3 Sauces That Will Elevate a Meal to Restaurant Quality

I remember in my early days of studying nutrition, I always ordered sauces, dressings and other condiments on the side at restaurants. Now I almost never do because I have found that sauces can single-handedly "make" a meal and the flavor often doesn't match up when you add it on your own. I've also become a little bit more adventurous when it comes to making my own sauces (instead of skipping them because of the extra step or ingredients necessary) and it has made a huge difference in the end product of my cooking experiments. Here are three sauces that I use at home that will take a meal from standard to restaurant quality in just a few extra minutes. 

Creamy Tahini Sauce

I got this recipe from the Thug Kitchen cookbook and it accompanies one of my favorite meatless meals. The chickpeas are "spiced" and sautéed so when you combine them with fresh veggies and the luscious sauce on a warmed tortilla, it really tastes like something you would get from a food truck. Best of all it's really simple to make - see a similar version here (the first one). 

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Sriracha Mayonnaise 

Are you wondering how to make this? I thought you would never ask - it's really just Sriracha mixed with mayo (1:2 ratio). Too easy right? I rave about this creamy deliciousness constantly because it takes a fish taco over the top with about 30 seconds of extra effort, plus if you are like me you always have these two ingredients on hand anyway. A little goes a long way and it really just pulls everything together. It's also great on burgers, or drizzled over a quesadilla (please just try it now). 

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Balsamic Glaze

Reducing balsamic vinegar gives it a beautiful, rich taste and a thick syrupy consistency so you can drizzle it on anything. It adds flavor, but also visual appeal to a dish that might just need a little something extra. I love it on pizza the most (like this grilled vegetable one below) but have also used it on roasted brussels sprouts and grain bowls. Some people even drizzle it over fresh strawberries and call it dessert - which sounds pretty perfect to me. Confession: I buy it bottled at Trader Joe's so I don't have to dirty a sauce pan every time I want to use it (and because I had a little bit of an "incident" the last time I tried to make it, long story). If you are a purist, here are the steps to making it yourself! 

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What are your favorite sauces and condiments (homemade or store-bought) and how do you use them? 

Tips for Optimizing Your Food Environment

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Something that I always address when I give nutrition presentations is how to optimize the food environment. For one, I enjoy talking about it but also I think it's really helpful. Emotional eating tends to be a common struggle for a lot of people, and the majority of them are unaware that there are some simple changes that can make a huge difference in regards to eating out of boredom, stress, sadness, etc. 

Brian Wansink is a nutrition researcher out of Cornell University who specifically studies this and his findings are fascinating! You might remember hearing about how restaurants use specific lighting, colors and music to encourage people to stay longer and eat more. His study investigators also famously provided free popcorn in different sizes to moviegoers to observe how much each person consumed by the end. Those with the larger size ate significantly more  than those who were given a smaller size, even if the popcorn was stale. This just illustrates how package/container size can often lead to overeating (which of course is fine on occasion, but doesn't feel great when it happens routinely). Here are few tips for optimizing your food environment:

1. Serve yourself dinner in the kitchen instead of at the table.

This reminds you to check-in with your hunger before walking over to the kitchen to get seconds or thirds. I always reiterate the fact that if you are still hungry, by all means honor that. However when serving dishes are in within easy reach, it can be really easy to grab more without thinking twice (especially if you are having great conversation - which hopefully you are!).  

2. If you're a wine drinker, be mindful of different styles of glasses.

Wine glasses range in size from really small (think champagne flutes) to really large and each shape is designed for specific wine varieties. Because of this, a standard serving can look really different based on which one you use. Knowing this can help you gauge your intake better. 

3. Grab a portion of snacks instead of eating straight from the package.

This is a classic but it's effective. Stocking and using some small snack dishes can help you avoid mindless eating. Case in point, the caramel m&ms pictured above that are my current favorite thing (how are these so good?!). 

4. Keep fresh food prepped and easy to grab.

When I get home after work, the last thing I want to do is wash and chop vegetables for a snack and it's way too easy to grab a bag of chips and spoil my appetite before dinner instead. Set yourself up for success by having something fresh ready to go when you want it. My favorites are carrots, celery and red bell pepper strips (for dipping in hummus, nut butter or ranch); pasta/bean salads; and washed/chopped fruit. 

How do you optimize your food environment or what is one thing you can change now to set yourself up to success? 

5 Things You Might Not Know About Agriculture

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Last week I had the pleasure of attending an all-day agriculture education event that involved touring a dairy ranch, cattle reserve and vegetable farm, plus sit in on a panel discussion regarding controversial "ag" topics where we could ask questions and learn about daily operations. I couldn't wait to share just a snippet of my day! In the spirit of transparency, the event was hosted by the Western Dairy Association and sponsors included Colorado Beef Council, Common Ground Colorado, Denver Botanic Gardens, Great Western Sugar, Monsanto, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Sakata Farms. I was not compensated for attending or writing this post and all thoughts shared are my own. 

What a cool event this was! Let me start from the beginning... I met the rest of the attendees in north Denver bright and early where we boarded a large charter bus and were transported to the first stop of the day, Lost Creek Dairy in in Roggen, Colorado. I had actually been on a tour here previously so had learned about most of the operations already, but it was still fun to hear the owners talk about their story and how much they care about the cows. They really seem like wonderful people who love what they do and take great pride in keeping the cows happy and healthy! From there we headed to nearby Huwa Cattle Reserve and were able to walk around the pastures and chat with the staff on some new breeding technologies they are working to develop (which involve choosing certain desirable traits they want to see in the beef they produce and sell). I'm not going to sugar coat things and pretend I love petting cows and hanging out at dairies and cattle ranches (haha!) but I did enjoy hearing about the operations at both of the first two stops of the tour. 

From the cattle reserve we moved on to the Hudson Town Hall for lunch and a panel discussion featuring two different topics (livestock first, plants second). Discussions like these are helpful because it allows participants to get the perspective of farmer/rancher straight from the source. We were lucky enough to hear from the following experts who were all extremely intelligent and well-spoken:

  • Lily Edwards Calloway, PhD (Animal Welfare Advisor)

  • Debbie Preston (Dairy Representative)

  • Jan Kochis (Rocky Mountain Farmers Union)

  • Terry Heine (Egglands Best)

  • Robert Sakata (Sakata Farms)

  • Rebecca Larson, PhD (Plant Scientist) 

  • Brien Darby (Denver Botanic Gardens)

After the panel discussion concluded, we got back on the bus and headed to our final stop of the day, Petrocco Farms in Brighton. Not surprisingly this was my favorite part of the day and the first time I had visited a produce farm. Our tour guide, Kate, was a wealth of knowledge and I learned so much from her. Apparently Petrocco is rare in that they are one of the few farms in Colorado that specialize in leafy greens because the weather here is so unpredictable. They sell locally but also ship vegetables to several other states and pride themselves on their food safety program and detail-orientated operation. 

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I appreciated the opportunity to be involved with this day-long event and while agriculture-related issues can get really personal/controversial sometimes, it's great that we as consumers have choices and can each make our own decisions about the food we want to eat and serve our families. Here are a few points from the day that I thought would be interesting for readers: 

1. On milk - is it safe? 

Most milk hits shelves within just two days of harvesting with any surplus going to manufacture whey protein powder, cheese and yogurt. It's is a highly-regulated market with milk getting tested up to 7-9 times before hitting grocery store shelves! If anything sub-par is detected, entire tanks are disposed of at the owner's expense. Whether you choose skim/2%/whole or conventional/organic - all are nutritious and safe choices if you choose to purchase it (which I think is pretty awesome). 

2. On beef - what is "grass-fed" and should I be eating it? 

The ranchers on the cattle reserve were very open with us that grass-finished beef tends to require more water, is less consistent in taste and takes longer to get to market as compared to conventional grass-fed/corn finished beef so they choose the former. There may be a slight nutritional advantage in choosing grass-fed (higher omega-3 content and lower fat content), however the jury is still out on whether this is significant (i.e. beef is still not a good source of omega-3 fats). I'm not a huge meat-eater so it's probably no surprise that this wasn't my favorite part of the day. However, after having pointed conversations with the staff at Huwa, I am completely confident that great precautions are taken to ensure a safe, nutritious and affordable supply. And while meat (specifically beef) has recently come under fire for being unsustainable because of the large amounts of water that are required to produce it, it is clear that these professionals are working hard to decrease waste and make their practices as efficient as possible, which was great to hear. 

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3. On technology and innovation - should we be concerned? 

This seemed to be the recurring theme of the day. Genetic modification and other available technologies like GPS guidance can result in huge benefits including increased yields, decreased pesticide use and better weed control (which I think we can all agree are good things!). I asked specifically if there were crops that demonstrate higher yield when grown organically, and the response was that yes, it can vary by plant. Either way, I thought it was interesting that one method is not the end-all, be-all and some farmers actually grow both conventional and organic crops. In general, farmers and ranchers agreed that a huge challenge is trying to "do more with less" (meaning more production with less resources and environmental impact) while also being mindful of consumer perceptions about technology and working to find the best balance between the two. 

4. On grocery stores - how fresh is the produce? 

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the produce in our local grocery store could hit shelves as soon as 8-9 hours post farm pick-up. This is so impressive! Kate from Petrocco even said that sometimes grocery store vegetables are fresher than what you can get at the farmer's market, so if you are aiming for fresh/local, be sure to ask the vendors for specifics. 

5. On fruits & veggies - is conventionally grown produce safe and nutritious? 

The answer is yes! I purchase mostly conventionally grown produce because of the lower price point and because I feel really confident that it is just as safe and just as nutritious as anything grown organically. For reference: the average woman could eat hundreds of apples in one day without any adverse health effects related to pesticides (source). I know this can get really personal and we all have different opinions, so instead of getting into a battle of which method is "better" I think it's more advantageous to support all forms of agriculture and just promote eating fruits and vegetables, period.

To wrap things up, farmers take great care in their practices and work to be good stewards of the land, their crops, and other resources. This is their livelihood after all. They don't waste resources or overuse chemicals, medications or pesticides as is so often portrayed by the media because 1) they don't want to compromise the quality of the finished product and 2) these are all really expensive! Additionally, many of the farmers that I had the chance to hear from or interact with were so incredibly knowledgeable, it really was inspiring to hear them speak clearly and confidently about the science on these issues. 

As I mentioned above, I took an insane amount of notes so if you have any additional questions or need clarification on anything, I would be happy to attempt to answer - just leave me a comment. Thanks for reading my recap, I look forward to more of these events in the future! 

Pizza Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

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A few weeks ago I was craving a grilled portobello mushroom (weird? maybe just a little). I know a lot of people make mini pizzas out of them and I thought that sounded pretty good, but also I wanted to add some more bulk to it so it would be worthy of a full dinner on its own. The finished product turned out really delicious so I wanted to share. Per usual, instead of a formal recipe here is the general technique I used.

What you'll need:

  • 2 portabello mushroom caps (cleaned, with stems and gills removed)
  • Cooked quinoa, just make the standard recipe on the package
  • Sun-dried tomato pesto or tomato sauce
  • Kalamata olives
  • Shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  • Fresh basil, thinly sliced 

Here are the steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Make the quinoa according to package directions, then transfer it to a large bowl 
  3. While the quinoa is cooking, remove the stem and gills from the mushrooms and clean them with a wet paper towel. Place the mushrooms stem side down on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for about 8-10 minutes.
  4. While the mushrooms are in the oven, chop your olives and add those to the quinoa along with one heaping spoonful of the pesto (or tomato sauce) and about 1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese, mix everything together well.
  5. Once the mushrooms are done, flip them over and fill each cap with the quinoa mixture (you won't use it all) and then top with mozzarella cheese.
  6. Put them back in the oven and bake for about 5 minutes or until cheese is melted; then I like to turn the oven on broil for a minute or two to get the cheese browned and bubbly!
  7. Top with basil and dig in

I'm looking forward to making some alternate variations of these - any ideas? Let me know if you have ever made stuffed mushroom caps and what flavor combinations you used. These might be a summer staple in my house!

The Importance of Self-Care During Busy Seasons

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So this last few weeks have been C R A Z Y busy. And I don’t like to use the “b” word lightly because it’s kind of a pet peeve when this happens:

Q: It’s been forever – how are you?

A: Busy!

I’m guilty of it too, but I’m really trying to stop doing this. After all, when someone is asking me about what’s new in my life, I’m sure they are looking for something a little bit more meaningful in a response. But I digress…

Today I wanted to talk about the importance of self-care during busier seasons of life. In addition to my usual work/school combo, I just recently added house-hunting to my list. Who knew how time-consuming this was?! I'm sure many of you know. Throughout the last few weeks I have realized that self-care and exercise are always the first things to go when my time is limited, and it never ends well for me. Here’s how it usually goes:

Full day of activities sans self-care – feel sluggish & burnt out – don’t sleep as well – tired the next day – wake up later than normal and start day on a semi stressful note – less time during the day to accomplish tasks – repeat

As you can see, skipping self-care does not help me in any way (as I often assume it will since I'm removing something from the to-do list). Stepping back to look at the systemic effect of making time for yourself, you can see that it actually makes burn-out way less likely to happen in the long run. So the next time you are feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to list your responsibilities, then all of the extra things that come up. Next, look at where you can cut back or rearrange things to work to your advantage instead of against you. Sleep is integral, so make sure to factor in at least 6-8 hours (or whatever you need) first and foremost. Also remember to be realistic.

I know that I need to make exercise a priority for me to feel my best, so I try to get some walking in each day over lunch. This is a total win since it helps break up my sedentary work day, plus the fresh air and sunlight is a huge mood/creativity booster. In case you need some inspiration, here are a few examples of other simple self-care activities that always make me really happy:

  • Taking a hot shower in the evening, putting on the comfiest sweats, and then giving myself a manicure/pedicure
  • Treating myself to a solo dinner date to one of my favorite fast casual spots 
  • Listening to a podcast while strolling around outside
  • Getting ice cream with my husband on a week night, just because
  • Making a time intensive home-cooked meal with some wine (the more chopping, the better)

It is so cliché - but you really can't pour from an empty cup. Making time for yourself will most certainly make you a better friend, spouse, co-worker, parent, etc... so it's important not to skip! I would love to hear about your tips for fitting in self-care when life gets busy, so tell me in the comments:

What is your favorite self-care activity and how do you make time for it?