Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An ode to pesto

Pesto is a fairly new addition to our eating repertoire, yet it's recently come to be a staple in our house. It's just such an easy and nutritious way to add flavor to food - it tastes really fresh and flavorful, and it's full of good stuff (there are different ways to make it, but traditional ingredients include fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese).

I've started making my own so that I can leave out the cheese and make a dairy-free version, but I've had tons of delicious store-made pesto as well. Anyway, since we've been eating so much pesto lately, I thought I'd dedicate a post to it. Here are just some of the ways I've used it recently.

1) Mixed with pasta, either hot or cold.

2) Mixed with mayo and spread on sandwiches. One of my favorites is a panini made with turkey, pesto mayo, and tomato on sourdough bread).

3) To season a caprese salad (Spread pesto on top of a sliced tomato and top with fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette)

4) In meatballs (I mix ground beef or ground turkey with one egg, some breadcrumbs, and some pesto)

5) My pesto, chicken & sausage-stuffed shells I posted about here

6) "Linda's pesto cod"

My mother-in-law is visiting and she made a delicious pesto-topped cod dish the other night. I made her cough up the recipe, and here it is....I love how simple it is, and it tastes fantastic!

sprinkle cod fillets with salt & pepper
spread pesto on top of each fillet
sprinkle chopped pistachios on top of the pesto

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

7) Spread on bruschetta or pizza. Sadly, I learned the hard way that pesto is sometimes made with walnuts. My poor step-father-in-law (is that a term?) is currently lying in bed sick because the Trader Joe's pesto, mozzarella & tomato flatbread I made for dinner contained walnuts, which he is allergic to. Sorry Mike!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stuffed shells with chicken, sausage, spinach and pesto (dairy-free!)

I am constantly on the lookout for pasta dishes that my whole family will enjoy, which means they have to be dairy-free, mushroom-free (my husband hates mushrooms), and delicious. Since pasta is almost always paired with cheese, it's been tough. I am constantly seeing great, easy recipes for pasta meals, but they always, ALWAYS contain cheese. So, out of frustration and determination, I decided to invent one of my own...and thankfully it was a success!

I was inspired by a bag of jumbo pasta shells I recently bought at the store. I know stuffed shells are traditionally filled with lots of cheese, but I decided to stuff them with meat and veggies instead.

Here's what I stuffed my shells with:

1 link of chicken sausage (I chose chicken basil sausage from our local natural foods grocer since it contains traditional Italian seasonings). Slice open the casing and mix the sausage with...

1/2 pound of ground chicken. Mix the chicken and chicken sausage together in a pan and cook until no longer pink.

Put the cooked chicken & sausage mixture into a bowl and mix with a few spoonfuls of pesto (pre-made pesto is fine if you don't have dairy issues, but I made my own dairy-free version which contained fresh basil, garlic, lemon juice, pine nuts, olive oil, and salt).

Then add some chopped spinach (either fresh or frozen would be fine...I used frozen, which I thawed and squeezed to get out the excess water).

Finally, add 1 beaten egg (to help bind the ingredients).

Boil the shells until they are "al dente," then stuff them with the mixture. Coat the bottom of a 13x9 inch pan with marinara sauce. Then place the shells side by side in the pan, filling side up. Spoon some more marinara over the top of the shells. Cover the pan with foil and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes. If you want to add cheese, you can uncover the pan and sprinkle some mozzarella cheese over the top, then bake for a few extra minutes unti the cheese melts.

I have to say, although I did add cheese to a portion of this dish, it was still delicious without it. And Sydney loved that the shells were kind of like pasta tacos, which she could pick up and eat.

At least now I can add a little variation to the meatballs, marinara & noodles that we eat so often. And soon I will dedicate a special post to dairy-free pesto, which can be used in so many different ways to add flavor to dishes without adding cheese.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The perfect winter lunch

Is anything more comforting and delicious on a chilly day than a steaming bowl of creamy tomato soup and a crusty grilled cheese sandwich?

This meal is pretty simple to make, but I've discovered an even simpler version that tastes fantastic: Pacific Natural Foods Organic Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup paired with Archer Farms (at Target) Cheddar Sourdough Twists.

My love for this lunch is fourfold: 1) It's inexpensive; 2) It's easy; 3) It's nourishing; and 4) It's delicious.

If you haven't tried Pacific soups, you must. Aside from the fact that they are all-natural and taste great, I love how they come in a box with a screw cap. I know, I know...opening a can should not be a big deal, but it always takes me 10 minutes to find the can opener, then I can't get it latched on the can correctly, and then I hate having to fish for the lid after it falls into the soup and gets all goopy. (Yes, I'm a little diva-ish when it comes to opening cans.) I also like the box version because I can pour out exactly how much I want.

This particular flavor of Pacific soup is really creamy (it contains milk), but 1 cup only has 110 calories and 2 grams of fat. And yet another great thing about it is that it's currently sold at Costco in a 6-pack box. Or it can be found in natural food stores, or the natural foods section of regular grocery stores.

And now for the cheddar twists...

Anyone who likes grilled cheese knows that the best part of the grilled cheese is where the cheese has oozed out and gotten all burnt and crusty around the edges of the bread. So imagine that someone has grilled about 20 cheddar cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread, and then trimmed off all those deliciously burnt crusty edges, baked them into crunchy breadsticks and put them in a box. That is what you will find when you try Archer Farms Cheddar Sourdough Twists. You can dip them in the soup, or crumble them into the soup. Or, like me, do both and then eat about 5 more after the soup is gone. SO good.

I've eaten this lunch so often lately, I'm almost getting sick of it. But since "winter" here is so fleeting (It's currently 69 degrees), I need to indulge in delicious soups while I can.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My mindfully eaten dinner

The term "mindful eating" has been on my radar lately - it's cropped up here and there in articles I've read, and there are some new books out on the topic. Basically, eating mindfully means you are paying attention to what you eat. Instead of shoving food in your mouth while you stand at the counter sorting through mail, you sit down at a table and savor each bite, paying attention to the flavors you're experiencing and your level of hunger/fullness.

I'm very guilty of being a non-mindful eater. I am usually shoveling bites of food into my mouth while I focus on catering to the girls. Even when I take the time to make myself a good healthy meal, I rarely sit down and actually savor it. Instead I try to wolf it down in between requests for more water, crackers, meatballs, grapes, picking up a dropped fork, wiping off a slimy hand, etc.

In fact, I think part of the reason I love chocolate so much is that it is some of the only mindful eating I do. When the girls are taking naps and I have peace, I will brew some coffee and break off some chunks of a decadent Golden Almond bar, and I am in heaven. Sure, a Golden Almond would taste good under any circumstances, but it tastes extra good when I am lying on the couch in silence and savoring each bite.

Tonight, I was about to mindlessly eat my dinner. My husband had cooked a Trader Joe's flatbread in the oven and it was sitting half-cooled on the counter when I came down from putting Brynn to bed. I picked up a piece and took a was really good, but not as good as it would have been were it not lukewarm. Part of me wanted to just chow it down because I was hungry and wanted to get on with my night, but then a little voice in me said STOP!

I realized that I was about to eat something really tasty, and I wanted to truly enjoy it. So instead of standing over the kitchen island eating lukewarm flatbread, I decided to take an extra 5 minutes to re-crisp the flatbread. And then I made a salad and put it on a nice plate. I sat down at the table, poured a glass of wine, and savored my food. And it was damn good.

By the way, the flatbread I had was Trader Joe's French Style Flat Bread with Ham, Caramalized Onions & Gruyere Cheese. If you have the fortune of living near a Trader Joe's, you should buy it for sure. If not, I'm sure it's pretty easy to make. Aside from the crust, the only ingredients on the flatbread are creme fraiche, ham, caramelized onions, and gruyere cheese.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My new year's resolution

Wow, I can't believe the holidays are over! As usual, it was a blur, but a happy blur. I hope everyone else's blur was happy as well.

And now that the decorations are packed away, the boxes of chocolates are empty, and those perfectly wrapped new toys are happily strewn across the floor, I'm ready to make a few resolutions. Actually just one.

I've always strived to be an educated consumer. I like to read reviews, talk to people about things they like/dislike, and comparison shop to ensure I'm getting the best products for the best price. Quality has always mattered to me, too. I'm willing to pay more for an item if I truly love it, it works better than its competitors, or I believe it's going to last.

Up until recently I hadn't applied this way of thinking to food. I wouldn't necessarily buy junk, but I definitely didn't always put quality first. And when I did, it was usually the stuff I was buying for the kids. I had no problem feeding them organic cheese while I ate the block of supermarket cheddar I bought for $1.50 on sale.

Another thing that has tripped me up was trusting that "name brand" foods would be of decent quality. After spending a lot of time reading and researching about food, I've come to find out that name brand foods are often the least quality items one can buy, not only in terms of the junk factor, but in terms of how food is prepared, crops are grown, animals are raised & butchered, our environment is affected, etc. Not all chicken breasts, soybeans, and frozen pizzas are created equal.

A few weeks ago I watched Food, Inc. - a movie about the food industry which has recently come out on DVD. If you're interested in learning more about where your food comes from, particularly within the meat & poultry industry, I highly recommend it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss when it comes to food, but I think it's important to know what we're actually eating. This film didn't tell me a ton I hadn't already discovered through my own reading, but it did further my resolve to really invest in quality foods...not just sometimes, but all of the time.

Because when I buy crappy foods, I'm not only cheating myself out of a healthier choice, I'm also feeding the corporate beasts that are profiting from our ignorance while I could be bolstering those companies that are doing the right thing. (OK, I'm not a bonafide conspiracy theorist yet, but I'm slowly becoming one).

As the movie Food, Inc. points out at the end, unlike other political or societal issues where we feel like we have no say, when it comes to food we essentially get to "vote" our opinions every time we walk through the checkout lane or sit down to eat. So this new year, I am resolving to eat better and buy better. I would like to add that I won't be eating any more fast food, but I know that's probably impossible. Instead, I'll resolve to skip the meat products and stick to what I love most about fast food: the french fries! They might be high in fat, but at least I won't be subjecting myself to any (spoiler alert!) meat filler cleansed with ammonia.

Happy 2010!!