Monday, February 28, 2011

Low-Fat Refried Beans

Here's another simple, wholesome-if-you-make-it food that cooks fast: refried beans.  The name comes from frijoles refrito, which actually means "well-fried beans" not "twice-fried beans" but there needn't be much frying at all to get a flavorful spread that's great for layering or dipping... friends back in Texas even include lean refried beans in their baby food rotation since it's a more substantial food than carrot puree.

I know plenty of people will think refried beans have limited Tex-Mex uses, but I learned better from my Grandpa Ed. Back in the day, he was a man who ate peanut butter like nobody's business; if my grandmother was away for a few days, he'd just eat peanut 'til she got back -- not because he couldn't cook but because it was all he really wanted to eat anyway.  [You may recall I made a stick-to-your-mouth peanut butter shortbread in his honor.]

Unfortunately, sometime in his late 60s or early 70s, the doctor told him his cholesterol was too high and the peanut butter had to go... forever.  It was a blow, but he soon discovered he could use canned low-fat refried beans as a substitute. It wasn't the same flavor, but somehow the texture was enough to satisfy him.  How he discovered this, I do not know, but as a result I've tried refried beans in and on many things you may not otherwise consider...  and, frankly, refried beans in a lunchmeat sandwich was a lot less weird than the peanut butter version.  Refried beans and celery sticks?  Delicious.

Think of it as "pinto bean hummus" if that makes it easier to diversify.  Despite its "refried" name, this recipe actually has less fat than hummus...

Recipe: Low-Fat Refried Beans

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fat-Free Whole-Wheat Tortillas, aka Chapati Bread

JG made lentils for dinner this weekend and decided to try his hand at chapati bread, which are thin round flatbreads usually made with at least some whole-wheat flour.  He'd planned to have it all done when I got home from work (my hero) but the cookbook he used just isn't a good one (the flavors are great but the liquid ratios or the cooking times are _always_ way off, but never the same way twice) and the lentils weren't ready when they were supposed to be, so I helped with chapati while he finished up the dal. [Plus I wanted to tinker with the recipe, using all whole-wheat and some salt... I think the salt was an omission.]  It's a super simple process and they turned out great for scooping up the lentils, but they inspired JG in another way.

"These taste like flour tortillas"
"Well, they kinda are, but without the lard. They won't keep."
"But these right now are flour tortillas.  It makes me want to make fajitas."

I had to agree.  I've always shunned flour tortillas because they're made with lard or butter and refined flour, whereas corn tortillas are made from whole grains with no fat.  You can get whole-wheat versions now, but they've still got some kind of fat to keep them soft... but classic Tex-Mex fajitas really do require some type of flour tortilla.  I don't know why, but they're my only exception to the corn tortilla rule... but I've never been really okay with that until now.

A few days later we made more hot, fresh chapati tortillas and cooked up some flank steak (no skirt up here), onions, and peppers on the cast iron.  We still need to perfect the cast iron recipe before it goes public, but the tortillas were spot on.

Recipe: Fat-Free Whole-Wheat Tortillas or Chapati Bread

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Healthy Food in 5 minutes?

Last week, a commenter who knew me before I could cook* asked about healthy meals for toddlers... to be consumed within 5 minutes of the parent arriving home from work.  She said he's so hungry when she gets home that she usually just microwaves something quick -- boo her.  Here are my thoughts [I apologize if it's a little disjointed and rambling, but I wanted to respond before the question got too old]:

First, I've got nothing against microwaves and reheated dinners... it's just a matter of what you're reheating.  Whole grains win every time for having more vitamins, minerals, and protein than their white/refined counterparts, and if you make them part of your diet, you'll have them around to reheat in a jiffy.  Some of them do take 20-50 minutes to cook, but they can also be made ahead and kept for a week in the fridge or months in the freezer. 
Stewed lentils with Indian spices
My basic wholesome dinner includes:
Whole Grains:** brown rice, polenta, whole-wheat pasta,  and corn tortillas are my go-tos but wheat berries, whole-wheat cous cous, bulgur wheat, and quinoa are good to mix it up
Lean Proteins: BEANS,*^ lentils, chicken, fish, tofu, egg, lean chorizo, plain yogurt
Veggies: canned tomatoes, hearty greens like kale, and frozen green peas, broccoli, and green beans are my winter staples.  Salads are good as long as you don't drown them in dressing.
Optional Toppings: hot sauce/salsa/fresh herbs/cheese/fried egg

[BONUS: Bean and lentils -- which are a subset of the bean family -- count as BOTH lean proteins AND vegetables, but are lacking certain aminos, which is why they require a grain to make a complete meal. Beans & rice is my #1 weekday meal, and with so many varieties of beans and spices available, it never has to be the same meal twice. If you make your own hummus or bean dip (to control the fat content) and serve it with raw veggies and whole-wheat pita, that's a perfect meal, too.]
Microwave Polentta
or Eggs:
As I mentioned in my initial response, eggs are always a solid option.*^* They cook in just a few minutes and can always be topped with a little cheese, if that's a selling point.
Scramble eggs with thawed frozen veggies and serve with whole-grain toast or corn tortillas.
Stir veggies into polenta and top with a poached or fried egg and mild-enough salsa  or serve that egg over beans and corn torillas
Turn your wholesome leftovers (grains included) into a Leftovers Frittata that can be served hot or eaten cold [leftover's leftovers].
Leftovers fried rice can be done with any grain or pasta, and probably makes for less messy toddler eating since it clumps the grains together.
... and it's a great idea to have some hard-boiled eggs on hand for my next option:

Fried eggs over polenta with roasted wax beans and fresh tomatoes (summer produce)
Stall for Time When You Need It! 
A few slices of hard boiled egg, a single stick of bumps-on-a-log, a small handful of nuts, a glass of whole milk, a little wedge of whole-wheat pita with a smear of thick hummus, a low-fat string-cheese stick... anything with good protein takes a bit of time to digest and should take care of immediate hunger pangs to give you a little more time when you get home... even if that means just sitting with your toddler for a few minutes to collect yourself before starting the 5-minute dinner reheat.

A Caveat:
I do not have children. I have one in the making that feeds on my dinner through an umbilical cord with no conscious effort on my part. I do not speak from experience about feeding toddlers. I don't know if any given toddler will eat these things I've listed -- particularly if they've gotten used to pre-packaged foods that always taste a certain way -- but I don't believe in feeding children entirely separate meals based on what they prefer and if you encourage picky eating of limited foods you're doing both their growing bodies and their palates a disservice.... but check back in a few years and see if I managed to maintain my ideals.
Cannellini dip
Other Resources:
I looked for other blogs and websites that might be useful to you, but most seemed healthy but not super speedy (nothing under 30 minutes) or speedy but not healthy at all.  I thought this site might be useful.  They have a Toddler nutritional guide and a few recipes to make ahead and freeze.
My pantry bean supply.  I'm not necessarily advocating Goya, but they're usually the cheapest beans in Beantown.
Beans and rice are infinitely adaptable with whatever you have on hand, but it's nice to start with recipes. I just realized I've only posted a couple for beans and one for lentils, but Google'll give you a million and this page has some nice variations.

The commenter and the blogger, circa 1984
Our first forays into cooking were scrambled eggs which occasionally [always?] had too many additional ingredients to hold together properly and probably would have been too dry except we smothered them in melted American cheese. We would make them for the hosting parents whenever we spent the night at each other's house -- pretty much every weekend -- and were very proud of our culinary skills.

Cooking times for stovetop, unless specified otherwise.  You can make a big batch one night or weekend afternoon and it'll keep all week, or you can freeze any grain (not the pasta) in smaller portions and switch up your grains from day to day. 
Whole-Wheat Pasta - 8minutes
Whole-Wheat Cous Cous - 5minutes
Bulgur Wheat - Pour boiling water over and let site 10 minutes
Polenta [corn grits] - 10 minutes in the microwave.  
Quinoa -  20-25 minutes... the same as white rice, except it's a complete protein
Brown Rice (short grain Japanese rice is much tastier than long grain) - 50 min
Wheat Berries - 50 min 

I keep dried beans on hand, but almost always use canned for convenience  If you have a problem digesting beans, it's because your body isn't producing enough of a certain enzyme that breaks down the beans in your gut.  [same goes for cabbage, but different enzyme, I think] Keep eating them and you'll stop getting unpleasant side effects... and maybe take Beano in the interim.

My grandad's entire family lived off eggs for the most part during the Great Depression [his mother worked at an egg factory and she got to take home the fertilized eggs they couldn't sell] and it didn't stunt him in any way-- he still grew over 6 feet tall, played football on scholarship, became a rare earth chemist, and is still mentally sharp as he approaches his 90th birthday.  If that's not an ad for eggs, I don't know what is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grandma Sue's Valentine's Cookies

My grandmother used to send us each a big heart-shaped cookie for Valentine's day.  Each one was uniquely frosted with botanically-correct flowers [She once was an in-house artist for a university botany department] and the cookies were as tasty as they were pretty.  These lemony sugar cookies were my first experience with lemon zest, and for a long time I thought it was weird that Grandma Sue put lemon peels in her cookies, but they sure were tasty.

I deviated from the original recipe by swapping in whole grain flours [shocking, I know] and meyer lemons, plus butter for "oleo" [it has the same water content, and isn't hydrogenated]... but they still taste just right to me.  They're fantastic plain and I don't have Grandma's artistic abilities, but I do like to play with the royal icing.

[I'm sending these to my nieces, whose names all begin with A, as thanks to their mom for sending me maternity clothes.]

Recipe: Sue's Granddaughter's Lemony Valentine's Cookies

Friday, February 11, 2011

Easy Pea Soup

Do you ever get frozen peas that just aren't great? I got a huge bag of them from my little corner store.  Granted, they made no claim of being sweet or young or tender, but after the first serving of the big, starchy things I knew I wouldn't eat the next two pounds very fast.

Boston Snow Meter
...but you may have heard we've gotten a bit of snow here in Yankee Land (~6 feet total with more expected this weekend) and it's an excellent time to make soup.  JG has a deep affection for his mom's split pea soup with ham [which was only made with the bone from a big ham feast] and I happened to have a pork joint bone stashed in the freezer from a bone-in shoulder we slow cooked a while back.  I used it to make a simple pork stock, pulled out the bone and bay leaf, threw in the peas, and pureed it all together.  It was really, really good.

Stock after simmer
You could make this with a quart of store-bought stock, but you'd want to add a little powdered gelatin. Why?  Gelatin is gelling agent [guess where the word "gelling" comes from] that's derived from animal collagen, and bones/marrow release a lot of it to gives the stock more body.*  You can see it in the viscosity of the liquid in the picture above. That gelatin content is key to the texture of the soup.  As it happens, gelatin is most commonly made from pig skins and bones.**  How's that for an easy cheat?

Recipe: Frozen Pea Soup

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wild Disappointments & Pecan Macarons with Cranberry

Oof... it's hard to get going again.  It would have been easier if I hadn't hinted at exciting things to come, only to have them disappoint me. I tried to make the pecan bankets too small -- disregarding the instructions in my own recipe -- and they leaked all over the place.  They kind of looked like praline langues de chat, but they weren't worth taking on the plane with me.  The wild rice/oatmeal/cranberry cookies looked pretty, but they tasted pretty blah.
The flavor of the wild rice macarons with cranberry jam filling was spot on, but as soon as the meringue dissolved it felt like your mouth was full of sand -- I thought I'd ground the rice into a fine flour, but there was clearly a little grit left. [JG actually spit it out, and he's usually a trooper.]  Instead I had to make do with pecan macarons with the cranberry jam and they were excellent, but they weren't quite as specifically linked to the flavors of to my grandmother's kitchen as I wanted.

I haven't given up -- right now i have fully cooked wild rice drying in a bowl of confectioner's sugar which I think will fix the macaron texture.  Is it more work than anyone else will want to do?  Probably, but I can't give up on an idea until it has thoroughly defeated me, and right now I'm just behind in points.

Recipe:  Pecan Macarons with Cranberry