As we spiral away from Christmas and careen toward New Year’s, I am reminded of the long tradition of making resolutions. I am not a resolution man – too much guilt associated with the annual failure to live up to the promise. I prefer to set goals and plan projects, two methods I find I can quantify as half-done, almost done, completed, etc., and still see some progress, and maybe even some personal growth.
Of course, there are work projects to be done, a new quarter to start, some in-service meetings, orientation of new students and plenty of community projects involving childhood diets, regulating the food grid and good old academic outreach to the local schools. There are also some personal projects that will hopefully improve health or quality of life and create a better base from which to move forward.
Obviously, food is always a topic of conversation and conversion for me. As I age, I realize more and more that the foods I ate even last year will not be part of the diet of my future.
With two growing boys still at home, I tend to fix more protein-based meals that can get extremely repetitive. Try as I might, I can’t move my boys off chicken and starch, pasta with protein, and just enough fruits and vegetables to form a lopsided pyramid.
I have made some strides such as soups containing their beloved chicken and lots of vegetables, pot pies and dumplings with equal amounts of protein and vegetables with a yummy crust, and pastas that now come at least once a week with only vegetables.
Still the specter of fast food and convenience items haunts our house as our lives continue to be far too busy for much downtime and planning. So, I am spending these last few days of 2012 and the first few days of the New Year trying to contemplate a continued shift toward our next diet.
It will include animal proteins; they are part of the growth plan for two active boys. But it will also include more fruit, something at every meal. I’m finding a lot of citrus, some apple and a bit of banana spread out into salads, eaten as is or as the base for smoothies.
Vegetables will continue to fill soups, stews and pot pies. Root vegetables are acceptable roasted with chicken or pork, and in a major breakthrough I served green beans with a touch of bacon for Christmas dinner and they cleaned their plates.
Pasta continues to be both a blessing and a curse, a great filler for a busy night but a lot of carbs for an already carb-happy family. I’ve started to look at rice; both risotto and regular steamed or boiled rice. Grits with shrimp, quinoa tossed with other popular ingredients, and cous cous, which allows a certain latitude for how much protein and vegetable garnish I can put in.
On a rainy night recently, I found that the one-pot meal does the trick. I will make some chicken or beef Shepard’s pie. I have some leftover mashed potatoes, some organic protein, and I only need to make some veloute – a little organic chicken stock with some herbs and a roux. Add some chopped fresh vegetables (or frozen peas, corn and spinach) and let them simmer in the veloute. Cover the whole dish with the mashed potatoes and bake at 350 degrees until the top starts to brown. If you prefer the vegetarian version, substitute sautéed mushrooms for the protein. Serve with some fresh fruit and some whole-wheat bread and your meal is complete.
This prototype can be applied all winter long, and you can play with the fillers to change up the look and taste of essentially the same dish. When the pot pie/Shepard’s pie gets old, go for the soup (same basic premise without the veloute) or even a stew/chili.
Occasionally you can return to the conventional roast chicken, pork or beef with side vegetable and starch and the cycle is renewed.
Whichever path you choose, make sure that the ingredients are balanced and look for the opportunities to boost the nutritional value without screaming, “this dish is healthy.” The wheels will turn slowly, but at least they are going in the right direction.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.
Click here to read more from Chef John Foster.