Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Favorite Valentines Day Recipes

Valentine's Day is right around the corner, so I thought this was a good time to give you a round up of some of our favorite Valentine's Day recipes at Click the links below for full instructions.

Favorite Valentine's Day Links from

For the Kids
These links are perfect kid friendly recipes and projects, make them for class parties, scout troup get togethers or any other kid friendly gathering.
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Heart Sandwiches (pictured right)-- These make a special treat for Valentine's Day or any day that you want to turn into a festive occasion for the kids.
  • Rice Krispie Treats Funnel "Kisses" -- Make rice krispy kisses in a funnel for a Hershey's Kiss shape. A great project for kids and parents to make together.
  • Valentine's Day Cookie Pops -- The kids will smile and giggle while making these treats, and will have something fun to give to family, friends, and classmates!
  • Valentine's Day Cupcakes -- One of the easiest treats to dress up for holidays are cupcakes. All you need are a few ingredients and a little imagination.
  • Cupid's Arrow Party Favor -- Here's a cute and easy Valentine's Day party favor that you make with Life Savers candy.
Decadent Chocolate
Did you know that the body's chemical reaction to eating chocolate is similar to the chemical reaction it has to falling in love? No wonder chocolate and romance are linked so tightly. Here are some favorite ways for you and your sweetie to indulge in chocolate.
In a Class By Itself

Hostess Twinkies Wedding Cake! (pictured right) -- Your guest will be in disbelief when you tell them this beautiful wedding cake is

Monday, January 26, 2009

Superbowl Special

Heads up for all you non-football fans who may not know it -- this Sunday is the BIG GAME. Personally, my favorite parts of Superbowl are the commercials...and the food.

To to help you get ready, below are links to some of our favorite Superbowl and sports party features and recipes at and
  • Superbowl Party with Wine -- Don't think of the Superbowl as a beer only event. Cajun chef extraoridnaire John Folse offers recipes and wine pairings for football watching.
  • Half-Time Taco Chili -- Not just for Superbowl Sunday, this improved chili is great for any meal.
  • Round Layered Party Sandwich -- You can make this recipe up to 2 days ahead of time and keep it stored in your refrigerator, perfect for preparing your party in advance.
  • Football Field Decorated Cake (pictured right) -- This simple to decorate cake would make a perfect Superbowl or sports party dessert.
  • How to Stock a Bar for a Party or Event -- Get expert tips from professional caterers about about how much beer, wine, liquor, and mixers to buy for your next party or special event.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tips for a Healthy School Lunch

Project Bread, Massachusetts’ leading antihunger organization, believes healthy school meals are a vital source of fresh and nutritious food for children whose families struggle to put food on the table. And for food-insecure kids, every calorie has to count. Nutritious foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables are frequently more expensive than processed foods that are high in empty calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Through school meals, food service directors have a unique opportunity to give hungry children access to nutritious foods that also help them develop healthy eating habits at a young age. Project Bread’s Better Meals Initiative, with its Better Breakfast Better Lunch, and Marketing Health Foods Toolkits, is intended to guide food service directors in their menu planning and product ordering so low-income kids receive the healthiest food possible.

What are some simple changes schools or parents can make to improve the nutritional quality of meals?

Schools and parents should focus on reducing fat, sodium, and sugar in their recipes and increasing fiber with these simple changes:

• Increase the use of vegetables and beans in recipes. Substitute spinach and other greens in place of iceberg lettuce. Generally speaking, the more colorful the meal is, that is the more fruits and vegetables it has, the healthier it is.
• Purchase reduced fat, low-sodium, or “no sugar added” versions of products.
• Substitute some or all of the butter, margarine, or shortening in baked goods with applesauce or prune puree.
• Replace oil-based marinades with balsamic or other vinegars or fat-free, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broths.
• Purchase lean cuts of meat and poultry and remove the skin from poultry.
• Add zest and improve the nutritional quality of recipes with fresh herbs and spices.

Direct Substitutions

White rice
All purpose flour
White bread or rolls
Ground beef
Chicken legs or wings
Pork chops
Sour cream
Evaporated milk
Creamy salad dressing
Soy sauce
Brown rice, bulgur, or pearl barley
Whole wheat pasta
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat bread or rolls
Low-fat or fat-free cheese
Ground turkey (preferably turkey breast)
Chicken breast
Pork loin
Low-fat or “light” mayonnaise or mustard
Low-fat sour cream or low-fat plain yogurt
Evaporated skim milk
Low-fat or “light” salad dressing
Low-sodium soy sauce

Friday, January 23, 2009

It's Chicken Soup Season -- Lots of Options

Nearly everyone I talked to this week is either sick or knows someone who is. No doubt about it, it's chicken soup season. If you want to shake up your chicken soup routine, you;re in luck. Chicken soup is one of the world's most versatile foods. Nearly every cultures has a version of it. Below are some of our favorite variations on this classic dish.

Chicken Soup Recipes
  • Stock Making 101 -- Great soups start with great stock.
  • Mexican Chicken, Lime, and Cilantro Soup -- This soup is an elaborate version of the famous Lime Soup of the Yucatan Peninsula incorporating lots of healthy vegetables.
  • Mulligatawny -- This hearty well-seasoned chicken soup was first eaten by Scottish soldiers serving in India, and it arrived in the American South by way of their descendants.
  • Southwest Chicken Barley Soup -- Here's a healthy, vegetable laden soup with a flavorful Southwestern flair.
  • Chicken and Sausage Gumbo -- The queen of Cajun cooking shows us how to make her famous gumbo, step-by-step, with photos.
  • Slow Cooker Chicken Corn Chowder -- Here’s a slow cooker recipe for an everyday supper or part of your festive holiday dinner.
  • Southwest Chicken Lime Soup -- Soups with the flavor of lime, like this one, are popular in the Yucatan.
  • Italian Chicken Lemon Soup (pictured above) -- This soup, based on a traditional Italian Wedding soup, is a refreshing change to ordinary chicken soup, if there is such a thing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Seafood Recipes plus The South's Best Seafood Shack

Sorry I've been so quiet this week. Our cable system has been having major issues that affected our connectivity.

Today I want to tell you a great foodie find I came upon last year (plus some terrific seafood recipes). One of the best things about running and is that I get travel a lot. Today's find comes from Gulf Shores, Alabama, where I one found one of the best seafood shacks I've ever encountered -- King Neptune's.

While we managed to dine at a lot of places in and around Gulf Shores, King Neptune's was my favorite. I later found I was in good company in my admiration for the casual seafood restaurant, as Coastal Living Magazine named it "one of the top 25 seafood dives in the country."

There's nothing fancy here - just a "come as you are" local hangout that serves some of the best fresh-off-the-boat seafood you will ever eat. After living in a small California mountain town for the past two years, I'd almost forgotten just how sublimely delicious fresh wild shrimp actually are. The folks at King Neptune's quickly brought back the vivid flavors of my youth on the Mississippi and Alabama gulf coasts.

Scroll down the menu and you'll find an extra special surprise -- Royal Red Shrimp (pictured left). I had previously never heard of Royals Reds as locals know them, and with good reason. These tasty shellfish are rare, even in these parts - which is about the only place to get them. King Neptune's owner Al Sawyer, who worked in the seafood industry for Bon Secours Fishing before "retiring" to run his restaurant, explained that Royal Reds are caught only in the deep, deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, about 1000 miles from the Alabama Gulf Coast shores. The shrimp, true to their name, are red in color and have a flavor that is lies somewhere between lobster and shrimp. Al explains that King Neptune's is the only restaurant in the area that serves Royal Red Shrimp, and even he can't promise to always have them in stock.

"There's only one boat that supplies Royal Red Shrimp and we're at his mercy," says Al. "When we run out, we just need to wait until he decides to go out and fish again."

Because they're caught so far from shore, Royal Reds are preserved in salt and put on ice on the boat. Likewise the shrimp should be rinsed well before cooking. The result will be a shell that imparts a slight salty flavor to rich sweet lobster-like meat inside.

After his years in the seafood industry, Al Sawyer knows the waters of this area intimately well, as well as the people who can provide him their freshest bounty. You can get gulf shrimp - steamed, fried or prepared in some signature dishes. King Neptune's oysters come from the Bon Secours, an area of Gulf Shores that supplies oysters to most of the country (with the exception of the west coast). Of course, they're freshest here, and King Neptune's only serves Select Grade -- the highest grade of oysters.

Also not to be missed are the addictive crab claws - a favorite Gulf Coast snack that can be difficult (if not impossible) to find elsewhere.

There's a cornucopia of seafood to choose from, available steamed, grilled and/or fried. In addition to the aforementioned shrimp and oysters, you can look forward to snow crab, Alaskan king crab, and a variety of fresh fish. Non-seafood lovers can get a hamburger steak or a choice of several chicken dishes. Everyone will enjoy the superb sides - the cole slaw is near perfect and don't miss the fried green tomatoes.

The prices at King Neptune's are shockingly affordable, especially considering the quality of the food. They also offer a respectably extensive children's menu, making King Neptune's fabulou sbudget conscious choice for feeding the entire family.After his years in the seafood industry, Al Sawyer knows the waters of this area intimately well, as well as the people who can provide him their freshest bounty. You can get gulf shrimp - steamed, fried or prepared in some signature dishes. King Neptune's oysters come from the Bon Secours, an area of Gulf Shores that supplies oysters to most of the country (with the exception of the west coast). Of course, they're freshest here, and King Neptune's only serves Select Grade -- the highest grade of oysters.

Also not to be missed are the addictive crab claws (pictured right) - a favorite Gulf Coast snack that can be difficult (if not impossible) to find elsewhere.

There's a cornucopia of seafood to choose from, available steamed, grilled and/or fried. In addition to the aforementioned shrimp and oysters, you can look forward to snow crab, Alaskan king crab, and a variety of fresh fish. Non-seafood lovers can get a hamburger steak or a choice of several chicken dishes. Everyone will enjoy the superb sides - the cole slaw is near perfect and don't miss the fried green tomatoes.

The prices at King Neptune's are shockingly affordable, especially considering the quality of the food. They also offer a respectably extensive children's menu, making King Neptune's a fabulous budget conscious choice for feeding the entire family.

King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant is located at 9949 Highway 190 West in Gulf Shores, Alabama 36542. Phone 251-968-5464 or visit their website at

Seafood Recipes from King Neptune's Al Sawyer
More on Gulf Shores, Alabama
Click here for our full travel feature on things to Do, See and Eat in and Around Gulf, Shores, Alabama.

Where are your Favorite Seafood Shacks?

Do you know of other great "seafood shacks? If so please post them to the comments section. Another favorite of mine is the Sea Swirl in Mystic Connecticut -- a small drive-in style place that serves fabulous friend clams, lobster rolls and other casual seafood dishes, as well as soft serve ice cream treats.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Making a Mardi Gras King Cake

Mardi Gras 2009 is officially on February 24, but if you live anywhere on the Southern coast of the US, from East Texas, through Alabama, Mardi Gras celebrations are already underway.

Many people believe New Orleans to be the birthplace of Mardi Gras, but it's not true. The country's first Mardi Gras celebrations took place in Mobile, Alabama, where they still celebrate it with gusto today.

Even if you live in an area that's nowhere near a Mardi Gras celebration, you can still get a taste of it by making a King Cake.

King Cakes are a huge part of Mardi Gras traditions throughout the South. The cake's origins date back to the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, which honors the three kings present at the Christ child's birth. Which is, I assume, where the custom of hiding a tiny baby doll in the cake, started.

In today's Mardi Gras celebration, tradition calls for the person who gets the "lucky" piece of cake with the baby doll inside, to throw the next party -- or on a simpler note, buy or make the next King Cake. You can pick up the tiny plastic dolls at any cake decorating or novelty supply, just be sure to warn your guests of what to expect as you don't want anyone choking!

The cake, which more closely resembles a rich, sweet bread than cake, is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors: green, representing faith, gold symbolizing power, and purple denoting justice. Over the years, some folks, myself included, have played with the traditional version to include various fillings. But here's the original, in all its glory, just as it was taught to me as a teenager in Mississippi.

(Note: If you prefer to make the dough in a Bread Machine, click here for directions).

1/2 cup warm water (100-115 F)
2 tablespoons yeast
1/2 cup sugar, plus 2 teaspoons
3 1/2 - 4 cup flour
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 cup warm milk
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup butter
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash

3 cups confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
3-6 tablespoons water

additional sugar and food coloring for decoration (click this link for how to make tinted sugar directions)

1 tiny 1" baby doll (see notes above)

Sprinkle yeast and 2 teaspoons sugar over warm water in a small, shallow bowl. Allow to rest for 3-5 minutes, then mix thoroughly. Set bowl in a warm, draft-free place until yeast starts to bubble up and mixture almost doubles in volume, about 10 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, mix 3 1/2 C flour, 1/2 cup sugar, nutmeg, lemon zest and salt. In mixing bowl of a heavy duty electric mixer or food processor, combine yeast , milk and egg yolks. Gradually add dry ingredients, and softened butter, adding additional flour, as necessary to achieve a medium-soft ball. Knead dough, again adding flour if necessary, until smooth, shiny and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Place dough in a covered, buttered bowl , in a warm, draft-free place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

In the meantime, butter a large baking sheet and set aside.

When dough has risen, remove and punch down. Sprinkle with cinnamon and form into a cylinder, then twist this cylinder into a circle. Pinch the ends together to complete the circle. Once again, cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375° F. Brush top and sides of cake with egg wash and bake for 25-35 minutes, or until golden brown.

Cool on wire rack completely before hiding baby doll inside or icing and decorating.

Mix sugar, lemon juice and 3 tablespoons of water until mixture is smooth, adding more water as necessary to achieve a smooth, spreadable consistency. Spread icing over cake and immediately sprinkle colored sugar in alternating color rows.

More on Mardi Gras!
Stay Tuned Next Week!
We'll be featuring lots of Cajun food and drink recipes to further put you into a Mardi Gras frame of mind!

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Fit Freezer -- Making Healthy Frozen Meals at Home

If you like frozen dinners like those made by Lean Cuisine®, Weight Watchers® or Jenny Craig®, you'll love these homemade alternatives. The meals offer the speed and convenience of going from microwave to table in minutes. More importantly, they cut down the urge to cheat, as they give you a portion controlled amount of food that takes the guesswork out of dieting.

With the recipes and instructions in this article, you can stock your home freezer with delicious homemade, portion controlled low fat foods that have many advantages over their store bought counterparts:

  • More Wholesome - A lot of commercially prepared foods are loaded with unnecessary sodium, sugars, preservatives and other ingredients that you don't need. By making your own meals at home, you control what goes into the foods you eat and you can season them according to your own tastes.

  • Less Expensive - The prepared diet meals you buy at the supermarket are pricey and those sold at commercial diet centers like Jenny Craig cost even more. By preparing your own meals at home, you can easily save 50%-75% or more.

  • Greater Flexibility - When you're counting fat and calories, every little bit counts. Who wants to waste calories on foods you don't really like? When buying prepackaged diet meals, you're unfortunately stuck with whatever combos the manufacturer has chosen - you might like the entrée but not the side dish. Maybe you'd prefer high fiber, nutrient rich brown or wild rice instead of white rice. By making your own meals, you can mix and match entrées and side dishes to create low calorie, low fat healthy meals that suit your individual tastes and needs.

  • Saves Time - As each recipe makes several meals, you can plan to cook several recipes in a single session and have enough food in the freezer to last for weeks. Get together with your diet buddy or a group of health conscious friends and have a "cooking party" -- you can all eat well, stay on your diets, and have a fun day preparing meals together.

Cooking for the Freezer Basics:
If you've never prepared foods for the freezer before, don't worry. It's easy. And don't worry if you only have a small, fridge-top freezer -- if you pack carefully you can easily fit a month's worth of meals in the space you have.

In order to prevent freezer burn, which occurs when large ice crystals form during the freezing process, cool foods well before freezing (cool for no more than 1 hour at room temperature -- otherwise cool in the refrigerator to prevent foods from sitting in the danger zone for bacteria growth between 40°F and 140°F).

Unless you like playing dinner roulette, be sure to label your freezer dinners, not only so you'll know what inside, but also in order to use the oldest foods first. Permanent markers, like Sharpies® work great -- you can even write directly onto aluminum foil or freezer bags. Or you might want to tape an index card on the package with heating instructions (especially handy if other family members will be doing the reheating).

Packaging Freezer Meals:
You probably already have some containers in your pantry that will work -- small glass dishes that can go from freezer to microwave or conventional oven. These containers work great for freezer cooking, although most people don't have enough of them. Keep your eyes peeled for sales at department stores or you might even get lucky and pick some up dirt cheap at garage sales or thrift stores.

Another option is to purchase some of the great containers made by Glad® or Ziplock® (you can use and re-use them over and over again, so they are actually quite economical), as they are designed to go from freezer to microwave. But don't limit yourself. Get creative -- any food-grade containers will do, like margarine or whipped topping tubs, Tupperware® or whatever other small containers you might have in the house.

If you plan on cooking your meals in a conventional oven, foil take-out containers like those used by restaurants are terrific (again, I use and re-use mine multiple times). They are quite inexpensive when bought in quantity at a local restaurant supply house.

Of course some recipes, like the French Bread Pizzas, need no more packaging than a tight wrap in aluminum foil. Others you can carefully place in a zippered freezer bag, freeze flat, then place in a baking dish when you are ready to heat them.

Healthy Freezer Friendly Recipes

Book Recommendation -- Holly Clegg's Trim and Terrific Freezer Friendly Meals: Quick and Healthy meals You Can Make in Advance

Holly Clegg, our favorite everyday meals cookbook author, has done it again with a terrific collection of recipes you can make ahead and stock in your freezer. Now a good hot meal will always be waiting for you and your family, you'll just have to heat it. Not only that, Holly's recipes are always light -- lower in fat and calories than their traditional counterparts (you've seen Holly's recipes in Cooking Light Magazine for years).

The best thing about a Holly Clegg cookbook is its consistency, and this one is no exception. Her recipes have been meticulously tested, so you're guaranteed to get fabulous results. Every recipe is simple to prepare from ordinary easy to find ingredients. None takes over 30 minutes to make and many take less time than that.

I have personally been "cooking ahead" for years -- making one meal to eat now and one or more to freeze for later. Until now, however, there has been a lack of good cookbooks on the subject. The few I have read have turned out mushy, flavorless concoctions that filled the physical void of needing dinner but provided none of the emotional pleasure that eating good food brings. No so with Holly's recipes! These formulas turn out tasty food with both flavor and texture.

Each recipe comes with detailed instructions on:

  • how to make and prepare it for immediate consumption
  • how to make and freeze it for later use
  • how to prepare the dish after freezing

I recently met with Holly while on a cross-country trip that took me to her home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was thrilled with the response to her new book -- the first printing sold out almost instantly. What amazed her though was the fact that so many people seemed to have missed the fact that ALL her cookbooks contain many freezer friendly recipes. I found that I had never paid attention to that in the past either, despite the fact that I regularly turn to Holly for recipes. So I went back and checked and sure enough, a good number of recipes in all her books have a small "snowflake" icon next to them, to denote they can be frozen and reheated. One note, these books do lack the detailed freezing prep and reheating instructions that come in this book. Of course, all of Holly's books, including this, come with detailed nutritional analysis, so you can count calories, fat, carbs or whatever.

Chapters include: Freezing Facts; Freezing Guide; Appetizers, Muffins, Breads and Brunch; Chiles, Soups and Stews; Sides and More (includes pizzas!); Poultry; Meat; Seafood; Desserts; Pies, Cookies and Cakes; Suggested menus; Cookware Tips.

I love to cook, but that doesn't mean that I have the time or desire to do it every day. These recipes have solved that problem and made chores easier and more streamlined. Cooking this way also allows me to take advantage of supermarket sales. With the productivity of my time in kitchen doubled or tripled, I have more time to pursue other activities. The only problem is, I may have to buy a bigger freezer!

You can try some sample recipes from this book in the list above.

Click here for more information about this book or to order through

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Baking with Agave Nectar

If you keep up on healthy foods, or are a fan of Oprah and the good doctors Oz and Roizen, you already know about the virtues of using agave nectar as a sweetener – namely an all natural sweetening ingredient with healthful properties that, best of all, does not cause blood sugar spikes in those who consume it. Diabetics, parents of sugar addicted kids, or anyone else who wants to cut refined sugars should definitely give agave nectar a try for all your everyday sweetening needs, including beverages, cereals and cooking.

Agave nectar comes in light and dark varieties (much like corn syrup) with the dark having a more pronounced flavor. In my experience, however, both are very mild in flavor (virtually undetectable in cooking) and can be used interchangeably, regardless of what the recipe specifies. Find agave nectar in natural and health food stores. If you're lucky enough to have a Trader Joe's store near you, you can pick up agave nectar at reasonable prices anytime.

Ten Speed Press and author Ania Catalano have recently come out with a great book entitled Baking with Agave Nectar, which is a great introduction to cooking with this beneficial ingredient, as well as to healthy baking as a whole, as it gives you lots of wonderful recipes for healthy baked goods. When I say healthy, I’m not talking just exchanging refined sugar for agave nectar. The author revamps the entire recipe to include healthy ingredients as much as possible without losing taste and texture, including the use of healthy whole grains wherever possible. The results are baked goods of all kinds that you can feel good about eating and serving to your family. My freezer is almost always stocked with agave nectar sweetened whole grain banana bread – perfect for breakfasts or snacks. Many, but not all of the recipes in the book are vegan.

Yes, you may have to go to a health food store (or order online) for some of the flours and ingredients, but the results are worth the effort. Agave aside, this is a great whole grain baking book. My only criticism is that I wish it included nutritional information for the recipes, as the audience for this book certainly has interest in, and need for. such information, especially those dealing with diabetes.

Recipe chapters include Muffins, Tea breads, and Breakfast Dishes; Cookies and Bars; Cakes and Cupcakes; Pies, Tarts, and Crisps; Ice Creams, Frozen Yogurts, and Sorbets; Special Treats; Frostings, Fillings, and Sauces; Glossary of Ingredients; Sources.

Sample Agave Sweetened Recipes from Baking with Agave Nectar

Monday, January 5, 2009

January Cooking Club Challenge – Thinking Healthy!

So many people are trying to eat right, move more, and improve health – especially at this time of year and considering the holiday bacchanalia we all just survived. Losing weight has to be the most prolific New Years resolution.

So with that in mind, this month’s Cooking Club challenge -- and prize package -- is designed to help you achieve these most worthwhile goals.

When it comes to eating right and/or dieting, everyone has their favorite “staples” – the foods or recipes you depend upon and go back to again and again. It might be your favorite salad, your "go to" brown bag lunch, or a favorite brand of breakfast cereal, or a dessert that satisfies your sweet tooth without breaking your daily allotment of calories and/or fat and carb grams.

For this month’s challenge, we want to hear about your favorite healthy recipes and/or diet foods.

There are two ways to enter and be eligible for this month’s prize package giveaway:

1. Submit your own original healthy eating recipe to To do this you will need to become a site member if you’re not already (registration is fast and free). Click the “submit a recipe link” in the drop down menu for the "Toolbox" in the navigation bar at the top of any page at and fill out the form. Be sure to mention that you are submitting the recipe as part of the Cooking Club Challenge in the “Author’s Notes” field. If you have your own blog and/or website, be sure to include this in the notes field too, so we can link to it and also let folks know about it in our event end wrap-up. Don't worry about details like the "tag fields," a live person edits each recipe before publication.

2. If you favorite healthy eating and/or diet staple foods are brand names convenience products (or more of an idea than an actual recipe), just let us know about them in the comments section below on the page at this link. Again, you will have to be a registered site member to enter comments (and so we can contact you if your name is chosen for the giveaway).

Deadline to participate in this month’s Cooking Club Challenge is midnight Pacific time January 31, 2009.

This Month’s Prize Package Giveaway

As always, one lucky Cooking Club participant will be chosen at random to receive the giveaway package. This month’s gift package is worth over $135.00 and includes a library of six popular health and diet books (so you can find a plan that works well for you), and some of Watkins favorite health products, including bottles of red and white liniments to help with sore muscles after workouts, as well as travel packs of Menthol-Camphor salve (perfect for cold season) and the all-purpose first aid Petro-Carbo salve. Books included in this giveaway package include:
Visit and/or subscribe to the Cooking Blog.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Tips for Fabulous Green Salads

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I know we did, but boy the time just flew by! I can't believe it's already come and gone.

If you're anything like me, you overindulged and now feel it's time to get back on the band wagon of healthy eating and regular exercise. As such, salads are figuring heavily into my upcoming meal plans.

A green salad can be one of those dishes that really sings on your plate, or it can be the ho-hum obligation that you eat because you think you should. The difference between the two is often just a matter of a few simple tips and small details. Here are some of my favorite tips for making great salads. If you have others, please post them to the comments section.

  • Get creative with greens. Gone are the days when salad meant a few leaves of wilted iceberg lettuce drizzled with a fat laden creamy dressing. Today's markets have a wide variety of salad greens. Try to use several varieties in your salads. For convenience you can buy premixed mesclun, which contains a variety of greens. You can also blend your own by going through the produce department and mixing and matching greens. Some that will add interesting flavors to the mix are the slightly bitter chicories such as endive or radicchio, peppery arugula or even mild baby spinach. Look for interesting textures and colors in your greens as well. Maybe add some frisée or curly red leaf lettuce for extra dimension.

  • Wash and dry greens well. If you bought a pre-washed mesclun mix, you won't have to worry about cleaning the greens, otherwise they should be thoroughly washed. The hardest part of this is that salad greens should also be dried before being turned into salad, otherwise they will water down the dressing. A salad spinner is a handy kitchen gadget that actually works quite well (order online or pick them up for a song any weekend at a local garage sale). Otherwise, after shaking off most of the water, you can roll the washed lettuce in paper towels to help absorb the remaining moisture.

  • Plan on about 2 cups of mixed greens per person.

  • Try fennel. For a slightly sweet, mild anise flavor, try adding some chopped fresh fennel bulb to your salad or use fennel as the basis of the salad itself.

  • You can add all kinds of other vegetables to your salads depending on your mood. I generally prefer simpler salads that allow one or two ingredients to really shine, but to each his own. Tomatoes and onions seem to be standard fare but don't forget cucumbers, shredded carrots, shredded cabbage, avocado, olives, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, peas, corn, beans, etc.

  • Lightly steamed veggies that have been chilled also make excellent salad additions, think asparagus, green beans, broccoli or cauliflower.

  • Avoid raw mushrooms. While raw mushrooms are a staple of many salad recipes, I now avoid them. Mycology expert Charmoon Richardson of the Sonoma, California company "Wild About Mushrooms" recently taught me that raw mushrooms are slightly toxic (these elements are released during cooking).

  • Add fruit. Fruit can add a bright flavor surprise to green salads. For just a few suggestions, try adding a small amount of sliced fresh strawberries, blueberries or raspberries to your salad mix. Citrus fruit like orange or grapefruit slices or fresh pineapple go really well, especially with dark greens like spinach. Add tropical flavor with fruits like mango or papaya or my favorite. In fall, be sure to try my favorite salad fruit: fresh pomegranate seeds.

  • Try roasting vegetables on the grill or roasting them in the oven before adding to salads (you can chill first, or add them warm). This works well for onions, asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms (especially portobellos), and many others.

  • Add grilled chicken, beef or even tofu to your salad and turn it into a meal.

  • Add ingredients that really make salads sing! The following ingredients are so potent in flavor, you only have to use a small amount, but they will add a distinctive, unforgettable flavor to your salads: crumbled bacon bits; crumbled hard boiled egg; crumbled strong cheeses such as blue cheese, gorgonzola, Roquefort or feta; brine cured olives such as kalamatas; toasted nuts or seeds; anchovies.

  • If you like toasted nuts on your salad, try sugared nuts, such as pecans or walnuts, for an even greater flavor spectrum. To make these nuts, combine 2 1/4 cups nuts with 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a heavy skillet. Cook the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the nuts have a crystal, sugary appearance. Pour onto a baking sheet covered with waxed paper and immediately separate the nuts with a fork. Let cool, store in airtight container.

  • Try goat cheese. Mixed green salads with warm goat cheese are on the menus of countless trendy restaurants today, but it's easy to duplicate this feat at home. Simply take a log of goat cheese and slice into slices about 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch thick. Lightly coat the cheese slices with either some seasoned breadcrumbs or finely chopped nuts. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet and place under the boiler. Watch carefully, it takes less than a minute! Broil just until the cheese starts to melt (if you wait too long you will end up it a runny mess). Remove cheese from oven and use a wide spatula to transfer one cheese slice onto each serving plate of dressed, mixed greens.

  • Do not over dress your salad. Green salads only need about 1 teaspoon of dressing per person, as long as you toss it well.

  • Don't over power flavors. A lighter vinaigrette type dressing will allow the flavors of the salad to come through.

  • A good basic vinaigrette. A basic vinaigrette than can be tossed right on the salad is about 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar to 2 teaspoons oil. Sprinkle the vinegar on first, then toss, then sprinkle on the oil and toss again. If you do it the other way around, the oil will keep the vinegar from adhering to the leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

  • Experiment with vinegars. Play with types of vinegars you use. Try red or white wine vinegars, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar or seasoned rice vinegar, in addition to vinegars flavored with fruits or herbs.

  • Use vinegar somewhat sparingly as the taste can easily overpower all other flavors.

  • Experiment with oils. Extra virgin olive oil is great, but you can play with the flavor by adding part nut oils, such as hazelnut or almond oil. A few drops of sesame oil will give your salad an exotic Asian flair.

  • Substitute acidic fruit juice for all or part of the vinegar in a vinaigrette. Try using lemon, lime, orange, apple or pineapple juices.

  • Add flavor. To add flavor and dimension to your vinaigrette dressings, try adding ingredients like minced shallot, garlic, ginger, onion or green onion. Play with the flavors by adding small amounts of flavoring ingredients such as mustard, honey, hot sauce or soy sauce.

  • Use herbs. Small amounts of fresh herbs can add a whole new flavor dimension to salads and salad dressings. Try basil, thyme leaves, chives or tarragon. Experiment and have fun with herbs.
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