February 27: Roasted Tomato Bisque and Quinoa Salad

Since I signed up for a second cooking class last week, I thought I should make a concerted effort to try to make most of the recipes from my first cooking class before I learn more recipes. The plan was to make the dish that was most cost-effective based on weekly sales prices at Kroger and/or Walmart.

I happened to be in Walmart to buy Herbert, my plant, a new pot. His leaves had been dropping, so I hoped Walmart had begun stocking for spring planting season. Of course I didn’t just leave with a new planter for Herbert — which are rather expensive for ceramic. But my plant filters the air in my home, so it was worth a few extra bucks. I also bought some seeds to start an herb garden; having an herb garden will be something new for me. But I’m rambling. Suffice it to say I bought way more than a pot for Herbert.

Since I was at the Supercenter, I thought I would check prices for some of the main ingredients in my recipes. Vine-ripened red tomatoes were $1.88/lb. I don’t know why Kroger’s cost $3.00/lb, but I bought some tomatoes to make the roasted tomato bisque. Quinoa was also available for $4.94 for 12 oz, which is enough for 8-10 cups of cooked quinoa. A three-pack of colored bell peppers was reasonably priced, so I purchased those to use in the quinoa salad. Later that evening, I shopped at Kroger for the remainder of the ingredients to make my two dishes.

Roasted Tomato Bisque (Yield 8-10 cups)

Ingredients: 1.34 lbs tomatoes (vine-ripened or roma); 2T olive oil; 2T unsalted butter; 1c sweet white onions; 1c diced or shredded carrots; 1c diced celery (optional); 2tsp minced garlic; 3/8c all-purpose white flour; 3.25c chicken broth; 1.75c tomato juice; 1-12 oz can tomato paste; 1c heavy whipping cream; 1/4tsp dried basil; dash of thyme to taste; 1/2tsp kosher salt; 1/4tsp white pepper; 1/2c fresh grated Parmesan cheese; chopped fresh basil

Directions: (1) Preheat the oven to 350 F. (2) Core and halve the tomatoes. Coat in olive oil and season if desired. Pour the tomato mixture onto a foil or parchment lined baking sheet. Place into the oven for 1 hr or until roasted to your preference. (3) Meanwhile, dice or shred vegetables. (4) Remove roasted tomatoes from oven and allow to cool to room temperature before placing the baking sheet into the refrigerator to chill. (5) Remove the tomato peels and discard. (6) Melt butter in a large (6 qt) non-aluminum pot on medium heat. (7) Add vegetables and cook until softened. IMPORTANT: If butter starts to burn, add more butter. (8) When vegetables are softened, add the flour. Stir frequently as you measure the chicken broth and tomato juice. (9) Cook the flour mixture for 2 minutes. If the flour begins to brown, add the broth and juice. (10) Simmer the mixture. Meanwhile, in a saucepan temper the whipping cream by adding some of the liquid from the soup. Heat on low until small bubbles appear on the surface. Refrigerate the tempered cream. (11) Add tomato paste and peeled roasted tomatoes to the simmering soup. (12) Simmer for a minimum of 30 minutes. (13) Puree the soup and return to the pot. (14) Add tempered whipping cream and season to taste. Simmer for 10-15 minutes then serve with fresh basil and fresh Parmesan cheese.

Serving options: soup with grilled cheese, crostini or quinoa salad. You can also omit the heavy whipping cream.

Quinoa salad with lemon vinaigrette (yield ~5.5 cups)

Ingredients: 1c uncooked quinoa; 2c chicken broth; 1/2c diced red peppers; 1/2c diced yellow peppers; 1/2c diced red onion; for vinaigrette: 1/2c fresh squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 large lemons); 1/2c olive oil; 1/8 – 1/4c granulated white sugar; white pepper, kosher salt, and chives to taste

Directions: Cook quinoa according to package. For every cup of uncooked quinoa, it swells by  factor of four. Allow quinoa to cool to room temperature before chilling in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, dice the peppers and red onion. To prepare the vinaigrette, cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a small bowl. Remove any seeds. Add olive oil and whisk. Cut the acidic taste by adding sugar. Monitor the taste with a testing spoon. When the taste of the vinaigrette is to your liking, remove the chilled quinoa and place the grain into a large mixing bowl. Mix in the peppers and red onions. Slowly add the vinaigrette until the quinoa salad is well coated. Season with kosher salt and white pepper to taste.

Serving options: atop mixed salad greens with or without a grilled/baked firm fish such as salmon, scallops or tuna.

In case you prefer to cut and paste the recipe and directions, I’ve included pictures below. I roasted the tomatoes, cooked the quinoa, and diced the vegetables the night before I completed the dishes. It would have been helpful to have an extra hand in the kitchen, particularly when making the roux. I nearly burned mine, hence  the reason for no picture! But you want the flour to be a cream color. If you have a 4 cup or larger measuring cup, I highly recommend mixing the broth and tomato juice before you begin to cook the soup.

Other than those tips, I don’t really have any comments pertaining to the actually cooking. I had white pepper remaining from my cooking class. It has a very distinct taste, so I’m not sure how the flavor of the soup and quinoa salad would be affected by using black pepper. Any salt can be substituted for kosher salt, though I prefer the taste of the kosher salt. If you have blood pressure issues like me, go easy on the salt. The low-sodium chicken broth and the tomato juice had more than enough sodium for my taste, so I really only had to add pepper and basil after pureeing.

Bottom line: The roasted tomato bisque and quinoa salad are healthy, tasty, low cost and quick dishes to make. If you have a home or community garden, then the meals are even cheaper! Happy cooking!

Update: The volume of chicken broth was incorrect. I used 3.25 cups instead of 1.25 cups.

Pictures:

Core tomatoes with a paring knife

Chicken flavored granules and quinoa

Some of the ingredients I used to make the soup and salad

Diced peppers

Diced red and yellow peppers

Roasted vine-ripened red tomatoes.

Tempered heavy whipping cream. Tempering helps prevent curdling in the soup.

Quinoa mixed with red and yellow peppers, red onions, and lemon vinaigrette

Lumpy tomato soup

Pureed tomato soup

My $12 blender *smile*. I used it in graduate school to make smoothies, but it was rather handy for pureeing the tomato soup

Roasted tomato bisque with fresh Parmesan. Use a vegetable peeler to slice ribbons of cheese from the block.

Quinoa salad with fresh mixed salad greens and perch. The salad is significantly better with salmon. I highly recommend using a firmer fish if you choose to pair the salad with seafood.

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February 20: Distance challenge completed and a “day” trip to Lexington, KY

Sunday, I swam 3000 yards (12o laps) to complete the swimming distance challenge two weeks ahead of schedule! My kickboarding skills have improved tremendously over the six weeks I participated in large part to increased strength in my lower body and core. I take fewer breaks because my cardiovascular endurance is better than when I first began the challenge in mid-January. With the aqua belt, I can swim on my back to break up the monotony of kick boarding. When I tire from one, I switch to the other. I never did learn to freestyle, but I have the rest of 2011 to learn *smile*

Later that day, I drove to Lexington, KY, which is about two hours from where I live. One of my best friends was house hunting and invited me down. I had planned to spend the entire weekend but something came up with work. Had my friend not invited me, I probably never would have visited Lexington. The place in Kentucky I wanted to spend a weekend in was Louisville because it’s the home of the Derby pie! And I love me some Kern’s Derby Pie. I digress.

So, Sunday afternoon I drove down to visit. Lexington is not as big as I expected. To be fair, I didn’t see a whole lot the city. We stayed at the Hilton downtown which was really nice. Their cornflake crusted french toast with fresh bananas and strawberries was amazing. Lexington just reminded me of a larger than usual college town. The homes around the University of Kentucky campus were beautiful. Most were rented to students, so some weren’t as nice looking as they probably once used to look. I can’t say that I could see myself living in Lexington, unlike Louisville. And before I read about all the bourbon distilleries in the state, I can’t say that I thought of even living in Kentucky lol. It did take them until the mid 80s to remove the word “darkie” from the lyrics of the state song. I’m sure Georgia has it’s skeletons in the closet, but the darkie lyrics are hard to beat.

Kentucky has a rich history, and I am definitely interested in visiting the state again soon; next time for an entire weekend. I had to return to Ohio Monday morning to be at work, but I did enjoy myself. I have been working so hard the last few months. Coupled with being snowbound (I could have probably driven if I had, too, but I didn’t want salt deposits on my car), I really needed to get out of town. My friend’s invitation to Lexington was just what I needed, even if it was for only a few hours. The drive down I-75 was scenic and uneventful. Spending time with my best friend was refreshing. It was a win-win.

February 19: Training for a 10K

On the 15th, I bit the bullet and registered for the Toyota 10K, which is part of Cincinnati’s Flying Pig marathon weekend. I had toyed with the idea of registering in December, but I can be flaky when it comes to running. I go through phases where I enjoy it and where it bores me terribly. Since my swimming buddy agreed  to participate with me, I went ahead and registered.

The race is in about nine weeks; that’s plenty of time to train for the race. Participating in group fitness classes has really improved my overall fitness level. I smile every time I hold a plank for 60 seconds and  the teenagers are wincing and collapsing. Two months ago, that was me! My point is that I can finish a 10K. I have zero desire to be competitive; I only want to finish the race preferably running the entire 6.2 miles. But there is no shame in walking for a bit.

I am not currently using a formal training program. I am running twice a week and increasing my mileage by 0.25 miles each run. Depending on the weather, I run outside or on the indoor track and the gym. My pace is currently a 10 minute mile, which is significantly better than the 12 minute mile I was running in October (the last time I ran regularly). So far, I can sustain that pace for only 2.5 miles. It’s always good to have room to improve. To motivate myself, I am planning to reward my satisfactory training progress with a new running outfit. I’m thinking something bright, like orange, lime green, or lavender. I might as well look fashionably cute and comfy for my first race!

February 17: Cooking 101 Soups and Salads

One of the things I wanted to try this year was to take a cooking class. As you might be able to tell, I do okay in the kitchen. But growing up in a family that prepared very basic food with mostly dried seasonings, I never felt comfortable trying dishes that seemed even a bit complicated. So when I was in the gym a few weeks ago and saw a flyer for a cooking class on campus, my interest was piqued. The theme was soups and salads. A five meal menu was listed: split pea soup, butternut and pumpkin soup, roasted tomato bisque, seared salmon and quinoa salad, and Mediterranean chicken salad. The class cost $25 and I signed up within a few days.

I had no idea what to expect. I have heard of cooking classes where you make food, but those usually cost $75-100. For $25, I figured it would be more like a course where the audience sat and watched a chef and then sampled the food. But even learning how to use quinoa and to properly sear salmon was worth $25 and some food sampling. I tried to convince my co-workers to come with me but they flaked out.

So, there I was last Thursday night with 11 undergraduate students. Half lived in dorms and the other half lived in houses around campus. Seeing cooking stations with hot burners was a promising sign that we would actually be able to cook something. Ryan was our chef for the evening; he works on campus in one of the restaurants. Unlike most college campuses I know, we do not contract our food services to the lowest bidder. And the quality of our food let’s you know it, too!

Anywhoo, Ryan explained to us that we would go into the production kitchen and make three soups then return to the front room with the cooking stations and prepare our two salads. What?!?! We get to make all the food! It was like Christmas! In small groups, we prepared each soup one at a time. Once one soup was going, the next group made another soup. While it was a slow process, it was nice to be able to learn proper chopping technique and how to prepare all three soups.

Almost all of the food was prepped for us, so we did very minimal measuring and chopping, which saved a lot of time. I helped with the tomato bisque. I learned how to chop fresh basil and that I can use my vegetable peeler to cut slices of Parmesan cheese. No more Kraft processed Parmesan for me! Once the three soups were ready to be simmered, we returned to our cooking stations and fixed salads. We made our own vinaigrette, which was super easy. It required some seasonings, olive oil and juice from half a lemon. For the quinoa, we added white sugar to the vinaigrette recipe. After making the Mediterranean chicken salad, which was just us mixing pre-measured ingredients into our fresh vinaigrette, we learned to sear salmon. Each of us was given a four oz salmon fillet. We seasoned it only with kosher salt and black pepper. We heated very minimal olive oil on medium heat then added the filet. The salmon cooked slowly as we prepared the quinoa salad. The quinoa was already cooked, so after making the lemon vinagrette, we mixed the quinoa and diced vegetables along with some fresh basil. Meanwhile our salmon was caramelizing beautifully. Left to my own devices, I would have burned the salmon and the inside would have still been raw as I always managed to do when I attempted to sear salmon at home.

Our beautifully caramel-colored salmon!

After we prepared two salads, we returned to the production kitchen and pureed all the soups. To the roasted tomato bisque we added heavy cream. As a garnish, we used fresh basil and sliced Parmesan cheese. The split pea soup was a bit salty for my taste since we used smoked ham, but it was still really tasty. It was garnished with pan-fried panchetta and accompanied by fresh baked crostini. Lastly, my favorite soup of the night: the butternut and pumpkin soup was garnished with fresh toasted pumpkin seeds and maple cream (passing out from delirium as I relive the incredible taste of the soup). Seriously, it was that good. Whatever butternut soup you’ve had, I promise you this tastes way better.

So, after 2.5 hours of cooking fun, we finally sat down to eat our dinner. It was so much food. We had two entire salads and gallons of three kinds of soup plus crostini! The quantity of food was insane. We were provided take home containers, so I took home several cups of butternut squash soup. Had I driven, I would have taken several cups of all the soups.

I’m so glad I went, even when my co-workers were iffy about it. I received more than my $25 worth, not only in terms of food but also the experience. If I had more space, I would totally host a dinner party and prepare some of the dishes. I look forward to making the dishes for myself in the months to come and throughout life in general. From attending the cooking class I learned that I shouldn’t be afraid to try “complicated” recipes. Even when I look at the recipe cards they provided as part of our registration, I have to remind myself that I made it before. I also learned the importance of quality seasonings, even if they cost a little more. Below are some of the pictures I took because this post would totally suck without them lol! I plan to make all the recipes in the next few months, so I’ll include actual recipes then. If you know me, then email me and I’ll send them along sooner. Next month, I’m attending another cooking class where we’re learning to make different seafood dishes! I’m so excited!

Click here for the recipes to the roasted tomato bisque and the quinoa salad.

Lemon vinaigrette for quinoa salad

Quinoa (keen-wah) salad

Plated seared salmon and quinoa salad

Mediterranean chicken salad mixed

Mediterranean chicken salad plated

Roasted tomato bisque with fresh basil and sliced Parmesan; Butternut and pumpkin squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds and maple cream

February 13: Baked chicken thighs and peppers

As you might recall, I live in southwestern Ohio. We had a severe ice storm a few weeks back. While campus opened late, my apartment complex didn’t see fit to properly prepare the sidewalks and parking lots. I managed to make it to work one day only for them to send us home two hours later. So the next day, I chose to stay home.

I hadn’t been home on a weekday in months, so I found myself watching Rachel Ray’s day time show. I can take her only in small doses, but it was either her or the ignorance that is court TV. The show was pretty whack until the end when she actually did some cooking. She demonstrated how to make roast beef with vegetables. I rarely eat beef, so I wasn’t interested in the roast beef per se. I was truly fascinated that she cooked her vegetables under her meat. I knew that you could do it; I just never thought to do it.

So, when boneless, skinless chicken thighs and bell peppers were on sale at Kroger, I still wasn’t thinking to bake them together. It wasn’t until I sliced the red, yellow and orange bell peppers and sweet white onion that it occurred to me to bake them together. I was going to sauté the vegetables on the stove. But why mess up another pot when I could throw them in the baking pan under the chicken?

I liberally seasoned the vegetables with a blend of dried herbs and spices. I sprinkled the chicken with a chicken seasoning. The foil-lined pan went into a preheated oven until the chicken was no longer pink, about 55 minutes at 350 F.

Divinely delicious dinner

What makes baking the vegetables with the meat so much better than sautéing or baking separately — besides using one pan that I didn’t have to wash — is the juices from the chicken further season the vegetables.

I live alone, so this dish lasted me an entire week. I’m sure it’s not the wisest decision when food-borne illness is considered, but I survived with no problems lol. Next time I make this I will add some spinach, asparagus or green cabbage. The meal really needed something green, even though it was really colorful. Buying only items that were on sale made this dish very economical. All the ingredients cost about $5, and yielding six servings, it’s a bargain.

UPDATE (3/9/11): I made this dish with boneless, skinless chicken breasts since there were no packages of boneless, skinless chicken thighs in the meat cases. I’m not a fan of chicken breasts, but the dish came out surprisingly well. The meat was not dry and the flavors were just as good with the less fatty parts.

February 12: Almond milk and shrimp stir-fry

Now that my mother is semi-retired, I find that she actually is more adventurous (a) than she was when I was growing up and (b) than me in my recent adult life. She turned me on to artichokes, so I made note to try almond milk since she mentioned she liked it more than Silk Soy Milk. I love Silk Vanilla Soy Milk and I know Mama enjoys it, too. When I went grocery shopping, I bought some Blue Diamond Almond Breeze. I expected it to be refrigerated, but I found it on the shelf in the natural foods section of Kroger. I contemplated purchasing Silk Almond Milk but a sista is on a budget, so the milk on sale was my choice.

Almond Breeze and Kroger stir-fry with noodles

I also bought some Kroger brand stir-fry vegetables with noodles. Their store brand vegetables were on sale for 10/$10 but the stir-fry caught my eye. I had never noticed the packages before. Stocked on the freezer shelf were plain stir-fry vegetables, stir-fry with noodles and stir-fry with rice. For $0.88, I threw two packages in my cart after checking the sodium content, which was only 34 mg per serving.

Since I went straight to Kroger from working out, I was famished. The stir-fry was a quick, healthy option. I heated 1TB of extra virgin olive oil in a skillet and sauteed minced garlic before pouring the contents of the package into the hot skillet. In four minutes, the meal was cooked. I added about a cup of frozen shrimp. I should have added the shrimp in the beginning because it took another 10 minutes to cook the shrimp. Oh.but.it.was.worth.it. I don’t know what four servings Kroger was talking about because I only had 2 1/4 cups when I was supposed to have four 1 1/4 cup servings. The meal was super tasty and flavorful.

I enjoyed my shrimp and vegetable stir-fry with a tall glass of almond milk. Let’s just say I’ll be sticking to soy milk. I may try other varieties as they go on sale. I should say that Blue Diamond Almond Breeze is not “milk”; it’s a non-dairy product. The consistency was watery with a slight taste of almonds. It was not sweet, but it was not bitter or bland either. By the time I finished the carton, I had acquired a taste for the product but the taste just didn’t satisfy me quite like soy milk. I only spent $0.40 per cup, so it wasn’t like I lost much.

The next day, I went back and bought 10 packages of stir-fry with noodles before the sale expired lol. Even though I had fewer servings, a plate full of a hearty, healthy and inexpensive meal was well worth $0.88. I have since made the stir-fry one other time. I was trying to save calories, so instead of using olive oil, I sprayed the pan with canola oil and skipped the garlic. Don’t make that mistake. I had to force myself to eat dinner because it was so tasteless. I haven’t had the opportunity to make the stir-fry again because I tried some other food experiences that I will write about shortly.

February 7: Seeing a nutritionist

I like to think of myself as resourceful. When it comes to nutrition and fitness, I rely on health and fitness magazines and websites with the general notion of USDA guidelines in the back of my mind. Even though I have had access to nutritionists at previous universities, I seemed to manage just fine. That is until I wasn’t. So when my employer hired a nutritionist, I thought it prudent to make an appointment.

I’m really concerned about my pre-hypertensive blood pressure if for nothing else than having to pay for medication the rest of my natural life. High blood pressure is a mostly preventable disease, though genetics also play a role. I just don’t feel it’s a good use of my money to pay for prescription medication for a disease I can prevent if I make better choices. The fact that I’m not losing much weight also bothers me, though I substituted one bad food habit with another and some days compounded the problem…can we say pork sausage and chocoholism?

My appointment was scheduled for one hour. It felt like a therapy session; the nutritionist asked me what were my concerns, what I was doing to address them, and what typical days were like in terms of food intake and exercising. I was completely honest about what I was and wasn’t doing to improve weight loss and to lower my blood pressure. As I was expressing my issues aloud, it became painfully clear how I was sabotaging my own success. I mean, looking at Loseit graphics, eating pork sausage when I know it raises blood pressure, and consuming >40% of calories as snacks, all while not skipping a meal, somehow weren’t enough for me to realize and truly understand the effects of the choices I was making daily for weeks.

Since I had not made much progress on the weight loss issue in four months, we agreed to focus on that concern. The nutritionist pointed out that I was not eating balanced meals throughout the day. For example, I usually only have one class of milk a day. She recommended I eat yogurt and fruit for my morning snack — instead of just a piece of fruit — and have cheese and crackers for my afternoon snack rather than a carbohydrate-loaded granola bar. Since I have trouble eating enough vegetables most days of the week, the nutritionist suggested cucumbers and raw peppers to substitute for celery when I grow tired of it. Athenos three pepper hummus and spicy pepper hummus are delicious and make celery much more palatable. I can’t get with raw baby carrots, no matter how “sexy” advertisers want them to be.

Crunchy vegetables are also good alternatives to salty potato chips. Apparently, my Lean Cuisine lunches aren’t helping my blood pressure. I really should start making sandwiches again, but not having something crunchy doesn’t satisfy me. I can even put low-sodium cheese on sandwiches! For one, I didn’t know cheese could be a culprit in my blood pressure saga. And secondly, I wasn’t aware low-sodium cheeses were an option. Good to know!

I definitely feel better about my health concerns after meeting with a licensed nutritionist. I have a free health screening at work in three weeks, but I can also have my blood pressure checked weekly at locations on campus (who knew?). While I doubt I will have normal blood pressure in such a short amount of time, I’m confident that if I eat more balanced meals, particularly snacks, and pay more attention to all sources of dietary sodium, my blood pressure will return to a non-hypertensive level. Oh, and the nutritionist thought my idea of calorie currency was clever *smile*. She was concerned that I might be depriving myself, but I’m not. I’m just making better decisions in that regard. So, one day at a time, one step at a time.

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