Slow cook BBQ chicken and mushroom-bacon twice-baked potatoes

My son has been battling a respiratory bug for the past couple of weeks, struggling to keep up with a busy school and extra-curricular schedule. Today, we decided, was a rest and recuperate day. He stayed in bed well past noon. I deemed it the perfect day to make the slow cook BBQ chicken that he loves. Instead of the sauteed red potatoes I normally make with it, I had a craving for a stuffed, twice-baked potato as a side. Continue reading


Le Creuset Challege: Chicken Sausage and Kale Stew

When I was given the opportunity to participate in P. Allen Smith’s Garden2Blog 2013, my taste buds started to tingle. The wonderful recipes of Allen’s that we get to sample while down in Little Rock are downright delectable, but this year we were asked to contribute recipes of our own as a part of the Le Creuset Challenge. We were each provided a Le Creuset French Oven and tasked with using it to create one of our favorite recipes.

I chose a Chicken Sausage and Kale Stew that I first made (based closely on a Real Simple recipe) for our friends on New Year’s Day.

This stew is a simple one to create, even easier in a fine piece of cookware like the Le Creuset French Oven.  Last year, I’ll admit to not understanding the pleasure of cooking in high-end enameled cast iron. This year, I was well aware of how evenly food cooks in a Le Creuset.

I started with the following ingredients:

  • 24 oz. sun-dried tomato and mozzarella chicken sausage
  • 30 oz. cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 24 oz. diced tomatoes
  • 1 qt. chicken stock
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large bunch kale
  • salt and pepper

First, cut the sausage into bite size chunks.

Next, slice the garlic cloves.

Sauté the garlic and sausage in the olive oil for about 10 minutes over medium heat.

Add the tomatoes (including liquid) and beans.

Pull the kale into small sections, discarding the the midrib of each leaf. Wash thoroughly.

Add the chicken stock and the kale to the french oven, slowly working it into the stew.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for at least 30 minutes over low to medium heat.

The kale will slowly cook down and incorporate into the stew. The longer you cook the stew, the more the flavors will mingle.

Ladle the stew into serving bowls, and garnish with fresh kale. I chose to serve it with a freshly baked whole grain artisan bread.

If you like beer, an ale like Hopslam is a good companion to the strong taste of the sausage in the stew.

The prep and cooking time can be as short as 30 minutes, or as long as three hours, depending on how mingled you’d like the flavors to be.

Many thanks to P. Allen Smith and the folks at Le Creuset for providing the french oven as a part of Garden2Blog 2013! It’s a piece of cookware that will be in my cooking repertoire for countless years to come.

The majority of the cost of this trip including lodging and travel were provided to me at no expense for participating in the Garden2Blog event. There was no obligation to write about my experiences and all opinions stated here are my own.

Recipe: Simple Steak Fajitas

It’s Sunday night again, time for me to dish up a tasty dinner for my family. Tonight, I chose a simple recipe: Steak fajitas. It’s not the lowest calorie meal I’ve ever made, but it doesn’t break the dietary budget if you stick to a single serving.

I started by marinating two hotel steaks in the refrigerator in a canola oil/lime fajita seasoning mixture. After two hours of marinating, I grilled them on our George Foreman grill for about 10 minutes until well done.

Next, I sliced two onions and a package of mini bell peppers and sauteed them until tender in a tablespoon of canola oil and the remainder of the fajita seasoning.

I added the sliced beef to the onion and peppers and cooked for about five minutes longer, the served the mixture on warm high-fiber tortilla.

Each fajita weighs in at 445 calories, 30g protein and 27g fat. Common sense would have told me a single fajita would suffice, but they were so tasty, I ate two. I went over my dietary allotment for both fat and calories, but sometimes you’ve got to splurge a little.

Maybe next time, I’ll use grilled chicken instead for a healthier alternative.

Healthy Recipe: Crockpot Beef Stew and Skinny Carrot Ginger Soup Inspired by P. Allen Smith

Sunday has become my day to cook for the family, a day when I can plan, shop for and cook a dinner without the time pressures that accompany most every other day of the week. I’ll often start thinking about dinner while drinking my morning coffee, sometimes browsing the Internet, other times flipping through cookbooks. Most of my browsing results in inspiration, rather than exact recipes to mirror.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up my copy of P. Allen Smith’s Seasonal Recipes from the Garden and immediately focused on two recipes — Slow-Cooker Lamb Stew and Carrot Ginger Soup.

I’ve not eaten much lamb before; I’ve certainly never cooked it. But the inclusion of Guinness and chocolate motivated me to use the recipe as the inspiration for a beef stew instead.

Crockpot Beef Stew

Below is the ingredients list for my version of the stew, which makes six servings (~430 calories, 26g fat, 28g protein). The major changes were substituting beef for lamb and decreasing the quantity of potatoes

  • 2 pounds beef stew meat, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-2 inch cubes
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1 12-ounce bottle of Guinness Draught beer
  • 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 ounce unsweetened baker’s chocolate, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 4 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 pound baby red potatoes, quartered
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh flat leaf parsley

To prepare,

  • Brown 1/2 of the beef in a large skillet with 1 Tbsp.canola oil. Transfer to crock pot. 
  • Repeat with the remaining beef.
  • Add remaining oil to skillet with onion and cook until lightly browned, about five minutes.
  • Add the broth, beer, brown sugar, thyme, chocolate, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits. Transfer the mixture to the crock pot.
  • Add the carrots, parsnips, and potatoes to the crock pot, cover and cook on low until the meat is tender, 6-8 hours.
  • Remove and discard the bay leaves, stir in the parsley, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Skinny Carrot Ginger Soup

My take on the Carrot Ginger Soup is a lower calorie version of the P. Allen Smith version.

The ingredient list is as follows (makes four 100 calorie servings). The major changes from the original recipe are half the butter and 1% milk in place of half-and-half.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup 1% milk
  • salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste
To prepare,
  • Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
  • Add the carrots, onions, celery, garlic and ginger and sauté until the onions are soft, 10-12 minutes.
  • Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat. Simmer until the carrots are tender, 8-10 minutes more.
  • Slowly puree the mixture with stick blender until smooth.
  • Return to a boil. Add milk.
  • Serve immediately, finished with cracked black pepper.

Both of the dishes were delicious and enjoyed by my family (although my ten-year-old son was lukewarm on the soup). The stew meat was done to perfection, melting on the tongue, while the root veggies retained a needed firmness. The bitter of the beer and chocolate gave the stew a refreshing, but not overpowering, counterpoint to the sweetness of the carrots and parsnips.

Overall, both recipes definitely will become a part of our family Sunday dinner repertoire.

The original recipes came from P. Allen Smith’s Seasonal Recipes from the Garden and were modified/reprinted with permission. Last May, while in Little Rock for Garden2Blog, I had my glorious first taste from this cookbook in the form of Buttermilk Pecan Pie and look forward to finding future culinary inspiration in its pages.

I received my complimentary copy of Seasonal Recipes at a book signing event at the Independent Garden Center trade show in August 2012.

Healthy Recipe: Homemade Orange Ginger Chicken

It’s the weekend again, time for me to turn the kitchen back into my personal playground and culinary laboratory. I’ve always been one to dive in and learn new things as I go, unwilling to follow a script. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it means we’ll eat cereal for dinner. But at least I’m learning in the process.

Yesterday, I asked my son what he’d like me to create for dinner. He answered with a resounding endorsement for Chinese food and a suggestion of orange chicken. I didn’t have the proper tools to make the battered orange chicken common in Chinese restaurants, but I set out to make my own version that would be healthier and just as tasty.

I started with the following ingredients:

  • 2 large boneless, skinless breast halves, cut into small pieces
  • 4 mini bell peppers, diced
  • One medium onion, diced
  • 3 ounces sliced mushrooms
  • 10 baby carrots, sliced into thin rounds
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • Zest of one small orange
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 13 oz lo mein noodles
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

To prepare:

  • Heat 1 Tbsp. canola oil in french oven (or skillet) on stovetop.
  • Coat chicken pieces in flour, the cook until brown.
  • Remove the chicken to a dish and use a couple of tablespoons orange juice to deglaze the pan. 
  • Start boiling water in a separate pan (to cook lo mein noodles)
  • Add peppers, onion, carrots and mushrooms and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes.
  • In a small sauce pan, combine remaining orange juice, soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil. 
  • Add dry lo mein nooodles to boiling water and cook for 5-6 minutes. 
  • Slowly whisk 2 Tbsp. flour into sauce and stir until thickened. 
  • Add the zest of one small orange to sauce.
  • Add chicken to vegetables and cook for 2-3 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.
  • Incorporate sauce into chicken and vegetables and stir until fully coated. 
  • Serve chicken and vegetables on top of noodles. 

As prepared, this recipe makes 5 moderate servings, each about 450 calories, 33g protein and 5g fat. (Compare this to Panda Express Orange Chicken with Chow Mein at 900 calories and 43g fat.)

As luck would have it, my family liked last night’s creation. I’d probably increase the soy and (if you like your food spicy) the red pepper flakes when I make it again.

You know what the best part about getting creative in the kitchen?  As I write this, I’m enjoying some of the leftovers.

Healthy Recipe: Chicken and Brussels Sprouts

I’d forgotten how much I like to cook. Early in our marriage, cooking was one of the things my wife and I freely traded and often enjoyed together. In the years since my son was born, I fell for the siren song of convenience and laziness when it came to food.

As we attempt to eat healthier as a family, we’re all stretching our boundaries as we try new foods, and spend more time learning about and preparing our meals.

I’ve started cooking on the weekends, often spending an hour or more in the kitchen preparing meals that are fresh, delicious and healthy.

Tonight, I made a chicken and Brussels sprouts dish, mostly with ingredients I purchased earlier today at the grocery.

  • 1 1/4 pounds chicken breast tenders
  • 1 package fresh Brussels sprouts (about 25-30)
  • 1 cup diced Cebolittas (Mexican green onions)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small can of low-sodium beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese
  • Pepper, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce to taste 
To prepare:
  • Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in large pan or french oven over medium heat.
  • Coat chicken in flour and cook in oil, turning until brown on both sides and cooked through. Lightly grind pepper over chicken. Remove chicken from pan.
  • Add another Tbsp. olive oil, garlic and onion to pan. Sauté for 1-2 minutes, then add small amount of beef broth to deglaze pan.
  • Add Brussels sprouts and remainder of beef broth. Bring to a boil and cook until Brussels sprouts are tender. 
  • Add lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce (amounts up to individual taste). 
  • Add 1/8 flour to warm water and mix until dissolved. Add to liquid in the pan to thicken sauce.
  • Return chicken to the pan, on top of Brussels sprouts, cover, and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. 

Immediately before serving, sprinkle 2 Tbsp of bacon pieces over chicken. Plate two tenders and 6-7 Brussels sprouts and top with 1 Tbsp shredded Parmesan.

As prepared, this recipe serves four people. Each serving is 328 calories, 40g protein and 14 g fat.

The meal got rave reviews from my family, including my son who exclaimed, “I’m so glad we’re eating healthier. It tastes so good!”

I know that many people turn their noses up to Brussels sprouts. If you haven’t tried them fresh (not frozen), cooked to the perfect tenderness with a complimentary sauce, I’d suggest you give them another chance. Properly prepared, they are a nutritionally dense food (high in protein and antioxidants) that tastes delicious.

What are your favorite ways to eat Brussels sprouts? Please leave a comment below. 

Healthy Recipe: Chicken Sausage and Kale Quesadillas

I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional quesadillas, but my wife seemed to order them often when we’d go out for dinner. So for Christmas, I gave her a quesadilla press so we could make them at home — and maybe improve on the standard cheese and veggie quesadilla offered at restaurants. This weekend was the first since the holiday that we’ve not had other plans, so when my son and I were out running errands, we walked through the produce section looking for ingredients for a new kind of quesadilla.

When I picked up a bunch of kale along with tortillas, shallots, garlic and chicken sausage, my son gave me a sideways look that said, “Kale? In quesadillas?” I asked him to trust me.

When I assembled the ingredients on the counter this evening, my wife gave me a sideways look that said, “Kale? In quesadillas?” I asked her to trust me.

Once the smell of the ingredients simmering on the rangetop in our Le Creuset french oven started to fill the house, I could sense that trust starting to build.

But it wasn’t until I spread the mixture onto a tortilla, capped it with a second, and grilled it for five minutes in the quesadilla press that the true test could be conducted. The whole family agreed: Our new Chicken Sausage and Kale Quesadillas were a keeper. We even agreed that the filling would be excellent over pasta, as a torte filling, or as a bruschetta-like topping for crusty bread.

Here’s what you need to make your own:

  • Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage, 4 links
  • Lacinato kale, 2 cups chopped in small pieces
  • Shallots, 4 medium, diced
  • Sweet mini-peppers (yellow, orange and red), 2 cups diced 
  • Garlic, 4 cloves, minced
  • Oregano, 1 tablespoon, dried
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons
  • 10-inch tortillas, 10 individual (I used La Banderita Extreme Fiber Flour Tortillas)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
To prepare: 
  • Sauté shallots and garlic in olive oil for 3-4 minutes over medium heat.
  • Add peppers and cook for 3-4 more minutes.
  • Add sausage and kale, stir and simmer for 10 minutes. 
  • For each quesadilla, spread 1/5 of filling over a tortilla and top with a second tortilla.
  • Cook in quesadilla press according to equipment instructions. (You could also use a non-stick skillet or griddle if you don’t have a quesadilla press.)
  • Cut into triangles and serve.
As prepared, one full quesadilla is approximately 346 calories, 33g protein and 14g of fat. 
Quesadilla purists might argue that I removed the quesa from the quesadilla by not including cheese, and they’d be right. But removing the cheese also makes it a much better choice for a healthy lifestyle. 

Per FTC requirements, I am disclosing that I received the Le Creuset french oven as a part of the Hortus, Ltd. Garden2Blog event in May 2012. I am not required by agreement to mention or endorse the product. 

Get Smart, Eat Well, Feel Better … Together

I love Brussels sprouts. As a kid, I loved Brussels sprouts, even though they were the frozen variety drenched in a butter sauce.  This past fall, I cooked and tasted fresh Brussels sprouts for the first time and now understand their true brilliance as a culinary delight. The frozen ones of my childhood taste like cardboard cabbages by comparison.

After all these years, why did I decide to buy fresh from the produce aisle? Because I was tired of feeling terrible all the time. In this my 41st year, I’d hit the dreaded wall. I could no longer put whatever I wanted into my body and get away with it.

A few days before Thanksgiving, our bathroom scale read 193 pounds…while I was standing on it. I was a full 60 pounds heavier than the day I graduated high school and 30 pounds above my college graduation weight.

Something about those three numbers staring back at me from the edge of my toes woke me up. That extra weight I felt around my waist while seated became real. The belly bulge that kept appearing in photos became undeniable. My brain suddenly put two and two together. The extra weight was the outward symptom of what my insides had been telling me for much longer. Years of eating whatever and whenever I wanted had been declared the winner. I was overweight, and I felt terrible as a result.

Over the past decade, I’ve fluctuated somewhere in the 175-185 pound range. During the summer, I’d lose weight by gardening, playing softball and hiking. During the holidays and the following winter, I’d gain some extra padding. Last year, the cycle stopped. I wasn’t that much less active last summer, but the pounds didn’t shed.

I’ve never been one for will power when it comes to denying myself what I want. A bag of cookies sitting next to me? Gone before the crumbs had a chance to land on my lap. Ice cream, burgers, candy… an unhealthy food, and I was brainlessly eating it because something inside told me I wanted it.

The challenge for me was to reprogram my brain to want healthy food instead. I knew that if I entered the holiday season with the same gustatory vigor as past years, I’d be miserable by New Year’s Day.  I write this the day after New Year’s at 183 pounds, ten pounds down from my pre-Thanksgiving weight. I’m still at the upper end of the healthy range for my six foot frame, but I feel better physically and mentally. And, you know what? When I crave food, it’s more often than not the healthy stuff.

How did I do it? In short, I got smart, ate well, and felt better in the process. The long version is this:

  • I knew what I was eating. For the last six weeks, there have been only two days (Christmas and New Year’s Day) where I didn’t record every last ounce of food I ate. That sounds like an onerous process, I know. But it’s not. At the suggestion of a friend who had lost more than 50 postpartum pounds, I started using a website/smartphone app called MyFitnessPal, which makes it easy to keep track of what you’re eating. I was conscious of the nutritional value of everything I ate, which helped me pass over those things that are high in calories and low in nutritional density. The winners? Lean meat, fruits and vegetables. The losers? Salad dressing and coffeehouse scones.
  • I learned about serving sizes. The box of fettuccine says it’s only 200 calorie per two-ounce serving, right? That’s only about 18 strands of pasta. In the past, I’d have a dinner plate that included 600-800 calories of pasta even before a sauce touched it. That’s a calorie bomb that will tear a hole in  a 2,000 calorie per day allotment. I didn’t eliminate pasta from my diet. I just ate less of it, and often substituted a low-calorie vegetable instead.
  • I didn’t completely deny myself. I chose to start losing weight during the holiday season. It’s hard not to trip over the cake and cookies that time of year. If I had said “no” to all of these things, I would have continually thought of them and felt deprived. So in the weeks heading up to Christmas, I told myself I could have one treat each day at work. Over the holiday itself, I’d have dessert at one meal and pass the next. I didn’t feel deprived, and actually enjoyed the treats more.
  • Most of my food had a short shelf-life. I ate fresh, unprocessed foods. I could have read health studies until I was blue in the face, but I’d still come back to the same conclusion that my body is telling me now. Fresh, raw foods are the most nutritious and delicious on earth. My palette has changed drastically in a short time, to the point where processed food tastes unsatisfying. It tastes wrong.
  • I had supportive and competitive people encouraging me. I’m a competitive person. I’m also a tad bit vain on most days, and respond quickly to positive reinforcement. The social, open aspect of things like MyFitnessPal as well as the daily encouragement by my family and friends inspired me to start and continue this new way of eating. It’s easier to stick to the plan when you know others will recognize and support you. Food is one of the most social things we do as humans; why shouldn’t eating well and getting healthy be just as communal?
Being good to my body is one of my resolutions for 2013, one that I successfully started before the new year by discovering a new way of eating. I don’t know if counting calories will be something that lasts six months, a year or beyond. My hope is that this a short-term educational process that will help me develop the habits, so innately know what, how much and when to eat. 
Until then, you can find me at If you’re trying to eat healthier, I’d be happy to connect with you and share the journey.