Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stir-Fry Ideas

About 17 years ago, a dear friend of mine whom I coached on a women's soccer team, talked to me about how she wanted to lose weight. She was the teams goalie and figured it was time to lose the baby weight she was having issues with. She also assured me exercise would be part of the plan she had to put in place. D mentioned she knew I cooked at a fairly high level, so I told her I would help her with the way she ate.

The dish she was most interested in (as I believe we touched base on this briefly once or twice before this discussion) was the stir-fry. I was in pretty good shape at the time playing rugby, coaching soccer and running three or four times a week. She had asked how I helped myself stay this way. I told her simply, "Exercise and the way I eat."

Eating is the simple part as you have to do it multiple times a day. Don't kid yourself: you have to do it more than once a day if you want to stay healthy. Eating four or five times a day is extremely important. This is only possible if you are eating properly and your portions sizes are not super-sized. But this can be discussed another day here.

In 1992, I started to try and elevate my cooking skills and knowledge. Along the way, I found out what the stir-fry could do for me. There are about 100,000 ways to make this dish as there can be so many ingredients to which the dish can be brought together with. I would make it differently as many times as I could, but I still stuck with my basic principles. If you or I made the same dish everyday of the week the exact same way, no matter how good it was for you, we would grow sour with it very quickly. The key is to use different ingredients, but still make it the same way. I know this looks like a lot of information, but once you start getting used to it, there shouldn't have any problems. It is very easy to make this.

My basic principles are:

- Plan ahead by cutting your some of your vegetables and store them in the fridge. This is very important if you are short on time. Do anything and everything you can to ensure you and your family eat well at every meal. I usually only do this with sturdier vegetables such as carrots and broccoli, the ones which require the most work to prepare.
- I would only use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or grape seed oil. At that time (and where I lived) these were the only options available, but there are many other oils out there now which bring a healthy element to the dish and have a high enough smoke point to accommodate the heat. Be careful of EVOO though. It's smoke point is quite low, but the health benefits are hard to ignore (
- Use a big sauce pan if you don't have a wok. The only way I would use a wok was if I had a gas stove.
- Start by adding the oil to a hot pan over medium-high heat. Add any spices like cumin or curry first to flavour the oil. This will flavour everything around it easier than adding it later on. Doing this also adds a nice smoky flavour to the spice.
- Start by cooking the thicker, heavier vegetable first, like carrots, broccoli stalks and onions. Cut the carrots at a diagonal to expose more of the inside to make it cook quicker. It's alright to let your carrots start to turn color or even brown, but not burn.

- Add heartier spices such as rosemary or oregano at this point and a little sea salt and fresh ground pepper. The salt will help the vegetables release their juices. If you want to use cayenne or a chili pepper, add it now.
- When the onions are translucent, add the lighter vegetables at this point such as peppers, broccoli florets and chopped asparagus. Garlic and chopped ginger should go in now as well. This would also be a good time to add meat like chicken or pork if you choose to use it. If you are adding asparagus, cut with a rolling cut. This will help it cook quicker and pick up more flavour. To do this, make a diagonal cut and roll it 1/4 turn to make the next cut, as seen below.

- Add a little more sea salt to keep the green vegetables green and to make more juices come out. This will help the stir-fry make it's own sauce. I will sometimes add a little water or fresh juice here, like lemon or lime if I am cooking with chicken, or apple to add a nice background flavour. This will help steam the ingredients. Put the lid on and turn down the heat to medium-low. If you are using spinach or another leafy vegetable such as bok choy, kale or Swiss chard, put it in now. If you want to use shrimp or some other kind of seafood (except squid, add it at the end with about 1 or 2 minutes to go), add it now.
- After about 5 minutes, take the lid off. Add lighter herbs here, meaning basil or thyme. This way it will not kill the flavour if you put it in too early.
- Now is a good time to add sesame oil or something like this to add another background flavour. I sometimes used oyster and/or soy sauce but found it had too many things in it I didn't want to ingest ( You really do have to read the labels on foods and sauces you buy to make sure you are not ingesting Styrofoam or plastic these days. Besides, I would rather make my own sauce any day over buying one. Buying a sauce off the shelf means you are eating something in which you have no idea what's in it. Make your own and you will know!
- Sprinkle finely chopped parsley or cilantro over top and stir.
- I always follow one rule when it comes to serving this dish: If it has meat in it, serve it alone. If it doesn't have meat in it, serve it over curried quinoa, basmati rice, pasta or rice noodles. I always make sure I don't mix meat and starch if I'm trying to keep the fat off. This combination can be hard to digest as it is very heavy. Sometimes I do eat pasta with meat sauce (and love it!), but don't make a habit of it.

So, you see it's easy to make a stir-fry and it's also easy to use almost anything you want. Just learn to cook your ingredients the right way. There is a way to bring out the most flavour from whatever you are using in your dish. I just told you how, but remember, every pan and every cook top will be different. Figure out how yours work together the best and go for it.

Adding different spices is not a bad idea, but be careful. Some spices don't play well with others. If you're confident about something and you want to try it, do it. Some people may like a cinnamon stick in a stir-fry. What the heck, I might even try this! Cinnamon is good for you! Some might even like a little nutmeg. If you are using squash, this would work. It's your recipe, so do what you want. Just remember to try and keep it healthy.

I served the stir-fry over curried quinoa this time. To make it this way is very simple:

- Quinoa is like most rice grains, double the water to the amount of quinoa. I put it in the pan to toast it a little first before I add the water on medium-high heat. This adds a nice, nutty flavour. You will know when to add the water when you can smell the nutty aroma.

- Add the water and it will be ready to boil almost right away. When it does boil, add 1/2 teaspoon curry powder (or as much as you'd like) for every cup of water you are using. Serve on a plate and spoon the stir-fry over top.

Little O's Menu

As I mentioned yesterday, O has teeth and is starting to utilize them more often now. Different kinds of pasta are going down well (whole wheat and regular) and so is what the pasta is being served with. This week, I will make pasta primevera for us and her as well. My version is pretty much just pasta with roasted vegetables, herbs and spices. I have to watch out for which spices I use with her though. She isn't a big fan of any heat, which I don't blame her for at all. I slipped up and accidentally fed her some veggies with a little chili involvement. Oops! I felt so bad as they were supposed to be for me, not her. She only had a couple of bites and expressed her extreme displeasure with my mistake. I fed her a little yogurt and she was back to her little old self again.

We are also getting to the point where we are going to try and step up her tomato consumption. I think her stomach can start handling more and more now without the acid issues which may come with young, little tummies. This will help her a great deal in fighting off any illness or disease which may come along due to the lycopene. The human body needs help with lycopene as it does not produce any on it's own ( Anything to help our family out in the health department is a step in the right direction.

Quote of the day:

"Tomatoes and squash never fail to reach maturity. You can spray them with acid, beat them with sticks and burn them; they love it."

- S.J. Perelman - Jewish-American humorist, author and screenwriter (1904-1979)

Until next time, good eating everyone.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Spaghetti Aglio Olio

Spaghetti. I love eating it, and I should even be eating more whole wheat spaghetti than I do. I guess I'm just too traditional. I still cook whole wheat pasta for us as I know it is supposed to be better for us, just not as often as I should. This will continue to change, but slowly. I find it hard to get used to the flavour change from the regular pasta. But, it's for the better good of our health, so I just have get used to it.

For simple dishes such as Aglio Olio, I like to use regular ol' white pasta. The reason: I don't want to overpower the flavour of the sauce with the whole wheat pasta. It sounds weak, but as I said before, I am a traditional guy when it comes to pasta. Bolognese or any other big, bold sauce, yes, I will use whole wheat. If it's all you use, feel free to use it, or maybe corn or rice pasta. It's your dish when you make it, so it's up to you.

If I'm in a hurry or just being lazy, I like to make Aglio Olio. It's quick, easy and very versatile. When you add something such as a little parsley, it changes the whole dish. The whole idea with this dish is to maximize the flavour of everything in the dish as there aren't many ingredients. Timing and attention is also important. You can burn the garlic very easily or overpower it with the chilies, if you choose to use them. Personally, I like a little heat as it's a healthy thing to do ( Chilies or Cayenne helps me when I'm having issues with allergies, and they also has capsaicin which is extremely beneficial to our bodies. I use chilies to either add a tiny bit of flavour to a dish or add a lot of heat. It all depends on what you are cooking and what result you are looking for. I never want to kill the flavour of something nice in a dish by pumping up the heat.

This whole dish is about simplicity and eating healthy. Don't ever think that eating healthy is a hard thing to do. This dish takes about 15 minutes to make, that's it!

Spaghetti Aglio Olio

- 3/4 pound (340 g) spaghetti
- 1/3 cup EVOO
- 2 cloves finely chopped garlic. The smaller you chop or mince it, the easier it burns. Be careful.
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or as much (or as little) as you would like,
- 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
- coarse sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- grated Parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. 2. While pasta is cooking, heat oil over low heat in a frying pan.
3. Add garlic and saute just until garlic softens but does not brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Do not let it burn as it will turn bitter. If you want lots of heat in the dish, add the chilies now. If you want more heat, add them earlier on. If you only want a little heat, add them as late as possible, maybe just before you add the pasta to the oil.

4. Drain the pasta, reserving around 3/4 cup of the pasta water. Adding this water to the oil after adding the pasta will help the pasta soak up as much flavour from the oil as possible and will keep it from getting dry.
5. Add parsley. Remove from heat.

*Notice the color of the garlic. It is not brown, it's just slightly red from the chilies. I actually added the water to the mix before the pasta. Better to add the pasta first. I tried something different this time, but not like this again.

6. Add the pasta to the frying pan. Mix and add the pasta water. Let cook for another minute.
7. Add salt, pepper and Parmesan to taste.

Yield: Serves 3-4

Other options: I like to also add a couple of anchovies to the oil and let them melt after smushing them with a fork. This adds another level of flavour and makes it a little healthier as well. You could also use any Pecorino or Asiago cheese instead of Parmesan.

Little O's Menu

With the addition of three new teeth, she is more likely now to start chewing things which are a little harder. Myself, I'm not too sure I would be eating anything hard as my gums would be too sore, I would think anyways. She has started to take a liking to the whole grain breads we get from Cobs Bakery ( The outside of the bread is covered in seeds such as sunflower, flax and even some rolled oats. She has been eating their breads along with the organic whole grain bread we have been giving her. As I have mentioned before, we have been putting spreadable cheese on the bread and almond butter. We are now venturing out to crab apple jelly, but only a tiny bit. There is lots of sugar in jellies like these, but in small doses it's not as bad.

We have backed off of the snacks like the whole grain Cheerios a little now. This is only considered a treat for O now as she seems to get pretty excited when she sees the cup which they are in. You know the face when her eyes are as big as coffee cups and her mouth is rounded and "Oooooo" is coming out of it? Yikes! We had some issues with her wanting to eat those all day and not much else. So, needless to say, enough of that for now.

For her dinners, she has still been eating some of what we eat. This is consisting of pasta with pesto, roasted vegetables and a little roasted chicken as of late. This is nice as it looks like her palate is accepting more powerful things such as a tiny bit of pesto.

Mrs. Urban Eater and I have been trying to keep the healthy eating thing going, but sometimes it's hard to do with a busy schedule. I'm not sure what she eats at work, but at home I'm doing the best I can. Every few days I'll eat a boiled egg or two for breakfast (see below). We started drinking smoothies again, but it didn't last long. We're starting again tomorrow with this. Smoothies are simple: start with yogurt, about 1 cup. Then add fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mangoes, kiwi's, whatever you can find that is healthy. Then add fresh OJ or some kind of juice which is either fresh or as low in sugar as you can find, and you only need about 6 ounces or so. You could also add some mango puree, if you have some as well. Sometimes I will even add a little flax oil or some maple syrup. Flax oil is great stuff, helps make your body work and grow properly ( It also is supposed to make your hair nice and silky. Women should like that on their heads and on the men they spend time with.

Here's the best way to boil an egg:

Put an egg in a pot with cold water. Bring it to a boil and immediately cover it and take off the heat. Let stand in the hot water for 8 minutes if you like it runny, 10 minutes if you like it just done and 12 minutes if you like it well done. I like it runny if I'm eating them with toast soldiers to dip in the yolk, but just done if I'm eating them alone. If you boil them like this, you will also avoid the grey line around the yolk. I don't like that as it doesn't look right. It's also a good way to see if the restaurants you are eating in boil them properly. It also might be a way to see if you are eating food from a chef or someone who likes to think they know what they are doing.

This one may have gone 11 minutes, but that's alright. I still love eggs boiled like this, actually any egg for that matter. They are a good source of selenium and protein among other things ( I try to eat 3 or 4 a week and usually by organic or free range.

I was talking to D the bartender again a couple of weeks ago. First, he said he made pesto from my recipe and loved it. Then he asked me if I've ever heard anything about Pine Nut Syndrome. I said no, so he explained it to me. This happens when you buy cheap pine nuts to make your pesto or salads with. They are a little rounder than normal and can give you an almost metallic taste in your mouth. Read this link and even look it up yourself ( I Googled it and a few different links came up. Dave Lebovitz wrote a little piece on it as well ( I definitely don't want to deal with this, not that it is life-threatening or anything, but it just doesn't seem pleasant. Blech!

Quote of the day:

"A day without an argument is like an egg without salt."
- Angela Carter (1940-1992)

Until next time, good eating everyone.