Go ahead — be imperfect

Although I don’t feel “old,” being on earth for more than half a century, especially this half century, means I started my adult life in a dramatically different time. I don’t romance the “good old days.” I mourn a few things that have been lost, but I celebrate a lot more that have been gained. Especially communication. When I went off to school 1,200 miles from home, my connection to family was mail, and a five minute call on Sunday. My daughter, in Taiwan, just modeled a new pair of shorts for me through the magic of Skype. We have the ability to connect in real time, for no cost, every day if we choose. I was there for then and I am here for now. Now is better.

Give it a rest. Stressing yourself out about healthy food is worse than a treat.
Give it a rest. Stressing yourself out about healthy food is worse for you than a treat.

However, I would like to see a drop in evangelical fervor when it comes to food. I spend a lot of time surfing the Web and perusing the library for information about real food. There is truly a lot of good information available — so much that nobody can truly claim ignorance about the pitfalls of a diet filled with processed food. But with the absolute certainty that many opposing ideas are presented as “the only right way.” I can also understand why some people just throw up their hands and say: it’s too hard;  I don’t have time; leave me alone.

Everyone should try to eat reasonably healthy food. It is important. But evangelism makes a simple concept scary and confusing. Snap your fingers, and suddenly you are preparing wonderful food, and getting a standing ovation from your family for bringing that fiber to them. It is just not realistic to think you can bring your family from Whoppers and Doritos to brown rice and Brussels sprouts in a week. Your family will hate you, your fridge will fill with well-intentioned, but rotting produce, and you may just give up trying.

It is just not realistic to think you can bring your family from Whoppers and Doritos to brown rice and Brussels sprouts in a week.

Instead, try easing into better eating habits. Make one little change a week. You’re coming through the door with fast food and a guilty look? (In your defense, you are ready to drop, and soccer is less than an hour away.) Drop the guilt and insist that everyone has a half-dozen cherry tomatoes and/or a few cucumber slices with their burger and fries or pizza. Maybe yogurt for dessert?

Even with treats, you can slide in some nutrients. Instead of flavored tortilla chips, get plain (please don’t jump to whole grain at the same time) and make a quick batch of pico de gallo or guacomole. Sure, you might be happier if your loved ones were eating sweet potato crisps with raw almond butter (assuming you can afford such fare), but at least they are getting some nutrition. Dry popcorn? I’m not sure the percentage of people who actually like it that way can be measured, but home-popped popcorn, with some melted butter is much better food than the microwave bags. (It’s also almost free.)

Try encouraging the food you want your family to eat before they get to the snacks. I used to put a bowl of carrot sticks out when the kids were coming home from school. They didn’t want just carrots (is there anything more hungry than a child just home from school), but were willing to eat quite a few. If you can get them to eat one or two, they will often choose to have more. Kids like carrot sticks. Give them something creamy to dip into, and kids can get along with most vegetables. Even strongly vegetable-averse men have been known to dig into veggie and dips.

Will you ever get to brown rice and Brussels sprouts? Maybe, maybe not. But if you try and force that with an iron fist, you will likely only succeed as far as your eye can see your kids. Gently coax them into new habits and I guarantee you will make it further along the journey.

And if your child knows no better than brown rice and Brussels sprouts? Good for you, but for goodness sake, let the kids have a treat now and then. If you think they are not going to find Doritos one day, that is a unrealistic. If you think they are automatically going to say, “That’s gross,” because they have been so well raised, that is delusional.  I watched my six-month-old daughter, the baby who had not had a drop of sugar, under the control of a doting aunt taste ice cream for the first time. Nobody had to teach that child to like ice cream. It was instant, and it rocked her tiny, little world. All your love and good intention cannot stop that reality.

My kids all went to the city when they left home. Rarely exposed to fast-food while growing up, they went on a pretty good fast-food tear for a year or two. Now, they are all good cooks, and prepare nutritious meals from scratch most of the time. They returned to their roots as most of us do.

Relax. If your kids are breathing you’ve done an admirable job today. If you managed to get some fiber into them as well … give yourself a pat on the back.

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Personal Pizza in 10 minutes

I teased you with the idea of a 10-minute pizza in an earlier post, and here are the step-by-step instructions and photos.

NOTE: I am a fan of the Bread in Five Minutes a Day books. This series (Bread, Whole Wheat and Flatbread versions) promotes creating a large amount of knead-free dough, stored in the fridge and ready to make bread instantly. The base for this pizza is made in a skillet from the basic pizza recipe in the Flatbread book (for a sample, see the Master Recipe for bread, which would work just fine in this recipe).

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Make peace with flour using a shaker

Flour shaker for easy kitchen use.
Flour shaker makes many jobs easy.

Flour can be a nuisance, especially if you need just a little bit. Way back when I was cooking in a commercial kitchen, we had large flour shakers to easily coat counter surfaces, or as a thickener.

I borrowed that commercial tool for my personal kitchen. My shaker holds about a cup, and has two openings: one for sprinkling, and one that I can dip in with a spoon for larger amounts of flour.

This one little addition to my kitchen makes me much more likely to use refrigerated bread dough, or even to make a few biscuits. A good example is the quick personal pizza I made in under 10 minutes. The rolling and pressing of the dough was so easy when I could sprinkle the exact amount of flour I needed.


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10-minute pizza: Take that, takeout!

Pizza in ten minutes
Top-quality pizza ready in 10 minutes. Cost? $1.25.

It’s hard to believe that you can make a pizza from scratch faster than you can cook a frozen model, or order takeout. Just a teaser for a coming how-to, this pizza took me ten minutes to create, from the time I took the dough from the fridge, to when it was on my plate, ready to eat.

Not only was it fast, it was cheap (especially since I had scooped Bocconcini  cheese at half price). A bit of homemade dough, one mushroom, 4 paper-thin slices of pepperoni, and a tablespoon of homemade tomato sauce and $1 in cheese. Top-quality pizza for about $1.25. And the single-serving size (6½”) allowed no temptation to overeat a favourite food.



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Avocado, tomato and egg pizza

Egg pizza
Eggs get a lift with bread base and complimentary add-ons.

I’ve always loved eggs, and never put much store in the terror that has surrounded them for decades (admittedly, I have been blessed with normal cholesterol levels). I can buy large, free-range, orange-yolked local eggs, and while they are more expensive than the supermarket brand, they still fall into the cheap-food category. I pay $4 a dozen, or about $.34 an egg. Two eggs, well under a dollar, make a substantial meal. It’s hard to beat that value.

However, they can be a bit … dull. This idea takes the humble egg and turns it into a gourmet treat without much extra work. I made this avocado, tomato and egg pizza in just a few minutes more than making toast and eggs. I call it pizza, though it has no cheese. The eggs make up for the missing creamy-cheese element.

NOTE: I am a fan of the Bread in Five Minutes a Day books. This series (Bread, Whole Wheat and Flatbread versions) promotes creating a large amount of knead-free dough, stored in the fridge and ready to make bread instantly. The base for this pizza is made in a skillet from the basic pizza recipe in the Flatbread book (for a sample, see the Master Recipe for bread, which would work just fine in this recipe). I simply pinch off a piece about the size of a lemon, flatten it and cook in a covered skillet, flipping the bread when the first side is golden brown. If you do not have access to the book, or desire to create your own base, Greek-style pita, any pizza crust, half a large bagel, and English muffin, or even substantial bread will work just as well.

Warm your base bread in a skillet. If you have a gas stove, and are open to crumbs in your burners, you can also warm crusted bread (like cooked pizza crust or pita) directly over the open flame. WARNING: Do not step away from the stove if you are warming anything over an open flame. Best practice is to keep your eyes glued to the bread. I really mean this. If you lose attention, best case scenario is that you burn your bread. Worst case — we are talking fire, here.

Prepare your eggs as desired. I prefer this pizza with runny yolks, but it is moist enough to be good even with hard-cooked or scrambled eggs. Poach, fry (mine are sunny-side up), boil or scramble eggs as you desire.

While the eggs are cooking, mix mayonnaise with your choice of flavor. I mixed about 1½ tsp of light mayo with 1 tsp of Sambal Oleek. I could also have used garlic, mustard, dried chili flakes. Plain mayo would also work. Spread on the bread base.

Add avocado slices (about 1/4 fruit per serving) and tomato slices. Place cooked eggs on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with chopped green onion and fresh basil (or add dry basil to eggs as they cook), salt and pepper.

I tend to eat this with a knife and fork, but with most bases, you could also pick it up and eat it. If you have runny yolks, break the yolks and allow the yolk to spread and find a home before starting to eat. It will still be a bit messy, but quite civilized compared to biting into an egg with an intact yolk.

Take this idea and add your own touches. Perhaps you would prefer some cheese in addition to the eggs, or replacing one. Add some cooked bacon or sausage to enhance or replace the avocado. Replace the mayo with sour cream and salsa, add a bit of cooked ground beef and/or cheddar cheese for a Huevos Rancheros version.

However you dress up your egg pizza, your taste buds will certainly not declare same-old-same-old. It doesn’t take a lot of work to turn a basic food into a delight.


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Recipes or no recipes

Real food recipe photo
This is exactly the wrong image for successful cooking with real ingredients on a regular basis. .

I have a well-defined vision for what I want to accomplish with this site. My goal is to move more people to cook with more real ingredients, more often. Simple idea, but complex in delivery. In generations past, the cooks learned slowly and deliberately, usually under the watchful eye of an experienced cook — Mom.

We’ve lost that natural learning environment over the past couple of generations, as more and more food arrived partially or fully prepared into the family home. Cost and health concerns have brought many people, often in middle age back to the kitchen. But real cooking can be tedious when you do not have basic skills, or a real-ingredients pantry and a kitchen set up for cooking from scratch. When the desire to cook better food hits, the first reaction is to hit the Web, or recipe books and find a recipe.

I do that myself. However, I find following a recipe is time-consuming.

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Grilled tuna melt

Quick grilled tuna sandwich
Quick grilled tuna sandwich

I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, where February and March are ice-fishing months (into April  in bad years). Before people started using semi-permanent ice shacks for winter fishing, several families would gather on the open ice, often travelling to remote lakes by snowmobile. Of course, there was fishing, but also there was food and fire. The fire was built on the ice, and while it would sink through the day, our ice gets to be several feet thick.

We had every imaginable type of snack food, as well as sausage and cheese, but my favourite was always tuna buns. At home, we would make tuna salad, with onions and pickles, and cheese bits. We’d stuff hamburger buns full of the mixture, and wrap them in a generous sheets of foil wrap.

Tuna mixture on bread
Tuna mixture on bread

At the lake, we would place these foil packets around the edge of the fire, where they would heat, melting the cheese, and softening the buns. Nothing ever tasted as good as tuna buns, even though there were often burned edges on the buns.

This grilled tuna sandwich does not have the background of fresh air, stunning landscape or strange customs, like fire on ice, but it does remind me of those wonderful buns.

Make the tuna mixture with your favourite mixture. I still like chopped pickle, onion, mayonnaise (I always substitute about 1/3 to 1/2 sour cream) and chopped cheddar cheese. You want a moist mixture. If I have good pickles, I’ll often put a teaspoon of pickle juice in the mixture, or even a splash of milk.

Grill marks on tuna sandwich
Dry bread toasts easily in the George Foreman grill

Spread the mixture on your favourite bread. I like a light rye, but white or whole wheat would work well. A lighter bread is best for grilled sandwiches. Heavy, grainy breads are not at their best when grilled. I don’t use any butter or oil for this sandwich on a George Foreman grill, as here is plenty of moisture in the filling. If you are using a skillet, you may need to add a bit of oil or butter, spread on the outside of the bread, or added to the pan.

If you need just one sandwich, use half a can of tuna to make this recipe, and see how to store extra tuna for a day or two.



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Easy tuna for one

Tuna stored for another day
A sandwich bag keeps leftover tuna fresh for two days.

Canned tuna is a great time saver, and a quick healthy protein in a sandwich. However, a can of tuna provides two servings. I am a princess when it comes to leftovers, and don’t like day-old tuna salad.

So … I simply divide the tuna in half, placing half in a sandwich bag. I squeeze the air from the bag before I seal it, and the tuna will stay fresh for two days. You can store the excess tuna in a covered container, but I find the taste is better in a bag, probably because the fish is exposed to less air.

Use the rest of the can as you wish.


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Real food flavor in a rush

Real food spices faster photo

How many times does a recipe, or food idea seem like a great idea … until you read the final entry: Place in the fridge for at least two hours before serving. Groan! I can’t solve every instance of this mood-killing statement, but I can help when you are working with blending dehydrated spices or herbs into your meal.

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Hot salt

Real food condiments: hot salt
Real food spices: mix great salt and dried chilies for a great table spice.

I love specialty salt, especially grey salt, often from France. I also love dried hot pepper flakes, especially if they are made from my own dried chilies.

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Freezing meat with options

Freezer full of real food ingredients
With a selection of single serving meats in the freezer, cooking real food becomes quick and easy.

Freezing meat allows you to keep real ingredients on hand. You can save plenty of money when buying in bulk quantities, or stocking up at special prices. Purchase extra amounts of specialty or hard-to-find cuts and save time and travel costs.

But how do you know what portion of any one item you will need? Small families sometimes have guests, and even large families can need just a bit of a frozen meat.

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Your special sauce made while the pasta cooks

Real food pasta photo
In the time it takes to cook pasta, you can make a healthy sauce that matches your current mood.

There are times when I don’t have a clue what I am having for dinner, beyond that it is pasta. I choose the noodle type by how much time I have, put the water on to boil, and only then do I decide what the sauce will be.

Note: I deliberately present this dish as a concept, rather than a recipe. Recipes take a long time to follow, and you often don’t have the exact ingredients cited in the recipe. You will make more real-food meals at home if you have concepts stored in your memory, and can work with the ingredients you have on hand.

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