Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Healthy Chocolate Coconut Squares

There are times when you just need a hit of chocolate.

Of course I could grab a chocolate bar at the grocery store but honestly, most of them don't taste good (and have you looked at the ingredient lists lately?) and are full of sugar.

I've been trying to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets- this can be chalked up to several factors that are starting to hit me in middle age. (Yes, I think this is middle age?)

I am wary of being another statistic in a family with a history of diabetes. Then there are new articles that are coming out that have linked many of the "Western ailments" we often suffer from to high sugar consumption and not to fat consumption as we initially thought in the 80's. There are many articles about this but one of the most interesting is this National Geographic article.

There is also more local research being done about some of the potential links between sugar consumption and cancer (you can read more about that research here from the BC Cancer Foundation).

And this doesn't even touch upon the fact that most non-organic sugar is now GMO and we don't yet know the ramifications of that.

This is giving me pause for thought.

I am trying not to be a crazy maniac about this, but being aware means that when I make baked goods for the family, I am reducing the amount of sugar I add (generally you can reduce by at least 1/4-1/2 the amount with good results in most baked goods). I am trying to use unrefined, natural sweeteners more often (honey, maple syrup, unsweetened applesauce and bananas) and using stevia in my coffee and tea. I am trying to slowly but surely wean us off the level of sweetness that we are accustomed to with white sugar. Yes, I still use organic sugar but I am trying to be a bit more judicious in its use.

But I still have chocolate cravings- and I love all the cutesy raw and refined sugar-free desserts on Pinterest- but not only are they sometimes time consuming (shaping them into cute little balls or wafers!), they can require the use of food processors, blenders and other tools that not everyone has. And when I want chocolate, I want chocolate now (or 10 minutes ago!)

This is a super easy recipe that can be made in just a few minutes, with hardly any utensils used and can be ready to consume in 15 minutes.

Healthy Chocolate Coconut Squares
These were inspired by the recipe for Raw Chocolate Macaroons from a friend. I wanted something quicker, easier and with a touch of oats for a satisfying bite. These need to be kept in the fridge as the coconut oil base is really dependant on surrounding temperatures and can melt. They are the perfect hit of chocolate with a touch of natural sweetness.

1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup cocoa (dutch-processed or dark cocoa)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flaked unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup rolled oats

1. If needed, slightly warm the coconut oil until liquid (do this in a medium
sized saucepan on low heat or in microwave). Whisk in cocoa, maple syrup and vanilla.
2. Stir in coconut and oats.
3. Pour into 8"X 8" pan lined with wax paper or parchment paper that is larger than the pan. Fold over edges of paper and press down firmly until smooth. Place in fridge or freezer until hardened. Cut into 16 squares for small bites and store in covered container in fridge.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Healthy "Nutella" Smoothie

It's true. We love(d) Nutella.

Chocolate, hazelnuts and sweetness- blended into the perfect topping for crepes, toast or eaten by the spoon. It's touted as a healthy start for the day, right?

I know I refused to look at the ingredients for too long because we loved it. The kids ate their whole grain toast and their buckwheat crepes with it. But I had some twinges of guilt that I was feeding this modified-oil and sugar combo to my family despite my organic leanings- and probably too often.

Despite the fact that we now sometimes use an organic alternative to Nutella for those weekend/special treat mornings, there are those days when we crave that classic Nutella flavour but want something healthier for our mornings.

May I present The Healthy Nutella Smoothie
(or Hazelnut Chocolate Smoothie)
Blend this all up and voilĂ , a tasty and a truly nutritious start to the morning! This makes one large smoothie, or enough for 2-3 smaller portions.

2 cups hazelnut milk (instructions below) or 1/4 cup hazelnuts and 2 cups water (*)
2 tbsp pure cocoa (dutch-process, the dark one)
4 dates, pitted (or more, according to your desired sweetness)
1 banana (frozen or fresh, peeled)
1 tsp vanilla
4 ice cubes

This is really a simple starting point. Add more cocoa if you like a more chocolatey smoothie, more dates for more sweetness- it is completely adaptable for personal tastes.

* Note: You can blend 1 cup soaked hazelnuts with 4 cups water very well, strain it through a nut-milk bag, fine cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer to rid it of the grainy texture. You will have enough to make 2 smoothie recipes or reserve additional for other uses. I have reserved the nut "meat" that is leftover to put in the freezer to use in nut loaf, cookies or pancakes. If you don't mind some texture in your smoothie, or have a super-powerful blender, just add the nuts and water and sip away!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Parmesan Crackers (or Gluten-Free Crackers)

If you have real chunk of parmesan cheese in your fridge, run to it now. You are lucky. Hold it closely to your chest and read on. If not, you may want to run to the store now.

A few months ago, we picked up a packet of some parmesan snacks as a treat for my cheese-loving son. They looked like crackers but when I looked at the ingredients, it was a short list: parmesan cheese. 

That's it. I was shocked. They were incredible. 

And they were high in calcium and protein for my little guy. They were also perfectly salty and satisfying that the small handful of crackers was all you needed.

I was determined to figure out how to make them just like those cute little crackers in the packet because although they were delicious, they were expensive and hard to find. 

I tried baking them on a cookie sheet and they turned out good as thin crisps to serve with salad but they weren't the nice little cracker that was portable.

I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to make them perfect. I finally figured it out one day as I was putting away my baking sheets and I saw it- the mini muffin tin! That was what would work to make the perfect cracker.

Then my obsessive-self worked on using different quantities of cheese to figure out the perfect amount to make that perfect cracker.

Here it is- the perfect parmesan cheese cracker: great for packing as a special school snack, serving with salads or soups or topping with fancy tomato chutney.

You may not forgive me for this one. Entirely addictive.

Of yeah, they are gluten-free, naturally. 

Parmesan Crackers
If you don't have a mini muffin tin, use a larger muffin tin (increase amount of cheese) or just bake on a cookie sheet in little mounds. There is no need to grease the tin as the cheese has enough fat to release easily.

Real chunk of parmesan cheese, grated on large hole grater (approx. 1 cup to get started)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Pack 1 teaspoon measure with grated parmesan and then spoon into each mini muffin tin section.
3. Bake for 6 - 6 1/2 minutes, watching closely at end where it just slightly changes colour.
4. Remove from oven. Let cool at least 30 seconds before removing each with the tip of a knife or spatula onto paper towels. Let cool. 
5. When cool, store in sealed container.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Kale Pesto Pasta with Peas

One of my new favourite cookbook authors is not a trained chef but a celebrity.

I should state, I am not usually a celebrity follower. In fact, I am especially not a follower when it comes to "celebrity recipes" because they usually suck. Strong wording. Perhaps I should say that they are devoid of fat, salt, and all the good things that give flavour because they are on a diet. I feel sorry for them really, they need new recipes.

Although I usually fail miserably at the new Head's Up Game App when it comes to "Superstars" and "Icons, Legends & Stars", I do know this girl.

Gwyneth Paltrow. You may have heard of her?

The weird thing is, she is not like the others, I really love her style of cooking. Most of her recipes are how we eat at home- mostly vegetarian and sometimes some poultry for those who choose to roll that way.

Lately her recipe for Cavolo Nero Pesto is getting lots of play at our house. I've actually had 3 out of 3 kids in my house thank me for this dinner. Actually thank me. Even the two year old. That's big. And it is amazingly simple, nutritious and delicious.

Cavolo Nero is just a fancy Euro word for a type of kale that is slender and dark, also known as Black Kale, Lacinto Kale or Dinosaur Kale. You could use any kale or even broccoli in this recipe though.

(Note: The Head's Up game is super fun and I recommend it for parties. Don't ask me to name any movies Gwyneth has been in; however, I could recall at least 10 of her recipes that I love. Don't ever play the game with me unless you know this.)

Kale Pesto Pasta with Peas
Serves 4
(also known as 'Shrek Pasta' in our house)
Adapted from My Father's Daughter by Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth calls for 10 oil-packed anchovies in her recipe but I just add another pinch or two of salt in place of the anchovies. I've added up to 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds in the pesto for an even more nutritional punch and it was unrecognizable. Salt is important here for seasoning, don't skimp.

1 bunch kale, stripped of coarse stems
2 small garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt & ground pepper
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1 lb pasta: penne or spaghetti works well
1 cup frozen peas
freshly grated parmesan
up to 1 cup pasta water
*optional: 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
2. Put kale into boiling water and cook for about a minute or two. Remove from water with slotted spoon to a blender or food processor.
3. Put pasta in boiling water and cook according to directions.
4. Meanwhile, add garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and mascarpone (and pumpkin seeds, if desired) to blender and blend until smooth.
5. Remove one cup of cooking water from pasta with heat safe mug or glass measuring cup.
6. Add frozen peas to cooking pasta in last 2 minutes.
7. Drain pasta, toss with pesto and add pasta cooking water to thin as desired. Serve with grated parmesan, to taste.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Easy Curried Kabocha Squash Soup

When I heard first heard the word Kabocha, I wasn't sure if it was a drink or a squash or a Star Wars character. Or maybe it was all the above.

(Side note: I later learned Kombucha was a fermented drink.  My sister was raving about her home-brewed Kombucha and the scoby that she used to ferment the drink.  This last time I visited her I witnessed the scoby for myself. It is frightening. I love fermented foods but this was...different.)

Once, at the Senior's Cooking Club that I lead, someone brought in a green-skinned Kabocha squash to cook with. I had no idea what to do with it. I quickly grabbed my phone and googled Kabocha. I found out the peel was edible, so we simply sliced it thin and roasted it with olive oil, salt and pepper and it was a delicious side dish. 

Then, more recently, I went to get some squash from some farmers I know and they told me that I should grab the Kabocha instead of the standard Butternut squash. They said the flavour was really amazing.

It is so true. This little green Japanese pumpkin is so sweet and makes the most delicious soup!

This soup has been adapted from various soups I found online to make a very simple soup that has amazing depth of character for having only four main ingredients. 

I recommend finding this squash and making this soup. If you can't, then use any winter squash you can get your hands on- but it is worth trying to find the kabocha!

Easy Curried Kabocha Soup
You can use any winter squash for this soup. You can adjust the curry to your preference, but make sure you add some to roast with the squash to give it more depth of flavour.

1 medium kabocha squash
1 medium onion
butter or coconut oil
approx. 1 tbsp curry powder
6-8 cups vegetable broth

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 
2. Cut kabocha squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds. (If this is a challenge, you can microwave it for a few minutes before proceeding.)
3. Cut onion in half.
4. Place each half of squash on cooking sheet. Place half an onion on each half of the squash.
5. Drizzle with up to 1 tbsp butter or coconut oil on each side. Then sprinkle with 1-2 tsp curry powder on each side. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 1 hour or until squash is tender.
6. Let cool for a few minutes, then scoop flesh and onion into blender, add 6 cups vegetable broth and puree until mostly smooth. Alternately, place into soup pot and add broth and puree with hand blender.
7. Add more broth and adjust seasoning to taste (add more salt, pepper and curry if necessary). Make it the consistency that you desire by adding more or less broth than stated.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Gluten-free Blender Pancakes

I debate what to call these---

Super Easy Pancakes?
Delicious Pancakes?
Banana- Oat Pancakes?
Gluten- Free Pancakes?
Blender Pancakes?

Perhaps "Super Easy, Delicious, Banana- Oat, Gluten-Free Blender Pancakes" is the mouthful you need to really describe these amazing little bites of goodness.

With no flour and no sugar (Yes! It's true!) this is one surprising little hotcake. And partnered with the fact that they can be made in a matter of minutes, makes them perfect for a quick breakfast even on weekdays as we are heading out to school.

This is one recipe you may want to post on your fridge as I do as it is now in regular breakfast rotation. It's almost memorized. 

If you make them, tell me what you think!

Gluten-free Blender Pancakes
Makes about 16- 3" pancakes
If you don't have a blender, you can try processing the oats in a coffee grinder or food processor until finely ground, then whisk up the ingredients in one bowl. Or, if you prefer, buy it as oat flour. It is a reasonably priced alternative flour that is found in many stores now. 

Blend on medium:
2 cups old-fashioned oats (to make 1 1/2 cups oat flour), remove from blender

Add to blender and blend on low for about 10 seconds, or until smooth:
1 banana
1 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla

Add the following and blend until just combined, about 10 seconds- scraping down sides if needed:
1 1/2 cups finely ground oats or oat flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt

1. Heat cast-iron or non-stick pan over medium heat. Add a drop of vegetable oil or butter and pour 1/4 cup portions of this on pan. Turn over when top begins to bubble.
2. Serve immediately with maple syrup or runny jam.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Sweet & Spicy Sore Throat Remedy

It is that time of year again.

Leaves start falling, socks are worn, sweaters are cozy and school starts.

Another tell-tale sign of fall and back to school is someone coming home with an itchy throat. Then another family member gets sniffly and away we go.

I have been making chicken noodle soup and filling them with lots of liquids- home made juices, tea and popsicles- anything to keep them hydrated.

I also love ginger and lemon tea. The problem here is that someone in my house doesn't like lemon, someone else doesn't like ginger. So this one I enjoy, but not a great family remedy.

After doing some research on other soothing teas for sore throats, I came across some ayurvedic recipes that included clove as an important part of healing sore throats. Apparently it is a powerful healing agent.

I made this simple tea and gave it to my husband first when he complained of a sore throat, without
mentioning what it was. He immediately asked for more saying how soothing it was. Then I gave it to my daughter and she said as soon as she started drinking it, it helped her feel better. These were both unsolicited reviews. That told me a lot. I immediately made another batch.

It is important to remember that with any herbal preparation, there can be some side effects. I won't be giving unlimited amounts of this to the kids but in small doses, when sore throats are at their worst, we will be drinking this.

Sweet & Spicy Sore Throat Tea
You can make this ahead of time, storing it in the fridge and warming up as needed. I crush the cardamom pods with the bottom of a mug or the saucepan lid.

4 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
8 cloves
8 cardamom pods, crushed to reveal seeds
4 tbsp honey, or to taste

1. In a small saucepan, bring water and spices to a boil. Turn down heat to minimum, cover with lid and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and add honey to taste.

2. Drink immediately or store in fridge and warm up before serving.