Squeaky Clean Loaded Sweet Potato

I came up with this recipe while trying to create a healthy, satisfying and exciting lunch that I could prepare at work from ingredients at the local corner market near my office. Since discovering it, this has been my work lunch about 1,000 times. It meets all of these criteria, with a bonus offering of providing for 2 days, not one.

Squeaky Clean Loaded Sweet Potato
best quality: can be prepared in under 10 minutes using only a microwave and a butter knife

Ingredients:
1/2 ripe avocado sliced or cubed
1 medium or 1/2 large sweet potato
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
salt and pepper to taste
a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Cook the sweet potato. Oven-baked is the best but to speed things up I usually pop mine in the microwave for 5-6 minutes. Make sure to stab it with a knife or fork a few times on each side before putting it in the microwave.

Once the sweet potato has cooled slightly, slice it open lengthwise, drizzle a little olive oil on each half, and mash the insides with a fork.

Top it with your avocado, greek yogurt and salt and pepper. I like to add a dash of hot sauce too. You can use the other half of your avocado and large sweet potato for lunch tomorrow, just make sure to wrap them tightly and refrigerate  If you buy a single serving yogurt container, it can be split into two servings as well. Enjoy!

clean-eating-loaded-sweet-potato-with-avacado-and-yogurt

Introducing…The Freezer Challenge

Here is a trap I commonly fall into: I am at an exciting grocery store or farmer’s market and decide to stock up on things I can’t get (at least not at a reasonable price) at our regular Stop & Shop. Before long, bright, beautiful grass-fed meat, floury pizza dough, crisp local veggies, and anything homemade are spilling over the top of my basket, which is now breaking off my arm. I figure I’ll cook as much of it as possible this week and freeze the rest.

For some reason, I always feel a need to stockpile, like I have to make this particular trip to the store really count. When I get home, all the extras go into my neatly sorted, full of good intentions freezer. As soon as the door is shut, they are forgotten and abandoned.

Simultaneously, my boyfriend (with whom I share my freezer) is out in a forest or a marsh or a cornfield trying his best to hit the daily limit on whatever animal is in season. Any meat he brings home is cleaned, butchered, vacuumed sealed and then put you-know-where.

a-diagram-of-my-freezer
My freezer, today

We use almost everything eventually, but often things have long past the point of being interesting, appetizing or tasty. Enter the Freezer Challenge. I am on a quest to use up everything in my freezer, one recipe at a time. Then, I can start from scratch and learn how to use this space more efficiently. A few times this week I drove to the grocery store on my way home from work, and then turned around and left without going inside. There are dozens of frozen meals already at home, and figuring them out will force me to be a little bit creative.

freezer door diagram
Freezer door, today

So, it starts today. This post is proof. With hunting season and harvest season in full swing, we need to make some room.

Challenge Guidelines:

  1. I have one month
  2. Everything must go
  3. Nothing gets thrown away (well, maybe the puff pastry)
  4. Gifting is ok
  5. Pawning off crap is not
  6. I must report back on my progress one month from today

Get ready to witness some ruthless execution. Who’s with me?

How I Struck Gold In My Own Kitchen

I discovered something amazing this week that I need to share immediately: dish gloves. I supposed I’ve know about the existence of dish gloves for some time, and have even had a pair under my sink for years. I just always thought they were kind of unnecessary and ridiculous. So what really happened this week is I became a believer in dish gloves.

With the cold weather coming my “winter skin” is already setting in, making my hands dry and miserable. Anyone who knows me knows that I am constantly fighting a pretty extreme battle with the skin on my hands. I’ve tried everything and usually find little relief. To make matters worse, since I don’t have a dishwasher and am always cooking, my hands spend a lot of time in water. This is the last place they should be since water strips away the moisture barrier in your skin. Last year, I visited the dermatologist about my eczema and her first recommendation was to wear dish gloves.

So, I gave them a try (a year later) and am totally hooked. If you struggle with dry, cracked, chapped hands in the winter I highly recommend dish gloves. The pair I have are plain old pink latex gloves and they do the job just fine. But for fun, I spent some time perusing other options and stumbled upon the market of handmade accessorized dish gloves. Here’s a peak at what I found:

Cute and Classic…

green_floral_dish_gloves
Ditsy Floral Nitrile Cleaning Gloves$13 Etsy.com

Fringe!

yellow_dish_gloves_tassle
Designer Rubber Dish Gloves, $20 Etsy.com

For the temptress…

pink-feathered-hand-made-dish-gloves
Kitschy Kitschy Ya Ya Dish Gloves, $22 Etsy.com

How do you keep your hands in good shape in the cold weather?

Six Pack Beefaroni

While summering in the Finger Lakes region of New York last year, I was introduced to Beefaroni- a classically amazing pasta dish I had somehow never had before. (Among other life-changing things I was introduced to in the Finger Lakes were the Finger Lakes, wine tasting, and dry Rieslings.) The cheesy, saucy deliciousness took my idea of comfort food to a whole new level. I’m pretty sure I had three bowls full just to make sure it was real.

Upon arriving home and back in the real world, I began toying with ways to lighten up this dish and make it into something I could eat all the time. Here is what I came up with.

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:
1 medium sized spaghetti squash
1qt. tomato sauce
extra virgin olive oil
ground turkey or lean ground beef (I have also used venison and bison, which are both fabulous lean options)
sea salt and pepper to taste

optional twists:
1/2 lb shell or elbow pasta
1/2 lb firm tofu (diced small)
parmesan or romano cheese to sprinkle

Baking the squash
Preheat your oven to 350F. Cut the spaghetti squash in half length-wise and scrape the seeds from both sides. Sprinkle each half with sea salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil.

baked-spaghetti-squash

Wrap both halves (separately) in tin foil and bake for 45 minutes. The squash should be very tender and string easily when scraped with a fork when done. The flesh color will turn a brighter yellow. Test both sides before you take it out of the oven. Remember it will continue to steam in the tin foil as it cools. Set aside. Once cool, scrape the insides of both halves to make your “spaghetti.” If you bake the squash ahead of time this is a quick meal to throw together during the week.

In the meantime, heat up a saute pan and toss in your ground meat or tofu when hot. If using tofu, add a tbsp of olive oil to the pan before adding it. Season with salt and pepper to taste. After it browns, cover with tomato sauce and simmer on med-low for 10-15 minutes. If you are cooking pasta as well, put it onto boil as well.

To serve, start with your spaghetti squash, (pasta if using it) and then top with meat or tofu and sauce. I especially love this meal because it’s easy to make a clean veggie meal, and add the meat and pasta to keep everyone in the house happy. Both versions are tasty, satisfying, and make great leftovers.

spaghetti-squash-tomato-sauce-beefaroni
Meat version on left, veggie version on right

Tomato Sauce To Write Home About

This year we finished up our annual day of tomato canning with over 100 jars of crushed perfection. Alas, no matter how many we make, it’s never enough to last through the year. You’d think we were dealing with gold bars the way everyone in my family gets all greedy and stealth-like when dividing up the shares. I kid you not when I say I have had to smuggle jars out of my house to share with friends, and even my grandmother. It’s never pretty, but that’s just how treasure is.

So, until my allotment runs out, I’ll be feasting on my favorite meals and not rationing properly at all. Of course, all my favorites start with tomato sauce.

Basic Tomato Sauce
Makes about 6-8 servings (I always make at least this much so there is extra to freeze.)

Ingredients:
2 one qt. jars (or 2 28oz store bought cans of whole tomatoes*)
1 large yellow onion
a few fresh basil leaves
sea salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil
1-2 garlic cloves (whole)

*Store bought canned tomatoes often contain citric acid and other additives. Because tomatoes are naturally quite acidic, they stay well preserved without additives. Look for a brand that contains just tomatoes, or tomatoes and fresh basil.

In a large, deep sauce pot heat a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil on med-low. I use a deep pot because the sauce doesn’t lose as much water while cooking and ends up with a better consistency.

While it’s heating, slice your onion as thinly as possible. When the oil is nice and hot, add onions and allow them to caramelize on low for 5-10 minutes. Make sure that they do not start to brown.

sliced-yellow-onion-for-fresh-tomato-sauce

Once the onions are translucent, add in your tomatoes. Here’s a tip: pour the tomatoes over the back of a wooden spoon to keep from splattering yourself.

sliced-onions-carmelized-in-olive-oil

Turn up the heat and bring everything to a slow boil. Then, reduce the heat to low and simmer. Stir in in the garlic cloves, basil and a pinch or two of salt. Simmer on low, covered, for at least 45 minutes. If you have the time, you can let it cook for longer. Stir every 15-20 minutes with a wooden spoon.

simmering-fresh-tomato-sauce

During the last 15 minutes of cooking, remove the lid to allow the sauce to thicken up. Taste again and add more salt if necessary.

Freeze the unused portion for quick weeknight meals.

Why Clean Eating is a Five-Rung Step Ladder

Hi, I’m Samantha, and I didn’t learn how to eat until I was 24 years old. It took about seven years and five big steps to figure it out.

College is what prompted this whole shift. The freshman 15 (or 20) snuck up on my sometime between the calzones and boneless wings at 2am. When my last pair of pants wouldn’t button, I began trying to lose weight.  There was no rhyme or reason to how I went about this. I was not exercising regularly or eating that great. But, I stopped going in the dining hall and started cooking my own food. That was step one.

me before clean eating
Before, 2005

Step two was experimenting with vegetarianism. I didn’t know much about meat industry, and I was not yet aware of the devastating effects of food production on the environment. I just felt wrong about what I ate, and I needed to do something drastic to figure out why. Abstinence, as it tends to do, gave me time and space to think.

I did not eat meat for year and a half and it was awesome! I felt great and experimented with a ton new foods. But I still had questions. What is my policy on dairy? How much imitation meat do I want to ingest? When does this end?

Then, I started to miss meat, have dreams I was eating it and wake up feeling guilty. I began to resent having only 1-2 options on a restaurant menu, and stress over parties and other social events. I felt separated from my family. Slowly, being a vegetarian became less important than everything else in my life because I had no idea why I was doing it anymore. When you begin to feel like something is a sacrifice, it becomes uncomfortable. And when you start to feel guilty about those feelings, it’s downright unbearable.

So, even though I was ready for it, I ate my re-introductory bite of meat in hiding, with no one watching. I felt weak and ashamed, and thought I would be judged from then on no matter what I did. Turns out no one cared but me. It got easier, but I kept going back and forth. I told myself, I’ll eat meat for just one more week, or just one day a month, and created rule after rule after rule. All of which I broke, because you will break every rule you make for yourself about eating. I guess step 3 was accepting that I was not a vegetarian anymore. Only when your diet becomes a lifestyle that you believe in will you honor it.

Slowly, I began to shift my attention away from what I could NOT eat, and instead focus on what I was actually putting INTO my body. Enter step 4: I got interested in where my food came from and how it was produced. Guess what? Abstaining from foods is waaaaay simpler than eating with purpose and intention.  Every trip to the grocery store became a cost-benefit analysis between local, organic and conventional options. I wanted to eat in a way that was healthy for me, my community and the planet. Without calculation, this became the foundation of my own philosophy on eating.

Finally, step 5 (aka the clincher): I became a truly fit person for the first time in my life. I started working out with an amazing group of women and learned about clean eating. What a concept! (Hey, what is clean eating?) By eating mostly whole, real, unprocessed foods, and getting regular intense exercise, I have gained confidence and feel leaner and healthier than ever.

Last May, I decided to start training for a 1/2 marathon even though I couldn’t run a mile. When I crossed the finish line in December, I knew I was never looking back. Now I know that I can do anything I want, and hold myself accountable to that. I’ve eliminated “impossible” from my vocabulary. It all stems from my core, how I nourish and take care of myself.  Isn’t it funny how when you believe in something, instead of doing what you think you should, it becomes the easiest thing in the world?

me after
After, 2012

Even though my standards for what and how I eat are so much higher now than they have ever been, this is the simplest way I know how to live. It’s challenging, but I’ve learned tricks at every turn and it’s been unimaginably rewarding.

Here’s the secret: I don’t let myself get sick of what I eat. I have spent a lot of time in the kitchen coming up with new and different ways to cook the foods I love, and figuring out how to make them fit into the daily grind. And I’m more than happy to share! So, stay tuned for some squeaky clean recipes and other tips, mixed with the classics and served on a bed of thoughtful pondering.

Smile, You’re Tomato Canning

Every August that I can remember has ended with a long, hot day of tomato canning. It’s summer’s most fantastic ritual. All of my extended family members gather in someone’s backyard to sort, cut, boil, crush, jar and seal boxes and boxes of warm, fresh tomatoes (local, but not homegrown I confess.) The smell is more wonderful that you can possible imagine. It’s like all the fantastic things you are going to cook this year, mixed with love and basil. Since last Friday was canning day, I’m kick-starting this blog with an entire week devoted to its namesake, the tomato. Today, we start at the beginning.

How to Can Tomatoes
What you will need:

  1. plum tomatoes
  2. fresh basil
  3. sharp knife
  4. large pot
  5. glass jars with lids and rings made for canning
  6. slotted spoon
  7. tomato grinder (manual or electric)
  8. tongs
  9. large bucket/container
  10. funnel
  11. strainer

Before you start, make sure that all of your jars, lid rings and other tools are clean and sterile to avoid trapping bacteria in your jars that will spoil. Running the jars and lids through the dishwasher is an easy way to clean a bunch at once.

Tomato Selection
Plum tomatoes are ideal for tomato sauce because they are pulpy and contain less water than other varieties. There are many types of plum tomatoes, but we usually buy Romas because they are grown locally. San Marzano is another prized plum tomato for canning. Processing tomatoes are commonly sold in 25 lb bulk cases, which each yield about 6-7 quarts of sauce each. So, decide how many quart jars you want to fill before purchasing your tomatoes.

selecting ripe plum tomatoes for tomato sauce canning
Aunt Andrea and Aunt Marie find a fine batch of tomatoes!

Sort
Since one rotten tomato can spoil the batch, you need to inspect each one individually. If you are not going to actually can on the day you pick up your tomatoes, take them out of the box and lay them to air out. This way, you can find and remove any rotting ones before they spoil the ones around them. Sometimes the tomatoes can use an extra day or two more to fully ripen, so you can leave them out until they seem ready.

sorting plum tomatoes for tomato sauce canning

Wash
When you’re ready start, go through all the tomatoes again and toss any rotten ones. Look for bruises and blemishes, and cut out any bad spots. Smell any questionable ones to see if they are sour. Then, fill a large container with water and place all the remaining tomatoes inside to rinse.

washing and sorting plum tomatoes before canning

Boil
Next, take your large pot and fill it with four to five inches of water. It does not need to be filled to the top. Bring the water to a boil, fill the pot with tomatoes, and cover. Steam each batch until they look cooked and are soft. Some will start to split when they are done.

boiling the plum tomatoes before canning

Crush
Using a slotted spoon, scoop the cooked tomatoes and transfer them to your strainer to drain. Prick each one to get out excess water. Place a large bucket or container underneath the grinder to catch all the juice. Then, run the tomatoes through your grinder to separate the pulp and juice from skin and seeds. When you’re done, run the skin and seeds through one more time. This helps to thicken up the finished product. If you have a compost area, you can toss the remaining waste right in.

running sauce tomatoes through an electric grinder before canning

Jar
To prep your jars, spread them out on a large flat surface. I like to put 3-4 fresh basil leaves in each one for flavor. Using a funnel, fill each jar with your crushed tomatoes to within about 1/4 inch of the top. Make sure to wipe any excess off the rim of the jar to ensure a proper seal. Put a seal lid on each jar and loosely screw a ring on. Don’t make it too tight, just tight enough to keep the contents of the jar from spilling.

filling glass jars with crushed tomatoes for canning

Seal
Put enough water in a pot to just cover the lids of your jars, and bring it to a boil. Place jars in the water and boil for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the jars with tongs or a jar gripper and lay them out to cool. You should hear a series of “plinks” as they beging to cool and the tops depress, forming the seal. Check all of your jars as they cool to make sure the tops have depressed. Any that don’t seal properly should be refrigerated and used within a day or two.

boiling tomato sauce cans to seal them during canning process

Finally, thought it’s torture to wait, put all the jars aside for about 2 weeks and check the lids daily to make sure they are ok. If none burst after a couple of weeks, your seals should be safe and adequate and you can feel free to enjoy!

freshly canned plum tomatoes

Coming up during tomato week…
We’ll pop open a few jars, make a basic pasta sauce and try out one of my all time favorite splurges!