Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I've Moved! New Site at ALoveLetterToFood.com

My new logo! Check out the new site for more fun artwork!

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT TIME! 

(No, not pregnancy, as everyone assumes when you're Catholic and of child-bearing age.) 

This blog has moved! 

My little home here on Blogger has been a great place to get A Love Letter to Food started, but we are off to bigger things! You will now find all the content from this blog as well as all new content as of August 2015 on ALoveLetterToFood.comIt's a much more user-friendly site complete with a Recipe Index and sections on Nutrition and Entertaining. I'm thrilled with the way it's turned out!

The food-loving adventure continues--please come check it out! 


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tropsicles: Creamy Tropical Popsicles


Awhile back I saw somewhere that coconut cream can be used to make an all-natural Cool Whip. Various blogs list different ways to do this, some involving refrigerating the cream beforehand, or turning it upside down to get the really thick, gooey part that settles to the bottom, or, I don't know, standing on your head, turning counterclockwise five times, and chanting "no preservatives." So when I happened to notice coconut cream on sale at Sprouts recently, I dutifully picked up a jar, telling myself I would try this better-for-you Cool Whip alternative. (Since Cool Whip, delicious as it may be, is made out of some pretty nasty stuff.) Well......after several weeks, I never got around to actually doing it. The coconut cream jar ended up in the to-donate bag I keep in my kitchen. (Which I also haven't gotten around to actually donating. Sensing a theme here.) 

Then yesterday I had a hankering to make popsicles. Scrounging through my fridge and pantry, I realized we had a shortage of acceptable popsicle-making ingredients. BUT WAIT......

WHAT ABOUT THAT COCONUT CREAM?


The food bank's loss is our family's gain. (I'm sorry, Matthew's Crossing.) These tropical popsicles ("tropsicles") with their mix of banana, mango, and coconut cream turned out to be a dreamy oasis in the middle of a hot summer Saturday. Thanks to the coconut cream, they have a smoother texture than the icy-crunchy kind of popsicle you get with a thinner liquid base. I'd have to call them my favorite homemade popsicles of the summer.


By the way, if you're wondering what coconut cream actually is, and how it's different from coconut milk, coconut cream is made by simmering four parts coconut in one part water, whereas coconut milk is made with one part coconut, one part water. Obviously, that accounts for the cream's thicker, richer consistency. You could probably try coconut milk in this recipe as well, with less creamy results. If you do use coconut cream, though, this recipe only calls for half of a jar, so maybe you'll end up trying the Cool Whip alternative. And maybe I will, too....eventually.

Tropsicles: Creamy Tropical Popsicles
A Love Letter to Food Original

1 banana
1/2 14-oz. jar coconut cream (shake before opening and eyeball about 1/2)
1 c. frozen mango
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. Greek yogurt

Mix all ingredients in a blender. Freeze in popsicle molds at least two hours. Run individual molds under warm water for a few seconds to release popsicles. Enjoy!

Makes 2 1/2 c. popsicle mixture. Number of popsicles will vary based on mold size.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Zesty Greek Tilapia with Orzo


Earlier this week, our family returned from a little vacation (or, more aptly named, a "family trip"--hard to call it a vacation until the kids are a bit older) to the charming city of Avalon on Catalina Island. For four days we soaked up what the island has to offer, including a ferry ride from Long Beach, 

Arizona children experiencing a boat
 trips to the beach,

Arizona children experiencing a beach
a glass-bottom boat tour,

Fishies!
 exploring around the historic Avalon Casino,


and climbing the steep staircases around the city to take in some beautiful views from above.


After returning from this trip, I feel unusually motivated to make positive changes in my life. It's like a mini New Year's Day. I suddenly want to clean my house from floor to ceiling, take a math placement test I've been putting off for my nutrition degree, and start a fundraising campaign to buy a new play structure for our church's religious education center. (Calm the heck down, right?) And certainly after all the vacation eating--ice cream, margaritas, giant burritos, and a probably ill-advised stop at Carl's Jr.--I've definitely felt the desire to get back to "normal" eating habits, i.e. healthy eating habits.

The first evening we were back, I decided we needed a mega-healthy dinner to counteract some of the vacation's excesses. (Did I mention the two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that somehow stowed away in our snack bag for the drive?) Bring on the fiber! the vitamins! the omega-3 fatty acids! All those things not found in Girl Scout cookies and Carl's Jr. onion rings! I'd been eyeing some recipes for Greek-style tilapia for awhile, but ended up winging it to create my own version that fit my craving for something healthy and flavorful. 

Being from the Southwest, it's probably hard-wired into my system to turn anything with diced tomatoes into a kind of salsa. I started off by combining tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, and some other Mediterranean staples to make a Greek-style pico de gallo: 


Spread over tilapia fillets, this zesty mixture complemented the fish's mild flavor nicely. Served with orzo and accompanied by a green vegetable, it made a flavorful meal packed with nutrients that will be easy to whip up on a weeknight in the future. And yes, I promise there's fish under there in the picture...I just happened to like the Greek salsa...a lot.


Zesty Greek Tilapia with Orzo
A Love Letter to Food Original

Ingredients:

3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 2.25 oz. can sliced olives, drained
2 oz. crumbled feta cheese
1 green onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
scant 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
black pepper to taste
5 medium tilapia fillets (about 15 oz.)
8 oz. oz. orzo pasta

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. In a medium bowl, mix tomatoes, olives, feta, green onion, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, and salt. Season with pepper.

3. Spray a 9 x 13" baking pan with cooking spray and place tilapia fillets evenly in the pan. Spread the tomato mixture on top of the fish to cover. 

4. Bake about 15 minutes or until the tilapia flakes easily with a fork.

5. Meanwhile, cook the orzo according to package directions. Serve tilapia over orzo.

Serves 3-4.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

7-Layer Mexican Tortilla Pie


If there's one visual trick that makes me want to eat a food, it would have to be layering. I don't care if it's a dip, a cake, or a sardine-ketchup pudding, if it has layers, it needs to get in mah belly. There's something so showy and almost whimsical about a stratum of food on top of food, like a circus pyramid or an awesome architectural feat. So when I was browsing Allrecipes.com recently and found that not only is there a Mexican entree I have yet to eat, but that it also has LAYERS, I knew it had won a spot on our weekly meal plan. 


While it may not be a traditional Mexican dish, this 7-layer tortilla pie is certainly a fun way to use Mexican flavors. Cheesy, gooey, and salsa-y, with not too much spice, this was a hit even with my kids. And with its two types of beans (black and pinto), corn, and fresh tomatoes, I think you may actually reach your RDA of fiber in one meal by eating it. So check that off your bucket list. 


The other great thing about this recipe is that, with relatively inexpensive ingredients, one pie feeds a small army. When friends of ours came for dinner the other night, we fed both of our families (4 adults and 6 kids) with just one of these. Hooray for fiber and yummy Mexican flavors and layers--LAYERS FOR EVERYONE!!!!

7-Layer Mexican Tortilla Pie
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

2 15-oz. cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 c. salsa
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 c. frozen roasted corn, thawed
1/2 c. tomatoes, diced
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
3/4 tsp. taco seasoning (see here for how to make your own)
7 (8-inch) flour tortillas
2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese 
diced tomatoes and cilantro for garnish, if desired

Directions:

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap tortillas in foil and bake 8-10 minutes. Leave tortillas in foil until you are ready to assemble the pie.

2. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, mash the pinto beans. Add 3/4 c. salsa and garlic cloves and stir to combine.

3. In another bowl, combine black beans, roasted corn, tomatoes, cilantro, taco seasoning, and remaining 1/4 c. salsa. 

4. Place 1 tortilla in the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan (or a pie plate). Spread 3/4 c. of the pinto bean mixture over tortilla to within 1/2 an inch of the edge. Sprinkle with 1/4 c.. shredded cheddar. Place another tortilla on top and spread with 2/3 c. black bean mixture, topping with 1/4 c. shredded cheddar. Repeat these layers two more times. Cover with remaining tortilla, spread with remaining pinto bean mixture, and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Top with cilantro and diced tomatoes, if desired.

5. Cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 40-50 minutes. Slice into wedges.

Serves 6 generously.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Peach Almond Baked Oatmeal


I do my grocery shopping on Monday mornings. Have for years. In fact, the people at Fry's would probably put out an All Points Bulletin on me if I didn't show up there on a Monday morning. It's a routine I enjoy, planning meals over the weekend, proudly stowing my canvas bags in the cart, choosing which wholesome foods will fill our mouths and bellies this week. But my Monday shopping means, of course, that when Sunday rolls around, our refrigerator looks about as empty as the fridge at one of those extended stay hotels (only not as clean): 


I'm telling you, by Sunday, it's all condiments. And maybe one or two other essentials, like that Starbucks iced coffee front and center. Otherwise, I think I just saw a tumbleweed blow through this refrigerator.

I pride myself on trying to use up the food we buy, but when the Sunday breakfast choices are stale bread or one bowl of cereal cobbled together from three separate boxes, I need a better plan. Something I can put together using non-perishables, like perhaps rolled oats, nuts, and canned fruit. Something like a baked peach almond oatmeal, perhaps?


Don't mind if I do! 

This baked oatmeal, with its heavy use of non-perishables, has saved my Sunday breakfast-making hide more than once. And it just so happens to be my absolute favorite baked oatmeal ever. This probably has to do with the fact that it calls for almond extract to add flavor. I don't know how they make almond extract, but I have to assume leprechauns and incantations are involved, because that stuff is MAGIC. Add it to crunchy sliced almonds, sweet peaches, cinnamon, brown sugar, and oats, and you have the Oatmeal to End All Oatmeals.

Now that peaches are in season, you could of course also use fresh peaches in this recipe with even more delicious results, but for my purposes, the lonely yellow can in the back of the pantry does just fine, too. As always with baked oatmeal, I bake it the night before, refrigerate, and reheat individual portions in the microwave with a splash of milk in the morning.


See? No one has to be the wiser about the barren wasteland in the fridge. Now if I could just figure out what to make for lunch...



Peach Almond Baked Oatmeal
(Adapted from Two Peas and Their Pod)

Ingredients:

2 c. old-fashioned oats
1/4 c. light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. chopped almonds
3 Tbsp. butter, melted and cooled
2 c. unsweetened almond milk (or cow's milk)
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1 1/2 c. sliced peaches, divided (or 1 15-oz can sliced peaches in light syrup, drained)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Grease an 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish with cooking spray. Scatter about half the peach slices around the bottom of the dish.

3. In a large bowl, combine oats, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and 2/3 of the almonds. Pour evenly over peaches.

4. In the same bowl, whisk together melted butter, almond milk, egg, vanilla, and almond extract. Pour evenly over the oat mixture, giving the dish a few thwacks on the countertop to evenly distribute, if necessary. (Just don't thwack too hard!) 

5. Arrange remaining peach slices on top and sprinkle with remaining almonds.

6. Bake about 40 minutes until the top is golden and set. Let cool at least 5 minutes before serving. 

Serves 6.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Lighter Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars


Whoa, did this blog really go through the whole month of June without a dessert post? Unprecedented! Let's remedy that immediately! With the Fourth of July just a few days away, you may be giving some thought to what to take to whatever gathering you might be attending. Perhaps you'd like to make something crowd-pleasing that contains something red, white, or blue for that barbecue/pool party/Founding Fathers costume party? Allow me to suggest these lightened-up lemon blueberry cheesecake bars. I should really put the "cheesecake" in quotes, since these bars don't actually contain "cream cheese"....hence the "lighter" part of their name. Or maybe that's... 


Anyway, these bars are a healthier (though I wouldn't go so far as to say necessarily healthy) version of a usually pretty heavy dessert. Their secret? Cottage cheese instead of cream cheese. While you may not be a fan of cottage cheese as a food on its own--visions of '80s diet plates, perhaps?--it's a useful substitute for drastically reducing calorie and fat content in cheesecakey desserts. As a matter of fact, 8 oz. of cottage cheese contains about 220 calories and 10 grams of fat, whereas 8 oz. of cream cheese contains 775 calories and 80 grams of fat. A pretty staggering difference, if you ask me. Almost makes me regret all that real cheesecake I've indulged in.....almost.


Amazingly enough, even without cream cheese, these still actually taste great, and not at all like cottage cheese! (I suppose a generous ration of sugar and butter helps in that department.) Creamy and lemony with that cold cheesy texture that feels so refreshing in your mouth, they could be perfect addition to an Independence Day spread.   


These could also be re-styled with orange zest and juice instead of lemon and raspberries instead of berries. Citrus plus berries pretty much always yields something delicious. 

Lighter Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars
(Adapted from a Fry's Foods coupon mailer)

Ingredients:

Crust:
1/3 c. butter, softened
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 c. all-purpose flour

Filling:
1 c. low-fat cottage cheese
2/3 c. white sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. grated lemon rind
3 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 large egg
1 large egg white
3/4 c. fresh blueberries

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. To prepare crust, beat butter, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg in a medium bowl until smooth. (You can do this by hand or use a mixer on medium speed.) Spoon 1 c. flour into a dry measuring cup, level with a knife, and add to the butter mixture. Beat on low or by hand until well blended. Press into the bottom of a greased 8 x 8 inch baking dish. (I always use a small sheet of wax paper to get all the crumbs pressed down neatly.) Bake 20 minutes.

3. To prepare filling, place cottage cheese in the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth, 1-2 minutes, scraping sides of the bowl once. Add sugar, flour, lemon rind, lemon juice, egg, and egg white and process until well combined. Pour over the cooled crust and sprinkle blueberries around the top.

4. Bake an additional 25 minutes. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least two hours before slicing. (The longer you refrigerate, the firmer they get.)

Makes one 8 x 8 inch pan.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Spicy Pan-Fried Noodles with Tofu


It's rare that one dinner gets made twice in two weeks at our house--or even twice in a month. I'm too fond of variety (and of trying new recipes) for that to happen very often. But every once in awhile a dinner recipe comes along that makes me want to make it EVERY. DAY. Like these spicy pan-fried noodles with tofu: 


I gave these a try a couple of weeks ago on a Friday when our family was gathered around the TV for our semi-monthly Family Movie Night. It's kind of a shame I was in the kitchen cooking during part of the movie, because it was Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Across the Second Dimension. I may have mentioned before that Phineas and Ferb is, in my opinion, the greatest kids' show of all time. I've actually thought about getting on Twitter just so I could stalk follow Dan Povenmire, one of the show's creators. Anyway, since I made this delicious meal to the sounds of the movie in the background, I now associate the tantalizing blend of lime, brown sugar, and Sriracha with the voice of Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz (AKA the best character in the best kids' show of all time).

Fast forward two weeks to our next Family Movie Night. I had been craving these noodles so much since the Phineas and Ferb movie night, I decided to bend my usual rules and make them again. Now I'm going to associate their taste with a combination of Dr. Doofenschmirtz and Judy Garland's Somewhere Over the Rainbow, because this time around we watched The Wizard of Oz. So that's a weird mental picture. 

Regardless, I stand by my fortnight-long craving for these spicy noodles and tofu. They are absolutely restaurant quality, like something you'd get at Pei Wei (and then order every time you go there from here to eternity, like I do with their honey-seared chicken). For little ones or picky palates, the spice level can be adjusted by scaling back the Sriracha. I also realized after making this twice that it happens to be vegan. So there's that, too, if that floats your boat. Or if it doesn't, forget I said it and enjoy this meal for the spicy-sweet deliciousness it is!


Spicy Pan-Fried Noodles with Tofu
(Adapted from Fine Cooking)

Ingredients:

1/4 c. soy sauce
3 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. Sriracha, adjustable to taste
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. vegetable or peanut oil, divided
14 oz. extra-firm tofu, pressed as dry as possible and sliced into 3/4 inch cubes
5 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1 1/2 inch long matchsticks
1/4 c. shallot, minced
16 oz. cooked Udon noodles*
2-3 c. green cabbage, thinly sliced

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, brown sugar, lime juice, Sriracha, minced garlic, and 2 Tbsp. water. Set aside.

2. In a large non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. of oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add tofu, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until golden brown on all sides, about 7-10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

3. Off the heat, add another 1 Tbsp. oil to the pan. Return to heat and add sliced carrots, cooking and stirring occasionally 3-5 minutes or until tender and browned in spots. Transfer to bowl with the tofu. 

4. Off the heat, add the remaining 1 Tbsp. oil to the pan. Add shallot and return to heat, sauté about 1 minute, then add cooked noodles. Saute 2-3 minutes until noodles have browned in spots. Stir the sauce and carefully add it to the pan. Toss well to coat and cook and stir until the sauce reduces to a sticky glaze, about 2 minutes.

5. Return tofu and carrots to the pan. Add sliced cabbage and toss until heated through. 

Serves 4.

*To make preparation faster and easier, consider using microwavable steam-pack noodles such as these:


Microwave while carrots are cooking in the skillet--voila! Instant cooked noodles!