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Adventures in hotel cooking, with a rice cooker!

I have a rice cooker, but it’s one of those “fuzzy logic” rice cookers with many more functions than simply cooking rice.  In fact, one of the things I use it for the least is cooking rice!  The type that we own sautes, steams, and it’s also a slow-cooker!  I have a huge 6 quart slow-cooker, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a smaller slow-cooker.  When you’re cooking for 1 or 2 people, it’s great to not have to bring out the massive slow-cooker that would hold a turkey or a huge batch of spaghetti sauce.  I also use mine to cook dried beans.  When I cook pinto beans and black beans I don’t even soak them – just dump them in the rice cooker as though they were rice, add plenty of water, and let them cook on the “brown rice” setting.  I do check after an hour or so and add more water.

It’s also the best chick pea (garbanzo bean) cooker that I’ve ever found.  I soak the beans the night before, and then drain them.  They go into the rice cooker on the brown rice setting and they’re done in just a couple hours with no tending to them necessary at all.  If you like, you can add some onions, or some fresh orange or lemon slices and a little salt.  Then, for pennies, you have the basis of a great hummus and the freshly cooked beans are so much more flavorful than the canned ones.  And a hummus doesn’t need expensive (and calorie-loaded) tahini!  Just puree the garbanzo beans, add some olive oil, a fresh squeezed lemon, and, if you like, some spices (curry powder, or chili powder is delicious!  Mix it and add enough olive oil so it’s the consistency that you like.  Stir in some pureed avocado or roasted vegetables and it’s even more amazing.

Recently we spent a week at a hotel.  It had a “kitchenette”, with a tiny sink, a mini-fridge and a microwave.  But we didn’t want to eat all microwaved meals, or meals at restaurants, so I brought some groceries in a cooler and tote bag, and the rice cooker.  We were able to eat healthy meals cooked in the rice cooker, and avoid expensive restaurant or hotel suppers.

Here’s some rice cooker/hotel meal ideas that worked well for us.

1.  I poured half water and half Kitchen Basics chicken broth (no msg or sugars) into the slow cooker, added salt, and dumped in a one pound box of penne pasta.  Then I inserted the steamer tray, which sets above where you put the rice or pasta.  I filled the steamer tray with broccoli florets, sliced mini bell peppers, sliced carrots and boneless skinless chicken thighs, which I had cut into bite-sized pieces.  I poured some sauces over the meat and vegetables.  (I happened to use some spicy Asian sauces that don’t have extra sugar, but you could also use hot sauce, buffalo wing sauce, or just a little butter or olive oil depending on what taste you like).  I set the rice cooker to the steam setting, and the water started boiling and the chicken and vegetables steamed beautifully.  Everything was done in less than 30 minutes.

 
2.  Using the saute function, I sauteed ground turkey, diced mini bell peppers and pineapple chunks.  Then I dumped in rice (I used jasmine rice, but any type would do) and a little soy sauce, and the amount of water specified in the manufacturer’s instructions for the amount of rice I used.  I set the rice cooker to the rice setting and it made a delicious rice casserole.  I thought about serving it in lettuce cups but the mini-fridge was working overtime and the lettuce froze, so it turned out to be a bowl meal instead.

3.  I got cream cheese from the continental breakfast at the hotel.  Into the rice cooker, I put a 10 oz bag of baby spinach, a can of artichoke hearts (in water, no marinade, and I chopped them up before adding them), a package of cheese sticks (I used those swirled ones of Cheddar and Monterey Jack), about 6 ounces of cream cheese (6 little individual packets that they serve with the bagels at the breakfast), some diced mini bell peppers and some frozen shelled edamame.  The rice cooker was set to the slow-cooker function and about an hour later we had a delicious hot spinach artichoke dip, served with bagel chips for dipping.

4.  One night’s menu was a healthy salad of tuna (from those no-drain packets), edamame, mandarin oranges, walnuts, Kalamata olives, and dried cranberries.

The foods that I brought for meals included:  the no-drain foil packets of tuna, a bag of broccoli florets, a bag of sliced carrots, a bag of fresh baby spinach, a bag of mini bell peppers, a frozen bag of shelled edamame, and small bottles of soy sauce, olive oil, and hot sauces.  Ordinarily I would not buy just broccoli florets or sliced carrots, but in a tiny hotel kitchen, with no cutting board, I really wasn’t able to trim broccoli, save the stalks for a vegetable stock and easily dispose of the stems (the same with the carrots), a package of ground turkey, a package of boneless skinless chicken thighs, rice, pasta, salt and bagel chips (they don’t crush easily like potato chips, and they’re great for dips of all kinds).  I got butter and cream cheese from the hotel breakfast bar.  I also brought a paper carton of chicken stock (Kitchen Basics brand, which is great).  For fruits, I brought those little cups of mandarin oranges and pineapple chunks in pure juice (with no sugar).  I also brought a jar of Kalamata olives and a couple of small packets of chopped nuts (again, no cutting board or good knife, so convenience won out!).

It was nice to be able to turn on the slow cooker when we left for the day and come home to a hot meal.  It definitely saved money!

Eggs, avocados and tomatoes baked in ham or turkey slices – delicious for brunch!

This is a quick and easy idea for a gluten- and grain- and dairy-free breakfast or brunch.

I used a small single-serve oven proof dish for each serving.  Muffin tins would work, too.  I lightly sprayed each with non-stick spray.

Line each cup or dish with prosciutto, ham or turkey slices.  Just wind them around inside and bottom of the cup so they form a nest.

Then slice up some avocados and tomatoes and lay them in the nest.  Break an egg on top and bake at about 325 degrees until the egg white is set and the yolk is cooked to your liking (I prefer the yolk runny, but you can cook it until the yolk is completely set, too).

Scatter some crushed almonds on top, or chives or other herbs, or some cheese if dairy is ok in your food plan.  I used almond meal left over from making almond milk and the almond pieces crisped up nicely.  Serve right away.

Homemade Sloppy Joes: No sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no junk

Sloppy Joes in the traditional can (that are supposed to make families come together and chat happily at the table) contain several different types of sugar, several stabilizers (guar gum, carob bean gum, xanthan gum), nearly 3000 mg of sodium per can, and 35 mg of sugar per can, which is about the same as a can of cola (and that’s just in the small size can!!!).   Most recipes for homemade Sloppy Joes call for quite a lot of brown sugar or other sweeteners.  My challenge was: how could they be made without sugar, but still have that slightly sweet taste?  The secret, I think, is in the onions!

I thought that if I caramelized the onions – over low heat and for a nice long time – they might add the sweetness that the recipe needs.   Most recipes say to quickly saute onions, peppers and celery until they’re tender, taking just a few minutes.  Caramelizing takes some time (but little effort) and will let you make the Sloppy Joes without any more sweeteners.  When onions are caramelized, they’re cooked slowly, over a fairly low heat, and the sugars that are naturally present develop a deep rich flavor.

It worked.  The final result had no added sugar, but it was delicious!

Ingredients:

2 very large onions, sliced

1 large or 2 medium red or yellow bell peppers, diced

a couple of celery stalks, diced

1 1/2 pounds of lean ground beef (you could use lean ground turkey)

3 tablespoons of tomato paste (with no sugar or processed ingredients)

1 28 oz can of peeled whole tomatoes (again, with no sugar)

optional: 2 tablespoons of the thickener of your choice (gluten free choices: tapioca flour or arrowroot powder or coconut flour – or you could use regular flour)

olive oil

optional:  a teaspoon or two of red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Directions:

Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet.  Add the sliced onions and cook over medium-low heat for about an hour.  Stir every 12 or 15 minutes until the onions are very soft and a deep golden color.  Don’t rush this.

When they’re soft and golden, turn up the heat a little and add the peppers and celery and cook just until they’re tender.  Add the beef and cook until it’s thoroughly browned.  Add the tomato paste and cook for about 5 minutes.   Pour some of the tomato juice from the can into a measuring cup and stir in the tapioca flour (or whichever flour you’re using) until the flour is well combined.  Add the tomatoes and the rest of the juice to the beef mixture and cook until it’s all heated throughout.  Stir in the tomato juice/flour mixture and cook until the entire mixture is thickened (just a few minutes more).  Add a splash of vinegar and stir to combine.  (The vinegar adds just a little tang and flavor.)

Serve over your choice of toasted buns, or for a gluten-free option, serve over baked sweet potatoes.

Two ways to add flavor to what you’re grilling this summer

Grilling can be an enjoyable, quick and easy way to make a great supper without heating up the kitchen.  And you don’t need expensive ingredients or the finest steaks, if you know how to make those simple grilled chicken or pork or sausage or fish dishes taste special.  Here are two ways to add flavor:

Compound Butters.  A compound butter is just regular butter that has been combined with chopped herbs, citrus, cheeses, or spices.  Here’s how to make it:  Bring two sticks of butter just to room temperature.  Finely chop the ingredients you’ll be adding to the butter, (about 3 or 4 tablespoons), and mix them into the butter with a spatula or electric mixer until thoroughly combined.  Place the flavored butter on a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap, roll the butter into a smooth log shape, about 2 inches in diameter, and tie the edges of the paper with string so the butter stays in the log shape.  Chill until very firm.  Then slice into ¼ or ½ inch-thick slices with a sharp knife and place the butter directly on top of the grilled meat or poultry or fish as soon as it’s removed from the grill to platter or plate.

Some flavor suggestions:

Finely crumbled blue cheese, finely chopped walnuts, chopped chives and freshly ground black pepper (great on steak!)

Orange or lemon zest, chopped tarragon and thyme (for fish)

Minced garlic, finely chopped rosemary, chopped flat-leaf parsley (for pork).

Minced jalapeños, chili powder, cumin, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes (goes well with burgers, or steaks)

Finely chopped seeded tomatoes, finely shredded mozzarella, finely chopped Kalamata olives (for chicken)

There aren’t any rules: just think of what you’re grilling, and what flavors might go well with that, or which herbs are fresh, seasonal and readily available.  Chop those flavoring items up and combine them with butter, roll into a log, chill and slice, and then melt an amazing buttery taste on your hot-off-the-grill dinner!

Chimichurri sauce:  This is a delicious and easy-to-prepare classic South American marinade and sauce.   You’ll need a food chopper or processor or blender (or a good knife).

Finely mince 4 garlic cloves.  Then add the following into the processor or blender:

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, with the thickest part of the stems removed

¼ cup red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pulse until finely chopped, and then add in about ½ to ¾ cup vegetable oil (olive oil is usually not the oil of choice), just until combined.  If you’re not using a food processor or blender, just finely chop the garlic and parsley and then stir them into the rest of the ingredients.  The sauce will not be smooth like a purée, but easy-to-spoon, with bits of garlic and parsley and pepper flakes floating in beautifully infused oil and vinegar.   If possible, let this sit at room temperature for about 2 hours.  Stir before using, and stir occasionally if you’re using this as a condiment.

There are as many Chimichurri recipes as there are people, it seems.  There are long discussions (and bitter arguments!) online about whether to use flat-leaf or curly-leaf parsley, how much garlic to use, and whether someone should be disowned for not adding fresh oregano into the mix. So the bottom line is, however you make this sauce, someone somewhere will disagree with how you made it.  I say: it’s delicious, so make it and enjoy it and enjoy your Chimichurri steaks while the fight rages, right? You can tailor the sauce to your preferences, of course.  Use less garlic, use more crushed red pepper flakes, add a hot red pepper, or add in some cilantro with the parsley (even though several countries may claim that their governments will collapse and thousands of years of tradition will be ruined, at the mere thought of such horror!)

But ultimately, you’ll have a beautiful, glistening green sauce that is perfect for use as a marinade, and for serving as a sauce or condiment with grilled steaks, bratwursts, sausages, chicken or fish.  It’s a delicious pizza sauce (with toppings like grilled chicken and Monterey jack cheese), or it can be spread on a sandwich.  Or, just dip thick slices of grilled bread into it.

 

 

Another example of the importance of reading those labels!!!!

While in the produce department of my local supermarket this morning, I noticed a prominent display of “Smoothie Mixes”, pouches with very attractive photographs of fruit, and on the front were the words “quick and easy to prepare, our Smoothie Mixes are an easy way to add  fresh fruit to your diet”.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty suspicious of packets so I picked one up and read the label.

???????????????

I’m wondering how this is even allowed!!  I took photos of the directions, and the ingredients and “nutrition” facts.   So just to get this straight, you’ll need this pouch, a banana, milk and ice.  The mix contains sugar, corn syrup solids, natural and artificial flavors and xanthan gum.   There’s nothing nutritious in the mix, in fact, there’s nothing but sugars, a thickener, and whatever those flavors might be.

 

 

The entire packet contains 45 grams of sugar!!  That’s 10 more grams than a can of Coca Cola, or about 1/4 cup of sugar, and nearly twice the recommended daily limit of sugar consumption.

??????????????? So how does purchasing that smoothie mix pouch provide an easy way to add fresh fruit to your diet?  You buy the pouch of sugar, and then you buy a banana, and dump all that sugar onto the banana.  Here’s a crazy idea:  eat the fresh fruit in all it’s pure good natural state!  Think about it!  Make a smoothie out of fruits and vegetables (bananas, berries, carrots, and spinach are good choices) some ice, non-fat Greek yogurt and enjoy it.

I just want to encourage everyone to read what’s in the convenience and processed food products that we’re buying.  And then go buy the real food!