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.

Surprisingly Good Oven-Fried Fish

Have you ever had a weekend that just wasn’t long enough? I bet you have. I seem to have had too many of them in a row lately.

This past weekend, I wanted to make oven-fried catfish. I’ve made it before: Tenderize the fish in some form of dairy, dust with seasoned flour, spritz with cooking spray, bake, eat. Only it didn’t go down that way. I marinated the fish for several hours, and I seasoned some flour and dropped in the fish, but I didn’t get to actually make the fish right away. Not until the next day, in fact.

My husband was awesome enough to actually bake the fish for me, but he got a bit sidetracked, too, and ended up leaving the fish in too long. But that ended up being the final unfortunate event that made the best oven-fried catfish I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s the recipe:

2 lbs. catfish nuggets
1 c fat-free Greek yogurt
2 c flour
Seasoned salt to taste

Cover the fish with the yogurt; refrigerate it for an hour.

Wash the yogurt from the fish. Mix the flour and the seasoning; place it in a gallon size Ziploc bag. Add the fish; shake thoroughly to coat it. Refrigerate the fish mixture for several hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking pan or two with cooking spray. Add the fish, being careful not to crowd it in the pans. Spray the fish with the cooking spray. Bake for an hour, or until crispy.

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?

Quick Chicken Pot Pie

In my kitchen, I have a shelf of cookbooks, as well as a folder of recipes that I pulled from various magazines over the years. One of the recipes I’ve gone to time and again is one for chicken pot pie that was published in Essence magazine in 2004. I made the recipe early in my marriage, and it was a hit!
Then I stopped making it, because I didn’t want to get too comfy with the heavy cream that figures prominently in the sauce.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I noticed that my Chobani yogurt container said that Greek yogurt can make a nice substitute for the heavy cream. I recalled my beloved recipe from the past, and decided to try the suggested tweak.

It worked! I couldn’t taste any tell-tale yogurt sourness, just creaminess, and the other flavors in the recipe.

These days I don’t have as much time to devote to elaborate recipes–this one involved chopping vegetables, pulling chicken from bones and chopping it, and making a sauce–so I decided to experiment and see how I could make a faster, healthier chicken pot pie. I have found something that fits the bill.

Recipe

Cooked chicken (mine came from 8 pieces of chicken that I had roasted previously)

1 bag of Bird’s Eye Steamers peas and garlic sauce, heated in the microwave

1 /2 bag steamed cauliflower (mine was store brand), heated and chopped into bite-size pieces

1/2 c fat-free Greek yogurt

1 c chicken broth

1 frozen puff pastry sheet

Garlic powder, pepper, and dried (or fresh) tarragon to taste

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Take the puffy pastry sheet out of the package, unfold it, and lay it flat to thaw out.

Dice the chicken. Add the chicken, vegetables, yogurt and chicken broth to a large pan and mix the ingredients together. Add the seasonings and mix some more. Heat the mixture over medium heat until heated through.

When heated, add the mixture to a 13×9 baking pan. Top with puff pastry sheet, stretching it out as needed.

Place the pan in the oven, uncovered, and bake until the puff pastry is lightly browned and crispy, approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

When cooked, cut into 9 pieces.

Notes: to hasten up the chicken step, which took the longest by far, buy a rotisserie chicken to pick apart and dice. Or faster still, a rotisserie turkey breast, to avoid de-boning altogether. You could also try several cans of canned chicken, but I’m not the biggest fan of its taste myself.

Go with your favorite vegetables, or whatever you have on hand. You could probably get away with adding frozen vegetables, if you heat up the chicken and liquids enough first.

Double the quantity of liquid if you want something with a little more sauce.

The puff pastry box will tell you to brush the pastry sheet with a mixture of egg white and water. I don’t do that anymore, and the pastry pretty much tastes and looks the same to me.

Question of the day: Have you lightened up any of your favorite recipes? Which ones? How’d it go? If you’re a blogger, leave a link and share your story!

My Friend the Wawa Store

During this period of crazy, crazy work for me, I haven’t been cooking as much as I normally do, and that has been hard for me, in not having the same delicious options, and also in losing a creative outlet. But I had to be realistic and come to terms with the fact that I really can’t do it all. So how have I been eating for the last 3 or 4 weeks? Quite often, it was thanks to the good people at Wawa.

Wawa is a convenience store in the Midlantic region (that also has decent gas prices, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods). As far as convenience stores go (ahem, 7-11), they do have a fair amount of healthy options for breakfast and lunch. I got to know many of them very well lately.

On my way to work in the morning, there were days when I was stopping at Wawa for breakfast, lunch, and a 16-oz. jolt from kona and fat-free vanilla creamer (newly introduced there). And getting familiar with the cashiers.

What was I picking up to buy from there?

Fruit. There were some days when I was able to scrape together a reduced fat peanut butter sandwich at home, and on those days, I rounded out my breakfast at Wawa with a cup of coffee and a banana or an apple. Or, I picked up a cup of pineapple or grapes, or a fruit salad as a snack or lunch dessert.

Salad. Wawa offers a variety of salads that are packaged in bowls, with meats and cheeses separated from the lettuce until you’re ready to eat. I passed on the salad dressing and enjoyed the turkey club salad, the chef salad (sometimes ditching the egg)  and the Caesar salad (minus the croutons). I typically ate my salad with a bag of baked chips. On days when I had leftovers to zap in the microwave at work, I opted for the garden salad, tossing the chickpeas and egg.

Sandwiches. If you have time, you can build your own sandwich at Wawa and go light on (or without) the cheese and mayo, opt for whole wheat bread, or select a small roll rather than a 10-incher. If you’re short on time, their prepackaged sandwiches are decent. I typically ate the tuna sandwich or the peppered turkey and bacon sandwich, with fruit or baked chips.

Nutritionally sound carbs. There is a big selection of granola bars and meal replacement bars at Wawa. I didn’t get to really investigate the nutritional value of all of them (and I suspect some of them wouldn’t pass my protein/fiber test), but one that worked for breakfast one morning was the BelVita biscuits.

I saw them promoted in magazines and in my supermarket a couple months back, and they sounded interesting, but I paid them no further mind. But I liked what I saw for the fiber/protein content when I was looking for something different to eat at Wawa one day, and tried the Golden Oat flavor. You get four biscuits (like overgrown cookies, really) per serving, and no high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, or artificial flavors, according to their Web site. I ate them with a light yogurt (also from Wawa)  and a piece of fruit.

A lighter breakfast sandwich. There was a day or two when I felt like having a breakfast sandwich. The winner was the turkey sausage and egg white bagel sandwich. On the Weight Watchers points scale, it’s a bit more than I typically prefer to eat for breakfast, but it sure tasted good!

Despite not cooking much, and despite stressing and stretching myself thin mentally, I have maintained my 40 lbs. lost during this time. I guess I owe Wawa a big thank-you for that.

What are your favorite healthy convenience store meals/snacks?

The Wide World of Yogurt

I’ve eaten yogurt since I was a little girl–i remember my mom opening a Dannon fruit-on-the-bottom cup and me mixing the gooey, sweet, fruity goodness into the yogurt. My favorite back then was the Dutch Apple flavor (Do they still make it?), but I also loved strawberry. Boysenberry made me scratch my head in confusion (I still don’t know what a boysenberry looks like), and I avoided the lemon flavor at all costs.

The hardest choice back then was picking your favorite favor, but today it’s picking your favorite cultured dairy product, and deciding what to do with it. Here’s my take:

These days, my yogurt of choice is Greek yogurt. I like it because it has a wider range of nutrients than regular yogurt, and because it has a richer taste.

I buy the fat-free Greek yogurt and add things to out myself to spruce it up. They include:

  • Canned pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg, with Splenda
  • Honey
  • Unsweetened applesauce, with a little Splenda
  • Apples softened in the microwave and cut into chunks
  • Cereal, with or without any of the items mentioned above, usually Cheerios, Kashi Heart to Heart, or Kashi Go Lean Crunch.

Besides breakfast, Geek yogurt can be used as a substitute for sour cream, because it’s so thick. I haven’t used it in this way yet, but to save money (by way of not buying yogurt and sour cream) and to get the extra nutrition, I’d use the fat-free Greek yogurt in Mexican dishes, in mashed potatoes, and potentially in dips for vegetables and chips.

I also regularly buy kefir, which is similar to yogurt, but more runny. I have used it in place of milk in cereal (usually a smaller serving than I’d do with milk, because I haven’t been able to find fat-free kefir yet), or I just drink it as is.  I’m more likely to buy the flavored kefir than the plain.

I don’t buy regular yogurt too much anymore, unless I don’t want to pay for the extra expense of the Greek yogurt, but when I do, I use it the same way as the Greek yogurt.

Another option would be the low-calorie blended yogurt cups, with artificial sweetener. They seem like a good snack idea, because they are light, pre-portioned, and portable, but I’d rather go with a half cup of Greek yogurt myself, serving it in a half-cup size reusable plastic container.

Do you make different choices when you’re in the dairy section of your grocery store? What are your favorites? How do you use the various options?