Summer is the perfect time to enjoy a cold, refreshing beverage. One of my family’s favourite afternoon “snacks” is a Refreshing Fruit Smoothie (though they also make for a great way to start your day!). They are quick and simple to make and are packed with great nutrition because I use plain Greek yogurt and plain kefir as the base of my smoothies. What I add to the base depends on who I am making the smoothie for and what I have in my freezer and in my fruit basket. Mostly, I use ripe bananas (fresh or frozen), frozen berries, a splash or two of orange juice, and a little agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup. However, banana and mango, or banana and pineapple also make super yummy combinations! Feel free to scroll to the very bottom of this post for the recipe, however I would encourage you to continue reading for some (what I feel are important) nutritional information related to this recipe.

Why do I insist on using plain yogurt and plain kefir? Because they are much lower in sugar than their flavoured counterparts. For example, compare PC brand’s 0% Plain Greek Yogurt versus their 0% Vanilla Greek Yogurt: per 3/4 cup, the plain yogurt contains 2 g of sugar while the vanilla yogurt contains 13 g of sugar! I also like that the plain Greek yogurt does not contain any gelatin or other unnecessary, not-so-good-for-you ingredients. In fact, the ingredient listing is simply “Skim Milk, Bacterial Culture”. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t other good brands of yogurt out there – I would just encourage you to read the label of your current yogurt to be aware of what’s actually in there. And true, by adding agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup to my smoothies, I’m basically just adding the sugar that has been left out of the yogurt – but at least I can control the amount and type of sugar added.

Aware of the risk of getting too analytical and technical, I would like to briefly explain why the type of sugar is important. It’s because of something called the “glycemic index” (GI). It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during my second pregnancy that I even heard of this term, and indeed it is an important tool in managing one’s diabetes. However, I believe that the GI index is an important tool for everyone and this is why I’d like to provide you with a simple definition: “The glycemic index measures how fast and how much a food raises blood glucose levels. Foods with higher index values raise blood sugar more rapidly than foods with lower glycemic index values do.” (Click here for the source and a more detailed definition.)

Our goal should always be to incorporate mainly “low GI” foods into our diet and to keep “high GI” foods to a bare minimum. Examples of “high GI” foods are white bread, white rice, refined breakfast cereals, white potatoes, and candy. Examples of “low GI” foods are large flake oatmeal, bran cereals, whole grain bread, brown rice, legumes, nuts, quinoa, apples, berries, yogurt, and milk. Essentially, you want what you eat to be as un-processed as possible. And when it comes to “sweeteners”, you are better off using agave nectar, honey or maple syrup (in order of lowest to highest on the GI index) in place of the highly processed sugar our current generations are seemingly addicted to.

Here is an excellent link to some more in-depth information about the glycemic index, in case you’re interested!

And finally, here is the recipe for my “Refreshing Fruit Smoothie”!

Ingredients:

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (I prefer PC brand’s 0%)

1 cup plain Kefir

2 Tbsp orange juice

1 – 2 ripe bananas (fresh or frozen) (Whenever I have too many ripe bananas on hand, I either whip up a batch of my Bran & Flax Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins or peel them and put them into an air-tight container and into the freezer.)

1 and 1/2 cups frozen mixed berries or other preferred fruit

1 – 2 tsp agave nectar, honey or maple syrup

<strong>Directions:

1. Add first three ingredients into blender (or beaker if using an immersion blender as I do). This becomes your “base” and you can then add any fruit combination you would like!

2. Add fruit and sweetener. Blend. Add kefir for a thinner smoothie. Add more sweetener for a sweeter smoothie. Add more fruit for a fruitier (?!) smoothie. Serve. Enjoy!

What is your favourite summer beverage?!

Have you ever heard of the glycemic index and do you use it in your daily food-consumption decision making?!

Whole Grain Pancakes

May 3, 2012

For a time, my kids were slightly addicted to Cheerios for breakfast. And when there isn’t much time available in the mornings before having to rush out the door to catch the school bus, I certainly rely on this cereal for a quickly prepared breakfast the kids will eat without complaining. But now that I make my own pancake mix and store it in my pantry, we have pancakes for breakfast more frequently – even on weekdays! These pancakes are packed with flavour (especially if you follow my modifications) and texture and you’ll never want to buy another box of prepared pancake mix again (not that I have ever even considered doing so)!

I found this recipe in “Whole Grains for Busy People” by Lorna Sass. (I include my modifications in brackets.)

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (I used 1 cup spelt flour, 1 cup kamut flour, 1/2 cup quinoa flour, 1/4 cup ground flaxseed

Editor’s Note: 1 cup oatmeal (large flakes) was originally (accidentally) omitted from this post – be sure you add them!

1/4 sugar (you can omit this if you’re trying to cut back on your sugar consumption, as I am)

1 Tbsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp salt (I usually omit salt from all my baking)

Directions:

In a large zipper-top bag or storage container, combine all ingredients. Seal and shake gently until thoroughly mixed. Label and date. Refrigerate for up to 3 months. Shake gently to aerate the mix before each use. (I doubled the recipe and am storing it in my pantry.)

To make the pancakes, you will need:

1 large egg

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk, plus more if needed (I have also used kefir instead, with equally tasty results)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (I use 1 Tbsp canola oil instead)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups Whole Grain Pancake Mix (see above; stir before measuring)

1 to 2 tsp grated zest of a lemon or orange (optional)

Directions:

In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg. blend in the buttermilk (or kefir), butter (or oil), vanilla, and lemon or orange rind (if using). Fold in the pancake mix just until the flour is absorbed. Avoid overmixing.

Heat a large griddle or skillet over medium heat. Lightly coat the surface with oil (my griddle doesn’t require any greasing). When a drop of water thrown on the griddle immediately sizzles, pour on 2 Tbsp batter per pancake, allowing space for the batter to spread. When the pancakes are dry around the edges and the bottoms are nicely browned, 2 to 3 minutes, flip them. Cook until browned on the second side, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Lower the heat if the pancakes are browning too quickly, leaving the centre uncooked. Serve each batch as soon as it’s done, arranging the pancakes slightly overlapped. Do not stack the pancakes – this causes them to steam and become soggy. If you prefer to bake and serve all of the pancakes at once, set them in a single layer on a baking pan and place in a warm oven.

Please let me know what you think of these pancakes if/when you try these!

Carrot cake is one of those cakes that sound healthy, but usually isn’t because of the obscene amount of oil it contains (typically between 1 to 1 and 1/2 cups) to ensure its moistness. Well, here is a super moist carrot cake that contains only 1/4 cup of oil! How is that even possible, you ask?! Well, it’s because of two additional healthy ingredients that replace all that excess oil: buttermilk (don’t let its name fool you – at 1%, it’s low in fat!) and pumpkin puree (which besides being low in fat, is high in fibre). Now, I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin, but it’s growing on me. And it makes this carrot cake taste absolutely gorgeous, as one of my British friends would say!

I have made this cake at least half a dozen times since discovering it just three weeks ago, and the one I just made was supposed to be for friends we are visiting tomorrow for dinner and “games night” (we’re going to play “Settlers of Catan” – for details of this uber-fun game, check out http://www.catan.com/), but it looks like I’ll be baking another one tomorrow morning!

I found this recipe on an amazing blog you absolutely must visit at http://www.aprettylifeinthesuburbs.com/, though it originally comes from “The Looneyspoons Collection” by Janet & Greta Podleski, who have a website at the following address: http://janetandgreta.com/, which you also MUST view! I think I’m going to be asking for a copy of this cookbook for my birthday (this is my not-so-subtle hint to my wonderful husband!!).

And finally, the recipe:

Icing Ingredients:

1 and 1/2 packages of cream cheese, room temperature (I used just one 250 g package)

1/4 cup butter (I used 2 Tbsp)

1 and 1/2 cups icing sugar (I used just 1 cup)

1 Tbsp frozen orange juice concentrate (I used 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice, including the pulp)

1 tsp grated orange zest

Icing Directions:

Beat together the cream cheese and butter until it is smooth. Slowly add the icing sugar and mix until smooth. Add the orange juice and zest, mix well. Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Cake Ingredients:

1 and 3/4 cups flour (I use whole wheat)

1/4 cup ground flaxseed

1 tbsp cinnamon

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp salt

1 cup canned pure pumpkin (not pie filling)

1 cup brown sugar (not packed)

3/4 cup buttermilk (I didn’t have any, so I used kefir instead)

1/4 cup oil (I use canola)

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups finely grated carrots (I recommend 2 and 1/2 cups)

1/2 cups walnuts (plus I threw in a handful or two of raisins!)

1/2 cups shredded sweetened coconut

Cake Directions:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 2 round 9-inch baking pans.  You can grease & flour them or line the bottoms with wax paper (wax paper is my preference).

In a bowl combine the flour, ground flaxseed, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg, ginger and salt.  Set aside.

Using a mixer, combine the pumpkin, sugar, buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla.  Mix well.

Add the dry ingredients slowly to the wet mixture, and combine (on low-speed or by hand with a wooden spoon) until the dry ingredients are moistened.

Then gently add the carrots, nuts, raisins (if using) and coconut.  Hand mix.

Divide the cake batter evenly between the 2 pans, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cakes come out clean.

When done baking, cool the cakes in their pans for 10 minutes, run a knife around the circumference of the cake to loosen it from the cake pan, and then turn them out onto a cooling rack. You can ice the cakes when they have cooled completely. I prefer to serve my carrot cake the following day, as it gives all the flavours a chance to really soak through. I promise you, this cake will not disappoint!

This recipe is by far my favourite banana muffin recipe, maybe even my favourite muffin recipe period. It was given to me by a former work colleague, who found it in a newspaper article almost a decade ago. I have yet to find a better tasting banana or bran muffin (healthy or otherwise!). I hope you’ll love them as much as I do – and as much as the wee ones did at this mornings visit to the Early Years Centre at my son’s school – seven children (ages 18 months – 5 years) devoured half a dozen of these healthy treats in under two minutes!

So what makes these muffins so healthy? Well, first of all they contain no butter or oil! AND, they contain wheat bran and ground flaxseed – both very beneficial to your diet. Stay tuned for a post about bran and flaxseed!

Ingredients:

1 cup whole wheat flour (to make them extra healthy, I sometimes use spelt flour)

3/4 cup wheat bran

3/4 cup ground flaxseed

1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (regular sized ones will work, too AND I sometimes toss in a few extra, though I do also make them without any chocolate chips and the kids still love them)

1 Tbsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt (I generally omit salt from my baking)

1 and 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (I let the beater do the mashing!)

3/4 cup dark brown sugar (I often use less)

3/4 cup buttermilk (this morning I used 3/4 cup kefir instead and they were SENSATIONAL!)

1 egg

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients using a spoon.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the bananas until mashed.

Add the wet ingredients and beat until blended.

Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined.

Spoon into prepared muffin cups. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes. Let cool completely before removing paper liner, or the liner will not come off cleanly.

 

What’s your favourite healthy banana muffin or bran muffin recipe?

If you have ever wondered how to incorporate cabbage into your diet other than through cole slaw and cabbage rolls (and it’s not likely you’re eating these on a regular basis!), then this is THE recipe for you! The best thing about this recipe is that it requires only one pot (well, really a large frying pan or wok) and it can be seasoned using different spices to suit your taste! A very good friend of mine recently came up with the recipe when she wanted a quick, tasty way to incorporate cabbage into her diet. I have since made this dish several times, and though the kids turn their noses (tonight I served them chicken enchilada “pie” instead – recipe to follow soon!), my husband eagerly helps himself to seconds (and sometimes thirds)!

Ingredients:

1 pound ground turkey (ground chicken or beef will also taste great)

1 onion, sliced or diced

1 – 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cabbage, shredded (I use a mandolin to do this)

1 – 2 carrots, coarsely shredded

1 – 2 Tbsp curry powder (or, you can leave this out entirely!)

1 – 2 cups tomato sauce (my favourite for this recipe is from Costco and is called, “All Natural Marinara Sauce” by “White Linen Collection – Gourmet Pasta Sauce” – I highly recommend using this over the PC Blue Menu version for this recipe unless you’re in a pinch)

1 and 1/2 cups water

Directions:

Cook the meat (I used ground beef tonight, though I actually prefer it with ground turkey) in a large frying pan or wok, over high heat.

Once no longer pink, add onion and garlic. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes.

Add cabbage and cook for approximately 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add carrots and cook for approximately 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the curry powder (if using) and stir.

Add 1 – 2 cups tomato sauce (depends entirely on how “saucy” you want it to be).

Add water and reduce temperature to medium. Continue cooking for approximately 25 minutes, or until cabbage is tender and sauce thickened.

Serve with “Cucumber Salad” (see my recipe on a prior post) or garden salad using “Honey Mustard Dressing” (see my recipe on a prior post). And if you haven’t banished carbs from your dinner menu as I have (in an effort to finally lose the remaining pregnancy weight), serve with brown rice or quinoa! Oh, and a dollop of plain greek yogurt or drizzle of kefir would taste great, too!

Will you be giving this recipe a try? Please post a picture and give your verdict once you’ve done so!

About Kefir (and Yogurt)

April 24, 2012

If you live in North America, this may likely be the first time you have heard the term “kefir”. However, I am certain you have been hearing the term “probiotics” frequently for quite some time now. Well, kefir (and yogurt) is the result of combining milk with probiotics (aka live bacteria), resulting in fermented milk.

More specifically, kefir is made by using kefir grains, a combination of Lactobacillus bacteria, yeasts, protein, fat, and sugar to ferment milk. This takes approximately 24 hours, during which time the bacteria and yeast change the texture, taste, and nutrient composition of the milk. Carbon dioxide is also produced, which gives kefir a hint of natural carbonation. Kefir is best described as a naturally sweet, yet tangy, liquid yogurt.

Studies suggest that regular consumption of foods that contain probiotic organisms can stimulate the immune system, prevent allergies, improve symptoms of lactose intolerance, help treat inflammatory bowel disease, and possibly even lower elevated cholesterol levels. Emerging research also hints that probiotic bacteria may guard against colon cancer.

You can add unflavoured yogurt and kefir to muffins, pancakes, and other quick bread recipes to add moistness and a hint of tartness, however cooking at high temperatures kills probiotic bacteria. The best way to reap their probiotic benefits is to enjoy them fresh.

Here are ways to add a serving of kefir (and yogurt) to your daily diet:

Breakfast

  • stir a large spoonful into a hot whole-grain cereal, such as oatmeal
  • alternate layers of yogurt, low-fat granola, and chopped fresh fruit for a breakfast parfait
  • toss fresh berries into plain yogurt or kefir and top with a drizzle of honey
  • top pancakes and waffles with a spoonful of kefir, toasted walnuts, banana slices, and a drizzle of maple syrup
  • make a breakfast smoothie with plain yogurt or kefir, berries, banana, and 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed

Lunch and Dinner

  • toss shredded raw carrots and drained or crushed pineapple with plain low-fat yogurt for a refreshing salad
  • mix plain yogurt and dijon mustard with diced chicken breast or canned light tuna for a low-fat version
  • spoon plain yogurt or kefir onto sliced fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions for a tasty side salad
  • add chopped cucumber, fresh dill, and minced garlic to plain yogurt – serve as a dip for grilled meats and chicken
  • for tasty grilled salmon, mix plain yogurt or kefir with an equal amount of low-fat mayonnaise; add 2 – 3 Tbsp of freshly squeezed lemon juice, freshly grounds black pepper, and plenty of chopped fresh dill; spread on top of salmon fillets before grilling
  • top a baked potato with plain yogurt or kefir and snipped chives; or mix plain yogurt with salsa for a Mexican-inspired topping for baked potatoes
  • make a yogurt- or kefir-based salad dressing by blending yogurt or kefir with water to desired consistency; add your favourite herbs and salt and pepper to taste

Snacks and Desserts

  • swirl vanilla or plain, low-fat yogurt into applesauce or other strained fruits for a nutritious, kid-friendly snack
  • for an afternoon fruit smoothie, blend low-fat yogurt or kefir with your favourite chopped fruit and ice
  • add a dollop of plain or vanilla low-fat yogurt to desserts – try it on apple crisp and puddings

The above information is taken from Leslie Beck’s “Foods that Fight Disease”. You can find more detailed information about kefir on her website:  http://www.lesliebeck.com/ingredient_index.php?featured_food=94

Do you already incorporate kefir into your daily diet? If so, what are your favourite ways to enjoy kefir? If not, will you give it a try?

Did you know that 100 g of cucumbers provides just 15 calories and are a good source of potassium!? Furthermore, cucumber peels are a good source of dietary fibre. All three of my children LOVE cucumber slices and so I always add plenty to my garden salads to ensure some remain for myself! Another way I enjoy cucumbers is in a cucumber salad, especially in the summer. However, it also makes a great accompaniment to spicy dishes, as pictured below.

First, you must thinly slice the cucumber. Luckily, I have a mandolin slicer, which makes it quick and easy to slice the cucumber very thinly. If you don’t own one of these I highly recommend acquiring one, as it will be very useful in many of my future posts!

Next, you prepare the dressing in a medium-sized bowl. I never measure the ingredients, so these are approximate and can be adjusted to your taste preferences.

2-3 Tbsp kefir (I sometimes use greek yogurt, buttermilk, or sour cream instead)

2 tsp grapeseed oil (olive oil also works well in this recipe)

1 tsp white balsamic vinegar (white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar are good substitutes)

1 tsp dijon mustard

1-2 tsp fresh or frozen dill, finely chopped (I always have some in my freezer that I’ve pre-chopped and store in an airtight container)

salt & pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together, add the sliced cucumbers, add 1 garlic clove and 1/2 a medium onion, both finely chopped, and toss. It is best to let the salad sit in the fridge for a short while, so the cucumbers can absorb the dressing a little, however I often do not have this luxury and serve it immediately instead.

What is kefir, you ask?! I’ll answer that in my next post!

What’s your favourite way to eat cucumbers?