Saturday, January 24, 2015

Coconut Curry Chicken


I freely admit that I kinda feel like a phony making Indian food. I am about the furthest you can get from Indian. In fact, here is a picture of my family of origin:


More or less. My dad's family is primarily from Switzerland and my mom's side is primarily from Germany, and the family trees actually converge if you go far enough back. As in, my parents are fourth cousins. Seriously. (No, I don't have any genetic abnormalities....that I'm willing to divulge publicly.) Once stateside, my forebears settled in central Illinois and I ended up being raised here in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix. So about the closest I've ever come to India is half-heartedly watching Ghandi on Netflix while working on a cross-stitch sampler. Even so, I very much enjoy Indian food. A good chicken tikka masala can bring me to a When Harry Met Sally diner scene level of enjoyment. So I should really find a solid recipe for that. But in the meantime, let me share with you this fantastic coconut curry chicken. 

As someone with very little experience with Indian cooking, this recipe makes me feel like a pro...or at least like someone who could tell you that the capitol of India is Mumbai not Mumbai, but rather New Delhi. Or maybe like someone who can pronounce the word "ghee" without sounding like a redneck about to make a romantic advance. With relatively few, non-ethnic grocery store ingredients, the chicken in this dish turns out tender and the stewed sauce of tomatoes and coconut milk amalgamates into a velvety spiced tomato gravy. While it takes some time to reach this apex of deliciousness, the recipe really isn't labor-intensive and the result is worth the wait. I must warn you, though, that it will make your house smell like curry for 24 hours after cooking it, so if you're, say, throwing a Cinco de Mayo party or something the next day, just be advised. Otherwise, you're in the clear to enjoy both the taste and the fragrance of this simple-but-terrific Indian meal. 

Coconut Curry Chicken
(Adapted from Allrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

1 1/2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2" chunks
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. curry powder
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
14 oz. light coconut milk
14 oz. petite diced tomatoes
8 oz. tomato sauce
2 1/2 Tbsp. white sugar

Directions:

1. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

2. In a large nonstick skillet, heat vegetable oil and curry powder over medium-low heat. Stir and cook 3 minutes, then increase heat to medium-high and add onion and garlic. Cook 1-2 minutes. Add chicken, tossing to coat with oil and curry, and cook 7-10 minutes or until the pieces are no longer pink in the center. 

3. Add coconut milk, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and sugar, stirring to combine. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens to your liking.

Serve over rice.

Serves 4.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Raspberry Almond Overnight French Toast


Well, the Christmas season has come and gone, though you might not know it at our house. At least, not immediately outside our house. It's not that we haven't taken down our lights or have left some tacky blowup snowman out front. It's that our 8-foot tall live Christmas tree is sitting directly outside of our front door because we don't have a truck and it's too big to haul away in our Mazda 5. Nothing says class like a Sasquatch-sized withering Christmas tree smack dab in front of your house halfway into January, right? I would almost rather have an 8-foot tall actual Sasquatch out there. At least that would be less cliche. Our kind neighbors have offered to take it to the Christmas tree recycling center (yes, that's a thing) when they take theirs (which is NOT sitting in front of their house) one of these days soon. Yay for helpful neighbors! 

At any rate, our Christmas 2014 was a pleasant and mostly peaceful one and in some ways I wasn't ready for it to be over. (Just ready for the tree to be gone.) For me, holidays are marked by the foods I cook/our family eats, many of which have become traditions. For several years now I've done an overnight French toast for Christmas morning--usually a banana-pecan one--but this year I wanted to try something new. I ended up settling on this scrumptious, colorful cinnamon-spiced raspberry almond French toast. The original recipe calls for a whole cup of brown sugar, which I get, cause yeah, it's Christmas and all, but as much as I love sugar, I also love cutting it out where it won't really be missed. So I scaled it way back to just over a half cup and nobody thought it wasn't sweet enough. (Plus, who are we kidding, it's gonna get bathed in maple syrup anyway....I mean, it is Christmas after all.) 

So while the Christmas season may be over, I think I have found a new favorite overnight French toast--cinnamon-y with bursts of tart raspberries and the crunch of almonds to contrast with the soft texture of the bread. Now I think I may need to start a Valentine's Day breakfast tradition just so I can make it again...


Raspberry Almond French Toast
(Adapted from Taste of Home)

Ingredients:

12 slices cinnamon bread, cubed
5 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 c. milk
1/2 c.  + 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
heaping 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 c. slivered almonds
2 c. raspberries, fresh or frozen

Directions:

1. Place bread cubes in a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish (you will get about two layers of bread). In a bowl, combine eggs, milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over bread. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

2. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sprinkle almonds over egg mixture. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with raspberries and bake another 10 minutes. Slice and serve with your favorite maple syrup.

Serves 6-8. 


Friday, January 9, 2015

Turkey Taco Calzones


Well, after that first post of the year declaring how great it is to eat meatless 50% of the time, how about....a recipe with meat? Ha! Albeit a recipe for meat in which one pound of ground turkey stretches to serve eight. Plus, it's turkey instead of beef, so hey, props for that, right? And really, it's not that there's anything wrong with meat in moderation--as I should have mentioned in my half-vegetarian manifesto, in the world of dietetic science, meat is considered a "high biological value" protein. This is a measure of how well our bodies utilize the protein in a food for protein synthesis in our cells. Protein from animal sources gets the highest rating.

I dreamed up this meat-containing recipe as our family was on a road trip last weekend. Sitting in the car with no one asking me to play with them/check their homework/wipe their bottom gave me the chance to ponder what new and interesting dinner I might try in the coming week. I've been wanting to make calzones, and got to wondering how they would taste with a little Tex-Mex treatment. The answer, I discovered, is delicious! These came out super hearty, a little spicy, and excellent with a Mexican-style green salad. They also reheat well the next day.


As for our road trip, it took us to Payson, AZ, where we had a near-perfect snow day. The sun was shining and it was nice and warm, but snow still thickly covered the ground, providing plenty of fodder for snow ball fights, 


snow forts,


and even a king-sized snowman (which gave my husband a Parkour-style workout hauling the boulders of snow on top of each other).

My daughter sampling the snow.
We are so thankful to live in the great state of Arizona, where we can easily visit the snow (but it doesn't have to visit us).



Turkey Taco Calzones
A Love Letter to Food Original Recipe

Ingredients:

2 1-lb. packages refrigerated whole wheat pizza dough, like Trader Joe's
1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 c. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. ground turkey, 93% lean
2 1/2 Tbsp. taco seasoning (I always make my own, recipe here)
1 15 oz. can black beans, drained
1 1/4 c. fresh salsa (or canned, if fresh is unavailable)
8 oz. shredded cheddar or Mexican cheese blend
1/3 c. chopped green onion
Salsa and sour cream for serving

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Remove pizza dough from packaging and follow directions for rising (Trader Joe's dough rises for 30 minutes, which is just about what you need to prepare the calzone filling).

3. Prepare the filling: heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook onion and garlic in oil for 1 minute, then add ground turkey and cook until browned. Drain any excess liquid from pan. Add taco seasoning and stir until well combined. Add black beans and salsa, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 5 minutes.

4. Grease 2 rimmed baking sheets with cooking spray. Spread 1 risen pound of dough in the bottom of each baking sheet. Spread turkey mixture crosswise on the lower halves of the dough. Sprinkle with cheese and green onion. Fold the empty upper half of the dough over to cover the filling. Crimp the bottom and sides together.

5. Bake in the preheated oven until the dough is brown and fully cooked, about 18 minutes. Cool 5 minutes, then cut into slices and serve with salsa and sour cream.

Serves 8.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Health, Earth, Worth: Why I'm a Half-time Vegetarian


If you've spent any time looking around this blog, you may have noticed that I don't feature a whole lot of meat recipes. In fact, I don't even have a category for beef or other red meat here on the Love Letter because I've never blogged about a red meat dish. Vegetarian mains, yes, frequently; chicken, yes, occasionally; pork, yes, here and there; chocolate desserts, yes infinity. So why the lack of lovin' for America's standard fare, red (or other colored) meats?

After giving it a lot of thought, I've made a concentrated effort in the last year or two to whittle down our family's meat intake (including beef, chicken, and pork) to approximately 50% of our meals. It started even longer ago than that, around 2009, with a New Year's Resolution to eat more fish and beans--one of the few resolutions that have ever actually stuck. From there, it's become a consistent commitment that when I sit down to plan six dinners a week, three of them will be vegetarian. (Breakfasts around here are pretty much always vegetarian, and lunches also end up being about 50%.) For awhile I've wanted to elucidate my reasons for doing this, even if just for myself. So here's my little manifesto. I'll call it "Health, Earth, Worth," since each of my reasons for half-time vegetarianism falls into these categories. I hope it inspires you to consider whether you might go moderately meatless, too. 

Health

There are a number of health risks that improve with a vegetarian or even semi-vegetarian diet, but let's focus on some of the biggies that face the average American.  

Cancer: You've probably heard that a plant-based diet is considered protective against numerous cancers. I only recently realized how many cancers are affected by high levels of meat consumption. According to this report, cancers of the esophagus, stomach, lung, breast, brain, bladder, mouth, prostate, and colon, as well as leukemia have been linked to high levels of of meat intake. Looking at this list, I have to go, what other cancers are even left? (Kidding...but seriously, look at that list.)

Hypertension/Heart Disease: Studies have consistently shown that a vegetarian diet lowers risk for heart disease. It's pretty simple. The saturated fat and cholesterol inherent in a meat-heavy diet is a proven pathway to hypertension and coronary heart disease. 

Diabetes: Though we may not always correlate diabetes with meat consumption, there is a connection. Even someone who only goes semi-vegetarian has a 24% reduced risk of developing diabetes (compared with an even higher 46% reduction in lacto-ovo-vegetarians).

I'm not even going to go into the stuff about antibiotic resistance and hormones in our food. I'll let you look those up on your own (and possibly cause yourself an epic freakout).

Earth

Emissions: Global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity...cows? Did you know that one cow's annual output of methane--the gas that largely responsible for global warming--is equivalent to a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline? According to this Ted Talk by Mark Bittman, after energy production, livestock is the second highest contributor to atmosphere-altering gases, even more than transportation. 

Land Degradation: The World Health Organization says livestock production is a major source of this environmental process in which an inordinate amount of land is used for grazing. The expansion of livestock-grazing land is also a major cause of deforestation world-wide.

Water Shortage: 8% of global human water use goes toward livestock production, and water used for animals is the "largest sectoral source of water pollutants," according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the desert Southwest where water shortages hit close to home, I have to say this is troubling.

Worth

Everyone who doesn't want more money, raise your hand. Okay, great, we're all on the same page. You don't have to be a budget analyst to realize that meat is expensive--significantly more expensive than plant-based foods. For our family, I'm happy to cut costs by swapping meat for vegetables, dairy, and whole grains. As many others before me have noted, limiting your meat consumption allows you the luxury of paying a higher price for better quality meat when you do buy it. 

So now that I've given you my reasons for reducing meat eating (and aren't they convincing? yes? yes?), let me quickly address the other side of the coin...

Why I'm Not a Full-Time Vegetarian

Because I don't wanna be!

Haha, The End.

Just kidding. My reasons for not committing to full-time vegetarianism are somewhat selfish, but also partly (I believe) founded in dietetic science. The boil down to convenience, nutritional adequacy, and taste preference. 

Convenience: Like I said, selfish. But also not selfish. Meat is a way of life in the U.S., and I never want to be the one person in the party who makes everyone else bend over backwards to accommodate my diet. As an American with mostly non-hippie friends, I feel meat is inevitable in my life.

Adequacy: Yes, I know plenty of vegetarians get all the vitamins and minerals and nutrients their bodies need. But I realize that consuming adequate amounts of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, protein, etc. on a purely vegetarian diet would require an additional level of awareness and effort I'm just not ready for, especially since I cook for 5 people.

Taste: The thought of giving up hamburgers, chicken pot pie, and pulled pork forever brings me sincere sadness. Food is one of life's greatest pleasures and I believe we are entitled to enjoy it. I happen to enjoy meat, in moderation.

So what say you? How's about resolving to reduce your meat intake in this beautiful new year? I believe you can't go wrong in giving it a try!