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My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.
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As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.
These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.
Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.
I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.
Making soup with the superfoods
Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.
Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.
A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.
This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.
Rustic Mushroom Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ medium onion, thinly sliced
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large
1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix
1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.
2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.
3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.
4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.
6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.
Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee
Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has quickly become my favorite winter squash. The texture is somewhat like a chestnut or potato, unlike most squash and pumpkins, which, when cooked are very soft.
Kabocha can be cooked in a multitude of ways, including roasting, mashing, baking and even in soup. They can be used to make pies and other desserts. When eating in a Japanese restaurant, if there is kabocha in the vegetable tempura, I will always get an order.
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I often substitute kabocha squash in recipes that call for other winter squash, such as butternut or acorn squash. The difference in flavor profiles can completely change an old standard into a brand-new classic.
One Thanksgiving, about five or six years ago, I decided to add a kabocha squash recipe to my dinner. Every year I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family and extended family. This is usually very traditional fare, featuring turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green salad, maybe a Jell-O mold fixed by my mother, and rolls. My sister would always make the candied yams and sweet potato pie, and bring them over.
Interested in bringing slightly healthier fare to my Thanksgiving table, I wanted another option to balance the buttery sugary overload of the candied yams. I brushed the kabocha squash with a very small amount of melted butter and spiced it with warm spices, including cinnamon. When the squash was done, I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the top. The tart and sweet molasses blended beautifully with the spiced sweetness of the squash.
Of course, once the family saw the kabocha squash, everyone asked what in the world it was.
One cousin even remarked, “Black folks don’t eat that!” I replied, “You do today” and explained what the dish was.
Gamely, everyone took a small piece to try. And wouldn’t you know, they loved it. They all came back for more. So I guess black folks do eat kabocha squash.
This soup has an additional layer of flavor added by roasting the squash before use in the soup. You can roast the squash a day before, or if you have leftover roasted kabocha squash it can be repurposed in this recipe.
Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup With Kale
3 pounds kabocha squash, seeds removed, cut into 4 pieces
3 (15 ounce) cans low sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground ginger powder
½ teaspoon ground smoked paprika
2 cups torn kale
1. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. Place squash onto a baking sheet skin side down. Roast squash for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender.
3. Remove the squash from the oven, set aside to cool slightly. (This step can be done a day ahead.)
4. Scoop the flesh from the squash.
5. In a large saucepan, combine the cooked squash, chicken broth, salt, allspice, ginger and smoked paprika.
6. Using the back of a spoon or a potato masher, break the squash up.
7. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes, until the flavors have melded.
8. Carefully purée the soup using a blender or food processor.
9. Return the puréed soup to the pot, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
10. Add the kale, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is tender.
11. If needed, add a small amount of water to thin the soup if it becomes too thick.
Top photo: Roasted kabocha squash soup with kale. Credit: Cheryl Lee
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
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Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee
As the end of summer nears, many backyard gardeners find themselves awash with fresh produce. Something to consider is pickling the vegetables, so they can be enjoyed for months to come.
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My paternal grandmother was a master canner. I remember jars of apple butter, currant jelly, grape jelly and other preserves being shipped from her home in Ohio to our home in California. She grew everything in her back yard, and being a woman from the Depression era, nothing was wasted. Unfortunately, canning and preserving are on my list of things to learn, and I just have not gotten up the nerve yet. The comparison between my memories of what my grandmother could achieve and what I may or may not be able to achieve is too daunting.
So I started small by making a batch of quick pickles, also known as refrigerator pickles. At my local farmers market I saw some spiky, egg-shaped gherkins, and could not resist buying them. There was only a pound left to purchase, but knew I wanted to try to pickle them.
When you have a smaller amount of produce, a quick pickle recipe makes sense. No need to follow all the steps needed to successfully and safely can, a quick pickle is made by placing the vegetables, aromatics and spices of choice into a clean jar. Then hot pickling liquid is poured over, and the jar is sealed and left to cool to room temperature. Once cool, refrigerate the pickles and let sit for 24 to 48 hours for the flavors to develop. The longer they sit, the better the flavor.
Quick pickles will last about a month in the refrigerator, and canned pickles can stay on the pantry shelf for a year or more.
One day I will face my fear of canning, but for now I will enjoy making a simple quick pickle recipe. They won’t last as long, but they will taste as good.
Zesty Quick Pickles
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound gherkins
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 to 8 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons pickling spice (recipe below)
1 teaspoon crushed aleppo pepper or other crushed red pepper
1. Bring the vinegars, water and salt to a boil. Simmer the liquid for 5 minutes.
2. Divide the gherkins, onions and garlic cloves between two large mason jars.
3. Put 1 tablespoon of the pickling spice and ½ of the teaspoon of aleppo pepper into each jar.
4. Pour the hot liquid over the pickles and seal the jar.
5. Let the pickles cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
6. Let the pickles sit for at least 2 days before eating.
This is an all-purpose pickling spice mix, and can be used for almost any pickle recipe.
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
2 tablespoons whole allspice
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1 cinnamon stick
1. Mix the spices together and seal in an airtight container to store.
Top photo: Zesty quick pickles. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Juicing and juice cleanses are all the rage these days. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiac surgeon turned TV personality is a great proponent of juicing. He has his own 3-Day Detox Cleanse, which seems very easy to follow.
My system needed a jump-start, a complete cleansing. I knew that if I had to make the teas and juices myself, it would be a miracle if I got through one day.
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So I opted to buy a 3-Day Detox Juice Cleanse from Pressed Juicery, knowing that every time I opened my refrigerator and saw all those rather expensive juices, I was going to drink them.
Day 1 of detox cleanse
8 a.m.: According to the company’s website, the cleanse will arrive by FedEx by 11 a.m. After dropping off my daughter at school, I head home to await my juice delivery.
10:15 a.m.: The juices have arrived, are unpacked and in the refrigerator. They are numbered in the order they should be drunk. Three rows, six bottles each, of nutritionally dense, cold-pressed juice to rid my body of the toxins of modern life.
I open juice No. 1, a blend of kale, spinach, romaine, parsley, cucumber, celery, apple, lemon and ginger. It was really good, quite refreshing actually.
“I can do this!” I thought.
11 a.m.: I am hungry.
Noon: It’s about time for juice No. 2, a blend of cucumber, pineapple, lemon, coconut water and aloe vera. It went down smooth and easy.
12:15 p.m.: I am hungry.
2 p.m.: Juice No. 3 is carrot, cucumber, spinach and parsley. This was a more substantial juice, slightly thicker from the carrots.
“This one should stick to my ribs,” I thought.
2:30 p.m.: I am hungry.
2:35 p.m.: The “cleansing” aspect of the juice kicks in. I am extremely grateful to work at home.
4 p.m.: Juice No. 4 is another light blend, with pineapple, apple, lemon and mint. By this time, I am feeling very fatigued, probably from lack of caffeine. Or the complete lack of food in my body.
4:15 p.m.: I am hungry. No, I am starving.
4:30 p.m.: Trying to distract myself from food I start surfing the web. Bad idea. My Facebook and Google+ feeds are full of food writers and bloggers, all with new posts about what they were cooking. Pinterest is a visual feast. Rethinking this web surfing thing.
6 p.m.: Time to make dinner for my daughter. I am trying not to be resentful of her being able to eat, but the lack of food is distorting my ability to think clearly. Or even think at all.
6:15 p.m.: Juice No. 5 is horrible! I do not like the taste of this blend of cucumber, celery, watercress, lemon, ginger and cayenne. It was like drinking spicy grass.
6:30 p.m.: I am hungry and irritable because I didn’t like my last juice. I believe I hissed at my cats as they were loudly meowing for their dinner.
8 p.m.: They saved the best for last. Juice No. 6 is a delicious blend of almonds, dates, vanilla bean and sea salt. Luscious, rich and satisfying, it was almost like a dessert. Almost.
I finished the day with a bottle of aloe vera water, which is supposed to help with the “cleansing” aspect. After drinking all that juice I cannot possibly see how you would need any more help with the “cleansing” part!
8 a.m.: I am feeling akin to what you might scrape off your shoe. I understand this is par for the course from others who have done a three-day cleanse. They all say Day 2 is the hardest.
9 a.m.: Juice No. 1 down. Time to get to work. Except for not being able to focus on anything, this should be a piece of cake. Cake! I want cake!
11:30 a.m.: I have to go to my daughter’s school to help with her kindergarten graduation party. Then they bring in the pizza. Just the smell almost sends me over the edge. I start getting dizzy, which may be because I tried to stop breathing so I wouldn’t smell the pizza anymore. I excuse myself and go home for another juice.
2:30 p.m: Back to my daughter’s school to pick her up. Cranky, irritable, starving is how I would describe my state of mind. I may or may not have growled at my daughter.
4 p.m.: If I do not eat something I am going to start chewing on my laptop. The juice people tell you to have a few slices of cucumber or apple if you really have too. Ha! I make a lovely salad of baby greens dressed with vinegar.
I decide to skip the nasty juice, since I had eaten that salad.
7 p.m.: Time for my dessert juice! I could drink this one everyday.
I wake up feeling rather good. I am not hungry, or overly tired. The crankiness level is down, and I am feeling a real sense of accomplishment.
Noon: I go pick up my daughter after her last day of kindergarten. For her special graduation meal, she chooses to go to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal. When you’re 6, McDonald’s is a destination restaurant. The smell of the fries almost gets me, but I am strong!
The rest of Day 3 is uneventful. I even drink the nasty juice, albeit quickly while holding my nose. As always, I finish with my dessert juice, happy to know the 3-Day Detox Cleanse is over.
I made it.
And I am 10 pounds lighter.
Top photo: Bottles for the 3-day detox cleanse. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee