Slow Cooker Part Deux – A Failure and A Find

A prevalent pet peeve is how Facebook distorts reality. With frequent postings of party and vacation pictures plus endless boasting about kids and jobs, it’s easy to conclude that more fun is being had by everyone else. Which is of course not true.

At least, I hope it’s not.

But all this bragging led me to consider recipe blog posts. It’s an apt corollary as the vast majority of recipe blog posts are about successes. Indeed, I do it too. I hadn’t realized until I looked, but to date, all my recipe blog posts have been about recipe successes. So with this post I am bucking the trend, because this post is about a lo-co cooking failure. And I think that it’s an important topic because cooking lo-co is tough enough without the false belief that everyone else’s dishes turn out well all the time. Because they do NOT.

Case in point: last week I tried a slow cooker recipe for Char Siu Pork Roast that had huge promise, but that failed. Miserably. Actually, it was absolutely awful.

This dish was so appalling I threw it out and ate cereal for dinner. Worse, I could not get the stench of this dish out of my house fast enough (challenging when it’s sub-freezing outside, but open the windows I did!)

I was particularly disappointed in Char Siu Pork Roast because: a) the recipe was from Cooking Light, and I always (now nearly-always) have good luck with their dishes; b) it was listed in an article with the promissory title of, “100+ Slow-Cooker Favorites“; and c) there were 108 reviews and it got four stars.  FOUR STARS. OUT OF FIVE. (I went back to see if it was four starts out of ten, but nope, four out of five).

I don’t know who these 108 people are, but their collective tastebuds are very different from mine. Not only that, my easy-going husband didn’t like it either. The problems were many. The five-spice flavor was overwhelming; several ingredients seemed to flavor-fight with each other; and worst of all, it was dry, dry, dry.  I guess I should have paid more attention to the several reviewers who panned this recipe; my experience was eerily similar.

So. A lo-co failure. I should have taken a photo, but there wasn’t time as I could not throw it out fast enough!

And then – another fail – I bought a pork tenderloin a few days later but accidentally grabbed one that was seasoned with pepper when what I wanted was plain.

Sigh. I am not a fan of peppercorn-marinaded anything.

pressure-29744_640But I didn’t want to throw away a perfectly good pork tenderloin, so that inspired a search for a slow cooker recipe that would mask the massive pepper. I readied the cereal boxes in case it was another failure… but was pleasantly surprised last night with “The Best Crock-Pot Pork Tenderloin” dish. Especially since the recipe was from a site I’d never seen before (usually I only cook from Cooking Light or Epicurious).

This WhiskingMama.com site must have really great SEO — the only reason I clicked on this “The Best Crock-Pot Pork Tenderloin” recipe is that it was the #1 result in my search for “pork tenderloin crock-pot recipe.” I decided to try it because I already had the (wrong) tenderloin, these ingredients looked like they’d cover up the pepper, and I happened to have all the ingredients on hand (with a few substitutions: dijon for yellow mustard and garlic cloves instead of garlic powder).

This dish was easy, quite tasty, and while it might not be the “best” crock-pot pork tenderloin recipe (I mean, who’s to judge?), I’d make it again. The cereal’s been put back in the pantry for breakfast as we’re planning leftovers for dinner tonight.

Here’s the recipe for “The Best Crock-Pot Pork Tenderloin” if you prefer a PDF to clicking on the link above. I made it with a one-pound tenderloin instead of two-pounds, and just read this morning in Sam Sifton’s A Simmer View of the Slower Cooker article that I should have cut the marinade in half. Mr. Sifton’s quote refers to different recipe/ingredients but the basic tenet is the same:

“The most important thing is not to have too much liquid in the pot. For a small slow cooker, use a smaller cut of meat and a proportionately smaller amount of fish sauce, hoisin and water.”

The next time I make this Crock-Pot Pork Tenderloin recipe I’ll use regular rather peppered tenderloin and will either cut the marinade in half OR, more likely, I’ll make it with two pounds of tenderloin because it was delicious enough to want leftovers.

So one recipe to avoid – and one to try!  Feel free to send me your lo-co recipe failures or favorites!

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Roasted Cherry Tomatoes To Get Back On Lo-Co Track

I don’t know about you, but when life throws me curveballs, my lo-co lifestyle gets flattened.

From blog technical issues to family-member health crises to having a college kid home for the summer (and the requisite, very stressful conversations that include: “why do I need to tell you what time I’ll be home,” and “I can’t get home by 2am” among other gems) let’s just say I’ve not been cooking.

OK, let’s tell the truth: several times a week this summer, my routine was a 3 mile fast-paced walk for exercise followed immediately by dinner at Shake Shack. Because, um, they serve beer. And you can sit outside. For me, nothing is better than sitting outside in workout clothes enjoying delicious, cold beer from a tap along with dinner? Oh, and the dinner – Shake Shack fixed their fries and those burgers continue to be outrageously good. This from someone who does not care for most burgers – and who eats almost no other red meat – except for Shake Shack.

Yes, I could order Shake Shack’s bird dog.  Yes, my virtuous husband does.  Yes, that’s incredibly annoying because NO, I do not make smart dining choices when I’m stressing. What I do is not eat very much at all – or eat very badly.  Or, more to the point, first I stop eating/eat very little. Then when I realize I’m not eating, I eat very very badly.

That was pretty much my summer in a nutshell. On the plus side, my weight is largely unchanged (the only good part of the not-eating-due-to-stress segment of this summer). But I’d be scared to get a cholesterol reading right now.

With my son finally — finally — back at college,  I actually cooked a meal this week. (Word of advice – do not consider schools on a trimester/quarter system as they start in LATE September. LATE. Like WEEKS after all other college kids have gone back to school.)

Not only did I cook – I cooked a meal I have never made before – and I didn’t even follow a recipe. I usually rely on recipes – don’t always follow them all the way through, but I do usually require them as a starting point (aka crutch).  So this was unusual behavior for me.

What happened was, my friend Chris and I had a meeting for a consulting project we’re working on and she had a veritable raft of gorgeous cherry tomatoes from her garden, which she insisted I take, telling me to roast them in the oven and they’d be prefect for bruschetta.

So I planned to do that, but forgot to buy bread.

Sigh.

But then I remembered she’d also said that roasted cherry tomatoes burst open when poked with a fork so they kind of make their own sauce.

Perfect. No forgotten ingredients necessary.

RoastedCherryTomatoesI just cranked the oven to 425 degrees, drizzled the cherry tomatoes with olive oil and salt (and since there was room in the Pyrex pan AND we had one red pepper in the fridge, I sliced it and oiled/salted that too). Then last second, I decided to throw in a handful of garlic I’d slivered.  Once it was all slicked up, I just roasted it all for 20 minutes.

I had forgotten how amazing it smells in your house when you, um, cook.  Especially garlic.

Meanwhile, I cooked up some high fiber penne (!) and warmed a can of LeSeur baby peas (hey, it was the only green thing I had on hand other than lettuce).

RoastedCherryTomatos PastaVoila.  A healthy, lo-co dinner in 30 minutes.  All I had to do was dish out the pasta, spoon in the peas, roasted tomatoes and roasted pepper slices, then pour the fabulous olive oil with roasted garlic left in the Pyrex over it.  And it was fun to then burst the tomatoes and create a kind of tomato sauce. My husband tossed some fresh pepper flakes in for a kick but I left my garlicky olive oil with burst tomato ‘gravy’ unsullied.

It’d have been nice if I had a little bread (ha ha) – and some fresh mozarella (also funny as my fridge was quite barren) for some protein, but even without, it was quite tasty.

I popped the top off a Corona and toasted buh-bye to my so-not-lo-co Shake Shack summer.

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Heart Surgery

I mentioned in my last post, Losing Lox, that my folks were staying with us for a few weeks. What I didn’t mention was why.  And heart surgery is the reason.

My step-father had an aorta valve replacement nine years ago. The ‘epic’ valve that was supposed to last 15+ years didn’t even make it 10. Epic Fail. (Sorry, could not resist).

So now, at 82, it was clear that he needed open heart surgery, again. Fortunately he is in great shape (other than the so-very-leaky aorta valve) and was thus a candidate for surgery — if he was diabetic or overweight, surgery might not have been an option. More fodder for eating well and exercising daily. But more on that later.

We found ourselves both grateful and worried. Grateful the condition could be fixed. Worried because this was a significantly more complicated surgery than the first valve replacement – so much so that his much-trusted cardiologist in Sarasota counseled he should NOT have the replacement of the replacement valve surgery done in Florida. He needed a surgeon and hospital with more expertise.

After a month of searching we concluded the best option would be for them to come to stay with us in Connecticut so the surgery could be done at NY Presbyterian – one of the top 3 cardiac hospitals in the country. They arrived in mid-January for the surgeon consult, surgery was scheduled ASAP which in this case was nearly three weeks later on February 4th (this surgeon is BUSY) and they need to stay here, near NYC, until the post-surgery follow up appointment on 2/27 where he will be cleared to fly home.

It’s been a long – a very long – process.  Personally, I was more worried before the surgery that his very compromised heart would give out while waiting for the surgery. And now post-surgery, his vitals and color look so much better that I feel palpable relief. My mom is the reverse — she had been living with him with his compromised heart so long that that was ‘normal’ — she was worried, of course, but it was what she was used to. And in a way, she’s more worried now, after the successful surgery, because everything is new and scary. Why is he suddenly hot, then cold? Why no appetite?  Why so much napping and not a lot of energy?  Me, I see he actually has more energy than before, but it can be hard for others to see that.

So we read and then re-read the excellent material provided by New York-Presbyterian (if you ever need heart surgery and live near NY, get thee to NY Presbyterian – they were amazing on all fronts) to see what normal was. And though the visiting nurse said the ‘feeling cold from the inside’ is something she does see as a symptom, it’s still hard not to worry.

So I am trying to channel the worry into action. One of the things they harp on in the hospital is ‘walk your way to health.’  Seriously, after a 5 hour open heart surgery, they have the patients sitting up in chairs THE NEXT DAY and walking within 1-2 days.  It’s astonishing.

And the at-home walking program is very clear.  The NY Presbyterian folks want their heart patients to walk 0.1 miles, two-times a day –  the FIRST day they are home from the hospital.  Day two that is upped to 0.2 miles, twice a day.  By day 7 — yes, just 1 week after returning home from open heart surgery — my dad must walk 0.3 miles, twice.

He and my mom thought this was too much.  So they didn’t do it the first day. Well actually, they did try.  They walked a few feet – three different times.

I explained that wasn’t good enough.  That the reason the doctor wants him walking ever-longer each day is to build cardiac strength.  That to build cardiac strength, it’s vital to walk the amount he’s supposed to walk – ALL AT ONCE.

They stared at me in disbelief.

And then, metaphorical whip in hand and cheerleading all the way, I told my mom to wipe that concerned look off her face, put on her ‘you can do it’ smile and help.

And we all three did it.  On day 2 home from the surgery, my Dad walked the 50o feet (0.1) mile all at once.  And said he felt better!

Not only that, his pulse rate barely increased and his color got better — all clear indications that the walking was doing him good.

Day 2 there was no argument.  Just ‘how many laps, Karen’ and off he went.  And again, he felt good while doing it.

Today the cardiac PT person is coming to the house and my Mom plans to ask what h/she thinks about how much my Dad should be walking. Sigh. I know she’s concerned and she has every right to ask. But I will be there to chime in — that he should be walking the program his surgeon provided. That every time he does the prescribed walk, his pulse goes up only 10-12 beats per minute and he is not out of breath. That he NEEDS to walk.

All that said, it’s still a difficult recovery.  My dad has no pain (amazing) but he is weary and bored and tired of it all. Which is totally understandable.

The thing my dad keeps saying to my husband and myself is to ‘take care of your heart – you don’t want to end up like this.’  And he’s right. Never have I had a more visceral visual representation of the benefit and importance of living lo-co.

Frankly, some of this is genetic (which is why I mentioned he’s my step-dad – the heredity part of this doesn’t apply to me.) But a lot is related to cholesterol and lifestyle. My dad takes fish oil and a statin for high cholesterol, along with blood pressure meds.  So, continuing eating lo-co – and doing a better job than I have been – is important.  But watching the exercise literally help breathe life back into him is miraculous – and more motivation for my own exercise program.

Elliptical, here I come.

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FDA: Trans Fats Are Not GRAS

On Thursday, November 7, the FDA proposed a new law which would effectively eliminate partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) or artificial trans fats.

Why does this matter?

Because PHOs are in a LOT of the processed food we Americans eat. According to the FDA, PHOs are “the major dietary source of trans fat in processed food.” In fact, PHOs are a key ingredient in many popular snack foods. The NYT article, FDA Ruling Would All But Eliminate Trans Fats, explains that artificial trans fats “still lurk in many popular products, like frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, margarines and coffee creamers.”

And I’m betting you (and I) eat plenty of these items — even as we try to watch our cholesterol.

I mean, all of us trying to lower heart disease risk by keeping our cholesterol in check know to avoid red meat and processed food in general. But frozen pizzas? And the occasional bag of microwave popcorn? These seemed to me (until I read about PHOs this week) fairly innocuous.

Apparently not so much.

Which is why the FDA acted. And it was a BIG play they made — the FDA has declared PHOs as “Not GRAS.”  Or, in regular-person-speak, if the FDA proposal passes, partially hydrogentated oils would now be known to be NOT ‘Generally Recognized As Safe.’

This is a radical shift.  HUGE.  The FDA is now saying that this common food additive IS NOT SAFE.

If, after the 60 day comment period, this proposal passes, food companies will not be able to use trans fats – AT ALL.

Which, frankly, is amazing.

It’s been a long time coming.  According to the FDA Targets Trans Fat in Processed Foods article on the FDA website, the FDA proposed all the way back in 1999 that food manufacturers had to specify the amount of trans fat per serving on Nutrition Labels. And it took until 2006 for trans fats to appear by law on nutrition labels.

So it took 7 years to require food labels show trans fats. And 7 years later the FDA wants to ban the use of trans fats.

Why?

According to the FDA site, it will save thousands of lives:

“… there are still many processed foods made with partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major dietary source of trans fat in processed food. Trans fat has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, in which plaque builds up inside the arteries and may cause a heart attack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a further reduction of trans fat in the food supply can prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take 7 more years for the FDA proposal to take hold and for PHOs to be declared unsafe.

We’ll see what happens after the 60 day period for public comments.

 

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Solving The Pizza Puzzle

Did you know that the USDA publishes a website called the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference which lists foods and their caloric and nutritional value? It’s very cool.  Except for right now. During the US government shutdown if you click to this wildly useful website, here’s what you’ll see:

USDA Site Shutdown

 

Really people?

You took down a USDA WEBSITE because of the shutdown?

Really?

To me, that the Government decided to take down this particular website is incomprehensible. It’s not like this site is chock-full of up-to-the-minute, breaking-news type of information. Calories and Fat Content do not change day-to-day, people! You could have left it up and running. Why the government wonks didn’t just furlough the webmaster and leave the site live is, frankly, inexplicable. But take it down they did.

Sigh.

So here I sit, jonesing to do some in-depth pizza research but without a rock-solid source. Luckily, I had some key pizza facts gleaned from this site tucked away from earlier research I did for an Answers.com article.

So even though the USDA site is down, I can still proceed as planned with a post about how to enjoy pizza while going lo-co.

AKA solving the pizza puzzle.

Which is not solving, really. Because I was dismayed to find that pizza is not a great lo-co choice.

Before the government took down the nifty USDA nutritional site, I learned that one single solitary slice of regular crust, cheese pizza packs 285 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 18 grams of cholesterol. That’s ONE slice, no toppings.

And who has one slice?

Well, OK, I do. Sometimes. But I’m weird that way.

Most normal people would have 2 slices.  So you need to double those fat calories and cholesterol for a typical pizza meal.

And while I like plain pizza, most folks add a topping.  For example, what if you’re like my friend the hysterical, talented cartoonist Chris Juneau, and want bacon on your pizza? Well, I planned to write a whole bit about bacon (because Chris believes bacon goes on anything) but I can’t because the government took down….

OK, enough about that.

What I can do is tell you about the nutritional value (anti-value?) of a slice of pizza with the the ever-popular pepperoni topping.  A single slice of pepperoni pizza wallops with 313 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 28 grams of cholesterol.

Which means if you lunch on 2 slices of pepperoni pizza, you’ll hit 50% of your total recommended fat consumption and more than 25% of your cholesterol – before the day is half over.

What’s a person to do? Well, there are ways you can solve the pizza puzzle and still fit it into a lo-co lifestyle.

You just have to be smart about what you order – and/or make it at home.

Since I can’t seem to cook at home since my son left for college, I can’t really lecture about home-made pizza (though we used to make that a lot – it’s easy and delicious and healthy). So here are some things to mull as you place your local pizza parlor order:

  • Ditch thick, order thin. Thick crust pizza has more fat than thin crust. (And crust stuffed with cheese? Come on, you weren’t really thinking that, were you?)
  • Choose Less Cheese.  This seems obvious, lo-co-wise.  That’s because it is.  If the rest of your dining companions want regular cheese, that’s fine – just fork some off your slice and leave it on the plate. I do it all the time. And yes, I get weird comments, but if they’re good friends they’ll be said jokingly and with love. And if they’re you’re family, well, they’re stuck with you. So leave some cheese on the plate.
  • Pile on the sauce and veggies. If you can get your pizza-mates to order a pie with less cheese (or, heavens, cheese-less), make up for it with extra sauce – it has lycopene! And pile on any veggies you want – though try to choose the veggies that aren’t breaded and fried – I love eggplant, but it’s not the best veggie topping. Broccoli and/or spinach sauteed in garlic are fabulous pizza toppings. Or go wild and hawaiian. Load up on veggies and you won’t miss the cheese. Truly.
  • If you must have a meat topping, choose ham or canadian bacon, not pepperoni.  (Chris Juneau, this one’s for you!) I wish I could give you the exact nutritional details, but did you know the US Government shut down the USDA site… oh, sorry. The truth is that ham and canadian bacon – or diced chicken or shrimp – are leaner, more lo-co choices than pepperoni, sausage or beef. Maybe your pizza place even has turkey bacon or turkey sausage? Not highly likely, but worth asking!

You can stick with pizza for lunch or dinner (or, hey, breakfast) – and it can be part of a lo-co lifestyle if you choose wisely. And I bet you can find out more once the government shutdown…

Sorry.

But it is, really, a cool site.  Check it out in a few days…weeks…  Hopefully soon.

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