Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Northwoods Chicken Salad (plus a vegan version)

I grew up in Minneapolis, and there's a fabulous grocery store there called Byerly's.  This recipe comes from Byerly's and it utilizes the Minnesota state grain, wild rice.  Wild rice is grown in Minnesota and Canada, and is native to North America.  This delicious grain was a staple of the Chippewa and Ojibwa Indians.  It's low in calories; one cup of cooked wild rice contains only 130 of them.  It also contains more protein than other types of rice and  has potassium, B vitamins, fiber, and Vitamin E.  Wild rice can be a bit pricey, so I order mine online in a big 5 pound bag from Wilderness Family Naturals.  It's cheaper this way and the big bag will last awhile.  This online source offers either "Conventional Parching" or "Hand Parched" wild rice.  Last time I purchased the "hand parched" variety, which cooks quicker than the conventional.   You can find wild rice in any grocery store as well.  This salad is one of our favorites.  I'll serve it with muffins for a complete meal, and even my husband Mike is happy.  Make it the day before and you've got a delicious, healthy meal waiting--great for those days when you know you won't have time to make dinner.  Kinsey often takes this salad to school for lunch.  One of her friends asked to try it and reported, "well, it looks funny but it tastes great!" 

1 cup uncooked wild rice
5 1/2 cups chicken broth
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 chicken breast, cooked, cooled, and shredded
3 green onions
1/2 red pepper (though I usually use the whole thing)
2 oz sugar or snow peas (cut into pieces)
2 avocados
1 cup cashews

Place rice and broth in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then adjust to a summer and cook, covered, for about 45 minutes (the hand parched will cook quicker).  The grains will start to split open and you want to make sure they're completely cooked--slightly chewy and soft.  If you need to add more liquid, just add some water.  Line a colander with a towel and drain.  Rinse well.  Transfer to a bowl and toss with lemon juice while still warm.  Cool.  Add chicken, onions (which I usually leave out), peppers and peas.  Toss with dressing.  Cover and refrigerate 2-4 hours or overnight.  Just before serving add avocados and cashews.

2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar or agave nectar
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup canola oil

Combine all in a food processor or blender.

Vegan Version:  This is equally as delicious!  And you just need 2 simple substitutions.  First, replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth or vegan chicken broth.  Second, replace the chicken with a product called Gardein.  This is a miracle product developed by a Canadian named Yves Potvin.  It looks and tastes like chicken, but is made completely of vegies and grains.   Kinsey and Mike both like it, which makes me happy since they are both so-so with other vegan meat substitutes.  Gardein comes in lots of varieties, but for this you want just plain tenders.  You can get them in the refrigerated section of Whole Foods (different varieties of Gardein are also sold in the freezer section). Buy the plain tenders, prepare as directed on the package (basically you just pan-fry them for a few minutes on each side).  Then when they've cooled, shred them and add to the salad in place of the chicken.  Trust me, this is totally delish!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Oatmeal Cake

My mom sent me an e-mail wondering how to substitute alternative sweeteners for white sugar.  Thanks for the question mom!  It's a good one.  I'll focus today on agave.  Quoting from Ania Catalano: "When adapting a recipe to use agave nectar, reduce the other liquids by one-third.  When replacing table sugar, plan on using about 25% less agave nectar to achieve the same level of sweetness; for example, use 3/4 cup of agave nectar for every cup of sugar.  Also, baked goods with agave nectar brown more quickly, so reduce oven temperatures by 25 degrees to avoid burning."

Today's recipe is a great example of substituting healthy ingredients (including agave) for not so healthy ones.  I took 3 different recipes I had for this oatmeal cake, made some substitutions of my own, and came up with this version which is low in fat, white sugar free, and every bit as delicious as the original!  Seriously, give it a try.  You will not be disappointed.

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp boiling water
1/2 cup oatmeal (I've used both quick cooking and regular oats and they both work)
1/4 cup applesauce
1/8 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup agave
1 egg white (I buy All Whites liquid egg whites that come in a carton.  3 Tbsp equals one egg white)
1/2 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Pour boiling water over oatmeal.  Cover and let stand for 20 minutes.  Add applesauce, buttermilk, agave, egg white, and vanilla.
Whisk dry ingredients together then mix with the wet ingredients (you can do this by hand).  Pour into a greased 8 inch square pan.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Put 1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup amber agave, 3 Tbsp light or regular butter, and 2 Tbsp evaporated skim milk in a small saucepan.  In a small bowl, combine 2 tsp cornstarch with 1 Tbsp evaporated skim milk.  Add this to the saucepan as well.  Bring this to a boil, then cook 1 more minute.  Stir in 3/4 cup flaked coconut (unsweetened is best) and 1/3 cup chopped and toasted pecans.  When the cake comes out of the oven, pour the frosting on top and smooth out with a knife.

The reason I use amber agave in the frosting is to give it a darker color (like brown sugar would).  If you don't have the amber on hand though, just use light agave.
The pecans in the frosting are optional.  I don't usually put them in, but most people love them.
This cake is delicious both warm and cold. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tomato Bisque

I've subjected my family to many new recipes over the past few years.  Lots of them have been resounding failures.  One night I prepared a pasta dish with lots of fresh herbs.  Kinsey said it tasted like she was eating grass.  So much for that one.  The only way to expand your repertoire of "tried and trues" though is to venture into the unknown.  When a recipe doesn't work out I have to admit I'm bummed about it.  It feels like it was a waste of time and ingredients.  When my whole family loves a new recipe though, you can't beat that feeling of success.  This Tomato Bisque recipe is one of those successes.  It comes from Tal Ronnen's cookbook, The Conscious Cook.  Tal is a vegan chef.  When Oprah went on a "vegan cleanse" diet for a few weeks last year, Tal was her personal chef during that time.  This soup is divine--the best tomato soup you'll ever eat, vegan or otherwise.  There's another great soup in Tal's book--the corn chowder.  I make one of these soups every week.  Kinsey often takes the leftovers to school in a thermos for lunch.   It's hard to believe that such a creamy soup as this is vegan.  The secret is a cashew cream made from soaked cashews blended with water.  Prepare to be amazed!

4 Tbsp Earth Balance
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp flour
5 cups faux chicken stock
1 (28-oz) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, juice included (I use Muir Glen brand)
1 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 1/2 cups regular Cashew Cream (see below)

Melt the Earth Balance in a large stockpot over medium heat until melted.  Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.  Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and continue cooking and stirring for 2 minutes.  Add the stock, tomatoes with juice, and parsley.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season with salt and pepper, then add the Cashew Cream.  Continue to simmer (do not boil) for 10 minutes.
Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender and blend on high for several minutes until very smooth.  Ladle into bowls and garnish with parsley.
Makes 6 servings

Cashew Cream
2 cups raw cashews

Put the cashews in a bowl and add cold water to cover them.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.  Drain the cashews and rinse under cold water.  Place in a blender with enough fresh cold water to cover them by 1 inch.  Blend on high for several minutes until very smooth.  (If you're not using a professional high-speed blender such as a Vita-Mix, which creates an ultra-smooth cream, strain the cashew cream through a fine-mesh sieve).   
Makes about 3 1/2 cups regular cream
(so to make enough cashew cream for this recipe, I usually only soak about 3/4 cup of cashews.)

A note on ingredients:
Earth Balance:  This is a vegan butter.  It comes in sticks and you can buy it at Vitamin Cottage or Whole Foods.
Faux Chicken Stock:  The brand I use is Imagine No-Chicken Broth.  It comes in a 32 ounce container.  You can get this at King Soopers as well as Whole Foods/Vitamin Cottage.  Here's a tip.  There's about 4 cups of broth in one of these containers.  Rather than open another one for the extra 1 cup of broth needed for this recipe, I keep some regular vegetable broth in my fridge (which I use in other recipes) and just supplement with that. 
Muir Glen Tomatoes:  These are organic canned tomatoes.  The fire roasted tomatoes called for in this recipe have a fabulous flavor. 

Two final notes:
You can freeze this soup.  When you defrost it and plop it into a saucepan to reheat, it may have separated a bit.  Don't despair!  Just whisk as you heat, and it will return to the normal consistency.
Also, don't forget to soak the cashews the night before you want to make this!  I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten to do this and we've had to eat something else instead.  Write yourself a note if you need to!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Healthy Microwave Popcorn

It's Friday and I'm looking forward to a weekly tradition that my daughter Kinsey and I have:  Watching the latest episode of "Merlin" on the Syfy channel.  This TV show is a winner!  It's a British production about King Arthur of Camelot and the magician Merlin in their younger days.  The third season is being broadcast now and the first two seasons are out on DVD.  I love it because it's a G-rated series that the whole family can enjoy (it's a favorite of my 22 year old son Adam).  Of course any night spent in front of the TV must be accompanied by popcorn!  I've been concerned lately about the bags of microwave popcorn that are always being popped in our house. The stuff you buy in the store contains not so healthy ingredients, and many manufacturers of microwave popcorn use perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their packaging.  PFOA has been associated with increased cancer rates and birth defects.  I was thrilled to come across a superb idea for making your own microwave popcorn in the book The Cleaner Plate Club by Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin.  I tried their method today and it worked great.  Here's what you do:

Place 1/4 cup of popcorn kernels in a brown paper lunch bag.  Fold over the top of the bag 2 or 3 times (do not staple or tape) and place on its side in the microwave.  Cook on HIGH for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes (my microwave took the full 2 minutes) or until there are about 2 seconds between each pop.  Remove the bag from the microwave and add olive oil (or butter if you prefer) and salt.  Shake the bag and voila! 

Beth and Ali also have some great popcorn seasoning ideas in their cookbook.  Here's one:

Herbed Popcorn:  Mix 1/2 tsp dried basil, 1/4 tsp dried oregano, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and 1 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese.  Sprinkle over oiled or buttered popcorn.

I hope you'll try this idea and whatever you're watching this weekend, enjoy!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ingredients and Where to Buy Them

I'll never forget the first time I walked into Whole Foods in search of some exotic ingredients I needed to start making healthy treats.  It was downright scary!  Luckily, there were many helpful employees who led me through the aisles and answered all of my questions.  Hopefully this little guide will help you to walk into any natural foods store with confidence.

First, let's talk about sweeteners.  There are several problems with white, refined sugar.  It has been highly processed and stripped of any nutritional value.  So it's basically just a bunch of empty calories.  It's also very high on the glycemic index (GI).  What is the Glycemic Index, you ask?  Ill let Ania Catalano (a wonderful cookbook author) explain:  "The GI ranks foods according to how quickly they are processed into glucose in the body.  Pure glucose, with a GI of 100, is the reference point:  The lower the GI, the more slowly the food is processed and the less dramatic the fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels.  Health experts agree that controlling these levels is an important component in lowering risk for heart disease and diabetes, reducing cholesterol levels, and managing weight."  White sugar has a GI of 60-65.  It raises blood sugar quickly which can lead to disease and also to aging in the body (think sagging and wrinkles people!)  So the sad truth is that we'd all be better off without eating so much of the white, refined stuff.  There are some wonderful substitutes out there:

Agave Nectar:  This is one of my personal favorites.  Agave is a liquid which has a bit thinner consistency than honey.  Agave has a GI of 55 or below, depending on the manufacturer.  Blue Weber agave is in the 19-39 range.  Agave is considered safe for diabetics because of this low GI rating.  Agave comes in both a "Light" and "Amber" color.  Unless a recipe calls specifically for the Amber color, I use the Light.  You will love, love agave!  You can substitute it for sugar in many recipes.  I buy my agave at Vitamin Cottage (for all of you who live in the Denver area).  It's cheapest there.  Mudhava is a great brand, and you can get a 46 ounce container for about $10.00.  Agave is more expensive than regular sugar, but totally worth it!!  Whole Foods, Sunflower Market, and even King Soopers has agave but I find that it's more expensive there.  By the way, some of my friends use agave straight from the container as pancake syrup!

Maple Syrup:  You want the pure stuff here, baby!  The fake stuff just won't do the trick.  The GI of maple syrup is about 54 and it's high in minerals.  Maple syrup comes in 2 grades:  A and B.  Grade B has been boiled longer so it has more flavor and nutrients than Grade A.  I buy my maple syrup at Whole Foods.  They have a "365 Everyday Value" Brand which is priced well.  I usually buy the Grade B, and a 32 ounce container is about $17.00 (don't gasp too hard--it'll last you awhile).

Sucanat ( dehydrated cane juice):  This is cane sugar that has not been refined.  It is a brown color and the granules are larger than it's refined, white counterpart.  Dehydrated cane juice contains micronutrients (which always makes me feel better about eating it).  Sucanat is simply a brand name for dehydrated cane juice.  You can buy this at Whole Foods but I find it's cheaper at Vitamin Cottage.  They sell it in bags in their "bulk foods" aisle for $1.75 a pound.

Dates:  These little babies are full of good things:  fiber, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, Vitamin A, and antioxidents including tannins and beta-carotene.  That's a pretty impressive list!  I buy my dates at Whole Foods in their bulk food aisle (this is where all the bins are and you just help yourself to how much you want).  Dates dry out pretty quickly, so I only buy what I need for the week.  Whole Foods carries several varieties including Medjool and Deglet Noor.

Let's move on to a few other ingredients I use a lot.

Tofu:  Tofu is made out of soybeans.  It's a great protein source for vegetarians and vegans.  You can buy it 2 ways:  In little tubs of water in the refrigerated section of any grocery store, or sealed in little boxes that don't need to be refrigerated (Mori Nu is the most popular brand).  Tofu comes in firm, extra-firm, and silken varieties.  The firm stuff you buy in the tubs is used in a variety of ways--you can marinate it, grill it, steam it, scramble it (if you add some tumeric it ends up looking like scrambled eggs), etc.  The Mori Nu stuff is used for desserts and in baking (this is the silken tofu, and it's consistency lends itself to baking and things like pudding).  Tofu is CHEAP!  So it's a great meatless way to add protein to meals.  While it looks white and funny, it will take on the flavor of whatever you mix it with so it's incredibly versatile.

Flax Seeds:  These little seeds are full of fiber, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids.  They're also very low in carbohydrates.  Now I must admit that, alas, I don't love the taste of flax seeds.  I know there are some who sprinkle them on everything from cereal to salads because they want the amazing health benefits that these seeds provide.  I am not one of the those people.  But I do use flax seeds in baking, which masks the taste.  Flax seeds are also an egg replacer used in vegan baking.

Spelt Flour:  I'll quote here from another fabulous cookbook writer, Ricki Heller:  "Spelt and kamut, both distant relatives of wheat, are ancient grains that have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the past few years.  While both do contain gluten, they have less than wheat, and they haven't been hybridized the way wheat has over the years.  As a result, spelt and kamut are often tolerated by people who are sensitive to wheat.  Spelt is now available in both wholegrain ("whole" spelt) and partially refined ("light" spelt) varieties.  While light spelt does retain less of the whole grain, it looks and acts much like all-purpose flour and is great in recipes requiring a lighter texture...Wholegrain spelt is made from the entire grain ground up, and looks and acts much like whole wheat flour."  So there you have it.  I buy my spelt flour from Vitamin Cottage.  They have a refrigerated section full of bags of flours, nuts, and other good things, all at very good prices.  You can also find spelt flour at Whole Foods in their bulk foods section.

Cashews:  These are full of antioxidants, minerals, fiber, vitamins, protein, and the "good" monounsaturated fats.  They are also used in many unexpected ways in the world of healthy cooking.  For example, you can soak them and then blend them with water and you end up with "cashew cream" that adds richness and thickness to soups and desserts.  Amazing!  Cashew butter is also used in recipes.  When you buy cashews, buy the "raw" unprocessed ones.  Vitamin Cottage is where I get mine.  And cashew butter I buy from Whole Foods (it's over by the peanut butter).   

That's it for now.  I'll be adding to this list as we go along.  Here's one more definition though:

Vegan:  A vegan is someone who doesn't eat ANY animal products.  While vegetarians stay away from meat, they do eat eggs, milk and dairy products.  Vegans don't eat anything that comes from an animal.  Am I a vegan?  No.  Although I have cut way back on the amount of meat I eat and am tending more and more towards full veganism.  It's a process for sure.  I do know that I feel great when I'm eating a lot of vegan meals.  And for those of you who have to avoid dairy products, vegan recipes are for you!