Monday, January 31, 2011

Baked French Toast

I've been stressing about how to use up my eggs before I move. This week's L.A. Times Food Section provided my answer: French Toast. Since I'm trying not to buy any food, I changed the recipe to work with what I have.

French Toast works best with slightly stale bread so that the egg custard mix soaks in evenly. Fresh bread actually works against it.

When you soak the bread overnight and bake it in the oven, it's really bread pudding. Technically, I could put this under "desserts". Calling it Breakfast means you can eat something not so good for you in the morning.

(It isn't in the recipe, but I sprinkled the last of my wheat bran on the top, just to cut the guilt factor. That's what looks like a streusel topping.)

1/2 lb challah, slightly "aged"
4 eggs
1 C milk
2 Tb sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 C raisins
1/4 C water, red wine, or apple juice
1 apple, cut in small dice

1. Butter or grease an 8" x 8" baking pan. Cut challah into 1-inch slices and lay in a single layer in pan. You may have to cut each slice into several slices to make them fit.

2. In a bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, and spices. Pour custard evenly over bread and place in fridge. Let sit at least 2 hours, or overnight. Soak raisins in water, red wine, or apple juice until plump.

3. Preheat oven to 350º. Drain raisins and sprinkle top of bread. Top with apple pieces. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden, apples are cooked, and custard is set. Cut into the middle to check for doneness, and if the egg oozes even a little, put it back in for ten minutes.

4. Serve hot with powdered sugar and maple syrup.

Difficulty rating  :)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Two Pantries

My transfer at work finally went through, so I'm moving what feels like half a state away, to Papa Smurf's house. This means that I have to find room for all my own food and kitchen gadgets. Since the most elaborate thing he cooks is rice, that isn't much of a stretch.

My biggest issue is the spice cabinet. There are a lot of spices already in it, most of them ancient. I went through it once during the Pantry Project, and I did it again to make enough room for my own. It's a good thing I like dill! Massive amounts of spices and herbs. And it's not like there's one of every kind that Schilling makes. There's two or three. I won't have to buy ground pepper EVER again. The greatest problem is the little shelf organizer thingy on the bottom shelf of the cabinet. It takes up more space than it creates, but I can't get it out. I'm going to have to take off the cabinet door or smash the thing into a few pieces. Writer and Techie Smurf have a great method for organizing their spices. They use an old dresser to hold many of their kitchen items. The top two drawers are for spices. They made labels for all of them and put them on the lids. You open a drawer, and have all the names for the spices staring back at you. I don't like the pre-filled spice organizers you find at stores like Bed Bath & Beyond. Everyone uses different spices, and the ones with pre-printed labels mean you can't put something else in it. Obviously, the reason the cabinet looks like this is because my mom didn't know what she had when she was at the store, and kept buying more of the same thing "just in case". I'm going to make a typed, alphabetized list of all the herbs and spices and tape it to the inside of the door, so I don't make the same mistake.

The other problem is the Glacier. No sooner do I get the pantry and fridge under control, than I realize the freezers (yes, plural) are a disaster. I can't blame Costco entirely; a store never forces you to buy its product. Once I've gone through the freezers, defrosted, and inventoried them, my recipes won't be as interesting for a while, but my grocery bill will get a whole lot cheaper. I am determined to get down to a reasonable amount of frozen food before Passover.

I'm actually not bringing that much food with me. It's mostly baking supplies and tea, plus all the brown rice, chocolate, and walnuts I still have from the Pantry Project. I have been very careful to buy only what I need since this blog began. Using up the eggs is my biggest worry. I hate to throw out food.

And Molly finally finished her part of the Pantry Project. I haven't bought cat food in over six months! She put on a pound. I guess I was eager to get rid of the bags. Time to put the kitty on a diet. No more between-meal snacks.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Baked Trout with Yogurt-Dill Sauce

Sometimes, I buy things at the market because they look good. Then I get them home and have to figure out what to do with them. Originally, I was going to get salmon, and this recipe would work just as well with salmon steaks or fillet cuts. But they had whole, pan-dressed rainbow trout, minus the heads. I can't eat anything that's staring back at me.

I did make the fortunate decision to cut the trout into steaks before cooking. It would have been difficult to get proper portions off of such a small fish. I learned my lesson from the duck. If you bake a fish of at least two pounds, leave it whole. This one was just under a pound.

1 whole trout (about 4 oz per person), pan-dressed
dill weed
1/4 C lemon juice

1. Cut trout into 4 oz steaks and place in baking pan. If the fish is large enough, you can stand the steaks on end. Otherwise, lay on one side. Lightly salt fish inside and out, and sprinkle insides with dill. Pour lemon juice over all and set in fridge to marinate at least 15 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 300º. Bake until fish is no longer translucent, about 15 minutes for a smaller fish, closer to 20 for a big one. Serve hot, accompanied by chilled dill sauce.

Yogurt-Dill Sauce

1 6-oz container Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp dill weed or 1 Tb chopped fresh dill
1 tsp lemon juice
salt to taste

1. Whisk together all ingredients. Chill until ready to use.

Serves 4

Difficulty rating :)

Saturday, January 22, 2011


aka, what to do with leftover parsley. Most of the Middle-Eastern recipes I have already posted that call for cilantro also call for chopped parsley. It was my choice to omit the herb and go for the stronger taste of cilantro. Tabouli (or tabbouleh), is all about the parsley. It is quite nutritious and gives a great crunch, even after sitting a day. Then there's the breath-freshening quality. Just don't get Italian, flat-leafed parsley. Go for the curly stuff.

The bulgur was harder to find than I expected. Even Henry's only had whole bulgur wheat kernels, not the cracked kind you need for this salad. I finally went to a Middle-Eastern store. Sadaf makes at least four grades of cracked bulgur. I chose #2, the next-to-finest. The finer grades do not need to be cooked, just soaked.

1 bunch parsley
2/3 C medium or fine bulgur
1/2 C minced green onions
1 C diced fresh tomatoes
1 small cucumber
2 Tb olive oil
2 Tb lemon juice
1/4 tsp dill weed
1/4 tsp salt

1. In a small bowl, combine bulgur and enough water just to cover, about 1/2 C. Set aside until water is absorbed, about 1 hour.

2. Chop parsley very fine. Peel cucumber and dice about the same size as the tomatoes. In a medium bowl, combine parsley, tomatoes, onions, and cucumber.

3. When bulgur is ready, separate with a fork and fold into vegetables.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, lemon juice, dil, and salt. Add dressing to salad and toss to coat. Chill until ready to serve.

Serves 6

Difficulty rating  π

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Steel-Cut Oats

I grew up believing I hated oatmeal. It turns out I just don't like it with milk, and my mom always used to put a lot of milk in it when she served it. Everyone has different tastes.

I also realized that the packets of pre-flavored oatmeal contained mostly sugar, with little to improve on the nutritional value of the oats. It is much healthier to make unflavored oatmeal and add pieces of chopped fruit, raisins, nuts, and just enough sugar for one's taste. I can't imagine anyone adding more sugar than the manufacturers do.

Oatmeal comes in several varieties. Quick oats are rolled very thin and par-cooked before selling, so you can just pour boiling water over them and wait about a minute. Rolled oats are pressed flat so they cook faster, but you actually have to cook them a few minutes. Two minutes in the microwave is probably the easiest way to do it. Steel-cut oats are whole oat grains that have been cut in two or three pieces, but they're still pretty much a solid, whole grain. They take the longest to cook.

I based this on Alton Brown's steel-cut oatmeal recipe. I liked his idea of toasting the grains in butter, kind of like pilaf. Add milk after cooking if you want, but I found them creamy enough without any. I did add a little the next day when I reheated the leftovers. Again, it's all about what you like.

1 C steel-cut oats
1 Tb butter
3 C Water
dash of salt
one apple, cut into bite-sized chunks
brown sugar or maple syrup to taste

1. Start boiling 3 C of water. Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in oats and sauté until slightly browned, about 2 minutes.

2. Stir in boiling water and add salt. Stir in apple. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook 35-45 minutes, until water is mostly absorbed, but oats are still creamy.

3. Serve with brown sugar, raisins, and milk if desired.

Difficulty rating  π

Sunday, January 16, 2011

6-Layer Dip

Superbowl may be a bigger eating day than Thanksgiving. Everyone treats it as a national holiday, to the point where there are even traditional foods. One of those is chips-and-dip. The downfall of any diet.

I don't have any reduced-fat chip recipes, but I can improve on the nutritional value of any grocery store's layered, Mexican-style bean dip.

The avocados are intentionally between the tomatoes and onions. Between the vitamin C of the tomatoes and sulfuric acid of the onions, it will help to keep the avocados from browning. If you're really worried about the color, beat in 1 tsp of lemon juice when you mash them.

You'll notice a pattern to the layers: spread, sprinkle, spread, sprinkle.... It's like when you're hiking down the Grand Canyon. The easiest divisions to see in the layers are when the consistency is different. Spreading one paste over another tends to smear both of them. (See Cherry Trifle for a similar arrangement.)

Like the trifle, this looks best in a glass container with straight sides. The container should be wide enough that each layer is 1/4" to 1/2" deep. Otherwise, the chips can't reach the bottom.

PS: to make this a 7-layer dip, add 4 oz canned diced chiles after the onions.

1 15-oz can petit-diced tomatoes, no salt added, well-drained
2 avocados
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 C cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 C minced onion
1 C nonfat sour cream
1/2 C shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1. In 2-quart serving dish, spread beans evenly on bottom. Sprinkle tomatoes over beans.

2. Open avocados, remove pit, and scoop pulp out of skins. In a small bowl, mash the pulp with a fork and work in salt and cilantro. Spread over tomatoes. (If the mash is too thick to spread, work in some water, a teaspoon at a time.)

3. Sprinkle onions over avocados. Spread sour cream over onions and sprinkle top with cheese. Garnish with more cilantro, if desired. Chill until ready to serve. Goes best with tortilla chips, but you could put out some carrot sticks in a vain attempt to create a healthy option.

Serves a lot

Difficulty rating :)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Not-Refried Beans

Because "mashed pintos" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Pintos are a powerhouse of nutrition, as are most legumes. Measured by 1/4 C dry beans, there's something like 26g of protein, half your daily fiber, and only 130 calories. All this for about 10¢ per serving. It's what you add to them that tends to make us think of beans as fattening.

This takes some planning ahead. If you have a slow-cooker, soak the beans the night before and cook them for 8 hours on medium setting. I don't have one, so I did it in the oven. It means you have to be around to put them in the oven 5 hours before dinner. If you have a cast-iron pot, you can make this even more nutritious by using the pot, which will infuse the beans with added iron. The result tastes just like refried beans, but there's no added fat and a fraction of the salt of canned beans.

1 C dry pinto beans
1/2 C minced onion
1/4 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp cumin

1. Rinse the beans. Soak in 4 C water for 4 to 8 hours. Discard any floating beans and drain off water. Preheat oven to 250º.

2. In a casserole, stir together beans, onion, pepper, cumin, and 1/4 tsp salt. Boil 3 C of water and pour over beans. Cover and place in oven. Bake for 4 hours, stirring after 2 hours and adding more water if necessary.

3. Drain off water. Either mash the beans with a potato masher or pulse in food processor until of desired consistency. Taste, and add more salt as needed.

Serves 4-6

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fruit Salad with Honey-Lime Yogurt

So, what does a breakfast-lover do when she has sworn off all those fancy breakfast pastries? Come up with just as fancy an alternative.

Look at the sugar content of your average fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt. Now look at a box of Ding-Dongs. I'm not kidding. If they could make a Ding-Dong without all that saturated fat, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The alternative is to buy fat-free plain yogurt and get creative. Yogurt is very versatile. It can be used in soups, sauces, desserts, or as a meal in itself. Its probiotic qualities are well documented. It just doesn't taste all that great without a little help. In this case, you don't need to add much sweetener because you're serving it over sweet fruit.

I am suddenly a convert to the wheat bran fan club. You can't really taste it, it's cheap, and it is incredibly nutritious for its size. I plan to sneak some into any meal that is lacking in fiber. It would disappear entirely in breadcrumbs.

2 C plain nonfat yogurt
1 lime
2 Tb honey
1 apple
1 C seedless grapes
1 pear
2 Tb wheat bran flakes

1. Stir honey into yogurt. Zest lime and add to yogurt. Add juice of lime and stir well. Chill until ready to use.

2. Chop apple and pear into bite-sized pieces. Toss with grapes and divide into four cereal bowls.

3. Spoon 1/2 C of yogurt over each bowlful of fruit. Sprinkle with bran and serve.

Difficulty rating  π

Friday, January 7, 2011

Baked Tomatoes

I mentioned to Techie Smurf that I was making baked tomatoes to go with some chicken I was having. It had never occurred to him to bake tomatoes, so I decided to post it.

This definitely qualifies as a "naked" food. There's very little preparation, and the other ingredients are there to enhance the natural flavor of the tomatoes. They come out of the oven soft, very hot, and with a rich flavor that is somewhere between fresh and tomato sauce, but not quite either.

2 large tomatoes
1 Tb olive oil
dash salt
dash pepper

1. Wash tomatoes and use a corer to remove stem end. Slice open crosswise and lay open in baking dish. Preheat oven to 350º.

2. Brush cut sides lightly with oil. Sprinkle with just a touch of salt and pepper. Bake for 1 hour, until very soft, but hold their shape.

DIfficulty rating  π

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spice Soup

This is what I make when I'm sick. We're getting deep into cold & flu season, when dragging yourself to the market, then cooking, can sap all your strength. This is something you can do with whatever is around and be reasonably content in half an hour.

When I'm sick, I don't want fat or dairy, so this has almost none. Instead, I use strong seasonings, mostly Asian in origin. Ginger has properties that reduce nausea, so I tend to use a lot of it, but you can put in as much as suits you. I don't concern myself with eating low salt for this, since you need to hold on to all the fluids you can while you're sick.

I have also been known to make this when I'm not sick. It's why a 12¢ package of Ramen can end up costing me $10. Served over noodles, spaghetti, ramen, or soba, it's a complete meal.

1 quart water or broth of your choice
1/2 medium onion, minced (can use 1/2 C minced green onion instead)
1 Tb sliced fresh ginger or 1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground pepper
2 cloves minced fresh garlic or 1 tsp garlic powder
salt to taste
1 lb green leafy veggie like bok choy, spinach (pictured), mustard greens, or broccoli - frozen and defrosted is OK.
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb lean protein like any white fish, shrimp, leftover pre-cooked chicken, or tofu
Any other veggie or seasoning you may want to add for accent, like edamame or cayenne pepper.

1. Put liquid in a large pot and bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer.

2. Stir in onion, ginger, pepper, garlic, and any other seasoning you want to add, and simmer for 15 minutes.

3. Cut greens into bite-sized pieces (or chiffonade for leafy greens) and add to pot. Add carrots and any other veggie you may want to use. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes, until carrots start to soften.

4. Add protein and simmer until fully cooked and warm, about 5 minutes. Add salt if needed. Serve hot over noodles.

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, January 3, 2011


This is the first time I've made quinoa. It's pronounced "keen-wah", and is so new to American palates that my spell-checker doesn't recognize it. Quinoa. Argh. (It doesn't recognize "argh" either.)

Quinoa looks and acts like a grain. For a more in-depth discussion, see its Wikipedia page. It's very nutritious, and not as high-maintenance to make as beans, though you need to soak it first to remove the soapy toxins on the surface. Don't panic. The green parts of potatoes are poisonous, too, and raw lima beans contain cyanide. Over the centuries, we've just gotten used to cooking poisonous foods in a way that eliminates all risk.

Basically, you cook and serve quinoa like you would rice. The benefit is that you get a complete set of proteins like what you would get in eggs, but not a lot of fat and a decent amount of fiber. Like rice, it doesn't have much taste of its own, so it is best used as a base for other grain-related dishes. There are numerous blogs and websites devoted entirely to the ingredient. Google "quinoa recipes". I'm just giving you the basic, unflavored version.

1 C quinoa
dash salt

1. Place quinoa in saucepan and cover with water. If using boxed, processed quinoa, soak for 15 minutes. Unprocessed, soak for at least 2 hours. Drain off all water and rinse using a fine-meshed sieve or a colander lined with a thin cloth (a cloth napkin or dish towel is fine).

2. Return quinoa to saucepan and add 1-1/2 C water and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let rest 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve, or use in recipes requiring pre-cooked quinoa.

Difficulty rating  π

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Part III: New Year's Resolutions

If you want to know why most people's New Year's resolution is to lose weight, check out the posts from the last couple of months. We've all been eating junk during the holidays, and lots of it.

I don't like the term "diet" in reference to losing weight. The original definition is about the whole trend of a person's food habits. You might lose weight if you think of your new eating habits as a short-term solution, but you won't keep it off.

Disclaimer: If you have a metabolic disorder like diabetes, a gastrointestinal condition, or any chronic condition requiring medication or a doctor's care, always discuss major dietary and exercise changes with your physician.

I have not been eating normally - for me - since the Pantry Project began. And I don't feel the same. Plus, my weight keeps yo-yo-ing. It's time to get back to how I've been eating the past few years. Writer Smurf's recent decision to change her own eating habits has also inspired/shamed me into preparing food in more healthy ways. Fortunately, her new diet is almost exactly how I want to eat, so we can share ideas. Obviously, there are many different opinions on what exactly healthy eating is. If you want one opinion that is weight-loss directed, check out Alton Brown's dietary makeover.

My healthy eating guidelines:

1. Water, and lots of it. I rarely drink sodas. When I do, I take their calories and caffeine into account. One 12 oz can of soda is about 160 calories. Eliminating that equals 1,120 calories a week, which will lead you to lose about a pound a week if you make no other changes to your diet. If you're worried about constantly running for the restroom, make 8-12 ounces of cranberry juice part of your daily routine (even though you've just put your soda calories back in). It really does help. There's something in cranberries that prevents bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract. Sometimes, cranberry juice alone can cure a mild urinary tract infection. And once your body has been properly hydrated for a few weeks, your bladder stretches and it isn't that big of a problem. Just cut yourself off after dinner, or you won't make it through the night.

2. Only eat when you're hungry; and then, only what you need to be full. Portion control is a standard of many diets, but you also have to address hunger. If you're hungry, eat something. Don't deny yourself, or your body will start to store what you do give it as fat. The trick is to learn how to keep healthy snacks around so you're not stuck eating something less nutritious just because it is available. And if you're not hungry at mealtime? Don't eat as much as you would have if you were hungry!

3. Fiber. Americans eat less than 50% of the recommended amount of fiber per day. Start slow, or you'll hurt yourself: fruit with the skin on, brown rice instead of white, oatmeal with raisins. After a couple of weeks, you'll be able to stomach raisin bran, whole grains, and various kinds of beans without any uncomfortable side-effects. The fiber fills you in the same way fat does, so you don't end up craving naughty foods later. I don't even want chocolate when I'm eating enough fiber. I know, scary. A fiber-rich diet will make you feel lighter and stronger, but only if you follow rule #1 and drink a lot of water.

4. Learn to like "Naked" foods. There's a whole sub-category of vegetarians and vegans who only eat raw foods. That's not what I'm talking about. Many flavors can only be brought out in foods if you cook them. What I'm referring to is not over-seasoning the main ingredient, or pouring sauces and butter on it. When a nutritious piece of steamed broccoli becomes merely the carrier for a cheese sauce, you might as well not even pretend you're eating healthy. Salt, spices, and herbs should guide a dish towards a certain result, not be an end in themselves.

5. Avoid processed foods. The more processed an item, the more salt & fat are likely to come along with it, and vitamins and minerals are often leached out. It takes 45 minutes to cook a frozen lasagne, and a little over an hour to make one from scratch. Meanwhile, you have the option of eliminating half the fat and 2/3 of the salt, while catering to your family's tastes. I'm not saying everything has to be from scratch. But, if you have the choice between buying fresh produce or something in a can, go for the fresh.

6. Protein, vitamins, and minerals. Carbohydrates are easy to find, even in the most restrictive diets. What you need to remember is to get lean proteins and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals. If you think your diet is weak in some nutrient, consider a supplement (consult a medical professional).

7. Vegetarianism & Veganism. A vegetarian diet will not necessarily make you lose weight. If you're relying on cheeses for most of your protein, you're going to gain weight. Vegan diets can be healthy if you do your homework and take nutrition classes that specifically address vegan needs. Even then, you may need supplements.

8. Don't punish yourself for the occasional splurge. Having dinner out once a week, even with dessert, does not mean that you have to compensate by starving yourself the next day. One meal will not ruin any weight-loss plan. Your body responds to the majority of what you eat, not one visit to Cheesecake Factory. If the other 90% of the calories you have during the week are reasonable and nutritious, enjoy your night out. I don't believe in making any foods taboo, because then you'll binge on them when you do have some. Again, portion control. I have a mug full of M&M's next to my computer. Having them so easily available actually gives me the freedom to eat less; I don't feel like I have to finish a bag. One or two handfuls is enough.

I can't promise you results in pounds. I don't think of this dietary guideline specifically as a weight loss catalyst. It just makes me feel better when I eat right. My guess is a loss of 1 or 2 pounds a week until your body reaches its weight set point - what it thinks you ought to weigh. (I'm incredibly lucky and my set point is a healthy weight for me. Many have a genetic predisposition to a set point that is overweight or obese. This is an evolutionary leftover from tens of thousands of years ago, when holding on to body fat was a good thing.) This is what many refer to as a Plateau. The best way to lower your weight set point is by exercise, which increases your metabolism. Mine went down by four pounds the last time I changed jobs. Scared the hell out of me, but at least I got something out of all the running around I do at work. Again, ask your doctor what kinds of exercise are right for you.

As I start to get back on my usual eating trend, I want to create healthier versions of foods that everyone likes. I also hope to post many recipes that you may have heard of, but never thought of in this light. It's always a pleasant surprise to find out you were doing the right thing all along.