Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine's Day. Normally, I'd probably serve the chicken with store-bought whole wheat penne.

Today I want to talk about chicken parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese, and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*

Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
  3. Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
  5. Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
* There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.
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When Life Hands You Peppers, Make Salsa

I only have one little jalapeno plant, but it has kept me busy making salsa.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I am a sort of a hapless gardener. I’ve been at it for about a year and a half, and in the beginning I even killed squash. I thought anybody could grow squash. Now I’m kind of hit or miss, but I have found that peppers seem to be pretty much Laurie-proof. I have a randomly planted collection of bells, hot bananas and jalapenos that just keep growing and going. Now I’m starting to wonder about the bell peppers. Maybe I should ask somebody about whether the plants are supposed to get as big as trees. I was sort of envisioning large-houseplant-sized units that would give me a few peppers over the summer and then die so I could plant pumpkins. Now I have a small pepper orchard. Not that I’m complaining.

I only have one jalapeno plant, but it is very energetic. Lately we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa, which is a healthy snack, except that it goes on chips, which aren’t so much. We like Archer Farms Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Flaxseed. Organic, whole grain, a little flax, not bad on sodium. We do what we can.

The great thing about salsa, besides being healthy, is that even if you start with a recipe, it’s almost impossible not to make it your own. And even if you end up with something different every time, it’s probably going to be good.

Speaking of variations, here’s a link to a recipe for Mango Salsa that I make whenever there is an occasion for mango salsa, such as fish tacos, grilled fish or grilled chicken. It’s good on chips, and I’ve learned that if you give me access to mango salsa and whole wheat Ritz crackers, someone will need to plan an intervention. My secret weapon for making this chunky salsa is my Genius Nicer Dicer, which quickly makes perfect diced mango and bell peppers, and has a smaller size that’s great for the  jalapenos. In fact, it’s worth the price of this tool just to avoid dealing with onions and peppers.

Fresh Tomato Salsafresh salsa by Laurie Sterbens

4 large tomatoes

1/2 bunch cilantro

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2 bunch green onions or 1/4 sweet yellow onion (or combination of both)

2 cloves garlic

2 large jalapeno peppers with seeds, stems removed

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon stevia sweetener

Salt and pepper to taste

Quarter tomatoes and roughly chop cilantro, onions and peppers. Combine with remaining ingredients in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. (I don’t recommend a blender; the salsa will emulsify and turn beige. Tastes the same, just not pretty.)

Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It's also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line — the checkout lane — with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be one of those people who holds up grocery lines.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to admit I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe is the Cranberry Orange Compote is adapted from “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I generally split the difference and use half sugar, half Splenda.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes

Cranberries simmer with orange zest and a bit of cinnamon.

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup water

1/2 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

Homemade Sweet Potato Chips: Baked vs. Fried

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

If this Woody Allen quote is true, then God has been having a jolly old time for the last six years watching me trying to raise a child whose diet in any way resembles the healthy way his father and I eat.

Things have not gone according to plan. The plan was that I would eat lots of fruits and vegetables while I was pregnant, introduce him to as many healthy foods as possible while he was an infant and by the time he was a toddler we’d happily gather around the table each night to feast on vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.

The reality was that by the time he was four I resorted to bribery. I hung a big yellow posterboard in the kitchen, upon which I’d drawn little pictures of all kinds of produce. I bought stickers that had stars or “Good Job!” on them. I’d read that it could take 10 exposures for a child to accept a vegetable, so the deal was that each time he tried an item he’d get a sticker, and when he had 10 stickers next to one fruit or vegetable, he’d get a prize. I kept that poster on the wall for nearly two years, and in that time we awarded two prizes, for apples (with caramel dip) and bananas (with chocolate syrup and marshmallows).

Sweet potato chips cool after being baked at 200 degrees for 50 minutes, turned over and then baked another 30-40 minutes.

I haven’t given up. I’m still constantly asking him to try new things, though I have also resorted to “Deceptively Delicious”-style tactics of hiding fruit and vegetable purees in kid-friendly foods such as mac and cheese. This is very high-maintenance, so I’ll be glad when he’ll just eat steamed broccoli like everyone else.

Lately I’ve been on a snack food attack, looking for ways to minimize the number of chemical ingredients in the lunchbox and even sneak in some vegetables if possible. I got lucky in the health food aisle one day when Trevor said he’d try Terra Spiced Sweet Potato Chips and Sweets & Beets. The ingredient lists on each were simple: Sweet potatoes, oil and some seasonings for the spiced chips; sweet potatoes, beets and oil for the Sweets & Beets. The oils listed were canola and/or sunflower and safflower oil. Turns out, it is apparently possible to manufacture food without corn syrup or hydrogenated fats! Amazing!

The chips barely made it through the night at our house, though partly because my husband is a big fan of sweet potatoes, at least in chip and french-fry form. We love Alexia Spicy Sweet Potato fries.

When I have time I’ll make spicy sweet potato fries myself because it’s cheaper. The sweet potato chips weren’t the cheapest thing in the store either, so if my family liked them that much, I thought I would try to make them myself.

I decided to try baked chips first, since that’s obviously healthier than frying. I settled on Martha Stewart’s recipe. It involved slicing the potatoes thinly using a mandoline, spreading them on parchment-covered baking sheets and baking them in a 200-degree oven, then allowing them to cool.

Since I don't own a deep fryer, I fried my sweet potato chips in a saucepan using a digital thermometer to keep the oil at 350 degrees.

I followed the instructions, and until the cooling part they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips. But after cooling they were still soft in the middle. I’m not going to blame the recipe here; I live in Florida, which for baking purposes would be ranked just under rain forest in humidity levels. I popped the chips back into the oven for another 10 minutes or so (I confess, at 400 degrees, because that was the temperature the oven was on when I was cooking dinner), then left them to dry again.

Throughout the process, my son kept asking if he could try one, so when they were finally cooled a second time I gave him one to try. He put it in his mouth and gave me the wide-eyed, open-mouthed, squishy-faced “yuck!” expression. “It’s hard!” he told me before asking if he could spit the chip into the trash.

He was right, to some extent. It wasn’t a potato chip texture; it was more the texture of those dried banana chips that you get in trail mix. Not inedible, but not what we were looking for.

So I decided to try another batch, this time frying them. My Internet search for recipes was not a difficult one. When frying, all paths lead to Paula Deen or the Neelys. When searching for recipes on the Internet, I usually look at a few recipes and try to arrive at a consensus, then put my spin on it. Paula’s recipe called for slightly thicker slices, fried in vegetable oil and seasoned with her recipe for House Seasoning. The Neelys’ recipe called for peanut oil and was seasoned with ancho chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Both recipes called for frying the chips in 350-degree oil for about three minutes.

I don’t own a deep fryer, so I used a medium-sized saucepan and heated the oil using a digital thermometer. I used a mix of Smart Balance oil and canola because that’s what I had. It took three batches for one potato, but when they were done they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips, and they were crisp. I tested a few seasoning mixes I had on hand and the clear winner was Cajun seasoning.

Fried sweet potato chips, left, were more crisp and colorful than the baked version, right.

The verdict: Since the whole point was to get my son to eat sweet potatoes and he spit out his first taste of the baked version, I probably won’t make those again, though I’ll eat the chips myself. My husband and I loved the fried chips. My son, so far, has not been persuaded to try them. He has been enthusiastically devouring shelled peanuts, however. Woohoo! A legume!

Cooking Up a Major Mess of Collard Greens

Over the weekend I took advantage of a sunny and unscheduled Saturday afternoon and did what I should do every week, which is go to a nearby farmers market to stock up on fresh vegetables. I went without a list, hoping I would find something there to inspire meals for the next few days. This is the ideal, cheffy way to do it, but recent weeks have been so busy that I’ve been making grocery lists based on a few favorite quick-and-easy meals, grabbing the ingredients from the grocery store and bypassing the farmers market altogether.

Strolling through the familiar, busy aisles in the farmers market section of the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market, I was reminded why it’s worth going a bit out of my way to shop there for produce. While vendors at this market do ship in some foreign items, in case you just have to have asparagus in November, there is also a nice variety of ever-changing local, seasonal produce. Though I’ll often check the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “What’s in Season Now” shopping list before I go, there are usually some surprises. This week, it was a handwritten sign touting locally grown collard greens.

The collard greens were piled high, still on their stalks, tied together in bundles the size of shrubs. I pointed out to the vendor that I live with a Northerner and a 6-year-old, so it was likely that only one out of three family members would eat collards, but she was apparently not going to take pity on me and break up a bunch. They cook way down, she pointed out. I knew that, but cooking down three truckloads of greens into one truckload is still a truckload of greens. I have storage issues.

But I really wanted those collard greens. I’d just read in a story by Elizabeth Brown, M.S., R.D., in the November issue of Oxygen magazine that they are the top leafy green when it comes to lowering cholesterol, a particular concern in our family. They’re also known cancer fighters and are rich in the B vitamin folate, which supports heart health. It has also been a while since I’d challenged my husband to try a new vegetable. It would be a challenge for me, too, since I’d never tried to cook collards before. The vendor put them in a large plastic bag (they were too big to fit in my reusable bag) and I was on my way to cookin’ up a mess of greens.

Collard greens are a nutritional powerhouse. Find them at farmers markets to enjoy now, and freeze some for later.

Oxygen had offered a recipe for Collard Greens with Root Veggies and Salmon, a “clean eating” way to include some of the greens in a healthy diet by steaming them in parchment with the fish and vegetables. But their recipe called for only 6 leaves and I had at least 10 times that. Besides, having grown up eating greens in Arkansas, my natural instincts were telling me there should be pork involved, and my preference was bacon.

A quick search online led me to a recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon at SimplyRecipes.com. Scanning the ingredient list, I knew I had a winner: bacon, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar and, for my husband, a little hot sauce. Another plus was that the recipe called for simmering the greens in a skillet with the other ingredients just until wilted rather than stewing them for hours. We’re used to eating a lot of steamed and sauteed vegetables and appreciate a little more crunch. In the case of collards, this turned out to be more of a nice chewiness.

If you’d like a vegetarian option, this recipe for Collards Braised in Red Wine, adapted from chef Michael Lomonako, appeared in the Mark Bittman‘s Diner’s Journal in the New York Times. Using a similar technique, it contains olive oil rather than bacon fat, and red wine instead of apple cider vinegar. I plan to try this one next.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be dealing with, so I decided to tackle the collards as soon as I got home rather than wait until dinnertime. This turned out to be a good plan. After removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, I had enough leaves piled on my kitchen counter to fill a large trash bag. This was an interesting situation. I decided to go ahead and cook the recipe, which would probably cook down a third of the greens. I didn’t, however, have enough ingredients on hand to cook three batches.

I noticed when I sliced the greens into strips for the recipe they took up much less space, so I decided to slice them all into strips. Could I freeze them? Yes, it turns out, you can freeze fresh collards after blanching them first. Here’s how:

The recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon turned out to be delicious. One bite and I was suddenly transported back to my mother’s kitchen, watching her stir a big pot of greens on the stove. To go with them, I decided to make whole-wheat-panko-crusted catfish and sweet potato fries. Now, I am a Southern girl, so I know the catfish should have been coated in seasoned cornmeal and fried, and there should have been cornbread or at least  hush puppies with those greens, but I’m a health-conscious Southern girl and am married to a guy who really loves sweet potato fries. Life is full of compromises. However, though we may have compromised on tradition, we didn’t miss a thing when it came to taste or nutrition.

Road Food Redemption: Fresh, Healthy Meals a Relief

After a week of road/restaurant food, I am relieved and happy to be back home with a kitchen stocked with fresh ingredients for a few days’ worth of healthy meals. Last week’s disastrous camping trip (camping food followed by consolation calories) was almost immediately followed by a road trip across the state for a family celebration dinner. There was no meal planning whatsoever, just a weeklong ride on a big downhill slide into fatigue and sodium bloat. I missed two gym days but did manage to get in four short runs. Hopefully those miles helped prevent me from blowing up like a giant puffer fish.

Normally, my husband and I eat a lot of seafood and poultry and only occasionally have red meat. We eat lots of vegetables, simply prepared, and almost never eat white rice, white flour or sugar. We try to avoid processed foods, though I have to confess I do love that Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice that heats up in 90 seconds in the microwave. And I still don’t make tomato sauce. If I ever get my garden to produce more than four cherry tomatoes, maybe I will be more motivated to do that.

When I was working full-time, I’d schedule a week’s worth of meals at a time, planning and shopping on the weekends. Now I’ve eased up a bit — shopping twice a week allows for fresher fish and vegetables.

I wish I could say the whole family was on board with this lifestyle, but despite my best efforts and stellar prenatal nutrition, the 6-year-old is every movie marketer’s dream. If there’s a toy involved or a character on the label, he’s in. He is generally opposed to protein except dairy and fried things. Nutritionally, the family is only bound by strings of whole wheat spaghetti. I’m working on it.

However, I am in no position to lecture anybody about food choices after last week. We started off on a camping trip. Now, you can do healthy camping food and I have, in the past, proudly served campfire-grilled chicken breasts and asparagus, filled the cooler with bagged salads and packed healthy snacks such as nuts and low-fat string cheese. That’s not what we did. It was burgers, chips, bagels and S’mores all the way. We did choose low-fat meats and whole-grain breads, but the sodium count for the weekend had to be off the charts.

Our camping trip was cut short due to thunderstorms, but our consumption of the camping food was not. We followed this with a road trip to the Gulf Coast to join my husband’s family in celebrating his parents’ 40th anniversary. The buttery bridge between these two dietary disasters was a fat-laden seafood feast that we consumed to console ourselves for the aborted camping trip. We could have packed a cooler with healthy food for the trip to the Gulf. We didn’t. For one thing, I was busy making a cake for the celebration and didn’t have time to think about it, and honestly, there doesn’t seem to be much point in worrying about half the week when you’ve already spent four days pumped full of sodium at Dead Sea concentration levels. 

Ruby Anniversary Cake by Laurie Sterbens

I made this cake for my husband's parents' ruby anniversary last week. Though I took a couple of bites in the interest of quality control, desserts didn't play a big part in last week's dietary downfall. I'd rather design cakes than eat them. I must have picked up that habit in the newspaper business. I designed section fronts for 11 years and never ate any of them.

The anniversary dinner was at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Tampa. Italian family-style dining: yum and yikes. Because we are health-concious and my son has a food allergy, we do a pretty thorough online investigation of unfamiliar restaurants before we go. Maggiano’s is admirably proactive in their allergy approach and the chef even visited the table to go over our options. Calories and sodium? You don’t want to know. My strategy: Ignorance, bliss, bread basket — then back in the gym as soon as possible.

We visited the Florida Aquarium in Tampa the following morning and ate lunch there before leaving. They offer salads, but that’s not what we ate. We ate road food. Then we had to actually hit the road, partly because I had a cake decorating class to attend. Fortunately, I didn’t eat any cake. But after two hours of intense frosting, I was too wiped out to do anything but thankfully accept my husband’s offer to make me a delicious, buttery grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. He pointed out that it was Smart Balance and whole-grain bread, but still, it was not a salad.

By then I was tired of bread, period. I couldn’t wait to get some fresh fruit and vegetables into the house, some brown rice and fish. The next morning the first thing I did was check the “What’s in Season Now?” shopping list at florida-agriculture.com. This list includes seasonal Florida produce and fish, and I use it as a starting place for meal planning. However, this week the seasonal produce list consisted of two items: avocadoes and okra. This was not helpful. Scott won’t eat avocadoes and neither of us is a big fan of okra. My mom used to fry it in cornmeal and that was pretty good, but I don’t see myself making that happen. So I decided to just pick some things that sounded good and choose whatever vegetables went with them, regardless of where they came from. When I got to the store, I saw that they had sockeye salmon, so I edited my list on the spot to include that. They also had beautiful fresh, locally caught shrimp, so I had them wrap a couple of one-pound packages to throw in the freezer. I didn’t have shrimp on the menu this week, but good shrimp has been hard to come by lately.

On the menu this week: Cajun-seasoned catfish with South Beach Diet Red Beans and Rice; turkey chili; grilled salmon with red potatoes and asparagus; whole wheat panko-crusted oven fried chicken with pureed cauliflower and blackeye peas; and whole wheat spaghetti with turkey meatballs. I also picked up some whole-wheat pizza crusts, which Scott usually tops with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and red and yellow bell peppers (on Mom and Dad’s side only). I think we’re having that tonight instead of whatever was on the schedule because it was our son’s first day of school and we let him choose dinner. The meal plan rarely ever goes exactly as listed on the refrigerator, but at least we always have ingredients to make something healthy and delicious.