New Year, New Life

So much has happened in my life since I wrote here. If you can believe it, the blog has been on my mind the whole time. Not that this actually moved me to write, but I’ve been quite busy. My head was spinning for a good while before life started to settle into a routine that didn’t involve some form of school work. Don’t get me wrong, learning is one of my absolute favorite things to do, but paychecks are fun too and I was long overdue!

Study time!
Study Time!

Since I last wrote, I finished the whole 1200 hour dietetic internship, studied my brains out for six weeks, and at last, passed the board exam I’ve worked toward taking for five years! I can now officially call myself a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and it feels pretty good if I don’t say so myself. I couldn’t have done it without Mike, the unwavering support of my parents and family, and a very strong community of friends. Oh, and coffee, a lot of coffee.

A fun day in Sienna
A fun day in Sienna

Right after the internship and before the big exam, my brother Jimmy and his wife Kate flew us over to London to visit and we took a side trip to Italy! Needless to say, it was a fantastic foray into the world of true Italian cuisine and we can’t wait to go back. I’ll talk about that more later, but for now lets just say that Sienna, Tuscany, and Florence aren’t bad places to visit if you’re into wine, food, and culture. Wow.

Now what, you might ask? A few days after passing my exam, I was actually fortunate enough to land a job as a clinical dietitian at one of the hospitals where I was an intern. It’s a pretty intense job with a very steep learning curve, but I couldn’t ask for a more supportive group of co-workers for my first job as a brand new health care practitioner. I also have the added bonus that a former grad school and internship buddy is working there too, which is pretty cool. So perhaps this all makes it is easier to understand where I’ve been all this time but now I’m back and I’m really excited to revamp the blog with some big changes. I even have a new name and theme picked out and am working on some new recipes too but it will still be a little bit before I get it all rolled out. I already know you’re good at being patient or you wouldn’t be reading this, so thanks in advance. It will be worth the wait, I promise! Until then here’s a hint: when did you first learn to love food and cooking? Think about it and leave a comment about where it all began for you!

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Slow Cooker Fig Chicken

While the pages on the calendar clearly indicate that fall arrived six weeks ago, it didn’t really feel like it was here until I had the urge to dust off the slow cooker. I forget how amazing it is when I’m in the longer days of summer. At the peak of summer it seems to not matter if we don’t get a chance to cook before the sun goes down because we can always fire up the grill until 9 or 10pm with a little bit of sunlight to spare. But with the shorter days, come the rainy season and that always makes us feel a bit tired when we would normally be gearing up to cook dinner in the summer. Thats where the slow cooker comes in….well actually, it comes in at about 11 in the morning on a Saturday as I begin stuffing it full of random goodness that will hopefully become a dish by Saturday evening.

This particular dish is one I threw together a few weeks ago when a few friends came by for dinner. It was so amazing to have it cooking along all day while I tidied the house and ran errands. All I had to do when it was time for them to arrive was set the table and sip a glass of wine. I was inspired to create the dish as an attempt to replicate a dish I used to make from a moroccan spice mix I would buy from Saturday Market vendor in Portland when we lived there. Cozy up to a bowl!

Slow Cooker Fig Chicken

Whether its a festive football Sunday or a too-busy-to-cook Monday, this dish will fill the house with an irresistible aroma and keep everyone well fed. Serve over rice or potatoes for an even heartier flavor! 

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Moroccan spice mix

4 bone in chicken breast, skin removed

1 teaspoon arrowroot

1 large onion, sliced into half moons

3 large cloves garlic, minced

4 roma tomatoes – skin and seeds removed, diced

10 black mission figs – stemmed and quartered

3/4 cup pitted Italian Olives

2.5 cups bone broth

4 lemon wedges, seeds removed

3 (2 inch) thyme sprigs

1 (3 inch) rosemary sprig

Heat oil in large skillet or cast iron pan for 1 minute while sprinkling 1 tablespoon of the moroccan spice mix onto chicken. Add chicken to the pan and allow it to sear for 5-7 minutes on each side until browned. Remove chicken from skillet and add to the bottom of the crockpot and sprinkle with the arrowroot. Finally, add all of the other ingredients to the crockpot, close it up and leave it on high for 6 hours or low for 8.

Use tongs to remove the chicken from the crock pot and onto a cutting board. At this time, you can remove the bones and shred the chicken with a fork. It will be very tender and the bones are very small so be careful as you begin to eat because a few could have gotten away into the dish. Add the chicken back to the crock pot, stir well, and serve!

Serves: 8-10

Prep time: 30 minutes + up to 8 hours

Watermelon Water with Blueberry Ice

WatermelonWater-Picture1Watermelon always has been and still is a summertime favorite for this southern girl transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. When I was a kid, watermelon feasts routinely happened out in the yard so that my siblings and I wouldn’t drip the juice all over the house. Needless to say, on hot and sticky Alabama days it was one of the best things about summer next to homemade ice cream cranking away in the driveway and fireflies rolling in at dusk, ripe for the catching.

One southern tradition I never fully understood was sprinkling salt on each piece, but some die-hard watermelon fans never eat it any other way. In my opinion, the nice thing about watermelon is that it really stands alone to please the palate and cool you down. However, in the spirit of adventure, it’s always fun to add a little creative flare to a true food gem.

I was teaching a kids nutrition class earlier this week and wanted to show them a tasty way to hydrate and replace sugary soda with something healthier but still sweet and refreshing. That’s where this drink came from. It’s easy, fun, and if you aren’t a kid you could also add a little this or that in there to spice up the party. That being said, I always try to offer this or some similar non-alcoholic drink at any summer party so that the designated drivers and non-drinkers don’t feel left out of the fun! It also keeps everyone hydrated and happier the next day!

Watermelon  Water with Blueberry Ice

Watermelon is a great source of potassium and very hydrating. Adding this drink to your usual summer beverages can be a great way to have fun while getting a few extra nutrients along the way. Blueberries are one of the the tastiest berries and filled with antioxidants!WatermelonWater-Picture4

½ cup cubed seedless watermelon

1 sprig mint (optional)

1 tablespoon frozen blueberries

Plain fizzy or regular water

  1. Measure watermelon and mint into your drinking cup
  2. Pour contents of drinking cup into the blender and blend for a few seconds until it is all crushed up into a liquid.
  3. Pour the crushed watermelon and mint back into your drinking cup.
  4. Add frozen blueberries to your drinking cup.
  5. Top with fizzy or regular water to fill up the cup.
  6. Enjoy your drink!

Makes: 1 drink

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Original Recipe by D. VanReken, MS, Certified Natural Chef, and Dietetic Intern, 2013

A simple breakfast without confusion

With all the confusing information floating around on the internet about breakfast right now, its easy to see how anyone would be willing to ditch the morning meal. One highly regarded university reports that breakfast is a must-do, while another study is quickly translated into a big fat “NO” by our wonderfully misinformed media.

Sound Familiar?

This type of contradiction is not uncommon in the field of nutrition and it can obviously confuse the average person who just wants to make the healthiest decision at the table. I get confused by all of this back and forth information too, but personally think that breakfast of some kind is a really good idea when it comes to starting the day. Some of the more common reasons folks may be skipping this meal may include:

  1. “I’m queasy when I try to eat in the morning” – This is a totally valid reason why someone might skip breakfast! However, I was recently reading in this fabulous book by Daphne Miller, MD and she mentioned that one cause for the seasick morning may be dehydration from over 8 hours without drinking. So if this sounds like your typical reasoning,  try a glass of water when you rise (I like mine with fresh lemon and that gets your liver moving too!) and then see if you feel like a light snack in another half hour.
  2. “I eat  too much during the day if I eat breakfast” – While it may feel like you are eating more than usual if you start your day with breakfast, its also somewhat likely to overeat once you begin eating without some sort of balanced breakfast to set the metabolic clock each day. Having around 15 grams of protein at breakfast is a good way to stay satiated until a morning snack or lunch time and to avoid grazing all day because you started your engine without any fuel!
  3. “I don’t like breakfast foods” – It’s ok to have dinner for breakfast! If a slimy egg or a heavy pancake sounds like too much first thing, much on some of what you had for dinner! Also, you can try something besides these traditional heavier and hot breakfast items. Sometimes (for me at least) an old stand-by like toast and nut butter do the trick to get me charged up for the day!

Explanations and media aside, why not think back to what our somewhat healthier grandparents’ generation did? They ate breakfast! We can streamline what they ate to fit our less active lifestyles of today, but starting the day with much needed fuel is a good thing. One set of my grandparents were sharecroppers and worked doing hard labor outdoors all day after a heavier southern style breakfast. Since my work day doesn’t involve churning butter and driving a tractor, I tend toward a lighter but balanced meal that meets my energy needs so I don’t leave the house hungry (or grumpy) at the start of my day.

I’m kind of obsessed with this simple little breakfast right now. There’s not much to it but I look forward to it every morning and feel quite satisfied when its done. I’m the kind of person who can have the same meal over and over for a period of time and not get bored with it and this is certainly not the exception. Once the weather is chillier, I may switch over to a warm bowl of quinoa cooked with apples and pecans, steel cut oatmeal with walnuts, hemp seeds, and a touch of maple syrup, or just a simple homemade granola with a hard boiled egg for when I’m running late and don’t have much time to crank up the stovetop.

My simple morning meal
My simple morning meal

There’s no recipe for this one, I just wanted to open the conversation about breakfast and how I think its pretty darned good. Blueberries might just be my favorite fruit ever (more about that later) so when they are in season, I like to pair them up with nut butter on whole grain (GF) toast sprinkled with cinnamon, and a little bit of organic sheep yogurt! It’s not much but it gives me just the recharge I need to start my day with whole foods and I hope you’ll do the same! Your granny would be proud!

Grilled Corn with Pea Shoots and Basil-Walnut Pesto

I love (organic) corn. It sometimes gets a bad rap and it does come in various forms that aren’t always such good choices for us (fried corn chips, GMO corn, etc). That being said, whole fresh corn is a good sometimes food with healthy doses of fiber and vitamin C, especially in the summer months when it is bursting with sweetness. I usually pair it with other vegetables so that there really isn’t any need to eat a whole ear all by myself (although I certainly could if it didn’t get stuck in my teeth so much!). Besides that, the soft sweetness of corn does nothing but compliment the stronger savory tones in some vegetables.

This dish is something I’ve been having off and on all summer in various combinations with other vegetables. The two summer super stars never change though; grilled corn and pea shoots. Pea shoots are funny little sprouts from peas, in case you aren’t familiar with them. They are becoming more popular in this area of the country but I imagine other areas may have them available at the farmer’s market or specialty store. A container costs about two bucks and if you add water and sit the carton in a sunny spot in your kitchen, they should re-sprout. What a bargain!

Grilled Corn with Pea Shoots and Basil-Walnut Pesto 

Grilled Basil Corn
Grilled Basil Corn

While this isn’t really what one would consider a true pesto, it is still a tasty mix of herbs, nuts, and oil so I felt that it was the most appropriate name. The soft sweet corn creates the perfect balance with the crisp and lively pea shoots. Enjoy!

1 cup basil leaves

1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted

1/4 cup + 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

Juice and zest of 1/2 of a lemon

2 ears of corn

1 small onion, quartered and sliced thin

2 garlic cloves, minced fine

1 container of pea shoots, cut out of the plant with kitchen scissors and chopped into 2 inch pieces

While the grill is heating up, place basil, walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, and lemon into a small food processor or blender and pulse until it is almost pureed but still a bit chunky. Open outer husks of the corn without removing them completely, and take out the silky strings on the corn. Slather about 1/2 of the Basil-Walnut mixture onto the open corn and then close the husks around it all again. Wrap in aluminum foil if the husks are being fussy and flopping around. Place on the grill for 15-20 minutes, turning with tongs occasionally.

While the corn cooks outside, heat a medium skillet with remaining teaspoon olive oil and begin to saute the onion on medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and browning before adding the garlic to cook for another minute and then removing the pan from heat. By this time, the corn should be fully cooked and ready to remove the kernels.

To remove corn kernels, lay a clean dry kitchen towel over your cutting board and unwrap the corn from the husks and/or foil. It will be very hot, so grab it from the stem end and place the tip end directly onto the board at a 90 degree angle. With a very sharp kitchen knife, start at the top of the cob and cut downward to remove the kernels from the corn. They should fall onto the clean towel and not bounce around very much, like they would without the towel.

When all of the kernels have been removed from the corn, take the towel over to the pan and sprinkle the corn directly in with the onions and garlic. Turn the heat back onto a low-medium setting and when it starts to sizzle again, stir in the pea shoots until they begin to wilt. Finally, add in the remaining half of the Basil-Walnut mixture and stir well to incorporate evenly into the dish. Serve warm!

Serves: 4

Prep time: 30 minutes

*Once the empty corn cobs cool, we give them to our dogs to chew on for a little while like veggie bones, they love it!

Summer Kale Hash with Lemon Zest, Rosemary, and Goat Cheese

Summer is in full swing in the Pacific Northwest, complete with sunny 75 degree weather, daylight until almost 10pm, and a thriving back yard garden. This is the first year since Mike and I have moved to Seattle (2.5 years now!) that we’ve really had a chance to grow a garden. Our previous rental home had a pretty treacherous back yard and I was usually so buried in my studies during planting season that it slipped by, only to resurface in early summer as an afterthought.

This summer, the Masters degree is perched gloriously on the wall, peering down on me as I scratch my head wondering what to do with the newly discovered free time! I will start an internship in the fall, which includes one summer rotation, but for the most part I’m just using this time to recharge, catch up on some leisure reading, and remind myself of what it’s like to be in the kitchen. I am grateful beyond words.

A great benefit of life beyond nutrition graduate school is the joy of remembering why I love food so much. It’s not that I forgot, mind you, but its so nice to recall that part of myself that inherently knows that it’s not all about micronutrients and macronutrients. Its also about the earthy fragrance of a warm tomato plant in the sun, the way that blueberries somehow manage to taste like the color blue, and the excitement of deciding what I’ll prepare for dinner each night by relying on what I can from the garden. This is what it’s all about for me and why I love it so.

Thus far, we have only been able to harvest kale and herbs but stay tuned for when the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are ready. This recipe was a combination of kale we grew, some red potatoes we had sitting around, and a few tasty things I discovered in the trusty ice box, as my grandmother would have called it.

Summer Kale Hash with Lemon Zest, Rosemary, and Goat Cheese

Summer Kale Hash
Summer Kale Hash

Once upon a time, I considered kale to be winter veggie and lemon a summer fruit. Now that I pay more attention to this type of thing, I realize that kale grows well in the summer and lemons aren’t really in season in the summer. However, few things compliment goat cheese as well as lemon zest, so I decided to include it into this mostly seasonal dish, so enjoy!

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 small sweet onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced 

1 medium red potato, diced small (peel included)

3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

5 crimini mushrooms, sliced

1/2 tablespoon butter

Splash of white wine, water, or stock

1 bunch lacinato kale, chopped into thin strips

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced

Juice and zest of 1/2 of a lemon

2 pinches of sea salt

1 pinch of pepper

1/4 cup of fresh goat cheese

Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add sliced onions to cook on medium heat for 5-7 minutes until they become translucent and start to brown slightly. Add the finely diced potato and let it cook for 8-10 minutes longer so that they begin to soften. Stir frequently or the starch from the potato may cause it to stick.

Once the potatoes soften, add garlic and mushrooms to the pan and continue to saute until the mushrooms begin to soften for about 5 minutes. After the mushrooms begin to soften, stir in the butter and splash of wine before incorporating the chopped kale into the pan.

Let the kale cook down for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then stir in lemon juice and zest to cook for 5 more minutes. Finish with salt and pepper, arrange hash on a large serving dish, and top with goat cheese to allow it to melt in a little before serving.

Serves: 4

Prep time: 30-45 minutes

A Sweet Farewell of Chicken Salad with Rainier Cherries, Pecans, and Poppy Seed Dressing

Upon completion of graduate school and the start of new journeys, many friends are moving on to new lives as Dietetic Interns in other cities, to travel, or to work for a year before starting an internship. Since my position as a Dietetic Intern will be here in Seattle at Bastyr, I will be staying here and enjoying the long days of summer that are barely hot enough to convince me that it’s July now. After growing up in Alabama, I have a pretty deep understanding of what it really means to be hot and humid outside and I have been fortunate enough to be able to remember that when it gets warm here, so it doesn’t really affect me as much as some of the wonderful Pacific Northwest natives.

Today I had the wonderful opportunity to have my dear friend Adrienne over for lunch before she heads to Emory University in Atlanta in a few days (Congrats Adrienne and any of you wonderful people in Atlanta should meet this woman because she is amazing!). My Seattle partner in crime, Libby, was also able to join us  for a bit as an impromptu swing by and it was a great way to reconnect, laugh about our time together, and just be friends. I wanted to make a nice light lunch to nourish us one last time as we chatted away like we used to in the school cafeteria such a short time ago as students. Here is what I came up with on this sweltering 78 degree Seattle day. Love you ladies!

CherryChickenSalad

Chicken Salad with Rainier Cherries, Pecans, and Poppy Seed Dressing      

This salad has been adapted many times from one I learned at some point during culinary school. The rainier cherries are so delightful at this time of year but can easily be substituted for grapes, blueberries, or diced apple in different seasons.    

4.5 cups cooked chopped chicken

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup mayonaise

1/2 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon brown mustard

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

3/4 cup fennel, diced

1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

1 cup rainier cherries, pitted and quartered

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

8 parsley leaves, minced for garnish

2-3 butter lettuce leaves per serving

1/2 avocado, sliced in thin slices

Place cooked chicken in large mixing bowl and set aside. In smaller bowl, mix together lemon juice, vinegars, mayo, honey, mustard, and poppy seeds and whisk together until blended well. Add dressing to the chicken and stir to incorporate before mixing in fennel, pecans, cherries, salt, pepper, and parsley. 

On dinner plates arrange 2-3 butter lettuce leaves and top with 3/4 cup of chicken salad on each one. Add 3-4 thin slices of avocado on top and serve immediately. 

Makes: 6 servings

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Goodbyes are not forever. Goodbyes are not the end. They simply mean I’ll miss you until we meet again“. Author – unknown

Adrienne&Libby2

Dee&Adrienne