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Grilled Chicken, Strawberry and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

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Later this morning, I’ll be chatting with the morning host of Charlotte’s Lite 102.9. (Any Charlotte readers out there??) Lite 102.9 has recently begun featuring my blog on their website, which I think is super cool. And they have the great idea to put together a series of short audio clips about cooking, family, and this blog to air for their online streaming content listeners. I think that’s even cooler. I’m just hoping I don’t get stage fright…or phone fright, I suppose.

My husband says that I ought to practice my non-regional dialect and annunciation ala Will Ferrell Anchorman style. Unique New York. Unique New York. You know you need unique New York. The Human Torch was denied a bank loan. My husband believes that my accent may be a bit too Long Guyland-y for southern listeners. Of course, he’s just poking fun at me, but we do have some definite differences in agreement over how certain words should be pronounced.

In our 16 years together, some of our biggest arguments have revolved around how to pronounce the names Erin or Aaron and Carrie or Kerry. We’ve nearly come to blows over the proper way to say crayon (It’s definitely not ‘cran’). And don’t even get me started on orange. I can acknowledge that there’s an ‘or’ in the beginning of the word, so it could be pronounced like oar-inj, but that’s just not how I say it. And well…I’m just going to go eat my R-enges now.

However you say it, sweet oranges make me think of summer. And it doesn’t get much more summery than this light spinach salad, topped with a tender grilled chicken breast, sweet mandarin oranges and fresh strawberries, dressed in a vibrant orange and poppy seed vinaigrette. It’s bright, fresh, and perfect if you’re watching your waistline for summer!

Grilled Chicken, Strawberry, and Spinach Salad in an Orange Poppy Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • Juice and zest from 1 navel orange (about 1/3 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 grilled chicken breasts (seasoned with salt and pepper), sliced
  • 8 cups fresh baby spinach leaves (approximately)
  • 8-10 strawberries, sliced
  • 1 cup mandarin orange segments
  • 1 red onion, very thinly sliced

Directions

To prepare the vinaigrette: Combine the orange juice, zest, vinegar, olive oil, honey and poppy seeds until well blended. Season with salt and crushed red pepper, to taste.

To assemble the salad: Toss the spinach leaves in some of the dressing. (Do not overdress.) Arrange a pile of the dressed spinach leaves on each plate. Top with the grilled chicken, red onions, strawberries, and oranges. Drizzle a little extra dressing over the chicken.

Makes 4 meal-sized salads

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Spicy Corn and Bacon Quinoa

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It is scientifically proven that there is a direct relationship between the mirky color of bathwater and the level of fun which was had playing in yard. Ok…I’m making up that ‘research’. But you can always tell that the kids had a fun day when they need a shower immediately following their bath to rinse the dirty bathwater from their bodies. We consider that a successful day around here.

After spending the long winter cooped up inside the house, it is so nice to have the sun shining, the birds chirping, and the green returning to our trees and gardens. Spring time settles me. And the boys have been in their glory releasing all of their little man energy in the backyard…especially since we just finished building their new cedar play set; a joint gift from several family members. I am certain they will get years and years of enjoyment from it, which makes it worth the time it took the build. I have a feeling that my busy little men and I are going to be living outside this summer.

Busy little man #2

Busy little men needs lots of good, healthy food to fuel their active play. Which means I’m always on the lookout for nutrient-rich foods to add to their plates. Quinoa (pronounced ‘KEEN-wah’) is a protein-packed pseudo-grain which is chock full of healthy nutrition. On your dinner plate, it could easily take the place of a rice or pasta side dish with added health benefits. Best yet, quinoa is a low glycemic index and gluten-free food, which makes it desirable for people on specialized diets. Quinoa is truly a superhero of foods!

This quinoa gets a punch of spiciness from fresh jalapeño pepper. Sweet corn kernels and savory bits of bacon add a satisfying texture and flavor to this delicious side dish. If your family is sensitive to spiciness, you can easily reduce (or even eliminate) the jalapeño pepper and still be left with a very delicious and equally nutritious side dish.

Spicy Corn and  Bacon Quinoa

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels (frozen is fine)
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 6 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Combine the quinoa, broth, corn, jalapeño, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Stir, then reduce heat and cover. Cook over a very low heat (just like you would cook rice) for 15 minutes. Allow to sit for five additional minutes. Fluff with a fork. Add the bacon and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as desired.

Low Carb Cottage Pie

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Earlier in the week, my husband bemoaned the fact that daylight savings time was approaching and we would be losing an hour of sleep. I’m not sure what world he’s living in, but the time on the clock has little relevance for our children. Lose an hour, gain an hour…doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not in control of how long I sleep anyway. If anything, I look forward to this evening when I can put the kids to bed an hour ‘early’.

Springing forward brings other benefits as well, specifically a bit of daylight past the kids’ bedtime…which translates into not running in the dark. That, combined with the warming temperatures of spring approaching, bodes well for resuming my evening runs. I have to admit, I’ve been sorely off-track with my fitness goals during these past two weeks and the number on the scale has been creeping upwards. Wintery weather and the early sunset has made it hard to get myself out the door for my evening runs. And finally being able to fit into some of my clothes again has made me complacent about my diet. But I’m not done yet (far from it) and it’s time to get back on track, before I undo the results I’ve achieved so far.

So, starting tomorrow (today I’m going to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner), I’m hopping back on the horse and refocusing on my fitness goals. With the warmer temps and later sunset, I’ve got no excuses for not heading out for my evening runs. And I’m going to refocus on reducing my refined carb intake (a la South Beach diet), since I know it helps me to feel more satisfied, make better food choices, and eat less overall.

With St. Patty’s Day just around the corner, comforting meat-and-potato type meals are on my mind. But potatoes fall firmly into that refined carb category which I’m aiming to avoid. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some comforting Irish cookin’ with just a few substitutions. You may remember a few weeks ago, when I shared a recipe for mashed cauliflower, which makes a wonderful substitution for mashed potatoes…a substitution which would also make the perfect topping for a low-carb, South Beach friendly cottage pie. Using lean ground beef and part-skim cheese helps lighten the meal even more, without sacrificing any flavor. Furthermore, making low-glycemic index choices for the veggie layer keeps this dish nicely in line with my diet plan.

If you’re looking to celebrate St. Patty’s Day without sacrificing your diet goals, this just might be the dish for you! Though, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I fully intend to make (and eat) more corned beef and cabbage egg rolls on St. Patty’s Day, with a few dark beers to wash them down. (All food and beer are zero calories on St. Patty’s Day…if you’re Irish, that is. I swear it…a little red-headed leprechaun told me so.)

Looking for a traditional lamb and potatoes Shepherd’s Pie recipe? Click HERE.

Low Carb Cottage Pie

Ingredients

For the beef layer:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • Salt and pepper
For the veggie layer:
  • 2 cups green beans, steamed and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
For the mashed cauliflower:
  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped and steamed until tender
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup part-skim cheddar, shredded

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

For the beef layer: Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring frequently, until fully cooked. Sprinkle the flour over the meat and stir, allowing it to cook for about a minute. Then, add the beef broth, worcestershire sauce, and onion powder. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for a few minutes until the liquid thickens into a gravy around the meat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Pour the mixture into a baking dish.

For the veggies: Wipe out the pan used for the beef. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until golden and tender. Scatter the mushrooms and the steamed green beans in an even layer over the meat.

For the mashed cauliflower: Using a food processor, blender, or immersion blender, combine the cauliflower, butter, milk, and garlic powder until smooth. Season with salt, to taste. Spread the mashed cauliflower in an even layer over the veggies.

Sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, until heated through and slightly browned. (Allow for longer cooking time if preparing ahead of time and refrigerating before baking.)

Lamb Gyro Salad with Tzatziki Dressing

Mommy?

What’s up, honey?

I know how God died.

Do you mean Jesus, sweetie?  (assuming he’d recently talked about Jesus’ death in the Catholic school he attends)

Yeah, Jesus.

Ok…how’d he die, hon?

A meteor killed him.

**Long pause**

Oh, a meteor? Are you sure you’re not thinking about the dinosaurs?

No, I’m talking about God. I think the meteor came down to Earth, bounced off the dinosaurs, then headed over to the church, where God was relaxing. It got him and then he went to heaven.

**Longer pause**

Ummm…I don’t think God was killed by a meteor. But yes, he’s up there in heaven.

With the dinosaurs?

Mhmm…with the dinosaurs.

The Catholic school curriculum must have changed since I was a kid. Though I suppose this meteor story is no more inventive than the tiny robotic helper bugs he’s been dreaming up to assist with some of life’s more unpleasant activties. My four year old is going to change the world. Seriously, just you watch.

My husband has been doing this South Beach diet with me, even though he doesn’t have the same weight to lose that I do (darn him with his fast male metabolism and naturally smaller appetite). But having a partner in this makes it so much easier to stay the course. I am thankful for that.

The best thing I can do to show my gratitude is to make sure that our meals stay interesting and delicious. And what better dish to prepare than his favorite meal, Greek-style Lamb Burgers, slightly-modifed to fit our new diet??

This salad has all the flavor of lamb gyro, without the pita. Warm, seasoned lamb provides protein and amazing flavor, while a thinned out tzatziki sauce makes the perfect dressing for this gyro-inspired meal. If you’re not watching your refined carbs intake, go ahead and have some toasted pita wedges on the side.

Lamb Gyro Salad with Tzatziki Dressing

Ingredients

For the lamb gyro meat:

  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

For the tzatziki dressing:

  • 1/2 large seedless English cucumber
  • 1 7-ounce container plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

For the salad:

  • Lettuce (Romaine or Iceberg), chopped
  • 1 ripe tomato, sliced
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
Directions
To prepare the lamb gyro meat: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine lamb with the garlic, rosemary, oregano, salt, and crushed red pepper. Knead the mixture until it is quite smooth, like a paste. Form the mixture into four mini ‘loafs’. Place the loaves on a baking sheet and bake for about 15-17 minutes. Cool for 5-10 minutes before thinly slicing.
To prepare the dressing: Using a box grater set atop of a bowl, grate the cucumber. Using your hands, squeeze the excess liquid out of the cucumber, reserving the liquid. Place the squeezed cucumber in another bowl. Combine the grated cucumber with the remaining ingredients. Gradually add the reserved cucumber liquid to the dressing until it reaches your desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Refrigerate until use.
To assemble the salad: Arrange each of the warm, thinly-sliced loaves over the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Drizzle with tzatziki dressing.
Serves 4

Spicy Beef and Bean Stew

You know those little dolls…the ones where you press their belly and they repeat a series of silly little things, like Mama, Feed me, and Goo goo gah gah?

Well, my three-year-old is just like that, only his sound bytes are more like I love you so much, I don’t like you, and I’m freezing cold.

For the record:

My four-year-old’s soundtrack is something like, I’m thirsty, I have an idea…, and How about we…

Daddy’s goes something like, What’s for dinner?, I’m getting a beer, d’ya need anything?, and things like It’s a fact of life. Dogs don’t like to be disturbed while they’re eating and neither does Daddy.

And Mommy’s is a bit like, Why in the world would you do that?, This room looks like a tornado blew through it, and Serenity now!

It’s the I’m freezing cold one that I can’t wrap my head around. The kid stubs his toe…I’m freezing cold. I tell him that he can’t have another cookie…I’m freezing cold. It’s time to get dressed for school…But, I’m freezing cold.

I tell him, You keep saying that. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A typical conversation with my little man goes something like this:

Hey buddy, it’s time to clean up your toys.

I can’t.

Why can’t you clean up your toys?

It’s just that…I don’t like you.

Ok, that’s fine, but you still need to clean up your toys.

But, I’m freezing cold.

Well, put on a hoodie and then clean up your toys.

**Insert Cry. Scream.Wail.** (Him, not me. Ok, sometimes me too.)

Mommy?

Yes, buddy?

I just love you so much.

I love you too. Now…Clean. Up. Your. Toys. This room looks like a tornado blew through it.

It IS winter time though, so if you’re freezing cold, it’s probably with good reason. And I’ve got just the thing to warm you up! Winter is the time for foods which fill our bellies and leave us feeling all toasty and satisfied. January also happens to be National Soup Month. So, it’s the perfect time for this Spicy Beef and Bean Stew, made with tender, slow-cooked beef and fresh jalapeño peppers. The broth gets its thickness from a puree of white beans, rather than the typical butter/flour roux. This is a rich and satisfying stew, which also happens to be extra-rich in protein and lower in high glycemix index carbs than traditional flour-thickened meat and potato stews!!

Spicy Beef and Bean Stew

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced
  • 1.5 – 2 pounds stew beef
  • 1/2 cup marsala wine (optional, but recommended)
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (15.5 ounce) cans cannellini beans
  • 1 (15.5 ounce) can black beans, drained

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large ovensafe saucepan or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3-5 minutes, until tender. Add the garlic and jalapeño peppers. Cook for 2-3 minutes more, stirring frequently. Raise the heat to medium high and add the beef. Brown the beef on all sides. Add the marsala wine and allow it to simmer for a minute. Then, add the beef stock, tomato paste, and salt. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, then cover with a  tight fitting lid and place the pan on the middle oven rack. Cook for 2 hours. While the beef is cooking, puree one can of the cannellini beans and their liquid in a blender or food processor. Set aside. Drain the other two cans of beans. After two hours, remove the cover. Stir in the pureed beans and the whole beans. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes more. Remove from the oven. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper, as desired.

Serves 4-6

Diet Day: 12   Weight loss: 7    Motivation: Strong and steady

Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Salad

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Recently, we picked up one of those Kinect sensors for the Xbox 360. We figured it would provide for some active fun for the boys during the cold, indoor winter months and even get us big kids moving a bit more to help out with our fitness goals. Some of the games in Kinect Adventures really get that heart rate pumping! And I’m waiting on my copy of Dance Central 2 to arrive, so I can totally bust out my sweet dance moves (in complete private, when nobody else is around).

The Kinect sensor is pretty amazing. And utterly frightening too. It’s got a little motorized camera which tracks and responds to your movements. If you move, the camera moves to find you. It can scan your body and create an animated version of your image on the tv…wearing the same clothes you’re wearing. Creepy. And it takes pictures of you while you play. It even responds to voice commands, like “Xbox, stop.” and “Xbox, play Golden Girls.” and “Xbox, make my dinner.”

Ok, so the Xbox doesn’t know how to make my dinner. Yet. But I’m sure that software upgrade is just around the corner. Seriously, the robot revolution is upon us. Are you prepared?

The other day, as I was trying to teach the kids not to wander aimlessly in front of other people while they’re playing with the Kinect, I found myself saying, You can’t walk in front of people because it confuses the Kinect. It’s not smart like us and it can’t figure out who it’s supposed to be tracking when there are too many people moving around.

And as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to eat them. The Xbox just heard me, questioning its intelligence. I swear I heard the little camera eye move to focus closer on me in that moment, recording and passing judgement on me as an enemy of the robot uprising. I’m doomed. I instantly started fumbling my words, trying to make my insult to the Kinect seem less degrading. I love you, Xbox. Please don’t annihilate me.

But since the Xbox is not about to prepare my meals anytime soon, I suppose that leaves me to do it… Hubby and I are still going strong with our lower carb diets. Today marks Day 8 of our diet and I’m down…drumroll, please…6 pounds!! Not a bad start, if you ask me. The weight won’t continue to come off at a rate of six pounds per week (nor should it), but it’s certainly a motivating start. The best part is that we have been dining on some pretty fantastic food this week. Like this smoked salmon and cucumber salad which is the stuff that dreams are made of. So fresh and simple. So insanely delicious!

Enjoy! (And beware. Kinect is watching.)

Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Salad

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces smoked salmon
  • 1 large seedless cucumber
  • 2-3 small tomatoes, halved and sliced into small pieces
  • 1/4 red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons non-pareil capers
  • Creme fraiche, for garnish (can substitute sour cream)

For the Fresh Dill Vinaigrette:

  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 1/8 cup white balsamic vinaigrette (plus a touch more)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill leaves, torn
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper, to taste

Directions

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, dill, salt and pepper until well combined. Cut the cucumber in half, then use a mandolin slicer or a very sharp knife to very thinly slice the cucumber, lengthwise, into ‘ribbons’. Place a mound of the cucumber ribbons in the center of each plate. Scatter the onions and tomatoes over the cucumber. Tear the salmon into small pieces and scatter over the salad. Place a larger piece of salmon in the center. Sprinkle the capers over the salad. Drizzle each salad with the dill dressing. If desired, garnish the center piece of salmon with a small dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream.

Serves 2

Diet Day: 8   Weight Loss: -6   Motivation: High!

Asian Chicken Salad in Sweet Red Pepper

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My boys are bringing back the ghostbusters for a new generation. It all started with a t-shirt my sister found for my three-year-old’s birthday. A t-shirt which she gifted along with the Ghostbusters I and II dvd set. Which, after watching with my overprotective mommy eyes,  I decided was a bit too spooky for my young boys who are still sorting out the difference between real and pretend. So, my sis went back to the store to grab the complete collection of The Real Ghostbusters, with its confusing title, since The Real Ghostbusters is actually the animated series…not very real, but whatever. I decided to allow the kids to watch the cartoon. That was all it took to convince them that they had to be ghostbusters for halloween.

Soon after halloween, the ‘edited for tv’ version of the movie aired. We caved and watched it as a family. And it firmly sealed the boys’ obsession, as they watched with wide eyes. This would have been a Christmas full of ghostbusters toys and gear, if only the rest of the kid and toy-making world were as obsessed with the ghostbusters as my little men now are. It’ll happen though. They’ve already got all their little friends at school asking about the ghostbusters.

But, even without a toy box full of ghostbusters goodies, talk of the ghostbusters reigns supreme in our home…talk of who’s going to be Egon and who’s Peter Venkman when they put on their costumes, whose proton pack packs more power, and who is going to really be a real ghostbuster when they grow up. Oh, and if you’re wondering where all the monsters have gone, according to my three-year-old, they’re in the containment unit. Of course.

Most recently, my four-year-old asked to call the ghostbusters on the phone. So, I sent a quick message to my sister (the one who started this whole obsession) explaining that her phone was about to ring and that when it does, she should answer the phone as the ghostbusters. I then handed the phone to my son and made the call. It was all giggles on my end the moment my sister answered the phone, with a perfect Janine Melnitz accent, Ghostbusters…whadda ya want? He knew it was his aunt on the phone, but he played along.

I love my little ghostbusters.

As I mentioned, I started the South Beach diet a few days ago, which means I’ve temporarily bid adieu to some of my favorite starches and sweet treats. I miss them. But for me, cutting them out for a few weeks is the best way for me to break some of my bad habits and get me started on the road to successful, lasting weight loss. The first couple weeks on South Beach are also really effective in teaching me to appreciate the beauty of other flavors I often pass up for things like chocolate and buttered bagels. Like sweet red peppers. My goodness, you would have thought I was eating candy with the way I oohing over a crisp, super sweet, red pepper yesterday. Then I made this chicken salad for dinner, which is absolutely bursting in delicious flavors and textures. And I stuffed it into a crisp red pepper. I barely even missed the doughy bread I would have normally eaten this chicken salad on. Nothing makes weight loss easier than enjoying truly delicious and nutrition-packed food!

Asian Chicken Salad

Ingredients

  • 2 red bell peppers
  • 1 pound (approximately) chicken, cooked and torn into small pieces*
  • 2/3 cup dry-roasted cashews, coarse chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 3/4 cup bean sprouts, divided
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • 1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek (crushed red chile paste)**

*I poached a few chicken tenderloins, but chicken breast or even leftover roast chicken would work just as well.

**Can substitute ground cayenne pepper, to taste

Directions

Combine the chicken, cashews, green onions, and 1/2 cup of the bean sprouts in a bowl. Rinse the red peppers. Cut the tops off of each pepper, then cut each pepper in half. Set the pepper halves aside for serving. Finely dice any of the red pepper remaining around the stem and add it to the chicken mixture. In a small bowl, stir together the mayo, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sambal oelek. Pour the dressing over the chicken mixture and stir to combine. (You may not need all of the dressing. Add gradually.) Serve the chicken salad in the pepper halves over a bed of lettuce.

Serves 4

Diet Day: 3   Weight Loss: ?   Motivation: Going strong!

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