Yam’O’Lanterns!

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The one time I tried to carve a pumpkin by myself, I found out it was hard. Scraping and scratching out the stringy insides took forever; carefully carving the thick pumpkin walls took longer.20131019-115459.jpg

Patience: a virtue I’ve never known well and can’t summon for the art of pumpkin carving.

But I can make meals FAST! Thats what I’m good at. I’ve been eating a lot of fast meals recently, to my regret, because this first semester in my PhD program at TCU has been full of studying, events, making new friends, studying, writing everyday, all the time, and studying some more. I’ve gotten good at having some standby ingredients on hand all the time so when I am home I get a wholesome, nutritional meal with “real” ingredients, but I’ll admit that my creative cookery has fallen way by the wayside.20131019-115446.jpg

One of the ingredients I always have on hand are sweet potatoes–been eating them like a fiend! I’ve found that if you microwave the sweet potato fries for a bit, then crisp them up in the oven, things go much, much faster.

Imagine my delight when I saw Apronstring’s Yam’O’Lanterns recipe. A few more minutes added to my sweet potato prep gave me a fun food-craft to try on the fly. Here’s my make-it-fast variation of this festive fall food.

Ingredients

1-8 oz. sweet potato

cooking spray

optional: sea salt

Directions20131019-115512.jpg

-Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Set aside.

-Using a sharp knife, slice your sweet potato into rounds as you usually might (mine were about 1/5″ thick). Then, use a sharp paring knife to carve in the faces you like. When ready, transfer to a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high for 5 minutes.

-After that, transfer to prepared sheet. Spritz on some cooking spray and sprinkle with sea salt or other seasonings you like (rosemary would be a delicious one to use for these). Toss them up a bit for good coverage and pop in the oven for about 12-15 minutes, longer if you made thicker slices. Remove when cooked all the way through and crispy around all the edges.

Garden Shrimp Rotini

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Way, way back, I got on a cabbage kick. And since then I really haven’t put the kibosh on cabbage.IMG_1193

Friends, especially Derek Smith, have noticed that I’m a sucker for veggie+protein+pasta combinations. Usually, there’s red sauce in the mix. But sometimes I shake things up, literally. Shake a little lemon, a little EVOO, red wine vinegar, and herbs for a fresh alternative.

Some more veggies and sauteed shrimp make this delightful. Plus, cabbage is a fab mix-in because it gives a bulk to the pasta that’s very, very good for you.

Veggie and seafood lovers, you will definitely want to give this one a go.

IngredientsIMG_1195

2 oz. dry whole-wheat rotini noodles

1 cup cabbage, sliced into “noodles”

1 Roma tomato

2 T sliced onion

2 oz small shrimp

dash of rosemary, sage, basil

1 T olive oil + 1 t red wine vinegar + a big squeeze of lemon (optional: grated parmesan) IMG_1185

Directions

Bring 5 cups water to boil in a pot and add in wheat and cabbage noodles. Boil until cabbage is tender and wheat noodles almost cooked all the way through–a little al dente is good for controlling the blood sugar levels, in case you’re wondering.

Meanwhile, slice tomato up and sauté with onion and herbs in a medium to large skillet. Then add in shrimp.

In a small container you can seal, add in liquids: olive oil, vinegar, and lemon. Add in grated parmesan if you like that, too. Shake well. Set aside.

In skillet, add in the noodles once they’ve boiled and have been strained fully. Turn up the heat for a minute or so (medium to medium-high) to extract out any remaining water. Let sauté for a few minutes, tossing occasionally.IMG_1188

Transfer to one large bowl. Serve warm as is; but I of course had to have a little red sauce under my pasta. I still can’t resist a good marinara.

And honestly, this recipe is probably big enough to serve two people, but it’s so good and healthful there’s no shame in eating it all yourself, I think.

Appetizer Idea: Unfried Mac-and-Cheese Bites

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Taste the unfried side…photo (18)

That rings in my head. It’s got to be a slogan for some company, although I’m not sure what at the moment. It’s possible that it’s just a rhyme I’ve made up to.

But it’s sticky. No, not like fried sticky. It’s an idea–and a health habit–that sticks, i.e. has staying power. Nothing truly good comes from anything fried, not in the long-term (health wise) or in how you feel right after eating something fried.

A quick vignette to illuminate my point:

Shortly before the 4th of July this year, a friend of mine indulged in a fried mac-and-cheese burger from Zombie Burger in Des Moines. The thing was a spectacle with it’s layering of mac and cheese and “buns” made as large mac-and-cheese bites, similar to the ones made popular by Sonic and other fast food chains. Was it comical? Absolutely. Did it make everyone cringe a little? Yes. There’s something appealing to us Americans about indulgence and extremes. I get that. But we also know better.photo (16)

Epilogue: Dear friend did not finish that burger. He took the rest for lunch the next day, his girlfriend squealing uncomfortably at the thought of it being reheated.

My purpose in telling you this story is to lead you to another option. You know I’ve been experimenting with egg roll wrappers lately, and so with some cheesy cauliflower left over from my Healthier Mac-and-Cheese You Can Microwave, I set out to make an appetizer comparable to the cheesy, carby bites so many crave, sans the grease.

How’d they turn out? In my humble, disapproving-of-all-things-fried opinion, REALLY GOOD! Perfect crunch. Perfect amount of cheesiness, and anything but hard to make.

Ingredients

2 egg roll wrappersphoto (19)

1 single-serving container of Green Giant Cheesy Cauliflower

Directions

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a mini-muffin tin, or a regular cookie sheet if you don’t have a mini-muffin one. Set aside.

Using a pizza cutter, slice the egg roll wrappers in half to get two triangles for each square sheet.

Gently press the middle of each triangular wrapper into the tin or lay flat. In the center, spoon in warmed cheesy cauliflower mix. Be conservative in how much you spoon in. A little dollop goes a long way.

The next part is tricky. Fold the edges of the wrapper over and tuck them under the bottoms to form the ball. You’ll have to finagle them a little to get them just right, but keep calm and fold gently. When you’ve achieved folding that makes them look like small balls or popovers, pop them in the oven for about 7-9 minutes, or until the outer edges are brown and crispy. photo (15)

Serve warm in a favorite dipping sauce or with a sprinkle of pepper as I did. Enjoy!

Cottage-Cheese and Veggie Egg Muffins

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True fact: Up until this point in my life (just a day shy of 24) I have avoided that lumpy white sludge they call cottage cheese.IMG_1260

What about it is cottage-like, I wonder? The wordie in me likes to think this unattractive, lactose-filled allergen wonder was snarkishly named in memory of a grandparent gumming lumpy cheese back in the holler somewhere. That’s the story in my head that I’ll stick to.

On to more serious points, when I tried this recipe a few weeks ago–with my own single-serving adjustments–I was surprised, and pleasantly surprised at that.

Is lumpy white cheese my new favorite dish? No. I honestly don’t understand how people can pair this with fresh fruit…IMG_1262

But does it bake down into a delicious light, eggy crust? Absolutely. Paired with sauteed veggies and legumes, this recipe might be worth sharing with my own grandma and Nana.

Makes 4 small or 3 medium muffins

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup diced vegetables of choice
  • 1/4 cup black beans or low-sodium refried beans
  • 1/4 cup spinach
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup cottage cheese (lactose-free ones are available!)IMG_1258
  • optional: toppers like extra sprinkle cheese or diced hatch chiles
  • dash of paprika, cayenne pepper

Directions

1. Sautee vegetables, spices and spinach over high heat until tender.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line muffin tins with muffin liners (or grease really really well).
3. Spoon veggie mixture into muffin slots, filling each about 1/2 full. Then evenly divide and spoon the beans on top.
4. In a small bowl, whisk egg and cottage cheese together.
5. Spoon egg mixture over top of veggie cups.
6. Top with additional paprika and cayenne, if you like.
7. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until eggs are set. If they’re taking a while or if you’d like a crispy golden finish, set the oven to broil for 1-2 minutes, but be sure to remove quickly so they don’t burn.IMG_1253

Use a spoon to remove and serve warm. Enjoy!

Appetizer Idea: Thai Flatbread Pizza

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The egg-roll wrapper saga seemed like it would never end. I’d tried my hand at every wonton-wrapper-inspired idea I could imagine.photo (38)

And then one day I had lunch at a cool little cafe-bistro in Cedar Rapids, IA called Brewed Cafe. It was at this lunch meeting that I found myself torn between a vegetarian chili and a Thai flatbread pizza. Concerned that the flatbread might disappoint, I went chili. Curious still the next day, I recalled the ingredients and tried making my own version of the ‘za.

It was great. The wrapper I used was a perfect flaky crust to make several mini pizzas. And I’d have never thought cucumber would have worked so well on a warmed crust, but I was mistaken. Slice it thin enough and it can surprise you.

Ingredients

2 egg roll wrappers

2-3 T Trader Joe’s red curry sauce

1/2 cup cucumber, thinly sliced

a few dashes of basil and caraway seed

Directionsphoto (36)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Set aside.

Spread the curry sauce over the wrappers, being sure not to use to much or the crust won’t crisp up at all. Place on sheet. Arrange cucumbers as you like and sprinkle on seasonings. Bake until wrappers have crisped, about 5-6 minutes.

Simple and tasty, just the way I like it.

Cilantro Sweet Corn Side Dish

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One of my favorite nutritionist bloggers, Snack Girl, was bragging one July morning on her Easiest Corn Salad. It did look easy and tasty. Of course I had to try it.CC Pics 029

But with my own twist of course. Snack Girl’s was more of a salad, whereas mine is more correctly identified as a corn side with a little cilantro sass.

I’ve changed some of the ingredients to make a side that has a hint of sweet alongside herby cilantro and zesty lime. I quite like the outcome.

Per usual, this recipe makes on serving, but you can make more. See Snack Girl’s post for resizing or comment below if you need help adjusting.

Ingredients

1/2 cup fresh sweet corn kernels

twist of lime

pinch of steviaCC Pics 027

1 T diced tomato-onion mix

dash of freshly chopped cilantro

dash of paprika

Directions

Simply combine the corn and veggies. Squeeze lime over the top. Sprinkle on the stevia and add in the cilantro.

Toss. Toss. Toss.

Top with paprika and more cilantro, if desired. Enjoy!

Cool Cantaloupe Pops

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There’s a bad apple in every bunch. And there’s often a lot of bad bunches of produce. It’s especially true these days. It can be so hard to find a bunch, bushel, or bag of fruit that’s not bad. As someone who eats an exorbitant amount of fresh produce on the regular, I know this to be true. I sometimes wonder if producers know that American markets know nothing about picking ripe, fresh produce. I’m no expert, by any means, but for all the time I’ve spent picking out produce, I’ve come to question this.CC Pics 024

The positive is that I’ve also learned a few how-to’s along the way. Sometimes when I’ve had one too many bad picks–pale, tasteless grapefruit and old, flavorless spaghetti squash being the biggest repeat offenders–I look online for tips. Other times, I look to whoever is standing close to me and looks like they know what they’re doing.

So when I was standing at Hy-Vee contemplating cantaloupe, I asked the woman to my right, who was also thumbing through, thumping, and smelling every melon in the bin. And let me tell you, she knew what she was doing. In an all-business tone, she let me know that a nice golden rind is going to be the freshest, juiciest, most flavorful pick. She was also frustrated that we couldn’t smell them. I knew about the smelling-for-sweetness trick, but what she told me next surprised me: If they wash them well, you can’t smell them for ripeness; the smell gets scrubbed off.CC Pics 025

Did I pick a winner?

You bet. It was good. Plus I let it sit on my warm kitchen countertop in my anti-AC apartment for a few days to ripen up a bit more. Oh, my sweetness! It was…

And then I turned 1/4 of that Candy Cantaloupe into this: Pops! You know I’m a popsicle fiend, especially during these hot summer days. So while I resist faux coolant, I find a pleasurable defense in popsicles. And these ones are good! I know I say that often, but seriously, the cantaloupe, a little stevia for sweetness, and a little yo for smoothness makes this recipe better than any Dreamsicle I’ve had. Cross my heart and have my cantaloupe if I’d steer you wrong. Try it!

Makes 4 medium-sized popsicles or six small ones.CC Pics 026

Ingredients

1 cup cantaloupe chunks

spritz of lemon

splash of vanilla

1 T stevia

1/2 cup plain, non-fat yogurt (dairy-free coconut is the best!)

Directions

Cover of Pops! by Krystina Castella whom I interviewed for a summer 2011 feature in the Kansas City Star. Click the image to link to that story.

Cover of Pops! by Krystina Castella whom I interviewed for a summer 2011 feature in the Kansas City Star. Click the image to link to that story.

So easy. Place your fruit and all other ingredients in blender. Blend ’til smooth.

If you like, drop a few more thin slices of cantaloupe (or other pretty fruit, like orange slices without the rind) down the sides of your pop molds and then distribute your blended concoction evenly between the molds. Freeze for 3-4 hours or until solid.

Appetizer Idea: Baked Egg Rolls

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Ever admired an egg roll for its fresh veggie crunch? photo (30)

I have. What I’ve loathed, though, is the fact that the crispiness is usually fried. You know how I feel about that. NOT a fan. I love my arteries a bit too much.

Yes, so my health-snobbish ways have me trying another recipe of my own. My usual approach plays out here. I’m not drawing from any one specific recipe. Instead I snoop around on Pinterest, get a feel for how the traditional, unhealthy recipes are made, get the steps and ingredients down pat, modify to my liking, and

love it.

Everything’s better when you make it to your liking. I wanted a crispy, unfried roll with stir-fry-like veggie filling. You could modify the half-cup of veggies with rice, meats, beans, essentially anything you like. Have fun, experiment, and make it something you would want to eat.photo (28)

Again and again and again.

Ingreidents

3 egg roll wrappers (I love Nasoya)

1/2 cup stir-fry veggies

1 t low-sodium soy sauce

dash of ginger

bigger dash of red pepper flakes

optional: 1/2 t Asian dressing (like Newman’s Own Ginger-Sesame)photo (27)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Set aside.

In a small pan, fry up veggies in soy sauce, and then mix in ginger, red pepper, and dressing if you’re using that. Saute it up on high ’til tasty coating forms, then turn down to low after a few minutes. Juices will begin to thicken. Let saute a few more minutes.

When ready, evenly distribute the veggies on the three wrappers, laying them out in a thick line. At the ends of each line, fold edges in. Flip one of the adjacent edges over and roll. You’ll roll ’til you can’t roll anymore. Flip the egg roll over on its side or seal with a dab of water so the wrapper holds (but not much).photo (31)

Bake for about 8-9 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with your favorite dipping sauce.

Hope you love it! I definitely want to try it as an appetizer for a group.

 

Appetizer Idea: Basil-Tomato Margarita Bites

four tomato

So continues my obsession with egg roll and won ton wrappers.tres tomato aerial

If you’ll recall my post “Appetizer Idea: Bite-Sized Fajita Bowls,” I picked up a pack of  Nasoya egg-roll wrappers at HyVee. It’s been true love ever since.

Another one of the won-ton wrapper apps I see floating around on Pinterest.com features a combination of tomato and mozzarella.

For this first one, I wasn’t feeling mozzarella. I’ve been using a soy-based garlic-herb cheese a lot lately, so I crumbled that over the top instead, tossed in some basil, parm, and spice, and felt my eyes roll back in my head when I tasted the crispy-cheesy-flavorful crunch of this appetizer.

Hope you get a pow in the yum like I did. These appetizers are right up my alley. I’m sure I’ll continue to make them for myself, but I suspect they might become my new favorite stand-by for potlucks and dinner parties, too. Very easy, and very good.

Ingredientsbite tomato

1 egg roll wrapper (Get a good healthy brand like Nasoya)

1/2 Roma tomato, diced into medium chunks

red pepper flakes

1 oz. cheese of choice, mozzarella or a heartier herb one will do

dash of parmesan

1 t basil

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a mini-muffin tin. Set aside.

Take the egg roll wrapper and slice into four equal squares. Press into pan, folding sides to fit down as necessary, but not pushing too hard.

In a small pan, saute the tomatoes in a little cooking oil for a few minutes, adding in the basil, then the red pepper flakes. Evenly  distribute among the wrappers.four bore tomato

Bake for about 7 minutes or until edges of wrappers turn golden brown. Top with cheese of choice (cubed or crumbled), dash of parm, and more basil if you like. Bake another 2-3 minutes until cheese melts.

Serve right away and warm, if possible. Enjoy!

Appetizer Idea: Bite-Sized Fajita Bowls

pretty lime fajita

With this post, I begin the first of what I imagine will become a long series of appetizer ideas using my new favorite ingredient for entertaining…fjita aerial

This weekend, I picked up a package of egg-roll wrappers. And since I opened them tonight and starting playing around with them, my mind has been racing with ideas.

I often see won-ton wrappers used to make lots of creative appetizers on Pinterest.com. I finally picked up a package for my own culinary experimentation. But note, I went with egg roll wrappers instead. Why? They’re similar, but bigger. So if I want to cut them to different shapes and sizes with a knife, then I can have whatever I need, including won tons, by slicing accordingly.

Occasionally I am clever.

For this first one, I had some venison steak strips leftover, some peppers, limes, chiles, and tomatoes. The rest is history. I love these. It’s like a perfect appetizer compliment to my own meal and I can’t wait to try them out on a group.tres fajitas

Ingredients

1 egg roll wrapper (Get a good healthy brand like Nasoya)

2 oz. steak, sliced into strips

red pepper flakes

1.5 T red and green chiles

1 slice of lime

a few diced tomatoes

a few thinly-sliced peppers

dash of cumin and chili powder

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a mini-muffin tin. Set aside.bite fajita

Take the egg roll wrapper and slice into four equal squares. Press into pan, folding sides to fit down as necessary, but not pushing too hard.

In a small pan, sear the steak with the vegetables, cumin, and chili powder. You can use other vegetables, of course, I used common fajita ingredients I had sitting in the fridge, but you might also try corn, avocado (not seared in pan though), tomatoes, black beans, etc. Saute for a few minutes, then evenly  distribute among the wrappers. Spritz some lime juice over the top to keep the steak moist–and a little more after it comes out of the oven–but not too much or else they’ll get soggy.

Bake for about 10 minutes or until edges of wrappers turn golden brown. Top with chiles and a dash of red pepper flakes. Serve right away and warm!