Saturday, March 22, 2014

Nutrition changes (Southern Spoon goes a little paleo)

Some big dietary changes going on in the Southern Spoon household the past couple of weeks that I wanted to share. Pour a cuppa tea, this post is a little longer than usual.

rocket salad with roasted eggplant, dukkah-crusted pumpkin,
grass-fed beef steak, and garlic, olive oil, tahini vinaigrette
If you read this blog, you know that I cook whole foods and work around a number of food intolerances: preservatives, artificial colors / flavors, peanuts (and lentils), and foods with high levels of the natural food chemical salycilates (tomatoes, for example, are out for the hubs, as is wine). Since moving from England to Australia in 2011 we have adopted what we presumed was a more healthy diet: making many more meals meatless, eating a wider variety of vegetables (produce is so much better here!), and being more active in the balmy weather.

However, despite those dietary changes, a massive reduction in stress levels, getting more sleep, and losing a little weight over the last two-and-a-half years, recent medical tests have revealed extremely high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. In an effort to ensure we're treating our bodies as best as possible, a doctor referred us to a nutritionist.

This nutritionist has planned a dietary approach with the goal of reducing inflammation in the body. Inflammation is believed by a number of medical and nutrition professionals to be a major cause of poor health (including heart disease), and it's not hard to trust that reducing inflammation through dietary and lifestyle changes is a good idea.

cauliflower crust pizza with chicken & veggies: delicious
On this nutritionist's plan, breakfast is the carb-iest meal of our day: carbs with a protein and a fat, preferably working in barley and soy milk (to up soluble fiber and help clean up bad cholesterol). Lunch and dinner should have a protein, a fat, and what the nutritionist calls *free foods*, basically low-carb vegetables (so excluding potatoes, grains, legumes). This diet is meant to keep insulin and blood sugar levels more level during the day, and thus help reduce inflammation.

This means our lunches and dinners are very similar to a paleo-style eating plan, emphasizing plenty of protein (mostly animal-based protein, since higher-protein plants like legumes and grains are to be avoided), vegetables and some fruit, and sources of fat from things like avocados, olive oil, even butter. The nutritionist didn't cut out dairy, and even recommended some cheese, yogurt, etc, so we're still eating some dairy.

salad with roasted tomatoes, eggplant,
dukkah-crusted pumpkin, & chorizo
We've been eating this way for two weeks. We both feel more energetic - physically and mentally - and I find that my blood sugar swings are hardly non-existent, whereas I used to rush home after work starving for dinner, even after having a big, veggie and grain-based lunch, and a granola bar snack. I feel full more quickly when eating increased levels of protein and fat (lots of eggs, yum!), but without feeling bloated. We're also trying to get out and move a little more: walking to the beach, running a few laps, doing more strength training.

It's been an adjustment to think of our typical dinner dishes without grains, legumes, or potatoes, but so far we've made it work, and everything tastes just as (if not more) delicious. I'll be interested to see what the medical tests reveal about cholesterol and blood pressure levels in three months after the next check-up, but mostly I'm interested in simply continuing to feel a little bit better, in mind and body.

From now on I'll be sharing some of the dishes we're enjoying on this eating plan: they'll be low-carb, usually grain- and legume-free, with an emphasis on quality protein and fat, and a variety of vegetables. The photos in this post are some of the meals we've enjoyed so far, recipes to come.

Hope you like these dishes too, and, of course, always communicate with a medical or nutrition professional before making big changes in your own diet. Happy Spring, all.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Spicy Watermelon Cucumber Salad with Basil

Lately I've been buying fresh basil and putting it in everything. I should grow it on our balcony, but even small balcony herb pots seem to falter under my not-green thumb : ( Luckily the local fruit and veg shop stocks a great array of well-priced fresh herbs, and I find a couple of dollars a good investment for the flavor and nutrition boost they bring to any dish.
baked oven fried chicken, smashed garlic potatoes,
and spicy watermelon cucumber salad with basil
It's still warm here in Sydney even though we've moved into autumn, so we're taking advantage of the heat to eat up the end of summer produce and barbeque inspired dinners. A few weeks ago we made up some baked oven fried chicken, which turned out crisp and tender, some smashed roasted garlic potatoes, and this refreshing watermelon cucumber salad. I added a good handful of chopped basil along with some rocket (arugula) for extra bite, and tossed the salad with a spicy vinaigrette made with Cholula hot sauce. AMAZING. The spicy dressing (no salt necessary) went perfectly with the cool watermelon and cucumber, and before I noticed the hubs was helping himself to thirds of the salad, without any thought of the extra chicken and potatoes sitting in the oven. Win.
watermelon, cucumber, arugula, and basil salad with a Cholula-lime vinaigrette
A tip on chopping the cucumbers: I sliced sections off of the cucumber lengthwise, leaving the seed-y core, and discarded the core before cubing the cucumber. This allows the salad to keep for a little longer before losing its crispness. The salad was still nice and crisp on day two after being stored in the fridge overnight. This is obviously a warm-weather recipe, but I hope you'll file it away to make when the temperatures rise in your corner of the world. Warm wishes to all of you in the northern hemisphere as the first day of Spring arrives.

Spicy Watermelon Cucumber Salad with Basil
serves 4-5 as a side dish
inspired by this recipe at The First Mess

1 cup seedless watermelon cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup cucumber cut into 1/2-inch cubes (discard the seed-y core)
handful of fresh basil, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup rocket (arugula), rough chopped

Spicy Vinaigrette
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons Cholula or other mild hot sauce, to taste
juice of half a lime
little splash of apple cider vinegar, to taste (about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon honey
big pinch of freshly ground pepper

In a large non-metal bowl, carefully toss together the watermelon, cucumber, basil, and rocket.

In a small bowl, whisk together all the vinaigrette ingredients with a whisk or fork, stirring vigorously until the mixture is emulsified (blended together). Add more Cholula and/or vinegar as necessary. Pour the dressing over the salad, and carefully toss to distribute evenly. Serve immediately.

Salad will keep, covered in the fridge, for about 2 days.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The only tuna salad recipe you'll ever need

The Times (of London) runs a regular food column titled The only five [insert food] recipes you'll ever need, with consistently good recipes for fish, chicken, Indian, biscuits, etc. I like the idea of having some go-to staple recipes that you can whip up quickly to suit particular occasions (weeknight dinner, snack, dessert, lazy weekend breakfast).
fresh and bright tuna salad, anything but soggy and lackluster
My mom has this theory down like a pro, unsurprising given her training as a middle school home-ec teacher and decades of preparing wholesome, homecooked meals for our family of five. So incredibly grateful for her teaching us healthy eating and food-prep habits. I remember setting the table for weeknight dinners while she sped around the kitchen throwing together our regular favorites from memory, without a recipe card in sight: chicken and rice casserole, spaghetti bolognese, Mexican rice, savory oatmeal muffins, brownies, vanilla bundt cake. I'm working on developing this skill, the problem is I like to experiment with dishes and rarely make the exact same thing twice.
tuna salad sandwich on wholegrain bread
But there are a few recipes and techniques that I stick to without much variation. This tuna fish salad recipe is one of them-- it's so simple and yields a wholesome, protein- and omega-3-filled dish that is perfect for a satisfying lunch or a quick weeknight dinner. A few chopped olives, some dried herbs, and a little squeeze of lemon mixed with low-fat yogurt and mustard bring a fresh taste that takes this far, far away from any mayonnaise-dense canteen tuna salad you've experienced in your past. Serve atop a bed of greens, garnishing with slices of avocado, or in between two slices of wholegrain bread lined with crisp lettuce leaves to keep the tuna from making the bread soggy.
tuna salad sandwich for an easy, fresh, protein-rich meal
Hope you enjoy this simple, tasty, filling (and inexpensive!) tuna salad, and find it a recipe that you keep turning back to when you need a quick and satisfying meal.

Tuna Salad (with olives and lemon, no mayo)
serves 4

1/4 to 1/2 cup low-fat plain or greek yogurt, to taste
1 tablespoon dijon mustard (or regular yellow mustard works fine)
small handful of pitted ripe olives, coursely chopped
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
big pinch of freshly ground black pepper
dash of red chili flakes
squeeze of fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 teaspoon)
small stalk of celery, finely chopped to make about 1/4 cup (optional)
425g (15oz) can of tuna (preferably in water with no salt), drained
(to serve: lettuce and wholegrain bread)

In a medium sized non-metal bowl, mix together with a fork all ingredients except the tuna. (Start with 1/4 cup of yogurt, and add more after adding the tuna if you'd like).

Add the tuna to the yogurt mixture, and mix well, breaking up the tuna chunks as you stir. At this point, add a little more yogurt if you'd like to achieve desired consistency.

Serve immediately on a bed of lettuce leaves (and sliced avocado is nice), or sandwiched between slices of wholegrain bread lined with lettuce to keep the tuna from making the bread soggy. 

Will keep, covered in the fridge, for 2-3 days.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad with Lamb Koftas

A couple of weeks ago I came home to the hubs making up lamb koftas-- Lebanese meatballs-- for dinner, which were delicious wrapped in naan bread with a homemade cucumber-yogurt tzatziki. Ever since I've been scheming about how I can pair them with a salad to bring in more plant-based goodness to the dish, and was delighted to run across this Middle Eastern Salad from nutritionist Danielle Levy's blog. This week we made the koftas again and served them over a similar toasted buckwheat salad, dressed with hummus, and the dish was perfect. The fresh, crunchy combination of salad and grains worked wonderfully with the lamb meatballs, and the hummus dressing brought everything together for a Lebanese-style feast.
ingredients for easy Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad @ Southern Spoon Blog
grilled zucchini, toasted buckwheat, chickpeas, radishes, celery, and fresh parsley
This salad is packed with sources of plant-based protein from the buckwheat and chickpeas (Danielle also sprinkles hemp seeds on top for added protein and omega-3 fats, though we left these out because the local grocer doesn't carry them), and it could easily serve as a meal on its own with the hummus dressing. We'd worked in our three vegetarian dinners already this week (a new goal for 2014), so the lamb koftas as another protein hit took this salad into into the filled and totally satisfied category.
Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad @ Southern Spoon Blog
salad ingredients mixed together for a crunchy, filling dish
If you have other fresh herbs on hand in addition to parsley, such as mint or basil, a chopped handful of those would also be welcome here. Keeping in mind our heart-healthy focus, we didn't add any salt to the salad components, relying on the hummus, lemon juice, and touch of balsamic to bring in a salty-tart profile. I felt that this really allowed the crisp and distinct flavors of the vegetables-- radish, celery, grilled zucchini, parsley-- to show through. But if you feel it needs a little something extra, toss the salad with a pinch of freshly ground sea salt.
Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad @ Southern Spoon Blog
Lebanese-style salad ready to serve, hummus dressing not shown
Hope you enjoy this fresh and satisfying salad as spring begins to gradually poke its head up in the northern hemisphere, or file it away for warmer weather. Happy beginning of March to you!

Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad
serves 4

1/2 cup dry toasted buckwheat*
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced lengthwise (1/8 - 1/4 inch slices)
4-5 radishes, thinly sliced
2 long celery stalks, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (no salt added)
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
juice from half a lemon (zest the lemon half first if you're making the lamb koftas)
lamb koftas (optional, recipe below)

Hummus Dressing
1/2 cup hummus (homemade recipe here)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
splash (2 teaspoons) of balsamic vinegar
up to 2 teaspoons water

(*If your buckwheat is not toasted when you buy it, just rinse it with cold water in a fine mesh sieve, then toss it into a wide pan heated to medium heat and sprayed lightly with oil. Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the buckwheat begins to turn golden brown and toasty. Remove from heat, and boil in a saucepan of water as detailed below.)

Rinse the buckwheat with water in a fine mesh sieve. Place buckwheat and 1 1/2 cups water into a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a low simmer and cover. Simmer for 10-12 minutes, until buckwheat is tender. (Watch carefully towards the end to make sure the water doesn't evaporate too quickly and you burn the buckwheat!) Rinse the cooked buckwheat again through the fine mesh sieve with cold water to cool. Set aside.

Heat an outdoor grill or stovetop griddle to medium-high heat. Carefully coat the griddle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and arrange the zucchini slices on the griddle in a single layer. Cook for 4-6 minutes per side, until grill marks appear and zucchini is tender. Remove zucchini from grill and set aside.

In a large non-metal bowl, toss the radishes, celery, parsley, onion, garlic, chickpeas, and half of the grilled zucchini slices. Add the pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice, and carefully toss to coat the salad.

To make the hummus dressing: Mix all ingredients together, thinning out with a couple of teaspoons of water to achieve a slightly runny consistency.

To serve: Arrange the salad on a serving plate, and garnish with the remaining grilled zucchini slices, twisting them around the edge of the salad. (Alternatively, to save dirtying another plate, add the rest of the zucchini to the salad and serve in the salad bowl). Drizzle the hummus dressing evenly over the salad. If desired, top the salad with lamb koftas, and serve.
Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad with Lamb Koftas @ Southern Spoon Blog
Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese Salad with Lamb Koftas
Lamb Koftas
serves 3-4

400g (14 oz) ground lean lamb (mince)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
lemon zest from half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes (or 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley)
1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon flour (I used wholemeal wheat flour)
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vegetable oil (I used rice brain oil)

In a large non-metal bowl, mix together the ground lamb and the next eight ingredients (through ground pepper). Sprinkle the flour over the mixture, add the egg, and mix thoroughly to combine.

Using clean hands, form the mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls, packing the mixture together slightly so that it will stay together when it cooks. This should make 9-10 meatballs.

Heat a wide skillet over medium heat, and coat the skillet with the oil. Add the meatballs to the skillet and cook for 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are browned, then turn over and cook for another 4-5 minutes. At this point, begin turning the meatballs over on all of the sides that are not browned, cooking for a few minutes on each side, until the meatballs are browned all over and cooked through. Cut a meatball in half to to make sure they are done.

Remove the lamb koftas from the heat, and serve atop Toasted Buckwheat Lebanese salad as above. Alternatively, serve the koftas in pita bread halves or wrapped in naan bread with sliced cucumbers, sliced red onions, and plain yogurt or hummus.