Taking the Stress out of Mid-Week Meals
Dining In

Dining In (3)

Sunday, 29 April 2012 02:31

Get Soup Savvy, Serving Up a Healthy Bowl

Written by Gina Roberts-Gray

Not only can a warm bowl of soup hit the spot on a brisk fall or winter day, it can be a healthy and light spring/summer meal option too. “But not all soups are the same,” says Chef Marjorie Druker, owner of two New England Soup Factory restaurants in the greater Boston area.

Some soups can be loaded with fat and calories. Others can be cruel to your waistline because you’re so hungry an hour or two after downing a bowl, you’re scrounging in the fridge for something -- anything -- to eat.

But, this basic soup primer will help you serve up a healthful bowl of soup, no matter the occasion.

Start with a base

  • Stock is prepared by simmering roasted poultry or beef bones with vegetables in water for three to four hours, then straining and tossing the solids. Stocks are healthy because the bones contain collagen, which is packed with protein that is released during cooking, and vegetables provide essential vitamins and nutrients.
  • Broths begin by simmering a whole chicken or beef parts in water, then removing solids. When you lacking time, low-sodium, canned broth is a quick soup starter. To boost its flavor and healthful benefits, add vegetables and lean protein. “Just don’t dilute canned broth with water. That takes away from the flavor,” Druker says.
  • Cream soups start with a base mixture of butter, flour, and milk or cream.” Use 1-percent milk or fat-free half and half instead of cream when making cream bases to shave about 200 calories per cup. Puree starchy vegetables like potatoes or winter squash before adding to the base to make cream soup rich and thick without added calories and fat. “If the recipe calls for potatoes, puree half (and add them to the mix) and use the rest cubed or chopped,” Druker says. “Or, dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in small amount of cold water, stirring well to form a thin paste-like mixture, then add to hot or boiling soup. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes and serve.”

TIP: “Skim off the foam and fat that rises to the top to make your stock or broth even healthier,” Druker says. Make sure the liquid doesn’t reach a high boil, or the particles will incorporate into the mixture making it appear cloudy.

Bulk it up

  • Toss in protein to add substance and make the soup more filling. “Protein takes longer to digest than veggies, leaving you satisfied longer,” says Anne VanBeber MS, PhD, chair of Texas Christian University’s department of nutrition. Try adding two to three ounces of lean meat, poultry (white meat), fish, or tofu per serving of soup. If you want the flavor of your soup to be enhanced by the meat or seafood, add it to the pot early enough in the cooking process to allow the meat to cook thoroughly. Otherwise, cook first, then add it during the last 30 minutes the soup is simmering.
  • Add beans, which are another good source of protein, and can be added to almost any soup. Dried beans like kidney, black, white northern, lima, or garbanzo are better than canned, (because of the sodium content) and should be soaked overnight so they cook evenly and quickly. If using canned beans, be sure to drain and thoroughly rinse. Aim for 1/3 to 1/2 cup of soaked beans per serving of soup. Beans can go into the pot at the start of the cooking process.
  • For a chunky, hearty soup, add brown rice. Rodek says one half cup, uncooked per 3 servings of soup can go into the pot during the last hour of cooking. Wild rice is another option that adds a nuttier, crunchier texture. Couscous, thickens, too, but soaks up a lot of the liquid so add ¼ cup for every 1 cup of liquid and add it in the last 5 minutes of cooking to preserve the "soupy" consistency.
  • Heighten flavor by sautéing ingredients before adding to soup. For instance, if your soup calls for mirepoix (garlic, onions, carrots and celery), sauté the mixture in about a tablespoon of olive oil or butter to release the sugars in the vegetables, and provide a flavorful base for the other ingredients, Druker says.

Time your additions

  • Stir vegetables into “quick-cook soups,” on the stove for an hour or less at the beginning of cooking, Druker says. But needs to simmer longer, add beans early, but vegetables like carrots, celery, and peas only an hour before the soup is served so they don’t become mushy or lose color. “Spinach should be added in the last five minutes of cooking, to preserve it’s bright color and vitamins,” Druker says.
  • Add dried herbs to the pot early so they can absorb the liquid and release their flavors, Druker says. Unlike veggies, there’s no need to worry about mushy herbs, since they’re added for flavor, not texture. However, fresh herbs should be added in the last 30 minutes of cooking to preserve their potent flavor. And, if they’re in whole form, strain them out to serve.
  • Always add extra seasonings like salt at the end of cooking. This helps you judge how much is needed—your soup maybe flavorful enough without it. However, if your soup is too salty, drop in a couple pieces of raw potato to absorb some of the excess. Remove it before serving.

Top it right and light

  • Garnish with two tablespoons of fat-free yogurt instead of sour cream to save about 40 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Or use hard cheeses like Parmesan, which have about half the calories and saturated fat per serving than softer versions like cheddar, says Rachel S. Rodek MS, RD, at the University of Connecticut Health Center. If rich ingredients like cheese are one of the soup’s ingredients, use one half to three quarters in the soup and reserve the rest for topping.
  • Sprinkle freshly ground ginger and cinnamon over pumpkin or winter squash soup. Fresh cilantro, basil, parsley, dill, and chives are also pretty and zesty on classic soups like vegetable, chicken noodle, and beef barley.”
  • Showcase a soup’s main ingredient by placing a tablespoon of lobster meat or a few baby shrimp atop seafood bisque. Or, add another serving of protein by topping wild mushroom, pumpkin, or squash soups with toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds,” VanBeber says.
Tuesday, 18 October 2011 20:42

Fresh is Best When it Comes to Fish

Written by Sydne George

My dad is one of the wisest people I know. His restaurant advice has always been, “If you can’t see the ocean, don’t order the fish.” And I’d have to agree. Fresh, local fish is usually the best call, especially in a restaurant. The only problem for Montanans who are fond of fish is there’s no spying the ocean from anywhere in this landlocked state of ours.

Not to worry, though, and no reason to shy away from buying fish in our grocery stores, as long as you have a plan and shop smart. My favorite fish counter here is at Albertsons on 10th Avenue South. The best bet, I think, is to buy the flash­frozen fish and thaw it in the refrigera­tor, pat it dry with paper towels and treat it like it’s fresh. Unless, of course, you can buy fresh that’s actually fresh. More on that later.

Flash-frozen typically means the fish is frozen under extremely cold temper­atures shortly after being caught, often in flash-freezing units on the boat. This preserves nutrients and flavor. I have had great luck with individually pack­aged flash-frozen sea bass fillets. Flash­frozen and vacuum-sealed, these 6­ounce fillets thaw beautifully in the refrigerator.

Of course, fresh is best, as long as it’s actually fresh. “Fresh” in the fish world just means it has never been frozen. So, that fresh salmon fillet you’re eye­ing under the glass might have been sitting under refrigeration for days while the flash-frozen sea bass fillet was frozen shortly after being caught and has been safely sealed ever since. If in doubt, ask. I always say, if you never ask, you’ll never know, and chances are the fishmonger behind the counter has a better idea of whether the best choice on the particular fish is to buy fresh or frozen, especially since we’re here in Montana.

The afternoon I stopped in at Albert­sons with halibut on my list, I ran into a friend in the produce department who said they had fresh halibut at the seafood counter. What luck! The fish seller told me the season for fresh hal­ibut is very short, and he advised against ever buying frozen halibut, so I quickly purchased my fresh halibut fil­let and happily hurried home to cook it for dinner that night. Nutritionally speaking, fish and shellfish provide high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Almond-Crusted Halibut on Wilted Red Chard


3 tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch red chard, washed, dried, cut in 3-inch pieces
Juice of one lemon
Fleur de sel or kosher salt
4 fresh halibut fillets (3-4 ounces each)
½ cup slivered almonds
½ cup panko crumbs (Asian foods aisle)
2 eggs
2 tbsp. water
¼ cup butter
Lemon wedges
Wilted Red Chard


Heat olive oil in medium saute pan over medium high heat. Saute chard until wilted and tender. Add lemon juice and sprinkle with salt. Set aside until ready to plate.

Rinse halibut fillets under cold water and pat dry.

Beat eggs and water with a whisk and put in shallow dish. Finely chop almonds or grind them in processor. Combine almonds and panko in shallow dish.

Dip fillets in egg wash, then in almond-panko breading to coat both sides. Heat butter in medium saute pan over medium heat until hot.

Cook halibut fillets three min­utes, then turn and cook other side an additional three minutes until fish is opaque and cooked through. Do not overcook.

To plate: Arrange wilted chard in center of plates. Top with Almond-crusted Halibut Fillets. Sprinkle with Fleur de sel or kosher salt. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves four.

Hoisin-Glazed Sea Bass on Asian Sesame Slaw with Stir-Fried Sugar Snap Peas

This sea bass recipe is one of my all-time favorite entrees to make for spring and summer entertaining. It’s much easier than it looks at first glance on paper, and it’s guaranteed to please.


For the Asian Sesame Slaw
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. real mayonnaise
5 ounces angel hair cabbage mix (finely shredded cabbage)
½ cup grated radish
1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds (Asian foods aisle) For the sea bass:
4 sea bass individual portions (6-ounce), thawed and patted dry
4 tbsp. butter, cut in 1 table­spoon pats
8-ounce jar hoisin sauce (Asian foods aisle), divided
¼ cup green onions, sliced thin­ly For the stir-fryed snow peas:
2 6-ounce packages gourmet snap peas
2 tbsp. sesame oil
Dash of salt


Make the slaw. Combine sugar, vinegar, sesame oil and mayon­naise in medium mixing bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly. Add cabbage, grated radish and sesame seeds to the bowl and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Prepare the hoisin-glazed sea bass.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat (about 400 °).

Lay three sheets of aluminum foil on top of each other to cover large cutting board. Place the fil­lets in the center of the foil, leav­ing space in between. Fold all four sides of the foil into the center making a frame around the fillets, then bend sides up to make a tray.

Spoon four tablespoons hoisin sauce into small bowl. Using pas­try brush, paint one tablespoon hoisin sauce over the top of each fillet. Put remaining hoisin sauce from jar in plastic baggie to gar­nish plates. Seal baggie.

Top each fillet with a pat of but­ter. Place foil tray with prepared fillets on preheated grill and grill for six to seven minutes. The but­ter will melt and brown the edges of the fish. Do not overcook. The fish will continue to cook a bit after you remove it from the heat. Remove from grill. Tent with foil and let rest.

Prepare the stir-fried sugar snap peas.

Fill a medium saucepan 2/3 full with water and bring to a boil. Add peapods, reduce heat and simmer for four minutes. Drain in colander and cover with ice cubes to stop cooking and set color.

Heat sesame oil in stir fry pan over medium high heat.

Stir fry blanched snap peas briefly. Season with salt.

To plate: Mound about ½ cup Asian Sesame Slaw in the center of each dinner plate. Set grilled sea bass fillet atop Asian Sesame Slaw. Sprinkle with sliced green onions. Arrange Stir-fried Sugar Snap Peas attractively around plate. Snip one corner of the baggie filled with reserved hoisin sauce and decorate rim of dinner plates. Makes four servings.

Food is love.  It is the heart of the American home.  Whether it’s the figurative ‘bringing home the bacon’ or more literally putting dinner on the table, food represents the simplest, but most important way, in which we take care not only of ourselves, but of those who are most important to us.  But as important as we know that experience is, both for what it provides as well as what it symbolizes, few things can be as daunting at the end of a long day, when the siren song of pre-packaged meals and take-out dinners is at it’s loudest, as having to take the time to prepare that meal from scratch.  How do we bridge the gap between the time and energy we have left at the end of the day and our desire to put that perfect dinner down in front of our families?

Traditionally there have been two ways of confronting the problem.  Rachel Ray has spent the last decade championing the ‘30 minute meal’, relying on prepackaged and ‘Semi-Homemade’ to take some of the work out of preparing a fresh meal each day. The second approach has been to spend Sunday in the kitchen putting together a dish that you can reheat during the week, usually something like a slow cooked stew, or a simmering pot of chili.  It makes life easy during the week.  Pop a big pot on the stove, turn a knob and dinner is ready.  The truth is, both are great ideas and useful tools to have under your belt.  But while a ’30 Minute Meal’ gives you a little bit of variety, it still means spending a half hour in the kitchen at the end of the day, and prepackaged produce will never have the flavor or freshness.  While few things are as satisfying as a good Irish stew on a cold winter’s night, those dishes tend to be heavy and a bit too much as the weather starts to turn warm.  And how many nights in a row can you dig into that dish with the same zeal?  So where is the middle ground?  How do you bring the variety of the ’30 Minute Meal’ closer to the flavor and ease of those classic one-pot dishes?

The trick is to focus on a couple of simple recipes that compliment each other, and learn how they can be used to create a variety of different meals.  Take a simple homemade tomato sauce: by itself it is a beautiful way to finish pasta, but it offers so much more versatility than that.  Sear off chicken, then add two cups of the same tomato sauce, a handful of green olives, the juice and zest of a lemon and a cup of chicken broth and you can transform it into a simple, rustic Mediterranean treat.  Thin the tomato sauce with an equal part chicken stock, add diced country bread and top with some torn basil and you have a classic Tuscan bread soup.  One recipe quickly gives you three dishes with different flavors, different textures, and completely different characters.

Our Green Minestrone is another example of a dish that offers a number of different options and is a great way to provide your family with a different and exciting meal each day.  Finished with a spoonful of pesto, it’s a hearty and delicious meal all by itself.  Spoon a little bit of the vegetables into a sauté pan and finish with a squeeze of lemon and you have a great accompaniment for seared salmon.  Or take the leftover pesto and toss it with angel hair pasta, and you have a quick easy meal anyone would be happy with.

After a long day, no one wants to spend their evening chained to a stove, but taking care of ourselves, and the ones we love, matters.  Putting good food on the table is a central part of that.  With a little bit of planning and a little bit of creativity, there are ways to take the stress out of midweek meals and still give our families the kind of balanced, nutritious and delicious meals we all deserve.

Green Minestrone Soup Base


2 Tbs Olive Oil
1 Leek, White and Light Green Only, Chopped
2 Stalks Celery, ¼” Slice
1 Zucchini, Seeds Removed and Diced
1 Large Potato, Peeled, Diced
1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
1 Liter Chicken Stock
1 Can (400g) Cannellini Beans


Heat a medium sized stock pot over high heat. Add the Olive Oil, then the Leek, Celery, Zucchini and Potato. Turn the heat down to medium and saute the vegetables until they just begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add in the garlic and continue to cook for three more minutes.

Add in the chicken stock, stirring and loosen anything that is sticking to the bottom. Turn the heat back up to High and bring the soup to a simmer.

Divide the Cannellini Beans in half. In a small bowl, crush one half of the beans with a potato masher. Add all of the beans to the soup and bring it back up to a simmer.

The crushed beans act as a thickener, adding body to the minestrone. If you aren’t serving the soup immediately, cool it down and store it in the refrigerator.

Basic Pesto


8 oz, Basil, Large Stems Removed
2 Cloves Garlic
2 oz Pine Nuts
1 Lemon, Juice of
¾ C Parmesan Cheese, Grated
1 C Olive Oil


Combine all of the ingredients expect the Olive Oil in a food processor. Pulse to chop.

With the food processor going, drizzle in the Olive Oil. Stop and scrape down the sides, then pulse again. When the Olive Oil is incorporated, pour the pesto into a bowl or jar and cover with plastic wrap, pushing the plastic against the surface of the pesto.

Planning the Week:

Day 1: Salmon with Spring Vegetable Stew


4 – 6 oz portions, Salmon
2 C, Soup Base
1, Lemon, Zest and Juice


Heat a pan on medium high. When hot, add 1 tbs of Olive Oil. Sear the Salmon (skin side down if the skin is still on). Let cook for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness.

Bring the Soup Base up to a simmer and let reduce slightly while the Salmon is cooking.

Turn the Salmon, searing on the other side. Again, allow it to cook for 3-5 depending on thickness.

Grate the Zest of the Lemon into the Soup Base. Then finish it with the Juice of the Lemon.

Spoon the Spring Vegetable Stew into the bottom of a large bowl. Place the Salmon in the center of the ‘Stew’.

Day 2: Green Minestrone


1 recipe, Soup Base
8 oz Pasta
4 oz Green Beans, Cut into ½” Pieces
¼ Head Savoy Cabbage, Stems Removed, Sliced Thin/p>


Bring the soup up to a bare simmer. Add the French Beans and Cabbage and allow the soup to come back up to a simmer.

Add the pasta and bring the soup to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook for 8 – 10 minutes, until the pasta is done.

While the Pasta is cooking, prepare the Pesto (Below).

Ladle the soup into bowks and garnish with a spoonful of Basil Pesto.

Day 3: Angel Hair Pasta with Pesto and Shrimp


1 lb, Angel Hair Pasta
½ lbs Shrimp
Pesto, Left Over


Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it comes to a boil, add salt, then the pasta. Cook for 8 minutes or until just tender.

Heat a large skillet. Add 1 tbs off Olive Oil. Sautee the Shrimp quickly, 1-2 minutes a side, then remove from them from the heat. Finish with the juice of a lemon.

Strain out pasta. In a large bowl, toss together the Pasta, Pesto and Shrimp. Serve in large bowl.