Monday, January 31, 2011

This Spud's for You

Recently I was lamenting on facebook about how annoying it is that potatoes are such a cheap, versatile and tasty food, yet lacking in the nutrition department. Well, some of my tater loving friends quickly jumped in to stick up for the widely misunderstood tuber and showed me the error of my ways.

Like many people, I was under the impression (from diet and fitness magazines of yesteryear) that, aside from some vitamins in the skin, potatoes were pretty much just all starchy carbs. And we all know how evil carbs are. Aaaahhh! My wise and knowledgeable friends insisted that taters are not only delicious, they are also very nutritious.

Could it really be true? Are these unassuming and lumpy little things a super food? Had I been depriving myself and my family of all the yummy possibilities of the potato all for nothing? I set out to get to the cold hard facts about the potato, and here is what I found at
Misinformation and misconceptions regarding the nutritional value of the potato abound. In fact, an average (~5.3 oz) potato with the skin contains:

  • 45% of the daily value for vitamin C
  • 620 mg potassium, comparable to bananas, spinach and broccoli
  • trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron and zinc
  • all for only 110 calories and no fat.
And potatoes with the skin on are an excellent source of fiber. In fact, with 2 grams of fiber per serving, a potato equals or exceeds that of many "whole" grain products-whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta and many cereals. Despite the popular notion, the majority of nutrients are not found in the skin, but in the potato itself. Nonetheless, leaving the skin on the potatoes retains all the nutrients, the fiber in the skin and makes potatoes easier to prepare.

Needless to say, I was wrong. (See, I can admit it.) And learning the nutritional benefits of potatoes got me really, really excited about all of the delicious possibilities. And I'm not talking butter, sour cream, bacon and cheese. THAT is when good potatoes turn BAD!

So for the next few days, I will be paying homage to the potato. My attempt at retribution for the slanderous and libelous remarks I've made about them in recent years.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Quicky From the Desert

Here's a dish I LOVE that I took from a restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona. It's almost embarrassing how easy it is, but it's so good. My kids started wolfing this down around age 9 months so it's a regular on our dinner table. The protein, fiber and OMEGA-3's are bountiful and I feel like chef and mom of the day.

Originally this was served with halibut, which is fabulous. But I find salmon is always available, usually on sale, and the best buy nutritionally. I try to always keep frozen, individually wrapped fillets of fish in the freezer. None of the marinated stuff, just all natural, clean protein. We live in the midwest, so this is the best we can do. If you live in an area where fresh seafood is affordable and available, well then, lucky you!

Southwest Salmon:
  • 1 fillet of fish per person (if not fresh, at least partially thawed)
  • 1-2 cups frozen corn (as much as you like... I use a ton!)
  • 1 can no sodium added black beans (drained and rinsed)
  • 1-2 cans Ro-tel tomatoes with green chilis (mild to hot, you decide, and if you're making 4 or more fillets, I'd go with 2 cans)
  • 1 whole lime in wedges
  • salt, pepper
  • optional: smoked paprika/chili powder/chipotle powder, fresh cilantro

Heat large skillet to medium high, add a little canola or olive oil to barely coat bottom. Add fish, season with sea salt, pepper and any of the spices according to your taste. Allow salmon to sear to a light golden brown before flipping (3-5 minutes or so). Flip and allow to sear a minute before adding beans, tomatoes and corn, mix and evenly distribute the salsa items, cover with lid, and reduce to med-low heat. Simmer until corn and beans are hot and tomato salsa is bubbly. This is why I use partially thawed salmon- it will continue to cook as the other ingredients come up to temperature, and you risk overcooking. Medium cooked salmon is perfectly safe and good to eat, overcooked salmon is pretty gross and worse than canned tuna. Don't email or comment about the deliciousness of canned tuna.

Once everything has married and is bubbling hot, you are ready to enjoy! Squeeze 2 wedges of lime into the pan before serving. Traditionally, you'd serve this with white rice. But, for something with a little more bang for your caloric buck, whole wheat couscous is an excellent choice. It soaks up all the juices and flavors of the dish, is cheap, and takes about 3 minutes to prepare.

Place a small bed of couscous on the plate, (add fresh cilantro if you like) top with fish, then spoon on the corn and bean salsa. Finish with a generous squeeze of lime. And the more spices you added to the dish, the more the lime will bring all the flavors to life.

Ay, caramba, that's good!

Oh, so you're an over achiever? Or lucky enough to live somewhere that offers good quality, locally grown produce year round? Ok, it's on! Roast some corn on the cob and then cut the kernels off. Use fresh tomatoes and start chopping! Grab that green chili or jalapeno out of the garden! Throw in some chopped scallions and cilantro. Go on, I dare you. Just DON'T forget the lime:)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kermit said it's not easy being green... was he wrong?

Going "green" is all the rage these days. A big part of that is the push for organic foods. So is it hype, or is there some substance to this? It can be hard to decipher marketing ploys from good information. But simply put, organic IS a healthier choice for your family and often for the environment. However taking the plunge and going all organic can be impossible if your local grocers don't stock a wide range of organic products, or if your budget doesn't allow it. I found this short video helpful in making smart selections when grocery shopping that will maximize my budget. It's about knowing when to splurge for organic, and when conventional is a-ok. Chick here to check it out!

Friday, January 28, 2011

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Are you are in a hurry, overwhelmed, or just don't want to do it? You can find pre-chopped fresh vegetables in your grocer's produce refrigeration section. This could save you a half hour of prep work but still give you the same delicious and healthy results. I know our Hy-Vee has a variety that would be useful in many dishes. This is one of those short cuts you take that costs you a few more pennies, but not at the expense of your health!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lunchbox Wars

If you have kids that attend school, or a job that doesn't cater lunch to your cubical daily, then figuring out your mid-day meal is a part of your daily grind. And to make it even more of an unpleasant task, it often needs to be done the night before. Who in the world is that "with it" that they can first of all think up, not to mention execute the preparation of, a satisfying and healthy, portable meal a full 18 hours before it is to be consumed? And do it consistently several times a week, no less. A successful lunch packer has to be prepared! A very different sort of preparedness than for dinner.

I am striving to make more cold lunches for my first grader. Sure, the schools are trying to serve healthier hot lunches and offer fresh fruits and vegetables, but the menu leaves a lot to be desired. Spaghetti Chicken Casserole, anyone? And there is that mom guilt that sets in when I think that I'm taking the easy way out, allowing the school to feed her from a trough like cattle. But how can you make a "cold" lunch that is appetizing, satisfying, and healthy? And don't even think about a frozen meal. Besides, they don't have microwaves in the school cafeteria.

Moving beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, cookies and a juice box is my mission. Here are some of the ideas I've been able to come up with: (But, I could sure use more suggestions from those of you who may be Lunchtime Ninjas, so please leave ideas in the comments.)

  • Surimi (also sold as imitation crab or lobster) is tasty, basically all protein, and easy to pack. You often find it on a salad bar, so that was the idea. I've packed this with a little cup of ranch dressing, some 2% string cheese, grape tomatoes, and whole grain crackers with Nutella.
  • Pasta salad (made with whole grain pasta, grape tomatoes, feta cheese crumbles, diced up pepperoni or salami, bite sized broccoli, sliced baby carrots, dress lightly with extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, sea salt and pepper) and a piece of fruit covers all nutritional bases. It's also very tasty, and you can make it in large batches because it keeps well in the fridge. Ooh, a little squeeze of the basil from the tube (see Arsenal of a Dinnertime Ninja) is good in it, too. I like using rotini noodles or farfalle noodles. The shapes are fun.
  • Lunchables are the ultimate cold lunch. But those pre-packaged store bought varieties have a lot of sodium, preservatives, and lower quality meat and cheese than we need. Instead, visit the deli counter and get some of the freshly sliced lean meats and all natural cheese. You can request a thick cut, and then cut them into smaller pieces that can be stacked on some organic whole grain crackers. Some apple slices, almonds and raisins are a sweet treat in place of the cookies, candy or pudding cups.
  • Soup! Not the kind where you pop the tab, peel back the lid and microwave. Have you seen the sodium content in those??? Break out the Scooby Do thermos and fill it with a hearty and tasty homemade soup or stew. Use your favorite recipe or try organic low sodium chicken stock, white beans, garbanzo beans, red kidney beans, spinach, egg noodles or tortellini , stewed tomatoes, lots of herbs and spices. Enjoy it with a hunk of crusty multi-grain bread and you have a very satisfying meal.
  • California Wrap is a take on the sushi roll. There are a plethora of "wraps" on the market that vary in flavor, texture, and nutritional value. Find one you like and fill it with sliced avocado tossed in lime juice, real or imitation crab meat, sliced cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion or scallion (omit that if you have a meeting that afternoon) and shredded Monterrey jack cheese. You don't really need a dressing or mayo, I promise. The juicy tomatoes, lime juice and avocado will keep it moist and delish, and you save yourself from adding lots of unnecessary fat and calories. For this one you may want to pack the filling in a separate container and assemble before eating. Be extra fancy and add fresh spinach leaves.
  • Salad is a lunchtime go to. But be warned, I better not see you with iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. We can do a lot better than that! There are some great pre-washed bagged organic mixes in the produce section. Good rule of thumb is that the darker or more vibrant the color, the better it is for you. I happen to love baby spinach. Toss with fresh raspberries, blueberries and/or strawberries (whatever is on sale, in season or already in your fridge) toasted pine nuts, crumbled goat cheese or blue cheese, and grilled chicken. A raspberry vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil makes it the perfect finish. A little bit of the dressing goes a loooong way.
Quick tip: If you like chicken... Once a week grill a few boneless skinless chicken breasts simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and store in the fridge. Use them throughout the week: sliced to top your salad, cubed to add to your soup or eat with your homemade lunchable, or shredded for a chicken salad sandwich.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How Wendy's Drive Thru Changed My Life

It was one of "those" days. Well, now that I think about it, it was like every other day. I was tired, the kids were hungry, I hadn't been grocery shopping recently, and there was nothing in the pantry or fridge that could be fashioned into something worth eating. I really wanted to just grab something fast and easy, and head home.

Wendy's shares a parking lot with the drug store I had to visit, so I gave in to the temptation of hot, fast, cheap food ready and waiting for me at a miniature window. We NEVER eat fast food. Not the burger joint fast food. So I thought this would be like a "treat" for the kids. I tell them we're getting Wendy's and ask if they'd like (I'm throwing up a little in my mouth right now) a chicken nugget or cheeseburger meal. Looking back it seems like a form of child abuse.

So what did the kids do? They cried! They begged and pleaded with me to NOT make them eat that food. At first I was annoyed. I mean, that is unheard of. Kids that don't want chicken nuggets, fries and a cheap plastic toy that never even makes it out of the backseat? Preposterous! So, frustrated, I asked what they would eat. They begged for sushi. Sushi is the treat they get for being good during a trip to the grocery store. Then it hit me. I realized that all of my efforts to raise healthy eaters had paid off. So we hit the Hy-Vee next door that has excellent ready made sushi rolls in the deli case.

They picked out some California Rolls. Brown rice, seaweed, crab meat, avocado, cucumber. Super healthy, super delicious foods all rolled into neat little bites. Each kid then picked a fruit, and we checked out and headed home. So the "fast food" meal ended up being sushi rolls and fruit salad. And they were tickled pink about it. As was I. I still got off easy and didn't have to cook or dirty a dish. But most importantly, my kids' health was not compromised to accommodate my lazy mood. My kids taught me a lot that day. It was then that the ninja was born.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

I hate chicken. I do... well, did. I'm sure I'm the first person you've ever known that absolutely hated chicken. BUT, and this is a big but, for the sake of my family, my budget, and my own health, I have been trying very hard to come up with some super yummy dishes that are so good I don't even know/care that they are chicken. And here is the one that made me a chicken eater: Chicken Cacciatore.

Actually, the reason I made this in the first place was because the brand Just Bare Chicken caught my eye at the store. It's non-steroid, vegetable fed, free range, no anti-biotic, no nothing-but-good-things-for-chickens-and-people-who-eat-them, family farm birds. It really addressed everything I hated and feared about chicken. And each package has a code that you can enter on their website and see exactly where your little chickadee was born and raised. Cool!

Most Americans gravitate toward the breasts. Not gonna say a word about that. However, I like to use boneless, skinless thighs. More flavor. Doesn't dry out like the breast. But this brand offers breasts, legs, and whole chickens, etc. Something for everyone.

There are no measurements for this. Don't freak out. You can't do it "wrong." Make it the way that you prefer, adding or omitting ingredients when desired. I'm the Dinnertime Ninja, not Nazi.

Chicken Cacciatore
Cacciatore means "hunter style" in Italian. So this is meant to be a hearty meal that could satisfy a hunter after a long day out in the wilderness. It's great for a big family meal on Sunday, but also the leftovers are delish, so don't shy away if you don't have an army to feed. Warning: there is some prep work involved, so grab a buddy, or allow yourself a good hour start to finish. So worth it.


  • boneless skinless chicken
  • flour for dredging
  • canned San Marzano* tomatoes 2-15 oz cans
  • fresh garlic
  • olive oil
  • red/orange/yellow bell peppers (any or all of them)
  • carrots
  • red onion
  • dried Italian herbs-whatever you have
  • capers (none, a lot, a little... whatever you like! drain and rinse)
  • 2 bay leaves (remove before eating)
  • sea/kosher salt, pepper
  • mushrooms (baby portabellas are preferred)
  • white wine

Prep ahead:
Dice up all the veggies- peppers, onion, carrot, heck- throw in some celery if you like. Just slice the 'shrooms. Chop or use garlic press for the garlic. Use one clove per person, at least:)

Trim the chicken if necessary. I'm crazy anal about it, so I take this seriously. Season generously with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour. Brown chicken in large skillet on medium heat with olive oil. You're not trying to cook it through, just get a good crust on both sides. Remove chicken and set aside on paper towels.

I love to cook with wine. Sometimes, I even put it in the food! De-glaze the pan with 1/2 to 1 cup of white wine (sauvignion blanc or pinot grigio) and add all the chopped up prepped stuff. Salt, pepper, bay leaves, herbs (be very generous), a quick stir, 3 minutes to sweat, and then the tomatoes. San Marzano if you can absolutely find them. They are more expensive, but there is NO comparison in flavor. Cento brand is available at Super Target. If not, any brand of whole or stewed tomatoes will do. Never drain them. That juice is liquid gold. Plus Europe doesn't use all the yucky stuff in canning that the US does.

Stir and mash the whole tomatoes until everything is blended and bite sized. Add chicken back to pan and cover. Allow to simmer on low-med heat until veggies are tender and chicken is cooked through. It should be fall apart tender, flavorful and delicious.

Since we are no longer hunter-gatherers, we don't need to load up on carbs. So, rather than serving with a huge pile of spaghetti, why not try spaghetti squash? Or you could try a whole wheat/whole grain pasta, or brown rice.

If you go with the squash, remember to add this to your prep!
Half a spaghetti squash (big, yellow, smooth-skinned) and scrape out the seeds. Place cut side down in a baking dish with a few inches of water. Bake until fork tender and can easily pierce the skin (425 for 20 minutes?) Just keep adding water if necessary. When it's steamed to tender perfection, scoop out, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt, pepper, and sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese and top with the delicious chicken goodness.

I never met a chicken (cacciatore) I didn't like.