Sunday, May 4, 2008

What's for Dinner?

I can still remember those being the first words from my children's mouths when I came home from work. But I always had an answer, even if they didn't especially like it. Somehow, planning the evening meal was something I always did, and way in advance of the time to prepare it.

I spend some time as a "lifestyle" consultant, helping people seeking to live a healthier lifestyle in whatever ways my talents and training allow. It has only recently occurred to me that in this frantic world, too many people, even and sometimes especially those trying to get healthier, just don't plan their evening meals! And apparently, that's when dietary disaster can occur. They may go out for dinner - and really have no idea what they are eating, or choose a convenience food that is loaded with hidden extra calories.

So what are good strategies to avoid these mishaps?

For people employed full time, it must start on the weekend. Take time to put your dinner menus on paper. Look at your week ahead. For nights when you know you'll need an "instant" dinner, plan something to be made ahead after you shop but also consider what you may already have in your freezer that could be a quick meal.

Here's an example: I work until 8 pm every Monday. My husband is willing to wait and have dinner with me when I get home. He'll have a big salad late in the day, and then "get dinner ready." That means I took something from the freezer, that was previously prepared in large quantity but frozen to 2 person portions. He will have it ready for final assembly when I get home. A favorite is spaghetti with meatballs and sausage (recipe to follow). The sauce and meat will be hot, the water will be ready for the pasta, and he'll have prepared a large salad for me when he prepared his own. While I'm eating my salad, the pasta cooks and dinner is on the table 15 min later. There are many dishes like this, I'll feature them over the next several entries.

Meatballs and Sausage Sauce
2 lbs ground beef, the leanest you can find(I can get 93% lean)
2T Parmesan cheese
old (dried out) bread or commercial breadcrumbs(plain or Italian flavored)
1 to 2 T brown mustard
1 egg
3T fresh parsley, snipped
1 T onion powder or more to taste
salt and pepper
Soak the bread ( 2 to 3 small slices, or 1 to 2 old rolls) in warm water. Let it get very soggy, then squeeze out excess moisture. If you are using bread crumbs, use about 3/4 cup and add warm water to make them gooey. Mix either thoroughly with the other ingredients above. The mixture should be very moist, if not, add water or your meatballs will be hard and dry.
Finely chop 1 onion, 2 stalks celery and 1 peeled carrot in a food precessor, or by hand. Heat a little olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan and saute the veggies until soft. Add 4 or 5 cans of crushed tomatoes in puree (buy the cheap ones) and stir well, bring to a simmer. Add 2 T garlic powder (or more, to taste), 1/4 cup dried basil, 2 to 3 T oregano, 3 bay leaves and a shake of parsley.
Put in a heaping tablespoon of sugar, then bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Into the simmerring pot, add small meatballs made from the meat mixture, stirring occasionally and carefully until the meatballs cook and get firm (no, you don't have to brown them). Then add a pound of lean sausage (I prefer Longhini pork sausage, it is quite lean and very good, but may be hard for you to find. Chicken or turkey sausage is fine, but it does need to be tasty). Unless the sausage links are very small, cut them in half before adding to the pot.
Let the pot simmer for an hour or so, then taste. You will probably want to add some salt and pepper, and may more herbs and garlic.
Let simmer a couple more hours, then cool and put the pot in a refrigerator for a day or to to "age." Freeze in portions for your family. For adults with hearty appetites, I allow 2 meatballs and 1 sausage per serving, and lots of sauce to really cover the pasta. If you spot the bay leaves, remove tem.
The active cooking time for this recipe is actually no more than 30 minutes, and you have made several dinners.
It always amazes me when people order meatballs and spaghetti in a restaurant! It is so easy to have at home, and the sauce is way better than most restaurant versions.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Flank Steak

I don't avoid beef, but I'm careful to choose cuts wisely. One cut many people don't know what to do with is flank steak. Relatively inexpensive at $6.99 a pound of almost no waste meat, it is also easy to prepare.

It usually has very little exterior fat, what may be on it can easily be cut off with kitchen scissors. I like to marinate it in barbecue sauce for at least 24 hours, then simply grill it. It is important not to overcook this cut, it will get tough if you do. I like to cook it to medium rare on the thicker end, which means the thinner end will be medium well. Let it rest for a few minutes (remember it will keep cooking), then slice it diagonally. A little A1 or bottled horseradish sauce go nicely. With half the calories per ounce compared to beef tenderloin, it is a wise choice indeed.

Beef. Sometimes it's what's for dinner.

Spring, Glorious Spring

This is the second straight week of true spring weather. Spring often skips us in Connecticut, but not this year. It means my yard clean up is on schedule, and I'm anxious to start planting. I do have some lettuce in the garden, and one pot of Primroses on the deck. This weekend I will buy herbs, and put them in pots on the deck also. Fresh herbs add a lot to summer and fall's harvest.

But the most exciting thing about spring is the bike riding.

My training partner Laura and I have had some delightful rides already. The memory of last fall's very last bike ride, with the lowering sun, incredible fall colors and the visit from the starlings along the way helped me endure cardio workouts in the gym during the winter. The reality of the first ride was true to the sparkling memory of last year. We discovered that we've kept our leg strength and I have maintained a good max heart rate - necessary for biking our hills. Our endurance is increasing with each ride, as we begin training for this year's Danskin Triathlon. And we give thanks for every beautiful spring day we have had to make our riding absolutely glorious.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dinner Tonight

Yes, we probably eat more fish than the average American, but no, there is no meat we totally avoid (I don't consider animal organs meat, we never east those). Very nice looking lamb chops were on sale at the supermarket yesterday so we will be enjoying them tonight. In preparing a meat like chops, the important step is removing the exterior fat. Yes, the butcher tries to tell you its necessary for taste, but that not true! A nice marinade and careful grilling produce tasty results.

This recipe is derived from one in The Best of Bon Apetit. Even people who claim they don’t like lamb enjoy these chops. The ingredients in the marinate remove any "gamy" taste from the chops, and ensure tender results. This works best with thick cut loin chops or thick cut rib chops.

In the blender combine(this will marinate up to 8 chops easily):

2 large cloves of garlic
1 t oregano
¼ c olive oil
1/4 cup sweet wine (sherry, Madeira or Marsala)
¼ c lemon juice
1 medium onion
2 T fresh parsley
2 T fresh mint or 2 t dried.
· Trim the chops of as much outside fat as you can, they will be tender, juicy and flavorful without it.
· Blend ingredients until pureed, pour over chops in a plastic bag, marinate several hours, overnight is best.
· Grill to medium or medium rare or your preferred doneness.
My favorite side dish for lamb chops is roasted potatoes:
Soak red potatoes in water, then scrub the skins and let them dry. Just before cooking, cut the potatoes (skin on) into chunks. Place in a heavy plastic bag and add 2 t. good olive oil. Close the bag and mix the potatoes and oil. Just 2 t of oil will coat up to 6 potatoes. Line a shallow dish with foil. Put the potatoes in the dish, and arrange skin side down, so they will brown nicely. Sprinkle with Kosher salt (regular will not work as well) and some dried rosemary. Cook in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes, until browned and soft inside.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dinner with Girl Friends

Friday night I had a number of "fitness" friends join us for dinner. We had Vodka sauce on penne as the main course, a lightened version that tastes as good as the original. Everyone loved it.

Vodka Sauce
1 onion, finely chopped
1/4 lb prosciutto, chopped
6 oz vodka
10 garlic cloves, chopped or put through a garlic press
2 cans San Marzano Tomatoes, chopped in the food processor, or by hand ( you may use other canned tomatoes, but the flavor of the San Marzanos is superior) or 3 – 4 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled (buy the reduced ones that are over ripe)
8 leaves snipped basil (more if you’d like, I do use extra)
1 t. dried sage (or 1T fresh, snipped)
2 cups fat free half and half
2T fresh snipped parsley, 1 t dried oregano
2 small cans, or 1 medium can tomato paste
8-12 oz. sliced fresh mushrooms, optional

Sauté garlic and onion in olive oil, add prosciutto, mix in and sauté for another 3 minutes. Add the vodka, sauté 3 min, and then light with a long match while stirring. I've never tried omitting this step, but you probably could, just saute the meat a bit longer. After the flames subside, stir in the plum tomatoes, basil, fresh parsley, oregano, sage and pepper to taste. Cook 30 minutes or longer, uncovered most of the time. Add tomato paste and heat through. Add mushrooms (optional) and cook until tender. Add the half and half; do not boil after this addition. Serve over penne for a traditional presentation.
For fancier serving, remove some sauce before adding the half and half and put some of the red sauce on the top of each serving (add some hot sauce to this also, if you’d like).

I also made some foccacia, very easy with store bought pizza dough. Use a pound of purchased dough, spread it in a circle on a baking sheet, or, even better, a pizza stone. Pierce in several places with a fork. Cover it with plastic wrap and then a towel, let it rise for several hours.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush some good extra virgin olive oil on the dough, then sprinkle on some Kosher salt, oregano and rosemary (dried). You may also finely chop a tomato and put it on top also. Bake for about 20 minutes, check it after 15. Let it rest on the counter for a few minutes before cutting it up. Serve with some olive oil and good balsamic vinegar on the side, for dipping.

A nice big salad, with a low fat dressing made the meal complete.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And More Salmon

This poaching mixture is my husband's favorite.

In a bowl, combine:

1/4 cup lite soy sauce (less if its too salty for you)
1/4 rice wine vinegar (it may be in the vinegar or oriental food section)
1/4 cup white wine, chicken broth or water
a few drops sesame oil (just a few, its very flavorful)

Brown the skinless fillet ( for 2) on both sides, put in a dish that just holds it. Add the liquid to the pan to heat it, then pour it over the fish and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes until done. Pour off the cooking liquid and reduce it in the pan. Pour the reduced liquid over the fish and serve.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

More Salmon

It doesn't get any easier than this!

Oh So Easy Sweet-Spicy Glazed Salmon
From Cooking Light

Salmon fillet for two, skin removed

2T brown sugar
3T low sodium soy sauce
3 T Dijon mustard
3 T. rice vinegar

Combine all but the salmon in a sauce pan, stir and heat to dissolve the sugar. You may do this ahead.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a baking cooking dish with Pam. Smear a little of the sauce on one side of the fish, place it sauce side down in the pan. (You may do this ahead also). Put just a little more sauce on top, bake at 425 for 12 minutes for thick fillets, less if they are thin. Remove from oven, turn on broiler. Spread the rest of the sauce on top of the fish and broil for 3 minutes, about 3 inches from the heat. Serve and enjoy!