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SuperFoods

I love to read.  I love food.  So, every once in a while I read a book about food.  Not just a cookbook (although I do read those like books too), but an actual book about food.  Now I know you are thinking that there is no way a food book is going to hold your attention or be a good read. I thought so too, but I was wrong.

A few years ago my good friend Cathlin and I were talking about reading material as we have very similar taste in books.  Since she knows that I have an interest in good and healthy food and recipes she suggested that I read Superfoods Rx by Dr. Steven Pratt and Dr. Kathy Mathews.  Based on her suggestion I purchased the book.  I immediately flipped though it and did not see any pretty pictures of beautiful recipe creations and was skeptical.  Luckily I gave it a chance and am so happy that I did!

The premise of the book is that eating certain foods can actually improve your health and increase your longevity.  The authors calls these foods SuperFoods.  I loved this premise as we are so often told of the foods we should not be eating.  It was refreshing to hear about the foods we should be eating.  I also like that they specifically state that anyone at any age can benefit from eating these SuperFoods.  Even if you have never made these foods part of your diet, you can still benefit by adding them at any point in your life.

In the book Dr. Pratt cites personal examples where he has seen food dramatically improve quality of life and decrease disease.  He also cites loads of research demonstrating that by making these foods part of your diet, you can actually change the course of your biochemistry, can prevent all kinds of diseases and can even improve longevity.  He talks about micronutrients, phytonutrients, flavonoids, antioxidants and more.  The best part is that he explains all of this in layman’s terms.   It is not overly scientific, but he does give evidence to back up his points.

In addition to going into detail on each of his fourteen SuperFoods and their health benefits, he also gives substitutes in case you do not like a particular SuperFood.  For example, if you do not like tomatoes he suggests other lycopene rich foods such as watermelon or red grapefruit.  If you do not like spinach he suggests other leafy greens.

Another nice feature is that there are recipes featuring SuperFoods from acclaimed Chef Michel Stroot of the Golden Door Spa.  Some of them are easy enough for even a novice cook to follow and are delicious!  In addition the book provides shopping lists and supplement recommendations.

The book was so popular that there was a follow up book published with ten additional SuperFoods.  Overall, I think SuperFoods Rx is an easy read, extremely interesting, practical and helpful to anyone who would like to lead a healthy lifestyle.  I have seen prices ranging from $8 to $15 so it is a bargain as well!  If you are looking for the list of the fourteen SuperFoods they are listed below.  To know why they are SuperFoods you need to read the book 🙂

Beans • Blueberries • Broccoli • Oats • Oranges • Pumpkin • Salmon • Soy • Spinach • Tea — green or black • Tomatoes • Turkey • Walnuts • Yogurt

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Chocolate

In honor of Valentine’s Day next week I thought I would post about one of my favorite topics – chocolate! Although I have a personal opinion that Valentine’s day is a contrived holiday and do not care much for it, I also find it a good excuse to eat some chocolate.  Really, I do not need an excuse to eat chocolate, but if there is a day that lends itself to some choco indulgence then who am I to argue?

As you have probably already gathered, I loooooooovvvveee chocolate!  I never understood people who do not like chocolate.   If milk chocolate is too sweet then you have the option of dark.  If dark is too bitter then try milk!  There are so many brands and ways to prepare this tasty confection that I cannot imagine that someone could not find some kind of chocolate that they would like.

For centuries cultures all over the world have been processing chocolate.  I am not sure who came up with the idea of  harvesting the beans from the cocao tree and adding milk and sugar to it, but whoever it was, they really were a genius – thank you!

I used to believe that chocolate was naturally sweet. I was wrong.  In its raw form it is actually quite bitter.  Chocolate is produced from the beans of the cacao tree.  The cacao beans are dried, cleaned, roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are ground to produce coco mass. The coco mass can be processed into cocoa solids and cocoa butter.  Depending on how the cocoa is processed from there will depend upon what type of chocolate you get.

Dark chocolate – This is made up mostly of cocoa solids.  In Europe they even have stipulations as to how much cocoa solids must be in the chocolate to deem it “dark chocolate” .  This is actually my favorite type of chocolate.  However, that was not always the case.  I used to find it too bitter and much preferred milk chocolate.  Then one day I was watching Dr. Oz talk about the health benefits of dark chocolate and I was intrigued.  Could eating chocolate actually be good for you?  I had to learn more.  I discovered that eating a small amount of dark chocolate often is good for you because it is so rich in flavenoids which act as antioxidants.  This was music to my ears!  I then made a concerted effort to eat dark chocolate as opposed to other types of chocolates and I gradually became used to the more bitter taste.  Nowadays unless I am eating really good milk chocolate I am finding that I actually prefer the dark.

Milk Chocolate – Is a combination of cocoa solids, cocoa butter (or other fat), sugar and a milk product.  This is the most popular type of chocolate consumed in the U.S. today.  Not everyone has gotten on the dark chocolate bandwagon – yet.  Some of my favorite uses for milk chocolate include fondue and eating it in candies and chocolate bars.

White Chocolate –  White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids.  Because there are no cocoa solids many people do not even consider it chocolate. Trivia – the cocoa butter that is in the popular creams that you rub on your dry skin is the same cocoa butter in white chocolate.  I find white chocolate to be very sweet and do not use it often.  Because it is white it can be mixed with different colors  and used in homemade candy making.

Cocoa Powder – Cocoa powder is the cocoa solids without being mixed with fat or sugar.  It is actually low in fat and also has a bitter taste on its own.  The nice thing is that it is very “chocolatey” and is perfect for baking cakes and brownies.  Another great use for cocoa powder – hot chocolate!

A great combination chocolate is semi-sweet chocolate.  It is not as bitter as dark chocolate and not as sweet as milk chocolate.  Whenever I use chocolate chips I use semi-sweet.  This is used in my recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies which is the ultimate cookie!

Nowadays you can find some really impressive chocolates from all over the world in local grocery stores and markets.   My personal favorite is chocolate that comes from Belgium.  I am not sure what they do in Belgium to make their chocolate so good, but whatever it is they need to keep it up!  I really do also love chocolate from all over the world.  There are many terrific artisanal chocolate shops popping up.  Then there are restaurants dedicated to chocolate.  I love Chocolate By The Bald Man which now has locations in a few cities.   Then there are some shops that specialize in some tasty chocolatey treats. One thing I really miss from NYC is the hot chocolate at City Bakery.  If you are ever in The City and want some great hot chocolate this is a place to go.  Of course there is also the famous frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity which is a New York tradition.

Regardless of where you get your chocolate, or what type is your favorite, I think it is a great way to say “I love you” to a person, or yourself and not just on Valentine’s Day 🙂

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Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices play an important role in cooking.  They can make the difference between a totally blah recipe and one that knocks your socks off!   Almost every culture has a distinctive blend of herbs and/or spices that they often use in their food.   I love that herbs and spices can frequently be the telltale sign of the region from where the dish originates from.

There are some people that believe you should only use fresh herbs in your cooking. I disagree in that there are many herbs that have a really nice flavor dried.  Dried herbs also have a much longer shelf life than fresh.  I would 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.  I have a friend who was once making tomato soup.  The recipe called for a quarter cup of fresh basil.  She did not have fresh basil in the house and instead used a quarter cup of dried basil.  It was so bad she had to throw the whole pot of soup away!

Sometimes dried herbs mimic the flavor of the fresh herb closely.  A great example is   rosemary – dried rosemary tastes almost identical to fresh.  On the other hand there are herbs that taste nothing like their fresh form.  A prime example of that is basil whose taste dried is nothing like the fresh herb in my opinion.

For easy, fast and flavorful cooking I think it is important to have a well-stocked pantry with dried herbs and spices.  Unless you use a herb or spice often do not invest in a large jar of it.  Buy a small or medium size as the shelf life is not indefinite, and most recipes call for small amounts.  It is a good idea to clean out your spice cabinet every six months to a year to ensure that your spices and dried herbs stay flavorful.

I love experimenting with different herbs and spices in my cooking.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Spices

Paprika – This spice is made from ground bell peppers or chili peppers.  It is normally a deep red color and can range from mild to hot and from sweet to smoky.  It can be found as a key ingredient in many Eastern European and Spanish recipes. I often use paprika in spice rubs for poultry or fish.  I love the color it adds and the peppery taste.

Cumin – Ground cumin is derived from cumin seeds.  I use both in my recipes.  I use ground cumin in my Tex Mex cooking and very often in Indian/Iraqi foods for spice rubs and in soups and sauces.  Ground cumin has a dry smoky flavor, while the seeds are more mild.  I mostly use the seeds in Indian or Iraqi dishes.

Tumeric – You will often see this spice used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.  It has been known to have anti-bacterial properties and has been investigated for possible benefits for people with dementia and arthritis.  It is bright yellow in color and I caution anyone who uses it to be careful as it stains!  Tumeric can have an almost chaulky taste before it is cooked.  I always put it in early in a recipe so that it has time to cook.  It adds a richness and mild spice to the dish.  I repetedly use Tumeric in my Indian/Iraqi cookery, but because it is so good for you I will experiment and throw it into other types of food preparations as well.  It is an important spice in my chicken soup.

Herbs

Basil – I love fresh basil!  It has such a distinct flavor and sweet aroma. Most people think of basil in Italian cuisine and I am not an exception. I love adding fresh basil to my sauces, making pesto out of it, or pairing it with tomato and mozzarella in a salad or sandwich.  It is a great garnish as well.  Asian basil is also delicious if you can find it.  I think it has a slightly spicy flavor and is used often in Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

I mostly use basil in its fresh form.  As I mentioned above I do not think that dried basil tastes anything like fresh basil; the fresh is SO much better!

Rosemary – is a woody herb with fragrant needle-like leaves.  It is native to the Mediterranean region and is also found a lot in Italian cooking (especially Northern Italian).  The stems are woody so be sure to just use the leaves.  I most often use rosemary with chicken, beef or lamb and in soups, stews and sauces.  I also like adding rosemary to potatoes while roasting them in the oven.  The taste and smell are heavenly! As mentioned above dried rosemary closely resembles fresh to they can be used interchangeable.  Just be sure to use about ¼ of the dried as fresh.

Thyme – This is one of the most versatile herbs that I know of.  Because of that it can be found in a wide variety of cuisines ranging from Spanish to Middle Eastern to Italian foods.  I regularly use thyme with beef, fish and poultry either in marinades or spice rubs.  It is also a key ingredient in many of my soups or sauces.  Dried thyme does not closely resemble fresh thyme, but also has a nice flavor.  The stems are woody and should not be used.

Mint – There is something so refreshing about mint.  Just the smell has been known to increase alertness and energy as well as relieve stress.  I believe it!  It has a very distinctive flavor and is the highlight to my lamb kababs recipe.  It is so versatile it can be found in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian and Indian cuisines. I most often use mint with lamb, in pesto and sauces as well as salads.  The dried version does resemble the fresh version, but I believe the fresh to be much more preferable.

Cilantro – also known as coriander.  This is a fresh herb whose seeds can also be ground into a dried spice.  The fresh leaves, dried seeds and ground powder are often used in Tex Mex, Indian and Middle Eastern cookery.  It is a staple ingredient of most guacamole recipes, including my own.  The fresh stems are very tender and can also be used.  This is a trick I learned from my dad who puts the stems as well as the leaves into soups and curries.  It has a fresh and distinctive flavor and I love it!

Herbs de Provence – This is actually a blend of dried herbs typical to the Provence region of France.  It traditionally contains  savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and lavender.  This is the only herb blend that I buy pre-mixed as I prefer to make my own blends if possible.  The specific proportions of the herbs will depend on the brand you purchase.  I have found some to be better than others so you may have to experiment to find the perfect one for you.  I will use herbs de Provence in spice rubs on fish, poultry and beef.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the spices and herbs that I use.  It is just a sample of the ones that I find most interesting and use the most.  Please share what your favorites are!

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Top 7 Items To Keep In Your Refrigerator

I find that having a well stocked refrigerator can make the difference between a healthy and flavorful meal or snack and pizza delivery or a candy bar.  I usually do one grocery store trip per week to stock up on essentials.  Every once in a while I will stop in to a store on my way home from work to pick up a fresh item like fish or meat, but that does not always happen.   I need to be sure that I have some really good staples in my refrigerator at all times so that I do not fall prey to the temptation of take-out and junk food!

My top picks to keep on hand are versatile in that they can be used to make meals or snacks.  You would be surprised at how many things you can make out of a few simple ingredients.  I originally was going to do my top 5 items, but I could not narrow it down to 5.  Then I was going to do the top 6 items and I still could not narrow it down.  So, I have gone with lucky number 7.  Here are my top 7 items to always keep in the refrigerator:

Yogurt – I normally buy a nonfat or low fat option.  Yogurt is full of healthy probiotics and is a nice option for people who cannot tolerate milk, either because of a protein allergy or lactose intolerance.   It is great with fruit, nuts and cereal for breakfast, in smoothies, or alone as a snack.  I will often throw whatever fruits I have around into a cup along with some ice, yogurt and honey.  I blend with my immersion blender and get a terrific smoothie. If I really want to be decadent I will add peanut butter and/or chocolate.  One of my favorite Indian drinks, lassi, is made with yogurt.  You can also make great dips or sauces with it.

My favorite types to use are either kefir or a Greek yogurt.  Greek yogurt is thick and full of protein.  The mouth-feel is wonderful in that you are eating something rich, creamy and luxurious (even if it is fat free).   Kefir is technically not yogurt, but it is very similar.  Its consistency is more like a thin milk shake.  I alternate between the two types as they are quite different.  I try to use plain yogurt when possible and add my own fruits and sweeteners.  I like to use clover honey, buckwheat honey or agave to sweeten plain yogurt, which can be tart on its own.

Peeled Baby Carrots – I used to think that baby carrots were actually little carrots harvested and peeled.  I then found out that the majority of baby carrots you find in the supermarket are just regular carrots, peeled and cut into the baby carrot shape.  Oh well, regardless of how they get into that shape I love them.  Carrots contain beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body.  They are also a good source of fiber and are super good for you.

Since the peeling is done for you they are a convenience item that you will pay a slightly higher premium for.  I think it is worth it.  Having them peeled and already in a manageable size makes a big difference if you are trying to put together a meal or snack quickly.  I will often eat them plain or dip them in hummus for a healthy snack.  I chop them up and put them into salads or soups and stews all the time.  I also love anything with crunch factor and these are perfect!

Pre-Washed Baby Spinach – The baby spinach is much more tender than regular spinach and you can easily eat the stems.  There was a reason that Popeye ate his spinach.  It is full of vitamins A, C, E, K, lutein, calcium and folic acid, just to name a few!  Other than being very good for you it can also be used in a variety of dishes. I will use it cold in salads, sautéed with olive oil and garlic as a side dish, in omelets or stirred into soups or sauces.

Since the washing is done for you, you will also pay a higher price.  I still think it is worth it. Spinach can be gritty and full of dirt.  Having the cleaning done for you can save a lot of time and mean the difference between getting healthy food on the table or picking up a take-out menu.

Hummus – Traditionally made with chickpeas and tahini, hummus is a Middle Eastern dip or spread.  It is full of protein, vitamin C and Iron.  It is delicious and comes in an assortment of flavors.  I used to only find the traditional hummus in the grocery store.  I now see dozens of varieties ranging from artichoke and spinach to roasted red pepper to olive.  My personal favorites are sun dried tomato and roasted garlic.  The good news is that there are so many types you will never get bored with it.

It is a perfect dip for cut up veggies, crackers or pita.  It can also be used as a spread on sandwiches or as an accompaniment to meat or chicken.  If you have never tried it before you must!

Eggs – There is no need to just eat them for breakfast.  They also make an excellent lunch or quick dinner.   They are a very good source of protein and vitamins A, B, D and E.

You will see a lot of egg recipes from me.  I make awesome scrambled eggs (if I do say so myself), dozens of types of omelets and frittatas.  I have THE BEST quiche recipe ever (coming soon!)  I really like entertaining for brunch and I always serve some type of egg dish.  I also keep hard boiled eggs on hand to make into egg salad (another great and easy recipe) or add into salad to bump up the protein.

Tortillas – They are traditionally Mexican but have been part of main stream culture for a while.  They used to only be made out of corn or flour.  Nowadays you can find them made from whole grains and they come in a variety of flavors.  Tortillas are a really good convenience item because they are so versatile.  I can use them in any meal of the day.  They can be made into breakfast burritos in the morning, wraps for lunch or dinner and quesadillas for a meal or snack.  If you want a really healthy lunch you can make a wrap with hummus, baby spinach, other veggies and/or protein and serve baby carrots on the side 🙂

Cheese – I saved the best for last!  I L.O.V.E. cheese.  All types of cheeses. I do not discriminate.  I plan to do a  posting soon dedicated solely to cheese.   I love it so much.  You get the picture.  Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein.  There are so many different types that I can have a different kind on hand each week and never get bored.

I always have some kind of cheese in my refrigerator.  I often use cheese with eggs in omelets, frittatas and quiches.  I eat pieces of cheese with whole grain crackers or veggies as a snack.  I make cheese sandwiches, grilled cheese and quesadillas.  It is the perfect topping for pasta and home-made pizzas.

So, there you have it.  My top 7 picks for the refrigerator.  I would love to hear what you think of the list and also what are the top items in your refrigerator!

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Kitchen Gadgets

I have to start off by saying that I am incredibly appreciative for all the encouragement and great feedback I have been receiving since launching this blog!  The response has been overwhelming and I am so thankful.  I hope that there are lots of people out there making chicken soup and enjoying this week’s recipe.

In addition to posting recipes I plan to also share my thoughts on a food related theme each week.  I do hope that people come to the site for the recipes.  But I also know that there are literally hundreds of web sites and blogs where you can find recipes.  I want this blog to also be a place where I can share some insights as a busy home cook and food enthusiast.  Topics will range from food book reviews, to the essentials for your pantry, to cheese.

I actually do not think that kitchen gadgets are needed to be a successful cook.  For many years I did not have any gadgets at all and did just fine.  That being said I have a few favorites that you will hear me mention often in my recipes.  There are two requirements for making this list.  First, it has to be inexpensive.  Each item I picked was under $50.  Second, it has to not take up a lot of space.  For someone that loves to cook I have never really had a big and luxurious kitchen.   I started cooking in earnest in my first college apartment in Boston.  It was a tiny alley kitchen with a junior sized refrigerator and stove.  I then moved to New York City where my first kitchen was not much bigger than a postage stamp.  Cabinet space was at a premium.  Like most students and first time New Yorkers I did not have extra money to invest in fancy kitchen equipment.  So, large food processors and Kitchen Aid mixers were just not in the budget nor was there any space for them.

Immersion Blender$30 to $40 (there are more expensive models, but at this price range you can find a really good quality blender)

This is a hand held blender that has a long handle and a sharp blade at the bottom.  You insert the blender into a liquid mixture, press a button, and it will blend or puree the food in the container it is being prepared.  This is a great tool for making smoothies (I have a few great recipes that I will share), pureed soups and sauces.  I have seen many recipes where you make a soup and then have to transfer the hot liquid in batches into a food processor or blender in order to puree it.  This can be awkward, time consuming, messy and requires a large and/or expensive piece of equipment.  There is also another item for you to clean up.  The best part of using the immersion blender is that you do not have to transfer your food.  You simply stick the blender into the container you are cooking in and blend away.  I will often put ingredients for a smoothie or milk shake into a tall glass and use the immersion blender to create the drink in the glass you are serving it in.  It is really quick and clean up is a breeze!  My only tip is to be sure that your liquid level comes well over the blade so there is no splattering.

   Microplane Grater$7 to $15

I have to say that this is probably the one kitchen gadget that has most impacted my cooking.  I love using citrus and was so thrilled when I learned that adding the zest GREATLY enhances the flavor of a recipe.  The essential oils actually live in the skin of the fruit.  You will see many recipes where I use the zest along with the juice.  I also use a lot of ginger in my cooking.  I will often peel large knobs of ginger and keep them in the freezer.  When it comes time to use it I will pull out my handy microplane and use that to grate the frozen ginger.  It is actually grates better frozen.

The microplane design is based on that of a rasp, a woodworking tool. The cutters are very small and sharp.  Aside from using it for citrus zest and ginger, it is great for grating garlic, hard cheeses, nutmeg  and chocolate.

Lemon Squeezer$6 to $12

As I mentioned above I love using citrus juices.  Lemon is probably my favorite. The only problem is that I always end up getting seeds into whatever I am making. I then have to fish them out of my dish, and they can be slippery suckers.  I am sure many of you can relate.  I also have a pet peeve of squeezing a lemon and only getting a drop of juice out of it.  My thinking is that if you are going to spend money on the lemon you want to get the most juice out of it as you can.

To use the squeezer you cut the lemon in half.  You place the cut side down and SQUEEZE.  The seeds stay in the squeezer so there is no fishing tiny lemon seeds out of your recipe.  The mechanical force that is used to push down on the lemon gets more juice than the human hand. This is especially great if you are making something requiring the juice of several lemons.  I think it is brilliant!

Mini Food Processor$40 to $50

I must admit that I actually did receive a fancy, full sized food processor as a wedding gift.  I can also tell you that in the more than seven years I have been married I have only used it twice.  I do not have counter space to keep it out; it is big and bulky and tucked far away in a cabinet.  I do, however, use my mini food processor all the time.  It takes up a small amount of the space and is great for chopping onions extremely fine (a requirement of a few of my recipes), grinding nuts, making small batches of pesto or breadcrumbs.  It is also a fraction of the price of the full sized model.

As with everything else on this site, I welcome feedback on my favorite kitchen gadgets. I would also love to hear what your favorite gadgets are!  Next week I plan to post on the top six items I believe should be in everyone’s refrigerator.  Stay tuned!

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