I've always prided myself in being able to throw together a meal with not much more than what was already in my kitchen. Some people consider "staples" to be nothing more than cans of beans, bottled water, and condiments, but I'm of a different school of thought. "Staples" will allow a good meal to be created even when nothing has been planned.
My kitchen is rarely without a few key things:
- A can of whole peeled tomatoes (a big one, 32 oz. or so)
- A bag (or three) of frozen vegetables, usually broccoli, spinach, and corn
- A bag (or two) of whole wheat dry pasta
- Frozen chicken breasts
- Cheese of various types (goat, mozzarella, parmesan, american)
- baking staples (flour, butter, sugar, eggs, salt, etc.)
- "sturdy" vegetables (potatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms)
In a pinch, after a long day at work, I could throw together a quick chicken parmesan with pasta, a side of vegetables, and, if time allowed, a quick loaf of bread on the side.
And then I gained a bunch of weight and decided once and for all to do something about it. When I decided to follow the South Beach Diet, my usual staples became obsolete. Phase One of South Beach eliminated nearly all carbohydrates for two weeks, and my staples changed.
I could no longer throw things together the way I used to if I wanted weight loss results. My cornbread-topped casseroles, drool-worthy loaves of bread, and big pots of pasta with sauce weren't healthy choices for me, nor were they on my food plan. In came vegetables and chicken, burgers without buns, and cheese of all kinds. Cheese has always been a food group around here!
I found myself grocery shopping more often but for the same new staples:
- frozen chicken breasts (or fresh, if they were cheap enough)
- ricotta cheese
- string cheese
- canned pumpkin (this one's more recent!)
- 1% milk
- canned beans
- canned tomatoes
There were a few things that I could keep constant, but nearly everything else changed… which is what I needed. When I began Phase Two, I added in a bit of grain and added back in fruit, but the essentials were still the same.
This FoodBuzz 24x24 Challenge was to create a meal using little more than what was in our cabinets and refrigerators. "Easy!" I thought!, and I sent in my proposal. A couple weeks later, when my proposal was accepted, I was elated! Sure, the fact that I'd get money towards the FoodBuzz Festival in early November is just lovely, but really, I needed some serious practice cooking by the seat of my pants in this new eating plan!
Another part of my proposal to complete this 24x24 meal was that I'd create a meal of munchies that Adam and I would enjoy (gasp!) at the dining room table! All of those beautiful meals that you see here on a near daily basis? Those are enjoyed on the couch in front of the TV. The dining room is saved for special occasions or company.
Since the whole meal would be what many people would consider appetizers, there was no correct order in which to eat it.
Let's start with Avocado Deviled Eggs, really just hard boiled eggs, cut in half, de-yolked (is that a word?) and then the yolks mixed with some lovely ripe avocado.
The bright green mash was seasoned with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and garlic powder (1/4 teaspoon). Then, I piped the mixture into the hollowed out eggs to make a snack that Dr. Seuss would be proud of. A finishing sprinkle of paprika gave them that "deviled" look.
I didn't think that a meal full of munchies would be complete without some sort of chip-and-dip combo. Since adding in whole grains in the last week or two, I've been searching for a truly whole grain cracker that doesn't cost $4 for a box of five. My solution? Make my own! I found this New York Times recipe to which I added 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder and two ounces of shredded extra sharp Tillamook cheddar cheese.
Twenty minutes in the oven, and the crackers came out perfectly! They were also perfect to dip in a seat-of-my-pants black bean dip, using a can of beans that had been there for a few months. I just drained and rinsed the beans and put them in the food processor with half a Spanish onion, a clove of garlic, and a teaspoon of cumin.
Next came something that I'll be making as more of a main course in coming days. Recently, my family went to Rome, Italy, and brought back a plethora of food-related gifts for me. A bag of red peppercorns, beautiful dried pasta, dried mushrooms, and the most beautiful sun-dried tomatoes.
I used about half of these tomatoes to make an absolutely amazing sun-dried tomato pesto. Again, into the food processor, went:
- 125 g (a big handful, or half of the bag) sun dried tomatoes, not oil packed
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 oz. fresh parmesan cheese
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- 1/2 cup walnuts
I pulsed that mixture until a fine paste formed, and then drizzled in:
- 1/4 cup good olive oil
The pesto was extremely thick, and could probably have used a bit more oil, but for my purposes it was perfect.
Then, after this was done, I let some stress out on some poor defenseless chicken breasts. I pounded out three chicken breasts to about 1/2" thick and then spread them with some of this gorgeous pesto, and a few small pieces of fresh mozzarella (a recent staple in our house).
I rolled these up into logs, wrapped them tightly in aluminum foil, and then baked them on a cookie sheet at 350* for 25 minutes. The foil kept the chicken in a neat shape, which allowed the appetizer theme to continue. How so? The set shape let me cut them into neat slices and show off the delicious pesto and mozzarella filling.
When I make these again, I'll be keeping them whole and eating them as an entree. The little bites were great, but we each ended up eating a whole chicken breast worth!
I will say, the most difficult part of my whole new eating plan and weight loss efforts has been the lack of dessert. I'm of the belief that "none is easier than some" when it comes to sweets. But I miss them. I miss the process of making them, the smiles that is inevitable when someone is presented with a homemade dessert… and I miss dessert.
I've been eating green floof and ricotta mixed with splenda and vanilla, but I've really been missing true dessert. Enter cheesecake. Mini pumpkin cheesecakes to be exact.
I swore I wouldn't make any pumpkin dishes until October, but I figured this was close enough.
Mini Pumpkin Cheesecakes
Makes 8 mini cheesecakes or one 9x13 pan
- 2 cups blanched almonds
- 2 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
- 2 packets Splenda
- 3 packages (8 oz each) neufchâtel cheese (1/3 less fat cream cheese)
- 1/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
- 2 eggs plus one egg white (or 3 eggs, I like the volume of the white)
- 1/3 cup granulated Splenda (or sugar!)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pre-heat the oven to 350*F.
For the Crust
Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until a fine crumb forms. Drizzle in the melted butter and mix in the Splenda. Press the mixture into the bottom of ramekins or baking dish sprayed with cooking spray. Set aside.
For the Filling
Place the neufchâtel cheese and ricotta in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip until soft. Add the vanilla, mixing well and scraping down the sides as needed. Add the eggs and Splenda. Mix well, again scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice and mix well until evenly combined. Divide between ramekins or pour into the prepared baking dish. Bake 40 minutes or until the center is just set. Remove from the oven and chill thoroughly before serving.
We had such fun eating at the dining room table… maybe I'll make it a weekly thing! We had a bottle of Pinot Grigio we enjoyed (ok, to be honest, we each had less than a glass… we're not big drinkers!)
I bought some lovely hot pink roses for the table, as fresh flowers are truly a staple around here.
And the table, I think, looked just great with all our bite-sized food.
We ended up not needing silverware or plates (because we're classy like that) until dessert time rolled around. We had a couple visitors during dinner who were extremely curious as to what we were doing in there.
It was rather nice having a quiet evening at home on a Saturday without the pressure of having to think of something to do. Cooking such fun dishes was quite a stress reliever (especially the chicken!) and Adam was nice enough to do the dishes! Since we had so many munchies for dinner, there are plenty of leftovers… which means easy breakfasts and lunches for a couple of days!
Thank you to FoodBuzz for this opportunity! I'm looking forward to the FoodBuzz Festival in a month!