Eating Well – Meatlessly

Eating a vegetarian meal doesn’t mean you have to buy odd grains or eat funny-shaped beans that take hours to cook. When it comes to quick, easy meals ideal for busy weeknights, many vegetarian entrees are ideal since you don’t have to thaw or cook meat. If you’re an occasional vegetarian, you already know this.

But if you tend to stick to the meat-and-potatoes routine, consider giving vegetarian dinners a try. These three ideas can be just as satisfying as beef or chicken, and are quick to put together after a busy day. And if you decide you absolutely can’t do without meat, any of these recipes could also be a great side-dish for a beef or chicken entree.

Black Bean Soup
If you omit the sour cream, this soup is suitable for anyone who is lactose intolerant.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup chopped onion
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 small can green chiles
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ cup sour cream (optional)

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Saute onions and garlic in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, green chiles, and thyme and simmer till hot, about 15 minutes. If using sour cream, add at the end of the simmering time. Do not allow soup to come to a boil after adding the sour cream or it will curdle.

Tomato Zucchini Casserole
If the weather is hot, wrap this up in foil – minus the cheese – and grill!

2 large zucchini, sliced in rounds
2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
½ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350°. In a greased casserole dish with a lid, layer half of the zucchini, tomatoes, and onion. Repeat layering with remaining ingredients. Sprinkle salt and pepper over, and top with Parmesan. Bake, covered, for 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake for about 15 minutes more to allow excess moisture to evaporate. Serve with crusty bread.

Potato Frittata
A frittata is an Italian version of quiche, only easier because there’s no crust.

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium-sized baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 tablespoons flour
¾ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon basil or oregano
8 eggs, beaten to blend
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper

Melt butter and oil in a heavy 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Mix potatoes with flour. Add potatoes, paprika, garlic powder, basil or oregano to skillet, and cook, stirring often, until potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes.

Combine eggs with Parmesan cheese in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture over potatoes in skillet. Do not stir eggs – instead, pierce holes in egg mixture and lift edges with spatula, tipping pan to allow uncooked egg to flow underneath until an edge forms, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low, cover skillet, and continue cooking until eggs are set, 10 to 12 minutes. When eggs are set, invert frittata onto platter and serve.

August 5, 2008 at 12:42 am 4 comments

Five Easy Appetizers and Dips

Whether it’s to celebrate a birthday, a holiday, a new job, or just to watch your favorite sports team in action, having a casual gathering to share food and drink is one of the best ways I know to spend time.

Ah, but there’s that whole cooking thing. What to fix? Where to find time? Where to fit entertaining into the budget? And what about that vow to eat healthier food? It’s all too much fuss, right?

Wrong. You can do this, even with limited time and limited money. And if you really want to “be good” about sticking with a diet, you can, even while enjoying the company of family and friends.

Here are five dips that can be served with crackers, chips, or fresh vegetables. They’re easy to make, require no fancy, expensive ingredients, and a couple are even quite healthy!

Balsamic White Bean Dip
1 15-ounce can white beans (also called cannellini), drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt
Pepper
Optional herbs such as basil, rosemary, oregano, or thyme

In a blender, puree beans, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in herbs, if used. Transfer to bowl and serve with crudites, crackers, or bread.

Homemade Onion Dip
Adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown
You won’t believe how easy it is to make onion dip even better than what’s in those plastic containers.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onion
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup mayonnaise
More salt to taste

In a saute pan over medium heat, add oil, onions, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook onions until they are caramelized (brown and very soft), about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove onions from heat and cool. Mix remaining ingredients, then add the cooled onions. Cover, refrigerate for an hour, and stir again before serving.

Spinach Dip
10-ounce package frozen spinach
1 ½ cups sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 package dry vegetable soup mix (for instance, Knorr)
3 green onions, chopped

Thaw and squeeze dry the frozen spinach. (This is messy, but necessary to get extra moisture out of the spinach.) Stir together spinach, sour cream, mayonnaise, soup mix, and onions. Blend well, cover, and refrigerate for at least two hours. Stir before serving. Great with crackers or bread.

Mrs. MacNeill Dip
Named after my sister’s high school accounting teacher. This is a low-cal, low-fat dip that’s a breeze to make.

2 small cans tomatoes, drained
4 or 5 green onions
1 small can green chiles
1 small can mushrooms
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons cider vinegar (balsamic or rice vinegar work, as well)
garlic salt (or 1 clove fresh garlic)

Put first five ingredients in blender or food processor; blend until finely chopped. Add oil. Vinegar and garlic salt (or garlic). Refrigerate over night to allow flavors to blend. Great with chips and fresh vegetables.

Basil and Sun-Dried Tomato Dip
6 sun-dried tomato halves (if using the kind packed in oil, drain and blot off as much oil as possible using paper towels)
½ cup boiling water
2 cups low-fat cottage cheese
¼ cup green onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon black pepper
Salt, to taste

In a small bowl, combine the tomatoes and water. Let stand for 5 minutes to soften the tomatoes. Drain well and chop tomatoes finely. Put cottage cheese in a food processor or blender. Add tomatoes and remaining ingredients. Process using on/off turns until well mixed and fairly smooth. To thin, add a few teaspoons of milk at a time. Serve with crackers, bread and fresh vegetables.

July 29, 2008 at 1:47 am 4 comments

Breakfast in a Hurry: 4 Ideas to Start the Day

For some people, breakfast means nothing more than a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea. But there are those who get out of bed with stomachs grumbling, ready to eat ravenously as soon as feet hit the floor.

This can present a problem if you have an 8-to-5 schedule during the work week. Once you factor in getting yourself ready (and any others you may be responsible for), dropping kids off at school or daycare, and then the commute itself, time for breakfast fades into nothing more than a luxury for weekends and vacation days.

But take heart. There are ways to grab a quick, nourishing breakfast, even on the most hectic days, without always resorting to cold cereal. In addition to the beverages of your choice – coffee, tea, orange juice, tomato juice, milk, etc. — here are four fast and easy breakfast ideas to satisfy your grumbling stomach and get your day off to an energetic start.

Quick Scrambled Eggs
Time: 10 minutes

Heat a medium-sized skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine and swirl it around the pan to coat. While the butter is melting, crack 4 eggs (for two servings) into a bowl and beat them until the yolks and whites are combined. Add a splash of milk or water, if you like.

Add the eggs to the heated skillet and turn the heat down to medium low. Stir the eggs often, and cook until they lose their runny quality, but no longer. This should take 3 or 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and serve. (To make clean-up easier, let the pan soak while you’re at work.)

Not Your Mother’s Cinnamon Toast
Well, it’s not my mother’s cinnamon toast. Sorry, Mom: this is better. Put away the toaster.
Time: 10 minutes

2 slices white bread (or wheat, if you prefer)
Butter or margarine
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the broiler of your oven for 3 to 4 minutes. (If you are using a toaster oven, omit this step.) Toast the bread lightly on one side. Remove from broiler, turn bread over and spread butter generously on untoasted side. Then sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on each piece. Put bread back under the broiler for 30 to 45 seconds, just enough to melt the butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Serve immediately.

Basic Oatmeal
Time: 15 minutes
This is much better than the instant, microwaveable stuff, especially on a cold morning. To make your oatmeal thicker, use about ¼ cup less water. Makes two servings.

2 ¼ cups water
Pinch of salt
1 cup rolled oats
Sugar, maple syrup, sweetened preserves, honey, or other optional sweeteners

Boil the water, salt, and oats in a medium-sized sauce pan over high heat. When the mixture boils, turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the water is absorbed. This should take 4 to 5 minutes. Add a dab of butter if you want, then put a cover on the pan and turn the burner off. Let the oatmeal sit for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sweetener of your choice and serve.

Yogurt and Granola

This is incredibly easy, quick – and portable, if need be.
Time: 2 minutes

1 container low-fat yogurt (flavor of your choice)
½ cup granola

Mix granola and yogurt in a small bowl and serve.

July 17, 2008 at 1:32 am 5 comments

Pasta Perfect: Easy Ideas to Please (Almost) Anyone

When it comes to options, I’m not sure there’s any meal category that can beat pasta. The varied shapes, toppings — and even the grains from which pasta can be made — provide limitless combinations.

If you’re vegetarian (or cooking for one), you can find a wide variety of pasta dishes. If you’re allergic to wheat products, you can find pasta made from other grains — rice, quinoa, soy flour, and more. If you hate tomatoes, no problem: you can sauce your noodles with countless other options.

Pasta dinners were a favorite when my kids were growing up because they provided a rare opportunity to please everyone — and use up leftovers in the fridge. I would cook a large pot of linguine (or fettucine, or spaghetti), and then chop various toppings to pile in bowls: tomato, onion, fresh basil, bell peppers, fresh spinach, sugar snap peas, black olives, pepperoni (or leftover chicken, Italian sausage, turkey), mushrooms, and as much cheese as I could grate. Once the pasta was cooked and drained, the girls piled on whatever they wanted (I did stipulate that they had to include at least one vegetable!), and enjoyed as much as they wanted. And any leftovers were perfect for workday or weekend lunches.

Here are three recipes, using various pasta shapes, that showcase the flexibility and ease of a pasta dinner. The only real “rules” in these recipes have to do with cooking the pasta. Use plenty of water and follow package instructions for timing to end up with tender pasta that’s perfect with any toppings you choose.

Pasta and Bell Pepper Ziti

8 ounces ziti or other tubular pasta such as penne
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 Italian sausages (optional: turkey sausage)
2 cups chopped onion
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional: 1/2 cup chicken broth)
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juices
Salt, pepper, oregano and/or basil, to taste
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water according to package directions. Stir occasionally. When done, drain in colander, then return to pot.

While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and saute until brown (about 5 minutes), breaking up with a fork as it cooks. Add onions and bell peppers and saute for another 5 minutes. Stir in wine or broth and boil for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes (and juices), salt and pepper, and herbs. Reduce heat to medium and cover skillet. Simmer sauce until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add sauce to pasta in pot and toss to combine. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve.

Greek Orzo

Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta that kids seem to love. You can find it in most grocery stores.

1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup orzo
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

In a large skillet, saute onions and garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until tender. Add tomatoes and juice from can. Stir in oregano and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until most of the juices from the tomatoes have evaporated.

Meanwhile, cook orzo according to package directions. When done, drain orzo and add to tomatoes in pan. Stir in feta cheese and cook for 1 minute, or until cheese melts. (There are many options for this dish. If you prefer basil, use it in place of the oregano. If you like a little heat, add some red pepper flakes. Some sliced black olives or leftover chicken would also work well.)

Pasta with Cheese Sauce

1 pound spagetti, fettucine, or linguine
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound Swiss cheese, cut in 1/2″ cubes
1/4 pound Fontina or provolone cheese, cut in 1/2″ cubes
1 cup Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, rosemary, or thyme

In a large pot, bring water and salt to a boil. Add oil and pasta. Return to boil and cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, toss all cheeses in a large bowl with flour. Heat butter and half-and-half until butter melts. Gradually stir in cheeses and cook over medium heat until sauce is smooth. Add chopped herb and stir to blend. Pour sauce over cooked pasta and toss quickly to coat. Optional: Just before serving, toss with an additional 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

July 10, 2008 at 2:10 am 5 comments

Salad Days: Easy Main Dish Salads

When the weather changes, I’ve noticed that my appetite does as well. When it’s hot and humid, a bowl of steaming chili is simply not appealing to me. Spaghetti and meat sauce? Not so much. Chicken noodle soup? Not unless I’m recovering from some ailment…which, thankfully, seldom happens in warmer months.

What generally does hit the spot during hot weather is a cool, crisp salad. I still want to feel that I’ve eaten, and not be hungry an hour later — I don’t know anyone who can make it through the summer on “rabbit food.”  But it’s a great time to take advantage of all the seasonal produce at the stores and local markets to make healthy, fresh salads that don’t heat up the kitchen. Here are some easy, main dish salads that are perfect for the season. Pair them with a good loaf of bread and the drink of your choice and head out to the deck for dinner.

California Club Salad

1 1/2 cups chopped cooked chicken (if you have some leftover from grilling or roasting, that’s perfect)
2 hard-boiled eggs
4 bacon slices, cooked till crisp and crumbled
2 tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 avocado, sliced
1 1/2 quarts lettuce (romaine or green leaf), torn into bite-sized pieces
Blue cheese dressing

Divide lettuce between four plates. Divide chicken and all other ingredients evenly between plate. Top with blue cheese dressing and serve.

Waterfront Tuna Salad

1 7-ounce can tuna, drained
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 pound fresh green beans
2 cups lettuce (green or red leaf, romaine, or butter) torn into pieces
1 hard boiled egg, peeled and diced
1 medium potato, cooked and cubes
1/2 basket cherry or grape tomatoes
Mustard dressing (recipe below)

Combine tuna, sour cream (or yogurt) and lemon juice; set aside. Cut beans into bite-sized pieces and steam in a small amount of water for 8 to 10 minutes, till tender crisp. Drain.

Divide lettuce between two salad bowls. Scoop tuna mixture into center and surround with beans, egg, potato, and tomatoes. Drizzle with mustard dressing.

Mustard dressing: Combine 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 tablespoon prepared mustard, 1 clove minced garlic, and 1/8 teaspoon salt with 1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil in blender. Whirl until smooth and thickened.

Mexican Beef Salad

1 pound round steak, sliced into thin strips
1 tablespoon oil
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 green or red bell pepper, sliced in thin rings
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon red pepper
(Note to beginning cooks: If you don’t have every one of these herbs and spices in your cupboard, never fear! The real essentials here are chili powder and oregano. This salad will be just as tasty with those minimal seasonings.)
3 tablespoons vinegar (balsamic or cider vinegar can be used)
6 cups lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1/4 cup black olives, sliced

In skillet, brown round steak strips in oil. Transfer meat to bowl and top with onion and bell pepper rings. Cover bowl and refrigerate.

To skillet drippings, add salt, chili powder, cumin, oregano,  and red pepper. Heat through, then remove from heat and add vinegar. Pour into a small bowl; cover and refrigerate 3 hours.

Divide lettuce between four plates. Toss meat mixture with cherry tomatoes, cheddar cheese and black olives. Top with meat mixture and drizzle dressing over to serve.

July 6, 2008 at 10:42 pm 6 comments

3 Fast and Easy Ideas for Weeknight Dinners

I feel your pain. You return home from work or school after a long day, tired and hungry. You may have children, and at this time of day — what I used to call the “witching hour” — they’re cranky, they want your attention, and you can’t get food into them fast enough. No wonder so many people decide against cooking and grab some fast food on the way home. That first hour home is often the most trying of the day.

Instead of a fat-filled burger and fries, try these 3 easy dinner ideas. They’ll help you get through that tricky first hour home and still get an easy and relatively healthy dinner on the table.

Beef and Cheese Burritos

1 pound ground beef
1 cup prepared salsa
1/2  pound Velveeta cheese, cut into cubes
6 flour tortillas, warmed
Optional toppings include shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and sliced black olives

Brown the ground beef in a large skillet over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until beef is crumbly and no longer pink. While the beef is browning, cut the cheese into cubes. When beef is brown, drain fat into an empty can or plastic container – do not pour down the drain. Stir salsa and cubed cheese into meat; heat until cheese is melted.

Spoon about 1/2 cup of the beef mixture down the center of each tortilla. Add toppings as desired. Fold over edges and serve.

Even quicker: If you have 15 extra minutes the night before, brown and drain your ground beef, then cover and refrigerate it. When you’re ready to prepare the tortillas, simply reheat the beef in a large skillet and follow recipe instructions from there.

Sandwich Wraps
There are so many options with this, you’ll be able to please even the pickiest eaters in your house!

1 package sandwich wraps
1/2 pound thinly sliced deli meat (turkey, roast beef, ham, etc.)
1/2 pound sliced deli cheese (cheddar, provolone, swiss, etc.)
Mayonnaise, to taste
Mustard, to taste
Optional toppings include shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sliced black olives, diced pickles, diced onion, sliced red or green bell pepper, sprouts, or whatever fits your taste.

Spread mayonnaise and/or mustard on the wrap. Lay the meat and cheese on the wrap. If desired, microwave for about 20 seconds to heat meat and melt cheese. Fill wrap with optional ingredients. Wrap carefully to avoid tearing.

Lemon Shrimp with Linguine

1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small bag frozen shrimp (about 8 ounces)
1/2 of a fresh lemon (or 2 tablespoons lemon juice)
1/2 pound linguine

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat; add olive oil and garlic and heat till garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in colander, thaw shrimp under cool running water, as directed on package; allow to drain thoroughly. Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta, as directed on package.

When shrimp is thawed and drained, saute it in a skillet over medium heat until the shrimp is cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes – the shrimp will look opaque. Turn the heat to high for 2 – 3 minutes, stirring frequently, to boil off some of the excess water from the shrimp. Reduce the heat to low and add the lemon juice and another tablespoon of butter. Keep warm until pasta is done.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain in colander when done. Divide pasta and lemon shrimp mixture on plates and serve.

July 6, 2008 at 5:23 pm 3 comments

Five Easy Summertime Dinner Ideas

When warm weather finally arrives, slaving away in the kitchen may lose its appeal. I don’t know many people who enjoy cooking over a hot stove when the temperature starts climbing, but I do know that most people still want to eat well. The good news is, you don’t have to give-in to the temptation to eat greasy take-out burgers or cold soggy sandwiches just because you don’t want to spend time in a hot kitchen.

Here are five ideas for easy and affordable weeknight meals you can make without breaking a sweat.

Soft Tacos
Brown a pound of ground beef (hamburger) in a skillet until done. Drain off the grease; season with salt and a teaspoon or so of chili powder. Pile the meat into taco shells or soft tortillas along with chopped tomato, canned chili beans, grated cheddar cheese (or colby, or pepperjack) onion, and other garnishes of your choosing (sour cream, guacamole, salsa, cilantro, etc.). This is great for a family with a lot of different preferences because everyone can make their tacos just the way they like them!

Stuffed Tomatoes
Mix canned tuna (packed in oil and drained) with dried dill or parsley, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a tablespoon of finely minced onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Core two large tomatoes; stuff tuna salad into tomatoes.

Herbed Pasta
Cook angel hair pasta according to package directions. Chop ½ cup of basil or oregano (or a mixture of both) and toss into a small saute pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss the herbs with the pasta, diluting with a tablespoon or two of the pasta water if needed. Optional: top with a few tablespoons of parmesan cheese. Another option for a heartier meal: If you have leftover cooked chicken, toss in ½ or ¾ cup. Add a green salad and you’ve got a quick, complete meal.

CLT Sandwiches
Dredge thin chicken breasts in flour or cornmeal, whichever you prefer or have on hand. Cook the chicken for about two minutes per side over high head in hot olive oil. Place on bread or a bun with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.

Mushroom “Burgers”
Saute two large portobello mushroom caps in 1 tablespoon olive oil until tender. Season with black pepper, and thyme or oregano (dried if you have it; fresh if possible). Melt a slice of cheese (provolone ad swiss work well here) over the mushrooms, if you prefer a cheeseburger. Place caps on hamburger bun and season with steak sauce.

If you plan ahead and have the ingredients you need on hand, each of these ideas can be prepared in less than 30 minutes, so you still have plenty of time to get out and enjoy the beautiful summer evenings.

July 4, 2008 at 10:42 pm 1 comment

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