Sweet Potato Trio: Part I

I had the brilliant idea over the weekend to purchase some sweet potatoes. I didn’t always like sweet potatoes but once I developed a liking an adoration for them, the desire to create new recipes with sweet potatoes as the highlight definitely increased.

Well, on Friday I purchased four sweet potatoes with the initial desire to make basic sweet potato fries. As the weekend waned, I tried to think of what else I could possibly do that could be fun and tasty. With the temperatures decreasing as the autumn days go on, the answer is clear: soup!

I’d never made a blended soup before, always using the fact I don’t have a fancy-schmancy high-power restaurant-grade blender as an excuse never to try. I have a pretty decent food processor with which I’ve made nut butters and other blending-intensive foods… could it handle making soup?

There’s only one way to find out!

Thick & Creamy Curried Sweet Potato Stew
Makes at least 6 cups of stew.

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes (peeled, cut, and baked for 40 minutes or until done)
  • 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp yellow curry powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened plain soymilk, or other non-dairy milk of choice

Put all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until completely creamy. You may need to scrape down sides as you go along. Serve hot.

Easy? Check. Great flavor? Yes, sir. Hearty yet healthy? Yes and yes.

But a success it was not!

I noticed almost immediately that its consistency was similar to that of baby food; but, I still brought a serving with me for lunch the next day. I hoped that nobody would see or comment on what I was eating at my desk, but of course the FIRST coworker to pass by my desk asked, “…baby food?”

*groan!*

And that’s why this is “Part I” in a three-part series. The next two posts will be about how I turned this semi-failure into two successes! Just remember: If at first you don’t succeed……!

Gummy Vitamins for the Kid in You

I love fruits and veggies, which is more that what many people in the world today could say. Because of this, I would safely (and naively) assume that I was getting everything my body needs, on both a macro- and micro-nutrient level. Well, I was wrong.

After many years on Spark People, I learned a thing or two about nutrients and their importance, as well as how tricky it is to hit the levels of each that are needed by our bodies.

My first point is that eating “whole” produce is of highest importance to me. This means no deep-frying, cheese-covering, or over-salting! Sweet potatoes are healthy, but if you deep fry them and drizzle globs of ranch dressing on top, the point is pretty much gone and forgotten. Having an apple isn’t the same when you coat it in caramel, sprinkles, and chocolate chips. Just ask your dentist.

Secondly, fruits and vegetables are different. Fruits taste awesome and are loved by the masses more than veggies because of one simple truth: sugar. 95% of fruits (my guesstimation, not a real fact) have sugar in it. Vegetables, not so much. The vegetables that people do enjoy tend to be those with more sugar, such as carrots and tomatoes (rather than mushrooms and spinach). Many (not all) vegetables are more nutrient-dense than their fruit counterparts. One cup of grapes, for instance, is about 105 Calories and will give you 22mcg of vitmain K while one cup of spinach is less than 10 Calories and will give you about 145mcg of vitamin K!

Finally, don’t expect to be perfect. I know I’m low in calcium. I love spinach (which has a lot of calcium in it) and I drink non-dairy milk, but I’ve always struggled to get the recommended 1000mg, even with Spark People’s help. Since significantly reducing dairy intake, it’s gotten even more difficult. On occasion, I’ll have a couple of Tums tablets to give myself a little nutrient boost.

Speaking of nutrient-boosting, I do take a multivitamin every day. As mentioned in my first point, getting your nutrients from whole foods is best; however, as mentioned in my final point, perfection is rarely achieved!

Currently, Slice of Life Adult Gummy Multivitamin+ are the vitamins I take every morning. They’re allergen-free and have no added sugar… and they taste great!

In my apartment, I always keep a couple of bottles of my personal favorite: Trader Joe’s Adult Gummy Vitamins. They have added sugar (which is probably why I say they’re my favorite, haha) but still pack in tons of nutritional value!

Gummy vitamins have won over my boyfriend and I, especially after issues I’d had in the past with vitamin pills. I used to take One-A-Day Women’s Multivitamin and no matter what time of day I’d take it, no matter what or how much I ate before/during/after taking it… I’d get sick within 20 minutes! Awful!

When trying to determine good whole-food sources of nutrients (so you don’t have to pop pills), here are some good websites to reference:

  • Vitamins Nutrition Chart – A great breakdown of each vitamin and the sources from which you can get it. Also, further information on high-nutrient foods.
  • The World’s Healthiest Foods – An extremely comprehensive list of the “World’s Healtheist Foods”, including recipes and in-depth nutritional analysis, down to the micro-nutrient level.

I haven’t done much more than research micro nutrients; I can barely master macro! I’ll definitely blog again about nutrients in the future, hopefully to touch upon the micro side of things, too!

“Hollah”!

One of my favorite things about being Jewish is the food. (Hell, food is one of my favorite things about life in general!)

Every holiday has its own delicious foods: Passover is all about charoset; Chanukah has latkes; and Rosh Hashanah has challah.

Rosh Hashanah is the kick-off to the Jewish new year. The foods you eat to celebrate usually involve sweetness and roundness. The sweet foods consumed include honey and apples (usually together) and are supposed to represent “ringing in a sweet new year”. Round foods (apples, and round-shaped challah) are symbolic of how cyclical time is.

I’m not much of a bread-baker, as it tends to take a lot of time. Mixing, kneading, rising, kneading, rising again, kneading, shaping, baking… waiting… cooling… waiting…! I’m too much of a lover of instant gratification for me to do this all the time! But, I suck it up when Rosh Hashanah rolls around!

For those who are like me, you may be nervous to try baking bread for a number of reasons, but believe me when I say that this recipe is idiot-proof! All you have to do is make sure you have all the ingredients and that you have about 3 hours to spare.

Challah, like everything else around this time, is commonly eaten with honey, but it’s delicious by itself, too. Also, challah makes the best french toast. Seriously.

You’ll love challah, I promise!

Beyond Ramen and Udon: Why Soba is King

I’m a proud, proud carb-a-holic. I have no problem having a piece (or two…) of garlic bread alongside macaroni and cheese. I am guilty of eating ice cream for dinner. I’ll eat oatmeal with a super-sweet soy pumpkin spice latte without being fazed. Have no fear! I usually eat a more balanced diet than this, but I also listen to my body (which seems to be desiring grains at the moment) so if carbs is what I want, carbs is what I’ll have. As a back-up, I do have a multivitamin every day. *flexes wannabe muscles*

Our pantry is full of grains in many forms: oats (rolled and steel-cut), rice (basmati, brown, and arborio), cereal grains (amaranth, quinoa, and bulgar wheat), and pasta (the common enriched Italian-style varieties, udon, ramen, soba, and rice noodles). Each has its own purpose, but one is the latest discovery of mine and now reigns supreme in my carb-cooking kitchen: soba.

Soba is a Japanese noodle that is unlike any other. It’s thin and elegant, but sturdy enough that it won’t flop around and fall apart like ramen (another thin noodle) does. Like other Japanese noodles, soba cooks in very little time and requires precisely two neurons to prepare.

I mean… no measuring water? Sweet. I’ve never been one to measure 6 cups of water to boil for macaroni: I just eyeball it. The first step in the soba instructions is to put it into “plenty of [boiling] water”. Awesomely easy, no?

Soba is fabulously vegan and packed full of nutrients because it’s made with the superfood buckwheat. Yes, it’s high in sodium, so I wouldn’t make this an everyday food item, but I think the fiber, iron, and protein it contains (as well as the cholesterol and sugar it doesn’t) outweighs the 40% of your daily intake of sodium!

If this didn’t prove my point, just look at the stuff!

Tell me it’s not packaged in the cutest way ever? (I rarely use the word “cute” but I think this is an occasion that warrants it.) It has a little sash around each bundle so, unlike spaghetti, a serving size is really easy to measure. Yeah, I bet different brands of noodles have different packaging, but I officially love this one!

Previously, I’ve simply tossed freshly-cooked soba noodles in tamari soy sauce, crushed red pepper, and shredded zucchini. This time around, I wanted to do something different.

Orange-Scented Soba and Kale Salad
Makes two generous portions, or four side-dish-sized servings.

  • 4 cups kale, chopped into very thin shreds (about 3-4 large leaves)
  • 120 grams soba noodles (one bundle, if using JFC brand)
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp tamari soy sauce (or regular soy sauce if you don’t have tamari on hand)
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro (use fresh if you have it available to you)
  • 1/2 tsp sriracha hot sauce (optional if you don’t like heat)
  • a couple of dashes of fresh-cracked black pepper

Cook the soba according to directions. Strain, then rinse in cold water until noodles are completely cool. Set aside.

In a medium glass bowl, whisk together all ingredients except soba and kale. When combined, add kale and toss until coated. Add soba noodles and toss again until all ingredients are evenly distributed. (Don’t be scared to use your hands!)

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

If I had other veggies in my fridge, I would have used them! Maybe next time I’ll shred carrots, zucchini, and summer squash and include these in the recipe. Regardless, I plan on eating this for lunch the next few days, topping it with some tofu and/or kimchee, or maybe I’ll be weird and add some falafel!

But leaving it just as-is would be fine, too. Nom.

Five of My Favorite Family Dinners

I’ve always, always been a fan of family dinners, so I’ve been fully supportive of the new-found initiative by many organizations and agencies promoting such a thing. When I heard about Blog for Family Dinner, I knew I had to write a post about this!

In my world, current and past, family dinners are a given; in fact, I never really thought of not having dinner with my parents at the kitchen table every night! Every afternoon I would come home from school and hit the books to get my homework done asap. (I’m a dork, so sue me!) Up until 7th or 8th grade, my mom stayed at home, so she’d be brainstorming and preparing dinner before I even got home. When I got older, however, she would come home from work at least an hour after me, so dinner planning was a bit less… planned. Regardless, 90% of the time we’d have a home-cooked meal. (The other 10% would be those nights where we’re both not in the mood, and simply ask my dad to pick something up for us on his way home!)

Age two -ish, eating something while at the beach with my parents.

My mom would start cooking dinner when my dad called on the beginning of his drive home which, thanks to the Long Island Expressway rush-hour, would take about an hour or so. My mom would do the majority of the cooking, but I was always eager to help. Usually my job was to make the salad and set the table, and my dad usually cleaned up the table while my mom put the dishes in the dishwasher. On the days where we wouldn’t cook, my dad would usually stop at this great Italian restaurant and get us linguine and clam sauce or pizza, or get Chinese take-out. No matter if it was cooked in our kitchen or not, we still ate it on our plates, using real silverware (or our chopsticks set), and at our table. My dad would come home at around 6:30-7:00pm, change out of his suit and into lounge-wear, and we’d sit at the table for dinner.

We’d talk about our day: mom about work (when she was employed) and/or the daily neurotic, one-sided, gossipy phone call with her mother or sister (when she stayed at home); dad about business-y sort of stuff that usually went over my head; and me about school (well, whatever my parents could drag out of me, as I wasn’t much of a talker). We did have a TV in our kitchen (*gasp!* sacrilege!) but we’d only have one of three things on, and at a low enough volume that we could still talk during commercials: Jeopardy!, the news, or 60 Minutes. Looking back, I think my parents wanted me to stay up-to-date on what was going on in the world. (Thanks, mom! Thanks, dad!)

When trying to come up with how to express my feelings about family dinners, I didn’t want to spit out the same stuff that everyone knows and reads about: eating together decreases children’s risks of obesity and getting into trouble, kids get better grades, the family unit is more stable, blah blah blah. That’s all good and all very valid, but what I want to share with you is simple: the memories. Having great memories of family dinners is why I know eating at a dinner table will without a doubt be a part of my future family’s routine. So, without further ado, here are my five favorite family dinner memories:

  1. The Night the Ladies Put Dad in His Place — I don’t remember this, but this story has been told so many times by my mother that I feel like I do! Just for a bit of back-story, I’m my mother’s only child but my dad had two children with his first wife: my half-brother and my half-sister, 18 and 16 years older than me, respectively. I was probably two years old and we were living in our “old house”. We were eating dinner at our wood-panel covered particle board dinner table in our classic 80s kitchen (avocado green dishwasher, corn husk yellow refrigerator, orange and yellow linoleum tiles). I was innocently eating dinner when my dad, assuming I had finished, started eating off of my plate. Well, I immediately start bawling and say, “Da-da-daddy… *sniffle*… I’m not done!!!” My mother, a professional at the sport of guilt-tripping, says, “Ed! You’re stealing off of your daughter’s plate!” You’d think he’d know I had the same food-loving attitude as my older siblings! How dare he!
  2. The Night I Learned About “Manitas” — My mom is 100% Puerto Rican and is the main reason why I love trying new things. Most of my experiences trying different Puerto Rican dishes growing up resulted in a love for them: pasteles, platanos, acapurria, yuca root, mofongo, avocado, mango, etc. But, I don’t love them all! One night my mom was preparing something for dinner that she said I should try, but forewarned me that I may not like it. She called it “manitas”, which means “little hands” in Spanish. I looked in the pot she had on the stove and saw what looked like little white, lumpy cubes simmering in broth. She saw the look of confusion on my face and told me, “They’re pig knuckles… well, pig feet.” Seeing me practically turn green, my lovely mother told me that I could call my dad and ask him to pick up a pizza for the two of us instead. She ate the “pig knuckles” over white rice while my dad and I held our noses, averted our eyes from what she was doing, and happily ate our delicious New York pizza.
  3. The Many Nights I Brushed Up on Spanish — As I already mentioned, my main supper-time job was to make salad and set the table. My mother always took it upon herself to make this educational: sometimes she would teach me to properly cut certain vegetables; sometimes she’d teach me a new salad dressing to make from scratch; and, many times she’d take the time to teach me new words in Spanish. Being Puerto Rican, my mother is fluent in both Spanish and English. Figuring it would be an easy A for me, I took Spanish in junior high school and high school (4 years total, in addition to one semester of it in college). Indeed, it was an easy A for me, and my mom is definitely a major reason for that. I learned “cucharra” (spoon), “servilleta” (napkin), and “arroz” (rice), to name just a few, far earlier than the curriculum in school would have me learn them. In fact, I basically knew nouns and verbs taught as far as my 2nd year in Spanish as early as elementary school! Of course, my father never picked up on the language like I did. Even after 27 years of marriage, my father knows nothing more than “garbanzo beans” and a few dirty words in Spanish!
  4. The Night I Ruled the Kitchen — For those of you who have always had siblings, hear this: as an only child, you really really have to learn to entertain yourself. This was very true for me, given that nearly all of my memories at home were of myself and my parents (my brother was a college freshman when I was born, and my sister left for college when I was a year and a half old). I’ve always loved food, so with an abundance of free time, imagination, and cookbooks at my disposal, it’s not surprising that I found many ways to keep myself occupied in the kitchen, far beyond my Easy Bake Oven! If memory serves me correct, it was my parents’ anniversary and I was probably no older than 10 or 11 years old. It was the weekend and I was hunting for something to do. I opened up my mom’s Betty Crocker Cookbook and desperately searched for a recipe with which to surprise my parents. I found something that I knew I loved at restaurants and for which we had the ingredients on hand: quiche lorraine. Not only did I make my first pie crust from scratch (something I honestly can’t do today), but my quiche came out great. I set our dining room table (not just our kitchen table… this was a special event, after all!), made a salad, poured glasses of Pepsi, and set my quiche on the table for my parents’ surprise. To this day, they still talk about “how Jessie made us a quiche when she was little”. My mom especially loves telling everyone that I barricaded the entrances to our kitchen with chairs and constantly proclaimed, “Don’t come in here! And I promise I’ll clean up everything!”
  5. The Night I Finally Got Final Jeopardy Right — I mentioned earlier that one of the only things we’d put on TV during dinner was Jeopardy! Well, when you haven’t even graduated high school yet, it’s hard to even understand the questions (or are they the answers??), nonetheless answer them. Well, one night we’re watching our show and my parents keep answering questions while I spat out responses that are very obviously incorrect. I think I was 14 or 15 at the time, so unless it pertained to basic trigonometry, I wasn’t going to gain any imaginary Jeopardy money anytime soon! Final Jeopardy came up, which I’d never even considered to be answer-able for me. I don’t remember the question (answer??) but I blurted out, “Habitat for Humanity”… and I was right! I’ll always remember the first correct answer I had to Final Jeopardy, and I’d like to think that I got an extra dessert that night.

When I think about the families that don’t have regular dinners together, I’m honestly in disbelief. It is such a norm in my life that an alternative to eating dinner with my parents every night just never entered my mind until probably when my siblings had kids, or when I met my boyfriend. I’m pretty confident my brother has dinner at a table with his family, and I’m sort of sure my sister does, too. My boyfriend’s family didn’t have dinner in the same way as my family did (kids ate different meals than the parents, and they eat much later than I do – around 8:30-9:00pm) and as a result my boyfriend and his younger brother are two of the pickiest eaters you’ll ever meet. (Don’t get me wrong – I love my boyfriend’s parents! They’re some of the best cooks ever, and they themselves eat a wide variety of yummy food! Unfortunately their kids fell far from the proverbial tree.)

My boyfriend and I both agree that eating together as a family will be something we will do with our kids, and he admits he doesn’t want our offspring to have his eating habits. (I guess he knows being a food flirt is a good thing!) I only hope that our kids have some crazy memories about family dinners just like I’ve had!

I hope they learn how to say “pepper” in Spanish (“pimienta”) and hand me three napkins when I tell them, “Dame tres servilletas, por favor!”

I hope they surprise us with a home-cooked meal of their own. (Dear future offspring: I still love quiche! Love, Mommy)

I hope they forgive me when I cook something they think stinks to high heaven and won’t touch with a 10-foot stick. (Don’t worry! Daddy will buy you some New York pizza instead!)

I hope I have the chance to bake them congratulatory cookies when they get a game show question correct for the first time.

Dinner is more than just food: it’s time spent taking in what will soon be distant memories!

New Food Story: Tempeh

When embarking on a vegetarian challenge in 2009, I was curious about different types of meatless protein. I was familiar with a few already (tofu, eggs, dairy, and beans), having enjoyed them for years prior to even considering this month-long vegetarianism. I can make a mean vegetarian chili. I love egg white omelets. I can marinate and grill tofu like a pro. But… what else is out there??

One that I’d heard from many vegetarian and vegan friends of mine was tempeh. Not sure of how to even pronounce it properly, I surely hadn’t a clue as to what this stuff was. As usual, Google had the answer, leading me to the Wikipedia article, which states:

Tempeh… is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form, similar to a very firm vegetarian burger patty…

Like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans, but tempeh is a whole soybean product with different nutritional characteristics and textural qualities. Tempeh’s fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give it a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins. It has a firm texture and an earthy flavor which becomes more pronounced as the tempeh ages. Because of its nutritional value, tempeh is used worldwide in vegetarian cuisine; some consider it to be a meat analogue.

My brain screamed, “Yay! I love soybeans! I’ll obviously love tempeh!”

Speaking of "brain", doesn't the stuff have the same striations as a brain? Weird.

I headed to Trader Joes and nabbed myself a block of plain ol’ tempeh. I hunted down a recipe that simply marinated it in soy sauce for a while, then sauteed it with vegetables like you would a stir-fry. It smelled great and looked delicious! Golden cubes of this mysterious soybean substance, sliced carrots and zucchini, fragrant garlic, dark and gleaming soy sauce… it was seemingly magnificent.

I spooned a helping of the stir-fry atop a nice mound of brown rice.

I took a bite.

I spit it out.

With a look of confusion on my face, I tried another [smaller] bite.

With a look of disgust on my face, I swallowed.

I headed to the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of sriracha, and drizzled some of the delicious spicy sauce om top of my next spoonful.

I unhappily swallowed that bite, grabbed my plate, and proceeded to toss away my meal into my garbage disposal. I finished off the second half of the rice with stir-fried veggies, after picking out every last cube of tempeh and letting the garbage disposal chew it up instead.

Obviously, this was a failure. To this day, I don’t like tempeh. I’ve tried it once since (two fried slices on a sandwich) and still hated it. It’s a texture thing and it’s a flavor thing. The texture is very solid, but particulate. It reminds me of very hard, dry feta cheese that is chewy and tastes like spoiled milk.

I have countless friends who love the stuff, and when I see recipes that include tempeh, the photos show meals that look really good!

For right now, tempeh is not for me. I gave it a try – just like I do with everything – but try as I might, I can’t stand it!

Luckily, I’ll always have beans, tofu, eggs, and [faux] dairy!