Protein, fiber, fruit!!

I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables every day.  This is just a fact.  So I’m attempting to get a serving of fruit or veggies in with my breakfast, which is usually just carbs – cereal, or toast with peanut butter. Protein, yes.  Fruits, no.

I started mixing Fage yogurt (discovered in Greece, now obsessed) with blueberries & honey but realized I was missing out on fiber.  Blueberries have a lot of fiber for their size and texture, but I wanted a bigger punch in the morning.  Gotta get in 25 grams a day, so I gotta start strong!

I checked out the breakfast section of Trader Joe’s and found roasted flax seeds – I bought an enormous bag of flax seeds for under $4 and put two tablespoons in my yogurt this morning.  4 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, plus Omega-3 Fatty Acids which are apparently really important for the body and our body cannot make them – so we must eat them!  I first discovered flax seeds in a multi-grain corn chip and they are really delicious – nutty, sort of like sesame seeds but… heartier, I want to say.  (I’m gonna get better at describing flavors, I promise.)  I’m very glad they are now living in my refrigerator.

As an addition to my yogurt, I consider them a BIG win.  I would actually say they brightened my yogurt, which isn’t usually a word I would use for seeds.  But where yogurt and blueberries can have very flat flavors, flax seed’s roasty flavor and crunch raised the game.  Healthy and delicious – now we’re talking, people.

I would have thought Flax Seeds would be very expensive, but not at my dear Trader Joe’s.  Seriously, have you not tried TJ’s yet?  What are you waiting for?  Unbelievable prices, interesting products, and they treat their employees so well that everyone who works there is going to make you smile.  You know you want that.

 

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Spicy Peperonata – and a Pepper Problem

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This is one of those recipes that I’ve held onto for years and years and years.  While we’re on the subject of colorful fruits and veggies, this could not be a more perfect recipe to try.

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I think perhaps my favorite thing about this recipe is the dressing of lime juice and mint – a divine combination.  I thought the mint would “cool down” the hot pepper in the recipe, but that is not its role – it complements the spice in a very sophisticated way, balancing instead of counteracting.  It’s absolutely worth going out and buying mint.  (Or if you have mint in the garden, well, you’re just a badass, aren’t you?)

There’s just one teensy, weensy catch with this recipe: the spicy pepper.  Seems easy, no?  But this recipe calls for a poblano, which is a larger, much milder pepper than your jalapeno but with a similar dark green color, that often looks a bit collapsed.  Like so – poblano-chili-pepper

They’re a fairly common pepper, yet I have found that  a lot of grocery stores (especially my beloved Trader Joe’s) has limited variety in peppers.  Oh, they’ll have your various colors of bells (which is also helpful in this dish!), but beyond that you’re out of luck.  So what’s a girl or guy to do?

When we made this recipe about a year ago, we went to a store with a large variety of produce but with dismal labeling and couldn’t find the poblanos.  We found one that looked like a poblano, but it was labeled as a very hot pepper, and we didn’t want that.  Then there were these bright, lime green peppers that were a similar size to poblanos.  And from what I thought I had learned about peppers, the bigger they are, the milder they’ll be.  So I was certain that these would be fine and James, like the good and faithful man that he is, believed me.  Poor James.

After we sliced up all the peppers and threw them in the pan, we started to clean up because the recipe is practically done at this point (another bonus!)  James started to cough and couldn’t figure out why – he thought he just had something in his throat.  But then I started coughing, too – my eyes were stinging and water would not give me relief.   We’re both rather sensitive to chopping onions, which has resulted in quite a bit of drama in the kitchen, but this was different – and it was permeating the entire apartment.  That’s when I realized – the pepper I chose was not mild at all!  Indeed, it was so hot that it was sending its capsaicin molecules flying into the air and choking us both.   Capsaicin is the chemical compound in hot peppers that produces that burning feeling so many people enjoy.  When your pepper starts to affect you before you’ve actually begun eating, you know that pepper is going to pack a punch.

The resulting meal was outrageously hot.  We tried serving it with sour cream to cool the burn, which it did, but it really was not the meal we had intended.  If you love super hot peppers, then go ahead and try a different pepper in this recipe.

For me, I’ll continue to seek out the poblano, although the heat level will vary a bit every time.  Peppers are living things, after all, subject to lots of environmental differences that will change the way they grow.  In the case of the recipe pictures below, I made a special trip to Whole Foods which does a great job of properly labeling their produce and has a greater variety than Trader Joe’s, thus finding a poblano with just the right amount of subtle heat.  If you’re lucky enough to live by a Wegman’s, they also do a great job with labeling and even specify the hotness of each pepper – not to Scoville-scale specificity, but they give you a general idea.  Also, if you live by a Wegman’s, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS AND NEVER MOVE.  That place is paradise.

Versatile, you say?  Oh absolutely.  We served the peperonata over chicken and farro but you could serve with anything – pasta, polenta, grains, toast, over eggs, over steak – even all by its lonesome.  My only regret this time is that I didn’t double the recipe: we went through it fast.

The recipe below I tweaked from Bon Appetit because I found their dressing to be incredibly oily.  I would just add a dash of extra virgin olive oil and increase if you like.  In my opinion, the lime juice is the real key ingredient in the dressing.

Spicy Peperonata – serves 4

Ingredients: 

  • Olive oil (I prefer extra virgin, but you could go extra virgin in the dressing and a cheaper oil for pan frying, if you prefer)
  • 2 TBL fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 fresh poblano chile, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

Process:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and coriander.

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

Process with Pictures and random anecdotes:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and ground coriander.

You don’t need to grind coriander fresh by any means – but I have a spice grinder that I never use, so I figure, why not?
20140714_175010 20140714_175143

In order to measure fresh herbs, I just take the appropriate measuring spoon out and use it to estimate how much herb I need to chop.  By no means does herb measurement ever need to be exact!20140714_174219

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

You can compare sizes here: 20140714_181823

Make sure to use the tops of your peppers as well!  Once you slice the top off, the stems and pod of seeds can be very easily detached from the flesh of the pepper.  No need to waste an inch!20140714_180638 20140714_180937

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.20140714_184335

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.20140714_184316

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.20140714_185712 20140714_185724

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

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Blueberry Crumble Bars – delicious and … nutritious?

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I’ve long been an advocate that just because you may have put butter and sugar into a fruit dessert, that doesn’t CANCEL OUT the fruit goodness and nutrition.  You just have to admit to yourself that, yes, there’s butter and sugar in there, too.  Mmmmm…. delicious butter/sugar combo…

Since it’s the glory days of summer, when the farmers markets are piled high with colorful delights, I decided this is as good a time as any to try to pack my diet with all the colors of the rainbow, since this will then give me a variety of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist and the amount of information about nutition on the internet is astounding, befuddling and sometimes downright alarming… and alarmist.  Since my Mom was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been doing a lot of research about cancer and good health and good nutrition.  Soon after my rampant research began, I’ve made a habit at looking at the website before the headline of the article and only reading from sources I find legit and trustworthy, such as Mayo Clinic, government entities or lauded universities such as Harvard or Princeton.

This can be frustrating, because I find the more trusted sources don’t have definitive answers – because there aren’t many, especially when it comes to food.  What doctors have come to a unanimous decision about is that our diets should be filled with whole fruits and vegetables, which not only pack nutrients but fiber and are low in fat & calories which we know lead to obesity.  So I figure getting a colorful variety can’t be hurtful, even if the hype about antioxidants is untrue or exaggerated.  Plus it’s fun and so preeeeeeetty.

(To check out some articles on antioxidants, check out How Stuff Works, National Institutes of Health and Harvard University.)

When doing research about the proposed health benefits of certain vegetation, I learned that blueberries, due to their very deep blue hue, are regarded by some as the most antioxidant rich fruit out there and also incredibly rich in fiber.

Well, how very fortuitous!  I just happened to make a successful batch of Blueberry Crumble Bars for the 4th of July which is, quite possibly, the easiest dessert I’ve ever made, and now look – it’s healthy, too!  😉  Cookie BARS give you huge bang for your buck.  Plus blueberries are at their cheapest right now since they’re in season.

I’ve come to worship at the temple of Smitten Kitchen, a famous blog that all bloggers hope and aspire towards.  Deb takes the time to make everything perfectly for her readers, and we’re so appreciative.  I’ve written out her recipe below and then followed by pictures and description of how it worked when I made it.  Got a BBQ, birthday party or baby shower to go to?  Make these in no time and earn some serious baking cred from your friends.

Blueberry Crumble Bars (ingredients were not changed, but the method was adapted ever so slightly for our convenience.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold salted butter (oops, wait, I did change that – you know how I love salted butter!)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp salt (yep, I added salt, too, like a rebel)
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 4 tsp cornstarch (I saw some commenters say that they used flour and it worked out fine for them)

Process:

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor.

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogeneous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer.

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until pan is cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.)

Process with Pictures

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*  20140703_194744

*I have found the addition of lemon juice and sugar (even just a tablespoon) to fruit salad to be a secret weapon – it elevates all of the flavors and begins to macerate the fruit, creating a delightful sauce that is great for spooning over cakes like Reenie Cake.  Just saying.

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor20140703_193733

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogenous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)20140703_19490920140703_194929

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)20140703_19560220140703_195555

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer. (D’oh!  No picture.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t that exciting.)

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.20140703_20001320140703_200027

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)20140703_21010820140703_210131

Daytime pic!  Gorgeous, darling!
Daytime pic! Gorgeous, darling!

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until cookies are cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.) 20140704_09353220140704_09352120140704_09420020140704_09440820140704_09425820140704_094254

 

 

Summertime! Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

Y’all, it’s officially summer and with that comes so many beauteous realities: warm weather, summer vacations, holidays galore, and as much sunlight as you could ever possibly want.  But, probably most importantly, it means summer produce.20140629_185400

For me, my absolute favorite summer jewel at the farmer’s market is the tomato.  Coming at you in all different sizes, varieties and colors, your possibilities are truly endless.

The tomato season varies by region, of course, but here in Washington, DC the tomato season starts in July and stretches until the end of September.  Of course, you can get tomatoes all year round, but I’ve found that once I tasted a tomato that was truly in season, it was hard to go back.  It’s not that they’re bad in autumn, winter or spring, just… bland.  They don’t really add anything to the party.  Smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes still have great flavor in the cooler months and are a great alternative.  (Bonus: explode your brain with this genius way to cut cherry tomatoes all at one time!)20140629_195220

But today I’m talking about big, beefy beauties in all their glory.  The tomatoes featured in this post are not necessarily at peak perfection: you can find bright-red lovelies in the store or at your farmers market just slightly later in the season, but I couldn’t help myself.  Farmers markets are a GREAT place to find tomato variety – grocery stores often feature the smaller kinds and vine-ripened tomatoes, but the markets will have heirlooms, which vary in color and size and shape.  These can be really fun to play with and add unexpected colors to your favorite tomato recipes.

I’m obsessed with summer tomatoes and eat them as often as possible in this delectable season.  And raw is wonderful, but I love them best roasted.  Even the slightest bit of heat will bring out the complexities of a tomato’s flavor.  During the summer, I buy 10-12 tomatoes at the beginning of the week and roast two every single night I’m home.  And gobble them up all by myself – James hates tomatoes.  I don’t understand how that’s possible, but frankly, more tomatoes for me.20140629_194734

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that roasting tomatoes is incredibly easy, but there are a number of tips to keep in mind so that you can enjoy true tomato nirvana.

Head Amateur Tips for Roasting Tomatoes

Use the right tools:

When I cut tomatoes, it requires two knives: the paring and the serrated.  I know, as soon as I did it last night I thought to myself: UGH this will turn people off!  But I hope you don’t let it.  When you think about it, cleaning tomato juice off two knives takes about 60 seconds total. And it is worth it.

Use your paring knife to cut the core out of the tomato.  Just stab in by the core, about 2/3 of the way down, and work in a circular motion around the stem, tilting your knife into the center so that the removed core is a conical shape.  I usually need to remove the knife and then insert again to slice the bottom off the cone so it can be lifted from rest of the tomato.20140629_18545620140629_185410

Then use your serrated knife to cut the rest of the tomato.  The tomato’s skin is unique – it’s just tough enough to be difficult for a chef’s knife unless you have a super-quality, super-sharp chef’s knife.  I do not.  Cut your slices THICK – a regular-sized tomato yields about 4 thick slices.20140629_18550420140629_185536

Season well:

My preferred seasonings, the ones I use every single night, follow:

  • Herbes de provence
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Roasted garlic olive oil

Herbes de provence is a mix of a hella ton of different dried herbs that are indigenous to the Provence region of France.  The mix is exquisite and will transport you right to the Mediterranean coast, elevating every dish it touches.  The key, I think, is that the blend includes lavender, which lends the most distinct flavor.  It’s perfect mixed into breading for chicken, seasoning on steak, sprinkled on popcorn and, of course, melding with the glory of tomatoes for a heavenly dish.  20140701_175213

The mix is a bit more expensive than other herbs at the grocery store (by $1 or $2) but it’s so versatile, it is absolutely worth it.  I buy mine in bulk at Penzey’s Spices and it lasts me for months.20140701_175001

Herbes de provence loves garlic and will show off its peak flavors when “blossomed” in a little fat.  For instance, when adding to popcorn, heat up your butter or olive oil on the stove and add the herbes de provence for 2-3 minutes.  The flavors will sing!  When adding to the tomatoes, I rub the herbs between my fingers as I sprinkle.  The rubbing can release oils in the dried herbs and makes them more flavorful.

Coarse sea salt – I don’t know why, but I think that coarse sea salt has a different flavor than fine sea salt.  It’s a little brinier, more akin to the sea.  The coarseness also adds a tiny crunch.20140701_174920

Freshly ground pepper: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: pre-ground pepper is great, I’ve used it for years and I still use it occasionally, but the fresh ground pepper opens up the oils in the peppercorn for an entirely different flavor.  I can’t live without it now.20140701_174851

Garlic-flavored olive oil pro tip – don’t get botulism:

For years, I was making my garlic oil at home.  You take a head of garlic, de-skin the cloves and cook them very slowly (starting with cold extra-virgin olive oil on low heat) for about 20-30 minutes or until the cloves are the loveliest golden-brown.  I’d eat the garlic cloves with a little salt and pepper – exquisite.  Then I’d store the oil in a plastic container at room temperature.

I stopped this practice when I didn’t have my own kitchen for a few years (it does make your house smell like garlic, which I love, but apparently not everyone does), and about a year ago I tried it again.  For whatever reason, I decided to store it in the refrigerator.  When I looked at it next, the oil had thick white growths in it, which looked rather threatening.  I looked it up and, lo and behold, the bacteria spores that cause botulism can occur and thrive in garlic oil – the less oxygen, the better for them.  Geez – who knew something as simple and delightful as garlic oil could be that dangerous?  I mean honestly – BOTULISM?  I had been afraid my oil had spoiled, I was never expecting that!

(Apparently the chances of actually harboring botulinum spores in your oil are quite rare, but it freaked me out enough never to try it again.  Here’s a pretty helpful article that shows ways to make oil at home with the proper precautions.)

So, I buy my flavored oils now, if I’m not going to use my homemade garlic oil at once.  I like to buy flavored oils and vinegars in a small store called Olio and asked them why I got the weird growths in my oil – and why it doesn’t happen with their oils.  They said their oils are flavored with a complex centrifuge process, so that no pieces of the garlic are actually in the oil when it’s bottled for you to buy in the store.  You can also buy garlic oil in grocery stores pretty readily, but I’ve found the oils at this specialty store more delicious.  There are lots of these Olive Oil Tasting Stores near urban areas – Alexandria, VA has two!

With tomatoes in mind, you can also use garlic powder or garlic pieces, but garlic burns easily and I don’t like to risk it: garlic-flavored oil for me, all the way.

Slow and steady wins the race:

Roasted tomatoes take a surprisingly long time.  That’s why when it’s tomato season, I start my tomatoes as soon as I come in the door: shoes off, oven on.  Preheat the oven to 400ºF, cut and season your tomatoes and get them in the oven.  The tomatoes take about 45-55 minutes to roast to perfection.20140701_18025920140701_18542620140701_185431

I know – it’s a long time.  But the taste – OH THE TASTE – makes all your waiting worth it.  I recommend trying this recipe when you have a day off and can accomplish other things while the tomatoes roast.

I usually end up eating my tomatoes after I’ve eaten the rest of my dinner and it’s the perfect ending.  You’ll notice that parts of the tomatoes have been become black – the black part is actually caramelization and may be the most delicious part.20140629_195751

I like to roast the tomatoes in a non-stick pan with a very good coating (not covered in aluminum foil) to savor all the juices and each blackened bit, which can often get caught in the ridges of the foil.  The very good coating is for ease of cleaning – just a quick wipe with a soapy sponge is all it takes.

The uglier, the better:

We, as humans, are drawn to beautiful things and tend to shrink away from produce that looks wrinkled or with unfamiliar blemishes.  With tomatoes, however, embrace the ugly.  Vine-ripened tomatoes will not necessarily be beautiful, shiny spheres, but can have strange lumps and hardened beige scales.  Heirloom tomatoes can take on 3 colors in one fruit and be so lumpy they look alien.  Fear not!  The stranger they look, the riper and more flavorful within.

Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
SANTA SWEETS UGLY TOMATO
Courtesy of yumsugar.com

 

Piled high on a plate, the tomatoes will release delectable juices as they cool.  Sop these up with a piece of foccacia or sourdough – or lick them right off the plate.  No judgement coming from here.20140629_19515320140629_201815

At the very least, I encourage you to go enjoy tomatoes in any way this glorious season.  It’s almost like discovering these versatile little fruits all over again.  Bon appéit, mes chéris!20140629_195200