Always sexy
[this blog left intentionally ugly]

Friday, May 28, 2010

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 3 - Reading Labels

Hey, remember back in week 1 when I told you to take a meal's worth of the convenience food you had in your pantry and put them in a box in your basement?  Have you gone down there and used any of it during the last 3 weeks?  It's time to do the same thing again.  Go back through your pantry and take out another meal's worth of convenience food.  Put it in that box and forget about it for now.

I mentioned in the last post that you need to read labels to find things that won't kill you quite as fast.  There's one easy rule of thumb you can stick with: only buy things with recognizable ingredients.

But if you're worried about your weight and health in general you can take it a few steps further.

Sugar's natural, right?  Sure, kinda, in a really industrial, refined way.  Sugar on a label can mean cane or beet sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, and about 20 other different things.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the average person (eating 2,000 calories a day) shouldn't get more than 40 grams of refined sugar a day.  That's about 10 teaspoons.  To put it in perspective, your average can of pop has 40 grams of sugar in it.

Corn Everywhere
Corn is all over convenience foods like a rash.  Considering corn is little more than sugar wrapped in fiber with a few vitamins and minerals mixed in, no wonder we're all so fat.  Here's a list of some of the things corn can be made into. 

When the FDA is considering actually regulating the amount of salt in American food, you know there's a problem.  The recommended daily allowance is less than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day.  That's ONE teaspoon of table salt.  Per day.  Take a look at some of the labels on food in your pantry.  You will be horrified.

Fat is confusing.  Some fat is good and essential for health.  But only unsaturated fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).  The RDA is around 65-70 grams a day, or no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake.  There are 13.5 grams of fat per tablespoon of olive oil.  2 ounces (2 servings, or a little less than half the can) of Pringles has 20 grams of fat.

Ah, calories.  The big, bad, scary number. You can do any number of Internet searches for various calorie-counting diets and such, but if all that's overwhelming I'll break things down for you.  The average person who's not on a diet should get around 2,000 calories a day.  If you eat three meals a day, that's around 667 calories that you can divide between each meal.  Now throw in two snacks a day of around 200 calories each and each meal goes down to 533 calories each.  It's really easy to eat 533 calories in a meal.  This is, of course, a rough guide.  I personally tend to eat a big breakfast, a lighter lunch, and a big dinner.  I aim for between 1200 and 1500 calories a day but I don't count each calorie obsessively anymore.  I know that if each meal is around 500 calories then I'm doing OK.

Week 3 Links: 3.1 - 3.2 - 3.3 - 3.4

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Running off the rage

This is me, last night, after running in a thunderstorm.  Please excuse the Myspace angle.

I was super excited to go to roller derby boot camp last night.  It would be my first practice in a loooooong time.  I was ready for someone to kick my ass back into shape.

I drove to downtown St. Paul expecting to be able to park on the street close to the Roy Wilkins (the LEGENDARY Roy Wilkins) but evidently everyone in Minnesota was in downtown St. Paul last night.  There were baby boomers and old folks spilling all over the streets.  No parking whatsoever.  And I wasn't about to pay $15+ to park in a ramp.  I didn't have enough time to park far away and walk, either.

Back to Minneapolis I go.  On my way back I decide that I can salvage the evening by getting my outdoor skates from home and skating around Lake Nokomis.

Cue thunder and lightning.

I stormed into the house, got changed, and went for a run in the pouring rain.  Because I'm stubborn like that.

I was worried because this is my first time jogging outdoors in this whole C25K process.  Week 5 takes kind of a big jump.  Day 1 involves three five-minute runs.  Five minutes is a daunting number.  And to do it three times?  Damn.  Day 2 has eight-minute runs.  I'm nervous but I know I can do it.  I just have to figure out when that's going to happen because I'm going to try derby practice again on Thursday and I can't run tonight because I gave blood and I shouldn't run two days in a row anyway.  Hmm.  I guess I'll run Friday and Sunday.

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 3 - Convenience Foods That Won't Kill You Quite As Fast

We've used frozen veggie burgers in week 1 and bagged salad in week 3, not to mention barbecue sauce and salad dressing.  Convenience foods.  It's not always a bad thing.  Most of the time, but not always.  (I'm putting the veggie burgers into the "eat these rarely" category.)

It's all about balancing time and reading labels.  You could make a large batch of homemade marinara sauce and freeze or can it.  This would be ideal.  But when you're running late to pick up the kids from daycare and they're screaming the whole way home and your partner is sick and all you want is to put some spaghetti on the table before you have to run to Jane and Johnny's piano recital, you just need to go to the store, turn some jars around, and find the least offensive jarred spaghetti sauce you can.

If you know what goes into a food to begin with because you've read recipes or actually made them yourself, you know what to look for on a retail version of the food.  For example, spaghetti sauce.  You know that marinara is tomatoes, oil, a little sugar, maybe some onions and garlic and perhaps some spices.  You know it doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, soy lecithin, citric acid, or autolyzed yeast extract. 

So you get a jar of spaghetti sauce with recognizable ingredients.  It costs a little more than the brand you used to buy.  That's fine -- you're paying for convenience.  But the next time rolls around and you get another jar.  Maybe two.  Month after month you keep buying these jars at the store.  They're almost $4 each.

But then look at the alternative.  You buy a bushel of tomatoes, fresh basil, onions, and garlic at the farmer's market.  Take an afternoon, maybe involve the kids, and make your own spaghetti sauce.  Season it just the way your family likes it.  Portion it out into freezer bags.  It works out that for the same amount of sauce you'd get in a jar for $4, you put into your own bag for around $1 or less.  And if you get the tomatoes out of your own garden?  It's pennies per serving.  Is it worth more to you to save time or money?

Psst... you can also make spaghetti sauce in the crock pot.

 Today's recipe on the meal plan makes use of the leftover shrimp from Monday's recipe and puts it in pasta with alfredo sauce.  This is real alfredo sauce, people.  You know that while glop that comes in jars at the store?  Not real.  Not even close.  I think that stuff might actually be some sort of industrial lubricant.

Get cooking!  And don't forget to start your beans so they're ready for Friday (and beyond!).

Week 3 Links: 3.1 - 3.2 - 3.3 - 3.4

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My time

Ugh, I'm still angry about something that happened yesterday.

I arrived on time, which for me means early, for my orthopedist appointment after work.  I saw the x-ray tech right away.  After the radiation blasts she brought me to the exam room to wait for the doctor.  Thirty minutes later with no sign of the doctor, I walked out.  Yesterday was Husband's birthday and I had to get home to help with a cookout.

I probably wouldn't have actually left the building if this wasn't the first time this doctor has wasted my time.  The first and only other time I saw him I actually waited in the exam room for over 40 minutes.

It makes me crazy when people don't respect my time.

I get it enough at work.  Someone calls with some urgent issue that needs to be addressed immediately and in between me hanging up the phone and arriving at their office or desk they have decided that would be an excellent time to call someone else and chat about business.  I give them ten seconds, flash them the "call me" hand signal, then I walk away.  I have plenty of other work to do that doesn't involve me standing in a doorway awkwardly waiting for someone to hang up the damn phone.

I get cranky with chronically late people too.  If your ego is so inflated as to make you think that your time is more valuable than anyone else's, then you're not worth any of my time at all.

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 3 - Food Storage and Monday's recipe

We're going to juggle three recipes at once today.  Start with shrimp, then spinach, then the pilaf.  Half the shrimp will be used for Wednesday's recipe and half the rice will be used for Friday's recipe.  So let's talk food storage.

If you know you're going to have a crazy week and will be pressed for time (and subsequently tempted by fast food or food-in-a-box), look for recipes where you can cook once eat twice. If you're making rice, make a double batch and freeze half.  Same goes for beans, casseroles, taco filling, or whatever.  It's nice to have a stockpile of cooked staples in the freezer so you can put a meal together in a few minutes.

In an ideal world we would all be storing our leftovers in glass containers with airtight lids.  Glass keeps odors in, doesn't stain, microwaves well, and doesn't leech chemicals into food.  But glass storage can be expensive so it's something you may need to build up over time.  Glass also doesn't travel well.

Everybody's got a collection of yogurt containers, margarine tubs, deli containers, and Cool Whip tubs.  They're fine for short-term use but they're not meant for washing and reusing.  The plastic breaks down and leeches into your food and causes any number of known and unknown health problems.  It also tends to put an off plasticky taste into your food.  My personal rule of thumb is to reuse the containers twice, then recycle.  If the containers get frozen, they get recycled after one use.  They never get microwaved.  You can use a Sharpie to put a mark on the container to keep track of how many times you've used it.

If you're going to freeze food, zip-top freezer bags are great space savers.  They're not the greenest option but if they don't get too funked up with greasy food you can wash and reuse them.  You can portion out rice, meat, beans, sauces, or grains and lay them flat in the freezer.  They defrost very quickly this way.

I'm not covering a lot of new ground here.  The point I want to make is that planning ahead in small baby steps will save you time and money down the road.  It doesn't take much more effort to make a little more of something a day or two a week and have food waiting in the freezer for later.

I'm not going to give you the full play-by-play for today's recipes because this is boot camp, remember?  You can do this.  Remember to read the recipes fully before you start and have your equipment ready to go.  If you have any questions or problems, leave a comment below.

Here's the master file in case you need it again.

1. Soak your skewers
2. Start your rice
3. Prepare shrimp
4. Prepare spinach
5. Put shrimp in oven
6. Prepare pilaf

Week 3 Links: 3.1 - 3.2 - 3.3 - 3.4

Monday, May 24, 2010

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 3

Welcome to week 3 of the Real Food Boot Camp!  I've heard from some of you IRL, via Twitter, and through email and I want to give a huge THANK YOU for your support!  If you're new here, drop me a comment and let me know what you think, what you have questions on, or what you hate so far.  :)

Moving right along...

This week we're covering three four topics:
  • Kitchen tools
  • Food storage 
  • Convenience foods that won't kill you quite as fast
  • Reading labels
We've used a few convenience foods so far in the last two weeks and now it's time to crack down.  Let's also talk about leftovers and what to put them in.  But first, what kind of equipment do you need to put everything together?

If you're like me, you're still using stuff your parents gave you when you left home.  Which is fine.  Like I said, I'm doing it too.  Over time I've learned that the motley assortment of kitchenware I had been hauling from apartment to apartment and finally to my house could be whittled down quite a bit, and that some things that seemed to hold a strange nostalgia for me just plain needed to be replaced.  I still have my mom's electric wok from the 70s? 80s? that has most of the Teflon coating missing from the bottom and I'm pretty sure if I ever use it again it will give my family cancer.  But it's still in the back of the cabinet.  Its working replacement is a real steel Chinese wok.

We've already covered knives.  Bare minimum you'll need that chef's knife (or santoku if that's how you roll), a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife.  Anything beyond that is pure personal preference.

You'll want a large (10" or 12") frying/saute pan/skillet.  If you're just going to own one single pan of this type I would say go with a hard anodized version.  These pans can stand up to some abuse and occasional metal implement useage.  Stainless steel is an option, but it's hell to try and cook sticky things like eggs in without a near-spiritual level of experience with your particular pan.  It's best to have one that can go in the oven, so avoid plastic handles if you can.  You truly get what you pay for in the cookware department so spend a little money here if you can.  If you can't afford it, that's fine too.  You'll just need to pay very close attention to your stove temperature and perhaps use a slightly lower temperature than what most recipes call for.

It's a really good idea to have a cast iron skillet in your arsenal.  Lodge makes a fantastic product.  It's pre-seasoned and very reasonably priced.  I actually use my Lodge pan more often than my fancy-pants Le Creuset.  Cast iron is one of the best non-stick surfaces around and holds heat like a dream.  Eggs and pancakes slide right out.  You can go straight from stove top to oven. 

You'll need a large pot with lid to cook pasta and large batches of soup.

A smaller pot (2 to 3 quart) is great too.  A lid is essential.

Now to the hand implements.  If you don't already have a silicone rubber spatula, get one immediately.  You can use this to saute, scramble eggs, stir soup, lift and serve casseroles, stir-fry, and just about everything else.  Look for a sturdy one-piece model if you can find one.

A flat spatula/turner, slotted spoon, long handled wooden spoon, tongs, metal balloon whisk, box grater, and vegetable peeler are also essential.

You'll need measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a liquid measuring cup.

Finally, a colander or strainer.

These are the bare minimums that any kitchen should have to be fully functional.  Did I forget anything here?  Do you have any favorite kitchen items that you absolutely can't live without?  Leave a comment!

I'll have this week's menu plan up later this afternoon.  Here's the master list with shopping list, menu plan, and recipes.

Week 3 Links: 3.1 - 3.2 - 3.3 - 3.4

Friday, May 21, 2010

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 2 - Barbecue Tofu (or whatever protein) Chopped Salad

Do not fear the tofu!  If you've never tried baked tofu, give it a shot.  It's a far cry from the bland, mushy tofu you may have an aversion to.  If you are absolutely against the idea, put some BBQ sauce on a pound of chicken breasts, pork cutlets, steak, or mix it in with some kidney or garbanzo beans.

Salad is great because it comes together very fast and it's easy to make large amounts to be used as leftovers for lunch.  Start this off by getting the tofu in the oven.

large pot or microwave-safe container
large bowl of ice water
chef's knife
cutting board
big serving bowl
small bowl or mug that fits inside your serving bowl

1 block firm or extra firm tofu, well drained
barbeque sauce, about 1 cup
4 ounces green beans
3 large carrots
4 celery stalks
1 ear yellow corn
1 red bell pepper
1 small red onion
1 head romaine lettuce
Barbecued Tofu, warm (see recipe)
1 1/4 cups (about) Ranch Dressing
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

To drain tofu, wrap the whole block in 3 sheets of paper towel or a clean dish towel.  Put a plate on top and weigh it down with some canned goods or books.  Let it sit for as long as possible while you get the rest of your equipment ready.

Line a cooking sheet with aluminum foil. This will help make cleaning up easier. Spoon a thin layer of barbecue sauce across the lined pan.  Start a large pot of water on high heat (unless you want to cook some veggies in the microwave - your choice).  Wash your veggies.  Put your colander in the sink.  Prepare a large bowl of ice water.

Slice pressed tofu into 1/2 inch thick cutlets and place in pan. Spoon a layer of sauce across the top of the tofu and bake for approximately one hour, checking occasionally so as not to overcook.  Don't worry too much about the hour cooking time.  If you finish your veggies well beforehand and you're really hungry, then by all means eat.  You can put the tofu under the broiler for a minute to get some caramelization too.  Tofu is done cooking when sauce has baked in and tofu is moist, but not saucy.

To trim your green beans, line up a handful and cut the ends off.  Then turn them around and cut the other ends off.  You can use kitchen shears to cut the ends off but that takes forever.  Cut your trimmed green beans and carrots into bite-sized pieces.

If you're not using a microwave, add the green beans to your boiling water and cook for 30 seconds.  Add the carrots in with the green beans and cook for 30 seconds, or until the green beans and carrots are bright and crisp-tender.  

If you are using a microwave, put the green beans and carrots in a microwave-safe dish, add three tablespoons or so of water, cover with plastic wrap or (preferably) wax paper, and nuke on high for 1 minute, or until they're bright and crisp-tender.

Drain the green beans and carrots and immediately place them in a bowl of ice water to cool. Drain again, then pat them dry (be sure they are very dry).

Put a small bowl or mug inside your large serving bowl.  Stand your ear of corn on this little platform and use your knife to slice the kernels off the cob.  Remove the corn for now.  If you want to wash the bowl to make it pretty again that's up to you.

Cut your celery and bell pepper into bite-size pieces.  Use the onion chopping method you learned this week to chop the red onion, but make sure you make your cross cuts as close together as you can so you get a fine chop.

Combine the green beans, carrots, celery, corn kernels, bell pepper, and onion in a bowl.  The vegetables will keep for 1 day, covered and refrigerated.

Cut the warm tofu into 3/4-inch pieces.

Lop the root end off the lettuce and cut off any discolored ends.  Roughly chop or tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces.  Toss the lettuce and veggies in your serving bowl with however much dressing you prefer, and season it to taste with salt and black pepper.  Scatter the tofu pieces and cheese over the salad and serve.

Week 2 Links: 2.1 - 2.2 - 2.3 - 2.4

Easy BBQ Tofu recipe source
Barbecue Tofu Chopped Salad recipe source

Hey Twin Cities, Come Buy Our Shit!

100% of proceeds benefit Feeding America through 
ConAgra's Child Hunger Ends Here Campaign
Saturday, May 22, 2010
8:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Highland Park Shelter House
1227 Montreal Avenue, Saint Paul, MN

Adult Clothing - 50 cents
Children's Clothing - $1
Coats - $1
Shoes - 50 cents
Hardback Books - $1
Paperback Books - 50 cents
Picture Frames - 50 cents
Linens - $1
Stuffed Animals - 25 cents
Toys - $1
Small Appliances - $2
Purses, belts, accessories - 50 cents
VHS Movies - 50 cents
DVD Movies - $1
CDs - $1
Kitchen utensils and dishes - 50 cents each
Misc. Decor - 50 cents
Holiday - 50 cents

We went through our boxes of crap in the basement last night and we have a TON of barware.  Also, some really decent fishtank equipment.  If you're looking for a protein skimmer, a large bio-wheel filter, and other miscellaneous tank decor, it'll be there for a few dollars.  I'm also throwing in a buttload of VHS anime, mostly subbed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 2 - Lo Mein

A common mistake people make is just diving straight into a recipe without reading it first.  They'll get something started on the stove and -- oh crap, there's some time-consuming step they need to finish right away before whatever is on the stove burns to a crisp.  Read every recipe before you begin.

Did you notice on the last recipe that all of the chopping and cutting was done before any actual cooking took place?  This is called mise en place ("meez en plaahs") and it's very important for quick cooking things like stir-fry.  You should have all your ingredients and equipment out, in place, and ready to go.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of mise en place, especially if you've got a family buzzing around distracting you while you're trying to cook.

Let's talk about lo mein, or at least the American version of lo mein.  It's basically stir-fry with noodles.  It's extremely important that every little bit of the ingredients and equipment are prepared before the first drop of oil hits the pan.  Once you get started cooking it will move very quickly and you don't want anything to overcook or burn.

I won't judge you if you use ramen, but it's really not the healthiest option.  In that case you'll be frying noodles that have already been fried.

large pot
chef's knife
cutting board
wok or large frying pan
wooden spoon or spatula to stir with

8 oz pkg lo mein noodles, spaghetti, or 2 packages of ramen (flavor packets discarded)
Any combination of the following vegetables:
   red bell pepper
   mushrooms, sliced
   broccoli, chopped
   baby corn
   bok choy
   edamame, shelled
   snow peas
   bean sprouts
   green onions, green and white parts sliced diagonally into 2" lengths
Protein of your choice: chicken, tofu, shrimp, seitan, tempeh; chopped into 1" cubes (optional)
2 tbsp peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
2 tsp sesame oil
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp cornstarch
salt and pepper, to taste

Put a large pot of water on over high head.  Keep an eye on it and when it's at a full rolling boil cook your noodles according to the package directions.  Set your timer.  Drain when they're done.  Meanwhile,  get everything else ready.

Wash your veggies.  You don't have to peel your carrots, just make sure they're scrubbed well.  If you're using whole mushrooms, you can either carefully wipe each one with a damp paper towel or say screw it and rinse them under running water and drain well.  They say that mushrooms can get waterlogged if you do this.  I've never experienced this problem, nor have I noticed any difference in flavor, texture, or juiciness when comparing a wiped and rinsed mushroom side-by-side.  Then again, I don't eat raw mushrooms so maybe that's where the difference lies.  If you use baby corn in a can please drain and rinse away the extra sodium.

Combine sesame oil, broth, soy sauce, garlic, and cornstarch.  Set aside.

Start with the carrots.  We're going to julienne these, or turn them into thin matchsticks.  Begin by cutting off a thin sliver from the side of the carrot to create a stable base to set it on.  Cut off the ends.  Cut the carrot into halves or thirds so you have roughly 2-3" lengths.  Cut down each piece lengthwise so you have long planks.  Cut each plank into matchsticks.  Set aside.

Do the same with the red pepper.  See the last recipe for full instructions on seeding and cutting into planks.  Cut the planks into matchsticks and set aside.

Cut the stems off your mushrooms if they're dark or woody.  Slice them and set aside.

I like to separate broccoli into two parts, the green froofy part and the stalk, and treat each as a separate vegetable.  Chop or separate the froofy part into bite-sized florets.  Cut off the bottom woody part of the stalk and peel using a vegetable peeler.  You can eat the leaves so don't worry if you get a few in your stir-fry.  Now cut the stalk into planks and then matchsticks.  Set aside.

Not much you need to do with baby corn except drain and rinse.

Bok choy kind of looks and tastes like a cross between celery and lettuce.  Cut off the root end and chop the whole head crosswise.

To julienne zucchini, shave a little bit off the bottom like you did for your carrot so it doesn't roll around on you.  Slice off the ends, then slice downwards into planks.  Planks into matchsticks.

If you're using frozen edamame, microwave until they're defrosted.  De-shell if necessary.

If your snow peas have stringy ends on them, cut them off.  You probably won't need to since they're so tender.

Please tell me you're using fresh bean sprouts, not canned.  Rinse them very well.  If you're using canned, please note that they will make this whole dish taste like cheap canned chow mein.  That is so not what we're going for here.

Trim the tops of your green onions to get rid of any discolored or dry spots.  Trim off the root but leave as much of the white part as possible.  Slice them (on the diagonal if you're feeling fancy) into 2" lengths all the way down to the white end.

Veggies are ready!  Make sure your noodles are done and drained before you go any further.

Heat a wok or the biggest frying pan you have over medium-high heat.  Put 2 Tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil in there and swirl it around to coat.  Stir-fry the vegetables in the order listed above, one at a time, until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.

Push off to the side and stir-fry your protein until cooked.  Alternately, if your wok or pan is too small for this, you can cook the protein before the veggies, remove, and return it to the pan with the noodles.

Add noodles and sauce.  Stir everything around until sauce begins to boil, then lower heat and simmer until thick, about 5 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  You can garnish with additional chopped green onions and crushed red pepper if you like.

Week 2 Links: 2.1 - 2.2 - 2.3 - 2.4

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Real Food Boot Camp: Week 2 - Roasted Vegetable and Fish Tacos

Hopefully you have a sharp chef's knife now.  You're going to need it.  Before you do anything you need to learn how to hold the knife.  Go here and look at the picture at the bottom of the page..  It might feel weird at first, especially if you (like me) used to hold your knife with your index finger pointed down the top of the knife.  The correct hold will give you a ton more control and greatly reduce the chances of you cutting off any digits.

Today we'll be making tacos.  If you don't like fish use cooked chicken, shrimp, tofu, seitan, or tempeh.  Read through the entire recipe before you begin.  It looks long but it goes quick.

chef's knife
cutting board
broiler pan
baking sheet/sheet tray/cookie sheet/jelly roll pan (whatever you call it)
cooking spray
aluminum foil
paper towel or tea towel

1 lb white fish such as cod, halibut, walleye, trout, or tilapia (find the best choice here)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
chili powder
cayenne pepper (optional)
salt & pepper
2 medium zucchini
1 large tomato
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 lime
1/2 cup sour cream or crema
1/4 cup cilantro
salsa (optional)
8 taco size flour tortillas

Wash all your vegetables well.  This includes the lime. Spray your baking sheet with cooking spray and set aside.

Start with the bell peppers.  Cut off the tops and bottoms and set aside.  You will now have bell pepper tubes with seeds inside.  Either reach in and yank out the seeds and membranes or stick your knife in and cut them out.  Don't worry about getting every last seed.  They're not going to hurt you.  Stand the tubes up and cut the peppers into thirds or fourths so you end up with planks of pepper.  Cut each plank into sticks 1/2" wide.  (Having trouble gauging 1/2 inch?  The tip of your index finger to the first knuckle is more than likely 1 inch long.)  Then rotate the sticks 90 degrees and chop into 1/2" square pieces.  Dump these unceremoniously onto your baking sheet.

Move on to the onion.  It has an end where the green parts came off (top) and an end with whiskery roots (bottom).  Cut off the top.  Stand the onion on its top so that it's stable and cut the whole thing in half right through the root end.  Now you can easily remove the skin from each half.  Take one half at a time and lay it down with the root end near your non-dominant hand and the cut top end facing your knife hand.  Get down so the onion is at eye level.  You're going to take your knife and hold it parallel to the cutting board.  Slice through the onion halfway up but stop before you go through the root end.  The root is going to hold everything in place while you work.  Now you can stand up again.  Slice the onion from bottom to top (1/2" inch slices), but again don't slice through the root end.  Now make perpendicular slices across the grain (1/2" again) of the onion and voila!  Perfectly uniform chopped onion!  Put the onion with the peppers on your baking sheet.

Now would be a great time to preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

Next we'll deal with the zucchini.  This is going to be cake compared to the onion.  Slice off the top and bottom, cut it in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/2" thick half moons.  These go to the baking sheet.

Garlic time.  Pull the cloves off of the bulb and put them on your cutting board.  Lay your knife on top of one and either pound down with your fist or push down until the clove smushes and cracks.  You can slip the skins off easily now.  Cut each bulb in half, lay the flat surface down, and chop the garlic into a not-so-fine mince.  Onto the baking sheet with these.

We'll do the tomato last because it goops up the cutting board.  Cut out the core at the top of the tomato using the tip of your knife.  If this scares you, use a paring knife.  You just want to cut out a cone-shaped wedge around the part where the stem comes off. Cut the tomato in half along its equator and use your finger to scoop out the seeds and pulp.  Lay each cut half down on the cutting board.  We're going to cut it into slices similar to how we made that first cut into the onion so get down so you're eye level with the tomato.  With your hand on top of the tomato and your knife parallel to the cutting board make 1/2" slices up the tomato starting from the bottom.  Slice all the way through.  Now you have tomato planks, more or less.  Cut each plank into 1/2" sticks and each stick into 1/2" pieces.  I know the tomato is irregular and squishy.  Just do your best here.  These go onto the baking sheet.

Now drizzle about two tablespoons of oil over everything on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle with a hearty pinch of salt and pepper.  Use your hands and mix everything together so the veggies are all coated with oil.  Arrange everything to take up the entire pan in a single layer if possible.  Put this in the oven and set your timer for 15 minutes.

Wipe the tomato goo off your cutting board and dry.

Pick or cut off a 1/4 cup of cilantro leaves.  You can have some of the top part of the cilantro stems in there without it being woody and overpowering so don't worry about it.  Give the cilantro a rough chop.  Put them in a smallish bowl with 1/2 cup of sour cream and the juice from half of the lime.  Stir and let it sit so the flavors marry.  Cut the other half of the lime into wedges.

Stir the veggies after 15 minutes.

Set your timer for 10 minutes.

Prepare the fish by drying the fillets off with some paper towel.  Brush each side with a little bit of oil.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides.  Sprinkle each side with cumin, chili powder, a bit of oregano, and cayenne if using.  Spray a broiler pan with cooking spray and place fish on it.

Wrap your tortillas in aluminum foil and set aside.

When your veggie timer goes off check and see if you can stick a fork into a piece of pepper.  Things should be crisp-tender.  If it's too much on the crisp side keep checking every five minutes until done.  Once those are done take them out and set them aside for a minute.  Crank up your broiler.  While that gets nice and hot move the veggies into a serving bowl and cover loosely with foil.

Put your foil tortilla package into the main part of the oven.

Put the fish under the broiler and set the timer for five minutes.  Flip the fish over and set your timer for three minutes.  Check the fish every minute after that because when things go bad in a broiler, they go bad fast.  Now is not the time to wander into the other room to watch TV or check your email.  You're looking for completely opaque fish that flakes easily with a fork and has clear juices.

Pull the fish out, cut into pieces or strips, and serve on warm tortillas with the veggies, sour cream, lime wedges, and salsa if you insist.

Leftovers Idea:
If you have leftover veggies, put them into some eggs in the morning.

Week 2 Links: 2.1 - 2.2 - 2.3 - 2.4

Photo credits: 
Cored Tomato: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Monday, May 17, 2010

RFBC: Week 2 - Basic Skills For Life

I think that a big hurdle for people to overcome when they claim they can't cook is some basic skills that seem scary but are actually simple and absolutely essential.  The biggest of these basic things is knife skills.  Theoretically you can go to the grocery store and get pre-cut veggies and meats from the salad bar or pre-packaged and pre-cut stuff from the produce section, but that is wasteful (packaging!), expensive, and severely limits your options. 

Photo by pstuifzand on Flickr
It's time to learn how to use those knives.  Even if your knives are hand-me-downs from your college days.

There's a little homework involved here.  It's boot camp, remember?  Time to get up and take some action if you want to change your life.  First, go to your kitchen and grab your biggest knife that isn't a cleaver (you have a cleaver?  Scary).  You should have either a chef's knife or a santoku.  If you don't have either one of these, you will need to get one.  You will use this knife more than any other knife in your kitchen.  I personally recommend going with a chef's knife that is at least 8" long, preferably 10".  If you really don't have a ton of money to run out and pick up a Wusthof or Henckels or whatever, go grab one from the dollar store.  Yes, the dollar store.  It will last you about a month and that's enough time to learn.  Of course, it would be best if you could get an actual decent knife that will last you 20-30 years.  If you spend $20 at Target you'll get a pretty OK knife for the money.  And for the love of dog, don't buy anything from an infomercial or door-to-door salesperson.

OK.  So you have your chef's knife.  You might want to pick up a paring knife too if the size of the knife intimidates you.  You can get a nice one or you can get a three-pack at the grocery store.  Whatever.

Eventually you'll want a serrated bread knife too.  Since you can't sharpen a serrated blade it's OK to go lower end on these because you just have to replace them when they get dull.  These three knives are all you really need.

Do you already have a chef's knife?  Let me guess -- it's so dull you just end up smashing or tearing whatever you're trying to cut.  Yup, you and almost everyone in America.  So your homework is to find a place to get it sharpened.  You don't have to spend a bunch of money on this; in fact it'll probably be free.  Here in the Twin Cities there is a chain of grocery stores called Lunds and Byerlys who sharpen knives for free overnight at the meat counter.  It wouldn't hurt to ask your local butcher or meat counter if they'd sharpen yours for you.  If you're coming up dry there, go to Google Maps and type "knife sharpening near Minneapolis" or wherever you live.  Without the quotes, of course.

Do not skip this step.  You absolutely have to start with a sharp knife if you want to learn how to use it.

Next we'll learn the basics of cutting.  In the meantime, here's the meal plan.  The full plan and shopping list is coming this afternoon.  Here's the full plan with menu, shopping list, and recipes.  Sorry about the delay on this!

Roasted vegetable and fish tacos
Lo mein
BBQ Tofu (or whatever protein) Chopped Salad

Week 2 Links: 2.1 - 2.2 - 2.3 - 2.4

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Friday, May 14, 2010

RFBC: Week 1 - Friday's Meal

Week 1 Info

So far so good?  Here's a super easy one for you.

Spaghetti with spinach and veggie sauce, salad with croutons

spaghetti, preferably whole wheat
spaghetti sauce
olive oil
any other veggies you have laying around, cut into small pieces


1/2 baguette
olive oil
garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

  • Put a big pot of water on for the spaghetti.  If you cover the pot it will heat faster.
  • Lay two layers of paper towels on a plate and set aside.
  • Cut the baguette into cubes.  Toss in a large bowl with 1-2 Tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp garlic powder (more to taste), salt, and pepper.  The bread should just be coated with oil, not dripping.
  • In a large saucepan heat 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add onion and zucchini and saute five minutes.
  • Is your water at a rolling boil yet?  If so, add 1 Tbsp salt and your spaghetti noodles.  Bring it back to a boil, then drop the heat down to a gentle boil.
  • Meanwhile, add the entire jar of spaghetti sauce to the onion and zucchini.  Bring to a simmer and drop the heat so it doesn't splatter all over the place.  Let this simmer while your pasta is cooking and you work on the croutons.
  • Heat a large pan over medium-high heat.  Add the croutons (in batches if necessary) and saute 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until golden brown all over.  Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula onto the paper towels.
  • Drain your pasta when it's done but keep it kind of wet so it doesn't stick.
  • While your pasta waits take the sauce off the heat and add a handful of spinach at a time, adding more as it wilts.
  • Toss the salad with croutons and salad dressing, top with any leftover Parmesan cheese you may have, and enjoy!
Cook 1 lb ground turkey/beef/sausage/crumbled tofu/rehydrated TVP along with the veggies for the sauce.
Just about any kind of veggie can be added to the sauce.  Some things to try would be shredded carrot, celery, bell pepper, eggplant, broccoli, olives.

So how did the first week go?  We've covered burgers, pizza, and spaghetti.  Familiar recipes with a twist.  Next week we'll start learning some knife skills and techniques to make cooking with real food faster and easier.

Week 1 Links: 1.1 - 1.2 - 1.3 - 1.4 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

RFBC: Week 1 - Wednesday's Meal

What the heck is going on here?  What's a RFBC?  Read this.
Week 1 Info  

White Bean and Spinach Pizza, tomato and zucchini saute, Parmesan toast

White Bean and Spinach Pizza

Prep Time:10 min
Start to Finish:30 min
makes:8 servings

1/2 cup sun-dried tomato halves (not oil-packed)
1 can (15 oz) Progresso® cannellini (white kidney) beans or 1 can (15 or 16 oz) great northern beans, drained, rinsed
2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 package (10 oz) prebaked thin Italian pizza crust (12 inch)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 cup firmly packed washed fresh spinach leaves (from 10-oz bag), thinly sliced or torn into small pieces
1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat Colby-Monterey Jack cheese blend or Cheddar cheese (2 oz)
  • Heat oven to 425°F. Pour enough boiling water over dried tomatoes to cover; let stand 10 minutes. Drain. Cut into thin strips; set aside.
  • In food processor, place beans and garlic. Cover; process until smooth. Spread beans over pizza crust. Sprinkle with oregano, tomatoes, spinach and cheese. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.
  • If you don't have a food processor, use a blender and add a tiny bit of water.  Or just mash them by hand with a fork.  It doesn't have to be perfectly smooth!
  • Prepare the Parmesan toast and put it in the oven too.
  • Bake about 10 minutes or until cheese is melted.  Check the toast after five minutes.
  • Prepare Tomato and Zucchini Saute while everything is cooking.
Tomato and Zucchini Saute

1 tomato, chopped
2 zucchinis, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil in a wide pan over medium-high heat.  Add onion and saute three minutes.  Add tomato and zucchini and saute five minutes, or until tender.  Season with salt and pepper.

Parmesan Toast

1/2 baguette
shredded Parmesan cheese

Cut the baguette into slices.  Spread with butter.  Place on a sheet pan and top with cheese.
Bake at 425 degrees 5 minutes or until cheese is browned.

Week 1 Links: 1.1 - 1.2 - 1.3 - 1.4 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Foodblogging: Bibimbap bop bop

Bibimbap is another one of the more popular Korean foods in America.  It's infinitely customizable and can be spectacular or unassuming.  It's one of those "use whatever's about to go bad in the fridge" recipes.  Bibimbap almost always includes bean sprouts but I forgot to pick them up at the store.  This is what I had:

Zucchini, spinach, carrots, and a mushroom medley from the farmer's market.  It appeared to be crimini, portabello, and oyster.

Other inclusions could be tofu, beef (usually cooked with bulgogi sauce), other proteins, beans, lotus root, greens -- whatever.  Got half a jar of artichoke hearts in the back of the fridge?  Sure!  Broccoli on its last day?  Why not?

The basic idea is that you put a bunch of rice in a bowl, top it with your fixings, and crown it with a fried egg.  Korea is indeed the land of comfort food. 

It's best to leave the yolk a bit runny... when you mix everything together it coats the hot veggies and rice and finishes cooking...

...and then you finish it off with a splort of gochujang, sesame oil and some sesame seeds.

It's as cheap as you want it to be, filling, and delicious.  I made enough for lunches the next day but instead of over easy eggs (mmm...lunchtime salmonella!) I made a big rolled omelette with two eggs and a little water and chopped it into pieces.

Korean Mixed Vegetables and Rice (Bibimbap) Recipe

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 70 minutes

2 cups medium-grain Korean (or Japanese) rice
1 large cucumber, sliced into thin strips
1.5 cups bean sprouts, parboiled and squeezed of excess water
1.5 cups spinach, parboiled and squeezed of excess water (3/4 lb before cooking)
2 carrots, julienned
4 shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated if dried and then sliced
1 zucchini, sliced into thin strips
1/2 lb meat (optional, both and cooked ground meat work well)
Fried egg as a topping (optional)
2 Tbsp sesame oil
Sesame seeds

Cook rice in rice cooker or on the stove.
Give cucumber strips a saltwater bath for 20 minutes and then drain.
Season spinach with 2 tsp sesame oil, 1 tsp salt, and a dash of sesame seeds.
Season bean sprouts with 2 tsp sesame oil, 1 tsp salt, and a dash of sesame seeds.
Sauté carrots with a dash of salt.
Sauté mushrooms with a dash of salt.
Sauté zucchini with a dash of salt.
Place cooked rice in large bowl and arrange vegetables on top.
If desired, beef or egg can be placed in the center.
Serve each with small bowls of red pepper paste (kochujang) and sesame oil.
To eat, add a small amount of oil and desired amount of red pepper paste to your bowl and mix everything together with a spoon.
(Serves 4)

Monday, May 10, 2010

RFBC: Week 1 - Monday's Meal

Week 1 Info

I realize that I'm posting everything today so there wasn't exactly time to plan if you wanted to get started right away.  You don't have to eat this tonight... eat it later or use it as an example of the simple things that everyone is capable of cooking.  Check out the week 1 file to see how you can prepare for this meal and the two other meals this week.

Veggie Burger Pitas, french fries, sliced apple

Veggie Burger Pitas

Prep Time:10 min
Start to Finish:25 min
makes:4 sandwiches

1 package (12.8 oz) frozen vegetarian burgers (4 burgers)
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 medium onion, cut into thin slices
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (3 oz)
Cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 pita breads (6 inches in diameter), cut in half to form pockets
4 leaves red leaf lettuce

2 tablespoons fat-free mayonnaise or salad dressing
2 tablespoons fat-free sour cream
1 tablespoon chopped cucumber
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill weed or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed

Heat oven to 450°F. Spray 15x10x1-inch pan with cooking spray. Place burgers on one side of pan. Place bell pepper, onion and mushrooms on other side of pan. Spray vegetables with cooking spray for about 3 seconds; sprinkle with seasoned salt.

On another pan arrange your french fries.  Put both pans in the oven together.

Bake 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from pan. Turn burgers and vegetables; bake 5 to 8 minutes longer or until vegetables are tender and burgers are hot.  The fries may need more or less time; keep an eye on them.

Core and slice your apples while everything is cooking.

In small bowl, mix topping ingredients. Spread topping on insides of pita bread halves. Fill each pita bread half with lettuce, burger and vegetables.

I know what you're thinking.  Veggie burgers?  Frozen french fries?  Aren't those convenience foods?  Yes, but we're doing baby steps, remember?  As you learn more cooking techniques we'll be adding in more and more fresh food.  This menu is an exercise in preparation and juggling three meal components at once.

Week 1 Links: 1.1 - 1.2 - 1.3 - 1.4 

RFBC: Week 1 - Pantry Raid - The Big Box O' Crap

Welcome to the Real Food Boot Camp!  *checks Feedburner*  Hey, 19 RSS subscribers!  Thanks for subscribing, by the way.  Even if you're a bot.  That's OK, because robots need love too.

This week I'd like to talk about your pantry.  If you're like a lot of people you've either got it stuffed with convenience foods or it's nearly empty.

Convenience food out
If you've got one of those empty pantries, you don't have to worry about this.  The rest of you, I want you to go find a box or a bag or something roomy enough to hold all the crap food in your pantry.  Don't worry, we're not purging yet.  We're doing baby steps here.  Take out what you would normally eat for dinner tonight and put it in your container.  Be honest.  Were you going to make tacos with that Old El Paso kit and serve them with that box of Rice-a-Roni and a pitcher of Crystal Light?  Then maybe finish with a boxed cake mix or some pudding?  Put all this stuff into that box/bag.  Now put the box/bag in your basement or a closet.

Fresh food in
This week it would be easier if you would follow the plan exactly.  If you don't want to that's fine -- just please don't replace crap with crap.  Time to go shopping! I'm going to give you three recipes to incorporate into this week.  They're all easy enough for anyone to make.  They're all meatless so feel free to add the protein of your choice.
Download the menu, shopping list, and recipes here.

Recipes anyone can make
This week's recipes are:
Veggie Burger Pitas, french fries, sliced apple
White Bean and Spinach Pizza, tomato and zucchini saute, parmesan toast
Spaghetti with spinach and veggie sauce, salad with croutons

The recipes are all in the main file but I'll post each recipe each morning it's planned.

If you have any questions on methods or substitutions, let me know!

Week 1 Links: 1.1 - 1.2 - 1.3 - 1.4

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Real Food Boot Camp

I've got a couple of friends (OK, more than a couple) who say they want to eat healthier but they
 A) don't know how to cook, B) don't know anything about food, C) don't have time to cook, and D) think they can't afford to eat better.  So I've been thinking about coming up with a (gentle) boot camp series of blog posts to see if I could help out even a little bit.

We all have to start somewhere when it comes to cooking.  I'm a big fan of the Couch to 5K running program which does exactly what it implies -- 9 weeks of baby steps to get anyone running a 5K.  Sometimes when you look at a cookbook, online recipes, magazine and newspaper articles, and TV reports about how we're all fat, lazy, and killing ourselves with processed food, it's easy to get overwhelmed and just go right back to that box of mac and cheese in the cupboard.  It's easy to say "I'll start tomorrow" to anything in life, but when it comes to your health let's face it -- there may not be a tomorrow for some people.  So why not change people's perceptions of cooking with real food through baby steps?

I don't want to throw around a whole ton of scientific articles and info about the nuts and bolts of nutrition.  My plan is a series of simple steps once, maybe twice a week to tip the scale from mostly convenience food to mostly fresh food.  I'm not any kind of expert.  I'm not a nutritionist, doctor, fitness expert, or chef.  I'm just a busy wife and mom who works full time and tries to keep her family healthy.

Would this help you?  Do you know anyone who might benefit from this?

Ready?  Go straight to Week 1 or see all RFBC posts so far.

Pantry raid: the big box o' crap
     Convenience food out
     Fresh food in
     Recipes anyone can make
Knife skills
     Mise en place
Kitchen tools
Food storage
Convenience foods that won't kill you quite as fast
Reading labels
     Corn everywhere
Freezer staples
     Cubes: egg whites, herbs, compound butter, tomato paste
Pantry staples
     Pasta and grains
     Beans and legumes
     Oils and vinegars
     When canned veggies will do
Menu planning
     Your "usuals"
     Planning snacks
     When all else fails, copy someone else
Soups and salads
     No sweat big batch cooking
Eating the rainbow
     Snacks too
Stepping outside of your culinary comfort zone
     Discovering new cuisines
     Discovering new flavors
     Vegetables you thought you didn't like
     Where the flavor at
     How to pair flavors
Budget foods
     Bulk bins
     Farmers markets and farmstands
     Ethnic markets - field trip time!
     Co-ops (really!)
Finding recipes
     The library
     The Internet
     The newspaper
     Winging it
Real vs. fake foods (the truth about butter)
Incorporating exercise
Feeding the entire family
     Baby food
     Kid food

Ready?  Go straight to Week 1 or see all RFBC posts so far. 

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mama Thursday: Walking, sorta

Lily has been taking more and more steps lately.  She's up to six or seven in a row now.  It's still easier for her to beg Mama to pick her up and carry her around right now.  She points in the direction she wants to go (usually outside).  It's a fun game where Mama's back starts to spasm.

I'm still making Lily's food.  Sometimes it's something simple, like a mixed grain cereal with pureed veggies and some cheese mixed in, and sometimes I do a little deconstructed baby bento:

Top row: black beans, turnip and mushroom casserole, hard boiled egg
Bottom row: grated carrot, avocado, mixed berries (her favorite!)

She's been getting a lot more big people food but a lot of it comes right back out the back end in almost the same state it goes in the top.  So we might go back to more pureed stuff for a while.

She sort of figured out the cup a few weeks ago but isn't crazy about it.  She isn't crazy about cold cow's milk, either.  I don't blame her.

She tries to take the milk out by hand at first.
She gets it...
She doesn't know about this cold milk business.
Mama's smiling so it must be good!

We have to strategically place all our tissue boxes in childproof areas because if I leave her alone with one within reach she does this:

Monday, May 03, 2010

Foodblogging: Derby OM NOM OMG NOM

Saturday was the Kentucky Derby.  Husband and I have made a bit of a tradition out of watching it even though neither of us really know much about the sport and we don't gamble (and I'm not super crazy about the horse whipping).  One of these days we'll actually go there and I will wear a giant silly hat and we'll get drunk on mint juleps with all the other drunk silly hat wearers in the middle of the track.  Until then we'll be making juleps at home and watching the two minutes of craziness on TV.

This year I decided to go all out and make traditional Kentucky food.  I went here and made a menu:
Benedictine sandwiches
Hot Brown
Cheese Garlic Grits
Collard greens
Derby Pie

I didn't take any pictures because we ate it all so damn fast.  I've got some notes to share if you want to do this yourself:
  • Benedictine: holy crap this is good. 
  • Hot Brown: the "sauce" is more of a "glop."  It could have used some time under the broiler to really get brown but we were hungry.  I made this in a 9" round glass pie dish because we don't have those cute single-serving gratin dishes.  Instead of whole bacon slices I crumbled bacon over the top.
  • Cheese Garlic Grits: I think 12 ounces of cheese was a bit much.  Probably could have gotten away with 8.  But it was gooooood.
  • Collard greens: I made these the way I usually make greens.  I cooked the bacon for the Hot Brown in a big pan and took about half of the drippings out when it was done.  I gently cooked four cloves of chopped garlic in the bacon grease, then sauteed the greens for a few minutes.  I put a half cup of water in the pan, put the lid on, and let them soften up until they were tender.  Salt, pepper, and crumbled bacon on top.
  • Derby Pie: I have been forbidden from making this again.  It was that good. 
This was not a low calorie meal.