Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette


Difficulty: Super Easy
Clean-up: Light
Active Time: 5 min
Total Time: 5 min.  Can also be prepared beforehand and chilled.

I’ve been wanting to make more salads, as a way to eat more veggies in the hot summer weather.  Here’s a simple dressing to spice up any salad.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. brown sugar, or adjust to taste

Directions:

  1. Mince garlic.
  2. Mix all ingredients in small bowl or jar.
  3. Pour directly over salad, or whisk dressing with fork before serving on the side.  Makes enough for a small salad.

Cooking Tips:

  • Raw garlic packs a much stronger taste than cooked garlic.  A small clove can go a long way

Season:

Simple and Scrumptious Pan-seared Salmon


Difficulty: Easy
Clean-up: Medium
Active Time: 15 min
Total Time: 15 min
Defrost: Overnight in refrigerator

Every once in a while, wild-caught Keta salmon goes on sale at my local supermarket for $1.99 per pound.  The only caveat is that you have to buy the whole fish.  My husband helps me cut it up into manageable chunks, and we freeze the salmon to use for later.  The head, tail, and fins can be used for Chinese fish-head soup.  The rest can be turned into fillets.

This recipe is incredibly simple and adapted from a recipe by America’s Test Kitchen.  When it comes out hot off the pan, the texture beats any salmon you can get at a restaurant. The only part I don’t like about cooking this is touching the raw fish (I’m squeamish!), so I make good use of my tongs.

Ingredients:

  • 2-4 salmon fillets
  • 1 Tbs. oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Lightly season salmon with salt and pepper.

  2. Heat oil in pan until it is smoking.

  3. Place salmon fillets in the pan, flesh side down (skin side up).  Let the fillets fry in the oil for 3-5 min (depending on the thickness of the fillets), until the you can see the meat cooked about half-way through and a crispy brown crust forms on the bottom.

  4. Flip the fillets and fry them skin side down for another 3-4 min.  Aim to take the fish out when the center of the fillet is still slightly translucent.  The heat will continue cooking it even after you take it out of the pan, so that by the time it reaches your plate, it will be tender, moist, and scrumptious!

Season:

  • According to the CUESA Seasonality Chart for Seafood, the peak season for Salmon in California is during the summer months (May to September).  However, I just pick it up whenever it is on sale.  For instance, Lent is a time of year when the supermarkets tend to place a lot of fish on sale.

Sustainability & Health:

  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has a guide to what kinds of salmon to buy (in general, wild-caught salmon) and avoid (most farmed Atlantic salmon).
  • Salmon is very high in Omega-3 and low in mercury, according to this government guide (scroll down to Appendix 11).

Curry Salad Boat (Variations)


Difficulty: Easy
Clean-up: Medium
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 30 min.  Can also be prepared beforehand and chilled.

Here’s another one of my favorite hot-weather recipes. It’s nutritious, tastes great, and looks spectacular, so it is also great for entertaining friends. It also requires minimal cooking skill (mostly chopping) and absolutely no finesse. I use the recipe to recycle leftover meat or substitute whatever protein I have in the fridge or pantry. The recipe is very forgiving. I make this frequently throughout the summer.

Ingredients:

For the Boats:

  • 4 large avocados or 1 small cantaloupe

For the Salad:

  • For meat lovers: 1 lb. boneless cooked chicken or other cooked meat. For vegetarians: 1-2 cans beans or cooked lentils.
  • 2-3 stalks celery, finely minced
  • 2 apples
  • 1 bunch grapes
  • Plain yogurt
  • 1-2 tsp. curry powder
  • Salt
  • Optional (for extra kick):
    • 1/4 small onion, finely minced
    • 1 clove garlic, finely minced

Directions:

  1. Dice meat (if applicable) and apples.  Mince garlic, onion, and celery.  Cut grapes in half if large.

  2. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Add 2-3 large spoonfuls of yogurt to cover the salad. Add curry powder and salt to taste.

  3. To form boats, cut avocados in half or cantaloupe into quarters. Remove seeds. Scoop salad into the boats and serve. Looks spectacular!

Cooking Tips:

  • To choose ripe avocados, find ones that are slightly soft to the touch, but not mushy.
  • To choose ripe cantaloupes, look for a warm color under the gray ridges and press on the “button” on the bottom of the fruit to see if there is some give. You can also hold the cantaloupe in one hand and strike it. The deeper and more resonant the sound, the more juicy it will be.
  • Here’s a good article on how to cook lentils, if you choose to use that as your protein.

Season:

Chinese Peanut-Sauce Cold Noodles


Difficulty: Very Easy
Clean-up: Light
Active Time: 15 min
Total Time: 15 min.  Can also be prepared beforehand and chilled.

It’s nearly summer, and the weather is really hot today!  I wanted to share a recipe that involves minimal stove time.  This is my simplified take on a popular Chinese dish.  I usually stock all of these ingredients in my pantry (aside from the cucumbers), so this is also a good go-to when I have nothing left in my fridge!  I can’t vouch for the nutritional value, but it does taste good and hit the spot.

Ingredients:

  • Equal parts garlic and ginger, minced (about 1 clove of garlic and 1 slice of ginger)
  • Equal parts peanut butter and Hoisin sauce (about 1-2 Tbs. each)
  • A dash of sesame oil
  • ½ tsp of Asian chile sauce
  • Vinegar to taste (2-3 splashes)
  • 2-4 servings of noodles. Chinese Shan Dong style noodles work well for this, but spaghetti also is just fine.  See cooking tip below.
  • Optional garnish: cucumber, finely sliced or shredded

Directions:

  1. Boil noodles according to package directions.  See cooking tip below to save energy and reduce stove time.
  2. While noodles are boiling, mince garlic and ginger.
  3. In a small bowl, mix together garlic, ginger, and all other ingredients, to taste.
  4. Drain noodles when done.  Mix sauce into noodles 1 spoonful at a time, until noodles are lightly coated.  Extra sauce can be chilled and saved.
  5. This dish can be eaten right away or chilled.  Serve with cold cucumbers as a garnish or side dish.

Cooking Tips:

  • Raw garlic packs a much stronger taste than cooked garlic.  A medium-sized clove can flavor a pound of pasta very adequately.  If you plan to use less than a pound of pasta, choose a smaller clove.
  • If you do not have Hoisin sauce in your kitchen, you can also substitute soy sauce and lots of sugar for a similar taste.
  • To estimate the quantity of noodles to cook for a meal, my mother taught me that 1 fistful of dried noodles is approximately 1 serving.  After counting out fistfuls for the number of people I’m serving, I often throw in an extra fistful or two, for good measure, in case anyone is a big eater.
  • I learned a great tip from Great Depression Cooking with Clara to save energy and reduce stove time on a hot day when making noodles or pasta.  Simply bring the water to a boil and then add the noodles or pasta.  Cover the pot and turn the stove off.  Let noodles steep in the water for the amount of time on the package and taste to see if they are done.  Stir noodles to loosen them if they appear stuck to one another.  Drain and serve!

Season:

  • According to the CUESA Seasonality Chart, cucumbers are in season April to November.  I like to prepare this dish in the summer, as it is great for hot weather because it can be eaten chilled and it also does not require much active time in front of a stove.

Let’s start at the very beginning


I think I jumped into this blog backwards. But it’s never too late to flesh out the back-story!

Who, What, and When?

Here’s what you should know about me: I am a beginner at life. I know what healthy adults should do, and sometimes I do those things, but most of the time I take the easy way out. I would like to learn how to take care of myself and my family better. The two areas in which I need to build the most skill are exercise and cooking.

For most of my life I have not done any exercise regularly, let alone voluntarily. I hated, feared, dreaded P.E. in school and avoided sweat at all costs. Because I was smaller and less coordinated than others in my grade, I labeled myself as “bad” at exercise. I decided I didn’t need to be athletic because sports were for boys, and I focused all my energy on things that made me feel competent. Now, I am aiming for a complete lifestyle change. By the end of this year, I want to have an active lifestyle, exercising the recommended 150 minutes per week. I want to be able to teach my future children differently than I was taught: that exercise is an essential daily life habit, like brushing the teeth; that they are strong and physically able; that they can become more and more competent, even in areas that are hard for them, through small changes and frequent practice.

I am also aiming for a second identity change. I have always thought of myself as a terrible cook and have hated cooking. However I like eating, and I like eating healthy things. This contradiction has frequently left me feeling frustrated and stuck, resorting to “emergency food” (such take-out and pre-made foods) for half the week–or, worse yet, skipping meals because nothing good is in the fridge and I am too tired to cook. By the end of the year, I would like to have a healthier view of myself as a good-enough cook. I would like to have a better weekly rhythm, so that I cook enough healthy food to not run out by the end of the week. I would like decrease the number of “emergency food” meals to less than 2 per week, not including lunch.

The Why?

I am blogging because my guess is that there are other people out there like me, who want to grow as beginner cooks and exercisers. As I learn and grow, I want to create a directory of resources for others who want to make small, easy changes toward health.

I am blogging because I want to motivate myself through a little bit of public accountability.

I am blogging because I learn best by practicing, reflecting, and sharing what I am learning with others. As someone told me recently, you become an expert at something not by reading the book on a subject, but by writing the book on that subject! In writing, a person is forced not only to research and learn, but also to digest, synthesize, and integrate that new knowledge into the rest of who they are.

..and How?

As a mental health practitioner, I am well aware of my inner critic, which tries to help me by telling me all my faults. However, I have also learned that change comes more easily to me when I treat myself with kindness and grace. Likewise, as a Christian, I see God’s grace as one of the most powerful agents of change in my life. From my love of drama and improv, I am learning to see and celebrate failure as an essential part of the courage to take risks, without which one cannot create anything new. Accordingly, I hope to approach these goals for my life with gentleness toward myself, honesty at my progress, and the courage to try.

Chinese Stir-fried Baby Bok Choy


Difficulty: Easy
Clean-up: Light
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 30 min

Here’s another easy and nutritious dish.  The worst part of this recipe is washing the bok choy, as it often needs several rinses to get rid of all the dirt. I used to find chopping the vegetable a real pain, until my mother-in-law showed me a quick and easy way to get the job done. I love to eat this vegetable but only buy it when I know I have time to cook it within a day or two, as it does not keep very well. When shopping for bok choy, I look at the stems for freshness (they should look juicy, not discolored or cracked) and also check out the leaves to see if they look green, healthy, and mostly whole.

Ingredients:

  • 6-8 bunches of baby bok choy
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbs. oil
  • Oyster sauce (optional)

Directions:

  1. Wash bok choy thoroughly.  Cut into similarly-sized pieces.  See cooking tip below for my mother-in-law’s easy way to do this.
  2. Pour oil into wok and heat on high until oil begins to smoke.
  3. Drop garlic into the oil. The high heat of the oil will deep fry the garlic and release a strong garlic flavor that will permeate the vegetables.
  4. Immediately add bok choy and stir-fry until vegetables begin to cook (1-2 min). Add a splash of water if needed, if no water is coming out of the vegetables themselves. Cover wok with lid and simmer on medium heat.
  5. When vegetables start to become translucent but are not yet fully cooked (5-7 min), turn off the stove.  The vegetables will cook the rest of the way on their own.
  6. I sometimes like this dish with just the garlic flavor.  However, I often also add some oyster sauce to taste, about 1-2 Tbs, or 3-4 shakes of the oyster sauce bottle.

Cooking Tips:

  • My mother-in-law taught me a quick way to cut bok choy, mustard greens, and similarly-shaped small vegetables.  Using a paring knife, slice the vegetable length-wise from the bottom, through the stem.  Cut into quarters or sixths, depending on the thickness of the vegetable.  This saves the use of a chopping board and makes delightfully neat pieces.
  • I always had trouble with soggy over-cooked vegetables, until my good friend Carol taught me this little tip: always turn the heat off a wee bit early, before the vegetable is completely cooked.  Because the heat inside the vegetables will keep them cooking, by the time the dish makes it from the stove to the table the vegetables will be just right.

Season:

Roasted Corn on the Cob


Difficulty: Super Easy
Clean-up: Very Light
Active Time
: 0 min
Total Time: 30 min

All you need for this recipe is corn on the cob and an oven! Clean-up is fantastic — no dishes to wash. To choose healthy corn, peel the silk back a little to check that the top kernels are plump and not moldy.

Ingredients:

  • Corn on the cob, with husks intact. Sometimes, I pull off the silks before roasting if they look too dirty or messy.

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
  2. Place husks directly on the oven rack and roast until corn is soft, about 30 mins
  3. Peel husks and enjoy!  Be careful not to burn your fingers.

Season:

  • According to the CUESA Seasonality Chart, corn is in season from June to October.  I usually can tell it’s time to grab some when they fall under 50 cents an ear!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes


Difficulty: Super Easy
Clean-up: Very light
Active Time: 5 min
Total Time: 55 min

This recipe is healthy, delicious, and delightfully easy to prepare. Clean-up is also very easy, if the tinfoil does not tear. The only drawback is that it takes some in the oven, especially if the sweet potatoes are large. The baking also will warm up your kitchen! I love this dish on fall and winter days.

Ingredients:

  • Any quantity of sweet potatoes or yams, unpeeled.

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400°F.  The high heat will caramelize the sugars and make the sweet potatoes super sweet.
  2. Line a baking pan or sheet with foil.
  3. Wash and pierce each sweet potato several times with a fork.
  4. Place sweet potatoes on the baking pan and bake until the potatoes are soft and juices run out of poked holes (approx. 50 min).  Enjoy!

Season: