veggie tales

sherriedmushroomseggs

For those of you who are wondering, our meat-lite(r) regimen is going pretty well so far.

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This week was a little challenging, what with Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, and a two-day loss of heat in our apartment building, but we still managed to find a good balance of foods that were hearty and comforting, while heavy on plant matter.

veg pizzas

stracciatella and jersey tomatoes

I made pizzas for the first time in ages using dough that Mike prepared in advance. One pie featured roasted broccoli, red onions, and fresh ricotta that Julian helped me make; the other a simple tomato sauce, stracchiatella (from Brucie, via Good Eggs), and piles of peppery arugula.

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Lunches have mostly been bean & grain bowls, brightened up with pickled vegetables and hot sauce, and crowned with an egg or avocado or both.

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Mike was inspired to warm our cold apartment by baking bread, these 4-hour baguettes, to be exact.

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They were perfect with a smear of butter, as well as alongside this zippy Lemony Gumbo Z’Herbes – a light and lovely dish to celebrate Fat Tuesday (and to warm my belly at lunchtime on Wednesday).

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I tried my hand at a Beet, Greens & Cheddar Crumble, which while tasty, could use some tweaking. We liked the dish enough to want to repeat it, though, and soon.

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The highlight of this past week, however, was making Marcella’s lasagne for our Valentine’s Day dinner, and preparing it with my little kitchen helper.

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I love that Julian is showing more and more interest in cooking with us, and I was delighted that he was so into helping me put together this meal in particular. Making a classic lasagne bolognese – from mixing and rolling out the fresh spinach pasta, to building the bolognese and bechamel sauces – is truly a labor of love, and I was so happy to share the experience with him.

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He couldn’t wait for the finished dish, so I cut up a couple of our pasta sheets for him and tossed them with a little butter and cheese. He ate two bowls (!), giving me hope that this age 3 finickiness may be temporary after all. Here’s to the green stuff!

toward the light

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January is the month when most people who are inclined to, try to jump-start lifestyle changes by way of New Year’s resolutions, gym memberships, “dry January,” or any number of other regimens. But for us, January is a month still jam-packed with celebrations: birthdays, anniversaries, and the accompanying (over)indulgence. By the time February rolls around, we are definitely ready to lighten things up a bit, to take stock of the past 12 (or 13!) months and to think about things we’d like to change or improve in the months ahead.

For the last four Februaries, I have been either pregnant or nursing a baby, and my main dietary focus was on giving those little creatures what they needed to grow healthy and strong. Prior to that… well, let’s just say that at times, I enjoyed my child-free lifestyle a bit too much. Now, at 43 years old, with two small children and a demanding job outside of the home, I’m really feeling the weight of it all.

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When Mike and I first met, I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. By the time we started dating a few months later, I had already begun to lose what would be a fairly substantial amount of weight, by making a few simple changes to my diet and activity level. Twelve years and two kids later, I’ve gained almost all of it back. It was a slow creep at first, but I’ve put on nearly 20 more pounds just since Mira’s birth.

I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and while I have some underlying health issues to work on too, this week, after coming up with a game plan, I kicked off a new regimen of my own. I’m only a few days in, and while the numbers on the scale haven’t budged, I’ve already noticed a marked improvement in the way I feel.

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Like many people, I’ve never done well on a deprivation diet. What has worked for me in the past (and what I hope will work again) is to focus on adding things – whether more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, oily fish, or fermented foods – and replacing the bad or questionable stuff in my diet with better, more nutrient-dense items.

planning

One of the best and worst things about living in New York is that you can get anything delivered to you. I’ve relied far too heavily on delivery services for breakfast and lunch at the office, and I think we can all agree that eating takeout at your desk while working is not an ideal way to work or to eat a meal.

So one of my goals when planning dinners for the week is to do so in such a way that leftovers can be incorporated into breakfast or lunches later in the week. (This is in no way revolutionary, but we aren’t great about working through leftovers, so having a plan for them is going to be key.) This week, Monday’s dinner was Martha Rose Schulman’s Polenta with Beans and Chard. The bean stew was delicious over polenta, and I used some of the leftover beans and chard to top a grain bowl for my lunch on Tuesday.

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Mornings are just plain hectic at our house, no matter how we try to plan ahead for them. (Have you ever tried to pack a lunch the night before for a 3-year old?) Our current routine is that Mike wakes first, showers and gets ready for the day, and while I shower and dress, he fixes the kids (and himself) breakfast. Then he gets them dressed and ready while I sip something warm and get our lunches together.

morningmiso

In the past, I’d drink coffee, but since caffeine doesn’t really agree with me anymore, these days it’s a mug of warm lemon water. As far as my own breakfast, I’ve been packing a travel mug of miso soup to heat and sip when I get to my desk. It sounds weird, but it’s actually quite satisfying, and the miso is good for my gut – which needs all the help it can get these days.

Once I arrive at the office, I’m setting reminders to do two things: get up and stretch/move regularly, and drink more water. I always thought I drank a lot of water during the day, but I recently realized that when I get super busy and involved in a project, hours can pass before I get out of my chair or refill my bottle.

bean bowls

As for lunch, I still won’t always be able to get away from my desk to eat, but I want to work on at least eating better – whether it’s a meal that I brought from home (preferable), or better delivery choices (in a pinch). Those choices include the ubiquitous grain bowl, with beans or another lean protein, a ton of vegetables (I like a mix of fresh + roasted + fermented/pickled), and a zesty or spicy dressing; or a big crunchy salad (again, with lean protein). If we’re flush and I’m feeling splurgy, I’ll order my favorite sushi lunch from time to time.

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And that brings us back to dinner.

For eight years now, I’ve been blogging about our dinners here, and over those eight years, we’ve definitely seen some changes in both what we eat and how we cook. Having kids has made a huge difference; having less time and money to spend on shopping and preparing meals has certainly had an impact on our choices and menus. And while I think Mike and I have shown that we’re pretty adventurous cooks, and the kids fairly decent eaters, we have definitely fallen into a food rut of late.

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So my final food-related goal for this year is to move away from meat-focused fare, away from rich and starchy “comfort food” dishes, and to incorporate more plant-based foods into our dinners. There have been so many inspiring vegetarian and and “meat-lite” cookbooks released recently, and cuisines and ingredients I’ve been curious about – the time is ripe to explore them. After all, we love vegetables and beans and all sorts of grains – why not move them to the center of our plates?

about that chicken…

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{Last Wednesday’s chicken dinner got a ton of comments when I posted its photo online, and I had several people ask for a recipe. This was one of those dishes that I turned out on the fly, so I don’t have a “recipe” as such, but I can try to tell you how I put it all together.}

My parents came to town last week, both to visit with us and to help me with the kiddos while Mike was in San Antonio for a cocktail conference. I didn’t have a lot of time to do meal planning in advance of their arrival, so I when I did my shopping for the week, I got in a few simple proteins that were versatile and would cook quickly – among them, some skinless boneless chicken breasts.

I got home from work Wednesday night and assessed our fridge and pantry stocks. With an abundance of lemons, and some broth that needed to be used up, my meal plan began to take shape.

Now, skinless boneless chicken breasts aren’t terribly exciting on their own, but they do love a pan sauce. My thoughts turned to piccata, but I wasn’t sure my folks would go for the traditional capers. So I riffed on it, keeping the butter and lemon components of that dish, and adding peas at the end for a pop of color.

I seasoned the chicken breasts and dredged them lightly in flour, then browned them in a wide skillet in a mix of butter and olive oil. When all the chicken was deeply browned on both sides, I removed the pieces and set them aside, poured out most of the excess fat from the pan, then squeezed the juice of one lemon into it, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom.

I added a cup of chicken broth next, letting it reduce and thicken for a bit before adding the chicken breasts back to the pan to finish cooking through. I tasted the sauce for seasoning, adding a little more salt and pepper and a bit more fresh lemon juice for brightness, then I tipped in one 10 oz. bag of frozen peas. Once the peas were bright green and fully warmed through, I slipped in a few pats of cold butter to finish the sauce.

I served the chicken, peas, and buttery lemon sauce over a brown and wild rice blend, but it would have been just as good over wide egg noodles, mashed potatoes, or even with hunks of crusty baguette. Some chopped soft herbs (chives, dill, tarragon, parsley) stirred into the sauce wouldn’t be out of place, either.

Dinner: November 3, 2014

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There were two fat roast chickens, roasted rainbow carrots, and buttery brussels sprouts.

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There was a big bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes, a lemony pan sauce, and plenty of chilled rose’, to toast to our last first year.

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There was a cake with sprinkles and one red candle, and a little girl to blow it out (with the assistance of her big brother).

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I hope she takes on everything in life with such gusto.

Dinner: October 19, 2014

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I didn’t leave the apartment once this weekend. While Mike was visiting old friends and new in Boston and Providence, signing copies of his book and doing demos at The Boston Shaker and Stock Culinary Goods, I was home, desperately trying to rid myself of the last dregs of a nasty upper respiratory bug, and playing solo parent to our two sick little ones.

Despite our collective crud, I had high hopes for my weekend at home with the kids, envisioning living room dance parties, the construction of blanket forts, and a few special kid-friendly meals we could prep and eat together, but sadly, those plans fell through as well. Julian and Mira were completely off-schedule in terms of sleep and meals, and they missed their daddy fiercely. I eventually sat down with a mish-mash of leftovers for myself Friday night sometime after 10 pm, and hoped for better luck on Saturday. The kids did well with their breakfast on Saturday morning (their favorite pork sausages and some multigrain toaster waffles – a new item for both of them), but by lunchtime, I had two cranky, needy, desperately-tired-but-refusing-their-naps screamers on my hands.

In the ten minutes or so while they were both quiet, I made myself a plate. I sat down to eat, then Julian started yelling so loudly he woke Mira up – and that was all the naptime that was going to happen that day. I proceeded to graze on this for the next three and a half hours.

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I was very grateful that I had had the foresight to order a rotisserie chicken with our Instacart order, so I could quickly and easily feed the kids roast chicken and applesauce for their dinner. But I didn’t have the heart to feed myself. Sunday just had to be a better day, right?

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It was.

All three of us had a full and restful night of sleep, and were in much better spirits in the morning. I made a big pot of steel cut oats for breakfast (savory for me, with a sunny egg, tamari, and chives), the kids played and napped well, and I was able to get Sunday’s dinner prepped in advance of Mike’s return home.

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My favorite lasagna recipe is still Marcella’s, and I love to turn it out for special occasions, but it’s not the most practical dish for our current lifestyle. I’m also usually disappointed in the simpler, ricotta-based lasagna dishes I’ve tried. I wanted to come up with a weeknight-friendly lasagna that would give me the texture I love in a bechamel-based version, with a minimum of fuss and cleanup. I also decided to go for a tomato-free version, just to change things up a bit.

What I ended up with hit all the notes I was aiming for, and was actually even better than I had hoped. You could certainly substitute ground beef or pork or turkey for the sausage, increase the amount of mushrooms and omit the meat entirely, add your favorite fresh (or dried) herbs or some chopped spinach, or switch up the cheeses. I used what we had on hand, and I think I came up with a pretty great template that will certainly lend itself well to adaptation.

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Experimental One-Pan Lasagna

olive oil
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage (hot or sweet – we use a locally-made sweet fennel sausage)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose (“AP”) flour
3 cups whole milk plus 1 cup heavy cream (what we had and used), or 4 cups whole milk
Kosher salt
½ lb. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thin
4 oz. low-moisture whole milk mozzarella, torn or shredded (do not use fresh mozzarella)
2 oz. finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 oz. finely grated Pecorino Romano
2 oz. finely grated Fontina
9-12 no-boil lasagna noodles
½ to 1 cup tap water

Add a drizzle of olive oil to the bottom of a 12-inch oven-proof skillet. Crumble the sausage into the pan, and cook over medium heat, breaking up unto chunks, until the sausage is nicely browned. Remove the sausage to a small plate or bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat in the pan. Swirl the butter into the olive oil/pork fat mixture until melted. Sprinkle the flour over and whisk until combined. Cook for just a minute, then slowly whisk in the milk (and cream, if using). Add a big pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat, until the sauce is thickened and coats the back of a spoon.

Remove about 2 cups of the sauce and set aside (I ended up with about 2.5-3 cups of sauce total), leaving a shallow depth of sauce behind in the pan. Arrange one layer of noodles in the bottom of the pan, nestling them into the sauce so they are coated (I used 3 noodles per layer – two in the center of the pan, and a third noodle broken into 4 pieces and arranged around the edges). Scatter ½ of the sausage over, then ½ of the mushrooms. Scatter 1/3 of the mozzarella over the top, then repeat with each of the other cheeses. Add another layer of noodles, then spoon a cup of the sauce over them, spreading it gently. Add the remaining sausage and mushrooms, then another 1/3 of the cheeses. Add your final layer of noodles, the remaining sauce, and the remaining cheeses. Carefully drizzle about ½ cup of water around the edges of the pan.

(NOTE: At this point, the lasagna can sit for a while. I left ours on the countertop for about an hour before putting it into the preheated oven to bake, but I did add a little more water before baking since it looked dry around the edges.)

Bake the lasagna uncovered in a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is browned and the lasagna is bubbling at the edges. Allow to rest before serving.