Category Archives: Whole Grains

Very Vegetable Fried Brown Rice

vegetable fried rice

Part of my responsibility as a food tour guide in Chicago’s Chinatown is educating my guests on the difference between authentic regional Chinese food like siu mai and xiaolongbao, and Americanized Chinese food like Kung Pao Chicken and Fortune Cookies.  Chef Tony Hu (chef-owner of six fabulous authentic Chinese restaurants and also nicknamed the “Mayor of Chinatown”) calls these inauthentic dishes “Western Classics,” which seems a perfectly apt name to me since these items have become classic American comfort food.

While I often play around and try to mimic dishes in my own kitchen that I’ve tasted in Chinatown–and have since come up with a mean version of Tony’s renowned Ma Po Tofu–lately I’ve ironically had a craving for one of the most plebeian, Americanized Chinese dishes out there: fried rice.

It seemed to me that with a little doctoring, this often-greasy restaurant staple could be a healthy, flavorful, whole-grain and vegetable entree and a great way to use up any kind of leftover grain.  I pumped up the vegetable-to-grain ratio, adding lots of extra carrots, celery and peas, and substituted leftover brown rice for the white.  I think fried egg is characteristic in a good fried rice, and it’s extra fun to watch it cook in seconds, swirled up in the pan with the vegetables.  For the flavoring, I used a mix of tamari, Sriracha, and concentrated shiitake broth.  That’s likely the one ingredient you don’t have already on hand to make this dish.  I think it adds an extra earthy, umami flavor that balances out the saltiness of the tamari, but definitely feel free to leave it out or create your own quick shiitake broth with some hot water and mushroom stems or dried mushrooms.  I added some chopped shiitakes to this as well, even though mushrooms aren’t traditional in fried rice.  Then again, the point of this post is that fried rice isn’t traditional at all, so I’m feeling pretty good about the addition.

Big thanks again to Tom Blakely for snapping photos of this fried rice in action.  And if you’re ever in the mood to join me in Chicago’s Chinatown, check out Chicago Food Planet for more details.

healthy vegetable fried rice

Very Vegetable Fried Rice
serves 4

2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 8oz package of shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
3 carrots, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
1 bunch scallions, sliced with the whites and greens separated
1 egg
2 – 3 cups cooked long grain brown rice (from 1 cup uncooked)
1 teaspoon concentrated shiitake broth (or oyster sauce or just leave out)
1 tablespoon tamari
1 teaspoon Sriracha or chili flake
2 tablespoons water
1 cup frozen peas

1. In a large pot, heat oil and saute garlic for 30 seconds. Add chopped shiitakes and saute until all their water is released, about 5 minutes. Then add carrots, celery, and scallion whites and saute 5 minutes more.

2. Crack an egg into the pot and stir until the egg is broken up and full cooked. Add the rice and stir to coat. Combine the shiitake broth, tamari, Sriracha, and water in a small bowl and then pour the mixture into the pot and stir to mix evenly. Add frozen peas. Cook a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is heated through. Taste and add more tamari or Sriracha if necessary. Finish with scallion greens and serve.  Makes great leftovers.

Golden Wild Rice Salad

Wild Rice Salad

Beets.  Nothing polarizes the sexes quite like them.  Well, maybe frozen yogurt, strip clubs, and perhaps inane declarations about the differences between men and women.  Nevertheless, lots of men I know think that beets taste like dirt, and many of the women I know like the fact that they taste like dirt.

But that’s where golden beets come in.  They have a slightly mellower, less “earthy” flavor than their red brethren and they are still packed with folate, potassium, and beta-carotene.  Also, you won’t have Lady Macbeth hands after handling the golden variety.  Roasting any beet enhances its natural sweetness; then after roasting, the skin easily slips off under running cold water and they can be sliced into bite-sized wedges.

The sweet, roasted golden beets are the star of this balanced wild rice salad.  To round it out, I added a mixture of wild and brown rice, black-eyed peas, pistachios, basil and an orange dressing.  Basically you could use this basic formula to construct your own sophisticated bean and grain salad out of whatever you have in your fridge: cooked grain + cooked (or canned/frozen) bean + veg + herb + nut + dressing.  I keep this general formula in mind when I’m making myself a salad to ensure that it will have enough protein and healthy fat to keep me full and enough flavor and variety of textures to keep me interested.  Inspired by an autumnal color palate, I chose the golden beets as a starting point and branched off from there.  The basil really brightens up the energy of this hearty salad, but another fresh green herb like tarragon, parsley or even baby spinach leaves would work just fine.  This warm salad doesn’t need much of a dressing–just a squeeze of orange and a pat of butter.

Golden Wild Rice Salad
Serves 4

1/2 cup wild rice
1/2 cup brown basmati rice
8 small golden beets
1 1/2 cups of frozen black eyed peas (or canned, rinsed)
1/2 cup pistachios, toasted
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
juice from 2 oranges
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
black pepper

1. Wrap whole beets in foil together and place on a sheet tray. Roast in the oven at 375 degrees for 1 hour, or until they are fork tender. Let cool for a few minutes, then run under cold water and rub off the skin with your fingers.  Slice into wedges and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, bring 1 1/4 cup of water up to a boil, add wild rice and brown rice and reduce to a simmer and cover until all the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Defrost black-eyed peas in hot water and drain. Combine warm rice, black-eyed peas, beets, pistachios, butter, orange and lemon juice, basil and salt and pepper.  Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if necessary.

Zucchini Mac and Cheese

zucchini mac and cheese cooking light

Last week, I flew to New York to cook on stage for Cooking Light magazine’s Supper Club, a dinner gala at the Time Life building.  The magazine named me their “Healthy Cook of the Year” last October at the Taste of Atlanta based on original recipes, a cooking video I submitted, and a live cook-off.  My two original recipes were Afghani-Style Squash with Curried Kale and Apples and a pasta-free version of Macaroni and Cheese.  Can you guess which one was more popular?

If your eyes blurred out most of the words in that last paragraph and homed in on “mac and cheese,” you’d be like many people I’ve talked to who are eager to find a lighter version of this favorite comfort food.  (And like the judges at the Taste of Atlanta who awarded me $10,000 for the recipe!)  So this year, Cooking Light invited me to the Supper Club dinner to share my Zucchini Mac and Cheese–nicknamed “Mac-less Mac and Cheese” by Cooking Light Chef Allison Fishman–with about 200 guests.  Each guest got to sample the recipe during the hors d’oeurves part of the evening.  As the sit-down dinner began, the energetic and entertaining Executive Chef Billy Strynkowski invited me on stage to demo my recipe to the world’s most encouraging dinner party guests.  The whole evening benefited breast cancer research via Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  A great evening and a great cause and also a pretty nifty gift bag.  With my new Vera Bradley reusable shopping bag, I’ll now be the trendiest person in the Whole Foods parking lot the next time I get hit by a car there.  (Yes, that happened.)

This recipe is broken out into a number of steps, but the premise is fairly simple.  Instead of boiling pasta, slice zucchini into matchsticks and saute them for two minutes.  Then add to your cheese sauce.  Really any mild vegetable could work (I call these “canvas vegetables” because they take on the flavor of whatever you add them too); eggplant, summer squash, spaghetti squash–my good friend Elizabeth over at Brooklyn Supper created a version with parsnips after I taunted her with samples of mine at the office!

I jazzed up this basic idea by including roasted tomatoes for sweetness and color–I mean, come on people, I was trying to win a contest, here–but feel free to simplify and leave them out.  While I definitely use real cheese in the recipe, I balance out the ooey-gooeyiness of gruyere with strong flavors like sharp cheddar and Parmesan.  This means I have to use less cheese overall for the same strong cheesy flavor of other cheese sauces.  Each serving has only about 1.5 ounces of cheese total (generally equivalent to a 1-inch cube of cheese).

My favorite part of this recipe is the puffed amaranth topping.  I avoid cooking with processed ingredients like white pasta and bread crumbs, so I wanted to come up with a crunchy topping that was wholesome.  I took inspiration from one of my culinary school instructors who rolled chocolate truffles in puffed amaranth!  Amaranth is a South American whole grain similar to quinoa; it’s tiny and high in protein and when placed over dry heat, it puffs up with air like popcorn.  Amaranth is like the Kourtney to quinoa’s Kim Kardashian–tinier, now getting more press on its own, and, in this case, somewhat of an airhead.  The puffed topping is entirely optional, but I think it’s a neat way to incorporate a true whole grain into this dish and it’s really fun to make!

Here’s the recipe you’ve all been waiting for: My 10 G’s Mac and Cheese.  I got distracted at the dinner and forgot to take a close-up photo of the finished recipe, so please accept this photo of me with a novelty check from last year’s competition in its place.

Cooking Light Alia Dalal

Zucchini Mac and Cheese with Puffed Amaranth Topping
Makes 6 one-cup servings

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup amaranth
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3 medium zucchini, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch disks, then sliced into matchsticks or batons–basically cut the zucchini into the approximate size of macaroni
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoons grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

For the cheese sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of low-fat or nonfat milk
6 ounces of gruyere cheese
2 ounces of sharp white cheddar
pinch of grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

special equipment: one-cup gratin dishes or oven-safe ramekins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Take halved grape tomatoes, toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and pinch of salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet and roast in oven at 400 degress for 20 minutes. Let cool.

3. Preheat Broiler.

4. Meanwhile, to make the puffed amaranth topping, heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and put 1 tablespoon of amaranth in the pot and cover with a lid. The amaranth will begin to pop like popcorn. Swirl the pot around to evenly distribute the heat. When the popping begins to slow, after about 30 seconds, pour out onto a plate to cool. Removing amaranth before its finished popping prevents it from burning. Repeat 1 tablespoon at a time until all the amaranth is puffed. Set aside.

5. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter for the cheese sauce in a large pot and stir in the 2 tablespoons of flour. Stir over low heat for 2 minutes, then add 3/4 cup of milk, stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps. Add grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and sauce will begin to thicken.

6. While the sauce is thickening, heat a large skillet with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add garlic and red pepper flake and saute for 30 seconds. Turn up heat to medium-high at add the zucchini batons and saute for 2 minutes. The zucchini should still be firm and retain it’s shape.

7. Turn off heat on cheese sauce and stir in shredded gruyere and cheddar. When the cheese is incorporated, stir in the roasted tomatoes, sauteed zucchini and chives. Divide the mixture evenly into the 6 gratin dishes.

8. Mix 2 tablespoons of melted butter with the puffed amaranth and top each gratin dish with the mixture. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of Parmesan on each dish and place under the broiler until the cheese melts and the topping crisps, about 2 – 5 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Danielle Seltzer at Cooking Light (top) and John Cordero (bottom).

Nutella Oatmeal with Dried Cherries


Many people vividly remember their first encounter with Nutella, the decadent Italian spread of chocolate, hazelnuts and deliciousness.  My situation was different in that rather than being the Special Treat That Changed Everything, Nutella was actually one of about three foods that I would eat until the age of 12 (the other two being chocolate pudding cups and bread).  Determined to make my sister and I into independent young women, my mother insisted that we pack our own lunches for school beginning in the first grade.  So as you can imagine, my daily lunch consisted of a Nutella sandwich and a chocolate pudding cup.  While this meant that I was the most popular six-year-old at the lunchtable, it also meant that my blood, muscles and most of my major body organs were composed predominantly of chocolate.

While my tastes have certainly since expanded beyond those three foods, there is still a special place in my belly for Nutella.  However, especially after looking at the listed ingredients (I don’t recommend it), Nutella seems better suited to a supporting role in the daily diet.  Here, I’ve paired half a serving size of Nutella with hearty rolled oats, Omega-3-packed flax seeds, and tart dried cherries, to add a little luxury to what can be a humdrum morning meal.  If you are just getting used to “health foods” like whole grains and flax seeds, think of this dab of Nutella as the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help you start eating the good-for-you stuff.  Sugar, coincidentally, is the number one ingredient in Nutella.

I added a teaspoon of cocoa powder to bump of the chocolatey taste, without adding the additional sweetness and calories that would be in extra scoops of  Nutella.  Oatmeal is an inherently customizable dish, so make this according to your tastes–more Nutella, less cocoa powder, no oatmeal, etc.  You can even garnish with sliced almonds or chopped hazelnuts in addition to the cherries for a little crunch.  I always give flax seeds a buzz in my spice grinder before using them because your body assimilates the nutrients better when the seeds are ground; however, if you don’t have a spice grinder, you can leave them whole.

Nutella Oatmeal with Dried Cherries
Serves 1

1/2 cup rolled oats
1 1/4 cups water
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon flax seeds, preferably ground in a spice grinder (can be left whole)
1 tablespoon Nutella
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons of dried cherries

1. Place 1/2 cup of rolled oats a small pot with 1 1/4 cups of cold water and the pinch of salt. Bring up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oats are fully cooked and most of the water is absorbed. There will be a little excess liquid for the flax seeds and cherries to absorb.

2. Stir in the ground or whole flax seeds, Nutella, cocoa powder and dried cherries. Let stand for 1 minute to thicken before eating.  Garnish with additional cherries if desired.

Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice

I grew up eating lots of rice at home.  We ate so much of it that I was convinced it was a vegetable for most of my youth.  (Don’t waste your time trying to figure out the logic there.)  Rice was synonymous with white basmati rice, a long, fragrant grain from India that my mom would cook with a good with a pinch of floral saffron or wrapped in tendrils of dried dill.

While I still look to white rice when I’m trying to create an elegant meal for a special occasion, brown rice is one of my everyday go-to foods.  Since brown rice has both the bran and germ intact, it has more nutrients, protein and healthy fats present.  Out of all the grains, it’s the highest in energy-giving B vitamins, and also contains significant amounts of vitamin E, manganese and selenium.

The key to cooking brown rice is to work with its idiosyncrasies rather than against them.  Brown rice is chewier and heartier than white rice, so I try to cook it with strong, toasty flavors like cumin, cinnamon and clove that complement its texture.  Compared to sticky short-grain rice, basmati grains are longer, crunchier and more separated.  After toasting the spices in the oil to release their flavor, I also toast the rice to accentuate its individual grains and keep them separate.

This rice is spicy and flavorful and is a great accompaniment to an Indian meal.  Try it with dal or tandoori chicken with a side of Sauteed Broccoli with Cumin and Mustard Seeds.  Its flavors are versatile enough to accompany an American or Middle Eastern-style meal as well.

A warm bowl of brown rice also makes a great, hearty breakfast on its own.  It’s really not so different from a breakfast of commercial dry cereal or oatmeal, except that the whole grains are intact and no additional sweetener is required.

Toasty Cinnamon Brown Basmati Rice
Serves 4

1 cup brown basmati rice
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
5 green cardamom pods
1 3/4 cups of water
pinch of salt

1. In a mesh strainer, rinse the brown basmati rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.

2. In a medium pot with a lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and gently stir until they start to sizzle and pop, about 30 – 60 seconds. Then add the cinnamon stick, cloves and green cardamom pods, stirring gently for about 30 seconds. Add the drained rice, stirring occasionally until the water has evaporated from the grains. Pour in the water and the pinch of salt and bring the pot up to a boil. Once it has reached a boil, turn the heat down so the water is only simmering and cover with the lid. The rice will need to cook for about 30 – 45 minutes. When all the water is absorbed, turn off the heat and let the rice sit and steam for 10 minutes. This well help soften the grains.  Remove cloves, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods before serving.  Or just warn your guests.

Warm Spring Green Salad Over Polenta

If trying to eat seasonal food throughout the winter has left you with a mad case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and your eye twitches every time you hear the word “apple,” this Springtime salad might be just the antidote that you and your facial tic have been looking for.  This vibrant entree combines three harbingers of Spring–fresh fava beans, asparagus and baby artichokes–into a balanced and satisfying meal.  Each of the three green ingredients is cooked in a different way, so the warm salad has a variety of textures and flavors; it’s garlicky, minty, crunchy, bright, sweet, and creamy, all at the same time.  It might seem like a lot of work to prep each of the ingredients, but it goes quite quickly.  When you are done, you have an entire meal put together and you’ve mastered some seemingly daunting vegetables.  Good for you.

While I love eating artichokes in restaurants, I’d actually never prepared them at home because I wasn’t entirely sure, even after culinary school, which parts were the edible parts.  But it turns out they are pretty easy to work with, and baby artichokes are actually less work than their parents  to trim because there is no ominous “choke” to remove.  You just peel off the outer leaves in a he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not fashion and cut off the top and the woody stem.  You can find photos showing each step of the process online here.

Cooking fresh fava beans is also ridiculously simple, but requires two steps.  First open the pods using any means necessary and pop out the beans, much like you would for edamame. Then after boiling the beans for a couple of minutes, the thin skin around them will be loosened, and you’ll be able to slip it off with your fingers.  Think chickpeas.  In addition to the protein and fiber that all legumes have, favas are rich in folate, copper, manganese, potassium and other trace minerals. Changing up your diet and incorporating new plants into it is the best way to make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs.

If you notice a significant upgrade in the quality of photos today, you can thank my friend and professional photographer Tom Blakely.  He stopped by for lunch the other day and we made a little trade: food for photos.  Not a bad deal, eh?

Warm Spring Green Salad over Polenta
Serves 2

For the Salad:
1 pound fresh fava beans, in their pods
8 baby artichokes
1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends trimmed off
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon of salt
juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 scallions, thinly sliced with white parts separated from green parts
6 mint leaves, chopped or torn

For the Polenta:
2 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of coarse-grind cornmeal, sometimes labeled “polenta” or “grits”
1 pat of butter

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Bring a medium sized pot of salted water up to a boil.  In the meantime, take the fava bean pods and remove the beans inside, using your fingers. Discard the pods.  Add the beans to the boiling water.  Remove after 3 minutes, leaving the water boiling on the stove.  Run the beans under cold water to cool down and then remove their skins by squeezing on one end of the bean. Set the beans aside.

3. Place the trimmed asparagus in an even layer on a sheet tray.  Drizzle it with olive oil and salt and place in the oven for 20 minutes.  The asparagus should still be green with some brown crust and it will be tender, not hard or mushy.  Let the asparagus cool for a minute, then slice it into roughly 2-inch pieces.

4. While the asparagus is roasting, you can trim and steam the artichokes.  Remove enough water from the boiling pot of water to set a steamer basket inside. (If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can use a strainer or pour out the water until only a half-inch remains and set the artichokes directly in that.)  Peel off the green leaves of the baby artichokes until a more tender yellow leaf emerges.  Then trim off the stem and cut off the top 1/3 of the artichokes. Cut these pieces in half, vertically.  Place the artichokes in the steamer basket, generously salt them and cover for 15 minutes. You’ll know the artichoke hearts are done when they are fork-tender.

5. Once the asparagus, favas and artichokes are all ready, start the polenta.  Bring 2 cups of water up to a boil in a medium pot and slowly whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Whisk constantly for about 30 seconds and then every minute or so for about 5 minutes.  The polenta will have a thick oatmeal consistency.  Add the pat of butter and stir it in.  The polenta can sit with the heat turned off while you finish the warm vegetables.

6. Finally, in a large skillet, heat up the olive oil and saute the garlic, white parts of the scallions and red pepper flake for 30 seconds.  Then add the cooked artichokes, favas and asparagus, salt and saute for about a minute to let the flavors combine.  Immediately before removing from the heat, add the lemon juice, sliced green parts of the scallion, and the mint.

7. To plate, ladle the polenta into a bowl or plate, then top with the green sauteed vegetables.  Garnish with more mint or scallions if desired.

Coconut Date Granola Bars


Born out of the days of free love and food coops, granola bars are, in a way, a quintessential health food for the modern era.  The concept is simple: mix some whole grain goodness with nuts and dried fruit and smoosh it all together in a portable little package.  However, commercial granola bars are often loaded with sugar and additives, making them a far cry from the guitar-playing, unshaven, sticky oat squares we expect.  And when all you have to do it combine a few pantry ingredients and toss them in the oven, why not make your own?

For these coconut date granola bars, I use a combination of two natural sweeteners: honey and barley malt.  Barley malt is an ultra-sticky syrup made from (duh) barley that’s predominantly maltose, giving it a distinct malty/Whopper flavor. While there is debate about how different sugars affect health and particularly blood sugar, I think the main reason for using them over refined sugars is that they get your body accustomed to a “less sweet” sweet, and, in these bars, the gentle sweetness allows you taste the almonds, coconut and spices.  Don’t worry if you don’t have barley malt; just use the equivalent amount of honey.  Packed with protein from the nuts, fiber from the oats and dates, and good-for-you Omega 3 fats from the flax seeds and wheat germ, this is an elegant update that will boost your energy while satisfying your sweet tooth.

These granola bars make great gifts, particularly for friends who like to work out.  You’ll soon be just as popular as your baker friends.

Coconut Date Granola Bars
yield: 16 bars

1 cup blanched almonds, chopped (or any other nut)
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons barley malt (or same amount extra honey if you don’t have barley malt)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt
1 cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and edges of a 9×12 baking dish.

2. On a large sheet pan toss together the chopped almonds, oats, dried coconut and wheat germ. Toast in oven, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.  The mixture should be slightly golden and fragrant. Remove from the oven and place in a large  bowl and add the flax seeds.

3. In a small pot, heat the honey, barley malt, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla extract, butter and salt. Let the mixture come to a boil, turn off the heat, and pour it into the bowl with the oat mixture.  Add the chopped dates, breaking apart any clumps, and stir to combine.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish and form a smooth, even layer, using a moistened spatula or your fingers. Make sure the mixture is packed down, then bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Remove and let cool for several hours before slicing into bars or squares.  Wrap individually in plastic wrap to keep your homemade granola bars fresh all week.