Pico de Gallo

Fresh-made Pico de Gallo

My son made my day today when, at the grocery store looking for quesadilla fixings together and after me saying, “why don’t you pick out a jar of salsa that you’d like” he says, “why don’t we just make our own pico de gallo instead?” Wow, what a great idea, and how awesome is it that he knew to think of that as an idea! I’ve been trying over the years to encourage him to be a part of making foods (one of his favorites has always been desserts) and at least showing him this by making various things from scratch for him to eat.

For example, I found a recipe for a basic pancake mix that we now put together and leave in the freezer for later use. Much better than the box mixes that can also include hydrogenated oils (unhealthy trans fat), preservatives and a bunch of other ingredients. We’ve also discovered making a birthday cake (and the frosting) from scratch is far superior in flavor. So I was delighted that he suggested we make our own pico de gallo salsa. It’s this dietitian-mom’s delight!

So we got some tomatoes, fresh cilantro, some sweet onions and some sharp cheddar cheese. Once we got home I got him on the task of grating the block cheese while I cut up the tomatoes and onions. He pulled several sprigs of cilantro and washed them and then opened a can of diced green chilis that we had and drained them.  Then we combined the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, sea salt, pepper, garlic powder, some chilis and a squeeze of half a lime and let that set a bit.  It was fun and quite easy to make these cheese and pico quesadillas, and the best part (in my opinion) besides the taste, was that they were so fresh-tasting with that crunch of fresh onions and the fresh cilantro. And beyond the fresh food – the ultimate best was that my teenage son was with me in the kitchen and we were spending this time together. This is wonderful.

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My Custom Creation!

I wanted to come up with my own creative twist for dinner, considering my meatless adventures, desire to use good quality plant protein and also getting ideas and inspirations from various recipes I’ve looked through. Here’s what I created, and not only is it very tasty, it’s vegan. Here’s what I did to create it.
I started by cooking a spaghetti squash, first by poking it a couple good times with a knife to get it ready for steam cooking. The last time I cooked one I had used the oven at 375 degrees and put the punctured squash in a baking dish with about an inch of water and covered with foil. I found another recipe that suggested using the microwave on high for about 10 minutes. I tried that but the outside flesh wasn’t quite softened yet, so I went back to the original idea and put it in a pre-heated oven to finish cooking while I made the sauce.

Spaghetti squash done steaming

Some recipes I had researched feature diced tomatoes and various spices to make a sauce so I started with this in mind and enhanced with a couple more ideas (thanks to the great things I’ve learned in my Food Fundamentals course and cooking lab I’ve been taking this semester at the university – thanks Chef Guyette)! I first started with chopping and dicing a variety of veggies (mise en place – “everything in its place”) and got the cast iron pan heated up.

Then goes in the mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery) and also fresh chopped garlic. I let that saute for a while with a bit of olive oil. Then I tossed in some diced tofu to get browned on all sides (tofu is a good source of plant protein, one of the few plant sources that contain all the essential amino acids needed by the body). Next comes the quinoa:
About 1/4 cup dry quinoa seed was tossed in to join in on the browning (toasted quinoa seeds can add a nutty flavor, and quinoa is yet another plant source that contains all the essential amino acids) while the veggies and tofu also continued to take on a browning flavor boost.
Once everything was browning up good I was ready to add some liquidy ingredients, starting with diced tomatoes and a bit of water . . .
Then some beans (more protein!) and some spices like basil, oregano, sea salt and pepper. This simmered for about 20 or so minutes to blend flavor and let the quinoa cook.
While that was simmering I was able to cut open the spaghetti squash (with an oven mitt – that baby was hot!). Once you gently scrape out the seeds the squash flesh is so easy to scrape out in strands by using a fork.
 The spaghetti squash looks so much like pasta and is a nice (and nutritious) substitute as well. This was plated and then topped with the veggie/quinoa/tofu/bean/tasty sauce and then garnished with fresh chopped basil. It was really tasty and easy to make. Take-away for today: keep exploring, keep trying new culinary creations, tofu isn’t so bad (LOL) and there are ways to eat meatless meals that are protein-rich too.  I’m glad I tried – this is a keeper!

Peanut Brittle?

Today’s cooking class focused around grilling and using a spice rub – in this class we created a Jerk Spice Mixture to use as a marinade for our protein and vegetables. Most of the class used chicken while my lab partner and I got to work with tempeh (another first).

Tempeh is made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans, and the one we used also contained organic brown rice.When I opened the package it sure looked a bit funny to me – – and actually looked more like peanut brittle.

Upon further review of the nutrition label I see that half of the portion here (4 ounces) contains a good amount of protein (22gm) which is equivalent to what you’d get for a 3 ounce portion of meat. The portion also had a good source of iron (20% of the Daily Value), lots of fiber (12gm) and 15% calcium.

The spice mixture was another first for me. Here’s what was included: allspice, thyme, black pepper, salt, fresh ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, along with some fresh chopped hot chiles, garlic, scallions, chopped onion, brown sugar, fresh lime juice, a touch of vegetable oil and soy sauce. This was all blenderized in the food processor and then we mixed with our sliced tempeh and long sliced zucchini and summer squash and let marinate for a while.

Then the grill was fired up. We learned how proper cross placement on the grill created good sear marks too.  It was actually an easy way to cook but because of the brown sugar content of the spice rub we had to watch the heat of the grill since the sugar can burn easier.

We also cooked up a quick batch of rice and we were good to go. My take? Well I was surprised at the spice heat from the mixture despite the sweetness essence of the other spices. And the tempeh?  Well . . .  for this first round of trying it I was not too impressed as it seemed a bit dry and textured; I think a good sauce with it would help for another attempt down the road.

As a side note about the chicken: another part of this class was learning how to fabricate or cut up a whole chicken. While I didn’t actually eat the chicken I did participate in the cutting steps of breaking down a whole chicken as a part of the course. Some of the students in my class had never done such a thing before and many were hesitant after realizing this whole chicken body had been a former live animal, but now here it was in front of us, gravity holding it ready for the blade once again. Even the meat eaters took a second take . . .  That’s what I love about this course – we get to see ALL the steps of what is involved in getting all types of food ready for consumption – and not just picking up a package from the store. The course really helps  practice  mindfulness skills for sure! (No photos of chicken cutting process; the experience was enough)! Hmmm, peanut brittle right now sounds pretty good.

Tofu: A First

Today in cooking lab for the course I’m taking we applied the concepts of sauteing, making a slurry (thin mix of liquid and starch) and deglazing by route of the lovely stir fry.  The class made a chicken stir fry but our fabulous instructor Julie brought in tofu for those of us who wanted to cook meatless.  I’ve never cooked with tofu so I was glad to be given the opportunity.  It’s a great plant-based protein source which also includes many other healthful nutrients.

Working with tofu - a first!

We got to pick lots of vegetables: red pepper, scallions, fresh garlic, green beans, pea pods and something new for me: bok choy (I figured, why not try it while I have an opportunity in this class). It’s like celery in the stalk, romaine for the leaves.  Upon further research I found that it’s a great source of Vitamins A, C, K and folate along with other nutrients. As with fresh vegetables: more color, more nutrients.

Bok Choy - another first!

We also got to grate fresh ginger – another first for me. Some tips I learned: peel with the back of your knife or a spoon and then cover the grater with a piece of plastic to ease the gathering and cleanup of ginger. Smelled great!

Grating fresh ginger

We got our ingredients all ready and the sauté was ready to get started. The key is to start with a very hot pan. Add a bit of oil and toss in the protein, letting it set for a moment before stirring to get that caramelization browning started. Then toss in the peanuts, ginger and cayenne pepper followed by the vegetables. We had made some rice too – easy with a 2:1 ratio of water to rice and a simmer of about 20 minutes.

The saute begins

The last step was to add the soy sauce slurry for flavor and thickening. Since there was some browning on the bottom of the pan we added a small bit of water to the pan to deglaze the bottom which let us scrape up the brown flavoring to add to the dish. The stir fry was served on top of the rice and I must say

Final tofu stir fry over rice

the tofu was tasty (as opposed to trying a bit of it plain when I opened the package – – plain!). The seasoned tofu actually had a nice brown coloring and flavor and really did look a lot like chicken stir fry. The whole dish tasted great and I’m grateful for the opportunity to apply these concepts to a meatless dish and know how easy and healthy it can be once you have some key ingredients on hand. I’m so glad I’m taking this course. Thanks, Chef Julie!

Fresh Pasta

Chef Julie shows the pasta pressing.

Today I had my weekly cooking lab for the Food Fundamentals class I’m taking. Today we utilized some cooking techniques such as sauteing, deglazing, reducing and we also got to make our own pasta from scratch! Here are some photos I took in class when our fabulous instructor demonstrated the art of using the pasta machine to flatten the dough and then to cut into desired shapes.

Final cutting into pasta strips.

Part of the recipe included sauteing bacon for flavor and I wasn’t completely keen on that (since we always eat the food we prepare each class) – and I was quite thankful when Chef Julie asked our group if everyone was ok using bacon or not – – to which I said I would prefer not to. So my partner and I decided to skip the bacon but came up with an alternative to use for flavoring: we used sun-dried tomatoes and also a bit of soy bacon (though I would have been fine without it). The pasta making was a great experience! – – each pair of students pressed and cut their own, and our final dish came out great with the fresh chopped parsley, fresh grated Parmesan, and yumminess of deglazing our pan with white wine. Great time!

Still delish with no bacon!