Heather's Weight Loss Doctrine

1) Eat the right amount of calories. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people have told me the following: "I work out almost every day and I'm eating 1500 calories, and I'm SO FRUSTRATED, because I'm not losing weight!" My response is always, "You're not eating enough calories." It is a scary concept to eat more calories when you've got your mind set on eating less. But this makes your body go into "Starvation Mode" and keep a kung fu grip on your weight. Sure, you will lose some weight initially, but it will not be sustainable.

To find out the calories you should be eating, first, find out your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Then, follow the instructions here for the Harris-Benedict Equation. This will tell you how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. A healthy calorie reduction is 500 calories per day. Since there are 3,500 calories in a pound, a 500 calorie per day deficit would result in a weight loss of 1 pound per week. This is healthy weight loss. Which brings me to my next point...

2) Real weight loss is slow. Sorry.

3) Fad diets don't work. Repeat after me: Fad diets don't work. Atkins is BS (seriously--what about eating loads of fatty meats and no carbs sounds like a non-artery-cloggingly good idea?!). The Celebrity Juice/Cookie/Only-Eating-One-Type-of-Anything-Diet(s) are totally ridiculous. Slimfast works temporarily only because you are replacing two meals per day with liquid, which, again, is crazy. South Beach limits fruits for the first several weeks (ridiculous--fruit is good for you, for christ's sake). Even that "Skinny Bitch" book which tries to shame you into losing weight is really just brainwashing you into becoming vegan (which, as you should know, is a very serious lifestyle change that requires a lot of consideration and careful diet planning).

The only way to lose weight healthily is to eat a balanced diet with moderate portions. Model your diet after the USDA food pyramid. Primarily, eat whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, lean protein, and heart-healthy fats.

4) If you're really hungry, eat something. This should go without saying, but people often think that you need to starve to lose weight. This goes back to my first point. If you're at your calorie limit for the day and you are STARVING, you should eat something. Try to limit yourself to a 100-calorie snack if fresh veggies don't cut out the craving. Sugar-free pudding with berries, low-fat cottage cheese, a spoonful of peanut butter, a few crackers....none of these things will kill your diet.

5) It's okay to splurge. A lot of people are most successful with dieting when they allow themselves to cheat. Once a day with something very small (like a square of chocolate) or once a week with something larger (like a serving of Ben & Jerry's). Giving yourself these treats will make you less likely to cheat in larger ways. Ultimately, the calories will not matter.

Additionally, If there is a special occasion like a wedding or an anniversary meal, do not just eat a salad. You should enjoy yourself, because food is a wonderful way to celebrate such occasions. Obviously, you shouldn't go overboard with a huge porterhouse and two slices of chocolate cake. But get something reasonable that sounds good, have a glass of wine, and split a dessert. Trust me, you will be so much happier.

6) Know Thy Food Groups. I've actually had people get mad at me because alcohol is considered a fat serving, frozen yogurt a starch, and Yoplait Whips (the only 'tolerable' yogurt, dontchaknow?) not a milk serving, but a starch. Seriously, people. Man up. No, you can not eat frozen yogurt instead of milk or yogurt (what are you, 12 years old?!). No, your super-sugary yogurt does not count the same way plain, non-fat yogurt does. I'm very sorry that alcohol is metabolized as fat, but I don't make up the rules. Margaritas are fatty and high-calorie. Deal with it.

It's important to know the caloric and nutritional parameters of what makes a food group a food group. Calculating food exchanges is what the American Diabetic Association does. This is too confusing to go into while writing a doctrine, but I will revisit it some other time.

7) Walk More. Walking is the single easiest way to lose weight and maintain your weight loss. By simply parking your car at the end of the parking lot, getting up and walking to your coworkers instead of emailing them, taking a 15 minute walk during your lunch hour, and/or a 30-minute walk after dinner, you can make a noticeable dent in your progress. If you're able to, walk to work and take a bus home (or vice-versa). I find it's helpful for most people to get a pedometer and wear it throughout the day. There are roughly 2,000 steps per mile--it's fun to find out how many miles you walk normally and try to build off of that number.

8) Mix it up. Once you get used to an increased activity level, start incorporating other forms of exercise. Your body will get used to the same activity if you're doing it over and over again for an extended period of time, and it will lose its effectiveness. This is why you need to shake things up. It's important to walk almost every day, but try adding in cardio (i.e. Zumba, Tae Bo, Aerobic dance, or elliptical machines) once or twice per week, and then muscle-building activities like Yoga or Pilates another one or two days.

9) Cook for yourself. It's all fine and well to go out to eat, but it's difficult to manage calories and portion sizes (**SIDE NOTE: I would make a separate bullet point about portion sizes, but I'm getting tired of writing....and I'll make it a separate entry). Learn to cook healthy foods for yourself and your family if you don't know how already. Learn healthy substitutes for what you already make for your family (another topic I'll broach in the future). Finally, subscribe to Cooking Light magazine--they are a godsend.

10) You've got to really want it. Weight loss is difficult. Keeping it off can be even harder. You have to really WANT to stick with it through the pain and deprivation. You have to really want the end result. If you don't care enough about the process, you will probably fail. This usually results in 'cycling,' where you lose weight, gain weight, lose weight, and so forth. Cycling is typically disappointing and shameful to the dieter. You don't wanna go there--it's an ugly state of mind. So, steel yourself. Get used to the idea of change. You'll be happier in the end.

Questions? Fire away.

Indonesia: Sambal Goreng Telor Atau Tauhu (Egg Curry)

One of my Top 3 restaurants in Madison is called Bandung. Bandung serves Indonesian food that is absolutely scrumptious. My favorite is their Nasi Goreng (Curry Fried Rice). It's even better with a creamy curry sauce piled on top, because, as an old friend once told me, "You know what goes really well with curry? More curry." If there's one thing even a Big 10 university town in the middle of Illinois doesn't have, it's Indonesian food. And that is a damn shame. So, I suppose it's a good thing I can just make my own (who knew??).

Unfortunately, Nasi Goreng just seemed like too much trouble. All fried rice seems vaguely troublesome, unless you have leftover cold rice handy. And I just never plan for fried rice or leftover rice. So, instead I made this Egg Curry from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. It doubles as Tofu Curry. I fully intended to get tofu, but (surprise, surprise) Meijer's was out. And then I forgot to go elsewhere before Tuesday (surprise, surprise). I made do with eggs.

Sambal Goreng Telor Atau Tauhu
(from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook)
-4 pieces dried galanga (Laos Root)
-1 heaping tablespoon dried lemon grass (**I used the bottom of two stalks of fresh lemongrass, and removed them before serving. It worked great.)
-3 fresh curry leaves, optional (**Technically optional, but if you can find them--and I had to visit 3 specialty groceries before finding them--you should DEFINITELY get them. I really think they made a big flavor difference. And no, you can't just use curry powder. Also, I used about 6 leaves, not 3.)
-1/2 cup water
-1 tablespoon hot chili paste (sambal oelek, found in asian grocery stores)
-1 cup chopped onions
-3 garlic cloves, peeled
-8 peeled almonds (**Or, if you're lazy like me, you just deal with pureed, skin-on almonds. Big whoop.)
-2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
-1 teaspoon salt
-1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar, optional (**I used 1 teaspoon, and recommend it)
-14 ounce can coconut milk
-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled (or 1 pound steamed or fried tofu triangles)
-Scallions, sliced on a severe diagonal
-Optional: Green vegetables, steamed.

1. Simmer the laos root, lemon grass, and curry leaves in the water until liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup.

2. Puree the chili paste, onions, garlic, and almonds in a blender or food processor, drizzling in just enough oil to keep things happening.

3. In a wok (or skillet), cook the above two mixtures until "the oil comes out," which means until the liquid has evaporated and the oil begins to exude or "return." This can take a while, so keep a watchful eye and stir frequently. Add the salt, sugar if desired, and coconut milk, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Finally , add the whole hard-boiled eggs or the steamed/fried tofu triangles and allow to simmer for another 10 minutes.

4. To serve, spoon one egg or several tofu pieces and some of the curry sauce on individual servings of rice. Top with steamed vegetables, if you choose. Garnish with scallions.

-Servings: 4-6, depending on whether this is used as a main or side dish.

Verdict: This was an amazing curry sauce. Allow me to digress for a moment: Another thing you can't find in the middle of Illinois is Curry Squash. Sure, there are Thai restaurants--good ones. But none of them (and I've been to all of them) serve Curry Squash. It's so sad. Anyway, the curry sauce for Sambal Goreng tastes almost exactly like the sauce in Curry Squash. So, the extra-specialness of this great recipe is knowing that I can add in tofu and squash and squee over the tastiness, whilst rubbing my tummy in glee.

I'm waffling over the good-for-you-ness of this recipe. There would be very little fat, were it not for a whole can of coconut milk (I believe I only added about 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil). To make this as wholesome for you as possible, I would use reduced-fat coconut milk (realizing that this will somewhat affect the thick, richness of the sauce), many more vegetables, and steamed tofu. It will still be really, really good--I'm almost positive. I will try it and let you know. Promise!

Goat Cheese Quesadillas with Green-Chile Salsa

You may not be aware, but I am in love with Cooking Light. Cooking Light fills me with a sense of well being and self-care. I cherish its many issues and turn to it in times of trouble. We've been planning our elopement for some time now. Someday we'll even have glossy, brilliant, ad-chocked children who are adventuresome, wholesome eaters.

Now that you know I am not one for hyperbole, let me just say: This is one of the best recipes that Cooking Light has ever given me. Honestly.

Goat Cheese Quesadillas with Green-Chile Salsa
(from Cooking Light)
-1 cup (4 ounces) goat cheese
-1 cup (4 ounces) grated reduced-fat Monterey Jack cheese
-1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
-1 tablespoon chili powder
-1 (15-ounce) can red beans, rinsed and drained
-8 (8-inch) fat-free flour tortillas
-Cooking spray
-Green-Chile Salsa (recipe below)
-Cilantro sprigs (optional)
-**I recommend adding about 1/2 teaspoon cumin (or a couple good shakes), 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, and a dash of salt. Also, you can top it with a bit of plain, nonfat yogurt instead of sour cream. YUM.**

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Combine first 5 ingredients; spread about 3/4 cup cheese mixture onto each of 4 tortillas, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Top each with a tortilla, pressing gently to secure. Place tortillas on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray; cover with foil. Bake at 350° for 25 minutes or until cheeses melt. Serve with Green-Chile Salsa; garnish with cilantro sprigs, if desired.

Green Chile Salsa
-1 1/3 cups diced seeded tomato
-1/4 cup diced sweet onion
-2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
-1 teaspoon minced fresh cilantro
-1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
-1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chiles

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. (Difficult, I know!) :)

-Servings: 4
-Calories: 477, Fat: 12.4g, Carbs: 70.7g, Protein: 23g

Serve with a margarita or, as pictured, a gin gimlet...mmm...

Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Frosting


Friends, today I took my first stab at making cinnamon rolls. These delicious little gems (which are probably in my Top 3 Baked Goods) have always seemed like more work than they're worth--especially in the morning. Given that I awoke at 6:30 and immediately began cooking and did not have a ooey gooey roll in my mouth until 10:30, I would say that the above sentiment is about 90% accurate. I could've just bought some at a bakery, warmed them up at home, and have been in a delirious, sugar-induced coma by 8:15. But then that defeats the purpose of being adventurous in my cooking and baking, doesn't it?

So, I made the cinnamon rolls. And they took forever. And they were mouthwateringly delectable. And my house smells amazing right now.

Some notes on this recipe from me:
-I do not have a stand mixer. I used a hand mixer for the first 3 minutes of beating, then I used a wooden spoon and my hands to mix the rest of the flour in.
-I do not have two glass 9" pans. Instead, I used two round metal cake pans. They made the outsides a bit crustier than I think they should be (probably why you're supposed to use glass instead of metal), but it was no big deal.
-I really thought that the two hour initial rising time was going to be a load of BS. What takes two hours to double in size?!, I asked myself. The answer is this recipe.
-The rolls did not double or even 'nearly' double after rolling/cutting. Whatever. They still puffed up in the pan during cooking.
-I hear that these rolls freeze well. You can wrap them individually in foil and freeze for a quick single-serving breakfast.

Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Frosting
(from Molly Wizenberg at Bon Appetit)
-1 cup whole milk
-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
-3 1/2 cups (or more) unbleached all purpose flour, divided
-1/2 cup sugar
-1 large egg
-2 1/4 teaspoons rapid-rise yeast (from 2 envelopes yeast)
-1 teaspoon salt
-Nonstick vegetable oil spray


-3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
-2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
-1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

-4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
-1 cup powdered sugar
-1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine milk and butter in glass measuring cup. Microwave on high until butter melts and mixture is just warmed to 120°F to 130°F, 30 to 45 seconds. Pour into bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Add 1 cup flour, sugar, egg, yeast, and salt. Beat on low speed 3 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. Add 2 1/2 cups flour. Beat on low until flour is absorbed and dough is sticky, scraping down sides of bowl. If dough is very sticky, add more flour by tablespoonfuls until dough begins to form ball and pulls away from sides of bowl. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if sticky, about 8 minutes. Form into ball.

2. Lightly oil large bowl with nonstick spray. Transfer dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then kitchen towel. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

3. Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in medium bowl.

4. Punch down dough. Transfer to floured work surface. Roll out to 15x11-inch rectangle. Spread butter over dough, leaving 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over butter. Starting at 1 long side, roll dough into log, pinching gently to keep it rolled up. With seam side down, cut dough crosswise with thin sharp knife into 18 equal slices (each about 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide).

5. Spray two 9-inch square glass baking dishes with nonstick spray. Divide rolls between baking dishes, arranging cut side up (there will be almost no space between rolls). Cover baking dishes with plastic wrap, then kitchen towel. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until almost doubled in volume, 40 to 45 minutes.

6. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F. Bake rolls until tops are golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and invert immediately onto rack. Cool 10 minutes. Turn rolls right side up.

7. Combine cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat until smooth. Spread glaze on rolls. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Servings: Makes 18 cinnamon rolls.
Calories: Terrible.

Verdict: I've seen several reviews saying that these are "the best cinnamon rolls EVARRRR, OMG." They're not that great, but they are pretty damn good. However, if I go through the trouble of making cinnamon rolls again, it will probably be a different recipe (no offense, Molly Wizenberg...I just like to keep my options open where my sweet breadstuffs are concerned).

Georgia: Khachapuri (Cheese Bread)

At the Farmer's Market in Madison, there's a cart on one of the corners that sells cheese bread. At regular intervals, one of the guys yells out, "HOT! Sp-icy cheese breaaaad!" It wasn't until last year that I finally tried some of the Hot! Spicy! Cheese bread! and it was awesome.

I was excited to know that something called "Khachapuri," listed as one of Georgia's national dishes, was cheesy bread! Granted, it's not exactly the same as the kind sold at the Farmer's Market (which is just melted cheese enveloped in bread). Khachapuri comes in many varieties, but this type (Imeritian Khachapuri) is the most common. Khachapuri is made into large loaves for special occasions, but is sold in smaller quantities ("beggars purses") by street vendors.

Khachapuri (from Recipezaar.com)
-1 cup milk, scalded (heated until bubbled form around edges, and wisps of steam come off the milk)
-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
-1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
-1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt
-2 teaspoons instant yeast
-3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour


-2 cups cheese (Monterey Jack, Sharp Cheddar or Muenster)
-1 cup ricotta cheese or cottage cheese or goat cheese
-2 large eggs
-2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
-1/2 teaspoon salt, if needed (depends on how salty your cheese is to start with--do a taste test)
-1/2-1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
-1 teaspoon paprika

1. Heat the butter and milk in a small saucepan, or in the microwave, till the butter has melted. Put the sugar, coriander and salt in a medium-sized bowl, and pour the hot milk over them, stirring to combine and to dissolve the malt or sugar. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

2. Add the instant yeast and flour to the milk mixture and stir to form a shaggy mass. Set this rough dough aside for 30 minutes. **NOTE: If you do not have instant yeast, you will need to wait for the yeast to proof before adding the flour. Because of the warmth and the sugar, the yeast will have a microbial fiesta, as pictured below.

What yeast looks like when it's happy. Or when it's colonizing a new planet.

3. Knead the dough until it's smooth -- in a bread machine set on the dough cycle, about 2 minutes in a food processor, 6 to 8 minutes by electric stand mixer, or 8 to 10 minutes by hand. Put the dough in a greased bowl, turn it over to coat the entire surface, and cover the bowl. Let the dough rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until it increases in size by at least one-third.

4. If you have a food processor, use it -- it's ideal for this filling. Cube the hard cheese, add the soft cheese, and process until well-mixed but some chunks remain. Add the eggs, flour and seasonings, and pulse just to mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until ready to use. If you don't have a food processor, grate the hard cheese, and beat in the soft cheese and eggs. Continue beating, adding the flour and seasonings. Refrigerate until ready to use. (**NOTE: I just bought a bag of shredded cheddar and tossed it in the processor).

5. Shaping and Baking: After the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough in half (you'll be making two loaves), and cut a small (1-ounce) piece of dough off of each half. Round all four pieces of dough into balls, and let them rest, covered, for 15 minutes.

6. Roll each large ball into a 10- to 12-inch circle. Place one circle into a lightly greased small pie tin, 8- or 9-inch round cake pan, or onto a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Dollop half of the cheese mixture into the middle of the circle, and pull the dough up around the cheese, folding and pinching it, and "pleating" it into a topknot. Leave a small hole in the very center of the knot, and place the small ball in this hole. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Cover the loaves and let them rise for 45 minutes or longer -- they'll look puffy, but not doubled in size. If the pleats have opened, pinch them shut.

7. Bake the loaves in a preheated 375°F oven for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350°F and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes. When finished, the loaves will be golden brown, and the middle should feel set. Tent the loaves with aluminum foil after 15 minutes if they seem to be browning too quickly. Remove the loaves from the oven, and allow them to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing. Slice the bread into wedges, and serve it warm, or at room temperature.

Cheese Avalanche!

-Makes 2 loaves
-Calories: If you cut a loaf into 8 wedges (which are pretty good sized), each slice will have approximately 210 calories. 38% of those calories come from fat, so obviously, this is not the greatest recipe for you. However, it does make a tasty treat that will not completely kill your diet if you have one slice.

Verdict: This was not exactly what I hoped for, but it was good. I may have over-kneaded the bread (the dough is a bit dry), or it may have browned too quickly, but parts of it were drier than I would've liked. Also, as is evident from the photo of the finished bread, I did not do Step 6 well enough. Make sure that the hole at the top is TINY (that is, much, much smaller than the ball you've pinched off). Otherwise, you will end up with a cheese volcano like I did. This didn't affect the taste, only the appearance.

Blackberry, Lemon, and Walnut Scones

"Slaying entails certain sacrifices, blah blah biddy blah, I'm so stuffy, give me a scone." Oh, Buffy, you quippy, vampire-slaying sass-pot.

SO! The big news over at Foodie Blogroll two weeks ago was that I won a jar of Date Syrup from Organics Are For Everyone. The fine folks at Organics Are For Everyone sent a jar of this tasty natural sweetener my way in no time flat. Date Syrup is a crowd pleasin' organic, vegan product. It can be used as syrup for pancakes and waffles, in place of honey or sugar in recipes, on ice cream, in marinades, or just eaten straight from the jar (and yes, it is that good). Over the week, I found that I really enjoyed drizzling some over my morning bowl of granola and plain yogurt. This is an awesome product. Thank you to Organics Are For Everyone for sending this for me to try!

Today, I decided to use one of the recipes found on the Organics Are For Everyone website: Berry and Lemon Scones. You all don't know this yet, but I decided last weekend (while in Madison, at Lazy Jane's, eating the best scones on the planet) that I am on the quest for the perfect scone recipe. Preferably, I could just smuggle Lazy Jane's recipe from the cafe, but I don't think I have the cat-like prowess for such a task. So, I guess I'm stuck with the delectable job of making many scone recipes to find the best one. Darn.

Blackberry, Lemon, and Walnut Scones (from Organics Are For Everyone)
-1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
-2.5 teaspoons baking powder
-1 teaspoon salt (**NOTE: I will probably use slightly less in the future)
-1/3 cup date syrup
-4 tablespoons cold butter, chopped into small cubes
-1/2 cup milk
-Zest from 1 lemon
-1 teaspoon lemon juice
-1/2 teaspoon vanilla
-1/3 cup fresh or frozen cherries, raspberries, or blackberries (**NOTE: I used at least 2/3 cup)
-Optional: 1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
-Optional: I made a lemon glaze for these bad boys. Just pour some powdered sugar in a cereal bowl, and squeeze the rest of the lemon juice from your leftover lemon onto the sugar. Using a fork, blend completely. Drizzle over the cooked scones with a spoon and let cool.

1. Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl: Flour, salt, sugar, and zest. Cut in butter using your fingers, a pastry blender, or two knives until a coarse meal forms.

2. In another bowl, mix together date syrup, vanilla, milk, and lemon juice. Combine with dry ingredients until dough just starts to hold together. Do not overwork! Add berries and nuts, if desired.

3. Press dough into a disc (it will be a bit sticky, don't worry). Cut dough into slices. Form into desired scone shapes and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes (if small scones...large scones will take more like 15-18).

-Servings: I made 4 large scones. You could probably get away with 6, since they spread out in a major way during the baking process.

Verdict: Way tasty scones! Greg thought this recipe was very close at Lazy Jane's scones. Plus, he complimented me up and down about how pretty they look. He's a good man. :) I will happily make this recipe again. It came together in no time at all, and I can feel good about the only source of sugar (glaze aside) coming from the date syrup!

Egypt: Kushari


I have to admit that my enthusiasm over the 50 Countries challenge is waning. It's a lot of work to figure out what country to do each week, what recipe to make to keep things fresh and interesting, as well as which recipes are more "authentic" or definitive of that country than others. It's exhausting. In the midst of a very busy time at work (that will continue through the summer) and wedding planning (which will also continue through the summer), this often seems like an unnecessary burden. BUT, I'm committed to at least making the recipes, even if I half-ass the research or authenticity. So, I'm taking a moment here to pep myself up: Yes you can! You will! 50 Countries Challenge rocks!

Now, onto this week's challenge: Kushari from Egypt. Kushari is one of Egypt's national dishes. It is an inexpensive, very popular dish made of noodles, rice, lentils, fried onions, and a spicy tomato sauce that many Egyptian restaurants serve and specialize in. Wikipedia tells me that Kushari is thought to reflect the diet of Coptic Christians during lent.

When I saw this recipe, I was like, "For serious? That is a lot of carbs on one plate, Egypt, and I am a carbaholic." I also thought it sounded kind of boring. I mean, spicy tomato sauce on three types of carbs...whoopdedoo, right? But, please refer to paragraph one. I was desperate for something quick and easy to satisfy the challenge, and this fit the bill. Fortunately, Kushari is unexpectedly uber-nummy and REALLY easy to make.

Kushari (adapted from TracyFood and the "Moosewood Restaurant New Classics" cookbook)
-5-6 cups fresh chopped or canned diced tomatoes (roughly two 28 oz cans will do)
-5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
-1 large jalapeno, roughly chopped
-1 tablespoon vegetable oil
-1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
-1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or less to taste)
-1 teaspoon cumin
-1 teaspoon coriander
-1 small-medium onion, chopped
-Extra vegetable oil for frying the onion
-1 cup uncooked brown rice
-1 1/2 cups uncooked whole grain macaroni
-1 cup uncooked lentils

NOTE: If you have a rice cooker, this recipe will be MUCH easier to do all at once (as it will not use up all of your burners, plus one). If you do not have a rice cooker, I suggest making at least one or two of your carbs ahead of time.

1. Cook your rice, macaroni, and lentils in three separate pots/cookers. Start these at least 20-30 minutes before beginning the sauce preparation (particularly the brown rice, since it takes extra long to cook).

2. In a blender or food processor, add the tomatoes, garlic, jalapeno, vegetable oil, red wine vinegar, salt, cumin, and coriander. Process until smooth.

3. Place the tomato mixture in a saucepan. Over medium heat, cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 20-30 minutes.

4. In a frying pan, heat the extra vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, and fry until medium-dark brown. Set aside until the rest of the food is done.

5. Place lentils, rice, and noodles in a bowl, or in separate lumps on a plate. You may put the sauce over the carbs, or on the side. Serve garnished with the fried onions.

-Serves: At least 4, if 6 generous servings.
-Calories: Unknown, but if you're not concerned about a boatload of carbs, this isn't too bad for you. There's a relatively small amount of oil. Plus, the lentils and tomatoes give you great nutritional bang for your buck.

Verdict: WAY better than I thought it would be. The sauce is flavorful with a great spicy kick (the kind that takes a while to kick in). Plus, the carb hog in me had a great time pigging out on a variety of grains and legumes in one bowl.

Red Pesto Penne with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Goat Cheese

The title really says it all, doesn't it? Pesto, roasted cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, and noodles (okay, it doesn't say spinach, but it's in there). What else could you need in a dinner? This makes a fantastic "hot weather" meal, as you don't have to slave over a hot stove. Just put a pot of boiling water on, toss tomatoes into the oven, put whole ingredients into a food processor, and bam--you're done.

Red Pesto Penne with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
(from the lovely Love and Olive Oil, who got the recipe from 101 Cookbooks)
-16 oz. penne pasta
-2 ounces sundried tomatoes
-2 medium cloves garlic (**I used three, because I loves me some garlicky food)
-1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
-1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
-1 teaspoon fresh thyme (**I used a generous 1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme)
-1/8 teaspoon salt
-1/4 cup pine nuts and/or walnuts, lightly toasted
-3 handfuls of baby spinach tossed with a glug of olive oil and a big pinch of salt. (**I did not do this. I just used fresh baby spinach, period. It was delightful.)
-2/3 cup oven-roasted cherry tomatoes (these use a spoonful of brown sugar, extra olive oil, and some salt to taste)
-Optional (but delicious): crumbled goat cheese (to make this recipe vegan, simply leave out the cheese)

1. To oven-roast cherry tomatoes: Heat oven to 350F degrees. Cut each tomato in half and arrange in a large oven-proof baking dish. Mix together a big splash of olive oil, a spoonful of brown sugar, and a few pinches of salt. Pour this over the tomatoes. Gently toss them a bit, making sure they all get coated. Arrange tomatoes cut-side up. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or so, until the tomatoes are shrunken and sweet.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and cook the penne per package instructions. Drain, but reserve about one cup of the hot pasta water (important!).

3. In the meantime, make the sun-dried tomato pesto by pulsing the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, pepper flakes, olive oil, thyme, and salt in a food processor until it comes together into a textured crumble. Add the walnuts, and pulse a few more times – see photo. Set aside.

4. Combine 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water in a large mixing bowl along with two-thirds of the sun-dried tomato pesto. Add the pasta and gently toss. Add more of the hot pasta water if needed to thin the pesto out – it should make a nice chunky sauce. Taste and add more of the pesto if you like – it’s really a matter of personal preference at this point.

5. Arrange the baby spinach on a large platter and top with everything from the pasta mixing bowl. Top with the cherry tomatoes and a bit of crumbled goat cheese.

Verdict: Very nummy. Greg licked the plate.

India: Palak Paneer

Everyone, I would like to introduce you to my favorite Indian dish, Palak Paneer. Palak, this is everyone.

For my India challenge, I knew right away that I would make my own paneer. Paneer is a soft cheese, similar to ricotta. I've never attempted any kind of cheese making before, so I was kind of nervous. As it turns out, paneer is nothing to be afraid of. It's as easy to make as dried pasta (and far easier than rice, if you don't have a rice cooker), but way better because everyone will be impressed by your cheese making prowess.

There was also no other choice than to highlight my paneer by making Palak Paneer (also known as Saag Paneer....they're the same thing, I believe). Palak Paneer is typically made from pureed spinach or mustard leaves, spices, onions and cream. I hear that authentic Palak Paneer does not include tomatoes, but I had trouble finding recipes without tomatoes, so just rolled with 'em. Authentic or not, this was an AWESOME recipe. This was a restaurant-caliber recipe. This was not unlike the best Lamb Saag (without lamb, of course) that I've ever had, which was at "Taste of the Himalayas" in San Francisco. This made me want to hit myself for not attempting my own Palak Paneer sooner.

In other words....make this now.

Palak Paneer
(from Show Me the Curry)
-1 (16oz) package frozen chopped spinach
-1/2 cup water
-7oz paneer (recipe follows)
-3 tablespoons oil, divided
-2 medium onions, minced
-1" piece of ginger, minced
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-2 large tomatoes, diced (or a 14oz can)
-2 teaspoons Garam Masala
-1 teaspoon cumin
-2 teaspoons coriander
-1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (or to taste)
-1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
-1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
-4 tablespoons heavy whipping cream (or to taste--recipe goes up to 8 tablespoons)
**NOTE: In place of cream, you may use milk, lactaid, soy milk, half 'n half, or evaporated milk, if you have allergies or just want to save calories.

1. In a microwave safe bowl, cook frozen spinach and 1/2 cup water for 7-8 minutes in the microwave, stirring at the halfway point.

2. In a blender or food processor, blend spinach to desired consistency (a few pulses should do it).

3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add in the minced onions, stirring well. Cover and let cook for 5 minutes (**NOTE: Obviously, if you let them cook without stirring for 5 minutes, they will burn. SO, stir, cover, stir, cover, repeat for a few minutes. Let them get nice and browned, and then keep them uncovered and stir for the next couple minutes, so as not to let them burn).

4. Add in the ginger and garlic, mixing well. Cook another 4 minutes, stirring almost constantly so as not to let it burn. Add more oil if you need to.

5. Add the diced tomatoes. Cover and cook until the oil separates from the mixture. (**NOTE: I have no idea what that means. I cooked them until I was ready to do the next step, which included me reducing the heat to medium-low and stirring often. That worked well).

6. While your Masala (the onion-ginger-garlic-tomato mixture) is cooking, cube the paneer to 1/2" cubes (or whatever your desired paneer-size is).

7. In another nonstick frying pan, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil. When oil is hot, add the paneer cubes and let them cook until golden brown on all sides. Remove from the pan and onto a plate with paper towl to absorb excess oil.

8. After letting the paneer sit for a few minutes, pour them into a bowl of cold water. Let sit for 5 minutes.

9. Once the Masala is ready, add in the mashed spinach. Mix well, then add in the Garam Masala, cumin, coriander, chili powder, salt, and turmeric. Mix well, and cook 3-5 minutes.

10. Add in the desired amount of cream/milk. Mix well and cook another few minutes.

11. Drain paneer and gently squeeze water out of the cubes. Put paneer in the spinach mixture and mix gently. Serve hot.

-Servings: 4

Paneer (from 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes by Carol Gelles)
-1/2 gallon (2 quarts) whole milk
-1 tablespoon salt
-1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a stock pot, add the milk and salt. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the mix comes to a boil. Be careful--once milk starts boiling, it rises FAST (you'll see in one of my photos the line of milk far above the actual liquid), so you'll want to be standing there, monitoring it to ensure no burning and no boiling over and making a giant mess!

2. Once the mix comes to a boil, add the lemon juice. Stir until small curds form throughout most of the mixture. Remove from heat. You may need to remove from heat right away to prevent from boiling over, return to the heat to get more curds to form, remove from the heat, and so forth.

3. In a colander lined with three layers of cheesecloth, drain the mixture. Pick up the corners of the cloth to create a package and try to wring out as much liquid as you can by twisting the cloth (this is HOT--be careful!). Once this is done, tie the four corners around a wooden spoon or similar, and place the spoon over a pot to catch the liquid drippings. Allow the cheese to drain for an hour.

4. Remove the cheese from the cloth and wrap in saran wrap or waxed paper. Weight with a heavy book for 1/2 hour to compress the cheese. After that's done, use right away or place in the fridge for up to 5 days before using.

-Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.

Pickled Carrots and Cauliflower

I don't mean to flog you all with how much I enjoy Lori's blog, but I had to make another of her recipes this weekend: Pickled Carrots (I added some cauliflower). Recently I've had a serious jones for all things pickled. The yearning was so acute the other night that while I was out at a martini bar, I drank a "Dirty Lemonade," which is basically a lemon drop with olive brine (and yes, I did get curious looks--even from the waiter). It cured me of my salty/briny needs that night, but the next day I was right back to wanting the spicy/crunchy dimension of pickled things. Plus, I had dill in my fridge that was going to go to waste.

The nice bit about this recipe is that it's a "quick pickle." That is to say, you don't need to wait for 3 months to eat the goodies inside. Hell, you don't even need to properly can them if you're going to eat them right away (and please do eat them right away if you don't can properly--don't get botulism!).

The recipe for the liquid only filled up half of my jar. So, I made another batch of the liquid and poured that in there, too. After setting it in the fridge for a couple hours, the vegetables seemed to shrink, and there was much more fluid than veggies! Weird, wild stuff. So, I crammed more veggies in. I have a feeling that I didn't need to double the liquid because of whatever scientific thing happened there, so just be aware of that.

Quick Pickled Carrots & Cauliflower
(from Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness, who modified it from Martha Stewart)
-1/2 cup white-wine vinegar
-1/2 cup sugar
-1 T kosher salt*
-4 or more medium carrots, julienned (until I filled a quart jar)
-1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
-2 sprigs of dill
-3 cloves of garlic halved

1. In a sauce pan combine vinegar, sugar, and salt. Heat to a boil and salt and sugar is disolved. Pour over the carrots in the quart jar. Cool, cover, and refrigerate at least 2 hours but preferably for a couple days.

* the reason you use kosher salt is because it does not contain iodine. Iodine discolors vegetables or fruit in the canning process.

Verdict: This is so, so good. It's crunchy and spicy and sweet all at once (like spicy-sweet pickles). They have cured me of my yearning for pickled things, but have made me want to start pickling other things (like pickles!....and escabeche!). Then I started thinking about canning other things, like jam. So, be careful...this recipe is apparently a slippery slope.

Artichoke Spinach Lasagna

Back before I kept all the recipes I want to try in a saved email draft, I used to print out recipes and store them in a binder. I also did this with Cooking Light recipes once I'd accumulated approximately 19,000 magazines and needed to move to another apartment. I'm left with two binders born of construction paper, glue, and hours of poring over old Cooking Light issues and various websites. I love them dearly.

One recipe I've had for at least five years but hadn't tried is Artichoke Spinach Lasagna. Why I never got around to trying it out, I'm not sure. Was I all like, "Ooh, artichokes and feta. Ouch. Did anyone else just feel my wallet lose 5 pounds?" Who knows.

Artichoke Spinach Lasagna (from Allrecipes.com)
-Cooking Spray
-9 uncooked lasagna noodles
-1 onion, chopped
-4 cloves garlic, chopped
-1 (14.5 ounce) can vegetable broth
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
-1 (14 ounce) can marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
-1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
-1 (28 ounce) jar tomato pasta sauce
-3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
-1 (4 ounce) package herb and garlic feta, crumbled (**NOTE: If you can avoid getting "fat free" herbed feta, I suggest doing so. I just think fat free feta is the grossest tasting thing ever, and I got it on accident. Yuck. It didn't ruin this dish, but it would've been better with fatty fat fat feta instead.)

Optional Ingredients I added:
-1 brick firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into small cubes (let's get a "Hell Yeah" for protein!)
-Salt, Pepper, Italian Seasoning, Fennel, and Garlic Powder to taste (because seriously...I don't know how it would've been much good without adding spices)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Spray a 9x13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.

2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add noodles and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain.

3. Spray a large skillet with cooking spray and heat on medium-high. Saute onion and garlic (and tofu) for 3 minutes, or until onion is tender-crisp. Stir in broth and rosemary; bring to a boil. Stir in artichoke hearts, spinach, and spices; reduce heat, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in pasta sauce.

4. Spread 1/4 of the artichoke mixture in the bottom of the prepared baking dish; top with 3 cooked noodles. Sprinkle 3/4 cup mozzarella cheese over noodles. Repeat layers 2 more times, ending with artichoke mixture and mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle crumbled feta on top.

5. Bake, covered, for 40 minutes. Uncover, and bake 15 minutes more, or until hot and bubbly. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting.

Servings: 8
Calories: 458, Fat: 21g

Verdict: 4 stars. This was a decent recipe, but it could use some revamping above and beyond what I added. In the future, I will use non-herbed, full-fat feta. I think I'll add some mushrooms and black olives, as well as a lot more spices (I think fresh oregano would be outstanding in this). Anyway...there's room for improvement, but it's pretty good!