Thursday, February 9, 2012

Recipe: Hot Tuna Salad

I never liked mayo, but I understood it as a necessary evil to hold together chicken or tuna salad. Turns out it isn't. In the past few years, I have made relatively successful chicken salad with sour cream and with plain Greek yogurt. But the most flavorful version is this one, made with herbed margarine from Bev Laumann in A Taste of the Good Life. I've made only minor changes. It is definitely best heated, but it's still pretty tasty cold. And you can use real butter, but it gets a little too rich.

Hot Tuna Salad
Adapted from a recipe by Bev Laumann, A Taste of the Good Life (1998)

2 T. Smart Balance (or other butter substitute)
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
6 oz. can light tuna, packed in olive oil
1/3 c. celery, chopped
2 whole wheat English muffins (check for vinegar if you're on a low-acid diet)
2 slices Muenster cheese

1. Drain, rinse, and pat dry tuna.
2. Soften Smart Balance by heating for 10 seconds in the microwave. Mix with parsley, onion powder, salt, and pepper. 
3. Stir in drained tuna and celery. This mixture keeps well in the fridge if you want to make it in advance or keep leftovers.
4. Split each muffin and top with the tuna mixture. Split each slice of cheese in half, and top each muffin half with a half-slice of cheese.
5. Toast until cheese is hot and bubbly.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ode to Tomato-less Pizza

I love pizza. My husband likes to say he fell in love with me when he watched me demolish half a large pizza in roughly ten minutes. I fell in love with him when he bought said pizza off a delivery guy on the street.

When I gave up tomatoes, my first order of business was to figure out how to eat pizza without them. Luckily, there are endless options, and they're becoming more popular with the general public. My two favorites are white pizza and pesto.

White pizza can be made with Alfredo sauce or by brushing olive oil on pizza crust and adding garlic and other herbs (such as oregano, Italian seasoning, or something like Penzeys Spices Pizza Seasoning). Typical toppings for white pizza are spinach and chicken, but I also like sausage or a variety of vegetables. Pesto is also an excellent alternative to tomato sauce. I love it with pepperoni; with chicken and goat cheese; or with spinach, olives, and feta. My latest favorite is a delicious meatless pizza with mixed mushrooms and olives (see recipe below).

It's not difficult to make your own pizza dough, but it's also a step I'm happy to skip. Of the grocery-store options, I prefer Pillsbury refrigerated pizza dough. Organic grocery stores often sell good frozen pizza dough too, and it's even better to buy dough from your local pizza store.

Pesto Pizza with Mixed Mushrooms and Olives

Refrigerated or frozen, thawed pizza dough
Store-bought pesto sauce (approximately 4-5 T.)
Olive oil (1 T. plus extra for brushing)
8 oz. cremini (baby Portabello) mushrooms, sliced
6 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
Small can sliced black olives, rinsed and drained
6 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Heat large skillet over medium-high, and heat 1 T. olive oil. Saute mushrooms until softened, about eight minutes.
3. Brush pizza pan with olive oil, and spread dough into pan shape.
4. Bake dough for two minutes.
5. Spread a thin layer of pesto sauce on the dough. Top with black olives, cooked mushrooms, and cheese.
6. Bake until cheese is golden, about 15 minutes.

  • Oven temperature and cooking time can vary greatly depending on the dough, so follow the instructions on yours.
  • A little pesto goes a long way. Here is my pizza in stages:


Sunday, February 5, 2012

No Salad Dressing?!

When you're avoiding vinegar and lemon juice, salad dressing becomes a major problem. When I order a salad without dressing in a restaurant, this happens about nine times out of ten:

Me: No dressing on the salad please.
Server: You sure?
Me: Yes.
Server: You can substitute a different kind of dressing.
Me: No thanks, no dressing will be fine.
Server: I can bring it on the side. You might like it.
Me: No thanks.
Server: You sure?
Me: Yes.

If I add that I can't eat vinegar, it usually prolongs the conversation as the server tries to come up with an alternative.

I understand why this happens. Salad without dressing is a foreign, ridiculous idea to most of us. The standard Midwestern "filler" salad of iceberg lettuce and a few shreds of cabbage is really just a receptacle for dressing. It doesn't taste so great plain. Even good mixed greens are boring to eat alone. If you're going to make a salad you can genuinely enjoy without dressing, it needs to mix a variety of vegetables, textures, and flavors.

Here is how to do it:
  • Start with flavorful greens: spinach, romaine, arugula, etc. But don't fill your bowl mostly with greens; they're just a small part of a dressing-less salad.
  • Add at least three other vegetables: carrots, mushrooms, sprouts, roasted or raw bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, celery, green onion, etc. The more textures the better.
  • Consider adding fruit, fresh or dried. Pears have become a fairly popular salad addition, but blueberries and raisins are also delicious.
  • Include beans for flavor and protein. I like black beans, chickpeas, and edamame (soybeans), but any beans will work.
  • Add nuts or seeds. Sliced or chopped almonds are my favorite, but sesame seeds, chopped walnuts, and pecans are good too. 
  • Include a bit of cheese: Parmesan, goat, feta, shredded cheddar or mozzarella, etc.
  • Consider cooking something. Grilled vegetables and toasted nuts add even more flavor.
  • Use good-quality ingredients. Slightly wilted lettuce won't fly without dressing.
If I am choosing a salad at a restaurant, I look for these elements. Panera has a Thai chicken chopped salad that tastes amazingly good without dressing because it follows these guidelines.

There are also several ways to make your own low-acid salad dressing. In the U.S. we think all salads need acid, but that isn't understood as necessary everywhere. A popular salad in Argentina is a carrot salad, which is made only with good-quality shredded carrots and olive oil. Here are some low-acid dressings:
  • A good olive oil. Try also walnut or almond oil, which are a bit sweeter.
  • Canola oil + fresh mint + parsley + ground coriander + honey = sweet dressing. Good for shredded shredded green cabbage + blueberries, or carrots + raisins.
  • Olive oil + goat cheese + lemon zest + salt + pepper. I like this on fresh peas.
  • Canola oil + crumbled feta + oregano + onion powder + salt + pepper = Mediterranean dressing.
  • Plain Greek yogurt + finely chopped cucumber + fresh mint + lemon zest = Greek-style dressing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Recipe: Indulgent Broccoli Chicken Casserole

I grew up in the Midwest, so it's no surprise that when I crave comfort food, casseroles are at the top of my list. When my husband and I were first dating, he made fun of my style of cooking as "Irish one-pot, one-flavor" and nearly banned my Crockpot, casserole dish, and stew pot. We have both changed a bit since then, but I still love one-pot dishes.

The problem with casseroles, though, is that I loathe condensed soup. Luckily Campbell's makes a lower-sodium "healthy choice" cream of mushroom and cream of chicken, so at least I can get condensed soup without MSG and with a little less sodium.

I was really excited when I saw a recipe for broccoli chicken casserole without the condensed soup on "Get Off Your Butt and Bake." I don't usually cook with this much butter and cheese, but I thought I'd give it a try. The lactose-intolerant husband is usually good with cheddar cheese and thought he would be able to tolerate a little bit of milk with all the other ingredients. And he was right. In place of the cooked chicken breasts, I used shredded rotisserie chicken, which worked really well. 

The first night we thought the casserole was good but too rich, and the second night we thought it was delicious. I would like to try it again with a little tweaking. I would put less butter and cheese on top (the sauce has plenty of both), and maybe substitute half butter, half Smart Balance (my favorite alterna-butter) whenever the recipe calls for butter. The husband suggested adding some macaroni to cut the richness of the sauce. At any rate, this casserole is comforting and indulgent, and I thought it was well worth sharing.

Broccoli Chicken Casserole
Recipe courtesy Get Off Your Butt and Bake!

1 lb. fresh broccoli, cut in pieces
3 cups cooked chicken breasts, chopped or shredded
3 cups grated cheddar cheese, divided
2 tubes Ritz crackers (I used wheat)
1 stick melted butter
1 tablespoon poppy seeds (optional)

1/3 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup cornstarch, dissolved in 1/2 cup cold water
1/3 cup chicken broth (I used low-sodium)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups of the above cheddar cheese

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Steam or boil the broccoli for 2-3 minutes.
3. In greased 13×9 pan, layer the broccoli and chicken. Set aside. In saucepan over medium heat, combine the melted butter, cornstarch dissolved in water, chicken broth, seasonings, and milk. Stir well and continue stirring until sauce has thickened. Turn heat down to low, and add 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese. Stir until melted. Pour over the chicken and broccoli. Top with 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese.
4. Melt the butter, and add the poppy seeds, and stir well. Crush Ritz crackers in large zip-lock bag with a rolling pin. Don’t crush too small. Add crumbs to the melted butter. Sprinkle crumbs over the top of the grated cheese.
5. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Recipe: Pasta Primavera

Primavera is a great non-marinara kind of pasta. I don't like my primavera covered in cream, and many versions include balsamic vinegar or enough tomatoes to make it practically marinara. Lower-acid options tend to be bland.

And then I found the pasta primavera recipe by Giada De Laurentis, which is hands-down the best one I've tried. She roasts the vegetables for more flavor, and even though the original recipe includes tomatoes, it tastes great without them. I've made a few subtle changes in my version below.

Pasta Primavera 
Adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentis 

1-2 large zucchini, cut into thin strips
2 large yellow squash, cut into thin strips
10-12 baby carrots, cut into quarters
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons dried herbs de Provence (can substitute Italian seasoning)
12-14 oz. whole wheat bowtie or penne pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
2. On a large heavy baking sheet, toss vegetables with oil, salt, pepper, and dried herbs to coat. Transfer half of the vegetable mixture to another heavy large baking sheet and arrange evenly over the baking sheets. Bake until the carrots are tender and the vegetables begin to brown, stirring after the first 10 minutes, about 20 minutes total.
3. Meanwhile, follow package directions to cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
4. Toss the pasta with the vegetable mixtures in a large bowl to combine. Toss with enough reserved cooking liquid to moisten. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the Parmesan. Serves 4-6.

Notes: Feel free to substitute other vegetables for the ones listed. I haven't tried it yet, but I've thought for a while that a nice fall or winter version might include parsnips and butternut squash instead of the zucchini and yellow squash. And then maybe goat cheese instead of the Parmesan. Amazingly, this dish tastes good even without the onions, which I leave out sometimes.

If you're feeding some or all of the pasta to people who can eat tomatoes, you can add a handful of halved cherry tomatoes right before serving. My husband likes to spice it up even more. When the pasta has about ten minutes left to cook, he heats prepared marinara sauce in a medium saucepan and then adds grilled chicken strips and chipotle seasoning. When we dish out the pasta primavera, he covers his with the chipotle chicken sauce.

This dish works well for leftovers too, either reheated or eaten cold like pasta salad.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Recipe: Stuffed French Toast

My dad was a master chef when it came to greasy breakfast foods, and I was completely in love with his French toast, which he insisted must be made with white bread, whole milk, and real butter. With apologies to Dad, I now make it with whole grain bread and skim milk. It's not just that it's healthier (which of course it is), but I also like it better that way. The whole grains make it richer, nuttier, and more filling. 

This particular recipe was inspired by brunch at one of my favorite St. Louis restaurants, Local Harvest Cafe. I thought the idea of French toast "stuffed" with fruit was brilliant. Their version is made with brioche and filled with cream cheese and various seasonal fruits. Mine is a little simpler, but not less tasty.

2 slices whole grain bread (slightly stale works best)
1 egg
1 T. skim milk
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. butter
1 banana, cut into thin round slices
Maple syrup

In a pie plate, scramble the egg with a fork, and mix with milk and vanilla extract. Soak each piece of bread in the egg mixture until well covered. Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat, and melt butter. Cook egg-soaked bread until it is browned on both sides. When finished, place one slice of French toast on a plate. Cover with banana slices, and top with second slice of toast. Drizzle with maple syrup.

Serves 1.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ode to Peanut Butter

I love peanut butter. It’s an obsession. I have tried to muster similar enthusiasm for almond butter, which I like just fine, but it’s not the same. It tastes a little too sweet and not nearly awesome enough. I’ve tried many kinds of peanut butter. In my former, pre-organic-foods life, I loved Jiff. But now my heart belongs to Trader Joe’s organic creamy peanut butter.

At the moment, I live 30 minutes from the nearest TJ, so whenever I go, I stock up like it’s about to be the peanut butter apocalypse. A few months ago I heard a story on NPR that there was a serious peanut shortage that might cause peanut butter costs to rise substantially or—gasp—stores to stop carrying the stuff altogether. I panicked and bought ten jars. The guy at the checkout looked at me like I was crazy, and when I tried to explain myself, I ended up sounding even crazier: “I heard there was going to be A PEANUT SHORTAGE!”

My favorite meal for PB-consumption is lunch. I like toasted bread or English muffins spread with the good stuff, or I use it as a dip for pretzels, pears, or apples. When I’m feeling more creative, I love these recipes:
  • A “Curious George,” inspired by a sandwich of the same name I used to order regularly at Strawberry Fields, a natural-foods store in Urbana, IL. Just take two slices of whole wheat bread and fill with creamy organic peanut butter, banana slices, a drizzle of honey, and unsweetened coconut. Sunflower seeds are good on it too.
  • Rachael Ray’s Thai (ish) peanut noodles. I really appreciated Rachael Ray's easy, quick recipes when I was first learning to cook. Knowing that, my mom got me a gift subscription to her magazine the first year it came out. I didn't much like it, but I am so grateful I encountered this one recipe. It rocks my PB-loving heart.
Ginger, Soy, and Honey Sesame Noodles
From Every Day with Rachael Ray, August/September 2006

2 teaspoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey 
2 tablespoons soy sauce 
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil  
1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled and grated 
¼ pound spaghetti, cooked
1 tablespoon light sesame seeds

In a medium microwavable bowl, heat the peanut butter in the microwave oven on high until melted, 15 to 20 seconds. Whisk the honey and tamari into the peanut butter, then whisk in the sesame oil and ginger. Toss the spaghetti with the sauce and top with the sesame seeds. Serves 1.

My notes: The original recipe calls for this dish to be served cold (with the noodles rinsed in cold water). That works really well if you want to make it ahead for a picnic, work, or school lunch. But I like it served hot too. The recipe recommends you toast the sesame seeds, which I am sure would be delicious, but honestly I have never had the patience. By that point in the cooking, it looks and smells so great that I don't want to add another step. I usually make the dish with whole-wheat spaghetti, and occasionally I use Thai rice noodles if I have them on hand. Most recently, I tried it with brown rice penne (see photo above), and I think I liked that the very best.