Archive | October, 2010

What’s the most appropriate vegetable for Halloween?

31 Oct

Pumpkin, of course!

One of my favorite people, Patti, asked me last week about pumpkin recipes and cooking with fresh pumpkin. I admitted to her that I had never cooked a fresh pumpkin before. I don’t know why, because it’s not difficult — same as cooking a butternut or acorn squash — but the puree in the can is so convenient, it has no added sodium or other ingredients, and I guess I just never thought about it. While at the pumpkin farm last Friday, I picked up four medium “pie pumpkins” to give them a try. This morning I put two of them in a 400-degree oven for an hour and, voila! Roasted fresh pumpkin, ready for a recipe.

In honor of Halloween, I decided to brew up a cauldron of Creamy Pumpkin Soup. Most pumpkin soup recipes lean toward the sweet side with seasonings like brown sugar and cinnamon. Yummy, but I decided to spice it up a bit.

I used fresh pumpkin, but you can substitute a 32-ounce can of pumpkin puree. If you use fresh pumpkin, just roast it in the oven until it’s soft. Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, then scoop the flesh into a food processor and puree it. You need about four pounds of pumpkins to get two pounds of puree. Also, I had planned to season this with dried thyme, but I was out. I ran to the grocery store and grabbed a container of thyme, only to discover at home that it was ground thyme. It’s powdered and has a bit more intense flavor than dried thyme that’s just crumbled. I’ve never seen it before, but the flavor came out nicely.

We’ll be warming our bellies with this soup just before heading out for trick-or-treating tonight.

You can serve this straight up, or you can jazz it up a little. Put some vegan sour cream and a little almond milk in a squeeze bottle and shake it. Then use it to “decorate” your bowl of soup. You can go romantic for a loved one…

or make it spooky and fun for your kids.

Creamy Pumpkin Soup
makes 8 cups

2 tablespoons vegan butter (Earth Balance)
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1 cup apple cider
32 ounces pumpkin puree
1 cup plain almond milk or soymilk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Heat a stock pot over medium heat. Add the butter and allow to melt. Add celery, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in thyme and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir in flour and cook for one minute. Slowly whisk in vegetable broth and apple cider. Increase heat and bring to a boil then reduce heat. Simmer until celery and onion are tender. Whisk in pumpkin. Simmer soup 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the almond milk and cornstarch until smooth. Slowly pour it into the soup while stirring. Add nutmeg. Simmer until soup is thickened. Add more crushed red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Me with my three little monsters!

Gluten Free? And Vegan?!

30 Oct

As you all know, this journey toward normal blood pressure is ongoing and ever-changing for me. I’m willing to try just about anything to find what works for me.

I’ve had more than one person talk to me lately about a gluten-free diet. Basically, this means eliminating wheat, rye and barley from your diet. Every one of them told me how much it changed their life in one way or another. So I did some research and reading, then found a Facebook page of people living without gluten. I posted a question on the Facebook page: “Has anyone lowered their blood pressure by being gluten free?” The responses were overwhelming and every single one said “yes.”

Although I couldn’t find any research online that connected high blood pressure with wheat or gluten, I think I need to give this some serious thought. Can I eat a plant-based diet without wheat? Since I don’t eat meat, I rely pretty heavily on healthy carbs – whole wheat bread, whole wheat tortillas, Triscuits, pasta, etc. I also have a variety of meat substitutes in my freezer for those occasions when I want something like that, but they all contain wheat products. Meal planning will become even more of a challenge and dining out will be nearly impossible unless they have a salad bar.

After much consideration, I decided to look into some of the gluten-free products now available at my grocery store. If I’m going to give up baked goods made with wheat, I have to have something else I can bake with. I found several different gluten-free flours and chose one called Gluten Free Pantry all-purpose flour. It’s a cup-for-cup substitution for wheat flour and is made mostly of rice flour and a few other ingredients. I bought a box. I also bought a loaf of gluten-free vegan bread. Tastes great, but it’s a very dense loaf and the slices are about half the size of normal bread. Not sure what kind of sandwich that would make!

This morning was spent testing this gluten-free flour. I still had canned pumpkin in my fridge from earlier in the week. I used it up by making Pumpkin Chocolate Biscotti with the gluten-free flour. Like the store-bought bread, the biscotti came out much denser than my other recipes. I would definitely consider it a success, though. The taste is wonderful! I can’t wait to make another batch of the chai concentrate (October 19 blog) because these would be perfect dunked in a steamy cup of chai latte.

Pumpkin Chocolate Biscotti
makes 12 biscotti

1-1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chopped, toasted almonds or pecans
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
good dash of cloves
good dash of ginger
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon canola oil
Ener-G Egg Substitute for 1 egg (use package directions)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup mini chocolate chips or chopped vegan chocolate bar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a food processor, add the flours, almonds, cinnamon, baking powder, nutmeg, salt, cloves and ginger. Pulse a few times to blend. In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, pumpkin, oil, egg substitute mixture, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and pulse until a dough forms. Add the chocolate chips and pulse one or two more times to blend them. Dust your hands with flour, then roll the dough into a ball. Shape into log, approximately 2″ wide by 11″ long. Gently flatten the top until it’s about 1″ tall.

Place the log on the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Lower the oven to 300 degrees. Carefully slice the log, on a diagonal, into 12 slices about 1/2″ wide. Remove the parchment paper from the baking sheet and put the slices back on, standing upright. Bake for 15 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.

Cool completely. Mix up a chai latte and enjoy!

A Fun Day Today

29 Oct

But, a busy one. I spent my morning trying to catch up on work because I will spend my afternoon at my kids’ school for their Halloween parties. I’m so looking forward to the weekend so I can get all the things done that fell by the wayside during this week of craziness.

Despite a jam-packed day, I did take the time to make myself a nice lunch. I opened the fridge in hopes of finding some leftovers I could just warm up. No luck. The only leftover in there was cooked spaghetti squash, which I already had yesterday and the day before with my mom’s homemade marinara sauce. I dug around the fridge a little more to see if I could come up with something to do with the spaghetti squash. Hmm…baby portobellos, already sliced. Looks like my answer.

I started with a little olive oil, diced an onion and some garlic, and started sauteeing them with the mushrooms. A little of this and a little of that from the spice rack and pantry, and I came up with a really tasty mushroom mixture to top the reheated squash with. The mushrooms made it meaty, and the rosemary and garlic gave it a very gourmet flavor. Delicious and done in about 15 minutes.

Honestly, I will make this again and again. It was perfect on top of the spaghetti squash, but it’s also a great way to dress up penne pasta, creamy polenta or a big baked potato.

Sauteed Mushrooms with Rosemary and Garlic
serves 4 if used as main dish

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
16 ounces baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
salt and pepper
1 cup Marsala (cooking wine)
2 tablespoons vegan butter (Earth Balance)
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic and saute 5 minutes. Add rosemary and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Continue cooking and stirring until mushrooms are tender and golden brown. Stir in Marsala wine. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the butter until it melts. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir until well blended. Cover and simmer another 2 to 3 minutes so sauce thickens slightly. Taste and add salt or pepper if needed. Remove from heat and stir in chopped Italian parsley. Serve over cooked spaghetti squash, pasta, polenta or baked potatoes. If you aren’t vegan, try sprinkling on some grated Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

It’s school Halloween party time!

28 Oct

And I am running around like a mad woman today trying to get everything done! Ahh, the things we do for our kids…

For kindergarten through third grade, our elementary school does traditional children’s Halloween parties — games, candy, and a parade through the school in their costumes. For fourth, fifth and sixth grade, they have a specific theme that has a “lesson” to it.

Logan’s first grade class is having a traditional party. As the “resident” graphic designer, I was asked to make a poster size witch head so they can play Pin The Wart on the Witch with green circle stickers. I have it illustrated in pencil. Still need to color it in with black marker. They also have a Toss Across game (like tic-tac-toe) and asked me to create Halloween panels to put over the X’s and O’s to make it appropriate for the party. Those are done. Logan’s homemade mummy costume is almost done — I ran out of gauze that I’m hot-gluing onto long johns. I’ll have to finish that tonight.

I usually volunteer to bring a food item to parties. In past years, I’ve made this veggie skeleton that’s always a hit. The head is a small cabbage with the center scooped out and filled with veggie dip. You can make it homemade with sour cream (or silken tofu for a vegan version) mixed with garlic, herbs, fresh parsley, black pepper and salt. I take extra cut-up veggies in a big bag and fill in as the kids take them, so the skeleton always stays somewhat intact until the end.

In fourth grade, they spend a good part of October studying native Americans – their culture, food, clothing, etc. They end this segment with a Harvest Party instead of a Halloween party. They dress in native American costumes (I finished making that this morning). They will cook a traditional native American soup themselves (peeling potatoes, cutting corn off the cob, etc.) and have a whole buffet of food that the kids signed up to bring in. My sweet, thoughtful Brady, knowing that his mom likes to cook, signed up to bring in a pumpkin pie. Do I have it baked? Nope. Am I purchasing it from the Kroger deli? Yup. I know…it goes against all I believe in teaching my kids about food, but I just don’t have the time. Instead, I’ll be spending that time making a werewolf costume for him to wear trick-or-treating on Sunday.

And now, my sixth grader — Madison. They’ve been studying “grossology” — as in all things gross. I won’t go into great detail, but let’s just say it involves a lot of bodily functions and fluids. Ick. Instead of a Halloween party, they have Grossology Day tomorrow where they will dress as mad scientists and conduct all kinds of experiments, I guess. They also have a buffet of “gross” foods. How about some kitty litter cake, appropriately decorated with tootsie rolls? Or a pumpkin carved so that salsa is vomiting from his mouth? Gone are the days of the cute veggie skeleton or bat-shaped cookies! Madison decided she wanted to make Snot On A Stick. I tinted melted white chocolate with green and yellow food coloring until it was snot colored. I dipped 4″ pretzel twists in it and set them on wax paper to harden. Then I drizzled them with more “snot” dangling from a spoon so they would look extra boogery. 🙂 Hey, at least she didn’t pick the cake we saw online of a bunch of rats eating a sawed-off arm!

If you are spending tomorrow at your kids’ school parties, enjoy every minute of it and take lots of pictures. Before you know it, they’ll be heading to junior high where they don’t have parties or wear cute costumes anymore.

Pumpkin Cheesecake for Breakfast?

27 Oct

Okay, super quick blog this morning because I am rapidly running out of time to do everything I have to do this week!

After the delicious pumpkin pancakes we had Saturday morning, I still had half a can of pumpkin puree left that went into the fridge. I didn’t want it to go to waste, but there is no time for baking this week. So I decided to whip up a little pumpkin spiced spread for bagels. My kids’ absolute favorite thing about eating at Panera is the flavored cream cheeses, so I knew this would be a hit. It turned out so tasty my kids are fighting over who gets the last tablespoon of it. After I made it, I asked Madison to scoop it into a Tupperware container for me…only to find her a few minutes later eating it by the spoonful!

I made my version vegan, using a vegan cream cheese, but you can use regular cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese and it will work fine. I made half the batch with chocolate chips and the other half with raisins. I preferred the raisins, but the kids liked the chocolate chips better (of course!). It would also be really good with toasted pecans, but I was out of them.

Vegan Pumpkin Cream Cheese
makes about 1-1/2 cups

8 ounces vegan cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup chocolate chips, raisins or toasted pecans (chopped)

Put all ingredients — except the chocolate chips/raisins/pecans — in a food processor. Process until well blended. Scoop into a storage container and add the chocolate chips, raisins or toasted pecans. Stir well. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Spread on bagels, toast, crackers or even sliced apples. Enjoy!

¿En el humor para la sopa?

26 Oct

That’s Spanish for “in the mood for some soup?” I am! More on that in a bit…

About six months after Brady was born (June 2001), my husband and I decided to make a serious effort to lose the baby weight. My father-in-law had just joined a program through work that included Weight Watchers. To help support him in his endeavor, and to lose weight ourselves, we decided to follow the diet and exercise program without the meetings. We measured our foods, we counted points, and we walked every day with the kids in the stroller. It worked. Both of us lost about 30 pounds in six months! (Sadly, we both put weight back on when baby number three came along.)

In the Weight Watchers program, most vegetables are zero points. This is the key to losing weight on this program. Tons of vegetables means a full belly without using up all your daily points. One of the most filling and satisfying ways to eat vegetables is in soup. So we ate soup. Lots of soup. I would make it for dinner one night and the next day we would both eat the leftovers for lunch. Then the day after that, I’d make another kind of soup for dinner and we’d eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.

I have tons of recipes for every kind of soup imaginable, but there’s one that was always there to save our butts when we didn’t leave ourselves enough points for a big dinner. One day, way back then, I started throwing all kinds of vegetables into a big soup pot with broth. Then I started adding seasonings and came up with a zero point Taco Soup. It was delicious! Lately, I’ve been wishing I had soup in my fridge ready for me to warm up for lunch. Last night, I decided to make a pot of the Taco Soup. Once I got started, I changed things a bit and I think the end result is even better than the original. (It’s now about one-and-a-half points per cup instead of zero, if you happen to be a points counter.) The recipe makes 12 cups but can easily be halved.

I served this for dinner last night and will be devouring it for lunch today. The homemade tortilla chips and chopped cilantro on top are the perfect garnish.

Tortilla Soup
makes 12 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup shredded or sliced carrots
1 large onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small zucchini, shredded or diced
1 cup shredded cabbage
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 cans diced tomatoes with juice
3 cups frozen corn kernels
1 tablespoon Bob’s Cajun Spice Mix (see October 22 post)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper to taste
tortilla chips for garnish

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, onions, green pepper and garlic and saute until carrots are just tender. Add zucchini and cabbage. Stir in the vegetable broth, water and tomato paste until the tomato paste dissolves into the soup. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Stir in the diced tomatoes, corn, Bob’s Cajun Spice Mix and cumin. Continue to simmer for 5 more minutes. Add the black beans and lime juice and stir until beans are heated through. Stir in the cilantro, reserving a tablespoon or two for garnishing. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper. You can also add more of Bob’s Cajun Spice Mix if you want to heat it up even more.

Serve hot with crushed tortilla chips and cilantro on top. Enjoy!

Frozen foods…the busy parent’s answer to “What’s for dinner?”

25 Oct

No, I’m not talking about frozen foods like Lean Cuisine entrees, Totino’s Pizza Rolls or Weight Watchers desserts!

I’m talking about frozen vegetables — the kind in a bag with no other ingredients besides vegetables. They are a great way to get dinner on the table in a hurry. Also, they are usually as nutritious or more nutritious than fresh vegetables in your grocer’s produce section. Fresh vegetables from my backyard garden or the farmer’s market would certainly be my first choice. But fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store have often traveled a thousand miles to get there and have been in the produce section for days, if not weeks. It’s a fact that produce loses nutrients every day after it’s been picked. Plus, they are often harvested too early so they will not be overripe when they get to the store. Frozen vegetables (and fruits) are usually harvested at the peak of ripeness and frozen immediately, before many nutrients are lost, and they don’t have all the sodium of canned vegetables.

They are also convenient for those of us in areas of the country that are too cold to have farmer’s markets all winter. By Christmas, the only thing fresh from around here is winter squash — and even that was probably picked in September or October and has been in storage until the grocer needs it!

I always have frozen vegetables on hand, even during the summer, for busy days when I have only 15 minutes to pull dinner together (which means no time to husk corn or clean green beans). They’re also handy when you open up your fridge and realize you’ve already eaten the fresh veggies that were supposed to last the whole week! Sweet corn kernels, green peas, and chopped broccoli are the ones I regularly have in my freezer. In the winter, though, I add green beans, snow peas, lima beans, Brussels sprouts, and whatever else looks good. I realize they have probably traveled a long way to get to my freezer, but life is busy and sometimes you just have to do what you can do. Besides, they taste a heck of a lot better than trucked-in green beans in the produce section in the middle of February!

You can simply steam or microwave just about any frozen vegetable and toss with vegan butter and seasonings for a quick side dish. They are also perfect for putting together a quick stir fry or vegetable-based soup. Frozen fruits make fantastic smoothies or heat them up and spoon over oatmeal, granola or pancakes.

I was analyzing the contents of my freezer this morning to get ready for today’s grocery shopping, and I came across a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts. I decided to roast them for lunch. They came out of the oven golden brown and slightly crisped on the outside. Then I drizzled them with a balsamic vinegar and maple syrup glaze and topped them with toasted pine nuts. The end result was delicious! I think they could go on the Thanksgiving menu!

Balsamic & Maple-Glazed Brussels Sprouts
makes 4 servings

12-ounce package of frozen Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt, pepper, garlic powder to taste
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Put frozen Brussels sprouts on the baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Toss to coat evenly, then spread them out on the baking sheet. Roast in the oven 15 minutes. Stir the Brussels sprouts and continue to roast for 7 to 10 more minutes or until they are golden brown.

Meanwhile, place pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir until they are lightly toasted, about 4 to 5 minutes.

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the balsamic vinegar and maple syrup. Bring to a boil and stir frequently until the mixture is thickened, about 4 minutes.

To serve, drizzle the roasted Brussels sprouts with the balsamic-maple syrup glaze. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Enjoy!