How to Cook Healthy at Home 5 Nights a Week

Peruvian chicken soup: healthy, quick, and made from leftover tacos.
Most nights, I cook dinner at home. For a full-time career woman living in New York City, that's rare. New Yorkers tend to dine out frequently, work late, and order a lot of take-out. I'm always astonished how often they eat out, whenever I ask my friends and co-workers.

One time, I asked a friend if she cooked at home much, and she said no, not really.

"But why? You're a really good cook!"

"I don't always have time."

"Who needs time? You just throw something together!"

"Maybe for you," she said, "but I need to use recipes still."

What? Who uses recipes to cook on an average day? Certainly not me.

The secret to cooking at home most nights is to keep it really simple. It helps to have a good market nearby where you can pick up a piece of fish or a fresh baguette on the way home, but it's entirely possible to do a load of grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday and have food for the week.

Stock up on foods that you love that go into multiple meals, and the rest really does come naturally over time with practice. For example, we always have tortillas in the house, and very often avocados. As a result, there are three or four staple meals we eat that use avocados or tortillas. Simple as that.

I wanted to show a real world example of what we ate for dinner five nights in a row to show you how simple weeknight meals at home can be. This list came from a meal-planning note I had on my smartphone from October last year (so you know I'm not making it up):

Monday: Chorizo Meatball Tacos 
Taco fixings, such as queso blanco and avocados, easily

turn into a healthy and quick second-day meal as soup.
Ground pork with spices cooked in 8 minutes in a pan, plus cilantro, chopped onions, sour cream, and a side of chips and pico de gallo (tomatoes, cilantro, onions tossed in a bowl with salt and lime juice)

Tuesday: Soup
(I honestly don't know what kind of soup we had, but I probably took some vegetables and sautéed them in a pot with olive oil and then added some broth or stock. Serve with a baguette.)

Wednesday: Leftovers 
Chorizo meatballs go into the leftover soup -- done. We might add fruit, or cheese and crackers, or a salad to a dinner like this one.

Thursday: Chicken Caesar Salad
Romaine topped with grated Romano cheese, anchovies, and croutons made with two-day old leftover baguette; lemon juice and olive oil on top. Again, we might supplement this with fruit or maybe a side of olives.

Friday: Grilled Cheese
Grilled cheese and probably a side salad, knowing me.

Other easy staples in the summer time include things like smoked salmon tartines (you take some smoked salmon from the fridge, you toast a piece of bread to make an open-faced sandwich, and you layer on anything else that you have on hand that you like: tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, jalapeños, red onion, etc.).

We eat tacos in some form at least once a week. Usually we use fish or shrimp. Shrimp are great to have on hand because you can buy a two-pound bag of frozen shrimp, and a handful of them can thaw out in about ten minutes in cold water.

We used to keep chicken or pork sausages on hand because they made for another quick and simple dinner, but we've cut back because 1) they're not really that healthy and 2) we can't find good quality sausages that we like in our current neighborhood.

Why Do Some People Bring Out the Mean in Us?

The sentiment that "you can never go home again" seems completely false to me.

Especially in my early college years and early 20s, my friends and I all suffered a horrible regression any time we went back home. All the feelings and relationships that were in place during the time we last lived at home bubble to the surface. You might be 24, but the moment you stepped back into your mother's house, you acted like you were 17 again.

None of it was pleasant. Going back to the emotions and demeanor of a 16 or 17-year old felt awful. It always brought out the mean in me. Not "the worst in me," but the mean in me.

"Family always know how to push our buttons," my friend said to me the other day.

"Yeah," and replied, "And they don't know how to push any other buttons."

Thankfully, I don't regress nearly as much as I used to when I'm around my family now. It happens sometimes, but it's much easier to recognize and check back into place. When I was 20, it was impossible. It just happened, and I couldn't even see it until I had hindsight, like after a six-hour plane ride home.

It happens less with family now, but occasionally I have moments of hindsight with some of my friends when I realize two people had brought out the mean in each other.

Sometimes one friend instigates with another. Other times, a group dynamic will take shape to bring out the mean in every body. Boyfriend and I used to hit these moments in front of our friends when we were mean-spirited bickering, and we'd joke that we were like George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Then one day I realized that it rarely happened when we were alone. It was much more likely to happen when we were around certain people -- because they brought it out of us. How does this happen? And why?

Sometimes I think it's all part of a deep psychological power play. If you can get the other people in the room fighting and acting like jerks, you're clearly in control. Other times I think it's insecurity. Perhaps people who bring out the mean in others feel socially inferior, and so they level the playing field a bit by getting friends and family around them to come down a notch.

The keys to warding off people who bring out the mean in me are 1) awareness and 2) practice. And these two pieces necessarily have to work together. Boyfriend has helped me with the awareness part, and my family has certainly given me a lot of opportunities to practice, but there are still moments when someone manages to get me and bring out my mean.





Recipe: Hummus

Photo from PaintedParsley.blogspot.com.
Once you make your own hummus at home, you'll never want to buy the pre-packaged store-bought stuff every again. It's simple, quick, cheap, and doesn't even take that much effort to clean up the mess.

Here’s my recipe.

Hummus
2 cups chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), boiled, and skins removed
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon or more tahini (sesame paste)
2 cloves of garlic
salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
olive oil 
Garnish: 6-12 whole chickpeas, paprika, olive oil 
If using dried chickpeas, just make sure to thoroughly cook them first. You can speed up the cooking time by soaking them overnight in cold water. Remove the skins after cooking by simply putting them in fresh water and rubbing the beans between your fingertips. They'll slide off and float the top. If the skins are still on, it's not a big deal, as the recipe will still turn out just fine.

In a food processor, grind down the chickpeas, lemon juice, and tahini until it starts to turn into a chunky paste. If you don't like the taste of raw garlic (I'm not a fan of it), you can slice or chop the garlic first and sautee it lightly in a small pan with olive oil. Otherwise, rough chop it and add it to the food processor, along with a pinch of salt, and the paprika and cayenne pepper. Blend it again, and then with the motor running, add a few tablespoons of water, then olive oil until you get the consistency you want. (To reduce the fat and calories, just use more water and less olive oil.)

Serve room temperature or slightly warm, and garnish with a few whole chickpeas, a dusting of paprika, and a good glug of olive oil.

This recipe is entirely flexible. You can add any other ingredients and flavorings that you like, such as roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, more garlic, more lemon, lemon zest, olives, parsley, even almonds. Hummus keeps in the refrigerator more than a week.

5 Healthy Office Lunches That Aren't Salad

I eat a lot of salad, especially for lunch when I'm at work. Salad is one of those foods that lack definition, so I feel like I can always change it up and it's never boring. Today I'll add cheese. Tomorrow? Lentils. And it is with a very heavy heart that I recognize a lot of people hate salad. The stereotype that salads are unsatisfying and not filling enough just kills me.

But I get it. And everyone should have some inventive ideas for healthy alternatives for brow-bag lunches to bring to work. Here are a few of my favorites that travel well, are easy to eat, don't make a mess, and still manage to be extremely healthy.
  1. Egg and jalapeño sandwich. Americans notoriously overlook eggs as a lunch option. This sandwich is Boyfriend's go-to weekday meal. Every Sunday, he hard-cooks (i.e., "boils" although you'll have much better quality hard-cooked eggs if you simmer them instead; see how to cook a hard-boiled egg) a couple of eggs, which he slices and puts onto seven-grain bread with mayonnaise, fresh baby spinach, and sliced jalapeños. If you can't take the heat, leave off the jalapeños, but know that capcaisin packs plenty of health benefits from having anti-inflammatory properties to delivering a huge punch of vitamin C. Eggs last a few days, so you can make a stack of three sandwiches on Monday and have lunch for more than half the week ready to go in the fridge.
  2. Smoked salmon sandwich. Similar to the above egg sandwich, smoked salmon sandwiches travel well, keep for a few days, taste delicious, and are loaded with good-for-you proteins, fats, and more. I like mine with sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and avocado, which I keep in a second container so the bread stays dry until lunch time. A few sprigs of dill can elevate this sandwich to a much classier level.
  3. Roasted vegetable platter with feta. If you're roasting up some vegetables for dinner, throw in some extra eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgettes), summer squash, onions, fennel, green beans, whatever you like. Pack up the leftovers into a plastic container, toss in a hunk of feta cheese and maybe a slice of bread, or leftover grains if you added rice, pearl barley, bulgur, or some other grain to your dinner. Make sure to let the vegetables cool before you pack them so that they don't sweat and drip off excess liquid, which can cause a mess when transporting the lunch. Roasted vegetables also taste lovely on top of a bed of greens (unless, of course, you are really turned off by salad).
  4. Hummus pocket. Grab a pita -- and while I prefer pocketless pita, there's a time and place for pocket pita, and it's here and now. Pop it open and spread a tablespoon or two of hummus, preferably homemade hummus (it's really easy to make) inside. Add other fillings as you like, such as sliced turkey, cucumbers or pickles, tomatoes, hard-cooked egg slices, avocado (see how I keep coming back to a couple of staples?), or roasted red peppers, which is one of my favorites. Pack a side dish of olives or almonds on if you need extra calories and fat to keep you full.
  5. Frittata or quiche. Here's another way to cook eggs so that they last three or so lunches: make a frittata. If you're handy with your baking skills, you could do a full-on quiche. Or keep it simple and whip together a Spanish tortilla. Use five or six eggs, and you'll have two or three lunches. For add-ins, try mushrooms, bacon or diced bacon, sauteed scallions, mixed herbs (parsley, basil, thyme), cheese, or a combination of those.



How to Cook a Hard-Boiled Egg (Hint: Don't Boil It)

My mother cooked eggs the way most Baby Boomer generation mothers did. She heated a pot of water, dropped in a couple of eggs with a thunk, and boiled the shit out of them.

 Mom, I love you, but your hard-cooked eggs suck.

 When protein reaches 170°F, it begins to toughen. When you drop cold eggs into rapidly boiling water and leave them for for 12 minutes, you'll get rubbery whites. You'll also get cracked shells and seeping goo because the small amount of air that's trapped inside the shell doesn't have time to ease out through the tiny pores in the shell, like it does when the temperature rises slowly. The air expands at a slower rate and it can escape. That's why you sometimes see little streams of bubbles emitting from gently simmering eggs. When the air expands too quickly, on the other hand, the shells pop from the force.

Boiling eggs also creates that stinky bluish-gray ring around the egg yolk.

When you hard-cook eggs gently, you're much less likely to see, taste, or smell this sulfur. I learned one method of cooking hard-cooked eggs in the shell at The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York, but I have long used another method that works just as well.

1. ICE method of hard-cooking eggs: Place cold eggs in a pot with enough cold water to cover them by three inches, plus a splash of vinegar. Turn on the flame, leave the pot uncovered, and the moment it reaches a boil, close the fire. Cover the pot and let the eggs steep for 8 to 12 minutes. When they're done gently shake the pot until the shells crack a little, then transfer the eggs to a bowl of cold water. When cool, shell them.

 2. Jill E Duffy method of hard-cooking eggs: Place cold eggs in a pot with enough cold water to cover them. Turn the heat on medium, and cover the pot, but only if you have a clear lid. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat so that the water is just above a simmer, and cook the eggs exactly three minutes—two-and-a-half if you're nervous. Immediately transfer the eggs to an ice bath. When cool, tap them on the counter all over to break the shells, then set them back in the ice water before trying to peel them.

Cholado, An Alternative to Ice Cream


My neighborhood has a sizable population from Central America, particularly Colombia, which is why we have cholados in the summer.

Cholado is a cup of crushed ice, layered with fresh diced mixed fruits such as banana and pineapple, smothered in saucy fruit juices, all drenched in sweetened condensed milk and shredded coconut.

It comes with both a slurpee straw (the kind with a shovel cut-out on the end) and a long dessert spoon.



I got this one in my neighborhood, Sunnyside, in Queens at a little Colombian juice shop/restaurant on Greenpoint Avenue (between 44th and 45th Streets). It doesn't really have a name. It has a green awning that says, "comida colombiana coffee and sandwiches." That's it.

This cholado ($6) was huge, and generously topped with fruit: bananas, pineapple, strawberry, pineapple, coconut, a single cherry, and cantaloupe melon (the only weak link).


'Here, Eat This, But Sorry It's Not Good': Why We Apologize in Advance

We've all experienced it. A friend or family member seats you at the kitchen table, serves you some magnificent homemade soup or slice of cake, and before you even take the first bite, apologizes for it.

"I messed up the icing. It wasn't supposed to be so drippy."

"There's way too much salt in that, just so you know."

"I meant for the carrots to be crunchy, but I cooked them too long. Sorry."

Why do we call attention to our mistakes? Most of the time, the people eating wouldn't have noticed, or maybe they notice momentarily but immediately forget because the whole experience of being served food and spending time with the cook takes up more attention.

I think we call attention to our mistakes as if to acknowledge this one hard-to-swallow fact: I know I could have done better.

Of course, it doesn't just happen in the kitchen.

For two or three days, I've been feeling horrible about all the writing I've done this week. The ideas are mediocre. The writing isn't engaging. None of it's funny. It's dull, and any time a writer worries that maybe her writing is dull, it means she's really thinking, "maybe I'm dull."

I know I can do better. Two days ago, I waltzed into my boss' office because he wanted to talk about a piece I'd written, and I tried to beat him to the punch:

"Listen, I wrote this because you said you wanted something on Google Maps, so I got something on the page, but it's definitely not my best writing, and if we can hold off running it for a day or two, I feel like maybe tomorrow I'll have more ideas for making it better. I'm bushed right now. The article kind of sucks."

He's very mild mannered and calm, so he said, "Yeah. We'll hold it until Monday. Revise it tomorrow if you want."

I think we apologize because we're worried others will criticize us, silently or openly, for things we already know are wrong.

If I judge myself harshly first, I am protecting myself against your judgement. 

Sometimes, though, the acknowledgement of not doing as well as one could have is almost like an invitation for others to judge you, and I think that's really a subversive act of self-hate. "I'm acknowledging that the muffins didn't rise enough to give you permission to also acknowledge that it went wrong. It won't hurt me. I already know." And yet, it usually still stings.

Kathryn Schultz, speaking about regret says people have a tendency to see things they regret as being much uglier than they really are. Guests at my table might not even notice my gluey mashed potatoes, but to me, they are a painful example of something I did wrong and know I could have done better. I regret not doing better.

What's needed to alleviate situations of painful regret and acknowledgments of not fulfilling one's true potential is kindness from both sides, kindness from the person who is self-judging and kindness from everyone who witnesses the regret.

Be kind and forgiving of yourself first, and other will be kind (or not even notice your mistakes), too.