Sunday, August 24, 2008

M'm! M'm! Good!

Cooking while dieting presents many special challenges, but it also presents some opportunities. Since most of my cooking is limited to large batches of meals like low-fat, high-protein turkey chili, large batches of Greek-style yogurt, or highly flavored fresh pickles, when I cook something else, I really don't mind putting a lot of time into it. It may be possible to make onion soup without a large time investment (does Trader Joe's sell caramelized onions?), but I doubt it. Anyway, while the start-to-finish time is quite high, the effort is relatively modest, and much of the cooking requires only intermittent attention. It's a great thing to make on a weekend afternoon of chores and/or reading.

This soup succeeds or fails on properly (i.e., slowly) caramelizing the onions. Obviously, you can't burn them. If you undercook them, the soup will be good, but it won't have that wonderful flavor that you get from a good bowl of French onion soup. I was on vacation with the kids a couple of weeks ago, and we ate out one evening after a movie, and I encouraged L. to select French Onion as her soup choice. She turned up her nose at it, so I took it and had something of a spiritual soup. It might have been all that melted cheese and bread after so much fat and starch restriction, but I think it was just well-made soup. Because, while the cheese and bread were delicious, it was really the broth that made the soup, and it was the onions that made the broth.

Anyway, I set out to make a more diet-friendly version, and I think I succeeded very well indeed. The recipe below is as far as I can take the diet-friendly concept. The entire pot has, by my estimation, about 720 calories. I can easily get eight lunch servings from it, but as a dinner starter, you might want to divide it six ways instead. In any case, while I think the recipe below is yummy, you can abandon some or all of the diet features and perhaps take it even further. A second tablespoon of both butter and flour would not be amiss here. And using regular beef broth (from a box) instead of the fat-free, low sodium variety, does taste a little better, if all that sodium doesn't frighten you. I think, though, that the real change you might want to make is just to switch out the porcini and put in a larger quantity of shiitakes, which would add not very many calories at all. Also, if you double the amount of barley, you will have something much more like a stew than a soup, and it will be extremely good. I am tempted to add yet more barley sometime and call it a barley risotto, but right now I'm more interested in soup.

Even without these additions, though, you have something very hearty and warming. It would be even better, perhaps, in winter, but if you work and eat lunch in an air-conditioned office, like I do, it's very good now. It freezes and reheats perfectly, too.

You will have to forgive me for relying on boxed beef broth. I am sure that if you made beef stock from scratch, it would be even better, but I find the store-bought version relatively tasty, if sometimes overly salted. Also, I have a tough time laying my hands on the bones I'd need to make a good beef stock.

If you're not on a diet (or if you are but want to splurge), the perfect and obvious accompaniment would be slices of baguette topped with some Gruyere cheese, well toasted and then run under the broiler.

Onion Soup with Barley

1 very large (8-10 ounce) onion
1 T. butter
1 T. flour
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 quarts low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup barley
1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Remove the root and outer skin of the onion. Quarter, then slice very fine.

Heat about a cup of the broth until it's steaming, then pour it over the dried mushrooms and let sit.

In a heavy pot, melt the butter. Add the onions, stir well to coat, cover, and cook over very low heat until the onions are thoroughly wilted, about ten minutes.

Remove the cover and cook very slowly until the onions caramelize. This will take somewhere between a very long time and an even longer time.

When the onions have browned nicely, add the flour and stir well. Cook over low heat for two or three minutes. Add the red wine and stir thoroughly, making sure all the bits are scraped off the bottom of the pan and incorporated into the liquid. Add the remaining stock, increase the heat to medium, and bring to a boil.

Add the barley, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover.

Squeeze the mushrooms dry, chop them finely, and add them to the soup along with the broth they soaked in, leaving behind any grit.

Cook until the barley is tender, from forty minutes to an hour. Season as necessary with salt and pepper.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Semi-Greek Yogurt

There's no compelling reason for any sane person to attempt to make his own Greek-style yogurt, of course. Fage yogurt, which is delicious, has been available around here for at least a couple of years, and these days, I can walk into the local supermarket and pick up other brands, as well. But, well, there's a backstory here, so I'll just get into it.

I've been dieting, and because I find normal (aka sensible) dieting to be a nuisance, I decided to go with something a little more extreme so that I could get it over with. A friend of mine recommended a program that he was on. It involved two protein shakes and one regular meal each day, except that for two days out of the week, you skipped the two protein shakes and the regular meal, but you continued to take the elixirs and the supplements, which you were also taking on the days when you ate normally. I am utterly hamstrung here by my strong personal aversion to scare quotes, but you should read the last two words of the preceding sentence as if there were scare quotes around them, because there was nothing normal about that diet. Still, I decided to try it for a month, so I went to some place on the Internet and registered, and they took $377 out of my bank account and sent me a box with four canisters of protein powder, three bottles of pills and tablets, and three bottles of elixir, all of which was chock full of bee pollen and aloe extract and eye of newt and the blood of extraterrestrials.

Anyway, I followed this plan for a month, and I did, indeed, lose a significant amount of weight, but while $377 a month is not going to break me, it just seemed like an awful lot of money for what I was getting. I looked at the labels and figured that I could get very similar (or at least fully adequate) nutrition from a combination of yogurt, cottage cheese, and multivitamins. And you can buy a lot of cottage cheese for $377 a month. And, you know, it may sound like heresy, but when you're used to getting your breakfast from the McDonald's drive-through, a breakfast made of yogurt and/or cottage cheese blended with some frozen fruit is really very convenient and fairly tasty.

But it's significantly tastier if you go with just the yogurt. (I like cottage cheese a good deal, but I like it better either plain or as part of a savory filling.) The problem is that in order to get the same amount of protein that I was getting from the protein powder, I'd have to use a lot of regular yogurt. Regular non-fat yogurt has about ten grams of protein per hundred calories, so to get thirty grams of protein (what I wanted for breakfast), I'm at 300 calories before even adding the fruit.

Greek-style yogurt, though, has a very different nutritional profile. A 100-calorie serving of Chobani non-fat yogurt (my favorite: it's delicious and has five different kinds of active cultures) has 18 grams of protein. Exactly how this is possible, I have no idea. I know that Greek yogurt is made with milk that's been somewhat concentrated and that it's strained after it's made, but I really can't figure out why that makes such a difference. When I strain yogurt, it seems to me that most of what comes out of it is water and whey, and, since whey is protein, it would seem that most of the caloric loss would be from protein. On the other hand, strained yogurt is decidedly less tangy than unstrained yogurt, so perhaps much of what's lost is actually the lactic acid that the lactose turned into when the lactobacilli did their thing. Anyway, I've Googled and Googled until my little fingers were about to fall off, but I couldn't find a good explanation for why the 100 calories' worth of nonfat milk that had ten grams of protein and that became 100 calories' worth of nonfat yogurt with the same ten grams of protein becomes something that -- when you add enough extra to get back to 100 calories -- becomes something with 18 grams of protein. Maybe they do it with mirrors.

Anyway. No, really, I mean it this time: anyway. Anyway, I could just go and buy the Greek-style yogurt and use that, because when you're not spending $377 to make someone else rich to send you some protein powder and ground eye of newt, you can buy a lot even of Greek-style yogurt, which typically runs between $1.25 and $1.50 for a little 6 ounce container that provides 100 calories and eighteen grams of protein. But that pretty quickly becomes a lot of containers and a lot of money, even when you can easily afford it. So I though, heck, why not make my own?

As it happens, I was on vacation last week. The kids and I were staying in the remote part of Southwestern Pennsylvania where my folks have their summer home. I figured (correctly) that I couldn't get Greek-style yogurt there. I suppose I could use any sort of active-culture yogurt as a starter, but why not use my favorite brand with its five different active microbes? So I packed a couple of six-ounce containers of nonfat Chobani in my cooler and took it with me. I was able to find the other supplies there.

The other supplies in this case were skim milk, nonfat milk powder, some discarded food containers, a cooler, a thermometer, and a fine mesh paint strainer bag (which I acquired from Lowes, in the paint department). I figured that in lieu of trying to concentrate the milk through evaporation, I'd add some nonfat milk powder. I washed everything very thoroughly, then I poured a gallon of skim milk into a stockpot, heated it up until it was near the simmer (the thermometer I found only went up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit), stirred in a cup of nonfat milk powder, put the lid on the pot, and put the pot in a sink full of cold water until the temperature fell to 110 degrees. Then I whisked in about a third of the container of the Chobani (because I wanted to eat the rest). Then I poured the mixture into the emptied and cleaned ice cream tub and put the covered tub inside the cooler. I added 115-degree water to the cooler until it was near but not to the top of the ice cream tub, sealed the cooler, and let the whole thing sit for twelve hours.

In the morning, I had yogurt. It was a little bit thin, still, but it was still very warm, so that was to be expected. And it tasted suitably sour, though, in retrospect, I probably should have let it get sourer. I stuck the covered container in the refrigerator for the day, and then when I got home from an outing with the kids, I put the big mesh bag in a colander, poured the yogurt into the mesh bag, set the colander back over the ice cream tub, covered the top with plastic wrap, and put the whole contraption back in the refrigerator to drain overnight.

And the next morning, I had over a half-gallon of something that was a whole lot like Greek yogurt. It's the nature of Greek yogurt to be less tangy than regular yogurt, but mine was less tangy still, and while some people might prefer that result, I would have liked a bit more acidity (the texture is exactly right). Still, it was a great topper to my turkey-lentil chili, and it went marvelously with fresh fruit. And, well, wow do I have a lot of yogurt. A half-gallon didn't seem like all that much at the time, but it sure seems like a lot more now that I'm working my way through it. It does do a great job in a protein shake, in part because the flavor's very mild, and it's still very good with the fresh fruit. And it was a significant cost savings, and, truly, a lot of fun to make.

Next time, I'll likely go with more nonfat dried milk and a longer incubation period, but otherwise, the process worked pretty well and wasn't at all difficult. I think that -- even after I'm off the diet -- a cup-and-a-half or two cups of the yogurt blended with some good frozen fruit and perhaps a few ice cubes will continue to make a good weekday breakfast.

By the way, if you're like me and you can't resist buying the big bag of limes at Costco and so come home and zest and squeeze all of the ones you're not going to use immediately and put the juice in ice cube trays and then put the frozen lime juice cubes in ziplock bags so that your significant other can't say that you're always wasting food, you can take one cube of lime juice, let it melt, mix it with two tablespoons of sugar (I use Whey Low, as usual), and then stir in about two cups of plain, nonfat Greek-style yogurt. The result is divine. (If you don't agree, try adding another tablespoon of sugar. I won't tell anyone. I like it best with just two tablespoons, though.)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Different Oatmeal Cookie

Not so long ago, my daughter A., who is home for the summer after a highly successful Freshman year told me that she believed she had an adrenal gland disorder and planned to begin a diet that cut out, among other things, processed sugars and starches other than whole grains. This seemed like a reasonable choice, and since I'm dieting, I'm not eating much in the way of sugar and processed grains anyway. So there were already plenty of lentil-based and other legume-based meals being prepared. There wasn't so much in the way of sweets, though.

When you want something sweet but don't want processed sugar, dates are generally going to be your best friends. They're naturally so sweet that eating a date is much like eating candy, except with more fiber. And they're pretty easy to work into recipes. Baked goods without white flour are more problematic. L., my younger daughter, recently made her first unassisted batch of chocolate chip cookies and used whole wheat flour by accident, and the cookies were just fine, albeit different, but I wanted to try something different. So I went with ground oats.

I thought my initial attempt was quite good, and so did my partner, V. Upon first taste, A. said, "Well, they're pretty good for health food," but a few minutes later, she announced that they were growing on her. I think perhaps that her first sample came from the first tray I baked. They certainly appeared done and were a reasonable shade of brown on the bottom, but the next tray, which were darker, were much better, even though they came from the same batch of dough. Americans generally tend to underbake their doughs (and overbake their batters: hence all those dry cakes), which is one reason why so much of our bread and pastry is not what it should be. You should never underbake your cookies, but you should especially not underbake these cookies. They don't have any chocolate chips or molasses or anything similar to fall back on, but they really are yummy when fully baked.

Fully baked, of course, is something that varies significantly by oven and by pan. I always bake my cookies on heavy, silpat-lined half-sheet pans, and I think that's why so many of my cookies stay in the oven for so long. These cookies don't have a whole lot of fat in them, and they don't have any flour to give a firmer texture, so you'll probably want to bake them on lined pans in any case, but if you're using a thin, flexible, unrimmed cookie sheet, then they'd probably bake faster for you. In my case, it takes twenty-one minutes to get a properly baked cookie with this recipe.

The lack of flour is also probably why they don't spread or puff very much. I ended up with fairly small cookies, even though I used soup spoons to form them. On the plus side, my recipe calculator tells me that each cookie has only about fifty-five calories. They are decidedly in the not-too-sweet corner of sweet baked goods, but you will know that you're eating a cookie.

Oatmeal Date Cookies

2 c. whole pitted dates
1 c. boiling water
1 orange
3 c. rolled oats
1 c. roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds
1 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
6 T. butter, softened
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract

Put the dates in a heatproof bowl, pour the boiling water over them, cover and let sit for a half hour or more. Zest the orange, then squeeze it and reserve the juice.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the orange zest, rolled oats, and sunflower seeds in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground. Add the salt and baking powder and mix well.

Put the dates, water, and reserved orange juice in a blender and blend. The mixture will be very thick.

In the bowl of your mixer, cream the butter until light. Add the blended dates, and mix well. Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix again. Add the dry ingredients, and mix.

Drop rounded soupspoonfuls of dough onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake for twenty-one minutes, or until well browned on the bottoms. Remove from oven, let cool briefly, then remove cookies to racks to cool thoroughly.

Makes sixty.

You could, obviously, make a number of adjustments to this recipe. You could add some spices and/or raisins and/or coconut and/or you name it. You could use a different nut: I would likely have used cashews if I'd had any unsalted cashews available.

I like them just as I made them, though, so I'll probably stick with the recipe, as will A., who has already demanded it so that she can make the cookies when she returns to school. That will happen far too soon.