Monday, July 19, 2010

Julie's Cucumber and Tomato Salad

My sister Julie spent a summer in Slovenia on a missions trip a while back.  While she was there, she was introduced to a wonderful summer dish that her host family made.  It was a simple cucumber, tomato, and corn salad with a vinegary dressing.  The family would eat this vegetarian meal with a large loaf of crusty bread to soak up all the sharp juices.  What a great summertime treat! A little bit like the tuna salad-stuffed tomatoes my mom used to make when I was a kid.  Nothing to cook and delicious.  

So, Julie brought home the idea and has replicated the recipe as best she could.  She leaves out the corn, since it's a little bit higher in starch (and points) and she uses a bottled light balsamic vinaigrette for the dressing.  Whenever I go to her house during the spring and summer, there's usually this salad in the fridge.  

When I made it, I kept forgetting to  buy the balsamic vinaigrette at the store.  So I ended up making my own "dressing" with white wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.  It was great.  You can use store-bought vinaigrette to make the recipe even easier, or top with my version.  Also, feel free to add any sort of fresh herb to the salad.  Perhaps basil or flat leaf parsley.  

Friday, July 9, 2010

Baked Chicken Dijon with Swiss Cheese

Growing up, the rule in my house was that you ate everything that was put in front of you.  "I don't like this food," was not an excuse.  Except for one food.  Each of us was allowed to have one food which we said we would never eat.  For Julie, it was eggs.  For Trish, it was tomatoes.  For me, well, I begged for it to be chicken.  My mother said no.  Frankly, she couldn't afford for me to not eat chicken, since it was a staple of our menu and relatively cheap.  

For as long as I can remember, I've had a dicey relationship with chicken.  I am still not wild about chicken on the bone.  Especially dark meat.  Blech.  I like chicken breasts, but the sight of them raw is enough to send me running the other way.  There's something about raw chicken that grosses me out.  But I've resolved to overcome this!  So I bought a cookbook called The Big Book of Chicken. What better way to immerse myself in the world of chicken than with a gigantic cookbook dedicated to the ingredient?

The following recipe was the first on my journey to accept chicken as my culinary friend, and it was a resounding success.  My family raved about it.  And it was amazingly simple to create.  Much to my delight, I didn't have to touch the raw chicken too much.  Bonus!  The creamy sauce is flavorful but subtle, and the Swiss cheese on top is buttery, gooey, and delicious.  

The beauty of this recipe is that the sauce is 0 points, so the only thing that will cost you any points is the cheese.  You can adjust the amount of Swiss cheese to the points you want to spend.  If you're feeling decadent, use the entire 2 cups.  If you're feeling a bit more austere, limit the cheese.  It will still be a glorious dish.  

When I served this dish, I knew that the cheese topping was a bit decadent, so I made some sauteed peppers and onions, and steamed broccoli to go alongside it, instead of a starch.  I spooned a bit of the flavorful saucy-broth from the bottom of the baking dish on top of the veggies to serve it.  Don't waste it.  It's fantastic! 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins

Recently my sister Tricia opened my eyes to the glories of muffin baking.  In her quest to fill her and her son's belly with whole foods, she makes a batch of some sort of whole wheat muffin so that she always has a healthy snack within reach.  

I've got to tell you that there is beauty and serenity in the art of muffin baking.  Sounds crazy, I know.  But consider this:  you don't need any fancy equipment.  Two bowls, a wooden spoon, and an ice cream scoop.  That's as fancy as it gets.  The repetitive but mindless activity of filling each well in the muffin tin with thick, fluffy batter is so gratifying!  I LOVE MAKING MUFFINS!  

Think you're too busy to make muffins?  Not a baker?  I tell you you're too busy NOT to make them!  Why don't you stop for a moment and sample what life might be like if you were June Cleaver? Where else in your hectic life do you get the chance to have a Betty Crocker moment in a Lean Cuisine world?  I'm telling you, freshly baked muffins are the ticket!  Besides, after you've made them, your normal life will be waiting right where you left it, but you'll have fantastic muffins to eat for the next few days.  Bonus!

Before I give you the recipe, I must say a few words about the ingredients.  There are a few specialty items that are needed, but once you have them on-hand, the muffin possibilities are endless!  Simply go to Pinch My Salt and search the recipes there for whole grain muffins.  Make a new batch of muffins each week, trying out different recipes.  You'll already have most of the hard-to-find ingredients. You'll be so glad you did. 
  1. Bananas:  These aren't exactly hard to find, but you do need to understand one important thing:  the blacker the banana, the better the muffin.  Trust me.  You might be scared to let your bananas ripen to the point of blackness, but believe me, once you taste the muffins made from them, you will kiss my feet.  I buy a bag of discounted, over-ripe bananas from my grocery store and I leave them out for a week or two extra, until they are black all over.  If you want to help this process along, pop them in the fridge.  Store unused bananas in the freezer in bags (just the flesh, not the peels). Thaw them in short bursts in the microwave for your baking delight.
  2. White Whole Wheat Flour:  I found this in the baking section of my grocery store.  Hyvee, to be exact.  It is a special type of whole wheat flour that is supposed to be a little bit lighter than regular whole wheat flour.  
  3. Low-Fat Buttermilk:  Did you know that buttermilk is naturally low in fat?  Cool, huh?  I now keep a large container of buttermilk in my fridge and use it as needed, mostly for muffins.  It lasts forever.  My sister uses dried buttermilk, which she found next to the powdered milk in her grocery store.   
  4. Wheat Bran:  I found this in the health food section of Hyvee.  It was approximately $2. 
  5. Flax Seed Meal:  Not called for in this recipe, but used in a lot of other Pinch My Salt muffin recipes.  It is also called ground flax seed and is approximately $2.  Store this in a freezer bag in the freezer, for optimum freshness.
I adapted this recipe from the banana muffin recipe on Pinch My Salt.  My sister suggested that the muffins were too big for a snack, so she recommended dividing the batter to make smaller muffins.  I also increased the quantity of banana, because I like a little more banana punch.  The original recipe calls for pecan meal, which is essentially very finely ground pecans.  Sounds fantastic, but it was so expensive, I decided not to try it.  Instead, I use 1/2 cup of chopped pecans.  Sometimes I just break them up roughly with my hands, or pop them in a bag and give 'em a good whack with something heavy.  This time around I also added some miniature chocolate chips for a chocolate kick.  Feel free to leave them out if you'd like.  Finally, I added some vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the batter because I can't fathom a muffin without said ingredients.  If you disagree, leave them out.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ace's Angel Food Dessert

Last summer, my Dad created this dessert.  He's always had a "thing" for pound cake covered in strawberries.   In an effort to lighten that up, he traded the pound cake for angel food cake, added a few bells and whistles, and we've never looked back.  This is our go-to dessert at spring and summer family gatherings.

This post is light on words and heavy on pictures because it was the easiest way to explain how to assemble this recipe.  You'll note some very masculine-looking hands in the photos:  they're my Dad's.  I did a photo shoot with him as the star.  He was in heaven!  In case you were wondering, my Dad's nickname is Ace.  Hence, the title of this recipe.   

Enough chit chat.  On with the recipe...

What you'll need:
  • One 8 oz angel food cake loaf.  (If you can't find a loaf, go with the regular ring-style cake)  Pop the cake in the freezer for at least 12 hours before you are ready to make the dessert.  The cake will be a bit more firm, which will help you slice through the cake more easily.    
  • 3 lbs of strawberries, hulled and sliced into quarters.  Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the sliced strawberries and stir them up.  This will allow some "juice" to form.  Set the berries aside while you assemble the cake. 
  • Optional:  1 small container of blueberries (sorry, I don't know the size).  These add a bit of color. 
  • Lemon curd.  You'll find this in the jelly aisle of the grocery store.  If you've never tasted lemon curd before, it's a creamy and tart lemon custard.  It's absolutely delicious.  In this particular recipe, it enhances the brightness of the strawberries, rather than tasting overly lemony.  This ingredient is the key to this recipe.  DON'T SKIP IT.  
  • Strawberry preserves.  My Dad prefers Smucker's Simply Fruit.    
  • Cool Whip Light.  For dolloping on top.  
  • An electric knife.  The electric knife will help you cut through the angel food cake without smooshing it.  (That's a technical term.  Smoosh.) If you don't have an electric knife, just go with a very sharp, serrated knife.