Thursday, June 30, 2011

S is for Summertime and Smoothies

There was a time in my life, (12 weeks to be exact), when smoothies comprised about 50% of my diet. During my  "no solid foods allowed" period, smoothies were one of the only things I could eat and get the nutrients I needed. I probably had hundreds of smoothies during those 3 months. On December 22, 2009 when I was given the all clear to eat solid foods again, I swore off smoothies for the next year and a half. The thought of them made me sick. After a long sabbatical from the world of smoothies, I'm back on the bandwagon, and actually enjoying them this time around (maybe because I can sink my teeth into a juicy cheeseburger any time I want)!

I'm not a very good fruit eater. If I buy 4 pieces of fruit, it's highly likely that 2 will go bad before I get around to eating them. I'm not sure why I think eating fruit is such a hassle, because they're very healthy, convenient, portable snacks. Perhaps it's because I never think to "snack" on a piece of fruit, and the chances of me eating fruit as a part of my meals is pretty low. I'd imagine that most of us with the best intentions have the same problem as I do, and our diets end up lacking in fruit. The solution for me? Smoothies!

I have a pretty simple equation to smoothie making, but it's in its infancy and I'll continue to experiment and expand over the summer. This will likely be the first of several smoothie posts you'll see from me. The base ingredients of my smoothies are all the same: 1/2 cup of  fat free Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup of soy or almond milk, protein powder and 4 or 5 ice cubes. For straight fruit smoothies I use vanilla flavored, and when my sweet tooth is raging I use chocolate.

Let me just say, chocolate smoothies are freaking awesome. Add a few tablespoons of peanut butter (I really like the Better 'n Peanut Butter! Saves on some fat & calories ) and it tastes JUST like a frozen liquified Reece's cup. Almond butter, bananas, and strawberries are also great mix-ins. The Chocolate Peanut Butter shake is definitely a meal replacement, clocking in at 490 calories, 9g fat, 61g carbs, and 36g protein. This includes 2 scoops of my protein powder, which is pretty high in carbs & protein, and accounts for 130 of the calories. Any of these shakes can easily be made without this ingredient.

Chocolate smoothies are something I've enjoyed for a really long time. Fruit smoothies, however, are a pretty new territory for me and I've been having a blast throwing fruit in a blender and seeing what comes out. Fort Mill, SC is well known for our peaches, and as many of you probably guessed, The Peach Stand I referred to in my previous post is a major seller of these super yum summer fruits. They sell over 40 varieties of peaches throughout the summer, so almost every time I go in there's a new kind to try. Peaches are a great smoothie fruit, especially when they're almost too ripe to eat (read: I was bad about eating peaches and now they're going to be rotten in a day)! A vanilla and peach smoothie is super refreshing.

Summer time in the Carolina's means we have our pick of fresh, local fruit. PLEASE, do me a favor, and visit your local farmers market at least once a week for some fresh fruits and veggies. It makes a difference. The produce you buy in your local grocery store is picked before it's ripened to make the long journey from Mexico or California or Mexico and arrive kind of ripe. These fruits and veggies are seriously lacking in nutrients and vitamins. While full color may be achieved after harvest, nutritional quality may not. Post-harvest handling during shipping can result in significant nutrient loss. Plus, the produce you buy in the store is much more likely to be treated with pesticides, films, coatings, irradiation, chemical preservation, and modification of ph levels, causing you to ingest some unhealthy things you didn't really bargain for when you bought your fruit in an effort to be more healthy. Plus, the best argument, fresh local produce TASTES so much better! My SC grown blackberries are bigger than my thumb and the flavor beats the pants off of anything I can get at Harris Teeter. OK, getting off my local produce soapbox now. My point is, go to a farmers market, buy what looks good, and let the fruit available dictate what kind of smoothie you'll make in the morning!

I've seen a few posts lately about avocado smoothies and I'll admit, my first reaction was mild disgust. Then curiosity. Then I googled "avocado smoothies" and it turns out there are about a million recipes out there. I based mine off of one of the first recipes I saw, and I've gotta say, I may never eat another smoothie without an avocado in it (well, except for the chocolate ones!). For my first foray in to the unknown avocado smoothie territory, I used my standard base (vanilla fat free Greek yogurt, soy milk, protein powder, and ice cubes). I added 1/2 of a ripe avocado, 1 kiwifruit, and 1 small bunch of grapes. Blend, pulse, pour.

The result? Pretty damn amazing. The first sip really blew me away. I didn't quite know what to expect. I mean, I LOVE avocados. I eat them by themselves. I'm a fan of kiwis and grapes, so I figured it would definitely be drinkable. What I tasted was so unlike any smoothie I've made before, and super duper scrumptious. My taste buds were doing a little dance for sure. The smoothness was incredible (no pun intended). It was a really great consistency. A lot of recipes I read suggested adding sugar or stevia (a natural no calorie sweetener). I think the sugars in my vanilla flavored base definitely took care of any lacking sweetness in the other ingredients. However, the avocado added such so much smoothness and thickness, which is what I usually add the base ingredients for, that I think I'll attempt my next avocado concoction without the yogurt.

Other mix-ins I saw that were popular with avocados included bananas (I can see that being ridiculously good!), tropical fruits, apples & pears, raspberries, and greens. Adding vegetables to smoothies is another unknown territory for me, one that I dipped my toe into yesterday when I threw a small handful of leftover parsley into a black & blueberry smoothie. Not bad. Adding greens like spinach, kale, and collards to your smoothies are a really great way to get the nutrients and benefits provided by dark greens, another area many of us draw up short on daily. They don't effect the flavor much but add a great boost. I'll do some more experimenting in this department and probably do my next smoothie post on this topic.

My avocado smoothie came up a little higher on calories than I would have liked. The grand total was 507 calories, 16g of fat, 68g of carbs, and 25g of protein. Nixing the yogurt base would automatically knock 100 calories and 15 carbs off of that total, and eliminating the protein powder would drive it down even further. These are adjustments I'll be making next go-round. The avocados accounted for the majority of the fat, as 1/2 an avocado contains just over 13g of fat. In fact, 75% of the calories in an avocado (144 in 1/2) come from fat. Why eat something that's so much higher in fat & calories than almost any other fruit or veggie?

Avocados have 60% more potassium than bananas, are rich in vitamins B, E, & K, and contain 20 essential nutrients. They have a high fiber content and provide 23% the daily RDI of folate. While avocados are high in fat content, it is mono-saturated fat, which helps lower cholesterol when eaten in place of saturated fats. The coolest thing about avocados is that they're a nutrient booster. This means certain nutrients are absorbed better when eaten with an avocado. Eating an avocado on your salad can increase your absorption of carotenoids by 5 times! So, not only does an avocado make a smoothie taste yum, but it helps our body make the most of all the other good stuff found in the blender too by helping us absorb as much as possible. Turns out avocados and smoothies are a very good combination indeed, and a pretty good reason to drop 13g of fat and 144 calories! Please let me know if you give this recipe a try, and I'd love to hear how it turns out if you get creative with your avocado smoothie recipes! Have fun blending!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Spicy Southwest Pork Loin

First up on deck is a Spicy Southwest Pork Loin. Served with mixed grains, sauteed spinach, and an orange-chipotle sauce, this dinner clocked in at 625 calories, 25 grams of fat, 41 grams of carbs, and 56 grams of protein.

This meal took me about 20 minutes to prepare from start to finish, with almost no prep time involved. Really quick and easy, and HUGE on the flavor!

The Harvest Grains Blend from Trader Joe's is pretty awesome when it comes to a quick and easy side dish. I'm a big fan of carbs, and that's never going to change. What is changing is the kind of carbs I put on my plate. Whole grains provide more fiber and less sugar than their refined grain counterparts. Whole grains reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They also lower your LDL (bad cholesterol). See? Carbs are good if you choose the right kind (and eat in moderation). This Harvest Grains Blend contains Israeli couscous, split garbanzo beans, green & red orzo, and red quinoa, and clocks in at 170 calories per 1/4 cup.

Getting the grains ready to go is super easy. To boost the flavor I added a teaspoon of powdered low sodium chicken soup base. This runs 25 calories per tsp, and is a low calorie way of making my taste buds happy. I substituted extra virgin olive oil for the tablespoon of butter, added some sea salt, dried green onions, and some red pepper flakes. The great thing about this side is you can add just about anything to make the flavor compliment your dish, no matter what style or cuisine you're cooking. It's fantastic with fresh herbs, dried herbs, alternative liquids and fats (in moderation). Plus, once the water boils it's only 10 minutes before 4 servings are ready to plate. 

Next in the pan were the pork chops. Pork gets a bad rap. While it is higher in fat content than the other white meat, it contains essential antioxidants that aid in better immunity, is highly enriched in B vitamins,  and is a great source of iron. Center cut boneless pork chops contain less than 275 calories per half a pound! Make sure any excess fat is trimmed, and the thicker the cut the juicier the meat. I personally try to buy as local as possible, so the pork I purchased was raised here in SC. Not only will you get a fresher product by buying local, but you support your local economy too. Double win. I sprinkled the chops with some Smoky Spicy Southwest seasoning from (which I purchased at the Peach Stand. Half of everything I buy is from this great little store... worth the drive to Fort Mill!). The seasoning adds less than 30 calories to the pork, creates a nice crust, and seals in the juices well. A basic blackening or cajun seasoning would be great too. Just a very little bit of canola oil in the pan and 4 minutes on the first side over medium-high heat starts it out well. Flip it and send it in to a 400 degree oven while you cook the spinach. 

Fresh cooked spinach is a super easy, super fast, SUPER healthy veggie. It's no secret that dark leafy greens are an essential part of a balanced healthy diet, and one that we probably don't get enough of on a daily basis. The key to cooking great spinach is to take it off the heat as soon as it's wilted: excessive cooking leaches out lots of great nutrients and makes it a bit mushy. I've got some spicy pickled garlic cloves (also from the Peach Stand) that pack about 3 times the flavor punch as a normal clove of garlic, and add zero calories. Sautee a few chopped cloves of garlic (throw in a couple more if you don't have the fancy pickled kind) in 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil for a few seconds, throw in your spinach, and add just a couple tablespoons of white wine to create the steam to wilt the leaves. Because you'll never convince me to leave my heavy cream behind, I added 1 tablespoon as the leaves wilted which created a really nice sauce for the spinach. The heavy cream added only 25 calories per serving and could easily be left out, but 25 calories is worth it to me! 

I'm going to share a secret weapon that will have you turning out meat that tastes like it was made by a pro: a meat thermometer. Go get one, and use it! Seriously, an analog thermometer is only about $4. No need for fancy digital. Pork production in this country has come a long way and trichinosis is no longer a concern like it once was. Pork chops cooked to a temperature of medium (145) will be much more juicy and flavorful than the dried up pork hockey pucks you remember from your youth. A hint of pink in the center is what you want to see.  Once the pork has been in the oven about 5 minutes, choose the thickest chop and insert the thermometer into the middle through the side. Once it reads 135-140, take the pork out of the oven. By the time you plate your food and set your table, the internal temperature will have risen to 145 and your pork will be perfectly cooked. 

I found this yummy sauce at where else? The Peach Stand. At a mere 30 calories per 2 tablespoons it's now a staple in my healthy sauce arsenal. I was shocked at how much flavor and spice there was in just a small finger-full of this sauce. This dish would also be great topped with fresh salsa, chimmichurri sauce, or even a slightly spicy barbeque sauce. 

One thing is obvious to me after completing this first "official" blog post: I need to find a way to keep them shorter! Some things I explained in this post, such as the benefits of whole grains and pork, I won't need to repeat in future blogs. I've tried to be detailed in my preparation of the meal, but I definitely could have expanded too! Cooking is more about feel and intuition than precise instructions and measurements. Go with the flow, follow the basic guidelines, and you'll likely surprise yourself. Everything is a suggestion, not a mandate.  If you've got questions, I'm happy to help. Part of this process for me is digging up some long buried knowledge and trying to find the passion for cooking I lost somewhere between sweating in a 110 degree kitchen and finding myself up to my shoulder in industrial garbage disposals. I know cooking can be enjoyable, and I'm starting to think healthy cooking can even be delicious! Let me know what you think if you try this dish out! 

Healthy Cooking for the Unhealthy Eater

I've recently made the decision (for the hundredth time) to count my calorie intake and output and loose some weight and get back into shape. I've also made the decision that it's past time I put my considerable cooking skills to good use to aid me in this endeavor. I made an A in every class in culinary school... except for Nutrition. Why? I'm a lover of all things full of fat and flavor. Fat = flavor, and you can't convince me otherwise. It's a struggle for me when cooking to reach for the olive oil and not the European butter. Heavy cream will beat Greek yogurt every time. Deep fat frying is superior to almost any other cooking method. I reject the notion that something that is nutritionally balanced and "healthy" can also taste fantastic. These are my deep-seated cooking philosophies.

Time to change my philosophy, and convince my taste buds to follow. The fact is that if I continue to eat my full flavor fatty foods, I will be in big trouble within the next few years (as will most of us!). The amazing metabolism I enjoyed in my teens and early twenties has officially left the building. I can work out like a fiend and not loose a pound. The key to finding the level of fitness I desire is clear: changing the way I eat and focusing on health and nutrition, without sacrificing flavor and the foods I love. To be clear, I wont be dieting. I won't be covering meals and eating plans that are low carb, sugar free, or fat free. I believe that a balanced diet that focuses on a wide variety of foods, even some traditionally seen as unhealthy, is much more conducive to creating a healthy lifestyle that can last a lifetime. This means I won't throw out my butter or heavy cream, but I will be reaching for the olive oil and yogurt a bit more often.

The purpose of this blog is multifaceted. I've had very little motivation to cook since leaving my career as a professional chef. If I continue eating out at restaurants (especially with the lack of late night dining options in Fort Mill), I won't achieve my goals for calorie intake and nutrition. So, it's time to dust off the cutting board and sharpen my knife. Having the responsibility to update this blog with meals I've cooked and snacks I've stumbled across will hopefully provide me with motivation to actually do it, even when it's easier to grab a burger at Steak n' Shake at 11pm. This blog will also force me to put forethought in to preparing meals that are healthy AND flavorful, and help me plan ahead (something I'm not a huge fan of). Lastly, by sharing some recipes that get gold stars in my book for being low calorie, nutritious, and yummy, hopefully I can help my friends who are on the same journey as I am and we can all reach our goals of being swimsuit models. Or, maybe just loose a few pounds and live a healthier lifestyle.

I plan on posting a few times a week whenever I create something (or buy something) that scores high in the nutritious and delicious departments. I'll do my best to include a photo of the finished product as well as a vague recipe (I'm not a follower of recipes) and the nutritional low-down for the meal. As a bonus, almost everything I share will be pretty quick and easy to prepare, or able to be prepared ahead of time and put together within a few minutes. Wish me luck as I venture in to this uncharted territory of healthy cooking and healthy living!