Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger and Black Bean Sauce

Happy Lunar New Year! I celebrated my Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese heritage with a customary whole steamed fish whose head and tail was kept intact, even when served. While dining, the dish is presented with the head of the fish directed at the guest of honor. The flesh is removed and served at the table without disturbing he head or tail. At the end of the meal, you are left with an impressive fish skeleton. It’s almost like a cartoon, where a character puts a whole fish in the mouth, head first, then and pulls out only the bones.

This dish is ridiculously easy to cook and done in 8-10 minutes depending on the size of the fish. Steaming also allows for a margin for error. You are almost guaranteed a moist and flaky fish even if you overcook it. I unintentionally tested this out. I do recommend not overcooking the fish.

This is a Chinese style recipe. The Thai style uses fish sauce in place of soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar instead of rice wine, adds lemongrass, and of course, a generous amount of Thai bird chili peppers. Although there are a few different ways to prepare the Chinese style, there are typically only 3 basic ingredients (other than the fish itself): fresh ginger, scallion (green onion) and a salty sweetish sauce made of either fermented black bean paste, soy sauce with sugar, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce or some other similar sauce that is salty and slightly sweet.

I selected a combination of light soy sauce and fermented black bean paste as the base for my sauce. Since the black bean paste I used was already sweetened with brown sugar and pineapple juice, I did not add any additional sugar. As we all know, sugar is not good for us and unless it is imperative to what I’m cooking, I avoid adding it. To add a bit more tang, I included a Thai bird chili pepper with the seeds removed for a gentle heat along with white pepper, garlic and rice wine.

Some recipes do not include pouring hot oil over the fish as the final step. I included this step because the hot oil infuses the fish with the flavors of the herbs and spices laid on top of the fish. Some recipes have a larger quantity of sauce poured over the fish. My version offers a smaller amount of sauce poured around the fish. This way, you can enjoy the delicate flavor of the fish with some sauce on the side to compliment it. For me the star of this dish is the delicate fish, infused with ginger, scallions, coriander (cilantro) and a hint of Thai bird chili pepper. The co-star is the black bean sauce.

NOTES:
Any mild whole white fish can be used. A flatter fish steams better. For this recipe, I found a nice barramundi, also called Asian sea bass. Take a moment to inspect the fish before you purchase it. Fresh fish should not smell too fishy. Also, the skin, should be shiny, the flesh should be firm, the gills should be red and the eyes should appear clear. Ask your fish monger to scale and gut the fish.

** Fermented black bean paste is made of dried soybeans that have been fermented with salt and spices such as chili peppers and/or wine and possibly ginger. The brand I used is made with ginger, pineapple juice and tamari. You could use just the fermented black beans, (called Douchi) and take a few additional, but simple steps to rinse the beans, then make your own paste by mashing them with garlic, spices and a little brown sugar or pineapple juice.

*** Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing is not the same as rice wine vinegar so be careful when reading the label. The Japanese rice wine is called mirin and is sweeter. 

Serving size: 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound whole mild white fish*, scaled and gutted, (barramundi, striped bass, flounder, red snapper or branzino), scaled and gutted. (If using a larger whole fish, score** both sides of the fish.)
  • 3 inch nub of ginger, 1/3 julienned and 2/3 cut into large  ¼ inch thick slices (you do not need to remove the skin off of the piece that is julienned)
  • 5 stalks of scallion (green onion), 1/3 julienned and 2/3 cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 1 – 2 fresh Thai bird chili pepper, julienned (this can be omitted or the seeds can be removed for a milder taste)
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fermented black bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing)*** or pale dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon good quality low sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons waterhandful of coriander (cilantro) leaves, plucked from the stems
  • couple pinches of Kosher salt or sea salt
  • couple pinches of white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Directions:

  1. Rinse the fish well, both inside and out. If the fish is large (e.g., 2 pounds or more), score it at an angle all the way to the bone on both sides. Remember to score it in the opposite direction on the other side. This will help a larger size fish cook faster and more evenly.
  2. Season with Kosher salt or sea salt and white pepper on both sides and inside of the cavity.
  3. Smash a couple 2-inch stalks of scallions with the side of a knife to release it’s flavor. Place the smash scallions along with a couple large slices of ginger in the cavity of the fish.
  4. Place the remaining 2-inch stalks of scallions and remaining large slices of ginger on the bottom of a steamer basket/insert.
  5. Lay the fish on top of the scallions and ginger. This is important to do if you are steaming the fish on a plate because the ginger helps to elevate the fish, allowing the steam to reach the bottom side of the fish.
  6. Arrange the julienned ginger on top of the fish. Steam for 8-10 minutes for a 1 – 1/2 pound fish.
  7. Increase to 15-18 minutes for a large size fish. The fish is done when the flesh is no longer opaque, is flaky and lifts easily off the bone.
  8. While the fish steams, whisk together minced garlic, black bean paste, rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil and water. Over medium heat, simmer in a small sauce pan with a lid on for 3-4 minutes then reduce the heat to low to keep it warm.
  9. Carefully remove the fish from the steamer basket and onto a serving plate. If using a plate, discard any liquid. It will not contribute good flavor and may even be bitter.
  10. Remove and discard the large pieces of ginger and scallion on the bottom side of the fish and inside the cavity but keep the julienned ginger on top of the fish.
  11. Top the fish with julienned scallions, Thai bird chili pepper and cilantro. Heat vegetable oil until hot and smoking. Pour the black bean sauce around the fish. If you prefer, pour the sauce directly over the fish. Some chefs recommend pouring the sauce around the fish so the sauce does not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fish.Pour the hot oil over the fish. The hot oil will infused the fish further with the flavors from the scallions, coriander and Thai bird chili pepper.
  12. Smash a couple 2-inch stalks of scallions with the side of a knife to release it’s oil. Place the smash scallions along with a couple large slices of ginger in the cavity of the fish.
  13. Place the remaining 2-inch stalks of scallions and remaining large slices of ginger on the bottom of a steamer basket. Lay the fish on top of the scallions and ginger. This is important to do if you are steaming the fish on a plate because the ginger helps to elevate the fish, allowing the steam to reach the bottom side of the fish.
  14. Arrange the julienned ginger on top of the fish.
  15. Steam for 8-10 minutes for a 1 – 1/2 pound fish. Increase to 15-18 minutes for a large size fish. The fish is done when the flesh is no longer opaque, is flaky and lifts easily off the bone.
  16. While the fish steams, whisk together minced garlic, black bean paste, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and water. Over medium-low heat, simmer in a small sauce pan with a lid for a couple minutes then reduce the heat to low to keep it warm.
  17. Carefully remove the fish from the steamer basket and onto a serving plate. If using a plate, discard any liquid. Remove and discard the large pieces of ginger and scallion on the bottom side of the fish and inside the cavity but keep the julienned ginger on top of the fish.
  18. Top the fish with julienned scallions, Thai bird chili pepper and cilantro.
  19. Heat vegetable oil until hot and smoking.
  20. Pour the black bean sauce around the fish. If you prefer, pour the sauce directly over the fish. Some chefs recommend pouring the sauce around the fish so the sauce does not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fish.
  21. Pour the hot oil over the fish. The hot oil will infused the fish further with the flavors from the scallions, cilantro and Thai bird chili pepper.
No need to scrape the skin off of the ginger for the larger slices. Those will be discarded after the fish is steamed, along with the larger cuts of scallions.
Placing the larger cutes of ginger and scallion under the fish is important when the fish is steamed on a plate. Elevating the fish allows the steam to circulate under the fish.

This guy just fits into the steamer basket. I initially placed the larger cuts of ginger on the top of the fish and then discarded it. Instead, place the julienned ginger on top and don’t discard it. Only discard the large pieces of ginger and scallion placed on the bottom and inside the cavity. The julienne ginger will serve as a nice garnish and tender for consumption.
Coriander (cilantro) is optional. Some people do not like the taste of it. This is genetic.
There’s tender cheeks left here. It may arguably be the best part. Shhh … don’t tell anyone.
Add some dumplings and rice with a side of vegetables. The result is an elegant, easy to prepare and healthy dinner, any time, not just on Lunar New Year.

Briley’s Fettuccine Alfredo with Broccoli, Peas, Mushrooms, and Sun-dried Tomatoes

What do you do when a 15 year old requests Fettuccine Alfredo for his birthday dinner?  First you cringe a little because this pasta with cream and butter has virtually no nutritional value and is truly bland in flavor.  Then you remember that even the Hungry Athlete loved Alfredo sauce when she was a kid.  With Halloween around the corner, looks like the Hungry Athlete had to use a little witch craft to create a healthier version of a teen’s favorite meal.  To ensure Briley’s birthday dinner would be a big treat, I had a couple tricks up my sleeve.

The first trick was to sneak in vegetables (muhahahaha).  I loaded the pasta with four vegetables which have some of the best sources of vegetable protein: peas, broccoli, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms.  In the version I made on Briley’s birthday, I confess to using a sleight of hand to hide the vegetables.  I simply diced the vegetables into the size of peas.  Now that my secret is out, the final recipe calls for larger bits of broccoli, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes.  This makes the pasta more pleasing, both visually and texturally.

The final trick is to turn the heavy cream into a disappearing act.  Typical American Fettuccine Alfredo is made with 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream, 2 tablespoons of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with a pinch of nutmeg.  I understand that the original and authentic Italian Alfredo sauce is made of only three ingredients: fettuccine, 2 sticks of butter (wow) and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Either way, that’s a lot of cream or butter.  So instead of all the heavy cream, I threw into the cauldron some magic: Neufchatel.  No I didn’t sneeze and my cauldron was actually a large All-Clad saute pan.

Named after a town in Normandy, Neufchatel is one of the oldest of French cheeses and typically produced in the shape of a heart.  According to cheese folklore, American cream cheese was created when an American dairyman added cream to the recipe for Neufchatel.  Real French Neufchatel is made with raw cow’s milk. American Neufchatel is made with pasteurized cow’s milk and cream.  American Neufchatel has about 33% less fat than cream cheese and is sometimes called farmer’s cheese. Creamy and slightly tangy, it tastes a lot like cream cheese and a lot better than heavy cream.  It is found next to the cream cheese in the grocery store.

Neufchatel and Parmigiano-Reggiano combine with milk into a creamy Alfredo sauce.
Neufchatel and Parmigiano-Reggiano combine with milk into a creamy Alfredo sauce.

Here’s how Neufchatel compares:

  • 2 tablespoons Neufchatel is about 70 calories and 6 g of fat
  • 2 tablespoons butter is about 240 calories and 24 g of fat
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream is about 200 calories and 10 g of fat of which 7 g is unsaturated fat

I was afraid of disappointing a teenager on his birthday and tested a version with a couple tablespoons of cream, a version with whole milk and a third version with low-fat milk. I found the milk versions to be creamy, rich and delicious. Happy birthday Briley! This sauce was created just for you, to keep you healthy and to fuel your workouts.  May you continue to run those trails fast and strong for years to come.

If you prefer a non-vegetarian version, chicken, poached in a pan, adds more protein and accompanies the pasta nicely.  Check out this website for a foolproof, easy and fast way to prepare chicken for pasta and salads:

http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-cook-moist-tender-chicken-breasts-every-time-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-36891

Serving size: 4

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces of your favorite pasta* (I prefer fettuccine or penne)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup chopped white mushrooms
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced (or grated)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons Neufchatel* cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup whole or low-fat milk (I prefer organic whole milk**)
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • pinch of fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped defrosted frozen broccoli
  • ¾ cup frozen peas
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup of chopped sun-dried tomatoes***
  • salt (You probably won’t need this. Any additional salt due to the saltiness of pasta water, the sundried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.)

*Note: 8 ounces of uncooked long pasta shapes = 1 1/2-inch diameter bunch = 4 cups cooked pasta

**Note: Non-fat or reduced fat milk requires additional processing to remove the fat and then to put the 1% or 2% fat back.  I prefer less processed foods.  Your taste buds can easily be adjusted from non or low fat to whole milk.

***Note:  Sun-dried tomatoes in oil can be used however I prefer to use sun-dried tomatoes not in oil.  These has a longer shelf life however need to be soaked in water for about 30 minutes before chopping and cooking.

Directions:

Timing is everything in this dish.  As soon as the pasta is cooked it should be transferred directly to the pan with the Alfredo sauce.  The ensure good timing, prepare all of the ingredients in advance then start cooking the pasta.

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If you are using dry pasta, allow 5 minutes to prepare the Alfredo sauce.  If you are using fresh pasta, have a pot of water boiling and ready for the pasta and toss in the pasta just before you finish making the Alfredo sauce.

To make the sauce, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Sauté the mushrooms for a couple minutes, then remove from pan and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in the same pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and lemon zest.  Stir for 1 minute.

Lower the heat and whisk in the Neufchatel, Parmigiano-Regiano and lemon juice until cheese is melted and smooth.  Whisk in milk for 1 minute.  Whisk in fresh nutmeg for another minute.

As soon as the pasta is cooked al dente, place it into the pan and coat the pasta with the Alfredo sauce over medium heat.

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Fettuccine is the traditional pasta used with Alfredo sauce. Here I used penne pasta.

Toss in mushrooms, broccoli, peas, sun dried tomatoes and half the parsley.

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Serve immediately with remaining parsley garnished on top.

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Vegetarian Tofu Tacos with Mango Salsa

Crispy, full of flavor and a fun meal to eat, you will not miss the fish in this Vegetarian Tofu Tacos with Mango Salsa.

Coating the tofu with panko bread crumbs then pan frying them in oil yields a crunchy exterior and a tender interior. Layer the tofu with Mango Salsa and Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw which can be prepared in advance.

Serving size: 4 (2-3 tacos per person)

Ingredients:

Pan Fried Tofu

  • 1 package firm or extra firm tofu
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Flour or corn tortilla

Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw

  • 2 cups of finely shredded purple or red cabbage
  • 1 cup of shredded carrots
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

Directions:

Prepare the Mango Salsa.  This can be prepared the day before.

Prepare the Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw by whisking together the lime juice, vegetable oil, salt and sugar. Toss in the cabbage and shredded carrots. Set aside.

Place the tofu in a sieve and pour boiling hot water over it. This will help draw out moisture. Dry out tofu by placing them in between paper towels and sandwiched in between two plates.   Weigh the plate down with a 28 ounce can or something of similar weight for at least 15 minutes.

In a shallow dish, combine the panko bread crumbs with cayenne pepper. Place the corn starch and lightly beaten egg, each in its own separate shallow dish.

After the moisture is drawn out of the tofu, cut the tofu into 4 x 1 inch pieces then season with salt and pepper.

Coat the tofu with the corn starch, then dip it in the egg and then coat it with the panko bread crumbs.

Over medium high heat, heat enough vegetable oil to coat a non-stick frying pan. Test the oil temperature by dropping in a piece of the panko bread crumbs. The oil should bubble around the bread crumbs and start turning it brown. If the oil smokes, the pan is too hot.

Fry the tofu until golden brown on each side. Drain on a paper towel.

Warm the tortilla in a hot pan for a couple minutes on each side until warm. Assemble the taco by placing some slaw in the middle of the tortilla. Next add a couple pieces of the tofu and top with the Mango Salsa. Serve with a couple extra slices of lime, hot sauce and a side of my Sweet Potato, Bean and Corn Hash.

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Cod Baked with Tomatoes, Artichokes and Lemon (Psari Plaki)

Psari Plaki is a traditional Greek style of baking fish with olive oil, tomatoes and vegetables. The Hungry Athlete’s version is cooked in parchment paper and was inspired by one of my father’s best friends and tennis partner, Gene Cohen. Gene owned the Somerville Inn, a New Jersey restaurant and banquet hall, with his wife Barbara. Both had passed away over 20 years ago. Barbara Cohen was a successful children’s book writer. Her first book, The Carp in the Bathtub, is a childhood favorite of mine. I have a fond memory of Barbara reading this book to me. Barbara also introduced me to my first peach. She had a gentle way about her and taught me not to be afraid of the fuzzy fruit. I attempted  to eat three that day. If you are looking for good children’s books, I highly recommend her books. Here’s more about Barbara:

http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cohen-barbara

One summer, my family was invited to the Jersey shore by the Cohens. Mr. Cohen prepared one of the most delicious fish I ever had as a child.  Whenever my father dined with friends at the Somerville Inn, Gene would not allow my father to order from the menu.  Gene insisted on asking my father what he felt like eating and my father always answered” You surprise me”.  My father told me that he “had wonderful meals, not from the menu.”

We must have had insatiable and disappointed eyes after we devoured the fish because Gene immediately ran out to buy more. When he returned with more fresh fish, Gene had my father’s and my undivided attention. Although we studied how Gene created this heavenly dish, all I remember now is that the fish was cooked in a tomato sauce, with possibly ketchup added, and wrapped in aluminum foil. But more than 30 years later, I remember how it tasted,

In my first few attempts to replicate Gene’s recipe, I experimented preparing the fish with canned diced tomatoes and ketchup. It didn’t achieve the flavors I remembered. Ketchup also has too much sugar in it so I substituted it with tomato paste. Next, I exchanged canned tomatoes for fresh tomatoes. The Jersey shore has lots of wonderful fresh tomatoes in the summer so I suspect Gene used fresh tomatoes. I also replaced the aluminum foil with parchment paper. The foil can react to and possibly impact the flavor of acidic ingredients, such as tomatoes, white wine and lemon juice.

Although my tongue cannot confirm for sure if I replicated the flavors from 30 years ago, I think it’s fairly close. With every bite, I am brought back to that evening, at the Jersey shore with Gene and Barbara Cohen, who introduced me to new foods when I was a child and who were great family friends.  No carp in the bathtub here, only cod in parchment.

Serving size: 2 

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound cod or halibut, cut in half
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion (about 1 cup), sliced thin
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 cups yellow and red grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1/2 cup of rough chopped parsley
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 springs of fresh oregano
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  • 2 lemons, cut each lemon into 2 thin slices (4 slices in total) and then juice both lemons (about 1/2 cup lemon juice)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 cup canned artichoke hearts, drained and cut in halves

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F.

Inspect the fish for bones. I keep a tweezer in the kitchen specifically for removing small fish bones. After removing any bones, rinse the fish and pat it dry with paper towels. The fish should be dry to absorb all the great flavors you will be adding to it later. Set the fish aside. The fish should be covered and returned to the refrigerator if you have not prepared all the vegetables in advance.

In a fry pan over medium heat, sauté sliced red onion and sliced garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil until tender and fragrant.

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Stir together tomato paste and white wine, then add the mixture to the onion and garlic.

Add the tomatoes and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper, then continue to sauté for 5 minutes or until sauce thickens.  Stir in the fresh parsley, then remove it from the heat and set aside.

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Tear off two generous pieces of parchment paper large enough to wrap the fish with the tomatoes, onion and artichokes. To prepare the parchment packets, place one tablespoon of olive oil in the middle of each piece of parchment paper, then place the fish on top of the olive oil. Spoon another tablespoon of olive oil on top of the fish and pour 1/4 cup lemon juice on top of each fish fillet. Season the fish well with salt and pepper.  Next, place one sprig of thyme and one sprig of oregano on top of each fish fillet.

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Place 1/2 cup of artichokes around each fish. Finally, spoon the tomato mixture on top of the fish and artichokes. Be careful not to cover the thyme and oregano. This ensures you and your dinner guest will be able to see the herbs and put them on the side of the plate. Nobody really wants to eat whole sprig of thyme or oregano.

Wrap the parchment paper around the fish and ensure the edges are enclosed tightly. Here’s a video demonstrating how to wrap the fish the proper French way: http://www.finecooking.com/videos/fish-in-parchment.aspx . This method ensures the steam is trapped inside the packet, however when I’m in a rush, I wrap the fish by turning the fish so it’s longest horizontally.  I then grab the top and bottom ends of the parchment paper and and turn over the edges over a couple of times. Just make sure to fold it tightly together. Next I fold the long ends in, forming a triangle, like wrapping a present.  Lastly, I tuck in the triangle ends under the fish.

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Bake for 15 minutes or more depending on the thickness of the fish. You can serve the fish in the parchment packet. Just cut a slit down the top of the paper to reveal the fish or you can carefully remove it from the parchment paper. Remember to tell your dinner guests to remove the sprigs of thyme and oregano.

Serve with brown rice or a Greek salad.

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Acorn squash stuffed with Curry Mustard Quinoa, Butternut Squash, Spinach, Cranberries and Toasted Almonds

Thanksgiving kicks off one of my favorite times of year. As immigrants, my family was slow to embrace the American tradition of Thanksgiving. We really didn’t know much about eating or cooking turkeys. My mother made Peking Duck instead. It is one of my most favorite culinary guilty pleasures. Peking Duck is quite a laborious venture in the kitchen. The chore begins with my mother meticulously rigging a duck on a wire hanger and suspending it from a kitchen cabinet. Then over 2-3 days, the duck is basted and dried before it is roasted. The end result is the crispiest and tastiest skin that covers moist duck meat. However, one year, on day 2 of project Peking Duck, my mother went into labor with my sister. After giving birth, my mother asked my father what he did with the duck. He fried it. The story always makes me smile thinking how my mother went through all that effort to prepare the duck, only to have it deep fried. I suppose it’s no different than frying a turkey.

Fast forward to 2014, and now I’m in a relationship with someone who also has never had a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. He’s a vegetarian athlete and his only request was that I not prepare Tofurky. I wanted to create something nutritious, packed with protein (like a turkey) and Thanksgiving-y.   Like my sister, my Acorn Squash stuffed with Quinoa, Roasted Butternut Squash, Spinach, Cranberry & Toasted Almonds was born on Thanksgiving day. Served with vegetarian side dishes, this main course satisfied my hungry athlete.

Serving size: 6

Ingredients:

  • 3 acorn squashes* (optional)
  • 6 tablespoons of butter (substitute 6 teaspoons of olive oil for vegan)
  • 3 cups of butternut squash* (about 1 ½ pounds), peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup quinoa (rinsed well according to instructions)
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon Coleman’s English mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 2/3 cup chopped toasted almonds
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots (about 2 small shallots)
  • 3 full packed cups baby spinach
  • Juice of 1/2 large lemon (about 2 tablespoon)
  • Salt and fresh cracked pepper

Directions:

Preheat over 400F.

Peel the butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. With a very sharp knife, slice off the top and bottom of the butternut squash to create a level surface. Then carefully cut into ½ inch cubes.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Toss the butternut squash in 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt & pepper.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until tender, tossing once.

Microwave acorn squashes for 1 minute. Cut in half crosswise, dissecting the top and bottom. If necessary, slice a small piece off the top and bottom so that it sits level when served on a plate. Scoop out seeds and stringy parts.  Spread 1 tablespoon of butter (or 1 teaspoon of olive oil) inside of each acorn squash half, then season with salt and pepper. Wrap each half in aluminum foil**.

Noting the amount of time left to bake the butternut squash, bake the acorn squashes for 50-60 minutes or until fork tender.  The butternut squash will finish cooking and will need to be removed from oven while the acorn squash packets remain in the oven for it’s remaining baking time. The timing will ensure the acorn squash is still warm when served. Once the acorn squash are cooked and tender, keep them wrapped in aluminum foil to retain heat until the quinoa is ready to be served.

Bring vegetable broth to a boil then stir in quinoa.  Stir in dry mustard and curry powder.  Simmer covered for 15-20 minutes until water is absorbed or according to the package directions.

While quinoa is simmering, toast the almonds in the oven, on a baking sheet until lightly toasted and fragrant for about 5 minutes.   Allow it to cool, chop coarsely and set aside.

Once quinoa is cooked, remove from heat and toss in cranberries and stir in lemon juice. Taste the quinoa and season with salt if needed. I find that if the quinoa is cooked in vegetable broth, no additional salt is necessary. Cover and let sit for about 5 minutes. Remove lid and fluff quinoa with a fork.

With remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sauté shallots until softened. Add butternut squash, quinoa and spinach.  Sauté spinach until wilted. Toss in toasted chopped toasted almonds just before serving. Spoon quinoa into acorn squash and serve.

Note:  You may prefer not to include both butternut squash and acorn squash in this dish.  I found there wasn’t enough flesh to enjoy inside the acorn squash I picked up.  Butternut squash added nice contrast in color, flavor and texture to each bite of the red quinoa.  Alternatively, this dish can be served without the acorn squash as shown in the photo below.

** Note:  The acorn squash can be baked without wrapping in aluminum foil however, creating individual packets of acorn squash makes it easier to find space for them when other side dishes are competing for oven space on Thanksgiving day. Here are other alternative ways to cook acorn squash:

  • MICROWAVE:  Lay acorn squash cut side down and microwave and cook at 5 minute intervals until fork tender, about 7-10 minutes.
  • BAKING UNWRAPPED:  Place unbuttered and unseasoned acorn squash, cut side down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.  Add enough water to slightly cover the sides of the squash.  Bake at 350F for about 35-40 minutes.  Flip over, add butter & seasoning.  Continue to bake until fork tender, 5-10 minutes longer.

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Healthy Potato Leek Soup

The inspiration for my Potato Leek Soup came from my dear friend Kelly, a 10 time Ironman and 2 time 50 mile endurance runner.  This courageous woman is battling leukemia for the second time.  While undergoing chemotherapy, Kelly requested potato leek soup made without cream for lunch.

The potato leek soup also served as a nutritious and tasty breakfast prior to a long run or trail race, where I am running anywhere from 3 to over 6 hours. Chicken Rice Soup and Potato Leek Soup are now my two favorite early morning meals to help fuel my long workouts.  Both also provide potassium.  I usually consume half a bagel or some oatmeal in addition to the soup.  Some races offer broth on the course or soup at the end of the race.  At the finish of this weekend’s trail race, I grabbed warm soup and chased it down with low-fat chocolate milk.  Since I often cannot tolerate solid food immediately after an endurance event, I find that calories in liquid form are the easiest way to get nutrition down.  I personally prefer real food over “recovery” drinks.  Remember, it’s important to consume calories within 20 minutes of your workout.

Leeks belong to a vegetable family called the Allium vegetables which includes garlic and onions and contain many of the same beneficial compounds.   For more information on the nutritional value of leeks, check out this article:

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=26

Serving size: 8

Equipment:  Hand held immersion blender or regular blender

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 large leeks or 4 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only, washed and diced
  • 5 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 ½ teaspoons finely chopped thyme
  • 7+ cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
  • ¼ teaspoon chili powder (for Kelly, I reduced or omitted this)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • fresh parsley, chopped, to garnish (optional)

Directions:

In a Dutch oven or stock pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil for 8 minutes until the leeks are softened but not brown.

Add chopped garlic, thyme, potatoes and broth.  Bring to a boil and let simmer for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.  If using a hand held immersion blender, puree soup until smooth with no lumps.  Be careful.  The soup will be very hot.  If using a regular blend, allow soup to cool down before pouring into blender.  Once in the blender, puree soup in small batches, using a towel to cover the lid in case the hot mixture escapes.

Add additional broth to obtain the desired consistency.  I prefer it to be a little creamy and loose enough to drink out of a mug.

Stir in chili powder and salt to taste.  It’s important to add a bit at a time and keep tasting.  You can always add more but you can’t take it back out.  Garnish with chopped fresh parsley or croutons.  Add additional broth to soup if it becomes too thick when re-heating.

Use the white and pale green parts of the leek.  Cut the stalk in half length-wise and rise out the layers.  I prefer to remove the outer tougher layer.  Then slice.
Use the white and pale green parts of the leek. Cut the stalk in half length-wise and rise out the layers. I prefer to remove the outer tougher layer. Then slice.

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When re-heating, you can add additional broth to thin out the soup if it gets too thick.
When re-heating, you can add additional broth to thin out the soup if it gets too thick.

Roasted Corn, String Bean, Tomato and Cucumber Orzo Salad

A great way to encourage children to enjoy eating vegetables is to teach them how to grow their own garden.  Chloe’s and Zachary’s parents built two garden boxes in their back yard, one for each child.  The children planted their first garden in the Spring, watered it diligently and watched with excitement, their garden grow before their eyes.  They were recently rewarded with strawberries, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and string beans.

Innocently unbiased and ferociously inquisitive, Chloe and Zachary will ask to taste all the ingredients in its raw form no matter what it is.  When I cook with them, I guide them on what they should or should not try and am thrilled they are willing to try everything.  What a wonderful way for the children to appreciate the true flavors of raw vegetables and understand how their flavors can change when cooked or seasoned.

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My Roasted Corn, String Beans, Tomato and Cucumber Orzo Salad was inspired by Chloe’s and Zachary’s garden.  The vegetables in this recipe are either raw or lightly cooked so their freshness can be enjoyed.

This salad can either be served as a side dish or as a vegetarian main course.  Add chopped roasted chicken for a protein-rich main course.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried orzo pasta
  • 2 ears fresh corn, roasted
  • 1 pound green beans, blanched
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, rinsed, stemmed, and cut in half or thirds depending on size
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • Pinch Salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions:

Cook orzo in boiling water for 8-9 minutes until barely tender.  Drain and rinse in cold water.

Husk corn and roast on grill until some of the kernels are evenly browned on all sides.  Remove the corn kernels by holding each cob upright on it’s stem and carefully running a sharp knife down the cob over a large bowl.  Add cooked orzo.

Cut green beans into 2-3 inches.  Blanch in boiling water for 2-3 minutes.  Green beans should still have a crunch.  Drain and place in ice water.  Drain again and add to orzo and corn.

Cut cucumber in half.  Using a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds.  Cut the cucumber halves into thirds or quarters lengthwise.  Then cut into ½ inch cubes.

Cut cherry tomatoes in half or thirds depending on size.   Add cucumber and tomatoes to orzo, corn and string beans.

Rough chop parsley and add to orzo mixture.

Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice and Dijon mustard.  Add salt and pepper and whisk again.

Pour over orzo and vegetables.    Toss well.   Allow the orzo salad to sit for at least 1 hour to absorb the flavors of the dressing.

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