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.

Fun With Chia Seeds

ChiaSeedsI agree with this ABC news post that chia seeds have replaced kale as the “it food” this year. These tiny seeds, which most of us are more familiar with as giving Chia Pets their “hair” or “fur,” have gotten a lot of attention for being loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. They are also chock-full of protein and fiber, for few calories.

What’s the advantage of dumping some into your food? A nutrient boost, as well as fiber to help you feel fuller longer.

I decided to buy some on my last visit to Whole Foods, and then the experiment was on. My first stop: breakfast.

I added the chia seeds to fat-free Greek yogurt, along with honey, and I topped off this breakfast bowl with diced banana and strawberries. It was delicious, as you would expect honey and Greek yogurt to be, and the chia seeds added extra crunch. (Shout-out to ripe banana and strawberries as well.)

The interesting thing about chia seeds is that they become a bit gelatinous when exposed to moisture for a bit–which explains the paste you’ve seen slathered on Chia Pet heads in the past–so you could also consider them a thickener for whatever you ChiaYogurtwant to make. It is something to get used to, and I’d think that would be what would make this a love-it-or-hate-it superfood. I didn’t mind; my yogurt got a little thicker over the course of time, but was still enjoyable, partially because despite swelling to sport a gel-like coating, the crunch doesn’t go away from the seeds.

I purchased my bag of chia seeds on sale for about 6 bucks, but a bag can hover around the $10 mark, give or take a few bucks, from what I’ve seen from the other options at Whole Foods. (I’m still on my first bag after having made several meals with chia seeds now, though, so I think it’s worth the price when on the left side of $10.) I haven’t explored yet whether chia seeds have hit the regular grocery stores of if they’re still a specialty item to be found at health food stores, but I imagine they’ll make their way to a Pathmark, Ralph’s, or Publix near you soon. (Wheat germ is still on the shelves after making its debut in 1936, according to this New York Times article, so why not?)

Chia seeds seem like they’d be a little more shelf-stable than wheat germ and, from what I understand (without having tried them), flax seeds.

Interested in adding chia seeds to your meals? Let you know what you come up with! I’ll have more recipes to share here soon myself.

Leftover Veggies Pizza

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My refrigerator is often like a jungle of commestibles, plastic and tin cans, a dense, Amazonian jumble of meals, future meal ingredients, and condiments, where no light gets through.

Sadly, from time to time, I lose something in this food jungle. I hate wasting food, but like everyone else, it does happen from time to time. I’ve been trying a little harder lately to avoid being wasteful, and the recipe I have for today is one of the things I’ve done recently toward that.

I found myself with roasted tomatoes, from this sophisticated BLT idea (though I adapted it a bit to make it more flavorful; see below). I also had extra sauteed kale (again, see below). I took these leftovers, placed then on a garlic pita, topped then with an ounce of mixed Italian cheese, and had a sublime vegetarian pizza.

Roasted Tomatoes Recipe

Four medium-to-large, or 8 small tomatoes, sliced. (The original recipe called for Roma tomatoes, but the regular ones I had on hand did just fine. I’d cut the Romas into thirds, and regular tomatoes into quarter-inch slices.

1T olive oil

Salt, garlic powder, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste

Put the sliced tomatoes in a bowl. Top with the oil and spices and mix thoroughly.

Place the tomato slices on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Place in an oven heated to 250; roast for 2 to 3 hours until desired doneness. (Mine weren’t super-dry like sun-dried tomatoes; I left in a smidge of liquid.)

Sauteed Kale Recipe

1/2 bag washed kale (next time, I’d remove the thick stems)

1/2 large onion

1 or 2 garlic cloves

1 T olive oil

1 c fat-free chicken broth

Heat the olive oil, and add the garlic and onions; cook until the onions are translucent. Add the kale in handfuls at a time. When some has wilted, add the chicken broth. Simmer until desired tenderness. (I left mine a bit crunchy still.)

Notes: if you wanted, you could add a couple slices of center-cut bacon or grilled or roasted turkey or chicken. Turkey ham our pork loin would also work.

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?

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?

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.

Whole Foods Kale Salad Copycat: Take 1

When I go to Whole Foods, one of the things I always pick up is their marinated kale from the salad bar. My body is a big fan of leafy greens like spinach and collards, so this salad, with a nutty, tahini taste, black sesame seeds, and carrots and red peppers for color contrast, hits the spot. Kale has been getting its time in the spotlight recently, thanks to its super nutritional profile. This article from WebMD, which calls kale “the queen of greens,” says the vegetable is resplendent with calcium (15% of the daily requirement!), vitamins A, B6, C, and K, as well as magnesium, copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

With Whole Foods prices being what they are, I decided to experiment with making it myself. This is what I did on my first attempt (note that I completely forgot about the carrot and pepper!), with ideas to refine it for the future.

  • 16-oz bag of cut, prewashed kale (You could also buy a bundle of whole leaves; I just didn’t find it in my grocery store.)
  • 8-10 T hummus (Go with your favorite brand/flavor, but my suggestion? Roasted garlic.)
  • 1T olive oil
  • lt

  • Lemon juice to taste (I used half a large lemon.)

What I did was to rinse the leaves again for good measure, then mix u the other ingredients. (I ended up mixing with my [extra clean] hands, because raw kale leaves are no match for any kind of spoon.) But in the future, here’s what I’d recommend:

Don’t forget the carrot and red pepper like I did! Buy a bag of shredded carrot, or shred your own. Slice the red pepper into thin strips. It’s less of a priority for me to have the sesame seeds, but add them if you want (toasted?), to taste.

Do a little more prep of the kale leaves. Most important: remove the stems. Also, chop the leaves a little more. I wouldn’t want them to be super finely chopped, but I would recommend chopping them into more bite-sized pieces.

Mix the other ingredients together as a dressing. I’m guessing on my next go-round that it’ll be much easier to mix the kale and the tahini, oil and lemon if I have mixed them together first. I’d also add a little water to the mixture, to thin it out, as the Whole Foods original dressing has a slushy consistency.

After the fact, I noticed there are others out there who share my love of the Whole Foods kale salad. Here are some of their recommendations, shared on a Whole Foods message board for another kale recipe. I like the suggestion of pairing chili powder and mango with the kale.

Do you like raw kale? How do you prepare it? What are your tips for making the tough leaves tender and tasty?