What if you can’t prep?

I’ve mentioned several times in the past that no matter how much you commit to a healthier lifestyle, there’s always going to be some weeks when meal prepping in advance isn’t going to happen.  While I will be the first one to tell you that that is generally a bad idea for E.J. and I (it’s like taking a test without studying), I will say that sometimes it’s just the way it is.  As much as it adds some additional stress and pressure to come up with healthy options during the week, I will say that I do appreciate the occasional break from my weekly kitchen marathon.  Next weekend, E.J. and I are going on vacation, and I don’t want to make a bunch of food that will end up sitting in the fridge while we’re gone, so, if you don’t cook your meals in advance, how do you stay on track?

Here are some of my strategies:

  • Raid the freezer – When I make batches of chili or butternut squash soup (some of E.J.s favorites, I often make double or triple batches and freeze some.  I also try to keep frozen shrimp, fish, and sausage, and steak which can also be thawed a day in advance and used during the week for quick dinners.
  • Catch of the Day – Some of the quickest and healthiest meals can be pulled together by simply picking up some fresh seafood on the way home, adding spices and baking or sauteeing into a delicious meal. Pick up some pre-prepped cauli-rice, salad, or spiralized veggies while you’re at it to pull together a balanced plate
  • Charcuterie – Growing up, E.J. and his family often packed picnic lunches that they enjoyed on weekend outings that consisted of bread with butter, salami or beef sticks, cheeses, peppers, radishes, fruit, nuts, and other small bites.  This is our plan for lunches this week, so I’m making 2 loaves of our new favorite “Paleo Keto Bread” and we’re each going to pack a selection of items to make into small sandwiches.
  • Eating Out (Worst Case) – While this used to be our go-to solution for not having food in the fridge, we now try hard not to eat out more than 2 or 3 meals in a given week.  It’s hard to practice portion control and avoid bread & chips, but best bets for us include Mexican, seafood, Mediterranean, and BBQ/steakhouses.

The Spice of Life…

I truly believe one of the secrets to healthier cooking is learning how to better use spices.  For many years, I was like many home cooks out there – I had my simple go-to recipes with salt and pepper, and the only time I really used the ones in my pantry was around the holidays.  Even then, spices were measured out perfectly according to my cherished recipes and that was the extent of it.

When E.J. and I started our journey to healthier eating, my first few attempts were awful.  They were horribly bland, and because our taste buds were still accustomed to the assault of sugar, I really had to wonder how anyone lived on this stuff.   At some point in those early days, I decided that I had to find a way to make these dishes taste better, so I started doubling the spices that were called for in many of the recipes (except salt… always add salt sparingly since it can easily be added on the plate to taste) or adding new ones.  The result was amazing.  All of a sudden the vegetables that we were struggling to choke down tasted great, and I could actually appreciate the way the flavors worked together.

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So what started out as a survival mechanism has now become a bit of an obsession.  It is honestly a bit rare for me to carefully measure out spices in recipes anymore.  One, it takes longer, and two it doesn’t really matter what the recipe says… I know what I like.  I LOVE garlic… honestly, if the recipe has garlic, then that just means I can dump as much as feels good into it, and I know it will be just that much better.  I also love rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, paprika and onion powder.  I have to be a little more conservative with the parsley, sage, dill, and cayenne…. I’ve overdone them and therefore know my limits.

IMG_3125I rarely keep an Italian spice blend in the kitchen anymore, because it’s an excuse to pull together my favorite spices and be creative.  Even better, every spring I plant a bunch of fresh herbs in planter boxes that E.J. built into the fence indentations in our back yard.  My garden always has basil, flat leaf parsley, rosemary (this one is tricky if you have a sprinkler system), sage, dill, thyme, oregano, and green onions.   This year I planted a few cherry tomato plants to go with it all and so far they’re doing well.   You haven’t had great Italian until you’ve had it with a sauce that started as vine ripe tomatoes and a whole bunch of fresh herbs.

But since most of my plants are annuals and only yield part of the year, I still rely on dried spices most of the time.  Going to a spice store (Like Penzeys) is like going to a candy store now for me.  I end up buying way more than I should, but I really appreciate the quality difference from the regular store brands, and their blends are great shortcuts for busy weeknights.  This week E.J. was in the mood for Chicken Vindaloo, and like many recipes, the spices are the most complicated part… but with Penzey’s “Vindaloo” spice blend, I just dumped half a jar into the Instant Pot along with the onions, salt, and tomatoes, submerged the chicken, and pressure cooked it to perfection.  The Penzeys Chili 9000 blend is also the secret to E.J’s favorite chili.  Their “Northwoods” seasoning is a favorite for sauteed or grilled veggies.   I still have to be careful to avoid the blends with sugar, but a quick ingredient check makes it easy to find the ones that are on the “ok” list.

What are your go-to spices or spice blends?

Easter Goodness

I can’t believe spring is already here – well, here in Houston, at least.  I think it was 50 degrees in Dallas today, but a high of 81 here…

Anyway, we had a lovely Easter break, complete with some relaxation with a fishing trip out in Galveston Bay on Friday, and a good old fashioned fish fry on Saturday.  If you’ve ever wanted to try some paleo fried fish, we’ve pretty much decided the perfect recipe is a half & half mix of cassava and almond flour, dredged in egg (or not, still works), and served with this tartar sauce.  We managed to catch some black drum fish during this trip, so I also made some of the pecan butter sauce from this recipe to top the fish, and it was fantastic.

Then of course, we shared an Easter meal with our friends and family on Sunday, which is another opportunity to try out some new recipes (and feature some old ones).  Fortunately, Easter is a little easier than some of the winter holidays since we’ve all pretty much settled on ham as the main course (and I can serve it cold).

Here are the rest of the dishes we served for the big meal:

  • Green Bean Casserole 2 – This is the most recent paleo version of the classic recipe I’ve used, and this time I took even more shortcuts by skipping the blending step on the mushroom soup and just sauteeing the bacon and onions without the messy battering and frying.  Fortunately it still got rave reviews even with my cut corners
  • Creamed Spinach – I used this recipe as a starting point, and subbed out the regular flour with a smaller amount of coconut flour for a keto-friendly side dish with tons of flavor.
  • Sausage Cream Cheese Dip Mushrooms – Ok, this dish was just heavenly.  I’m a big fan of stuffed mushrooms any way I can get them, but this cheesy version is just out of this world.  I used coconut flour (small amount) as a sub for panko to keep it keto, but I think you could use almond flour or crushed pork rinds also.  I’m adding this one to the favorites list.
  • Cheddar Garlic Biscuits – this one is still awesome.  We discovered it several weeks ago when we made these to go with a lobster dinner with friends.  Total new favorite – so easy to make and so delicious
  • Paleo Lemon Tart – OMG, this one is amazing.  It has quite a bit of honey in it, so it’s definitely a “special occasion” sort of dessert, but is quite pretty and got 2 thumbs up by everyone who tried it.

We rounded out the meal with deviled eggs and a paleo sweet potato casserole provided by my friend Anita, and enjoyed every bite.  It’s funny – now that I’ve gotten used to paleo/keto cooking, I really don’t miss the old favorites anymore.  There’s no doubt that it’s easier to whip together the old Campbell’s green beans and some sugary desserts, but everything that was served had so much flavor, I just can’t see myself ever going back.

The danger here, of course was still in quantities on my plate and the glasses of wine I managed to enjoy throughout the weekend, but all in all I came out ok.  I got my workout in this morning (Monday) and plan to get in 3 full running sessions this week and watch my carbs more closely to compensate.

Splitting the Difference

Ok folks, I know I owe you a post showing you all of the wonderfully keto happy recipes I’ve been making the last few weeks, and while I’m happy to share my favorites (you can find them at the bottom of my Favorite Recipes page), the truth is that I’ve been struggling a bit lately – which many of you have read about if you also follow E.J.’s blog, and we’ve decided to move forward on a Keto/Paleo hybrid plan.

The truth is that I really missed cheese during the last several years, and while the Paleo mavens out there have come up with some really clever substitutes involving cashews, nutritional yeast, and other healthy alternatives, the truth is nothing compares to the real thing.  We’ve found that if we are careful with the dairy we buy, and stick to lactose-free options wherever possible, we actually don’t have the negative affects we’ve seen in the past.  The other cue we’re taking from keto is to reduce our carbs wherever possible.  I’ve found that I can’t stand most Stevia sweeteners, but can handle Swerve (erythritol) just fine, and if I can enjoy sweets without spiking my blood sugar, that’s got to be a good thing.  Beyond that, we’re going to allow ourselves some fruit occasionally and not limit our tomato, onions, and peppers as much (seriously, how to people cook long-term without those 3 veggies?)  And maybe still have a potato side once a week, but not as much as we were on full Paleo.

I still didn’t drop more than a pound or 2 during this last round of keto, but I’ve also had another major upheaval at work, and I know my portion sizes have been out of control.  So considering that I haven’t ballooned up in the last couple of weeks, I guess I’ll call it a win.

Overall, I can say that in general, Keto cooking is easier than Paleo, and appeals more to a palate that’s not used to “diet” food options.  My mom certainly prefers Keto dishes over Paleo, and I think if I refined some of my bread and cookie recipes, I could probably get her into ketosis without her even realizing it!

So at this point in our journey, I will say that I’m continuing to learn and experiment with flavorful foods and monitor my body’s reaction to what I’m eating.  It’s all about finding your balance, right?

New Keto Favorites

This Keto cooking is a whole different animal from Paleo… but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  The trickiest part for us is lactose intolerance.  While I LOVE cheese, and am really enjoying it in abundance on this run of keto, I’m having to be very careful to make sure I’m using lactose free dairy wherever possible to avoid swelling and abdominal discomfort for both E.J. and I.  The good news is that most aged cheeses are naturally lactose free, and our local Sprouts store carries lactose free cream cheese, sour cream, and half & half (which I use instead of cream in recipes).

The other oddity with keto is the allowance of some processed food items like condensed soups as bases for casseroles and sauces.  After more than 2 years avoiding these items, I just can’t bring myself to go completely back to the dark side, so I’m making my own cream sauces and thickening with xanthan gum.

That being said, I have made a few dishes lately which really are pretty awesome that I’d love to share:

Crock Pot Bacon Mushroom Chicken – This one is actually pretty simple if you simply stick with the condensed soup that it calls for.  I made my own with half & half, chicken broth, spices, and xanthan gum, and finished in a casserole dish in the oven instead of the crock pot, just because I was doing a double-batch and wanted to make sure there was plenty of cheese and bacon on each breast.  E.J. and I both really liked the flavors in this dish, especially since I used gruyere cheese instead of a basic Swiss.

Low Carb Hamburger Buns – With last week’s pizza crust success, I ended up extending my “fat head” dough experience and made these buns to go along with some beef patties on the grill crowned with bacon and a fried egg.  We enjoyed it so much, we had it twice.

Low Carb Bagel Dogs – This was another similar version of the keto dough, this time wrapped around sausages…. we had this for lunch today and it was amazing.  Being from Texas, I can say I missed my kolache fix, and this dough opens up all kinds of possibilities again.

Keto Cinnamon Swirl Bread – Though keto generally tries to steer you away from sweets, they do allow for them if you use sugar substitutes that don’t spike your blood glucose.  I admit right off that none of these substitutes are as delicious as raw honey or maple syrup, but so far I’m finding that powdered Swerve (erythritol) is the least offensive when it comes to aftertaste.  This recipe uses liquid stevia in the dough, which isn’t too bad once you get used to it, but is not so great when you still remember what regular sugars taste like.  After a few days of having slices of this bread, though, I’m finding I really like it and it satisfies the sweet tooth.

Low Carb Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars – When you need a keto treat with minimal effort that curbs the cravings, this recipe delivers.  I used to make a similar dessert for my family when I was younger using graham crackers and powdered sugar.  This one is similar enough that it takes me back to happy places without tanking my ketosis.  Because of my Paleo tendencies, I substituted almond butter for the peanut, and used melted Lily’s dark chocolate chips (sugar free) for the topping (without anything else added).

So far, I’ve seen some minimal weight loss, but I’m feeling it in how my clothes fit, so that makes me happy.  Any diet that allows me to keep losing weight and allows cheese and chocolate can’t be all bad…

Another Keto Detour

The first time I tried shifting from Paleo to Keto, I tried it while E.J. was deployed with the National Guard so I was on my own.  I struggled with energy levels and stomach aches, and it kind of fizzled out after about 2 weeks.  Though, in that 2 weeks, I did lose a couple of pounds.

This time, E.J. is driving the keto bus, and he’s done a lot more research on strategies and supplements to help make it work better. So, today is day 2, and I’m looking forward to enjoying some cheesy goodness, even if I can’t have my beloved honey and maple syrup sweetened treats…

Here are some of the recipes we’ve got on the menu this week:

Green Chicken Enchilada Casserole – E.J. had a craving for enchiladas verdes, one of his favorite mexican dishes, so I made this casserole which brings all of the flavors without the pain of tortilla making and rolling.

Low Carb Quiche Lorraine – this is a favorite from the last keto experiment.  It’s so good that my mom (who does not follow our diet) fell in love with it and asks me to make one for her every other week or so.  I use Jarlsberg Swiss cheese for this recipe and the flavor is outstanding.

Three Cheese and Broccoli Casserole – Mom tried this one last night also and gave it 2 thumbs up.  I added some chopped sausage to the dish to make it hearty enough to stand as an entree, but otherwise kept to the recipe.

E.J. also made a Hungarian stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut dish as well as smoked ribs to round out our weekly meals.

Yesterday for lunch we tried fat head dough for the first time as a pizza crust – and can you say Yum!?  We haven’t had pizza in forever, so E.J. was particularly excited about being able to have a slice now and then again.   This recipe from Ditch The Carbs is the one we used.

Happy Monday, Everyone!

With a Little Help From My Friends

We’re in the final stretch of our January Whole30, and all in all I think it’s been a success.  I didn’t quite hit the weight target I wanted, but my clothes all fit nicely again, and I certainly feel better.  Work stresses aside, this really was the easiest W30 yet, and one of the reasons why it was easier is because of the amazing support of friends and family.

When we started with Whole30 and Paleo 2 years ago, things were much different.  When I would turn down office treats, or carefully order food at restaurants with specific requests, or bring strange food to the office potlucks, I found myself explaining what I was doing and the reasons behind it over and over.  The reactions were all over the map: encouragement, admiration, skepticism, and pity – but fortunately I was never met with ugliness.  After a few months, when the weight started to drop, I had a lot more questions, and a lot more earnest interest.  Now 2 years later, 2 others in my department have dropped over 50 lbs, and another is just starting her journey.

When we have potlucks now, we are sensitive to all of the dietary requests – things are labelled gluten free, paleo, and vegetarian, and people are proud to share their favorite health-conscious foods with the team and enjoy how good they taste.  No one brings donuts or kolaches on Fridays anymore either.  We’ll share treats for birthdays and holidays, but otherwise, we now keep nuts, Lara bars and other healthier options lying around the department instead.   The funniest thing about it is I never mentioned anything about office foods.  I never preached or gave anyone any grief about wanting to bring something yummy to share with the team.  But over the course of 2 years by simply politely declining and choosing my own path, the entire team has chosen to follow it, and some of them have dramatically improved their own health in the process.

Even the waiters at our favorite restaurants are supportive.  At the places we visit most frequently, E.J. has talked to the waiters and shown them the pictures… they all know the story, and remember us when we come in, so we rarely have to give our special orders anymore – they know what we want and how we want it.  It’s just so much more comfortable.

It’s the same with our close personal friends.  E.J. and I have a number of couples we will hang out with and have adventures with on the weekends, and while they might not follow our diet as strictly, they are all sensitive to it and have recognized the benefits themselves.   I feel incredibly lucky to be blessed with friends who have not only accepted the changes E.J. and I made to our lives to improve our health, but have embraced them and actively help us find new recipes and  ways to continue to thrive with an active social life.  When we entertain friends, they know my menu will be mostly paleo unless there’s a special request, which I’m happy to accommodate.  And when we go to our friends’ house, they always let us know what foods are compliant and which ones aren’t so we can make conscious decisions about how to build our plates.

And then sometimes, like this last Friday, they just rock and make a new paleo recipe that I’ve never seen or tried and it is nothing short of amazing.  Our friends Kenny and Elaine made this Whole30 compliant InstantPot Crispy Mojo Pork with tostones and it was spectacular.  I’m totally adding this to the Favorite Recipes list.  My friend Anita has also been tagging amazing looking recipes on her Facebook so they pop up for me, and I can’t wait to try them.

So, while everyone’s journey must be a personal one, I can certainly say that our ability to sustain our new lifestyle would be a much more difficult without “A Little Help From My Friends”.