Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe

A traditional Irish dish, Colcannon was reserved for special occasions since “few Irish cottagers grew turnips or cabbages.” (1)  How interesting since those foods are so common nowadays!  Common though they may be, when combined with affordable potatoes you get a lovely dish that is not only budget-minded but also highly nutritious and tasty enough for company.

The following recipe for Colcannon caught my eye, no doubt because I’m part Irish, but also because autumn’s cool weather has finally blown in, making a hearty potato dish sound perfect.  What’s more, it takes good advantage of cool-weather produce:  I have lots of kale and green onions from my garden along with plenty of potatoes in with my CSA share.

Read Between the Line Pic

Reading Between the Lines  While making the recipe, however, I noticed how often I was “reading between the lines,” making additions and substitutions based on my health needs (I’m dairy-free), tastes and experience in the kitchen.  Another post explained how a lot of a recipe can be missing–as if written in invisible ink between the lines.  Read on to see how much and what information can be “missing” from a recipe, and how to begin building your knowledge base of trick and tips to make meals that are ever more satisfying for you.

Mind Your Ingredients  It all starts with good ingredients.  They are especially critical in dishes that have only a few to rely on for flavor, particularly when 1) the main ingredient (potatoes) is on the bland side and 2) when the main flavorings (cream and butter) have to be reduced or eliminated for health reasons. This is where tricks, tips and experimentation come in:

Colcannon RecipesColcannon--Substitutions

Health Boost  Interestingly, the modifications above also had the effect of improving the healthfulness of the dish.

  • Nothing against butter, but with 100 calories per tablespoon, it’s helpful to be moderate–and it’s not so very hard to reduce  5-6 Tablespoons to 2-3 Tablespoons.
  • While I eliminated the cream due to a dairy allergy, it also saves a lot on the calorie count.  Since butter and cream are the traditional  flavor enhancers, however, reducing or eliminating them makes it all the more imperative to use the flavor boosters listed above.
  • Potato skins, besides adding flavor, are loaded with vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-6, thiamin, niacin and vitamin C, as well as iron, potassium and magnesium (2)-–plenty of reasons to leave them in the dish instead of tossing into the compost bin.
  • Finally, increasing the kale from three cups to four and tripling the green onions also boosts flavor along with nutrients.

My Recipe for Colcannon  See how I used all this information from “reading between the lines” to create my healthier version of Colcannon.

(1)  FoodTimeLine.org

(2)  “Does the Skin of a Potato Really Have All the Vitamins?”

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Recipe: Summer Vegetable Skillet with Peanut Sauce

Skillets Are Great Way to Get Good Food Fast

Picture of Summer Skillet

Green Bean and Eggplant Skillet with Peanut Sauce: Super Simple Way to Get Tasty, Healthy Meals on the Table–Fast

An earlier post described a friend’s go-to trick for making tasty, healthy food fast:  melanges.  For me, it’s skillet dishes, hands down.

Why Skillets?  Learn to make one and you can vary it a hundred ways, never have to struggle through a recipe, and almost invariably end up with a darn tasty meal.

The Basic Structure  In our summer meal making series we learned the basic structure for a skillet dish:  Saute some aromatics, add and cook some vegetables, add and cook some protein and/or a starch.  Voila! You have a quick, healthy and tasty one dish meal.

The Key to Skillet Speed:  Minimal Instructions  The recipe below is an easy riff on the basic skillet. You might notice the instructions–or lack thereof! Having to wade through long instructions can keep us from trying a new dish. That’s why, in our classes, we learn basic, building block techniques so you don’t have to wade through long instructions. You can cook from your head, easily and naturally with just a few recipe prompts.

Green Bean and Eggplant Skillet with Peanut Sauce

Saute vegetables in order given:

  • 1 Tbsp. neutral-tasting oil like safflower
  • 1 med. onion (preferably red), diced to ½”
  • 1 med, 5-6” globe eggplant (or roughly equivalent amount of smaller eggplant), diced to ½ to ¾”
  • ½ to 1 lb. green beans, trimmed and sliced in half on the diagonal
  • 4-6 large cloves garlic, minced (fresh or prepared), more or less to taste

Stir in, de-glazing pan with liquid.  Simmer until green beans reach desired tenderness, about 10 minutes:

  • 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
  • 1-2 cups chicken broth (preferably Shelton’s), more or less for a thinner or thicker skillet dish
  • ¼ to ½ cup San-J Thai Peanut Sauce, to taste.

Serve over cooked brown rice (basmati is especially good.)

Want to Learn to Make Skillet Dishes?

Want to learn how healthy meal making can be easeful and natural? Join one of our upcoming classes.

Need a Dish That’s Even Faster?

Using leftover chicken, bottled peanut sauce and prepared garlic make this dish super fast.  Of course it’s a given that you also have a pot of rice cooked and waiting in the frig for this kind of dish.

Have A Few Minutes for Creative Fun?

Make your own peanut sauce and/or add some finishing touches:

  • Ÿ        Fresh chopped cilantro
  • Ÿ        Lime wedges
  • Ÿ        Coconut milk
  • Ÿ        Chilies flakes or minced jalapeno
  • Ÿ        Chopped peanuts

How to Make Healthy, Whole Grain Breadcrumbs

Transform throw away crusts into kitchen gold

The previous post talked about “breading,” an easy building block cooking technique used to create dozens of different, interesting dishes.  Get ready to start experimenting with this technique by making your own breadcrumbs.  Save money by using up old crusts and stale bread that would otherwise go to waste.  Help the environment by keeping food out of  landfills, where it produces methane, a far worse contributor to global warming than carbon emissions.

Out of the Breadbox Bread

Good News for Gluten Free Eaters: Enjoy breaded dishes by making crumbs from your favorite GF bread, like Out of the Breadbox, at Vitamin Cottage.

Start with Whole Not Half  Healthy breadcrumbs can only come from healthy bread, and that means bread made from 100% whole grains, like whole wheat, oats, brown rice and millet.  In the ingredient listing for a bread, the single word “wheat” is code for “white flour.”  Skip that brand and look for one made entirely from whole grains.  Whole grains are so delicious and nutrition rich; why waste money on breads made with half grains, especially when it’s the halves with all the calories and few of the nutrients that go with them!

Gluten Free  Good news for gluten free eaters:  You can use gluten free bread for crumbs.  Be sure it’s whole grain, like Food for Life’s Millet Bread which makes really flavorful crumbs.

Using Food Processor to Make Crumbs

Act Ahead: Whenver you end up with a couple crusts or stale slices, toss them in the food processor and give them a whir.

Act Ahead  Don’t wait until preparing a breaded dish to make the breadcrumbs.  Then you’ll be saddled with the extra step of a  toasting them in the oven to dry.  Instead, weave the process into your normal kitchen routine.  Here’s an example:

  1. Whenever you end up with a crust or two, simply toss them in the food processor.
  2. Process the crumbs when, e.g., you’re next unloading the dishwasher.  Push the button and unload the glasses.  Once the bread has been transformed into crumbs, dump them on a plate.  Put the plate on top of, e.g, the microwave.
  3. Give the crumbs a stir or two over the next couple days to make sure the bottom ones get exposed to air.
  4. Then, while heating something in the microwave, pour the dried crumbs (make sure they are completely dry)  into a storage container; put the plate in the dishwasher.
Large Breadcrumbs

Large crumbs are great for gratin toppings, meatballs and so on. . .

Now you’ve got large crumbs to use for gratin toppings, in meatloaf and meatballs, etc.  To use crumbs for breading, I recommend one additional step:

The Fine Grind  Breading works best when the crumbs are very fine.  They do a better job of sticking to the food and creating an even, solid coating.  That’s why flour and cornmeal are such good breading ingredients.  Breadcrumbs can be made into a perfect breading ingredient by simply running them through the food processor again, after they are dried the first time.  I wait and do this when I’m making a dish, and only fine grind as much as I need, leaving larger crumbs for other uses.

Small Breadcrumbs

. . . but for breading, process again after they are dried for a small, fine crumb

No Food Processor?  An immersion blender with a chopper attachment is a good, and much less expensive, alternative.  If that option isn’t available, there’s always a rolling pin.  In the days before all our specialized electric appliances, we broke crusts into large pieces, dried them and then crushed with a rolling pin.  Putting them inside paper or plastic bags minimized the mess.

Ready to do experiment with breading?  Check out the next post on Breaded Eggplant with Herbed Tomato Topping,  which makes use of plentiful late summer and early autumn produce.

Danger in the Gluten-Free Aisle

Hold the celebration

These labels are a lot more common now than 20 years ago

Not long ago, a news article reported on a conference to support those of us who must live without gluten.  In a food world dominated by gluten products, lord knows we need support, as well as information on all the new gluten-free products coming to market.

One aspect of this gathering gave me cause for concern, however:  the celebration of newly created substances that better mimic white bread products.  The news report quoted one of the speakers gushing over new white flour substitutes–things that had a lot of “modified,” “refined,” and “white” in their names.  These modern miracles, she bubbled, could make soft, tender baked goods, just like white flour.

But does this miss the point?

Sure, we’re getting the technical part of the gluten free diet by eliminating the specific protein called gluten.  But are we missing the bigger call to action:  Eating a more healthful, whole, vividly varied diet.

As the conference speaker pointed out so enthusiastically, we can now go gluten free without having to change anything:

  • No need to cultivate a taste for other grains and whole grains.
  • No need to expand our food horizons to include lentils, leeks, Bosc pears, eggplant, cashews, tofu and the myriad other non-gluten vegetables, nuts, fruits, meats and oils in the food kingdom.
  • No need to give pause and question the quality of our meals, the sources of our food and the sanity of our eating lives.

Just substitute white, gluten free pizza, bagels, French bread and cookies for their white gluten cousins.

So what’s the problem?  Why ruin the party?

Because there’s so much to be gained from moments of crisis! And believe it or not, moments of dietary crisis are as valuable as near-death experiences, divorces and job losses for propelling us off dead center and on to the better lives we deserve.

It’s a widely and well-known fact that we are killing ourselves at the dinner table, and this despite the fact that we come in contact with healthy eating information on a daily basis.  It’s an ironic joke among healthy eating professionals that there’s only one sure way a client will make serious dietary change:  by having a heart attack.

What if gluten problems are meant as teachable moments not just a medical diagnosis?  Gluten intolerance could be a life-changing catalyst, rather than just an inconvenience to be worked around as expeditiously as possible.

This idea is not just theoretical musing.  Twenty years ago, we received a wheat-free, diary-free diagnosis, long before “gluten” was a household world and when the number of non-wheat food products could be counted on my right hand.  With two small children and a full-time business, a transition of this magnitude seemed impossible, and I would have given my right hand for a gluten-free Betty Crocker cake mix at birthday time.  Yet in the way that our biggest challenges bring the greatest rewards, being forced from our comfort zone without a life vest brought unimaginable rewards:

Boring Alert I would never have guessed we were so boring—from a culinary standpoint.  Fully 75 percent of our diet involved some combination of white flour and cheese or milk:  Grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, PB&Js, mac ‘n cheese, pasta & more pasta, pancakes, quesadillas, burritos . . .  need I say more?  While I was astounded at our monotony, my body was astounded at all the nutrients we had missed out on with such a limited food intake.

What’s a Whole Grain? Nor could I believe how ignorant I was.  Despite 21 years of schooling, I didn’t know what a whole grain from a peanut, why whole grains are important, that wheat is just one grain, that wheat is in practically everything we eat, and that there are lots of other grains that millions of people eat in other parts of the world.  When I was growing up, Wonder Bread and Twinkies were the extent of our exposure to grains.  Now I know that dietary knowledge is power—power to shape and direct my health.

Cheers to the Colorful Plate Forced out of my comfortable bread and cheese cocoon, my taste buds were stretched to the breaking point.  But they were a lot tougher than I could have guessed.  Polenta, bok choy, papaya, cannellini, lamb, buckwheat, kale and dozens of other strange-sounding foods became fast friends, adding color, flavor and delight to our meals.

No Picky Eaters Here Not only did my taste buds rise to the gluten free challenge.  My kids’ taste buds did, too.  As they got older, I never had to short-order cook, I could be as creative as I wanted, we could go out to interesting restaurants, and even to this day, our kids treasure family meal times, wholesomely interesting dishes and vegetable-rich meals.

So in a crazy way, it was good we weren’t able to simply swap white for white.  We were forced to take advantage of a big learnable moment, and instead of just simple substitution we got a complete gastronomic transformation!  Meal making is now an adventure.  Eating and wellness are intimately integrated.  New foods and cooking techniques continually beckon and keep life interesting.  And as we learn more about strengthening our diet, we learn how to eat in a way that feels more right environmentally and socially.

Hooray for teachable moments, even if inconvenient.

Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free Living—Beyond Recipes and Cookbooks


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“Do you have any wheat-free recipes?” As a kitchen and healthy eating coach, that’s usually the first thing I’m asked by people who have been prescribed a gluten or wheat-free diet.  It’s a completely understandable inquiry. We think “recipes” when someone tells us we need to eat differently, whether it’s to benefit the heart, to ease arthritis or work around food allergies.

Don’t get me wrong, cookbooks and recipes aren’t a bad starting point. But they are only part—and a relatively small part of the solution. What’s more, they’re the easy part.

The fact is, there are TONS of wheat-free recipes. They’re all over the place, including under your nose (and on your cookbook shelf): think of all the stir-fry recipes, chicken recipes, meat dishes, vegetable recipes, bean recipes, fruit salsas, stews and soups and rice dishes, to name just a few. A vast majority contain no wheat or gluten products. I have lived wheat free for 20 years and am far from starving—in fact I’m better fed now than ever.

The problem, of course, is that when we are newly diagnosed with a wheat or gluten allergy, we filter the news from our current eating perspective. Likely as not, that eating perspective revolves around A LOT of wheat products: pizza, pasta, tortillas, pancakes, toast, sandwiches, flour-thickened sauces, muffins, cakes, and so on and so forth. Only when you are given wheat or gluten diagnosis do you realize how wheat-centric our diet is.

To begin with, I certainly viewed our wheat (and dairy) diagnoses as tremendous burdens, but it didn’t take long to see what a hidden blessing they were. Being forced to think creatively about food, we had our eyes, minds and taste buds treated to a Technicolor world of wildly different and delicious new foods. Thank goodness we haven’t been saddled with a myopically monochromatic diet for the last 20 years!

Making the shift from tremendous burden to tantalizing blessing, I discovered, was attributable to a whole range of things. Yes, I found a few new recipes to help, but as important were things like:

–being organized enough to find those recipes when mealtime rolled around

–having the right ingredients in the frig

–being open to new tastes

–learning a few basic cooking skills to make decent meals

–knowing where to find gluten-free products at the grocery store

–being willing to invest time in setting up the kitchen for gluten-free cooking

–being willing to give meal making the attention and consideration it deserves, and

–being willing to exercise the parental vigor necessary to prevent a picky eaters from taking root in our house.

This last point is vitally important when kids are involved. If a child is raised from Day 1 with a broad range of tastes, then you will have no problem feeding him well on a gluten-free diet. But if, as so many children, he is allowed to dictate the food agenda and constrict his tastes to a narrow range, he will be consigned to a life of fighting his food limitations instead of reveling in the joy of all the delicious foods still available.

So that is why I encourage anyone newly diagnosed to inquire beyond recipes and cookbooks and examine the approaches and attitudes you bring to the table, so to speak.

Check out my tips on preventing picky eaters (email for a copy), look at how well your kitchen is organized for gluten-free cooking. My book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, can be a big help here. Notice if you have good mealtime habits, like planning ahead for meals, always having gluten-free snack bags for car trips, a lineup of school lunch options, etc. MOST IMPORTANTLY, develop a firm sense of purpose, i.e., that the time and effort you put into feeding you and/or your child is indeed a valuable and worthwhile use of your time.

For families, remember that taising a gluten-free child will be most successful and cause the least amount of stress if it is a family affair—and mom and dad will gain all the health benefits of the child’s good diet. Many parents worry about getting their child into the right schools, pushing them to excel in reading and math, preventing their brains from being corrupted by X-rated movies, monitoring their friends, and so. Yet we think nothing of racing through a fast food outlet and poisoning our children’s bodies with factory created food will few, if any, of the nutrients a growing body and mind needs. As parents, we must dare to be different and take the time to nourish ourselves and our children—body, brain and spirit—with wholesome food. Do not doubt that this is a valuable use of our time—despite what the fast food ads blare out.

I hope these insights will be of help if you face a wheat or gluten-free diagnosis. If you could benefit from some one-on-one coaching and assistance, I specialize in implementing wheat and diary free diets and we can work over the phone and Internet as well as in-person.

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