Healthy Homemade Chicken Tacos

With summer grilling, it seems easier to eat healthily – especially if you are not the person in charge of the grill! But barbecued fish or chicken night after night can get old… and no one wants to roast vegetables in the oven when it’s 80 degrees.

When I’m tired of grilled dinners and am hankering for a fresh, spicy flavor profile that’s perfect for summer, I turn to my friend Sylvia’s fabulous, healthy homemade chicken tacos.

My friend Sly is from San Diego and growing up, her mother would frequently make what Sly calls a ‘fresh sauce’ and serve it for lunch or afternoon snack atop chicken tacos. Sly made it for me when we were in business school, and I was immediately hooked. At the time, I didn’t know much about cooking and had never considered making a salsa (which is essentially what Sly’s mother’s ‘fresh sauce’ is) from scratch.  Not only is it easy to make and out of this world delicious – Sly’s fresh sauce served on top of just about any healthy protein makes an incredibly healthy dinner.

The fresh flavor of this simple ‘fresh sauce’ is so bright that it just feels like summer. I should make these healthy tacos all year round, but every winter, I forget all about them until I plant my cilantro in the spring.  Then I get happy just thinking about them.

While this dish is incredibly easy to make, it does take a decent amount of time to prepare because there’s a lot of slicing and dicing.  This, actually, is why I probably stop making it once summer is over – because while some love the chopping part of cooking, it’s the part I like least.  That said, even if you’re like me and wielding the chef’s knife is not your favorite thing, these are well worth the effort.

And this dish is incredibly healthy because the ingredients are healthy: just tomatoes, onion, a jalapeño pepper, cilantro, tortillas and chicken – and a dollop of reduced fat sour cream.

To make, all you do is make the ‘fresh sauce,’ warm up a tortilla, put a dollop of sour cream on the tortilla, load the center of the tortilla with cut-up chicken (warmed or cold) and add about 2 tablespoons of the delightful, fresh (and spicy) ‘fresh sauce.’  Roll it up and devour.  Then repeat.

Plus, if you don’t finish off all the ingredients, the sauce saves well for 1-2 days so it’s a great, healthy lunch the next day.

Here’s the recipe for Chicken Tacos Going LoCo Style (thank you Sylvia!).  It should make about 10-12 tacos, enough certainly for 4 people.

A few quick things to note about this recipe:

  • This ‘fresh sauce’ is SPICY – and this from someone who likes vindaloo!  But try it as is, with one jalapeño pepper because when you use this sauce in the taco, it’s the perfect amount of spice, IMHO.  But fair warning: if you try the sauce or dip it with a chip, it’ll be pretty spicy…just letting you know.
  • Personally, I do not like raw onions in salsa (or anything, actually).  But the onions do not taste raw here – maybe because the tomatoes are ‘cooked’ first? I don’t know why, but it just works, even if you do not care for raw onion.
  • Give yourself about 1 hour to make this dish because cutting up a whole chicken and dicing the onion, jalapeño and cilantro takes time.
  • When Sly or her mom makes this, they actually blacken the jalapeño pepper on an open flame – but I find that a bit intimidating, so instead I microwave it as per the directions, but if you like charring peppers on an open flame, have at it!

I made this for dinner last night, and can’t wait to have it again for lunch. Give this recipe a spin for a tasty, healthy, spicy dinner option.

P.S. to Sly and her mom: I can’t remember if your recipe included the sour cream or if that’s my anglicized version of it – apologies if I’ve inadvertently modified your recipe and didn’t mention that (gosh, it’s been a long time since business school – I had a laugh at the date of the recipe, way back in the 1990s!)

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Harvesting Container Herbs

I’ve found over the years that I’m more motivated to cook a healthy home-cooked, low-cholesterol dinner when I have fresh herbs on hand. So, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day every year, we go out and purchase a dozen or so herbs and plant them in three large containers we keep on our deck.

While a garden would be great, we have too many deer and rabbits and other critters to make that possible. Oh, who am I kidding. I’m from the Bronx…and am so very NOT outdoor girl. Frankly, the thought of gardening in an actual garden makes me sweat.  (And not because it’s hot. Gardening – for real – is a lot of work and I know absolutely nothing about it.  And that is probably as it should be.)

Though it is fun to visit my friend Chris’s amazing garden.  And she’s very generous with her bounty, so that’s fantastic.

Herbs_June2014But truly, I do find that I cook more – and more healthily – if I have fresh herbs at hand all summer long. Hence, three huge pots on our deck. And one big problem.  I know how to plant them…and water them (which is pretty much never…thus my success.)  But I do not understand how to harvest each one properly – and some, not at all.

Sure, I go out there with my scissors and cut chives- that’s pretty self-explanatory. But every summer I wonder if I’m supposed to cut the woody part of the rosemary.  Or how to tame the oregano that tries to take over.

And the arugula, well, I have no idea. I’ve tried just cutting a few leaves. I’ve tried cutting it to the soil.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to figure out how to harvest that arugula before it flowers and turns bitter.

I decided to give up on arugula, but then had an idea.

I could, um, try to learn how to clip arugula … and rosemary… and all my other herbs.

Amazing concept, right?

In just an hour or so on the internet, I learned a lot. (Anyone who is a gardener and can supply more insight, please comment!)

The best resource I found online was from a site called, Gardener’s World. In their aptly titled article, How To Pick Herbs (!), here’s what I learned overall and about four of my favorite herbs:

Overall – the idea is to clip early and often! And don’t let parsley chives or basil go to seed (oops, I need to get rid of the chives I was so happy made it through the winter outside!)

“Culinary herbs are the original cut-and-come-again crop, so if you’ve got them in the garden, don’t be afraid to get snipping and picking. The plants really will benefit from it, and you’ll have wonderful flavours to add to dishes. Most herbs and leafy plants naturally want to create seeds, and once they get to that stage, it means the end of a herb like parsley, chives or basil. So pick leaves early and often to encourage the plant to put out more foliage and prevent it from running to seed. It may be cheating Nature but it extends the life of your plants and gives you handfuls of herbs to enjoy.”

  • PARSLEY. “When cutting parsley, always remove the whole leaf, together with the leaf stalk, nipping it back to where it joins the clump. Avoid the oldest leaves as these tend to be tough.”  This was total news to me – I used to just cut the leaves…and let it flower.
  • CHIVES. “Chives grow quickly in spring and summer. Cut as you need them for use, trimming right down to the base. Keep four or five pots at the ready, so you always have some at different stages to harvest.”  For me, never going to happen, so I’ll just keep cutting my one chive plant down – that should keep me in pasta heaven all summer.
  • ROSEMARY.  “Cutting rosemary for culinary use will prevent the plant from becoming woody. Use secateurs (???) to trim 10cm – 15cm from each shoot, as required. Avoid cutting back into woody, leafless branches.”  LOL: secateurs are British for pruning clippers. Which, um, I don’t even own.  So I’ll be using scissors.
  • BASIL.  “When harvesting basil, nip out with scissors or between finger and thumb, the tips of the plants back to just above a pair of leaves. New growth will emerge at this point. Don’t nip just below the leaf, leaving a short stem, as this will simply wither.”  I had to read this about 5 times before I realized it said, simply, to make a cut ABOVE where 2 leaves join, not below.  

But it didn’t help me with my all-time favorite herb, cilantro. From a site called GardeningKnowHow.com, I learned How To Harvest Cilantro.  Essentially, you have to clip some EVERY WEEK or it will ‘bolt’ which apparently means go to seed. And you clip off the top 1/3 or so – don’t clip down to the soil. I was doing NONE of this in prior years, so am happy to give this a whirl.

Last but not least is arugula.  And sadly, it seems clear from my research that I need to give up on arugula, because you have to plant it over and over again to keep it going all summer long, and frankly, I have the patience of a gnat. That said, I had already bought 2 plants, so I’m going to try what I learned from heirloom-organics.com’s How To Grow Arugula:

To harvest Arugula, pick off the outside tender leaves at the base of the plant. Leave the center growing point intact for future harvesting. Discard larger leaves as they tend to get tough and very bitter tasting. Leaves can also taste bitter in warmer weather. Eat fresh or cooked like spinach.”

Lastly, regarding oregano, it seems that it’s just bound to take over, so I’ll just let it.

I’m looking forward to a summer of herbs inspiring healthy home cooking.

Recipes anyone?

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Spinning to Cardio Fitness

Daily exercise is a key part of lowering cholesterol without medication, and in the long, cold winter months, my exercise of choice is tennis (and my real exercise is spin class.)

For those who’ve not tried it yet, spin class is an amazing cardiovascular workout.  Some shy away because they’ve heard it’s intense…and it can be. But it doesn’t have to be – if you’re curious, drop by your local gym or spin studio and try a class.  First class is often free and – like yoga – it’s best at least at first to go at your own pace and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. If you get hooked, like I did, you’ll find it’s a fun class that you can adjust as your fitness level improves – and believe me, after just 2-3 weeks of spin, you’ll be amazed at the change in your cardio fitness. (For more info about spinning, check out the explanation at the fun place I get to spin: Joyride.)

Why am I talking about spin class?  Well, I use spin class for straight-up cardio workouts all year long AND also to train for the Backroads bike trips we go on every two years.

When I’m not ‘training’ for an upcoming vacation (I know, I know, oxymoron to some – but for us, it’s really a blast) I spin – at most – just once or twice a week, and play tennis the rest of the time.  But one of the side benefits of these biking vacations is that you MUST get in shape or you won’t have fun – and that sends me to spin class about 3 times a week for the 3 months leading up to the trip.

Hence my two most recent posts about heart rate – where I could literally see my cardio improvement (and the reason for lapse in posting – first a technical issue with my site, then iffy wifi in Croatia.)

So spin got me in great cardio shape – but what it failed to do this time is to prepare me for the long, long hills we had to climb in Croatia.

Which is odd, because I’ve never had this problem before.  For our other bike trips, spin got me in great cardio AND hill-ready biking shape. Well, mostly – there was still that long, long walk-of-the-bike to the top of San Gimignano in Tuscany…but that was our very first trip 10 years ago and we had NO IDEA the level of hills we had signed up for!

My guess is this time, I didn’t amp up the resistance enough during class, though I thought I did.  OR it was that I didn’t do enough training with huge resistance on a SEATED climb, which his what most of the Backroads hills are – you are tackling a 5-7 kilometer hill and that’s far too long to stand on the bike – at least it is for me.

IMG_4916So this is me, next to the van that boosted me up a 7k hill that I chose not to ride (but the downhill part was a BLAST).  Truth be told, I didn’t boost up ALL the hills on this trip (and I’ve almost never boosted up a hill on other trips).  But the nature of this particular trip was you had to get to certain locations by certain times so you wouldn’t miss the boat that took you to the next island’s biking. So we took the van up certain (huge) hills so we could ride more of the route – and still make the boat.

I must say, I didn’t love taking the van up several hills. I’m, um, so intensely competitive that it was hard to convince myself that we were making a good CHOICE, not that we were failing. But that said, I need to do a little more research into how to use spin class to train for hills for our next trip. (Because I don’t feel safe biking where I live – crazy drivers.)

IMG_4989Luckily, I’ve got 2 years to work this out. And I really want to because where else but a Backroads trip can you see signs like this? All week we saw these crazy signs (but luckily we didn’t see the wild boar it warned of – though we did have a near run-in with a passel of sheep).

 

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