Lemon-Berry Muffins

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Can you believe Christmas is less than a week away? I can’t wait to be with my family, drinking hot cocoa and decorating cookies. My family is generally less traditional than most on Christmas (we would rather pick out our presents than have the element of surprise on Christmas morning), but we still do some things every single year. We always eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast before we dive into the presents, and we always have cookies and chocolates galore.

This year, we’re also getting together with several of my cousins. The various members of my extended family are more or less moving targets, where everyone leads busy, exciting lives, so I am extra happy that, for the first time in a long time, we’ll all be together again. I feel more joyous this year than any Christmas in the past!

Though I’m not traveling until next Tuesday (Christmas Eve), most of my friends and colleagues at work have taken all of next week, and some even the week after, off for the holidays. I spent many hours embossing cards and decorating envelopes last night so I could distribute handmade holiday cards to my coworkers. I am so pleased with the way they turned out and I hope everyone likes them!

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Onto less Christmas-y things… 🙂

I have mentioned before that breakfast is the single most difficult and stressful meal of my day. I’m wishy-washy about me feelings on eggs (although I recently made an egg dish that I loved and will be sharing soon!), cereal and oatmeal get boring REALLY fast, and since breakfast meats are obviously not an option, I’m left with sugary sweet dessert-like breakfast foods. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love donuts as much as the next girl, and though Krispy Kreme donuts on the regular would be my dream, I’d be about 500 pounds with clogged arteries by age 30. So, that’s not an option either. I get cranky and sluggish if I ever skip breakfast, and it just sets me up for a certain level of dietary failure for the rest of the day.

To add further complexities to my breakfast conundrum, I leave my apartment at 6:30am on workdays, when my thoughts are still monosyllabic and I operate under conditioned, reflexive motions that allow little flexibility to add “making breakfast” to the mix. I’m barely awake and functioning, and I’m expected to make breakfast? What?! To circumvent this issue, I get my breakfast, lunch and various snacks ready for work the night before. Lunch is usually leftovers from dinner, and lately my snacks have been clementines because they are so good and I eat them like candy. For breakfast, I either bring something I can microwave and is contained in a single piece of Tupperware, like eggs or oatmeal, or I bake muffins.

Muffins are the best. The best kind (read: full-fat kind) are buttery and decadent and bursting with sweet flavor. In the past, when I’ve made “low fat” or “guilt-free” muffins, they aren’t the same by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, for starters, they never even rise up to give that beautiful muffin top shape. I think that’s the only time in my life I’ve ever said “beautiful muffin top,” by the way. “Healthy” muffins tend to be drier and crumblier too, so the texture is way, way off.

But for the first time, this week, I baked muffins that have more full-fat taste without being full-fat. I adapted a recipe that I found here. In fact these muffins are only 5 Weight Watchers Points Plus (by my own calculations), whereas a regular muffin can run you anywhere from 8 to 12 Points Plus! My favorite part of these muffins though? The muffin top, of course!

Lemon-Berry Muffins
Serves: 12 (1 muffin per serving)
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes

Ingredients:
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup of sugar (or Splenda sugar substitute)
1 cup nonfat milk
1/4 cup of vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen mixed berries

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray or line a muffin tin with paper liners.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk lemon juice and sugar together until well combined. Add milk, oil, eggs and vanilla extract and beat on low until smooth.
  3. In large bowl, whisk both flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the milk mixture slowly and combine. Carefully fold in the berries. Divide the batter equally into the muffin cups.
  4. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the tops are golden and springy to touch, and the muffins pass the “clean toothpick” test. Cool, and enjoy!

 

 

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Weekly Menus

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Eating well can be complicated and overwhelming. Not only do you constantly have to use as much will power as possible to avoid office treats and late night snacking, but mealtime can be frustrating and confusing. Particularly during the holidays, will power is mostly questionable. Just this morning, our office secretary knocked on my door to say that she brought in a homemade pecan crisp and she had replenished her jar of candy canes on her desk — Lois, the things you do to me and my diet!

One trick that I learned to keep me organized and calm about my meals was to create a weekly menu. Every Monday morning, I outline my meals for the week, as well as snacks if I get hungry in between. It is so helpful to visually see my week in meals, and it keeps me from putzing around the kitchen, grazing in the pantry, while wondering what to it. It also prevents me from caving in and ordering take out or making a box of macaroni and cheese. Also, it is incredibly helpful for grocery shopping. I buy exactly what I need, and no more than that, so less food is wasted.

When planning my meals, I follow these guidelines:

  1. Use the same or similar ingredients throughout the week. It’s incredibly wasteful to buy a whole bunch of cilantro for just one dish that calls for 2 tablespoons of cilantro. Instead, I try to make sure perishable ingredients are used several times during the week, so that I am sure they will be used before they spoil. Additionally, recipes that include canned foods like beans or tomato sauce should be treated the same way, if your recipes don’t include using the whole can.
  2. Embrace leftovers. During the work week, I usually take leftovers from the previous night’s dinner for lunch. This makes my life SO much easier — I have fewer meals to worry about, and I can make two meals at once! Also, it is so much easier to make 2 portions of a dish than 1 portion when I’m cooking for myself.
  3. Use your menu as a grocery store guide. Your menu will tell you exactly what ingredients you need for the week. Let that be your road map in the grocery store, and try not to stray into the cookie aisle! (It happens though…)
  4. Variety isn’t always necessary. Breakfast is the single hardest meal for me to plan, particularly because I go to work so early and I need something that travels well in my lunchbox. I usually try to plan just one or two simple recipes that I can throw together easily or make all at once, like muffins or breakfast breads. This makes my 6:15am brain happy, and my 8:00am tummy even happier.
  5. But variety and experimentation never hurts! I like incorporate new, exciting recipes into my meal plans along side tried and true go-to recipes. It keeps my week exciting, without being too stressful trying to learn new recipes all the time.
  6. Schedule in time to eat out. I love my friends, and my family, and Chirag. And we all love eating. A lot. Quite frankly, if I refused every dinner invitation, I probably wouldn’t have much of a social life. Just try to make smart decisions about eating out, and if you can, take a peek at the restaurant’s menu beforehand and narrow down a short list of healthy options that sound yummy. I always try to eat lighter meals before eating out so that I can enjoy my restaurant meal to the fullest… and maybe even split a dessert too! 🙂
  7. Plan your meals around your life, not the other way around. Do you have to work late on Wednesday? Can’t get home until late on Thursday? Leaving work early on Friday? On-the-go all day on Saturday? Plan to make your quickest and easiest meals on your busiest days, and save those more tedious ones for when you have more time.
  8. Have fun with it!! I don’t treat my menu like a steadfast binding contract. I leave some wiggle room (snacks are generally optional, if I feel hungry between meals), and if my aunt invites me over for a home-cooked meal, you can bet that I’m saying yes, letting my previously planned dinner move to the back burner. Menu planning isn’t always exciting, and on most Monday mornings when I’m writing my menu, I’m half asleep and in a daze. I brighten things up with colors and swirls to keep up the energy all week!

 

Sweet Potato Tikka with Coriander Chutney

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In our family, sweet potatoes always make an appearance at Thanksgiving. My mom would make this amazing whipped sweet potato dish that I loved, but I think she and I were the only ones that actually liked it. My dad wasn’t exactly a fan. Last year, I tried something new, and created a sweet potato dish with an Indian twist, and it was easily the best part of our Thanksgiving meal.

I made these sweet potato tikkas (or patties) again this year, and dad and I had them on Thanksgiving night, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday evening, because they were so good. On Saturday, I paired these tikkas with Chole to create a layered, deep flavor profile, and it was the BEST use of leftovers ever. I have a feeling that next year, chole will be included in our Thanksgiving spread. 

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Coriander chutney is a staple in Indian cuisine. If you’ve ever been to an Indian restaurant, they always give a small side green chutney (that’s the coriander chutney) and tamarind chutney (it’s sweeter and maroon in color) with papad/papadum (crispy discs made of black gram). Coriander chutney can be slightly spicy and fairly citrusy and bright. Indians eat coriander chutney with a myriad of dishes, so it’s a fairly useful condiment to know how to make. Of course, you can buy it prepackaged in an Indian grocery store. My dad also likes to make a big batch and then freeze small portions into ice cube trays, so he can defrost little portions as he needs them. Smart guy!

Sweet Potato Tikka with Coriander Chutney
Serves: 6-8 (makes 3-4 patties per person)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
For the Tikka
4 sweet potatoes
â…“ cup finely chopped white onion
1 tbsp. finely grated ginger
1 tbsp. finely chopped garlic
â…“ cup finely chopped cilantro
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh green chili
2 tbsp. gram flour (chickpea flour/chana besan)
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. garam masala
½ tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. ground red pepper
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
½ lime
oil, as needed

For the Chutney
1/2 clove garlic
1 green chili
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
4 cups fresh cilantro, loosely packed
1-2 tablespoons water
Salt, to taste

  1. For the Tikkas: Put sweet potatoes in pot and fill with water. Cover and boil on high heat for approximately 30 minutes or until the potatoes can be pierced with a fork without resistance.
  2. Set potatoes aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes with your hands and put into a large bowl. Mash with a potato masher.
  3. In the meantime, mix ginger, garlic, cilantro and chili until a coarse paste is formed.
  4. Add onions, seasonings, garlic-ginger paste, flour, lime and breadcrumbs to potatoes. Mash and mix until well-incorporated.
  5. For the Chutney: blend all ingredients until smooth.
  6. Heat oil in a saute pan on medium heat. Using your hands, form 2-inch wide patties from the potato mixture.
  7. Cook tikkas for about 4 minutes, or until brown, then flip and repeat. Serve warm with coriander chutney.

Caramelized Onion Gravy

Gravy is one of those things that vegetarians usually don’t get to enjoy. It almost always has chicken or beef or turkey or some other meat stock, and it’s truly upsetting to me. I mean, my potatoes often go naked! I mean, I guess it’s not a bad thing all the time, because I sometimes use straight up butter as a makeshift gravy, and that’s okay with me. But every Thanksgiving, I make gravy.

For my family, making gravy is tough. Most vegetarian gravies are made out of mushrooms because they are the “meatiest” vegetarian option, but my dad hates mushrooms. I don’t know why, but I can understand it, I guess. Anyway, every year I have to make onion gravy, which is easy to make but so easy to mess up. But here’s a simple and flavorful recipe of buttery, salty, creamy, vegetarian gravy. Serve this up with my Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes! 🙂

Caramelized Onion Gravy

Serves: 16
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon plus 4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely diced onion
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups reduced sodium vegetable broth
Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. With the heat on low, melt one tablespoon of the butter in a small or medium saucepan.
  2. Increase heat to medium, and add the onion. Cook the onion 10 – 15 minutes, until it is caramelized.
  3. Remove as much of the onion as possible from the saucepan (don’t rinse out the pan though!)
  4. Keeping the heat on medium, add the remaining four tablespoons of butter and the four tablespoons of flour.
  5. Cook the roux (the butter and flour), stirring constantly, for 3 – 5 minutes.
  6. Add back the onions, then stir in the two cups of vegetable broth.  Continue stirring over medium heat until the gravy starts to boil.
  7. Lower heat to a simmer and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir occasionally until the gravy becomes thick and smooth.

Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes

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Confession: I am and have always been and forever will be addicted to mashed potatoes. I’m fairly convinced that the poofy clouds that I imagine are in heaven are actually made of mashed potatoes, and each bowl of earthly mashed potatoes is hand delivered by angels. Okay, that might be dramatic, but my love for potatoes, and especially mashed potatoes, is real.

When I was a kid, one of the first things I learned to “make” for myself was instant mashed potatoes. You know, those dehydrated potato flakes that come in a box? Yeah, those. I’d make them just about every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend, and sometimes even during the week. I was a pretty unhealthy child, okay, what’s it to you? Anyway, as you probably know by now, I was an insanely picky eater, so when I liked something, it was miraculous and my mother let me just run with it. Mashed potatoes are my jam, so I’ve spent the better part of the last 25 years running with it.

In more recent years, I have outgrown the strangely-lumpy-yet-soupy texture of boxed mashed potatoes. Fortunately for my waistline, real mashed potatoes are much more time consuming, so I don’t make them that often, but when I do, you best believe that I savor every. last. bite. Also, there are scant any leftovers. Every. Last. Bite. Remember?

Mashed potatoes are a great blank canvas, and a staple Thanksgiving food. In previous years, I’ve added different vegetables, herbs, garlic, cheeses, sour cream, and different ratios of cream and butter. This year, I tried something different — cream cheese. And, not to toot my own horn or anything, but my dad and I agreed that these were the best potatoes in the history of our family’s Thanksgiving dinners. Success! This recipe is adapted from The Pioneer Woman, but I of course made some modifications. I also served this with Caramelized Onion Gravy.

Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes
Serves: 8-10
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients:
5 pounds Russet Or Yukon Gold Potatoes
1&1/2 sticks Butter
1 package (8 Oz.) Cream Cheese, Softened
1/2 cup (to 3/4 Cups) cream
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp pepper, or to taste

  1. Boil potatoes in a pressure cooker until 4-5 whistles have gone off. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into large pieces. Place potato pieces into a large pot over low heat. Mash with a potato masher.
  2. Turn off the stove and add butter, cream cheese and cream to potatoes and mash again.
  3. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, and heat potatoes on low-medium heat, stirring frequently, until warmed through. Serve hot with my Caramelized Onion Gravy.

Thanksgiving Recap

The past few weeks have been absolutely wonderful. I love the holidays and all of the joy the season brings. From Thanksgiving until New Years, everyone seems slightly happier despite the shifting temperatures (read: cold), and there’s a definite sense of camaraderie among strangers. Or, maybe that’s just in the Midwest. Whatever it is, I am truly grateful to have spent the past few weekends with loved ones, and I am so excited to spend Christmas with my family, and am especially excited to celebrate my niece’s first Christmas with her.

I spent Thanksgiving with my dad at his place in the south, which by the way was no warmer than it is up here. I was severely disappointed by the temperature, but the moderate-yet-more-than-Ohio-has-gotten-in-a-while sunshine was a pleasant consolation prize. And of course, my dad is the cutest and the bestest ever, so seeing him made me a million times happier.

There are a few days in the year that “fat free” ingredients just won’t cut it, and Thanksgiving is absolutely one of them. Other such days include Christmas, New Years Eve (hors d’oeurves and champagne galore!), the Super Bowl (a variety of dips are the best part of any sporting event), your birthday, your significant other’s birthday (they can’t eat chocolate cake alone, you know?), and National Chocolate Day, obviously. This year’s Thanksgiving menu was no exception. We used real butter, real cream, real cheese, real deliciousness.

The key here is portion control, and combining small portions of heavy, fatty, yummy entrees and sides with lighter, healthier options too. Which is why we made a salad, obviously.

Many people are curious to know what vegetarians eat at Thanksgiving in lieu of a turkey. When the table consists of mostly meat-eaters/turkey lovers, vegetarians often resign to eating a plate full of gravy-less mashed potatoes and bread rolls. While I do load up on mashed potatoes every year, our fully vegetarian meal features some sort of pasta (usually ravioli or lasagna) as the main entree. Always carby and delicious.

Here’s a picture of our spread (individual recipes to follow):
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Clockwise: Caramelized Onion Gravy,  Sweet Potato Tikka with Corriander Chutney, Apple and Raspberry Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese, Cream Cheese Mashed Potatoes, Daddy’s Special Lentil Soup, French Baguette, and Four Cheese Ravioli with Tomato-Cream Sauce and Fresh Basil.

Dad and I are generally extremely informal when it comes to Thanksgiving, because, well, it’s usually just the two of us. Therefore, we sat on the sofa, used the coffee table as the dinner buffet, and watched football/Harry Potter while we ate. But we did bring out fancier plates! It’s important to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t about the formalities and the fine china and extensive tablescapes. My Thanksgiving this year was my perfect Thanksgiving, spent with my most incredible father (who I still call Daddy all the time by the way), eating yummy food that we only get to eat once a year, browsing the sale ads in the newspaper, creating a strategy for the shopping to follow, and sharing a giant bowl of chocolate ice cream with my dad, in our sweats, at midnight.

Dad and I at a late night screening of ‘Last Vegas’. 

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Mixed Vegetable Soup

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Guys, can we be for real for a second? Vegetables aren’t all that tasty, and it’s okay to admit it. They can be bland, or bitter, or in desperate need of cheese and salt (I’m looking at you, broccoli), and while they might be super healthy, they aren’t necessarily what I crave. That being said, I’m in a perpetual state of needing to incorporate more vegetables into my diet. I know, I know, I’m a vegetarian, but really, it’s fairly easy to exist entirely on carbs… yummy, delicious, carby carbs. mmm….

Anyway, when I came across a recipe on Weight Watchers for a broth-based vegetable soup, I was hesitant. I’ve never been a fan of most broth-based and/or mixed vegetable soups (bring on the broccoli cheddar!) but I thought this would be a nice challenge for myself. Worst case, I reaffirm my dislike for most vegetables and I move on. Also, I faintly remember my mom going on and on about this “amazing” 0 Point (now 1 Point on the Points Plus program) soup — I was skeptical then too, especially after the horrific fruit and veggies smoothie she made for me and Kunal one afternoon. Somehow, she and my dad loved those smoothies and many of her other healthy food recipes, but Kunal and I could NOT get on board. But, I figured, mom must’ve had a point, so I went along with it.

And boy, was she right. It is flavorful, hearty, and filling. On a cold day like today, it is perfectly warm, but not at all heavy. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I am reformed and suddenly I love raw kale and want to eat Swiss chard with every meal, but I will say that I have found the perfect way to incorporate tons of veggies into my diet in a really simple, concise way.

A tip before I get started with the recipe — feel free to modify the list of vegetables that I put forth to your tastes, as well as whatever is accessible and in season. I modified the original Weight Watchers recipe to my tastes and I’m really glad that I did. I would recommend using more fibrous vegetables (eg. root vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower) and leafy greens that will wilt nicely, as there is quite a bit of simmering time involved in this recipe. Vegetables that easily get mushy or break apart won’t hold up in the cooking process, but if you really want those veggies, add them in about halfway through the simmering stage to cook them through.

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Mixed Vegetable Soup
Serves: 12 (~1 cup per serving)
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients (see notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups uncooked baby spinach, roughly chopped
2 cups uncooked Swiss chard, roughly chopped
2 cups uncooked cauliflower, small florets
2 cups uncooked broccoli, small florets
1 medium uncooked onion, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
2 Tbsp Italian seasoning
6 cups reduced sodium vegetable broth
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp black pepper, or to taste
2-3 Tbsp lemon juice, or to taste

  • Put garlic, vegetables, and broth into a large soup pot, and stir to mix. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to low and simmer, partly covered, about 10 minutes. (see notes)
  • Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Notes:
You can save a lot of time by using frozen vegetables too!
I like to stir my soup every couple minutes to make sure it is cooking evenly.