Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I got lucky!

When it comes to contests, I'm not what you would consider lucky. Frank can so much as look at a contest entry form and win something. One of my co-workers spends her off-hours entering online sweepstakes and wins all sorts of things - enough to make for some interesting Christmases in her family every year. But me... I don't have the luck o' the Irish, no matter what my Guinness-loving self might wish.

However, it seems that lately my luck has taken a turn.

Last month I was notified that I won a case of Pop Chips.

Two weeks ago, I won a pair of Levi's jeans from Gowalla.

And last week, I was notified that I won a contest hosted by GreenLiteBites to create a new spice set for Spices, Inc.!

Starting today, my winning entry will be sold on the Spices, Inc. Web site and I'll get one of my very own in the mail later this week.

And here's my original contest entry:
The Secret Ingredient Set

This is a collection of herbs and spices that are used in everyday recipes to really make them outstanding. I picked ones that I didn’t know I needed until after I tried them. Now they are kitchen staples for me and hopefully for you, too.

Organic Basil – add to canned tomato soup and feel like you’re at a fancy bistro, mix into pasta salad or sprinkle on pizza or sandwiches for an Italian flair.

Adobo Seasoning – mix with mayonnaise for a perfectly surprising sandwich spread, combine with sour cream for a quick and delicious taco topping, sprinkle in couscous, rub into chicken – the list goes on and on.

Marjoram Leaf – the secret to perfect meatloaf is marjoram. Period.

Crystallized Ginger – kick your sweet potato casserole to 11 by adding minced crystallized ginger. Or add it to molasses cookies, spice cakes and pumpkin rolls for a hint of goodness that will make them turn their heads – in a good way.

Lemongrass – combine with Asian flavors to make a delicious marinade for grilled chicken, add to soups for a light hint of the exotic, or mix with honey and drizzle over fresh fruit for an out-of-this-world dessert.

Nutmeg Powder – the secret to the best eggnog, the best quiche, the best savory bread pudding – if your dish is based on eggs, nutmeg will probably make them sing.

How cool is that? This contest was so much fun, and I love the thought that someone else might try one of these spices in a new way thanks to my set. The best way to add flavor while cutting back on fat and sugar when cooking is to experiment with herbs and spices. The only thing in the above set that I cooked with before the last year or two was nutmeg, and that was when it was sprinkled on top of a glass of eggnog. The more comfortable I get with the flavors of herbs and spices, the more comfortable I become as a cook.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Out and about.

Here’s our menu plan for the week of 12/06/2010. An asterisk (*) indicates recipes we tried for the first time.

Monday: Sushi at Kato!

Tuesday: Lemon Grass Chicken Skewers with Rice

Wednesday: Oven-Baked Mahi Mahi Fish Sandwiches* with pasta salad

Thursday: Turkey Antipasto Panini and roasted Brussels sprouts

Friday: Moroccan Meatball Stew* with couscous and sautéed bell peppers

Saturday: Pho Ga at Mr. Le’s!

Sunday: Football Party!

So we ate out twice last week. On Monday we had sushi at Kato during their sushi Happy Hour. Nigiri for $1.50 and lots of rolls and appetizers for $3.95. If you're in the Kansas City North area on a weeknight, and want some really good, reasonably priced sushi, you can't do better than Kato.

Saturday found us at Mr. Le's in KC North for one of my favorite foods, Pho Ga. I've posted about my love of Pho before, and when I don't feel like making it at home, Mr. Le's is a good alternative.



Mr. Le’s is located at Parvin and Brighton in Kansas City, North, in what I consider one of the shadiest strip malls around. There are some seriously icky people around this place, but they don’t go into Mr. Le’s, so don’t be afraid. Inside, Mr. Le’s is bright and cheery:



Despite the dubious location, Mr. Le serves up some of the best sushi we’ve had. The fish is fresh and the rolls are creative and delicious. Presentation is not brushed over, as with this spicy tuna roll (one of the best we’ve had anywhere):



But I’m (obviously) a sucker for Pho, and the Pho at Mr. Le’s doesn’t disappoint. The broth is wonderfully aromatic – I’ve said several times that if I ever ask for chicken noodle soup while in the throes of illness, it is Pho Ga that I want, and not actual chicken noodle soup – that I can’t even imagine how that flavor is accomplished. Lucky for me, I don’t have to know because Mr. Le knows and is close enough to my house I can get a fix any time I want.



Despite the soup spoons that are brought with the Pho, I strongly recommend you eat the Pho with chopsticks and drink the broth. There is something very calming about eating a bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks. You are forced to slow down, have patience. Part of the experience of eating Pho for me is the exercise of eating it with chopsticks, and while I’ve tried to eat it with a spoon and fork, something suffers without the chopsticks. So give them a shot. Mr Le’s is open on Sundays, which makes me a happy camper. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in.

The Football Party mentioned was thrown by some good friends who are about to welcome their first child in about a month. Since they usually throw a Superbowl party, this is the alternative this year since by the time the Superbowl rolls around they will be up to their eyeballs in baby crap (literally and figuratively). There were a lot of food temptations to be had, and I had many, but I managed to limit myself more than I would have in years' past. I reached for carrot sticks more than chips, and had one beer instead of more than one. As for the football, I'm not what anyone would consider a sports fan, but it still sucks to be on the losing side. Hopefully the Chiefs will win next week and going forward - the actual football fans are much better to be around when the team is winning...

This week we had one of my favorite meals - panini! I love them because we tend to have all the fixin's on hand and can throw them together without much planning. While the options are endless when it comes to putting together a good panini, my favorite involves sliced turkey, provolone, spinach and a mixture of sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and roasted red pepper.

A panini grill, like the Cuisinart 5-in-1 Griddler, is a handy tool for making panini. This particular model also has griddle plates, making it a more versatile investment than a panini press and flat griddle. We got ours at Costco a few years ago and use it a couple of times a month.
Turkey Antipasto Panini
Servings: 4
Weight Watchers Points: 10 per sandwich

2 Tbsp. fat-free mayonnaise
8 slices hearty whole-grain bread
8 ounces shaved deli turkey
1 (6-ounce) jar quartered marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1/2 c. sun-dried tomato halves, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1/2 c. roasted red peppers, sliced
1 c. fresh spinach leaves
4 (1-ounce) slices reduced-fat provolone cheese
Cooking spray

Preheat a panini grill.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes, artichoke hearts and red pepper and mix together.

Spread the mayonnaise evenly over each bread slice. Top each of 4 bread slices evenly with turkey, tomato mixture, spinach and cheese. Top with remaining bread slices. Coat both sides of each sandwich with cooking spray.

Place sandwiches on panini grill. Grill for 3 – 4 minutes or until bread is browned and cheese is melted.

These sandwiches are delicious with a side of spinach or, better for this time of year, roasted Brussels sprouts.

I've managed to meet my goals of exercising on my bike three times a week for the last two weeks. This week I plan on adding another minute onto my workout time to keep things moving forward. It's gotten much colder in the last week, so getting out of bed is harder than ever, but at least I have something good to read (thanks, J. K. Rowlings). I've also started to wrap Christmas presents, and have almost finished shopping - just two or three things left to pick up before calling it quits.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stay on target... stay on target!

Here’s what we had for dinner last week, complete with links to recipes in my cookbook. An asterisk (*) indicates recipes we tried for the first time:

Monday: Classic Stuffed Peppers and sautéed spinach

Tuesday: Macaroni and cheese with tuna and peas

Wednesday: Chicken and Leek Potpie*

Thursday: Sushi at Kato!

Friday: Turkey Antipasto Panini and roasted Brussels sprouts

Saturday: Chipotle!

Sunday: Pan-Seared Salmon with Honey-Balsamic Sauce and Buttery Herb Couscous

Treat Monday: Peanut Butter Hugs

My first week on the new Weight Watchers PointsPlus system has been really great. I've been motivated to eat more fruit and I've found myself reaching for grapes when I otherwise would have reached for a VitaTop or baked potato chips. I've also been more motivated to exercise lately - re-reading the Harry Potter series while on my bike is a good strategy! As a result, I met my goal of using my bike three times last week! YAY ME!

AND - I've used it twice this week! YAY ME AGAIN!

I'm almost through Christmas shopping and can't wait until our families get their gifts. We've found great stuff for everyone on our list - you know, those just perfect gifts you can't wait to give (I have four words for my nephew who doesn't read this blog - two-foot tall tonton) - now all I have to do is wrap them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On Point(sPlus).

First off, here’s what we had for dinner last week, complete with links to recipes in my cookbook. An asterisk (*) indicates recipes we tried for the first time:

Monday: Grilled chicken sandwiches and Baby Red Potato Salad

Tuesday: leftover grilled chicken sandwiches and Baby Red Potato Salad

Wednesday: Crab Cakes with Red Pepper Sauce* and Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Thursday: THANKSGIVING!

Friday: THANKSGIVING, Part 2

Saturday: Chicken Cacciatore with Red Pepper Tomato Sauce and Parmesan Polenta

Sunday: Leftover Chicken Cacciatore with Red Pepper Tomato Sauce and Parmesan Polenta

Treat Monday: Mom’s Chocolate Fudge

Now for more fun stuff:

Weight Watchers launched a new system today called PointsPlus. Instead of considering calories, fat and fiber when determining the points value of food, they now consider all of the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber. Notice that calories are missing from the new formula. The goal is to encourage healthier choices, while discouraging consumption of processed foods. It's also to take into account the way our bodies process nutrients - it takes more energy to process protein than sugar, so foods with higher protein content, like chicken, are worth less points than before.

I really like the sound of this new approach. This semester, I have been taking a Human Nutrition class and I've learned a great deal about macro (and micro) nutrients, how the body processes foods and what each nutrient can do in the body. While I already knew much of the information thanks to Weight Watchers and a general interest in the subject, I learned a lot that I didn't know about what too much or too little of certain nutrients can do in the body.

For example - did you know that food that naturally contains cholesterol doesn't necessarily raise your cholesterol? When you eat food that naturally contains cholesterol (like shellfish), your liver responds by producing less cholesterol, thereby balancing out the scales, so to speak. However, when you eat food that is high in saturated fat, your liver produces more cholesterol to process the fats, raising your overall cholesterol. So go indulge in some cholesterol-rich shellfish. It's okay!

Anyway.

I'm a good example of why Weight Watchers revamped the points system. Why? Because I've been eating a lot of VitaTops lately. Under the old system, VitaTops had one point a piece. One point for a sweet, cakey, chocolaty treat that, while loaded with vitamins, is also exactly the type of processed food I should be reconsidering. But one point is so low! Contrast that with the points value of a banana - under the old system, a banana had 2 points. Why on Earth would I choose a 2 point banana over a one point chocolate snack cake? I didn't. I opted for the food that was lower in points, but not as natural. I was opting again and again for a processed food over a natural food. And I think that's why I've been at a plateau for over three months.

Under the new system, all fruits, including bananas, are "free" - that is, they have zero points. And that VitaTop I like so much? It's now worth three points, because it's loaded with carbohydrates and has very little protein. So while I have a mini-surplus of VitaTops that will be staying in my freezer for a while, I am stocking up on fruits that I love - like red grapes, mangoes, bananas, kiwi, berries, etc. - and will be indulging in them more than ever.

I'm really excited about the new system, because I think it will help get me out of the rut I've been in weight-wise. But it also means that I have to recalculate the points values for all of my recipes. For now, all points, unless otherwise marked as PointsPlus, were calculated under the old system.

The goals for this week are to get acquainted with the new system, to try to stay within the allotted points, and to get my ass on my exercise bike at least three times this week. I started off right by getting up early this morning and going for 22 minutes. There's some truth to the notion that if you pretend to be what you want to be, you will eventually become that person. I'm going to try it out by pretending I'm an athletic person who loves exercising. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Start the week off right!

Here’s what we had for dinner last week, complete with links to recipes in my cookbook. An asterisk (*) indicates recipes we tried for the first time:

Monday: Chipotle!

Tuesday: Longboards!

Wednesday: Macaroni and cheese with tuna and split pea and ham soup

Thursday: Makeshift “Hamburger” Helper

Friday: Baked Italian Salmon* with Lemon Spaghetti*

Saturday: Tuna melts with red peppers and leftover Lemon Spaghetti

Sunday: Pan-Seared Salmon with Honey-Balsamic Sauce and Buttery Herb Couscous

Treat Monday: Pumpkin Butterscotch Cookies

The goal for this week is to not overdo it with Thanksgiving. That means trying to eat a bit lighter on other days so the main event won't be such a challenge. While my mom is doing the turkey, I'm taking on some of the more traditionally not-so-good-for-you fare in the form of stuffing and sweet potato casserole.

The stuffing recipe is one I used last year. It combines lots of fruit and veggies with wheat bread crumbs, broth and seasoning. There's little fat to speak of, save the olive oil and light butter used to sauté the vegetables:

It was so delicious that we're breaking it out again this year, and probably every year for the foreseeable future. If you want more, it's easy to increase the measurements - this is one of those recipes where it's really about what you like.
So Good Stuffing!
Servings: 8
WW Points: 3 per serving

Cooking spray
9 cups whole-wheat bread cubes, toasted
2 tsp. olive oil
2 tsp. light butter
1 small onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. rubbed sage
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 1/2 c. chicken broth
2 Tbsp. fresh chives, chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 c. dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Coat a 4-quart shallow baking dish with cooking spray.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil and butter together for 1 to 2 minutes. Add onion and celery; sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add thyme, sage, salt and pepper; stir to coat. Cook until herbs are fragrant, about 1 minute.

Transfer onion mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add bread, broth and chives, apple and cranberries; toss to combine. Spoon mixture into prepared baking dish and cover with foil; bake 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is golden brown, 15 minutes more.
As for sweet potatoes, while I absolutely love the marshmallow and sugar concoction that graces most tables, we're going with something a bit lighter, but just as delicious. This casserole accentuates the natural sweetness of the potatoes with some apple juice and crystallized ginger. I've recently discovered how well crystallized ginger pairs with squash and sweet potatoes, and recommend you try some combination thereof soon.

We tried this recipe a few months ago and knew it would be a Thanksgiving keeper. We're going to double it, so I hope it turns out as good as the first time!
Sweeter Potato Casserole
Servings: 4
WW Points: 4 per serving

2 apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 tsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. thawed frozen apple juice concentrate
2 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 c. water
1 Tbsp butter, diced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking spray. Arrange half of the apples in the dish; top with half the potatoes, then sprinkle with half the ginger and half the salt. Repeat the layers.

In a small bowl, combine the juice concentrate, brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, cloves and water.  Pour over the potatoes. Cover with foil and bake 45 minutes; dot with butter. Bake, uncovered, until tender, bubbling and lightly browned, about 15 minutes more.
My mom, in addition to the turkey, is making my favorite salad ever - 7 layer salad. She makes it with lettuce, bacon (turkey this time!), peas, red onion, a little sugar, shredded swiss cheese and Miracle Whip (reduced fat). It's one of those salads that I could eat with every meal. The bad news is that it doesn't do well as leftovers, but it's incredible when fresh.

Frank's parents will be joining us and will bring traditional green bean casserole (It's my guilty pleasure and since it's only once a year, indulge!) and a pumpkin pie.

After the meal, we plan on taking a nice long walk, assuming the weather cooperates.

What are your Thanksgiving must-have dishes?

Friday, November 19, 2010

A little bit of Laos.

Halloween weekend 2009 found Frank and me up in Madison, Wisconsin. It's a really great college town with lots of character. We were in the area to see a concert and didn't get to stay very long, but we were there long enough to have one of the best meals I've ever had. Inside a tiny house on a side street is a Laotian restaurant called Lao Laan-Xang, where I was treated to the pleasure of curry squash.

The dish was a rich, flavorful coconut red curry broth with soft chunks of sweet potato, butternut and acorn squash, zucchini, Thai eggplant and chicken served with rice. It was a little sweet, a little more spicy, and very, very, comforting.

You know those bites of food that you just sit and savor and that make you say, "mmmm.... mmmm...." over and over until someone asks you if you are okay?

Yeah, it was like that.

I knew I wouldn't be able to get a curry like that in Kansas City, so I had develop as close an approximation as possible.

One problem -  I HATE cutting up butternut squash. Frank hates it, too. It seems like it takes a machete to get through one of those suckers, and we're both afraid of losing digits.

Thank goodness for Costco. This time of year, they have fresh, pre-cut butternut squash cubes in their produce section. YAY!

With the hard part out of the way, all that was left to do was play around with some recipes until I found one that hit the mark. This most recent incantation from earlier this week comes very close, but it's not perfect. I'll explain more about that in a bit.

By the way, one of my favorite ingredients is red curry paste. It's a concentrated curry mixture that's packed with very complex flavor. A little goes a long way, and it will keep in the fridge for months.
Red Chicken and Mango Curry
Servings: 4
WW Points: 9 per serving

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. canola oil
1 1/2 Tbsp. red Thai curry paste
1 14-oz. can light coconut milk
1 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp.. fish sauce
1 1/2 c. butternut squash cubes
1 1/2 c. sweet potato cubes
1 c. mango cubes
2 tsp. fresh lime juice, plus wedges for garnish
3-4 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
2 c. brown rice, cooked

Saute chicken in skillet over medium-high heat until browned and cooked through, and remove to a plate.

Saute onions and garlic in oil over medium-high heat for two minutes, then add curry paste. Whisk in coconut milk, broth and fish sauce and bring to a boil. Add butternut squash and sweet potato cubes and simmer, partially covered, about 20 minutes or until tender.

Add chicken back to pan and bring to a boil. Add mango and lime juice and heat through.

Serve over rice and sprinkle with cilantro and lime wedges
Like I said above, this was very good, but it wasn't perfect. I think I'm going to eliminate the mango next time, and maybe add some acorn squash chunks (I'm not as afraid of cutting one of those in half). Also, I found that this is better served in a bowl over rice. I don't know why, it just is.

As leftovers go, this is a home run. The flavors all meld together and it reheats nicely in the microwave. A little bit of Laos in my office cube is rather nice.

What's the best meal in an unlikely place you've ever had?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Eat like me. You know you want to.


On Sunday evening, usually I prepare something delicious to share with my co-workers the next day. I call this Treat Monday. However, I had a long Sunday and didn't feel like making anything other than dinner. So, Treat Monday will become Treat Wednesday this week.

The best new recipe we tried was the butternut squash with candied ginger and cilantro. So freaking good!! The texture of the ginger is perfect with the squash, and the flavors of sweet and spicy and savory are a big, big hit.

Sunday was spent with my dad, sister and step-mom in northwest Missouri. My sister made chili (so good!) and a key lime pie (so, so good!) and I brought some homemade cornbread that had diced mild jalapeños, a little shredded cheddar and a few shakes of Penzey's Arizona Dreaming seasoning. If you have a Penzey's store in your area, make sure to sign up for the catalog - every couple of months, they send a coupon for a free jar of spice. Last month, it was a full jar of Arizona Dreaming, and I love it. It's great on chicken, fish, in couscous, and in cornbread :)

Tonight we took a cooking break and went to Chipotle for dinner. Frank and I order one burrito, then split it. I put my half in a bowl and give him the skin. We get a chicken fajita burrito with mild salsa and lettuce, then get corn salsa, sour cream and some guacamole on the side. That way, we get portion control for the fattiest parts of the meal. It's filling and delicious. I can't imagine eating an entire one of those things, especially one loaded with sour cream and cheese. I think my stomach would burst. That's not to say that there wasn't a time when I could eat a whole burrito by myself. Not now, though.

It's surprising what you can do without, and what you really need, when you make up your mind to live just a little more reasonably.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Now is the time on Schprockets when we dance.

Time for... another bulleted list!

  • I recently finished reading The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. What a wonderful, wonderful book. It's an enchanting blend of science, ranch culture, Victorian romance, mystery and travelogue all told from the perspective of a precocious 12-year old boy. The margins of the book are filled with beautiful diagrams and footnotes. Highly recommended!

  • I recently started reading Tinkers by Paul Harding. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, though almost no one had heard of it. This represents the first time the award has gone to a novel published by a small publishing house since (one of my favorites of all-time) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole won in 1981. So far, I love it. Echoes of Faulkner, and all that.

  • You know how some people are all "OMG why are they playing Christmas music 24/7 on the radio already? I hate that!"? Yeah, I'm not one of those people. BRING ON THE CHRISTMAS, I SAY!

  • I made souffles for Halloween - and it didn't turn out to be scary!

  • We ate at the Broadmoor Bistro again last week. The menu changes every 2 months, so it was time to make another visit. This one was better than the last, and the last was exceptional. If you want a great meal for a great price (And a good cause!) on a Wednesday night, make a reservation now!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Off to bluer oceans...

So we have some sad news to report - two of our fish, Coco and Mr. Plecopostamus, have passed on and are now swimming in the big ocean in the sky.

We're not sure what took them down, but Jack is still faring well. One might say he's thriving. I haven't completely ruled him out as a suspect, but I have no proof of any wrongdoing on his part.

Even in the midst of this tragedy, we still can find some humor. Case in point:

A couple of days after Coco went belly up (not literally - he just sort of sank), we noticed Pleco wasn't looking so hot. Knowing that the inevitable was upon us, but not wanting to prolong the likely suffering of our finned friend, we came to the realization that we needed to put Pleco out of his misery. But how?

He was too big to flush down the toilet.

I wasn't going to put him in the garbage disposal. That seemed cruel. Besides, have you ever put a relatively large fish in the garbage disposal? It's not fun for anyone.

Then we remembered that a friend of ours had once told us how to humanely euthanize a fish. So, we grabbed a large bowl from the cabinet, filled it with mixture of 1 part water to 1 part vodka, and added one ailing Pleco, who soon drank himself into a peaceful, fishy forever sleep.

Then we had to figure out what to do with a dead Plecopostamus.

He was too big to flush down the toilet.

I wasn't going to put him in the garbage disposal. He'd get stuck, then someone would have to reach in there and pull out what was left. I was not doing that again.

We could put him in a baggie in the freezer until trash day, but we both knew we'd forget he was there and months later come across a frozen fish while looking for pork chops. I was not doing that again.

We decided to throw Mr. Plecopostamus into the field behind our house. And by "we" I mean Frank, who is the only person in our house who doesn't throw like a girl.

Mr. Awesome carried Pleco's lifeless, alcohol-leaden body onto the deck and flung him hard and fast into the field.

Pleco soared off the deck...

He sailed over the deck railing...

He practically flew across the yard...

Just as he was about to clear the fence and make his final stop in the field...

Our neighbor's tabby cat, Leo, who was walking nonchalantly along the fence, minding his own kitty business, stepped headlong into the path of a flying Pleco.

*THWACK*

Leo got smacked, right in the side of his kitty face, with a dead, vodka-soaked fish.

I don't know if it was the best day, or the worst day, of his kitty life.

Leo has been seen since patrolling the same stretch of fence, so it must not have been that traumatic. Maybe he hopes vodka-soaked lightening will strike twice in the same place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not exactly healthy living related, but still awesome!

When I'm not cooking or eating or trying to live a healthier life, I love good music and great musicians. One of my favorites is Ben Folds, who is probably best known as the front man of Ben Folds Five, and is not only a ridiculously talented musician, but also an all-around decent human being.

Over the last two years, Frank and I have been to almost 40 Ben Folds concerts, all over the country. Ben has a new album coming out next week, Lonely Avenue, a collaboration with author Nick Hornby. I've heard it and promise you it's worth your money. It's very, very good.

Anyway, I didn't just write this post to gush about Ben Folds. I have some great news!

I will be interviewing Ben Folds via video chat this Friday, 9/24 at 6PM CST. I'll be asking about eating healthy on the road, and how he and his lovely wife help guide their children toward healthy living. Please go to http://benfolds.com/chat to tune in when the time is nigh. I hope you can make it!

Ben Folds interview, in which I interview Ben Folds.

It's official - I will be interviewing Ben Folds via video chat this Friday, 9/24 at 6PM CST.

http://www.benfolds.com/chat

Be there for...

Lynn vs. Ben - The Video Chatstraveganza!

Join me as I challenge Ben Folds to a no-holds-barred steel cage video death match, where we will fight to the pain using only our words and winning personalities. I'll be asking him about trying to eat healthy on the road, if he kisses his mother with that filthy mouth, and if he or his lovely wife have any recipes to share involving fall root vegetables. I'm shooting for a Barbara Walters moment where I make him cry, in a good way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's a mad mad mad mad world.

What's the easiest way to play catch-up? With a list!

  • I turned 35 last week. We celebrated with dinner at Justus Drugstore (one of the best meals I've ever had), and a fireworks show at a family friend's farm. The fireworks were almost as amazing as the dinner.

  • We're finally watching Mad Men and now know what all the hype is about. We're about halfway through the third season and are loving it! There's such a Sopranos vibe about it, and it's so visually stunning. My favorite line - Beatnik to Don: "How do you sleep at night?" Don: "On a bed made of money."

  • I won a contest of sorts and as a result will be interviewing Ben Folds via video chat at some point in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for details. I've got some good questions lined up - let me know if you have anything you'd like me to ask.

  • Last month my mom and I saw Rufus Wainwright in concert. He was terrific. The first half of the show he did his best "Liberace-live-from-the-grave" routine while playing the entirety of his All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. It was strange and sad and beautiful. The second half had him wearing a suit made from Betty Draper's old couch and playing songs we knew.

  • Mr. Awesome and I went to see She & Him. It was almost as good as I expected it to be. Almost, because whoever was running the lights was off-game, and the bass was way too loud. But Zooey Deschanel is divine, and M. Ward is mesmerizing.

  • I am really, really looking forward to summer ending this year. That said, this is the first summer in I don't know how many years that I have worn shorts, and I have to say that I like wearing shorts. But, in general, I like dressing for cooler temperatures much better. There are far more options.

  • Flossing is a pleasure that I hope you don't deny yourself.

  • Netflix streaming is like digital manna from the gods. We’ve seen some great movies that we’d never have found otherwise. Here are some good ones you should check out:


  • We’re eating dinner tomorrow night at the Broadmoor Bistro. It’s our first time, so I hope it’s good!


    At least a plateau gives you a good view.

    Every weight loss journey hits a plateau at some point, and right now, I'm standing on top of one. I've been stalled at the same weight for almost two months and it's frustrating. But I know that when things are stuck, they need to be shaken up a bit. That's why today I'm focusing my attention on how I got fat in the first place, what I've done to reach the point I'm at now, and how to start moving in a forward direction again.

    Healthy eating wasn't exactly a priority when I was a kid. While my mom cooked some nights, she also worked and that left me and my step-dad to fend for ourselves. More often than not, that meant eating out a restaurant. Our favorites were Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and any place that had good steak or fried chicken. You know, all the healthy places. If we weren't dining out, we were eating spaghetti or cereal or ice cream at home. Sometimes all three at once. Needless to say, I was never a skinny child.

    In high school, my eating habits changed slightly, but not much. I ate more fast food, but was also pretty active in show choir and drama. I danced, swam, walked a bunch, and managed to keep my weight from getting too out of control.

    Through my 20s and into my 30s, I just sort of ignored the elephant in the room, which at some point became me. I'd try fad diets occasionally - Slim Fast, Atkins, South Beach - but nothing really worked and none of them stuck with me. I kept telling myself I was happy the way I was, and that I could lose weight eventually. Eventually kept creeping further and further into the future and at some point, I sort of gave up on even eventually.

    Then I woke up. I shook the fog out of my head and took a good, long look at myself. I was not getting any younger, and I was certainly not getting any healthier. I was not the person I saw in the mirror. I had to do something.

    Enter Weight Watchers. Last year when I started, I didn't focus on goal weights or milestones - I focused on  one-day-at-a-time. Each step I took, each healthy choice I made, put me one step closer to becoming the person I knew I was. I tracked my points religiously. And it worked! Week after week, the scale and my ever-baggier clothes reported the same thing - weight loss. I was happy. I was satisfied. And that's where the plateau happened.

    Satisfaction and comfort are easy to get used to. But they're also what can get me into trouble. Just because I'm happy at this little rest stop doesn't mean I should park the car and unpack. I need to keep moving ahead until I reach a better place. When I get there, I can be satisfied and comfortable.

    Today, I resolve to track my points more diligently. I resolve to be a bit more active than I was yesterday. I resolve to get back into thoughtfully considering my food choices and remembering what is best for me.

    Today, as I stand on top of this plateau, I can see in all directions. I see where I was and can look back nostalgically on the good things, while leaving the not-so-good behind me where it belongs. I see where I am and where I want to be, and am excited to move forward.

    I am not yet the person I want to be, but I'm getting there.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Stress can be sweet.

    While last week was Hell Week in the life of a university worker, this week was Hell Week Lite. Almost as busy, almost as many problems to solve and fires to put out, almost as much stress. Cooking is a great stress-reliever for me, especially cooking sweet things to satisfy my fairly agressive sweet tooth.

    I'm so looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend. And... to my 35th birthday this Saturday! I tend to get weird around my birthday - moody and nostalgic and not in a good way. Last weekend I had the birthday breakdown that comes just about every year, and while it made for a not-so-great weekend, I got past it just in time to celebrate full-force this weekend.

    Starting on Friday with dinner with Frank at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, our first time visiting the highly-regarded restaurant. Saturday is dinner with my parents, followed by a fireworks show at one of their friend's farms. I'm so looking forward to everything and can't wait to fill you all in on the details!

    But we're not here right now to talk about my birthday. My 35th birthday. That's this weekend (I'm over the breakdown part, I promise). I mentioned something a few paragraphs back about sweet things, remember?

    I have two words for you: Awesomesauce Cookies.

    These cookies are, by far, the best cookies I’ve ever made. And they taste even better when you realize that they are not terrible for you! As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again – just because something isn’t bad for you doesn’t mean it tastes bad. Not only do these NOT taste bad, they taste better than darn near any cookie out there. Make these, and you won’t go back to the basic, high-fat chocolate chip cookies. I promise.

    Lynn’s Awesomesauce Cookies



    Servings: about 40 cookies
    Weight Watchers Points: 1.5 per cookie

    3/4 c. sugar
    3/4 c. firmly packed brown sugar
    1/2 c. (1 stick) salted butter, softened
    1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
    1 tsp. vanilla
    1 egg
    2 c. whole-wheat flour
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. salt
    3/4 c. milk chocolate chips
    3/4 c. peanut butter chips

    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

    Mix sugars, butter, applesauce, vanilla and egg in a large bowl. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate and peanut butter chips.

    Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls about 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 8 – 10 minutes or until light brown (centers will be soft). Cool on a rack and enjoy!

    Friday, August 27, 2010

    Time to get coco-nutty!

    Last night, I made a coconut cream pie. Now, before you thinking that I've fallen off the healthy wagon, let me say that I used the recipe from Hungry Girl.

    If you don't know Hungry Girl, go visit her. She's terrific.

    And, she has a really good slimmed-down coconut cream pie recipe:
    Hungry Girl's Coconut Cream Pie
    Servings: 8
    WW Points: 2 per slice (a bit more if you use regular pudding instead of sugar free)

    For Crust:
    1 cup Fiber One bran cereal (original)
    2 sheets (8 crackers) low-fat honey graham crackers, broken into pieces
    3 tbsp. Splenda No Calorie Sweetener (granulated)
    1/4 cup light whipped butter or light buttery spread (like Brummel & Brown)

    For Filling and Topping:
    1 1/2 cups fat-free milk
    1/2 tsp. coconut extract
    One 6-serving box Jell-O Sugar Free Fat Free Vanilla Instant pudding mix
    2 cups Cool Whip Free, thawed and divided
    1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. shredded sweetened coconut, divided

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a large pie pan lightly with nonstick spray and set aside.

    Place cereal and graham cracker pieces in a blender or food processor, and grind to a breadcrumb-like consistency. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add Splenda and set aside.

    In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine butter with 2 tbsp. water. Microwave until just melted. Add to the medium bowl and stir contents until thoroughly mixed.

    Evenly distribute crust mixture along the bottom of the pie pan, using your hands or a flat utensil to firmly press and form the crust. Press it into the edges and up along the sides of the pan.

    Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

    To make the filling, pour milk into a large bowl. Add coconut extract and pudding mix and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gently fold 1 cup Cool Whip into pudding mixture. Stir in 1/4 cup shredded coconut.

    Once crust has cooled and filling has thickened, evenly spread filling into the crust. Spread remaining 1 cup Cool Whip over the filling. Refrigerate until completely chilled and set, at least 1 hour.

    For a toasted coconut topping (optional), bring a skillet sprayed with nonstick spray to medium heat on the stove, and add remaining 2 tbsp. shredded coconut. Stirring occasionally, cook for about 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Allow to cool.

    Just before serving, sprinkle toasted or un-toasted shredded coconut over the pie. Cut into 8 slices and enjoy!

    How does one make this not-terrible-for-you coconut cream pie?

    I'm glad you asked.

    For starters, you nix the whole traditional pie crust thing, which is easy for me because I've never really been a traditional pie crust kind of girl. Instead, Hungry Girl makes a graham crackery-type crust (that's more my style) out of graham crackers and Fiber One cereal.

    You know Fiber One. It's the stuff that looks like Colon Blow:



    God, I miss Phil Hartman. Wasn't he terrific in everything? He was just a cave man.

    Anywho, I'd never in my life tried Fiber One cereal until last night. You know what? It tastes like AlphaBits without the marshmallows. Who knew?

    In addition to its known role as an intestinal pipe cleaner, Fiber One cereal, when pulverized with a few low-fat graham crackers and mixed with Brummel and Brown makes a pretty decent-looking pie crust.

    When you press the mixture into the pie pan, don't get frustrated when most of it sticks to your fingers. Just keep patting it into place, working from the center outward, then up the sides. It took a minute for me to get the hang of it, but once I did it was easy.

    So we made this Colon Blow crust, and baked it little to set it. Then, we mixed up a some instant vanilla pudding. HG (Hungry Girl, for those of you not on initial terms with her yet) calls for sugar free pudding mix, but since the pie is for Frank and me to share, and he doesn't do artificial sweeteners, we used regular pudding mix. To the pudding we added some coconut extract, a little shredded coconut and some fat-free Cool Whip.

    Then we dumped it in the cooled pie crust, topped it with more Cool Whip, and sprinkled on some toasted coconut to make it look all bakery fancy.

    I wanted to eat some of it last night, but resisted. This morning, Frank packed a couple of slices into to-go containers so we could enjoy our pie at lunch.

    The verdict?

    Delicious!!

    It tastes like a coconut cream pie, and that's what I wanted it to taste like.

    I would only change one thing about the original HG recipe - next time, I'll add about 1/4 tsp. or so of salt to the crust mixture. Otherwise, this is a definite keeper.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Summer break? What summer break?

    I have worked at a university for almost 15 years (holy moly, that's a long time) and typically, our summers have meant a slow period. The requests for help diminish, people take vacations, and the days slide by like molasses out of a bottle until August, when things ramp up again.

    This year, though, things haven't been slow at all. In fact, this has been the busiest summer I can remember. One reason is our new student union opens in a week, there's lots of moving things from one place to another and making sure everyone has everything they need to do their jobs in time for fall semester. It makes the days fly by, which can be a good thing, but it also makes for some stressful times, which isn't so good.

    I'm not the type of person who eats when I am stressed. I tend to eat when I'm bored, so this summer has been good for me, diet-wise. But I am the type of person who can get overwhelmed easily, and sort of freak out a bit when I think I have too much on my plate (ha! unintentional diet reference!). To combat potential freak-outs, I make to-do lists. I write down on a piece of paper the tasks that I need to get done, and cross them off as I complete them. The physical act of seeing the list get whittled down is reassuring and helps to remind me that I get what I need to get done completed eventually, one task at a time.

    I find that listening to music will help relax my stressed self, too. Some current stress-relieving favorites are:

    Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

    Clem Snide - Your Favorite Music

    Metric - Fantasies

    What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Do you eat? Sleep? Create? Make lists? Whatever it is, make sure it's good for your mind and body. The last thing you need when stressed out is to feel guilty about choices you make to cope with that stress. Find a healthy outlet, whatever that is for you, and find time to incorporate that outlet into your day-to-day routine.

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    Lose the glove. Share the love.

    A staple of my childhood cooking experience was a cheeseburger casserole, the recipe for which came on a case of boxed macaroni and cheese we got from Sam’s Club. It was a delicious and high-in-fat-and-calories concoction of cooked hamburger, macaroni and cheese and cream of mushroom soup. It was Hamburger Helper without the glove. It was comfort and joy in a microwavable casserole dish.

    I still love the flavor of that meal, but don’t want much of anything to do with the old versions. This makeshift "hamburger" helper is so named because it’s a from-scratch version of the original that uses ground turkey instead of beef. The flavors are very, very similar to what you’re used to, with far fewer calories or fat grams – knowing that it’s good for you makes it taste even better. Serve with a side of sauteed spinach and a couple of old episodes of Night Court to complete the throwback experience.

    Makeshift “Hamburger” Helper
    Servings: 6
    WW Points: 4 per serving

    8 oz. whole wheat macaroni noodles (uncooked)
    1 lb. ground turkey
    14 oz. fat-free beef broth
    2 cups water
    1 large onion, diced
    2 medium carrots, diced
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    10 oz. button mushrooms, diced
    2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
    2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
    1/2 c.fat free sour cream
    1/4 c. grated reduced fat Parmesan cheese
    1/2 tsp. dried thyme
    1 tsp. dried basil
    salt and pepper to taste

    Brown turkey in a large skillet. When beef is cooked through, add veggies, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook it until the veggies start to soften and release their juices, stirring it often.

    Stir in the water, 1 1/2 cups of the broth, uncooked macaroni noodles, and the Worcestershire sauce, bring to a boil. Cover the pan, reduce heat to medium and cook until the pasta is tender, stirring occasionally.

    Whisk the flour with the remaining 1/4 cup of broth in a small bowl until it’s smooth with no lumps. Stir this into the turkey mixture. Add the sour cream. Simmer uncovered, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened. Right before serving, add the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. The sauce will thicken some as it sits.

    By the way, this freezes really well. So make lots and do that, m'kay?

    U can't touch this. Or maybe you can. OK, you can.

    After almost three months with my iPad, it's safe to say that I love it. Long before they were even announced, I told Mr. Awesome that I loved my iPhone, but that a tablet-sized version would be killer. No, I didn't want to hold the giant version to my head like some sort of douchebag - I barely use the thing for phone calls at all - but the screen on the iPhone was perfect, the responsiveness so right there, that imaginings of a bigger version were really just too cool to be true.

    And then Apple went and done it. They gone and did it. They made my dream come true.

    I realize at this point I sound like an Apple fanboy to the nth degree. I'm cool with that. Why? Because Apple really has created a new tool for connecting to the hive mind that is the internet. The iPad literally puts the Web in your hand... it all feels very Tom Cruise in Minority Report, without the Pre-Cog business or necessity to wear tight-fitting black clothing while using the device (that would be cool, though - I may have to try that).

    Anyway, the purpose of this post isn't just to rave about the genius that is iPad. I want to talk about Apps for a moment. An iPad is only as useful (or entertaining) as the Apps installed on it, and with a virtual universe of Apps to choose from, it can be very daunting to find the ones that are a.) legitimately excellent and b.) worth the money. That's the kicker, folks - most of the really good Apps cost money. Sure, you can have a great experience with the free Apps, but if you want to kick it into high gear and fall madly, deeply in love with your iPad, you are going to have to do what any good suitor does and fork over some cash.

    Based on my experiences thus far, here are some of my absolute favorite, must-have Apps of the moment, in no particular order:

    NetNewsWire - Google Reader never felt so good.

    Plants vs. Zombies - Loved the PC version, drool over the iPad one.

    Twitterific - The instant accessibility of the iPad pairs beautifully with the fast-food feel of Twitter.

    Pages - Word processor. You don't think you need this, but you do.

    Scrabble - I'm a Scrabble junkie, and Scrabble + iPad = Scrabble heroin.

    Todo - Sync tasks between Outlook, iPad and iPhone. Keep organized, people.

    GoodReader - Nice PDF reader.

    iBooks - The Kindle killer is really all that.

    What do you think of the iPad? What are your favorite Apps? What do I need to download?

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    It's like the punchline in the Fox Force Five Joke.

    It's catch-up time, and that usually means a bulleted list. It means a bulleted list this time, too.

    • We've been sticking pretty heavily to our "what's next" philosophy. Why, just yesterday evening we replaced a couple of switchplates in a redecorated bathroom, re-hung a ceiling light, replaced our doorbell (it had been broken for years), assembled a new floor lamp, and Mr. Awesome mowed the yard and bathed the dog before I got home from work. We're sleeping really well at night :)

    • Since cancelling cable television service about a month ago, we have not suffered from a loss of anything to watch, especially since we signed up with Netflix again, primarily for their Instant Play feature. After breezing through The IT Crowd series for the second time (what a fantastic show), we are currently absorbed by the Up Series from the BBC. This series follows a group of children every 7 years, starting in 1964 when they were 7 with 7 Up. The series is currently on the 49-Up installment, and we're up to 42-Up, which I'm anxious to watch tonight.

    • A couple of weeks ago, we went to St. Louis to see the always delightful Kate Miller-Heidke perform at The Old Rock House. The show was great, and the venue was great, too. The trip also gave us an opportunity to visit the Arch and Citygarden.

    • A rainy day last weekend afforded us the opportunity to make a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The museum is free, so really, if you haven't been in a while you have no more excuses.
    • I recently discovered a culinary treat that is as easy as it is delicious. Are you ready for this? Take two or three frozen bananas and toss them in a food processor with a couple big tablespoons of reduced-fat peanut butter and a splash of soy milk. Puree until smooth, then freeze a bit more until it reaches the consistency of... BANANA SOFT-SERVE ICE CREAM! Yes, you can make something that tastes remarkably like real ice cream without any cream or ice or an ice cream maker or anything usually associated with the creation of ice cream. Except for a freezer, of course. Serve with a drizzle of (sugar-free for me) chocolate syrup and a little bit of crushed graham cracker crumbs and holy shitballs is that good. It's so good I broke out the cussing.

    • One day until Lilith Fair, and we're still trying to decide if Metric is worth the price of admission and the oppressive heat. A couple more listens to Fantasies might make up our mind... it's a terrific album and I highly recommend it.

    • I finally beat the computer at Scrabble on my iPhone. On Hard. Thanks, 104-point word, ICEBREAKER.

    Thursday, June 17, 2010

    What's next?

    It's finally happening.

    We've lived in our current house for 10 years, and have been accruing stuff all that time. Our three bedroom home had gradually turned into a large storage unit for things we thought we needed. First the garage, then the small basement, then one, then two of the spare rooms became catch-alls for things, old and new, that we figured we'd sort out eventually.

    Eventually.

    Eventually isn't an actual time, you know.

    Eventually never comes around.

    What I've learned in the last year or so is that Eventually is a lie we tell ourselves to put off the inevitable. I'll eventually lose weight. I'll eventually get out of debt. I'll eventually de-clutter my life.

    Eventually. No more Eventually.

    We have moved on to What's Next?

    What's next? Should we clean out this closet? Learn how to make great Vietnamese spring rolls? Throw away the decorative fountain that broke six years ago? Cancel cable? Move that piece of furniture into a usable place? What's next?

    What's Next is giving us the ability to look at what we need to do and take it a piece at a time. There's no start date or end date, no ultimate goal in mind other than moving past the things that were going to get done Eventually and going on to the next necessary task.

    In the last month or so, we've cleaned out our garage and basement from top to bottom, organized our closets, beautified our lawn, made countless little repairs around the house, and thrown away more junk than I thought possible.

    Last week, after a 3-month daily countdown to the day our contract expired, we were finally able to cancel our cable television service. We kept internet service and lowered our bill by $80 a month. This wasn't a difficult decision - since rearranging furniture earlier in the year, we hadn't had cable TV hooked up to a television and for the last few months, haven't missed it. We either watch it online or download it.

    Here's something valuable I learned recently: I used to think the number of "must-see" TV shows I couldn't miss was somewhere around 10 or 15. Now, that number is around 5 or 6. It's incredible how "must see" something is when you have to do a tiny bit of legwork to watch it.

    It's finally happening. We're finally getting organized, and the remarkable part is that both Mr. Awesome and I actually get excited when we ask What's Next? Take it a piece at a time, and any task is completely doable.

    What's Next?

    Dinner. That's what. For dinner tonight, we're making one of my favorites: salmon with leeks and balsamic sauce, served over grains. We typically make couscous with herbs and cheese with this dish, but tonight I'm going to try Seeds of Change Uyuni Quinoa & Whole Grain Brown Rice that I picked up at Costco.

    This dish is really, really, REALLY easy. It literally comes together in 10 minutes, and tastes like something you'd pay big bucks for in a fancy restaurant. If I could eat only one salmon dish for the rest of my life, this would probably be it.

    Pan-Seared Salmon with Honey-Balsamic Sauce


    Servings: 4
    Weight Watchers Points: 8 per serving

    Cooking spray
    1/4 tsp. olive oil
    4 leeks, chopped, white and light green parts only
    4 6-oz salmon fillets, with or without skin
    1/2 tsp. salt, divided
    1/4 tsp. pepper, divided
    3/4 c. balsamic vinegar
    1 Tbsp. honey

    Coat a large nonstick skillet with cooking spray; add oil. Place over medium-high heat; add leeks, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes or until soft. Remove from pan and set aside.

    Sprinkle fish with 1⁄4 teaspoon salt and 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper. Add fish to pan; cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until lightly browned and fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Remove from pan; set aside, and keep warm.

    Add vinegar, honey, 1⁄4 teaspoon salt, and 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper to pan. Cook over medium-high heat 3 to 4 minutes or until reduced by half. Divide leeks evenly over fish; drizzle with sauce. Yield: 4 servings

    Friday, May 28, 2010

    No quiet find.



    Sonnet XXVII by William Shakespeare

    Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
    The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
    But then begins a journey in my head,
    To work my mind, when body's work's expired:
    For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
    Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
    And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
    Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
    Save that my soul's imaginary sight
    Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
    Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
    Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
    Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
    For thee and for myself no quiet find.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    When it's time to change, you got to rearrange.

    I'm making some design changes around here. I think it's time. I liked the old look, but it's time for something brighter, bolder - more colorful and fun. For those of you viewing this post in a reader, you don't have any idea what I'm talking about. That's okay - I view most stuff in my reader, too. But click on the post title and take a look at the site and let me know what you think.

    Is it too much?

    Do you love it?

    Do you hate it?

    I'm still adjusting and tweaking, so it's bound to change again in some way soon. For now, though, this change is good.

    Friday, May 21, 2010

    The other white meat.

    A few weeks ago, we went to Texas for some music and fun. To be quite honest, Texas wasn't quite what I expected. It met, exceeded, broke and refined some of the stereotypes I held all at the same time. And really, that's all I have to say about Texas. I have some pictures that I haven't unloaded yet, and I'll post some when I get around to it. As you can tell, Texas left an enormous impression on me. /end sarcasm.

    ANYWHO, this weekend is our annual foray into the outdoor life that is Camp Bacon. Two days of camping, drinking, eating, drinking and more eating. What's a girl who's trying to eat healthier to do at an event called Camp Bacon? Well, for starters, I'm bringing my Awesomesauce cookies, so there will be at least one healthy option. I know someone else is bringing veggies, so there's another. And pork is the other white meat, right? So how bad can that be? ;)

    Earlier this week, I had a craving for peanut butter cookies, which usually don't even register on the healthy scale. But these are different - they're not terrible for you, and have some really interesting and surprising touches that make them real standouts. They look like regular peanut butter cookies, and even taste like them, at first. Then you get the sort of nutty creaminess of the pureed chickpeas, then the hint of heat from the cayenne – the humble peanut butter cookie is transformed into something really special and great.

    Spiced Peanut Butter Cookies
    Servings: 30 cookies

    1 c. canned chickpeas, not drained*
    1 c. peanut butter
    1/4 c. butter, softened
    3/4 c. packed brown sugar
    1 tsp. vanilla extract
    1 egg
    1 1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp. baking soda
    1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper, or more to taste

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper (or coat with cooking spray); set aside.

    *Drain chickpeas and reserve liquid. Pour 1 c. of chickpeas into a  measuring cup and pour in enough chickpea liquid just to cover the beans; puree chickpeas and their liquid in a blender or mini food processor.

    In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream peanut butter, butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and egg; mix well again. Add pureed chick peas; blend thoroughly with mixer. Add flour, salt, baking soda and cayenne; mix again.

    Shape rounded tablespoonfuls of cookie dough into small balls. Place dough on prepared cookie sheets, leaving at least 2-inches between cookies.

    When a cookie sheet is filled, press each ball down with palm of your hand to flatten. Then flatten cookies even more by making cross-hatch marks with back of a fork that’s been dipped in just a bit of sugar.

    Bake until cookies turn slightly golden, about 11 to 14 minutes depending on desired crispness. Let cool on cookie sheet for 1 to 2 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

    Friday, April 30, 2010

    My kind of town.

    Our recent trip to Chicago was really, really great. Some tidbits:

    • On the recommendation of some friends and TripAdvisor, we took an architecture river cruise and LOVED it. I can't recommend it highly enough - make sure you bring a camera (and a coat, if it's a chilly day like we had).

    • The Museum of Science and Industry is really cool, and even better when it's free, like it was on the day we went.

    • Public transportation in Chicago is outstanding. We parked early in the morning and took trains and buses just about everywhere. Get a 3-day pass and go to town!

    • Millennium Park is beautiful and worth a visit. If you're lucky, you'll go on a quiet, chilly morning and get the Cloud Gate all to yourself:

    • Make a reservation to eat lunch at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill. I didn't know what real Mexican food was until we ate there. HINT: cheese was conspicuously (and pleasantly) missing from our plates). 

    • Shedd Aquarium is beautiful, the sea otters and the sea turtle are mesmerizing, but thank the universe the Fantasea show only costs two dollars. I know what Frontera Grill did with all the cheese that's missing from their food - they shipped it off to Shedd and Fantasea was formed out of it. What an cornball show. If you go, sit in the front row so you can at least get a glimpse of a penguin.

    • Oh yeah, and we saw four incredible Ben Folds shows (one was in St. Louis) - numbers 32, 33, 34 and 35! His cover of Dresden Dolls' The Jeep Song was particularly great, as was hearing these other songs live for the first time ever:
      - Jackson Cannery
      - Video
      -  Don't Change Your Plans
      - Mess
      - Carrying Cathy
      - Fired
      - Time
      - Wandering
      - Songs of Love
      - Practical Amanda (from new Nick Hornby collaboration due out in September)
      - Say Yes (Elliot Smith cover)
      - Twin Falls (Built to Spill cover)
      - The Jeep Song (aforementioned)
      - Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head
      - Long Tall Texan
      - Chopsticks (Liz Phair cover)
      Whew!

    • The drive back to KC flew by, thanks to podcasts of This American Life. INDISPENSABLE on a road trip. Seriously.
    When we got back home, I was really happy to cook again - I missed it! We had grilled chicken with a spice rub from Penzey's, some mashed sweet potatoes and I made a really delicious quick brown bread, the recipe for which follows below. This bread is dense, but not heavy, and is just wonderful with a touch of buttery spread. Mmm... It reheats nicely in the microwave, too.

    I have a picture somewhere, but I haven't uploaded it yet. It looks like the bread from Outback Steakhouse, only slightly lighter in color.

    Sweet Brown Bread
    Servings: 8
    Weight Watchers Points: 1.5 per serving

    1 1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
    1 tsp. baking powder
    2 tsp. grated orange zest
    1/2 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. cinnamon
    1/8 tsp. salt
    1/2 c. low-fat buttermilk
    1 large egg
    2 Tbsp. molasses
    2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar, packed

    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

    In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, zest, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, egg, molasses and brown sugar. Pour over the flour mixture, mixing quickly to blend (do not overmix).

    Transfer to the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a rack.

    We're heading to Texas next week for more shows, food and fun. Yee haw!

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    Where's the beef?

    This weekend we head off to the Windy City for several days of food, music and fun. Lots of chicken sandwiches on the road, sushi, a trip to Frontera Grill and other surprises await. We might even take in a show or two (or four). But as excited as I am for our trip, I'm really going to miss cooking for the next week.

    I've gotten to the point with cooking that there are very few places I like to go out to eat any more. I can put together something delicious and far healthier at home for a fraction of the cost, and have fun doing it. It is so very satisfying to sit down to a meal I've put together myself and realize it looks every bit as good as something I'd pay good money for in a restaurant. Then to take a bite and go, "Wow - this is GOOD!" It amazes me every time. Even when I get a good meal out somewhere, I still miss the feeling of having made it myself.

    That said, I am looking forward to new tastes, new places and several days of not having to put together a shopping list :)

    While I'm away, you should cook one of my favorite meals: Grilled Portobello Mushrooms with Thyme and Garlic and Creamy Polenta with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis. (I think it takes longer to type out the title of the dish than to make it.) These two dishes are great accompaniments to other things, but they go especially well together.  The mushrooms can marinate while the polenta cooks, then you broil the mushrooms while the polenta rests. Make sure to use plenty of fresh thyme - and save some to sprinkle over the whole thing before serving. We have this a couple of times a month - I hope it finds a way into your rotation, too! I think we made this twice before we considered it is meatless - the mushrooms are so... so... meaty, that we didn't miss not having chicken or fish on the plate.

    Creamy Polenta with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis
    Servings: 6
    Weight Watchers Points: 3 per serving

    1 red bell pepper, roasted, seeded and chopped - jarred is just fine
    1 clove garlic
    1/4 tsp. dried basil
    1 3/4 c. water
    1 3/4 c. skim milk
    1 Tbsp. olive oil
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 c. polenta, preferably stone-ground
    1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
    1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme, plus extra for garnish

    In a blender or food processor, combine the roasted red pepper, garlic, basil and 1 Tbsp. of the water. Process until smooth and set the coulis aside.

    Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray.

    In a large saucepan, combine the milk, remaining water, olive oil and salt. Whisk in the polenta and place over medium heat. Whisk constantly until the polenta begins to thicken. Reduce heat to low and resume stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 15 minutes. Add the coulis and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and sprinkle with cheese. Bake until firm, about 15 minutes. Let stand in the pan for 10 minutes before serving. Cut into 6 wedges and sprinkle with thyme.

    Grilled Portobello Mushrooms with Thyme and Garlic
    Servings: 4
    Weight Watchers Points: 1 per serving

    2 Tbsp. vegetable broth
    1 Tbsp. olive oil
    1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped, plus more for garnish
    1/4 tsp. salt
    4 large portobello mushrooms, brushed clean and stemmed

    Combine the stock, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme and salt in a large zip-lock bag. Arrange the mushroom caps in one layer in the marinade, turning once to coat. Seal the bag, pressing out excess air. Marinate the mushrooms at room temperature, turning occasionally, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

    Prepare a hot grill or broiler, and lightly coat the grill rack or broiler pan with cooking spray. Positon the cooking rack 4 inches from the heat source.

    Arrange the mushrooms on the rack or broiler pan and grill or broil, turning often, until tender, about 4 minutes total per side.

    Using tongs, transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board. slice thinly and serve warm.

    Monday, March 29, 2010

    Spring is awesome(sauce)!

    Ah, spring. I can't believe it's finally starting to prevail against the long and cold winter. I'm really looking forward to getting out for some walks, taking photos, getting some yard work done, and cooking with some fresh, spring-y produce.

    I'm lucky enough to work across the street from the Discovery Center, so daily walks (when the weather cooperates) have become my thing over the last few weeks. I love seeing the ducks and geese and squirrels and whatnot celebrating the arrival of a new spring season. I also love that I have a peaceful, serene place to go to get some mid-day exercise. I may curse the building I work in for being in disrepair, but location-wise, I couldn't be happier.

    However...

    Even those of us who are trying to live healthier have sweet tooths. I know I do. So what's a trying-to-be-healthy girl to do when a sweet craving comes on (one can only eat so many grapes)? Why, make cookies, of course!

    These cookies are, by far, the best cookies I've ever made. And they taste even better when you realize that they are not terrible for you! As I've said before, and I'll say again - just because something isn't bad for you doesn't mean it tastes bad. Not only do these NOT taste bad, they taste better than darn near any cookie out there. Make these, and you won't go back to the basic, high-fat chocolate chip cookies. I promise.

    Lynn’s Awesomesauce Cookies



    Servings: about 40 cookies
    Weight Watchers Points: 1.5 per cookie

    3/4 c. sugar
    3/4 c. firmly packed brown sugar
    1/2 c. (1 stick) salted butter, softened
    1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
    1 tsp. vanilla
    1 egg
    2 c. whole-wheat flour
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. salt
    3/4 c. milk chocolate chips
    3/4 c. peanut butter chips

    Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

    Mix sugars, butter, applesauce, vanilla and egg in a large bowl. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate and peanut butter chips.

    Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls about 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 8 – 10 minutes or until light brown (centers will be soft). Cool on a rack and enjoy!

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    Hook, line and sinker.

    This is Coco. He's a happy, if a tad aggressive, resident of our fish tank.



    Coco has big plans for the weekend...

    If things go as expected...



    He'll be showing you his O Face.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    The Raw and the Cooked.

    Brag time.

    I'm finally down to fitting in a jeans size I can't remember wearing since high school.

    I wore a shirt the other day for the first time that I bought 3 years ago - at the time, I thought I'd fit into it "eventually."

    I'm actually looking forward to summer for the first time in many years, because I'll be able to wear short-sleeved shirts without feeling self-conscious.

    AND - how's this for TMI - I have now lost enough weight that I finally had to invest in new bras.

    I'm not done yet, but I'm getting there. If I have any regrets, they are that I didn't do this 10 years ago, or even 2 years ago. But I'm doing it now, and every day I'm healthier than the day before.

    Okay, enough bragging. Well, maybe not quite. I finished a sewing project the other day - I made a set of sushi-themed dinner napkins for some friends and gave them to them when we met for a sushi dinner at Sakura.

    That was such a fun project! I'm working on another set in a different theme right now, and have lots of ideas for projects waiting in the wings.

    With the weather getting nicer, it's going to be harder to find time to spend sewing, but I'll make it work. Especially since Mr. Awesome and I started a marathon of Lost last week (thanks, Hulu!). We hadn't watched the show, so we started watching over the weekend and have made it almost to the end of Season 2. Our goal is to catch up by the time the finale airs, but that's ambitious. Lost is like a Dan Brown novel - every episode ends on a cliffhanger so you can't wait to get to the next episode. We're liking it a lot - DON'T TELL US ANYTHING ABOUT IT!!

    Speaking of the weather changing, with spring trying desperately to make an appearance, I thought I'd try coaxing it on with some artichokes, tomatoes and fresh basil. The resulting dish is one we'll be making again. It's easy, healthy and, most importantly, delicious.

    This has it all - the richness of salmon, the freshness of basil and tomatoes, the savoriness of artichoke and mushroom, and what isn't great about pesto? Nothing, that's what.

    Pesto Salmon with Roasted Artichoke Hearts, Mushrooms and Tomatoes
    Servings: 2
    Weight Watchers Points:  9 per serving

    2 c. fresh basil leaves
    1 Tbsp. walnuts, chopped
    3 garlic cloves, minced
    1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
    1 Tbsp. olive oil
    1 (9 ounce) package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and rinsed
    1 small package mushrooms, sliced
    1 large tomato, diced
    1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped
    2 (6 ounce) skinless salmon fillets

    Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat an appropriately sized baking pan with cooking spray.

    In a blender or food processor, combine the basil, walnuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and salt to taste. Blend until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

    Toss the artichoke hearts, mushrooms and tomatoes together and arrange in 2 separate mounds in the prepared pan. Sprinkle with the thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Place one salmon fillet on top of each vegetable mound and season with salt and pepper. Spread the basil mixture on the fillets.

    Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until the fillets are no longer translucent in the center and the fish flakes when pressed with a fork. Serve immediately.

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010

    Four boxes + packing tape + Exacto knife + 30 minutes of time = Awesomecat condo!

    Inspired by a post over at reddit.com, we took advantage of an abundance of empty computer boxes from work and made Grizz his own Tower of Power!



    We'll be expanding it outwards and upwards in the coming days, but for now he seems pretty content with the current results.

    In other news, I roasted my first chicken the other night and, despite my noobish self roasting it upside down, it was delicious. Cook and learn, right? ;)

    We've been keeping up with the cooking of new stuff lately, and in that spirit, I will share with you one of the hits. Luckily, there have been very few misses. Aside from being tasty, this dish has the distinction of having one of the funniest names around.

    Singapore Chow Mai Fun
    Servings: 4
    Weight Watchers Points: 5 per serving

    5 ounces mai fun (rice sticks or rice noodles)
    1/2 c. chicken broth
    3 Tbsp. soy sauce
    1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
    3/4 tsp. chili-garlic sauce
    1 tsp. sugar
    6 ounces lean ground pork
    1 onion, chopped
    3 garlic cloves, minced
    2 Tbsp. curry powder
    1 red bell pepper, finely chopped

    Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Remove from heat; add the mai fun and soak until softened, about 5-6 minutes. Drain and set aside.

    Combine the broth, soy sauce, vinegar, chili-garlic sauce and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

    Spray a wok with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. Add the pork and stir-fry until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add the onion, garlic and curry powder. Stir-fry until softened and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the broth mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture boils and thickens, about 1 minute. Add the noodles and cook until heated through, about 1 minute.

    NOTES: This dish tasted just like something you’d get from a good Chinese Restaurant. The ground pork is so juicy and different from the normal protein we usually use. The noodles are so good in this, too – a nice change from rice. Be careful not to add too much heat or it will become overwhelming. Trust me on this.

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Bullets.

    Shooting off some bullets:

    • I've got some really great embroidery ideas lately. Once I actually make them happen, I'll post pictures.

    • Grizz has been helping me sew. He's sew helpful (ha!):


    • Valentine's Day was nice and low-key. We got each other a new flat-top range.

    • I've recently discovered the awesomeness that are VitaTops. I don't know how they make something taste so good and yet still be so healthy. If you've got a weakness for chocolate-cakey things, you have to try the Deep Chocolate VitaTops. I found them at the Sun Fresh in Westport in the freezer section.

    • It's time for me to invest in an oven-safe, nonstick skillet. Any suggestions?

    • If you like oil-packed sundried tomatoes, Sams Club has huge jars for less than $5. I'm only telling you this because I already bought 6 of them.

    • We've seen some decent movies lately, and some not-so-great ones, too.

      A few good ones are:
      Sunshine Cleaning
      12 Angry Men (1957)
      Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
      Orphan

      Skip over:
      Couples Retreat

    • After reading that Roger Bart is in the production of Young Frankenstein at the Music Hall, I had to get tickets for next Sunday's matinee. I'm very excited!

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    Every day is a good day for a resolution. Or a curry.

    In the past, I've done what many people do: I've used the first of the year as the marker for change by stating a couple of resolutions and trying to stick to them. And like many people, the resolutions don't last, because change will only happen when you are ready for it. In the past, I wasn't ready.

    For me, my "new year" started on July 9th, 2009. That date wasn't any sort of milestone for me; there was no cosmic reason why I chose that date over any other. But it has become a milestone now, as that was the day I decided I was not going to be a fat person any more. And really, that was all it took - me making a conscious decision to eat healthier and as a result, lose weight.

    When I began, I knew I didn't want to feel like I was on a diet, because if I did, I would give up. So I researched healthy eating and cooking and discovered that the Weight Watchers system was the way for me to go. I did my own makeshift version of WW for the first month, to make sure I was going to stick with my plan before spending money on joining. When I saw I was losing weight and wasn't feeling like I was deprived of anything, I joined the Weight Watchers Online program. Instead of going to meetings, I do everything via their Web site. Better yet for me is the WW iPhone app. I can keep track of what I eat no matter where I am. As a bonus for someone who loves games, trying to stay within my alloted points and still feel like I can eat just about anything is like a game of sorts - do I get cheese on my sandwich, or have an extra glass of wine? Decisions, decisions.

    But the best part of all of this has been cooking. I've always liked cooking, but for the last few months I've really began to love it. I make weekly menus and try to incorporate at least one new recipe a week. I read cookbooks and cooking magazines, looking for ways to tweak the recipes to make them WW-friendly and therefore healthier overall. I've learned that WW-friendly doesn't mean diet food - it means using light butter, cutting back on the olive oil, cooking with ground turkey and skim milk, etc. Instead of  using fat to flavor food, use herbs and spices and fruits and vegetables. I get creative with my weekly menus, trying to make sure that I use the whole package of celery throughout the week instead of one or two stalks and letting the rest go bad. And I've been experimenting with flavors and ingredients that I never would have thought about before. I never knew "dieting" could be so fun, so exciting and so enjoyable.

    Since July 9th, 2009, I've lost nearly 40 lbs. That's a lot of weight. That's a large bag of dog food, and if you've ever tried to lug one of those you know how much that is. I still have more to lose, but I'm not daunted by that fact the way I would have been a year ago. Losing weight is not impossible, it's not painful (okay, maybe it is a little painful, especially since I got a recumbent bike for Christmas and am now incorporating exercise into my life), it's not about deprivation or starvation or any of that. It's about change, and being the person you know you are, and finding something to get excited about, and - I know this sounds cliche but it's really, really true - taking it one day, one meal at a time. If you eat something really decadent, or slip up, or whatever, it's okay - there's the next bite, the next meal, the next day. That meant that I DID have a slice of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, I DID have pizza at our office holiday party, I DID have a some of my awesome chocolate peanut butter pie at Christmas. But I did so with an understanding of what eating those items meant for me, and because I have my overall health and well-being in mind, I did so with no guilt whatsoever.

    But since it IS a new year, and a new decade, I might as well try something new(ish). Since I've been cooking more, I would like to share some of those recipes that we try throughout the year with you. Some will be hits, some will be misses, but I guarantee I'll have a good time making all of them :) I'll try to post photos and notes about our experiences with the recipe, and maybe I'll include Weight Watchers points (although I hear the WW goons frown on that).

    To get started in 2010, here's a recipe I made a few weeks back. It's based on a fantastic squash curry we had at a Laotian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin.

    Red Chicken and Mango Curry
    Servings: 4
    Weight Watchers Points: 9 per serving

    1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
    1 bunch green onions, finely sliced
    1 Tbsp. garlic or chile oil
    1 1/2 Tbsp. red Thai curry paste
    1 14-oz. can light coconut milk
    1 c. chicken broth
    2 tsp. fish sauce
    1 1/2 c. butternut squash cubes
    1 1/2 c. sweet potato cubes
    1 c. mango cubes
    1 tsp. lime juice
    3-4 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
    2 c. brown rice, cooked

    Saute chicken in skillet over medium-high heat until browned and cooked through, and remove to a plate.

    Fry green onions in oil for 1 minute, then add curry paste. Whisk in coconut milk, broth and fish sauce and bring to a boil. Add butternut squash and sweet potato cubes and simmer, partially covered, about 15 minutes or until tender.

    Add chicken back to pan and bring to a boil. Add mango and lime juice and heat through.

    Serve over rice and sprinkle with cilantro.

    NOTES: Mmm… now this is about as close to comfort food as it gets, folks. The flavors are amazing and blend so well… my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Of course, we made a few modifications. First, we added a small, diced onion – we sauteed them with the green onions. Then we used frozen butternut squash instead of fresh, because cutting up fresh is a pain in the arse. However, we should have waited to add it until after the sweet potatoes were tender – instead, the cubes we added were already cooked and broke down in the sauce. It was still delicious, but chunks of squash would have been better. We also used bottled lime juice – next time, we’ll use fresh lime and squeeze a wedge on each plate. Oh yeah, we’ll be making this one again for sure.