Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Overnight Oats

Overnight Oats Crop

A few weeks ago, in my post about making your own milk kefir, I mentioned that one of my favorite uses for kefir is overnight oats for breakfast. I’ll be honest: I’d seen lots of posts on these oats, but I was not at all convinced that I’d like them. Cold oatmeal? It sounds disgusting, right? (Never mind that you can always heat them up in the microwave, if you want.) Actually, I’ve discovered that I love overnight oats as long as I follow a few simple rules.

First off, I recommend using steel-cut oats rather than regular oatmeal. These oats soak up liquid and soften overnight, but they don’t get mushy. Regular oatmeal, I’ve found, creates a more pasty texture, which just isn’t my thing. Given that steel-cut oats take a long time to cook, preparing them this way allows you to get all their fiber benefits without spending half an hour stirring a pot of oatmeal in the morning.

Secondly, combine kefir and oats in a 2:1 ratio. I’ve found that 1/4 cup of dry oats and 1/2 cup of kefir makes a very filling portion–especially if you’re adding nuts or fruit to the mix. (If you don’t have prepared kefir on hand, you can also use regular yogurt thinned with milk until it’s a drinkable consistency.) Stir well, store it away, and you’re done.

Lastly, save the extras for the morning: fruit, nuts, coconut, whatever.

Overnight Oats Close

Many recipes call for stirring fruit into your oats before letting them soak, but I prefer the firmer texture of fresh fruit added to prepared oats. If I’m using a fruit-flavored kefir, then the fruit that’s blended into the liquid is part of the bargain–but I still add fresh fruit to the top. Nuts, of course, will get soggy if you let them soak overnight, and coconut will suck up more than its share of the liquid, leaving you with oats that are unpleasantly mealy, not creamy.

Oats need to soak in a covered container in the fridge. Small jars are a good option for this, but if you don’t have jars on hand, a plastic storage container with a lid or a cereal bowl covered with plastic wrap will also work. Let your imagination be your guide, but these are some of my favorite flavor cominations:

Vanilla Almond: Vanilla kefir, sliced almonds added in the morning.

Coconut Pecan:  Coconut or vanilla kefir, sweetened coconut flakes and pecans added in the morning (pictured in this post.)

Maple Banana:  Maple kefir, chunks of fresh banana added in the morning.

Raspberry Zinger:  Raspberry kefir,sweetened coconut added in the morning.

Even if you’re pretty sure that overnight oats won’t be your thing, I challenge you to give them a shot! I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I actually prefer them cold to warm. That means they’re super easy to grab eight out of the refrigerator when it’s time for breakfast–and they’ll keep you full straight through to lunch.

 

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Gluten-Free Snack Ideas

Gluten-Free Snacks

Well, it’s May 1st and my April blog challenge didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned. Still, I posted something on 19 out of 30 days, which is way more than I’ve posted in the last several months–and more importantly, I’m back in the habit of thinking about this blog. So April was its own kind of success, if not exactly the kind I had planned for. Onward!

I’ve spoken about the process of going gluten-free fairly often on this blog. To be certain, following a gluten-free diet involves a whole host of challenges–finding a good loaf of gluten-free bread, figuring out how to bake with gluten-free flours, learning to check the ingredient list for everything you eat. But one of the biggest challenges I faced, after my doctor suggested that I give up gluten, was figuring out how to snack between meals.

You wouldn’t think that could be such a big deal, right? But think about what you typically have for a snack. Cookies? Crackers? Ice cream–perhaps a variety with pieces of cookie, or cookie dough, mixed in? Some or all of these things are likely to include gluten. Yes, even ice cream. Wheat is used as a thickener in many places you wouldn’t expect. There are gluten-free versions of many of these things, of course, but in my experience they’re overpriced and really not worth the cost. Focusing on snack items that are naturally gluten-free will save you money in the long run and, most importantly, still let you enjoy eating a little something between meals.

I’ve put together this list of generally safe gluten-free snacks to make it easier for you to stock your kitchen with wheat-free options. I’m emphasizing generally because it’s always important to check the ingredient labels for the foods you buy–some tortilla chips are wheat-free, but that doesn’t mean all of them are.  Checking labels is just a good habit to develop, when you’re trying to keep gluten out of your diet.

In no particular order, then, my favorite gluten-free snacks:

1. Frozen fruit bars. I have yet to come across a variety of these that includes wheat as a thickener. Generally speaking, frozen fruit bars contain fruit, water, and sugar. You can make your own very easily, by blending together those three ingredients and pouring the puree into popsicle molds, but when you’re in the mood to grab a prepared snack, these are a nice option. And they’re sweet, so they take the edge off your sweet tooth. Speaking of which . . .

2. Rice Krispy Treats are another fantastic option when you’re craving a little something sweet.

3. Apple chips and peanut butter are a nice combination. Bare snacks offers several varieties of apple chips (my Costco is currently selling the Fuji apple variety, and my Target store carries individual bags of the Granny Smith chips, which are my favorite.) Dipped in natural peanut butter, these chips give you crunchy, creamy, sweet and salty all in one bite.

4. All varieties of nut butter, whether spread on a piece of gluten-free toast or apple chips, are a high-protein snack choice. My local Target store sells single-serving packets of Justin’s nut butters.   I love them all, but the chocolate-hazelnut variety is a little taste of heaven. The maple almond butter is also exceptionally tasty.

5. Whole nuts are also high in protein. They’re high in fat, too, so you’ll need to watch your portion sizes. But nuts are full of fiber, so they’re a good snack for helping you get through the hours between lunch and dinner.

6. String Cheese is another protein-rich snack option, and you won’t miss the crackers as you might with sliced cheese. However, if you’re really, really craving crackers . . .

7. Crunchmaster Cheese Crackers are worth seeking out.  (Yes, I’m breaking my own rules here and recommending a gluten-free product.) I bought a box of these on sale and was very pleased with both the flavor and texture.  If you really have to have a cracker, this is the one I’d recommend.

8. Popcorn is naturally gluten-free, when you’re craving something crunchy. If you choose a flavored popcorn, though, be sure to check the ingredients, since wheat is often used as a binder for seasoning mixes.

9. Tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole. Again, check those labels–not all corn chips are gluten-free. But this is one snack you can usually share with a group, and no one will feel like they’re missing anything.

10.  Hummus and carrots or celery sticks is another snack in that category–both those of us who leave gluten alone and those who don’t notice its presence can enjoy it in harmony.

Going gluten-free isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be painful, and you don’t have to feel like you’re going to starve to death. (I know I did, for the first few months, but that’s mostly because I didn’t know what I could eat–only what I couldn’t.) Following a gluten-free diet does require that you think about food in a whole different way than you’re probably accustomed to, and that you be more careful about the food you choose to eat. But if your body needs to be on the gluten-free wagon, you’ll know right away that it’s worth making the change.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

First Harvest

Beans 2

I’ve been waiting for the green beans to plump up enough that I could justify picking them. The last few weeks of rainy weather seemed designed toward that goal. Then, last night, it rained like crazy. Tree branches down. Puddles of standing water all over the yard. I was sure the bean plants would be beaten to death before I could even gather a harvest.

But no. The beans were still there this morning. A little muddy, but really no worse for wear. Beans are tough. Also, tender and delicious.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Cookbooks I Have Known and Loved

Cookbooks

This post contains affiliate links. I”ll receive a small commission if you click through to the Amazon website.

 

People often ask where I come up with ideas for recipes. There’s no shortage of ideas on the Internet, of course, and I’ve found that just doing a Google search of the ingredients I have on hand generates an array of options that will, in all likelihood, lead to a new creation. In the old days, though–the pre-Internet days–I spent a lot of time flipping through cookbooks, searching for inspiration.

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite cookbook, I say “That depends,” and I don’t mean it depends on the day or the mood I’m in at the moment. (Given the way I go about cooking, it’s logical that you might jump to this conclusion.) I mean, it depends on what you’re planning to cook. I have three favorites, but they’re most useful for completely different purposes.

On the “Useful For the Most Basic Purposes” end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. That’s right, the red-plaid-cover book your mom/dad or grandmother/grandfather probably had tucked away somewhere.This is a great resource for fundamental questions like “How long does it take to make a hard-boiled egg?” and “How long do I cook chicken?” It’s true that you can find answers to those questions on the Internet, but my guess is that you’ll actually find a thousand answers and wonder which one is accurate. This cookbook puts the matter to rest quickly and definitively. Over the years, I’ve probably used this cookbook more than any other–not necessarily for its recipes (which are, I confess, a little boring), but for the basic information it provides. Also, its boring recipes are a good starting place for jazzing things up to your liking.

Moving on to the middle of the spectrum:  The American Country Inn Bed & Breakfast Cookbook is the one I’d keep if I were absolutely forced to choose a single cookbook from my stash. It’s never steered me wrong and has provided us with many great meals, treats, and ideas, though the recipes collected here are a little bit fancy and often high-calorie. They’re sometimes unusual (Souffle Pancakes), but they always make excellent use of the best ingredients of a particular season (Blackberry Tart). I stumbled upon this cookbook early in my marriage to The Hubs–I saw it advertised on the back of a box of cereal, of all things, and I sent away for it on a whim. It’s no longer in print, so you’ll have to score a used copy. Needless to say, my own copy is very, very used.

Lastly, my favorite cookbook for health-conscious cooking: Great Good Food by Julee Rosso, author of the Silver Palate Cookbook series. The thing I love about this cookbook is that it’s organized by seasons, so you can make use of the produce you’ll find at your local farmer’s market. Actually, it includes five seasons: the usual four, plus holiday season. The cookbook is based on the principle that flavor comes first: you won’t keep eating food that’s good for you if you don’t enjoy it. Rosso makes it her mission to teach you how to bring home the flavor.  The only drawbacks with this cookbook are that some recipes call for unusual ingredients (monkfish, venison sausage, various liqueurs), and its language can be a little precious–for instance, a recipe for peach pie calls for “perfectly ripened peaches.” I’m all for celebrating food, but fetishizing it is something else entirely. As far as I’m concerned, ugly peaches taste as good as their perfect kin.

Over the years, I’ve actually cut back on the number of cookbooks I own. Many people who love food collect cookbooks, and I can certainly understand the appeal, but the fact is that you’re likely to use only a few of those books on a regular basis–and I’m just not a big believer in accumulation.  If you have these three cookbooks on hand, you pretty much have your bases covered. You’ll have all the information you need to get through basic, everyday food preparation, make use of seasonal produce, and whip up something special for holiday celebrations and dinner guests.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Marinated Tuna Steaks

Tuna crop

There are few things I love more than a meal that looks fancy but is practically effortless to make. These marinated tuna steaks definitely fall into that category. From start to finish, this recipe takes about 45 minutes–but 30 of those minutes are devoted to marinating the tuna steaks, and 8 of those minutes are spent letting the tuna steaks cook in the oven. So, basically, your hands-on time commitment is roughly 7 minutes.

A basic marinade requires something acidic (usually vinegar or citrus juice), some kind of oil, and whatever flavorings you prefer.  Tonight, I went with an Asian-style marinade that includes sesame oil and garlic as flavorings. Both tuna and salmon have firm flesh that holds up to marinade, but it’s important not to let them soak for more than half an hour. The acidic elements in your marinade will start to “cook” the fish after that, turning it gray and most unappealing. Just measure your marinade ingredients into a resealable plastic bag and squish it a few times to mix everything–then add the tuna steaks and turn the bag over a few times, to coat the fish. Leave the bag on your kitchen counter while the oven preheats, and flip it over again whenever you think about it.

Salad crop

I served our tuna steaks with a chopped salad mix that came with its own packet of sesame dressing–that was my inspiration for the marinade, actually. (And if you want to go super-simple, you can always use salad dressing as a marinade for the tuna as well. Just grab a bottle of something with the word “Sesame” in the name, make sure it’s gluten-free if necessary,  and you’re good to go.) A pre-chopped salad is, of course, more expensive than chopping your own, but the time it saves me pretty much guarantees that it will end up on a dinner plate. I can’t say the same for salad ingredients, which may or may not make it to the cutting board at the end of a long Monday.

The Boy had to work this evening, so The Hubs and I enjoyed a quiet dinner and had a little taste of what life in the empty nest will be like. If it’s always this delicious, I think we’ll be okay.

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Marinated Tuna Steaks

Ingredients:

3 T. soy sauce (gluten-free, if necessary)
4 T. olive oil
2 T. rice wine vinegar
2 T. sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tuna steaks, 1 inch thick

Directions:

Measure all the marinade ingredients into a large, resealable plastic bag. Squeeze the bag a few times to mix the ingredients. Add the tuna steaks and squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing the bag. Turn the bag over a few times to coat the tuna. Let them marinate on the countertop for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. After 30 minutes, remove the tuna steaks from the marinade, shaking off as much of the liquid as possible, and transfer them to the baking sheet. Bake the tuna for 8 minutes per half-inch of thickness, but watch it carefully--fish cooks quickly. You'll know the steaks are done when they flake easily with a fork. They should still be light pink in the middle.

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