Category Archives: food

Sweet Potato Ravioli and stocking up

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Today I spent my Labor Day laboring away in my kitchen. I didn’t really mind. I like good, homemade food and I like cooking so I decided to stock up my freezer.

First off, I decided to make sweet potato ravioli. I had cooked up two sweet potatoes (just stuck them in the crock pot) for sweet potato enchiladas (yum) and only used one so I decided to use the second one for ravioli filling. I mashed up the sweet potatoes (I probably had about a cup and a half ), added about 2/3 cup ricotta, a 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and about 1/3 cup chopped walnuts.

I used the pasta recipe that came with my ravioli mold (well worth the $15 I spent on it) and made 48 ravioli which are now sitting in my freezer.

Couple of hints for on making ravioli – first off, get the mold if you intend to make it more than once. I mean, look how pretty those little puffs of pasta are. Plus, you don’t waste so much dough. My first try at ravioli was hilarious – they were all wonky and the dough to filling ratio was way off.

 Second, make sure that you use water or egg to seal your edges. I’ve had ravioli filling spill out when cooking and water downed ravioli is not the best.

Inevitably I have pasta dough left over. I hate waste so I roll it out and take my pizza cutter and slice it up into misshapen noodles. Then I set them out on a baking rack and let them dry overnight. Homemade pasta is always good.

I actually enjoy these days when I stock up my pantry/freezer. I rarely buy prepared foods. I usually cook from scratch breakfast, lunch (mostly leftovers) and dinner. It’s taken me about a year to really get into my cooking grove, but it has paid off tremendously. And except for labor intensive stuff like ravioli, most of my meals do not take a lot of time. I’m a working mom and with a little thought, some handy made-ahead meals and a selection of well-loved recipes, it takes me just as much time to make dinner as it would to run to the fast food joint and buy it. While I have spent a lot of money on groceries, careful planning and cooking from ingredients I have on hand has kept my food bill down.

After I made ravioli, I went outside and got some basil from my basil bush and made a batch of pesto. One of the secrets to good pesto is to toast your pine nuts. Then I used my small ice cream scoop (it’s about an inch wide – it works great for filling the ravioli also) and scooped the pesto onto a baking sheet lined with freezer paper and popped it into the freezer also. Once my little pesto balls were frozen, I put them into a plastic freezer zip lock bag.  The trick to getting all the air out is to put a straw into the bag and close it up to the straw then suck as much air out as you can. Quickly pull out the straw and finish closing the bag.

My final project was to make some peach muffins for my son’s breakfast.

All together a pretty productive day!

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Today in Health and Fashion

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Came across two very interesting articles today.  This one is about fashion and recycling clothes. Apparently a machine/sorter is in the works that would be able to take those discarded clothes you either throw away or give to charity and sort them by fiber so that they can be shredded and rewoven into new fabric. The article also gives some very good statistics about the inherent waste in the fashion industry.

Here’s my question – why aren’t more people trying to embrace sustainability? From where I am sitting, this is a problem that is just waiting for some creativity and innovation. New jobs, cleaner communities, healthier workers, I mean why are people fighting this? It is so ripe with opportunity. We have the technology to put men (and women) in space, why can’t we figure out a viable economic solution to the problems that are rampant in the fashion industry? Or in any unsustainable industry. for that matter.

Thanks to facebook, I saw another article today about the link between heart disease and our current diet. Read it here. I’ve overhauled my diet a lot over the past year. I rarely eat processed food. Most of my food is fresh and homemade (the closest I come to process food is my yogurt – although I must confess to a rather long stretch of eating Amy’s Broccoli and Cheese pot pies – YUM). I’m enjoying my food, I’m enjoying cooking my food and I don’t crave sweets and I even use less salt (I was a saltaholic). For me a treat is fresh, seasonal fruit or adding dates to my morning oatmeal. Anyway, it will be interesting to see in the coming years how this all plays out with big agribusiness.

 

Independence Day – Vegan Style!

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Cooking has become a new pleasure for me and using the freshest ingredients that I can find is important. Luckily summer brings the farmer’s market and while the variety isn’t all that great, the quality of the products are.

This tasty little lunch is a fried polenta with a tomato/bean salad. I used a basic polenta recipe – no cheese – and made a very small batch last night. This morning I threw together some olives, white beans (I used cannellin beans) capers, red onion, garlic, cherry tomatoes and my very own basil. Then I mixed up some olive oil and red wine vinegar, added it to the mix and let it marinade for an hour at room temperature.

I cut my polenta into four pieces and pan fried them in some olive oil, plated the salad and put the polenta on top. It was a very satisfying meal.

The other night I made some barley and used it in place of rice for a bunch of vegetables I had sauteed. I have never made barley as a stand alone dish, I’ve always added it to soups. My water to grain ratio was definitely off. The barley turned out too mushy – I would have prefered that it still have a little tooth to it.

On the note of cooking – I’ve started exploring some of the ethnic markets near my house. I picked up a huge bag of red lentils and some dates (dates are nature’s candy) at an Indian grocer for a lot less than my neighborhood market sells it.  They also had huge bags of rice, duram flour (good for pasta dough) and tons of spices. 

I wasn’t an adventurous cook in the past and it is too bad because I am finding some wonderful flavors.

I’m a Hypocrite

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I’ve talked about eating healthier, avoiding processed food and cutting back on sugar and having done so I present you with this:

CAKE BALLS! They really have no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever. And if that isn’t bad enough, I must confess to these also:

The best brownies known to man. I would hang my head in shame but these little treats were made for a theater group that I just started volunteering for. They are doing a reading this weekend with a wine and cheese spread and I thought they also needed some desserts.

Doing my part to support the arts!

The joys of home cooking

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Food is central to all of our lives.  My own relationship with food has had its ups and downs over the years. When I was younger it could create wonderful memories, such as going to my grandmother’s and getting a slice of her homemade banana cake, complete with buttercream frosting. I still make that recipe.

Or it could be a punishment. I also remember when I was about 7 years old sitting at our kitchen table well past dinnertime, locked in a battle of wills because I wouldn’t finish eating my lima beans (I still won’t eat lima beans).

During my teens and early 20’s food was the only thing I seemed to be able to control in my life and it turned into an eating disorder. It wasn’t until a boyfriend checked himself into a rehab facility for alcoholism that I decided to face my own demons. It was an uncomfortable battle. You can live without alcohol but you can’t live without food and it probably took me a year to learn how to eat properly and listen to my body so I wouldn’t overindulge.

I’ve gone through many phases with food. Given what I now know about the relationship between what you eat and your health and information on how our food supply is being corrupted by greedy corporations, I am trying to be a more mindful consumer and cook.  What I’ve learned along the way, and I’m sure I have more to learn, is that your food budget doesn’t have to skyrocket to eat healthy, fresh, unprocessed, home cooked meals and you don’t have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing a meal if you don’t want to. I, however, find cooking relaxing and meditative and I love looking in my freezer and seeing the rewards of all of my hard work and none of it has an ounce of pink slime in it.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1.Learn to cook with the ingredients you have on hand. Look in your cupboard and fridge and my bet is that you can make a meal out of what you already have. I love sweet potatoes and wanted to do some baking with them. I often put them in waffles but decided to make some sweet potatoe burgers (which ended up being pancakes because I got a little too heavy-handed with the blender…) I bought 3 sweet potatoes figuring I’d throw them in the crock pot. What I didn’t realize is how much sweet potates I would end up with. I made the above mentioned pancakes, two different kinds of sweet potato bread and sweet potato muffins. I froze both loaves of bread for breakfast at a later date.

2. Use the internet. I heard about a website that will create a recipe based on ingredients you have on hand. Allrecipes.com is a great website, if not just for the comments section. When I have a leftover ingredient (such as the sweet potatoes), I’ll go on there to see my options. After reading the comments section on this site, I know how I can improvise the recipe to suit my needs or ingredients.

3. Figure out what your staples are and keep them on hand. If they go on sale, stock up. Staples for me are flour, olive oil, grains (rice, barley, quinoa, oatmeal) beans, pasta, vegetable stock, canned tomato products, eggs, butter, sugar (I cook alot of quick breads/muffins for my son for breakfast instead of the sugary breakfast cereals) and my go-to spices.  

4. Plan ahead. It takes less than an hour to scope out the pantry and fridge to figure out what you have and plan at least a week’s worth of meals. Planning really helps cut back the amount of money you spend at the grocery store. I only have to feed two people but almost every meal we eat is home cooked. When I first started out I just assumed that my food bill would be high. Once I started planning out my meals and sticking to my shopping list, I found that I was able to reduce my food bill but it also streamlined my time in the kitchen.

5. Double the recipe or cook and freeze. I work full-time and usually do my grocery shopping on the weekend. When I come home, I’ll usually spend some time preparing meals in advance for the week such as mixing up a couple of batches of muffins for my sons breakfast, some will go in the freezer. Or I will double a recipe – have it for a meal that night and freeze the rest for later.

6. Use a crockpot. Talk about a time saver, just throw the ingredients in the morning and turn it on and come home to dinner. I love it for cooking potatoes and if it’s great for cheaper cuts of meat (if you gotta eat meat, that is).

7. Find meat alternatives. Beans, quinoa and tofu are all good sources of protein and less expensive than meat. They are also better for you.

Time is not the problem

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About 3 months ago I cancelled my cable. I don’t watch T.V. anymore. For a long time now I have realized that the idiot box was taking up way too much of my time and energy and I got tired of the paying for the privilege of watching the same 90’s movies and “reality” (or as I like to call it AWDQ – attention whore drama queens) T.V. I freed up $1200 a year.

Everyone complains about not having enough time. Now that my TV is gone (physically the TV is still here, my son plays video games on it and we do check out movies from the library) what I have discovered is a wealth of time. And I think many more people would find more time if they gave up their mind-numbing bad habits (mine was TV and I bet for the majority of others, it is also TV, but your’s could be different). I know that there are people out there that are really strapped for time, working 2 jobs, taking care of small children, etc. I get it. But for most of us it’s not that we don’t have enough time (though that’s our excuse), it’s that we aren’t mindful of how we are spending our time (mindfulness is a word that keeps popping up for me). You sit down for just a minute to relax, catch the news and then you’ll be productive. Problem is, you get sucked into the meaningless garbage and become unaware that 4 hours just flew by and it’s time to go to bed. So the problem isn’t really time, or lack of.

I read somewhere that people who watch a lot of TV enter into a sort of low-grade depression. I don’t find this hard to believe. Most shows are not upbeat. And even if they are, watching them is a passive activity and I don’t think a fulfilling, meaningful life comes from being passive. Life is about doing – doing things that challenge you, that make you move, that are fun, that contribute to the well-being of others – in others words, being involved

Sure, when the TV first went blank on that fateful day, I did spend my fair share of time on the internet. But then I started getting more involved with my life, asking myself the big questions like how do I really want to spend my days, what is really important to me and what can I do without. It’s led me to two very big changes. The first is that while working a full-time job I have decided to start a small business. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I have tried before but I let my fears get in the way. I’m taking baby steps but I am moving forward. The books by Robert Fritz (The Path of Least Resistance and You’re Life as Art are two good ones) have really helped me frame it – it’s not about me, it’s about bringing something that I love into being.

The other change is I spend more time cooking. I’ve always loved to bake, but cooking, especially in the days when I was catering to very different tastes and having my own preferences mocked, didn’t bring me joy. Now I am having fun trying different flavors and creating nutritious meals from scratch, watching my freezer fill up with the fruits of my labor. I am excited for spring to come so I can buy my produce in season from local businesspeople at the Farmer’s Market. I will learn how to preserve what I can’t use right away. My first experiment will be in making my own yogurt using a crock pot. Maybe this winter I’ll be eating my own yogurt sweetened with fruit that I have preserved from summer’s harvest. How sweet will that be? 

Very sweet, indeed.

Tuesday’s Top Ten: Reasons to go Vegan

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Disclosure: I am not a vegan. My explorations into the vegan world are proving that it’s not just for the “crunchy granola” crowd anymore and here’s why, in no particular order:

1. Variety. Some people complain, bemoan and generally make fun of my eating habits, which have been unconventional since birth (I was the kid that snacked on carrot sticks and celery). Going out to eat can be a nightmare, in their eyes, because I’m such a “picky eater”. The truth is they are the picky eaters and most restaurants cater to their limited idea of food – meat, fat-laden processed cheese, starch and refined, nutitionless, empty calorie carbs (I’m looking at you bread and chips). Check out any chain restaurant and you’ll see that most items on their menu are a variation of the same dish.  Even if they offer a salad, it is heavy on meat and cheese and light on veggies. Usually the only veggie in the so-called salad is iceburg lettuce and it is drowned in dressing. Let’s not forget the two wedges of tomatoes they stick in there for good luck.

My initial foray into veganism has produced meals that are rich in variety, flavor and nutrients (but we’ll get to that in a minute). I have (real) oatmeal enriched with nuts, raisins, wheat germ and flax seed topped off with almond milk for breakfast. Snacks (I try to abide by the E.L.M.O. diet – eat more less often) consist of things like peanuts and raisins (you should always have a carb and protein), apple and organic (i.e. no sugar added) peanut butter, hummus and crackers, lunch has been things like peanut and tofu cutlets (served with a salad or assorted roasted veggies) and quinoa salad. I also have made a cold pasta salad (silken tofu was the base for the dressing) and carmelized tofu with pecans and brussel sprouts (yes, I like brussel sprouts – remember I was that kid). I found the most DIVINE black bean soup recipe. I buy fruit on sale and freeze it for smoothies. Gathering recipes I realize there are tons of different types of veggie burgers (sweet potato, quinoa, black bean, white bean, etc) and I’m itching to try every one of them.

A wonderful resource has been the cookbook 1000 Vegan Recipes by Robin Robertson. It’ll be a long time before I make my way through it.

2. Cheaper. Now I know a lot of you are saying there is no way buying organic food is cheaper. My little 11 oz. jar of organic peanut butter cost as much as the store brand 4 lb jar, so how can I claim it is cheaper. I’m looking at the full cost of our diets, not just the dollar amount we spend purchasing the food, but the impact on the environment and on our health and well-being (my peanut butter has no HFCS, just peanuts and oil). Plus, with a little practice and planning, it can be cheaper or at least cost the same. But it will take some diligence on your part. Buy in season and learn how to preserve it for future use (I buy fruit on sale and then freeze it for muffins or smoothies). Tofu and beans are a cheaper and more nutritious protein source than meat (read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” or watch “Forks over Knives” for a look at the mess our meat industry is making of our planet, our economy and our health). Not everything in a vegan diet is expensive or has to be organic.  And if you really want to cut costs, start a garden. Will it take more time? As with any new habit, probably. But as you learn and it will become easier.

3. Healthier. I read somewhere that 75% of our nation’s health problems are lifestyle related – what we ingest (food, cigarettes, alcohol) and what we do (exercise or not)  cause our illnesses. How many times have you heard the story of someone who loses weight and goes off of all of their blood pressure or diabetes medication?  Eating foods that are unprocessed (of course there are vegans who still have bad eating habits – pretzels and potato chips are vegan, after all) is just better for you. Those hormones they inject in cows to get them to grow faster and the antibiotics they are fed so that they can eat their unnatural diet of corn (cows are meant to graze on grass, not eat corn) all end up in the hamburger patty you eat, along with who-knows-what else.

4. Better for the Environment. Do you really want to do something to help global warming?  Quit eating meat. More methane gas is produced because of our demand for meat than car exhaust. I don’t know the exact figures but they are out there.

5. Stop world hunger. So many of our limited natural resources are spent growing corn to feed cattle (who aren’t suppose to eat it anyway), what if we were to divert those resources to growing food for people to directly eat? Novel idea, I know.

6. Internet. The internet has given us a wealth of information at our fingertips, including delicious recipes. Growing up, the only vegetarian cookbooks I saw were for Indian food (which I am not a big fan of) but today there are so many yummy ideas out there – I can’t wait to try the roasted garbanzo beans. And there are sites that will take the ingredients you have on hand and find a recipe for you, which helps you out with item #2.

7. Lose/maintain weight. As I said before, you can be a vegan and still eat like crap, but if you really try to embrace it, you will find that extra weight no longer becomes an issue probably because…

8. Break your addictions. Eating vegan just goes hand in hand with eating less prepared/preserved foods. All those Lean Cuisine and fast food burgers are full of fats and/or processed sugars (HFCS). The thing about these ingredients is that they create a never-ending craving for more. Sugar begets more sugar and next thing you know, you’re on your way to weight-related illnesses like diabetes. I have to say that I have been fortunate in that when I have too much sugar, I start looking for a carrot or celery stick because it’s just too much for me. But for the majority of people, these foods trigger something in their brains that makes them crave more – it creates an addiction. The only way to break the cycle is to quit eating those foods. When I first started eating organic peanut butter I thought it tasted strange. But I got used to it and now when I eat regular peanut butter I am amazed at how much it tasted like sugar, not like peanuts.

9. No artificial ingredients. If you need a science degree to understand your food label, should you really be eating it? Is processed really better than fresh? Should high fructose corn syrup really be in everything we eat?

10. Mindfulness. I think the Europeans have it right. A meal is a pleasure to be savored with people you enjoy. Being a vegan means being mindful about what you eat, which will hopefully make you mindful of eating, period. If your car has more food crumbs than your kitchen, that’s a problem. We are all busy, I get it. But are we really that busy all the time? Do you have time to sit in front of the T.V. every evening? Then you have time to gather your family, involve them in the food preparation and create not only nutritious meals, but deeper relationships as you bond over your day and make memories. Don’t expect perfection, just enjoy the company, laugh at the spills and bask in the warmth of your loved ones.