January 11, 2008

Life and Health

Life and Health Basics: What’s on Your Plate for Tomorrow?

Alice Abler

Frittatas and omelets, soups and stews, salads and strata, pasta dishes and risotti, paella, Spanish tortillas. . . . The very mention of such tasty fare evokes thoughts of healthy home-cooked meals and warm family gatherings. They may each come from different cultures and cuisines, but they share one important quality: these comforting victuals are all excellent ways of using up surplus food from earlier meals. 

When you cook simple, healthy meals at home, it’s easy to cook a bit extra for another meal. Not only does this practice save time and money, but it also helps you avoid the frozen- or fast-food trap when you’re coming home late from work and you have neither the desire nor the energy to spend hours in the kitchen. Combining bits and pieces from earlier meals can help you create a delectable dinner in very little time. 

And the health benefits of cooking your own meals are enormous—you have one body in your lifetime and the importance of taking care of that body by eating the right foods cannot be overstressed. By controlling what goes into your meals (instead of abdicating that responsibility to someone whose interest lies in the financial health of their food company rather than the health of your body), you can try to eliminate harmful chemicals and preservatives while limiting the amount of certain ingredients that should be used in moderation, such as fat, sodium and sugar. Surprising quantities of these ingredients, which if overused can lead to obesity and related health issues, often lurk in processed or pre-prepared foods. 

For thousands of years before the advent of fast food and packaged foods, people would make their own meals at home, and in the course of that cooking they would often plan to make extra food for the purpose of easing their cooking needs in the following days. Today, however, more and more people are regularly eating outside the home. There are several serious long-term dangers with this trend. In addition to the loss of control over what unhealthy ingredients may be in prepared food, the loss of basic cooking knowledge will have a detrimental effect on the health of this and succeeding generations. 

Traditionally, such expertise has been handed down from parents to children as they worked together in the kitchen. But without such day-to-day interaction, this basic knowledge is being lost, and formerly common skills like cooking extra for another day are vanishing. 

Instead of allowing eating out to become a habit by default when you’re in a hurry, be proactive. Plan to make a meal at home and plan to make extra vegetables, starches and meats since you’re in the kitchen anyway. And don’t be too quick to discard those serendipitous bonus foods that remain after dinner’s done. Instead of wasting them by throwing them out, think about how you can use them the next day. 

It is important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that you refrigerate foods within two hours of preparation to avoid food-borne illness. That means that after your meal, put what remains in the refrigerator, safely tucked away until it’s needed again. Or, when you make more than you need for today, just make sure you chill the extra food at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less within two hours, and use it within two or three days. 

If you’re using a grill for tonight’s dinner, throw on some extra vegetables and let them cook at the same time. Tomorrow, layer them on some whole grain bread or enclose in a tortilla wrapper with a bit of goat cheese or olive oil and herbs for a tasty sandwich. Or heat them in a skillet with some broth or tomato juice and add some greens (kale, chard, spinach, arugula, beet or turnip greens) and crushed garlic, then add some plain cooked pasta and top with crumbled feta, cotija or other flavorful semi-hard cheese and maybe a sprinkling of chopped herbs for a speedy, nutritious, economical meal. 

Pre-cooked vegetables are always a delicious and nutritious addition to frittatas or their cousin, Spanish tortillas. Frittatas are layers of vegetables in a skillet bound with an egg mixture and sometimes a bit of cheese. Spanish tortillas are very similar, but have a base of sliced potatoes with the vegetables. 

Just layer whatever vegetables you have in the skillet (you may have to oil the hot skillet first) and beat eggs with seasonings (salt, pepper, perhaps paprika). For an eight-inch skillet, use four eggs; for a 10-inch skillet, use six or seven; for a 12-inch skillet, use eight to ten eggs. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and cook, lifting the edges as they cook to allow the uncooked egg mixture to run underneath. Experienced (or experimental!) cooks then flip it to cook the other side; some just run it under a broiler to cook the top. 

Stratas begin with ingredients similar to the frittatas and tortillas, but the base is day-old bread with the vegetables and sometimes pieces of meat. Add a little milk or other liquid to the egg mixture as the bread is absorbent. A sprinkling of cheese (cheddar, jack, mozzarella) adds a delicious topping and the dish is baked in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for about 45 minutes or until it is firm to the touch. 

Soups and stews are comforting and are great for using up whatever’s in the refrigerator. One way to start is by making stock from the bones of last night’s roast (turkey, chicken, lamb, beef… ). This is simple, healthy and economical, and is well worth doing. Just take those bones and roast them in the oven until they are nicely browned to enrich the flavor, then cover them with water. Add vegetables, especially carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Scraps and trimmings are good additions, and spices like peppercorns and bay leaves add zing. 

Cook over low-to-medium heat for hours until the flavor is rich and the scent is wonderful. Strain the broth and discard the solids. The stock is delicious on its own, or you can add vegetables or grains or combinations of what’s already cooked and waiting in your refrigerator to make endless varieties of healthy soups and stews. 

Of course, that additional roasted or cooked meat can enrich those soups, stews and pasta dishes, be used in sandwiches and wraps and added to main-dish salads. Consider cooking extra brown rice for reheating later or to use for a rice salad. Toss cooled rice with chopped pre-cooked meat and vegetables and add lemon juice or vinegar and olive oil plus chopped herbs for extra flavor. Chopped nuts, added just before serving, are a delicious and nutritious addition to rice salads. 

Instead of boxed cereals, try using pre-cooked grains for breakfast. Add chopped fruit and nuts or coconut and a bit of cinnamon or ginger to a bowl of rice, quinoa, millet, wheat berries, kasha or other grains. A bit of yogurt or coconut milk can be the finishing touch. 

Those delectable Italian rice dishes, risotti, are another way to use up extra meats and vegetables. Cook Arborio rice slowly with onions and garlic in broth or even wine, stirring and adding more liquid as it is absorbed. Stir in chopped cooked vegetables and meats or cheese when the rice is tender and enjoy con molto gusto

The key to this cooking style is to feel free to experiment. Don’t be afraid to use recipes as a starting point and step out from there. Plan ahead and make extra to save yourself time (and money) later, and rescue yourself from the pull of the fast-food routine. Step up to the plate and fulfill your responsibility for the health of your body, the health of your family and the health of future generations.