Sunday, November 12, 2017

What to Cook this Week

Artichokes are strange-looking things and are in fact, thistles. Spiky, thorny plants, actually. They are not well-known in Germany and so I didn’t grow up with them. It wasn’t until I was introduced to them through my husband that I really started eating them. One of his family’s favorite appetizers is an artichoke dip that we’d see every year at Thanksgiving. There was MAJOR disappointment in fact if it didn’t appear on the table at every family gathering! Although I found them rather weird in the beginning, I took to them and have loved them ever since.

The artichoke is mentioned as a garden plant in the 8th Century by Homer and Hesiod. In fact, the naturally occurring variant for the artichoke, the cardoon, is native to the Mediterranean area. In its wild state it can also be found in Northern Africa. Improvements in the cultivated form appear to have taken place in the Medieval period in Spain, France, Italy, Holland and England. From Europe they were taken to the United States in the 19th Century; to Louisiana by French immigrants and to California by the Spanish.

There are several cultivars that consist of either green, purple, white and spined varieties. In the U.S., large globe artichokes are typically boiled or steamed. Each country prepares them differently: some in stews, some eaten as appetizers, as we typically do, by pulling off a leaf and dipping it into mayonnaise, butter or hollandaise sauce. In many countries, artichokes are served stuffed with fillings. In Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Armenia a favorite filling is made of lamb, spices, onions and raisins, each leaf acting as a scoop to get to the filling. I’ve never tried making them this way but am intrigued and have to give that a try some time. You just have to pry them open a little after lightly steaming them, I imagine, to get all that stuffing goodness in there.

If you do steam them plain, as most people typically do, here’s trick to keeping them green. Due to oxidation, artichokes can turn brown once cooked. To avoid this, place them in slightly acidified water with vinegar or lemon juice added to prevent discoloration. This helps them maintain that bright green color. Brown artichokes are not very pretty!

So, today I have an artichoke recipe I’d like you to try. This makes a great weeknight dinner that you can get on the table fairly quickly.

Chicken with Artichokes and Olives

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
1 tsp olive oil
2/3 cup chicken broth
1 can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup pitted nicoise olives*
2 Tbsp drained capers
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp dried organo
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Lemon wedges

Rinse chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place each breast half between sheets of plastic wrap and with a flat mallet or rolling pin, gently and evenly pound chicken to 1/4” thick. Peel off plastic wrap.

Pour oil into an 11-12” non-stick fry pan over high heat, and when oil is hot, add chicken in a single layer, without crowding. When edges begin to turn white, turn pieces and cook until no longer pink in the center, 3-4 minutes total. As chicken is cooked, transfer to a platter and keep warm. If you’re working in batches, cook the next batch.

Add broth, artichoke hearts, olives, capers, lemon juice and oregano to the pan; stir, scraping browned bits free, until mixture boils. Stir in parsley, and then spoon sauce evenly over chicken. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with lemon wedges.

If you eat noodles, this works over hot cooked capellini (angel hair pasta), otherwise lightly cooked zucchini “noodles”. Serve with a green salad with slivers of fennel.

I would serve this with a chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Fume Blanc.

* You can use kalamata olives, but they are a bit too strong for this dish. The Nicoise olives are a bit more subtle.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Deconstructing Meal Planning

When it comes to cooking, one of the most challenging things for many people on special diets to do is to plan a weekly menu. It can be overwhelming. (In fact, even if you’re NOT on a special diet, it’s too much sometimes.) So many restrictions to remember; so many food combinations possible. A lot of people struggle with this.

When creating a menu plan it’s important to remember to vary your food choices from week to week and make sure you’re rotating things, to ensure a broad intake of nutrients while avoiding the foods that cause you digestive trouble. Many people fall into the trap of eating the same things over and over again because a) they know what dishes work and don’t make them sick so they stick to what they know, or b) they are hesitant to venture into the “unknown” and try new things because their cooking skills are limited.

When things are overwhelming, the solution is to “chunk it down”. Just like with any problem we may face, when we take what seems monumental and break it down into its component parts, it becomes much more manageable. No different with meal planning. Despite being fairly organized, it’s become too much for me to have to plan a whole week’s worth of meals, so I'll do 3-4 days at a time and just shop once more each week. I like this better anyway because I’d rather my produce be super fresh than sitting in my fridge all week before I get around to eating it.

So let’s chunk it down and go step by step in creating a meal plan for you!

First: take out a sheet of paper and write the days of the week down the left hand side.


Next to that add a column for your protein. Feel free to put down whatever you like here. If you don’t eat beef, obviously replace that with something you do eat. If you’re a vegetarian, make it lentils one night, tofu the next, beans and rice the next.

Mon               Chicken
Tues               Beef
Wed               Eggs
Thu                Pork
Fri                  Fish

Next, add a column for a vegetable or 2 that you think goes well with that protein.

Mon               Chicken      Greens beans, cauliflower, carrots
Tues               Beef            Broccoli, green onions
Wed               Eggs            Zucchini, eggplant
Thu                Pork            Butternut squash, sweet potato
Fri                  Fish             Spinach

Then think of a dish that would marry those veggies and protein together nicely.

Mon               Chicken      Greens beans, cauliflower, carrots        
                                          Result: Curry chicken & veg
Tues               Beef            Broccoli, green onions                          
                                          Result: Chinese beef & broccoli
Wed               Eggs            Zucchini, eggplant                                
                                          Result: Veggie frittata w/tomato sauce
Thu                Pork            Butternut squash, sweet potato              
                                          Result: Roasted pork & veggies
Fri                  Fish             Spinach                                                  
                                           Result: Fish & sautéed spinach w/garlic

It really helps to do all this planning at home. If you try to “wing it” and do it at the grocery store in your head, you run the risk of being sidetracked by the overwhelming number of choices there. You’ll probably end up buying random stuff and not being able to put a cohesive meal together. Plus, you will probably end up spending more money than you would have if you had a list and kept to it. So, plan it out at home first. This way you can also take stock in what you already have. Maybe you have some veggies that need to be eaten or herbs or spices you want to use. Start there and build your meals around those things. Sometimes I even plan a dinner around a seasoning. For instance, I have some rosemary plants in my yard that needed trimming, so I pruned them back and dried them out for a few days. What can I do with rosemary? It goes well with lamb, beef, chicken and pork. Let’s say we choose chicken. I chop my dried rosemary really fine, add salt and pepper and sprinkle that mix over both sides of my chicken breasts. I roast them in a 350° F. oven for 30 minutes. And because the oven’s already on, I would roast sweet potatoes and butternut squash together as well beforehand (they take longer than the chicken).

Or maybe I’m in the mood for curry. Do I want green curry or curry powder? Let’s say I want green (big surprise. I’m a lover of all things green). I think chicken and veggies go well with curry. Since a combination of vegetables is nice, I choose cauliflower, carrots, snap peas and red bell pepper to make it colorful and contain a variety of nutrients. I need green curry paste and a can of coconut milk for that and presto, I have dinner. So all that gets written down on my meal planner and after taking stock of what I have (I always have green curry paste in the fridge and about 4-5 cans of coconut milk in my pantry), all I need to buy are the veggies and chicken. This is a super healthy, super quick dinner to make, by the way. If you eat rice, you can make that as a bed for your curry stir fry, or you can buy some ready-made and just reheat it in the microwave. If you don’t eat grains, you can put it on a bed of cauliflower “rice” instead.

Hopefully you see now how simple it can be to put a meal plan together. Don’t stress over it. Use the internet, your cookbooks and this blog for inspiration. Chunk it down into manageable steps, and feel free to email me at if you have any questions.

Good luck!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What to Cook this Week

Where I live, it was just 108 degrees last week and now it’s 68. Crazy. And very much welcome, I might add. So, it’s official: Fall is here! And as you may know, Fall is my favorite time of year. I love the transition (albeit a fast one this time) from the heat of summer, to the cool, crisp evenings and mornings of Autumn. I especially love the way the light changes. I just noticed this the other day, while I was out for my daily walk. Where the light is harsher and brighter in summer, ambient light becomes warmer and richer and more golden in Fall. The sky is just different. Clouds are different. It’s an amazing transition.

With the shorter days now, Fall is the time to start making stews and nourishing broths for soup, for casseroles, braising vegetables and meat, and of course baking!

At some point, despite all the recipes on the internet, we can sometimes find ourselves fresh out of ideas. So I’m here to help. “What to Cook this Week” is a new feature, meant to provide you (and me) with a few ideas for things to put on the menu this week.

I look to what’s currently in season to help inspire me. This time of year it’s not hard to come up with the usual fall-themed ingredients: apples, artichokes, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, grapes, kale, parsnips, pears, pomegranates, pumpkins, rutabagas and winter squash, to name a few.

Today I want to cover apples and I have 2 recipes for you to consider.

Apples are good so many different ways. They can be, and usually are, made into something sweet (like the apple oven cake that I simply love), but they can also be used in savory dishes, like alongside a pork loin. In fact, fruit is often used with pork. I’ve seen apricots, as well as berries, used. Fruit tends to offset the gaminess of the meat a bit. If you’ve never had this combination and think it might be weird, try it anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised.  Here is a recipe I usually make this time of year.

Pork Loin with Apples, Prunes and Mustard Cream Sauce

1 (4-lb) boneless pork loin roast
1 3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Granny Smith apples
1 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup packed dried pitted prunes, quartered
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp coarse-grain mustard
1/2 cup dry white wine


Preheat oven to 375F.
Heat oil in an oven-safe heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot, then brown the pork on all sides, 6-8 min per side. Transfer skillet to oven and roast the pork until the thermometer inserted diagonally at least 2 inches into the meat registers 150F, about 40-50 minutes.

While pork roasts, peel, quarter and core apples, then cut into 1/4 inch thick wedges. Add a little butter to a pan and cook onion over moderate hear, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3-5 minutes. Add apples, prunes, broth and water and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until apples are tender and prunes have plumped up and softened, 10-12 minutes. Stir in cream and mustard and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and keep sauce warm, partially covered. Transfer pork to a cutting board, cover with foil, and let stand 10 minutes. Add wine to skillet, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until reduced to about 1/4 cup, 2-3 minutes. Stir pan juices into cream sauce along with remaining 3/4 tsp salt and 3/4 tsp pepper and heat sauce over moderate heat, stirring, until hot.

Serve the pork and sauce alongside potatoes, ideally mashed, but you could also roast them if you wish, and tender green beans or roasted broccoli. Serve with one of the following wines: Dry Riesling (not a sweet one, a dry one), Viognier, Malbec, Grenache or Nero d/Avola.

Now for something else with apples. Next time you head to Costco, or buy a ton of apples at the farmer’s market because they simply looked so good, make applesauce. This is a super-healthy version, without sugar, and honestly 100% better than anything store-bought.

Applesauce makes a great snack, and if you have a baby or toddler to feed, you’ve gotta try this sometime. It’s soooo easy! And what’s nice is you can control the spices that go in. Let’s say you want to add the complexity of pumpkin pie spice, or any of those spices individually, like maybe just the cinnamon and nutmeg, you can do that. Experiment each time you make it until you dial the spices in just the way you like ‘em.

Cinnamon Applesauce

4 pounds tart apples, cored, peeled (optional) and sliced
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup water

Place everything into a slow cooker bowl and stir. Cook on low for 6 hours.

For a smooth applesauce, place in a blender or food processor and, in batches, puree until smooth.

That’s it for this week. I hope you make the pork and applesauce and feel free to leave a comment below with the results, or how you changed it up, if you did, and what you thought.

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