Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly About Popcorn

So did you hear the buzz about popcorn having more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables in the news this week? It always intrigues me when I hear things like this and it also infuriates me. It is the same kind of feeling I get when someone tells you to go ahead and eat a hamburger instead of a salad that you just dumped a high calorie dressing on because there are now less calories in the hamburger. NOT NUTRITIONALLY EQUIVALENT PEOPLE! So what if there are more calories in the salad. You are not better off eating a fatty hamburger on a white bun then actually eating some lettuce and vegetables that have some nutritional value. Don't get me wrong though. You can't expect to lose weight if you keep dumping that salad dressing on either. All that to say that while the antioxidant news about popcorn is great, you must take it with a grain of salt!

So here is the good news in case you missed it.
Popcorn has more antioxidant polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. These polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn because it is only about 4 percent water while fruits and vegetables are generally 90 percent water thus diluting the polyphenols. Polyphenols help fight free radicals. You may have noticed them in anti-aging creams or heard them talked about in relation to the health benefits of wine. There is also emerging information about polyphenols and disease prevention.

The researchers who discovered this were also quick to point out that popcorn cannot replace fruits and vegetables in your diet because of the vitamins and nutrients found in them which popcorn does not contain. It does matter how you prepare the popcorn however which brings me to the bad news about popcorn.

Perhaps you have been hearing some rumblings in the news about microwave popcorn lately also? If you haven't than I must forewarn you that you won't like the rest of this post. I myself am a bit infuriated. If this is old news to you I apologize for being so behind the eight ball in getting to this post.

So what is the deal?  Ugly Chemicals. I am frustrated that it takes so long for the consumer to find out that things like this are actually unsafe for us, or I suppose that they can even put these kinds of chemicals in the popcorn bag to begin with. I am frustrated about how much of it I have consumed and let my children consume as well in ignorance, and I suppose mad at myself for not taking the time to check this out sooner.

You are welcome to do your own research on this of course but here is a rundown of why you need to consider giving this up for a while at least. I meant to say awhile! I will explain.

-PFC'S which stands for perfluorinated compounds. These PFC's are used to make nonstick cookware, pizza boxes, carpets, lots of snack packaging, and you guessed it microwave popcorn bags. The problem is that it migrates into your food. This chemical is so pervasive it can be detected in 95% of humans. These PFC's can have a negative effect on the immune system. One study even showed that kids with high exposure had very few antibodies produced in response to their childhood vaccines which brings into question whether their vaccines were effective.
-DIACETYL  is another chemical found among the nearly 4 dozen said to be in the buttery flavoring and the ink and glue on microwave popcorn bags. The good news is that many of the larger companies have already removed this chemical and others are voluntarily planning to remove it by 2015. That is why I said give it up for a while at least. However, others claim that the alternatives they have replaced it with are just as bad. "They" claim diacetyl is harmless when eaten but when heated to high temperatures, as one would in cooking microwave popcorn, it becomes toxic.
-STEAM Interestingly enough the steam is where the biggest problem is with the popcorn. The man who worked at a popcorn plant and developed what they are calling popcorn lung made two bags of microwave popcorn a day and his favorite part was breathing in the steam when he opened the bag. That is where most of the chemicals lurk. My mind says if it is in the steam then it leached into my popcorn too but what do I really know? To be on the safe side the suggestion was made to wait for the bag to cool and open it under an exhaust fan. If you need to do that should you really eat the stuff?????

So what is a popcorn loving family to do??? Fortunately there are SEVERAL HEALTHY options! I personally have fond memories of my dad and my mom making popcorn on the stove in a really old heavy pan with a bit of oil on the stove. I still like to make it that way. It is delicious and I use healthier olive oil or coconut oil. However I also needed a way for my kids to be able to make it. So enter microwave melamine popcorn bowl that is bpa free!

There is the bowl and the kids getting ready to do it all by themselves. Evan is scooping a little earth balance coconut spread out.

Faith can measure the 1/3 cup by herself and she put the lid on.

She can put it in the microwave all by herself too.

He was kind enough to let her press the numbers.

And Evan can get it out without burning his fingers. The top rim of the bowl isn't that hot but the sides are so I have them pour it into a separate bowl. We did a few sprinkles of salt for some more flavor but not too much.

Happy kids and happy mom!

Here is the other good news! Popcorn when purchased like this is super cheap! You will get way more for your money then you would have buying the bags and it only takes about 2 extra minutes. In order to keep the popcorn healthy however you have to be careful about what how you cook it. You can just put the popcorn in the bowl plain. I like the flavor this spread gives or the flavor olive oil gives however.

Of course another option is to use an air popper.

I love the look of this one! However this is one more appliance I don't have room to store in my tiny kitchen. The bowl I can stack in other bowls. I also don't like the time it takes for some of these poppers to heat up and I don't think they are particularly easy to clean. But to each his own.

However, believe it or not, you can make it in a brown paper lunch bag too.

Just place about 1/4 cup popcorn in the bag add about 1/4 tsp. salt and fold over the top. Microwave on high for 2-3 minutes and ta-da! You can add a bit of oil to the bag but it will end up greasy and that is why I prefer the bowl!

So now that you are informed go enjoy some popcorn just not from a microwave bag please! It is a great low-calorie snack if cooked without all the butter. It is high in fiber and antioxidants and is a whole grain food. It is also versatile. If you mist it with a little oil or water after it cooks you can coat it with cinnamon, dill, chile powder, rosemary, or your other favorite seasoning for a delicious snack.

If you read this entire post you deserve a prize! Maybe you can win a microwave popcorn bowl in my blog giveaway coming very soon!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mediterranean Vegetables with Polenta Cakes

I saw this recipe in the Parade magazine in yesterday's paper and promptly headed to the store.
Perhaps you saw it too? Of course you know they had me at the word Mediterranean. I'm pathetic. I know.

Making polenta has been on my to do list of recipes. Do you have a list like that? Also on the list is homemade granola and the Meyer Lemon Bars in the new Clean Eating Issue just to mention a few.

Polenta is just another word for corn grits. In fact the only ingredient listed on this package of Bob's Red Mill Polenta........CORN!

 I knew my Texas raised husband would approve of this dinner. Now you have all heard me say before that corn isn't really a health food. I wouldn't say it is bad for you, but the nutritional value doesn't really rank up there that high! It does contain some fiber, thiamin, and folate but most of the calories in corn come from carbohydrates. There are much better vegetables to eat of course that won't raise your blood sugar. So corn is an occasional food for us.

Polenta is very simple to cook but you can also buy it precooked and save this step. I followed the recipe and added one cup of polenta to 1 1/2 cups of boiling milk. It cooks very quickly. I think it only took 3 minutes.
Then I stirred in a bit of Earth Balance and some fresh Parmesan cheese along with a bit of salt and pepper to give the cakes some flavor.

It will cook to almost the consistency of thick, gritty, mashed potatoes.

Spread the mixture onto a greased cookie sheet. This off set spatula worked great for getting it fairly smooth and consistent.

You want to keep it fairly thick for the cakes. Put this in the fridge to set up.

Don't be fooled by how small it looks. I actually got 15 cakes out of that. I used a small round Tupperware container to cut them. I did re-flatten the scraps to cut more and probably should have put them back into the fridge to firm some more but I didn't and they held together okay.

Just before placing them in a pan of olive oil to fry I coated them in a little more polenta. The recipe said to sprinkle them with a little more polenta.

I added a little Greek seasoning to the olive oil and fried them on each side for a few minutes. It only took two batches to cook them all so it went very quickly.

While the polenta cakes were firming in the fridge I got to work on my favorite part, the Mediterranean vegetables. I chopped up red, yellow, and orange pepper, (I was out of green) zucchini, red onion, and sun dried tomatoes that I had soaked in water a bit, and some garlic. I skipped the eggplant because I just haven't grown to love it that much. At the last minute I decided to add my last sun-dried tomato chicken sausage from Trader Joe's. Go get yourself some of that ASAP if you are blessed to live close enough to do so. The best chicken sausage I have ever had and not greasy at all!

I cooked them a bit of olive oil for about 7-8 minutes on medium high and then turned the heat down to low just to keep them warm until I was ready to serve them. I stirred in what was left of our new favorite find...

The recipe said to add 1/4 cup of your favorite dressing. I had just enough of this left to do so but the vegetables would have been awesome with just the olive oil and Greek seasoning I had put in too.

I also soaked some kale in my mustard vinaigrette and cooked that quick when the polenta was done cooking. By far our favorite way to eat kale so far.

Dinner was served along with some Whole Foods grapes and the last of our apple pear from Trader Joe's. I must say rush NOW to get yourself one of those. INCREDIBLE FLAVOR. Faith was in love from first bite. I am so sorry I only bought two of them. I can't even really describe them.

Oh vegetables, you are so pretty. Thank you for all the colors you add to my life!

I was feeling a bit gluttoness when I sat down to this huge plate of food. I needed to remind myself though that the majority of it was vegetables. That is the thing about eating healthy. I would much rather have this huge plate of food for probably about 500 calories than one large soft pretzel that has about 470 or a bagel with a tiny bit of cream cheese that would put you over the 500 calorie mark!

Mediterranean Vegetables with Polenta Cakes - Parade Magazine Sunday March 25th
I did make some changes to the original recipe so if you woul like it check online. I used half of each pepper instead of one small of each, added red onion,  left out the eggplant, and canned tomatoes, and substituted earth balance for the butter in the polenta . I also left the butter out completely for the vegetables.

1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup polenta plus more for coating
2-3 tbsp. earth balance or butter
2-3 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

2 tbsp. olive oil
half each red, green, and yellow or orange peppers, diced
1 small zucchini, cubed
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced (reconstitue in water if dried instead of jarred)
1/4 cup bottled dressing (your choice)

Bring milk to boil over medium heat. Whisk in polenta, lower heat, and cook, stirring occasionally for 3-5 minutes or until smooth. Add extra milk if too thick. Stir in butter and Parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn out onto greased pan and spread to 5/8-inch thickness. Refrigerate until set. Cut polenta into small rounds. Coat in dry polenta. Place in skillet with olive oil and fry each side until golden.

Heat 1-2 tbsp. olive oil in skillet and add all vegetables. Cook for approximately 7-8 minutes over medium heat. Stir in dressing and reduce heat to low to keep warm until serving time.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Greek Orzo Salad

Yes it is Greek again! I can't help it. What else am I going to put in my orzo salad??? My only hope it that maybe I am rubbing off on you and you like Greek as much as I do now.

So when we were at Whole Foods I saw this great looking orzo salad at their spectacular food bar and it made me want to make something similar asap. I grabbed this quick because honestly I haven't looked for whole wheat orzo in town and I didn't want to be sorry if I couldn't find it here.

For those of you who don't know orzo is considered a pasta. This particular one had much more of a pasta texture then other brands I have purchased in the past.

I cooked half of the bag according to the package directions. You definitely want it to be al dente for a salad so set a timer so you do not overcook it. Also, save a bit of that starchy water you cooked in for the dressing.

This is what I mixed into my salad. Spinach, red onion, roasted red pepper, Greek olives, a little lemon zest and of course feta! Call me uncreative if you must but I just have a love affair with Greek food!

Gently toss that all together in a bowl.

While my pasta was cooking I made a dressing with these ingredients dried basil, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Greek seasoning, and lemon juice. I was in a hurry or I would have used some of my new basil cubes but they were frozen. I also mixed in with the dressing a bit of the cooking water which helps the sauce coat the pasta.

I topped it off with a bit more feta of course and we ate some falafel chips on the side with some store bought hummus for lunch. Delicious! Even better the second day.

In other news......

My 100th blog post is coming up soon. I thought it would be fun to do a giveaway of a few of my favorite things to thank you all for being so supportive and encouraging and for continuing to read my little blog. Come back soon for details about entering and what I will be giving away.

Greek Orzo Salad
8oz. whole wheat orzo ( reserve 1/4 cup cooking water)
1 - 1 1/2  cups spinach, roughly chopped
1/2 a red onion diced
1/2 cup roasted red pepper, diced
1/2 cup Greek olives, sliced
1/2 cup crumbled feta
zest of half a lemon

3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. Greek seasoning

Instructions: Cook orzo according to package directions and reserve about 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid. While the pasta is cooking prepare your dressing and ingredients. Drain pasta and add back your reserved 1/4 cup of cooking water. Add all other ingredients and gently toss. Pour dressing over and mix well. Top with more feta.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Loot

 I know you all care so much about my grocery shopping trip, and you have been dying to see what I purchased at my two favorite stores that I live 2 hours away from, and you have been wondering what is taking me so long to show you. Or probably not. But it is my blog and it is exciting to me so you will have to endure it I guess. Or maybe not.

So here goes....

Here is the loot in all it's glory along with one little girl who really wanted to be in the pictures for some reason.

See what I mean about the little girl. When I first glanced at this picture I didn't notice her there because I was concentrating on the beautiful blood oranges and the manilla mangoes. But then I saw her sneaky little face and had to laugh. This is the Whole Foods side of the table. In addition to the oranges and mangoes we purchased the newest kind of Z Bars for kids, Iced Oatmeal Cookie, some gorgeous organic green grapes, Annie's snack mix, some fresh basil and radishes, a couple cans of black beans, aged balsamic vinegar, and a green tea I wanted to try.

But some of you know me too well and know this really is the only reason I needed to go that store. These organic raisins!!! We bought 2 pounds of them because they are heavenly and we have waited a long time to have these again. These taste like a raisin should taste, plump and juicy and not covered in sugar! Excitement!

We also purchased some more millet, whole wheat orzo, sunflower seeds, and sesame sticks, and Miles wanted to try some different kinds of La Croix which is kind of like a flavored carbonated water/pop.

We love sweet potato fries and when I saw that they had the waffle version I was super excited. I had passed on the 2 for $6 deal for the plain ones because they actually have more ingredients then I like, especially when you can make your own from a plain old sweet potato, but the waffle version sucked me in, as did the beautiful heirloom tomatoes. I love heirloom tomatoes so much! One of the other things I love about Whole Foods is the samples they have in the produce section. We picked up those apples which are called Pinata after sampling them. INCREDIBLE flavor! I grabbed the pita bread because it said it should come home with me and Faith picked out the cheese sticks which she loved from last time and of course my favorite seaside english cheddar had to come with us. The earth balance and Fage yogurt were on sale so I grabbed those too but I can get those in town.

Now on to our loot from Trader Joe's! These are apple pears. Doesn't that sound so interesting? I haven't eaten them yet but I bet they are going to be really good and then I will wish that I didn't know that they existed because I won't get anymore for a while!

Not such a great picture but we did pick up a little lunch meat that is nitrate free and some chicken sausages with sun-dried tomato. The sugar plum tomatoes also looked fabulous to me and and you can barely see it but we grabbed some whole wheat cous cous and those ginger snaps are the best! Triple ginger = completely awesome. But the real reason for our stop to Trader Joe's is those sesame almonds. I will not share.

I have said a few posts ago that I haven't really been buying salad dressing much anymore because I prefer to make it but hello! Hummus salad dressing???? I'm totally in! We cracked open the bottle yesterday just because we couldn't wait any longer. It will be on my salad at lunch today. The salsa was absolutely awesome as well. I made a cream cheese dip with it for small group Sunday night.

I served it with those veggie and flaxseed chips that I think could be my new favorite thing. Yes to carrot and tomato, spinach and garlic, and red beet and onion chips! The falafel chips were for the husband who just nodded emphatically when I showed him the bag. He has a thing for falafel.

Somebody is a total genius! This is basil perfectly portioned in one teaspoon cubes. Thank you very much to whoever thought of this!


The last few things we grabbed from Trader Joe's were our favorite sprouted grain bread and whole wheat tortillas. Those tortillas are handmade and extra thick. Of course I also had to grab my favorite Greek olives because they are such a great deal there at only $2.99, and some tri-colored peppers, organic carrots, and already diced up kale. I grabbed some artichoke hearts and diced tomatoes because they were also a great deal. Then I decided to bring a papaya home with me too.

I almost forgot. I picked up this flavored sparkling water and while Miles was loading the groceries in the car I grabbed it from the bag to try because I was really thirsty. I opened it. I sprayed it all over the back of my husband. He didn't laugh. How did it get so shaken up just walking out to the car?

So that is my loot.

And this is my fruit bowl.

I am sure you all think I am absolutely insane to drive 2 hours to go to these stores but that fruit bowl explains much. Does your fruit bowl have a papaya, manilla mangoes, blood oranges, pinata apples, and apple pears in it? It is about variety and quality. We try to buy the things we know we can't get in Willmar and the things that have become our favorites. We also like to find new things to try. It is also about the sense of trust I have in those stores and for sure at Trader Joe's the quality for the price. I mean I can't even get those olives at Walmart for less than $4.99!

Thank you for reading this post and for putting up with my excitement. Normally I absolutely loathe grocery shopping. It is a waste of two hours of my life and you have to handle the groceries like 5 times by the time you put them all away and it costs too much money! But you could take me to these two stores for my birthday and I wouldn't complain!

Have a happy, healthy, day!

Friday, March 16, 2012

I'm Going to Mecca

We are off to the Cities for a quick overnight. The kids have birthday money burning a whole in their pockets. So we will be visiting Build-A-Bear, American Girl, and The Apple Store of course. But what I am most excited about is this...........

and this........

and this is why.....

the most beautiful produce on the planet and such a huge selection of it. Here I come kale and watercress and organic raisins and sesame almonds and perhaps some figs and more dates. Of course some good aged cheddar would be awesome and some healthy school lunch choices and whatever else I can find that I will die if I leave behind. I am so excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Full report on what we return with later!
Enjoy your beautiful sunny and warm spring weekend if you live in Minnesota.