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


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!


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!