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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cranberry Orange Pound Cake

As anyone who watches the news can tell you, we're having a bit of a rough go of it in terms of the economy.  Christmas, although a wonderful time for celebration with family, can be very stressful for those trying to find a way to give gifts to the people that they care about without breaking the bank.  My solution?  Baking!  This is a delicious cake that is rich while remaining brightly flavored, and it has the decadently small crumb characteristic of pound cakes.  I gave them out this year in cute, ceramic holiday loaf pans for the recipients to keep.  You can't go wrong with this.

Cranberry Orange Pound Cake

3/4 C. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 C. plus 1 T. granulated sugar
1 1/2 C. ricotta cheese (don't use fat free--light works fine, but whole milk is best)
1 1/2 C. cake flour (yes, this is important--don't use all-purpose flour)
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
3 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
1 orange, zested
1/4 C. dried cranberries

In a large bowl, beat the butter, ricotta, and sugar together until light and fluffy.  As that mixes, combine the dry ingredients--the cake flour, baking powder, and salt--in another bowl with a whisk..  Set aside.  One at a time, add the eggs to the wet mixture with the mixer running constantly.  Once all of the eggs are well incorporated into the batter, add in the vanilla and almond extracts and the orange zest.  Slowly, working in small batches, introduce the dry ingredients to the wet in the mixer.  As soon as the dry ingredients are incorporated into the mix, add in the cranberries and mix until blended.

Generously grease the bottom and sides of a loaf pan.  Pour the batter into the pan and bake in a 325 degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes.  Keep an eye on the cakes after 45 minutes have passed, as the top can over-brown while the interior continues to cook.  The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.  Let the cake rest for 10 minutes after removing it from the oven, then turn it out onto a rack to cool.  If giving as a gift, return to the loaf pan or wrap in aluminum foil and tie a festive holiday bow on top.  Voila!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

White Wine Parmesan Risotto with Basil Cream Chicken

There are few things that make my husband happier than Parmesan cheese, so I decided to design a low calorie meal around it.  The good thing about Parmesan is that it's low fat (that's why it's a harder cheese), and it packs a flavor punch even when you use a small amount.  I think that these two components go well together (the risotto and the chicken), so I'll explain how to make them together.  I know that timing things in the kitchen can be kind of tricky, so here's how I did it:

For the chicken:
One chicken breast per person
1 t. olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the Basil Cream Sauce:
3 T. all purpose flour
1 1/4 C. skim milk
Pinch salt
Pinch pepper
2 T. shredded, fresh Parmesan cheese
1 t. dried basil

For the White Wine Parmesan Risotto:
1 C. onion, chopped finely
1 t. olive oil
4 C. chicken broth
3 C. water
2 C. Arborio rice
1 C. dry white wine
1 C. shredded, fresh Parmesan
1 T. unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First, trim the chicken of all visible fat.  Heat 1 t. olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot and shimmery, add the chicken breasts to the pan and brown on both sides.  While the chicken browns, chop the onion for the risotto.  Once, the chicken is golden, remove it from the skillet and transfer it to an 8 x 8 glass baking dish.  Season both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Combine the chicken broth and the water for the risotto in a large pot (like a dutch oven).  Cover it, and bring it to a boil over high heat.  When it reaches a boil, turn the heat down to the lowest setting on your stove and replace the lid.  Meanwhile, in another large sauce pot, combine the chopped onion, the olive oil, and a pinch of salt.  Cover it, and place it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened (about 10 minutes). In between stirrings, heat your oven to 400 degrees for the chicken.  Remember, we only browned the outside and we'll need to finish cooking it.

Once the onion is soft, add the rice to the onion mixture and stir until the edges of the rice turn translucent.  You'll know it when you see it.  Add in the white wine and keep stirring until the rice absorbs all of the moisture.  Then, add 3 C. of the hot broth mixture to the rice.  Stir frequently, but not constantly.  When you can pull your spoon through the rice and see the bottom of the pan, you need to add more broth, about 1 C. at a time.  Between each addition of broth, stir and allow the liquid to be absorbed, using the spoon trick to time each addition.  I easily used 6 C. total broth tonight, but it's okay if you have some left over at the end.   

After about your 2nd broth addition, pop the chicken into the oven.  It'll need to bake for 20 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temp of 170.

When the rice is soft but still al dente, take it off the heat.  Different rices need different amounts of broth to soften to the right consistency, so you'll have to play it by...tongue?  Stir in the Parmesan and butter and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Cover it, and set it aside.

Now that you have a burner free, use a small sauce pot to whisk together the flour and the milk for the cream sauce.  When there are no more lumps, season with pinches of salt and pepper.  The sauce will thicken in about 3-4 minutes, and after it does, remove it from the heat and stir in the Parmesan and the basil.  When your chicken breasts are ready, spoon the sauce over the chicken on the plates.  Plate your risotto next to it. 

This dinner sounds complex and tastes divine, but it's truly easy and low calorie.  My calorie calculation came out to 490.  Not bad for something that would easily break 1,000 at a restaurant.  :-D

Friday, December 10, 2010

Luscious Legumes: Italian Lentil Soup

Unless you're Italian or Indian, you might not be familiar with lentils.  Lentils are a legume, like beans, that are high in protein and in insoluble fiber (the stuff that keeps your tummy happy).  It's hard to mess up a recipe that starts with the French mirepoix: carrots, celery, and onions, and this recipe demonstrates that clearly.  It's very tasty, very healthy, vegetarian, and easy to make.  Try it!

Italian Lentil Soup

1 1/2 T. olive oil
3/4 C. carrots, chopped
3/4 C. celery, chopped
1 1/2 C. onion diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
1 lb. lentils (usually 1 bag)
10 C. chicken broth (I like Swanson Certified Organic)
2 T. dried thyme
2/3 dried elbow pasta
1 C. shredded Parmesan

In a heavy pot (I use a cast iron dutch oven), heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic.  Stir to coat, and season with salt and pepper.  Saute until the vegetables are tender, but still crisp (between 5 and 10 minutes).  Add the can of tomatoes and saute until the tomatoes start to soften and the juices evaporate by about a third.  Rinse the lentils in cold, running water and drain.  Add to the pot and stir.  Once the lentils are incorporated, add in the broth and the thyme.  Simmer on the stove over medium low heat for about half an hour, or until the lentils are tender, but still toothsome.  Add in the pasta and cook for another 8 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.  Remove from the heat and ladle into bowls.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan (and I like a little extra black pepper).  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spicy Spinach

There are few foods as frequently maligned as spinach, but ounce for ounce, it's one of the most nutritious foods available.  So what can we do to make it more palatable?  Well, as any Mexican restaurant will tell you, spicy tastes good.  If you have trouble getting yourself or others to eat spinach, you and your mouth will be rewarded with this recipe.

1 t. olive oil
1/2 t. minced garlic
1/2 t. minced shallot (or white onion)
4 cups loosely packed spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes (depends on how spicy you like it)
Fresh lemon slices

Begin by heating a skillet (10 or 12 inch) over medium high heat.  When it's hot, add the olive oil and allow it to heat until shimmery.  Plop in the garlic.  Stir constantly for about 30 seconds until it just starts to brown.  Add the shallot and stir for about 15 seconds, turn the heat down to medium, then dump in the spinach.  (I know--it looks like a ton.  Trust me, the spinach will cook down.)  Salt and pepper the spinach.  You'll need to stir the spinach constantly so that the leaves on the bottom don't get cooked faster than the leaves on the top.  When the spinach starts to wilt, add the red pepper.  Now, I like mine just slightly wilted, but some people prefer to cook the holy heck out of the spinach until it looks like a pile of wet, green limpness.  It's up to you.  When the spinach gets to your desired doneness, divvy it out into servings (this would make 2 servings for me because I like me some spinach), and serve with a lemon slice.  The acid really brightens up the flavor.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Perfect Waffles

One of my Black Friday triumphs was a $40 Belgian waffle maker for $6.99, so I've been experimenting with different recipes with varying degrees of success since then.  The following recipe is my definition of waffley perfection.  This is certainly a "from time to time treat," but it is glorious.  Enjoy!

4.75 oz (approx. 1 rounded cup) all-purpose flour
4.75 oz. (approx. 1 rounded cup) whole wheat flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
3 T. sugar
1 t. cinnamon powder
3 eggs, separated
2 oz. (approx. 4 T.) unsalted butter, melted
8 oz. reduced fat buttermilk
8 oz. skim milk
1 t. vanilla extract

Combine dry ingredients (the first 7) in a large bowl and whisk.  In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks and combine with the melted (AND COOLED--if the butter is hot, it will scramble the eggs) butter.  Add the milk and the vanilla to the eggs and butter.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry.  Mix the absolute minimum necessary to bring the ingredients together.  Stirring too much leads to tough waffles. 

Finally, with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Scoop about 1/3 of the egg white fluff into the waffle batter bowl.  Stir it in normally to lighten up the mixture.  With the remaining egg whites, carefully fold into the batter.  Small clumps of egg whites are fine and to be expected.  Just get it mostly incorporated.  Let the batter rest for 5 minutes.  Just leave it alone.  This allows the flour to absorb the moisture and the leaveners to do their job.

Drop the batter onto your waffle iron according to the manufacturer's instructions.  For my Belgian waffle maker, I use a scant 1 C. of the batter and it makes about 7 waffles.

You can get creative and add in fresh fruit (I used blueberries successfully) if you like.  I usually make a berry compote to put on top, but maple syrup by itself is always a hit. I hope you like it!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tutorial: How to make a vinaigrette

Let's face it: premade salad dressings are tasty.  However, like many other tasty things, they are of dubious nutritional value and questionable ingredients.  My philosophy of moderation dictates that it's okay to indulge in these gustatory delights from time to time, but we can make--arguably--an even more delicious dressing that incorporates those healthy fats--remember, about 17% of our diet should be composed of healthy fats--that we can happily enjoy on a daily basis. 

So what's the magic recipe?  It's actually a magic ratio: 3:1.  All vinaigrettes are composed of three parts vinegar and one part oil.  Regular white vinegar leaves a bit to be desired as a salad dressing, but there are tons of other kinds to choose from: red wine, balsamic (my personal favorite), champagne, raspberry, white wine, etc.  Similarly, you can choose which type of oil you'd like to use.  I like olive oil because of the healthy fatty acids, but you could use canola or anything else that floats your boat.  Now, as you might remember from 6th grade science class, oil is a bit antisocial and doesn't like to mix with anybody else.  So, how can you make a vinaigrette, then, if your oil won't mix?  Veeerrrryyy slowly.  Always start with your vinegar in a bowl.  Vinegar first--don't do this backwards.  It won't work.  Then, drop by drop (yes, drop by drop), while continuously whisking, add in the oil.  Adding it very slowly allows the whisking to break the oil up into tiny droplets and we can make our vinaigrette come together more easily if the oil droplets are teeny.  Whisk, whisk, whisk until all of your oil is added.  It should form a homogeneous emulsion (an combined mixture).

It's important to season the vinaigrette.  A pinch of salt and pepper usually does the trick.  If you want to get crazy and dangerous, you can add lemon juice or another type of acid to complement the vinaigrette, but I'm kind of a purist and I like it simple. 

So there you have it.  Vinaigrette.  Takes a total of about 1.23 minutes.  Not so bad, huh?

Best. Day. Ever.

Ah, the culinary arts are a cruel mistress.  They move one to commit such outlandish acts as convincing one's husband that yes, a $100 chef's knife is truly a necessity.  Apparently, marriage to me is also a cruel yoke to bear, since I did, indeed, convince said husband to buy me not just one knife, but a set of three. THREE!  An 8 inch chef's knife, a 5 1/2 inch slicer, and a paring. And they came in the mail today!  I was trying to take a nap when the UPS guy rang the doorbell, and after I discovered the treasures inside the box, I was too excited to go back to sleep.  Witness the perfection:

After much research, I decided to go with Global knives, as opposed to Henckels or Wusthof, because I have fairly small hands and the Global knives are considerably lighter and easier to handle than their German counterparts.  And they are SHARP.  Gloriously, gloriously sharp.  I discovered when chopping potatoes that I really don't even have to apply pressure--just plop the knife on top of the potato and let it do the work for you.  Honestly, the difference between a cheapo $20 chef's knife and the bad boy pictured above is amazingly evident.  Totally worth every penny.  Now I just have to work on my knife skills.  And pick which cookware set is best for my culinary exploits....hmm.....

Monday, December 6, 2010

What's for dinner? Deliciousness!

Tonight I decided to be adventurous and cook without using a recipe and....IT WORKED!  Pretty excited about that.  I made seared chicken breasts with a mushroom, lemon, and white wine pan sauce with parsley mashed potatoes.  Here's the photo:

For the chicken:
One chicken breast per person
Flour, for dredging
Salt and pepper to taste
1 T. olive oil

Pan sauce:
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t. shallot, minced
8 oz. fresh chopped mushrooms
1/4 cup white cooking wine
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 t. flour
Parsley, for garnish

Lightly dredge the chicken breasts in flour.  Salt and pepper to taste.  In a 10 inch skillet, heat olive oil over medium high heat until shimmery.  Add chicken breasts to pan and cook until browned, about 2 minutes per side.  Remove chicken from the pan and put on a plate, covered with aluminum foil.  Set aside.

Turn the heat on the pan down to medium.  Add the garlic and shallot to the pan and stir until the garlic browns.  DON'T WALK AWAY.  The garlic will start to burn in less than 30 seconds.  As soon as the garlic gets a bit of color, add the mushrooms and saute.  When the mushrooms have given up most of their liquid and are soft, add in the cooking wine and lemon juice.  Stir for about 2 minutes, scraping browned bits off the bottom of the pan.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir to thicken the sauce.

Return the chicken to the pan and spoon sauce over the chicken.  Put a lid on the skillet and cook until breasts are done, about 3 minutes.  Plate the breasts with the mushroom sauce on top and garnish chopped parsley.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

What should I put on my plate?

So, I bet you're wondering, "Self, how should I fill my plate to get optimal nutrition?"  It probably keeps you up at night.  Let me help.  Think of it like a pie chart. 
  • Half of your plate should be low G.I. carbs.  No, not gastrointestinal.  Glycemic index.  The glycemic index is a scale from 1-100 that measures how quickly your body turns that food into sugar and releases it into the blood stream.  That's how we use all food--we turn it into sugar to be used for chemical energy.  So, foods like, for example, candy bars, white bread, scones, ice cream, etc., have a high G.I score because they're very quickly converted into sugar and released for use in the blood.  This results in what's commonly known as a "sugar high."  The problem, of course, is that shortly after a sugar high, you feel like crap and you're hungry enough to gnaw your own arm off.  High G.I. foods are not your friends.  What we want instead are low G.I. carbs that are slowly and steadily released into the blood over a long period of time.  That way, we stay full and get a nice bounce of energy to carry us through until the next meal.  Great, so what are we talking about here?  Veggies, fruits, and whole grains.  If you don't think you like those, you just haven't tried enough of them.  There's enough variety that there's something for everyone.  So, half of your plate: low G.I. carbs.
  • A third of your plate should be lean, high quality protein.  This includes chicken (white meat), pork (with the fat trimmed), turkey (white meat), fish, beans, quinoa, tofu, etc.  A serving looks like a deck of cards, or about like the size of your palm.  I know--you're crying because you don't see beef on the list.  Don't cry.  It scares children and small animals.  Beef is generally a big player in the saturated fat arena.  I'm not saying you can never have it.  But it shouldn't be a daily thing.  I'd say 2-3 times per week, max.
  • The remaining area--17%ish--should be fat.  That's right, I said it--FAT.  The diet industry has done us a humongous wrong by teaching everyone that fat is bad.  If you don't eat fat, you will drop dead.  Soon.  The key is to eat the RIGHT KIND of fat.  So what are good fats?  Unsaturated fats from vegetable sources.  In other words, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.), avocados (mmm...guacamole), peanut butter, etc.  These fats keep your eyes healthy, your skin bright and moisturized, and they also KEEP YOU SKINNY.  Yep.  A scientific study (I can't remember where it was published--Google it) showed that people who ate peanut butter everyday--even though it's a high calorie food!--weighed less than people who didn't eat it.  So, repeat after me, "Eat your fat, dear."
I'd like to stress that I'm not a health care professional, but I do read A LOT (and I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night--hahaha...get it?) and I try to follow this formula for my own diet.  It works really well for me and it agrees with dietary guidelines published by reputable sources who are health care professionals.  Try it.  I think you'll find you feel better.

Kumquats--Sound dirty, taste good.

I went to the supermarket today and found kumquats.  This is unusual not only because they sound like something that should be censored, but also because they're apparently very seasonal and not usually available at my megamart.  Turns out that they're tasty!  They're like tiny oranges, but you eat the whole thing!  Skin and all.  The skin is sweet, while the flesh is bitter, so it's like a natural SweetTart.  They would make a nice addition to any recipe that's cloying sweet or as a substitute for a citrus fruit.  Yummy! :-D


I am obsessed with food.  Seriously.  It's not normal.  I've heard that there are hundreds of channels on cable, but I wouldn't know about it because I only watch the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  I should clarify, though--while I like learning about all different types of cooking and ingredients, I cook healthy, low-calorie meals.  I'm not a nutritionist, a dietician, nor have I gone to culinary school.  I just have an unnatural need to learn about all things food and I'm curious about EVERYTHING.  Want to learn with me?  Read on.