Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Really, I'm Not Starving

As children, my siblings and I did not fit the stereotype when it came to our food preferences. For example, we loved most vegetables, and gobbled them up without complaints (even Brussels sprouts, which I adored). I credit this to my parents, who strictly followed the “You Eat What We Put in Front of You” child-rearing plan. Since we didn’t have any choice in our dinner menus, and my parents would have simply laughed if we’d suggested they prepare two different meals, it was inevitable that we would try a bit of everything. Thinking back, my parents were brilliant; they couldn’t imagine catering to children who refused to eat anything but Kraft Dinner and hotdogs, and so they found an easy way to avoid that situation entirely: telling us what to do. Now, that’s smart parenting!

I remember begging my dad to fix us our favourite snack: a plate of cheese cubes, grapes, crackers, and carrot sticks, and us jumping up and down with joy around him while he prepared it. I also remember a similar reaction to my mom’s “ants on a log”, celery stuffed with peanut butter and topped with raisins. Yum!

A funny story about my sister and I that I only heard recently illustrates our childhood diet quite impressively: when we were five years old, and our brother three, the whole family took off in our minivan for a two-week trip to Disney World. Since this entailed a three-day drive, not to mention many nights away from home, we were stopping to eat at a lot of fast food and casual family dining restaurants. After one too many nights of eating greasy food, my sister and I started whining, complaining that we were sick of burgers and fries, and hey, could you get us some veggies? My parents had to drive around until they found a salad bar for their little princesses. Mom and Dad deserve a pat on the back for that one, if you ask me.

Thanks to my parents, not only did I have a nutritious childhood, but also these good habits have followed me into adulthood. I still love vegetables, and can’t understand why a lot of people think of them as boring (or even evil). I’ve been thinking a lot about our society’s relationship with vegetables lately, because of some strange reactions that I have received from co-workers when opening up my lunch.

I bring a lunch to work every day, and it normally consists of a veggie plate and dip, or a green salad. To me, this is lunch food. I don’t like to eat a heavy meal at lunch, because if I do, I’m less productive in the afternoon. I eat a gourmet breakfast, and I also snack on things like cheese and nuts between meals; therefore, I hardly ever get hungry during the day. Plus, when I get home in the evening, supper is always a very filling production. I’m not denying that eating vegetables at lunch allows me to indulge more at other times, but that isn’t the main reason why I eat them so often. I eat vegetables at lunch because I like them. Is that too hard to believe?

Apparently, it is, at least for some people. Whenever I eat with a big group of my co-workers, I am inevitably asked, in an alarming tone, “Amanda?! Are you on a diet?!” When I say no, and enquire as to why they asked me, I always hear, “Well, it’s just that, you’re only eating vegetables!” If you replaced the word vegetables with asbestos, I’m convinced the tone and grimace on the inquisitor’s face would hardly change. Furthermore, they often feel that they have the right to tell me that I don’t eat enough, and that I must be starving. As someone who works very hard at preparing delicious quality food for herself on a daily basis, this is a huge insult. Never mind that they haven’t tracked my eating habits beyond what they see at noon hour; and never mind that I pack so many vegetables, I very often have a hard time eating them all in one sitting. "Nope, starving!"

I get really annoyed, and frustrated, at this ‘diet’ question, especially since it is sometimes asked loudly, in front of others. First of all, that’s rude. (WHO CARES if someone is on a diet, anyway? I sure don’t). What if I was on a diet, but didn’t want to talk about it in front of everyone? What if I had some medical condition that required a certain meal plan? What if I had an eating disorder, and you were forcing me to address a very painful issue? None of these answers apply to my case, but they very well could. My point is, you never know why people do the things they do, so shut your trap, already.

What bothers me even more than the rudeness is the fact that someone eating vegetables is worth this much attention and awe. What does this say about the average person’s eating habits? Vegetables are real food; they grow in the ground, not in factories, and provide us with essential nutrients, just like they did for our great-great-grand-parents, who, I suspect, appreciated them a lot more than we do, since they worked so hard to provide fresh ones for their families. We should be ashamed! Delicious vegetables are available year-round, without us having to even lift a finger, and all we do is wrinkle our noses and associate them with deprivation. It just doesn’t make sense that a plate of vegetables or a salad should be met with hushed tones and condolences.

I don’t comment on other people’s food choices at lunch, so I don’t understand why anyone cares about mine. I’m not emaciated, and my stomach can’t ever be heard grumbling from across the room, so any “concerned” citizen can mind their own damn business. I am genuinely pleased and excited when I look at my lunch, but the Diet Police can easily ruin any nice foodie moment, which is extremely disappointing. So far, defending myself or playing dumb have not really helped as far as stopping comments, so I’ve resorted to avoiding the crowd entirely, instead eating with a very dear co-worker who is also a fan of light lunches, and who says adorable things like “that looks so good!” when I open mine. She’s a treasure, and exactly the kind of person I like to be around at meal times. How refreshing to eat lunch without judgement or personal questions; really, it’s revolutionary.

When I eat vegetables at lunch, I am contributing to my health, energy levels, and satisfying my cravings for fresh food, the latter having been instilled in me at a very young age by my caring parents. I wonder if, when they were serving me lots of vegetables without incident, they ever imagined me as a healthy, veggie-loving adult, who would someday carry on these habits with their grandchildren. Although I might not have realized it at the time, I know now that my parents gave me a great gift, and it would be sad if I threw all of my old habits out of the window by eating processed food or grease every day.

I’m telling you, some people simply like vegetables. There’s nothing more to it! When you see me eating my greens at lunch, please consider the possibility that I’m doing something that makes me happy, that has always brought me pleasure, and that all you’re doing by questioning me is raining on my parade.

(Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Monday, March 23, 2009

First Barbecue

Last Saturday was a wonderful day. Not only was the weather extremely pleasant, but also we were hosting some very special company; therefore, in honour of these two occasions, it was finally time to dig out the charcoal barbecue.

And dig it out, we did. (Well, Jeff did). Notice the giant block of ice thrown off the porch to make room for our Weber. We knew the hard work would be worth it, in the end.

To get back into the groove of barbecuing after a long winter, we decided to start off the new season with a simple menu: burgers, sausages, and hotdogs. Classic, simple, and satisfying.

However, it still wasn’t just any other barbecue; Jeff seasoned, mixed up, and formed the hamburger patties out of fresh ground beef from the local Stephen Taylor farm, while the local Degenhardt Sausage Farm supplied the chorizo sausage and German vieners (which are very similar to what we know as hot dogs, only without any unrecognizable ingredients). What better way is there to show someone that you appreciate their visit, than by cooking them such quality products?

Add in some fixings, crispy potatoes, and creamy coleslaw, and you have some extremely happy (not to mention stuffed) diners. It was a fantastic spring weekend meal, and an exciting preview of summer.

Welcome back, barbecue; it’s been far too long. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other in the next few months.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cold Brown Rice Salad With Lemon and Garlic

With the temperature warming slightly, and the days getting longer, I have been craving meals that are more suited to spring and summer. Luckily for me, I was served delicious and summery ribs, roasted sweet potatoes, and coleslaw at my friends’ house on Saturday, a meal that officially propelled me into a new food season. Unpredictable weather be damned, I don’t think I’m going back to winter food.

It was therefore with a little more excitement than usual that I thought about what I wanted to cook for supper on Sunday. I decided to come up with some kind of salad to go with the chicken breasts we bought at the market the previous morning, and thought of a fantastic cold couscous salad that I had recently eaten at a family gathering. The only thing I could remember about it was that it had feta cheese in it, but that was enough to work with for inspiration. I swapped the couscous for brown rice, simply because I had a lot on hand. I’ve never eaten a cold rice salad, but I figured it would be a fine substitution.

While the rice was cooking away, I got started on the dressing. I decided to infuse my olive oil by warming it on the stove with some crushed garlic cloves.

Once the oil was a little bubbly over medium heat, I waited five minutes or so before straining the oil and setting it aside to cool. This little trick is a great way to get some flavour into your olive oil, and is cheaper than buying fancy little bottles of it from the grocery store.

At this point, the rice was done, and was also set aside. Cooling the rice takes quite a while, so it’s a good idea to get it cooked early (same goes for pasta in pasta salads). I started preparing the salad in the early afternoon, so that it would have time to develop its flavours and cool down for supper.

As for veggies, I chopped up what I had on hand: red and green bell peppers, some kalamata olives, and a red onion.

I love making my own dressing for salads, because it tastes so fresh and simple. To make an olive oil dressing, I combine three parts oil to one part acid, be it balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, or, in this case, fresh lemon juice. To get the oil and acid to combine, you need to add a binding agent; my favourite is whole grain mustard, but Dijon also works well. Then comes the fun part: whisking.

It doesn’t take very long for the mustard to work its magic, after which you have a beautiful, homogeneous dressing. Stir in a bit of salt and pepper, and you’re one happy foodie.

Once the rice was sufficiently cooled (enough not to melt any added cheese) I threw in all of the chopped veggies, a couple of handfuls of cubed feta cheese, and poured the dressing on top. I added freshly ground black pepper, just a bit of salt (because of the saltiness from the feta and olives), and some dried basil and oregano. Once everything was incorporated, the salad went back into the fridge to sit until dinnertime.

Creating a dish as you go along is pretty exciting, and rewarding when it turns out well. When I started, I had no idea how lemon, garlic, and feta would work together with rice in a cold salad, but it turned out to be just what I wanted, and the perfect dish with which to welcome the warmer weather. The lemon and garlic dressing gave the salad such an incredible, bright flavour, reminiscent of a Greek salad, and the uncooked veggies gave it a nice, crunchy texture. I’ll be making it again and again, I’m sure. Goodbye, winter!

Cold Brown Rice Salad With Lemon and Garlic: The Recipe

I can see this salad being a very versatile option for summer meals. Just throw in whatever you have hanging around in the fridge, and see what happens! I think it would be great to try with different dressings, as well.
This recipe makes a very large batch, enough for dinner and leftovers. It would be easy to halve if needed.


4 cups cooked brown rice

¾ cup olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (approx. two lemons)
1 tsp whole grain mustard
salt and pepper, to taste

1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1-2 handfuls kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 handfuls cubed feta cheese

salt and pepper, to taste
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano


Cook rice and set aside to cool.

Heat olive oil and crushed garlic cloves over medium heat. Once bubbling, infuse for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, strain oil, let cool.

Whisk infused oil, fresh lemon juice, and mustard until combined. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Combine cooled rice, vegetables, olives, and feta cheese. Add dressing while stirring, until salad is coated to your liking. Add salt and pepper to taste, and basil and oregano.

Stir, and let sit in the fridge until cold. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sisterly Love

My twin sister Kristin lives far away from me, so getting the chance to eat together is a special treat. I recently spent a week with her in Ottawa that was filled with excellent foodie experiences. Since I’ve come to know the city quite well over the years, and thus have many “must-visit” restaurants, we eat out very frequently during my visit; however, since we both share a passion for cooking, we also took the time to have a proper home cooked meal in her cosy apartment. We didn’t need to think twice about what would be on the menu; it was simply understood that we would be eating fettuccine alfredo.

This fettuccine alfredo that we cook for each other is a specific recipe that we continue to perfect each time we make it. One day while Kristin was visiting, I was surfing the Internet for an impressive pasta recipe that I could prepare for her. I stumbled upon Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for fettuccine alfredo, and since we used to watch her Food Network show, Everyday Italian, together, I decided to give her version a go. We both enjoyed it so much, that preparing it has become a sisterly tradition.

Before I found this recipe, I had no idea that making fettuccine alfredo was so simple. When I first tried it, I couldn’t believe that something so decadent had been made in my own kitchen. Given that this classic dish is so rich and delicious, I always assumed that it would be complicated to make from scratch. Not so! It’s so easy, that there’s no excuse not to try making it yourself. How could anything go wrong when you’re simply combining heavy cream, butter, and cheese? It certainly tastes right.

The memories I associate with certain dishes contribute greatly to how much I enjoy them. I love this recipe for fettuccine alfredo, because it tastes good, is easy to make, and, most importantly, it symbolizes quality time spent with my dear sister. Make this meal for someone who means a lot to you; it won't disappoint.

The Recipe

Giada De Laurentiis’ Fettuccine Alfredo

Amanda’s notes: I use one box of dried, whole-wheat pasta (cooking to al dente according to package directions).

Kristin and I like to add sauteed onions and mushrooms to our sauce. Experiment!

The recipe as written produces a very lemony-tasting alfredo. I would suggest starting with the juice of half of a lemon and working up from there if needed. Just taste and adjust to your liking.

I use salted butter and freshly ground black pepper with excellent results.

18 ounces fresh fettuccine
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Drain.
Stir 2 cups of the cream and the lemon juice in a heavy large skillet to blend. Add the butter and cook over medium heat just until the butter melts, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the pasta and toss. Add the remaining 1/2-cup of cream, and Parmesan to the cream sauce in the skillet. Add the lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Toss the pasta mixture over low heat until the sauce thickens slightly, about 1 minute.

Fettucine Alfredo on Foodista