6/6/18-Farmers’ Market Fresh
While the abundance of a farmers’ market may seem the last place to shop for solo meals, the overflowing displays of festive, just harvested vegetables and fruits is the ideal place to find the most delicious and most sensible additions to your solo meals and snacks. Produce purchased at a farmers’ market are super fresh, often picked the day of the market or the day before. This is of great advantage to those of us who cook solo. They will last much longer when we take them home. Unless, of
course, they are so tasty that storage will not be an issue at all!
Get to know your farmers market vendors, just as I have suggested with your grocers and the staff in the produce department. Find out when the market opens for the day and go as early as possible when the market is likely less crowded and the farmers are more able to answer questions. Take your own bags or knapsack and even a small cooler with an ice pack if you might buy cheeses, eggs or meats. The growers are experts in their crops and will be ready with tips for storage and often ideas for preparation and cooking.
The current early season crops, here in the Upper Midwest, are a splendid introduction to cooking and eating market fresh food. Spring offerings are generally from young plants and need minimal preparation. The fleeting crops like asparagus are mandatory treats during their short season.
Growers need to thin out their rows of carrots, onions, beets and other root vegetables that grow underground, so the first crop will be tinier than their full grown future cousins. The first of the carrots are small, tender and sweet. Lettuces and spinaches joyfully appear with far more flavor than their store-bought relatives and should be savored as they are not available during the hottest part of the summer.
A further advantage of farmers’ market shopping is the cost savings. The cost of transportation from a thousand or more miles away and the up-charge of the grocery store is eliminated. So, freshness, quality, taste and cost savings all make farmers’ markets a logical place to shop. You can buy as much or as little as you choose, whether you want one pound or five pounds of carrots is up to you, but you know they are fresh, they store well and are saving you money.
Food Prep Note: If you steam fresh vegetables in a microwave, in a bowl with a small amount of water, be sure not to overcook them. Underestimate the cooking time a bit and test them so they have a slight bit of firmness left. This is where the Italian term of al dente is worth understanding. Al dente is Italian for to the tooth. Your vegetable (or pasta) when it is cooked should have some tooth left to it and not be mushy.
I’ll discuss markets and other ways to enjoy these jewels throughout the growing season.
2/21/18-Grab & Go Groceries
As we rush, and sometimes slog, through our busy days and weeks, we may not realize that we are on the leading edge of trends that shape what is sold to us and how it is sold.
What would seem like opposite needs: the desire to eat balanced, healthful meals and the need to find quick, delicious food can frequently be found freshly made at your grocer. As displayed in full service supermarket delis, ethnic specialty food shops and convenience shops, ready-to-eat foods are the fastest growing segment of the grocery business. Reviewing the wide variety of such offerings can contribute to the craft and finesse of eating solo in ways you might not expect.
Salad bars are the most common grab & go option and can help you build other meals. The cut vegetables can provide the basis for your pasta or potato salad, or for a stir fry with rice. The cut fresh fruit can provide a companion to your morning granola or oatmeal.
Many Produce Sections now offer a vast selection of packaged, ready-cut vegetables and fruit. The carrots and celery sticks that you pick up to eat with hummus can also be used as part of the chili you plan to make. See previous post, “Chili from the Shelf.” Yes, the ready cut items are a bit costlier, but you are paying for the convenience of saving some time and you won’t have the unusable parts or wasted fruits or vegetables, which makes the whole items costlier when part of it gets tossed out.
Many full service grocers are going so far as to have chefs on staff to develop quite a varied array of Heat & Serve entrees and side dishes which may be offered in their display case or pre-packaged. Everything from oven roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes for dinner to pasta and high protein grain salads are available to pack for lunch. If you have any food allergies or sensitivities, they should have ingredients lists for each prepared dish.
The Heat & Serve Section can provide meats and other entrees that might not be practical to make for one like a half rack of ribs, pot roast, pulled pork, or prime rib. Often times, there is a “Daily Specials” list that can likely be found on the store’s website. I would recommend buying the items that are displayed refrigerated rather than ones that are displayed in heated wells, as they could sit on the heat too long and dry out. Be sure that the label has instructions for proper heating when you get the item home.
As you venture beyond the large supermarket to the ethnic grocers, you can find unique ready-to-eat specialties. I can think of Italian stores in three different cities that have wonderful prepared entrees and salads ready to pick up. Savory spicy meatballs and a hearty slice of lasagna are great additions to the monthly rotation.
The Mexican shop may have their specialty tamales, freshly made tortilla chips, or their secret recipe guacamole. If your city has a Greektown or a Chinatown, seek out the grocer and look for their specialties that they have prepared with pride. These are very often their signature offerings, like a Greek spinach feta pie, called spanakopita, that customers have been coming back to buy for years. If you are not sure what something is, ask. These specialty shops truly have pride in their items and love talking about their food.
Not only is a well-balanced, healthful diet necessary for our well-being, but a balanced approach to food preparation is necessary as we balance all the demands on our time. The goal doesn’t have to be to make everything from scratch when we have choices that can fill our plate with delicious variety.
There are few things more satisfying after a long work or school day than comfort food that is ready-to-eat. A whole rotisserie chicken can be picked up on your way home and then become part of a, delicious, easy meal. What can be more comforting than the juvenile joy of eating with your hands and not being scolded, while noshing on juicy chicken off the bones of a drumstick or wing!
A whole chicken may seem a large purchase for solo dining but it can become a useful addition to the craft and finesse of eating solo. The meat leftover after that satisfying dinner can be utilized in a variety of ways, either for lunch to-go items or upcoming meals at home.
Many full service grocery stores offer rotisserie chickens, found in a warming box, usually near the Prepared Foods Deli or the Meat Counter. Roasting chickens whole is an ideal way to cook them as the meat stays succulent and flavorful as it cooks on the bone. The pieces will easily pull apart since the chicken has become ultra-tender in the slow roasting process. The drumstick, thigh, and breast pieces will easily separate from the central body.
Some evenings, I can devour half the chicken, usually all the dark meat first, the flavorful thighs and drumsticks. A meal can come together even quicker if you have on hand some pasta, rice or potatoes that you had cooked extra of the night or two before. A reliable frozen vegetable can be added or you could have picked up a side dish when you picked up the chicken at the Prepared Foods Deli.
The leftover meat will most effectively be stripped from the bones will it is still fresh and has not yet been refrigerated. I go through this process twice, first to pull large pieces off. Then I will do a more detailed picking second time through to make sure there are no smaller bone or connective pieces remaining. Be sure to also pull the meat off the central body section also. Then place the meat on a cutting board and chop into bite size pieces. It should be used within 5 days of purchase.
The leftover chicken could become chicken salad for work lunches. Mix diced chicken with some small diced celery, onion, or bell pepper, mayonnaise, salt and other favorite seasoning blend, like a southwest Blend or Italian blend, then layer between spinach on whole grain bread. Chicken tacos, chicken curry, sesame chicken or chicken soup can also be options with the remaining chicken. Keep in mind that this chicken is, of course, already cooked so can be added at the end of a skillet preparation like a stir fry or a curry. If the chicken was raw, it would be cooked in the skillet first, then removed from the pan, and added back after sautéing you choice of veggies.
Also, because the chicken is already cooked, it will need some coaxing to add seasoning. A marinade is effective with raw chicken, because it will soak into the raw meat, but a marinade will not be as effective with already cooked meat. To use rotisserie chicken for a taco or a curry, make slurry with some of the dry seasoning. For example, put 2 tablespoons of taco seasoning into a medium bowl and add 2 tablespoons of water and whisk with a fork. This is the slurry. Add the pulled chicken into the bowl and combine with seasoning. Or, you can use a liquid pre-made sauce that you have purchased to season chicken. A teriyaki sauce, peanut sauce, or cooking salsa would be suitable choices.
The rotisserie chicken is another example of the rotating list of ingredients, some fresh and some prepared, which can become part of evolving meal plans.
1/10/18-Greening Up Winter
We who have lived in the Upper Midwest for many decades intimately know of this phenomenon called winter. Currently, extended regions of the country are learning about the perils of the frigid season. We may not realize how much it can alter routines like our eating habits until we start to crave fresh, green vegetables. For me, that usually comes at about the same time that the New Year’s resolution to eat healthier comes back around.
Dark green, leafy spinach is one of my must-haves as it supplies crunch, versatility and nutritional benefits. Although I would rather purchase veggies in season at the peak of their flavor preferably at a farmers’ market, it is these cold winter days that force produce purchases at the grocery store. I want to eat fresh veggies but I don’t want to have too many around and have to waste them. I’m most pleased when I find those ingredients that have multiple uses. Spinach can go way beyond crunchy raw salads in its varied uses.
I rarely have a problem using it up before its shelf life. Baby spinach and spinach blends are usually sold ready to use and will say triple washed on the label. I can buy a package and put some on my sandwiches I will make for my work lunch, throw some into the skillet with eggs, or right at the last minute with pasta or skillet potatoes. A simple grilled cheese sandwich can be stacked with spinach. Because spinach can be eaten raw, just barely cooking it works great, using the heat of the skillet after removed from the heat to quickly warm it up.
Salad mixes, with spinach as a main character, will offer even more variety. They can be sold under the name of “power greens” or “antioxidant blend” and might include spinach, arugula, mizuna, chard or kale. I often prefer a large leaf spinach, rather than baby spinach. I prefer the fuller flavor of the large leaf and its ability to hold up better to a light sauté or a toss into pasta. One of my favorite kitchen smells is spinach when it hits a warm pan. It smells green. OK, my kitchen nerd is now clashing with my passion for veggies! But, it does, truly smell like green if green had a smell. I envision the dark green leaves being opened up with the heat, ready for our palette.
Better yet, a nutritionist will tell you the darker the green the more nutritious the veggie, packed with vitamins and minerals, especially helpful when fending off winter colds and flus. Spinach and other dark leafy greens are an all-around beneficial choice. Oh yes, I almost forgot the crunchy deliciousness. Spinach is so much more flavorful than lettuces. There is a proper place for a lettuce, a Caesar salad, for example, but I will, almost always, opt for spinach or a dark leafy blend.
And because of the sturdier leaves, they will hold up to heartier winter salad ingredients like segments of orange, toasted nuts or seeds, aged cheeses like parmesan or roasted, sliced root vegetables like beets. One word of wisdom about crunchy raw salads: use a mixing bowl and cautiously add the salad dressing and toss with the ingredients rather than drizzling the dressing over the salad, so the salad isn’t overdressed. Although I try to use as little kitchen ware as possible when preparing solo, it’s worth using the extra mixing bowl for tossing and have a well-dressed salad.
Spinach will almost always be in the crisper drawer of my refrigerator. It has become one of my essential ingredients that can help me stick to my year-long resolution of being kind to myself and can enliven the craft and finesse of eating solo.
12/6/17-Picking and Choosing
One of the keys, I think, in the craft and finesse of eating solo is developing a variety of favorite flavors by creating a rotation of fresh and shelf stable ingredients. The excitement of
finding those ingredients has turned me into a food sleuth. As you become a strategic shopper and build the useful items on your kitchen shelves, you will investigate the intricacies of the departments of your favorite food stores, and seek out specialty shops like an Italian grocer, bakeries and delis.
Taking a tradition like Italian antipasto and making it your own can initiate the process. There are those evenings when dinner doesn’t have to involve any cooking at all, in the midst of a busy work or school week. Antipasto is traditionally the first course in a large Italian meal but its palette of ingredients can become a meal in itself.
Just like antipasto ingredients will vary depending on the region of Italy, you can create your own evolving rotation of ingredients, many of which will be useful as parts of other meals. Stop at your favorite bakery for a thin, long French bread, a baguette, or a batard, which is a shorter wider loaf. Some bakeries will make a demi-baguette. Demi means half sized.
The combinations of antipasto are many. The result is different flavor options on each bite of bread: pesto and parmesan, sausage and provolone on olive oil dipped bread, tuna and olives, hummus and fresh red pepper, feta and olives, artichoke hearts and pepperoni, roasted garlic and white beans, and on and on. All on this list are certainly not necessary each time but can become rotating options:
- Cheeses- diced or sliced chunks of parmesan, provolone, mozzarella or feta;
- Olives- grocery store salad bars often have an olive bar where you can buy as few as you want, preferably pitted, could be served whole or slightly chopped;
- Sausage- diced or sliced salami, pepperoni, or summer sausage;
- Pesto in a jar or other spread such as sundried tomato;
- Fish, canned- tuna, anchovies, sardines or herring;
- Fresh vegetables- crunchy peppers, cauliflower or onion;
- Preserved veggies like artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, pepperoncini hot peppers, roasted garlic cloves or giardinera which is Italian pickled veggies sold in a jar in the pickle aisle;
- Beans, such as Italian white bean or garbanzo bean, marinated in vinaigrette or in the form of hummus spread;
- Bread from your favorite bakery;
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil- for dipping bread.
These ingredients can evolve as many will keep well in your refrigerator or on your shelf. The ingredients, including chunks of bread, can be diced and tossed with a vinaigrette dressing for an excellent antipasto salad to put in a container and pack for lunch. Have some spinach on hand and the antipasto salad can be tossed with it the next day.
A frustration of cooking solo, having leftovers that might get wasted, can be solved by utilizing the rest of the loaf of bread for a future meal. You can either make your own crispy, oven baked crackers or croutons.
Turn oven to 350 degrees. For crackers, slice the bread into slices then lightly dip into olive oil and place on a flat baking sheet. When the oven is warmed, place sheet with bread in for 5
minutes. If bread has become light to medium brown, remove and cool. Otherwise bake for 2-3 more minutes. The process is the same for croutons. But, dice the bread and lightly toss with oil, then spread in a single layer on a baking tray. When they are completely cooled, store in an airtight container and use within a week.
The croutons will be waiting for your next salad or soup. Your revolving array of antipasto ingredients will be available for pasta, a sandwich, or a simple snack. And you will have become more familiar with the shops friendly to your tastes.
10/11/17-The Perfection of Whole Fruit
The single serving portion of a banana or an apple is a sort of comfort food to those of us who often eat solo. It is there for us, ready to eat, with no waste or left overs. The perfection of a piece of fruit seems the ideal place to start talking about eating and food shopping solo. Pared with a protein bar or one of my favorite nut and seed mixes, I can justify it as a quick, no-cook complete breakfast or sometimes lunch. This seemingly simple choice can be a springboard to more options and help form some guide posts for shopping and preparing food for one.
When I shop for bananas, I’ll look for single bananas or pull apart a larger bunch. I buy two that are ready to eat which for me are quite yellow and starting to get spotty, one for tomorrow and one for the next day. Then I’ll buy a few that are slightly green so they will be ready to eat in a few days. With this strategic choice, I don’t have to worry about wasting food, often a concern when shopping solo. Bananas are sold individually, rather than pre-packaged in large portions, ideal for solo shoppers. This will continue to be one of our shopping guides: buying things that can be bought in bulk or individually, thus in the needed amount and not way too much.
Expand your repertoire to kiwis or pears or peaches. We see most fruit all the time fruit in large full service grocers but, of course, fruit is best in season. Look for peaches at their freshest or oranges at their peak. They will often be featured on display and on sale when they are at their best. Buy two or three pieces.
Talk to the folks who staff the produce section at your grocer or fruit market. They can tell you not only what is in season and at its peak flavor but they can also tell you how long things can be stored for and how to store them properly. If the grapes are only sold in large family sized bags, but are sold by the pound, you can split that large bag. The grocery industry is realizing the rapid growth of single households and the number of solo diners, but the staffs at the store level need to be reminded who their customers are.
Whole fruit can be added to other meals as well. My mother used to serve us sliced peaches on toast, slathered with butter. So simple, yet it felt like eating the simplest of bakery because the peaches are warmed from the toasty bread.
Slices or chunks of apple (or orange or peach, for that matter) can be added to your green salad, say with spinach, cucumber and a balsamic vinaigrette or bleu cheese dressing. Add some nuts or sunflower seeds for crunch.
A simple Waldorf salad can be made with chunks of apple, mayonnaise, celery and some of the dried fruit and nuts you likely have from your quick, healthy snack mixes. I enjoy dried cranberries and walnuts stirred in. While you are buying your fruit, look for the pre-cut cartons of vegetables in the produce section, grab a container of carrot and celery sticks, ideal since it is unlikely that I would use a whole head of celery, even though it has a decent shelf life stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. I’m sure many of us are friendly with carrots and hummus and peanut butter and celery as simple snacks. Chop a few of those celery sticks into your Waldorf salad.
If you are making the green salad or the Waldorf salad for your lunch the next day, you will want to remember that fruit like apples and pears will brown when they are cut so toss them in a slightly acidic water mixture, which means adding a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to water. Apple cider vinegar is a good item to have in your pantry. Combine a capful, a tablespoon, into a cup of water. Toss your cut apples into this water, and then drain off.
It’s also worth mentioning the nutritional benefits of whole fruit. Many of us rely way too much on juices, where, yes we get the vitamins but miss the beneficial fiber from the whole fruit. And many of us drink juice in way too big of a portion size. An eight ounce glass is reasonable but a 16-32 bottle of juice becomes way too much sugar at one time, even in the form of natural fruit sugars.
The perfection of whole fruit reminds us that single serving eating can be obtainable and touch all of our guide posts for healthful eating, avoiding food waste, and increasing variety and our confidence in our choices.
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