Cookbook Review: Lighten Up, Y'all Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome

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To be honest, I lost interest in Southern cooking after watching Paula Deen drowning all of her dishes in butter. However, Lighten Up, Y'all by Virginia Willis caught my eye because of the premise it put forward--taking Southern comfort food and making it lighter, healthier, and completely guilt-free. I’m not sure about the guilt-free part but I definitely feel less guilt about the calories.

The author started off the book by sharing her weight struggle and reasons for taking Southern food in a new direction--lightening up favorite Southern recipes while keeping traditional flavors intact. She focused on making it a lifestyle choice rather than jumping into yet another diet. For each recipe, she included a note as to how she lightened up the recipe and the recipes are relatively simple for a home cook like myself.

We didn’t grow up eating a lot of Southern food but we definitely have a few favorites. There were some recipes that we would have liked to see in the book but didn’t such as chicken fried steak or fried chicken. The apple, raisin, and carrot slaw has become a regular lunch dish for me with the addition of grilled chicken. We have always made turkey meatloaf but her mushroom gravy made it even more delicious. There are so many recipes we look forward to trying such as the coffee braised pot roast, strawberry shortcakes, and stove top apple pie.

I really enjoyed reading Lighten Up Y’all and thought it delivered on its promise. My only gripe is the lack of pictures, especially for those who are not familiar with Southern cooking and would want to know what the final dish looks like. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves classic Southern dishes but want to eat healthier and more wholesome Southern food.

*Some of the dishes that I made from this book are posted on my instagram account if you're interested in how they turned out
*I received this book to review complementary of the publisher

Asian Braised Short Ribs

Saturday, February 21, 2015

When walking through the meat section at Whole Foods, I did a double take on the short ribs sitting in the window.  They were the best looking short ribs I have ever laid eye on!  They were rich, vibrant red with nice marbles.  I’ve been fooled so many times by the short ribs at Von’s and other grocery stores.  The meat looks nice and red but once you remove the packaging, the other side is gray with dried edges and sometimes funny smelling.  By funny smelling I mean foul smelling!  

At $9.99 per pound, it was a bit steep for me.  However, it’s not unusual to see that kind of price with the current cattle shortage.  The ongoing drought and high demand for beef have skyrocketed cattle prices in recent years.  So I stood there for a while, contemplating if I should get them.  Other customers came and left.  After 10 minutes of internal debate and nudging from Vu, I caved in.  My justification? We eat short ribs once a month.  Sometimes as long as once every two months.  So it was a TREAT!  I was ready to make our favorite short rib recipe!  Asian braised short ribs.  

The meat is seared and then slow cooked in a Dutch oven in a bath of spices, soy sauce, and rice wine until the meat becomes tender and falls off the bone.  Both Betsy and Vu were camping in the kitchen, tantalized by the lovely aroma of spices and developing broth. 

 After two long hours, we were able to enjoy the tender short ribs, falling easily at the pull of our fork.  Rice and steamed asparagus were our accompaniments.  Nothing fancy.  So simple yet satisfying!  This is definitely our favorite way of cooking short ribs.  I would love to hear about your favorite short ribs recipe.   

Asian Braised Short Ribs
3 lbs English-cut bone-in short ribs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
¼ cup soy sauce (Maggie or Kikkoman brand)
¼ cup hoisin sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand)
½ cup rice wine (Shaoxing brand)
½ cup brown sugar
3 cups of water
2 lemongrass stalks, tender bulb part crushed
1 stub of ginger, thumb size, crushed
2 cinnamon sticks
5 star anise   
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 green onions, white and pale green part, thinly sliced
cilantro leaves, chopped
cooked white or brown rice to serve
your favorite vegetables (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375˚F.
2. Place ginger, cinnamon sticks, and star anise on a baking tray and bake in the oven for 10 minutes.
3. In a mixing bowl, whisk together soy sauce, rice wine, hoisin sauce, brown sugar, and water until evenly combined. Set aside.
4. Season short ribs with salt and pepper.
5. Place a Dutch oven on the stove over medium-high heat and add oil.
6. Add garlic, lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise to the Dutch oven and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 5 minutes.  Remove everything and set aside.
7. Working in batches, add the short ribs and sear until all sides are browned.  Remove ribs to a plate and set aside.
8. Return garlic, lemongrass, ginger, and spices to the Dutch oven. 
9. Stir in combined sauce of soy sauce, rice wine, hoisin sauce, sugar, and water and bring to a boil. 
10. Return ribs to pan and bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes. 
11. Cover and transfer to oven to cook, turning occasionally, until meat pulls easily with your fork, about 2 hours.
12. Transfer the ribs to a platter and cover to keep warm.
13. For the glaze, remove 1 cup of braising liquid and skim off as much fat as possible from the surface.
14. Place the braising liquid in a sauce pan and cook on high heat until syrupy, about 15 minutes.
15. Divide the ribs among individual plates with rice, spoon the glaze over the ribs, garnish with green onion and cilantro.  Serve right away.

Note: this dish is best enjoyed the same day.  If you have leftover, make sure the ribs are covered in braising liquid otherwise they will dry out.

The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers

Monday, February 16, 2015

<a href="">The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />

I have gardened for two years and read a few gardening books and articles but never heard of the French Intensive Biodynamic gardening method until I read the Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden. All of the garden books I’ve read and instructions on the seed packets always recommended planting seeds in row with enough spacing thus requiring a lot of land and not ideal in an urban area. This book offers new ideas to maximize space and produce the most amount of vegetables, a minimum of 200 pounds of vegetables with a 25-square-foot bed (5x5 feet) or even with small containers.

The principles behind the postage stamp method include: start with an initial super-boosting postage stamp soil mix, plant vegetables very closely together to save space, reduce watering, and eliminating weeds, utilize crop stretching techniques such as intercropping, succession planting, and vertical planting to maximize space, to water deeply and regularly but infrequently, and to use organic methods such as companion planting to avoid using pesticides. This book lays everything out and goes into great detail about how to do things organically. However, it also gives you the easier alternatives (like buying store organic fertilizer) if you don’t have time to create the postage stamp soil.

I was really excited to apply those principles to our raised garden beds as we’re preparing them for spring. Following the author's directions, I made a list of vegetables we like and the number of plants for each vegetable per family member and put my plan on paper using their spacing recommendations. Next I’ll be shopping for seeds and amending the soil. I will have an updated post with the result of my garden beds in a few months.

This book is a good read for gardeners who wish to weed, water, and work a lot less yet produce so much more. My only gripe is it has only a few illustrations for different size garden beds. It really needs color photographs to bring everything together. However, this book seems to be well thought out and have tips and tricks for any gardeners. I would recommend this book to both new gardeners and experienced ones.

*I received this book to review complementary of the publisher

Vietnamese papaya salad with beef jerky

Saturday, February 14, 2015

As Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is approaching, I started thinking about the festival and all the food stands that we’ll be sampling from next weekend.  Every year, I would get the same dish--green papaya salad with shredded beef jerky  (goi du du voi kho bo).  

Papaya salad is a quintessential street food of Vietnam.  When you’re in Saigon, you’ll see plenty of street stalls serving a constant stream of motorbike customers and pedestrians looking for a quick refreshing snack.  No tables.  No chairs.  Just people at curbside munching on their plates of green papaya salad.  

There are three different versions--papaya salad with shrimp and pork, with dried beef liver, and with beef jerky.  Papaya salad with dried beef liver and beef jerky are the most common among street vendors.  

I was salivating just thinking about it and couldn't really wait for next weekend.  Luckily my mom was already at a Vietnamese supermarket so I asked her to pick up a green papaya.  Both versions of papaya salad with shrimp and pork and papaya salad with beef jerky are my favorite.  I was too impatient to cook anything and went with the latter.  I love the combination of crunch and a hint of heat in this salad.  My craving is satisfied for the moment. 

Green papaya salad with shredded beef jerky (Goi du du voi kho bo)

1 small green papaya (1-1.5 lb), peeled and seeded
3 tbsp salt and water (for cleaning papaya)
1 ½ cup of water
¼ cup of rice vinegar
¾ cup of shredded beef jerky
3 sprigs of Thai basil leaves, julienned
3 sprigs of Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), julienned


¼ cup of water
¼ cup of Hoisin sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp Sriracha sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 bird eye chili (optional)

1. Use a mandoline to julienne the papaya.
2. Fill a large mixing bowl with cold water and add 1 tbsp of salt.  Soak the papaya in water for 3 minutes.  Pour the papaya in a colander and squeeze out any excess water with your hand.  Repeat two more times.  (This step removes the bitter taste from papaya and keeps the texture crisp.)
3. In a large bowl, combine water and vinegar.  Mix well.  Add the papaya to the bowl and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
4. For the sauce, whisk together water, Hoisin sauce, soy sauce, Sriracha, and sugar.  
5. Add the salad onto a serving platter, add shredded beef jerky, and garnish with fresh herbs.
6. Drizzle the sauce onto the salad and mix well before eating.

Green machine smoothie

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Remember our green goodness juice that we shared a few weeks ago?  Well, we also have a green version for smoothie.  Vu’s sister made us smoothies every single day we stayed with her last month.  She made smoothies seem effortless and delicious.  Throw everything in a blender, fresh or frozen, and you have a healthy treat to start your morning, a delicious afternoon pick me upper, or easy dessert at the end of your busy work day.  

Aiden seemed to really enjoy the smoothies so we went back and forth about investing in yet another kitchen gadget.  With only eight teeth, he still prefers soupy meals, juices, and smoothies.  In the end, we decided on the Nutri Ninja Pro Blender over NutriBullet after reading numerous reviews and asking friends and family about their experience.   

Nowadays, we juice twice a week and make smoothies the other five days.  Juicing can be quite laborious and take up half of our morning.  With smoothies, we toss everything in the Ninja and in less than five minutes, we have a delicious treat.  We added the chia seeds for the boost in fiber, protein, calcium, antioxidants, and omega-3s (you can find more info here).  If you’re skeptical about putting greens in your smoothie, give it a try and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  

Green Machine Smoothie (yield 24 oz)
½ cup kale, chopped
½ cup spinach
1 cup fresh pineapple chunks (frozen is ok)
1 banana
1 small Hass avocado, pitted and peeled
2 tsps chia seeds
1 cup coconut water (you can also use soy milk, almond milk, or other nut milks)
a handful of ice cubes

1. Put all the ingredients in a high-speed blender and blend until smooth.
2. Add more ice or liquid as needed to get the consistency you like.

Note: this smoothie has about 450-550 calories