Easy Creamy Polenta, Shrimp, and Vegetable Bowls

I love quick and easy dinners that combine several food groups on one plate, or in this case, in one bowl. Frozen shrimp are great to have on hand for quick seafood dinners on busy weeknights, but you can also use the fresh variety.  If you don’t have any whole grain cornmeal in the house, it’s OK to substitute pasta.  No spinach? Kale works well, too.

 

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Easy Creamy Polenta, Shrimp, and Vegetable Bowls
Makes 4 servings.

2 cups water

1 cup whole grain cornmeal

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

8 cups raw baby spinach, washed and drained

40 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, if desired

1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and cleaned, defrosted if using frozen

Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes or until just tender. Add the spinach, tomatoes, and garlic to the pan and sauté, stirring until the spinach wilts and the tomatoes become tender, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and stir. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside.

When the water has boiled, add the cornmeal, using a whisk to prevent clumping. Turn heat to low, cover, and simmer the cornmeal for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the butter and cheese and continue to whisk for another 2 minutes until the cornmeal achieves a creamy consistency. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside.

Add the shrimp to the spinach mixture and cook for about 3 minutes or until the shrimp is pink.

Divide the polenta between four bowls and top each bowl with equal amounts of the shrimp-vegetable mixture. Season with fresh ground black pepper, if desired.

Per serving:
416 calories; 17 grams fat (6 grams saturated fat); 190 milligrams cholesterol; 340 milligrams sodium; 36 grams carbohydrate; 9 grams fiber; 30 grams protein

Food, Fun, and Flames

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a picture on Facebook of a monumental recipe fail. The food was so unrecognizable that many of my Facebook friends amused themselves (and me!) by guessing what it was.  As recipe developers know, sometimes certain dishes are simply not meant to be. Still, I have to wonder: how could a recipe with just three ingredients appear so unappetizing yet taste so good? Here’s the story of a bad day in the kitchen.

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S’mores pie, Take 1.

 

The Mission

My goal: create a recipe for an easy s’mores dessert that didn’t involve a campfire or any other form of flames, including a kitchen torch for browning the marshmallow topping.  I wanted every cook to be able to make this s’mores pie, even those who don’t own a kitchen torch, so I decided to use the broiler to caramelize the marshmallows.

The pie is filled with ice cream and I was concerned about broiling the top of the pie without melting the ice cream too much. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about the potential for setting the pie on fire.

Playing With Fire

The first time around (see above picture of burnt mass), I used mini marshmallows, which probably would have worked if I hadn’t placed the pie so close to the broiler. As luck would have it, one of my daughters was with me in the kitchen, watching the experiment unfold, and was there to document the disaster.

After 30 seconds under the broiler, a pleasant aroma of roasting marshmallows filled the kitchen, and we thought all was going well. Ten seconds later, we were contemplating how best to put out the flames on the top of the pie. Thankfully, the smoke detectors did not go off, which is more than I can say on some nights when I get distracted making dinner.

Let’s Try This Again

Perhaps you think I threw my failure in the trash. Nope. I’m a frugal Yankee and that would have been a colossal waste of food. I scraped off the burnt marshmallow, wrapped the pie in foil and put it back in the freezer.  

My next attempt including using bigger marshmallows and no flames. I cut the marshmallows in half, and covered as much of the ice cream as possible. I took a “before” picture, you know, just in case there was another catastrophe. Here it is:

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Roasting marshmallows, part 2. Clearly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses so the picture is out of focus.  But you get the point.

 

I have to admit I was a bit nervous.  The second time around, I left about a foot between the broiler and oven rack the pie was on. I put the timer on for 30 seconds and shut the oven door.  It smelled good. I peaked at the pie after 30 seconds and it looked OK.

Just OK. Not great.

When you take pictures of recipes, you want them to appear as appetizing as possible. Sadly, this  pie was not performing up to my expectations, which I don’t consider high.

I put the pie back under the broiler, rotating it for more uniform browning, but that didn’t work as well as I would have liked. Plus, I could only leave the pie in the oven for so long because of the ice cream, so time was of the essence.

Here’s the outcome of try #2:

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This picture was actually a mistake, but one of the best of the lot on a very bad day.

 

I figured that the whole pie looked alright, but not as attractive as I would have liked. I tried cutting a piece to see if that would look more appealing.

It looked worse! Are we having fun yet?

 

 

 

 

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Not my best work, for sure. 

 

This is one of the worst slices, but in my defense, I was shooting an ice cream pie outside in 85˚ weather. Still, the heat is really no excuse for the pie’s poor appearance.

It wasn’t possible to make a piece of that pie look appetizing. When I cut into it, the crust crumbled, the marshmallows were excessively gooey and downright unruly, the ice cream melted too fast, and I couldn’t get any definition between the ice cream and the crust in the pictures.

That’s when I realized the pie looked too awful to publish the recipe in all seriousness. At this point, I wanted the last three hours of my life back.

I throw in the towel. I put all the pieces of pie that I’ve tried to make look edible back into the plate and it all goes back in the freezer.

That evening, I devour it (not ALL of it) with one of my kids. And it’s delicious.

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Disaster confirmed. Dig in, kids!

 

This pie is not photogenic, or I was having a bad day, or the recipe just doesn’t work, or all of the above. Who knows? It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t always matter. Here’s the recipe, in case you want to make it. I hope yours turns out better. Send me a picture!

S’Mores Pie

Serves 12. Sort of.

5 cups chocolate ice cream or chocolate frozen yogurt

1 10-inch prepared graham cracker crust (I transferred it to a glass pie plate)

22 – 24 regular size marshmallows, cut in half

Pack the ice cream or frozen yogurt into the crust. Cover with aluminum foil and place in the freezer for at least 2 hours.

Place an oven rack about 12 inches from the broiler element. Preheat the broiler.

Place the pie on the oven rack for 30 to 45 seconds or until marshmallows are golden brown. In some places, at least. Do not allow the pie to erupt in flames.

Remove the pie from the oven. Serve immediately, and attractively, if possible!

 

 

Surprising Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight with Exercise

Does this sound familiar? You rely on exercise to work off the calories in that second margarita, the large handfuls of tortilla chips you nibble nightly in front of the TV, or the pint of ice cream you pick at while standing at the kitchen counter, but you’re not losing any weight and you may even be gaining some.  Truth be told, most of us can’t count on exercise to completely counteract calorie overload. Don’t throw in the towel just yet, however. Here’s how to adjust your attitude about physical activity to get better results on the scale.

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Problem: You give exercise too much credit.  Weight control is a balancing act, and exercise probably doesn’t burn as many calories as you think. When you feel entitled to splurge because you’ve worked out, think about this: it can take less than a minute to eat back the calories burned on a 30-minute run or in a 45-minute tabata class.

Solution: Learn what you burn. I’m not a big fan of calculating calories in (as food) and out (as physical activity) because weight control is more complicated than that. I don’t agree with tactics like listing on food labels how much physical activity you need to burn the calories in a portion of that food because it makes exercise seem like punishment for eating. In January 2016, Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health introduced that idea. (See examples in the photo below).

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But I digress.

It probably pays to educate yourself about how many calories you’re probably using up through movement.  According to the American Cancer Society’s Exercise Counts Calculator, a 150-pound person burns about 150 calories walking briskly for 30 minutes. That’s about the same number of calories found in 6 ounces of white wine, or 5 chocolate creme sandwich cookies, or about 1/2 cup of soft serve vanilla frozen yogurt.

Problem: You work out too hard. When I was much younger, I ran a lot more than I do now, used exercise as justification to eat more than I should have, and was always perplexed that I didn’t weigh less (duh!).  Research suggests what I already know through experience: intense exercise can counteract weight control efforts. It may overstimulate your appetite, and lead you to believe that you can reward yourself with extra food. Ironically, you may also move around less during the day when you push yourself too hard at the gym, which decreases overall calorie burn.

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Solution: Take it down a notch. Find activities that raise your heart rate but not your appetite, such as brisk walking, kickboxing, and shorter runs.  Include at least two weekly sessions of resistance training, such as weight lifting, to preserve and build muscle, which burns more calories than fat tissue. Generally speaking, resistance training probably won’t make you ravenous.

Research suggests that eating less probably has a greater effect than exercise alone on your weight. However, eating less plus exercise probably works better for weight control than just cutting calories.  The real beauty of exercise is that everyone can benefit from it, no matter how much they weigh. Of all the lifestyle habits to develop and maintain, regular exercise is one of the best, if only because it reduces the risk for 13 types of cancer.  It’s never too late to benefit from adding exercise to your routine, and it may help you live longer, and better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Cringe-Worthy Nutrition Terms I Avoid

Warning: Rant ahead.  Anyone who knows me knows how salty my language can get, including my kids, who are old enough to hear bad language from their parents.  I may curse in front of my children without a second thought, but there are certain cringe-worthy nutrition terms I will not say. Here’s where I draw the line, and why.

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The F-Word

For me “fat” is a word to avoid unless it’s used to describe the nutrient itself or the cells in your body that store energy. Fat should never be used as an adjective to characterize someone’s appearance, including your own. Even if you don’t say fat, you may think it’s fine to complain or joke about your “thunder thighs” or your “muffin top” in front of your child without influencing their perception of their own body, but that’s probably not the case.

I avoid the F-word because I heard my mother refer to herself as fat one too many times during my childhood.  My mom struggled with her weight, and she was on and off diets for as long as I can remember. She got down on herself about putting on pounds, and was equally elated when they peeled off on the latest low-calorie fad.

While my mom never commented on my weight, her dissatisfaction with her own rubbed off on me.  To make matters worse, I inherited a slower-than-molasses metabolism, and was heavier than I wanted to be in my younger days. I dieted plenty before deciding to be done with all that in my early twenties and to focus on eating healthier on a daily basis.

Skinny

This word really gets my goat. It’s often used as a compliment but it can also be used to shame someone who is on the thin side, especially by those who would like to lose weight. Some people are naturally slim because that’s their body type. While many people crave the label, thin people may find it insulting.

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I can’t even think of an instance where I would say the s-word, yet skinny has such appeal that it’s prominent in the titles of nutrition books and web sites, many of them written by credible experts.  It really bothers me that skinny is used as an aspirational term, because going for “skinny” can be detrimental to a healthy body image. In addition, being waif-like in appearance doesn’t automatically guaruntee good health.

Clean Eating 

I ask my children to clean the kitchen, the bathroom, and their bedrooms, but there is no way that I would ever ask them to eat clean. I won’t even talk about clean eating unless pressed to describe what it is.

To be fair, the basic principles of clean eating are admirable: consume fewer processed foods and more whole foods and lightly processed fare.  But, as with most eating plans, many people have taken the concept of eating “clean” too far.

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I can’t get past the notion that if you’re not eating “clean,” then you’re eating “dirty.” I also get the idea that some die-hard “clean” eaters look down on those who can’t, or don’t want to, eat the same way because it’s too costly, it’s inconvenient, or they’re just not interested.

I want my children to see food as fuel to keep their body and brain strong and healthy. What words or terms do you avoid saying in front of young children and teens?

 

 

 

Why Walking Is Good Exercise

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The other day, I heard an exercise instructor say that walking isn’t really exercise, and it upset me. There’s no reason to disregard any form of physical activity as not “difficult enough.” Working out doesn’t have to be extreme to be beneficial. Plus, there’s exciting news about walking that’s worthy of attention.

Turns out, putting one foot in front of the other is harder work than previously thought. A new study shows that walking burns more calories than experts have presumed for decades. I’ll remember that when I’m walking the dog. I log an extra 10 miles a week because she needs exercise every day, and it’s tough to resist that face when she’s staring at me, waiting to go!  DSC_0036

In addition to burning calories, which may mean easier weight control, walking can make your brain bigger.  Brains shrink with age, which is not good news for memory, judgement, and coordination.  Research from the UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh links any type of aerobic exercise, including walking, to a better brain structure and reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

I don’t know if my brain is expanding when I walk the dog every day, but I do know that it gets me out of the house and away from my desk, and that the rhythmic motion of walking reduces my stress and clears my mind. There is evidence that walking in nature changes your brain for the better.

I love to walk, and there’s no doubt that it’s good exercise. If you haven’t been working out lately, walking is a step in the right direction. If you’ve been doing the same loop for a while, here’s how to take your walking up a notch to make it more challenging.  For good measure, do at least two sessions of resistance training, such as a weights or bands class, each week in addition to walking, to keep your entire body strong.

Now, where are my sneakers?

5 Ways to Reboot Your New Year’s Resolutions

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It’s February. Do you know where your New Year’s resolutions are? By now, most people have given up on hopes of improving themselves.  But spring is on the way, and there is a sense of renewal in the air. Here’s how to refresh your vows to eat better, exercise more, and other healthier habits –  without sucking all the fun out of life.

Think better, not perfect.  Old habits die hard, and new ones are tough to establish.  It’s really no wonder you haven’t been able to regularly get to the gym, eat oatmeal every day for breakfast, and snack on nuts or fruit instead of chips.  Accept the notion of partial success. For example, exercising two times a week is better than none, and it’s a step in the right direction that could lead to more physical activity.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Change requires mental energy – willpower – and you only have so much of that to go around. Trying to change too many behaviors at the same time eats away at your resolve and makes you want to give up. Pick one new healthy habit to focus on. Research shows that cultivating one healthy habit leads to other healthy habits.

Stay positive.  Whatever you choose to change, make your goal inclusive. For example, instead of promising yourself to cut out all cookies, cake, and ice cream, focus on including five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  No food is completely off limits, but you may be too full of produce to eat the higher-calorie kinds that offer little in the way of nutrition.

Make mini-goals. Back in January, you went whole hog. You vowed to lose 25 pounds, and now that seems highly unlikely.  Re-think your drastic resolutions, and take baby steps to get what you want. Try to lose just five pounds for now, then think about losing five more.

Don’t give up. You are a work in progress, and perfection is out of the question.  You may not be where you want to be right now with your lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. Give yourself more time to do better.

 

 

Healthier Walnut Raisin Bread

Summer is winding down, the days are getting cooler, and I’m heading back into the kitchen to bake. Quick breads are one of my weaknesses, so I go for great-tasting recipes that include as much nutritional goodness as possible. I’ve goofed by cutting back too much on one ingredient or another, or by making too many changes to the recipe at once. I think this healthier Walnut Raisin Bread gets it just right!

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Applesauce stands in for some of the oil, but not all of it, and adds flavor, too. Raisins provide fiber, and natural sweetness that helps to cut down on added sugar. Walnuts serve up heart-healthy unsaturated fat.  To increase the whole grain content, I used some whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour and added oats.

Making muffins from the batter instead of baking two loaves of bread is a better way for to control quick bread portions.  Muffins keep me from going overboard because I limit myself (nearly always!) to one.

 

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I hope you enjoy this recipe as much I do!

Walnut Raisin Bread

Makes 2 loaves (24 slices or 24 muffins)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup one-minute oats, uncooked

¾ cup light brown sugar, packed

1 cup California raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 ½ cups unsweetened applesauce

2/3 cup canola oil

4 large eggs

½ cup 1% low-fat milk

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Lightly grease and flour two loaf pans.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, oatmeal, brown sugar, raisins, and walnuts. Stir until well combined.

Place the applesauce, canola oil, eggs, and milk in the bowl of an electric mixer. Blend on high speed until combined, about 1 minute.

Add the applesauce mixture to the flour mixture. Stir until the dry ingredients are moistened.

Fill the loaf pans with the batter, dividing it evenly between the 2 pans. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from pans and allow to cool on a wire rack before slicing.

Per slice or muffin:

226 calories

11 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat)

227 milligrams sodium

30 grams carbohydrate

2 grams fiber

4 grams protein

 

 

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