Guilt Free (Holiday) Baking

Nothing smells more like the holidays than warm pies and fresh baked goodies.  Unfortunately, nothing feels more like the holidays than the extra baggage that comes with them.  Now your favorite desserts can be just as yummy and healthier, too – any time of year.

Photo by Mark Thomas

Photo by Mark Thomas

The Pastry Part

Whether you’re making cookies or pies, cakes or breads, there are more healthy options available to us than ever before.  Many store bought pie crusts are laden with trans fats and made from refined white flour.  Since whole grains are highly encouraged as a great source of fiber in our diet, let’s see how we can incorporate them here.

Unless you are sensitive to wheat (as in gluten intolerant), whole wheat flours are widely accessible – even at Trader Joe’s.  King Arthur and Bob’s Red Mill are two popular brands, or you can save by purchasing in bulk from your favorite health food store.

Another option is spelt flour, which can be substituted one for one to white flour.  Spelt is a distant cousin to wheat but can usually be tolerated by those with allergies.  Just like whole wheat, spelt has a high gluten content which is the protein that binds it all together.

You might also substitute oat flour, nut flours (by simply grinding nuts to a fine texture) or cornmeal in recipes. Other whole grain flours may be combined with all-purpose flour, but make sure you read up on it first to get the right lift and density.

The Inside Scoop

Pie filling is so versatile, but in keeping with my theme of seasonality, let’s talk apple and pumpkin (again.)  As mentioned in my post on pumpkin muffins, you can opt to roast your own, or use store-bought puree.  And when using apples, I tend to leave the peel on (only when organic) – as the skin contains more fiber and nutrients than the flesh.

Invariably recipes call for waaay too much sugar, which I not only reduce in half, but substitute with healthier sweeteners that don’t spike the blood sugar. Agave nectar is a wonderful plant-based variety which comes from the same plant as tequila (no wonder I love it!)  No processing chemicals are used in its production, keeping its integrity as a whole food. One big advantage to using agave nectar over other sugars (even honey) is that it takes longer to reach our blood stream.  Controlling these levels is an important factor in lowering risk for heart disease and diabetes, reducing cholesterol levels, and managing our weight.  Wow.  And you can find it almost everywhere now.

Agave nectar can be used in almost every baking recipe, but since it’s a liquid, reduce the ‘sugar’ amount by 25 percent. You should also cut back other liquids in recipes by same amount.  And again as a liquid, it will cook faster so reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.

In addition to baking, agave nectar is delicious in coffee, tea and…margaritas, of course.  Or hot mulled wine this time of year – another holiday scent which is timeless.

Pumpkin Primer

Wait!  Don’t send your pumpkin to the compost pile without extracting the fleshy goodness inside.  There are a variety of ways to use pumpkin,  the least of which is in baking.  The moisture is absorbed beautifully by whole grains, making the end result moist and tender.

Pumpkin is highly nutritious and most noted for its seeds, which are full of protein and EFAs (essential fatty acids.)  But the meat itself also has many health properties. It helps prevent cancers, cataracts, and regulates blood pressure.  Key nutrients are calcium, iron, magnesium and beta-carotene, which explains why it prevents visual impairment.

Your recipe will determine the preparation of the pumpkin. For baking I prefer to roast it to bring out golden, caramel flavors. The best pumpkins for baking are sugar pumpkins which tend to be a little smaller than the ones we use for carving.  To bake, cut in half and scoop out all the pulp and seeds (save those for toasting.)  I sprinkle a splash of olive oil on top and bake at 350 until tender (which could take up to an hour.)   Once cooled, you will have enough for the following recipe, and maybe more for a vegetable curry.

Pumpkin Muffins

2 C whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ C unsalted butter
¾ C Sucanat or brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C fresh or canned pumpkin (you can also use sweet potato)
1 C chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans are best)
Pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Prepare two muffin tins with liners.

Whisk together first seven ingredients in medium bowl.

Cream butter and sugar in mixing bowl until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping sides and bottom of bowl.  Mix in vanilla and pumpkin.  Add dry ingredients, blending gently until moist.  Stir in nuts.

Scoop batter into muffin cups and top each with pumpkin seeds.  Bake until toothpick comes out clean, approximately 22-24 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool on rack for five minutes before removing muffins from pan.

>>Let me know if you have a favorite recipe for toasting the seeds!

Ratatouille Two Ways

I’m always trying to find new ways to use eggplant and in keeping with my motto of eating with the seasons, I thought I’d play around and see what appeased my discriminating palate. While ratatouille isn’t original, I have added just about everything from the farmers’ market (save the fruit) and cooked up two variations.

Ratatouille over Polenta

Ratatouille over Polenta

And now to mention the nutritional bennies eggplant contains: it is heart healthy, high in potassium, vitamins A, C, and B complex.  It’s also a good source of fiber and is low in calories (just 28 in 1 cup.)  I guess because eggplant seems more substantial, I would have thought that number to be higher – but that’s what makes it an ideal food for weight control.

So here’s my version of this late summer dish using those yummy tomatoes we just canned and roasted:

If you have time, sprinkle the eggplant with salt once sliced to extract some of its bitterness.  I made dishes with both soft rosemary polenta , and baked over farro pasta.

Ratatouille over Farro

Ratatouille over Farro

(like rigatoni – only whole grain)

Ratatouille – Serves 6

2 yellow onions, diced
2 cans diced tomatoes (14 oz. ea.)
2 cups roasted tomatoes
1 medium eggplant, sliced
2 zucchini or yellow squash, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced and seeded
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
Fresh oregano and sage or dried Italian herbs
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
A big wedge of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Preheat grill. Brush eggplant, fennel, pepper and squash with olive oil and sea salt.  Grill to desired texture and set aside.  Chop once cool.
Sweat onions in olive oil, lightly salted.  Allow to cook until soft, no color. Deglaze pan with small amount of vinegar and reduce until pan is dry.  Add canned tomatoes and allow to cook until juices reduce, forming stew-like consistency.  Add herbs and season to taste.  Combine with all tomatoes and grilled veggies.

Serve over soft polenta or whole grain pasta (photo below) and top with freshly grated cheese.

Preserving Summer: Roasted Tomatoes

It seems we wait all year for just the right time to pluck those ruby red and yellow globes from our gardens or farm stands, and then all too soon they are gone.  Goodness knows we don’t want to then depend on the grocery store for a new supply, because we are all about seasonal produce.  Do you really need a flavorless tomato in January from Chile? Methinks no.

So in the interest of preserving the fullest flavors possible from this great source of lycopene and vitamin C, I have immersed myself in the kitchen canning and roasting tomatoes for sauces and stews in the months ahead.  It’s also therapeutic and economical.

This is the first of a three-part series on prepping tomatoes for future use, and recipes to enjoy today. Its not too late to grab the last of San Marzanos, Romas or plum tomatoes from the farmers’ markets.  And they’re at a great price now. YUM.

Roasting Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 300. Cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds.  Put in bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss with sea salt, garlic powder and fresh ground pepper to taste.  Be careful not to overdo the salt, as they become pretty concentrated when roasted.

Place cut-side up on cookie sheet or roasting pan lined with parchment.  Bake for two hours or until tomatoes are about half their original size.  You might want to check on them after 60 minutes to make sure the outer ones don’t burn.

Once cooled, you can either store them in the refrigerator in oil, or vacuum seal them and stash in the freezer.  When ready to use, add fresh garlic and herbs, and whatever meat source you desire.

Next up: late summer dishes using…uh, tomatoes!


Mediterranean Frittata

We have some major construction going on at my house, so I offered the workers a homemade lunch in lieu of their usual fare (picture a bag with golden arches…you know the rest.)  I had no idea what I would whip up on such short notice, but then all I had to do was rely on my recent trip to the farmers market for inspiration.  I collected farm-fresh eggs, roasted tomatoes, Swiss chard, goat cheese and parsley for one of my favorite ‘kitchen sink’ recipes: the frittata.  You always know it’s a hit when they ask for seconds, or in this case – thirds.  And it’s incredibly easy.  Serve for lunch or dinner with a garden salad and heaven awaits.

MEDITERRANEAN FRITTATA

9 free-range eggs
1/3 C organic low fat milk
1 med. onion
1 TB garlic, minced
1 TB olive oil
1 C spinach, chard or kale
1 C roasted or sun-dried tomatoes (drain excess liquid)
2 TB chopped parsley
1/4 C chopped Kalamata olives
1/3 C  feta or goat cheese
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 TB flax seeds
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.

Beat eggs with milk and season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Chop all veggies.

Sauté olive oil with onion and garlic for about 1-2 minutes, but don’t brown.  Add all veggies and cook over medium for about 4 minutes.  Add Italian seasoning.

Prepare ceramic baking dish (pie shape or oblong) by spraying with oil and coating with freshly ground flax seeds.

Add veggies to egg mixture, along with cheese. Pour into prepared dish and bake at 350 for 25 minutes or until center is set. For additional browning, broil for 3 minutes until golden.

Storing Fresh Produce

A lot can happen from the time produce is picked off the vine or pulled from the earth. Some fruits and veggies go to a packing house; others are cooled and transported an average of 1200 miles before reaching the consumer.

According to the folks at “Ideal Bite,” the average cost of food per American family jumped 36% between Jun. 2000 and May 2008, so every lil’ bit you can save helps.  Since I know you are all shopping at your local farmers’ markets, here are some hints on how to preserve the freshness and nutritional values of your perishable produce:

Store at room temperature

  • apples               lemons            pineapple
  • bananas            limes               pomegranates
  • grapefruit         mangoes          papayas
  • watermelon     persimmons    basil (in vase with water – cut stems every other day)
  • garlic                dry onions       potatoes (put in paper bag and keep in drawer – avoid light)
  • tomatoes          eggplant          peppers

Ripen on counter first, then to refrigerator

  • avocados         nectarines        pears
  • kiwi                 peaches            plums

Refrigerate

  • blueberries       cherries            strawberries (put in Tupperware with paper towel – do not wash first)
  • apricots            grapes              figs
  • raspberries       blackberries     artichokes
  • green beans      herbs               Brussels sprouts
  • carrots              cabbage           peas
  • radishes            corn                 spinach/lettuces (wash first, then store with holes in plastic bag)
  • cauliflower       celery              leeks
  • beets                 broccoli           mushrooms (put in paper bag in produce drawer)

General: store fruits and vegetables separate.  Some fruits let off the gas ethylene, which speeds ripening during the process.

Check out the Oliso Frisper Foodkeeper, a vacuum sealer for all types of food that uses reusable plastic bags.

I use  Evert-Fresh reusable bags which truly have a lasting affect on the produce .

In order to maximize the nutrients you receive, it is best to consume your fresh (organic) produce within two days of purchase but these tips can help extend their life span.  General rule of thumb is to wash all produce – even citrus – just before eating, with exceptions above.

When Life Gives You Apples

…I would say make applesauce but that’s so obvious.  So let’s look at how how delicious and healthful they are, in many iterations.  Of course, I always promote the whole food first.

‘Tis the season for this heart-healthy fruit in Northern California, beginning with the harvest of Gravensteins, to over 7,500 varieties today.  Commercially we have access to about 100 types, but if you scour the farmers’ markets you can find some pretty unique selections – all of which have great nutritional benefits.

Health Bennies
Apples are super high in fiber, providing 15% of our daily value when eaten with the skin. (If eating the skin make sure the apple is organic, as this is one of the fruits which absorbs pesticides the most. (Source: www.FoodNews.org) Apple skins are loaded with antioxidants – such as quercetin – in the form of a phytonutrient.  Quercetin provides cardiovascular protection, helps prevents cataracts and has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic and anti-viral properties.  It also prevents ulcers, kidney stones, and herpes simplex.   The fiber in apples latches onto LDL (the Lousy cholesterol) and moves it out of our bodies.  Eating just two apples a day can reduce cholesterol by up to 16%!

In addition to high fiber, apples are a good source of vitamins A, C and K. Vitamin K combats osteoporosis like calcium-rich foods and keeps cell damage at bay.

Right now you can find luscious apple varieties at your local farmers markets. The best way to store apples is in the refrigerator for about seven days.  We’ll review tips on keeping other produce soon but suffice it to say, the longer you wait, the less the nutritional bennies will wait for you.

Fun Facts
Here are some silly teasers for your kids or your friends (the big kids):
•    Apples float because 25% of their volume is air.
•    An apple tree must grow four to five years before it will produce an apple.
•    The “Delicious” apple variety is the most widely grown in the U.S.
•    The apple belongs to the rose family.
•    In ancient times, apples were thrown at weddings instead of rice or birdseed.  No wonder the bride had to change her clothes:)