Saturday, March 20, 2010

Expanding My Cooking Repertoire

I am in the fifteen month of what I now can call a lifestyle change without fear or the urge to choke back the words. To help me succeed on my journey to becoming and staying a healthy writer, I often ask myself how can I keep my efforts satisfying and fun. One of the ways is to play with cooking and change up what I eat. I'm always trying to expand my cooking repertoire while focusing on making healthy yet delicious meals.

I've struggled with weight most of my life and really started to lose that battle around the time I was 20 or 21. When I first started to build up my cookbook collection and form my cooking habits, I was already in Weight Watchers (WW). Most of my cookbooks are from WW or are labeled healthy or low fat. Other helpful sources are the American Heart Association (AHA) or Cooking Light.

While I have a set number of recipes that I know I really like, I like to keep things fresh and experiment with new dishes on a regular basis. Cooking one day for the month lets me increase my meal variety every week too.

Last year, I dabbled a bit more with vegetarian cooking. I found a lot of appealing recipes in my AHA One-Dish Meals cookbook and several WW ones. I enjoy watching cooking shows, and Christina Cooks is getting me to the point where I might attempt some vegan meals. I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian or vegan, but experimenting with both adds a lot of variety and even fun to my diet.

My favorite vegetarian recipe from the AHA One-Dish Meal cookbook is:

Lentils Bourguignon

Serves 5, 1 2/3 cups per serving

2 cups robust red wine (burgundy preferred)
2 medium onions, chopped
5 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons no-salt added tomato paste
6 ounces button mushrooms, thickly sliced
3 medium carrots, thickly sliced
2 medium ribs of celery, thickly sliced
6 cups water, or 3 cups water plus 3 cups fat-free, low sodium chicken broth (I often use all broth because I don't have huge sodium concerns.)
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped (often use can of diced tomatoes)
1 1/2 cups dried lentils, sorted for stones and shriveled lentils and rinsed
1 cup uncooked pearl barley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a stockpot, cook the wine, onions and garlic over high heat for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the liquid part is reduced to about 1/2 cup.

Add the tomato paste, stirring until dissolved. Stir in the mushrooms, carrots and celery. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the remaining ingredients except the salt, Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer for 15 minutes or until all excess liquid evaporates (no liquid should be pooled, but the bottom of the pot should be wet) and the lentils are tender. Stir in the salt.

Per Serving:
Calories: 435, Total Fat: 1.5 g (Saturated: .5 g; Polyunsaturated .5 g; Monounsaturated 0 g), Cholesterol: 0 mg, Sodium 298 mg, Carbohydrates 84 g, Fiber 24 g, Sugar 13 g, Protein 23 g.

This is such a substantive, filling dish that I often get more than 5 servings from it and adjust my calorie/point count downward accordingly.

Expanding my cooking repertoire includes experimenting with foods I've never eaten. Until I tried to learn new areas of healthy cooking, I never knew how much I like lentils, barley, quinoa, oatmeal, other whole grains, and new-to-me vegetables such as kale or fennel. Honestly, I think I'm becoming a food freak. I read with great interest about cooking with whole foods, sustainable farming/local eating, the evils of processed foods and other ideas advocated by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and others.

As I've learned more about nutrition and cooking, I've become more comfortable with using cookbooks or watching cooking shows that aren't stamped safe for diets. Julia Child's cooking shows have a lot to teach people who really value healthy cooking. I can identify the recipes that will not increase my calorie intake for the day, and I now know how to make healthier substitutes to keep the dish in the right calorie or point range for me to continue losing weight. Here is a recipe from the classic Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.

Lentil Stew

1 cup dry lentils
1 cup sliced leeks or chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cooking oil
4 cups beef broth
1 7.5 oz can tomatoes, cut up (used small can tom. sauce)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano, crushed (used both)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup chopped carrot (increased to one cup)
1/2 cup chopped celery (increased to one cup)
1/2 pound fully cooked smoked sausage links, sliced (used turkey or low-fat kielbasa)

Rinse lentils and set aside. In a large saucepan, cook leeks or onion and garlic in hot oil till tender but not brown. Stir in lentils, beef broth, undrained tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, thyme or oregano, pepper, cumin and bay leaf. Bring to boiling and reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add carrot and celery. Return to boiling. Reduce heat to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes more or till lentils and vegetables are tender. Stir in sausage and heat through. Discard bay leaf. If desired, garnish each serving with snipped parsley. Makes 4 main-dish servings.

Yes, I really like lentils. I also really enjoy the flavor that meat adds to this dish. I'm learning the value of balance and all things in moderation.

Expanding my cooking repertoire sometimes means taking the time to look at my collection of cookbooks and taking down one that I've barely used. I discovered an old gem that way. The Professional Chef's Techniques of Healthy Cooking from The Culinary Institute of America was published in 1993, and many of the recipes serve 10 or more since it's aimed at restaurant chefs. While I have not made (or maybe even any) of the recipes, I have found this book incredibly useful for its nutrition guidelines, information on how to improve the nutritional content of meals while preserving taste, and step-by-step instructions for healthy cooking techniques. It gives me more skills to create my own meals and recipes, another way I'm expanding my cooking repertoire. In my next healthy cooking post, I'll share one of my first creations - a yummy sausage and veggie pasta sauce.

How do you keep your cooking fresh? Do you have any suggestions for how I can expand my cooking repertoire? Are there any cookbooks or cooking shows that you highly recommend?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at


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