50. T’s Chicken Salad

Things don’t always go the way I expect them to. This morning, I expected yet another day of sunny skies and instead, a soggy day rolled in. When we were 17 and  T and I played on rival sides of an ultimate frisbee game, I expected she wouldn’t even want to talk to me because I’d been such an obnoxious guard. When T and I became each other’s long-distance friends for the next 10 years, I couldn’t have predicted that either.

So when, this week, months after the wedding, an email from T revealed a recipe for chicken salad, I had to give it a shot. I’ll start out by saying: I don’t like chicken salad. I always find it cloying and full of flavors that don’t mesh. Granted, I’ve never made it myself, and I’m sure that making it myself would allow for a lower input of mayonnaise, which would make me far happier with it, but it’s exactly the possible serendipity, the chance that it could be delicious, that made me give it a chance. With T, you really never know.

T’s recipe reads more like a poem than a recipe, but I promise it’s worth at least considering her style before you return to your old standard, because let me say, I ate myself silly on this stuff, smeared on cracked pepper crackers while looking out at the rain. It’s worth your trouble. This is the same T who once made biscuits for me purely from feel, with no measuring, so I encourage you to unleash your “inner T” when it comes to measurements, and try to feel the right chicken salad out.

Roast (or let the crockpot do the work) a couple of bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts with your favorite marinade and whatever chicken-lovin’ herbs you have in the garden. I used rosemary, parsley, oregano.  Let it cool down, and take the meat off the bone, handshredded is best to make sure you don’t have any bones or other skin or fat that you wouldn’t want to eat.  Add a stalk of celery, chopped (I like more, but good to start with just one and keep adding); half of a red delicious or some other sweet crunchy apple chopped; more poppy seeds and black pepper than you would think you need; toasted pecans chopped; and a slice or two of red onion chopped very fine.  Stir in enough Duke’s mayonnaise with some pan drippings, if you dare, to hold it together.  This is Mom’s voice: “”If you like chicken salad, It will make you do the happy dance.”  Duke’s mayo is a must.  Freshly ground pepper is best.  Let it sit in the fridge overnight so the flavors marinade.  
Serve with anything: make a sandwich on wheat with spinach, croissant if you are feeling fancy, any crackers you like, celery stalks, the rest of the apple, romaine lettuce leaf and roll it up.  Yum.  Make a little bit at a time and make it often.  Pairs great with fresh tomatoes out of the garden cut up with pepper on them.
The main counsel I completely ignored was letting it marinade overnight, but there is some left, so tomorrow I’ll get that glorious aspect. Whatever happens, it will probably be different from your expectations, and it might be worth reveling in that for a little while.

Essential Prep for Whole30 Life

I’ve now survived my 3rd weekend of Whole30, which means I feel like I know what I need to make a successful week. It does require work, but I’ve been really satisfied with my habits.

1st, I chop snack veggies – my favorites are bell peppers, celery, and cucumbers, all of which are watery and crunchy and not intense in flavor, but which can sit on my desk and be my absent-minded eating. They are also easy to add to a meal later in the week if I don’t feel like cooking a veggie.

2nd, I crockpot some chicken breasts with a little olive oil and some light seasonings. This usually goes overnight for me, but if you have the awareness to do it in the morning for the evening, that’s even better. They pull apart like a dream, and with 7 or 8 minutes in a frying pan you can make one meal worth of crispy chicken to be added to a salad or a soup or anything! We’ve been eating off about 10 breasts I cooked last week, and it’s so satisfying and quick.

3rd, and I don’t do this every time, but chopping some sweet potatoes and grating regular potatoes for hash browns can be really nice. Starchy veggies make a nice counterpoint to the two salads a day that we tend to eat.

Last, arrange for breakfast. Egg bakes are great, but keeping fruit and sweet potatoes around for when you don’t feel like eggs is not a bad idea. I know they recommend 3 even meals, but I just cannot desire food at 6 in the morning when I’m getting ready, so keeping small alternatives to a full meal has been essential for me.

This is much less than most Whole30 folks meal prep, but January is a pretty quiet month for us, so we really have time to make two trips to the grocery store each week, and the grocery store is between the gym and home for us, so in the end, we go and buy what we need if we need it. I’d also recommend frozen veggies and fruits if you can’t hit the grocery store often, because I’ve been having to hustle to use all the veggies we buy before they are old!

49. Crockpot Pork Chops with Rhubarb, Peppers, and Onion

A while back, when I asked for crockpot recipes, I got the wonderful suggestion from The Wiser Shopper (click here for the recipe!) to make Pork chops with apples and onions based on a Martha Stewart recipe. The idea sounds like one of my favorite combinations of sweet and savory, so I filed it away as a great option but didn’t remember it until this week.

This week, in particular, I had a lot of leftover rhubarb from the farmer’s market, so I thought I’d adapt the recipe by subbing a little bit of apple sauce and a lot of chopped rhubarb in the recipe. I threw all the other ingredients into the slow cooker for the whole day, and by evening, there was… well, the same brownish stuff that comes out of a lot of slow cooker recipes, but man oh man! When we sat down to eat, it was some kind of delicious.

The pork was moist and the sauce was tart and savory and multi-layered. I fried some homefries to go with it, which turned out to be the perfect contrast to the softness of the meat and veggies, and overall, I was really pleased. I added one other thing, which was a spicy barbeque sauce, a generous glopping on top of the ingredients at the beginning of the process. The spice was essential, because I think the whole thing would have turned out overly sweet otherwise.

Thanks Wise Shopper for sharing your recipe – it made a regular old Monday night extra special and delicious.

48. J’s Brie-Basil Pasta

J and I went to an academic summer camp when we were both 17; I think it was the first time I felt surrounded by so many intelligent and interesting people in the same small place. J and I remained friends over the years, seeing each other when we happened to be in the same city. He came to my wedding and gave me a recipe card RSVP that only said “let’s talk about this one in person…” – eventually, he sent me the following recipe, but cautioned me to wait through the winter months before I attempted it, because fresh tomatoes and fresh basil were key to the meal.

1. 4 large ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2. I pound Brie, rind removed, broken into irregular smallish pieces

3. 1 cup fresh basil leaves rinsed, patted dry and cut into strips

4. 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

5. 1 cup best quality olive oil

6. 1/2 teaspoon salt

7. 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8. 1 1/2 pound linguine 9or other pasta)

9. Fresh grated parmigiana-Reggiano

At least 2 hours before serving combine 1-7 in large serving bowl. I usually cover and let sit at room temperature to blend flavors. Also, I put the Brie in the freezer for about 10 minutes before trying to remove the rind. Putting in the freezer helps make it firmer and easier to remove. Otherwise you tend to lose a lot of the Brie as the rind does not come off very well.

Boil the linguine. When done, toss with the tomato mixture. Add grated cheese as desired.

I chose to make this recipe on a day when Husband and I were going to an outdoor festival and I knew we’d be hungry and ready for something savory and fresh when we got home – it helped us resist the funnel cake and fried chicken at the festival, which can’t hurt, right? After a truly spectacular breezy Sunday afternoon, we returned to the bowl of spicings and cheese and tomatoes: I’d frozen the brie for too long, so instead of breaking it into pieces I’d shaved the rind off with a knife and grated the whole thing into the bowl. We made fettuccine and the whole house filled with the pungent Brie scent and the snap of garlic. We twirled the pasta noodles and our lips got coated in cheesy sauce. I used all the fresh basil we had in our garden, which was good timing because the little bucket we’ve been growing herbs in is now swamped with water from recent rains. Hopefully it will dry out and grow back, because this might be my favorite dish yet. I didn’t get quite as much brie as he suggested (I did 8 ounces, plus a spare ounce of goat cheese I had lying around, for one pound of pasta) but I bet it would have been delightful if I had.

What is the quintessential dish of summer for you? I cannot imagine a flavor more summery than basil and tomato, cheese and garlic all rolled together and eaten with the window open and the twilight breeze blowing through the house.

Pistachio Crusted Salmon

We were craving crunch – something that I think is pretty common on Whole30. I think for long stretches of time about the combination of soft and crispy that bread does so well and so few other foods can imitate. Even crispy cooked cheese compares… but we cannot have that either!

So when we got some salmon fillets on sale (check your grocery store – we were surprised by how reasonable they were frozen!), I looked up recipes that used nuts as a “crust” on salmon. I already knew I liked salmon pretty much just with lemon, salt, and pepper, so I had a feeling this would be a decadent and wonderful dish. I drew on this recipe, but I think that almost any herbs, oils, and nuts would make a savory and crunchy crust.

Husband and I felt like we were in a fancy restaurant, and I realized that the portions that we have been eating – one or two veggies in substantial quantity, a small amount of really good meat, and maybe a sparkling water to drink – are so much like restaurant meals. Sure, we don’t fill up on bread and butter, and there’s no dessert, but the food we eat this month is high quality.

I’ve been really thinking about how to incorporate what we’ve learned into our daily life after this month, and I’ve realized that I love having these rules to keep me in check. I know I can change them whenever I want, but I think I want to still have intense rules. Maybe I’ll reincorporate honey, or beans, or something, but I want to save the most craved foods for really special occasions. How do you keep your appetites for unhealthy foods in check enough to really savor the best things? I’m certainly still learning.

Day 18 and the importance of meals

My best days so far on Whole30 have been the days when I have very specific plans for every meal. This is hard, because I’m out of the house 11-12 hours a day, and so anything that isn’t planned and made easy by the end of the weekend is destined to be sloppy and slapdash.

Having a plan for how to get protein in me at breakfast alongside some veggies and maybe a fruit, a well-packed and filling lunch, and a plan to make dinner savory and hot, all are necessary to make a day without snacks and slip-ups. More frequently, though, it looks like this: I don’t feel like anything for breakfast, so I drink a bit of fruit juice, and I eat snacks at work, and lunch is enough but not enough to make me fortified to dinner, and then I snack while cooking dinner. Not great! Not technically outside the foods of Whole30, but well outside the spirit of the program.

So for these last 12 days, I’m working extra hard: three meals works for my schedule, I just have to commit to it and get nice and hungry for each one before eating everything, seated, with friends or Husband. I need to make enough in a given meal – for instance, tonight when I’m doing a second batch of meatballs – to really feel like I can eat off of that batch for a day or two. A side benefit of this diet is that I’m learning how to embrace leftovers in a way that I’ve always been grudging to do so – I’ll eat practically anything for a first meal, but I have to really love it to be good at eating the leftovers. I’m quite pleased at how this is stretching me, but Whole30 doesn’t work as a halfway choice, I’m realizing, so I’m committing again to the meal schedule!

Tomato and Egg Veggie Bake

I don’t actually like or crave eggs very often, which means that that it is hard sometimes to find variety on Whole30 – veggies are various, but inexpensive meat is pretty much restricted, and so eggs are a great way to get some more variety in your life.

My favorite way to eat an egg is in the middle of a piece of buttery crispy toast, so I needed a new way to enjoy eggs. I found the recipe for a Paleo Supreme Pizza Frittata , which claimed that mixing pizza sauce with eggs and baking them made a creamier texture on  the eggs – something like ricotta! As an unabashed lasagna lover, that was enough to get me to try it.

I mixed chopped onions, finely chopped broccoli, and frozen spinach with just a tiny bit of olive oil and set it to saute while I mixed eggs, spices, and some homemade tomato sauces together and and greased the pan with clarified butter. I heated the oven to 350, and after mixing all the ingredients together and putting them in, they got about 30 minutes at 350 and another 5 at 400 so that I could get a little crustiness on it.

The result was not ricotta in the mouth, but it was delicious, and not has heavy as eggs by themselves – I really enjoyed it! It was even tastier with a small spoonful of salsa on top to jazz it up – weird at first to combine italian and mexican palates, but still tasty to me!

Whole30 Meatballs with sweet potato shavings.

It’s hard to find foods that really satisfy all the many sensations we’ve come to expect – something crispy, something sweet, something savory, something hearty and flavorful. We’d gotten through the first 3 days of Whole30 and the newness was falling away, but my first meal that truly filled me up was making meatballs and marinara.

I took a pound of ground chuck, 80-20 lean ratio, and mixed in lots of Italian spices, along with garlic powder and onion powder for both flavor and texture. I use some crush almonds for binder, but not many – less than a 1/4 cup. The magic happened when Husband and I looked at the meatballs and wondered if they would just taste like slightly flavored hamburger. “What about sweet potato?” He asked.

We pulled out the grater and grated almost half of a sweet potato into the mix. Sweet potatoes are less watery than regular potatoes, so they didn’t make the mix soupy at all, but rather added the slight sweetness that many meatball sauces carry, and something to crisp up in the pan. We rolled them into 1 or 1 and a half inch balls and fried them in a cast iron skillet until browned.

In the meantime, I’d been simmering diced organic tomatoes on the stove. I added lots of garlic to this one too – should have cut up cloves and cooked in olive oil first, but I was in a rush. I added diced onions and grated carrot, both because I don’t like carrots much and because marinara often has the slight sweetness of a carrot. The sauce simmered through the whole meatball-making process, and with spices (lots of dried basil because, sadly, it is winter and fresh basil is not to be found in my garden), it came together wonderfully.

I broke through every meatballs crispy shell to get a part of it to drown in the tomato sauce – it felt like a lot of the flavors I love best about pasta but without pasta there to transport them! It made me realize, for the first time during Whole30, that I could be completely satisfied on a diet without cheese or grain. I don’t intend to do it forever, but it felt very empowering.

 

Food Challenges with Husband, and a Clear Mind

There are other good reasons to do Whole30 besides trying to find new food habits. It’s been really great for the marriage too! Yeah, I had visions of us both being crabby and hungry and blaming each other as we ate our dry lettuce together, but I was 100% wrong about that.

Husband and I do occasionally get into little sad dreamfests about crunchy pretzels and chips and queso and pasta with brie… but mostly we come up with delicious meals, cook together, and prep piles and piles of vegetables together (so much chopping!). We’re kind of relieved and delirious every time we eat something we like, because every meal starts with the expectation of “this might taste like nothing and not fill me up.” Where pizza never satisfies as much as the idea of pizza promises, neither are healthy meals as dissatisfying as I dread – they’re usually wonderful!

Just having a joint challenge has made chats more lively in a time of year when we cannot have our favorite bike rides, gardening, outdoor concerts, or just comfortable walks – I want to make it a yearly thing, mostly to make January less grey. I like the idea of only doing this for 30 days, not because it stops being healthy on day 31, but because this way it stays fresh and new for the whole month.

The last thing I’ve seen happen (and it could be a total coincidence, but still!) is that I’ve felt like I can do anything at work lately. I don’t get foggy after lunch, and I don’t feel defeatedly sleepy or sluggish at all. I drink a lot of coffee still, but I feel like all this good, nutrient-rich food with reasonable portions (I don’t seem to overeat unless something is cheesy or bready!). It’s been wonderful with the new semester starting tomorrow, and I’m so grateful even when I want other foods in the back of my mind.

Tune in next time for delicious Whole30 foods we’ve discovered!

Coming Out from Under a Rock

Hello again – Happy 2017! It’s been a week and a half, and after months of daily posts, it has felt… well, it’s felt new. This was my first time cooling it on blogging since I started last year. It felt good, but I realized: I’m not done. This has been too fun, too meaningful, to stop now.

On the first day of 2017, Husband and I embarked on the food journey called Whole30: 30 days of only fresh veggies, fresh fruit, meats, and nuts. We tried to eliminate all sugar, all grains, all alcohol and dairy and most food additives and legumes… pretty much all the things that I instantly reach for when food is on my mind.

For a while now, I felt like my decisions were all about “health vs. happiness,” because so many of my favorite foods were not healthy at all, just utterly out of proportion and bad for me. Many other people I know can eat all of these foods in moderation and reach for a salad afterwards… I realized I needed a change.

I instantly felt freer once Whole30 started – there wasn’t a decision to be made between health and happiness, but instead the assurance of health, with a little creative license to try to make those healthy meals give happiness. I’ve eaten so many sweet orange slices and so much watery celery, so many rich cashews and flavorful chicken – I’ve learned how to eat things without drowning them in those spicy and sweet, buttery and cheesy sauces that I’d been using to disguise my food.

This doesn’t mean I don’t miss bubbly mozzerella on top of flat pizza crust, or a bagel with honey walnut cream cheese – I love even the idea of eating forbidden foods right now. But I also actually like some of the foods I’m eating this month. This month, I don’t choose between bad and good, but the best of the good food, the things that give me variety and comfort but still health.