Saturday, February 23, 2013

Movies and Popcorn

Once upon a time, I was a movie buff.  I would make it a point to have seen every "Best Picture" nominated flick before the Academy Awards, read entertainment magazines galore and enjoyed lively arguments discussions about whether or not the Academy picked the best when they selected their winners (as if I was some sort of qualified person to do that).  In graduate school, solo trips to the movie theaters were my escape and stress relief.  The movie theater was about a 2 mile walk away from my Beantown apartment.  It was the perfect distance: 2 mile walk, roughly 2 hours of screen time and 2 miles home feeling refreshed.  I would go to major blockbuster theaters and small independent flick theaters....I sort of miss that stuff now that I am thinking of it.

Anyway, the Academy awards are coming up this weekend and although I am unfamiliar with the majority of films being highlighted and reviewed (I did see Argo though and would recommend it!), movies make me think of popcorn and that is what brings me here today.  Who doesn't love a good movie and some popcorn? 

Popcorn can be a healthy, whole food and delicious snack.  Admittedly, I went through a phase where calories or points were really my only focus of "healthy" eating and I was a microwave popcorn fanatic.  I can eat this whole bag for 3 points? Woohoo!  The microwave popcorn bags were in my cupboards, my desk at work and packed for trips home to visit the family.  In addition to the microwave popcorn, my next highly used food accessory was spray butter.  You know, this stuff:

I cringe now when I think about it. 

Yes, I lost weight and got back to a healthy weight but I am confident that I was not putting the healthiest stuff into my body.  Here is a look at the ingredients on a package of microwave kettle corn, which is one of my favorite flavors:

TBHQ?  Argh, that doesn't sound like something I want to inhale at the rate I can devour some popcorn.  Then there is the current controversial information about the chemicals in those bags that potentially leak into the food as we zap them to popped perfection.  Finally, spray butter? What is spray butter anyway?  At zero, yes zero, calories per serving, what is this stuff?  You would be horrified if you saw how I use to hose that stuff onto popcorn, toast, muffins....whatever.  I understand the ingredients are the following:

Water, Soybean(s) Oil Liquid, Salt, Buttermilk Sweet Cream, Xanthan Gum, Soy Lecithin, Polysorbate 60, Lactic Acid, Potassium Sorbate Preservative, Sodium Benzoate Preservative, Calcium Disodium EDTA Preservative, Flavor(s) Artificial Colored With, Beta Carotene, Vitamin A Palmitate

These days, I am back to an old fashioned air popper, which can be purchased almost anywhere for $20-$30.  It's quick, it's easy and most importantly, it just pops those corn kernels without any additives that I will be scared about years later. Also, there is the bonus that little ones enjoy watching those kernels pop out into the bowl!

If you are settling in for the Academy Awards or a movie and enjoy sweet n' salty kettle corn as much as I do, here is a quick real food recipe that I find to be delicious and knocks the socks off any microwave popcorn out there:

Air Popped "Kettle" Corn
~Popcorn Kernels
~1 Tbs Butter (Coconut Oil could be substituted for a vegan recipe or preference)
~1 Tbs honey
~Salt to preference
Fill your air popper's kernel hopper with the popcorn kernels (mine takes about 1/2 cup of kernels) and pop the popcorn out into a bowl.  In a small pot, heat the butter (or oil) with the honey until combined smoothly.  Pour over the popcorn, salt to preference, shake up and enjoy!  It's that easy...barely minutes.  Also, you can increase the amount of butter, oil or honey if preferred as the 1/2 cup of kernels does turn into a pretty large bowl of popcorn, but I found this amount to be plenty tasty. 
I know that the use of Genetically Modified ingredients is concerning and corn and soy are considered to be the most frequently modified seeds in the U.S.  I understand that you can avoid genetically modified corn seed by purchasing a brand of popcorn kernels that is certified organic and/or has a non-GMO label. 

Settle in for a movie and enjoy!  What are your go-to healthy and fun movie snacks?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Valentine's Day and Chocolate...

Everyone's favorite hallmark holiday has come and gone again this week.  Flowers, sweets, balloons, teddy bears etc. etc. everywhere.  I am not opposed to Valentine's Day but I don't really think it's a big deal either.  We don't plan any big celebrations or outings at our house.  In fact, I would prefer to stay away from restaurants on such a busy night.  I'm not booking a sitter to wait for a table for an hour!  No fancy gifts necessary.  No scrambling for freshly cut roses for this girl. 

Before you conclude that I am a completely miserable and boring person, please know that there is one aspect of Valentine's Day that I adore: chocolate.  I love chocolate.  And when I say I love chocolate, I mean I looove chocolate. I know it's not uncommon to hear of people who love chocolate, but I would say I am a true chocoholic.  I even have a chocolate lab for a dog....and that's not a coincidence.  It's my thing.  It's wonderful.  I have a little bit of chocolate every day, 7 days a week, 365 days each year.  Don't mess with it.  Don't hide my supply.  And whatever you do, do not and I mean do NOT, chow down on the tiny little bit left right before grocery day.  Just don't- trust me.

With my affection for chocolate, I have made it a point to try a large variety over the years.  I have been fortunate to have had the opportunities to travel a decent amount before starting a family.  Over those journeys, I sampled the chocolates of France, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, England, Mexico and even Japan.  If anyone I know is traveling somewhere I have never been and asks if there is anything I would like, chocolate is always the answer- always.  During my travels, I think I judged whether or not I could live in a particular country by my level of affection for their native chocolate.

One disadvantage of these small chocolate adventures is that they may have turned me into a chocolate snob.  Although not a problem for me, this means that my husband can not just run to CVS the night before or day of a special occasion and grab a pretty arrangement of Hersheys.  It's not going to cut it.  No offense to lovers of Hershey bars out there, but I think they are crap.  I was spoiled on a childhood of rich and creamy Cadbury from my native Ireland.  Try some imported Cadbury chocolates and then try to tell me that Hershey kisses are awesome.  I dare you.

So, how does love of chocolate fit into an overall goal of healthy living?  I could cite research that shows the antioxidant benefits of chocolate and other nutrient dense qualities, but I am not going to do that.  Those things are great but truthfully I don't care.  Even if there were no antioxidants or other redeeming qualities, I would still enjoy my chocolate.  Life is too short and this is where I subscribe to a philosophy of balance and moderation. Here are a few things I use to keep my chocolate indulgences in balance and enjoy it completely:

Chocolate can be enjoyed as a whole food.  Oh Yes, it can.   Pure cocoa is a simple, whole food ingredient.  Like everything else, take the time to read the list of ingredients on the product you are buying.  You should be able to pronounce them all, spell them all and memorize them quickly because the list should be short.  It should sound like your mom's pantry, not a chemical cocktail developed in a lab. Enjoy a made from scratch hot cocoa- it takes barely minutes and has 3 ingredients: milk, cocoa and sugar (optional- or you could use less refined products such as honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar).  Easy peasy and delicious.

Indulge in a high quality bar of chocolate, especially dark chocolate. There is a local chocolate shop making their own confections relatively near us.  I do not go there often and I am not claiming that it is health food by any stretch, but it's nice to get a high quality, made from scratch treat once in a while that also supports a local business.  If that option is not available, grocery stores now have decent options of high quality chocolate.  One of my new favorites is Green & Black's Organic varieties.  I won't find these options on sale for 70 cents per bar, but the difference in taste versus a standard candy bar is worth it in my opinion.  Also, it is highly unlikely to devour more than a few pieces at a time when enjoying a high quality, rich piece of chocolate.  It just doesn't happen....even with a chocoholic like me.

Make Your Own Baked Goods. Ok, myself and others who truly enjoy baking have an edge up on this one, but there are a lot of great recipes out there that are pretty quick and simple to create less processed and healthier options for chocolate fixes.  If you are looking for healthy or whole food recipes, check out blogs like Chocolate Covered Katie, My Whole Food Life and 100 Days of Real Food for information at your finger tips.  Some health enthusiasts subscribe to completely eliminating all refined sugar from their diet.  I'm not there yet.  Some people indicate they feel better with sugar completely out of their diet and I respect that.  I do not use refined sugar in the large majority of my baking, but I do not think there is a health risk to enjoying a homemade or freshly made cookie or cupcake for a special occasion once in a while, even if there is sugar in the recipe.  I would much prefer to make that special treat myself, from scratch where I know what the ingredients are versus grabbing a convenience store bought item with an ingredients list like a NASA experiment.

Exercise.  This one may seem obvious but constant moving and activity keeps things in balance.  I'm still looking for a shirt that says "Will Run For Chocolate..."  Anyone know where I can get one of those? 

It also turns out that the apple does not fall far from the tree and chocoholism is an inherited trait.

This little one had a pre-school Valentine's party, which required treats.  So, we had a baking party and whipped up some whole wheat brownie & chocolate dipped strawberry lollipops.

The Whole Wheat Brownies were inspired by Jillian Michael's Master Your Metabolism Cookbook and 100 Days of Real Food. 

Whole Wheat Brownies
Dry Ingredients
~3/4 cup whole wheat flour
~1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
~1/4 teaspoon aluminum free baking powder
~1/4 teaspoon baking soda
~1/4 teaspoon salt
Wet Ingredients
~1/3 cup honey
~1/2 cup butter
~1 teaspoon vanilla extract (you could substitute peppermint, almond or even orange extract for a different hint of flavor)
~2 eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients.  In a small pot, melt together the honey, butter & vanilla.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, add the 2 eggs and mix with mixer or by hand until well incorporated.  Grease a baking dish and spread the batter into the dish.  Bake in the oven approximately 18 minutes or until a knife or toothpick comes out clean.  Let the brownies cool in the dish before removing.  Cut into desired shapes and indulge!

After some decorations and stickers added by the munchkin.....

And this pregnant lady knows what to do with those brownie scraps after cutting out little hearts for the kiddos at school!  Throw them on top of some Stonyfield Organic After Dark Chocolate frozen yogurt and settle in for an episode of Mad Men on Netflix.....bliss.

Do you have any go to recipes for those chocolate cravings?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wheat Grass and Green Smoothies

I am new to green smoothies.  In the summer, I have thrown a handful of spinach into the blender on occasion to mix with fruit and use it up before it goes off, but this is not routine for me.  Recently, I have been reading about the benefits of incorporating green drinks into your regular diet.  Food Babe, which is a great resource for healthy living tips, suggests a green smoothie everyday.  Every. Single. Day.  It is habit #4 on her suggested list of daily things to do.  One of the highlighted foods for a green drink option is wheat grass and I was amazed to see the lengthy list of benefits cited, including detoxification, mega doses of vitamins, cleansing of organs, clearer skin and keeps hair from graying. Did I just read that correctly? "Keeps the hair from graying."  Yes, I did read it correctly.  I am definitely interested!

I started searching for other sources about the benefits of wheat grass and they just kept coming.  Over at My Whole Food Life, wheat grass is listed as one of many super foods.  The Hippocrates Health Institute lists another lengthy roll call of benefits including increased energy, protection of the liver and blood and fighting tumors (It also takes the gray hair benefit even further and says that it can restore gray hair to its natural color- yahoo). One of the most notable benefits of wheat grass cited in multiple sources seems to be its accessible content of chlorophyll, which is linked to benefits including ability to rebuild the blood stream, antibacterial properties, purification, improving blood sugar issues and more.

In general, but especially due to the fact that I am expecting, I want to ensure I get many fruits and vegetables into my diet everyday.  Information supports that green smoothies or drinks are another way to ensure one's daily count of produce is up there. There seems to be three options for wheat grass smoothies or drinks:
  1. Local health food store that makes fresh wheat grass juice;
  2. Grow your own wheat grass (there are a lot of resources for "Grow Your Own Wheat Grass" kits);"
  3. Wheat grass powder.
I do not have access to the local health food store mentioned in option #1.  Although growing my own wheat grass on my window sill sounds lovely, I understand that I would need a special juicer to juice the plant and I do not have one.  So, I decided to give option #3 a try.  I took a trip to my nearest Whole Foods Market, which is not near at all unfortunately but I timed it with another trip I had to take. I reviewed many options that were there and settled on the following: 

Wheat grass powder & fruit smoothie
On the first morning, I tried it with only water.  Admittedly, this was tough.  I was not a fan.  On the second morning, I made a smoothie by combining frozen berries, approximately 1/2 cup of orange juice, another 1/2 to 1 cup of water and the scoop of wheat grass powder.  This went down much better!  On the third morning, I switched up again and tried another suggestion of mixing the powder with a small cup of fruit juice (I added some more water to mix it up better without drinking a giant glass of juice).  This went down well too and is a great option on a morning when time is tight and the full smoothie is pushing the clock a bit.
Wheat grass powder, fruit juice & water

It has only been one week and I am excited to be trying a new healthy routine.  I am still very new to the green smoothies & drinks so I would love to hear any ideas you may have!  Do you have any go-to recipes?  Have you noticed any health benefits from incorporating green drinks into your diet?  What type of blender do you recommend for your drinks?  I have been hearing a lot of great things about the Vitamix lately so that may be hitting my wish list soon!

Thank you for your input and ideas.  Have a great week!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Whole Chicken

By chickens, I am not referring to our hens out back- they are currently on a winter strike- boo.  For the first time in 18 months, I am buying eggs at the grocery store.  I miss my fresh eggs, but more on that another time. I will gratefully take advice from any chicken experts out there! The chicken I am referring to are recipes for cooking a whole chicken.  When I am on my game and plan properly for an upcoming busy week, one of the tips that works best for us is a healthy recipe that translates into multiple nights of meals.  The whole chicken is perfect for this.  Roast chicken is an incredibly delicious, home cooked meal that is really easy to make- really easy.  In fact, I don't even follow a specific recipe for it because it can be varied depending on the spices on hand at the time.  Here are the basics I do follow:
Basic Roast Chicken
~Purchase a whole chicken, preferably organic and noted without the use of any antibiotics or growth hormones;
~Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees;
~Remove plastic wrap from chicken, rinse the chicken with cold water and remove giblets;
~Grease a roasting pan with olive oil;
~Create your own spice rub with olive oil and spices of your choice.  A simple salt and pepper is just fine or you can add garlic, sage, basil, paprika, parsley....the combinations are endless! Butter also can make a roast chicken fabulous;
~Cover the chicken with your newly created spice rub.  You can also insert a knife under the chicken skin and include some of the spice rub underneath the skin;
~Another delicious option: squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken and place the 2 lemon halves right into the cavity of the chicken- the roasting brings out the lemon flavor :)
~Roast the chicken in the oven until the thigh is at 180 degrees- for most roasting chickens I have purchased (4-5 lbs), this takes about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours (I occasionally baste the chicken with juices while it is cooking).  Also, check for the juices to be running clear and the leg wiggling in the socket easily, which are also signs the chicken is done;
~Let the chicken sit for 10-15 minutes before carving;
~Enjoy! I love this meal with potatoes and vegetables roasted in simple olive oil, salt & pepper.

Just when I thought the whole chicken dinner couldn't get any easier, check out this amazing recipe for a crock pot whole chicken over at I made this recipe last week and it was perfect.  Once again, I modified this recipe based on the spices I had on hand at the time and I added the lemons.  The chicken came out perfectly cooked, incredibly moist and it made enough food for multiple meals. The multiple meals is the best part about cooking a whole chicken.  Once that bird is done, I try to use the entire thing for options such as:

Ready to start cooking!
~Whole wheat chicken quesadillas
~Chicken Sandwiches
~Chicken Stock & Soup
~Whole Wheat Chicken Salad Wraps
~Roast Chicken Pasta with Garlic and Veggies
~Chicken & Veggie Rice Stir Fry
Chicken soup can be frozen if you do not want to use it right away- sometimes that is the best option as the family can give me that "Chicken again?" look.  Freezing it gives me the option for a no-cook night later on...when the family is ready for more chicken.
In fitness news, I returned to the pool this week!  I have not swam laps in months.  Truthfully, I was just lacking the motivation to get into the cold pool at 5:30AM during these winter months.  My first return swim was about 1200 yards and it affirmed for me that swimming is perfect cardio when pregnant.  Body temperature stays pretty regulated and feeling weightless is definitely a plus.  I will be working to fit pool time back into the routine on a more regular basis.
Do you have any go-to recipes for setting you up for a busy week?
Have a great week.