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Especially now that I have more time and energy to cook, I’ve been working on eating less processed foods and making more stuff from scratch.

Recently I read an article (which I can now no longer locate) about how MSG is often not listed on labels and appears in many surprising and popular foods — even stuff like Campbell’s Soup. This led me to look at the label of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup that I had in my kitchen — turns out they throw some high fructose corn syrup in there for good measure. It’s like nothing is safe from that stuff.

This led me on a mission to learn more about making my own soup. What did I learn? That making soup is as easy as throwing a bunch of fresh junk into some broth. It doesn’t take a genius or a soup scientist.
And while heating up a can of soup only takes a few minutes, making your own doesn’t take that many more. For example, today I made a show-stopping beans ‘n’ greens soup in 20 minutes. Not only was it cheap to make, but I can eat it all week and freeze the other half for later. Even better, I don’t get the MSG or sugar and I can add or leave out any ingredients that I don’t like or don’t happen to have.

In a large soup pot, throw in

  • one cup of chopped onions
  • a half cup of food processed celery (I like the taste of celery but hate the texture, so I food process the hell of out it)
  • four chopped slices of bacon
  • two chopped carrots
  • diced garlic to your liking (I like a lot)

Cook these things for about ten minutes, or until the bacon is cooked through and the onions are see-through. Then add:

  • A 15-ounce can of white beans
  • Six cups of chicken broth
  • A cup of uncooked whole wheat pasta (I like the spirals)
  • Whichever spices your into (rosemary, thyme, and red pepper for me)

Let this stuff simmer for about ten minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Then turn off the heat and add in about 10 ounces of spinach (or your green of choice) until it wilts and turns bright green.

And for my veggie friends, this one is easy to turn vegan — just ditch the bacon and replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

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Growing up, my favorite thing in the world was my mom’s chicken and dumplings. Notice I didn’t say my favorite food was chicken and dumplings, I said that my favorite thing in the whole wide world was chicken and dumplings.

I can still remember my anticipation for dinner on the nights when it was on the stove. And, to this day, a big pot of it awaits me every time I go home for a visit. It’s just simply that good.

Due to my well-documented fear of preparing dough and basically anything that involves cutting things into flour, I had never made the dish myself. It was almost like a mental block — how could I create something so delicious when I wasn’t my mom?

Once, a few years back, I attempted one of those short-cut recipes for chicken and dumplings that I found online — one of those cheater dishes that uses canned biscuit dough and condensed soup. The result was such a horrible travesty that I didn’t eat more than a bite. I learned my lesson well: you don’t cut corners with this dish unless you want to cut the quality as well.

Over this past Christmas, my mom walked me through the recipe, and it was surprisingly simple and straightforward. It was as if I assumed it was difficult because it tasted so good and perhaps because when I was little it seemed to take about five hours to be ready to eat.

I made it solo today, in time to eat for the Patriots game kickoff. It tasted just as it should — exactly like mom’s.

Mom’s Chicken and Dumplings

For broth:

  • Use 4 or 5 boneless chicken breasts, or whole breasts with skin and bones (skin adds more fat and flavor – but I use skinless and it works fine)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 2 or 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Several stalks of celery, cut into pieces (I put mine in a food processor)
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • Enough water to cover chicken
  • 3 cups of milk

1. Add all ingredients except milk to a heavy-bottomed large pot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pot and cook for at least one hour.
2. Remove chicken; cool. Remove bones and skin, if necessary, and cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
3. Add 3 cups of milk. Bring to boil and add dumplings (see below) one at a time, keeping the broth at a boil.
4. Cover pot and simmer for10 or 15 minutes or until dumplings are done. Do not lift cover so that the steaming of dumplings occurs.
5. Add chicken pieces, continuing to boil gently.
6. Blend 4 T. flour and 1/2 cold water. Add to broth, gently blending in.
7. Cook and stir until slightly thickened. Simmer (very faint boil) for about 1 hour.
Turn off heat and let stand for another hour.

Dumplings:

2 1/4 c. flour
3 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
5 T. shortening (I use non-transfat Crisco)
1 egg + enough water to equal 3/4 cup

1. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in large mixing bowl.
2. Cut in shortening with pastry blender or fork.
3. Beat egg and water with fork until blended (about 30 seconds).
4. Add egg mixture gradually into flour mixture while blending with a fork.
5. Use hands to form into a ball.
6. Roll dough out on well-floured surface until 1/8-inch thick using a rolling pin.
7. Cut into rectangles about 2×4 inches in size using a pizza cutter or sharp knife.
8. Let dry at least 30 minutes, uncovered.

Note: You can add additional milk to this dish if the broth is totally absorbed or to achieve the consistency you like.

italica extra virgin olive oilThere are a few mistakes in life that I have trouble learning from. One of those mistakes is buying things that are on clearance in the grocery store. Sure, you might be able to get away with clearance clothing or clearance houseware without a problem, but food that is on clearance… there’s just something off about that.

Of course, when I was at the grocery store this weekend, looking to buy extra virgin olive oil, I put my fears aside and purchased Italica Extra Virgin Olive Oil with added Omega-3. So what if it was suspiciously half-off — olive oil is probably the most expensive grocery item that we buy and this olive oil has been enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids! What could possibly go wrong?

Fast-forward to last night as Ben and I are cooking dinner. He’s in charge of the turkey burgers and I’m putting together a couple of sides — a salad and some whole wheat pasta tossed with cheese and olive oil.

As soon as the oil hits the pan, the kitchen started smelling like a fish market. I wonder momentarily if the last time I used the pan seafood was involved before the real culprit was discovered. Apparently, when they say “enriched with Omega-3,” they really mean “we just added some fish juices. It’s kind of gross.”

I continued with the pasta and we sat down to dinner. Perhaps, I thought, there was just a hint of fishiness that wouldn’t show through the pasta and cheese.  I asked Ben if he smelled fish, and he claimed that everything was normal. Then he bit into the pasta and put down his fork.

“Yep,” he said. “Ugh.” 

Since I don’t believe that any food could possibly be so bad as to be inedible, I went ahead and tried to take a few more bites. My mouth felt like the dumpster behind Red Lobster, if that dumpster had been sprinkled with cheese.

Let this be a cautionary tale: there is good reason that NEW! product is half-off. You just might not know why until it’s far too late and your apartment smells like low tide.

I felt like making something a little fancy tonight — you know, one of those French recipes that calls for a 1/2 cup of white wine, giving you the excuse to drink excessively from the rest of the bottle while you cook?

So I looked through the new Best of Cooking Light book that Ben got me for Christmas and found some great pictures of pan-roasted pork loin with leeks and decided to try it out. I wrote down the ingredient and headed to my grocery store, totally forgetting what a ghetto wreck my grocery store is.

My ghetto wreck of a grocery store was only offering  12-pound pork loins when I needed a two-pound pork loin.  And after asking the butcher who in the world buys 12-pound pork loins other than the owners of orphanages, I also found that although I needed six leeks, the store was only currently carrying one bunch of three sad looking ones.

In other words, due to my very Queens food market, I was left making something pretty different from the original idea. The good news is, though, that it tasted delicious and was much faster than the original – it takes about 30 minutes instead of two hours. I got four pork chops instead of a huge pork loin and did things a bit differently with the sauce. Here we go:

  • Three leeks
  • four boneless pork chops
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tablespoon of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • salt, pepper, and fresh parsley to taste

Cut off the roots and tops of the leeks, leaving only the light-green and white middle. Chop and rinse while drinking a glass of white wine, which you absolutely needed to open because the recipe calls for it later. Put the leeks, butter, and water into a large, deep saucepan or wok. Cook on medium heat for 15 minutes, or until the leeks are tender. Put aside in a food processor.

In the pan the leeks were just in, heat the oil on high. Salt and pepper the pork chops and place in the pan. Brown each side for one minute then add the wine and turn down the heat to low. Cook each side on low for three minutes or so. Drink another glass of white wine while it’s out.

Give the food processor a few quick on-and-offs, just to thicken the leeks and chop them up a bit more. Add the leeks to the pan, scrapping the bottom to mix in the pork juices and drippings.  Simmer for a few more minutes and add some fresh chopped parsley on top.

We ate ours with some green beens and a couple of twice-baked potatoes. And a few glasses of white wine.  Although this dish seems initially bland or leek-y, it’s really very elegant and tasty – I could see making this for a dinner party, if I ever had one.

Yesterday was a fresh-baked bread kind of day. Unfortunately, I’m pretty dumb at baking. There’s something about the exactness and lack of improvisation that comes with breads that doesn’t really fly with my cooking skills, which include forgetting things and adding other things on whims.

However, my mom’s focaccia recipe seems to be an exception to the rule. It’s easy to make (that is, you can mess up a little without the world ending) and you can improvise both what you put on the top and what you dip it in. The other easy focaccia recipes I’ve tried don’t have the authentic consistency that you find in Italian restaurants.

Focaccia (my mom makes 1 1/2 recipes and place in a 9 X 13 pan — those numbers are in parentheses)

  • 3/4 cup warm water  (1 1/8 c. water)
  • 1 teaspoon pure cane granulated sugar (1 1/2 t. sugar)
  • 1 packet active dry yeast (1 packet dry yeast)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 cups flour (3 c. flour)
  • 1teaspoon coarse sea salt (1 1/2 t. coarse sea salt)

Place warm water (105 to 115F) into a medium bowl. Mix in sugar; sprinkle yeast over surface.  Stir to combine and allow to sit for about 5 minutes or until yeast foams; add olive oil; combine.  Add flour and salt, mix well, scraping bowl edges.

Turn onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and soft, about 5 minutes.  Grease a large bowl; form a dough ball, place into bowl and turn to coat with oil.   Cover with a tea towel or light cloth; place in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400F, Brush a 5 x 7 inch (brownie pan) baking dish (or 9 x 13 if making 1 1/2 recipes) with olive oil.  Gently press risen dough into pan, smoothing the top and creating small dimples with your fingers. 

Lightly brush with olive oil and sprinkle with a little rosemary or Italian seasonings and coarse salt. This is also where you can get creative with whatever you have in the fridge — add finely chopped onions, olives, thinly sliced tomatoes, cheese, fresh sage, or garlic, in any combination you are feeling.

Cook for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. About 5 minutes before it’s done remove from the oven, brush with more olive oil and sprinkle with fresh rosemary and sage leaves. Put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes or until done

Artichokes and Olives Spread for Focaccia, if you’d like

  •  1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 4 peppercorns
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 2 cups water 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 8 artichoke bottoms, trimmed
  • 1 cup pitted green olives (Sicilian)
  • extra-virgin olive oil

Place the bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, lemon juice, and salt into a saucepan with 2 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Cook, covered, 15 minutes. Add the trimmed artichoke bottoms and cook until they are tender when pierced with a knife (about 5 minutes). Drain and cool. Chop the artichokes and olives together very finely with a chef’s knife; stir in enough olive oil to make a soft paste. Adjust the salt if necessary. Slice the focaccia into sixteen 2″ squares and top with the artichoke paste. Serve within 15 minutes.

If you don’t have time or the ingredients to make the paste, you can also serve your bread with a shallow dish of extra virgin olive oil — just mix in some red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning, and garlic.

curryWhen I was in college, one of my favorite things to do was go over to my friend Nick’s house. He would cook dinner for a few friends and then we’d play video games and watch Eddie Izzard DVDs. One of his specialties, curried chicken and veggies, was so good that I would head over to his house a little early and watch him make it. Although I’ve never written the recipe down and although it’s changed over the years due to my laziness and inability to purchase $9 spices, I still make it whenever I feel like drinking a beer and watching Delirious.

Just like so many other dishes that I love, this curry has a huge amount of wiggle room. You can put in any veggies that you can imagine – anything you have in your fridge — I’ve just listed my favorites below. You can also switch out the chicken for tofu or make an all-veggie curry (both vegan). You also shouldn’t worry if you’re missing a spice or two. It’s all delicious.

2 pounds chicken breasts (or thighs and legs) (or tufu)
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large potato, cubed
1 head of broccoli
1 green pepper
1 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
1-14-ounce can of coconut milk
a big spoonfuls of tomato paste
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
garlic, to your liking
a big palmful of curry
a small palmful of coriander
a small palmful of cumin
1 stick of cinnamon
a few whole cloves
dash of red pepper
salt
rice

Heat the oil and garlic in a large wok or saucepan. Cube the chicken and add to the oil. Add all of the spices and the onion and cook the chicken for a few minutes stirring often – the chicken should be coated in spices and bright yellow. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, coconut milk, and potatoes. Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, to allow the potatoes to cook and the chicken to cook through. Add the veggies (whichever you choose – I’ve also used carrots, snap pea, regular peas, spinach, eggplant, squash, etc.) and cover again so that the veggies can steam (another 10 minutes or so). The veggies should be bright green. Poke the potatoes with a fork to check doneness. Serve over hot rice.

Play some videogames and watch some British comedy.

mcgyverThe weather in Queens isn’t pretty today. The meteorologists are calling it a “wintery mix” but that is nothing more than a blatant euphemism for, “like hell, if hell weren’t so hot. You will definitely fall on your ass at least once.” The stuff falling from the sky has been changing every hour or so – we’ve seen snow, sleet, freezing rain, regular rain, ice and everything in between. There are a good two inches of a substance on the sidewalks that I would describe as ice soup.

We walked like lame, miserable penguins to the gym and then walked like lame miserable tired penguins home from the gym. And just as I was about to comment on how glad I was to be inside for the night, we both realized that we didn’t have anything to eat. Sure, we could call a delivery boy, but we’d probably have to tip him $20 and look directly into his sad eyes, which would have inevitably been creepily frozen open.

Perhaps, I thought, we would starve.

But, thinking back to the sexy tight-jeaned hero of my youth, MacGyver, I was inspired – MacGyver, who could build a bomb out of a pen cap, a water hose, a lamp stand and a piece of chewing gum! MacGyver, who could do anything he set his mind to as long as he had his Swiss Army knife and a roll of duct tape! This icy dinner-less situation was my own personal Murdoc, and I would hunt down a solution to the problem just as McGyver hunted down international assassins.

I started through the cabinets, the awesome MacGyver theme song running through my head. I found the only real protein we had in the house: frozen shrimp pushed up in the back of the freezer. I went through our dried goods and rustled up some whole wheat pasta.

In a large saucepan, I did what any good Louisiana girl would and started up a roux – I didn’t have any butter (and like cooking healthy) so I used two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and two table spoons of flour. I browned the oil and flour while whisking it on medium heat. Then I added 1 and 1/4 cups of 1% milk and kept whisking, until it was as thick and smooth as McGyver’s silky mullet.

To the white sauce I added a small chopped white onion and a well-drained can of diced tomatoes. To season it, I added a small bay leaf, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. After letting it simmer for about 15 minutes (to cook the onions and mix the flavors) I added 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese and the shrimp. (I know you’re not supposed to mix seafood and cheese, but I’ve seen Red Lobster do it and, obviously, The Lobster is the leading authority on cooking seafood.)

I added the pasta to the sauce, and I was done. I didn’t even have to use chewing gum.

Meanwhile Ben, who was acting as Macgyver’s closest friend Pete, created a delicious salad with vegetable odds and ends he found. Within 20 minutes, we were sitting in front of a full hearty and healthy meal. It wasn’t half bad.

The best part of the experience wasn’t the food at all. It was using my analytical thinking and my creativity in order to forge something unique yet functional. Its simple, obvious moral was perhaps even as simple and as obvious as the morals that MacGyver learned at the end of each episode.

nutrition dataHere’s my new favorite link ever: Nutrition Data. I dare you to not waste hours looking at this thing.

It has all the nutritional information for any food you can think of – from its caloric ratio (fat to protein to carbs – see the picture to the right) to its nutrient balance to its filling factor. And, for people who’d rather not read five charts, it’s got a simple 0-5 star rating system for whether a food is 1) good for healthy weight loss 2) good for healthy weight gain and 3) good for general optimum health.

It’s also got a summary paragraph about each food that goes over the food’s best and worst qualities. And, of course, each page gives you each food’s traditional serving size, calories, and nutritional content.

At the bottom of each food screen it also gives you an option to search for a better food choice based on your health goals (gain healthy weight, lose healthy weight, or just be plain healthy). For example, I searched for dry roasted salted peanuts and then asked this magic nutrition machine to find me a better but similar option for optimum health. It thought for a minute and then told me I should probably try out beans or tofu or soy milk to get the same nutrients with less salt and fat. In short, it’s kind of like magic.

And there are a lot of other great features aside for learning about individual foods (as long as you ignore the fad-diet ads in the margins). They have a great list of healthy recipes (with all nutritional information included) and have a well-maintained blog with the latest nutrition news. (Taking a closer look at the site, it seems to be run by the magazine conglomerate Conde Nast, which is weird. They do produce good stuff, though.)

On the down side, there are a few too many stupid weight loss ads (for junk like diet pills) and, horrifyingly, nutritional information on many of the leading fast food chains. Shouldn’t they assume that if I’m eating at Taco Bell, something terribly has gone wrong with my day and that I’m not feeling too concerned about glycemic load or inflammation factor?

In general, I wouldn’t suggest looking up every single food you eat and wondering how you could have done better – but the food nerd in me loves visiting when I’m, say, sitting in my cubicle and wondering about soy a lot.

lentil soupLast week my vegan friend, Patricia (who I am not friends with solely so that I can have a pass when making fun of vegans but for a variety of other reasons as well), has requested a non-meat-based recipe. Also last week, I was part of discussion about how to eat healthy food without cutting into your rent money at those fancy-pants health food grocery stores.

The answer to both of these queries is one of my favorite weekend meals: lentil soup with greens. Lentils and spinach are super wonderful foods — both recently named one of the top 5 healthiest foods in some health magazine I was reading at the gym recently. In lentils you’ve got fiber, protein, iron, magnesium, potassium, and B vitamins. In spinach you’ve got folic acid, tons of vitamins, antioxidants, and calcium.

And you can make a huge pot of this stuff for under ten bucks. When I say huge I mean that you can eat it for dinner, take it to work for lunch for a couple of days, and freeze the other half of it. One of the other great things about the recipe is that it’s versatile – you can throw in whatever you think might work that you have around the house. Have a leftover potato or two? In they go. Green peppers? I can’t think why not.

You can also replace the spinach with any leafy green that’s on sale or in season – kale, collard greens, turnip greens, etc. If your really hard up for cash, you can get frozen spinach instead of fresh.

I should also mention, for those who think this sounds gross or bland, that it’s totally delicious and flavorful and I never get tired of eating it. If you’re a die-hard meat eater, you can add some chopped bacon or sausage for your dead animal fix.

Lentil Soup with Greens

1 cup dried lentils, rinsed
4 cups water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced (or a small can of diced tomatoes)
3 carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic
3 teaspoons of thyme
3 teaspoons of salt (less if you add salted meats like sausage)
3 teaspoons of pepper
pinch of rosemary
splash of balsamic vinegar
1 bunch of spinach, chopped

Heat the oil and add the garlic, onion, celery, and carrots. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots are a bit tender. Add the lentils, water, tomatoes, spices. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the spinach and balsamic vinegar – the spinach should just wilt and turn bright green.

Visit my recipes page.

We woke up this morning to the season’s first snow, which always feels a little special even if it gets extraordinarily un-special by February. Especially in the city, snow for me serves as a little reminder that nature is still out there, somewhere, even if I forget sometimes.

Ben and I bundled up in our hats and winter coats and boots (as with every single other winter, I seemed to have retained only one of my two gloves from last year) and headed to the grocery store. The city noises were muffled for once, the gross sidewalks were blanketed over, and our ever-present loud and gossipy neighbor was tucked away indoors. Christmas trees, dusted with snow, were on sale on the corner. Even my cold black heart quivered for a moment in a small display of holiday-related emotion.

Another one of my favorite dishes growing up, ginger beef and broccoli is a simple take on a Asian stir-fry. I like it because it only involves two ingredients that I don’t always have around the house and it take maybe 20 minutes to make. That’s enough time to add some homemade spring rolls or eggdrop soup to the meal if you’d like.

Also this weekend, I’ve been working on a recipe index for my site. It’s linked at the top of the page and should be an easier way to find the food-related posts you’re looking for.

Ginger Beef with Broccoli

1/2 lb. of sirloin
4 c. fresh broccoli in bite-sized pieces
1 wedge of fresh ginger, the size of a quarter
2 t. cornstarch mixed with 2 t. water
Dash pepper
2 T. canola oil
2 c. chicken stock or water

Marinade for beef:

3 t. cornstarch
2 t. light soy sauce (I use low salt.)
2 t. sherry or dry white wine
1/4 t. sugar
1 t. canola oil

  • Slice beef into thin strips and add marinade – perhaps a few hours before dinner. Bring the beef up to room temperature before you throw it in the pan.
  • Wash broccoli and remove tough outer layer on stems. Slice stems paper-thin and divide flowerets into small sections
  • Smash wedge of ginger.
  • Mix cornstarch, water and pepper in a little bowl. Set aside.
  • Using a high flame, heat a medium sauce pan and 1 T. of oil and ginger. Add broccoli and stir a couple of minutes; add stock and cover 6 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
  • Heat pan and add 1 T. of oil. When pan is very hot, add beef and flatten against sides of pan. Chow for a minute or two, or until beef is almost cooked. Add broccoli and stir in cornstarch mixture. Cook until sauce thickens.
  • Broccoli should be bright green. This recipe can be used with other vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, Chinese cabbage, or kohlrabi.
  • Serve over hot rice.