Thursday, October 24, 2013

October's Minestrone Soup

Shorter days, less sunlight, colder weather, fleece jackets, and ear bands. It must be time for soup! Nothing beats a good bowl of soup on a chilling day, even if it's warmed up from the day before. Soup can also be a great way to get your veggies in, especially when cold salads don't seem to sound as good as they did in the summer.

Here's a variation on classic minestrone soup that I made last weekend. I started with a recipe from Cooking Light and tweaked it I was much happier. Enjoy!

October's Minestrone Soup

In a big soup pot, saute 3 minutes:
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
Add and cook until vegetables are tender:
  • 4 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash
  • 1 cup green beans
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1/2 bunch kale
  • 1 tsp dried oregano, crushed between palms
  • 1 tsp dried basil, crushed
  • 1/2 -1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 salt or to taste
  • 3 cups no-salt added broth (vegetable, chicken, or beef)
  • 24 oz. can petite diced tomatoes
Add and cook until pasta is tender, about 5-6 minutes
  • 1 can cannellini beans, or other white beans
  • 1/2 cup whole grain orzo or broken spaghetti noodles
If desired, serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese!

Nutrition data: serving size 1 1/2 cup; 160 calories;  8 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 302 g sodium, 2 g fat, 3 units; 3 vegetables & 1 healthy starch

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Haunting of the Sugary Snacks

Ackk!They're everywhere! Fun size. Mini size. Little bitty chocolate bars. Seemingly harmless little bags of M&M's, candy corn, and sweet tarts. They're decorated in Halloween wrappers just one time a year. Only once. We have to get 'em and eat 'em while we can, right?

Wrong. THEY just want us to think that way. Those manufacturers are responsible for pushing the sugary stuff on us. They switch wrappers with the seasons, make them cute, seasonal, and irresistible. They show us how to decorate with them and use them in crafts. They smother us with advertising and coupons. It's all a ploy. Those Reese's peanut butter cups are the same no matter what shape they come in. Really. Somehow, we need to take a stand against all these sugary seasonal prefab treats, and try something different. And maybe a bit healthier. Is there a way?

Besides, those Halloween treats were on the shelves already in August. Or was it late July? And now, 11 days before trick or treating, the candy on store shelves has significantly diminished, and Christmas is quickly filling in. Where have all these bags of candy gone? Some people have bags stashed and awaiting Halloween. Fine. Unfortunately, lots of other bags have been chowed down from bottomless treat bowls at work, home or binged on behind closed doors. Too many people have eaten too much candy.

We need to get some good ideas together to beat the haunting of these sugary snacks! What strategies have you been using that work well for you?

One suggestion to start this idea session off: be sure to keep your blood sugar level steady. Eat regular, nutritious meals and snacks. Don't skip meals!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Using Less Salt

Americans love salt. We love salty chips, fries, crispy snack foods, restaurant foods, and packaged foods. Some of us even add salt to a food before we taste it. And a whopping 75% of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods, not the salt used in cooking and at the table.

The average American consumes 1.5 teaspoons, 3450 mg of sodium, every day. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend less than 2300 mg for healthy people under 51 years, and no more than 1500 mg for those 51 and older, or with high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. This means a big reduction in salt for most of us.

Sodium is an essential element, helping the transmission of nerve impulses, contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers, and maintaining the needed fluid balance in and around cells. The body needs very little sodium, because of its well-developed ability to conserve what it does have. When sodium levels drop, the kidneys and sweat glands work to hold onto water, preventing sodium from being eliminated. When sodium levels are high, the kidneys kick into gear to increase urine volume and excretion, getting rid the excess sodium.

Over time, consistently high sodium levels will increase blood volume, blood pressure, and hardening of blood vessels. This means an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, and stomach cancer. High blood pressure is blamed for at least half of all heart attacks and is the leading cause of all strokes. 

Take action to reduce sodium
  • Minimize use processed foods
  • Cook and eat more meals at home
  • Increase fresh fruits and vegetables (naturally good sources potassium)
  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet
  • Read labels:
    • Sodium-free or salt-free: 5 mg or less of sodium per serving
    • Very low sodium: 35 mg of sodium or less
    • Low sodium: 140 mg of sodium or less
    • Reduced or less sodium*: At least 25% less sodium than regular version
    • Light in sodium*: At least 50% the regular versio
    • Unsalted or no salt added: No salt is added during processing
    • Sodium containing ingredients: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium nitrate or nitrites, also contain sodium.
    • *May still be high in sodium; watch nutrition labels
Learning to cook and love foods prepared with less salt requires some patience, practice, and perseverance, with a willingness to try something new. Here's are a few tricks to help you along the way:
  • Use the freshest ingredients possible. Buy local and shop at your farmer's market as often as you can. Fresher ingredients deliver much deeper, richer flavors.
  • Experiment with herbs and spices. Here's a great publication put out by the University of Michigan's Health Systems that you may want to print out:
  • Check the freshness of your herbs and spices 
    • Look: throw it out if it looks faded, clumpy, or signs of insects.
    • Sniff test: Does it smell like that herb or spice? If not, throw it out. 
    • Taste a tiny bit: if you can taste the distinctive flavor of that herb, it's good. If not, throw it out.
    • Shelf life guidelines: ground spices 1.5 years, whole spices 2 years, leafy herbs 1-3 years, whole seeds 3-4 years
  • Try cooking with wine for a wonderfully rich flavor. Just be sure to use wine good enough to drink, not "cooking wine" which unfortunately has salt added to it. 
  • Either eliminate the salt shaker at the table, or fill it with a recipe for one of the many salt-free blends out there. 
    • I like this one from AllRecipes:
      • 4 tsp sesame seeds
      • 2 tsp celery seed
      • 2 tsp Italian seasoning
      • 2 tsp dried parsley flakes
      • 1 tsp poppy seeds
      • 1 tsp ground black pepper
      • 1 tsp onion powder
      • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
      • 3/4 tsp granulated garlic (I use powder)
      • 3/4 tsp paprika

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Healthier Baked Acorn Squash

I love all the wonderful vegetables that come in with the fall harvest. And, winter squash has got to be my all time favorite. The trouble is, many people only serve it with gobs of butter and brown sugar melted inside the cavity. Someone even told me this week that the secret was to poke holes into the yellow flesh before adding the butter and sugar to make sure it really seeps in. Arggh! Though this may how you learned to cook acorn squash originally, it's certainly not in your body or health's best interest. Here's a great option:

Healthier Baked Acorn Squash

  • Start with a nice squash, heavy for it's size.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 350.

  • Cut the squash in half, and scoop out all the seeds and stringy stuff.

  • Coat a baking pan with cooking spray and place the squash upside down in the pan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes

    • While baking, take 1 small apple. 
    • Core it, leaving peel attached, and roughly chop.

    • Add 1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon 
    • Add 1 teaspoon brown sugar or honey, optional
    • Add a dash or 2 of nutmeg, optional
    • Stir together

    • When squash has cooked 30 minutes, turn over
    • Divide apple mixture evenly into squash cavities
    • Bake for another 30 minutes
    • Serve and enjoy every bite!

    • I certainly did!

    Nutritional information: 
    122 calories, 0.3 g fat, 4.8 g fiber, 2 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate
    Counts as 2 Units Healthy Starch & 1/2 fruit