Tilapia fish sticks

How’s this for a retro recipe?

I would just like to say that you are never too old to eat fish sticks. But making them yourself is the way to go.

This was another thing I found in Real Simple. I really heart that magazine. I pulled out the ’10 things to do with tilapia’ feature, because I know it’s one of those things we buy a lot even though we’re not sure what we’re going to do with it.

Here’s the basic technique. You can definitely season up your breadcrumbs to make it more interesting, or whip up a yummy dipping sauce. (I made a simple tartar sauce with light mayo, pickle relish, and a little black pepper.)

Cut 3 large tilapia filets into sticks. I got roughly 8 from each piece of fish.

Set up 3 pans for your batter station — I like to use cake pans because I have so many of them from the wedding cake project!

• 1/2 cup flour
• 2 beaten eggs
• 1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

For the frying part, you can use a skillet, but I like to use a saute pan. Fill it up to about 1/2 inch with vegetable oil. I used a mix of olive and canola oil. You want this on medium-high heat.

You could also bake these in the oven. But you won’t get that pretty golden color, and you won’t get the same crunch you get with frying. This is definitely one of those recipes where you’re going to have to turn on the portion control to make up for the full fat. But I’d still rather do that than make something that doesn’t taste good.

OK, so when you’ve got a few sticks breaded, drop them into the oil and cook for 3-4 minutes, turning them over if one size isn’t getting browned. Scoop them out and drain them over paper towels.

Serve with cole slaw, salad, oven fries, or just about any summery side.

Chicken fajitas

This probably sounds like nothing special, but after finding this easy recipe at Food & Wine I am totally convinced that these chicken fajitas were better than any I have made before and any I have ever ordered on a sizzling plate.

It’s not just the recipe, though. I think it’s the combination of the fresh veggies, the free-range chicken, the super soft wheat/corn blend tortillas we found, and the fresh cilantro I picked from my front porch. Good ingredients = good food. Simple as that!

I’m all for the shake-in-bag technique.

The only things I changed from the recipe was adding in some red bell pepper and using 1/4 cup of water to deglaze the pan after the first few minutes of cooking. You don’t want to lose those yummy bits on the bottom.

For toppings I made a little pico de gallo with tomato, onion, garlic, green pepper, a little green chile, salt, pepper, lime juice and cilantro.

Then I mashed up an avocado with salt and lime juice.

You will need lots of napkins for these, but they’re totally worth it!

Bacon cheddar meatloaf

Sounds gluttonous, doesn’t it?

I was starting to think maybe I just didn’t like the taste of meat generally until I made this and it completely restored my faith.

I cut this recipe out of a Real Simple magazine when I was still vegetarian because it looked so yummy, and I figured I could adapt it. It calls for Gruyere cheese, but I was getting practically mauled in the cheese aisle at the Berkeley Bowl so I picked up the closest thing, which was New York cheddar. I’d say it’s a pretty good substitute.

Here is the recipe, which other than the cheese swap, and cooking it an extra 10 minutes, I followed to the letter: Bacon-Gruyere meat loaf with roasted carrots and onions

I think there are three secrets to why this is so good. (And it’s not even the bacon part!)

Using ground chuck, which is fattier, helps a lot with moisture and flavor. You still drain off all the excess fat before you serve it, so it’s not greasy or anything. And then you let it rest for 10 minutes before you cut into it, which not only brings it up to temperature, it helps it retain that moisture even more. The shredded onions are also much nicer to bite into than chopped bits would be, so I’m definitely using that technique again.

The recipe says to eat it with ketchup, but I had some leftover gravy in the fridge that was an ideal topping.

We also had some spinach salads on the side.

When you plate up a chunk of meatloaf and a scoop of roasted veggies it looks so petite on a normal-sized plate you feel like it kinda needs a little something extra.

Need a veggie meat loaf? Try this one.

Bon appetit!

(Which reminds me that I caught an episode of Julia Child on the Cooking Channel the other day where she dumps a tarte tatin onto a plate and it completely falls apart. Of course she just rolls with it. Thanks for the reminder that cooking doesn’t have to be perfect!)

Roast chicken, stock, and gravy

I thought I had lost the pictures I took when I cooked the chicken, but I found them, so I thought I’d share.

What surprised me the most about chicken 101, was that it was so easy. Though it takes some time to make from-scratch recipes, most of it is just oven or simmer time.

So here are the recipes I used again:

Roast chicken
Chicken stock
Poultry gravy

Why did I use all Barefoot Contessa recipes? I guess because I’ve seen the show enough to know that Ina makes chicken at least once a week for her husband, so after about 4,000 times roasting a bird, she probably knows her stuff.

I liked her techniques of basting the chicken with melted butter before roasting, and cooking it on top of a bed of veggies. You get an incredibly caramelized bunch of goodness in the bottom of the pan, which makes your stock and gravy better.

The chicken came out just perfect. Crispy skin and all done inside. You might have to adjust the cooking time, depending on your oven and the size of the bird.

The next day I simmered the bones with some fresh veggies, water, and spices (just adjusting down the recipe for one bird instead of three).

The recipe called for leaving the pot uncovered, but next time I will cover it, as I evaporated a little too much liquid. My gas stove cooks so much hotter than our old crappy electric one did, so I’m still getting used to that, too.

*Edited to add my stock recipe, which looks like this:

1 chicken carcass
1 onion, cut into fourths
1 celery rib, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 carrots, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dill
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns
10 cups water

Simmer, covered, on low heat for 4 hours.

When the stock’s done, you can put it in the fridge until a little fat layer forms, and just scrape that off. Then it’s ready for whatever you want to do with it. I put what I didn’t use in a plastic container in the freezer.

For the gravy I finally realized how much harder it is to replicate the consistency in a vegetarian version. With meat pan drippings it comes together pretty much instantly! However, I still say my veggie shallot gravy is awesome. It just takes a little more work.

The last thing I did was shred the remaining chicken pieces and roll them up inside corn tortillas for some easy enchiladas.

I’m still perfecting that recipe, but I’m sure I’ll have something to share soon.

My new food philosophy

I have some pretty big news to share. Mike and I have decided to ease our dietary restrictions a little and become more ‘flexitarian.’ I have been meat-free for six years and he has for 10+ years, so it is a big change for us. We were already eating fish and seafood occasionally, so we were not technically vegetarian. But not eating beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and of course, bacon, for that long did set us apart from most Americans. I’m glad I experienced that lifestyle. I think it had a huge impact on us physically and on the environment in general. But here’s why we decided to change.

A few months ago when I got into the cleanse, I started to realize that even though I thought of myself as someone who didn’t consume many processed foods, I was eating a lot of fake meat products and meat substitutes. Those were some of the first things to go off my grocery list and out of my cabinets when I cleaned house. What became more important than anything, above fat ratios and counting calories and everything else, was to eat real, whole foods. Foods that exist in nature. Foods with as few ingredients as possible. At that point I started thinking about adding some meat back into my diet. I can’t really explain it. It just felt right, like it was the missing piece.

I talked it over with Mike. He supported me fully. But after so long I was just used to eating and shopping vegetarian. I didn’t even remember how to cook meat. To be honest I was kind of afraid of it. So I didn’t really change anything.

But after some more conversations it seemed like Mike was coming to the same decision from a different angle. We’re here in the bay area where there are all these amazing foodie revolutions going on, and much of it we don’t participate in. One of our big reasons for not buying meat was that it used to be so hard to find local, sustainable, environmentally friendly options. But now you have local people raising organic grass-fed cows, curing their own bacon, using every part of the animal, really trying to go back to an artisan way of preparing meat. I can get on board with that. I even want to support it. So we talked about it some more and decided that what we wanted was to have a mostly vegetarian diet that occasionally included some meat that we could feel good about buying and eating.

All I can really say is that it’s a personal decision, and it’s our decision for now. I’m actually really excited to explore a whole new world of recipes I haven’t tried yet.

My first attempt at cooking meat was to roast a whole chicken. I used Ina Garten’s recipe, which was just spot-on. I saved the bones and made chicken stock. Then I made an enchilada casserole with the leftovers. I like seeing how a $10 chicken can go so far.

I am still getting used to the taste of meat. One of the reasons I stuck with vegetarianism so long is that there’s a lot of meat I just don’t like. I hate too-fatty pieces. I’m paranoid about e. coli on my countertops. So I probably won’t be going on the caveman diet anytime soon. But sometimes I just have to tell myself to relax a little bit. And if I don’t like something, I won’t eat it. I suspect 2/3 of my meals will still be vegetarian.

Anyway, back to my food philosophy. The main point was that, above all, my goal is to eat whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. I am trying to make more things from scratch — beans, salad dressings, trail mix and snack bars, etc. We’re buying more artisan breads that don’t have preservatives. I’m using my freezer a lot more than I used to. I really need to get into canning!

I really miss our huge garden. Sigh.

The second thing that has become really important is to cut out sugar as much as possible. That doesn’t mean eating no sugar or sugar substitutes. It just means I try to have only one dessert per week, and minimal sugar in anything else. I used to buy cookies and ice cream pretty regularly and bake a lot. The cleanse helped me realize that the sugar was keeping me in a cycle of being hungry and tired. I always felt ravenous in the afternoons with really strong cravings for sugary things and other carbs. I mean really strong. I had been adding probably 500 calories a day to my diet with them on way too many days. I know a lot of people, even nutritionists, say to have a treat every day to keep yourself satisfied. But for me, the only thing that ever kept me from wanting dessert was to stop having dessert. I can’t even tell you what a difference it’s made.

(One aside. I did bring back my butter dish. I realized that it wasn’t random pats of butter that were my problem. It was the whole sticks I had been using for baking. Plus, I am super picky about butter on bread being soft.)

Another change: I’m trying to eat more for breakfast and less for dinner. It really does seem to help my energy level, and to keep me from crashing mid-day. I’ve always eaten pretty bitty breakfasts, so it’s hard to get used to. Actually, let’s be real. It’s harder to eat less for dinner. What has helped me is using measuring cups to portion out dinner, especially for rice and other carbs. I usually find that once I’ve put something on my plate, that’s all I will eat. I don’t eat skimpy dinners by any means. But they are reasonable. And I don’t have dessert!

I love you, cake. But I just can’t have you in the house anymore.

I also try not to eat anything after about 8 p.m. That used to be pretty hard for me but it’s not anymore. I usually have a cup of green tea at night and that’s it.

So I have the three meals a day and then I always have a mid-afternoon snack. At first I was having something small like a piece of fruit or a fruit/nut ball. But now that I’m exercising I would say it’s more like 200 to 300 calories. It’s just logical. There are like 3 hours between breakfast and lunch and almost 7 between lunch and dinner. You’re going to be hungry. Just eat something.

The crazy thing is that even though I eat a lot more now than when I was on the cleanse, I am still losing weight. I have lost 15 pounds since I started the cleanse (8 during the actual month). Before that I had lost about 12 pounds from what I would call my average highest weight the past few years. I didn’t weigh myself that often so it’s kind of an estimate. But that’s 27 pounds! I had to put another notch in my new belt, and I only have one pair of jeans that fit. I can finally wear the jacket that I bought like 3 years ago thinking (like you should never, ever do) that if I just lost a few more pounds it would fit.

I had felt for so long that I couldn’t lose weight in a way that felt natural to me. I had been trying for about 10 years. The last time I felt good in my body, like my body matched up with how I felt inside, was my sophomore year in college. Since then I’ve been on an Oprah-style weight roller coaster that I’ve been desperate to get off of. I’ve been every size from a 4 to a 14. I felt like I was addicted to certain foods and could not stop eating at times. As you can see if you read this blog, I love to cook and love to eat. There’s no way I would be successful on a highly restrictive diet. So the whole foods philosophy has been a godsend for me. It’s changed everything. I feel like I can eat this way for the rest of my life, no problem.

I will say, though, that I needed to do something dramatic in the beginning to facilitate the change. It could have been any cleanse, but the one I chose was especially helpful. It just made me think a lot about my habits, and what I always thought I needed that I could live without. It was the breakthrough I really needed.

If you’ve never had a love affair with kale, you should start one.

It feels really important to me to share what I’ve been going through because I know there are so many people that feel kind of stuck in their diets. It’s not easy to give up all the processed foods that you’ve grown attached to over your lifetime, but you have to make new food attachments, positive ones. After a while it’s no big deal. The other thing is that you have to be willing to spend more money on less food, and more time in the kitchen. You have to get organized and make some time to meal plan, write a grocery list, and cook for the week. It’s kind of a putting-yourself-first thing. It’s your body, and you should want to take care of it. Since I am obsessed with organization, I’ve gotten to a point where I enjoy all of that. And by doing things like boiling your own beans, or growing your own veggies and herbs, you can shave off some of your food expenses. Make a bunch of things at once and freeze them if you know you’ll be short on time during the workweek. If you’re feeling really stressed about having time to cook, remember that a European-style bread/cheese/jam picnic can be just as good as something you spent two hours cooking.

Am I getting preachy? I don’t know. I just feel really passionate about this stuff since it’s made such an impact on me.

OK, I think this novel has gone on long enough. If you want to know anything else about what I’m eating nowadays, just ask. I’m a pretty open book.

By the way, my exercise grid is still working like a charm.