5 Ways to Eat Better in the New Year — Without Superpowers

We are constantly reminded to make a million better food choices: No fast food, no processed food, low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, eat local, buy organic, five servings of veg a day, less meat, more raw.

On top of that, you’re supposed to exercise more, dress better, be a better parent, “take time for you”, advance your career, and basically be a superhuman all the time.

A person cannot do all these things. And yet, with New Year’s resolutions, we’re all going to try!

Many of us will make broad declarations to give up red meat, quit bread altogether, or munch only on carrots for the rest of eternity. But how many times have you managed to actually keep these resolutions beyond a few weeks?

This year, focus on easy changes that might actually stick with you past January. Even small changes can make a drastic improvement to your diet if they become good long-term habits.

Here are 5 simple ways to eat better now, without superpowers:

1.  Read the labels of the five foods you eat most often. Throw out and stop buying the most appalling one. Replace it with a healthier food.  Do this occasionally.

2.  At a restaurant, place your napkin over your food when you’re full. You won’t mindlessly pick at the remaining food and the waiter will take it away, saving you from yourself.

3.  Stop drinking soda. Start drinking water, tea, or small amounts of fruit juice mixed with carbonated water. You will eliminate a lot of calories (or fake sugar) and loads of chemicals.

4.  Trade your 200-500 calorie Starbucks sugar bomb for a drip coffee with a tablespoon of half-and-half and a teaspoon of sugar.  The real cream and sugar will only add up to 40 calories.

5.  Buy the best produce you can and display it on a nice platter or cake stand on your kitchen island. Hide all visible junk food in the pantry. You’ll eat and cook what you see, and you’ll have to look the fresh veg in the face before ordering pizza.

Don’t stress out about magically changing your entire diet on Jan. 1. You know big changes like that rarely stick anyway. Small, incremental changes might actually be lasting changes.

I’d love to hear more suggestions.  Please comment!

 

Frozen Cookie Dough: Chocolate-White-Chocolate Chunk

I’m feeling downright Scroogey for not making a load of Christmas cookies, but my pants are already tight and I can’t handle the extra calories right now.

But, jeez, I’ve got to bake something.

Problem is, I can’t be left alone with the standard recipe yield of 24-48 cookies.  I wind up eating fistfuls of cookies. Fistfuls. 

Luckily, there is a good compromise:  Frozen cookie dough. You can bake 2 cookies at a time instead of 24.

I’m not talking about that frozen commercial crap from the Home Shopping Network.  That junk is full of margarine, oil, artificial flavors, and waxy, bad chocolate. (I know the description says “butter-based”, but check the ingredient tab on that link.  Where’s the butter?) If I’m going to eat a sugar bomb, I want my sugar mixed with real butter and spectacular chocolate.

So I freeze homemade cookie dough.

Not all doughs freeze well. Trial and error seems the only way to tell, with some doughs turning oily and others working perfectly fine. (If anyone out there has a theory that will predict freezer success, please chime in!) The important thing is to freeze the dough into individual portions before you pack them away. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to scoop small amounts of rock-hard frozen dough without thawing the entire batch.

Your girlfriend/husband/whoever will adore you when you pull hot, homemade cookies out of the oven with on a cold winter night. Cookies for no particular reason! Ye shall get kisses.

Luckily, my all-time favorite dough, Ina Garten’s Chocolate, White Chocolate Chunk, freezes beautifully.

Alas, there is one tiny problem: Once the cookies cool completely after baking, the freezing does seem to affect the final “set” texture. They get a bit crispier than normal. Not bad, but not quite like the original.

Right out of the oven, they are perfectly moist, decadent, divine.

So you should eat them hot.

Oh, bummer!

Chocolate White-Chocolate Chunk Cookies – the frozen version
This recipe by Ina Garten makes an incredible cookie.  A grown-up, racy version of the standard chocolate chip. Use good cocoa and you’ll be rewarded with deep, dark flavor playing off the cocoa-butter richness of white chocolate.

adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!
yields 36-40 cookies

for the dough:
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup white granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I recommend Valrhona)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1.5 lbs. white chocolate, cut into chunks (I often use chips instead)

for freezing:
small ice-cream scooper (I use a 1.75-inch diameter)
freezer-duty zip-top bags
a straw, optional

To make dough:

Use a stand mixer with paddle attachment.  Cream the butter and sugars on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla.  Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add the cocoa powder and mix well, on low speed.  (Low! Or cocoa goes everywhere.)

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. (Alternative: use a whisk to thoroughly mix/fluff the dry ingredients.)

With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry flour mixture.  Mix just until combined.

Use a sturdy spoon or spatula to fold in the white chocolate.

To freeze:

Use the small scoop to portion dough into balls. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment.

Place entire baking sheets in freezer and chill until dough is firm, 30-45 minutes. (If you can’t fit all the dough in your freezer at once, chill the big bowl of dough in the refrigerator and portion/freeze the dough balls in batches.)

Remove from freezer.  Pack dough balls into zip-top bags. Lay bag flat and pack in a single layer. Seal tightly, removing as much air as possible.

(Sealing tip: Zip the bag closed but leave a corner open. Insert a straw.  Suck the air out, pull the straw out while inhaling, and quickly close the zipper. It’s a makeshift vaccuum seal. Your dough balls will now stay in one neat layer.)

To bake:

Heat oven to 350F. Place frozen dough balls 2-inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake 13-15 minutes or until cookies are starting to set. Let cool on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes until the firm up a bit. Serve warm!

 

Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I am all about easy side dishes. I love reading cookbooks and food blogs full of gorgeous gratins, slaws, and the like, but I never get around to making them. On a busy weeknight, if I’m going to eat my vegetables and not resort to snacking on gingersnaps right out of the box, I need side dish recipes that don’t involve ten dishes and ten minutes of chopping. I also need recipes that don’t use too much oil or add too many calories to my plate. (Or I might as well just eat those cookies.)

This brings me to sweet potatoes. They’re so good for you with their lower-than-white-potato glycemic index. They keep for weeks in the pantry. And they are so dang tasty.

You can cook them plainly, but what’s the fun in that? After several microwave-baked sweet potatoes with butter in a row, I’m ready for something more interesting. The usual Thanksgiving treatment (butter, sugar, more sugar) is too decadent to have every day.

These spice-roasted sweet potatoes are a staple in both my kitchens: work and home. They take five minutes to prep, require one baking sheet that you can line with foil to minimize mess, make use of spices you’re probably not tired of yet (when is the last time you used ground fennel?), and they are utterly, unexpectedly delicious.  I clipped this recipe from an old issue of Gourmet and have been making them for years.

The spice rub calls for hot pepper flakes.  If you don’t like spicy foods, the amount can be reduced, but I don’t recommend leaving them out altogether.   The hit of chile really makes this dish – just use a pinch if you’re worried.  The sweetness of the potato will counter the heat.

If you want to make these often, keep a little jar of the spice mix handy to save time.  You can make any quantity easily – just notice the 2:1 ratio of coriander to other spices.  This mix also makes a great rub for steaks or hamburgers.

Spice-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

These potatoes hit all the right notes – salty, spicy, and sweet. The original recipe called for twice the oil.  While oil can help crisp them up, I’m always looking for ways to cut calories and I am thrilled with this compromise.  

adapted from Gourmet, January 2002
Serves 4-6

1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground fennel
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
kosher salt, to taste
2 lb. sweet potatoes
1.5 tbs. olive oil

Heat oven to 425F.

Line a baking sheet with foil and grease lightly.

Mix spices in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Cut sweet potatoes into wedges or a large dice. (Leave skin on.) Place on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle with spice mix, olive oil, and salt.  Don’t skimp on the salt.  Toss to evenly coat and spread potatoes in one layer with space between the pieces.

Roast for 25-30 minutes or until tender.  Flip potatoes once during cooking.

18 Perfect Gifts for a Cook

When Santa came to my house as a child, my siblings and I would line up, youngest to oldest in the hallway leading to the family room, unable to see the toys until given the official OK from our sleepy parents. I, the youngest, would be in the lead, and would tiptoe forward in anticipation, one little step at a time, stretching out the suspense until I could take it no more and finally would rush around the corner to see the piles of toys. Santa didn’t wrap presents in our house; we would be immediately greeted by the toys of our dreams. I clearly remember the time I found my Little Tikes kitchen set. It was taller than me and didn’t seem like a toy but like my own real little kitchen.


Of course, I now know why the youngest took the lead – my big brother and sister knew there was no Santa. They put on a good show.

Now that I’m pushing 30, I feel like Santa is tiptoeing down the hall, sneaking up on me. How am I supposed to finish December’s work and year-end accounting and decorate the house and bake cookies and buy thoughtful presents for everyone?

Christmas still has its magic, though. Mom and I have our little projects together. We trim a fake tree with the tackiest decorations we can find. It’s ghetto-fab meets Dollar General. Those ornaments are so full of Chinese lead paint that our Tannenbaum is probably (definitely) a health hazard. The lights even blink erratically. I’ve suggested adding some pine tree car air fresheners to push us over the top.

Gift giving, too, has its moments. Christmas is overly commercial and may fuel some of our worst materialistic tendencies, but thinking deeply about what a loved one might want or find useful reminds us of our connections to each other. Sometimes we even learn more about others just by asking about their wish lists– I didn’t know my nephew liked to draw until I heard that he wanted art supplies.

Still, the pressure is on to shop for everyone, do it thoughtfully, and manage to finish in time.

This time of year I always compile a list of great gifts for cooks, to share with my customers who might need some help shopping. I pick these items for their quality and usability. Some might seem boring, like sheet pans and parchment paper, but a serious home baker will appreciate the genuine usefulness of these items far more than the latest gadget.

(FYI: I receive no compensation of any sort to recommend these items.  These are tools that I actually use.)

Gear:

 

Vollrath baking sheets 13×18.The industry standard.Will not warp (no bending when it gets hot in the oven or cold on a counter.).Will last a lifetime. Will not have hot spots that burn.And, as a bonus, will fit the parchment paper listed below.Even if someone has a baking sheet already, having a number of them is quite useful for making multiple batches of cookies, etc.


Pre-cut parchment paper.To fit the Vollrath pans.Most grocery stores only carry parchment that comes on a roll, which is a pain to cut to size.These are so easy to use since they fit the pans perfectly and lie flat.A home baker will love this.Also available in larger quantities (and lower price per sheet) at local restaurant supply stores.

Granite French-style rolling pin for pastry.Granite can be pre-chilled, which helps keep the butter in the pastry cold. The heavy weight also helps reduce the amount of muscle power needed.

Silicone pastry rolling mat.Great for rolling pastry, kneading bread, etc.Nothing will stick to it.Eliminates the fear of a pie crust being ruined when it sticks to the counter.

Granite mortar and pestle.The granite gives it weight, which is especially good for cracking whole spices.Essential for Asian cooking where aromatic ingredients are often crushed into a paste.Also great for making salad dressings with herbs, garlic, ginger, or spices. 

Cherry Pitter.Most gadgets are for tasks better done with a knife, but this is an exception.There is no quicker way to pit fresh cherries. It’s also really fun to use.

8” Mighty Santoku MAC knife. Item # MSK-60 and Rollsharp Sharpener # SR-2. Fantastic quality for the price.If you use the recommended ceramic roller sharpener, this knife will stay razor sharp for years with very little effort.A perfect all-purpose knife.I use this knife for 95% of my work in the kitchen.


Fun Spices, Flavorings, and Foods:

 

Smoked Paprika. Paprika’s sensual Spanish side.Adds huge flavor; a little goes a long way. Makes a great spice rub for meats and vegetables.

Porcini powder.Can be used as an easy rub for steaks.A great addition to cream sauces or soups.

Smoked Sea Salt. Perfect for people who use any method of indoor grilling. Imparts a natural smoky flavor to meats, vegetables, etc.

Real Vanilla Beans.An expensive item that is prized for making the best custards, puddings, and ice cream. This is the kind of thing that many people won’t splurge on to buy for themselves.Good news:a little goes a long way.

Bacon-Of-The-Month from The Grateful Palate.My husband got me this last year and it’s been fabulous.Good clean, pork flavors with natural smoke from small producers.Varying cuts of pork and different cures.Perfect gift for a BLT lover.

Cookbooks:

Any cookbook by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.These books are coffee-table gorgeous and really fun to read. My favorite cookbooks of all.Instant inspiration.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet

Beyond the Great Wall

Mangoes and Curry Leaves

Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World


The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidell. It’s an encyclopedia of meat that teaches the basics of cuts, grades, and cooking methods.It also includes a good number of recipes but its real value is as a handy reference for novices and pros alike.

The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. Full of fun ideas that stress flexibility in the kitchen without being intimidating.Good for novices or experienced cooks.