Monday, February 15, 2016

Meatless Monday: Warm Farro Salad with Roasted Mushrooms and Butternut Squash

One of my guilty pleasures is risotto. Especially creamy, cheesy mushroom risotto. I can't remember the last time I indulged. With it's high caloric value, blood sugar-spiking starch, and often large amounts of cheese, it's not a dish I can eat these days. 

That's how this dish was born. I wanted something that hinted of mushroom risotto but wouldn't throw my hours of working out with my trainer out the window. 

I've replaced the quick blood sugar-spiking arborio rice for healthier, chewier farro, an ancient grain dating back to the earliest of farming days. I dry toast it first, bringing out the grain's natural nuttiness then it's simmered it with a cinnamon stick to add even more earthiness and warmth. 

The mushrooms and bite-sized butternut squash are sprinkled with a bit of extra virgin olive oil then tossed in a custom blend of warm spices before quick roasting in a super hot oven. With roasting, the mushrooms take on a meatiness while the butternut squash provides juicy pops of creamy sweetness. 

For a bit more depth, parmesan three ways is added at the end, while the veggies and farro are still warm from cooking. Right before serving, a good handful of chopped parsley adds color and provides freshness while a light garnish of chopped pistachios adds crunch. Served while still warm or at room temperature, this salad is a healthy meal for a Meatless Monday or a Lenten Friday. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Until next time, be healthy, be well. xo, ani

Warm Farro Salad with Roasted Mushrooms and Butternut Squash

Serves 4

1 cup farro 
1 cinnamon stick
12 ounces crimini mushrooms
2 cups ½-inch cubed butternut squash (1 small squash)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
2 tablespoons shaved parmesan
2 tablespoons shredded parmesan
½ cup packed fresh parsley, thick stems removed, then rough chopped
¼ cup whole pistachios

Place a medium saucepan on high heat. When pan is hot, add the farro and toast grains, stirring every 10 seconds for 2 minutes. Add enough water to cover farro by 1 inch and add the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. At 15 minutes, turn heat off and let farro sit for 5 minutes. Drain farro, place in a large bowl discarding the cinnamon stick, then set farro aside. 

While farro is cooking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Wipe mushrooms down with a paper towel, trim off ¼-inch of the stem, discarding the ends, then slice the mushrooms into thirds. Place them on a low rimmed baking sheet and set aside. 

Trim away the top, stem part of the butternut squash then cut the squash at the base of the neck, saving the bulb of the squash containing the seeds for another use. Using a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler (my preferred method on younger, smaller squash), peel away the skin and discard it. Cut the squash into roughly ½-inch thick slices. Stack the slices and cut into ½-inch thick matchsticks. Then cut across the matchsticks, making cubes. Place the squash into the pan with the mushrooms. Drizzle the vegetables with the olive oil.

In a small bowl, stir together the spices from the salt through to the nutmeg until well blended. Toss the vegetables with the spices to coat well and as evenly as possible. Place the baking sheet in the oven and roast for 12 minutes. Remove the pan, stir the vegetables, return the pan to the oven and roast an additional 12 minutes. When vegetables are done, add them to the bowl with the farro. Throw in the parmesan and parsley, tossing to incorporate. Divide among four bowls and garnish each serving with pistachios. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional information on 'Confessions' is approximate and is intended as a guide. Data is calculated on MyFitnessPal and can vary depending on which products you use as well as measuring accuracy.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Healthy Eats: Mexican Lentil Stew { #MeatlessMonday #Vegan #GlutenFree #DiabeticFriendly }

Move over cauliflower. This year’s food darling will be pulses (legumes, beans, peas). At least they will be if you believe everything you read on the inter-webs. Personally, lentils are one of my absolute favorite pulses of all.

From soups and curries, to salads and burgers, these tiny little legumes are nutritional powerhouses capable of improving digestion, helping to maintain a healthy heart, as well as helping to control diabetes and cancer, aiding in weight loss and fighting anemia.

Lentils are a low calorie, fat free food that are high in protein and are a rich source of vitamin B (folate, B1, B6), iron (needed for oxygen transport and energy production), copper (needed for collagen), manganese (good for blood sugar control), and phosphorus (bone strength). They’re a good source of energy as they're high in carbohydrates with nearly 50% of them being dietary fiber making this a good food choice, especially for diabetics, as the high fiber content acts to slow down the body’s absorption of food into the bloodstream thus maintaining constant sugar levels.

One of my favorite ways to make lentils are as a soup and this recipe was born out of my desire for a nourishing bowl filled with healthy ingredients that was filling enough to be a meal all by itself. The addition of the soy chorizo adds tons of flavor and boosts the protein to a whopping 25g per serving.

In the past, I would have thrown in potatoes but since I try to avoid them and their quick conversion to sugar in the blood, I went in search of a suitable substitute. Enter the chayote, a favorite squash in many Mexican households, though not mine when I was growing up. I admit, I had never seen one cooked until I moved in with my grandmother who eats them regularly. Curious one day, I tasted one of her little boiled veggies and thought they had potential (I love my grams but am not a fan of how she boils all her squash, my least favorite way to prepare it made even more so by my grandmother’s tendency to boil them until they nearly fall apart in the water, completely obliterating any texture they might otherwise have; she loves it that way, go figure).

Chayote (pronounced “chah-YOH-teh”) – a member of the gourd family – is native to Mexico. Also known as a squash pear or chayote squash pear, it's available year-round at most major supermarkets. This fruit is typically not that much bigger than the average pear, it’s texture is a cross between a potato and a cucumber and the fruit, seed, stems and leaves are all edible. The flesh itself can be rather bland, a blank canvas that can take on the flavor of mostly anything it’s cooked with so it’s especially tasty in this stew that’s heavily spiced from the soy chorizo.

With it's high water content (nearly 93 percent of it’s total weight), this food is an excellent choice for healthy eats: one chayote is a mere 39 calories, nearly fat free, no cholesterol, very low in sodium, high in potassium and low in carbohydrate (9g with 3.5g of fiber). I plan on doing much more experimenting with this fruit in the coming months and I plan on posting my successes.

In the meantime, I hope you try this stew and let me know what you think in the comments below. It’s vegan, gluten-free, diabetic-friendly and heart-healthy. For a lower sodium option, nix the commercial vegetable broth for plain water, it will still be delicious!

Until next time … xo, ani

Makes 6 servings as a first coarse or 4 servings as a main

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced celery
1 cup sliced carrots
2 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press or finely minced
1/2 to 1 serrano chile, seeds removed, then diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
10 ounce package soy-based chorizo
2 cups French, brown or green lentils
2 quarts low sodium vegetable broth

4-5 cups water (depending on how soupy you want your finished stew)
1 chayote, diced
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, or to taste
1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
6 ounces organic baby spinach

Optional garnish: Cilantro Lime Salsa Verde

Heat a large dutch oven on medium heat. Add the olive olive and heat for 30 seconds. Toss in onions, celery, carrot; sweat for 6-7 minutes, stirring to keep from browning. Add the garlic, chile and cumin, stirring constantly for 30 seconds or until garlic and chile are fragrant. Squeeze in the chorizo, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Brown the chorizo for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking. Toss in the lentils, stirring to incorporate then pour in the broth and water. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the chayote, bring to a boil again, adding more water if needed, cover and reduce heat and cook for an additional 15 minutes or until lentils are tender. Add salt to taste then stir in the cilantro and spinach, cover, turn off heat and allow spinach to wilt into the stew for 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with my Cilantro Lime Salsa Verde.

Nutritional facts below are for 6 servings and do not reflect the optional garnish.

Nutrition Facts
Servings 6.0
Amount Per Serving
calories 410
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 10 g
15 %
Saturated Fat 1 g
6 %
Monounsaturated Fat 1 g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0 g
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
0 %
Sodium 701 mg
29 %
Potassium 1059 mg
30 %
Total Carbohydrate 57 g
19 %
Dietary Fiber 26 g
105 %
Sugars 8 g
Protein 25 g
50 %
Vitamin A
171 %
Vitamin C
43 %
17 %
46 %

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Wanna get lucky for Chinese New Year? P.F. Chang's wants to help

My idea of Chinese food growing up was my dad's chop suey. Everyone in my family loved it. I remember thinking how worldly we were every time he made it as it was always enthusiastically inhaled by us girls. Of course, I learned later that it's actually an American-Chinese dish created mostly to appeal to American tastebuds but that doesn't diminish my love for the dish – it started my love affair with Chinese food.

This Monday, February 8th is the start of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Also known as Spring Festival, it's a time to celebrate with family, relax, regroup, and of course, eat lucky foods to help usher in a prosperous year.

Recently, I was invited by the folks over at P.F. Chang's to sample their limited-time Chinese New Year Menu. When I was told that for the entire month of February, each time a guest orders an item off this Chinese New Year menu and when someone shares their Chinese New Year wish on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using #PFChangswish, P.F. Chang’s would donate $1 (up to $100,000) to Boys & Girls Clubs of America, I knew it was something I needed to check out. 

I invited my friend Michael to escape the office for an hour and accompany me to our nearest P.F. Chang's in Fashion Valley. Luckily for us, the El Niño storm that hit over the weekend had dissipated returning our sunshine and lovely moderate temps so I asked to be seated outside. That way I could take photos without feeling like I was disrupting anyone's meal not to mention that I wanted to be able to guiltlessly spread out the dishes as I intended to order many items off the menu so we could share little tastes of everything. 

The Fashion Valley location has six new items on the special menu and we tried five of them, the sixth being a Sichuan Chili Garlic Chicken ($16.50) which, from the menu description, sounded too spicy for my blood. 

We started off our lunch with a Monkey Mule (it's the year of the Monkey, after all).

This refreshing ginger-forward cocktail is a wonderful mix of Monkey Shoulder Whiskey, P.F. Chang's house made Ginger Beer, peach syrup and, according to the menu, is supposedly garnished with an orange twist (our cocktail wasn't garnished). This light drink had a heady perfume, just hinted at sweetness and could easily become dangerous as it was so refreshing, I could see how someone would have no problem throwing a couple of these back in no time. Thank goodness for work lunch hours and conscientious employees who ordered one drink to share. Even between the two of us, we reluctantly left the restaurant with half the glass still full. Served in a rocks glass, this cocktail will set you back $10. 

The first of the entrees to come out was the Hong Kong Style Sea Bass.

If you're a long-time reader, you know of my general aversion to most seafood. I'm working on overcoming this gastronomical quirk of mine, slowly convincing myself to try different kinds of fish, prepared different ways to see what I like and don't like. What I've discovered so far is that I like mild, white fish like cod and tilapia. And, now I can add sea bass to that list.

P.F. Chang's take on the traditional Cantonese steamed dish was light, mild and healthy (and headless, thank goodness!). A generous filet of steamed wild-caught Chilean sea bass is seasoned with fresh ginger. The filet is atop a medley of Asian mushrooms and is swimming in a delicate ginger-coriander broth. The addition of the non-traditional grape tomatoes added a hint of acid and the micro greens and fresh cilantro garnishing the dish added a freshness and another pop of color. Priced at $26.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu. 

The next lucky food to come out was P.F. Chang's take on longevity noodles. 

The crispy garlic prawns in this Long Life Noodles & Prawns dish were my favorite part of the meal. I couldn't keep from picking at them. Nicely seasoned, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, they made me forget I was eating seafood. The chilies the dish was pictured with on the menu scared me as I'm a bit of a heat wimp. 

When the dish came out, Michael tried it first and told me it wasn't hot. Being the heat baby that I am, I was prepared for his version of "not hot" to not jive with my interpretation of "not hot." I was right to do so. Though not spicy if you avoided the actual chili, the wok-tossed egg noodles (a guilt-laden treat for me since I rarely allow myself pasta these days) left me with just the right amount of tingly sensation on my lips and tongue letting me know the dish did indeed have chili. Priced at $14.95, this dish is a generous portion and easily makes a meal for two.

Dumplings are another food considered lucky to eat for the Chinese New Year as their traditional shape calls to mind Chinese silver coins. On the menu are these Handmade Butternut Squash Dumplings.

Far from traditional, neither Michael or I could pick these out as being Chinese in flavor. We both agreed they'd be more easily mistaken as Italian ravioli. But you know what? We didn't care. They were heavenly little pillows of rich buttery squash goodness. Hand formed, these babies are served with a bit of umami butter sauce. Though Michael didn't discern cheese in the filling, there was definitely a creaminess to them that made me think that there was some soft cheese action going on in there. Cheese or not, these little dumplings will cost you $7.75. Due to the richness, I suggest ordering these as an appetizer to share as two dumplings were more than enough. 

We ended our meal tasting with the one dessert offering on the menu. Sweets are considered highly lucky for Chinese New Year as is citrus. Going for a double, this Mandarin Cake ($6.75) has made my "Favorite thing I ever ate" list.

The menu does not have a picture of this cake and it's description of "Light orange sponge cake infused with a creamy vanilla sauce and topped with mint and fresh orange slices" does not do it justice. As Michael pointed out and I heartily agreed, this cake is bakery level good. Sandwiched between layers of cake, the light vanilla mousse-like cream is like biting into a billowy white cloud and when combined in the same bite as the mandarin curd, brings to mind the 50/50 orange sherbet bars of my youth. The cake is surrounded by a very light hand of vanilla scented sauce (read, not drowning in sauce which would destroy this cake and make for a soggy bottom). The cake is typical of Asian desserts in that it's not overly sweet like most American desserts can be.

Although I enjoyed all the items we tried, watching what I eat and wanting to eat healthfully on the rare occasion I visit restaurants, the Steamed Sea Bass is a dish I am looking forward to guiltlessly ordering again before the special menu offerings end. 

Feeling lucky yet?  Maybe this will help: 

P.F. Chang’s will be hanging traditional Chinese red envelopes filled with free offers on trees near its restaurants. Five lucky winners across the country will open an envelope with a golden ticket for free P.F. Chang’s for an entire year!

Go on. Go get lucky.

Disclosure: P.F Chang's sponsored this post by providing two gift cards valued at $20 each to use to help pay for my meal in exchange for an honest review. I received no additional compensation. As always with reviews here on 'Confessions of a foodie', all opinions are my own and not influenced by the sponsor.