in the bottom of a 13×9 baking pan. Mix a container of fat-free ricotta cheese with taco seasoning (or salt, garlic, cumin and chili powders to taste) and 4 ounces of cheddar cheese. Top the sauce in the pan with 3 uncooked whole wheat lasagna noodles. Add half of the cheese mixture on top of the noodles; top with the chicken. Add another layer of 3 lasagna noodles, then cheese mixture and chicken. Top with three more noodles, the remaining sauce, and them 4 more ounces of cheddar. Bake in a 350-degree oven until the noodles are tender, approximately 35-40 minutes.

If you’ve read through my blog, you probably notice that I talk about Mexican food a lot. There’s just something about the spices that I love! And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a big fan of cilantro, either. I will enjoy these recipes; I hope you do, too!

Did I miss any of your favorites? What do you do with Mexican-spiced chicken? Thanks for sharing!

Two Days, Four Meals, Few Hours

I am a firm believer in cooking the majority of my food. But when you do that, you have to have a good plan to get everything done as efficiently as possible.

Here’s what I did this past weekend to get together meals for lunch and dinner. The things I made were two types of chicken breast, turkey kielbasa, a Cajun-spiced turkey dish, two types of rice, and pasta for my son. And then I made dessert! Here’s the chef’s log:

Saturday morning: started the Cajun turkey. This is a slow-cooker dish that became easier because I didn’t have onions or peppers on hand to chop. I placed two turkey thighs, skin on, in the slow cooker, topped them with a large can of crushed tomatoes, and added Cajun spice and onion powder. I let the meat go for 10 hours, checking in and mixing occasionally.

Saturday evening: I took the thighs out off the sauce and discarded the skin, gristle and bones. I shredded the turkey with two forks, then returned it to the slow cooker. That didn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Sunday morning: I marinated the chicken. There were 16 breast tenders in the package; I put 8 in a bag with hot sauce and canola oil, then the other 8 in a bag with apple cider vinegar, oil and Adobo seasoning. I shook the bags and placed them in the refrigerator. That didn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Sunday afternoon: I started the white rice for my husband in a slow cooker, with a 32-oz box of chicken broth and some butter. I refrigerated the rice when it was  finished. Prep time was approximately 5 minutes.

Sunday evening: to grill the chicken and kielbasa, I started my indoor electric grill. While it was heating up, I started jambalaya rice in the microwave: two boxes of rice and seasonings, water, and some oil. I covered the container and let the rice cook for 25 minutes.

With the grill hot, I grilled one batch of chicken, then the other. Then, I grilled the kielbasa. It took maybe 45 minutes to an hour to thoroughly cook the meat. In the middle of doing this, I boiled the pasta water and then cooked and drained the pasta.

In the meantime the jambalaya rice finished cooking, but I heated it for another five minutes. I also mixed up a batch of diet Coke brownies and put them in the oven. They were the last thing to finish cooking.

As far as vegetables, I had heated a steamer bag of spinach earlier in the day, for breakfast. I will need to heat another bag of vegetables later this week.

Without a lot of effort, I was able to cook several meals for the week. The things that saved me time were the slow cooker, rice cooker, grill and microwave. Also helpful were the carton of chicken stock, the can of tomatoes, the large package of chicken, and the pre-seasoned jambalaya rice boxes.

This was the strategy I used to feed my family and save time. What divide and conquer strategies do you use?