Posts Tagged ‘Nutrition’

Now we have begun a new chapter in culinary school – Asian cooking.  This includes the entire continent and therefore we are only able to hit the highlights in the two weeks time we are given.

The first thing we cooked was curries.  Yum.  This is the food you order and scarf down loving every bite, but wonder after the meal what exactly you were eating.  You can’t remember if you ordered chicken or beef because the meat could have been either really.  Was that a piece of carrot you tasted?  It could have been a pepper.  You love the spices but have no idea how they create that dish from a powdered curry blend, like the one you keep on your spice shelf.  If you had any leftover to take home you are even more surprised the next day when you open the container and a large pool of grease has risen to the top.  Was it really that greasy?  But if you are like me, none of this prevents you from going back and ordering your favorite curry dish and experiencing the deliciousness all over again.

What is it that is so wonderful about curries?  First comes the spice.  Curries have a sweet, spicy, sour, and salty flavor profile.  Not one particular flavor jumps out, a good curry is well balanced.  Second would be the fragrance.  They smell sweet and are usually served with the most fragrant rice of all, basmati.  Third would have to be all the crazy condiments they are served with.  Many types of wonderful chutneys and raitas.  Believe it or not, America did not invent the condiment.  There was a large and flourishing condiment culture in India and Asia for hundreds of years.

The word curry comes from the Southern Indian word kari, meaning “sauce”.  It is a catch all word.  Curry powders, or masalas, are any spice blend used to flavor a gravy-based Indian dish.  Which spices are used differs greatly depending on the region of India.

The essential elements of an Indian curry include:

  • Fat: Ghee (roasted clarified butter) is the most commonly used, vanaspati ghee (artificial ghee that is really shortening), peanut oil or mustard oil
  • Seasonings: Whole spices, seeds, curries, masalas, chiles, herbs, ground spices
  • Thickener: Ground legumes, ground nuts, chickpea flour, vegetable purees, yogurt, coconut milk
  • Sauce base: Broths, vegetable purees
  • Protein/Vegetables:  Any type of seafood, meat or poultry cut into small bite size pieces.  India has a large vegetarian segment that uses beans and legumes extensively.  In Thai curries you will see more tofu.  Keep in mind we use a large amount of protein here in America, but the main focus of a traditional curry/masala is the gravy-based sauce and the rice.

Method for cooking an Indian curry:

  • Mix your favorite curry/masala spice blend (look up recipes for your favorite, there are too many to list here).  Toast spices (optional) and grind in a spice grinder to make a fine powder.
  • Add a small amount of water to your spice blend to make a curry paste.
  • Heat the fat, ghee usually (they aren’t modest about using fat) over high heat in a wok.
  • Optional: add other spices and cook in the fat to release flavor, do not burn or they will become bitter.
  • Add onions, and pan-fry until golden.
  • Add curry paste, garlic and ginger and cook over medium to med-high heat about 4-5 minutes.  The spices will become fragrant and much of the water will be released.
  • Add your thickener and sauce base.  Taste to adjust seasoning with salt.
  • Simmer several minutes to merry the flavors.
  • Add your protein or vegetables and cook through.  Do not overcook your meats or proteins.  Stop cooking when they are just done.  Keep the sauce at a simmer only (do not boil the meat it will become tough).
  • Stir in sour/acidic elements, if using, such as lime juice, yogurt or lemon.
  • Garnish with cilantro leaves.
  • Serve with basmati rice, chutneys, and raita.

Nutrition Recommendations:  Curries can be made healthy, but are traditionally high in fat and salt.  When you are cooking with so many wonderful spices and vegetables, it is easy to make a lower-fat version at home without compromising much flavor.  Begin with a healthy vegetable oil, like canola.  Use a moderate amount in a large non-stick pan. Use no salt added vegetable purees (such as tomatoes) and broths.  Choose lean meats and low-fat tofu.  By cooking a vegetarian version with beans or legumes and a variety of vegetables, you can increase fiber and antioxidant values in the dish.  Many of the spices used are considered to have health benefits.  Turmeric, for one, has been found in studies to be a powerful anti-inflammatory.  Ginger is aids in digestion as well as another being anti-inflammatory.

Curries have the potential to be wonderfully tasty and healthy dishes if made at home.  Find some curry and masala spice blend recipes and try them out.  Just make sure you know if they are extra hot and spicy first.  I would strongly discourage the use of the typical curry powder at your local grocery store.  Check your area for Indian specialty food stores for the real thing.  Buying your own whole spices and grinding them right before using ensures the best flavor.


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This weekend at the farmer’s market I bought some wonderful, fresh, farmer’s cheese.  I mixed it with a pepper jelly and spread it on sliced French baguette as a snack – delicious!  Farmer’s cheese, also called fromage blanc, is creamy and smooth with a mild flavor and texture similar to whipped cream cheese.  It is a type of fresh, young cheese, and is usually made from cow’s milk unless otherwise specified.  Other fresh cheeses people are most familiar with are ricotta, soft goat cheese, and feta.  

Why would you want to use farmer’s cheese instead of – say – cream cheese to top a bagel?

Nutrition Facts:  Farmer’s Cheese v. Cream Cheese (2 Tablespoon serving)

  • Calories:       45    –    102
  • Total Fat:       6 gm    –    10 gm
  • Saturated Fat:   2.5 gm    –    6 gm
  • Cholesterol:    9 mg    –    32 mg
  • Protein:       5 gm    –    2 gm
  • Sodium:      10 gm    –    86 mg
  • Carbohydrate:   2 gm    –    0 gm

Why would you use farmer’s cheese instead of sliced cheese?

Nutrition Facts: Cheddar Cheese (1 Oz serving, 28 gm)

  • Calories:    110
  • Total Fat:     9 gm
  • Saturated Fat:   6 gm
  • Cholesterol:  29 mg
  • Protein:     7 gm
  • Sodium:     174 mg
  • Carbohydrate:  0

The Good:  Farmer’s cheese is lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium compared to cream cheese and sliced hard cheese.  It is a good source of protein and calcium.

The Bad:  Farmer’s cheese, like all cheese, is high in fat and saturated fat.

Recommendations:  Watch serving size to keep fat and calories in check.  If you love cream cheese on your morning bagel, but not the calories and fat, try this healthier option. Mix farmer’s cheese with jam or jelly before spreading it on a toasted bagel.  I have listed other flavoring options below.  You can also find fat-free farmer’s cheese.


  • Jam, Jelly, or Preserves
  • Orange zest, honey, and toasted walnuts
  • Minced fresh herbs
  • Smoked salmon and minced chives
  • Raisins, cinnamon, and vanilla

Uses:  On bagels, slices of French baguette, toasted English muffin, crackers, and biscuits to name a few.

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When I think of risotto, I think of a creamy, steamy hot, stewy bowl of rice that is the savory cousin of rice pudding.  When made well, is is amazingly delicious, perfect on a rainy day.  However, the first time I read the instructions for cooking a risotto, I thought the cookbook author must have been crazy.  I was expected to add a ladle of broth to the rice every 5 minutes, stirring constantly, for 30-40 minutes!   I checked my other cookbooks to confirm this step, and much to my disappointment, there seemed to be no easier way.  I eventually attempted a few risottos before culinary school, but they were nothing like what I had eaten at restaurants and not really worth the effort.

Over the course of the past 5 months, I have become quite familiar with the technique in class and will share some valuable tips.  Risotto takes time.  It takes some patience.  But if done correctly, every bite will be worth it.

We cooked food from the Lombardia region of Italy today, where rice and risotto are the carbohydrate of choice.  That’s right – here pasta takes second place.  They grow arborio, vialone nan, and carnoli rices here.  Arborio rice is the most commonly for risotto used here in the U.S. and is supposedly the easiest to cook with.  These are all medium to short grain varieties of rice with a special starchy coating that makes them perfect for making creamy risotto.  To be true to the Lombardia regional cooking, we stirred Gorgonzola cheese, cream, and parsley into the risotto at the end of cooking.  Yum!

Risotto tips:

  1. Use a large heavy saucepan.  Select one with curved edges at the base if you have it.
  2. Heat your liquid to a simmer before you begin cooking the rice.
  3. Increase liquid by at least two cups more than the recipe calls for to prevent running out.
  4. Rest a ladle nearby for use during cooking (4 Oz is best).
  5. Pour glass of wine, keep within reach.
  6. Melt butter or oil over medium low heat.
  7. Add a small amount of finely chopped onions.  Cook until soft, not brown.
  8. Stir in the dry rice and cook for 2-3 minutes to coat all the grains.
  9. Begin adding ladles of your simmering liquid into the pot – 2 ladles the first time, then one by one.
  10. You should add a ladle every time the rice absorbs most of the liquid, but not all.
  11. During the first 15 minutes, stir continuously (stir speed doesn’t matter).
  12. Do not let the risotto boil aggressively or get dry.
  13. Maintain your risotto at a simmer.
  14. Don’t forget to sip your wine.
  15. After you are about half way, you can switch your stirring to frequently.  Continue adding ladles of liquid and keeping the risotto moist.  You will be adding liquid less frequently by now. 
  16. Refill wine if necessary.
  17. After 25 minutes, begin seasoning the risotto with salt to taste (unless you are using store-bought broth with salt and checking the consistency with little bites.
  18. You do not need to use all of the cooking liquid.
  19. Risotto is done when it is no longer hard or crunchy, but soft with a little bite – al dente. 
  20. When the risotto is done, stir in any other flavoring ingredients for a minute to heat, and serve.


  • If you are not serving your risotto right away, add a bit more liquid at the end than you would otherwise.  This prevents the risotto from drying up upon sitting.
  • When reheating risotto, always add some more liquid or water (your refrigerator will dry it out).
  • Simplest flavorings are grated cheese, fresh herbs, and/or sauteed mushrooms.

Risotto is hard work, I always keep that in mind when ordering at restaurants now.  At home, practice makes perfect.  Risottos make creamy bowls of comfort and are well worth the effort!  Dress it up for an elegant and impressive entree, or keep it simple for a first course or side dish.

Like all rice it is a low-fat grain with B vitamins.  Use cooking fat in moderation during preparation.  Risotto is great with either diced, roasted winter squash or sauteed mushrooms stirred in.  Both can add to the nutritional value.  Stirring in a small amount of grated cheese Parmesan Reggiano is also nice.  The more aged and strong the cheese, the less you need to use, and the fewer calories and fat is will add to a dish.  Minced herbs like parsley also add color and flavor without calories or fat.

I hope I have inspired you to pull out your cookbooks and find that risotto recipe you have been waiting to cook.  Serve it with a side salad and you have a delicious and healthy meal.  Buon appetito!

See Recipes

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I did it!  I made pasta from scratch in class today and honestly – it wasn’t that hard or tricky.  After these upcoming classes of Italian food and pasta making (per our instructor we will make pasta practically everyday of the Italian section) I am hoping to perfect the process.  It only took this one class to give me the confidence to make pasta at home.  If you want to make it at home, I highly recommend you either have a friend demo or find video on the Internet that will show you the process.  Technique is important, but easy to learn.

In traditional Italian cooking, the difference between fresh and dry pasta is simple.  Dry pasta is made from flour, water, and salt.  After the dough is made and pasta cut – the pasta is hung on drying racks until all the moisture has evaporated. Drying pasta was originally more popular in Southern Italy, where it is warmer, to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life.  Fresh pasta, more popular in colder Northern Italy, uses eggs instead of water to moisten the flour and make dough.  After the dough is rolled and shapes are cut, this pasta must be refrigerated or used immediately since the raw egg can spoil.  There are exceptions to the rule, like the dried egg noodles you find on supermarket shelves today. 

There is a common misconception in the United States that fresh egg pasta is superior to dried Italian semolina pasta.  There are some parts of Italy that have no fresh pasta tradition at all, and pasta is always made with flour, salt and water only.  What is true, is that certain sauces compliment certain types of pastas.  In Italy, a general rule is that smooth sauces are served with long pasta, and pastas with indentations or holes compliment sauces with solid bits of vegetables or meat in them.  However, there are exceptions to the rule.  When all else fails, remember that regional cooking plays a big role in Italian cuisine.  Select a pasta type and sauce from the same region.  Remember, preference is purely subjective.

Nutrition Facts:  Cooked, 1 cup serving

Homemade Fresh Pasta    vs.  Dry Pasta

  • Calories:          184       –     224
  • Protein:           7.5 gm     –     8.2 gm
  • Total Fat:         2.5 gm     –     1.3 gm
  • Saturated Fat:    0.6 gm    –     0.2 gm
  • Cholesterol:      58 mg     –     0 mg
  • Total Carb:        33 gm     –     43.8 gm
  • Sodium:           118 mg     –     1 mg
  • Fiber:                2.8 gm     –     2.6 gm

Note: This comparison is with white pasta, not wheat.  More to come later on whole wheat pasta.

The Good:  Pasta is a good source of Thiamin, Folate, Manganese and Selenium.  Store-bought dry pastas have these nutrients in an even higher amount due to enrichment.  Homemade pasta using grass-fed omega 3 enriched eggs can up the nutritional value even more.  All pasta is low is total fat and saturated fat.  Dry pasta is low in sodium and cholesterol. Fresh pasta is lower in carbohydrate and calories per cup after cooking than dry pasta.

The Bad: Homemade fresh pasta with egg is higher in cholesterol and sodium than dry pasta.  It also has 1 gram additional of total fat.  We all know the other bad – alfredo sauce (yikes!).


Dry pasta is the healthier option if you are watching your cholesterol and sodium intake.  However, you could half or quarter the sodium in homemade pasta recipes to cut the amount to a reasonable level.  Interestingly, fresh homemade pasta is lower in calories and carbs cup for cup when cooked and would be better if you are diabetic or watching calories.  At the end of the day, the amount of cholesterol here is negligible if you make pasta night meat-free since proteins are the primary source of cholesterol in most diets. 

Pasta on its own is a low fat, healthy carbohydrate.  The foul is when pasta is loaded up with sauces that are high in sodium and/or fat.  Other additions to pasta like ground meat and sausage have the potential to add significant amounts of sodium, cholesterol and fat.  Keep pasta simple and healthy by tossing it with a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, steamed or roasted vegetables, and grating a small amount of Parmesan Reggiano on for flavor.  Or use a moderate amount of lean protein and a basic homemade tomato sauce (jar tomato sauce can be loaded with sodium and sugar).  A little adornment can go a long way.  Italians focus on using the freshest, seasonal ingredients and simple combinations to highlight those ingredients.  This maximizes flavor and minimizes calories.  Recipes to come soon.

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