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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Recipe: Turkey Burgers with Zucchini Fries

My husband loves burgers, but I don't like to eat much red meat. We settle on turkey burgers.

A while back, I found a promising recipe in Cooking Light for "Mediterranean Turkey Burgers." I've made it several times now, and it has become one of our favorites. The recipe calls for store-bought pesto, which can be challenging for those of us who avoid vinegar and lemon juice. Behold: Buitoni, my go-to low-acid pesto.

In a perfect world, I would make my own pesto. But let's be honest, I'd also hire a personal chef.

The original recipe in Cooking Light works great, but some days just the idea of pesto plus minced garlic plus minced onion gives me heartburn. The burgers taste almost just as good with a little tweaking: small amounts of onion and garlic powder. 

Mix together panko, feta, pesto, ground turkey, and the dried seasonings. Shape into four patties. The original recipe calls for grilling, but I usually cook the patties on the stove top, in a skillet over medium heat until browned.

I will admit I'm a bit paranoid about undercooking poultry, but I find that the skillet method alone doesn't cook the burgers all the way through. I brown both sides (about 5 minutes each side) and then put the skillet directly in the oven at 400 degrees for five more minutes. Please don't try that unless you know your cookware is oven-proof.

The burgers are really tasty with tzatziki sauce (yogurt + chopped cucumber + pinch of ground red pepper or fresh mint), or sometimes I top with plain Greek yogurt. The husband likes to slather his in more pesto. Sometimes we add spinach, sliced cucumbers, or other green stuff.

I had planned to make zucchini fries, but it was late and I was too lazy, so I served the burgers with some slices of celery, carrot, and apple. This recipe makes four burgers, which means two dinners for the two of us. 

For round two, you can reheat the patties successfully. I promise. Cut each one in half. Get a paper towel wet with warm water, and wrap it around the halved patty. Place on a microwave-safe plate and microwave for 30-45 seconds. And miracle! The burgers don't dry out.

On the second night, I did make the zucchini fries, which were DELICIOUS. 

Turkey burgers (adapted from Cooking Light recipe)

½ c. panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
¼ c. crumbled feta cheese
Pinch (about 1/8 t.) onion powder
Pinch (about 1/8 t.) garlic powder
2 T. store-bought pesto
¼ t. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. ground turkey, ½ lb. white meat and ½ lb. dark
Cooking spray
4 whole-wheat hamburger buns

1.     Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
2.     Combine first seven ingredients in a bowl. Divide mixture into 4 portions, shaping each into a patty.
3.     Heat an oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Spray with cooking spray. Add patties to pan and cook about 5 minutes on each side or until browned.
4.     Place skillet directly in the oven and cook patties for another 5 minutes.
5.     Serve on toasted bun. The burgers can be a little dry without some kind of sauce: plain Greek yogurt, tzatziki, or pesto.

Zucchini Fries
Recipe courtesy Two Peas and Their Pod

3 medium zucchini, sliced into skinny sticks
2 large egg whites, beaten
1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs (I made my own)
2 T grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp dried basil
Pinch of dried oregano (I used Mexican for stronger flavor)
1/4 tsp garlic powder (I didn't use any and didn't miss it)
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Preheat oven to 425°. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, beat egg whites with a fork until frothy.
3. Put the breadcrumbs, basil, oregano, garlic powder and cheese on a plate. Mix well.
4. Dip the zucchini sticks in the egg whites and then into the bread crumb mixture. Make sure all sides get coated well. Place the sticks on the prepared baking sheet. This takes a while because you have to do the sticks one by one.
5. Bake at 425° for about 20 minutes or until golden brown and a little crispy. Turn over half way through. Serve warm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beyond Marinara: Ode to Tomato-less Pasta

When I found out I couldn't eat tomatoes, I mourned the loss of my beloved spaghetti marinara. I ate a lot of alfredo at first, but even my high metabolism can't keep up with loads of cream sauce. And then I married a man who can't do lactose.

There are tons of other alternatives to marinara, like pesto and roasted red pepper sauce. If you're following a low-acid diet, you can find plenty of recipes for both without lemon juice or other offenders. A good roasted red pepper sauce (like this one) can take the place of marinara in lasagna and other pasta dishes.

I also adore this creative recipe for "no-mato" sauce from the IC Network:

"NoMato" Spaghetti Sauce

Ingredients for basic sauce:
6 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small beet, peeled and chopped

1 onion, peeled and quartered (can substitute leek or onion powder)
1 celery stalk, sliced

1 whole bay leaf
1-1/2 cups water 
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced  

1 teaspoon dried basil and 1 teaspoon dried oregano OR 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

1 cup mushrooms -- I like baby portobello 
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 T. soy sauce or pinch of salt
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup cold water 

Place the first five ingredients in a pot and boil, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf, and puree with an immersion (or regular) blender. Add water as needed until mixture has the consistency of tomato sauce. Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, saute the minced onion, garlic, and dried herbs for five minutes. Add mushrooms and saute 10 minutes more.

Add basic sauce and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 10 minutes to blend flavors. Season with salt or soy sauce to taste. Place cornstarch in a small container and add water slowly while stirring. Stir until thoroughly dissolved in all the water. Add to sauce while it cooks, stirring until thickened. Sometimes the sauce is thick enough without any cornstarch.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can tailor it to suit your tastes. The mushrooms are optional, and you might prefer different kinds of seasoning. I like to add goat cheese at the end.

Finally, I make a lot of no-sauce pasta, like this one:

No-sauce Pantry Pasta

12 oz. whole-wheat spaghetti
1-2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 jar roasted red peppers or 2 red peppers, roasted and peeled
¼ to ½ cup pine nuts
1 T. fresh mint, chopped
dried or fresh basil
Parmesan cheese, grated
Black pepper

Boil spaghetti according to package directions. Before draining, reserve 1 cup pasta water.

Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan at medium-high heat. Toast pine nuts in the pan, about four minutes or until lightly browned. Remove and set aside. Cut peppers into thin strips and sauté in 1 T. olive oil for about five minutes. If using dried herbs, add to the pan and cook another minute. Remove pan from heat, and add fresh herbs and pine nuts. Add enough of the reserved pasta water to make it all stick together. I also added a touch of olive oil at this point. Serve with plenty of Parmesan and black pepper.

Notes: I like to roast peppers under the broiler. Heat oven broiler to high, place whole peppers on a baking sheet lined with foil, and broil them until skin is charred. It usually takes me about 5-10 minutes on each side. Jarred pre-roasted peppers are a great shortcut, but watch for other ingredients, especially if you’re on a low-acid diet. They're often preserved in vinegar or citric acid. I can get away with using certain brands with citric acid as the last ingredient, as long as I drain, rinse, and dry the peppers before using.

Substitute whatever is in your pantry or safe for your diet.
For the spaghetti: any type of pasta, white or wheat
For the peppers: spinach, peas, zucchini, kalamata olives (careful though: often preserved in vinegar)
For the pine nuts: chopped almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts
For the mint and basil: oregano, Italian seasoning
For the Parmesan: Pecorino, feta, or goat cheese

This particular version had no onions or garlic, but you could easily sauté minced garlic and chopped onion before you add the peppers. Sometimes I like to add golden raisins with the peppers. I love the combination of raisins and mint. If you’d like to add meat, crispy prosciutto or shredded chicken would work well.

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Low-Acid Diet

Disclaimer: this is only one version of a “low-acid” or “alkaline” diet. Food intolerance differs greatly from individual to individual. As opposed to actual allergies, food sensitivities mean that I can have certain “forbidden” foods in moderation sometimes. It’s just not easy to predict when they’ll bother me or how much I can eat before they do.

My diet is the result of ten years of trial and error. If you're just getting started with an elimination diet, try to be patient and keep an open mind. And be sure to keep a food journal of everything you eat and how you feel. I was surprised which foods bothered me and which didn't.

Foods I avoid:

Tomatoes: all kinds, even tomato powder. I’ve heard that yellow tomatoes are lower in acidity, but I haven’t gotten the nerve to try them.

Vinegar: all kinds. I have this theory that rice vinegar is okay in small quantities because I can eat sushi without much trouble, but I haven’t really tested that. Vinegar is in all sorts of things you might not expect: most packaged wheat breads, for example. (My bread pick right now is Pepperidge Farm 15-Grain, although the big companies change their recipes surprisingly often. Brownberry added vinegar to their varieties a couple of years ago.) No vinegar also means no prepared salad dressing, mayo, or bottled sauces of almost any kind.

Citrus fruit: oranges, lemons, limes, and their juices. The big loophole is citrus zest (the peel), which I can eat without problem. Some people can do low-acid orange juice. I cannot.

I also have to be careful about most fruit. I can eat pears, blueberries, and bananas in any quantity at any time. Honeydew melon has been good for me for several years too. Lately I’ve been able to get away with Gala apples (a particular low-acid apple, apparently), and I can eat cantaloupe, raspberries, and blackberries in moderation. I seem to be able to eat the occasional plum or prune, a handful of cherries, or one strawberry or grape. For some reason, I’m good with raisins. The only fruit juice I drink is 100% pear juice in the baby food aisle (I like Gerber). Sometimes you’ll see a 100% blueberry juice in organic food stores or sections, but it tastes like crap. In my humble opinion.

Preservatives and processed foods: MSG and citric acid are the major offenders, but the more artificial ingredients and preservatives in a food, the less likely I am to eat it.

Caffeine: This was by far the hardest ingredient to give up, but it was one of the most helpful changes I made.

Coffee, tea, and sodas, including decaf: These are too acidic for me. For a while I was able to drink club soda or sparkling water, but lately the carbonation brings instant heartburn. Herbal teas are fine, as long as they don’t include citric acid or fruit juice. Two of my favorite teas are rooibos and ginger.

Red wine and some beers: A lot of people with IC or acid reflux can’t drink alcohol at all, but I never gave it up completely. I cannot drink red wine (although I can cook with it), but a glass or two of white wine is fine. Sparking white wine works sometimes. Beer is a little trickier. Ales are generally better than lagers because they’re less carbonated.

Chocolate: I have learned that I can have small amounts of chocolate in moderation. But who wants to eat just a little chocolate? When I do cheat, milk chocolate is more likely to work than dark chocolate because it’s less acidic. White chocolate isn’t actually chocolate, so it’s fine.

Well-aged cheese: I have to be careful with cheese that has been aged a long time. I can eat some, but it has the potential to bother me.

“Hot” spices: These are hit-or-miss items. I can’t eat paprika, and all-spice bothers me too. Cumin is fine for the bladder, as are jalapeno peppers and some fresh chili peppers, but for some reason chili powder doesn’t work. I haven’t yet experimented with curry.

So that’s my list. I can be adventurous when my inflammation is under control, but when I am having a “flare” of IC or heartburn, I don’t cheat.

There are also several foods not on my list that other low-acid-eaters might avoid. I usually tolerate onions and garlic just fine, and the more cooked they are, the better. However, they are the first to go when I’m having heartburn issues. I have never had trouble with any kinds of beans, nuts, soy sauce, soy beans, tofu, or yogurt.

Otherwise, I try to eat high-fiber, low-fat, and low-sodium foods whenever possible. My diet is heavy in vegetables, whole grains, fish, and poultry. I choose local foods when I can and organic foods when they seem like good choices. My husband has some intolerance to lactose, so when I’m cooking for both of us, I stay away from recipes with heavy cream, certain cheeses, and too much milk. He can eat Parmesan cheese by the boatload—and does.

If you’d like to learn more about a low-acid diet, here are some resources to get you started:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How I Fell in Love with Food

In my early 20s, my bladder got really angry. I mean REALLY angry. I went to several doctors complaining of the symptoms of a bad urinary tract infection (pain, discomfort, feeling like I had to pee all the time), but no one found any sign of an infection. The first few doctors told me nothing was wrong, it was “all in my head,” or (my favorite) “women’s bodies are just made funny.” My symptoms got worse and worse. Finally, a couple of doctors—female doctors—took my complaints seriously, and I was diagnosed with a condition alternately called “overactive bladder,” “painful bladder disorder,” and “interstitial cystitis.” The doctors explained that these terms were catch-alls for a disorder (or perhaps collection of disorders) in which the bladder is sensitive and inflamed for no apparent reason. It can cause scarring, but often there are no outward signs. It affects mostly women, and at the time, there was very little research on it. That was ten years ago.

If you google “interstitial cystitis,” you'll find a bunch of horrifying stories: women whose pain is so disabling that they can’t hold down a job or maintain a relationship, women whose bladders were removed, stories of pain and depression and hopelessness. When I first read about IC, I thought my life was over. But in many ways, it was just beginning.

My story is not one of these horrifying ones. I have had my share of struggles, but today I'm virtually pain-free. I haven’t had an “angry bladder” moment for more than a few hours in many years. Some of my good fortune is probably luck, but it’s also because of my willingness to change my diet. Radically and permanently.

Early on in my adventure, I read that a low-acid diet can help some women with IC. Luckily I was one of them. It took several years to figure out which foods bothered me (and I’m still learning), and it took a great deal of willpower to give up foods I loved. I didn't exactly go peacefully—there was a lot of crying, kicking, and screaming at first. But now I like my diet.

In fact, I feel kind of grateful that IC found me. It made me fall in love with food. When I could eat anything I wanted, I did very little cooking. I ate processed and packaged foods. I didn’t think about what I was eating. I didn’t care about nutrition or trying new foods. But oh how far I’ve come.

I started this blog in the hope that others can learn from my experience and experiments. If you have been diagnosed with IC or suffer from heartburn, my diet might be able to help you directly. I also hope anyone with a restricted diet can find comfort and inspiration here. You’re not alone, and a special diet (even one forced on you in adulthood) is most certainly not the end of the world. Think of it as a new adventure in food.