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Some Days You Feel Like a Nut

Last week I flew to West Palm Beach for what amounted to a whirlwind tour of four planes, two airports, one vendor hall, and many many faces. From start to finish, my feet only left Nashville soil for 26 hours, but it felt like days. Travel can be hard on the soul.

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In my mind there are three categories of travelers. There are the “vacationers” whose primary purpose for making the trek to their local airport marks the start of a plannes and (hopefully) pleasurable getaway. Then there are the “regulars,” who travel heavily for work-related functions, typically on an almost weekly basis. For “regulars” traveling becomes part of the normal work routine – not a big deal, nothing to worry about. And then there are those, like me, who travel mainly for business, but do so just infrequently enough that the trip becomes an “event” (and occasionally an “ordeal.”)

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You see, for a “work trip,” there is always so much prepping that needs to be done. Presentations to write, arrangements to make, names to remember, org charts to put to memory, not to mention the doubt and uncertainty that sourrounds your attire – is it the right suit? Is this even a suit event? Are open toed shoes acceptable attire for an evening netowrking event? And so on, and so on… And this is to speak nothing of how and where you might find suitable meals on the road. Which is fine, because chances are, if your trips are as harried as mine, you won’t have time to eat.

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This recipe is a wonder for travelers of all sorts. The bites require little prep, few ingredients, and come together in a snap with the aid of a food processor or blender. They are full of healthy fats and protein from the nuts and seeds, antioxidants from the cacao, and are completely free from added sugar. They require no refrigeration, no special packaging, and are even delicious when recovered from the bottom of a weary travel bag – slightly melt-y and a bit smooshed.

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Almond Butter and Hemp Bites with Cacao Nibs – Adapted, Slightly, from Sprouted Kitchen

Recipe – Makes about 20 “Bites”
84g (3/4c) Almonds, Roughly Chopped
42g (¼ c) Raw Cacao Nibs
160g Pitted Dates (5-7 Dates, Depending on Size)
128g Almond Butter (Unsalted)
1 TSP Vanilla Extract
30g (2TBSP) Shelled Hemp Seeds
1/4 TSP Sea Salt
Place the almonds and cacao nibs in the bowl of a food processor or a blender with a pulse function and pulse them until they form a coarse meal. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to pulse until the mixture just comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface. Using your hands, compact and roll the dough into 20 balls. (This process should feel, somewhat, like making meatballs – you want to roll – keeping the dough intact as you go – without being too forceful or using too much pressure.)

Once you have formed the balls, you can use a fork to stamp a crosshatch pattern on the tops, squishing the mounds as you go to form cookie shaped bites.

As soon as you are done shaping the bites they are ready to eat. The dough will firm up slightly if given time to cool in the refrigerator. Allowing them a bit of time to chill will help the bites hold their integrity when they are inevitably tossed into the bottom of a back-pack, hand bag or suitcase.

Running on Fuel – Quinoa, Fruit, and Nut Bars

In our home, eating nourishing and sustainable foods is just one part of our quest to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Dustin and I have shifted towards using minimally processed ingredients not only because of their rapport but because these foods help fuel our active lifestyle. We both typically engage in some sort of exercise every day. While our fitness obsessions have varied over time, from climbing, to yoga, to cycling, running, soccer and HIIT training, this vast cornucopia of exercises all have one thing in common. Each sport or hobby we take on requires that we power our bodies with clean burning fuel.

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Back in our climbing days Dustin and I munched on countless cliff bars and downed an endless flow of vitamin water. But these bars and sports drinks, while not exactly abysmal, are far from clean and healthy. Vitamin water in particular is packed with processed sugars, artificial dyes, and chemically engineered flavoring. Clif bars were fine, at the time, for providing an immediate source of fuel to push us through laps at the gym, but with most varieties clocking almost 25g of sugar mostly from the primary ingredient, brown rice syrup (which, as an ingredient, boasts virtually no nutritional merit) these aren’t exactly a healthy option for most athletes.

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There is a place for consuming quickly digestible sugars and other carbs in endurance heavy events, where you might be working out for multiple hours and might deplete your glycogen stores if you do not refuel. These bars could be used in this way – although, with about 7 grams of fiber in each bar you probably would not want to eat too many of them on a very long run. We’ve been using them as a pre-run fuel (taking advantage of the natural fruit sugars and complex grain carbs) or as a post-workout recovery snack (utilizing the 11 grams of protein from the nuts, seeds and protein powder).

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What initially caught my eye in this post’s featured recipe was the lack of added sugar. Typically, granola bars or power bars contain a boatload of honey, maple, or molasses to sweeten and bind. Not so here! Also exciting to me was the fact that you don’t need to bake them. You may have a moment of doubt as you peer into the food processor wondering how on earth these things are ever going to stick together. But persevere – once the juice is added at the end the mix should start to resemble a piecrust dough, crumbly but clumpy at the same time. Like with a piecrust, go easy on the juice, adding a little at a time until you sense that the mixture will just bind when pressed into the pan. As with pastry, finding the right balance may take a batch or two to master.

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I adapted the original recipe a bit to include some protein powder. I used an unflavored rice-based protein, which, I suspect, may have aided in the binding process. While I am fairly certain that any type of protein powder could be used here, it may alter the texture a bit. I am picky when it comes to buying dried fruit. I strongly prefer to buy organic as dried fruit are truly just shriveled versions of whole fruit and can carry with them the same residues from conventional growing practices, only in increased concentration. Trader Joe’s typically has an excellent selection of dried fruit and I find that their prices are far lower than large box stores.

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I really like the R.W. Knudsen Family line of juices. I used their black cherry juice in this recipe. It is a simple juice made from only one ingredient! I imagine that any of their single fruit juices would work well in its stead. The black cherry is the only one I have found in small, 8oz, servings. If you have never come across quinoa flakes before, they are quite similar to rolled oats. I am fairly certain that oats could be successfully substituted but if you can find the quinoa flakes they are worth a try as they are much higher in protein content than oats and are likely a bit easier/faster to digest.

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The amounts of the various dried fruits can be toyed with and adjusted to suit your specific preference. I used what I had on hand and I ended up really liking the balance of fruit in the end-product, but I imagine that there are many other dried fruits, from mangos, to figs, to dates, that would work well. Just as in other aspects of your diet, picking a variety of fruits from various different families (i.e. berries, stone fruit, pomes etc…) will provide, not only a well balanced flavor profile, but a broader nutritional profile as well.

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Quinoa Fruit and Nut Bars – Adapted from “He Needs Food”

Recipe – Makes about 12 Bars
84g (1c) Quinoa Flakes
112g (1c) Almonds, Roughly Chopped
15g (¼ c) Desiccated Coconut
120g Dried Apple Rings (About 30 Rings)
130g (1¼ c) Dried Cherries
130g Dried Apricots (About 20 Apricots)
30g (¼ c) Zante or Corinth Currants
40g (¼ c) Dried Blueberries
75g (5T) Vegan Rice Powder (other powder may be substituted, see note above)
120g (½ c) Cherry Juice
70g (½ c) cup Pepitas (divided)

Line a 7 × 11 inch baking pan with parchment paper (no need to grease or spray the pan.) Paper should hang over the sides; you will later use this overhang as “handles” to remove the bars from the pan. Set the pan aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place quinoa flakes, chopped almonds, and coconut on a large, rimmed baking tray and toast in the oven until just golden and fragrant. You may need to stir the mixture once or twice in order to ensure reasonably even toasting.

Roughly chop all of the dried fruit and then pulse once or twice in batches in the food processor until minced. Make sure you stop well short of turning it into a fruit paste!

Place the cooled quinoa flakes, almonds, and coconut in the processor and pulse briefly until it becomes a coarse meal. Add the protein powder to the bowl of minced fruit pieced and toss them together with your hands to distribute the powder and “unstick” some of the fruit clumps. Add this to the food processor along with half of the pepitas and pulse once or twice to combine with the nut/quinoa meal.

Drizzle over about half of the juice and pulse once or twice, continue adding the juice in TBSP increments, pulsing in-between until the mixture just starts to come together. When the mix is ready it should still contain discernable pieces of fruit and nuts and hold together if pinched between thumb and forefinger.

Dump the mixture into the lined baking pan and distribute evenly across its surface. Tear off a piece of parchment large enough to fit over the pan and place on top of the mixture. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, start at one corner and press down firmly on the mixture to compact the mix and even out the surface. Remove the parchment and sprinkle the remaining pepitas over the top. To adhere these to the surface, replace the parchment and press again, lighter this time (so as not to crush the pepitas.)

Cover the mixture tightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight to allow the bars to solidify. The next morning, lift the sides of the parchment to remove the bars and place on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife and a smooth vertical cutting motion (no sawing!) cut the bars into 12 even pieces. These keep well for a week or two in a tightly sealed Tupperware container in the fridge.

Good Enough to Eat – Molasses Bran Muffins

Lately we have developed somewhat of a rhythm to our weekend cooking plans. Each weekend we tend to make a main dish, like a soup or baked pasta, a side, which is typically grain based such as a broccoli and quinoa salad, two loaves of bread, using home made starter and a recipe from Tartine, and some sort of baked good.

There is something about turning out perfectly puffed baked goods that I find deeply satisfying. Likely, this joy stems from the fact that I have failed at baking so many times in the past. Much of my recent success stems from one key piece of advice that I have heard countless times and have never really followed. And that is, that I FINALLY read the directions. All of them. Sometimes twice. Until I actually understand what is going on. And then I get down to business.

Baking truly takes a lot of preparation. First you need all of the right ingredients, you need to carefully note what type of flour to buy, the size of the eggs called for DOES make a difference. Light and dark brown sugar are not the same thing, and no, honey is not a substitute for maple syrup. Please, whatever you do, do not substitute light butter or margarine for the butter called for in the recipe, and if they don’t specify, its pretty darn likely that they are calling for UNSALTED butter. And generally, if they call for milk, buttermilk, or yogurt, you can assume that the full fat version is required, unless the author explicitly states otherwise.

Sometimes it feels as though, given all of these rules, we must take off our thinking caps and turn off our brains when we bake. But I feel it just takes a great deal more mastery before we are able to make the substitutions and judgement calls that separate the good bake hands from the true innovators that are pushing the art of baking forward. Kim Boyce, author of “Good to the Grain” is, in my mind, one of these innovators on the forefront of the baking scene. With her book on baking with whole grain flours, Kim has forever changed the way I look at whole wheat and other whole grain flours. No longer do I see these as musky, mealy substitutes that only a health nut could love. Thanks to her recipes and to those of other bakers that have understood the many nuances of baking with quality milled whole grains, I feel as though I can hone my baking skills while producing hearty baked goods which will provide nutrition and sustenance to the loved ones around me.

I think Bran Muffins get a bad rap. Often times justifiably so as many of them are dry, mealy, and totally bereft of flavor. On the other end of the spectrum are bran muffins which purport themselves as a healthy breakfast food, but are really packed to the gills with cheap low quality oils and highly refined sugars. This recipe from Boyce’s “Good to the Grain” truly does the bran muffin justice. Her use of a home made prune jam, which acts as the main source of sweetness, provides an ingenious and natural source of fruit based sugars. There is only a slight 3 TBSP of butter in the entire recipe, the additional moisture comes from buttermilk, molasses, and fruit. These make a great breakfast treat, provided, of course that you don’t bake them into muffins the size of grapefruits, as some bakeries are wont to do.

Molasses Bran Muffins – adapted slightly from Kim Boyce’s Recipe in “Good to the Grain”

Emily’s Tip – Zest the Oranges BEFORE you squeeze them to make the Juice, it is infinitely easier than trying to hold a half of a squeezed orange and zest it, trust me.

1 C Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice
1 1/2 C Dried Fruit, Cut in Half (Kim Uses Prunes, I Used a Mixture of Prunes and Figs, Raisins Would Also Work Well)
1 1/2 C Wheat Bran
1/2 C Amaranth Flour
1 1/2 C Whole Wheat Flour
2 TBSP Dark Brown Sugar
1 1/4 TSP Baking Soda
1/2 TSP Kosher Salt
1/2 TSP Ground Cinnamon
2 C Full Fat Buttermilk
1/2 C Molasses
3 TBSP Unsalted Butter, Melted and Cooled Slightly
1 Egg
1 TBSP Orange Zest (From Oranges Used for Juice – See Emily’s Tip Above)

To make the dried fruit jam, lay the pieces of dried fruit, cut side down, in a small sautee pan or skillet (that has a fitting lid), cover with the orange juice and bring to a boil. Turn off the flame/remove from the heat, cover with the lid, and allow to sit for about 30 minutes, or until the fruit is plump and has absorbed some of the orange juice. Puree in a small food processor, or use an immersion blender until you have a smooth puree.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray muffin tins with baking spray. Measure the bran into a medium bowl, place the buttermilk in a microwave safe container and microwave in 10 second intervals until the buttermilk is just lukewarm (do NOT overheat as it will separate and look positively gross.)

Pour the buttermilk over the bran, stir, and set aside.

Sift the remaining dry ingredients (amaranth flour, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon) into a large bowl (if some does not pass through the sifter just dump it out into the bowl with the remaining dry ingredients.)

In a small bowl whisk together the remaining ingredients with 1/2 cup of prune jam (you will have left over jam, set it aside for another use or freeze it for a later batch of muffins.) Make sure the egg is thoroughly incorporated before adding the mixture to the softened bran and buttermilk. Add the entire wet mixture to the dry mixture and stir gently. Use as few strokes as possible. Once the batter is just mixed spook into alternating cups of the muffin tin (will make about 10 muffins.)

Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, rotating half way through until they reach a dark golden color. Once the muffins are done take one out of the tin to make sure the bottom is dark and golden. Place the muffins upside down on a cooling rack to ensure they stay crisp and that the bottoms don’t become soggy from steaming in the tins. The muffins fare well in a container on the counter for about 2 days. Freeze any muffins you do not plan to consume during that period. Frozen muffins defrost well if left on the counter at room temperature for a few hours.

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