Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Southwest Quinoa Salad (Guilt- & Gluten-Free!)

Earlier this year, I started swapping out some of our rice and pasta side dishes for quinoa in an effort to balance my protein and carb intake. For those of you who aren't familiar, quinoa is technically a seed (not a grain), so it's high in both protein and fiber. It's also a complete protein, which means it contains all the amino acids your body needs (something few plant-based proteins do).

It cooks up a lot like couscous, which we love, so it was a pretty easy transition for us. I started out cooking it as a hot side, but with grilling season upon us, I decided to try a cold salad version. After testing a few versions, I came up with this Southwest style salad that I am absolutely obsessed with. Loaded with veggies and packing some nice spice, it's delicious.

Seriously - I made batches 2 weeks in a row and ate it as a side with dinner a couple of nights AND for lunch every day - it's that good! If you're headed to a BBQ or picnic, it also makes a nice alternative to pasta salad for those who are gluten-free.

Southwest Quinoa Salad
(Serves 6-8)

1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained
3 cups water
1 can (1 1/2 cups) black beans
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
1 large green pepper, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, chopped (I leave the seeds in; if you don't like a lot of heat - remove them first)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 1 large lime)
5 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cumin

Preheat oven to 425°F. Spread corn on a baking sheet. Roast at 425°F for 10-15 minutes, turning every few minutes, until corn is lightly toasted on both sides. Set aside to cool.
Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add rinsed quinoa. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes or until water is absorbed. Let sit 5 minutes. Pour and spread out on a baking sheet to cool.
In a large bowl, combine beans, roasted corn, cilantro and both kinds of peppers.
In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine lime juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and cumin. Stir well to dissolve salt. Pour over vegetables.
Once quinoa has cooled, add to the dressed vegetables and stir well to combine.
Refrigerate at least 8 hours before serving. Stays good in the fridge for several days!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Morning Bliss - Banana Flax Muffins & Coffee Mate Natural Bliss Creamers

You all know by know I am a coffee lover. At home, I normally drink it straight up black. But when I'm visiting folks who use flavored coffee creamer, I always like to give it a try. I never got in to buying it at home in part because I enjoy a well-brewed cup of black coffee -- but also because I've never found a creamer I'm comfortable using on a regular basis. Most of them have a laundry list of ingredients, which is never a good thing in my book. Why can't I just have some flavored cream?

Enter Coffee Mate's new Natural Bliss Creamers. Apparently, they caught on to such laments from people like me and created a new natural coffee creamer line that contains 4 simple ingredients: nonfat milk, heavy cream, sugar and natural flavor.

Nothing partially hydrogenated or mono-di-tri-blah-blah-blah - sounds good to me!

I first heard about the new line a couple of months ago, but they just started appearing in stores in my area recently. So when I was asked if I'd like to them a try, I jumped at the chance. Right now, Walmart is offering a coupon for $1 off 2, so that's where I went to pick them up. You can see my full #NaturalBlissWM shop here.There were 4 varieties to choose from:
Sweet cream, caramel, vanilla and low-fat vanilla. I decided to try the regular vanilla and the caramel.
This morning was my first chance to try them out. It worked out well, because in our house, Sundays often end up being the one morning each week we have the chance to laze around on the patio with a few cups of coffee, the newspaper and a yummy breakfast. I had some brown bananas in my fruit bowl, so I whipped up a batch of yummy banana flax muffins (see recipe below).

For my first "wake up cup," I tried out the vanilla flavor.
I used 1 serving of the creamer (1 Tbsp.). The coffee was nice & creamy with just a hint of sweetness and vanilla. I was impressed with the silky texture balanced with the fact that it didn't feel like a sugar bomb went off in my mouth, like some other creamers I've tried in the past.
By then I'd woken up enough to be ready for breakfast, so I grabbed a muffin & cup #2. This time I used the caramel creamer.
Again, this had a great silky, creamy texture. The caramel flavor was deep and just a little nutty. Just as with the vanilla, I used 1 Tbsp. of the caramel and found it to be a little bit sweeter, but still not too sweet.

These creamers were delicious in hot coffee and I bet they'd be just as good in iced coffee. I can definitely see using the caramel to pull off a mock iced caramel latte (a summertime fav!). I really enjoyed these - and love the fact that they are all natural. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up my black coffee everyday (what can I say - sometimes I'm a purist), but I would definitely buy Natural Bliss again when I'm craving an indulgent change of pace or when we have flavored-creamer-loving visitors.

You can learn more about Natural Bliss Creamer on Coffee Mate's Website or on their Facebook page.

Banana Flax Muffins
(Makes 6 large bakery-style or 12 regular size muffins)

4 ripe bananas
1 egg
2 Tbsp. flax seed meal
1/4 c. oil
2/3 c. sugar
3/4 c. white whole wheat flour
3/4 c. unbleached white flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line muffin tins with paper wrappers or grease well.
In a large bowl, mash the bananas. Add egg, flax seed meal, oil and sugar. Mix until well blended. Sift flours and baking powder together in a separate bowl. Add to wet mixture. Stir just until combined.
Spoon batter evenly into muffin tins (each should be about 3/4 full).
Bake at 350°F until toothpick inserted comes out clean (about 20 minutes for regular size muffins, 30 minutes for large muffins).
Cool 5-10 minutes before serving.

This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for Collective Bias. #CBias. All opinions and recipes are my own.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Truly Tasty Turkey Burgers

Let's face it: turkey burgers often get a bad wrap. They seem to dry out quickly and lack that wonderful flavor of a classic, juicy beef burger. But, if you're watching your waistline, you can't deny the fat and calorie saving benefits of swapping out beef for turkey. A standard 3 oz. serving of your typical burger beef (85% lean) has 200 calories, 12 grams of total fat (4.5 saturated). Compare that to a 4 oz. of 99% lean ground turkey breast meat, which has about 120 calories and 1.5 grams of total fat (0.5 saturated).

So, while I do occasionally indulge in a yummy beef burger, if I'm cooking at home, I usually go for turkey. I'm continually experimenting with ways to keep turkey burgers moist and make them tasty enough that my red meat-loving husband won't complain too much. This latest experiment was a real home run - moist, flavorful burgers that both my husband and I enjoyed every bite of.

The carrots are the secret to that moistness. Be sure not to drain off any liquid before adding them to the turkey mixture. I hope you'll give these a try - they might just change how you feel about turkey burgers!

Truly Tasty Turkey Burgers
(serves 4)

approx 1 lb. extra lean ground turkey breast (a 20 oz. package, as its often sold, works, too)
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/2 packet dry beef & onion soup mix
olive oil spray
4 hamburger buns
ketchup, mustard or other desired toppings

In a large bowl, mix ground turkey breast, carrots and soup mix together with your hands until well combined. Form into 4 burger patties. Keep in mind that they'll shrink up a little when you cook them, so try to flatten them out well.
Chill burger patties for at least 4 hours (and up to 24) to allow flavors to meld.
Heat grill to medium-high heat.
Spray both sides of burger patties lightly with olive oil.
Place directly on grill. Cook until burgers reach an internal temperature of 165°F (about 7 minutes on each side).
Let rest 5 minutes. Place on buns & serve with desired toppings.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cereal & Milk Challenge: Store Brand vs. Name Brand #CompareandSwap

I recently had the opportunity to do a store brand vs. name brand head-to-head challenge with Smart & Final's First Street Brand. I'm a big proponent of store brands to save money, but my husband can tend to be pretty brand loyal. I insist that, on the whole, store brands are just as good quality as brand name. But he often retorts "it's just not the same." Admittedly, there are some store brands that aren't quite up to snuff. But others, including the First Street line of products, really are top-notch. When I'm at Smart & Final, I don't hesitate to try a First Street product if I have the option. It is always a money saver and I've never been disappointed.

So, when I found out I'd get to put his favorite breakfast cereal (Honey Bunches of Oats) up against a name brand version, I was excited to have the chance to prove my point once and for all! You can check out my whole trip to Smart & Final here. In a nutshell, I shopped for Honey Bunches of Oats and the First Street Oats & More cereal:

As you can see, there was $0.50 in price. 50 cents works out to about a 17% savings, which is decent, but I was actually a little surprised it wasn't more. Many times, there's a much bigger difference (like the First Street graham crackers that were half the price of the brand name!), but maybe it's because the HBO was a "Smart Buy" this month.

As far as nutrition, the 2 were pretty similar:
Honey Bunches of Oats 

First Street - slightly less fat, but also less fiber

Though a little bummed about First Street having less fiber (I am all about the fiber!), I was pretty impressed with the packaging, which included a recipe & crossword puzzle:
(The HBO box had no such fun!)

I also compared First Street milk vs. Alta Dena - a top brand here in Southern CA:

Here the dollar savings was similar - $0.60 - but that works out to a higher percentage of savings - about 22%. As for nutrition, they were identical, as was a stamped code on the top - making me think they may have been bottled at the same place with just different labels added (as is common with store brands - and supports my point that the quality is exactly the same!).

To test out my theory, I set up a blind taste test for my husband. I made up a quick survey for him to fill out as he tasted each combination (HBO cereal with Alta Dena milk vs. First Street cereal and milk).

The First Street was my "A" and HBO & Alta Dena were "B":

As soon as I poured out the cereals, my heart sunk a bit. The HBO was a lot lighter:

Seeing that my hubby eats HBO regularly, I thought for sure he'd recognize it right off the bat. But, I decided to continue. So, I added the milk and served up both options with the survey cards.

*cue Jeopardy music as we wait*

When he finished, I was surprised at the results. He scored the First Street brand higher on taste and texture - and actually though it was the HBO!

When I asked him about it, he said the First Street brand had more granola bites, which he liked and thought was a signal of a higher quality brand. He also said the overall flavor was better. In contrast, he thought the HBO cereal tasted a little metallic and got mushy too quickly. We did a milk vs. milk test to make sure that wasn't the metallic taste and he said both brands tasted exactly the same (and not metallic at all).

In the end, we both agree First Street is a clear winner on the cereal and a tie on the milk. I'm calling that vindication on this #CompareandSwap challenge - and it feels good!

So - what's your take on store brands? Do you think they have the same quality as brand names? Have you ever done a head-to-head comparison like this? Love to hear your thoughts!

If you live in CA, NV or AZ and want to learn more about saving with Smart & Final, you can check them out here on Facebook and Twitter. When you shop at Smart & Final through May 15, 2012 and purchase any two First Street products, a unique code will print on your receipt. You can then enter your code here for your chance to WIN one of these great prizes:
(1) One-year supply of First Street Pasta (based on a family of four)
(10) $100 Smart & Final SmartCash Card
(10) First Street Bag full of your favorite groceries (value over $50) plus a $50 Smart & Final Gift Card.

I am a member of the Collective Bias™ Social Fabric® Community. This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for Collective Bias™. #CBias #SocialFabric. All opinions expressed are my own.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mandarin Martini

After Cinco de Mayo this past weekend, are you all Margarita'd out? If so, I've got a new citrusy cocktail for you to try - a mandarin (orange) martini!

Like many of my original recipes, this was born out of a need to use up an overabundance of something I had on hand. You see, this year, one of our mandarin trees is on overdrive:

If you've always longed for citrus trees in your backyard, you might not think this is a problem. But really, how many mandarin oranges (aka clementines or tangerines) can a family of 2 eat - especially when they are so tiny and a pain to peel? Answer: not as many as this tree produces!

That's when an easy no-peel answer came to me: juice them. I'm not normally a big juice drinker, but put it in a cocktail and I'm there! And so was born the:

Mandarin Martini
(serves 2)

1/3 cup freshly squeezed mandarin orange juice (about 8 of our tiny fruits)
1 oz. triple sec
2 oz. vodka
2 oz. gin

Fill a shaker 1/2 way with ice. Add mandarin orange juice, triple sec, vodka & gin. Shake 5-6 times, pour into 2 chilled martini glasses and serve.