Don is away (dog-sitting for friends) for the long weekend, so I’m having bachelorette time. Gossip Girl marathon! Painting my nails! Eating a dinner of diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s!… maybe not that last part. When I was younger and had a metabolism faster than the speed of light, ice cream for dinner might have been a regular thing, but I’ve reformed now.
Part of the problem back then was that I did not know how to cook (the other part was that Ben & Jerry make delicious ice cream). I used to jump on Google to find out what a recipe meant when it asked me to do things like sauté and once I called my Mom to ask her how to make spaghetti (since the sauce came from a jar, I was pretty much asking her how to boil water and heat up liquified tomatoes). Until about a year ago, I felt like Derek Zoolander trying to get files from a computer whenever I tried to make something from a recipe.
Early last Spring, I came across a book in the library, ‘The Kitchen Counter Cooking School’ by Kathleen Flinn, that really helped me expand my culinary horizons beyond making couscous from a box. In the book, the author, who graduated from the Cordon Bleu in France, chronicles a year-or-so long project in which she teaches a handful of people who have no culinary skills (like myself) how to make food on their own. Even if you are proficient in the kitchen, the book is worth a read because the writing is thoughtful, the story is a good one, and the book includes some yummy recipes. Armed with some of those recipes and the advice given to the novice cooks in the book, I began to experiment in the kitchen and have become more proficient.
A lack of proficiency (or feeling like you lack proficiency) in the kitchen is why many of us eat meals that come from a box or out of the freezer; not only are these meals super easy and quick to make, but they taste the same EVERY SINGLE TIME you make them. You don’t have to wonder if the sauce is going to be salty enough when all you have to do is open the envelope and add water and it is the same envelope you open and add water too every Tuesday night. This kind of consistency is comforting to those of us who are overwhelmed in the kitchen, and, while we realize that things like Hamburger Helper may not be the best tasting, at least we know they will be palatable because it is foolproof. Foolproof may be simple, but it generally isn’t very healthy (think about it, when has your doctor ever recommended that you eat more neon orange ‘cheese’ powder), and it doesn’t offer much variety in flavor.
Variety is very important when you are trying to eat healthy. If you are hoping to eat more vegetables and the only way you know how to cook them is to steam them, then pretty soon you will be dreading your veggies; and sometimes, it takes a few tries before you find a way to make a vegetable taste good. For example, the dining hall at my college used to serve an eggplant panini and it was not good. It smelled strange, had a funny, rubbery texture and tasted like I imagine formaldehyde would. Not having grown up eating eggplant, I attributed this undesirable flavor to it and I decided that I hated eggplant. It wasn’t until six years later when I bought an eggplant on a whim and roasted it with some other veggies that I realized it was the marinade and the way the eggplant was sliced that made the panini so gross, and that I actually love eggplant!
Another upside to doing more ‘freestyle’ cooking and relying less on boxed meals is the ability to control the ingredients going into your dinner. What if your doctor has suggested you eat a lower sodium diet, and you are making yourself some Kraft Mac & Cheese? You aren’t adding any salt to it, so no problem, right? Well, if you glance at the nutrition facts, you’ll notice that it has twenty percent of your daily value of sodium in one serving, and you can’t really change that because you have no control over the ingredients in that little envelope. If we want to eat healthfully, we need to have a lot of control over the things that go into our meals, so, if walking into the kitchen makes you break out into hives, pick up Kathleen Flinn’s book, browse the internet for helpful sites, and start with a recipe that makes sense to you (try Smitten Kitchen, it is a food blog and the recipes are written well with clear instructions, and if you have questions, Deb will answer them in the comments). Here are some recipes that I have been into lately:
A Vegetable Minestrone Soup, sent to me by my sister-in-law, Alice, when I was pleading for more kale recipes!
2 med. onion, 4 lg carrots, 4 celery stalks, 3-4 garlic cloves, 2 cans canellini beans, 3 zucchini, 2 bunches greens (ie. kale, chard…), 2 qts broth, 28 oz diced tomatoes, 1 bay leaf, oregano, thyme, a dash of cayenne, 6 oz pasta
Sauté onions, garlic, carrots, celery. Add tomatoes and beans. Season (to taste, you can always add more later) and add broth, cook for 15 minutes. Add zucchini and greens, cook 10 mins. Add pasta, cook 10 mins
This recipe is quite tasty and made an enormous amount of pasta; in total about 14 generous bowls. A word of advice, use the biggest pot you own. Even my biggest pot couldn’t hold everything and I had to cook the pasta separately and I could only fit 1 qt of broth in the pot so I had to add more later in the week. This soup is great because there are a variety of textures and flavors so it is interesting to eat and, since there was so much of it, we ate it for dinner all week long! Thanks Alice!
Kale Calzone! You could, in theory, put whatever you want in the calzone, it doesn’t have to be kale, but if you are just acquainting yourself with kale, this is one of the yummiest ways to eat it. The crust recipe I think came from Smitten Kitchen originally.
Calzone crust: 1 1/2 c all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 3/4 tsp yeast, 1/2 c warm water, 1 TBsp olive oil.
Mix dry ingredients. Stir in wet ingredients until doughy. Dump on a floured counter and knead until uniform consistency. Put in oiled bowl and allow to rise 2 hrs. Dump on floured counter and knead again. Return to bowl and allow to rise 20 mins
Calzone filling: Kale, spinach, onions, garlic, feta, salt and pepper.
Use equal parts kale and spinach (about 10 oz of each). Boil the kale 4-5 minutes so it is more tender. Use onions and garlic to taste, brown the onions in olive oil so they are tender, add the garlic for the last few minutes. Mix the greens, onions, garlic and feta in a bowl, salt and pepper to taste. Stretch out your pizza dough on a pan or pizza stone, dump the filling on half of it, fold the other half of the dough over and mush the seam together to close. I usually cut a vent in the top of the calzone but I’m not sure if it is necessary. Bake for about 10 mins on your oven’s highest temp. Basically, you are waiting for the crust to brown since the filling is already cooked.
Give these recipes a try, the soup in particular is a good late-winter meal, and all of them are pretty healthy. Sure pizza dough isn’t necessarily good for you, but the bulk of what you are eating in the calzone is greens, and if you are trying to go lower carb, leave the pasta out of the soup and maybe add in more carrots. For more yummy goodness, check out this kale salad recipe that my friend Amy found online and sent along, it is very good, and this tofu stir fry (I’m eating it right now for dinner, fantastic) from a fun-to-read blog, Fitness on Toast. Don’t be afraid to keep going back to healthy options that you may not like on the first try and also don’t feel pressured to eat something you really can’t stand. If eating celery no matter which way it is cooked(I HATE CELERY!) makes you feel like Ron Swanson eating a banana, it might be time to throw in the towel.