Monday, August 20, 2012

The art of making natural things good

Making quick meals from healthy ingredients. It's a good thing.
I see this catchy tagline on a sign for a local pizza shop that I frequently pass.  The store is a "pizzarama" to be exact.

On a quick internet search I don't see these words attributed to anyone, so it seems the small business owner coined this turn of phrase or maybe saw it somewhere else and liked it for himself.

I like this collection of words, too. What is this gentleman saying to those who pass his shop?

My guess is he wants to make a statement that you can take simple ingredients and turn them into something fantastic without much fuss.

What is he doing? He's taking dough, tomatoes, cheese, spices...and turning those awesome natural ingredients into a beautiful pizza pie. Yum. Now that's art. Who can argue that?

Yes, let's agree the pizza shop owner is successful in the art of making natural things good.

Passing this pizza shop sign always makes me think about my own life. I, too, work on making natural things good every day myself.

I've always enjoyed food and cooking, but lately I've been on a kick to tirelessly take simple ingredients and make something fast and fabulous for quick, healthy dinners.

Even Cookie Monster realizes that
too many cookies will make you feel bad.
I'll admit that in days past I would come home and eat a cookie (or two or three or more!) and nothing else for dinner. I was too tired and lazy to do any more than that.

Not surprisingly, I didn't always feel so hot eating dinners like that. I wasn't really eating too much food, just not always the right balance of good things.

But no more.

I'm motivated to walk the talk. I'm energized to live what I believe. My updated philosophy is that it doesn't take a lot to make a good, quick meal on a weeknight.

What's my definition of a good, quick weeknight meal? A meal that takes anywhere from five or ten minutes to no more than half an hour to prepare.

And I'm making it work night after night. Tim Gunn from "Project Runway" would be proud of me making it work.

If I share with friends what I've made for a weeknight dinner, I can almost hear them groan wondering how I have the energy to pull that seemingly complex meal together after working all day.

Take it from me. It can be done. It's not as time-consuming as it sounds.

There are lots of good, natural and healthy food choices that don't take much time to prepare. Most nights I don't get home from work or exercise until 8 p.m. If I run an errand, my ETA could be 9 or 10 p.m.

So when I shop for food, I keep that in mind. I aim to buy ingredients that I can assemble easily and cook up quickly.

It does help that I usually roast veggies on the weekend to have at the ready all week long. If roasting veggies is not the art of making natural things good, I don't know what is.

Roasting propels vegetables into another dimension, bringing out all their inherent and sweet goodness. Carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant, sweet potatoes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts.... Oh, the list goes on. If it grows in dirt, we'll eat it, especially when roasted.

Roasted golden beets are easy to prepare
and a nice addition to salads.
Lately I've been roasting golden beets in foil at 400 degrees until a knife goes easily inserted in the center. Easy to peel the skin off then, I like the beets chunked in my lunch salads. I'll even eat cold slices of the beets, sweet like candy, with some nice stinky cheese and bread.

Yes, having food prepped or prepared in advance certainly makes it easier to pull together a great meal, but what other natural ingredients are my go-to standbys for quick, healthy dinners?

How do I take natural ingredients and artfully make a good-delicious, yet also good-healthy, dinner for us on a weeknight?

Some simple, but satisfying meals we enjoy are:
A little bit of fish at the top of this plate.
With a lot of roasted veggies. Yum.

  • Boneless chicken thighs, drumsticks, and cutlets. These all cook up so quickly in a pan on the cooktop. There are so many simple sauces and marinades to dress up our chicken and make it unique from one night to another: BBQ, teriyaki, lemon and olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pesto, and on and on.
  • Fish, oh, that's always quick, fish. I either take out a frozen pack from Trader Joe's (they have so many kinds to choose from) the night before or some nights I run into the nearby supermarket and buy some fresh wild-caught Silverbrite salmon.
    Scallops are quick and easy to make.
    And so is zapping some fresh English peas
    and sautéeing some greens for healthy sides.
    Some butter, lemon, nice spices and herbs. That's all we need to make a light and healthy meal.
  • Scallops. Pan-frying in olive oil caramelizes this luscious goodness from the sea. Oh, yes, scallops are a great and easy meal. 
  • Shrimp. Need I say more? We are always happy with shrimp. You can defrost pre-cooked, boil some fresh shrimp in Old Bay seasoning, or grill some quickly on a skewer. We eat shrimp every which way you can think of. With cocktail sauce. In a salad. With sides. With pasta. 
  • Did I say pasta? Pasta is a quick and versatile meal. We love it with any variety of tomato sauces (Italian gravy), pesto, or some good olive oil. With crab, clams, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, beans, greens, ricotta, mozzarella, ground meat, meatballs, sausage. Oh, pasta, how many ways can I love you? So many. 
    A quick meal of natural goodness.
  • We also throw any grains or beans into the quick-dinner mix as a side or part of the main course. It's easier now to find in stores pre-cooked brown rice, quinoa, lentils, and freekeh (who knew hubby would like freekeh?) for nights when all the time you want to expend is the time it takes to zap-heat something good and hearty in the microwave. And we always have on hand cans of black beans, chickpeas, white and red kidney beans, pinto beans.... Nutritious beans get the job done!
  • Sautéed greens, any variety, always do a great job to round out many a healthy meal. I love my wok. So easy, so quick. Such natural goodness comes from my wok.
  • And I really like hearty sandwiches for a quick meal. Grilled veggie burgers, portobello mushrooms, turkey burgers, prosciutto, roast beef. These are all great starts to a delicious meal. I'll scope out what's in the fridge and throw anything and everything together. You just can't go wrong. I add any greens we have raw or cooked: romaine, spinach, basil, broccoli rabe, sprouts, pea shoots, kale, Swiss chard... All these help make a hearty bundle of goodness between two slices of nice bread. Make it even better and throw on some ripe tomato, avocado, bacon, slices of provolone, Havarti, fresh mozzarella.... Mmm, the list goes on. All you need is a wee bit of creativity to turn a sandwich into a work of art.
  • Pizza. Just like the shop owner making natural things good, it's a no-brainer to bring home lovely ingredients to easily throw together a variety of delectable combinations. Pizza. That's amore! 
  • Breakfast for dinner. Eggs, waffles, pancakes, bacon, chicken sausages, frittata of any kind, cereals (I'm always a sucker for a quick pot of fresh-cooked oatmeal, cream of wheat, or multi-grains with maple syrup, butter, honey, brown sugar, walnuts, raisins, blueberries...). Any breakfast food for dinner makes it a "backwards" day in our house. My kids loved when I declared a backwards day when they were little. I still love breakfast for dinner to this day. Just call me a big kid. Yum.
  • Last, but not least, some nights, a good old-fashioned PBJ sammy with a nice tall glass of milk hits the spot. Trader Joe's chunky peanut butter with roasted flaxseed and a good fruit jam or butter on some nice bread always makes me happy.
It works out for me that both hubby and I like leftovers and simple meals. For those nights when we don't feel like cooking, we are both happy to eat the meal from the night before.

And when there aren't any leftovers to be had, I'm also okay with just a good hunk of cheese, some spinach and kale yogurt dip with good bread or crackers, a cucumber or a handful of carrots, a glass of wine, and some fruit and chocolate as enders. That's a well-rounded meal right there. No work. No fuss.

For nights when I need a break from cooking and feel like something light myself, hubby is always fine with pulling out some of Trader Joe's frozen goodies since he'll have his pick of the many pre-made healthy pizzas, shrimp or chicken gyoza potstickers, pierogies, mini chicken tacos, and the like that I stock up for him.

Hubby and I also like any of Trader Joe's ravioli selection. Butternut squash ravioli is a favorite, with lobster ravioli a close second. And there are other wonderful varieties to choose from. All you have to do is boil water and add some pesto or butter to your ravioli. Nothing easier than that. Trader Joe's and other supermarkets, such as Wegman's and Whole Foods, with their healthy, natural food sections have themselves become masters at the art of making natural things good.

Wow! This list of natural goodness for quick meals makes me hungry. It makes me want to yell out that life is good in appreciation of all the wonderful food accessible to us on this good earth.

Yes, I've come a long way since my cookie-gobbling dinners, but I'm not saying that I never eat dessert before dinner while I'm cooking! I do like to eat as soon as I get home, so I have to start preparing good stuff right away before I reach for too many snacks.

It's become increasingly important to me, though, to take an interest and care about what I eat, since I know I'll feel better and healthier in the end. My family and I are worth taking the time to cook real food to care for our bodies and souls.

If you read me, you know I like food.

I also appreciate how rewarding it can be to elevate the process of nourishing our bodies to an art form, finding pleasure and joy in:
  • Gathering good food to bring home for ourselves and our families.
  • Preparing natural ingredients with love and noticing both the effort and the outcome. 
  • Sharing our bounty and leisurely enjoying meals at the table with those we care about.
If we don't stress about all this and let it happen naturally, all this process of nourishment becomes an art that can make us and those we share with very satisfied and happy.

Although I've cultivated my interest in good food over the years and am happy to take more time to prepare meals on weekends and days off, there's no reason we can't eat just as well on weeknights if I bring home good ingredients that are quick and easy to make.

What artful tricks do you employ to turn natural ingredients into something good for your weeknight dinners? How do you practice the art of making natural things good?

Please share your tips and experiences. I'd love to hear from you.

Until next time, yours in fun and cooking quick and good meals...Therese

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