Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Life Gets in the Way

It's been 3 weeks since my last post, and I apologize for that. There are two factors in this:

1. Part-time job (3 or 4 days a week)

2. A degenerative spine condition and arthritis.

The diagnosis for #2 came two weeks ago today. I've been going to chiropractic therapy on days I don't work. The good news is that for the first time since the end of March, I am not in constant pain. Notice I didn't say I was pain-free, because I'm not. But the amount and severity of pain is much improved and more manageable.

My condition makes me more prone to fatigue, and even exhaustion. On the days I work, I can't do much of anything else because I'm too tired. On the days I don't work, simple household duties leave me tired and in pain.

I will resume posting about my weight loss plan by the middle of June, maybe sooner. I have an article to finish for The Saponifier magazine, as well as preparations for the Alabama Soap & Candle Association's annual meeting. Then there's just trying to keep up with the daily stuff.

So look for a new post sometime in the next 3 - 4 weeks!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Weight Loss Plan, Part 1

In Eating Healthy to Lose Weight, I talked about how my cooking has changed over the past 16 months. The initial goal was not to lose weight, but to add variety to our meals. I was stuck in a rut of preparing the same meals over and over. So I started learning more about cooking.

The change was slow. I had to re-learn the way I thought about meal planning and cooking. I had to learn some new techniques and methods, both for preparation and cooking. I watched food shows, did internet research, and read food blogs (my favorites are listed in the right hand column).

Come summer, some things started clicking into place, and I had an “AHA!!” moment, or epiphany, if you prefer. Part of our weight problem stemmed from my (pre-change) style of cooking and a dependence on ready-to-eat and prepared foods and “ingredients”. These foods are higher in fat, sodium and/or sugar, and usually contain a number of ingredients (the artificial ones included to add color and/or flavor) that we don’t need.

Once I realized this, I started thinking about changes in my cooking to address the issue. At that point, the goal started to shift toward weight loss, but my primary focus was to change what foods and ingredients I used, and how I prepared them. I then developed a “plan”, which looked like this:

  • Little to no "prepared" ingredients (i.e. Cream of Mushroom Soup)
  • Little to no "prepared", ready-to-eat or heat-&-eat meals (i.e. frozen lasagna)
  • Absolutely no box dinners or sides (i.e. Hamburger Helper or Rice-A-Roni)
  • More whole grains, fruits & veggies
  • Reduce use of fats in cooking as much as possible without sacrificing too much flavor or otherwise affecting the cook
  • Experiment with international and ethnic cuisines
  • Experiment with different cooking methods and techniques
  • Add flavor with:
    • herbs and spices
    • judicious use of condiments (i.e. Hoisin Sauce, Soy Sauce)
    • judicious use of flavored oils (i.e. Sesame when making a stir fry)
    • use of flavor ingredients (onions, garlic, citrus, etc)

My plan was not to count calories but rather being more aware of what goes into the food I prepare (and eat). I was looking to make healthier calorie choices and not worry so much about numbers. I knew we would start losing weight, albeit slowly. From last summer through mid-March of this year, I followed this plan.

In mid-March, after discussing Weight Watchers with Michael, I joined. I started reading all the information on the WW site about the Momentum plan, filling foods, etc. I scanned through a lot of recipes to get a feel for what to cook and how to prepare it. I also purchased the two food companion books that give you the point values of different foods as well as serving size.

Counting points instead of calories aside, I can’t say that the Momentum plan is much different from what I was already doing. Having read through the WW site, many of the recipes on said site, plus having purchased one of the WW recipe collection magazines, I realized that I was already doing a lot of what the plan was all about … less fat and high calorie foods, and more fiber and filling foods, as well as cooking methods that don’t add unnecessary fat and calories.

Portion control is probably the area my new way of cooking has been weakest in. Part of it is habit from feeding a hungry teenage athlete. The larger part of it though is from not thinking about how much food I’m putting on a plate. I’ve gotten a lot better with that thanks to the Momentum plan.

It has worked for us. Whether you follow the Momentum plan, or something along the lines of what I initially planned out, becoming more aware of what is in the food you eat, which foods you eat, and how much food you’re eating, is a key to weight loss.

Past articles in this series:

1. Eating Healthy to Lose Weight

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eating Healthy to Lose Weight

Off and on during the course of adult life, I’ve tried to lose weight. I’d go on a diet, stick to it for awhile, eventually ending up feeling deprived and frustrated, which ended the attempt. The primary focus of every diet I attempted was counting calories. I found it too involved and complicated, requiring everything to be precisely weighed or measured. While I loved to cook, having to go through all the extra time and effort negated the pleasure of cooking.

Like many Americans seduced by the advertising on television, I fell into the trap of ready-to-eat and prepared meals and ingredients, such as Hamburger Helper and using cream of whatever soup as a basis for casseroles and more. I did some ‘from scratch’ cooking, but not a lot. I guess you could say my cooking style became a cross between Betty Crocker and Sandra Lee.

As a result, our waistlines grew, and neither of us was happy about it. And we were also getting bored with the dozen or two ‘staple’ recipes I depended on.

Over the past 16 months, or thereabouts, I’ve been changing how and what I cook, and therefore what we eat. Initially, the idea was to add variety to our meals. I started watching Food Network shows as well as Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Kitchen Nightmares. I did internet research into ingredients, recipes, cuisines, and cooking methods. While I have been cooking for many years, I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of ingredients, as well as some methods and techniques, is lacking.

But as I learned and experimented, things started to change. I was cooking more ‘from scratch’ and the food was not only tasting better, but also becoming healthier. Since the initial goal was not to lose weight, the pounds were slow to come off, but we were eating healthier and I was learning more about cooking. I created a wish list of kitchen tools and equipment, and added a few of them to my kitchen. I also created a wish list of cookbooks, of which I’ve gotten two (more about them in future postings).

Earlier this year, several of Michael’s co-workers joined Weight Watchers, and he told me about how they liked it and how they were losing weight. So I decided to check it out, and joined in mid-March, opting for the online version rather than meetings.

We have lost both pounds and inches, although Michael’s loss has been a bit more dramatic than mine. While I would like for my losses to be more than they have been, I am not unhappy with what I have lost. Since the beginning of March, I’ve lost one clothing size, and a pair of pants I bought at that time requires a belt to prevent them from embarrassing me in public.

I’m still learning about ingredients, methods and techniques, as well as things like flavor pairings. I’m still experimenting with new recipes. And I’m still “tweaking” our weight loss plan. I still have quite a bit of excess weight to lose, but I am confident that I will lose it.

Coming Next: My Weight Loss Plan

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chili Mac for a Chilly Day

Cooler weather has moved across much of the country, even reaching South Central Alabama. We’ve lived here about 7 or 8 years now, and I can’t remember us ever having a freeze this early.

Cooler weather typically means a shift from the lighter fare of summer to heartier dishes. Our favorite cold weather dishes include casseroles, soups and stews.

A few nights ago while I was preparing to cook dinner, I realized that the recipe I was about to use was far too similar to another recipe I make (and we had eaten it not too long ago). So I needed a quick change of plans.

I considered making our favorite chili, but I didn’t have everything I needed. So I sat with both recipes open, looking at similarities and contemplating what I could do. The idea dawned on me to make a Chili Mac, which would be a sort of hybrid between my chili recipe and the recipe I had decided to not make.

It turned out very well, and both my husband and stepson liked it. It was fairly quick and easy to make, and was hearty enough to be filling and satisfying. While I haven’t tried it, I believe a soup or stew variation could be made by increasing the amount of broth and/or cooking the macaroni separately and then adding it with the beans. You could also add up to 1 cup of frozen corn kernels.

My only regret in making this was that I didn’t have the ingredients on hand to make corn bread. I think that would have made dinner perfect.

Carol’s Chili Mac

1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can (14.5oz) tomatoes, undrained
1/2 cup Picante Sauce
2 cups beef broth
1 1/2 teaspoons Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Chili Powder
1 teaspoon Southwest seasoning (Penzeys)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup elbow macaroni, uncooked
1 can (15oz) pinto beans, drained & rinsed

Brown ground beef in a 12" skillet . Add onion and cook until beginning to go translucent.

Add remaining ingredients, except beans, and mix well.

Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and cook until macaroni is tender.

Add pinto beans and mix. Adjust seasonings if needed.

Ingredient Notes:

* Ground Beef: I use 93% lean. If you use a higher fat beef, drain all but 1 or 2 tablespoons of the drippings from the pan before adding the onion.

* Tomatoes: I use petite cut, but any type should be fine. If using whole tomatoes, crush them up before adding to the skillet.

* Picante Sauce: I use Pace, Medium heat

* Chili Powder: I use Penzeys' Medium Hot

* Southwest Seasoning: I use Penzeys

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fricassee for the Win

Earlier this month, I had some chicken thighs remaining from a large package purchased on sale. We eat chicken quite a bit for a number of reasons, and I was looking for a different way of cooking it. I considered the possibility of Chicken & Dumplings, but my husband isn’t a fan of it.

So off I went to look through cookbooks and browse the Internet for ideas. In one of my cookbooks, I came across a recipe for Chicken Fricassee. I’ve never cooked it, and can’t remember ever eating it. Intrigued, I detoured to Google to do a recipe and information search.

Many of the recipes I came across resembled Chicken & Dumplings, sans the dumplings in many cases. That wasn’t going to work. So I began searching to find out what a fricassee is.

Fricassee (FRIHK-uh-see) comes from the French word fricassée, meaning to cut up and fry. Recipes and methods of making fricassee vary widely. Meat browned versus gently cooked in butter. Simmer the meat in stock or wine versus stewing with vegetables. Some recipes call for you to make a mushroom cream sauce. Most call for serving the dish over noodles or dumplings.

After reading through more recipes than I care to remember, I came to the following conclusion: despite their differences, all the recipes share a basic foundation … pieces of meat are cooked to some degree, then stewed or braised.

I searched through my pantry and refrigerator to see what ingredients I had on hand. I found fresh aromatics, canned tomatoes, half a box of organic chicken stock, and some smoked sausage links. Of course I have typical pantry staples such as salt, pepper, herbs, flour, and more. As I mulled my ingredient finds over, an idea came to mind.

Why not make a Creole-Style Chicken Fricassee? I was born and raised in New Orleans, so Creole cooking is something I’m familiar with. Considering how varied (and confusing) Chicken Fricassee recipes are, I couldn’t think of a reason not to attempt this. So off I went to the kitchen.

I made this up as I went along, drawing upon my knowledge of Creole cooking. I have to say that the whole downstairs smelled wonderful as it cooked. And it turned out quite good. Both my guys liked it, enough for me to write it down after dinner before I could forget how I had made it. This is a definite “make it again” dish for us.

While I based this recipe on Creole cooking, I did not make a roux. However, you certainly could if you so desired. Instructions for this follow the main recipe.

Creole-Style Chicken Fricassee
Serves 4

4 chicken thighs, bone-in with skin
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced green pepper
½ cup diced celery
¼ cup sliced green onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 can (14.5oz) tomatoes (do not drain)
1 cup chicken broth or stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
¼-½ teaspoon dried, rubbed sage
1 large bay leaf
8oz smoked sausage, cut into 4 pieces
salt and pepper to taste
cayenne pepper or dried red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
1 cup rice, cooked according to directions or preference

Ingredient Notes:
* Tomatoes – I used petite cut, but use your favorite
* Sausage – If you like heat, try using a spicy sausage, such as Andouille or Chorizo.
* Meat – while fricassee is typically made with chicken, you can use any meat you like including rabbit, veal, or Cornish Game Hens. I used chicken thighs since this is what I had on hand, but you can use whatever your favorite part is.

Heat skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add oil and heat until it shimmers (should take less than 30 seconds).

While skillet heats, sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. When skillet and oil are hot, add chicken skin side down. Cook until skin is browned and crisp. Turn over and brown other side for about 5 minutes.

Remove chicken from skillet and set aside. Add vegetables to hot skillet and sauté until softened. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and mix well. Reduce heat to medium. Stir and cook, 2 or 3 minutes to remove the raw flour taste. NOTE: See below for instructions to use a roux.

Stir in stock, tomatoes and herbs. Mix well. Return chicken to pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove cover and add sausage pieces. Continue to cook for 15 minutes.

Remove chicken and sausage from skillet. Place in a low oven to keep warm.

If necessary, increase heat under skillet so that sauce simmers and bubbles. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, or until sauce is thickened to your liking. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and if desired, cayenne or dried pepper flakes. Remove and discard bay leaf. NOTE: This step is not necessary if you like a thinner sauce.

Divide rice among plates or bowls. Top with a chicken thigh and a piece of sausage. Spoon sauce over top.

To Make with a Roux:

After removing browned chicken from the skillet, sprinkle flour over the oil while stirring. Add enough flour to absorb all the oil and create a slurry. Cook, stirring constantly over medium heat, until it's as brown as you like (anywhere from tan to deep golden). Be careful because it's very easy to burn a roux, and it can change from perfect to ruined in a matter of a few seconds. Dump all the chopped vegetables into the pan (this stops the cooking of the roux); mix and sauté until softened. Proceed with remainder of recipe from there.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Coconut Madness

I have never liked coconut. My experiences with it were things like cupcakes, German Chocolate cake, and nasty suntan oils. I just never like the flavor or the feel of it in my mouth. For the most part, I also didn't like its aroma, but that might have been due to the suntan oils.

Enter Alton Brown and Good Eats, with his Coconut Cake Revival episode. The first time I watched it, his making extract, coconut milk and coconut cream from a coconut is what got my attention (yes, I was thinking soap LOL). Some time after that, because of trying to expand my cooking experiences, I decided to try some Thai inspired dishes that used coconut milk. For the heck of it, I tasted the milk (canned, Thai Kitchen brand), and WOW, I really liked it. So I've been using it quite a bit the past few months. Caught the episode again, and have been toying with the idea of making the cake because I've been enjoying the flavor of the coconut milk.

I've used canned coconut milk in:
* Thai inspired
* Curries
* Pudding

I finally bought a coconut and spent several days discombobulating it. Due to my Carpal Tunnel and arthritis, it left me in severe pain for awhile.

Day 1: For ease of getting the liquid (aka Coconut Water) out, forget the ice pick and mallet. Use an electric drill (which AB suggests) or a drill press (which my husband did because he couldn't find his electric drill ... don't ask!!). A 1/4" bit will do the job fine. I turned the coconut hole side down into a 2 cup Pyrex measuring cup (it fit nicely without getting stuck or going too far down). I first strained the liquid through a mesh strainer to remove the larger debris. After cleaning the strainer, I put a coffee filter in it, and restrained the liquid to remove the finer sized particles. Once strained, the liquid went into a screw top jar and into the refrigerator. Warning: Take heed of Alton’s note that the coconut water keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator. Yep, I forgot about it, and nope, you don’t want to know what it looked like.

Day 2: Opening the coconut can be daunting. The one I bought had a pre-cut groove running around the "equator", which I'm sure helped since the outer hull had been breached a bit. Do follow AB's suggestion of heating the coconut first (let it cool enough to handle safely!!). I did have to resort to a flat head screw driver and mallet for this, but it wasn't overly difficult (due to the groove I'm sure). After separating the two halves, I put them in a zipper closing plastic bag and refrigerated until the next day.

Day 3: Removal of the flesh. I worked a butter/table knife between the flesh and shell, shimmying it back and forth as well as up and down. I did this all around the coconut half. Then I started prying the flesh loose. With the first half, I broke off two small pieces and one somewhat larger piece, with the remaining 2/3 or so coming out in one piece. I did much better with the second half, and the whole thing came out in one piece. I returned the flesh to the plastic bag, and refrigerated.

Day 4: Peeling the flesh. Man, I need a better peeler. My old one just doesn't cut it. The 'skin' on the flesh is not easy to peel off either because it's quite stiff and kind of bark-like. After some laborious work, it was done. I rinsed the flesh to remove the powdery debris, let them dry, and back into the refrigerator they went while I took ibuprofen and gave my hands a rest.

Several hours later, it was time to shred the flesh. I wasn't about to use my box grater. I was already in pain, and didn't want to cause myself more. I don't have a food processor. So I grabbed a salad shooter given to me by a friend so I could shred soap (which I haven't used it for that yet). It worked okay, but no way can these shreds be used on or in most foods. If you've ever shredded soap with a salad shooter, you know what I mean. After shredding, I spread the coconut out on a baking sheet and popped it into the freezer long enough for the shreds to harden, yet separate easily. Then I put them into a freezer bag until I decide how to use them. I have an old Little Oskar that I can use the grind the shreds up a bit. I know this will work fine for coconut to make the extract, milk and cream. I'm not so sure it will work too well for coconut to put in or on food.

I did nibble on a couple of pieces of coconut during the days I was working on it. Still not sure I like the feel of it in my mouth, but the flavor is a whole lot better than the nasty stuff on the grocery store baking aisle.

I'm still debating whether or not to try my hand at baking AB's coconut cake. I've never done a whole lot of baking from scratch, and never a cake, so I'm a little leery. But I'll probably go ahead and do it early next week, sans the shredded coconut between layers and coating it (which will have to wait until I get a food processor).

And I still haven't thrown the shell away. I'm not sure I can do anything with it, but until I figure it out, I'm not tossing it.

Alton Brown’s:
* Coconut Cake with 7-Minute Frosting
* Coconut Milk & Cream
* Coconut Extract

See the companion post at DPN News

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What’s for Dinner?

This has to be one of the most often asked questions. On a nightly basis, someone somewhere is asking it. When I ask this question, my husband says something along the lines of “What are you cooking?”. And therein lies the rub.

Every weekend I go through the process of creating a grocery list and menu for the coming week. I like shopping with a list because it means fewer impulse purchases, and I don’t forget anything. For the most part. Sometimes I do forget to put something on my list, or I didn’t realize I was out (or nearly out) of something. But overall it works well for me.

The problem is trying to decide on what to cook. We got into a rut for awhile, my husband finally complained, and since then I’ve been trying to keep it varied as well as trying new things. Even so, it is difficult to create a menu when you don’t know what you feel like eating, never mind having to cook it.

I’ve tried asking my husband and our teenager what they would like for dinner in the coming week. Their answers are “food” and “lasagna”, respectively. Every now and then one of them includes an adjective, such as edible, hot, or tasty. Big help they are. Compounding the problem is the rising cost of groceries in a tough economic climate.

I look through recipes I have saved on my computer, and through a cookbook or two. I’ll visit Food Network, and Simply Recipes, and maybe a few other websites. I’m not always looking for specific recipes, but rather inspiration and ideas.

Sometimes my inspirations and ideas work out well. I’ve gotten raves for Pork Fried Rice, Chiles Rellenos, Pork Butt (I usually get 2 or 3 meals from this), and my Creole-Style Chicken Fricassee. My guys also enjoy my Lasagna and Quesadillas (no matter which version I make). Sometimes they don’t work out so well, usually being okay rather than a complete bomb, but not something I’m likely to try again.

Some of my successes were made up as I went along. As a matter of necessity, when I get good reviews for one of this type of dish, I sit down with a notebook and write it all down immediately after dinner. If I don’t do this, I won’t remember the ingredients I used or how I put it all together, and I won’t be able to recreate the dish. Now if only I could remember where I put the darn notebook.

I’m not sure I will ever not struggle to complete a weekly menu. Yes, sometimes I do have a taste for something that I can cook. When that happens, it goes on the menu regardless of whether or not the guys want it. Sometimes I have no real problems putting a menu together because the ideas, etc just flow. But more often that not, I spend several hours weekly beating my brain up trying to figure out “What’s for Dinner?” next week.

Bon Appétit!

P.S. If you decide to visit Simply Recipes, be sure to check out the Parmesan Chicken Recipe. It is delicious! It’s also the best Parmesan Chicken I’ve ever made. Eat it as is, served with a salad, or top with your favorite tomato sauce and mozzarella, and serve with pasta. Any way you serve it, everyone will want more.