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Last week I made a salad for my clients. Tuscan Lentil Salad. They asked me for protein-rich, healthy, and low-carb meals.

Since I cook for each client once a week (for the most part), I have to come up with a practical menu where the food is easy to eat straight from the container (on a lunch break at work), and most importantly – easy to reheat later in the week. Usually I put some kind of soup on the menu, like Tomato Bisque with Quinoa, or Creamy Cauliflower Soup with chunks of the veg floating joyfully inside, or another health miracle, my Beet Soup, also known as a liver cleanser. Most of the soups I make are loaded with variety of good stuff while staying very light in the calorie department.

It’s very important that there are fresh vegetables on the menu, but a regular green salad lasts a day. Hence, for my clients I opt for hearty salads that will stay fresh for up to three days. I play with grains like a 6-year old with LEGO blocks. One day it’s Wheat Berry mix, another Quinoa blend, Barley, Farro, you name it. Last week, however, I used a recipe by Julie Daniluk, a Canadian nutritionist and the host of Healthy Gourmet (a TV show) simply because it looked divine.

Photo credit: Julie Daniluk

Click on the photo above to get to the recipe itself.

When I was mixing all the ingredients at my clients’ kitchen, they both peeked over my shoulder and instantly requested a taste of the wonder. Let me just say that it didn’t end on a simple one bite tasting. An entire portion planned for one of the meals later in the week disappeared from the counter. A few minutes later, the husband returned to the kitchen with an empty container in hand, still licking his mouth.

“THAT WAS DELICIOUS.”

The wife only said:

“CAN WE PLEASE HAVE THIS SALAD EVERY WEEK?”

Your wish is my command. The salad became a staple on their menu. I also tested it on Jason and he loved every bite. Well, not the olive bite. I tried so hard to sneak some succulent, delicious olives into his bowl, but his olive detector would not be fooled. There are only few edible things Jason is on non-speaking terms with, and olives just happen to be one of those misfortunate bastards.

Since the Lentil Salad was such a success, I had to give credit where it was due. Julie Daniluk is a walking encyclopedia of food knowledge. Put any type of produce, nut, meat, you name it in front of her eyes and she begins to recite all the attributes of the food like a poem.

I will have you know also that Oprah Winfrey got a whiff of the Healthy Gourmet show, and with no avail had her people load all the goodies up on her new network’s website. Aha, just look at the web address when you visit the show’s web page.

I’ve studied nutrition for my own benefit over the years. However, I never went to school to bring that knowledge up to more comprehensive and organized level. Julie is the reason I started looking into various nutrition programs around the country that offer either the traditional, thus purely scientific approach, or more holistic one that produces life coaches. Keep your fingers crossed!  I’m very excited about this project.

Pst, one more thing. It occurs to me that I have more in common with Julie beyond the affection for healthy and whole foods. Me thinks there’s Polish blood flowing in her veins…

To Be Investigated!

This morning, it wasn’t even 6 yet, I woke up to a strange screeching noise outside our window. At first I thought the stray cats that live around the building are in the middle of another turf war, since it’s a little early for their mating season. A series of whimpers got me confused. Are these quarreling squirrels? Before the sunrise?? They seem too loud and too persistent, unless… they sense an earthquake coming!! That got me out of bed, and with my eyes resenting to open I felt my way to the bathroom.

That’s when Jason’s alarm clock went off and I couldn’t believe it was already 6 AM. I had just fallen asleep, I thought, while those shameless critters are trying to take it away from me. I immediately exchanged notes with Jason on what he thought was making the noise.

“IT’S EITHER SQUIRRELS OR BIRDS. NOT CATS. THEY’RE EITHER FIGHTING OF FUCKING.”

Huh. Birds? How do birds fuck, I wondered, and decided I wasn’t ready to think just yet. Back under the covers I dove, two pillows over my head, and boy, did I try hard to ignore the whinnying and purring that continued outside.

Around 7 o’clock Jason crawled over the bed to kiss me good-bye as he was heading out to work.

Yes, making a hit show that “The Good Wife” is requires both the creative talents of the writers as well as hard work and personal sacrifices of the production and post production team. Jason, being the head of the latter, carries an incredible load of responsibility on his shoulders. And he does not take it lightly.

He headed towards the door, and silence followed. I waited for a few seconds for the sounds of the closing doors behind him. Instead, I heard him tip toe back to the bedroom and whisper:

“BABY, COME. QUICK! SHHH…”

“CAN YOU SEE THEM?” I instantly was on board to find out what was messing with my sleep at this ungodly hour.

“OH, YEAH!”

“ARE THOSE SQUIRRELS?” I breathed out as we approached the wide open door facing our backyard. My eyes scanned the ground, and saw nothing out of ordinary.

“LOOK UP” Jason pointed at the little roof above our neighbor’s Rachel’s front door across the yard from us.

Freezing my half naked self, I glanced in the direction given and was instantly awaken by the view that opened in front of my eyes…

After my initial stupefaction, I collected myself and ran for the camera. The raccoons were fully at it with surprising stamina after about two hours of continuous shagging. They considered us for a moment without losing a beat and went back to their task at hand clearly not impressed by their new audience.

The power of marketing, I thought! When Hallmark announces February The Month of Love, even raccoons comply.

I planned on posting a new recipe today, but suddenly found myself in a pickle. How do I segue from the furry bandits’ forbidden urban loving to my… FORBIDDEN RICE SALAD?  The common ground could be the fact that both myself and the fellow raccoon is an omnivore, and we both find immense pleasure in munching on either berries and greens, or a succulent thigh of a smaller animal, for example.

One of my ever strong guilty pleasures are hearty salads that are obvious for lunch, and brilliant for dinner in the place of heavy meals weighing one down before bed time. Any grain will work here. From quinoa to barley to wheat berries to rice, the sky is the limit. Whether you add greens to the grain, or grain to the greens is up to you. Clearly, the more rice, the more carbs in your plate, but if you’re an active, high-energy creature, you may want to refuel appropriately. We’re all different.

Once in a while I create new dishes from leftovers in my refrigerator. Since, I’ve had a container of cooked wheat berries in my ice-box over the last few days, that’s what I’ve been using in my salads this week. Another time, I pulled out a box of leftover forbidden rice and pondered how to utilize the goods. There was a ripe avocado smiling at me from the counter. Mr. Tomato was no less charming. Skinny cucumber was bored out of its mind in the produce drawer, and spinach threatened to wilt on the spot if not occupied at this instance.

There was no reason to fight, so I gathered the party in a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper, drizzled with good olive oil (the extra virgin kind), and squeezed that sour smile of the lemon’s face all over the bunch. Toss, again, and once more. And get at it.

You’ll love the medley of textures in your mouth. From crunchy rice kernels to creamy avocado bits it all comes together into the most satiating, health-reviving, energy-boosting, and joy-awakening meal. And its simplicity should be encouraging even to the laziest of us. It’s easy to eat right. It’s just a matter of making one’s mind.

Right, Mr. Raccoon?

Bon Appetit!

Last month, when done with all my catering events, I found myself surrounded by an ocean of leftover fresh spinach. I had bought so much of it, turned out, I could fill the bath tub with all that green and sprinkle some more on the floor leading to our bedroom instead of rose petals. Talking about a healthy sex life!

However, since we were to leave first thing the following morning for our Christmas pilgrimage to East Texas, I was left with no choice other than to blanch the green entity in batches and freeze for later. The later came as soon as we returned to LA, when I opened the freezer and an avalanche of frosty green bricks fell out on my feet.

WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I TO DO WITH ALL THIS?

And the cooking fest began. First was Sautéed Spinach With Toasted Pistachios to accompany my Stuffed Chicken Thighs Wrapped in Bacon. (Thank you my buddy Gordon Ramsay for this decadent idea!) Next, I mixed the spinach, having thawed it out earlier (duh!), with shallots, garlic, and ricotta cheese thus turning it into a creamy filling for my Faux Ravioli (the same way I made them here). I made so much of it actually, I later used some of the mixture on Whole Wheat Crepes, folded them in four, and pan fried them into perfectly crispy Sides for my Beet Soup. A bunch of friends that came over for dinner that night saved me from devouring the entire pile by myself, the suckers were that good.

My favorite spinach transformation, however, was the dish I am about to describe, wherein the title-artichokes finally come to play their role.

If you’re one of those people that would die for a dip of an artichoke dip, but every time you allow yourself to indulge you feel awfully guilty, here comes your savior.

With the ever reliable help of my ordinary suspects–pancetta and frozen green peas–that are always in stock in my kitchen, plus a handful of frozen artichoke hearts, shallot, pistachios, tablespoon of mascarpone, salt and pepper, I was able to bring this goodness to life and declare THE END OF THE CALORIE-DENSE AND SOUL-POLLUTING ARTICHOKE DIP ERA.

The dish was ready in 15 minutes, since I was of such mind clarity to let the spinach thaw out the night before in the refrigerator. In a tiny drizzle of blended oil I sautéed some shallots first, added thinly sliced garlic and pancetta. When the fat rendered, I added pistachios, and a bunch of frozen peas and artichokes. Salt and pepper were not forgotten either. Over a slow heat, and under a lid, the veggies came to their senses and asked for Mr. Spinach to join his buddies. Another three minutes of that cuddle party and I was ready to finish the dish with a touch of mascarpone that gently spread its sweet and creamy arms all over the green meadow in the pan. Fold it once, twice, aaaand hop into a bowl. Believe it or not, that was my dinner, and I was fully satiated and content.

Try it. Let’s make the other cheesy and heavy dip retire already. Comfort foods are good especially when they are good for us. And they are good indeed. Oh, how good they are, I tell ya!

Life’s too short for pointless ramblings. Hence, let me get right to it.

This is my second approach to GAZPACHO. Recently, while taking my regular cyber walks among many culinary sites, I’ve stumbled upon a new and wonderfully enticing version of the Spanish Chilled Soup. In fact, within one week I saw three different interpretations of this trendy this year–it seem–flavor blend. I felt challenged and decided to tackle this one myself as well.

Even though I haven’t followed any particular recipe, and all I knew were the two basic ingredients, it’s not incredibly original. Here’s the log of my efforts, nonetheless, and for whatever it’s worth, it’s really E.Z. to make. Take it or leave it.

WATERMELON GAZPACHO:

- 1 sm seedless watermelon

- 3 lrg heirloom tomatoes

- 1 med red bell pepper

- 1 sm red onion

- 2-3 garlic cloves

- zest of 1 lemon

- juice of 1/2 lemon

- 2 tbsp of red wine vinegar

- extra virgin olive oil

- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

- a pinch of cayenne pepper

Cut the watermelon in chunks and remove the rind. DIp the tomatoes in a bowl with boiling water for 30 seconds, remove and push the skin off. Peel the onion and garlic and chop both roughly. Put half of the vegetables into a food processor or a blender (Well, that really depends on the size of your equipment–you may need to do it in three batches.) with a touch of olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning, and whizz away until all is liquified.

Pour the juices through a sieve into a large glass bowl (it should be big enough to contain all the soup), and using a wooden spoon, press as much liquid out of the pulp as possible. Discard the pulp, and continue with the rest of the vegetables and fruits in the same manner. When all juices are separated, check for seasoning and adjust to your liking.

Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and store in a refrigerator for several hours.

I was only able to give you an actual recipe for this refreshing delight, because I made it (up) yesterday. It’s still fresh in my memory, and my mouth is watering for more as I’m typing these letters.

We enjoyed our shots of GAZPACHO with puff pastry that I stuffed with a mixture of cooked potatoes, two different cheeses and caramelized onions. They baked in the oven for 15 minutes. Those hot and comforting buns turned out to be such a wonderful compliment for the chilled and spicy soup with a veil of mild sweetness on the front side of the flavor.

And you wouldn’t believe how satisfying a meal that was.

Bon Appetit!

Remember that scene in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING where the aunt learns that the groom is a vegetarian? No? Here you go, refresh your memory and realize that a carnivorous diet is not only a Greek sentiment.

I grew up eating meat, all kinds of meat, from kielbasa, to ham, to pork chops, to beef goulash. In fact, as a child meat was my favorite type of candy. I was quite proud of my affection towards cooked animal flesh, and many a time I showed off in front of family members by sinking my teeth into a chicken thigh like a hungry Barbarian. I saw approval and joy in my mother’s eyes as between her two kids I was the one who loved to eat. My older brother apparently was on a hunger strike till the day I was born (five years of his life). Then he saw me glued to my mother’s tit like a roll of adhesive tape, and then to anything else that happened to get too close to my mouth, and realized he had to follow the laws of a jungle in order to survive. He learnt to not only chew, but actually to swallow his food.

Later in life, when I began to carve my own judgment about the surrounding world and my position in it, I decided I didn’t like myself, from the way I looked to the way I felt. One thing led to another and suddenly I spent my entire 20s battling eating disorders and fighting my own demons. The struggle was extreme, painful beyond verbal expression, acutely lonely, but also purposeful. I have no regrets for I have found my answers, peace, and balance in life.

It was during that decade when I progressively started to eliminate certain foods from my diet, beginning with sweets and bread, then meat, followed by dairy, and eventually going completely raw.  Traveling to Poland was a torture, as I craved all the foods of my childhood with the intensity of a concentration camp’s survivor. My body was starved for years. And yet my brain would stand guard in front of the plate and forbid me from stealing even a bite. The physical torture I had put upon myself was meant to cover the emotional pains I dealt with. I get that now. It was for me to discover, however, and no one could have done the homework for me.

It is quite clear I was a vegetarian, and then a vegan for all the wrong reasons. My healthy self enjoys meat as much as a leafy vegetable.

Now imagine my enthusiasm and childish joy when I come home to my mom’s culinary fireworks, a fraction of which I described in my previous entry. I forget myself in the pleasure that fills my mouth upon each nibble. I don’t OVER DO it either. I get just enough.

One thing, Jason and I both felt we OD-ed, was meat while traveling through Europe. While such a meat-heavy diet makes a perfect sense in Poland, and other European lands due to their cooler climate, it does not feel natural in Southern California (where we live), which by definition is warm, sunny and abundant with fresh produce. Hence, in order to bring our digestive tracks back to the summer schedule, we chose to go meat free for a month upon returning to Los Angeles.

It’s been almost a week, and thus far I have not had a single meat craving. For a few days we munched on a quinoa salad with orange lentils, peppers, and scallions for lunch. I made a gigantic pot of hearty vegetable soup with white beans and whole-wheat fussily pasta, which is just as satiating as if it contained chunks of chicken. Between the meals, we graze on the grass from the outside lawn and fight over nuts with local squirrels. Then, one rainy morning, I thought of making STUFFED PEPPERS, a novelty in my repertoire.

Before I tell you what and how I did it, I must plug in a disclaimer: I was totally and utterly IMPROVISING. If you decide to follow me, you’re doing it at your own risk.

Here’s what happened. I cooked a cup of wild rice, adding some frozen organic corn towards the end, a whole can of pinto beans (washed and rinsed off), a whole bunch of freshly chopped herbs (dill, parsley, what-have-you), and maybe a half-a-cup of grated Gruyere cheese. I made sure there was enough salt and pepper in it, and then I twisted the flavor with a touch of cayenne, sweet paprika, and ground nutmeg. Why not?

In the meantime, I washed my bell peppers, cut off the tops, emptied their bellies, and turned the oven on at 400°.

You know what happened next. I stuffed the peppers with my rice filling, drizzled the tops with a little bit of olive oil, and shoved the guys into my hot oven. They baked for about 30 minutes until the peppers got slightly wrinkled and softened. However, they were not overcooked and thus kept their shapes.

Two stuffed beauties per capita were MORE than enough for us, and not once did we think of getting a burger for dinner the following day. Also, since it was my virgin STUFFED PEPPER, now I also know that the red one is THE ONE. The best complement to your dish would be a bowl of mixed greens with a lemony dressing, bringing healthy freshness and balancing the heavier tones of the meal.

Bon appétit!

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