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Maple Bacon Walnut Oatmeal

First of all, I wanted to apologize again for falling off of the grid. My passion for food has not gone away, though I have had to make a few adjustments in my diet which I will get to shortly. Mostly, it’s been a time issue, but it’s been a bit more than that. Without going into gory details, let’s just say my cholesterol, blood pressure and weight have been far less than ideal and my doctors suggested some changes to not only help with those issues but to help with my lower back disc issues. So I did something I thought I may never do–I saw a nutritionist. Granted, I know a lot about food and maybe you do too. But you can always learn more about anything and you certainly should do that when it comes to food.

I thought that overall my diet was not horrible, until I started a diary and recognized that while I’m currently not drinking alcohol and mostly stick to coffee and carbonated water/seltzer, I was compensating by eating tons of empty calories. And even when I thought a light lunch of a baked potato and tomato soup was good, little did I know that it was a double whammy of bad–because of the carbs in the potato coupled with the sugar in the soup (more carbs)….but the thing my nutritionist pointed out about this lunch made a light bulb go off in my head. “You’re not eating enough protein,” she said. That lunch had zero protein (or maybe a negligent amount), and because of that it explained why I was often hungry an hour later.

When she started to plot out some good choices for me, it started to make sense. Would you consider a breakfast of cottage cheese and fruit, two slices of whole wheat toast each with a tablespoon of peanut butter, and a small glass of tomato juice part of a “diet?” Trust me, it’s not. That breakfast is filling as hell. Which of course means no mid morning blood sugar spike leading to pretzel or doughnut gorging. The plan is now to have 30 grams (or more) of protein AND up to 45 grams of carbs, with some vegetables–at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And to have 7-14 grams of protein plus 15 grams of carbs as a snack (example apple and cheese or greek yogurt and nuts or an orange and some jerky). The magic words I heard are that I CAN have carbs. I’m also allowed to have one treat per day–ice cream after dinner or cookies or jelly beans. If I have the treat during the day, I have no treat after dinner. It’s a fair trade and way of deal-making with myself.

Look, I know you don’t come here for health and nutrition advice. But I think it’s important enough that you should consider looking at your own eating habits, especially if you need to lose a few pounds (oh yeah, I lost 3 pounds this past week and I’m just starting) and are getting up there in age. So I’ll offer hints and suggestions where I can, starting with my breakfast this morning–Maple Bacon Walnut Oatmeal. Yes, I’m serious.

I told my wife the other day that I had a single serving of oatmeal (I like to make it from scratch, which only takes 10 minutes or so), with walnuts and maple syrup, and bacon on the side. She suggested taking it one step further and crumbling bacon on the oatmeal. That’s one of the many reasons I married her–she is simply brilliant (and hilarious, I may add). So I tried that this morning. I made the oats the same way (with a splash of half and half too) and crumbled two slices of bacon on top. As good as it sounds, this particular version was not a home run. The bacon was overpowering because it was all on top. But as I got deeper and had more spoonfuls of oats with bacon accents, it was, then, a home run. A touchdown. A three-pointer at the buzzer. You get the idea, sports fans. I also need to try this with bacon that crumbles better without burning quickly as I used today. You’ll notice that frosty glass of milk on the side. I have always had milk with my oatmeal, and now even more so since I need that extra protein to balance the carbs in the oats. But I like to also put the milk in the freezer before I cook the oats, making it ice cold in a frosty glass. It’s the little things, I tell you.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Cheesy Garlic Bread? Really?

Chef JimRemember back in March when we wrote about the Lay’s Potato Chips contest called “Do Us a Flavor?”

Well, last month they announced the winner, Cheesy Garlic Bread, submitted by Karen Weber-Mendham of Wisconsin. I live in Wisconsin, and I love cheese, but this one was my least favorite of the three. I’m not sure who came in second and third, but I liked the Chicken & Waffle the best, followed by the Sriracha. Oh well, I guess in the end most of the country is more likely to opt for a flavor that is classic and a tad more common and old school of an idea. And that’s okay. Or maybe those folks genuinely liked the Cheesy Garlic Bread the best, and that’s okay too.

But the reality that I’d never get to have those Chicken & Waffle chips again kind of bummed me out. Have no fear, the Frito-Lay publicist told me, however. She sent me a bag of the Chicken & Waffles (as well as two more bags of Cheesy Garlic Bread…ha!), and told me the other two flavors might be making an appearance on shelves for a limited time this summer. Lay’s sure has the marketing to this down, because in the end they may satisfy all palates with this contest.

And I’m already thinking about a flavor I could submit next year. How about you? What are your flavor ideas?

Product review: Mamma Chia

Quick, what is the first thing that pops into your head when you think of chia seeds? Yes, that commercial for Chia Pets that maybe you saw during late-night TV. But apparently chia seeds have a significant health benefit, as in Omega-3′s and fiber. And Mamma Chia, a juice/smoothie hybrid type drink/snack is a portable and tasty way to get your Omega 3′s, especially if you do not like fish or the idea of taking fish oil capsules.

I must admit I was skeptical at first when Mamma Chia was pitched to me, but for the most part I am adventurous with new products like this, so I offered to try it and write it up. There is no need to refrigerate the product, as it’s basically one of those portable juice squeeze bag type things that are all the rage right now, especially among kids. But I refrigerated mine and tried them all this past weekend when it was a wicked hot and muggy Midwest day, and not only was Mamma Chia refreshing, but they all tasted pretty good, some more than others. The grainy texture of the tiny seeds also had a somewhat pleasant mouth feel, sort of the way sprinkles on ice cream does.

Here are my observations of the four flavors I tried:
Green Magic–I’m a sucker for these “green power” type things, because it’s an easy way to get the nutrients in like four bunches of kale easily without eating all that roughage. And this one was slightly tart, not as sweet but not bad at all.
Strawberry Banana–This was a thicker consistency, and the berries were more dominant than the bananas but still tasty.
Apple Cinnamon–My favorite flavor, it tastes like apple pie. Yum.
Blackberry–This one was more watery, but not too tart nor sweet.

Chef Jim
And the added bonus? I took them out and told my wife that I read about Mamma Chia online, and that it’s a hair growing remedy just like the old Chia pets. I think she believed that for about half a second, but it is still funny to say that and I’m sure I am not the first person to joke about it.

But hey, Mamma Chia is something I’d highly recommend–have it on hand in your desk, briefcase, home, or car. It’s a tasty, easy way to get some important nutrients.

Trader Joe’s does it again with Black Forest Bacon

It seems like every week when we visit Trader Joe’s for a family grocery shopping experience, there are new products that catch my attention and somehow become pulled by gravity into the shopping cart. This can be good and bad–good because more often than not, it’s something delicious and unique or both. Bad because it’s typically something we want to eat and not stop eating.

Such is the case with Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon. You know what’s crazy though? There is almost no information on this stuff online. It’s like they are sort of trying to keep it top-secret. Which is fine, because that means more for me and for my wife. But mostly for me (shhhhh). I did find this contest on Food & Wine and while there are some TJ’s bacons on here, I don’t have to try anything on this list to know that the Black Label will whip their bacon asses all up and down that page.

Why is it so good? Well, it crisps up beautifully, meaning it’s tender and the fat becomes something of a liquid pork rind (which is, well, what it is), and the bacon slice itself is bursting with flavor and crispness. It also has no fake taste whatsoever, as it’s real smoked and uncured and has a nice dry rub, but it’s even more remarkable that even if you slightly burn it (which you almost have to to get it crisp), it doesn’t even taste burnt. I don’t know how they do it, but they do, and they do so in my house almost every day lately. We now buy two packs at a time, and might ramp up to three this weekend. I mean, you never know when you will have a bacon emergency, right?

Spicy dogs and chili and mustard and olives

I’ve talked probably more than I’d care to admit that I’m trying to lose a few pounds. Aren’t we all this time of year?

Anyway, and maybe fortunately or unfortunately, I find loopholes in Weight Watchers’ point system. Maybe they are not loopholes, but they are ideas of healthy deliciousness. In the case of one of my favorite foods, the hot dog, I made this kickass lunch the other day–two fat free white meat turkey franks (thank you Ballpark) on Brownberry white Italian bread, and made two kinds. One had a Kosciusko spicy brown mustard and a small amount of Tony Packo’s Hot Dog Sauce (this stuff is remarkable and by that I mean tasty as hell); and the other had a (literally) kickass Beaver Brand jalapeno mustard and some spicy That Pickle Guy muffalatta style olive salad.

First of all, these hot dogs are fantastic. They do not taste fat free in the least, they are delicious, and they are mild enough to let the other toppings shine. And since I’m eating these dogs like two or three times a week, I’ve become more interested in trying different mustards. Which makes it convenient that we have the National Mustard Museum here in Madison.

And hey, it’s almost lunch time and this post is making me hungry. And I think I know what I want for lunch!

Mikey gives props to…..

Cooking Light Magazine–I’ve mentioned on here before that I am on Weight Watchers. Yes, it sometimes affects and stifles my creativity as a home cook, but it also opens up possibilities and challenges me. Well, I recently started subscribing to Cooking Light Magazine. And of all of the food magazine recipes I’ve made lately, almost everything we’ve tried the past two weeks from their 25th anniversary edition have been phenomenal. Here are a few you can try that we did:

Chef JimCreamy Four-cheese Macaroni & Cheese–You will not believe how few calories this is per serving. I defy anyone to find me a full-fat recipe that is as good as this one.

Chef JimCheesy Meat Loaf Minis–Some of the best meat loaf we have ever had. It helps that you can use full-fat cheddar, and being in Wisconsin, we have some good cheddar.

Chef JimTop Chef: Seattle–I need to be honest. I am a fan of the Top Chef brand, but have found Curtis Stone hosting Top Chef Masters to be grating. And their new Life After Top Chef is kind of so-so. But the original, which now is in Season 10 for Top Chef Seattle, remains one of the best shows on television, cooking show or otherwise. Bravo to Bravo and to Magical Elves production. I mean, I’d rather look at and listen to Padma Lakshmi than Curtis, and Tom Colicchio is like the Godfather of the show, but every season they do not disappoint with the collection of chefs, and with the episodes and challenges. It’s just a fun show to watch and guaranteed to make home chefs inspired.

Chef JimHome Run Inn Frozen Pizza–This is hands down the best frozen pizza on the planet. It comes from Chicago, so I’m not sure if they ship beyond the proximity of the Midwest, but my goodness. The crust is ridiculous–it tastes like fresh bakery bread. The sauce is perfectly simple with no garlic whatsoever, unlike many sauces on other frozen brands that ruin the pizza that way. The cheese is just mozzarella. And now they have thin crust varieties that are Weight Watchers friendly–for real.

Football season = smoked meats time

One of my favorite things about football season is that while there is a chill in the air outside (for the most part, as even in Wisconsin we have some pretty warm weather through September) is that it’s a great time to break out the indoor smoker my wife bought me a few years ago. And while typically I make chicken wings in my Cameron Indoor Smoker, and occasionally ribs–the first two weeks of the season I went a tad healthier to honor the fact that I’m trying to lose weight.

Last week it was chicken tenders–extremely easy as I put them in the smoker frozen, sprayed with cooking spray and sprinkled with salt, pepper and other spices. The cooking time is minimal compared to the low and slow time needed to “tenderize” wings and ribs. I am pretty sure the chicken smoked for about three hours and came out perfect, albeit maybe slightly overcooked before I finished the tenders on the grill. I mixed up some homemade ranch dip by mixing light mayo, light sour cream, a splash of vinegar, onion and garlic powder and salt and pepper. Perfection.

Then yesterday I made a flank steak in the smoker. And it was made even more perfect by the fact that I was in Nashville this past weekend, and picked up some Loveless Cafe dry rub–an awesome sweet, spicy and savory blend to rub on meat before grilling or smoking it. I had the steak in the freezer, so also put that right in the smoker frozen and rubbed it generously with the spice mix. Then I smoked it for about four hours until tender and slapped it on the grill for about five minutes. Done deal: meat snacks! It’s like homemade jerky, but more like a combination of thick steak and jerky that is nicely smoked and seasoned.

Easy chicken barley soup

Chef JimFinally things are starting to cool down, and when “soup weather” is upper 70′s, you know we have a problem. But hey, this blog is about the food, right? And it felt good to make some soup last night and eat some for lunch today. Not the open a can type of soup, but the real, from-scratch kind. And as with most of my recipes for this blog, I try to keep things simple, so here is how I made it…..

Ingredients
1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast half, diced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3/4 cup sliced carrots
1/2 cup sliced celery
1/4 cup chopped onion
Salt and pepper
1 carton (32 oz.) chicken broth
1/2 cup quick cooking barley
1/2 tsp. each–dried basil, oregano, thyme
Pinch of garlic powder
Pinch of onion powder

Directions
In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add chicken, and stir until browned, about 2-3 minutes. Add carrots, celery and onion and stir/cook for about 3-4 minutes, adding a generous pinch of both salt and pepper. Add chicken broth, barley and spices, and bring to a boil. Turn down heat, cover loosely and simmer for about 15 minutes. You can add more broth or water if the soup is too thick. Serves 4, or 2 really hungry people.

That’s it–simple and it tastes really good! I should add that I really like Trader Joe’s Free Range Chicken Broth. It really makes the soup.

Product review: Barilla microwaveable meals

This has nothing to do with the fact that one of my publicist contacts sent me some pasta to review–but Barilla is my favorite store-bought pasta. So I was thrilled that Barilla has new microwaveable meals. I’ve tried other versions of easy pasta like this, and kind of went into this a tad skeptical, but Barilla exceeded my expectations. There are five varieties–Mezze Penne with Tomato & Basil; Mezze Penne with Traditional Marinara Sauce; Mezze Penne with Spicy Marinara (my favorites); Whole Grain Fusilli with Vegetable Marinara Sauce; and Whole Grain Mezze Penne with Tomato & Basil Sauce.

Not only does Barilla have delicious pasta that cooks up nicely al dente, but this pre-cooked variety was very similar to Barilla pasta that you would make yourself. And these microwaveable meals are incredibly easy to make. You fold back the edge to “vent” the sauce, and warm for one minute. You peel back the entire top, and the sauce portion comes out, after which you pour it over the pasta and stir. A monkey could do this, and I mean that literally. Not only was it easy but tasty–we tried all but the fusilli, and the pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce tasty as well. The best part of these meals is that they do not taste processed. So often meals like this have sauces that taste like (and probably are) re-constituted powder–not these Barilla meals. They are a home run in every way.

Oh, wait, since we’re talking baseball, here are the other stats–all of the meals are 320 calories or less with no artificial ingredients; they have 9 to 11 grams of protein and are an excellent source of fiber and vitamin A; and the whole grain varieties are a good source of iron.

The Fourth–hot dog time

Last week I celebrated the 4th of July early with one of the synonymous food items for it–the hot dog. Specifically, I had a two-dog Chicago style dog rolled up in a tortilla. And really, this is a great way to have a dog with all those toppings, because you don’t have toppings all over your plate or the floor. It mostly all goes in your mouth. And also, it’s an easy way to slide two dogs into your bread vehicle.

So what goes on the Chicago? Any combo of this–yellow mustard, tomatoes, onions, sweet relish (neon green if you can find it), pickles, cucumber, hot peppers and celery salt. And it is best with all beef dogs, but that is not at all necessary. For me, I can’t eat raw onions without heartburn and bad breath, so I do myself and my wife a favor and omit those.

But really, you can also come up with all sorts of combos to top a dog. It’s the 4th, right? Also, the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest is on ESPN, another tradition that we have–going to our local parade, and then watching the contest and eating a dog (or 50!). Have a great holiday everyone, and make sure to hand your keys to someone if you have too many (drinks that is, not hot dogs).

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