Monthly Archives: April 2012

Light & Healthy Chicken Marsala

My grandmother, a well-seasoned cook and fantastic baker, has always talked about how much she loves reading cookbooks. It wasn’t until recently, when I started cooking regularly for myself, that I understood what she meant. Not only is it a great way to learn new cooking techniques, but so many cookbooks hold information that goes well beyond the recipe. Little nuggets like conversion tables, tips and tricks about which types cookware to use, and basics like the best way to measure certain ingredients grace the pages of the better cookbooks.

So, when my grandmother recommended “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook,” I took her suggestion pretty seriously – she is not quick to refer someone to a bad cookbook. I thumbed through it at her house and fell in love. It was full of such great information about everything from cookware to product reviews to amazing recipes. On my next trip to Barnes and Noble, as I perused the cookbook section, I came across “The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook” – it had all of the great information in the traditional version but all of the recipes were light and healthy! Sold! (Not all of the recipes are “clean,” but I figured I have lots of clean cookbooks and it couldn’t hurt to add something different to my collection.)

I started to make a list of what I wanted to make out of the book – turned out to be basically everything. I settled the “Spa Chicken” and low-fat “Mushroom-Marsala Sauce.” Some Marsala sauces and recipes end up laden with calories – from breaded chicken to heavy cream in the sauce itself. This was a huge turnoff to me, so until now I had considered it an occasional treat to order when eating out rather than something I could whip up at home.

Not anymore! I couldn’t have been more pleased with the recipe came out – I don’t think I would change anything about it! And, to boot, this was the first time I made poached chicken as a main dish and not as part of a soup. In stark contrast to my last recipe experiment, I followed the steps on these recipes exactly. Both recipes below are from “The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook” – check them out at http://www.americastestkitchen.com/.

MUSHROOM-MARSALA SAUCE

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons EVOO
  • 8 oz. white mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, and sliced thin (I used 10 oz. because I love mushrooms!)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

    Marsala sauce underway!

Directions:

  1. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
  2. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt; cook until browned.
  3. Stir in the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  4. Whisk in the broth and Marsala and bring to a simmer.
  5. Whisk the water and cornstarch together and then stir into the sauce.
  6. Simmer until the sauce is thickened and measures 1 cup, about 5 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

SPA CHICKEN

Ingredients:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed, pounded if necessary
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives, parsley, cilantro, or tarragon

    Healthy chicken Marsala ready to eat

Directions:

  1. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Combine the water, garlic, thyme, and soy sauce in a 12-inch skillet.
  3. Add the chicken and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. When the water is simmering, flip the chicken over, cover, and continue to cook until the chicken registers 160 to 165 degrees.
  5. Transfer the chicken to a carving board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 5 minutes.
  6. Slice on the bias into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
  7. Sprinkle with parsley and cover in Marsala sauce and mushrooms to serve.
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Spicy Chicken Soup

It’s about time for a new recipe! I envisioned this spicy chicken soup to be a mash-up of two of my favorite recipes: chicken soup and chicken taco stew.  But, I was pressed for time when I made it and decided to totally wing the recipe. Bad idea: the final product didn’t look right – something was missing, but I didn’t have the time or energy to figure out what it was. I declared it a failure, decided on take-out, and put the soup in the fridge – maybe I could salvage it the next day when I had some more energy.

I guess I had to sleep on it, because on my way home from the gym the next morning, I had an epiphany – I FORGOT TO PUT THE REST OF THE VEGETABLES IN THE SOUP! I NEVER USED THE CILANTRO I BOUGHT! No wonder it looked boring and dull – it totally was!  As soon as I got home, I quickly prepped the beans and corn, added the cilantro, and got the soup simmering again while I got ready for work. All’s well that ends well, and I managed to save it for the most part. Without further ado, here is my mish-mash Spicy Chicken Soup!

Spicy chicken soup, after some adjustments

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 chicken breasts
  • 4 oz. low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup water (if needed/desired)
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
  • 1 bell pepper (your choice), seeded and diced
  • 2-3 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with chili
  • 1 can corn, rinsed
  • 1 can black beans, rinsed
  • 1/2 a packet of low-sodium taco seasoning
  • 2% mexican cheese mix
  • optional: chives, greek yogurt/low-fat sour cream

Directions:

  1. In a large pot, saute onions and garlic in oil until translucent. Add taco seasoning and cilantro; saute for one more minute.
  2. Place chicken breasts on top of onions, pour in broth.
  3. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink.
  4. While that’s simmering, combine the diced tomatoes, pepper, and carrots in a blender until chunky. Set aside.
  5. Remove chicken from broth and shred with two forks; return to pot.
  6. Add diced tomato mixture, corn, and beans.
  7. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  8. Let soup simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  9. Brush whole wheat tortillas with olive oil and bake for five minutes; remove and break into pieces.
  10. Top soup with tortilla strips/bits, chives, cheese, and Greek yogurt or low-fat sour cream (if desired).

And, try not to forget the essential ingredients!

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You are so totally what you eat

A recent RADIOLAB podcast called GUTS really got me thinking about food (as if I didn’t think about food enough already throughout the day…) but it helped me get beyond meal planning and really dig into what happens when you eat. I’m not a biology whiz, but I understand on very basic levels how the human body processes food. I know the types of foods I should embrace to reach my fitness goals, and the types of foods I should avoid. But, that’s about it. This podcast helped me take things to a higher level.

First, the RADIOLAB folks explored what goes on when your stomach digests food. Digestion is pretty basic, right? Your stomach uses what it needs from the food you eat and sends it around to different parts of the body – maybe muscles need to recover, bones need to mend, etc. But, the podcast got me thinking that in a very strange way that any given meal essentially morphs into the being who ate it. It becomes an inseparable part of the body – fueling cells and bodily functions – rather than just being the input and output of a system. This gives a new perspective on the old adage that you are what you eat.

Perhaps the most interesting terrifying part of the podcast was when a researcher, John Cryan, spoke about the thousands of species of bacteria that are alive and well in your body. You’re never alone. There is a whole world of little creatures hanging out in your gut at any given moment, and you better hope they are in balance otherwise you might experience the stomach virus from hell. But, I digress…

Cryan also spoke about some interesting experiments on mice that look at how the presence of different types of lactobacillus bacteria (same stuff in yogurt, cheese, and more) in their guts impacted their personalities and how they react to stress. Turns out, the mice have a direct link – the largest nerve in their body – between the stomach and brain. When the nerve is intact, and the lactobacillus is present, it seems that a message goes from the gut to the brain for the mice to remain calm. Sever that nerve, and the mice react with panic. Then, Jonah Lehrer, a frequent RADIOLAB contributor, came on to say that a similar experiment was done with humans: participants who ingested high levels of probiotics exhibited biological reactions similar to taking anti-anxiety meds. 

From my (non-scientific) everyday observations, it’s pretty clear to me that when I eat well, I feel good. When I don’t, not only does my body feel terrible, but I also feel an emotional impact as well. I’m sure part of it is psychological – that immediate guilt of eating something unhealthy, how it wouldn’t be so hard to have eaten a piece of fruit instead of a cookie – but it makes sense that biological reactions to the ingredients in food could compound these emotions. That’s even more reason for me to steer clear of the bad stuff – and I certainly don’t want to upset the crazy microorganisms that keep my body in balance.

There is no way that this summary has done the podcast justice so click here to listen to the GUTS episode and let me know what you think!

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Lessons I’ve Learned from Training the Dog (so far)

It was only hours after we returned from our honeymoon that Cooper officially moved in with us – and it was quickly apparent that the honeymoon was over and we had a major new responsibility at home. Despite being a self-proclaimed “cat person,” I was feeling optimistic about training Cooper – I did, after all, read Dog Training for Dummies on the plane ride to and from St. Kitt’s. How hard could it be if there was a Dummies book about it?

Turns out, it was harder than I thought. About a week into “home schooling” Cooper, I put the book away and decided we needed help. Professional help. We signed up for a weekly training class with Ken Berenson who runs sessions at the Round Hill Community Center in Greenwich for both beginner and novice level dogs. On the first night of school, Ken used his miniature poodle named Bear to demonstrate what we’d be learning during our time in what I took to calling “first grade.” My jaw dropped to the ground as Bear listened and responded to everything Ken said – he stopped on a dime, he sat, he stood, he ran, he retrieved – it was magical. At the same time, I was practically sitting on top of Cooper, a gangly mess of legs, fur, and paws, to keep him in one place. Bear was prim, proper, and well-behaved. In other words, the complete opposite of Cooper. (I suppose that only helped to illustrate Ken’s points about the value of a well-trained dog.)

Over the next few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised that Cooper started to show improvement. On the last night of first grade, we walked in for the test. This was it – Cooper either graduated and moved on to 2nd grade, or he was held back. Not wanting to have spent the last six weeks of training in vain, I tried to reason with Coop and explained that failing was simply not an option. He must have understood me, because we moved through each section of the test rather successfully. I insisted that Cooper give me a high-five, one of his favorite only “tricks,” after he received each passing mark. Ken handed us Cooper’s certificate and I did what any proud dog parent would do: I mailed away to the American Kennel Club for Cooper’s “Puppy Good Citizen” medal. It was $10 well spent on the medal because I honestly believe Cooper enjoys wearing it:

It was a proud day for us.

To date we’re about halfway through the 2nd grade with Cooper, and while he’s still a little pretty crazy, he is a better listener and I no longer have to sit on him to get him to stay still.

All this time that we’ve spent training Cooper got me to thinking that we’re on parallel tracks, really. Cooper’s training wouldn’t be going well if we didn’t put in the effort – which is how I feel about the time I spend at the gym. The more disciplined and committed you are to training, whether at the gym or puppy school, the better the results. It’s helped me realize a few things like:

1. There will be good days, and there will be bad days.

Right after I took the picture of Cooper wearing his medal, we went to our regularly scheduled training class and Cooper was the “bad puppy” in school. I felt like he wasn’t listening and by the time we left, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had to wonder – did the photo shoot with his new medal go right to his head? Did he think just because he got to wear it, that he could stop paying attention to me? But, after all, I have bad days, too.  Whether I’m preoccupied or just not giving it 110%, not every workout is fantastic. So I cut him some slack – we embraced the bad training session and moved on.

2. There will come a distraction that is too tempting to resist – but there are always consequences.

We installed an electric fence around the property, and Cooper quickly learned about what happens when he gets too close to it. Even knowing this, every once in a while the temptation on the other side is too strong and he hears a fateful warning beep before a little zap. That’s how I feel when I fall off the clean eating wagon. I am completely aware of what I’m doing and I know I’m going to feel bad about it later, but in the moment those [chocolatey deserts/greasy buffalo wings/cheesy nachos] look way too good to pass up. Luckily, those moments are less frequent for both of us. I am learning to train myself to think beyond the immediate satisfaction and have my own warning beep – instead of focusing on how good something tastes in the moment, I think ahead to how I’m going to feel afterwards, both mentally and physically, and it’s easier to say no. 

3. Rewards go a long way.

Cooper cooperates better when there is a reward at stake – usually it’s a tasty treat or his favorite toy. Rewards seem to work the same way for me, but I tend to reward myself with new Lululemon gear rather than food. The more I work out, the better reason I have to replace my sneakers, buy new (smaller!) workout pants or get a fun new workout top.

4. Proper equipment (and form) makes a big difference.

One of my favorite games to play with the Coop is a simple game of chase – I take off running and he chases me. If I get far enough ahead of him, I hide and wait for him to find me. Then we do it all over again.

We were playing the other night and while he was hot on my tail, I took off running, went to make a hard right up the stairs, and completely wiped out on the hardwood floor… because I was wearing socks. I collapsed into a heap, simultaneously crying and laughing, and Cooper came over and started piling his toys on top of me. It was a painful, yet hilarious, reminder not only is playing chase with a 70 pound dog inside the house a terrible idea, but I really should have been wearing sneakers.

To boot, it was bad form of me to try to outrun the dog who has more legs and a lower center of gravity. But, it’s a good reminder to always use good form and the proper equipment, especially at the gym.

5. It’s OK to rest.

Working like a dog.

Everyone needs a little break at some point – and all too often, I find myself pushing through a busy schedule to tick off to-do list items, stay up late to get things done, or cramming way too much into one day. Sometimes the best thing to do is take the lead from Cooper: kick back and take a nap!

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Fashion show at the ER

The last couple of days have been… interesting. I was scheduled to leave at 4:45am Monday morning (yesterday) for a business trip, so on Sunday I packed, got myself ready, and went to bed. Flash forward to Monday at 3am and I was sick as a dog with the stomach flu – I frantically called around to cancel my travel arrangements before the car service showed up at my front door.

The next several hours were progressively difficult; I was unable to keep anything down, not even water, and shed five pounds because I was so dehydrated. In the early afternoon I rallied – I felt a bit better and managed to eat four whole saltines – the crowning achievement of the day. Shortly afterwards, my fever spiked and I was feeling weaker than ever. My mom came by to check in on me, took one look at me, and made the executive decision that I needed some medical attention – off to the ER we went. 

It helps to try to find at least some humor in these types of situations, so when the nurse checking me in complimented me on my Christmas-theme pajama pants, I told her she should pay close attention to the rest of my outfit: a bright pink sports bra, powder blue tank top, and bright aqua zip-up hoodie. When she asked if I needed a wheelchair to get to my room, which was at the end of one of the long, bright hallways of the ER, I decided to walk. She said she’d be right next to me if I felt faint, and joked that this way, everyone else in the ER could see my outfit. I told her that I felt like a model, strutting my stuff down the catwalk during fashion week. I considered holding up the puke bucket garbage pail that I brought from home like a trophy as I paraded down the hall… but I refrained.

It was a pretty short visit – they gave me fluids and anti-nauesa meds and I left a few hours later with strict instructions to limit my diet to the blandest of bland foods, but a fun perk was that the nurse suggested popsicles as a way to get much needed fluids and sugars back into my body. I’m feeling well enough today to write this short post, so I know I’m on the mend. Other than that, I’ve been cleaning out the DVR, napping, and watching solid reruns of Saved by the Bell.

The last couple of days have been a good reminder of maintaining balance – of taking the time to rest and take care of your body when it’s clearly sending out distress signals. I called into the meeting that I missed by phone, and while it wasn’t ideal, it sufficed. I’m lucky that I didn’t get sick in Denver, or worse, en route.

That’s all for now, just a quick check-in – I hope to be back to some regularly scheduled posts later this week!

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