Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guest Post: My Sibling Rivalry with Food

Please welcome our guest, Hallie Sawyer, freelance writer and blogger (Write For Me).

family came for dinner again- utter joy!

* photo credit: kate hiscock on

I grew up with food as another member of my family. He was a self-centered bastard, too. Our days seemed to revolve around him, especially Sundays. After church, we either went to brunch with him or we had a special crockpot meal prepared. I spent my days after school concocting funky snacks with him, one of my favorites was saltine crackers topped with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Yes, I just wrote that.

My family was obsessed with food. We went out to dinner a LOT; there wasn't a new restaurant we didn't try. Chinese, Mexican, Italian, you name it, we ate it. And no dinner was complete without at least a couple of appetizers. If you asked my father...actually, you didn't have to ask him. He loudly proclaimed this after every restaurant meal, "That was THE best [fill in the blank] I have ever had." It became the running joke in the family which was one he never seemed to get. He still says it to this day.

Food was our connector. It was an easy conversation at the table, a way to keep things on the surface. Because we sure as hell didn't want to look at what was lurking below. A obnoxiously-stocked fridge, a packed cooler for the boat, a brand new restaurant to try, they were all just part of the family. A very dysfunctional one.

The lightbulb started to illuminate when I was a junior in high school and I was no longer hipless. Well, I still didn't really have hips as much as I had thighs. I was flabby and I still had my baby face. When my cheeks started rivaling my hair in size, I knew I was in trouble. I started to take my tennis seriously that year when my high school team started training with a tennis pro at a local athletic club. Our trainer had played tennis in college and his passed along his athletic training on to us. The club had a weight room and my mom allowed me to join. It changed my life.

I researched and purchased weight-lifting books and became a vegetarian. Visible fat completely grossed me out, therefore I boycotted eating meat altogether.Grizzle was the enemy. This drove my father absolutely crazy. My stubborn streak is wide and long and he eventually stopped harassing me about it. I got in better shape but something was still off.

In college, I continued my vegetarian diet but I didn't figure out that my biggest culprit to my continuing battle with my body was my love affair with carbs. As a vegetarian, carbs had become my new best friend. My thighs were stubborn,too. I started taking the first unofficial weight loss pill: aspirin, caffeine, and ephedrine. (A guy friend obsessed with his body image passed that little heart attack laden piece of advice onto me.) I lost weight but then I also lost muscle; I looked sick. Again, self-sabotage. Along with my stubborn streak, I also have a thick skull.

Now, at almost forty years old, my light bulb is burning bright. I have finally figured out what food is supposed to be. Fuel. That's it. Nothing more. Don't get me wrong. I still love food but I'm not obsessed with it. It has to be exactlywhat it was meant to be. Sustenance. My German genetics and a fourth of my life spent eating horrible are stacked against me but did I mention I was stubborn?

If I want to have a healthy body, inside and out, I need to have protein with every meal and every snack. Carbs are a bare necessity and veggies are my new bestfriends. If I had known then what I know now, I might have had a whole different view on life. I might have been a much more confident person growing up.

Food wouldn't have been my evil twin as much as it would have been my biggest fan.

Hallie Sawyer is a freelance and historical fiction writer, with publishing credits in KC Parent magazine. She grew up in northeast Nebraska but now lives in Kansas City with her husband and three children. As a health and fitness enthusiast, she now looks at her relationship with food as a partnership and no longer as a high school crush.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What to do with the chicken bones?

I'm a nay-sayer. A cynic. Suspicious by nature. When someone suggests I try a new dish - like mushroom soup or spaghetti with squid ink (such a thing exists, it's true) - my gut reaction is to pause, dramatic, and scrunch up my face. That's my inner editor butting in, you know. She isn't partial to my writing life alone. More often than not, she sticks her nose into my business at the table and in the kitchen, as well. Even with familiar dishes, if I haven't tried it before, well, there's no guarantee.

A few years ago, I visited my closest and dearest friend in Texas. As our conversation rose and fell over kids, dinners, and grocery budgets, she told me she'd figured out how to make one grocery item stretch over several meals: buy a whole chicken instead of chicken breasts.

"Bake the chicken and serve it for dinner. Use the leftover meat for chicken salad later, or toss it into a pasta dish. Then," she continued, "boil the bones with veggies and make your own broth. One batch of chicken broth can last for weeks." She shrugged, as if to say there's nothing to it, and I dreamed, for a second, of walking out of the grocery store with money left over.

Still, I thought, it couldn't be so easy. I've known her for years and she's never lied to me, but she's good at lots of things I'm not. Baking a whole chicken was one of those things; turning that chicken into broth from scratch was even further out of my league. I imagined a long and arduous process.

But the next time I stepped into the grocery store, I re-considered her idea, tired of paying so much for a few small chicken breasts and using broth from a box or a grainy mixture processed by a company that's boasts theirs is the best. I stood in front of the meat freezer, tapped my fingers on the handle of the cart, picked up a chicken, put it down. Walked away. Walked back. Finally, I reached over and took hold, of the whole chicken and the dream of broth from scratch. Then, I pushed my cart and stomped away, ignoring the voice in my head that insisted I was about to embark on a huge waste of time and a doomed-to-fail project, too much for a busy mom and writer.

That nosy little nuisance in my head was wrong. My friend was right: the chicken was easy to work with and good for much more than one meal.

One whole chicken, rubbed with herbs and cooked in a crockpot for five hours, yields a tender dish for dinner. So tender, that gathering the leftover meat is simple. Use the meat for another dish later that week, or store it in the freezer for when you need a quick addition to a meal further down the road. Then, place the chicken bones into a pot, that same night or even the next day, with an onion or two, a few carrots, some sticks of celery. Add fresh garlic cloves if you like, but don't worry about additional seasoning; the chicken you just cooked has all those yummy flavors built right in.

Bring it all to a boil and let it simmer for an hour and a half. Write about it while the fixings simmer. Better yet, write a draft to a short story.

Once cooked, drain the whole mixture into a separate bowl, using a colander, and let the broth cool. Discard the bones and vegetables, then separate the broth into several jars. Pre-measure some of the broth and store it in smaller jars. Keep them in the freezer until needed. Even more fun, give some away. There's plenty to share. 

Do you make your own broth? And, if you're vegetarian, how do you dress up the veggies for that added boost of flavor?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Art of Feeding Kiddos: A plate of three

Put a face on it

I've learned to feed my kids with the rule of three--put at least three choices on their plate and they're bound to fill their bellies. It doesn't matter how main course the main course is, if there isn't a fruit and veggie option to go with the pizza, it isn't lunch. That said, I've been pretty lucky with the foods my kids have tried, and often to my surprise, like to chomp.

Some of the best child feeding advice I've ever gotten I gleaned from random essays around the internet. "My nanny puts out a plate of fresh vegetables twenty minutes before it's time to eat," read one article. This seemed reasonable to me. I'm not too worried about my girls loosing their appetites on carrot sticks and cauliflower florets, though I'm not often so forward thinking as to pile up a veggie plate before every meal. Instead, when the kids come skulking about the kitchen looking for bites, I hand them whatever veggies I have prepped on the cutting board--broccoli trees and black olive finger puppets. Red pepper ribbons. Cucumber O's. 

There are things I never thought the girls would eat that have become, instead, hunger fail-safes: chick peas in a monkey dish, cashews on the side, radishes a la carte.

The hardest thing I had to learn about feeding the minis was to go against my own upbringing and not push the food Clean Your Plate style or to demand they eat something they just don't like. The rule of the house is to try one bite of everything, and decide from there. In time, they've opened their food noshing mouths to the likes of spinach crepes, and palak paneer, grilled asparagus, and potato leek soup. That to me is a pretty good start.

Do you have any favorite tricks for feeding kids or quick and easy recipes? What are your culinary fail-safes?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cooking to Feed Your Creativity

by Lisa

Writers know to consider all the senses when describing a scene. What are the colors? Sounds? Smells? Textures?

When it comes to food, though, we often focus on taste (or haste) to the exclusion of other sensual delights. I am aware of this most keenly when I visit a good restaurant, as I did last week in Chicago: Bombay Spice on Clark Street. My husband and I ordered appetizers of lentil cakes and seared eggplant, and a couple of "Create Your Entree" dishes. When the plates were set on our table, I remembered why I originally fell in love with vegetarian cooking. The lentil cakes were garnished with a colorful tomato mixture and tangy sauce, the eggplant was seared to dark perfection on the outside and impossibly creamy in the middle, and the entrees offered a colorful feast of tofu, vegetables, rice, and noodles. The experience was as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious.

One of the more intriguing options on the menu is the Bombay Sampler, where diners pick a couple of favorite ingredients and the chef prepares a personalized meal. Giving ourselves these kinds of artificial constraints, whether in writing (what would happen if I combined this character with that setting?) or cooking (what can I make with black beans and oranges?), is good divergent, creative practice, forcing us to make new connections. For me, the lure of meatless meals is not so much health or ethics as it is the potential for creativity. And the more creative I am in the non-writing parts of my life, the more I seem to be able to engage creativity on the page.

Of course, nutrition and efficiency matter, too, which is why the following recipes are healthy, fast, and festive, with tastes, textures, colors, and aromas to fuel your creative appetite from plate to pen and back again.

What kind of cooking makes you more creative in your writing life?

Black Bean and Orange Salad

  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 3 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 green bell pepper, trimmed and diced
  • 2 Tablespoons light sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons dark (toasted) sesame oil
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 4 fresh oranges, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. In a medium bowl, combine beans, sliced scallions, celery, and diced pepper. Set aside.
2. In a smaller bowl, whisk together oils, vinegar or lemon juice, honey, cumin and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
3. Pour dressing over bean mixture and toss to combine.
4. Add orange pieces and cilantro. Toss gently to combine.
Makes 4 servings.

* * * * * *

Spinach and White Bean Farfalle

  • 1 pound farfalle (bow tie) pasta
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled, and diced
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach, rinsed well and large stems removed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 15-ounce can firm white beans, such as great northern or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Boil pasta until al dente
2. While pasta boils, saute garlic and diced carrots in olive oil in a large sauté pan for about 5 minutes. Add spinach and beans, cover, and cook until spinach is wilted and beans are heated through. Add salt to taste.
3. Drain pasta. Toss cooked pasta with spinach and bean mixture. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Makes about 6 main dish servings.

* * * * * *

Lentils, Rice and Broccoli with Peanut Butter Sauce

  • 1/2 cup dry brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 1 cup white or brown rice
  • 4 cups fresh broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 2/3 cup hot vegetable broth, or more as needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1. Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add lentils, stir, and simmer until lentils are cooked through but still firm, about 20-25 minutes. Drain.
2. While the lentils simmer, cook rice according to package directions.
3. Steam broccoli for 5 to 10 minutes, until desired tenderness.
4. To prepare sauce, whisk together peanut butter, vegetable broth, ginger, red pepper and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. If needed, add more vegetable broth or peanut butter for desired consistency.
5. To serve, arrange cooked rice, cooked lentils, and broccoli in any way you'd like on a large, shallow serving plate. Drizzle with peanut butter sauce.
Makes 4 servings.