Thursday, January 28, 2010

'I Can't Believe It Tastes Good' Casserole

photo by windattack on flickr

Every time I make this and think about how healthy it is, I can't believe my kids devour it, even asking for seconds (well, two out of three do and that's pretty good in this household). In fact, it was the kids who named this dish, hence the title above. Even my meat-loving husband said...drumroll please...

"It's Good."

I believe the key to this casserole's success is the green chiles which are not spicy (found in the grocer's mexican section - ole!).

So as you go down the ingredients list and think 'There is no way my family will like this!', think again. You may surprise them - and yourself! If I had to compare the taste to anything, I would say it tastes like Nachos. So tell them it's Nacho Casserole - maybe that'll get them to the table.

Nacho Casserole
(a.k.a. 'I Can't Believe It Tastes Good', a.k.a. Brown Rice Casserole

1/3 cup brown rice
1 cup vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup diced onion
1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced and cubed
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon cumin
salt to taste
1 (15 ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 (4 ounce) can diced green chiles
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Mix the rice and vegetable broth in a pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 45 minutes, or until rice is tender.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a large casserole dish.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the onion until tender. Mix in the zucchini and mushrooms. Season with cumin and salt. Cook and stir until zucchini is lightly browned.

In large bowl, mix the cooked rice, onion, zucchini, mushrooms, beans, chiles, carrots and 1/2 the cheddar cheese.

Transfer to prepared casserole dish and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover casserole loosely with foil and bake 30 minutes in preheated oven. Uncover, and continue baking 10 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned.

note: the picture shows casserole garnished with guacamole and tomatoes but I suggest going 'in the buff' to keep it real (less calories)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Musician's Wife

Funny how doing laundry and the discoveries of wet, wrinkled items unearthed from pant pockets and lint traps can be very telling of a home. The other day, while doing a load of darks, a large, tangled mass of clothes fell out of the dryer as I opened the door.

I wasn't surprised to discover that a broken guitar string had weaved its way in and around my now injured wardrobe; its stiff wire tying the whole load together in a bunch. This string, once a weighty contributor to the ever-present noise brewing from our basement, is now a lifeless nuisance in my laundry.

Nowadays, I don't even try to calculate how my kids' guitar strings end up in the wash. This due to the promise I made over a decade ago, long before they were even born. The guitar string I work to free from its handy work brings me back to the moment I signed up for this sort of mishap fourteen years ago.

The first time my husband asked me out, I was in a bar playing pool with my friends. When he popped the question (do you want to go out sometime?), I turned my head towards him and found myself locked in his sweet stare; those big, green eyes deflating any strength I had in saying no.

We fell in love pretty fast. A few movies and a couple dinners later, we both knew this was the real deal. Things grew serious quickly and we both seemed comfortable with this force pulling us toward our future. So when he said, "Tracey, there's something you need to know about me," my girlish heart dropped in fear. Here it comes. The end of this great ride.

"I have another love," he explained, "and it's my music."

Jeremy went into detail about how he will always work gigs on top of his full-time job. That the home we'd live in together would always be a noisy one. That when he needed time to write and play, I would have to respect it. So many times, he said, his musician buddies were asked to quit by their girlfriends or wives; wanting to pull them away from music and he didn't want to live with the same pressures. Was I, he asked, able to live in a musician's world?

Even though I had a minimal musical background, I was pretty relieved to hear that this was his deep, dark truth . Was I willing to share him? With another woman - never! With music - sure, why not? I could definitely handle that. I was proud of his dedication and talent.

Over the next few years, I learned about the idiosyncrasies that came with this world, including losing parts of our homes to his studios and pieces of our time lost in music stores, jam sessions and rehearsals. I even embraced feeding the masses for band retreats and live shows. Our house, as promised, is noisy. Sometimes I move with the beat. Other times, I just want to beat him.

What I didn't count on was that this wonderful world of music would multiply around me. Three-fold in fact. Today, I not only share my life with one musician but four - by way of our daughter and two sons who have passionately decided to embark on their own journey of sound.

I'm definitely still learning how to be a music Mom. This is new territory for me. What do you do when a band breaks up because someone didn't play with the guitarist at recess? And what do you serve the band for dinner when there are potential peanut and milk allergies? How do you teach compromise to a nine-year-old singer who wants to branch out into playing guitar and bass and drums? Did I mention how loud our house is these days?
Surely, the positives must outweigh the negatives. Turns out, they do.

There are very few activities that require more use of the brain than playing music. In fact, because they use both hemispheres, musicians show a larger capacity for creative or 'divergent' thinking even when not strumming their instruments.

Research at the Universities of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and California-Irvine found children who are exposed to musical training enhance the activity of crucial neural systems and spacial reasoning. Music improves a child's math, language and memory skills.

A massive two-year study in Switzerland scientifically demonstrated that playing music improved a child's verbal and reading skills; thanks to increased levels of concentration, self expression and memory.

Researchers at Brown University found that under-achieving students, when enrolled in a music program, were able to catch up to their peers academically in seven months. After a full year, they surpassed them.

My husband often interacts with teenagers through his music. I have seen the miraculous transformation with these kids when they are taken in by his guitar playing. Teenagers who appear closed off and reserved, magically come out of their shells; wanting to learn and discuss a subject that seems to be the gateway into their thoughts. As a Mom, I don't take for granted that music seems to be the ticket that gains us admittance into our children's lives.

When I first surrendered to my husband's musical community after his admission, I concede I was naive to what I was saying yes to; that it meant much more than tolerating bass-induced vibrating china cabinets. I realize now that he was handing me a very exclusive invitation to be a part of my children's personal and private worlds.

It's true that I may not have realized what I was signing up for when I made that promise years ago. But those guitar strings have had a miraculous way of weaving themselves not only through my laundry but also through our family - binding us together in one tight knot.

guitar string photo by arya.hamedi

Monday, January 25, 2010

photo by Matt Gillespie

When cooking fish, I love to work with Tilapia. It's a very light tasting fish with a buttery texture. By not consuming other aquatic life that harbour mercury (they are a vegetarian fish), Tilapia's mercury levels are significantly low (their short life span and rapid growth are other contributing factors toward these findings).

There is one restaurant in my town that does this dish up perfectly. Alas, I have not brown-nosed the chef enough for him to relinquish his recipe as of yet (I'm working on it!). Until then, I will share my other favourite with you:

Parmesan Tilapia

1/4 cup Parmesan Cheese
1/8 tsp. Onion Powder
1/8 tsp. Celery Salt
Olive Oil
1/2 of 1 Lemon
Salt and Pepper

Preheat your oven's broiler. Mix Parmesan, onion powder and celery salt. Set aside.

Place Tilapia in single layer on greased broiler pan. Brush fish fillets with olive oil. Squeeze fresh lemon over each fillet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sit under broiler for two minutes per side (about 2" from the broiler). Remove from oven and sprinkle tops of fillets with parmesan mixture. Sit fish back under broiler for two minutes being careful not to overcook. Top should be browned and fish should flake easily.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Buffalo Chicken Salad

photo courtesy of arimoore on flickr

Who doesn't love chicken wings and beer? In our town, we actually have a 'Wing-Off' where the local merchants set up booths in our community centre, fiercely competing to show who has the best wings this side of the GTA. There's nothing fancy (and somewhat off-putting) about eating plates full of wings in the same room teens and sweaty hockey players party. Who knows what's landed on those floors over the years? If only that room could talk (on second thought, some things you don't want to know).

Despite the ambiance and heaps of little bird carcasses mounting higher as the night progresses, I love this tasting ritual. Can't say I have a favourite among the vendors; I guess I'm still missing Ajax's Rack 'em Up wings. Alas, they closed down and I have yet to find a wing to match my expectations.

I even remember when I was first introduced to dipping said wings in blue cheese dressing: Burlington circa 1983 at Houlahan's. Good Stuff.

But who can dine on wings every night and not suffer the consequences? So I held true to these flavours and let them take form of a salad. If you like wings, you'll appreciate this one.

photo courtesy of nadi0 on flickr

Buffalo Chicken Salad

1/4 cup Crumbled Blue Cheese (or more if you like)
1/2 cup Low Fat Ranch Dressing
3 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts - cut in 1" cubes
Salt and Pepper
1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1/4 cup Red Hot Sauce (or more if you like it spicy)
1 package salad dressing mix (such as country herb or ranch)
2 Heads Romaine Lettuce

In a small bowl, combine blue cheese and ranch dressing. Set aside. Season cubed chicken with salt and pepper. Heat skillet over high heat. Add olive oil. Once oil is heated, add chicken cubes and cook to brown evenly; about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Add hot sauce and salad dressing mix. Simmer until chicken is cooked through.

Toss together romaine, chicken cubes and ranch dressing mixture in large bowl. Add croutons. Serve with garlic bread and you've got yourself some pub and grub!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hot Appetizers

Ode to Chillin' with Friends

It's that time of year when nothing beats gathering around a fireplace with good food and drink. Kickin' back after a day of skiing, tobogganing or skating makes it even better.

These two recipes are my contribution to your cozy, winter season. I hope they find you settling comfortably with close friends, frothy beers and fuzzy slippers.

Hot Crab Dip

2 cans crab meat
1 cup sour cream
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack Cheese
1 cup white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup capers (found in the pickle section)
2 8 oz. cans artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried dill
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 round loaf sourdough bread

Mix all ingredients in large bowl except for parmesan cheese. Hollow out sourdough bread by cutting a lid off the top and scooping out the bread. Save bread pieces for dipping. Pour dip into bread bowl. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

Bake 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Serve with the bread pieces or crackers.

Hot Artichoke Dip
2 cups Hellmann's mayonnaise
2 cups Asiago cheese
2-3 garlic cloves; crushed
1 - 10 oz. tin artichoke hearts

Mix all and place in hollowed out pumpernickel loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Top should be golden brown. Serve with reserved bread pieces and/or crackers.

photos by
Charlie Essers, asado argentina, wineandchocolate all on flickr

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Healthy Spinach Enchiladas

photo by sonicwalker on flickr

I was looking for a low-fat enchilada recipe and had a hard time finding one that didn't call for loads of cheese. So I whipped up my own version and they turned out fantastic! When the picky eater of our family (everyone's got one) helped himself to seconds, I almost fell off my chair! So that's proof right there that this is a winner. Enjoy!

Tracey's Spinach Enchiladas

1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sliced green onions
2 cloves garlic; minced
2 handfuls fresh baby spinach; chopped
1 cup light ricotta cheese
1/2 cup light sour cream
10 small whole grain tortilla wraps
2 cans (280 ml) mild enchilada sauce
1/2 cup light Mozzarella cheese; grated

Heat olive oil in frying pan. Add green onions and garlic until fragrant - about two minutes. Stir in fresh spinach. Cook until slightly wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Measure ricotta cheese and sour cream in medium sized bowl. Stir in onion mixture and blend together. Set aside.

In a greased, 9 x 12 casserole dish pour a small amount of enchilada sauce. Using spoon, spread sauce so that it covers the bottom of the casserole dish.

Place 1/4 cup of onion mixture on each tortilla wrap. Roll each wrap up and place seam side down into casserole dish. Top wraps with remaining enchilada sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil

Place in 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and top broil if desired.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Parchment Paper Cooking

photo by me!

I've got to pass on my new love for parchment paper cooking. This method is SO easy and allows you to prepare food without the use of oil or butter (thanks to Mom for passing it on).

Another name for this method is 'en papillote' but that's quite a fancy description for this simplistic way of bundling your food ingredients into one, loving package of goodness. What you put in your bundle is up to you: chicken, lemon and rosemary? Or perhaps salmon, dill and lime. Be creative!

Parchment paper can be found in your grocery store right alongside the foil and saran wrap. This is very different than waxed paper, but they look quite similar so don't make the mistake of swapping the two - catastrophic! I speak from experience :/

They say to cut the paper into a heart shape but I like to keep things as basic as possible. So I just tear a large square, place my object of choice on the sheet (chicken or salmon) and season with herbs and citrus fruits. I find the taste can be quite bland if you don't go heavy on the seasonings so don't be skimpy!

To watch a demonstration on working with parchment paper, go to:

Orange Dill Chicken Breasts

Skinless, Boneless Chicken Breast
Fresh Dill
Orange; sliced in rounds
Salt to taste

Tear off large, square sheet of parchment paper. Place chicken on top - a little off from the center. Lay sprigs of fresh dill atop chicken. Add slice of orange. Sprinkle with a bit of salt.

Fold parchment paper over chicken and start gathering the edges together; folding and pinching as you work along the edge. Once you've made your paper bundle, place in oven on cookie sheet.

For Fish: 450 degrees for 12 - 15 minutes
For Chicken: 375 for 30 minutes

Careful when opening packages as steam is quite hot. Garnish with more fresh dill or fruit juice if desired. This method works well with veggies too.

ready for the oven

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Brownies

Meanwhile...back in the kitchen of Tracey Green...

So I'm attempting these Black Bean Brownies and feeling very wary of the outcome. I'm placing all the ingredients into my blender and, so far, loving the simplicity of this recipe. I decided to double the quantity because that's the way I roll. Go hard or go home.

My blender was wondering what was up as I finished adding these foreign ingredients to its interior. "What's with this black stuff?" it questioned. Where is the tequila? The Margaritas? The fruit smoothies? Where are the glasses with the little umbrellas? In a panic, it refused to completely blend the contents in its first attempt.

I continued to intermittently throw the switch back and forth, from on to off, while plunging and dunking the end of a wooden spoon into the sludge in hopes to get all those black beans minced into brownie batter. Upon my final try, I threw the switch to 'on' and my blender answered back, 'Huh? You expect me to keep doing this?' and its engine fried.

I decided to go another route and transferred everything to my food processor. Sweet success!

I poured the batter into a 10" x 13" pan, placed it in the oven and waited. A half hour later, I was confronted with the final taste test.

The Black Bean Brownies were....drumroll please....


Yep. Just okay. But I wasn't sure if I mentally couldn't get passed the knowledge that legumes were messing around with my chocolate. A hook-up I didn't know I was ready to accept. So I wrapped up said brownies and took them to the school with me when I went to pick up my kids. I pushed my brownies onto some poor, unsuspecting Moms (sorry Kim, Carol, Linda and Antonietta!). And their verdicts were: "delicious, fudgy, can I have the recipe?".

Now, I'm not sure if they were just being polite but I'm going to take their words at face value. After all, these are nice, honest ladies whose opinions I respect! Also, the kids came home and dove right in, asking for seconds and thirds. So that says something.

I'll leave it up to the rest of you to decide whether these are worth gracing your kitchens. In the meantime, I'm adding 'New Kitchen Blender' to my Mother's Day wish list. (Jeremy, are you reading this!? Our poolside Margaritas depend on it!)

Black Bean Brownies
this is the doubled version

2 cans black beans (rinsed and drained)
6 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 pinches salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place all ingredients (except for chocolate chips) into food processor or blender ( you know my sentiments on this!). Once it is all blended together, fold in chocolate chips.

Pour into greased 10" x 13" dish (I'm sure a 9" x 12" would be fine too) and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Let cool, cut into squares and serve.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Black Beans

photo by Susan/The Well-Seasoned Cook on flickr

My entire family loves black beans. Even the kids. I crave this nutrition-packed legume and I find it has made an impact in a lot of our home cooking. From Tex Mex Potatoes, to pan-fried black beans served atop a salad, they are a big Green Household Favourite.

But when I came across a recipe for Black Bean Brownies, that's where I had to draw the line. No one messes with my chocolate! Black bean brownies sounded, well, repulsive. In an attempt to replace the evil white flour, these legumes are being asked to party it up in the mixer alongside the chocolate chips.

As revolting as it sounds, how can I turn my back on the idea that my two favourite foods, when intermingled, could form the perfect marriage? So I'll be trying it out this week and I'll fill you in on whether they make the grade or not. If so, I'll post the recipe.

If you've never been one to stop in the canned vegetable aisle long enough to throw a couple cans in your shopping cart, you may want to rethink this next time you're in the store. And here's why:
  • The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry notes Black Beans as an antioxidant Superstar
  • High in fibre, great for lowering cholesterol
  • Prevents blood sugar levels from rising after meals (good for diabetics)
  • High in protein - muscle building power
  • Protects against cancer; even known to reduce the number of pre-cancerous cells
  • Very heart healthy
  • High in folate and magnesium
  • Replenishes iron giving you more energy

FYI, canned black beans are equal in nutrition to those you cook yourself. Throw them in a pot of chili, use as a pizza topping or scatter them on your nachos. I can't leave you empty handed until the brownie experiment so I'll post the Tex Mex Recipe. Enjoy!

photo by arsheffield on flickr

Tex-Mex Potatoes
We usually do this up as a main course but it also serves well as a side dish.

2 cups salsa
1 (15 oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 large can of corn niblets
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
*6 baking potatoes: cooked, baked, halved with potato pulp scooped out
Reserved Potato Pulp

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine salsa, beans, corn, cilantro and potato pulp. Season with salt and ground black pepper.

Refill potato skins with potato mixture. Bake for 20 minutes; top with sour cream and cheese if desired.

*to prepare potatoes, place in 350 degree preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until fork tender. Slice off the tops and scoop out potato pulp.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Blessings in Disguise

Don't you love blessings in disguise?

photo by popsdigital on flickr

Sunday we awoke to ambitions of enjoying the last day of Christmas break on the slopes. All pumped and ready to go, we dismally looked out the window as reality hit hard. Windy and temps of -25 sent images of skiing with three whiny kids and frozen toes. Ick. I'd rather stick my tongue to a metal pole.

So we set our sights on checking out a brand new indoor biking facility in Markham; this new arena promising 90,000 square feet of fun. Ah, to blow the dust off recent memories of bike rides spent under the canopies of Glen Major (was that really just 45 days ago that we felt the sun on our faces as our tires spun freely over Three Rock? Sigh...).

With bikes curiously wondering what they were doing out of storage in the middle of winter, we arrived at JoyRide-150. Our eyes widened as we took in the scenery: scads of pump tracks, woop-dee-doos, logs and obstacles. They even had an X-track that you could do laps on for those yearning for the trails. Our family ranged from beginner to intermediate so we were relieved there was something for everyone.

While my boys rode off and hit every jump they could find, my daughter meandered through the beginner section; a little nervous about spreading her wings (or tires) to other parts of the park. We chose to go and watch the boys at the foam pit for a change of scenery. Here, bikers can launch themselves down a ramp and up another, catching some air at the top and landing in a big pile of foam. The boys and I gave it a go and soon discovered the freedom of landing without injury.

We decided to break for lunch and enjoyed our packed sandwiches and yogurts (yes, you can bring your own food, although they sell pizza and other stuff at the vendor counter). Two fireplaces and big screens were this area's focal point but I was too distracted by the alluring scent of someone's crock pot full of chili. What a great idea. Definitely packing my own crock pot for our next visit.

As the day wore on and we all became accustomed to the terrain, I was amazed when my daughter announced she'd like to try the foam pit. I was really taken aback by her bravery! As she stood high on the ramp with her front tire on the edge, I was so proud of her. She was about to do something she clearly feared. With teeth clenched (mine, not hers) she threw her front tire over the ramp, cruised at top speed and up the launch, landing soundlessly into a cloud of foam cubes. Way to go, Sam. Perhaps an inspiring lesson for us all when we feel fear gripping our ambitions.

Turns out this place will be the perfect mental therapy for surviving the long, winter days that loom ahead.

I urge each family to check out JoyRide for their own biking adventures and memories. You don't have to be die-hard riders to love this place. The $25 per person is well worth it, cheaper than any lift ticket, and you can bring your own equipment (that you probably have in your garage as I type this). Some other info that may help you plan your trip:

  • It's a bit chilly inside the park so plan to wear a sweatshirt until you get warmed up.
  • You can rent bikes for $15 (Jeremy and I did) but know that they come with no gears.
  • Rental bikes cannot go in the foam pit.
  • I wouldn't suggest clipping in for this park. Some people were, but you start and stop quite a bit for other bikers.
  • The atmosphere is very comparable to a ski resort; so you can pack your own lunch or buy it.
  • They have lockers but you need to rent a lock (or you can bring your own).

A final thanks to the gusting winds of Sunday. Without you, the day wouldn't have been possible.

More to Chew On...

Along For the Ride

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