No Pots To Clean Gourmet Dinner

At our annual Cape Cod family vacation, I am responsible for serving the annual Fish Dinner for 10-15 people (there is also the annual Steak Dinner and the annual Lobster & Ribs Dinner, hosted by my brothers-in-law along with, The-Night-Everyone-Arrives-Baked-Ziti-Dinner my now 90-year-old mother-in-law whips up.)

Let’s be clear. Cooking for a very large group in an ill-equipped ‘cottage’ kitchen and serving it as a sit-down dinner in a too-small dining room is NO VACATION. It’s actually a potential nightmare. But it’s what we do. Every year. And once dinner’s on the table, it’s a blast… Plus, my wine-collector brother-in-law brings a LOT of wine so that’s, um, great. (I make sure to finish with all knife skills before imbibing – that’s another story that ends at the hospital).

Anyway, we’ve been doing this for years, but last Thursday I faced a fish dinner crisis: the only feasible date was our last night at the Cape – and we had to pack up our rental house and be on the road by 7:30 the next morning. I tried for a fish dinner hiatus. No dice (a huge compliment yet also frustrating). So I agreed to with one condition: I would cook but I would NOT host 12 people in the rental house that we were in the midst of packing up.

Once that was swiftly agreed upon, I had to devise a dinner plan. Usually my goal is a new variation on fish everyone will like. This year, my goal was: how to cook a full dinner for 12 with very little clean up. Like, none. Else we’d never finish packing and get out on time.

The answer: I devised a menu that required NO pots. Thus no clean up, and no ferrying pots, pans and serving utensils to and fro.

Amazingly, it was a huge success – both the cooking and the quick clean-up… but also, the dinner itself. There were actual accolades! My mother-in-law declared it, “your best fish dinner ever,” and someone dubbed it, “totally gourmet.” There were no leftovers and literally, we had NOTHING to clean up – all we had to do was load the plates and cutlery into the dishwasher. Oh, and the very many wine glasses.

The trick: a dinner plan that relied on heavy duty aluminum foil on the grill, sequential cook times, and ‘sauces’ prepared in advance.

Here’s what I prepared:

  • 2.5 pounds of Arctic Char and 1.5 pounds of Haddock that I prepped with olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs, slivered onions and halved cherry tomatoes: grilled in foil and served with two homemade sauces (really, dressings): Green Goddess and Mustard Vinaigrette.  I thought folks would enjoy trying two very different types of fish, which they did. And surprisingly, my favorite, Arctic Char, was the big winner! (See Lo-Co Recipe page for other fish/Arctic Char recipes!)
  • The fantastic “Grilled Potato and Onion Packages” recipe I found on epicurious.
  • Asparagus we grilled in the afternoon and served at room temperature.

IMG_2695Cooking fish in foil on a grill is dead-easy. All you do is place a fish fillet in foil (skin-side down, if it has skin), slick it both sides with olive oil, add salt and pepper and any fresh herbs you like (I used chives, thyme and rosemary). Atop that, squeeze some lemons and place some very thinly sliced lemon along with very thinly sliced onion and halved cherry tomatoes. The only truly ‘obligatory’ ingredient is olive oil and some lemon – but it makes a nice presentation with all these items! Then wrap it TIGHTLY in foil (I double wrapped it) and grill over medium-high or high heat for 10 minutes — longer if it’s a thick fillet. We needed 15-20 minutes for the 3 wrapped fillets. Take them off the grill and transfer to a serving platter – I removed the onion and lemon slices, but placed the tomatoes back on top for a pretty presentation. I like my fish plain but feared others would not, so I served the fish with choice of a Mustard Vinaigrette (David Tanis’ recipe on my Lo-Co Recipe page) and a Green Goddess dressing/dip mix from Penzey’s Spices that I had whipped up in minutes that morning.

The other element we needed to grill at my brother-in-law’s rental home was the phenomenal “Grilled Potato and Onion Packages” recipe I found on epicurious. Read the recipe and reviews online, or recipe PDF is here and also on my Lo-Co Recipes page. These, my husband and I prepped in the afternoon, then brought over 11 packages all ready to go on the grill!  While they’re meant to be served individually I just opened all 11 packages into a large serving bowl – either way is great.  A few notes from my read of the reviews and my experience making this fabulous and fabulously easy recipe:

  • I used baby red potatoes that I washed and left skins on – and cut into small pieces (like eighths!) so they’d cook quickly enough.
  • Instead of white, I used red onions – again cut into very thin slices – about same size as potatoes.
  • Use heavy duty foil – there’s a size that’s the right width the recipe calls for. 
  • Move the packets every 5-7 minutes or so – maybe 3 times for the 30 minutes – but don’t flip them – goal is to move so that no one spot gets too hot and burns.
  • It’s very easy BUT takes time to cut the potatoes and onions – leave plenty of time for all the slicing!
  • Even if you hate mustard, you won’t taste it here… and if you LOVE mustard, you need to increase the amount used.

The whole dinner took 1 hour to cook at my brother-in-law’s rental home (though a few hours to prep — and we did grill asparagus (see below for how) at home first and served it room temperature.) 

Once we landed at my brother-in-law’s I prepped the fish while my husband grilled the potato packets. In the end, it looked like this:

IMG_2698

 

 

IMG_2697Two notes on the finished dishes:

  • The fish fell apart, which doesn’t happen when you bake or cook fish directly on the grill. But it’s juicy and tender, and if you have enough wine, no one will notice.
  • The potato & onion dish looked much more appealing than this photo; I’d had a few glasses of wine by then…

Hope you try!  So easy and healthy and delicious – and no pots to wash!

To grill asparagus: soak for 10 minutes and snap off the tough bottoms, loosely dry, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and put right onto a medium-high grill for about 10-15 minutes, rolling them to grill evenly.

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An Apple A Day Keeps Cholesterol At Bay

If you don’t fancy chickpeas for breakfast (and really, why would you?) perhaps adding some apple to your daily granola is more appealing as a healthy diet change?

Though I never planned to add chickpeas to my breakfast fare, I did intend to add it to my daily diet. OK, weekly diet. Indeed, so intrigued was I to learn that chickpeas lower cholesterol (see, Don’t Like Oatmeal, Try Chickpeas!), that I decided it was a good idea to try to make my own hummus from scratch.

On Christmas Eve.

A good idea it was not.

My homemade hummus experiement failed epically. Hence my latest research into apples, which I cannot make from scratch.  Just add to my diet. (Maybe. As I dislike apples only slightly less than salad.)

But I digress.

TahiniLet me explain about the hummus.

First of all, have you ever tried to stir tahini?  No? Well, imagine stirring cement. Because that’s what it felt like. Check out this spoon standing up on it’s own, and just imagine the huge sucking sound when I tried to free the spoon from the evil tahini.

Let’s just say that the ensuing emergency load of laundry was not in the timeline for Christmas Eve preparations. So, um, things got a little messy.

But after a good ten minutes (and I am not exaggerating) I managed to get 1/3 cup of tahini into the food processor, along with the requisite amount of drained chickpeas, garlic, salt, freshly squeezed lemon juice, water and hot sauce.

Yet this time, both of my usually reliable cookbook resources failed me. Barefoot Contessa AND epicurious  both called for 4 cloves of garlic.  FOUR cloves.  And yet the title was not GARLIC hummus. Though it should have been.

I should have known  better.  It did strike me that 4 cloves of RAW garlic was going to be, um, garlicky.  But I like garlic.  And figured maybe it would be mitigated by the tahini (as if it might ‘cure’ the garlic or magically blanch it or something.) In the end, the fact that both recipes said to use 4 cloves gave me confidence. Which was misplaced. I served my Christmas Eve guests – who were all eager to try my homemade hummus – a mouthful of very raw, garlicky hummus.  Not ideal.

So we all had more to drink. Far more.

Also not the plan.

So I’ll now be buying my hummus from Trader Joe’s.  And this epic fail left me searching for a different cholesterol-lowering food I could easily add to my daily diet.

Which is where apples come in.

Now unlike chickpeas, my doctor definitely told me to eat apples. And for a while there, I dutifully added sliced apples to my daily oatmeal. But that oatmeal gave way to a bagel and lox, so the apple thing didn’t last long.

As I threw my tahini-strewn shirt into the washing machine, I got to wondering what it was about apples that was good for lowering cholesterol.  I knew about dietary fiber, but was there another, compelling reason to add apples to my diet?

What I learned is that apples pack more cholesterol-lowering punch than just dietary fiber. They are rich in phytonutrients, which  help regulate blood sugar…and are also flush with Vitamin C and with antioxidants, which attack free radicals.

Blah, blah, blah…  Apples are good for you. Yeah, I know, my doctor told me to eat them. But why? Are they just healthy, or do they actually help lower cholesterol?

Yes, Virginia, they do.

As I explained in Health Benefits of Apples, actual research studies have proven that apples lower cardiac disease risk:

The Iowa Women’s Health Study reported that, among the 34,000-plus women it’s been tracking for nearly 20 years, apples were associated with a lower risk of death from both coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.”  In a very specific small study conducted in 2011, Florida State University researchers asked 160 women aged 45-65 to eat dried apples or prunes every day; they proved that in just 6 months, LDL (bad) cholesterol was reduced by 23% and HDL (good) cholesterol rose by 4%.

Now as it happens I don’t love raw apples (though I do enjoy them, if someone (else) slices them and sprinkles them with cinnamon or dices them for oatmeal), but dried apples as a snack could be something I can easily add to my diet.

So I’m off to Trader Joe’s to buy some hummus AND some dried apples.

And I think I’ll get some raw apples, too. Because hey, maybe I can convince my husband to slice them for me. And then I can try – just once this week – to have oatmeal for breakfast instead of my beloved half-bagel and lox.

I’m going for a valiant effort at eating some cholesterol-lowering food … that has zero chance of resulting in additional laundry.

 

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Turkey Sausage and White Bean Cassoulet

The white bean cassoulet at a local French Bistro, Martel, is one of my favorite dishes. Even the guarantee of garlic-breath does not deter. And though I like to think it’s healthy – what with the white beans and escarole or spinach – I know in my heart (sorry, pun intended) that this oil-butter-laden dish is, in truth, not a healthy choice.

Fast forward to our annual New Year’s Eve pot luck dinner. A friend whose teenage daughter is coping with very high cholesterol brought a vegetarian white bean cassoulet that was scrumptious. And healthy. Totally amazing.

In fact, this was so good, we all asked our friend Lisa for the recipe. When she replied, “Oh, it’s the cassoulet from Martel,” I snarked something like, “Um, what? You asked for the recipe and they gave it to you?”  Lisa’s puzzled answer was, “No, I just made it.” A month later, I’m still astonished (ok, jealous) that someone who is not a chef can conjure a recipe to match something they’ve tasted.

The next day Lisa emailed us her ‘recipe,’ the vagueness of which made me literally laugh out loud. It seems that someone with a creative mind brilliant enough to replicate a restaurant dish from scratch may not also possess the attention-to-detailedness to scribe it into a recipe others can follow.

With LASIK eye surgery looming (hence my blogging absence the last 2 weeks – all went well, sorry for the lapse!), I needed a few dishes to make ahead & store in my fridge for easy, lo-co lunches and dinners. In the weeks approaching my surgery date, I found a ‘cassoulet’ recipe on Epicurious, and married it with Lisa’s vague ‘White Bean Cassoulet’ directions.  I made it 3 times – sometimes with sausage, sometimes without – until I had a recipe with clear steps.

Though not technically a cassoulet as it is not slow-cooked (about 1/2 hour or 45 minutes), this tastes great and is easy to make. My teenage son even gave the sausage version a thumbs up – though he ate around the beans.

The following is a recipe made with Turkey Sausage (you could substitue chicken sausage – of any flavoring you like) and I included a vegetarian version on my recipes page.

Going Lo-Co Turkey Sausage & White Bean ‘Cassoulet’
(adapted from Lisa Goto & Epicurious) 

  • 1 package Shady Brook Farm Sweet Italian Turkey Sausage Links
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 onions, minced
  • ~1 TB Grapeseed or Olive Oil (could use less)
  • Tomatoes: 1 lb Campari tomatoes, halved (or plum/medium-sized tomatoes, quartered)*
  • 19 oz can of white beans – cannellini (or Navy or Great Northern), rinsed and drained.  Could use 2 cans.
  • 6 oz baby spinach leaves (can use more)
  • Asiago (or freshly grated Parmesan or Romano Pecorino) cheese to taste
  • OPTIONAL: 1 ½  teaspoon mixed chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme and/or sage, or ¾ teaspoon mixed dried herbs, crumbled.
    *    The Epicurious recipe calls for a 14 ½ oz can of diced tomatoes including juice – so you could use that, though I’ve not tried it.

Preparation

  1. Mince garlic, onions and slice tomatoes in half.  Rinse and drain beans and wash spinach if needed.
  2. In medium skillet brown sausages in oil over moderate heat, turning them until browned on all sides and cooked through, about 8 minutes.  Transfer to paper towels to drain.
  3. In same skillet (add a bit of oil if needed), sauté the onions and garlic in the oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and clear – about 5-10 minutes.
  4. Add herbs if using, and the halved tomatoes (or canned tomatoes, with juice) and cook until the tomatoes basically melt down – about 5-10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cut sausage into 1/4 –inch-thick slices.
  6. Add sausage, beans and cheese and cook until cheese is melted – about 3-5 minutes
  7. Add spinach and keep on heat, stirring, until spinach leaves are lightly cooked.

Enjoy… great with a nice, crusty bread!

 

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Quinoa, Quinoa Everywhere

A month ago, I had never heard of quinoa (keen-wah).  Then I tried some made by a local chef and wham, now it’s everywhere.  OK, OK, I know – it’s not everywhere, really — it’s simply that now that I’m aware of it, it just feels like its everywhere.

Except that, truly, I think it is.  This feels like a bona fide foodie trend.  It feels like quinoa is actually becoming ubiquitous.  At least in Metro NYC.

Because how’s this for funny: I made this Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa recipe for a pot-luck dinner party and someone invited at the last minute (ie, not involved in the who’s-bringing-what game) ALSO brought a quinoa dish.  We were all shocked.

I know you’re wondering, so I’ll just tell you straight up: my quinoa dish was better (if I do say so myself.)  And I do!  Why was it better?  Well, it is NOT because I’m a better cook.  Or that I was bitter that someone else brought quinoa.  Though clearly that is true.

Rather, it was simply that the recipe I used was better: more taste and it looked prettier.

Quinoa - from Epicurious site

So, another week goes by, and I make this quinoa dish for a birthday lunch for a (different group) of friends.  Then another week passes, and my friend Michaela asked if I could please make that delicious dish I brought to the birthday bash for her Memorial Day BBQ.  So I happily whip up a big batch, bring it…and it happened AGAIN!  Someone else ALSO brought a quinoa dish.

And lo and behold – mine was better again (this time, others even said so!)

How weird is that?  I’m not alone in thinking that’s strange, right?  I mean, clearly, there are 2 questions y’all must be pondering:

  1. What is it with quinoa?  Is it a new foodie obsession?  Why is it everywhere? I mean twice in a few weeks in the SUBURBS?!!!  That is crazy!  And here’s another tidbit:  someone at the BBQ said quinoa is all the rage in her town! So if you have any trend info to share, please comment here or on the GoLowCholesterol Facebook Page!
  2. And what’s so great about the quinoa recipe I found?  Why is it so good that it won – hands down – in 2 oh-so-formal (not!) taste tests?

Like I said, I can’t answer the first (and am hoping you can?), but I can tell you why this particular quinoa recipe rocks:

  • First of all it’s very easy – though there is chopping and zesting, so you have to be up for that.
  • Second of all, it has lots of nice color.
  • And third of all – it’s very flavorful … frankly, it’s just plain tasty.

The recipe I used got a 4-fork rating at Epicurious, and the only adjustment I made to render it even more Lo-Co was to leave out the butter.  Check it out online because the reviews offer some great suggestions (like adding avocado and vegetables).

Oh, and the other adjustment I made to this recipe is key: IGNORE the huge, complicated step about cooking quinoa!  That’s what the Epicurious reviewers said and they were right.  I just tossed it in my rice cooker OR you can just cook it the same way you cook rice.

As long as you buy your quinoa pre-washed (this is vital!), the quinoa itself is simple to make.

If you want to download my recipe for Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa, with all the above noted on a PDF, you can view it here.

Want to know more about quinoa?  Like why it’s so healthy and why it’s great for vegetarians?  Read on.  If not, I respect that – just download the recipe PDF or view it on Epicurious and have fun!

More info, you say?  Why is quinoa a great lo-co/healthy choice?  The main thing about quinoa is that it has a lot of protein – unusual for a ‘grain’ or typical side dish – so it’s terrific for vegetarians.  It’s also gluten-free and fat-free (unless you add, say, butter!)

Even more info?  For the best easy-to-read definition, check out about.com (normally not my fave site, but the wikipedia entry is ridiculously technical and full of stuff that I personally didn’t care about!)

Here’s about.com’s quinoa definition – and there are recipes and how-to-cook tips too:

What is quinoa?
While quinoa is usually considered to be a whole grain, it is actually a seed, but can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley. Try a quinoa pilaf salad recipe, or serve a vegetable stir-fry over cooked quinoa instead of rice. Quinoa is my favorite grain for three reasons: First, it takes less time to cook than other whole grains – just 10 to 15 minutes. Second, quinoa tastes great on its own, unlike other grains such as millet or teff. Add a bit of olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice and – yum! Finally, of all the whole grains, quinoa has the most protein, so it’s perfect for vegetarians. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Quinoa is a gluten-free and cholesterol-free whole grain, is kosher for Passover, and is almost always organic.”

Want even more quinoa info? You can check out:

By the way – this quinoa recipe was GREAT with my afore-posted-about Oven-Ready Roaster!  Because I made that bird again and still have leftovers.  My son even ate some quinoa with his chicken, though he complained about the black beans and said he’d prefer rice with gravy. Sigh.

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