Southwest Pumpkin Corn Chowder With Bacon

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Sundays happen to be when I do most of my cooking, and it’s also the day I clean out the fridge to trash the last remaining bits of old meals or anything that I’ve (unfortunately) forgotten to cook that has passed its time of being edible.

Today I found a can of pumpkin I’d opened to make pumpkin oatmeal, and an open can of creamed corn that we’d mistakenly bought. The solution? A hearty soup.

Ingredients

1 can creamed corn
2 cups canned pumpkin
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup Newman’s Own light lime vinaigrette
1 teaspoon Adobo seasoning (or to taste)
1 tablespoon chili powder (or to taste)
1/2 cup water (or more for a thinner soup)
3 slices cooked bacon (I went with pork bacon, but you could also use turkey, beef, or soy bacon)

Place the first 7 ingredients in a saucepan; stir. Heat through over medium heat until boiling. Crumble the bacon and mix it into the soup.

Cooking music: Soul Power, by Curtis Harding. I decided that I’m going to share some of the good music that keeps me in a cooking mood after I saw Rantings of an Amateur Chef ask his readers a while back what they liked to listen to. I always have something playing and, if you’re like me, it never hurts to have good new music to listen to. Harding is a versatile artist, and this recent release runs the gamut from soul to blues and a touch of garage/punk.

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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!

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!

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!

Five Foods I’m Taking out of Retirement

Every now and then, I like to shake things up with my eating to keep myself interested and in check. One thing I realized is that there are some foods I used to lean on heavily during the early stages of my weight loss journey that I haven’t touched in quite some time. I think I’ll add them back into rotation for variety’s sake.

Five of the foods I have in mind are:

  1. Light English muffins. I used to make breakfast sandwiches with light multigrain English muffins, or eat them with soup or a salad, drizzled with olive oil and spices. But they’ve gone out of favor in my house for fat-free tortillas, whole wheat bread, and light hamburger buns. I think it’s time to re-introduce this hearty carb.
  2. Spinach. I used to tuck spinach in everywhere I could–sandwiches, soups, even burritos, or sauteed with olive oil and garlic. But before my salad experiment this year, I hadn’t touched spinach in a while (unless you count the frozen stuff that looks like it came from inside a lawn mower). Adding fresh baby spinach is quick, easy, low-calorie way to get in a lot of important nutrients. It’s high time I stop giving spinach the cold shoulder.
  3. Turkey pepperoni. Turkey pepperoni was a go-to protein snack for me at one time. I also used it on pita pizzas and in lasagna. I have a some sitting in my fridge now, and will be bagging it up for my pre-dinner snack, with fruit or veggies.
  4. Soup. In the past, I’d take light vegetable soup and add a protein (usually chicken, turkey pepperoni, turkey ham or turkey sausage), and maybe some spinach. A soup that’s made hearty on your own terms can be filling, healthy and tasty. It would make sense for me to ramp up my soup consumption again, especially now during the winter.
  5. Unsweetened applesauce. The little 1/2-cup plastic containers of no-sugar-added applesauce made a convenient snack or breakfast component. I later moved on to eating more actual fruit, but I’ve recently used unsweetened applesauce mixed in with yogurt for breakfast. I also have a jar that I’ll dole out in cup or 1/2-cup servings (dusted with cinnamon) as dessert or a snack when paired with a protein.

It can be tempting to get into a zone with foods that seem to click with your body, but it’s possible you’ll get tired of those foods after a while. I believe that no foods should be off-limits, and that certainly goes double for putting old, healthy favorites back into rotation.

Are there any foods you’re realizing that have worked for you but haven’t passed through your lips in a good while? Which ones would you bring back in a hearbeat?

Vegetarian Options

I’ve had a few conversations lately with one of my good friends about meat. Grilling as frequently as I do sustains a love I have for all things carnivorous. But as I talked about with my friend, not everyone is into regularly eating pork or beef, even the lean cuts. As he put it, in some circles, red meat consumption is best discussed in hushed tones, secret society style.

As much as I love eating the things I make on the grill, I could use some variety. Sometimes I also need a break from the poultry and seafood dishes I make. Truth be told, I have been thinking about incorporating more vegetarian meals into my life. I think my body might thank me for giving it a change of pace.

I went through a phase after college where I regularly ate vegetarian meals. I never quite strung together enough of those meals to call myself a vegetarian, but I thoroughly enjoyed the different meatless options I bought or cooked.

What kinds of things would I eat? I’d do a combination of meals with simple ingredients, and those incorporating meat substitutes. Here are some ideas: Continue reading