PASTA TIME AWAY….

Our son, Zack and his girlfriend, Zoey were over the other evening for one of our regular movie watching, game playing, dinner nights.  We feel very blessed that both of our boys are in loving relationships with young women whom we feel are well-suited to them, and Daniel and I really enjoy spending time with all of the kids as often as possible.

The Double Z’s, as I call them, have recently taken to preparing meals together, often calling for assistance from the mother ship, but increasingly pulling together impressive dinners using one of the new home recipe delivery companies.

My husband happened to have clipped a terrific looking pasta recipe from the newspaper that morning and we were both primed for an indulgent pasta dinner with the kids. Capitalizing on their newfound interest in the culinary arts, I thought it would be a fun and great way to balance out our day by making our own fettucine from scratch.  I quickly watched an online video of none other than the master of all things Italian, Chef Mario Batali, demonstrating his technique.  He made it look so simple, I knew we had to follow suit.

Happily, family members were on board and psyched for this new experience.  The first thing to be done is to dump 3-1/2 cups all purpose flour onto your counter – really!  Using your hand or a large spoon, make a well in the center of the flour and add 5 whole eggs (I used large grade).

Eggs and flour - pasta

The next step is to gradually whisk the eggs into the flour with a fork and using your other hand, slowly pushing the flour around the edges into the eggs to fully incorporate them.

Then we began the kneading process. This is where I got a little helping hand from Zoey, because Mario says to continue kneading the dough for 10 minutes.

We decided to drizzle a small amount of extra virgin olive oil onto the dough while continuing to knead it because it seemed a tad dry and we wanted to add additional moisture to the dough as well as some richness to the flavor, both of which the oil accomplished nicely.  By now the dough had taken on the lovely warm yellow color of the egg yolks and was nice and shiny from the added oil and kneading time.  We wrapped it in plastic and left it on the counter to allow it to rest.  (By allowing the glutens to rest for about half an hour, the dough will not resist and ‘snap back’ when you begin cutting and rolling.)

Unwrap the dough and cut into four equal parts.  Using your hands or a rolling pin, flatten a piece of the cut dough and feed it slowly thru a pasta roller attachment on your standing mixer if you have one, or a small hand-cranked roller on your counter.  As you start out the rolling process, the roller should be set on the widest opening and gradually reduced with each pass thru of the dough.  This will cause the dough to become thinner and longer. When you’ve attained the thickness and length you desire, change the setting to the shape of the pasta you’re planning to cook with – we chose fettucine.  Here’s how we did it:

Because it is fresh pasta, you only need boil it for 1-3 minutes – honest!  Crazy, huh?

….and our “Beauty Shot”….

Homemade fettucine with tom:bas:mozzWhat a fun evening we had together.  If you’re not feeling confident enough to make your own pasta, choose something you feel you can do and share it with your family or friends. Creating together is fun, a little crazy at times, but always fulfilling.  As you sit down together and share what you’ve made, life will feel very gratifying….and delicious!

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Dressing Up!

Garbage Salad with Grated Cheese

a BASIC VINAIGRETTE makes a delectable meal from a lowly “Garbage Salad”

People, seriously?  You’re still buying bottled dressings?  Do you really want all that extra sugar, salt and other additives in your dressing, not to mention the expense? Whether you’ve taken the trouble to simply wash and spin dry simple lettuces for a salad, or committed extra time to creating a dream salad – maybe one with fruits and veggies, nuts, cheeses or meats – why on earth would you dress it in something other than the freshest, most vibrant tasting homemade version?  It’s simple and easily adaptable for any salad, as well as your personal taste.  Let’s begin with a simple vinaigrette.

The one rule you need to remember when making any vinaigrette is the ratio of oil to acid, which is universally accepted as 3:1.  The next thing you need to remember is that rules are made to be broken.  This is your salad after all, and shouldn’t you be the one calling the shots?  So what if like me, you usually prefer your salads leaving a tangy twinge in your cheek?  I happen to like acidic flavors, so sue me.

That being said, the traditional formula for vinaigrettes is three parts oil to one part acid. Other ingredients include salt and pepper.  Pretty much anything else you add is up to you.The important thing when whisking up your own, is that it’s often best to add your acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc) to the salt and pepper first and then slowly whisk in your oil. This serves to temporarily emulsify your mixture. So if you are making this simple dressing just prior to serving, you’re good to go.  However, if you plan to make it ahead and refrigerate it until serving, you will need to bring it to room temp again, then give it another whisk to re-emulsify it.  You always want your ingredients to be fully blended so that every bite of your salad is lightly dressed with all of the flavors you intended.

And speaking of flavors, there are so many little tweaks you can add to your basic vinaigrette!  Below are a few suggestions that should keep you satisfied and serve as inspiration for your own homemade creations.  Now get to it!*

Basic vinaigrette

Basic Vinaigrette                                              Mustard Vinaigrette

1/4 cup red wine vinegar                                     1/4 cup white wine, champagne vinegar

1 tsp kosher salt                                                     1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp ground pepper                                          1/2 tsp ground pepper

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil                               1 scant tablespoon Dijon mustard

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Asian Vinaigrette                                              Italian Vinaigrette

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar                                     1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3 Tablespoons soy sauce                                      1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp kosher salt                                                      1/2 tsp ground pepper

1/2 tsp ground pepper                                           1 Tablespoon dried, crushed oregano

1 tsp lightly toasted sesame seeds                       1 tsp dried thyme

3/4 cup sesame oil                                                  1 clove garlic, minced

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

*Keep in mind, these recipes are just a jumping off point for you to use your imagination and, depending on the type of salad you are composing, feel free to add other fresh or dried herbs, the huge variety of flavored vinegars and oils available, and of course, creamy ingredients including sour cream, mayonnaise, heavy cream or creme fraiche, plain yogurt, and so much more!

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Digging “Deep”

For the last few weeks, I’ve been presenting you with ‘foundation recipes’ with which you can begin building your personal culinary repertoire.  But because of an issue I’ve brought to light on A Fork in the Road’s Facebook page, I think it’s time for a brief time-out.  It’s my utmost desire to represent my mission on this blog (ie, finding a healthy, livable balance in my life) in the most honest way I can, so even though I’m feeling a little squeamish about going public with this, I think it’s important to do so.  I need to get over myself.

Several days ago, I revealed that my husband and I had begun a rather extreme “Deep Cleanse” together.  What’s more, this wasn’t even our first time. Sometime last year, we endeavored to jump start our effort to lose a few pounds following a very indulgent and wonderful European vacation, and on the recommendation of our trainer, agreed to try a cleanse.  It was difficult (and not at all fun) but by taking the challenge together and supporting each other, we were successful in reaching our modest goals.  This is definitely not a strategy I would choose for finding a balance on a regular basis.  It would be neither a healthy nor happy way to live.  But we did feel satisfaction with the outcome… and then vowed never to undertake a cleanse again!

Here I am less than a year later, and I find myself faced with another challenge, one that is an exciting and fun opportunity.  In a relatively short amount of time I may be standing in a television studio in front of cameras taping a segment on a cooking program to be viewed nationwide.  I want to look the best that I can in about four weeks.  If I can drop a few pounds during that time, I will be back on track, eating more healthfully and feeling fitter. To me, these are modest but important goals that, from past experience, I believe are achievable.  I will rightfully be nervous and anxious to perform at my best.  If I can feel (somewhat) confident in my appearance, all the better. But to get there on this Deep Cleanse, this is what I’ve had to do:

Isagenix %22Snacks!%22

Don’t these look yummy? Notice the nickel in the foreground?

This particular cleanse requires a nine day commitment, during which time, the first two and last two days consist of about a teaspoon of nutritional powder in 1/2 cup of room temperature water, four times a day.  These drinks are interspersed with “snacks” and a couple of supplement capsules.  During the middle five days, two nutritional shakes and one 400-600 calorie meal per day are allowed. These are also supplemented by more “snacks”.  Oh, and plenty of water – constantly.  We’re talking a gallon of water at least, per day.  As someone who is never without a glass or bottle of water, I’ve got this last part covered.  In spades. The rest of this program?  Not so much.

To say I’ve been a  little on edge is putting it mildly.  And did I mention we are maintaining our gym regiment as well? I guess I don’t really have a right to complain or feel sorry for myself since I elected to undertake this torture, right?  But that’s the point.  Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes stray from what’s best for us and then suddenly, LIFE HAPPENS.  We’re presented with new challenges or conflicts and how do we reconcile them while struggling to remain true to who we think we really are?

So there you have it.  My quest continues, striving to live mostly in mid-swing of the pendulum, not at either extreme end.   And I find myself often, in a sort of juggling act to maintain equilibrium.  Maybe sometimes we have to swing far to the right (but not politically) and far to the left to find homeostasis or even, to reach temporary goals.

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Tastes Like Chicken!

Way back in February I posed a challenge to you.  I encouraged each of you to get in your kitchens and start cooking real food for yourselves as well as for your friends and families. I did this because I truly believe one of the easiest ways to regain some balance in our lives is to perform simple acts that nurture and nourish us and those we care about.  Preparing meals together and then sharing them is a wonderful way to achieve intimacy, have fun, and feed our bodies as well as our hearts. This is just one of the countless paths I am personally exploring to reach an equilibrium between fitness and indulgence, which I’m hoping will lead to a greater harmony within.

In my effort to move you in that direction, I said I would begin offering simple recipes that anyone can make and, with some practice, master.  These recipes will form a simple foundation from which you can experiment and create other dishes entirely of your own design. How rewarding!

We began with two versions of a classic chicken soup because (1) it was frigid in most parts of the country at that time, and (2) I believe that once you understand the ‘formula’ for making one homemade soup, you can go on to create any number of them.  I hope you took the time to make a least one of the recipes and that perhaps since then, you’ve experimented with changing out the flavors using different seasonings, proteins, or vegetables.  If so, you can see how easy it is to whip up a hot bowl of something comforting without too much effort.

The next recipe I think everyone should master is one I make at least once a week, a perfectly roasted chicken.  People are always telling me their chickens are dry, flavorless, or boring, calling to mind the old Woody Allen classic in which he describes his own mother’s chicken as being “put through the deflavorizor”!  This hurts my heart, dear reader, because it really is easy to pull a gorgeously golden and glistening bird out of your oven every time by following a few simple rules.

Rule #1 – Start with the freshest, plumpest bird you can find; preferably one that has lived a cage-free, organic-fed life.

Rule#2 – After patting the skin dry, let the bird sit at room temperature while you preheat your oven (to 425 degrees) and prep your other ingredients.  This will ensure the bird cooks evenly and the dry skin will crisp up nicely in your oven. (And we all plan to snitch the crispy skin when we think no one’s looking, don’t we?)

Rule #3 – Choose a homemade or good store bought chicken stock, a white wine, or some kind of juice such as orange or apple, with which you will baste the chicken periodically as it cooks. (At times like this, I tend toward more is better and usually use both stock and wine.)

Rule #Roast chicken prep ingred4 – Select your seasonings. Salt and Pepper are not optional, use them generously!  Garlic in either clove or powder form, fresh lemons or oranges, some kind of onion (brown, yellow, or shallots), and fresh herbs if possible.  All of these things, in any combination, will keep your dinner from being “boring” or “flavorless”.

Once you’ve patted dry your chicken, place it in an oven proof pan and sprinkle it all over with salt and pepper. Don’t forget the cavity!  Do the same with the garlic if you’re using a powdered version.  If using whole cloves, smash them gently and place them inside the cavity, along with sliced onions, quartered lemons and large bunches of whatever herbs you are using.  (Rosemary, dill & tarragon all work nicely.)  Sometimes a nice shmear of dijon mustard on the skin is nice, but certainly not necessary.

Now pour a small amount of whichever liquid you have chosen over the bird.  As the cooking progresses, you will want to add more liquid to the pan by pouring it directly over the breast, legs and wings.

Allow the bird to cook uncovered, at 425 for approximately 20 minutes or until the skin becomes a deep golden brown.  At this point, lower the heat to 375 degrees and cover the chicken lightly with aluminum foil to prevent it blackening further.

Most chickens are completely cooked and utterly succulent after about an hour and a half. To be sure of doneness, prick the fatty part of the leg with the tip of a sharpened knife.  If the juices run clear, it is done.  If they are still pink, return the chicken to the oven for another ten minutes or so.

Lastly, whatever you do – SAVE THE DRIPPINGS and reduce over a low flame for a few minutes.  It will serve as a most excellent gravy!

There is so much variation one can apply to this recipe and I hope it inspires you to come up with your own.  Adding fruits (fresh or dried) and vegetables directly into the bottom of the pan as the chicken roasts will springboard your imagination to endless combinations. Enjoy!

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Make a Pest-O Yourself

God, I love pesto.  I mean really, who wouldn’t love a fresh blend of basil, garlic, butter, olive oil and lots o’ cheese?  Yum.  And ever since my family and I discovered the legendary, irascible Italian chef Marcella Hazan’s “Blender Pesto” (which we blitz in a food processor), we make and enjoy it often.  With lots of fresh basil leaves, garlic, butter, olive oil and cheese, this iconic italian sauce is truly addictive but highly caloric, so alas, it must be visited with restraint.

Therefore, I’ve given myself a task this week to develop healthier, but just as tasty, pesto sauces you can make at home.  So far, I’ve shared recipes with you for Swiss Chard Pesto and Basil Mint Pesto on A Fork in the Road’s Facebook page.

Why this obsession with pesto?  Usually pesto is used as a sauce to coat pastas.  But I’m looking for ways to boost the flavors of my dishes without adding a lot of guilt-inducing ingredients.  And pesto has so many other uses besides a sauce for pasta.  Swirl it into soups and salad dressings, spread it on whole grain toast or crackers, dollop it on proteins like fish, chicken or even lean beef, and mix it into non-fat yogurt for sauces & dips.

So, onto another sturdier pesto:

BROCCOLI PESTO

2 cups cooked broccoli

1 cup fresh basil leaves

2 T freshly grated parmesan

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp pepper

3 T fresh lemon juice

2 T extra virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and whirl til smooth.

I hope you find many ways to use this recipe and other “flavor boosters” – ENJOY!

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Stock Tips

Hey faithful readers (and you new ones too)!  As promised, and without further ado, I am providing you with my list of staples every traditional home cook should have on hand enabling you to throw together an easy weeknight dinner or bountiful and festive dinner party.

Spice Drawer

Condiment Crazy!

IN YOUR FRIDGE

Unsalted Butter

Organic-Free Range Eggs

Milk (I stock non-fat, but you should buy whatever you use most)

Plain (preferably non-fat) Greek Yogurt – as a base for dips, to add creaminess to sauces or dressings, to jazz up and eat as a wholesome snack

Various Cheeses (your favorites) – use for grating, melting & eating!

Wine/Beer

FOR YOUR FREEZER

Artichoke Hearts/Chopped Spinach/Peas/Pearl Onions/Broccoli Florets – Used frequently for quick side dishes, each of these vegetables works well in a variety of casseroles, creamed dishes, as well as mixed into hot or cold dips.

Puff Pastry/Filo Dough – Quick crusts for desserts, Pot Pies, and countless hors d’oevres

Ground Meats & Sausages – I keep a variety of each for a multitude of purposes; defrost overnight in the fridge or at the last minute in the microwave or saute pan.

Fruits & Berries – great for smoothies and other blended beverages, adding to baked entrees, or as fillings in desserts

Homemade Stocks & Sauces – Thawed stocks can be used as the basis of soups or frozen in ice cube trays, then thrown into sauces as needed.

Gin/Vodka – no explanation necessary, right?

IMG_2118

Ready for the apocalypse!

YOUR PANTRY

Pastas – a variety of shapes and grains

Rice – long grain or short, brown, wild, arborio

Grains & Legumes

Store bought gourmet Dips, Salsas, Sauces

Canned Whole Tomatoes, as well as Chopped or Crushed – I prefer San Marzano

Canned Tuna in Water/Anchovies (Even if you think you hate anchovies, they melt down in a saute pan and you’ll never know they are there but for the deliciously unctuous, slightly salty flavor they add to pasta sauces and much more.)

Oils for cooking & seasoning/Vinegars – standards like red wine, balsamic, sherry, apple cider are all great, but there are so many more…!  Have fun and treat yourself once in a while to new tasting revelations.

Organic, non-fat, unsalted Broths & Stocks – use for soup bases, added depth of flavor to sauces & gravies, heightening the flavors of pureed vegetables (like mashed potatoes!) & Rice Dishes

IMG_2120

Just ONE of my spice drawers – I think I have a problem.

Dried Herbs & Spices – GO CRAZY & TRY EVERYTHING! (But buy a little at a time to see what you actually end up using; no need to throw money out the window!)

Chocolate – in all its forms, ie baking bars, chips, cocoa powder – Unsweetened, Semi-sweet, Bittersweet, White & Dark

Sugar – Regular, Super-Fine & Confectionary

Flours – As many different kinds as you will use – I urge you to experiment; you’d be surprised how often you can substitute whole grain (healthier) flour for unbleached regular.

Crackers, Bread Crumbs (preferably unseasoned) & Panko

And last but not least, these are the staples I usually have on my windowsill: A variety of Fresh Herbs (stems trimmed, placed in an inch of water in a pretty drinking glass), Lemons & Limes (a little squeeze of juice or added zest can really waken up flavors!), Different types of Tomatoes (Beefsteak, plum, cherry, heirloom), and finally Onions, Shallots & GARLIC!

One last thought:  This is a pretty comprehensive list and might be overwhelming to beginning cooks.  Don’t be intimidated; stock what you think you’ll use frequently, and then occasionally introduce some of the items you think you’d use less often. Who knows?  You might discover a new favorite!  Bon Appetit.

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Back to Basics

In the quest for balance in my life, I’m learning to embrace simplicity.  This is a struggle for me since I’m naturally a complicated person, chock full of many passions, as well as contradictions.  I tend to over-think everything and second guess myself.

One area in which I’m pretty decisive and confident, however, is my cooking.  I have very definite ideas about flavor profiles and matching the right dishes to any given mood or moment, and I am usually abetted by having a well-stocked kitchen, with a multitude of ingredients waiting to be called upon at will. With a little consideration and planning, there’s no reason this strategy can’t work for you too, whether you are more of a traditionalist in the kitchen or are aiming for a healthier, lighter fare.  If you follow some simple steps, you too can prepare a dish or an entire meal on a moment’s notice with very little fuss. With the fast-paced and overbooked lives we lead today, wouldn’t this be a winning strategy in your home?

The forethought involved is really no more than thinking about what kind of a cook you are (or strive to be) and what kind of foods you and your loved ones enjoy.  Do you tend to eat simple meals, often alone, or with one other person?  Do you entertain often and exuberantly?  Are you still being true to your New Year’s resolution to lose weight or  to live and eat more healthfully?  Since we are barely a quarter of our way into the new year, today I will provide you with my list of “must have” supplies to achieve and maintain a healthier, more conscious cuisine.

Chard:almonds:whole grainSTAPLES FOR YOUR PANTRY

Canned Beans – Black/Pinto/Garbanzo/Canellini – terrific for adding heartiness to salads, soups and other side dishes (also, dried lentils)

100% Whole Wheat & Whole Grains – Breads/Bulgar/Couscous/Farro/Quinoa/Brown & Wild Rice – any or all of the above

Unsalted Raw Nuts – especially Almonds & Walnuts

Dried Fruits – Berries (like Cran/Blue/Strawberries, and Dehydrated Banana Chips) – use these for added natural sweetness and texture

Dried Spices for Swapping out a Variety of Ethnic Flavors – (think Italian, Asian, Indian, Southwestern/Latin & Caribbean) – oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sesame seeds, dill, tarragon – using these will help a great deal in sticking to a healthier diet by rescuing your palate from boredom!

100% Fat Free Stocks & Broths – for soup bases, sauces and added moisture – preferably organic

Cooking Sprays – olive oil or vegetable and Good Quality Oils – Extra Virgin Olive for intensifying flavor or adding smoothness; Canola when you need something lighter with neutral flavor, and higher smoking point.

Sea Salts – buy a couple of different flavors, this will encourage you to layer your seasoning throughout the cooking process and to ‘finish’ your dishes with a final sprinkling of smokiness, citrus, or herbed flavor.

All Natural Blue Agave Syrup or Honey

Canned Chipotle in Adobe – One of my ‘secret ingredients’ – a small amount will add an instant smokey dimension to a lot of dishes that need a little kick.

Flavored Vinegars – Balsamic/Fig/Raspberry/Champagne/Tarragon/Citrus – not just for salads anymore! A few drops of these babies will liven up proteins, grains, even desserts! (Grilled peaches, pineapple, or plums anyone?)

STAPLES FOR YOUR FRIDGE

All Berries and Melons – cut up the melon and keep it clearly visible on an eye-level shelf!

Bananas, Stone Fruit & Citrus – in a bowl on a counter where you can see it (and EAT it!)

Fresh Herbs – rinse these and keep them wrapped loosely in damp paper towels in a drawer of your fridge OR, I like to trim the stems and place them in a glass of water about 1/2″ deep on my window ledge  (looks so pretty!) – throw in chopped handfuls to any dish and enjoy the brightened flavor!

Dark Green Leafy Lettuces – Spinach/Collards & Kale/Chards/Mustard & Dandelion Greens – chop and eat raw added into salads, or braise them and enjoy them added to sides (If they seem too “chewy” in their raw state, a light sprinkling of lemon juice and coarse salt will break down the fibrous leaves when rubbed vigorously between your clean hands.  No kidding!)

Sweet Potatoes & Other Root Vegetables – Roast these (chopped and lightly drizzled with olive oil, salt & pepper), then wrap them well and keep in the fridge for a quick, nutritious addition to your meal OR as a simple, satisfying snack.

Flavor Boosters – Fresh Citrus Juices, Mustards (whole grain, dijon, honey), Hot Sauces, Soy Sauce, Fresh Garlic, Fresh Ginger, Miso Paste

Non-fat Plain Greek Yogurt – to replace sour cream & mayo.  Use in sauces & dressings. (Also consider using avocado as a mayo substitute.)

Hummus – all flavors & veggie purees – Eat with whole grain pita or whole wheat tortillas or with fresh raw veggies.

AND DON’T FORGET YOUR FREEZER!

Frozen fruits and veggies are picked and frozen at their ripest and are an excellent source of nutrients, as well as extremely convenient to use at the last minute.

Frozen Vegetables – Use these as last minute side dishes, but also to add bulk to salads, & grains, or puree for tasty dips and snacks.

Frozen Fruits – Use these to prepare smoothies, desserts & to add flavor to protein drinks. Peaches, berries, pineapple, mango & more!

Next up….stocking your “traditional” kitchen…. Stay tuned!

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