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    THE NIBBLE’s Gourmet News & Views

    Trends, Products & Items Of Note In The World Of Specialty Foods

    This is the blog section of THE NIBBLE. Read all of our content on TheNibble.com,
    the online magazine about gourmet and specialty food.

Archive for Tip Of The Day

TIP OF THE DAY: Get Better Crackers

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The Nibble’s reigning favorite cracker. Photo
by Elvira Kalviste | THE NIBBLE.

 

We’ve eaten more than our share of supermarket crackers—Carr’s Water Biscuits, Keebler Club Crackers, Nabisco Saltines, Ritz Crackers and the like. They’re good, but sometimes we want amazing.

Special occasions deserve special crackers—to accompany cheese, dips, salads, soups, spreads, whatever. They may be pricier than the supermarket varieties, but if your palate craves excitement and your eyes want visual allure, it’s money well spent.

Otherwise stated, Cracker Barrel makes perfectly tasty Cheddar cheese. But if we want a great Cheddar experience, we’ll spring for Fiscalini Farmstead, a great artisan wheel from California.

It can be a challenge to find great crackers, even when you know what you’re looking for. Recently we raced through three specialty food stores in search of Raincoast Crisps, our current favorite cracker. We finally found them at Dean & Deluca retail and etail, and also online at iGourmet.com.

They’re $6.79 for a six-ounce box at iGourmet, and a whopping $10 at DDL. The amazing flavors and textures and small batch production make it worth the special-occasion splurge. They’re exquisite absolutely plain or however you wish to serve them.

 
Three more-affordable brands of special crackers we favor, all natural and artisan (small batch, better ingredients):

Dr. Kracker

Rolled by hand, these artisan flatbreads are long on flavor and unique in their appearance. Each cracker is topped a generous number of attractive—and healthy—seeds, sesame, sunflower, and/or pumpkin.

  • Company Website
  • Our Review
  •  

    Mary’s Gone Crackers

    Mary’s Gone Crackers are gluten-free and vegan, yet packed with so much flavor you start to wonder what is in them that makes them taste so vibrant and delicious (the answer: whole grain brown rice, whole quinoa, flax seeds and sesame seeds). They’re also organic, whole grain and OU kosher.

  • Company Website
  • Our Review
  •  
    La Panzanella Croccantini

    Unlike the previous recommendations, which are whole grain and laden with seeds, nuts or fruits, La Panzanella Croccantini provide classic Italian flare. Made from white flour, even the plain version is wonderful, but cracked pepper, garlic and rosemary versions add extra flavor. The line is certified kosher by KOF-K.

  • Company Website
  • Our Review
  •  
    You can also browse the shelves at specialty food stores and try whatever looks good.

     

    raincoast-crisps-blue-cheese-230

    Raincoast Crisps with cheese. Photo by Elvira Kalviste | THE NIBBLE.

     
    As with government, people get the crackers they deserve. If no one wants to pay more for better products, the shelves get stacked with more varieties of Ritz and saltines.
     
    HOW TO RE-CRISP SOGGY CRACKERS

    As crisp as they begin, crackers will attract moisture over time and get soggy. But you can easily re-crisp them:

    1. Put the crackers in the microwave on a paper towel. Don’t overlap.

    2. Microwave them for 40 seconds on medium/high.

    3. Allow the crackers to cool for 3-5 minutes. They will crisp up as they cool down.

    Crunch away!

      

    Comments

    TIP: 13 Ways To Use Spinach Dip Or Spread

    spinach-mascarpone-dip-vermontcreamery-230

    What do you like to do with spinach dip?
    Photo courtesy Vermont Creamery.

     

    Many people enjoy spinach dip; they just don’t enjoy it often enough.

    Recipes vary greatly (here’s a super-rich spinach-mascarpone dip). Zabar’s, the famed food emporium in New York City, is known for its vegan spinach-arugula spread, a garlicky spinach dip variation with peppery arugula punch, made with Tofutti instead of a dairy product. The ingredients are spinach, arugula, Tofutti, pesto, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, salt and pepper.

    Zabar’s chefs recommend it to liven up favorite comfort foods, weeknight dinners and entertaining staples. You can use your favorite spinach dip variation, based on using cream cheese, sour cream, Greek yogurt or a combination.

    Then, use it in any of these 13 ways:

    1. Stir spinach dip into macaroni and cheese for extra color and flavor.

    2. Spread it onto split French or Italian bread loaves, cover with minced garlic mixed with a little olive oil and broil, for a twist on garlic bread.

    3. Mix with boiled halved or quartered potatoes and scallions for zesty potato salad.

     

    4. Use instead of mayo on a BLT or other sandwich.

    5. Use instead of mayo in chicken, egg, tuna, salmon or pasta salad for pumped-up flavor.

    6. Mix into mashed potatoes.

     

    7. Spread on sliced, toasted bread or crostini and serve as appetizers or with a salad.

    8. Spread on crostini, cover with Gruyère or other melting cheese and broil\; then float the crostini in your favorite soup.

    9. Use instead of cream cheese on a bagel with lox.

    10. Fill an omelet.

    11. Mix with low-fat plain Greek yogurt for a healthy crudité or chip dip.

    12. Mix with ricotta for a lasagna filling.

    13. Add to a baked potato instead of butter or sour cream.
     
    Would you like to add a tip or two to this list? Let us know.

     

    spinach-arugula-spread-zabars--230

    Spinach dip spread on crostini. Photo courtesy Zabars.com.

     

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: Russian Iced Coffee

    russian-iced-coffee-delonghi-230

    In a tall glass or a short one, iced coffee
    lovers will get a kick from this drink. Photo
    courtesy DeLonghi.

     

    For years, we’ve enjoyed Black Russians and White Russians, two venerable vodka-based cocktails. The Black Russian, invented in 1949, combines vodka and coffee liqueur; the subsequent addition of cream created a White Russian.

    Neither cocktail recipe is Russian in origin; the name is an homage to the vodka. Both recipes are below.

    Only recently did we come across this iced coffee version, courtesy of DeLonghi, producer of fine espresso machines.

    To beat the heat, have an iced coffee. To make the day happier, make Russian iced coffee, with a shot of vodka. If you’re not keen on espresso, use regular coffee.

    RECIPE: RUSSIAN ICED COFFEE

    Ingredients Per Drink

  • 1 ounce/30 ml espresso coffee
  • Sugar to taste
  • 1 shot vodka
  • Crushed ice
  • Light cream or half and half to taste
  • Optional garnish: sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg, or go over the top with whipped cream
  •  

    You can also use:

  • Coffee-flavored vodka, such as Van Gogh’s Espresso and Double Espresso Vodkas
  • Coffee-flavored tequila, such as Avion Espresso or Patron XO Café
  • Coffee liqueur, like Kahlùa or Tia Maria
  •  

    Preparation

    1. PREPARE the espresso coffee. Add the sugar and the vodka.

    2. POUR into a glass of crushed ice. Add the cream and stir.

    3. GARNISH and serve.

     

    RECIPE: BLACK RUSSIAN COCKTAIL

    Ingredients For 1 Drink

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 1 once coffee liqueur
  • Ice
  •  
    Preparation

    1. COMBINE ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into an old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice.

    2. For a sweeter drink, add more coffee liqueur.
     

    RECIPE: WHITE RUSSIAN COCKTAIL

    Ingredients For 1 Drink

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • 1 once coffee liqueur
  • Heavy cream
  • Ice
  •  

    white-russian-kahlua.com

    A White Russian cocktail. Photo courtesy Kahlùa.

     
    Preparation

    1. COMBINE ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into an old fashioned glass filled with fresh ice.

    2. TOP with a large splash of heavy cream and stir.

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: Don’t Boil Lobster—Grill It!

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    Grill, don’t boil. Photo courtesy
    ILoveBlueSea.com.

     

    David Chang is a well-known New York chef and restaurateur, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group. He wants you to enjoy lobster that’s more tender.

    So don’t boil the lobster, he advises in an article from GQ, which the magazine shared with us.

    “I’ve sent thousands of lobsters to Valhalla in my day,” says Chef Chang, “and I’ve found that baking, or better yet, grilling them over indirect heat, yields tastier, more tender results.

    “Undercook them slightly, like steaks, and let them rest when they come off the heat. There will be some carryover cooking.”

    The chef also advises to leave that three-pounder in the tank.

    “Buy lobsters that weigh 1.5 pounds or less,” Chang advises. “Bigger beasts are tougher and less sweet. Alive is great, but frozen will do—just make sure to defrost them [slowly, in the fridge] before cooking.”

    How much lobster do you need?

     
    A 1.5-pound lobster yields four to six ounces of meat, and it’s a luxury item so you can’t plan to serve two to each guest.

    Chang suggests corn, potatoes, cole slaw, and “maybe some sausages.”

    “Forget clarified butter,” he concludes. “Just use melted unsalted butter. Add a touch of lemon or vinegar to the butter and have plenty of lemon wedges on hand.”

    For the full article, head to GQ.com

    Right now, we’re dreaming of lobster rolls.

     
      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: 5 Ways To Use Chiles

    ChilesNogada_poblano-pomwonderful-230r

    Grilled chiles can be served plain, or in this
    Chiles Nogada (walnut sauce) recipe from
    Pom Wonderful. Photo courtesy Pom
    Wonderful.

     

    In addition to shrimp on the barbie, how about some chiles?

    Here are 5 tips for using chiles from Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill:

  • Jalapeño Chiles. Jalapeños are found in practically every market but vary widely in their heat range. Usually the bigger the chile, the milder the flavor. Store fresh jalapeños in a loosely closed plastic bag in the crisper section of the refrigerator.
  • Poblano Chiles. Poblanos and large jalapeños taste great when grilled or roasted. Set them over a gas flame, under a broiler or on the grill. Roast, turning often, until the skin is blistered and blackened—about 10 minutes. Cool, covered with a cloth towel. Gently slip off and discard the charred skin. Use the whole chile for chiles rellenos; cut them into thin slices to add to soups, salads and stews; or finely chop and add them to salsa.
  • Habanero Chiles. Stock up on fresh habaneros now at local farmers markets. Simply put them into freezer containers; they’ll keep nicely for several months. Or roast the habaneros and grind them in a blender with fresh lime juice and salt into a thick salsa. Serve this blazing hot condiment with eggs, roast or grilled pork and seafood.
  •  

  • Dried Chiles. Whether you purchase them dried or dry them yourself, dried chiles will keep in the freezer for a year or so; then they can be turned into a seasoning paste. Defrost, remove the seeds and stems and tear the flesh into flat pieces. Gently toast the pieces in a hot cast-iron skillet just until aromatic (a few seconds). Then soak in hot water until soft and purée in a blender until smooth. Use this chile paste to season sauces, salsas and stews.
  • Chipotles In Adobo. You’ll find these canned in supermarkets and elsewhere. After opening the can, transfer the contents to a glass jar and store in fridge; the chiles will keep several months. Use the spicy adobo sauce to season barbecue sauce, stews and chili.
  •  
    HOW MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHILES HAVE YOU HAD?

    Check out the types of chiles in our Chile Glossary.

     

    chiles-grilling-basket-weber-amz-230

    A grilling basket is very handy for grilling chiles (above, habaneros and jalapeños) and other vegetables. Photo courtesy Weber.

     

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: Grilled Grapes With Burrata

    Here’s something we’d never have thought of, and we’re grateful to the folks at GQ for sending us the recipe.

    It’s a showstopping appetizer or cheese course that takes literally one minute to cook: red grapes with burrata cheese. Developed by chef Jeff Mahin, the dish has become a staple at his Stella Barra Pizzerias in L.A. and Chicago.

    “While using gas or charcoal to make it is fine, I prefer a screaming-hot wood grill,” says Jeff. “Just remember that when cooking with wood, you want to cook over glowing ruby red coals rather than the flame itself. Cooking directly over an open flame can impart a sour and soot-like flavor, which is never a good thing.”

    Note that since grapes will invariably fall off the bunch while you’re grilling them, a vegetable grilling basket will come in handy.

    RECIPE: GRILLED GRAPES WITH BURRATA

    Ingredients For 4 Servings

  • 1 pound bunch seedless red grapes
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • 2 balls burrata cheese
  • Sea salt and olive oil
  • Rustic bread
  •  

    grilled-grapes-Peden+Munk-GQ-230r

    So simple, and unbelievably delicious. Photo courtesy GQ Magazine.

     

    Preparation

    1. WASH the bunch of grapes carefully under cold water and allow them to dry.

    2. WHISK together in a bowl: olive oil, 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, chile flakes, garlic cloves. Add grapes and toss until coated. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

    3. PLACE bunch of grapes onto the center of a hot grill, using tongs. Grill for 30 seconds. Turn. Grill for another 30 seconds.

    4. RETURN grapes to marinade to cool for at least 10 minutes, coating them periodically.

    5. CUT grapes into small bunches. Plate. Drizzle on 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar. Serve with grilled bread and a half ball of burrata (or fresh mozzarella) seasoned with sea salt and olive oil.

    Find more delicious recipes in the GQ Grill Guide.
     
    ABOUT BURRATA CHEESE

    Somewhere around 1920 in the town of Andria in the Puglia region of southern Italy, a member of the Bianchini family figured out how to repurpose the curds from mozzarella making. Burrata was born, a ball of mozzarella filled with creamy, ricotta-like curds. Cut into the ball and the curds ooze out: a wonderful marriage of flavors and textures.

    Their burrata was premium priced, made in small amounts, and remained the delight of the locals for some thirty years.

    In the 1950s, some of the local cheese factories began to produce burrata, and more people discovered its charms. Only in recent years, thanks to more economical overnighting of refrigerated products, did we find it in New York City’s finest cheese shops.

    It was love at first bite…and enough Americans thought so that burrata is now made domestically. You can find it at Trader Joe’s.

    For dessert, here’s a delicious burrata and fresh fruit recipe.

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: Party With Veggie Sandwiches

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    Pile grilled veggies onto a sandwich. Photo
    courtesy Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

     

    Why wait for Meatless Mondays to have a great veggie sandwich? Every healthcare professional advises eating less animal protein and more vegetables and grains. And of course, eating less meat is far better for the environment.

    So start by switching some of your sandwich intake to delicious vegetarian sandwiches. It’s painless!

    While we love a sliced avocado and tomato sandwich using local summer tomatoes, we think that grilled vegetables make the best vegetarian sandwiches. While it’s still prime grilling season, develop some signature veggie sandwich recipes. You can even turn the concept into a veggie sandwich party—a build-your-own sandwich buffet.

    Creative flavor layering is at the heart of a great veggie sandwich. Peruse the following groups for inspiration, and offer something from each group.

    GROUP 1: HEARTY VEGETABLES, GRILLED OR ROASTED

  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Bell peppers
  • Bok choy
  • Broccolini
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Onions
  • Poblano Chiles
  • Portabella mushrooms
  • Romaine
  • Summer squash: yellow squash and zucchini
  • Tofu (not a vegetable, but an excellent vegetarian addition to this list)
  • GROUP 2: RAW VEGETABLES

  • Avocado, sliced or diced
  • Cabbage, shredded
  • Carrots, shredded
  • Cherry tomatoes in vinaigrette
  • Cucumber
  • Leafy greens: arugula, spinach, watercress
  • Mustard greens/mizuna/tatsoi
  • Sprouts
  •  

    GROUP 3: SPREADS

  • Bean dip
  • Greek yogurt or labneh, plain or seasoned
  • Guacamole
  • Hummus
  • Soft, spreadable cheeses
  • Tapenade
  • Tzatziki
  •  
    GROUP 4: CONDIMENTS

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Chutney
  • Cocktail sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Mayonnaise/flavored mayonnaise
  • Mustard(s)
  • Pesto
  • Relish
  • Salsa/Chimichurri
  • Sauces: horseradish, yogurt-dill
  • Vinaigrette & other salad dressings
  •  
    GROUP 5: FLAVOR ACCENTS

  • Chopped herbs
  • Dried fruit: cherries, cranberries, raisins
  • Kimchi
  • Pickled beets, cucumbers, onions or peppers
  • Sauerkraut
  • Sliced olives and/or chiles
  • Toasted seeds
  •  

    grilled-radicchio-230

    Grilled raddicho, endive and romaine are delicious, on a sandwich or as a side. Photo courtesy Radicchio.com.

     
    GROUPS 6 & 7: SIDES & SANDWICH BREADS

    Of course, the remaining ingredient to make veggie sandwiches is bread. We won’t add more long lists here, just two bullets:

  • Bread and rolls: Three or more different styles for a party. If you’re grilling, grilled bread is delicious.
  • Sides: The usual suspects, including chips, cole slaw, potato salad, even green salad.
  •  
    Party on, veggie-style!

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: Waffle Bowls (Ice Cream Cone Cups)

    strawberry-sundae-cup-230

    Strawberry sundae in a cone cup. Photo
    courtesy Joy Cone Co.

     

    Can’t decide between a cup of ice cream or a cone? Have two in one with a cone cup, a.k.a. waffle bowl.

    Perfect for customers who have trouble deciding whether they want their ice cream served in a cone or a dish, this waffle bowl from Joy Cone Company offers the best of both worlds!

    Joy, world’s largest ice cream cone company, has been family owned and operated since 1918. It’s proof that you can be the biggest and still turn out a top-quality product.

    The cones and cone cups are made with a blend of cake and pastry flours that produce a light-tasting cone with subtly sweet taste that does not overpower the ice cream—and can be used for savory recipes as well.

    The waffle bowl uses the same batter as the company’s waffle cone. Dark brown sugar is used in the recipe. Many other brands, says Joy, use white or liquid sugar with added molasses, which gives a burnt aftertaste when compared to Joy’s recipe.

    Beyond sundaes, you can use these bowls for numerous sweet and savory recipes. The sturdy waffle bowl does not get soggy.

     
    Sweet Foods & Snacks In Waffle Bowls

  • Apple pie a la mode: vanilla ice cream topped with apple pie filling
  • Custard, mousse, pudding, yogurt
  • Frozen yogurt, ice cream, sorbet
  • Fruit: grapes, fruit salad, apple slices and dip
  • Lemon meringue pie: prepared lemon pie filling and meringue topping
  • Oatmeal and other cereal
  • Snack cups filled with trail mix, candy corn, whatever
  •  

    Nonsweet Foods In Waffle Bowls

  • Asian chicken salad
  • Carrot salad, broccoli carrot slaw, apple slaw
  • Chicken salad with grapes
  • Crudités and dip
  • Shrimp salad
  •  
    Let your creativity be your guide.

    Here’s a store locator for the waffle bowls.

    ICE CREAM CONE HISTORY

    Most sources, including the International Dairy Foods Association, say that the first ice cream cone was produced in New York City in 1896 by Italo Marchiony. An Italian immigrant, he was granted a patent in December 1903 for “small pastry cups with sloping sides.” The bottoms were flat, not conical, much like today’s molded cones.

     

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    Broccoli salad, one of numerous savory salads that can be served in waffle cups. Photo courtesy Joy Cone Co.

     

    Another story cites an independent creation accidentally born at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. According to the story, Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian concessionaire, was selling a crisp, waffle-like pastry called zalabia*; as were other concessionaires. A neighboring ice cream vendor ran out of clean glass dishes. Hamwi rolled one of his waffles into the shape of a cornucopia; the fresh-made “cone” cooled in a few seconds and the ice cream vendor was able to put a scoop of ice cream in it. Three different ice cream vendors claimed credit. In a 1928 letter to the Ice Cream Trade Journal, Hamwi reported that it was either Arnold Fornachou or Charles Menches who ran the ice cream booth next to him.

    Others also lay claim. But while the ice cream cone was popularized in America, it was not invented here.

    Robin J. Weir, co-author of the book, Frozen Desserts, has spent years researching this topic. He purchased a print dated 1807 of a young woman eating an ice cream cone at the Gardens Of Frascati, a Parisian café known for its ices. Was it glass or edible? It’s hard to tell. An 1820 print of an ice cream seller in Naples shows glass cones on his cart.

    This is a story shrouded in the mists of history—and the real answer may still be out there. Here’s more about the invention of the ice cream cone.

      

    Comments

    TIP: Easy Appetizer Napoleons

    mushroom-avocado-napoleons-calavocomm-230

    Avocado-portabella napoleon with lavash
    layers. Photo © Delicious Knowledge |
    California Avocado Commission

     

    When most of us think of napoleons, we think of a mille-feuille (millefoglie in Italian), filled with custard.

    Mille-feuille means “thousand leaves,” three rectangular sheets of puff pastry spread with Bavarian cream, pastry cream, whipped cream, custard, jam or fruit purée, often dusted with confectioner’s sugar, and cut into individual rectangular portions. When filled with custard and iced with chocolate, the pastry is called a napoleon.

    But there are savory napoleons too. And in this recipe by Alexandra Caspero | Redux Recipe for the California Avocado Commission, they’re a lot easier to make than their pastry counterparts.

    Instead of using the tricky puff pastry or phyllo, this recipe uses lavash, the Middle Eastern flatbread. You can substitute another soft flatbread, such as a tortilla.

    Napoleon History

    The mille-feuille is most likely a descendant of layered phyllo pastries like baklava. It is believed that the napoleon, and mille-feuille pastry, was developed by the great chef Antoine Carême. See mille-feuille. Three layers of puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) are filled with pastry cream and iced with fondant.

     
    An “American napoleon” has a heavily marbleized chocolate and vanilla fondant top, looking more like Jackson Pollack than the neat French napoleon. An “Italian napoleon” adds layers of rum-soaked sponge cake. Some variations layer fruit, such as raspberries, in the pastry cream.

    Food fact: The napoleon pastry was not named after France’s famous general and emperor. The name is believed to be a corruption of the word “napolitain” (napolitano in Italian), referring to a pastry made in the tradition of Naples, Italy.

    RECIPE: VEGETABLE NAPOLEON APPETIZERS

    This stack of grilled portabella mushrooms and creamy avocados layered between crispy lavash with a lemon-basil mayo, is a delicious vegetarian appetizer or a fancy snack.

    You can vary the vegetables.

  • For the mushroom: summer squash, zucchini or other grilled vegetable(s)
  • For the avocado: onion, tomato
  • For the spinach: arugula, watercress,
  •  

    You can also add another element or two; for example, thinly-sliced cucumber (plain or marinated) or sprouts.

    Ingredients For 2 Servings

  • 1 portabella mushroom cap*, sliced thin
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 large ripe avocado (about 8 ounces), peeled, seeded and
    sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • ½ lemon, zested and juiced
  • 2 tablespoons basil, chiffonade (thinly strips)
  • 1 handful spinach
  • 1 whole-wheat lavash wrap, cut into 6 equal pieces (substitute tortillas or other flavorful wraps)
  •  

    portabella-burpee-230

    Portabella mushroom caps. Photo courtesy Burpee.com.

     
    Preparation

    1. PREHEAT a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Lightly rub olive oil into mushroom slices, season with salt/pepper or all-purpose seasoning. When pan is hot, add mushroom slices and grill 3-4 minutes per side, until slightly charred. Remove from grill and set aside.

    2. ADD the sliced lavash pieces to the grill and heat 1-2 minutes per side until crispy. Remove and set aside.

    3. MAKE the lemon-basil mayonnaise: Combine the mayo, lemon juice, zest, and sliced basil.

    4. ASSEMBLE: Spread the mayonnaise on 4 slices of lavash bread. Stack with avocado slices, spinach and mushrooms. Top with a piece of lavash without spread. Add another layer of avocado, spinach, mushroom. Top with the final piece of lavash, spread side down.

     
    *Reserve the stems for an omelet or scramble, or slice for a salad.

      

    Comments

    TIP OF THE DAY: How To Decipher Food Product Labels

    How confusing is the verbiage on the front of a box, bag, jar or can of food? Actually, it can be pretty misleading. It’s called marketing: Companies want you to choose their product over the competition, so they do what they can to hype on their packaging (most purchase decisions are made at the “point of sale,” or when looking at options on the shelf).

    Hence, each word on the package can help make the sale—whether or not it’s providing accurate information to consumers.

    You’d think that with all of the federal regulations and those helpful nutrition labels, it would be easy to know what you are buy. But while the the nutrition label on the back of the package is all facts, we typically respond to what’s on the front. And it can be misleading.

    After we reported that products made by Newman’s Own Organics aren’t necessarily organic, we’re taking on these other confusions.

     
    WHOLE GRAINS: MULTIGRAIN VS. WHOLE GRAIN

    “Multigrain” may sound like it’s better for you, but it simply means that more than one type of grain is used. Bread flour can be a combination of wheat flour, cracked wheat and oat bran, for example; but none of these is a whole grain. It’s the same with “seven grain bread.” The blend may be flavorful, but that doesn’t mean any of the seven grains is whole grain.

       

    arnolds-multigrain-bread-loaf-230

    This loaf has some whole grain components—wheat bran, brown rice and oats (plus cane sugar, brown sugar and sucralose). But the main ingredient is still unbleached enriched wheat flour. Look for the seal of the Whole grains Association.

     

    If you’re looking for whole grain fiber and nutrition with your bread, breakfast cereal, crackers or pasta, be sure the product is all whole grain, or at least that a whole grain leads the list of grains.

  • “Wheat bread” is not whole grain; it must say “whole wheat.” All of what we call white bread is wheat bread (except gluten-free bread).
  • Wheat bran, which appears on some ingredients lists, is part of the whole wheat kernel, along with the endosperm and the germ. Each of these components has different nutrition benefits. Refined wheat flour with added wheat bran added isn’t enough; go for the whole wheat.
  • It’s the same with seeds—normally good additions to bread and crackers, but in such small amounts that they’re no substitute for a whole grain product. We saw one label touting “flax and grains”: What the heck does “grains” mean? It could mean seeds, or it could be marketing.
  • A dark brown color means nothing: It can be created with molasses. Pumpernickel is made from rye, a whole grain, but most commercial pumpernickel is made from refined flour. Look for 100% rye on the label.
  • “Enriched,” which appears on bags of white bread, is also misleading. Why is it enriched? Because refining the whole wheat flour into white flour removes most of the vitamins and minerals. Because bread is a key component of our diet, the government ordered some nutrients added back in!
  • Words like “healthy” or “nutritious” are just marketing: They mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean and have no official standing.
  • You can find gluten free breads made with brown rice flour or a blend of ingredients. Again, look for the words “100% whole grain” on the label.
  • “Organic” is better for you and the environment, but it doesn’t impact nutrition. It’s better to have non-organic whole grain bread than organic white bread.
  •  
    Here’s more on what is a whole grain.

     

    reduced-fat-feta-athena-230

    Cheese is delicious, but high in fat. So
    reduced fat cheese still has a lot of it. Photo
    courtesy Athena.

     

    FIBER

    On a related note, whole grains are an excellent source of fiber. Look to switch out refined white flour products—breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, pasta—to more nutritious versions.

  • The USDA designation “excellent source of fiber” means that there is at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.
  • A product labeled “good source of fiber” needs at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving.
  • “Added fiber” needs to have only 10% more than a comparable product; but it that product doesn’t have much fiber to getin with, then “added” doesn’t mean much.
  •  
    FAT: REDUCED FAT VS. LOW FAT

    The USDA has a strict definition of low fat (also spelled lowfat): The product must have 3 grams or fewer per serving.

    To be called “reduced fat” a product must have at least 25% less fat than a regular version of the product (from the same manufacturer or a competitor). But that original product—cheese, for example—could be loaded with fat, so 25% less is still a lot of fat.

    Thus, go for low fat over reduced fat, but remember that reduced fat is still not “good for you” food.

     
    NITRATES: CURED VS. UNCURED

    Nitrites and nitrates are used to preserve processed meats, and to make them look better (pink bacon, ham and franks) and taste better. But they produce a carcinogenic substance, amines, when digested (here’s more on nitrates and nitrites).

    Even organic, uncured products still contain nitrates and nitrates—just less of them. Nitrates and nitrates exist naturally in plants and animals and even a naturally cured product, cured with celery powder or celery juice, will contain them. So for long-term health, the best course is to eat fewer cured meats.

     
    SODIUM: REDUCED SODIUM VS. LOW SODIUM

    The USDA requires that a product labeled “low sodium” contains 140 mg salt or less per serving. A reduced sodium product needs to be just 25% less than the regular version, which could be loaded.

    For example, a can of chicken noodle soup can have 1,622 mg of sodium. Twenty-five percent less than that is still a heck of a lot of salt.

    Fresh-packed, canned or frozen, processed foods are loaded with salt. Check the nutrition label and select products that have fewer than 500 grams per serving. Your daily recommended amount of sodium is less than 2400 mg. Here’s more on sodium from the FDA.
     
    SUGAR: SUGAR FREE VS. NO SUGAR ADDED

    These are typically products that use only the natural sweetener in the product—sugar free grape jam relying only on the grape sugar, for example—or use noncaloric sweeteners.

    “Sugar” refers to any sweetener, including agave, corn syrup, honey, molasses and all other nutritive sweeteners. (Nutritive sweeteners have nutritional value—they produce energy when metabolized by the body. They may or may not be refined.) Check out the different types of sweeteners, both nutritive and non-nutritive (i.e., produced in the lab).

  • Sugar Free means that the product has less than a half gram of sugar/serving. These are typically the products that use artificial sweeteners.
  • No Sugar Added could have no sugar added, but could have lots of natural sugar from sweeteners such as fruit concentrate, fruit juice or unsweetened applesauce.
     
    Neither of these options is better or worse than the other.
     
    FINAL TASK

    You’ve still got to look at the back of the package. Here’s how to read nutrition labels.

      

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