Friday, February 24, 2012

The Haunted House Soup

There are some meals you just never forget. Your first taste of fresh-from-the-ocean lobster, steamed in a dockside fish shack; your mom's tried and true spaghetti and meatballs; your first taste of sushi and even the dorm-room desperation creations you made with your roommates in college (I admit to having sandwich maker-ized, chili powdered tuna and ketchup sandwiches for lunch regularly in my first and second years). All of these things lodge permanently into your memory, for better or worse, and even though you might later have lobster thermidor at a fancy-pants Michelin star establishment, or artisan spaghetti con polpette in Italy, it is never quite the same as that ingrained taste sensation.

While there are many, many baked goods of my mom's that I can distinctly remember the flavour of and yet can never seem to recreate, the the first meal that pops into my mind as being special is my 18th birthday dinner that my mom, then-boyfriend and I shared on a weekend trip to Montreal. I had asked to go into Quebec for the occasion for a very "student-ine" reason: the drinking age was only eighteen there, unlike Ontario where it was a year older. My mom agreed readily, which may surprise you - but consider that my parents had introduced me to coffee and alcohol at a young age (thus taking the urge to binge on them as "forbidden" later like a few of my schoolmates) and neither of us had been to Montreal in several years. When it came time to pick my "birthday restaurant", it only took a few minutes of browsing RestoMontreal before I knew exactly where I was headed: a funky, out-of-the-way "dinner theatre" like place called La Maison Hantée.

The premise there was simple - each table weaves their way into the dining room led by their waiter, who then becomes part of the "story" in between serving courses and clearing plates. Meanwhile, the diners are entertained by a cast of characters wrapped up in a shortened play, occasionally being brought into the plot themselves. The twist at Maison was (and if you know French you already know) that the whole restaurant is in fact one giant haunted house. An artfully done haunted house, mind you, without chainsaw wielding maniacs and giant tarantulas, but still, a haunted house. The waiters? A cast of reanimated corpses and ghostly figures, all killed off in one shockingly horrific way or another. The way into the dining room? A pitch-black, twisted, uneven-floored maze, wide enough for only a single person and navigable only by clinging to the diner in front of you. And the story? Reminiscent of Thir13en Ghosts, including vengeful spirits, suicidal brides and a wrongful death. The whole thing was gory and frightening without being extraneous in any way, with bits of humour, romance and heartbreak thrown in in a very elegant and - well, French - way.
The menu? On the surface, unremarkable - Lebanese bruschetta-like flatbreads, soup, chicken breast with ham and Swiss, baked baby potatoes and vegetables and chocolate cake for dessert. But the food! Delicious to a fault, in particular the soup. And that soup became something I tried for years to recreate, especially after the Maison suffered major flood damage that made the building unstable and forced it to be demolished. The lot became a condo building (evoking a sort of Joni Mitchell vibe) and the restaurant faded into oblivion. But not that soup. Described as a "lentil and vegetable potage", it sounded simple enough, right? In reality, it really was. Lentils and vegetables, a few herbs, some broth... but the ratios and specifics of it all, and the texture of it - thick, almost baby-food thick, and stick-to-your-ribs for hours without weighing you down - made it unique. The secret, I discovered, was the slow cooking of lots of onion, adding a wealth of carrots, a few cauliflower stems (for the "creaminess") and pureeing everything twice. It's not 100% identical to the Haunted House, but it's close enough that I can close my eyes and flash back to those good ol' days.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Three Beans Make Good Butter!

It should come as no surprise that, as a nutritionist, I have an innate fondness for the world of the complex carb - slash - protein package that is the humble legume. Usually, when you think "bean", images of either long, slender haricots verts with a pat of butter or the pintos, blacks and kidneys you find in chili or Mexican take out. But the whole legume spectrum encompasses more than these - including butter, navy, fava, Great Northern, mung, soy and a host of other (and sometimes super-colourful heirloom) "dry beans" as well as black- and yellow-eyed peas, chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), peas, lentils and peanuts.

A lot of people are surprised to see peanuts in the list of bean-related foods, but they belong to the Leguminosae (or Fabaceae, depending on who you reference) family of plants. Being an edible "seed" in a pod, all legumes are the best source of concentrated protein in the plant world - and peanuts are no exception. For the same amount of calories, legumes provide 2-to-4 times the protein of whole grains.  In fact, charities like UNICEF, Project Peanut Butter and Doctors Without Borders use them to help alleviate malnutrition in third-world countries! It's a world away from the standard lunchtime PB&J, for sure.

For most of us, though, peanuts are normally found in the "nut" category - especially as a "butter". Their naturally higher fat content makes them a natural for the application, making a luscious cream almost on their own with the application of a grinder. Like I showed you with the soynut butter, though, you can make a rich, roasted "spread" from any nut or legume - or combinations of the two. The idea of combining legumes into a spreadable snack was where I started playing around with the soynut butter recipe, adding first roasted kidney beans for a "2-Bean Butter" and finally deciding to use some raw peanuts in concocting a "Triple Legume Butter".  In the end, this unique and delicious spin on the traditional was a great team of peanuts, soybeans and kidney beans - and it has about the same calories and fat of the jarred, storebought kind. Plus, it's relatively cheap if you make your own roasted beans (and even cheaper if you shell your own peanuts - I used raw ones from the bag we usually feed to the squirrels). I didn't add either salt or sugar to the original puree, so that when I use it for baking I can customize those levels to taste. Although, if you're feeling really decadent, you could use melted butter for the oil and turn it into a "true" butter!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Buttermilk Ricotta

Hello Mudda...
Hello Fadda...
Here I have...
Homemade ricotta!

It's nice and creamy, and pretty cheap... and almost something you can do while you're asleep.

Thank you, thank you... *bows*. I promise I will not sing anything else in this post. Really.

But seriously, this cheese is all of the above - not to mention nice and tangy, infinitely variable and one heck of a good way to use up that part-carton of buttermilk hanging out in your fridge after a batch of biscuits or a red velvet cake like what we made for my grandma's birthday a few weekends ago. Plus, you can say you made your own cheese!!

Making any sort of cheese was something I never would have considered doing at home... ever. Rennet, enzymes, bacterial culture, aging? Yikes. But cultured buttermilk has the bacterial work done for you, and since it's a fresh cheese there's no wondering whether you can commandeer the basement for a year (or 6) - it took me about 2 hours start to finish, and most of that wasn't even active work - just draining time. Given the dynamics of my household, this Italian antipasto (or toast topper if you're my mom and stepdad) should have been a no-brainer long ago - but it took a post from Tigress in a Pickle to get my butt in gear and actually try.

Let me say, not only was I thrilled with the results - having attempted this with 1% buttermilk and 1% "regular" milk, I was not sure it would fully coagulate or give me the rich texture that makes homemade manicotti or lasagne so special. But it did, lo and behold, and while my mom was originally going to use it to fill leftover pasta sheets to make dinner over the weekend, after tasting some on Melba toast the day after it was made she commandeered it for her own. She found it richer, with a better character and texture than the storebought "extra-smooth" tubs we pick up each week, and appreciated that it could be that delicious with a lot less fat than the brand name (since the commercial "light" was a little lacking in both flavour and texture for them) and no gums or thickeners either.

So, if you have a few hours, some buttermilk, and a taste for delicious fresh cheese, try making this ricotta - you will not be disappointed!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Make Your Own Soynut Butter

I try to make whatever I do for others in the kitchen as allergy-free as possible, since (if I'm giving it to say, an office or seminar group) I never know who may want to try it and what their conditions may be. For clients with specific intolerances, I don't worry as much about non-relative cross contamination, but usually eggs and most dairy are off the menu simply due to cost. I can't eat eggs or cow dairy myself, so it's worthless for me to buy a whole dozen eggs or a litre of milk for a recipe  when I only need a small amount of either - usually in cases like that where it's imperative that they're included I borrow some from the family's store in the fridge.

One of the other things I use a lot of in my baking are "non-nut" butters (not that you'd be able to tell). While tahini is a bit too runny to stand on its own in something like the "3-ingredient peanut butter cookie" recipe, it functions perfectly well in cake and muffin batters and in small amounts for cookies and frostings. I more commonly use either Sunbutter or Soynut butter for applications needing the paste's "bulk", and given that Sunbutter is available in bulk at the Bulk Barn by me and Soynut butter isn't, the sunflower spread usually wins the day. But when it comes to my latest "pet project" for my nutrition gig - concocting protein, meal replacement and snack bars for clients who are too busy to prepare something or who are used to the "grab n' go" mentality - something with a little less sugar, salt and fat, something that I could control exactly what went into it, is more the order of the day. Thanks to Elise's Hungry Hungry Hippie post on making your own soynut butter, I don't have to shell out for a jar of it now and I get to use some of the fresh-roasted soynuts I just made for pennies!

A food processor or blender, your "nuts", some oil and some water are all you need to get started. Then, it's all up to the artiste in you! Try honey and cinnamon, or be all decadent with cocoa and brown sugar, or simply add a pinch of sea salt and a touch of sugar for au naturale.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Go Soynuts!

Are you a soynut lover? Crunchy, toasty and definitely with handful-to-mouth snackability, these protein rich toasted beans are the new "no-nut nut" on the block, and are a pretty big hit with the low-carb, high protein crowd, as well as parents who need something to tide their kids over from school through soccer / hockey / dance / swimming until dinner is ready that isn't packed full of sugar or preservatives. And with soy's natural high fibre and impressive isoflavone content (shown to help reduce the risk of certain cancers), a handful of them tossed onto a salad is a healthier option to croutons and a lower-fat swap for tree nuts. Since all beans are not only protein sources (as bioavailable as eggs or dairy are), but also complex carbohydrates, they keep you full and energized too.

Unfortunately, even though the beans themselves are plain and simple, many commercially available brands of soynuts are packed with oil, salt, sugar and occasionally allergens like dairy, wheat, egg whites and nuts. GMO status labelling is hit and miss on the packages, which is a concern for most of us who are trying to steer clear of the hormones and synthetic agents linked to problems with fertility and development, plus there are the hosts of doomsday soothsayers that link anything soy to any and all health problems under the sun (which, by the way, is not the case - much like the whole "wheat and gluten is evil" mentality, the problem is overprevalence of the hexane-adulterated, individual components of the raw ingredient in processed food, not the original food itself!). Not to mention, packages of soynuts are on the pricey side - at about $4.50 a pound for non-organic bags and even more for that seal of assurance, those $1 grab bags of chips seem like a much better value snack option for those on the go.

Until now, anyways. What if I told you that you can make your own, preservative / oil / salt / sugar / dairy / egg / nut free snackable soy (or any bean) nuts, for pennies? In fact, when I costed out this recipe with the organic, non-GMO raw soybeans I used, the whole thing - 2 1/2 cups or 10 servings - was forty-five cents. Yes. The same amount in soynuts from the bulk food store (not certified organic or anything free, nor the most expensive variety out there) runs you $2.50. Plus, when you make your own, you have unlimited potential in terms of flavour - try honey and garlic, or salt and vinegar, or even wasabi!

Really, what more could you ask for? Maybe tomorrow's treat - a perfect use for these fresh-roasted goodies!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Three Rice Muffins

One of the perks of being a baker who also happens to have degrees in nutrition is that pretty much whatever I churn out of my kitchen and bring somewhere is pounced upon and devoured without folks fretting that their pants are going to immediately shrink a size. Granted, most of the time that's a correct assumption for them to make - I do try to make the "everyday" type of goodies I bring somewhere lower in the "naughty" things like sugar or butter. But since finishing my holistic degree back in August I've really been developing a love for working with those who, like me, are faced with a life living with food allergies and intolerances. On my end the saga came on suddenly and completely - while as a child and young teen I could (and would) eat almost anything (except caraway and fresh fennel), by age 20 I had a list of "don't pass the lips" foods: all dairy, eggs, meat, oily/fatty foods like avocado and olives, nuts, coconut, wheat, and alcohol.
Needless to say it was quite the learning curve for me, and my passion became making that hill a little less steep for the others around me. What better way than to start with food - and not just any food, but a homemade snack created from easily found, relatively inexpensive and Canadian inspired ingredients? That's exactly where these gluten free muffins came from. Adapted from "A Taste of Minnesota Blueberry Wild Rice Muffins" on VegWeb, these were a huge hit with the new boss and clinic staffers thanks to their delicate yet chewy texture from bursts of wild rice and dried cranberries, mild sweetness and moist crumb.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Layered (Any) Holiday Bars

Ah, holidays. Love them or hate them, there's no getting away from the year-round slew of "special occasion" marketing we've come to! Kicked off with tomorrow's fest - Valentine's Day - our senses get bombarded with opportunities to celebrate - St. Patty's Day, Easter, Victoria Day... all the way through to Thanksgiving, Christmukkanzaa and finally New Year's Eve. Then we get to do it all again!

But after all the commercial smoke and mirrors have had their say, if you're taking part in any event, you know somebody's going to be doing the grunt work of entertaining. If it's your turn to woo a prospective (or current) lover this year, or if there's a Cupid-bashing party on your horizon, you know there's going to be food in the mix somewhere. Preferably something sweet. And chocolatey. I mean, chocolate is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

But it's not the only one. Oh, no. In fact, there are hosts of things you can classify as promoting a more active love life - and for most of them, that perception is firmly rooted in science. Take oysters for example. Get a half-dozen at the raw bar and you're pumping yourself with over twice your daily need for testosterone-boosting zinc. Asparagus with a luscious, creamy Hollandaise? Energy boosting B vitamins, libido enhancing vitamin E and choline, which improves sensation. Even foods not classically considered amorous in nature - think celery, garlic, or mustard - are sexual health-promoting in nature.

Although I didn't intend these bars, made with the sweet-tart combination of orange and cranberry on a thick, chocolate cookie crust, to be an overly romantic treat, but it turns out that the vitamin C in both fruits is quite the charmer of the nutrient world. In particular, vitamin C helps maintain the health of the reproductive organs and promotes blood flow, which I don't need to tell you can help you out in a big way!

By the way, these are also delicious additions to the Christmas buffet table or BBQ spread!

Layered Holiday Bars
Serves 12
275g (just over 1/2 box) Oreo cookie crumbs
3 tbsp butter, melted
3 tbsp orange juice
2 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp tapioca starch
pinch ground ginger
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup prepared cranberry sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 9" square pan with parchment.
  2. Mix cookie crumbs, butter, orange juice and cocoa in a small bowl until well combined. Press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 10 minutes.
  3. In another bowl, whisk together the egg whites and sugar until combined.
  4. Add the tapioca starch, ginger and baking powder, mixing until lumps are gone.
  5. Stir in the orange juice, vanilla and orange zest.
  6. Pour over the baked crust.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes.
  8. Spread cranberry sauce over the orange layer.
  9. Bake 10 minutes longer.
  10. Refrigerate to set before serving.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 177.1
Total Fat: 8.0 g
Cholesterol: 7.6 mg
Sodium: 150.6 mg
Total Carbs: 25.0 g
Dietary Fiber: 1.3 g
Protein: 2.0 g

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Handful Muffins

I love cleaning up the remnants of the pantry after we have a baking spree in the household. Yesterday was my grandma's birthday celebration, and even though we simply made my mom's tried-and-true red velvet cake and beef stroganoff, going into my baking pantry for the ingredients struck me with all the potential I had hanging around in my own home!
In the savoury kitchen, when you have a ton of ingredients but no clear idea how they really "fit", you have soup, stews, jams, sauces, compotes and casseroles at your disposal. Gosh knows I've used that trick many a time to use up things sitting wanton in our fridge, freezer and pantry! But when you get into the sweet kitchen and bakery, your options are a wee bit more limited. I mean yes, you can do pie filling (like mincemeat, quite the "toss everything into a pot" recipe), and banana bread is a good vessel for adding things (as is carrot cake - go figure). But the flavour combinations and chemistry are a bit more, shall we say, dainty.
However, one of the best catch-all recipes in the baking world is the humble muffin. A mini-bread in it's own right, you can make them sweet or savoury - and sometimes both! But come on, you know me. I might be a nutritionist, but I do like my sweets. And baking (duh). Besides, these may be absolutely delicious coffee-break snacks, but they're not all that horrible for you (like some of the *ahem* other options you have). There's only 2 tbsp of oil in the whole thing (and it's Canadian canola, which is still one of the healthiest oils out there), plus no eggs or dairy, tons of whole grains, non-GMO soy, dried fruit, mineral rich pumpkin seeds and even a secret veggie addition to boot (hint: it's like a carrot, but it's not a carrot)! Am I justifying my treat-baking nature? Maybe a bit. But you can't deny it's effective at assauging the fears of even the most diet-conscious noshers!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Aphrodisiac Mix for V-Day

Are you a lover of all things Valentine's Day? Or a lover on Valentine's Day? Personally, I'm not really either of those - I'm not a hater (like some other singles I know) - I totally give kudos to all the happy couples out there, but in my humble opinion you should be expressing your love to your significant other every day, not simply once a year, and a sappy card, roses and box of chocolates doesn't really indicate l'amour in it's true form. I mean, they don't hurt, but what about hugs and tender kisses a few times a day, saying "I love you" more than once in a while, going for walks together and even going for a spontaneous drive with a custom mix of "your songs" playing in your car? Of course, even the day-to-day, mundane things like taking out the garbage, cooking dinner or emptying the dishwasher can be incredibly thoughtful and might just leave your partner with enough energy for a more rambunctious activity after the meal is cleared away.

But if you are looking for something a little more special (but still affordable and above all, meaningful) for this holiday, why not take a look around your own hometown? Most areas have activities of some sort going on all year round, from evening skating to concerts and even vintage movie nights. Singles have their pick of the "mingle" events, and even if you aren't jumping into the dating pool (hear, hear!) its always fun to meet new friends and form networks with those nearby.

If you are attached, though, and you don't want to wait until the supper hour to turn up the aphrodisiac dial this V-Day, you're going to need some good quality energy. Luckily, I have just the thing for your tastebuds - a fruity, nutty, chocolate-laced snack mix that's not only gorgeous to look at and delicious to eat (or feed to your intended...) but is rich in the aphrodisiac-like vitamins and minerals as well as long-lasting energy that will help you keep up the romance well into the night.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Almost Everything Free Pitas

After those last two chickpea spreads, I couldn't leave you without something to put them on!! I mean, crackers and veggies are fine and dandy (and trust me, the savoury hummus is the best pasta sauce I've tasted!) but sometimes you need something bready. But what if you need (or want) an allergy-free, homemade alternative to the bakery's pocket-y pita bread?

Well, thankfully there's another option. I actually started looking for a gluten-free, yeast free pita bread that I could easily veganize when I was putting together my Resetting Yourself program in early January. Blundering around in the sea of Google results, I clicked onto a gem of a website called Gluten-Free on a Shoestring. Gluten free goodies, made on the cheap? Count me in! Nicole Hunn (who also authored a book by the blog's name) has a host of culinary delights to browse through, including gluten- and yeast-free pita bread! With pockets! I was so glad you'd think I had just won the jackpot.

And with a few small modifications to her formula, I think I did. The original recipe was gluten and yeast free, but I needed to eliminate the dairy, processed soy, egg and corn ingredients for a client on my program. A mixture of ground flax slurry (my current favourite egg replacer) and prepared ener-G powder stood in for the egg and egg white while adding a little boost of nutrition and fibre, and I used water in place of the milk since I didn't want to buy a whole container of rice or hemp milk for 6 breads. My own blend of GF all-purpose flour (which I call "Gluten Free 'Anything' Flour" and is in both my Dining Not Dying and Outside the Box cookbooks), brown rice flour and millet flour formed the base dry mixture, and a homemade baking powder replaced the cornstarch formula I had on hand. Because xanthan gum is sourced from corn, I relied on guar gum instead for binding. Flavour wise, I bumped up the "Middle Eastern" aspect of pita bread with fruity olive oil, toasted sesame oil and a pinch of cumin for good measure.

The best part about not needing yeast was that it was in and out of the oven in under an hour, and even without a pizza stone fired to a gazillion degrees the finished loaves opened into glorious envelopes perfect to stuff with whatever you might fancy. Of course, you don't have to create pockets - you can also use them as mini pizza bases or cut them into wedges to go with your favourite dip (and might I suggest the hummuses?).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Spreadable Peanut Butter Cookie

I'm on a chickpea kick. At least this time my yen is relatively timely, thanks to the Superbowl tomorrow, but as much as I'm a savoury, garlic and pepper girl with the traditional dip, I've got one mad sweet tooth. I bet you couldn't tell with this blog's general bill of fare, right?

At any rate, I was craving something like a creamy, rich and nut-buttery cookie batter, but without the rather large dose of guilt eating a bowlful of raw dough would bring with it. Egg and raw flour concerns aside, it's cookie dough - not much else besides the butter and sugar (not that the 6 year old part of me minds that on occasion either...). Seeing a partial container of chickpeas that I had cooked for the other hummus, I suddenly remembered these chickpea chocolate chippers I had made. Why not bridge the gap between cookie and hummus love, especially in this month of all things amorous?

The tryst began in the food processor, a tête-à-tête of garbanzos, a touch of sweetening and a dash of spice. A dollop of peanut butter smoothed out the rough patches and - for lack of a better suggestive term - lubricated things along the way. Finally, the love child was born: a thick spread smacking of peanut butter cookie dough flavour and mouthfeel, but with a touch of grown up grace and a notable lack of added butter or oil. I even used all natural peanut butter, no sweetening, just a touch of salt, so it was comfortably within the boundaries of "good for you".

I mean, until you smear it on sugar-crusted cinnamon toast or smush a glob between cookies and freeze it for a nighttime snack. I can't control what happens afterwards!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hummus Like Grandpa's

Or, as I like to call it, "yummus"!
I am such my grandfather's granddaughter. More than anyone else in the family, I have his adoration for trivia, details, spices, and ethnic fare. Along with his taste for curry and hot sauce (he once tasted a flight of habanero sauces without blinking an eye or touching the water cup - at age 70!), Grandpa's got a rather deft hand in the kitchen - especially when it comes to scrambled eggs, pancakes, and my favourite - garlicky, creamy hummus.

I have yet to perfect Grandpa's recipe for hummus (and there's no point in asking since it's always a slap-dash "chuck in the blender" type thing), but I do know that it is tangy with lemon and packed with garlicky goodness, and not overly oily either (in fact, I never remember seeing any oil floating to the top of the jars). I don't recall the thick, yet still dippable, spread being super sesame-ish either, hinting that though there was likely the conventional tahini in the mix, it wasn't as much as a lot of the recipes out there. Personally, I don't bother buying tahini since it just sits in the fridge after a single use and goes bad!

When I started playing around with the recipe, I came up with the idea of using simply ground sesame seeds instead. Actually, since I already had a batch of ground sesame seeds mixed with ground and flax seeds on hand, thats what I used. The one thing I learned quickly - and I'm sure Grandpa would definitely approve - is that this definitely tastes best (and is way cheaper!) when you've used home-cooked chickpeas! In fact, the man himself got a taste of it practically out of the processor, and I dare say he enjoyed it as much as I did!