Food for thought

I spend a good number of my days talking about dietary guidelines and exercise recommendations, because so many of my patients have diabetes and obesity.  Just today, one patient decided to switch from one meal replacement plan to another (after losing 20 lbs!) because she ‘got bored’ from the meals that were being offered to her.  I understood her frustration, but I couldn’t help also wondering…what if she were *taught* how to cook a variety of healthy meals that she could then diversify on her own, to mix things up with the seasonal produce and draw from different flavor profiles??  You could have Asian food one night, Mediterranean another, etc, etc.  So many possibilities…

Eating healthily and mindfully is SO NOT BORING!  I can attest to this because I have an endless stream of recipes and ideas from the magazines, cookbooks, blogs, and websites I follow in my spare time.  J’s obsession is sports.  Mine is cooking and trying out new recipes.

I firmly believe in Pollan’s maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  And by food, he means REAL food, not stuff that has been processed and then fortified because it no longer has nutrients.

I ran across an editorial in the NYT the other day that encapsulates a lot of what I believe and try to tell my patients when they ask me for the ‘best’ diet or the diet ‘most likely to succeed for weight loss’: Simple Rules for Healthy Eating.  It basically expounds a little on Pollan’s very simple (yet very valid) advice.

Some of the key points:

  1. Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods.
  2. Eat heavily processed foods rarely.
  3. Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, which should be prepared from unprocessed foods as much as possible.
  4. Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee and other beverages are fine.
  5. Treat all beverages with calories in them as you would alcohol (consume in moderation).
  6. Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation.
  7. When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules.
  8. Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible.

AMEN to the last point – it is so much easier to cook and enjoy food when you are doing it with those you love!  🙂

To old friends and new salads

and SPRING, glorious spring!  Even in California, without ‘true seasons,’ it’s pretty obvious when spring arrives.  Sunshine truly becomes abundant, daffodils and hydrangeas fill the parks, and asparagus and strawberries pop up in abundance at farmer’s markets.  ❤

I met up with my old college roommates and their little mini-me’s (3 daughters between the two of them!  so cute!) for a picnic lunch yesterday.  I remember well how we all greeted spring in college – we’d find excuses to eat or sit outside ‘to study’ in Dunster House’s courtyard.  One year, after taking my MCAT, I came home after the 8 hr exam to be greeted by champagne and strawberries in the courtyard.

Yesterday’s picnic felt a little like old times, with some delightful additions: three little girls who liked to chase after ducks and risk a dunking in the pond in their curious pursuit of koi fish and turtles.  We had a delicious assortment of cheese, sandwiches, fresh strawberries and grapes, and I brought along two new salads to provide some vegetables: Grilled Zucchini and Leeks with Walnuts and Herbs and Asparagus with Meyer Lemon and Farro.  Both can be made nut-free for those with allergies, but the almonds and walnuts add texture and heartiness.

IMG_3469
A duo of salads packed for picnicking!

Grilled Zucchini and Leeks with Walnuts and Herbs (recipe from here) – serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated (I used a microplane)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large leeks, white and pale-green parts only, halved lengthwise with some root attached
  • 2 large zucchini (about 1 pound), halved lengthwise
  • 1/2 cup (lightly packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves with tender stems

Instructions:

  1. Prepare grill pan for medium-high heat.
  2. Toast walnuts in a dry small skillet over medium heat, tossing often, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Chop very coarsely.
  3. Toss warm walnuts with garlic, lemon juice, and 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper.
  4. Brush leeks and zucchini with remaining 2 tablespoons oil; season with salt and pepper.
  5. Grill vegetables, turning often, until tender and charred in spots, 5-8 minutes for leeks, 8-10 minutes for zucchini.  Try to keep vegetables al dente, or they will be floppy (not a desirable texture).
  6. Transfer vegetables to a cutting board. Trim roots from leeks and cut leeks and zucchini into bite-size pieces.
  7. Add vegetables and parsley to bowl with walnuts and toss to combine; season vegetables with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice, if desired.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Asparagus with Meyer Lemon and Farro (recipe adapted slightly from here) – serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 4 ounces (5/8 cup) pearled farro (I used Trader Joe’s 10-minute farro)
  • 4 ounces (5/8 cup) pearl couscous or orzo or Trader Joe’s Harvest Grain Blend
  • 1 Meyer lemon, zested and juiced
  • 3/4 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 2 tbl olive oil, plus extra for roasting
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
  • 2 ounces soft goat cheese, chilled and crumbled
  • Flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Salt the water generously. Add the farro, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes or until al dente. (If substituting another grain such as spelt or wheat berries, follow package instructions or use this method: A No-Fuss Method for Cooking Almost Any Whole Grain.)
  3. Meanwhile, in another 2-quart saucepan, cook the pearl couscous or Harvest Grain Blend according to package directions.
  4. Spread the grains and pearl couscous on a large baking sheet and set aside to cool. Zest the lemons over the grains and stir to combine.
  5. Trim the asparagus and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss w/ a little olive oil and season with a little salt.  Roast at 375 degrees F until crisp-tender — about 5-7 minutes, depending on how thick the stalks are.
  6. Toss the cooled grains with the asparagus in a large bowl.
  7. Whisk the Meyer lemon juice with olive oil and season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Taste and adjust. Pour over the grain salad and toss, along with salt and pepper to taste.**
  8. Just before serving, stir in sliced almonds and goat cheese.

**This salad lasts very well in the fridge; the herbal flavors of the Meyer lemons bloom nicely when it sits.

Loving leeks! A fish confit…

Apparently, the word confit comes from the French verb confire (to prepare), which in turn comes from the Latin word (conficere), meaning “to do, to produce, to make, to prepare”. The French verb was first applied in medieval times to fruits cooked and preserved in sugar.   These days, confit generally indicates food that is cooked in fat, oil or sugar water/syrup at a lower temperature than deep frying.

When cooked en confit, leeks become luscious, sweet, and oh-so-tender.  Paired w/ fresh halibut, cooked just until flaky and moist, it becomes a wonderful weekday meal that barely requires any supervision before it is ready for the table.

IMG_3463
Halibut Confit with Leeks, Coriander, and Lemon

Halibut Confit with Leeks, Coriander, and Lemon (original recipe from here) – makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 tbl coriander seeds, plus more very coarsely chopped for serving
  • 2 leeks, white and pale-green parts only, halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into 2″ pieces
  • 4 sprigs cilantro, cut into 2″ pieces, plus leaves for serving
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
  • Kosher salt
  • 1.5 pound skinless halibut fillet, halved lengthwise

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Coarsely grind 1 tablespoon coriander seeds in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. (Alternatively, you can coarsely chop with a knife.)
  2. Toss leeks, cilantro sprigs, oil, half of lemon slices, and 2 teaspoons ground coriander in a large roasting pan; season with salt. Roast, tossing occasionally, until leeks are tender and starting to brown, 15-20 minutes.
  3. Remove roasting pan from oven and carefully pour infused oil into a large heatproof measuring cup.
  4. Reduce oven temperature to 275°F. Season halibut with salt and arrange over leeks in roasting pan. Top with remaining lemon slices and ground coriander and pour infused oil over fish. Roast until halibut is just cooked through and starting to flake, 30-35 minutes.
  5. Cut halibut into large pieces and serve with leeks and lemon topped with chopped coriander seeds and cilantro leaves.****Prep notes: Halibut can be roasted 1 hour ahead. Let cool and cover.

Unplugged.

J and I decided that for our next brief trip (all of 4 days!), we were going to be completely unplugged from work.  Since starting, I have yet to be separated from my work inbox, with its daily onslaught of patient messages, calls, labs, staff messages, prescription refills, etc, etc.  I try to clear it by the end of the day, only to log in several hours later to find that it is once again filled with new things to address.

To that end, I brought my phone along on our trip but otherwise made a point of leaving my computer at home.  I admittedly had separation anxiety and was fidgeting to check in as day 1 approached.  By day 2, I couldn’t believe how it felt to be unplugged.  It. was. so. l-i-b-e-r-a-t-i-n-g!  As grateful as I am to have an electronically medical record and the technological advances we have, it has so blurred the lines between work and home that I never feel completely done with work.  It makes it hard to find some semblance of work-life balance…I went into this field knowing it could and would consume most of my waking hours and energy, but I do not think this means neglecting personal priorities.  Physician, heal thyself – otherwise, how can I possibly hope to care for others?

And so, during one of our mornings free, I made this lovely frittata – it felt celebratory in more ways than one, featuring spring’s fresh and sweet asparagus.

IMG_3433 IMG_3439Asparagus, Leek and Mushroom Frittata (recipe adapted from here)

Ingredients:

  • 1.5-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only)
  • 1 12-ounce bunch thin asparagus, trimmed, cut on diagonal into 1-inch pieces (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 1 cup sliced stemmed shiitake mushrooms
  • 8 large omega-3 eggs
  • 1 cup diced Gruyere cheese, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions:

  1. Preheat broiler.
  2. Heat olive oil in 10-inch-diameter nonstick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add leeks and sauté 4 minutes. Add asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, sprinkle lightly with salt, and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes.
  4. Whisk eggs, 3/4 cup Gruyere cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in medium bowl.
  5. Add egg mixture to skillet; fold gently to combine. Cook until almost set.
  6. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Gruyere cheese and Parmesan cheese over. Broil until frittata is puffed and cheese begins to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

On lemons and sweet spring treats

It’s so interesting to see how the palate evolves as we age, and how things that may  appeal to us as adults really did not hold much allure when we were younger.  I was reminded of this last weekend when I was trying to decide what to bake to bring to a friend’s son’s birthday party.  Her son is allergic to eggs, so I wanted to bring something egg-less and spring-y that he might still be able to try.  Fortunately, she is also a wonderful mother/cook/baker, so she has already figured out ways to bake him yummy treats sans eggs, including his super-cute Cars-themed birthday cupcakes.

I settled on lemon shortbread (he likes citrus!) and more conventional sugar cookies to provide both options for those with and without allergies.  I’m not sure how the kiddos responded to the lemon shortbread, since I eventually realized that   the humble-looking shortbread is not as appealing a cookie to them as something w/ melty chocolate or drizzled with luscious icing.  =(

For those adults looking for a bright, lemon-y treat, however, these lemon shortbread cookies are just the thing!

IMG_3408Meyer Lemon Shortbread (recipe adapted from here)

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup (150g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (55g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • ¼ cup (60ml) Meyer lemon juice
  • finely grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¾ cups + 1 tablespoon (255g) all purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch, sifted
  • 2/3 cup (94g) additional confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Instructions:

  1. Place the butter and icing sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 8 minutes or until pale and creamy.
  2. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla and beat until combined.
  3. Add the flour and corn starch and beat just until a smooth dough forms.
  4. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half.
  5. Place each half onto a large piece of parchment paper and form into a 20cm (8in) long log. Wrap well in the paper and refrigerate for 1 ½ hours or until firm.
  6. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Unwrap one of the dough logs (keep the other in the fridge) and slice it into 1cm-thick rounds.
  8. Place onto the prepared baking sheets 5cm (2in) apart and bake for 15-18 minutes or until light golden.
  9. Remove from the oven and cool in the sheets for 5 minutes.
  10. Gently toss the warm shortbreads in the extra icing sugar and allow to cool completely on wire racks.

And for those who haven’t quite let go of their inner child (::raises hand::), here is a recipe for super easy sugar cookies that look wonderful (and taste great!) when cut into playful spring shapes and decorated for Easter:

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Sugar Cookies
 
(recipe modified from Alton Brown’s recipe)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • Powdered sugar, for rolling out dough

Instructions:

  1. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar until light in color.
  3. Add vanilla and almond extracts and egg.  Beat to combine.
  4. Gradually add flour, beating just until the mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl.  If it seems too stiff, wet hands, turn out the dough and finish kneading by hand.
  5. Divide the dough into portions, wrap in waxed paper or parchment, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  7. Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with powdered sugar.
  8. Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick.  Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking.
  9. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on parchment paper or silicone baking mat, and bake for 6-8 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time.
  10. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack.
  11. Serve as is or ice as desired. Store in airtight container for up to 1 week.

“Not so devilish” noodles

Shirataki noodles are thin, translucent, gelatinous traditional Japanese noodles made from the konjac yam (aka devil’s tongue yam or elephant yam).  They are mostly comprised of glucomannan starch, which is an indigestible fiber.  While very low in carbohydrates and calories and lacking much flavor of their own, shirataki noodles easily pick up the flavors of whatever sauce they are in.  Their slippery texture may be a little unfamiliar to some, but dry roasting them in a non-stick pan can give them more of a pasta-like consistency.

Convenience-wise, shirataki noodles couldn’t be easier – just drain, rinse, and then use!  J. Kenji López-Alt from Serious Eats even has a great recipe for  Sichuan-style shirataki noodle and cucumber salad and sings their praises here.

Shirataki noodles stir-fried with vegetables provided a quick and healthy weeknight dinner.  No need to feel ‘devilishly’ indulgent, here!

IMG_3421Shirataki Noodles with Mushrooms and Sweet Bell Pepper

Ingredients:

  • 7 oz shirataki noodles
  • 4 oyster mushrooms, sliced
  • 4-5 crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 4-5 baby bell peppers, julienned
  • 3 scallions, sliced into 1 inch segments, white and green parts separated
  • 1/2 tsp black bean soy paste
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp sriracha
  • Salt to taste
  • Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Drain and rinse shirataki noodles.  Set aside.
  2. In a nonstick skillet, heat canola oil over medium-high heat.
  3. Add oyster and crimini mushrooms with a pinch of salt to the pan and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes, until they begin to soften and slightly brown at the edges.  Add minced garlic, soy paste, sugar, and 1 tsp low-sodium soy sauce.  Stir-fry for another 1-2 minutes.
  4. Add bell peppers and the chopped white scallion, stir-frying until crisp tender.
  5. Add drained shirataki noodles to the vegetable mixture, seasoning with remaining 1 tsp low sodium soy sauce, sesame oil, and sriracha.  Toss in chopped green scallion and  stir-fry for another 1-2 minutes to let the flavors meld.   Adjust seasoning.
  6. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.

Saffron: worth its weight in gold

Or more, if you attach to it the immense thoughtfulness that my friend Erika had in bringing back a good quantity of it for me from her travels in Turkey, Morocco, and Greece.  I couldn’t join her on her travels, but she helped me get a taste of her adventures by bringing back this cherished spice and inspiring me to experiment with it in the kitchen.

Saffron, with its sweet and grassy notes, is truly a labor-intensive spice to collect.  It is derived from the stigmas of Crocus sativus.   Each plant bears up to four flowers, which each only have 3 stigmas.   It takes 150,000 to 170,000 flowers to glean just 1 kg of the precious saffron threads, and requires the equivalent of 40 hrs of labor.  It is widely used in the cooking of many cuisines, including the paella of Spain, the Milanese risotto of Italy, the bouillabaisse of France, and the biryani of South Asia.  Its vibrant beautiful color adds brightness to all of these dishes, as well as a unique flavor.

J and I have used it lately to make paella (recipe to come later!) but tonight I used it very simply to poach cod, with delightful results.  I paired the poached cod and saffron broth with a refreshing shaved asparagus salad.  It was a quick and healthy weeknight meal, full of bright and interesting flavors!

Gently simmering the cod in the broth is key to achieving buttery, flaky cod (and avoiding rubbery fish).

IMG_3432Poached Cod with Saffron-Tomato Broth (adapted from here)

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • ~1 cup (8 oz) of quartered grape tomatoes
  • ~2 tablespoons dry white wine
  • bay leaves
  • pinch of saffron threads
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • two 4-5-oz. skinless cod fillets

Instructions:

  1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and Aleppo pepper (or red pepper flakes) and cook, stirring often, until fragrant (garlic should not take on any color), about 3 minutes.
  2. Add tomatoes, wine, bay leaf, saffron, and ~1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until flavors meld, 5–7 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low; season cod with salt and pepper and place in skillet. Cover and cook at a bare simmer until cod is opaque throughout and beginning to flake, 5–7 minutes (thicker pieces will take longer to cook).
  4. Gently transfer cod to shallow bowls and spoon poaching liquid over.

Shaved Asparagus Salad with Lemon-Parmesan Dressing (original recipe from Food and Wine)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 pound large asparagus
  • 1/4 cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (3/4 ounces)
  • 3/4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tablespoon warm water
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1.  Using a vegetable peeler, shave the asparagus into long, thin strips and transfer to a large bowl.
  2.  In a small bowl, mix the Parmigiano-Reggiano with the lemon juice, water and olive oil. Add to the asparagus and toss to coat. Season the salad with salt and pepper and serve at once.