Thursday, April 29, 2010

Convenience Food Tips

I have to start out by apologizing for not writing for a while. The truth is I have been fighting off a cold. I hate getting sick, especially when I feel like I take good care of myself. But germs do get the best of us sometimes and all we can do is rest and take care of ourselves, and be patient. So aside from not feeling up to blogging, I haven't been cooking anything to blog about. My husband has graciously taken over dinner duty while I have been out of commission. He is actually a great cook, but not very experienced with planning meals. He mostly resorted to things within his repertoire or leftovers and things we had in the freezer. We even ordered take out one night.

While I still believe that when most people say they don't have time to cook, it's really just a matter of not knowing what to make. Most of the meals I make my family take between 20-30 minutes, I save more elaborate meals for company and holidays. Granted I really enjoy cooking and do it often enough that it comes easily to me. I think if you can make a commitment to cooking for your family and work on building up a repertoire of fast meals, you really can cut out most processed "convenience" foods from your diet. But if this last week of being sick proved anything, it proved to me that sometimes you really do need to have a few convenience items on hand. And I understand that people live busy, hectic lives, and sometimes you come home from work to hungry family and you're so tired you just want to pull something from the freezer or pantry and have it practically make itself.

Just for definition's sake, when I say convenience food I mean any food you buy that has been processed, from cereals to frozen pizza. Even juices, baking mixes or canned soup. Anything more than just pure, whole ingredients.

Most people have heard the line "if your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't eat it." But the truth is we have been processing our food for a long time. And while more chemicals started being used in food processing after World War II, some things have been around for a lot longer. The best way to approach processed foods is to be an educated consumer, and be wary of marketing that companies use to sell their products. I recommend eating as little processed foods as possible to really be eating nutritiously, but whatever the level of processed foods included in your diet, there are some things to look out for. And this can be overwhelming so start with one or two items each time you go to the grocery store. The next time you go really look closely at the cereals or breads your family buys and pick out some you feel good about giving to your family. On the next trip pick one or two other items, and then little by little you can makeover your grocery list and feel confident that you know what you are feeding yourself and your family.

Tip #1 Don't Trust the Front of the Package
Companies know that people want to feed their families good food, and so they use words like "natural", "sugar free", "low sodium", "fat free" and "light" and a whole slew of other adjectives to describe their food. The problem is that there are a lot of loop holes around what these words mean on food labels. So basically, just ignore the front of the package.

Tip #2 Read the Nutrition Facts Label &
Look for Calories, Calories from Fat, & Sodium
This will help you get a general idea about the real "healthiness" of a product. Remember to judge calories by serving size. Something may seem okay, but then the serving size is very small. Calories are not the "be all and end all" of nutrition, it's just a good idea to have a general awareness of how many are in foods, especially processed foods. Calories from fat should always be less than or equal to 20% of total calories. Fat is okay, we need it, just in the right amounts. Sodium is kind of the kicker here. In general we should consume between 1200-1500mg of sodium per day. On average, Americans consume between 3000-5000mg/day. And most of that is from processed foods. The best way to reduce your sodium intake isn't to cut back on how much you salt your food at the table, but to reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. Look for a 1:1 ratio of sodium to calories on the nutrition facts label. Anything more that that and you may want to reconsider the product.

Tip #3 Read the Ingredients List
In case you are not aware of this, ingredients are listed in descending order according to weight. Meaning the more of something there is in the product, the higher up on the list it will be. The first ingredient is the most plentiful in the product. Make sure you are getting what you want from a product. If you want something whole grain (and you do) but whole grain isn't listed until the middle of the label, unless there are only a couple of ingredients, chances are you want to buy something else. Personally, I think the less ingredients there are, the better. I also like knowing exactly what the ingredients are. If I don't recognize something, I don't buy it. Who wants to have to carry a dictionary when buying food? Also beware of added sugars. A rule of thumb, if sugar is one of the first three ingredients, put it back. Might as well just eat a a few sugar cubes. There are a lot of different kinds of added sugar and names for sugar. If something ends in "ose" it is most likely a sugar, and don't forget High Fructose Corn Syrup. Sugar has many disguises. I'll have to devote a blog to sugar, but for now I will try to keep it simple.

Tip #4 Food Additives to Avoid
Food additives are a huge subject. There is a ton of research out there on the dangers of some additives and I highly recommend looking into it for yourself. In the meantime please avoid: Propyl Gallate, Glutamates (MSG), Nitrates or Nitrites, BHA/BHT (this one is already banned in infant and baby food), and Potassium Bromate. Colorings to avoid: FD&C Blue #1, FD &C Blue #2, FD&C Red #3, FD&C Yellow #5, FD&C Yellow #6. A lot of these additives (and more) have been linked to ADD/ADHD, have been shown to be carcinogenic, can cause various ailments etc.

Tip #5 Be wary of Fat and Sugar Replacers/Substitutes
Again a huge area where I recommend doing your own research. Personally, I don't eat sugar or fat replacers. Period. As for fat, again it's something our bodies need to function properly, not just for energy and to build cells (every cell in the body uses fat) but also to absorb certain vitamins properly. While we don't need a lot of fat, we do need some, and eating foods that contain fat replacers or substitutes don't give us what we need and may be detrimental to our health. As for sugar substitutes and replacers, these have been shown to be neurotoxins, as well as having other detrimental effects on our health. I don't want to eat these things and I don't want my family eating them either. We all enjoy sugar and fat, they're yummy. And we do need them in moderate amounts. If you feel you have an issue with eating too much fat or sugar, it may not be the easiest thing to do, but you will benefit in the long run by simply reducing the amount you eat versus looking for alternatives. Some of us may have conditions where we really have to watch the amount of fat or sugar we intake. And again, if we are trying to do the right thing for our health by cutting out sugar, why would we want to risk our health by eating something dangerous in a different way?

These are just some general guidelines. Use them how you see fit to judge the products you buy and consume. I encourage everyone to do their own research, and if you have more questions, please feel free to contact me. Some good places to start:
Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger
A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives By Ruth Winter, M.S.
An A-Z Guide to Food Additives By Deanna M. Minich, Ph.D., C.N.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Finally Some Peas!

Happy Monday of Earth Week! Earth Day is this Thursday, and it seems to be expanding into an entire week to celebrate the 40th anniversary. To kick of the week right, I made a "green" dinner, which also helped clear out some veggies from the fridge. This was super easy, and truly all I did was take some vegetables out of the fridge and freezer and mix with pasta.

I'm really into Whole Foods 365 organic brand whole wheat pasta. After trying a bunch of different whole wheat pastas, this one has a great taste and texture. Sometimes whole wheat pasta can be a bit chewy or taste just a bit off, and this brand seems to get it right. It comes in the whole range of pasta shapes, and the only ingredient is organic whole wheat flour. It's also pretty cheap, which I feel like pasta should be.

I cooked the pasta according to the directions on the package, and while the water was coming to a boil I chopped up my veggies. I started with a bit of olive oil in a frying pan, and added some frozen artichoke hearts. Then I sliced up some leeks thinly, and diced some zucchini. I used one leek and half a big zucchini. I added some crushed garlic, salt and pepper and sauteed for a while. When the pasta was done, I drained it and reserved about a cup of the cooking liquid. I put the pasta back in its pot over medium heat, added the veggies from the frying pan, threw in some frozen peas, and some chopped broccoli rapini and a little more pepper and olive oil. I added the reserved cooking liquid and let the peas and broccoli rapini cook and then served. Of course I had to add some freshly grated Parmesan over the top.

It turned out pretty tasty and the whole family approved. It was quick and healthy. Really you could use any assortment of veggies that you want. Dishes like this are meant to be simple. Take advantage of all the awesome spring vegetables that are out now, and make something easy one night this week.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Warning: You May Become Addicted to Broccoli

Ahh, broccoli. Don't listen to THAT president who didn't want to eat his broccoli. The rule should be a piece of broccoli a day keeps the doctor away. Truly a super food, and for so many reasons.

Broccoli is part of the cruciferous vegetable family, other members include cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, bok choy, et al. In 1992 researchers at Johns Hopkins University found a compound in broccoli that can not only prevent tumors from growing, but can actually reduce the size of tumors that exist by 75%! Broccoli along with the other cruciferous veggies are awesome cancer preventing foods. So GO BROCCOLI!

But broccoli has so much more to offer. It helps boost the immune system, lowers risk of cataracts, supports heart health, builds bones, and can fight birth defects. It is one of the most nutrient dense foods you can eat, meaning for the amount of calories (30 calories in 1 cup of broccoli) you get the most nutritional bang possible. It's packed with polyphenols ( a type of antioxidant), and only beets and red onions contain more polyphenols per serving. There seems to be no way to get my husband to eat beets, and, well how many red onions can a person eat?

So broccoli is our veggie of choice. As an added bonus, because broccoli is actually one of the most popular foods in the US it is easy to find broccoli for a decent price at the grocery store. Even organic broccoli is not too expensive. We eat broccoli, on average, about 3 times a week. Usually I just steam it lightly (no soggy vegetables, keep them somewhat crisp to retain the most nutrients) and squeeze some lemon juice over it. Maybe a touch of salt, or some other herb seasoning.

It's very yummy, but I will admit it can be kind of boring after awhile. Enter my latest addiction: Broccoli Salad. A classmate of mine brought this dish and recipe in for a meal presentation on cancer prevention. And now I can't stop eating it. Don't blame me, I warned you that it may be addictive.

Broccoli Salad
Serves 5 (or 1 depending on whether you let your husband and child have any)

1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 lemon zested
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
pinch of black pepper
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lb broccoli, cut into a fine dice (not as hard to do as you think, just chop into small pieces)
1/2 head escarole, small chop or shredded (type of lettuce, romaine would be good too, or any crisp green)
3 oz toasted hazelnuts (I used pine nuts because I couldn't get hazelnuts and it was still good)
2 tbsp basil chiffonade (thinly sliced basil)

Whisk vinegar, zest, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a bowl. While whisking add olive oil. Add broccoli, escarole and toss to coat with dressing. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Stir in basil and nuts before serving.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I have a secret which may very well get me thrown out of nutrition school: I do not like quinoa. Quinoa is a tiny little grain that has been growing on popularity over the past decade. It's related to spinach and chard, and it packs a mighty nutritional punch. It's gluten free and super high in proteins. Although this is somewhat debated and I haven't found a definitive source yet, it may actually be a complete protein. Meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs, and usually has to get from an animal source. (Non animal sources usually contain only certain amino acids, so if you are eating a variety of foods, you are still getting all the amino acids you need.) Whether it is a complete protein or not, it certainly is considered a "super grain" and very popular among the nutritionists and fellow students at my school.

I have tried to like quinoa, but I don't. You can find it in both regular and red varieties. The red variety takes slightly longer to cook, and I find that version somewhat more palatable. I can also eat them mixed together. I'm not a huge grain fan to begin with. It has taken me a long time to like rice, and now brown rice. I have tried millet and amaranth and all sort of other grains, I just don't really care for them.

But grains are good for you. And eating a variety of foods is good for you. So I search for recipes to try and incorporate them into my diet.

This weekend I tried a new recipe with quinoa: Greens and Quinoa Pie. I figured I liked all the other ingredients, so maybe it would be a good way to "sneak" some quinoa into my diet. And the other bonus was that my husband who does not like leafy greens (except for spinach, he claims they are all too bitter) might be tricked into eating some good greens.

The experiment was successful. Both of us enjoyed the pie which is really more of a casserole. I got this recipe from Vegetarian Times. I couldn't find chicory at my whole foods and didn't realize until I got home that it's endive. Or at least that I could have used endive. So along with the romaine lettuce, I used some beet greens and Swiss chard that I happened to have on hand. I imagine any mix of greens would be good. I didn't find the quinoa to be overpowering at all and so when I make this again I may actually double the amount the recipe calls for in order to eat more of the stuff. I think you could play around with the cheeses too, I think a yummy Gruyere could be good, even a nice white cheddar.

Greens and Quinoa Pie

Serves 6

1/2 cup quinoa (rinsed and drained)

1 large bunch chicory cut into bite size pieces, hard stems removed

1 head of romaine lettuce, shredded

3 tbs olive oil (divided)

2 medium onions thinly sliced (or chopped)

2 green onions thinly sliced (1/4 cup)

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup grated aged goat cheese or Swiss cheese (I used Swiss)

3 eggs lightly beaten

Place quinoa in small saucepan and toast over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes or until almost dry. Add 1 cup water, and season with salt if desired. Cover, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, covered for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to large bowl.

Heat large pot over medium heat. Add chicory (or whatever greens you are using) and cook 3-5 minutes until wilted, tossing frequently. Add romaine and wilt 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer greens to strainer and squeeze out excess moisture. Stir into quinoa.

Preheat oven to 350 Degrees F. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in skillet over medium high heat (I used the same pot I used for the greens) and add onions, saute 10 minutes or until browned. Add cooked onions, fresh green onions, dill, feta, goat or Swiss cheese to quinoa mixture. Stir in eggs, season with slat and pepper if desired.

Pour 1 tbsp oil into 9 inch pie pan and heat 5 minutes in the oven. Swirl oil to coat bottom of pan then spread quinoa mixture in pan with spatula. Bake 20 minutes. Drizzle pie with remaining 1 tbsp oil and bake 20-30 minutes more, or until golden brown.

I didn't have a pie pan this would all fit into so I ended up using a plain old casserole dish and it turned out fine. I image a Pyrex lasagna pan would work well too. It seems like a lot of steps (most casseroles are) but this was great as a main course and it made a lot, so I am enjoying leftovers now.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Denver Happenings for Local Foodies & More

For anyone local to the Denver, CO area, there are some awesome things happening in the world of healthy and sustainable eating! Today the Denver Post's food section ran an article on how celebrity chefs are using their influence to help get people to eat healthier. Along with Jamie Oliver's new show "Food Revolution", which happens to be filmed in my husband's hometown, there are a lot of other efforts happening around the country, lead by celebrity chefs.

You can read the article here:

Green Route Denver is also holding a Green Restaurant Tour of Denver restaurants. You can find more info about it here: If you can't make the designated dates, I highly recommend checking out some of the restaurants on your own. I've tried Watercourse and Root Down, and I love them both!

Just a shout out to one of my favorite local shops-Savory Spice Shop. They now have their own show on food network! And they are going national, and opening up a franchise in Santa Rosa, CA. You check out their website:

I have also found some new sites that have great blogs and other resources for gardeners and anyone who might be interested in eating more locally grown, sustainable food.

If you are having a hard time making it through this last month before the Farmer's markets open, there are a couple of year round farmer's markets that are really growing. (Pun intended) They are definitely worth checking out. and

There are some awesome efforts going on to take the CSA movement one step closer to home with NSA's, Neighborhood Supported Agriculture, where neighbors share their yard space to create the ultimate urban or suburban farms that are as local as they come! Wash Park has one and so do a few other neighborhoods across town. Here are the websites I found:, and

Last but not least a couple of local restaurant chains are supporting the eat local movement by doing their part. Chipotle is donating 50% of their sales to the Grow Local Edible Gardens in the Park project on May 15th. This project is in conjunction with Denver Parks and Rec Dept. to build veggie gardens in local parks to showcase them. The hope is more people will start planting their own veggie gardens. Find out info here:

Chipotle is also helping out the Urban Farms and Feed Denver by donating portions of their sales from their Stapleton Restaurant on April 11th, this Sunday. You can find out more info here:

And Noodles & Co. is donating a percentage of their sales to help Slow Food Denver's school garden programs. A project very near and dear to my heart. More info available here:

Some of the info in this post I gathered from the newspaper, but I also get e-newsletters from Slow Food Denver and Grow Local Colorado. I have both of their links listed on the right side of this page.

For those of you not local to Denver, CO, I know there are programs and events like these taking place all over the country. Go online and do some searches to see what you can find happening in your own backyard. And if there aren't things happening, then go ahead and start your own thing! It can be as small as hosting some friends for a "green" focused dinner, a seed sharing party or a bigger program like starting a community garden or NSA. All it takes is just one person to get the ball rolling!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

When Life Gives You Lemons...

I am lemon crazy. There, I admitted it. I use lemons in nearly everything. I just love them. I generally go through about a bag of lemons a week. I kid you not. Usually it is for salad dressing as I make my own and eat a lot of salad. But we also eat a lot of fish, and I squeeze lemon over vegetables too. It's great over broccoli or asparagus, even potatoes. Yum!

Use real lemons people. Not the bottled stuff. I don't care if it does say 100% real lemon juice. There is something lost in the processing and you just don't get the same taste, or health benefits. Lemons are good for you, obviously they are high in vitamin C, but they also contain cleansing effects and despite their acidity, they can actually help balance your body's pH. Keeping your pH levels in balance can help prevent illness. Some people like to drink fresh lemon juice in some hot water in the morning as a "tea". Me, I just like using the juice in everything.

The other good news is that lemons are one of those foods that you can buy conventionally grown to stretch your grocery dollar. Since you are mostly using the inside, buying organic is not crucial. Although this week my grocery store had organic lemons cheaper than conventional. Also if you are going to use the zest, or candy the peel or preserve the lemon (basically if you are using the outside of the lemon in any way) then definitely get organic.

One of my favorite standby recipes is pan fried tilapia with lemons and capers. You can do it a couple of ways. First you can use almost any white fish, flounder, cod, trout, they all work well. You can dredge the fish first in a little flour if you want a crispier crust. I like it, it just depends on what I feel like doing. Season the fish with salt and pepper or sometimes I will use a fish seasoning like Old Bay or something just for variety. Put a little oil or butter in a pan over medium high heat. Slice half a lemon into thin slices. Cook the lemon slices in the oil or butter until browned, then add the fish. Squeeze the other half of the lemon over the fish. Cook the fish until just done, a couple minutes on each side depending on thickness. Then just at then end add some caper and a little caper juice. You can also add more lemon juice if you like. Then serve and enjoy. Sometimes I add white wine when I add the fish, I do this more if I haven't dredged the fish in flour. If I have it on hand I will add a little fresh chopped parsley at the end too. If you don't have capers, you could use green olives. Or just leave that part out.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Bread of Affliction

This week is the holiday of Passover. It's a holiday that celebrates the Jews being freed from Pharaoh and Egypt and starting their 40 years of wandering through the desert. One of the ways in which we commemorate the holiday is by eating matzah and not eating any leavened bread or bread product and certain grains and legumes are off limit as well. Matzah is like a dry cracker. I find myself really excited to eat it on the first night, and then after that I am done.
The other problem with passover is that suddenly there is all this junk food in the house. Soda, candy, Passover cake and brownies, jelly that is like 99% sugar and 1% fruit, you get the idea. And while I try to keep the way I cook fairly normal, I still make fresh vegetables and roasted an organic turkey, just like with any other holiday, sugary foods inch their way in. I blame my husband, but really I eat them too. It doesn't feel like Passover if I don't get jelly for my breakfast matzah or get to eat those little jellied "fruit" slices. Normally I don't even eat toast in the morning, but for Passover I eat matzah for breakfast.
It's an interesting experiment as an eater. My normal diet doesn't include a lot of sugar, and hardly includes any refined white flour or grain. For this week it's as if I am eating completely opposite. And I am feeling it. I have more headaches, and just feel generally more sluggish. Just a thought about what affect diet really has on us.
I bring all this up because I think holidays are challenging for all of us as eaters. We all have times of the year when our diet shifts, and that's ok. It's part of life. And food is part of celebrations, as it should be. For me, I know this one week I am eating a lot of things I wouldn't normally, and while I am feeling a bit worse for it, I am still going to eat these traditional holiday foods. And I know that once the week is over I will go back to my normal diet. Maybe I will even eat a little better for it.
I guess my point is that we don't have to feel guilty or berate ourselves for the occasional shift in our diets. Enjoy the holidays. Eat the Peeps. And once they are gone, go back to the more healthy, whole foods. And don't regret a few holiday festivities. That's the point of holidays coming around once a year.