Burger on the Brain

Adherence is a word we hear tossed around all of the time when it comes to dieting.  The underlying claim of most fad diets is that they are easier to adhere to.  Who would not want to follow a diet that allows them to eat bacon and steak throughout the week?

While at the end of the day, a “diet” will only work if you are able to consistently remain in a caloric deficit, these marketing strategies are on the right track.  “Adhering” to a given diet simply means you are able to adopt it as a habit and incorporate it into your lifestyle.

I think we can all agree that the hardest diets to stick to are the ones that are most restrictive.  We are going to have a harder time maintaining a diet that forbids half of the foods we love to eat than one that asks us to control the amount of them that we eat.  Again, the key here is the ability to incorporate it into your lifestyle.

Once you have changed your eating habits, you are no longer “dieting,” you have become a person who eats healthy.  You won’t even think twice about your meal choices because you will have become so aware of what you put into your body!

For this reason, I am always looking for ways to transform my favorite “cheat meals” into healthy meals.  This requires a lot of trial and error (I once tried to make pizza dough out of sweet potatoes and it more closely resembled mashed potatoes with pizza toppings…), but it gives you the opportunity to experiment in the kitchen and achieve your favorite flavors through healthy means.

Ultimately, if you are able to create meals that taste good and satisfy even your worst cravings, you will be able to adhere to any meal plan you create for yourself.

This week I found myself craving a burger with an Asian twist.  Anyone who knows me knows that pretty much everything I eat has an “Asian twist,” it’s just a flavor profile I love.

Most burgers use an 80/20 lean to fat ratio.  To keep the fat content down, I found some super lean 93/7 ground beef.  

Next, I wanted to make a healthy and crisp slaw topping, so I found a package of shredded vegetables that included cabbage, brussels sprouts and kale.  This would provide some much needed micronutrients, and to avoid using mayonnaise in the sauce, I made a quick dressing with a little sesame oil, rice vinegar and a low-carb teriyaki sauce.

For crunch, I found some crispy rice noodles.  In moderation, these aren’t so bad, but if they are fried they could arguably be the least healthy ingredient in this recipe.

Depending on your carbohydrate goals for the day, you can opt for low-carb buns or just go bunless and eat the burger over the slaw or in a lettuce wrap.  Just remember to check the nutritional facts on the package to make sure there are no added sugars or unnecessary preservatives.

At this point, all that’s left is to grill up your burgers and assemble them with your toppings.  I would recommend serving up some grilled vegetables on the side, this will help you to feel more full and it’s always a good idea to sneak extra veggies into your diet!

See the full recipe here!

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Chorizo Ground Beef

Ground beef is one of my favorite proteins to use for meal prep as it is convenient and flavorful.  For some, beef may stand out as a high-fat protein, but it does not have to be.

If you look closely at the packaging, you will find some beef is ground to a 90/10 lean to fat ratio, and some even get as lean as 93/7.  You can also tell by the color, as ground beef with a higher fat content will typically be lighter. This is valuable information when it comes to controlling the amount of fat in your diet.  

Lean beef is also a great source of zinc, iron and vitamin B12.  Personally, I like to go for the 90% lean beef as I usually have trouble hitting my daily intake target for fat.

Beef also has a lot more flavor than chicken breast and because it has a little more fat, it readily takes on any spices you choose to cook it with.

I would still recommend rotating your proteins throughout the day and week.  For example, if you have ground beef tacos for lunch, you may want to eat chicken breast or tuna for dinner.  Maintaining a bit of variety will help with adherence to your diet. It will also help to keep saturated fat intake low.  

One of my favorite preparations for ground beef is with a chorizo spice blend.  This is a smokey, savory and slightly spicy flavor profile inspired by Spanish and Mexican cuisines.  You will also find it is very versatile, lending itself to simple preparations with rice or as the base for tacos.

Tacos, like beef, also get a bad rap.  As with most dishes, if you prepare them at home you get to control how they are made.  While restaurant tacos may be laden with fattier cuts of meat and mayonnaise-based sauces, utilizing fresh ingredients at home will yield an even healthier and better-tasting result.  You can even opt for corn tortillas if you are avoiding gluten! I personally like the flavor of corn tortillas better.

While recipes may vary with long lists of ingredients, it is easy enough for the home cook to achieve this flavor with just five or six simple ingredients.  A little garlic, onion, paprika, cumin and cayenne go a long way in this recipe. Your beef chorizo will come together in no time!

Start by sauteing some minced garlic in fat-free oil.  When the garlic begins to brown add diced onion and allow it to cook until it becomes translucent.  

At this stage, I would add a little red wine to deglaze the pan so all the flavor from the cooked garlic and onions is ready to be absorbed by the beef.  The calories added by the wine are negligible as most of the alcohol will be cooked off almost immediately.

Now you can add the beef to the pot straight from the package, stirring to break it up and mixing all of the ingredients together.  I will give rough estimates on how much of each spice to add in the recipe, but I would encourage you to use these only as guidelines, tasting as you go and adding more or less based on your preferences.  

With time, these simple recipes will give you the confidence to season your own dishes.  The more you practice, the better you will be at knowing just what is missing and exactly how much of it to add.

See the full recipe here!

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Flavorful Chimichurri Sauce

One of the biggest challenges people face with eating healthy is that most of the foods that are associated with healthy eating are bland and boring.  When trying to count your calories for the day, we are pointed in the direction of chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli.  Not the most flavorful.

My favorite part about eating healthy is taking the foods that most of us perceive as boring and infusing them with flavor.  This can be a challenge.  Our go-to strategy for adding flavor to bland ingredients is usually dousing them in a sauce.  Whether it is barbecue, mayonnaise or even just ketchup, these ingredients are filled with added sugars and excessive amounts of sodium. 

My strategy against this is two pronged— for one, I try to use the freshest ingredients I can.  Think bright herbs and spices.  For this I seek out fresh parsley, basil, garlic and onion rather than turning to the dried stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, dried spices are a HUGE help in the kitchen but it just depends on the herb or spice.  Things like paprika, ground chilies, cumin or curry powder are great in their dried form and will last much longer.  From this you may notice my general rule of thumb: for herbs, go fresh, for chilies and seeds, go dried or ground.

Second, when making a sauce I try to limit myself to 5 or 6 ingredients.  This makes it much easier to translate into your calorie and macro calculations.  For an ingredient like this chimichurri sauce, the main ingredient to watch out for is using too much olive oil.  The fresh herbs, garlic and lemon juice won’t be adding much in terms of calories.

Chimichurri originated in Argentina, but there are similar “sauces” made ll around the world.  An Italian pesto or herbal salsa verde are just two examples.  These fresh sauces have been used for centuries to lend flavor to grilled meat and vegetables as well as pastas and other dishes.

Perhaps the greatest part about this style sauce is how easy they are to make.  Once we have sourced the ingredients we need (which shouldn’t be too hard, as we limited ourselves to only 5-6 ingredients), the rest is as easy as strategically throwing it all into a food processor and blending it until smooth.

I start with the garlic and a pinch of salt, the salt will help to break down the garlic.  Run the processor for 10-15 seconds until the garlic has broken down.  Now add the herbs.  I would recommend cutting the thickest parts of the stems only and utilizing the rest (if you like to make your own soups, save the leftover stems in the freezer for broth!).  If the bowl of your food processor is too small you can always add them one handful at a time.  Once the herbs have broken down add the lemon juice and red wine vinegar.  Now add the olive oil one tablespoon at a time until the sauce begins to hold together.

If you try this sauce out a really like it, you can also use it as a spread or dipping sauce.  Before adding the olive oil, add a tablespoon of mustard.  Most people don’t know it but mustard acts as a great low-calorie emulsifier substitute for eggs and oil.  Try it out on your a sandwich or grilled chicken or steak!

See the full recipe here!

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A New Take on Lasagna

The holiday season is one that can be both rewarding and stressful.  It involves a lot of travel, eating and family time. I for one am challenged by managing my time with friends and family while traveling across the country to the cold northeast.

It also involves a lot of cooking for family dinners, work parties and potlucks.  If you have been blessed with the ability to cook, then you know the great responsibility of feeding everyone during the holidays.

I love the food we eat around the holidays because there are so many memories attached to the dishes served, many of which have been prepared since before we ourselves were old enough to cook.  These are different for every family depending on cultural and geographic origins. Many native Italians recreate the feast of seven fishes. In Venezuela and other parts of Latin America, Hallacas are arduously prepared every year, and Christmas dinner in Japan typically features fried chicken.

For my family, it is more of an Italian-American spread of lasagna, vegetable sides and garlic bread on the night before Christmas and a roast ham for Christmas supper.  Whatever your family’s traditions may be, it is important to continue to pass on these customs to younger generations. They may not care now, but they become more meaningful as time goes on

I like to use this as an opportunity to teach friends and family more about the benefits of cooking healthy meals themselves, rather than resorting to restaurant or take-out meals that can be both expensive and unhealthy.  For many, cooking seems to utilize a bit of sorcery that feels out of their grasp. By recruiting others to help, you can begin to show them the rewards of becoming independent in the kitchen.

In these situations I challenge myself to recreate nostalgic recipes with healthier ingredients while still achieving the same flavor that conjures up so many memories.

This year I took on the classic lasagna recipe.  Lasagna is typically high in carbs and fats without containing much by way of vegetables.  To avoid this, I swapped out the pasta for eggplant. After all, who doesn’t love eggplant parmesan?  This does require a little bit of olive oil to get the eggplant tender as it cooks, it also adds a serving of vegetables to the final dish while reducing the number of carbs.  

I then make the sauce from scratch to have more control over how much fat is added from oil, and to the same end using 90% lean ground beef. While this might seem daunting, being able to cook a homemade red sauce is one of the most versatile skills you can have in the kitchen.  It can then be used in anything from pizza sauce to pasta sauce and you can tailor it to your own tastes every time.

Using low-fat or fat free ricotta helps to balance out any fat from the olive oil we used on the eggplant and in the sauce.  Simply whisk together with the eggs, a little parmesan and of course salt and pepper and you are ready to assemble the lasagna.

Begin with a layer of sauce on the bottom, followed by a layer of eggplant.  They do not necessarily need to be overlapping, I just try to spread them out so you do not have all large pieces on one side and small ones on the other.  Add a thin layer of the cheese spread over the eggplant and repeat this process until you have filled the pan.

This is a great recipe for family dinners, potlucks or for meal prep throughout the week.  One casserole dish should be enough to feed at least 8-9 people. This is also a great recipe to recruit other family members to help with, and the more you can delegate, the less work you have to do!

See the full recipe here!

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Healthy Thai Beef Salad with Rice

One of my favorite Thai Beef Salad recipes

One look in my pantry and you will be able to tell what my favorite type of food is.  My cupboards are full of ingredients that seem foreign and random to most, but to someone familiar with cooking Thai or other southeast Asian cuisines they would be common and familiar.  

Working in a Thai restaurant really changed my outlook on food.  Both in terms of flavor and health. While at first, the cuisine was completely foreign to me, I soon came to respect the use of fresh, bold flavors and the care for balance in bringing out the perfect taste.  

In many dishes, this flavor is achieved without using added sugars, and as fish sauce is relied upon for savoriness, they are typically low in sodium as well.  Many familiar dishes use soy sauce, but this is actually a Chinese influence on Thai cuisine. 

In addition, many dishes come together fairly quickly, making them ideal for a quick meal or snack.  Once you have a few staple items in your pantry, it’s just a matter of knowing how much to add.

The type of dish I am making today is typically referred to as a Thai “salad” and comes together in minutes.  While “salad” might not be the most accurate translation, think of it as seasoned meat that lends a big punch of flavor when served alongside plain rice.

We start by grilling the steak (usually on the rare side, but you are free to cook it however you like).  While grilling, we combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir them together to allow the flavors to combine.  

A few notes on ingredients:  sticky rice powder is a common ingredient in these types of Thai salads.  If you will never use sticky rice for anything else, I would recommend just using plain white or jasmine rice.  Simply toast uncooked rice in a dry pan, tossing frequently, until browned and then give it a few pulses in a coffee grinder or food processor.  A quarter cup at a time will go a long way, and you can store it in an airtight container for a month or so.

The chili flakes are optional depending on your heat tolerance.  A touch of spice will really add to the flavor so I would recommend a pinch to start and then you can add more as you like.

Once the steak is finished cooking, let it rest for about 5 minutes (this allows the proteins to relax and allows the juices to redistribute within the meat), then thinly slice against the grain (perpendicular to the lines/striations you see in the meat, this will help prevent it from getting stuck in your teeth, if you were ever wondering) into bite sized strips.

Now just toss all of the ingredients together in the bowl and spoon over a bowl of rice.  Your taste buds will be grateful, it will taste so good it feels like you’re cheating on your diet!

See the full recipe here!

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Our Favorite Fall Comfort Food

Since we are well on our way through the fall, and many places are already seeing an inch or two of snow, we are all craving foods that will comfort us and keep us warm

For a lot of people, the first thing to come to mind when thinking of comfort foods is not the most healthy.  Dishes with fattier cuts of meat such as brisket (think a Reuben sandwich) or pork shoulder (think pulled pork) and lots of butter (think mashed potatoes).  Not to mention pizza or mac and cheese, dishes we are tempted by year round. In moderation, these are all ok. Most of these dishes are connected to a memory of childhood or a favorite restaurant or holiday and a single bite can take you right back to that moment.

Soups are a great way to bridge the gap between unhealthy comfort foods and foods that may fit more easily into your personal diet goals. Be warned, however, soups can lie on either end of the spectrum. Clam or corn chowder and broccoli and cheddar soup can be deceiving as a lot of that delicious flavor comes from the use of lots of cream, butter and/or cheese.

This is another instance where homemade is always the way to go.  When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  This can seem intimidating at first but the payoff, in the long run, is well worth it. The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Butternut squash is one of my favorites and its arrival just in time for winter could not be better.  This squash is naturally sweet and contains a lot of Vitamin A and potassium. All it takes to draw out the natural flavor is some time roasting in the oven.

By minimizing the use of butter or oil, we can cut down on a lot of the fat that can be found in pre-made or restaurant versions of this soup.  For this reason, I have also made milk or almond milk optional. If you like the added creaminess, you can add as much or as little as you want, or omit it entirely.  The hardest part about this recipe is peeling the squash itself. If you are confident with a knife you can go that route, as in the video below, or to be safe a vegetable peeler will work just fine.  Once peeled you will need to scrape out the seeds with a spoon and cut the remaining squash into roughly 1-inch cubes.

While you are cutting the squash, you can have the oven heating up to around 350ºF.  Once you have the squash cubed throw it in a bowl and spray it down with some nonfat cooking spray (feel free to use olive oil or coconut oil if you would like), just enough to coat the squash.  Toss it around with some salt and pepper and now it is ready for the oven.

To save time while the squash is roasting, you can get your onion and garlic diced up and ready to go.  The size of the cut isn’t incredibly important here, as everything is going to end up in a blender at the end anyway.  After about half an hour you can start cooking the onions, as the squash should only take 30-45 minutes. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pot and allow the onions to cook down.  Once the onions are soft add the garlic, I wouldn’t recommend adding the garlic at the same time as the onions, as it will cook faster and burn, adding a bitter flavor.

When the squash is “fork tender” (meaning there is no resistance when pierced with a fork or knife), add it to the pot and stir it around with the onions to combine.  You can now add the stock or water. This will allow the squash to cook down a little more and make it easier to blend in the next step.

Now its time to break out the blender or food processor.  One note on which one you use: there is a trade-off. The food processor will break everything down a lot easier than a blender, but the blender will yield a smoother soup.  Depending on the quality of the blender, you may have to continuously shut it off and stir things around to make sure everything is blending consistently and use smaller batches.  I just set a mixing bowl or another pot on the side to separate the blended from the unblended.

Once blended, you can serve immediately if it is still hot, or allow it to cool down before putting it in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week on those especially cold nights.  I would recommend hiding it in the back where no one else can find it!

See the full recipe here!

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