Healthy Winter Granola

Many of you loyal readers of this blog already enjoy granola à la Jen; that simple, throw-together-whatever-you’ve-got bowl of nuts, seeds, and grains that turns mornings into moments. I call it Chameleon Granola, and it always surprises me with its various incarnations.

For those of you who feel a little lost in an ingredient list that read “this, OR this,” I’ve put together this foolproof, easy to follow recipe. Just the straight-up stuff with none of the playing around and experimentation. (Actually, truth be told, I put it together for the magazine I work for, where it’s featured in the December-January issue under off-season nutrition.)

So try this one, and next time, maybe you’ll be ready to play Picasso with your breakfast cereal.

Healthy Winter Granola*

Ingredients

Dry:
-4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
– ½ cup wheatgerm
-½ cup flaxmeal (ground flaxseeds)
-½ cup pumpkin seeds
-½ cup unsweetened coconut (if you don’t like coconut, use 1 cup pumpkin seeds)
-2 Tbsp chia seeds
-1 tsp salt
-1 tsp cinnamon, nutmeg, or ground ginger

Wet:
-¼ cup molasses
-¼ cup pure maple syrup
-¼ cup agave syrup
-¼ cup smooth peanut butter
-2 egg whites
-splash of water or milk

Preparation

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix together the oats, wheatgerm, flaxmeal, pumpkin seeds, and coconut, and spread over two large cookie sheets. Toast for 10 minutes, or until lightly fragrant. Remove, turn oven down to 325 degrees.

2. Pour toasted mixture into a large bowl and add chia seeds, salt, and spices.

3. Mix together the molasses, maple and agave syrups, and peanut butter, microwaving on low power for a few minutes if softening is needed. Stir into the dry mixture until well-coated. Pour in the egg whites and water. Stir to incorporate.

4. Gently oil the baking sheets (unless you’re using non-stick) and disperse mixture evenly over the two sheets. Bake for 20 minutes, remove and stir gently with a flat lifter (especially if you want clumps, don’t disturb the granola too much), and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want the final product. (Less time equals a softer, more chewy texture, more time equals more crunch). Place baking sheets on racks and cool.

*Originally published in LAVA Magazine, Issue 3, December/January (2010, 2011)

Homemade Energy Bars I: Whole Grain Chews

There’s only one problem with getting into fitness: inevitable weakening in the face of the supplement craze. As I watch my fellow triathlon trainees squeezing gels into their mouths, it’s easy to give in to the notion that I need the stuff. I continually have to remind myself that real food should be enough for any body. Beyond the protein (powder) shakes that help me meet my protein requirements minus much meat, there’s no creatine, glutamine, ecdysterone, 5-HTP, or anything else I can’t pronounce or made up of more numbers than letters in this body.

This is why I have been combing blogs and books, and experimenting with combination after combination of natural ingredients to bring you a collection of the best homemade energy bars. This is why I will continue to experiment, posting the worthy results under this new series. I hope you appreciate the results: many craisins were harmed in the process.

Most of the popular commercial energy bars are chalk full of weird ingredients, and taste like chalk to boot. Exceptions are Larabars and most Clif Bars, which will cost you a (however chiseled) arm and a leg to consume regularly. Making a whole pan of your own is a matter of less than 5$ and 10 minutes in the kitchen. Stock up on oats, pressed barley, coconut, honey, peanut butter, nuts and dried fruits, and you’ll have everything you need on hand to whip up any number of my bars. Keep them on the counter for a week, or wrap ’em in foil and freeze them for that 3-week away hike.

I like to alternate recipes to keep me from getting bored. Some bars are baked, which tend to be lighter and crispier, while the unbaked ones resemble the chewy commercial type. The baked ones are more cookie-like, while the pressed ones tend to be sweeter and more intense.

The unbaked ones (like the recipe I am sharing today) need a lot more sticky binder than you’d expect to keep them from falling apart. Please don’t make the mistake I did and try to cut down on the peanut butter! If you’re worried about fat issues involved in 1 whole cup of peanut butter, cut the bars into small cubes…that’s all you need for a quick jolt on the trails anyway!

These bars are dense and satisfying, perfect mid- or post-workouts over an hour long. (Before a workout you’ll want to have some more complex, or slow-burn carbs for sustained energy.) They are sweetened with all-natural ingredients–honey, dried fruit, and natural peanut butter. Honey is made up of fructose and glucose and is a simple, or single-molecule sugar. This means that it enters your bloodstream quickly–translating to more energy bang for your buck.

Athletes take note: carbs (formerly known as sugar) are your friend and fuel. And heck, they’re a lot cheaper than filling up your car. Remember that it is also important to consume simple carbs after a workout, when your muscles are needing to restock their glycogen stores. (See this article for more information than you care to read here.)

All that aside, they’re just plain tasty and convenient. And they fit perfectly in laptop bags, glove compartments, and even dainty purses.

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under african skies

With my folks heading into the ‘Cuse tomorrow, I’m going to have to take the weekend off from food blogging. I’ve already spent a good deal of time stocking the apartment with “aren’t you proud of me?” treats, like this and these — special requests from mama.) Despite a little bit of stress sneaking in as I contemplate cooking for the greatest cook I know, I can’t wait to feed the old birds.

There are millions of other delicious food sites out there to sustain you in my absence. In case you do notice my three day hiatus however, I’ve decided to leave you with two yummy dishes: Baked Chicken in Peanut sauce, and Libyan Lentil Salad.

I had the pleasure of cooking an African-themed meal for friends last weekend. It was a special request, in the form of a plaintive “I’ve never tried African food” spoken weeks earlier. Though I’ve only been to the continent once, I was happy to take on the responsibility of educating her on its vast culinary landscape.

Actually, I just zeroed in on dishes from Sierra Leone and Libya from World Hearth, an International cooking site I’d recently discovered. So next time someone says to you “I’ve never tried Uzbekian food,” you can raise your well-traveled eyebrow and proclaim, “well I’ll just have to make you my famous Kiimali Mashkichiri sometime soon.” Thanks to World Hearth, panic won’t be your side dish.

Sierra Leonean Baked Chicken in Peanut Sauce

serves 4

3 Tbsp cooking oil

3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs (tofu could be substituted here)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 fresh medium-sized red tomatoes, chopped

1 medium red or green pepper, chopped

6 3” okra fruits, sliced into 1/2” pieces

2 small-medium jalepeno peppers, finely minced

1 tsp thyme

1 medium bay leaf

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cayenne

1/2 tsp cumin seeds or powder

1/2 tsp black pepper

3/4 cup peanut butter, warmed slightly for mixing

3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock

16 ounces green beans

  1. Saute chicken in oil until browned, but still pink inside. Remove and arrange in a single layer in a glass (or other oven-proof) baking dish.* Add onions and garlic to pan and saute for 5 minutes. Add thyme, bay leaf, salt, cumin, cayenne and black pepper. Add tomatoes, bell pepper, okra and jalepeno. Saute for 8 minutes.
  2. Mix peanut butter with chicken stock until smooth. Pour tomato mixture over the chicken, followed by the stock mixture and lastly the green beans. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Serve over rice or couscous.

*I did mine in a deep, round ceramic stew pot. Next time I’d try it in a shallower Pyrex glass 9×13 for added crispness and caramelization on top.

adapted from A West African Cook Book by Ellen Gibson Wilson

Libyan Lentil Salad

2 cups green (or French black) lentils

2 small-medium yams, chopped into 1 inch cubes

5 whole cloves

1 medium onion, cut in half and peeled

2 medium bay leaves

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp lemon peel

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp cumin

2 tsp coriander, ground

salt and pepper to taste

  1. Put the lentils in a big pot and cover with water. Add cloves and both halves of the onion to the pot. Add bay leaves, garlic and lemon peel, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until the lentils are tender.
  2. Toss the yam pieces with olive oil and roast for 40 minutes in a 375 degree oven, until tender.
  3. Drain the lentils, discard the onion, cloves and bay leaves. Combine the lentils with the roasted yams, chopped onion, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. Set the salad aside to chill and marinate for 2 hours. Serve with plain yogurt and flatbread.

adapted from Recipes for an Arabian Night by David Scott

sandwiches, sweeping the clouds away

Sometimes I miss watching Sesame Street. I don’t even know if it’s on anymore, or what name it’s going by now, or what they’re teaching kids these days. I feel so out of the loop.

Maybe what I miss is waking up on a Saturday morning with nothing but cartoons on the agenda. Maybe it’s that unapologetic and unproductive laziness we’re so discouraged from as adults. I miss the time when play was serious business and games my most prized accomplishments. Sometimes my nostalgia points its compass squarely in the direction of childhood.

Today was one of those drifty days. I felt a pervasive lack of direction, the clouds of limbo thickening around me. Today was a day I ached to be too busy, and then chided myself for this wish. I made a mental note to be evermore grateful for a full schedule. Today was a day that reminded me of the exquisite balance needed to live a healthy life. Rest and involvement in equal measure, calm and momentum in an intricate dance.

As I thought about youth and adulthood, playing and working, being and doing, my thoughts naturally led to peanut butter. (But it could be the influence of Peanut Butter Planet, a cookbook I recently picked up at the library.) If there’s one thing that’s inseperable from childhood, it’s peanut butter. Yet in adulthood, as I strive to eat less meat and still get all the nutrients I need, peanut butter has risen to new heights in my protein cache. It’s convenient, bursting with fiber, protein and unsaturated fats while being almost endless in versatility.

This book also reminded me that peanut butter is (hold onto your celery) really just ground peanuts. I’m sorry to break it to you, but we’ve been had. This revelation isn’t new; I recall trying to make it with a bowl of peanuts, some water and a fork. Needless to say, what we eight-year-olds ended up with looked like something that hadn’t agreed with her cat’s palate.

We go through PB around here like the nuts are going extinct. And that’s when my fellow peanut butter monster remembered the food processor attachment that came with our hand blender. I tell you, forgetting about this piece de resistance has been my biggest kitchen blunder since getting hitched. Not charring stuff, not poisoning dinner guests, but realizing that I actually could have made ALL THOSE THINGS THAT CALLED FOR A FOOD PROCESSOR and didn’t. Just thinking about the pestos, dressings and ground-up things we’ve missed out on brings me deep sorrow, but boy am I ever going to make up for lost time.

3 cups of bulk roasted peanuts + 5 minutes with electrical magic wand = 14 ounces of peanut butter so smooth and airy I’m don’t think I’ll ever go back. Sorry Teddie. It’s not even about the savings, or eliminating the packaging and transportation. This pure peanuts-and-that’s-it goodness is enough to keep me on the Skippy boycotting bandwagon for at least a few more idealistic years.

And in hopes of bringing on my own “sunny day,” I whipped up this little open-faced sandwich on some new sprouted grain bread I’ve discovered. And even though I didn’t see even a feather of that old yellow friend of mine, the sun did come out to greet me, if only for a minute or two.

Sunny Day Sandwiches

serves 2, half the recipe for one person

Combine the following in a small bowl, and spread on whole-grain or sprouted bread:

½ cup natural peanut butter

¼ cup shredded carrot

2 Tbsp. sunflower or pumpkin seeds

2 Tbsp. raisins or craisins

2 tsp maple syrup

Homemade Peanut Butter

In a food processor, grind 2 cups of good-quality roasted peanuts at a time until they turn buttery. This may take about 2 minutes. For a crunchy version, grind up another cup of peanuts into small pieces and add them to the peanut butter. For an even higher fiber variety, use the peanuts with the reddish skins on them. Enjoy!

Spoony Sundays #1: Moroccan Stew

I’ve decided to start fresh cracked pepper’s first ever weekly series. I’m not sure how long this series will last, I’ll have to wait and see what kind of ratings it gets. I’m thinking I’ll keep it around as long as the weather stays wintry though.

And so I present to you, the first episode of Spoony* Sundays. Every Sunday I will post on soup — sippable slurpable, sweet or savory, stew-like or silky. Whether or not they turn out, they’ll be here. The winners and the losers together will parade on Sundays’ pages, and I will offer commentary on their individual merit. I’ll post on as many or as few as I’ve been able to try that week.

*spoony SPOO-nee, adjective:

1. Foolish; silly; excessively sentimental.

2. Foolishly or sentimentally in love.

Soup is easy, versatile, and the perfect leftover, with its flavours mellowing and blending with age. This week I bring you a Morroccan Stew whose name I can’t take credit for, but which I’ve made countless times. It’s always a pleaser, with its West-African inspired groundnut warmth and meaty sweet potato chunks. Its secret ingredient is the perfect protein supplement for vegetarians.

This is the kind of soup I often have all the ingredients for, chilling out in my cupboards and fridge. It’s often come through for me in times of potluck need, and it resembles a soup that’s become a bit of a joke between my hubby and I: We dined on it together years ago at a mutual friend’s, before we were married. The funny part is that it was a double date — he and his girlfriend at the time and me and mine. Boyfriend, that is.

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