Kids in the Kitchen: Dipping Oil

Several years ago, the memory is a little hazy about the when and where, we were eating a family meal at a very nice restaurant. Definitely not McDonald’s. The kind of place with candles and white tablecloths.

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This is an especially notable detail as I would never, in a bazillion years, ever put a white tablecloth on our own dinner table.  What would be the point, after all? One use and it would never be the same.

But, back to my story. It was here, at this unlikely eatery, that we were introduced to bread and….olive oil. A small white dish with dark, fruity olive oil, a bit of aged balsamic vinegar and freshly chopped herbs.

Where was the butter, Sam, the bread hound, wanted to know.

There wasn’t any. A moment of unhappiness (with Jim and I wondering what insanity had brought us here with a child) until he was persuaded to dip his bread. By this time, the two adults in the party were enthusiastically dipping with abandon.

And, if you haven’t already guessed, with one dip, he was hooked.

In fact, to this day, whenever we bring home a nice crusty loaf or baguette, Sam is quite ready to throw together a little dipping oil of his own for the dinner table.

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Here’s the recipe at it’s most basic.

All you need is a good quality olive oil and a nice aged balsamic vinegar.

Simply pour some olive oil onto a plate or shallow bowl to cover the bottom. Then pour or spoon on a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar.

The young chef in action.

The young chef in action.

And there are definitely benefits to ditching the butter. Researchers have found that consuming a Mediterranean diet heavy in olive oil can help lower some heart risks. Consuming more than four tablespoons a day can significantly lower your risk of having a heart attack, suffering from a stroke or dying of heart disease, according to the recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

For more dipping ideas, check out these recipes:

Parmesan and Garlic Dipping Oil

Italian Herb Dipping Oil

Dip away...

Dip away…

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8 Easy Ways to Go Mediterranean

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As my husband, Vegan Man, likes to say, “It’s a Lifestyle–not a diet.” The same is true of the Mediterranean Diet.  And while this way of eating developed in a certain part of the world, far from our home in California, its increasing popularity is a result of its remarkable health benefits and delicious flavors.

A study conducted in Spain, with results published by the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that a Mediterranean Diet is responsible for a 30% risk reduction for heart attacks and strokes. It proved far more valuable than just eating a low-fat diet. They even had to stop the study early because the health benefits were so ridiculously clear that to continue would have been unethical.

Here’s the lowdown, eight simple ways to bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to your own family’s table without having to cross an ocean:

1. Eat lots of vegetables. With every meal. Fresh salads with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese, garlicky greens, roasted cauliflower, healthy veg topped pizzas. Vegetables are an important part of going Mediterranean.

2. Change your relationship with meat. Become acquaintances instead of best friends. Think of meat as a side as opposed to an entrée. Reduce red meat to no more than a few times a month.

3. Eat breakfast. Start your day with fiber rich foods including oatmeal and other whole grains, fruits/vegetables and a protein source.

4. Enjoy seafood once or twice a week. Fresh or water packed tuna, trout, salmon or mackerel are all good choices. Just nix the deep-fried variety.

5. Eat vegetarian one or more nights a week. Build your meals around beans, grains and vegetables. Experiment with herbs and spices to enliven your evening meal.

6. Use good fats. Olive oil is a good replacement for margarine and butter. Try olive oil with a splash of balsamic vinegar as a delicious dip for crusty french bread. Mashed avocado spread on toast is quite nice as well.

7. Enjoy dairy products in moderation. Eat plain yogurt with fruit and nuts. Use Greek yogurt as a substitute for sour cream. Try small amounts of a variety of cheeses.

8. Choose fresh fruit for dessert. Look for what’s in season. Limit sugary treats for special occasions.

And since it’s a lifestyle, not a diet, don’t forget to include other healthy practices like daily exercise and enjoying meals with family and friends. If you’re a wine drinker, you have the green light to enjoy a glass with dinner on occasion for its heart protective properties.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Homemade. Dinner. Fast.

Homemade. Dinner. Fast. You don’t often see those three words standing so close together. But with a little preparation, it can be done–and done well.  The trick is to keep what you need in your freezer.

It involves three main ingredients:  pizza dough, grated cheese and sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

In the morning transfer them from freezer to refrigerator.  Keep them all in the fridge for most of the day to thaw slowly.  The dough came out a couple of hours before dinner to sit on the counter and finish thawing. I then removed the plastic wrap, set the dough on a plate and covered it with a clean tea towel to warm up and rise a bit.

The crust:  I’ve been using this particular recipe for the past year.  It makes a thin, extremely crispy crust that is absolutely delicious.  Find the recipe on another really great blog, Dinner a Love Story.  The only difference being that I substitute half the white flour with whole wheat.  Works perfectly.  I also am a fan of prepping the dough in my food processor. It’s quick and easy.  The recipe makes enough for two crusts.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and tuck them into a freezer bag.

Grated cheese:  Freezing grated cheese destined for melting works well.  I cut a pound of mozzarella into three equal pieces that would fit through the intake tube of my food processor.  Freeze the cheese for about 20 to 30 minutes in advance for easier grating. Use the grating blade attachment.

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The food processor will definitely save time, but hand grating works fine, especially if you have lots of eager helpers.  I packed the cheese equally into three pint size freezer bags. One bag works for one lightly cheesy pizza, but use two bags if you like yours rich and gooey.

Ready for bagging!

Ready for bagging!

The sauce:  If all you have is a large can of diced tomatoes (or a freezer full of frozen ones), you can whip up this pizza sauce in minutes with the addition of four more common ingredients.  There is no cooking required! The recipe comes from cookbook author, Amanda Haas.  It’s so easy your kids can make it while you prepare a green salad.  Use some and freeze the rest.  I prefer sturdy jars for freezing this sauce in.

Putting it all together:  Simply spread the dough in a large, very thin rectangle on a heavily oiled (olive oil–it does great things to the crust) cookie sheet.  Cover with sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese.  I brush olive oil on any exposed crust, but I try to take the toppings as close to the edge as possible. I also drizzle some good quality olive oil over the top as well.

Bake at 500 degrees.  Check after ten minutes.  The edges should be brown and the cheese bubbly.

The result?  Gourmet pizza at a fraction of the cost of take-out.

What pizza toppings do you prefer?

With the addition of black olives.

With the addition of black olives.

Eating Breakfast: Yes and No

National School Breakfast Week was last week.  I had this post scheduled, but somehow it slipped my mind.  Unfortunately, this happens quite a bit.  But even though NSBW is over, breakfast eating goes on!  I can take some comfort in that.

The word on the street is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it’s also the most likely to be skipped.  Is eating that morning meal–literally breaking the fast–really necessary?

Here’s the lowdown:

YES:

  • Children  The research is clear that kids who eat breakfast do better in school, have better concentration and more energy.   And children who eat breakfast are healthier overall.  Breakfast is a great time to get in more fiber by way of cereals and whole grain breads.  A 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that adolescents who ate breakfast daily had a lower body mass index than teens who never ate breakfast or only on occasion.
  • Adults  The big issue for grown-ups is weight management.  Breakfast skippers are more likely to eat larger amounts at the next meal or snack on high calorie convenience foods.  As with children, breakfast is a great way to get in all the fiber, vitamins and minerals we need in a day.  And while studies show adults don’t suffer dramatically from decreased concentration and focus the way kids do, short-term memory doesn’t hold up well.

NO:

What if you’re just not hungry in the morning?  Maybe a cup of coffee and you’re good to go.  Is it really necessary to choke down something to eat simply because you’re supposed to?  I wondered about this because, honestly, sometimes a latte is all I want.

After consulting the Nutrition Diva, however, I learned that while breakfast is an important meal for most people, skipping (adults only) isn’t much of an issue as long as you observe these two rules:

1.  Eat good food.  Uh, no stopping at the donut drive-through.  And that grande mocha frappuccino?  That won’t work either.  If you’re eating out, look for healthier options like fruit or a sandwich.  I keep nuts in my car for “hunger emergencies”.  That way I don’t end up answering the siren call of a passing candy bar.

2.  Don’t wait too long.  If you’re at all like me, then you might actually reach the point of no return.  The all-consuming hunger that isn’t satisfied with a banana.  Rethink your morning food plan and recharge sooner rather than later.

Breakfast is personal.  Make the choice that works for you, but make sure your children are eating—and eating healthy foods that will support their brain function.  Perhaps my memory mishaps are part of the biology of aging—or maybe I should just eat up in the a.m.  It certainly couldn’t hurt.

I’ll take some oatmeal with that, thanks.

A Tale of Two Plates

Meet MyPlate. It takes the place of the USDA‘s outdated food pyramid that was so confusing to so many.  It was definitely a step in the right direction.  It doesn’t focus on servings, which can be confusing. Instead it shows how much of your plate a food group should cover.  But it leaves out a lot of important information.

And as Harvard Health Publications points out, “a hamburger or hot dog on a white bread bun with French fries and a milk shake could be part of a MyPlate meal – even though high red and processed meat intakes increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and high intakes of refined grains and potatoes make it hard to control weight.”

The USDA's baby.

The USDA’s baby.

Now I’d like to introduce you to MyPlate’s renegade sibling.  The Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate.  The resemblance is there, but it’s what’s on it that’s a game changer. It spells out the types and quality of the food we should be eating.  Food industry lobbyists had nothing to say about it.

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Here’s the big picture:

1.  Healthy oils are good for the heart.  Limit butter and trans fat.

2.  Vegetables and fruits, in all their colorful variety, should make up 1/2 your plate.  Potatoes don’t count.  They have the same effect on our blood sugar as consuming refined grains and sweet treats.

3.  Eat whole grains–like whole wheat breads and pastas.  Limit white bread and rice.

4.  Choose healthy proteins like fish, poultry, beans, and nuts.  Steer clear of red  and   processed meats because eating these on a regular basis can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

5.  It’s a water glass!  Limit dairy to 1 or 2 servings a day, and avoid juice and sugary drinks.

There’s even an icon to remind you to stay active.  Eating healthy foods and getting your body in motion is what it’s all about.

As a parent, I appreciate all the help I can get in making sense of the large amounts of science based nutrition out there.  I want the specifics.  And I want it from an organization with no commercial ties to the foods it’s suggesting I eat.  This is the plate I’ll be eating from…


2 Whole Grain Dishes Your Family Will Love

We eat a lot of grain-based salads.  They’re hearty and healthy.  And if you have a vegan in the family as we do, they satisfy everyone.  We’re cutting back on rice a bit, but there are many more grains out there begging to be made into salad.

Like quinoa, for example.  Quinoa is technically a seed not a grain–grown in South America.  What makes it such a star is that it’s a complete protein, high in manganese and phosphorus.  It cooks up pretty much the way rice does–quickly.  Which is handy if you’re in a hurry.

From this...

From this…

To this.  Fabulous.

To this. Fabulous.

I found the recipe for this Quinoa and Black Bean Salad with Orange-Coriander Dressing at theKitchn.  I tried the recipe the way it was written–separating the orange sections with a knife.  They give a link to how it’s done.  If that seems like too much work (and it did to me although the orange segments were delicious), substitute a few of those nice seedless clementines for the oranges and just throw the sections into the salad.  That’ll be quicker and still taste great.

This salad is so pretty to look at that I think it would be a great dish to bring to a party.

And have you ever tried farro?  It’s an ancient wheat variety with a chewy risotto like texture.  This recipe, Farro with Roasted Mushrooms, was a community pick on the hip and trendy cooking site, Food52.

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This recipe can be made vegan by serving the Parmesan cheese on the side.

TIP:  Grain dishes are about as easy to improvise as soups.  I doubled the amount of mushrooms called for in the original recipe and roasted them with lots of fresh, finely chopped rosemary to good effect.  Another time, when I discovered I had no mushrooms, I substituted bite size pieces of roasted cauliflower instead.  Add what you like and make it your own.

TECHNIQUE:  The secret to keeping the grains in a salad from being wet and mushy is to spread them out to dry once they’re cooked.  Use a large roasting pan or cookie sheet.  Or a silicone baking liner like this one.  Once they’re at room temperature they’re ready to use in salad.

cooling farro

Dinner for one tonight.  Hardly ever happens.  Leftover soup pairs well with my grain salad.  And leftover  grain salad makes for a great lunch.  Look for these grains in well-stocked grocery and natural food stores.  Enjoy!

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Where’s the Beef?

Three summers ago our family took on the “Vegan Challenge”.  For one month we vowed to eat no animal flesh or dairy products–for the most part.  And I enjoyed it–mostly.

But in the end, I just got tired.  And on those nights when I was especially tired, all I wanted to do was throw some hamburgers on the grill.  It seemed much simpler than all the chopping and peeling I was literally up to my elbows in.

chop, chop, chop....

When the gig was up, I felt a sense of relief and discovered Meatless Monday.  I could explore this meatless idea under less dramatic circumstances.

It may sound like some hipster fad, but Meatless Monday actually has its roots in American history.  Really!  Its first appearance was during World War I–to reduce consumption and support the war effort.  It was revived again in WWII and again in 2003 with its current incarnation.

So what’s the point you may be asking.  What’s wrong with meat?

The idea is that by eating less meat, we’re eating more of other foods we should be eating. Like fruits and vegetables and whole grains and legumes.  And perhaps lowering our risk for diet related diseases to boot.

Limiting our meat consumption–even one day a week–can also reduce our carbon footprint by reducing greenhouse gases that are implicated in climate change.  And did you know that approximately 2000 gallons of water go into producing one pound of beef?  I’m glad I’m not paying that water bill!

Personally, I think it’s a great way to start a conversation with the family about health, both personal and environmental.

Click the link to the website below for great recipes, shocking facts to share at the dinner table, and plenty of moral support.

Join the Madness!

Currently on the home front:

Poor Sam.  Last night Jim, presently a vegan for health reasons, was out of town on business. Sam took it into his own hands to cook some…meat.  We have a freezer full of halibut.  He defrosted it, seasoned it and pan cooked it on the range top.

I’m not a bad mother.  I’m not out to deprive my child of his protein rights–ha!  But after years of not cooking meat, it’s kind of become habit.  Prior to my husband becoming a vegan, Jim and I formed a cooking team.  He prepared the chicken, steaks and fish, and I whipped out sides and vegetables.

Truthfully though, this may be a good thing.  I like seeing Sam willingly participate in the kitchen.  Even if it’s just self-preservation.

How about a tofu burger?

How about a tofu burger?