Saturday, March 26, 2011

How about something different for a change? You up for it?....

I've often spoken about falling into ruts about the foods we eat. We all do. It's easy, you don't need to come up with anything new, you're used to the preparation and ingredients, they're familiar flavors, you have everything you need to produce it and you can make it almost on "auto-pilot". Lots of people don't do well with change. Add to this our stress-filled busy lives, family meal times turned topsy-turvy and you come to eating the same things all the time. I keep certain things in the pantry as "backup" just for these "duh days", when I'm brain fried but still need to get dinner going and I'm sure most people do it too.

However, on those days when we're "up", we can handle something new so why not look at nutritious, visually stimulating yet yummy alternatives? So I got started doing some research and I found some pretty exciting side dishes we could easily incorporate into our lives that would not only give us lots of nutrition, but even help those with some food issues at the same time, like wheat allergies, gluten-intolerant, vegetarian and vegan. Maybe some lactose-intolerant too, well see. Above all I found that these tasty dishes will be enjoyed by everyone due to their vibrant colors and tastes.

One of THE super foods that isn't as popular as it should be is AMARANTH. Maybe you're saying to yourself: what is that?

Amaranth is treated as a grain, yet it's not quite that since it's a member of the grass family (so it has no gluten). Popular in Mexico, Central and South America, India and Nepal, it holds so much promise it's been called "the crop of the future" due to it's potential of being easy to harvest; very high yields; inexpensive to grow by everyone; tolerant of arid environments (doesn't need much water); it contains so much protein and essential amino acids (more than 30% more than other cereals); very high in fiber; needs very little fuel to cook and it grows rapidly, has health benefits like lowering cholesterol and more....

It was one of the staple foods for the Aztecs and Incas as far back as 3000 BC when it was used to prepare ritual drinks and foods. It was prized during the month of celebrations for the great god Huitzilopochtli (the blue butterfly god) and it was one of the most important Aztec celebrations during the year and even figures of the god where made of Amaranth (but with added honey and blood) and so everyone would eat pieces of the god at the end of the rituals. You can see why the Spaniards outlawed this practice due to it's similarities to communion and anything related to it and so the use of this valuable food was lost to us (except in some remote areas that is). Mexico has for a while been bringing back this valuable food and we have some sweet treats that are made from it called "Alegrias", candies, a thick drink for holidays like "atole" and is added to other foods as well. The leaf can be eaten, it's used as a natural colorant, etc.... you get the idea, it's pretty great.

Another super food is Quinoa which much like the Amaranth is also not a grain but a grass and shares the benefits and uses, curious that it too has the same history as the first when it comes to the prohibition by the Spanish but this time imposed upon the Incas. Also making a comeback once it's benefits and properties have been recalled so we have this super food now on store shelves as well.

So okay, it's great, but how to you cook it and turn it into something the whole family can enjoy? Don't think you will serve something unappetizing or unappealing either, healthy doesn't have to mean nasty, not at all.... let me show you:

Amaranth can be used to make popcorn but don't use any oil, just dry heat, then finish off with melted butter (or similar), some salt and go. You can flavor it too. Use it in soups, just add and let it cook with the soup. Grind it and use as a flour for baked goods, just remember that no gluten means no rise, so flatbreads, hot cakes, etc.

Amaranth or Quinoa Tabouli: A lovely fresh salad that can be a main dish or used in wraps or as a side dish. A mid-eastern salad normally made with bulgur wheat, makes light,refreshing, warm weather fare. Try it with quinoa or amaranth for a delightful new taste.

1 cup quinoa or amaranth
1 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup scallions, chopped
2 tbsp fresh mint
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1/4 cup olives, sliced
lettuce leaves, whole

Simmer quinoa or amaranth in an equal volume of water for 12-15 minutes. Drain if needed. Allow to cool. Place all ingredients except lettuce and olives in a mixing bowl and toss together lightly. Chill for an hour or more to allow flavours to blend. Wash and dry lettuce leaves and use them to line a salad bowl. Add tabouli and garnish with olives.

Amaranth or Quinoa Pudding: This quick and wholesome dessert is also elegant and tasty. It tastes suprisingly light compared to rice pudding despite the fact that quinoa is much higher in protein than rice.

2 cups amaranth or quinoa, cooked
1 cup apple juice
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup almonds, chopped fine
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
juice of 1/2 lemon
grated rind of one lemon
dash of cinnamon

Combine ingredients in a large sauce pan, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Pour pudding into individual dessert bowls. Top with a few grapes or strawberries and chill.

Amaranth or Quinoa Stir Fry: A lovely alternative you will enjoy!

2 cups cooked amaranth or quinoa
2 Tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, sliced
1 celery stalk, sliced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp seasoning, your choice

Sauté veggies, garlic, almonds and seeds in the oil until vegetables are tender crisp. Add soy sauce, seasonings and amaranth or quinoa. Mix well until warmed through.

Here are some amazing recipes thanks to the Glutten-Free Goddess (thank you!) that you will love. They are so full of flavor, you'll never think these are so healthy and nutritious!

Quinoa Taco Salad: If you love black beans, add 'em in. You can also add crumbled goat cheese on top, if you desire or anything else but this one is the lighter version you can expand on.

1 cup Quinoa cooked in two cups water (Fluff the cooked quinoa with a fork. Scoop into a bowl.)

Salad ingredients:
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
Juice from 2 juicy limes
Sea salt, to taste
2-3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro or parsley
1 half small red or purple onion, diced fine
1 small yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, diced fine
1 cup roasted corn kernels (I used frozen, roasted on a cookie sheet for 6-7 minutes, then cooled)
1 large head of crisp romaine lettuce, washed, dried, sliced crosswise
Gluten-free tortilla chips (or make your own like me)
1 large avocado, pitted, peeled, diced

Drizzle the cooked quinoa with extra virgin olive oil and toss to coat. Squeeze on fresh lime juice and toss again. Season with sea salt, to taste. Add in the fresh chopped cilantro, diced red onion, diced yellow pepper, and roasted corn kernels. Stir lightly to distribute. Taste test for seasoning adjustments.

Line four salad bowls or plates with the fresh romaine. Spoon the quinoa salad on the center of the lettuce. Add the diced avocado to each plate. Tuck in a few tortilla chips around the edges.
Serve with an extra lime wedge.

Want to add more? How about chopped black olives, your favorite fresh salsa, fresh fruit pieces work well like mango, orange and jicama, you can see how far you can go with this. There is no dairy in this but you could add our cream, cheese or whatnot if this is not an issue for you.

Cabbage Leaves Stuffed with Quinoa: Main dish, wonderful.....You can add sweet sausage to this filling, or other ingredients, but you can easily keep it vegan. Serve with a side of hummus.

1 large cabbage head

For the filling you'll need:
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, diced
1 red onion, peeled, diced
1 large tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
(4 sausages- these can be sweet Italian, chicken apple, turkey, buffalo, cut into chunks) optional
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 cup natural apple juice or cider
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon balsamic or apple cider vinegar
Sprinkle of sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel
A handful of raisins or dried cranberries
1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa

To make your sauce you'll need: (or you can use your own)
1 24-oz can of strained tomatoes or 6-9 fresh tomatoes, lightly cooked
1/2 cup apple juice or cider
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Sea salt, to taste

1-Cook your cabbage. You'll need a fresh, large head of green cabbage. Trim the bottom root and cut an X into the center core. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the head of cabbage for about five minutes until soft; remove and drain well.

2-Make the filling. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Throw the vegetables, apple, and sausage (if using) into a roasting pan and drizzle with a little olive oil. Add the apple juice, maple syrup, vinegar, salt and spices and toss well to coat. Roast in the oven till soft- about 30 to 40 minutes. Stir a few times during roasting to distribute the sauce and seasoning. Meanwhile make your sauce.

3-Combine the sauce ingredients in a sauce pan and stir. Cook over medium heat until simmering. Cover and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Taste test before using in the recipe. If you like a bit of spice, add a dash of hot pepper- but taste test first.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil four serving dishes or one medium-large baking dish.

When the cabbage has cooled enough for you to handle, cut another 1/2 inch or so off the bottom core if you need to and gently peel off the leaves one at a time; set the leaves aside on a plate or board. Trim any large leaves that may have a thick spine. Smaller leaves can be combined- use two to make one roll if you need to.

Combine the roasted vegetables and sausage with the cooked quinoa- start with a cup and see how much you need. If you want to stretch the filling, use more quinoa. Add a handful of raisins and stir in.

Lay a cabbage leaf on your work surface and add a spoonful of filling in the center. Fold in the side of the leaf and roll it up; tuck it into the prepared baking dish seam side down. Repeat for the remaining leaves and filling. Pour the sauce over the stuffed cabbage and bake in the center of a preheated oven for about 30 minutes, till heated through and bubbling.

You can make this stuffed cabbage ahead of time, if you wish; cover and chill. Don't add the sauce until ready to finish, add the sauce and bake. Add an extra 10 minutes or so to the baking time.

Roasted Vegetables on Polenta: Yes, there's gluten free polenta (from Bob's Red Mill, at the store or order online) and this combination is very satisfying and wonderful!

First off let's get the polenta done. You'll need:
2 Cups cornmeal
6 Cups water
1 Teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 Cup of shaved Parmesan cheese (or use Vegan cheese if you want to keep it clean)

Get the water boiling and make sure the salt is dissolved. Then dump in your measured out cornmeal and start stirring. Turn the heat down to medium. While the water is working, grease a casserole dish with some olive oil, doesn’t matter what kind, for the trip to the oven.

As the water is absorbed and the gluten from the cornmeal is developed, you’ll notice the mixture become thick. Takes 30 minutes, keep stirring. You’ll know you’ve reached the right consistency when you can pull a spatula across the bottom of the pot and the polenta does not fill it back in.

If you’d like a smooth creamy polenta, you can stop right here, it will be delicious. If you want a more solid, sliceable polenta then, turn out your newly formed polenta into your greased baking dish, making sure to pack it in to form a tight layer. This will help to form a crust when in the oven. Sprinkle the top with the Parmesan cheese and place in the oven for 15 minutes.

Now back to the recipe but keep this polenta one for reference. To finish you need:

Fistfuls of whatever fresh veggies you have on hand
Fresh garlic

Extra virgin olive oil

Herbs, your choice

Sea salt and ground pepper

Balsamic vinegar

Cooked polenta or store bought

Goat cheese, or feta, crumbled (omit to keep this vegan and dairy-free)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Toss in a large roasting pan:
1 sweet or red onion, chopped
1 cup broccoli florets

A handful of grape tomatoes

1 1/2 cups shredded cabbage, can be green and red together or just one

1 green bell pepper, cored and sliced

1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored and sliced

2-3 carrots, sliced into sticks
1 zucchini squash, sliced and cut in half

1 yellow squash, sliced and cut in half

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

Drizzle the veggies with extra virgin olive oil, and toss with a sprinkle of sea salt, some dried herbs of your choice [basil, oregano, thyme, sage], some fresh ground black pepper (or spicy red pepper flakes if you like heat) and a good dash or two of balsamic vinegar.

Throw the pan into the hot oven on a center rack, and roast away until almost done- about 30 to 40 minutes depending upon your oven and how many veggies you threw in the pan. Make sure you stir once or twice during the roasting to make sure all the veggies are coated and cooking evenly. When the veggies are almost done, cover the pan with foil and move the pan to a lower rack.

Slice the cooked polenta into fairly thin slices. Lay the slices on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Set the oven to Broil. Place the baking sheet with polenta on the higher oven rack, and broil until the polenta is sizzling and starting to get crispy around the edges (about 10 minutes in my oven).

Remove everything from the oven and assemble your plates. Divide the polenta slices among four plates. Top with roasted vegetables. Scatter crumbled goat cheese or whatever you've chosen. Enjoy!

Here you are, a nice collection of healthy, gluten and wheat free, plus vegetarian and vegan for you. Naturally you can adjust these to suit your needs but these are basics to part from. All are full of flavor, easy to make and will deliver a wonderful eating experience. So how about it? Have I temped you into adding some "super foods" into your daily lives?

Sending warm wishes to everyone, hoping your weekend is lovely. Have fun! Talk soon....

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