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Honey, honey

Considering that I have a serious sweet tooth, it is pretty funny that I actually do not really like honey.  I have more of an affinity towards it now than I did as a child, but I still do not really love the stuff.  During Rosh Hashanah dinner as all my friends and family were pouring gobs of honey all over their apples I would dab the smallest ritualistic amount on my apple.  Actually, I still do that to this day.

For the most part, I find the taste to be really floral and overpowering.  Being that I feel this way, most people would be surprised that I use honey all the time.  Honey is actually rich in antioxidants and can be a great natural sweetener.  For me the trick is to use enough for what I am making to be sweet, but not really taste too much like honey.  I often drizzle it over plain yogurt (which really needs a bit of sweetness) with fruit and granola.  I use a bit of it to sweeten my tea and will often substitute it for sugar in baking.  I also really like to use it in vinaigrettes as I find it gives a nice thickness to the dressing. 

The one exception to my rule is buckwheat honey. I love this stuff!   It is very rich in antioxidants and has an earthy, almost molasses taste.  In fact, it tastes nothing like the traditional honey which is probably why I like it so much.  It is so dark and rich that it actually looks like chocolate syrup.  It can be difficult to find as it is not available in all grocery stores.  You can normally find it in a health food store (I buy mine at Whole Foods) or it is easily found online.  Trust me when I tell you it is worth it!

There are pleanty of honeys in your regular grocery store for a reasonable price.  There is clover honey, wildflower honey, orange blossom honey to name a few.  The type is named for the nectar that the bees were drinking when they produced the honey.  Honey is the star of my Stewed Apples A La Mode Drizzled with Buckwheat Honey.  It is a great dessert for any time of the year and nicely highlights the use of honey as a natural sweetener and buckwheat honey as a delicious garnish.

For all of you who will be celebrating the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and dipping your apples in honey next week,  I wish you a happy, sweet and prosperous new year!  L’shana Tova!

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Top Five Items To Keep In Your Freezer

I find that the best way to come up with quick, healthy and easy meals and snacks is to have a well stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer.  I have previously posted my top seven items to keep in your refrigerator.  So, today I am going to talk about the top five items to keep in your freezer.

I would love to say that I only buy fresh produce everyday for the meals I create.   The truth is I have to make a concerted effort to buy fresh produce once a week!  It is important to me that my family gets a good amount of fruits and veggies into their diet.  However, it is not possible for me to continuously shop for these items.  Even when I do have them on hand I never really know that I will be able to use everything I buy before it goes bad.  If there is anything I hate, it is throwing out food!  When I found out that frozen fruits and vegetables are almost as good nutritionally as their fresh counterparts I was sold.

Frozen Fruits – One of the great benefits of frozen fruit is that it is usually picked and frozen at the optimal time in their season.  Many fruits have a short season when they are really good.  Most fruits are not great year round, and if they are great then they are being flown in from half way around the world.  Frozen fruits allow you to enjoy your favorite fruits any time of the year.

My personal favorites are frozen berries and peaches.  I use them in smoothies, crumbles, tarts or sauces.  I also eat them plain with a sprinkle of sugar or served with some frozen yogurt.

Frozen Vegetables – You can pretty much be guaranteed that the vegetables were picked at the height of freshness and frozen.  This is a great thing!  The main reason I love frozen vegetables is because of their convenience.  Sometimes I do not have time to clean and cook the veggies that I want to serve.  This is when I rely on the frozen.  I also prefer frozen vegetables to canned as there is less sodium and no concern for exposure to the chemicals used to line the cans.  You also do not really sacrifice on texture as long as you cook them properly (meaning do not over cook!).

Another positive of frozen vegetables is the price.  They are often a lot less expensive than the fresh.  Frozen spinach is the best bargain around as it takes pounds of fresh spinach to make one box of frozen!

Some of my favorite frozen veggies are asparagus, green beans, edemame, broccoli, peas, corn and spinach.  I use them in side dishes, salads, soups and quiche.  They also can be great steamed and on their own.

Frozen Yogurt – I could eat ice cream every day of the week.  However, that is probably not the best idea for my waist line.  A nice compromise for me is frozen yogurt.  It is lower in fat and calories than regular ice cream and also has all those great cultures.

There are some really good quality frozen yogurts out there that really satisfy my craving for something creamy and delicious.  I like all kinds of flavors, but my favorites are probably anything chocolate or Stoneyfield Farm’s Vanilla.  You can actually see the vanilla bean dots going through the vanilla yogurt!

I will chop up a banana, or peach or throw some berries in the bottom of a bowl and top it with the frozen yogurt.  If I really want to be decadent I will drizzle some buckwheat honey on top and add some chopped nuts.  It is the perfect guilt free sundae! Frozen yogurt is a great snack in the summer when the weather is hot and you just want something cold and creamy.

Veggie Burgers – There are so many great types of veggie burgers on the market today.  Where they were once poor substitutes for a real burger, I really think that they have evolved.  There are some that mimic beef or chicken made of soy proteins.  There are others that are more “veggie” and made up of mostly vegetables.  They are a good source of lean protein and a major convenience food in that they normally take 1 to 2 minutes to heat up in the microwave.  There is always the option to cook them on the grill for a more authentic feel.

My favorites these days are the Bombay Veggie Burgers by Dr. Praeger (they are spiced beautifully!) and the California Veggie Burger from Morningstar Farms.  They have real pieces of avocado in them – yum!  You can serve them on toasted whole grain bread or on a bun for a healthy lunch or dinner.

Vodka – I am not a total lush, but I do like to keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer.  Of course vodka is just fine outside of the freezer, but I really like it ice cold.  Because of the alcohol content you do not have to worry about it freezing.  It is however, the perfect temperature for some celebratory shots, mixed drinks or martinis 🙂

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Super Size Me

I saw Super Size Me about five or six years ago.  It got a lot of press back in 2004 when it was released.  I think it is a great documentary that explores the effects of the fast food industry on the American diet and its corporate influence.  The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

For purposes of the documentary, the film maker Morgan Spurlock, went on a strict fast food diet for 30 days.  He ate three meals a day at McDonlad’s and tried every item on their menu at least once.  If he was offered the “super-size” option for his meal he was required to take it.  At the beginning of the experiment he was checked out by physicians and was told he was in good physical shape.  No red flags or health concerns at all.

During the course of the 30 days, you as the viewer see the deterioration of Morgan’s physical and mental well being.   It was almost painful to watch the healthy guy from the beginning of the movie go through the process as you could see how it was negatively affecting him.  The doctors who were monitoring him as well as his vegan girlfriend (go figure) all urged him to stop the experiment.  He did stop at the end of the month.  At that point he had gained almost 25 pounds, had an unhealthy rise in his cholesterol and experienced psychological and sexual side effects.  In the end it took him 14 months to loose the weight that he gained in those 30 days.

I found the film to be insightful and quite eye opening. I cannot say I was ever a great fan of fast food, but after watching this movie anyone would think twice about going through that drive through again.

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Herbs and Spices – Part 2

I love herbs and spices so much that I decided to write about them again.  As I stated in my past posting herbs and spices important role in cooking.  I personally know that my recipes would not be the same without them.  I do stand by my statement that it is not always necessary to use fresh herbs.  Yes, they are great, but also do not have as long of a shelf life like dried herbs.  Fresh herbs can also  burn or blacken easily which does not always make them ideal for grilling over an open flame or high heat cooking.   I still do not advise switching out fresh herbs for dry in a recipe unless you adjust the measurements.  Most of the time dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor than fresh herbs and not all dried herbs mimic the flavor of fresh herbs and vice versa.  So, you have to be careful when making substitutions.

Spices

Black Pepper – I am actually shocked that I left this off of my original list.  You will probably see black pepper in almost every recipe that I make!  I recently read that it is world’s most traded spice.  I have also seen TV commercials that black pepper is a good source of antioxidants.  I do not know if that is true, but it was on TV so it has to be right, right?

Peppercorns are a small and dried fruit.  They can be used in cooking as the whole peppercorn or ground.  I use both forms, but most often use the ground.  I prefer to buy the whole peppercorns and place them in a pepper grinder so that I can grind it fresh when I need it.  I love the subtle spice that it gives my recipes.  I do warn you that if you use whole peppercorns be sure to fish them out of your food before serving.  If you bite down on one it can be quite an experience!

Cinnamon – This is another favorite.  It has a warm and comforting taste and aroma (think apple pie).  It is actually a spice obtained from the inner bark of the cinnamomum tree.  It can be found as a cinnamon stick or ground.  Depending on what I am using it for will depend on the form I use.  I love cinnamon in both savory and sweet dishes.  I do not bake often, but use it in baking sweet dishes.  I do love Indian and Middle Eastern food and use it often when making those types of cuisine.   I love sprinkling a bit of cinnamon on top of a baked sweet potato or apple.  I also use it as a topping on coffee and hot chocolate.  Yum!

Red Pepper Flakes (aka crushed red pepper) – I am totally my parent’s daughter in that I love spicy food.  They go to restaurants and always ask for chilies with whatever they are getting.  I am not to that extreme, but do like to spice things up in my cooking.  My go to for that is red pepper flakes.  They hit your tongue on a different spot than black pepper and have a sharper heat.  Red pepper flakes are made from various types of dried peppers.  Used in moderation they can add spice to your dish without it being too overwhelming.  Whenever I make a pasta sauce I always start out with some red pepper flakes, and it is a favorite topper on my pizza!

Herbs

Dill – This herb has a very distinctive look and flavor. I love how the delicate fan of leaves looks.  I also love how it tastes and smells.  I find that people either love this herb or hate it.  The aroma totally reminds me of chicken soup whether you are cooking it or not.  It is a staple herb in my husband’s grandmother’s chicken soup.  In addition to using it in soups and stews it is great with chicken, fish and in sauces.

Oregano – I almost always associate this herb with Mediterranean food, specifically Italian and Greek food.  Fresh oregano has a strong and almost floral taste.  It is great in marinades, in sauces and with meat.  It is one of the key herbs in my Lemon Herb Chicken.  Dried oregano has a warm and almost earthy taste.  I do not think it tastes much like its fresh form, but it can be in good spice rubs and also on top of pizza.

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To Be Organic, Or Not To Be

That is the question.  We know that organic foods cost more.  With the rising cost of food, is it worth it to shell out a premium for organic foods?  I believe the answer is yes, sometimes.  Buying all organic is a luxury not everyone can afford.  I would hate for people to stop buying healthy fruits and vegetables just because they are more expensive.  It is of my personal opinion that if you switch some key foods to organic you will be doing yourself, your family and the environment a huge favor.

The benefit of organic produce to the environment means healthier soil that would sustain crops for years to come.  There is a debate on whether or not organic foods are nutritionally superior.  I think it is a trap to assume that just because something is organic that it is healthy.  Fatty organic foods and snacks are still fatty foods!  I think the real benefit from eating organic is to avoid ingesting pesticide residue on foods.  Of course, the USDA does have allowable limits on the pesticide residue on foods, but there is concern that these limits are too liberal.  For anyone who has seen the movie, Food Inc. you would have concerns too.

I believe everyone can benefit from switching a few key items on their shopping list to organic.   If you cannot remember exactly what items to buy organic, a good rule of thumb is to remember that tree fruits, berries, leafy greens and dairy products are the most important items to stick with for your organic shopping.  Items with a thicker skin may not be as important.  For the produce that I do not buy organic I always clean them really well with a wash made especially for cleansing produce.  I would love to buy only locally grown, organic foods, but since that is not practical for me or my family here are my top ten items that I buy organic.

Apples – They are among the most heavily sprayed tree fruits because of the threat of insects and fungus.  Pesticide residue is also found in apple juice and apple sauce so I tend to buy all apple products organic.  You can peel the apple to cut down on the exposure to the pesticides, but then you would be peeling away some of the healthy fiber and nutrients as well.  I find organic apples to have a much better taste and texture than non organic.  They taste more like apples.  I also cannot stand the waxy film they coat non-organic apples with any more.  It never used to bother me, but now that I have switched I can never go back!

Baby Food – I believe it is particularly important for young children and pregnant women to eat organic as children’s immune systems are not as developed as adults.  They could potentially be more sensitive and have more adverse reactions to pesticides.  So, why take a chance?  Buy your babies and young children organic foods.  I am not saying that you need to prepare all of their food from scratch.  There are plenty of really good brands of organic baby food.  One thing that I really like about the organic baby foods as opposed to the non organic is that there are less fillers in them.  You just see the main ingredient and possibly ascorbic acid on the ingredient list of most organic baby foods.  On the non organic foods I saw lots of fillers such as gelatin on the ingredient lists.  Not necessary!

Bell Peppers – All colors of sweet bell peppers are on this list.  They tend to be heavily sprayed and have a thin skin that can easily retain pesticide residue.  You are not going to peel your bell peppers to get the skin off, so it is better to just buy them organic.

Berries – Berries  are always on the list of the most heavily sprayed produce.  The worst offender is probably strawberries, but I try to buy all of my berries organic. Their skin is so thin and permeable.  The residue of pesticides can stay with the fruit no matter how well you wash them.

Celery – This item used to not be on my list until recently.  I found out that non organic celery has traces of over 60 pesticides on them!  Now they are on my list.  To make matters worse they do not have a protective skin on them at all.  I also find the taste far superior in organic celery.  The non organic variety can be almost tasteless at times.

Leafy Greens – This includes all types of lettuce and spinach.  Because their leaves are so tender they easily absorb pesticides.  There is no protective skin on them either.  The traces of over 50 types of pesticide residue can be found on the non organic varieties.

Milk – If you are only going to go with one item on this list, I would make it this one.  It is great if you can buy all organic dairy products.  If that is not practical then definitely at least stick to milk.  Organic milk lacks the traces of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones of non organic milk.  It is of particular concern because it is such a staple in kids diets.

Peaches – They fall in the category of tree fruits.  They are heavily sprayed and over 60 types of pesticide residue can be found on a single pack of peaches.  I add nectarines to this list as well since they are so similar and farmed together often.

Peanut Butter – They are on my list for two reasons.  First, peanuts are the most heavily sprayed nut with pesticides.  Second, this is a staple of many kids diets.  There is a debate as to whether or not the dreaded peanut allergy comes from the pesticides used on peanuts.  I cannot comment on that, but think it is best to go with organic just in case.

Potatoes – More than 35 pesticides have been detected on potatoes.  Even if you peel the potato pesticide residue can still be found on it.  They also make my list because they are a staple on most American dinner tables.

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Food Inc.

Food is my passion.  In addition to loving to cook, I also love to learn all about food.  I am interested in where it comes from, its nutritional value, the best foods to eat, the worst foods to eat, how food is processed in your body, etc.  I read books about food (not just cookbooks) and I watch movies about food.  I have seen a few documentaries about food related topics and they have been very informative and interesting.  Food Inc. is probably the most powerful movie about food that I have ever seen.

I must give a disclaimer – this movie is not for the faint of heart.  You do see animals being slaughtered as a food source.  It is very graphic. If you think this may be an issue for you please do not watch this movie.

That being said, if you can get through those scenes this movie provides an eye opening look at America’s food industry.  It highlights the corporate controlled food chain that is blessed by the USDA and FDA, the very entities that are supposed to police our food supply.  There are some great interviews with food experts and refreshing interviews with some forward thinking people of the industry.  In addition to the interviews, you go behind the scenes of the American chicken, beef and pork industry.  This is where things get ugly (literally).  I admit to having a hard time eating meat after watching this movie.  I have a friend who stopped eating meat all together after watching it.

Not only does the movie highlight the meat industry it also takes a look at the agriculture produced in the U.S of A and the lengths food producers go to in order to lengthen the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.  Harmful E.coli and listeria bacterias are on the rise with tens of thousands of people getting sick or dying from these strains every year.  There is also our environment to think about and the sustainability of our food sources.  This movie draws attention to all of these topics in a very insightful manner.

I am by no means advocating becoming a vegetarian or buying only organic products.  However, I do believe that  it is important to know where your food comes from so that you can make informed decisions on the products you buy, such as buying select organic ingredients or free-range grass fed meats. This is the food we feed ourselves and give to our children.  Knowledge is power and having the public further scrutinize our food industry cannot be a bad thing.

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Kitchen Gadgets – Part 2

Back in January I posted about my favorite kitchen gadgets.  To make my list they had to be inexpensive (under $50) and small (tiny cabinets!).  I really do believe that you do not need gizmos and gadgets to be a successful cook, but I do have some favorites that make life easier.  I love to cook and spend time in the kitchen, but I also have a lot of other important things to take care of in the course of the day.  So, anything to make life easier is great!

I have two new gadgets to add to my previous list of four.  Like the others on my list these are both compact and inexpensive.

Meat Thermometer – I think it is a hostess’s worst nightmare to food poison her guests.  I think it is even more of a nightmare for a mom to food poison her family (G-d forbid).  That is why I think a meat thermometer is a great gadget to have.  You can find them ranging in price anywhere from $10 to $110.  There are hundreds of thermometers on the market.  There are traditional thermometers, digital thermometers and even grill forks with built in thermometers.  I do not think you need to spend a lot of money on this.  You really just want something that is easy to read and accurate.   The one I have is digital and costs $20.  It is great because you are able to definitively tell the internal temperature of whatever you cook.  I really only use this for meat, mostly poultry.  Yes, there are other ways to tell if your food is cooked properly, but it’s nice to know for sure 🙂

The Misto – I love this thing!  It is a spray bottle that uses air to create a mist of whatever oil or vinegar you put in your Misto.  You simply fill it half way with oil, put the cap on and pump, pump, pump.  When you spray you get a fine mist to coat your pan or food.  It is a great tool for healthy cooking in that you are using less oil than pouring from a bottle.  It is a cook’s friend in that you can get a nice even coating on whatever you are cooking without spots of oil collecting in one area. It is non-aerosol so it is better for you and the environment.  Also, it does not have any chemicals or propellants which is important to me.

I use my Misto all the time.  I keep it filled with a good quality olive oil.  I have a friend who keeps a few around – for two or three different oils and vinegars.  I make eggs often and use it to spray my pan before cooking.  It is also great to spray on breads or vegetables before roasting or grilling.  I do not know who thought of this invention, but I am happy they did!

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