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Archive for February, 2011

Elsewhere: Junction Parents

Hey hey! I have a guest post at my neighbourhood online hub, Junction Parents.

This month in fast, easy, family-friendly recipes: Mac and cheese with leeks and bacon.

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Recently I made some changes to my diet. The kinds of changes that, while you know are good for you in the long term, are difficult to carry out. The kinds of changes that require not only the advice of a trusted health professional to make you do it, but the deep-seated belief that she is right, and if you do it, you’ll feel better.

By which I mean since the new year I’ve cut out caffeine. And white starches. And sugars. I’ve started eating less wheat, and more of other grains, like amaranth, buckwheat and kamut. These changes are meant to be more or less permanent, with the understanding that in a little while I can switch from a zero-tolerance policy to a sometimes policy.

I’ve known for a while that I needed to do this. I have issues with my blood sugar levels, and there are times when getting hungry is a full-blown crisis. It’s not pleasant, for me or anyone close to me (especially my husband). So  I figure that since I don’t have work stress in my life these days, and I have the energy required to eliminate things from my diet, try out new ingredients and recipes, and recalibrate my tastebuds, now’s the time.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far: cutting out sugar sounds like a simple change. (Notice I said simple, not easy.) But it’s actually one change made up of a million tiny changes. It’s learning to like the taste of (decaf) coffee without sugar. It’s switching my evening snack from cheese and crackers to cheese, a bit of fruit and a few nuts. It’s discovering that oatmeal tastes just fine with some cinnamon and banana in it intead of maple syrup. (This is not true of french toast. Some things you just have to let go of.)

So far, results have been good. I feel much more even-keeled, and I’ve lost a few pounds to boot. So if you’re doing something similar, good news! I will share my successful new healthy recipes right here, so you have less kitchen experimenting to do!

But on to the recipe already. This new no-sugars rule unfortunately means no honey and no maple syrup either, or sweeteners in general. Which sadly removes granola bars from my diet. And I miss them! So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I tinkered with this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and took out just about all the sugar and honey, relying instead on nut butter, applesauce and eggs to bind it all together. So believe me when I say these things are barely sweet. In fact, the sweetness here largely comes from the dried fruit. It tastes sweet to me, because my palate is different now, but if you are NOT on a no-sugar diet, you can feel free to sub in honey for the applesauce, and even add more if you want.

Barely-sweet granola bars
makes 16-20 squares

1 2/3 cups quick-cook rolled oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or quick-cook oats pulverized in the food processor)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 cups mixed dried fruit and nuts (I used figs, apricots, pistachios, almonds, coconut and ground flax seeds)
1/3 cup nut butter (I’ve used both tahini and almond butter; I preferred the almond butter.)
1/4 cup applesauce (optional: use up to 1/2 cup honey in addition to the 2 tbsp. below)
3 tbsp. melted butter
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. vanilla
1 egg

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an eight-inch square with parchment paper, allowing it to go up the sides. Lightly grease the parchment paper and the exposed pan, or coat with a non-stick spray.

2. Mix together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In a separate bowl, mix together the nut butter, applesauce, vanilla, honey, melted butter and egg. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry until the mixture is evenly crumbly. If the mixture is too dry, add a few tablespoons of water.

3. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan, pressing it in firmly to ensure that it’s molded to the shape of the pan.

4. Bake the bars for 30 to 40 minutes until they’re brown around the edges. They’ll still seem soft and almost underbaked when you press into the centre of the pan but, they’ll set once completely cooled.

5. Cool the bars in their pan completely on a cooling rack. Alternatively, you can use the parchment paper to pull them out of the pan and let it cool on the rack so that it cools more quickly.

6. Once the bars have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to cut the bars into squares. To store, wrap the bars individually in plastic or stack them in an airtight container. In humid weather, it’s best to store bars in the refrigerator. They also freeze well.

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Usually on weekends we have one fancy egg breakfast. This morning I wanted something special and red, on account of the Hallmark-manufactured holiday happening on Monday. So I made poached eggs on whole-wheat biscuits, with creamy red pepper sauce and some garlic-sauteed spinach on the side.

The biscuits were cribbed from a King Arthur Flour recipe, but I haven’t yet tweaked it to my liking so I won’t include it here yet. However, the sauce is an old favourite. This recipe makes way too much for a few poached eggs, but then it also tastes divine as a pasta sauce, or as a drizzle over baked chicken, turkey or fish. It also freezes well for a later time, so that in a month or so you can randomly have fancy poached eggs again without having to do as much work.

Red Pepper Cream Sauce

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cold milk
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1/4 tsp. sriracha hot sauce
pinch salt

Equipment: immersion blender

1. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine, and let cook for a few minutes until it turns from yellow to a whiter shade of yellow. [Cooking Fact! This is called a white roux. It’s used as a thickener for bechamel, or white sauce. A brown roux, cooked a few steps further till it’s a nutty golden brown, is used to thicken brown sauces.]

2. With a whisk in one hand and the cup of milk in the other, pour in the milk and whisk vigorously to combine. Let cook until thickened until it coats the back of a spoon. If you draw a line with your finger on the back of said spoon, the line should its shape. It’s okay if you end up with a few lumps, because you’re just going to puree the whole thing soon. 

3. Pour the sauce into a large glass measuring cup or other vessel you like to puree stuff in. Add the remaining ingredients and puree until smooth.

4. Adjust the seasonings to taste.

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Marriage (or any other long-term cohabitional situation) is a wonderful thing, but it does have a way of nudging certain foods out of your life. Over time, dishes that had previously been a single person’s mainstay are shelved out of respect for the significant other’s dislikes; one day you wake up and realize these old friends have become culinary persona non grata.

For many years I lived with my beloved friend Jennifer, who is a star in the kitchen, but whose downfall was that she doesn’t like potatoes. Not that she outright won’t eat them, she just made her utter lack of enthusiasm for them very clear. So I deleted the potato from my cooking for years, even after we stopped being roommates. (I have since reclaimed the potato.)

Now, the two main things I miss and have to eat on my own are salmon and tuna. Canned tuna, especially, which Andy used to feed to his late beloved kitty, Mia. Years after Mia’s demise, he still considers canned tuna a sort of catfood and likely always will.

But see, to me canned tuna is instant dinner or lunch. It’s a pantry wonder. Cheap, tasty protein, it doesn’t need thawing or cooking or planning at all. It just sits there in your cupboard ready to be tossed into a sandwich, on top of a salad or into a pasta dish. It plays well with others, especially other things that generally live in your kitchen, like a can of tomatoes, pasta, garlic, lemon and olives. A can of tuna, to paraphrase the late Laurie Colwin, will get a hungry person out of trouble.

This dish in particular is what I eat on the rare nights I find myself alone for dinner. It’s perfect for the times when you’re desperate for a quick and easy dinner, and you’re low on groceries. It’s easy to make – the sauce is assembled while the pasta cooks. And the flavour is something much better than the sum of its parts: briny olives with fishy tuna brought together with a tomato base; lemon zest and fresh herbs give the whole thing a lift. (In a perfect world I would have had fresh herbs in this photo, but there weren’t any in my fridge. I think the food gods will forgive me.)

I’ve written the recipe for four, but a half-recipe will easily feed one person dinner and provide lunch for the next day.

Pasta with Tuna and Olives
serves 4

2 tbsp. olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
generous pinch of chili flakes
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup chopped pitted olives
1  28-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cans of tuna
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 1 tbsp. chopped capers
garnish: chopped parsley or basil

pasta – I’ll let you decide what kind and how much. The pasta in this photo is fettucine made with kamut flour. I also like short pasta, like fusili or penne, to go with this chunky sauce. .

1. Heat a skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, heat the oil until it shimmers and add the garlic and chili flakes. Cook until the garlic softens and is aromatic but not browned. Add the lemon zest and olives (and capers, if using), cook for 1 minute and then dump in the tomatoes and tuna. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes while the pasta cooks.

2. Meanwhile, cook your pasta in a large pot of salted water. Cook it just to the al dente stage.

3. Season the sauce to taste and mix in the herbs. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce.

Leftovers taste even better the second day.

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