One of the results of starting a Weight Watchers program is that I have become more adventurous with vegetables. I have always considered myself quite the vegetable lover and the Critic has increased his vegetable intake exponentially since I started cooking for him. But in the Weight Watchers program, there are vegetables and there are vegetables. There are carrots and radishes which you can eat until you turn orange and red and not lose a single blessed WW point. And then there are peas and potatoes, which add up. For the first week, I ate a lot of carrots and radishes. And then I started to get a bit tired of crunchy carrots and radishes and I looked around for some more vegetables that could fill me up on little or no points but with a new flavor. And so when I did my weekly shopping, the humble celery root jumped into my virtual basket. It's in season, it can be consumed for zero points and it has an interesting flavor. It's also big. So I needed something with the bulk to carry a lot of celery root. And rummaging around in my cupboard, I found a hoard of white beans. I am a crafty cook sometimes, and I figured that grated celery root in white beans would pass the most stringent of vegetable detectors on the part of my family and so I decided to pair them together. It was so good, I ate the whole pot over the next few days and never managed to test it on the rest of the family. I love looking for dishes that have flavor and bulk at the moment, because although the WW program does not in any way starve you...there is always that knowledge lingering at the back of your mind that you are on a Diet and therefore Need More Food. As pictured here, the first night I had a large bowl with a green salad and a pint of beer. (I love a diet that allows you to have a pint of beer.) And the next evening, I paired the beans as a side with a virtuous grilled dry-spiced turkey steak. It was delicious and filling in both meals, a new staple in my fat-free existence. (WW points for a bowl as pictured: 3)
275 g white (haricot) beans
2 carrots, cubed
half a small celeriac (about 250g) peeled and grated
800 ml chicken stock
2-3 sprigs of thyme
2 tsp mustard
1 tsp garlic purée (substitute with a couple of cloves of garlic for zero points if you have good quality garlic; mine was all sprouted and nasty)
If you are organised, you can soak the beans overnight before cooking them with the rest of the ingredients. However, one of the reasons I love my Crock Pot (slow cooker) is that I can throw a stew like this in the machine around lunch time and by dinner time it's fragrant and delicious. So either soak the beans, drain them and cook with the rest of the ingredients for two hours or until the beans are tender - or throw everything in a crock pot before lunch and have yourself a lovely dinner. You could also throw in some thinly sliced onions (zero points) for a bit more flavor. I meant to do so and forgot, but the result was nevertheless very tasty. And filling. Did I mention filling?
Weight watchers points: 3
Many years ago, when the Critic and I first started living together, we found that our weight was ballooning. Both of us had been rather random eaters in our single days and the sudden onslaught of calorie-laden home cooked meals and dinners out had their toll on our waistlines. I'm still trying to recover from those days. The Critic, however, really buckled down and worked on the issue and managed to lose some 30 pounds through hard work and perseverance. He took great pleasure in teasing friends and colleagues about how he managed it:
Friend or colleague: Wow, you look great! How did you lose all that weight?
Critic: I found this AMAZING pill/diet/witch doctor (depending on his mood).
FOC: That's amazing! Tell me more - I want to try it!
Critic: Nah, actually I just exercised more and ate less. Worked like a charm.
FOC: (disappointed attempt to find joke funny) Oh. Hah-hah...
And while it's true that the Critic went to the gym six or seven times a week in this period, we both credit one other factor in his weight loss: we stopped eating Indian food at the restaurant down the road once or twice a week. In fact, I think we completely avoided the place for nearly three months. (They welcomed us with open arms when we came back, I'm happy to say. I think they were afraid we'd moved away or - worse - found another lover.) We love Indian food. I first tasted it in Little India in Chicago at the ripe old age of 20 and it was love at first sight; I knew I had found a lifelong companion. When the Critic and I first dated, Indian restaurants figured prominently in our lives. We didn't care about the coconut cream or the fried pappadams: we were in love. But when we started counting calories, it had to be the first thing to go. Creamy coconut sauces, full fat yogurts, fried breads and all that glorious ghee...my favorite Indian dishes are always the richest and most caloric.
So now it's January and you've made your resolutions to eat more healthily and lose some weight. Why would you want to look at Indian food? Because it doesn't have to be caloric. Well, ideally it should. But there are a few dishes out there that aren't, and I find that a healthy dose of spiciness can make up for the loss of a lot of cream. Tandoori chicken proves my point. Yogurt (low fat or no fat works fine) and spices (no calories at all to speak of) work together to tenderize a skinless piece of chicken, which you then grill without fat on your trusty cast iron griddle pan and serve with unbuttered (but spiced) rice and a cool raita. Weight Watchers points per portion, including rice: 6. Not bad for a filling, spicy dinner.
Tandoori Chicken with Spiced Rice and Raita (serves two, 5 WW points per serving)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For the marinade:
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp hot paprika
pinch of ground cloves
2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 piece of ginger about the size of a thumb, finely chopped (around 15-20g)
2-3 Tbs lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
pinch of pepper
For the rice:
50 g yellow or red lentils
120 g basmati rice
1 cinnamon stick
3-5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp salt
For the raita:
4 Tbs plain yogurt
1/4 cucumber, cut in thin matchsticks
1/4 tsp salt
fresh coriander or mint to taste
Mix the marinade ingredients together in a shallow bowl and add the chicken breasts. Coat thoroughly and leave for half an hour. In the meantime, start the rice and raita.
Rinse the rice thoroughly and place in a pot or a rice cooker. Cover with water to about one centimeter above the level of the rice. Break the cardamom pods open with a mortar and pestle, extract the black seeds within and pound them well with the pestle. Add the cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks, salt and lentils to the rice and cook according to the rice cooker's instructions or for 15 minutes (until tender) if cooking in a pot.
Mix together the ingredients for the raita and reserve.
Heat a griddle pan or barbecue until good and hot. Add the chicken breasts and allow them to cook for 3-5 minutes or until the meat pulls away from the griddle easily. Turn over, cover and cook for another 5 minutes or so, checking periodically whether the meat is cooked through. The combination of the yogurt and covering the meat for the second half ensures that it stays moist and tender.
Serve with the rice and the raita.
Enjoy - guilt free!
Frugality. So far, it seems to be the catchword of 2009, with journalists everywhere falling over themselves and rushing to tell us how to eat more cheaply, travel more cheaply, get by with less. It makes me wonder whether our grandchildren will see our generation as that quaint set of old people who conserve bits of tin foil and tut-tut about the Wastefulness of Youth Today. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression (let us hope that some day it will not be known instead as the Relatively Small In Comparison to 2009 Depression) and it was clear in every move my grandmothers made in the kitchen. Although my Austrian grandmother never stinted on buying the best cuts of meat for her roast, she knew how to get the most out of the cheap ones too. Potato peels, onion skins and chicken bones were never thrown in the garbage before being used to create the most flavorful chicken stock on this side of heaven. My Irish-American grandmother planted a large vegetable garden every year until she was in her eighties. As she got older, she recruited grandchildren to help out with the planting and weeding, but she kept going. And although these habits had their roots in the difficulties of the 1930s, the result wasn't second rate food. It was so much better than the food that anyone else I knew in my childhood prepared. This was undoubtedly helped by 60 or more years of experience in the kitchen. But even more than that, it was thanks to a lifetime of habits that used the best ingredients and then extracted every last bit of flavor out of them. I am grateful to them both, because they gave me a living example of how to cook well and - as a by-product - frugally.
One of the most frugal recipes I inherited from my Austrian grandmother was her lentil soup. When I was at university, I could throw together a huge pot for my starving fellow students for under three dollars, including the meat. Dried lentils, an onion, a couple of carrots, a bouillon cube, a bit of garlic and a couple of smoked sausages were all I needed to make a half dozen friends extremely happy. These days, I usually reserve my lentils for Margaret's Chicken and Dumplings, because I know that it's something the Critic, his daughter and my boys will love. But a few days ago as I contemplated the remnants of a bag of brussels sprouts at the back of the vegetable bin, I decided to make a departure in the lentil soup game. In the name of frugality, of course. And the resulting soup was hearty, full of vitamins and flavor and gobbled up by my youngest son. My grandmother would be so proud.
(A note on the photo for this post: I inherited this Christmas ornament from my mother, who told me when I was a child that it dated from the Depression, when people were hungry and so decorated their trees with the humble foods they were missing. It's one of my most cherished possessions and I find it miraculous that it has survived nearly 80 Christmases.)
Not Grandma Liebezeit's Lentil Soup (six servings)
This is a great way to sneak some leftover brussels sprouts into your family without them really being aware of it. (Another good one is a stir fry: just slice them in thin lamelles and no one will ever be the wiser.) We only buy sprouts once a year - for Christmas dinner of course - and so every January I need to find a few ways to use them up.
260 g dried green or brown lentils
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, cubed
8-10 brussels sprouts, cubed (cut in 8ths or 12ths)
4 slices of bacon (streaky/American style)
2 liters of home-made broth or the best salt-free store bought stock you can find
2 tsp mustard powder
1/4 cup sherry
Cut the bacon across the streaks in thin strips. Fry them in the bottom of a large soup pan until crisp and cooked through. Add the onion and garlic and sweat them for a few minutes, until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the brussels sprouts and cook another five minutes, until they have wilted. Add the sherry and use it to deglaze the bottom of the pot, using a spoon to scrape up any browned bits and stirring. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 30-35 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Taste for salt and mustard powder as it may need a bit more of each to give it a little edge. You might even want to throw in a tablespoon of vinegar, depending on your tastes.
Weight Watchers points: 3.5 per serving. (Yes, I have gone on the wagon food-wise and will try to post the points in the Weight Watchers system for the next three months. Happy New Year Resolutions, everyone!)