Mac 'n' Cheese reborn!

WOW! Now that is definitely what I've been missing since I started this diet almost a year ago!

And what, you ask, elicits such a strong reaction from me? This evening I just found a way to make mac 'n' cheese in a way that almost perfectly emulates the mac 'n' cheese I grew up on as a kid. (For comparison, I've put the old and new recipes below.) If you want to talk about my favorite food from childhood, the ultimate comfort food when I feel homesick, or sad, or lonely, or just in need of some good Minnesotan flavor - this was always the recipe I turned to. And it is awful for you! Seriously. I've included the comparison of nutrition information for both recipes below as well - but picture this: velveeta+cream of chicken soup+milk (usually 1-2%)+elbow macaroni. Boom. So delicious and so terribly bad for you!

But I digress. The real point here is that I have found a way to reconnect with tastes I associate with childhood in a way that is both within the diet restrictions and is a LOT healthier than the stuff I actually used to eat. I call this a huge success! This has also been one of my original goals since I started this crazy diet of doom: to find a way to create my family's mac 'n' cheese using ingredients I could eat - because I absolutely refused to believe that I'd have to say goodbye to it forever. Yay for this new recipe then! I proved myself right - HA! [The fact that this recipe makes a mountain of mac 'n' cheese is also a rather wonderful thing - seriously, I could eat this twice a day for a week and a half easily!]

So, without further ado, I give you my new Mac 'n' Cheese recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Pseudo-Vegan Mac 'n' Cheese with Chicken
[Really, I should just call it non-dairy mac 'n' cheese because it's obviously not vegan, but it's so much funnier to say it's pseudo-vegan. (It is now possible that the vegan gods will strike me down in a fit of rage...)]

This recipe is modified from the original shown here. (I tried the original recipe first - and hated it. Maybe I'm just not a savory mac 'n' cheese person - but the garlic and the paprika overpowered and made it taste horrible!)

1 1/2 lbs whole wheat pasta, cooked (I prefer fusilli or rotini, gives it a nice texture)
1 1/2 cups plain soy milk
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups nutritional yeast*
1 Tbsp sea salt
3/4 block firm tofu
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp vegan margarine
3/4 Tbsp sugar or to taste (i.e. not quite the full Tbsp, but if you're a stickler for exact measurements, that's equivalent to 2 1/4 tsp, FYI)
1-1 1/2 tsp basil to taste
1 cup cooked, shredded chicken**

*Note: nutritional yeast does not equal yeast for bread dough and such. It's in the vitamins/nutritional supplements section, not the baking aisle.
**Instructions for making your own shredded chicken (during the process of making chicken soup) are here.

Preheat oven to 350 deg F.
1. Blend soy milk, chicken broth, and tofu together. Use a high setting - you want it thoroughly mixed. [I highly recommend cutting the tofu into smaller chunks before putting into the blender.]
2. Add nutritional yeast, salt, oil, margarine. Blend well.
3. Add sugar and basil, blend. Taste the sauce - add more sugar or basil until it tastes good. The sauce should be very runny - not to worry, it'll thicken in the oven.
[Note: the first time you use nutritional yeast, well, it takes a little getting used to, so the sauce may taste "off" to you. Don't add too much sugar or basil, though. If you're unsure what "tastes good," go with my amounts first, and then adjust the next time you make it.]
4. Pour pasta into a 13x9 baking dish - use something that will hold 5 quarts or more! [Mine's a 5-qt metal cake pan] Add chicken and stir around (careful that the pasta doesn't fly out of the pan!) until evenly distributed.
5. Pour sauce evenly over pasta & chicken. Make sure you don't miss the edges and corners of the pasta - you want the whole surface completely covered with sauce.
6. Bake for 15-25 minutes, until top pasta is a little crispy and the sauce has thickened. (Careful not to leave it in until the pasta gets crunchy - no one wants crunchy mac 'n' cheese!)
7. Pause to marvel at just how much mac 'n' cheese you just made - and then serve and eat!

Seriously! Look at the huge amount of mac 'n' cheese you will be faced with when it comes out of the oven!

- I recommend serving with freshly steamed green beans. You could, of course, choose anything you like, but the green beans taste so good with the mac 'n' cheese!
- This saves well in Tupperware in the fridge for about 2 weeks - if you're like me and cook just for yourself. It also freezes well.
- When heating up in the microwave, I suggest putting it in a bowl with a few drops of water, and covering the bowl. I generally put it in for about 1.5-2 minutes. Then stir when it comes out - the water and cover will make sure the microwave doesn't try out the mac 'n' cheese during reheating.

[For comparison, here's my family's old recipe for mac 'n' cheese. Below are some the nutritional breakdowns for each recipe.]

Nina's Family's Mac 'n' Cheese

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
1/4 lb. Velveeta cheese, cubed (~1/2-in cubes)
1/4 cup milk, more if needed (we always used 1%)
1 can cream of chicken soup

1. Cook and drain pasta. Pour back into pan over low heat.
2. Add Velveeta a little at a time, stir until fully melted. [This is a good way to build arm muscles... no joke!]
3. Add milk and soup, stir until thoroughly mixed and heated through. If not creamy enough, add more milk.
4. Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts were calculated using the SparkPeople.com Recipe Calculator for my best attempt at approximating of how much each recipe makes - 25 servings of the Pseudo-Vegan recipe, and 8 servings of my family's recipe.

Nutrition Facts: Pseudo-Vegan Mac 'n' Cheese with Chicken
Based on 25 servings
Calories: 172.1
Total Fat: 3.9 g
Saturated Fat: 1.2 g
[This comes from the chicken mainly.]
Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.8 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 0.7 g
Cholesterol: 6.6 mg
[Again, from the chicken.]
Sodium: 309.7 mg
Potassium: 215.9 mg
Total Carbohydrate: 21.9 g
Dietary Fiber: 5.1 g
Sugars: 1.0 g
Protein: 12.8 g

Nutrition Facts: Nina's Family's Mac 'n' Cheese
Based on 8 servings
Calories: 229.4
Total Fat: 6.0 g
Saturated Fat: 2.4 g
[This comes from the Velveeta mainly.]
Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.4 g
Monounsaturated Fat: 0.8 g
Cholesterol: 13.4 mg
[Probably coming from both the soup and the Velveeta.]
Sodium: 458.1 mg
Potassium: 30.1 mg
Total Carbohydrate: 36.6 g
Dietary Fiber: 1.5 g
Sugars: 2.3 g
Protein: 9.0 g

[Yeah, I'll let that all speak for itself...]


A second look some favorite chicken recipes

I've become quite the chicken lover now that I'm learning more and more about how to cook it and cook with it. [From reading my nutrition book from the class I'm taking, this likely means I should branch out and start learning to cook other meats as well, for the variety element of a healthy diet, but that's food for a different post.]

Two chicken recipes in particular have caught my fancy - and I generally cook them up about every 2-3 weeks. So, this post is really just my stories of two favorite recipes... enjoy!

Baked Chicken with Apples
Mmm, looks good enough to eat!

I love this recipe. In "IM terminology," you could say I definitely "heart" (<3) this recipe. [Heh, too bad this isn't gmail so that the keystrokes I put in parentheses would turn into a red heart...]

When I get a craving for chicken - this is often what I'll pull out of the recipe box. It's so easy, and so good! I made it most recently for dinner one of the nights when I was out visiting Chris over Valentine's Day weekend. (He was a big fan... when given the choice of leftovers between this and the other dinner I'd made - meatballs - he was all over keeping the chicken.) It was fun making it with someone else, actually; I guess I'd never realized how fun it is to cook with/for another person. We had a little trouble with the honey he had at his house when making the marinade: it was very crystallized. And I learned this dish is better baked in a glass dish than a metal pan - because the charred crust from the marinade+chicken juices mixed with the salt, pepper, and cinnamon I put on top of the chicken made for quite a difficult mess to wash later. But all-in-all, this is a hugely successful dish that has become a classic in my recipe box. Here's the recipe again, for your viewing pleasure:

1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 cups apple juice [go with the good foggy stuff, none of that transparent juice!]
1/4 cup honey [I used pure MN honey from our property neighbor in Southern MN - you will likely not have access to this stuff, but I do suggest pure honey over processed honey - tastes so much better]
2-3 chicken breasts, cut in half width-wise
~2 medium apples, peeled, sliced and soaked in cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves until saturated [these were the canned slices I mentioned above]
spray cooking oil

Preheat oven to 375.
1. Mix together apple juice, honey, and cinnamon until honey has dissolved completely in apple juice (this is not heated).
2. Place chicken breast halves in mixture and marinade for about 1-1.5 hours. Turn at least once during that time period.
3. Once chicken has marinated, place in glass baking dish that has been lightly sprayed with cooking oil. Spread apple slices atop the chicken pieces.
4. Bake for 45 minutes, and check. If the temperature of the chicken is at or above 165 deg F, it's done. If not, back in the oven for another 10-15. The original recipe calls for baking for about an hour, but that was just a tad bit to much for me. Also, the top-most apples should have a little bit of a singed look, so if they still look mushy, I'd put it back in for a little longer.
5. When chicken has 15 minutes left to bake, pour marinade into a saucepan over medium heat and reduce until it's about half the volume of what it originally was. Use this as a sauce to top the chicken and apples when ready to serve.

What a cute little pyramid of chicken, apple, and cinnamon-y goodness!

Chicken Noodle Soup
Can I just say: YUM!

So, the first time I made this, I was sick, and I needed sick-comfort-food. Nowadays, though, I just crave chicken noodle soup. It's so much better when made from scratch! And the whole apartment smells of chicken broth all day long (hours and hours after I've made it, seriously!) It's becoming quite the little tradition for me. Every month or so, I'll get the craving. So, I head off to Whole Foods, get a 4-4.5 lb chicken, have the wonderful Meat Counter Guys cut it up for me, then bring it home, de-skin it, and boil it for 1.5 hours. (And then, obviously, do the rest of the stuff necessary to make that into chicken noodle soup.) Such an enjoyable way to spend a lazy Saturday morning, or a cozy Sunday afternoon. Big shout out to Better Homes & Gardens' cookbook for giving me this recipe!

One thing I've found, as I make this recipe again and again, there is way too much shredded chicken in a 4-4.5 lb chicken for one batch of chicken noodle soup. WAY too much! So, this time I only used about 2/3-3/4 of the shredded chicken in my soup (basically until I felt like I had a good balance of chicken with the veggies and noodles already cooked in the chicken broth). The rest I'll be using in other recipes. (I put some warmed up shredded chicken atop a baked potato last Saturday, actually, with a nice helping of brown sugar on the potato as well. Yum!)

The crazy huge pile of shredded chicken from my 4.5-lb bird...the picture doesn't quite do it justice, though - it looks like a lot more in real life!

The last time I made this recipe, I'd run out of batteries for my camera, so this time around you get the picture (above) AND the recipe - all in one convenient location! [Wow, do I sound like a TV-ad right now...]


1 3.5-4 lb chicken, cut up into pieces, with as much of the skin and fat pulled off of the pieces as possible
8 cups water
~1 Tbsp dried onion flakes
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 cup chopped carrot
1 cup frozen peas
1.5 cup dried egg noodles (I got the thin egg noodle nests - because they're fun! If you go this route, use 1.5-2 of them)
2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley

1. In a 6- to 8-quart soup pot or Dutch oven, combine chicken, water, onion flakes, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for about 1.5 hours, or until chicken is tender.
2. Remove chicken from broth. When cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones. Discard bones, and any left-over skin. Meat should be tender enough to pull apart with your hands - so break it up into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Discard bay leaf & skim fat off top of broth.
3. Bring broth to boiling. Stir in carrots and peas and simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes. Stir in noodles and simmer, covered, for another 5 minutes or until noodles are tender but still firm. Stir in 2/3-3/4 of the shredded chicken pieces and the parsley; heat through.

- Skimming the fat off the top of the broth is easiest if you let the broth cool a bit first. That way, the fat will all gather itself together into a nice little film that's easy to skim off the top.
- The parsley is of course optional, but fresh parsley has a very strong smell, which was somehow even more soothing to my stuffy nose. That, and it brings out the flavors in the soup so well! I tried using dried parsley flakes one time because I'd neglected to get myself some fresh parsley. Yeah - big mistake. Use the fresh stuff!
- The original recipe called for 1/2 cup chopped onion - I used a small amount of onion flakes just to get the flavoring called for, but not enough to mess with my system. And the original recipe also calls for 1 cup chopped celery instead of frozen peas, but since I can't eat celery, I went for the peas. I think it was a solid choice - I recommend it.


Best Muffins Ever? Quite possibly...

I have become a very big fan of vegan recipes - especially for baking. Vegans don't use milk at all, which is the biggest draw for me, obviously. But, they also don't use eggs, so I've learned a lot about egg alternatives - and hey, no eggs in the batter means I can lick the bowl worry-free!

Recently, I discovered a fabulous muffin recipe that I just can't seem to get enough of. By the name, you'd think that it wouldn't taste all that good (the word "Healthy" appears in the name of the recipe - which is usually a red flag that it'll taste like cardboard). But these muffins are tasty, moist, and delicious. [And that's not just me saying that - every time I bring them to work, my coworkers ooh and aah over them. And when I made them for breakfast a couple weeks ago, Chris chowed down AND stole most of them for his trip back home. Hah!]

So, I'm not really going to keep you in suspense any longer... they're so good, they really speak for themselves, so more words from me is just noise. Hope you enjoy them!

Healthy Apple Oat Wheat Muffins

[Note: I only made a slight change in the spice ratios from the original recipe; the rest is exactly the same. Check out the original recipe here.]

1 cup rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour [pastry flour is best, apparently, but I don't have any, and regular whole wheat flour has worked fine for me]
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 Tbsp cinnamon
1/4 Tbsp nutmeg [yeah, approximate this, I don't have a 1/4 Tbsp measuring spoon either]
1/4 tsp ginger
1/3 cup suger
1/2 banana, mashed [or use 1/2 an egg yolk+all of the egg white if you don't have a banana]
1/3 cup applesauce or apple puree
3/4 cup soy milk (plain)
1 large baking apple

Preheat oven to 350 deg F.

1. Peel and dice apple, set aside. [For this recipe, I've found I like to thinly slice the apple and then cut the slices into small chunks - so you basically get flatter versions of the cubes you'd get by dicing the apple.]
2. Thoroughly mix dry ingredients (oats, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sugar).
3. Mix banana, applesauce, soy milk.
3.5 - Before you add wet to dry, lightly grease a muffin tin or two (depending on how many muffins you want). I use spray canola oil with flour in it.
4. Add wet to dry, and mix just until batter is moist throughout. Toss in apples (quickly!) and stir just until evenly distributed.
[Note: at this point, the batter should already be starting to expand - no joke! It's freaking awesome! - so that's why I say not to over stir/mix and to add and stir in the apples quickly. Overworking the batter at this stage will deflate your muffins]
5. Batter should be rising, very fluffy, and wet. Scoop into greased muffin tin. [I generally make 12 - which means basically filling each muffin cup - but try not to keep adding little bits to each cup - it makes the muffins deflate a little each time you do.]
6. Bake for 15 minutes, or until toothpick to the center of the muffins comes out clean.
7. Cool a minute or two in the muffin cups, then pop muffins out to cool on a cooling rack.

Enjoy them!


Cookies! My first real experimental success

So, my new thing lately has been experimenting with recipes and switching things up a little bit so that I make something a little different, a little new, and edible given my own dietary constraints. But this time, I went farther than that. I took a vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe, and using that as a base, changed things up to make an entirely new cookie with very different flavors and a lot less fat.

It's gone through many different iterations - taste comparisons, texture flops and successes, and many different sets of taste buds. (Chris was here a couple weekends ago and got subjected to 3 different versions of this experiment - I don't think he minded, though.)

Originally, I thought it'd be interesting to add a little pear puree to the recipe I'd found online - but that ended up making the cookie dough too runny because I didn't have the right balance of wet to dry ingredients. So, in the next batch, I decided to cut out the oil and replace it all with pear puree. [The original recipe calls for 1/2 a cup of oil for about 20-25 cookies - ack!] That batch was too thick, so they came out of the oven a little too hard, since they cooked faster. Okay. So the next batch I made, I figured I'd add a little more water...and added too much! So I cut that with a little extra flour to compensate, but by that point I'd stirred the batter way too much and so this batch came out of the oven way too doughy and cakey. Not my favorite cookie texture (though they're eggless and milkless, so it doesn't particularly matter if they're fully baked).

My next idea was to go half-and-half with oil and pear puree, cutting the fat in half instead of out altogether. Those turned out fantastically. I brought those to a dance - and they disappeared very quickly. (Chris liked those the best also, out of the last 3 iterations.)

Okay, cool. A success. But I really wanted to cut out all of the oil! So, last night, I made two batches, so I could compare head to head: 1 with the half-oil-half-pear-puree, and one with no oil. And I was mostly pleased with the results. The half-and-half one turned out beautifully again. The all pear puree ones are still a little to chewy/cakey for my liking, but still are delicious. I'll be working on ways to get the non-oil ones to a better consistency in future trials.

But for now, I'll leave you with the recipe and a few pictures for good measure. Enjoy!

Pear Cranberry Cookies

Really important: all ingredients must be at room temperature!

2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup dried cranberries
1 cup turbinado (raw sugar - the smaller granules if you can find them)
1/4 cup pear puree (Asian pears are the best, but I think a mix of Asian and Bosc might be kinda tasty)
1/4 cup vegetable oil (if you want to work with the fat-free kind, cut this out and use 1/2 cup pear puree instead)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup water

*Note: refer to an earlier post on fruit puree for a good tutorial video on how to make it

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

1. Place cookie tins atop the oven while you preheat to warm the sheets up before you use them.
2. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon together. Add cranberries and mix until cranberries are completely coated. Make a well in the center.
3. In a smaller bowl, combine sugar, pear puree, and oil. Mix well. Add vanilla, then water. Mix well.
4. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredient well. Mix well, but don't overwork it. Spoon smalls chunks of cookie dough onto prewarmed, ungreased cookie sheets. [I like mine small - you get more out of them, and they really don't spread out much while baking, so you're essentially deciding on the size when you spoon the dough onto the cookie sheets.] By my sizing, I generally get 25-30 cookies in a batch.
5. Bake 5 min. Rotate top cookie sheet 180 deg, and put on bottom shelf. Rotate bottom cookie sheet 180 deg, and put on top shelf. Bake another 4 min.
6. After this, check them. If they're a little softer than you want them, then they're done (they'll harden a little as they cool). If they're still too gooey, stick them back in the oven at 2-min intervals until they're fully baked to your liking.

[Note: You will notice there are no eggs in this recipe. Meaning you can chow down on this cookie dough as much as you like and the only thing you're in danger of is a tummy-ache from too much sugar (well, that and a huge sugar rush). Score!]

Nutrition Facts

I've put the 1/4 cup oil version first, then the non-fat version in parentheses afterward.
(for a 25-cookie recipe, this the breakdown for one cookie)

Calories: 97.3 (79.1)
Total Fat: 2.4 g (.2 g)
Saturated Fat: 1.6 g (0 g)
Polyunsaturated Fat: .1 g (.1 g)
Monounsaturated Fat: 0 g (0 g)
Cholesterol: 0 mg (0 mg)
Sodium: 89 mg (89.1 mg)
Potassium: 42.3 mg (44.1 mg)
Total Carbohydrate: 18.5 g (18.7 g)
Dietary Fiber: .6 g (.6 g)
Sugars: 2.4 g (2.6 g)
Protein: 1 g (1.1 g)