Thanksgiving Game Changer

There has been a lot of talk around town lately about Thanksgiving side dishes (#embracethegrape).

All of that conversation is moot because we all know that next to the turkey the best thing is the sweet potatoes.

However, for too long we have held to the tradition that our sweet potatoes must be covered with a solid layer of marshmallows.

The recipe dates back to 1917 when Janet McKenzie Hill, the founder of the Boston Cooking-School Magazine, added the fluffy sugar bombs.

But let’s go for something more modern this year that’s healthier and utilizes a lot more natural ingredients.

Thanks to local Minnesota food company wholeme, I have the answer – Toasted Almond Coconut Sweet Potatoes.

The beauty of it is that the easy version of the recipe involves just two store bought products: Trader Joe’s Roasted Mashed Sweet Potatoes and wholeme’s Almond Coconut Clusters:

Trader Joe’s Roasted Mashed Sweet Potatoes contain only Covington sweet potatoes; while the Almond Coconut Clusters from Wholeme contain almonds, coconut, honey, pepitas, sunflower seeds, coconut, almond extract and salt.

That’s it. Those are all the ingredients in the dish. It’s grain free, gluten free, dairy free and Paleo. Plus, the recipe (courtesy of Wholeme) is super simple and takes about 30-minutes from prep to finish:

  • Place 2 bags of the roasted mashed sweet potatoes in microwave safe dish and thaw for 6 minutes.
  • Place sweet potatoes in 13×9 glass dish and sprinkle 1 entire bag of Almond Coconut Clusters on top, spreading evenly.
  • Bake in oven for 20 minutes at 380F.
  • Remove from oven and let cool.

I made the dish over the weekend and had some friends join me in the taste test. All three of us agreed it was delicious and started having daydreams of just eating it straight out of the Pyrex while watching the Garfield holiday special on TV.

It’s a warm and comforting dish that gets an extra kick of flavor from the coconut and some crunch from the almonds.

I anticipated the dish would be so good that I stocked up on extra bags of the sweet potatoes and almond coconut clusters. The cost of the dish is $12 in total and yields 6-8 servings.

As an alternative, you could make it a bit more homemade by using raw sweet potatoes. You would just put them in a large pot and cover with cold water.

Bring to boil, and cook about 15 minutes. Then remove from heat and mash until smooth. From there just follow the rest of the recipe steps listed above.

Try it this year as it’s the perfect side for a healthier, happier Thanksgiving or Sunday supper. Enjoy!

My Lunchbox

Over the last year or so, I have made a conscious effort to bring lunch to work. This daily habit helps me save money and eat healthier.

For better or for worse, in the months of August and September I got into a rut of not preparing anything ahead of time and just going to the cafeteria in my office building to get a wrap, which while accompanied by fresh veggies also usually led to the purchase of a cookie to round things off. (Shh, don’t tell my coach.)

It was embarrassing to look at my credit card bill and see how many line items were charges at Isabella’s Cafe. And it was all money that could have been better well spent.

After a week out of the office on a business trip to Texas that was spent eating at Panera everyday, I decided that starting Monday, September 30th I was going to follow a simple rule: bring lunch everyday to work unless someone else buys it for you.

Today marked the start of week three and I have happily brought lunch into the office 9 of the past 11 work days and on the other two work picked up the tab.

So what does my lunch consist of? Well I prefer a simple cold lunch that is easy to put together in the morning and doesn’t require microwaves or a big production when I am in the office.

I still haven’t got out of the mindset from grade school that lunch is a sandwich and some snacks.

Twenty years later, I find myself bringing a lunch box to work again, though not as cool as the ones I had as a kid.

And since I try to keep Paleo, the white bread and bologna has been cast aside. In its place are baby carrots, celery sticks, almonds, plantain chips and some main source of protein.

The last two weeks I have bought a package of chicken drumsticks as my protein. Here’s the simple recipe I follow to bake them:

  • Pre-heat the oven to 400° F.
  • Toss the drumsticks in a bowl with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary.
  • Arrange them in a lightly greased baking pan.
  • Cook for 30 minutes at 400° F and then turn the drumsticks over and cook for another 30 minutes at 400° F.

They come out perfectly cooked and they have turned out to be really delicious when served cold.

They could definitely be more elaborately prepared but I need to do more research into recipes for a sauce to marinate them in. Or perhaps there is some form of Paleo breadcrumbs?

My lunch box also contains a banana or apple as snack for later in the day. I am also on the hunt for additional ideas of what to pack as I was recently advised to ditch the protein bars in favor of more natural sources of protein.

This week I am bringing hard-boiled eggs but welcome recommendations.

The Incredible Edible Egg

What is better than a fried egg? Or a scramble with sausage, bell pepper and smoked gouda? Or a poached egg on a bed of mixed greens?

I could go on and on about the awesomeness that is the egg like Bubba does with shrimp. It is amazingly versatile and packed full of protein. Like the late 1970s ad said, it truly is “The Incredible, Edible Egg”.

And so this week I have turned to the egg to replace the Clif Builder’s protein bar in my lunch box. While the bar has 20 grams of protein, it also has 20 grams of sugar.

It is far from being evil but my coach Peter is right in pointing out that there are much better ways to consume the same amount of protein everyday.

So I made a small supply of hard-boiled eggs this past Sunday night to bring to work. They take a bit more time and effort to prepare but two eggs deliver 12 grams of protein and only 1.2 grams of sugar.

Rather than boiling them, I tried baking them in the oven, which is a technique advocated by Alton Brown of Food Network fame and clearly explained on Family Fresh Meals. Here is the recipe:

  • Pre-heat the oven to 325º Fahrenheit.
  • Place eggs in a muffin tin to prevent them from rolling around and easily clean-up in case one breaks.
  • Cook the eggs in the oven for 30 minutes at 325º.
  • After 30 minutes, remove them from the oven and immediately submerge them in cold water for 10 minutes.

The eggs come out pretty much perfect. You may find there are one or two little brown spots but they don’t affect the taste at all.

The eggs are also really easy to peel. If you are going to store them, dry off the eggs and keep them in their shells. They will stay good for a few days in your refrigerator. Pretty incredible, right?

Sweet Sweet Potato Hash

A few days into my official training for Freeze Fest and I am hungrier than ever. On Monday night, I cooked myself a pork chop and wolfed it down.

A few minutes later I went into the fridge and found a leftover chicken cutlet and ate that too. These were both accompanied by applesauce and a pile of baby spinach.

Tonight, I turned to my beloved sweet potato for some extra goodness on my plate. I had long heard from my Paleo-loving friends the virtuous nature of the sweet potato. Not only is it delicious but also highly nutritious.

Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium and magnesium. Further, one serving of sweet potatoes supplies 6.6 grams of fiber.

Compared to a white potato, they have less carbs, less calories and a lower glycemic index.

It wasn’t until my friend Maureen cooked me dinner back in April that I became addicted. She had oven roasted the sweet potatoes with olive oil and cinnamon and they were amazing.

I soon went out and bought myself a baking pan and put sweet potatoes on heavy rotation on my weekly home menu.

But rather than roast them last night, I decided to try a new recipe that turned out to be simple and a quick alternative to patiently waiting and drooling in front of the oven.

I made sweet potato hash, based on a recipe that I found at Nom Nom Paleo.

Here was my version:

  1. Wash and cut up 1-2 sweet potatoes. Julienne using a mandolin slicer.
  2. Season the shredded sweet potatoes in a bowl with black ground pepper, sea salt, garlic powder, onion powder and dry herbs.
  3. Heat up some olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat on your stove top.
  4. Throw in the sweet potatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes, tossing it gently with tongs. Then cover the frying pan and cook for another 3 minutes so that some pieces are crisp and brown and the majority is tender.

The results were awesome! The seasoning mix elevates the sweet potato without totally hiding its natural deliciousness. It will probably take a few more rounds to figure out the perfect blend but for now it totally made my meal. I ate the hash with some leftover oven-roasted chicken drumsticks, but it is shouting to be had with some fried eggs so that the runny yolk just serves as a first-class dressing to the hash.

Now I am smiling and totally fueled up and ready to get back on the bar tomorrow.

Going Strict Paleo

The combination of the holidays (i.e. Christmas cookies, stuffing, cake, bagels, etc.) and my impending CrossFit competition in February has led me to the decision that starting tomorrow, January 1st, I am going to go strict Paleo until February 8th.

So what does this mean? It means I will be following the precepts of Paleo that say I can eat meat, fish, seafood, fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and and healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed).

It also means that I will be cutting out dairy, cereal grains, refined sugars and processed foods from my diet.

In addition, I will be abstaining from alcohol. (There are debates about whether red wine, tequila and potato vodka are allowed, but I think it is easier to avoid controversy and just go without.)

So why? Others can provide a much better explanation and guide to the Paleo diet than me, such as Robb Wolff and NerdFitness.

But as I enter into my final weeks of training, I want to make sure that I focus on eating healthy and nutritious foods.

Since I started this 16-week training process, I am hungrier than ever and too often reward myself for a hard workout with comfort foods. But those foods are not the type that will properly fuel my body.

I truly believe that eating clean will help me feel better physically and mentally and “bring out the best in myself” in the coming weeks.

The point is not to be a flagellant and punish myself for bad eating habits. Instead this is a great opportunity to create really good eating habits in the new year, with a stronger emphasis than ever before on preparing my own meals for lunch and dinner and adding more fruits and vegetables to my daily intake.

For those of you still trying to get a grasp on what’s allowed and what’s not, here is a quick visual overview to help explain the Paleo diet:

I am making one personal exception to the rules (and please excuse the semantics as I don’t want to make the Paleo diet sound like a game or some type of prison sentence) and that is that I will continue to consume whey protein.

As much as it would be ideal to replace the whey with real sources of protein, like meat and vegetables, it for now is a necessary element in making sure I consume enough grams of protein each day. (Until I can eat five dozen eggs evr’y morning like Gaston, I’ll stick to my protein shakes.)

If you have any experience going strict Paleo, please share in the comments below. What worked? What didn’t?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be providing some resources that I find useful, such as food blogs and cookbooks, and will keep you updated on how it’s all going.

As for tonight, this New Year’s Eve, I’ll enjoy some champagne and prepare myself to welcome the 2014 with a better approach to eating.