Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A chickpea and spinach dish my whole family liked

With the madness of the holidays, the crazy travel/work schedule of my husband, and the general chaos that is my life, I've been eating pretty poorly lately. I've had lots of restaurant food, leftover nuggets, and pretzels & cheese dinners, and it's starting to take a toll on my soul, if not my health.

So the other night I decided to try out a recipe I saw in my Experience Life magazine (it's a magazine I get free with my gym membership, and they always have great healthy recipes in there...it's also available online so anyone can read it).

The recipe was called Lemony Spiced Chickpeas with Spinach, and you can find it here (scroll all the way to the bottom). It's really easy to make...you just saute some garbanzo beans with some onions, add some spices and lemon juice, and then add in some fresh spinach until it wilts. When I saw the combination of cumin and chickpeas I was sold.

I made it for my husband and I after the kids had already eaten, because I was pretty convinced the girls would hate it. But shockingly, my husband loved it and the kids, who hovered near us until we shared with them, were soon begging for more chickpeas like they were gumdrops.

The only flaw to this meal is that it doesn't really stand on its own as a full dinner unless you're aiming to eat really light. But it could easily serve as a great side dish to some chicken, fish, etc. I think the other recipes in the link look great, too. Hopefully I'll get to try them all out soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chipotle: My new favorite restaurant

Over the last few years I've developed a real disdain for kids' menus. Aside from the fact that they rarely offer any healthy options, pretty much every meal has dairy as a main component -- mac & cheese, pizza, and grilled cheese are the obvious ones, but even chicken nuggets often have milk in the breading, and many pasta sauces contain parmesan cheese.

Since my girls aren't big hamburger fans, eating out with them usually means one thing: hot dogs & french fries. It's one of the only restaurant meals Sydney can eat, and one of the only restaurant foods Brynn will eat. (Actually, Brynn loves mac & cheese and pizza but I feel bad ordering it for her when Sydney can't have any).

I know the occasional hot dog & fries combo isn't going to kill anyone, but I've always thought it would be nice to leave a restaurant feeling like I've nourished my kids instead of just filling them up with grease, salt & unnamed animal parts.

Enter Chipotle! We stopped in there the other day after a particularly horrendous trip to the pediatric dentist. I'd been meaning to check it out after reading about their "Food With Integrity" philosophy. A blurb from their site says: "The hallmarks of Food With Integrity include things like unprocessed, seasonal, family-farmed, sustainable, nutritious, naturally raised, added hormone free, organic, and artisanal."

That's pretty darn impressive for a fast food restaurant, and I hope it's a trend that continues!

Anyway, while I was expecting to just order from the regular menu, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they've added a kids menu, at least at the location we went to. For $3, I got Brynn a cheese quesadilla with a side of rice, beans, and tortilla chips, and a little carton of organic milk. The quesadilla was made by just putting some shredded cheese on a tortilla and pressing it in a big panini-style machine - it wasn't the least bit greasy.

For $4 I got Sydney a "build your own" taco kit with two flour tortillas, guacamole, corn salsa, and pinto beans (you can choose either a meat or guacamole as the "main" ingredient), as well as an apple juice. Both of the meals came with a small baggie of tortilla chips too.

It's nice to know we now have a restaurant to go to where a) the food comes quickly, b) both girls can eat foods they enjoy, and c) I don't have to feel the least bit guilty about what they're eating. I give a big thumbs up to Chipotle!!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Spaghetti squash ain't foolin' my kids

If you ask either of my girls what their favorite food is, they will say without hesitation: NOODLES!

Macaroni, rotini, spaghetti, penne, egg noodles...you name it, if it's a noodle, they will devour it. So I was really excited to try out spaghetti squash, which--as its name suggests--is basically a squash version of a noodle. I thought this would be a fantastic way to introduce a new veggie while capitalizing on the girls' favorite food.

"Mom, what's that?" Sydney asked as she watched me spend 5 minutes trying to sever the spaghetti squash with the biggest, sharpest knife we own (those suckers are hard to cut).

"It's a spaghetti squash. It has noodles inside."

"Mom, I don't like squash."

"You've never had this kind of squash before. This kind has noodles in it!! It's super yummy!!!!" I said in the fake-est cheeriest voice ever.

After cooking the squash as directed by the little sticker that was affixed to it when I bought it, I mixed it with some pasta sauce. I put it on my girls' plates, slid it over to them, and then watched their faces turn into a grimace within five seconds of the first bite. Almost in unison, they both shoved their plates toward me and exclaimed "Yuck!"

I tried some myself. While I wouldn't label it as "yuck," it definitely wasn't interchangeable with a noodle. It's crunchier and, well, squash-ier. I'm sure some parmesan cheese would have improved it a little, but I left it off so that Sydney could eat it. If anyone has tips on better ways to enjoy spaghetti squash, I'd love to hear them! I almost think it would have been a better idea not to compare it to a noodle and instead, just call a squash a squash.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My spaghetti & marinara makeover

During the 6 years my husband and I lived child-free in Los Angeles, we ate out A LOT. I mean A LOT. And chances were, if we weren't eating out, we were ordering in.

I viewed home cooking as a necessary evil in between restaurant visits or deliveries, and consequently my home-cooked meals were pretty uninspired...spaghetti and marinara, a baked potato, salad and pre-packaged marinated chicken breast, or Rice-a-Roni and a chunk of grilled meat. (Now, there were times I actually cooked delicious meals from scratch, but those times were few and far between.)

When life changed (ie: kids entered the picture), and home cooking became a plain old necessity instead of a necessary evil, it was a tough period of adjustment. All those years we spent navigating LA's dynamic restaurant scene had made me into kind of a food snob. I was no longer satisfied by a chunk of grilled chicken and some microwaved peas. If I was going to have to give up my yellowtail-jalapeno sushi rolls and grilled calamari with lemon zest and butter, I would learn to make food at home that satisfied those same cravings. I wanted my meals to have pizzazz.

One way I've been able to add a little gourmet restaurant flair into my life is by making over some of the basic "out of the pantry" meals I've been eating my entire life. One dish that recently received a makeover was our standby spaghetti and marinara.

For us, "pasta night" used to mean nuking Ragu or Classico sauce and pouring it over some cappellini or penne. It was tasty enough, but vaguely depressing. I really, really wanted to be able to make a fresh homemade sauce, but the idea of it terrified me. I thought making your own pasta sauce was a task only to be undertaken by Italians with a secret family recipe that had been handed down four generations.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I caught a segment on a Food Network show featuring Wolfgang Puck's signature pasta sauce. The ingredients weren't scary, and the whole process took about 10 minutes. I didn't get a chance to take down his recipe exactly, but I remembered the basic ideas behind it, so one day I gave it a shot. We haven't gone back to Ragu or Classico since.

I've grouped the ingredients into two categories: "definite" and "maybe." The "definite" ingredients are ones you should definitely use, and the "maybe" ingredients are optional...depending on your taste.

Definite ingredients:

Fresh tomatoes, diced
Good extra virgin olive oil
Some minced garlic
Some decent dry white wine
Grated parmesan cheese

Maybe ingredients:

Fresh chopped basil

Basically you chop up a few tomatoes and cook them in EVOO on medium-low heat until they start to wilt. Add some garlic and cook a little more. Add a little white wine and some salt. Then taste it and add a little more of whatever you think it needs more of. Also add any of the "maybe ingredients" that appeal to you...or all of them. Then when it tastes pretty good, pour it over the cooked pasta of your choice and mix in a few handfuls of parmesan cheese.

This sauce is a little more delicate than your typical jarred sauce, but it's still really flavorful...especially if you're liberal with the salt and parmesan cheese. I didn't include any measurements because I just kind of add things in small amounts until it tastes right. Plus, standing over the sauce, adding a splash of this and a dash of that, makes me feel a little more like a fourth generation Italian with a secret family recipe.