The Candy Bar Alternative

The more I learn about sugar and how my body processes the stuff, the less I worry about the particular source–be it low glycemic coconut sugar or the demonized high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

I definitely don’t go out of my way to eat products containing HFCS. I don’t keep it in my kitchen or cook with it, but I agree with the Nutrition Diva on this one.

We should be less concerned with the form sugar takes and more concerned about the quantity. Excessive consumption seems to be the American Way. I wrote about recommended levels of sugar intake in a previous postAll sweeteners should be consumed in moderation.

That said, there’s a ginormous difference between a homemade treat and a Snicker’s Bar.

SNICKERS® Bar

This candy bar contains almost three-quarters of the recommended maximum amount of sugar for a teenage boy!

Check out the ingredient list: MILK CHOCOLATE (SUGAR, COCOA BUTTER, CHOCOLATE, SKIM MILK, LACTOSE, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR), PEANUTS, CORN SYRUP, SUGAR, MILKFAT, SKIM MILK, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, LACTOSE, SALT, EGG WHITES, CHOCOLATE, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR. MAY CONTAIN ALMONDS

Definitely not real. Highly processed and not something I could make in my own kitchen. Not to mention a rather alarming amount of sugar.  I definitely wouldn’t send one with my teenager for quick energy before after school sports.

No calorie counting here!

No calorie counting here!

The question then is what can be sent that is easily portable, real and sweet enough to appeal to a teenage boy more concerned with taste than nutrition.

The inspiration for one of the sweet treats that can be commonly found in my son’s backpack came from a vegan cookbook I found at Costco. The Forks Over Knives Cookbook has an awesome dessert section and, with a couple of improvisations, the following recipe was born…

A Better Granola Bar

  • 1/2 cup peanut or almond butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup brown rice syrup (or honey)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract (can use all vanilla)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8-1/4 cup uncooked millet
  • 2 cups whole rolled oats (not the quick kind)

Line the bottom of an 8×8″ pan with foil that extends up the sides. Lightly grease with cooking spray.

Heat nut butter and sweeteners together in a bowl in the microwave–just enough to mix easily, then stir together until smooth.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and almond extract, cinnamon and salt.

In a large bowl mix oats and millet with the syrup mixture. Stir well until oats are evenly coated. Use wet hands or the back of a wet spatula (water will keep it from sticking) to very firmly and evenly press the mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 for approximately 15 minutes–or until the edges look a bit browned. Cool to room temperature, remove from pan, remove foil and place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before cutting with large kitchen knife (pressing straight down for a clean cut) into 8 equal rectangles.

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To make it even more decadent, add 1/3 cup chocolate chips to the oat mixture before pressing into pan. Try chopped, dried apricots, toasted and roughly chopped almonds or whatever else appeals to you.

Perfect for packing! Only 3 teaspoons of sugar per bar.

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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…

Fava Beans: They’re Worth It!

I have many food weaknesses. Ice cream, gummy bears, white bread with lots of butter. I share this as a form of therapy. My public declaration will give me the strength to keep on the righteous path of wellness. Won’t it?

But not all of my culinary longings involve large amounts of sugar, fat and refined grains. Every spring I get to indulge my nutritionally acceptable desire for….fresh fava beans! And just in time for Mediterranean Diet Month.

Fava beans.

As I understand it, they were brought to this continent thousands of years ago from countries located near and around the Mediterranean. Sadly, they haven’t made great inroads into our eating consciousness. Probably because they’re, er, a little labor intensive. They actually have to be shelled and then peeled. Which is why maybe it’s a good thing that the growing season is a short one. I’m quite happy to do all the work (with help) until, quite frankly, I’ve had my fill.

Here’s what you do:

1.  Shell the beans in the same manner as you would peas. This happens to be a perfect job for the kids. They’ll love it, really.

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2.  Of course, you aren’t done yet. There’s still that second coat that has just got to come off. Some people claim that they’re fine left intact, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Boil a pot of salted water, and toss them in for a minute or less. Drain and let cool until you can comfortably handle them.

Parboiled and wrinkly skinned. Ready to peel.

Parboiled and wrinkly skinned. Ready to peel.

3.  The next job is for adults or older kids with good motor skills. You must delicately pinch a hole in the light outer skin before popping out the fava bean with your fingers. It’s actually not that hard but, again, time-consuming. Better yet, do it with your kids as you talk over their day. Family bonding time.

At this point, they’re ready for anything. I feel about fava beans the same way I do about strawberries. They’re so delicious I only want to eat them plain–without a lot of adornment. This means I usually just saute them in a skillet with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Just long enough to ensure that they are tender throughout.

Dinner tonight?

I toasted slices of whole wheat sourdough and spread on a thin schmear of olive tapenade. Next came a slightly thicker schmear of hummus (yes, we’re embracing the Mediterranean theme) followed by a generous sprinkling of the pan cooked favas and fresh ground pepper.

first layer, olive tapenade

first layer, olive tapenade

Simple dinner

Simple dinner

If you’re looking for more ideas, here are a few good ones.

Cold Sesame Soba Noodle and Fava Bean Salad from Food52.

Fava Bean and Radish Bruschetta from the Kitchn.

Grilled Fava Beans from 101 Cookbooks.

Remember a little hard work never did anybody harm. And since favas are a good source of fiber, protein, phosphorous and folate, they will only do good things for your body. Enjoy some this season!

Eat Like an Egyptian

For thousands of years, the people who lived along the Mediterranean coastline have been eating one of the healthiest diets on the planet–one rich in plant foods and healthy fats. This includes the ancient Egyptians who feasted on plenty of the same tasty foodstuffs that we eat today–including hummus, a popular dip, both then and now, made from garbanzo beans.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a great dip for pita or other breads as well as vegetable crudites such as carrot sticks, cauliflower florets and cucumber chips. It usually comes packaged in small plastic tubs found in the refrigerated section of just about any self-respecting grocery store. But, as with a lot of foods, it’s better homemade.

It’s a lot cheaper too!

A while back I cooked up a big pot of garbanzo beans. We eat a lot of hummus so I portioned these beans into bags slated for the freezer. I like to have them on hand so I can whip up a batch of hummus on a whim (or a request).

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There are tons of recipes out there. You can easily mix it up by adding other ingredients such as roasted red peppers, jalapenos, roasted garlic or olives.

Here’s the basic recipe that we use:

Hummus

  • 1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
  • 2 T. tahini
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 T. water
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1 clove chopped garlic (or more if you are so inclined)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • paprika

Place all ingredients, except paprika, in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. Add additional water by the tablespoonful if needed until hummus is easy to spread and dip.  Sprinkle paprika generously over the top.

Can’t get much simpler.

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Popular with the kids!

3 other ways to enjoy garbanzo beans:

1.  Add them to salads.

2.  Make soup.  Try this very simple Marcella Hazan recipe for a traditional Italian soup.

3.  Use as a vegetarian sandwich spread.

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Hummus. Fit for a Pharaoh!

Bean Cookery: One Size Fits All

When it comes to making a pot of beans, nothing could be simpler.  Because even though there are literally hundreds of dried bean varieties, they can all be cooked in the same way.

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Oh, to be sure, there will be a few minor differences in the amount of water added or total cooking time, but the method is the same.  Small beans cook up faster than larger ones for the most part.  Older beans take longer than fresher ones.  Once you gain some experience with a particular bean, you’ll be a better judge of how much time you’ll need to get the job done.

There’s the question of whether one should soak beans before cooking. Soaking will reduce cooking time a bit.  I have always soaked beans, usually overnight, before cooking. But according to Mark Bittman, one of my favorite cookbook authors, it is completely optional.

While I couldn’t quite break myself of this habit cold turkey, I did concede to a partial soak. I covered my beans with water, brought them to a boil and took them off the heat to stand for a measly two hours.

A watched pot never boils.

A watched pot never boils.

I’m not sure what potential calamities I envisioned from this brief bath.  Beans cooking for hours and remaining hard and inedible? Chalky, tasteless beans? My frown lines were definitely showing.

After rinsing and adding fresh water, I put them back on the burner. It took about one and a half hours for the beans to reach my preferred doneness. And guess what?

They were perfection!

Easy Beans

1. Place rinsed beans (soaked, partially soaked or not soaked at all) in a pot and cover with water by an inch or two.  Bring beans to a boil and then lower heat to a gentle simmer.  Cover.

2. When beans finally soften a bit, add salt.  For one pound of beans I use 1 teaspoon of salt. Adding salt too early creates a tougher bean.  

3. Stir occasionally, testing for doneness.  I like my beans a little more firm than what comes out of a can.

My advice? Don’t mess around with only a cup at a time. Prepare at least a whole pound. Eat them, refrigerate them (they’re good for several days), freeze them.  Beans can be enjoyed in many ways.  They’re extremely useful to have on hand.

  • Add to soup and stew
  • Toss with salad
  • Top a bowl of beans with a scrambled egg
  • Roll into a tortilla with cheese
  • Blend into a dip for crackers

And while canned beans are certainly handy to have about for last-minute dinners, nothing can beat basic home cooked beans for texture, flavor and price.

How do you like to eat beans?

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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.

Friday Feature: Asparagus (+ one more hard-boiled egg)

Nothing says Spring like asparagus. We eat as much as we can from March to May–or as long as our supplier offers it. Eating seasonally is like that.  We gorge on the stuff for the few months it’s available. And when we can’t possibly eat any more,  the season is over.  It’s amazing how it always seems to work out that way.

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Asparagus is extremely versatile. Great roasted, grilled, stir-fried and steamed. Hot or cold. Just right for soups, salads or sides. Nice addition to risotto and other grain dishes.  I even had it on a sandwich last week at Outer Aisle’s new cafe.

How to select asparagus:

  • Purchase as close to harvest as humanly possible for best flavor.
  • Choose firm, dark green spears, thin or thick, and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Check the bottoms.  If they’re dried out looking, chances are they’re old.
Looking good!

Looking good!

One of the simplest ways to prepare asparagus is by roasting.  And if you have at least one hard-boiled egg left from your Easter egg hunt, you can whip up a dish you’ll be proud to serve to guests.

Roasted Asparagus with Chopped Egg and Vinaigrette

  • 1 lb. asparagus, trimmed
  • 1 T. olive oil, or a little less depending on preferences
  • fresh ground salt/pepper
  • vinaigrette, homemade
  • hard-boiled egg, diced small (dice yolk and white separately for nice contrast)
  • parsley, chopped

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Trim bottom ends off asparagus since they can be “woody”. One method is to hold each end of a spear and gently bend until it snaps at its point of tenderness. I’m afraid I don’t have the patience for this process.  I simply chop off a quarter or so from the bottom.

Place trimmed spears in a single layer in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with coarse salt and grind on fresh pepper. Toss in the pan and spread out evenly.

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Roast for approximately 15 minutes.  Could be more.  Could be less.  Check with a fork for tenderness. Some of the tips may get a little crispy.  Don’t worry.

Let cool in pan a bit before plating them. Top with diced egg and drizzle with vinaigrette. Sprinkle with parsley.  Serve.

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