Friday, December 31, 2010

Nutty Granola Bars

I discovered this recipe on A Life Less Sweet and we LOVE it. The blogger is a stay-at-home mom with a PhD in chemical engineering. She is trying to revamp the way her family eats and avoid HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). I enjoy checking out what she has to say from time to time, and I really wanted to share this bar recipe with you.

It looks like a lot of ingredients, but it is SO super easy to put together. The only change I make to it is that I put it in an 8x8 instead of the 13x9 indicated. I like a thick granola bar, and I think it's easier to cut without as much crumbling and falling apart.

For those not wanting to click on the link, here is the recipe:

Nutty Granola Bars

3 cups rolled oats (quick oats are fine)
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon (optional)
5 TBSP butter, softened
3 TBSP unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup honey
3 TBSP and 1 and 3/4 tsp packed brown sugar
3 TBSP nut butter of choice (optional)
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
3 TBSP flaxseed meal or wheat germ (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Lightly grease a 9"x13" pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well.

Firmly press mixture into the prepared pan. Bake at 325 F for 20 min or until golden brown. Let cool for 10 min and then cut into bars. Let bars cool completely in pan before removing or serving. (This is so important! They'll be very crumbly until they are absolutely cool.) On hot summer days, might want to store in the fridge so that they're not as crumbly and the chocolate doesn't melt.

Makes about 24 bars.

Besides the 8x8 pan, I skip the flaxseed/wheat germ and only add the nut butter if I don't want to send it with Caleb to school. The nut butter does make the mixture stick a bit better together. However, I stir the mixture A LOT and it seems to do just fine. I also use regular chocolate chips, fudging the measurement a bit. :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Whew! Through the Holiday Season

The title says most of what's on my mind. However, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about eating in others' homes, especially when those others are well-meaning family. Let me preface everything else by saying that I love my parents and am not writing this as a means of requesting any changes to their behavior! If I wanted them to change, I'd ask or put up a fight or something more direct. That said, I think it might be helpful for others to read musings on holiday time with family and the food situations which may arise during that time.

When I typed the word "holiday," I immediately had all kinds of delicious associations. I wish I could say that I had non-food associations with the holidays, but food plays a huge role in my holiday experience. Whether I'm celebrating a Jewish, Christian, secular or other kind of holiday, food helps set the atmosphere. Go check out my Thanksgiving posts (way too many to link, but a quick search will bring them up). Food and holidays go hand in hand for me.

Now the problem with this food-holiday connection is that most of the food associations are not all that healthy for me, unless I'm eating ridiculously small portions of said food. OK, turkey on Thanksgiving is probably fine, assuming a normal portion size. BUT think about side dishes, and think about the snacking before the meals. And think about whether the meals are "well-balanced." Are the snacks "well-balanced?" Does it all even out over the holiday?

Nope. The holidays are inevitably carbohydrate heavy, lighter on fruits and veggies, heavier on fats, and protein varies depending on the holiday.

My kids are affected fairly obviously by their diets. They tend to be more agreeable and cooperative when they are eating well, and the inverse also is true. So what do I feed the kids when I'm in the situation of lots of carbs and sugar and not so much of the other stuff to balance it out?

When we arrived at my parents' house this year for Christmas, Aaron and I made a grocery list. My parents had plenty of food in the house. Yet we wanted some of our own food comforts and some of what we consider essentials. In no particular order, our list looked something like this:
  • fruit - ended up with bananas, clementines, and grapes
  • yogurt
  • oatmeal
  • diet dr. pepper
  • beer
In retrospect, we could have skipped the yogurt, and we probably should have picked up some salad fixings. However, my parents are in the process of moving and we didn't want food being thrown out after we left. Of everything we purchased, the fruit was the most helpful for me, and I think the kids appreciated having portable snacks. I would have loved more to help me avoid eating nearly the entire batch of buckeye candy. Will power would help too, but I have very little of that. :)

Other than the small shopping trip, I decided that teaching my kids to be polite was more important than waging an ideological battle against my parents. Yes that meant my kids ate bread with minimal fiber, lots of crackers and cookies, more processed food than they do at home, and drank more juice than they do in an average month. Life is about balance, and it's too short to spend it fighting with those I love.

Interestingly, my kids rejected some of the foods I expected them to go gaga for. Neither kid was a huge fan of the peanut butter my mom had. I'm not sure whether it was texture or taste. I generally buy crunchy and natural - something requiring stirring. My mom had bought a popular brand of creamy with some sugar (not HFCS). Neither kid begged for the buckeye candies I adore, which of course meant my own will power was weakened further. After all, I can't let them go to waste!! :P They weren't even big fans of the sandwich bread, though they did enjoy other breads while we were there. It made me wonder about my kids' tastes, to be honest. I mean, isn't it natural for people to drift to sweet foods? And when I look at processed food, much of it is processed to make it easier to eat - requiring less chewing before it gets to your stomach where you can have whatever biochemical reaction that makes you want more. And don't we people like layers of flavor in our foods rather than simple single flavored foods?

My kids seem to prefer their fruits and vegetables straight, no added butter, cheese, sauce, seasonings. OK, Ellie probably would put grated Parmesan cheese on anything, but she doesn't ask for it on food other than pasta (and now popcorn thanks to me). My kids seem to prefer peanut butter made with one or two ingredients - roasted peanuts and salt. And they like high-fiber breads. Both kids love chocolate, but they don't love all chocolate (e.g., Halloween candy).

I don't wonder why they have these preferences. These preferences reflect how food has been presented to them ever since they started eating table foods. Yet I wonder whether they would be considered normal when compared to other kids their ages. I'm not trying to raise weird kids, though I suspect I don't have much choice about that (look at me and Aaron! *grin*). So readers, if any of you are out there, what do you think? How strange are my kids' eating preferences?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kid Cooking - Part 2

Our second recipe of the day is Mac and Cheese Muffins. The only thing that makes this recipe a muffin recipe is the presentation. That said, my kids will eat almost any food put in a muffin tin, so I figured we would try it. The only thing I did not like about the recipe was it had less opportunity for kid involvement because of the stove steps.

Even with that complaint, I gave Caleb the task of measuring shredded cheese. Ellie had the task of eating the spilled cheese and eventually wiping down the counter. Both kids stirred the mixture. Caleb and I spooned the mixture into the muffin cups. I just about forgot to add the bread crumbs, so we had to pour the mac back into the pan, re-line our muffin pan and try again, but it was all a good adventure.

Mac and Cheese Muffins
From Highlights High Five magazine, Jan. 2010

1/2 pound macaroni
1 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
1 1/2 c. milk
1 c. shredded cheese
1/3 c. bread crumbs (we use panko)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Boil water in large pot. Add macaroni and cook until it is almost tender (about 8 minutes). Drain and set aside.

Melt 1 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan over low heat. Sprinkle in 1 1/2 Tbsp. of flour. Stir for 2 minutes. Slowly add 1 1/2 c. milk. Whisk the sauce for 4-5 minutes or until it is thick enough to coat a spoon (see Notes/Changes).

Add 1 c. shredded cheese. Stir until sauce is smooth. Add some salt and pepper.

Add macaroni, bread crumbs, and more salt and pepper. Stir well.

Put mixture in 12 lined muffin cups. Bake for 8 minutes.

I needed to add a bit more flour to make the sauce thick. I probably added more like 2 Tbsp. instead of the 1 1/2. Caleb stirred the cheese into the sauce, and this was a surprisingly great task for him. He was very diligent about getting all of the cheese to melt into the roux (at least I think that's what you call a milk/butter/flour sauce).

I think this recipe has potential for adding vegetables in a stealthy way. I tend to feed my kids vegetables straight up, not hidden. However, I see value to sneaking in veggies when kids absolutely refuse them. One of my friends makes macaroni and cheese with butternut squash. I think she got the recipe from Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook. I can imagine pureeing other vegetables to make a seasonal mac, like pureeing peas or other green goodies and calling the finished product "monster mac" at Halloween.

I'm pretty sure most kids would like this variation on a classic. Ellie definitely enjoyed it, though it's hard to tell with her since she literally picks at food. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Kid Cooking - Part 1

I've read and heard that having kids get involved in cooking will help them to be more willing eaters. My kids are pretty decent eaters, but I figure it is good for them to see how food makes it to their plates. I want my kids to have an appreciation of food being made, and helping to cook it might give them a sense of the effort that goes into putting food on their plates.

When we returned from some quick morning errands, I announced that the kids would be helping to make their lunches today. Caleb squealed with delight, which Ellie then echoed. Much cheering and joy in the kitchen, so much that it needed to be tempered with jobs. Although I don't have a pictorial version of this, I bet your imaginations will do the trick. :)

I gave Caleb the task of cutting the banana. Each kid took a turn mashing the banana. We count to 3 for each kid's turn so it seems fair. Of course, the kids try to count for me, and they are learning that counting generally doesn't apply to Mom. I cut up the cream cheese to help mix it better (see Notes/Changes in recipe below). The kids again took turns stirring. Before opening the dinner roll dough, I remembered how much I loved doing that as a kid. So I started the tab but gave the job to Caleb. I used a serrated knife to separate the dough and let each kid smush the dough into thin circles. I went back over their work with the hope of making slightly more consistent and thinner circles. They of course argued a bit about who got to push which dough circle, and Caleb and I had an argument about his need to wash his hands after scratching/picking/playing with his nose. Then I gave Caleb a spoon, and we each scooped some of the banana-cheese goo into each dough circle. He tried to fold the circles around the goo, but this was a messy difficult task even for me.

Banana Rolls
From Highlights High Five magazine, Dec. 2010

1 banana
4 oz. (1/2 c) cream cheese, softened
dinner roll dough (the pre-made stuff you find in the refrigerated section of a supermarket)

Preheat oven to 375.

Peel the banana and cut it into chunks. Mash chunks in a small bowl. Add 1/2 c. of cream cheese and stir well.

Separate the dough into 8 sections. Press down on each section until it is a thin circle.

Add a spoonful of the banana-cheese mixture. Fold up the edges to cover the mixture. Place the rolls upside down (seam side down) on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake rolls for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Let them cool for 5-10 minutes.

I probably did not stir well enough since some of the cream cheese seemed to be missing a banana flavor. I did grease the cookie sheet because the dough instructions said to do this. I recommend greasing lightly so that you can get the rolls off when done.

I thought these were quite tasty, but the kids seemed indifferent at best. Caleb thought they were too creamy, which is his usual complaint for dairy foods. With this feedback, I suggested other filling combinations which might be more appetizing to him. Strawberry or raspberry-banana, mango, peach, etc. I think the banana could do the job of making another fruit creamy without the dairy. I also think this basic recipe could be used as a way to introduce new or difficult to accept vegetables.

The second part of their lunch was mac-and-cheese "muffins." I had my doubts about this recipe again because of the dairy, but the process was fun enough to report. It's coming up in the next post!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Update on Meals of the Week

On Monday, I made a meal plan. Then I made Oven Chicken Fingers, green beans, and broccoli. The broccoli was leftover and the green beans just needed to be heated up. The chicken fingers were received well by all. The last of them were eaten today at lunch.

On Tuesday, I continued my meal plan, excited that the first day had gone well. I made Tuscan Pumpkin-White Bean soup with a side of cornbread. Unbeknownst to me, the pumpkin goo had turned bad on us. I didn't realize this until we sat down to eat. After the big blech, all I can say is "wah." At least the bread was delicious and we still had leftover latkes.

Today Aaron made pesto tortellini for the kids, and he and I had our "special" dinner after I returned from my Weight Watchers meeting.

Tomorrow brings turkey burgers and squash, as well as grocery shopping. This weekend, Aaron goes to Florida, so I know I need to get a plan in place so that I don't have to think about meals while he is gone. I think I'm sensing cheesy lentil rice casserole in our future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Menu Pondering...

This morning Aaron asked me if I had any ideas for dinner tonight. Yeah, menu planning is not happening around here lately. :( He suggested the leftover latkes (yum yum) or turkey burgers. Since I sent latkes with Caleb for lunch today, I'm not loving the idea of more of the same for dinner. I like variety in our diets. I figure variety helps give us the nutrients and vitamins we need AND keeps us from getting bored with food. Turkey burgers feel a bit uninspired though, so I thought I should try to come up with some food for the week.

Some ingredients I have on hand:
Proteins - turkey, chicken
Fruits/Vegetables - cranberries, clementines, bananas, various root vegetables and winter squash such as butternut, broccoli?, green beans
Carbohydrates - tortillas, rice, pasta, various breads

Yes, there is more food than that in the house. :)

Some meal ideas:
  • chicken fingers breaded with seasoned panko, side dish of green vegetable
  • turkey burgers with side dish of spice-roasted butternut squash and perhaps another starch the kids prefer like potatoes
  • pumpkin-white bean soup with bread (I have much pumpkin goo)
  • Friday night will be fish and such.
Aaron still can do pasta for Wednesday night with the kids. I get back into a cooking groove without having to cook too intensely since the turkey burgers are pre-made. I would prefer to make our own, but Aaron really likes the ones we have. Hmph.

I'm going to let those ideas stew (pun intended) and check out WW for other recipe ideas.

What are you eating this week?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New Weight Watchers Program

Weight Watchers launched a new program this past week. I was looking forward to learning about it and revitalizing my motivation to get these last few pounds off.

Then the Big Ten/ACC basketball tournament came to town. Boston College played Indiana University (my alma mater), and Aaron knew we could get tickets. The game was the same night and time as my WW meeting.

Yeah, basketball totally won out. A more dedicated WW might have skipped a rare opportunity like awesome basketball. I knew I was up 1-2 pounds from Thanksgiving, and I didn't want to see that on the scale. And when was the last time I got to watch Indiana basketball IN PERSON? Um, no idea! Pretty sure it was before I had kids, so more than 4 years ago.

The great thing about Weight Watchers is that they meet every week. Another great thing about Weight Watchers is that I can learn how the weight loss plans work, even a new plan, whenever I go. Yet another great thing about Weight Watchers is that I could follow the old plan and still lose weight. SO, this week on Wednesday I will return to my meeting so that I will be accountable for my whole weight loss journey - the food, the pounds up or down, the whole megillah. I can make reasonably decent food decisions between now and then, and with the new plan I will resume some meal planning so my family continues to have the opportunity for healthy yummy food!

Back to Cooking

For several days after Thanksgiving, I really didn't feel much like cooking. I like cooking - A LOT - but I needed a break. We lived on leftovers and quick meals for a few days, but now I feel like I'm ready to rejoin the world of cooking.

This weekend Aaron made latkes, the traditional potato pancake associated with the holiday of Hanukkah/Chanukah/choose your favorite spelling and move on. Hanukkah is called the festival of lights since we Jews light a 8 branch menorah (candelabra) + the helper candle (shamash) in honor of a mythic miracle of oil for the Holy Temple's menorah lasting much longer than predicted. The actual story of Chanukah has to do with a battle of cultures and religions, but this blog is about food and not religious history, so back to food. In honor of the supposed miracle, we Jews eat a lot of greasy food during the 8 days of Chanukah.

Aaron makes some of the BEST latkes I've ever had. He of course does not cook with a recipe, but he does stick to a formula - one onion for every two potatoes. Most recipes I've read suggest one onion for four potatoes, and I don't find this formula as flavorful. In addition to the grated onions and potatoes, Aaron adds enough egg to make the vegetables stick together. It looks fairly soupy before he fries it. After he fries a batch, he puts the latkes on paper grocery bags in a dish in the oven to stay warm and drain. Let me try explaining this more like a recipe. :)

Aaron's Latkes
For every 2 potatoes, 1 onion
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking oil of your choosing (Aaron likes peanut oil)

Grate potatoes and onions, preferably with a food processor since it is quicker and less dangerous. Put grated potatoes and onions in a large mixing bowl. Begin to add beaten eggs until you have a fairly soupy mixture. It won't be a liquid, but it is somewhat pourable. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare a baking dish such as a 13 x 9 Pyrex and preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Cut some brown grocery bags to line the baking dish and eventually to layer between rows of latkes.

Heat oil on a griddle or in a large skillet. You will want to heat a shallow pool of oil and consider having a pan lid nearby in case of grease fire. Aaron has yet to cause a grease fire, but other family members seem to be prone to latke fire starting. Scoop potato mixture on griddle into 3-4" diameter "blobs"/pancakes. Fry for several minutes on each side. As the latke fries on the first side, you can test its "flippability" with a very flat spatula after a few minutes. Latkes are ready to flip when they do not threaten to fall apart when you touch them with a spatula.

When latkes are fried, remove them from heat and transfer to your prepared baking dish. Keep dish in oven while you cook remaining latkes. Make sure to put a layer of paper bag between the rows of latkes. After you have made all the potato mixture into latkes, serve latkes warm with applesauce and/or sour cream.

Speaking of applesauce, I made a cranberry applesauce which complemented the latkes rather nicely. My usual applesauce recipe follows:

8-9 apples, cored and sliced, possibly peeled
1 c. water
cinnamon (optional)

Combine ingredients in large pot. Bring to boil. Continue boiling/simmering until apples are mashable (10 minutes?). Mash with potato masher or immersion blender.

For cranberry applesauce, I added just under 3 cups of fresh cranberries. The resulting sauce was quite red, a bit tart but still sweet enough that the kids really enjoyed it.

More cooking coming as our week starts again!