Paleo Coconut Butternut Soup

I’m in what I call “exam mode” right now, which involves lots of frantic studying, wearing sweatpants, surfing the web while avoiding studying … you get the idea. Cooking complicated meals isn’t on the agenda. If I’m being healthy, I eat a lot of carrot sticks and yogurts and frozen vegetables heated up and decent takeout options like a salad at Moe’s. If I’m caving in to my cravings, eating involves delivery pizza and Ben and Jerry’s half-baked.
But there are a few dishes worth the time investment even during exam mode, including this butternut squash soup with a coconut base. It keeps well in the fridge for several days or freezes easily. We’ve had a cup here, a bowl there along with a salad or as a companion to a meat dish for Paleo Boy. This soup works well year round, although I associate it with the first cool evenings of early fall. We re-heated it on the grill once on a chilly September evening last year and it absorbed the grill’s smoky flavor and was just phenomenal.

The coconut/butternut mix is really versatile – I have tossed in spices from cilantro to nutmeg to garlic without ever writing down the ingredients and just seeing how it came out. When I cooked the soup last week, though, I wrote down everything I put in so I could share it with you.

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Coconut Butternut Soup

Two medium-sized butternut squash
12 oz. full fat coconut milk
36 oz. water
4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon honey*
1 teaspoon coriander-based curry powder or coriander

Pierce the butternut squash on two sides with a knife and bake at 300 F for about an hour or until soft. They will peel more easily this way. Peel, scoop out the guts and quarter. If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and chuck the butternut squash into a pan with the water and coconut milk (just use the coconut milk can refilled to measure out the water easily). Add the cilantro leaves and puree until smooth with the immersion blender while starting to warm the pan. If you are using a regular blender, puree the squash and cilantro leaves with some liquid, then pour into a pan with the rest of the liquid. Either way, once the soup is pureed smooth in the pan, add in the spices, stirring. Bring the soup to a simmer and leave it for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.  Even though the butternut squash is mostly cooked from the oven, you want to let the flavors mingle.

Generously serves 6 to 8.

*If you want to be strict paleo, skip the honey. It just brings out the sweetness of the soup a tiny bit.

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Pork and mahi in chunky mango salsa with sweet potato fries

Hey everyone!

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Spring came with a riot of blooming trees in North Carolina – finally! – and then accelerated into a full-on, high-’70s blast of summery sunshine. Not complaining. Here’s a great, fresh, warm-weather meal option where one topping can work equally well on fish, pork, or chicken. We went with mahi and pork loin for the mango salsa. The “salsa” is cooked with the meat or fish in the same baking dish and the tender, sweet mangos with a hint of spice from the cilantro and red pepper combine great and make this a one-dish meal. I love mangos and so put more salsa with the fish than with the pork in this recipe – I can eat the cooked salsa by itself by the forkful. You really just need enough of the salsa to pack around whatever meat or fish source you are baking so that it can soak up the flavors while it cooks.

Baked sweet potato fries are a treat – a bit of a calorie bomb, but more nutritious than their regular-French-fry cousins.

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Mango salsa with pork and mahi

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Combine ingredients in a bowl to form a chunky salsa and set aside:

2 ripe mangos peeled, cubed
1 cup cherry tomatoes halved
1/3 cup cilantro leaves loosely packed
1/2 red bell pepper diced
1/2 red onion, diced
juice of 1 lemon
Teaspoon salt
pinch red pepper flakes

Place 1 pound of thick pork loins (mine were in 3 pieces) with about 2.5 cups salsa packed around it in lightly greased, steep-sided baking dish. Cover with foil. Bake for 45 minutes at 400 F or until cooked through. Serves 2-3.

Place 6 oz. mahi fillet with remaining (about 1.5 cups) salsa packed around it in lightly greased baking dish. Cover with foil. Bake for about 25 minutes at 400 F or until cooked through. Serves 1 generously.

Make it better: Puree about 1/2 the mango salsa, recombine with the chunky portion and then marinate the pork and fish packed with the salsa overnight in ziplock bags before baking. The marinating ans slightly more liquid salsa will help the meat absorb more of the flavor if you have the time and inclination.

Here’s the pork, pre- and post-oven:

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Sweet Potato Fries

Preheat oven to 400 F.

2 medium-sized sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste

Peel the sweet potatoes and chop into roughly equal size pieces – about a centimeter by a centimeter in width (about the size of your pinky) and varying lengths. For example, chop one sweet potato in half at its middle and then begin to slice each half length-wise into wide pieces that you then section into the fries. Once chopped, place the raw pieces into a bowl and lightly coat with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt to taste, tossing so that the fries are evenly covered.

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Place the fries flat on a baking tray (I recommend covering the baking tray with a layer of foil to make clean up easier) and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the fries start to take on a rough, wrinkled look that indicates that they are cooked through. About halfway through the 20 minute cook time, open the oven and carefully flip the fries over with a spatula so that they cook evenly. Finish with about 3 minutes under the broiler at 475 F to crisp up the fries. Remove, cool, and serve. Serves 2-3.

Face Your Fridge: Salmon in cilantro yogurt sauce

Saturday was a recipe for danger on the food front. After being out late Friday and partaking of some lovely Mediterranean-diet-approved wine in not-so-Mediterranean-moderate amounts, and adding a couple cocktails after that, I was feeling less than my best. Saturday afternoon I gutted out a deathly slow 10 mile run where I never got into a groove – what I call a “character building run” where your pace sucks and you feel like crap but at least know you can finish in adverse conditions and are (hopefully) tougher for it. Why a disaster on the food front? I came home cranky, dehydrated, and hungry, with very little energy to do something with the limited ingredients languishing in my fridge. Staying in to do school work didn’t help with my mood. But sometimes decent food comes together in a nice way in these straitened circumstances. I shuffled with sore feet and tight legs out of my shower hungry and a little overwhelmed by my own melodramatic exhaustion, typed in the URL for the Domino’s website on my computer, used my better judgment, rolled my eyes, sighed, grumbled, and shuffled to the fridge intead. A little rustling around yielded some The Greek Gods plain Greek yogurt, some fresh cilantro that needed to be used ASAP but was still good, lettuce, a bit of leftover cooked shrimp, and a lime. I always keep wild-caught vacuum-sealed salmon fillets frozen in the freezer. The shrimp weren’t quite as good a match with the yogurt sauce as was the salmon in my opinion; I wanted the extra protein so gobbled it up. Adding a baked sweet potato made it a very satisfying meal. Hope you enjoy. I was glad I made the effort to Face My Fridge and cook dinner with my big girl pants on instead of surrendering to the take-out demons.

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Salmon in cilantro yogurt sauce

Salmon fillet, 4-6 oz.
1/2 cup full-fat plain Greek yogurt (such as the Greek Gods brand)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Juice of half a lime
Salt to taste
Touch of olive oil for the pan

Sprinkle the salmon fillet with salt and pan fry it for 5-7 minutes on each side on low-medium heat or until cooked through. Meanwhile, place the yogurt, lime juice, cilantro and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan. Warm on low heat until the Greek yogurt liquifies, stirring occasionally. Place the salmon on a platter and immediately cover in the warm yogurt sauce. Serve with a simple green salad or vegetable of choice.

Baked Sweet Potato for Lazy People

Medium baked sweet potato
Tablespoon honey
Pinch salt
Pat of butter

Pierce a medium sweet potato with a fork on two sides. Bake for four minutes in the microwave, flip over and bake for 2-4 more minutes until soft. Cut open, melt a pat of butter into the sweet potato, mash slightly, add a drizzle of honey and a shake of salt. Many restaurants with serve a sweet potato just drenched in butter and sugar. With a little mashing, you get the same effects with just around 100 calories of butter and honey. A pinch of cinnamon also goes nicely.

Cooking Colombian (without calling in the fire department)

My husband (Paleo Boy) is from Colombia. One of his favorite foods is, doubtless, empanadas. Empanadas come in various forms throughout the Latin world. The Colombian version is traditionally a crispy layer of fried cornmeal dough encasing a pillow of fragrantly spiced meat and potato mixture. One of my proudest moments this winter was finally working up the nerve to try a recipe for empanadas, and more or less succeeding. I love to cook, but am wary of recipes that involve a lot of architecture and engineering, like folding pastry dough around ingredients, and the deep frying is also a tricky prospect. I made the empanadas somewhat spontaneously on a weekend night in and they worked out rather well. It was great fun to plop the assembled empanadas into the piping hot frying oil and see them turn a golden color as they cooked and then land on the plate looking like they could be fresh off a street cart in Bogota.

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You eat the empanadas with a squeeze of lime and a spoonful of aji, a slightly spicy condiment made of green onions, tomato, cilantro, and a dash of habanero. I learned when I made the aji that the sauce tasted great on everything and is used on all kinds of food. And it’s a heck of a lot healthier than its partner in crime, the empanadas. We used some of the leftover sauce in other dishes (more on that later).

Proud of my new empanada-making skills, even though some of them came out a bit lopsided, I decided to make them for my family and a friend one evening in January. We were just back from a trip to Colombia to visit my husband’s family. I had the telltale tan and suitcase of souvenirs and fresh memories of Caribbean sunlight and delicious food. It seemed only right to share these riches.

Unfortunately, the empanadas proved difficult that night. I had medium-size bowls of various fillings (broccoli and cheese, vegan mixed vegetable, and the traditional meat) and one big bowl of empanada dough ready on the kitchen counter and had only to fry the little suckers. It was destined to go wrong: I get frazzled at the idea of guests coming over and felt a little rushed and nervous. First the oil wasn’t hot enough so the empanadas weren’t frying properly, just getting soggy. Then some oil from the excessively full pot I used for deep frying spattered onto the burner and set off the fire alarm. And set off the fire alarm again. And again and again and again. My sister arrived a few minutes into this chaos, followed by my friend. By the time my parents arrived every window and door in the apartment was open, we had fans going at strategic angles, and the fire alarm was still shrieking. There were flames at one point. A lot of them, under the burner and spreading across the stove top. We threw flour onto the stove. Isn’t that what you do for grease fires? Or wait, is it sugar? Definitely not water. So went the conversation (more like panicked yelling). I flapped around with a dish rag, fanning it limply at the fire alarm, useless while my more able companions got the fire out with rags and pot lids and called 911 just in case things took a turn toward devastation. By the time two firefighters arrived in full gear (they get called automatically if a fire alarm blares for a certain amount of time without stopping, by the way) the fire had burned off of its own accord. We were left with a house smelling of burned oil, a slightly charred stove top, adrenalin pumping and me starting to tremble with relief and mortification. I treated everyone to Cheesecake Factory. My family stopped on the way to the restaurant and bought me a fire extinguisher as a gag gift with a purpose. The next day, biting back panic, I pan-fried the empanadas, partially submerged in oil and flipped oh-so-carefully with a spatula. I delivered the empanadas to my family at their various abodes in tupperware, and they just adored them, or at least told me so given that the experience of making them gave me (and possibly my cats, who fled to the bedroom at the first blare of the fire alarm) post-traumatic stress disorder. That is the saga of the empanadas.

But what I realized amidst all that drama is that the deliciousness of the empanadas is a marriage between the crispy corn outer and juicy filling of the empanada itself and the aji. The aji’s flavor is an integral feature of the experience. Paleo Boy and I will always cook and eat empanadas as a special treat, but we’re focused on healthy foods for the day to day right now, and also focused on not ticking off the local fire department too often. For that reason, I recently made the aji by itself to use as a condiment. Follow the recipe from My Colombian Recipes, a fantastic website with a lot of simple and often healthy Colombian dishes. My only note is that I double the recipe while still using only one habanero, or use half an habanero instead of a whole one for the recipe as written. There’s still plenty of kick that way (a fantastic, multilayered flavor) but it’s not a full on, flaming hot sauce that way and a little more versatile.

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I used the aji with two six oz. halibut fillets, cooking the halibut in a pan with the aji generously ladled over so it could soak up the flavor as it cooked. Halibut has a mild, sweet flavor and accepts sauce beautifully like any white fish. We have also used the aji as a salad dressing and as a sauce for with stirfry beef. It keeps well in the fridge in an airtight container for days and days.

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We ate the halibut with roasted sugar snap peas and mango for dessert. Sugar snap peas are so yummy – a crunchy snack to eat raw. Oven roasting them gives them an earthy grilled taste and was an interesting change. I eat the mango drenched in fresh lemon juice and sprinkled with sea salt. This is the way that very green mango, called mango biche, is sold in plastic baggies on street corners in Colombia. Hawkers carry a long stick hanging with bags of various things, crunchy corn snacks and the mango. They will run up shouting to your car as you drive by a toll booth or traffic light and the quick exchange of coins for the bag of sliced mango through the car window is a bit of an art. The cold fruit and salty tartness slide down your throat gloriously refreshing on a hot day. It’s hard to find good quality green mango here in the U.S., but regular mango prepped in the same way is still delicious.  Consider this a safe way to enjoy a Colombian-ish meal: No grease fires, and no heart-attack-inducing deep frying. So no need to call 911.

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Halibut with Aji

2 6 oz. thawed or fresh halibut fillets
1 cup aji, prepared with half the recommended habanero
Lemon, sliced, for garnish

Lightly grease a frying pan. Place the halibut fillets in the pan on medium heat. Pour the aji over the fillets. Cook on medium heat until done, or about fifteen minutes, turning the fish over at least once. Serve with a simple green salad or vegetables of choice.

Oven roasted sugar snap peas

Sugar snap peas, washed and prepped
Olive oil
Salt to taste

Place the sugar snap peas on a baking tray. Brush or spray with olive oil, rotate, and brush or spray on the other side. The sugar snap peas should be lightly coated but not drenched. Sprinkle with salt. Bake for 10-12 min. or until cooked through (appearing slightly wrinkled) at 350 F.

Street Food Mango
One large, ripe or slightly under-ripe mango, peeled and sliced
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste

Squeeze the lemon over the sliced mango in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, serve cold

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Half the dining room table commandeered by Paleo Boy’s work, the other half a civilized meal, including flowers!