Fast Lunches–for Big Kids or Small

School’s back and with it, the daily tedium of packing lunches.  Even those without kids have to deal with this tedious task if the goal is to eat healthfully.  Here’s an article I wrote for Boulder Weekly‘s CU Student Guide, for dorm students who want a homemade, healthy option on occasion.  I realized this advice could be equally helpful for busy parents and others seeking fast but healthy lunch options.

Quick Recipe:  Microwave Thai Rice Bowl

No fuss, no mess–frozen veggies are a boon to busy cooks, especially with nutritional values that are nearly, if not completely equal to fresh.
Picture courtesy of Jina Lee, Wikipedia Commons

Looking for quick lunches that are wholesome, too?  The frozen foods aisle has a good selection of real, whole foods all washed, cut and ready to pop in the microwave.  Combine with a few strategic deli purchases and ready made sauces for a meal that’s faster than fast food but still tasty, fresh and healthful.  What’s more, it’s easy enough for older kids to make on their own.

  • 1 bag frozen peas
  • 1 bag frozen brown rice
  • 1 cooked chicken breast from a deli or a couple portions of chicken from a leftover rotisserie chicken, cut or torn into small pieces
  • 2-4 spoonfuls San-J Spicy Peanut Sauce, to taste

Step 1  Microwave peas in a big covered glass dish, as directed on the package.

Step 2  Microwave rice a second big, covered glass dish, as directed on the package.

Step 3  Combine the cooked peas with cooked rice.  Stir in chicken and sauce to taste.  Microwave 1-2 minutes, stir and taste.  If not hot enough, microwave another 1-2 minutes.  Eat and enjoy!

Notes: 

Enjoy some variety and have fun being creative with this dish

  • Vegetables:  Practically any frozen vegetable can work in this dish:  green beans, chopped spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Experiment with different brands for the best flavor.  Stahlbush (at Vitamin Cottage) has reliably good taste, as does Safeway’s O brand of green beans
  • Sauces:  Teriyaki, Szechuan, Sweet and Sour, Hoisin and Sesame Ginger are just a few options.  Or go Italian with Marinara or pesto.  Just read the ingredient listing and stick to sauces made with real, whole ingredients you can pronounce!
  • Protein:  Scour the deli and salad bar for options like baked tofu, roasted turkey pork roast, and garbanzo beans.

Also, be sure to use brown rather than white rice–it has a lot more flavor and the natural nutrients haven’t been stripped away.  Whole Foods sells it, or just freeze your own with extra leftover rice, so it’s all ready when you need it in a hurry.

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Recipe: Millet (or Rice) with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Problem:  You’re having rice for dinner, again.  We love brown rice because it’s easy and delicious.  But if you’re craving just a little pizzazz, here’s a solution:  Lightly Fried Millet with Seasonal Garlic Scapes.

1)  Vary It  When cooking a pot of grains for the week, try a different grain.  I’ve been playing with millet–and developing a taste for this fluffy yellow grain.  Cook 1 cup of grain in 2 1/4 cups of water.

2)  Fry It  There’s a reason we all like fried rice.  Added fat up the flavor quotient of almost any bland food.  But you don’t need to add a vat of fat to get the taste benefits.  I used just 1 Tbsp. of a good fat–safflower oil–for four servings.  Hint:  leftover, cold grains are best for frying, after they’ve dried out a bit.

3)  Brighten It  Garlic scapes and green garlic are in season and add wonderful color and flavor to plain old grains.  They’re easy to slice.  I tossed about 1 cup of them in oil before frying the grain.  Sauteeing just a minute or so takes off the raw edge.

4)  Crunch It  While sauteing the garlic, I went one step further (totally optional) and added a handful of pine nuts. Slivered almonds or chopped walnuts are a perfectly fine (and a lot less expensive) alternative.  Toasting for just a minute or so really brings out the flavor.

5)  Finish It  After sauteing the garlic and toasting the nuts, I added about 2 cups of cold millet.  Crumble before adding as it forms into a solid mass when refrigerated.  After adding, leave it alone a couple minutes to brown before turning.  It might pop just a little.  Cover briefly with a lid if necessary.  Once the grain is browned and slightly crispy, turn off the heat and stir in just 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil, if desired.  Serve and enjoy.

How to Make the Best Brown Rice . . .

. . .  and Be a Green Cook at the Same Time

A Bits and Pieces Cooking Tip: Use the cooking water from slow cooker beans to cook brown rice.  Earlier posts have described the benefits and how-tos for making slow cooker beans and how to accelerate the process if the slow cooker is too slow for your circumstances.  Now there’s another advantage to cooking beans this way.  The cooking water can be used to cook brown rice, making it really tasty.

  • This simple trick saves water, a good thing in an increasingly water-constrained world
  • It also saves nutrients.  No need to send them down the drain.
  • Finally it saves time and hassle.  Pour bean water into a quart jar, then store in the frig so it’s pre-measured and ready to go when you’re hurrying to get a pot of rice cooking.

The cooking water for this rice began by boiling some carrot and onion tops too tough to cook. Then some pork chop bones were added. The resulting broth was used to cook pasta, a "bits and pieces" cooking tip from Eugenia Bone. After cooking the pasta, I saved the water for one more use: cooking this rice, which came out almost like a risotto, since the cooking water was so rich by this time.

Pasta water works, too. Good chefs often use pasta water in their sauces with delicious results.

In the same way, cooking rice in leftover pasta water yields very delicious results.  Not surprisingly, the rice ends up tasting a lot like the pasta we all love.  Some tips:

  • When draining the pasta, I pour off the top portion, saving  just two quarts from the bottom of the pot, where all the pasta “dust” packed with pasta flavor settles.
  • If you salt your pasta water (which is a good idea) be sure to adjust the amount of salt you add to the rice before cooking.  In fact, you may not need any additional salt beyond what’s in the pasta water.  Taste a spoonful to see.
  • Gluten free?  No worries.  This trick works with brown rice pasta, too.

See how tempting whole grains can be!

What Makes Whole Grains So Hard to Eat?

. . . and Why Is It So Hard Saying Good-Bye to White?

I’ve been noticing a strange thing:  Magazines and cookbooks in the “health” category frequently feature recipes calling for refined white grains rather than whole grains.

Here’s an example from just last week.  A well-known health magazine has four cooking features.  In three of the four, the carb of choice is a white one:

  • “Banana Walnut Muffins” sound pretty healthy but they’re made with all white flour and sugar.
  • There’s a section on using won ton wrappers.  Clever, but won ton wrappers’ main ingredient is white flour.
  • And then there’s a quick-cook dish made with pearled barley, another refined grain.  At least it’s more nutritious than most refined grains but the fact remains that whole barley can be cooked with no greater time investment by using a slow cooker.

Why this half-hearted embrace of whole grains?  Eating quality grains is no less than one of the four main pillars of healthy eating.  How can it be so routinely ignored?

It’s not like we don’t need help getting whole grains into our diets.  Women aged 31-50 would need to increase whole grain consumption by over 250% and decrease refined grain consumption by 50% to meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for whole grains, which only require that three of our six daily grain servings be whole.  (Men have even more work to do!)

In real life, these statistics play out like this:  A super fit body builder buys boxes of white flour crackers at Costco, even though she is a model of healthy eating in every other way.  An energetic mom serves her family only lean beef, chicken and fish but rounds out the weekly meal lineup with a couple big white pasta dishes.  Or a trim 50-something guy likes to go light at night, so he orders a virtuous vegetarian sandwich–on a white baguette.

What makes it so darn hard to eat whole grains?  It’s not like we’re being asked to eat alien-sounding stuff like kohlrabi, kale or rutabegas.  Nor are we being asked to stop eating carbs altogether.  We’re simply being asked to eat whole grain versions of our white favorites.

Here are some theories about what makes the whole grain shift so challenging:

  1. Lack of Knowledge? Maybe we don’t know that there is such a thing as whole grains and that they are nutritionally superior to refined grains.  Maybe we never knew that things like tortillas, hamburger buns, cakes and French toast are all grain products that can be made from whole grains.
  2. Confusion? Maybe we don’t know where to look for whole grain products.  Maybe we don’t know how to tell if a product is whole grain or not.
  3. Taste: Maybe we’re afraid of what whole grains taste like (which might be warranted if your first exposure was whole wheat lasagna ten years ago; it resembled lead in many ways.)
  4. Uncertainty? Maybe we don’t know how to use whole grains.  Can you just substitute whole wheat flour for white in your favorite muffins?  What kind of whole grain noodles would taste good with pesto sauce?
  5. Comfort Or could our whole grain reluctance come simply from a deep, underlying sense that whole grains just don’t cut it when it comes to comfort?

While all five theories are helpful, to my mind, the comfort one gets to the real heart of the problem.   Think about it:  White foods and comfort go together like grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s Tomato Soup.  The star of every birthday party:  A white flour cake.  The highlight of practically every great kid get-together:  Hot, fragrant, white flour pizza.  The sure fire remedy for all that ails:  Chicken noodle soup or mac ‘n cheese, your choice.

Searching back through my fondest childhood memories, I invariably melt into visions of the fluffy white pancakes my mother made us every Friday morning before school.  No doubt most of us would find many of our fondest memories inextricably wrapped in white stuff, from Thanksgiving pumpkin pies, Christmas strudels and the Sabbath’s challah to graduation cakes, wedding cakes and mom’s lasagna.

So it’s no surprise when some health nut wants to put your grandma’s marinara on whole wheat noodles and you reply, “No way!”  My Jewish neighbor put it this way when asked about whole wheat challah.  “It can be done,” she said, “but . . . well, you know. . . .”  I think we probably all know that it’s tough to wedge whole wheat into our comforting food memories.

Mess with comfort foods and memories and you mess in dangerous territory.

If there’s truth in this theory, then it might not matter whether we know the importance of whole grains, or feel perfectly knowledgeable about where to buy whole wheat flour and how to use it.  Our desire for comfort is going to trump any whole grain virtue we can muster.

What do you think?  Do you struggle to get three out of six whole grain servings each day?  Have you thought about what makes it so challenging?  Share your ideas and I’ll share them in the next newsletter.

What to Make with Brown Rice

Saving Money at the Grocery Store Begins with a Pot of Rice

Tomorrow I’m presenting a class at Erie Community Library:  “How to Cut Costs at the Grocery Store. . . but not Flavor, Nutrition or Fun.”   One key strategy: scouting out opportunities where you could do for yourself and save money–without too much extra effort.  Brown rice is a perfect example.

Making rice from the bulk aisle requires no more prep time than a box of rice mix or instant rice.  (The longer cooking time is easily remedied by cooking it the one or two nights in advance–or by freezing extra portions for nights when you’re in a hurry.)  However, as a previous post revealed, we pay a threefold markup when someone else precooks, seasons and boxes up our rice in single meal portions.  (It could even be closer to fourfold, because home made brown rice is so much denser and nutrient packed than instant–which makes it stretch further.)

A lot of good these money-savings are, however, if you have no idea what to do with rice.   Over the years, I’ve found dozens and dozens of uses for brown rice, to the point where I always keep a pot of cooked rice in the frig.  It easily lasts a week and provides an excellent launching pad for fast, healthy and delicious meals, like Rice Crust Pizza.

A brown rice crust is far healthier than the usual refined white-flour crust–and it’s quite easy to make, taking about 5 minutes.  It can then be topped with anything you’d put on a flour crust.  For a unique twist, this recipe uses Ciolo Foods‘ Roasted Red Pepper Pesto instead of regular pizza sauce, demonstrating another cost saver:  Buy a couple, high-impact specialty foods and use them to jazz up a meal made with inexpensive ingredients like rice, chard and onions.  Because they are feature strong flavors, only small amounts are needed.  My $5.49 tub seemed expensive–until I saw how its concentrated flavors stretched across three meals!  A great investment for fast, flavorful meals that made us feel like we were eating at a chic bistro!

Rice Crust Pizza with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto, Chard and Caramelized Onions

Make the “Crust”

  • 1 lrg. egg
  • 1/4 cup milk or soy milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried leaf basil
  • 1/4 tsp. each, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, or to taste
  • 2 cups lightly packed, cooked brown rice

Crack egg into a medium-sized bowl and beat lightly, then beat in milk, basil, salt and pepper.  Add rice and stir gently to combine everything thoroughly, being sure to break up any clumps of rice.

Lightly oil a 9″ pie pan.  Pour in rice mixture and use a large spoon to spread evenly across bottom of pan and up sides of pan a half inch or so.  Preheat oven to 350 (F), then bake crust about 10-12 minutes, until eggs are cooked through (a sharp knife inserted into the middle will come out clean when done.)

While oven is preheating and crust is cooking, prepare topping:

  • 1 large  red or yellow onion, sliced 1/4″ thick, then cut into 2″ strips
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lrg. bunch chard
  • 1/2 lb. ground chicken or turkey (omit for vegetarian option)

Ina large saute pan, heat oil over medium heat until an onion sizzles when added.  Add onions and cook, stirring occassionally, until lightly browned.  While onions cook, pull stems from chard, slice 1/4″ thick, then stir in and cook with onions.

Once onions are browned, add chicken or turkey, breaking it up into small pieces with the end of spatula as it cooks.  While meat cooks, pile up chard leaves and cut roughtly into 2″ squares.  Wash and spin dry in salad spinner to minimize moisture.  When meat is almost done, stir in chard leaves and cook, stirring every minute or so, until chard is wilted through and any water has evaporated.

Assemble the Pizza

  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup Ciolo Foods Roasted Red Pepper Pesto (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese or 1-2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese

Remove cooked crust from oven and spread pesto evenly over top.  Spread cooked onion, chard and chicken mixture evenly over pesto.  Bake 5-7 minutes, then remove, top with cheese and bake another 3-5 minutes to meld flavors and melt cheese.  Serve immediately.

Serves:  4

Notes:

1. Ciolo Foods” Pesto  Sold exclusively at Whole Foods, they can be found in a number of states.  However, if you are not in the vicinity of a Whole Foods, there is likely a good substitute in your area, although you may have to visit a gourmet or helath foods store.  Ciolo’s are in the refrigerated section, but also check out the canned section for bottled varieties.

2.  Great for Leftovers It takes almost no extra time to double the crust.  You can then vary the topping and have an easy meal the second night.

3.  Meal Ideas Since this dish has a good balance of vegetables, proteins and starch, it can stand alone.  If you want something more, consider a simple salad, plate of sliced cantaloup, or just crunchy sugar snap peas.

How to Cook Brown Rice

A pretty pedestrian topic, I know, but I’ve run into a lot of people who are intimidated by rice cooking. Too bad, since cooking rice from the bulk bin is a lot tastier, healthier and cheaper than instant and packaged rices. (To see the dollars you stand to save, see “Convenience Foods Cost, but How Do You Make Dinner without Them?” ) So here’s a primer on rice cooking. In terms of ingredients, there aren’t many:

  • 2 cups brown rice
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Cooking it is pretty simple, too. Combine everything in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, put on a tight-fitting lid and bring it to a boil. Immediately turn the heat down to the lowest setting so the rice just simmers. Cook until all the water is evaporated and rice is tender. Makes about 7 cups rice.

Here’s the only hard part: Getting in the habit of cooking a pot of brown rice every few days or once a week. You can’t wait until 5:30 p.m. and then decide to have brown rice for dinner. Of course you could cook it while making dinner the previous night. But we usually don’t think ahead like that. Over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of just cooking a pot about every week. then there’s always some rice at the ready for a quick stir-fry, to throw on a salad or soup, or to make a casserole. It lasts at least 4-5 days, but if you can’t use it up that quickly, just freeze whatever’s left.

Troubleshooting: So why do people feel uneasy making it without the help of a box? Likely as not, some rice disaster is lurking in their past, very often associated with the directions in italics. Most are easy to avoid/fix:

Simmer? A liquid is simmering when just the tiniest of bubbles are breaking the surface. Be sure your rice pot is covered and the heat is on the lowest setting to get the kind of simmer that’s just right for tenderizing rice.

Chewy Rice? Don’t forget to turn down the heat right after the water begins to boil. Otherwise, too much water will boil away before the rice has time to soften. If you get busy and forget, just add back a little more water, maybe 2-4 Tbsp. If the rice still isn’t tender when the water is evaporated, add a little more.

Gas Stove? Unless your gas stove has a very low setting, a gentle simmer can be hard to achieve. If your rice is drying out before it’s done, try getting a diffuser, a thick, cast iron disk that goes between pan and burner. It helps moderate the heat.

Tight-Fitting Lids This is not a place to use the “almost-fits” thrift store lid you picked up to replace the one you lost for your good saucepan. If it doesn’t fit well, once again, too much water will boil away before the rice has time to soften. Try adding water as in the previous hint, but for a more long-term solution find a better lid or a buy a new saucepan.

Heavy-Bottomed Saucepan? Speaking of saucepans, if your rice burned prematurely, make sure your pan is a heavy-bottomed one, with layers of metal, not just a single sheet between food and heat source. If you need help knowing how to buy a good pan, talk to me.

How can you tell if the rice is done? Take a fork and dig down into the rice, all the way to the bottom of the pan. You shouldn’t see any water, just nice fluffy rice. Also, taste a cross section. If all the rice is tender, you’re good to go. If not, add maybe 1/4 cup more water and simmer, with the lid on, a little longer.

No Stirring, No Peeking Once you put the rice on to cook, don’t stir it. That will turn it into mush. Also, don’t keep lifting the lid to gauge it. Wait until it’s almost done by the clock to begin checking.

Timing? Speaking of clocks, how long does it take to cook rice? It varies by rice type and altitude. Generally, it takes a full hour here in the mile-high Denver area. But when we visit relatives in Portland, the rice cooks a lot faster, maybe 35-40 minutes. The aromatic rices like basmati and Texmati seem to cook more quickly, too.

Rice Types That brings up the subject of rices. There are many different kinds and they are all wonderful. Use any of the whole grain (not white) rices, but don’t get stuck on just one kind. Bring in a red, wild or jasmine here and there, and try long, short and medium. Note some can be a little pricey, so they might be treats more than standbys.

Get the White Out! Warning, I’m going to be a food snob here. White rice is bland and void of nutritional value. You don’t want to waste your money or calories or time on non-foods like this.

Soaking, Kombu, Rice Cookers, Getting Creative. . . more on those later

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