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Cleaning Eating Challenge Week

We’ve been into clean eating for a while now. For the most part it has meant trying to eat healthier, less-processed food as much as possible, but we cheat all the time. We’re pretty big wine drinkers, so we still indulge in a few glasses a week and my sweet tooth means we’re eating dessert (and refined sugar) more often than we should. That’s why this week we’ve challenged ourselves to truly eat clean for 5 whole days. We’re getting all of our recipes out of Clean Eating Magazine and will be reviewing each one as we go along. Here’s our menu:

Breakfast (all week): Breakfast Pita

Morning snack (all week): 1 Kashi granola bar and 1 kiwi

Afternoon snack (all week): Mediterranean Crackers

Lunch (all week): Leftovers of the previous night’s dinner

Monday Dinner: Rotini with Peas, Carrots and Goat Cheese and Wilted Spinach & Arugula Salad

Tuesday Dinner: Buffalo Chicken with Buttermilk Feta Sauce and Spicy Escarole

Wednesday Dinner: Curry Bison Biryani with Broccoli Spears

Thursday Dinner: Butternut Squash Risotto

Friday Dinner: Vanilla-scented Scallops with Quinoa Creamed Corn

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The Ultimate Goal

KaiA few weeks back, we were at the farmers’ market with our friends, Gareth and Karina, and their son Kai. As we perused the stalls, Gareth came up to Karina and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I got Kai a treat.” He then held up a bag of cherry tomatoes. I was so impressed. That’s exactly where I want to be with Zayden in the not-too-distant future. If I can raise a child who finds fresh vegetables as appealing or more appealing than French fries or candy bars, then I can call myself a success when it comes to laying the groundwork for lifelong healthy eating. So far Zayden’s favourite foods are shrimp, berries and bananas, so I think we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

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Photographing Tonight’s Dinner

We’ve had quite a few compliments (thank you!) on our photographs, and some questions about how we photograph our dishes.  I’ll go through our process at a high level, and then give some technical details later for those who care.  Our main goal was to portray our food accurately, and have a process that was quick and easy, so as to not interfere with dinner.  Any equipment we used had to be compact and ready to go with minimal setup.

Lighting Setup

I use one camera flash which is mounted on a light stand, off the camera.  I trigger it using a cheap radiowave trigger.  This setup enables more control over where shadows and highlights fall, and creates a better sense of depth than if the light were coming from the direction of the camera.  I have the flash shooting through a white translucent umbrella, which turns the small flash into a large, soft light source.  This minimizes bright reflections and softens shadows, making the food look more attractive.

By way of example, the first photo below  is from an early post, and is lit just from our dining room chandelier.  The bottom photo was taken with the setup described above.  As you can see, the photo on top has an unflattering yellow colour cast, uneven lighting over the food, and not much contrast.  Nothing really pops or stands out, and the food definitely does not look as good as it tasted.  In contrast, the following photo is bright, has no colour cast, and the vegetables and shrimp colours really pop.  This is the difference a small, simple lighting setup can make.  Sure, you can fix the colour cast and contrast in your favorite photo editor, but poor lighting cannot be made to look like good lighting in Photoshop.  Plus, that’s more time on the computer and less time eating dinner with your family.

Before

After

From a technical perspective, there are a few things that make this so easy.  First, we cut the majority of the ambient light by using a fast (1/125 sec) shutter speed.  This means we’re only lighting the food with 1 light source, which means no competing colour casts from the tungsten bulbs in your kitchen lights.  We use a fairly stopped down aperture to ensure the majority of the dish is in focus.  I’m working around ISO400-640, but can go to 800 or 1000 now since Lightroom 3′s noise reduction is so good.  I’d rather have more depth of field and some noise that’s easily minimized than out-of-focus food.  From this trio of settings we then balance the flash power to get a good exposure.  Since we’re working on our own time and with a subject that isn’t moving of its own accord, we can afford a longer recycle time, giving us the luxury of using higher flash power (I’m usually working at 1/4 or 1/2 on an SB-80DX).

It usually takes 1 or 2 shots to get the lighting and exposure right, and then maybe another 1 or 2 to get a composition we like.  A lot of food photographers like to backlight their food and then use reflectors to fill in the shadows facing the camera, but we don’t have time for that, so I generally sidelight as shown in the setup photo above and take the hit of not having great separation between the food and the “scenery” behind it.

That’s about it!  We’re usually quite conservative with our photography, as we’d rather have the food speak for itself than some edgy lighting trick or overprocessed photos.  Plus we want predictable results that we can publish with our blog posts as soon as they’re ready.

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Strawberry Season

StrawberriesOne of the things easing my transition at the end of rhubarb season is the beginning of berry season, which is being ushered in by a rather delicious crop of strawberries and raspberries. Strawberries are my all-time favourite fruit, and are a great addition to many recipes, but their real beauty lies in their ability to stand on their own. One of my favourite summer desserts is a simple bowl of fresh, sliced strawberries. They are also a great addition to breakfast cereal or fruit salad. In fact, Zayden’s first taste of strawberries was in his fruit salad this morning (a mix of finely diced strawberries, banana, nectarine and kiwi). He must take after his mother because he loved them.

If you can’t be bothered to get up early on a weekend and head to the farmers’ market, make an exception for fresh local strawberries next weekend. You won’t regret it. And get there early. The berries are always the first to go.

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Site Evolution

Pouring a quicheWhen we first started this blog, we wanted to share recipes with family and friends and maybe a few random people out in the blogosphere. But over the past few months, our goals for this site have evolved, mostly due to questions and suggestions from the very people this blog was designed to inspire. We realized that if we truly wanted to encourage people to cook from scratch more often, we needed to share more than just recipes. Now you will be able to find reviews of helpful kitchen tools, sample menus and (hopefully) everything else you will need to start feeling more confident in the kitchen.

We also wanted to share some of our cooking-related passions, like eating clean and eating local. That’s why we’ve started posting about our trips to the farmers’ market and some of our favourite local businesses and restaurants. And sometimes we might just share a personal story or two about the successes and challenges we face as we strive to meet these goals.

Basically, we realize that our blog is evolving into a place where you can find a recipe to help you throw together tonight’s dinner as well as a place to learn something new about healthy cooking and healthy eating. That being said, we’re still holding on to hope of our own cooking show. Or at least a deal for our own cookbook series.

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What Is Clean Eating?

PepperWe’ve made reference to clean eating a lot in our posts, and it’s left a number of our friends asking us exactly what it is, so I thought I would take a moment to explain the concept to the best of my abilities. But first, one caveat, I am no expert in clean eating. If you Google clean eating, you’ll find many people who ascribe to the philosophy, but not all of them agree on exactly what it entails. What I am going to share is based on the basic philosophy as I understand it and the goals that Justin and I have set for ourselves.

Core Philosophy: Eat food that is in its most natural state or as close to it as possible. While many use a clean eating approach to dieting, it is not a diet. The goal of clean eating is to change the way you prepare and eat your food; it’s a lifestyle change, not a temporary fad diet to drop 10 pounds. Here’s how you do it:

1. Eat 5-6 times a day: You should be eating three meals plus 2-3 small snacks. Meals should be a balanced combination of lean protein, fresh fruit or veggies and complex carbs. Snacks should be healthy and fresh, not junk food. To achieve this goal, we plan our snacks as well as our meals each week, so that we’re not tempted to grab a granola bar or stop at a drive thru just because it’s easier or we have nothing better on hand.Raspberries

2. Drink water: To be more specific, drink water instead of other beverages–even juice. Pop, juice and alcohol are all full of empty calories. While it’s okay to have a beer or a soda on occasion, it should be a treat, not a daily staple of your diet. Because many clean eaters are also into protecting the environment, it is also preferable to drink your water from a reusable bottle or glass rather than from a disposable plastic bottle. If you don’t like drinking straight from the tap, use a Brita filter (or similar) rather than drinking bottled water.

3. Avoid overly processed and refined foods: The goal is to eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible, so where you can, buy fresh food. If a fresh option isn’t available, read the labels. Choose products with the fewest ingredients possible and avoid those that contain 2 or more ingredients that you can’t identify or pronounce. Compare the labels of similar products and choose the one that has the lowest sodium, sugar and saturated and trans fat levels. Where you can, try to buy processed foods (e.g. bread) that is made locally rather than something that is mass-produced and available in every grocery store in the country–it will be fresher and will contain fewer preservatives. Plus you get the good feeling that comes from supporting a small business.

Peas4. Shop with a conscience: Eat produce that is seasonal and local whenever possible because it’s less taxing on the environment. The added bonus is that locally harvested food is picked at its peak ripeness and tastes far better than the stuff available in supermarkets, which may have traveled from overseas to get to your table and was likely picked before it had fully ripened or was frozen on the journey to maintain its “freshness.” Your local farmers’ market is a great resource for seasonal local food. When you can, you should also make the effort to purchase humanely raised, local meat. It can be more expensive, but if you shop around, you will find places that offer reasonable prices. When you are buying processed foods, try to purchase items that have environmentally friendly packaging. As little packaging as possible is preferable. At the very least, the packaging should be easily recyclable (e.g. choose glass containers over plastic because not all plastics can be recycled by all municipal recycling programs).

5. Eat reasonable portions: This element of clean eating can be really difficult as our view of proper portion sizes is pretty skewed in North America. Restaurants and food manufacturers, emphasizing value over health, typically serve and package foods in such large quantities that we are sometimes eating three or four portions of a food in a single serving. To learn more about portion sizes, check out this article.

6. Avoid certain foods whenever possible: Clean eaters should steer clear of overly processed refined foods, refined flour and sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, fried foods, pop, juice and alcohol. Some clean eaters on the more extreme end will avoid these “unclean” foods 100% of the time. Justin and I are less extreme. We try to avoid them as much as possible, but make compromises when we do decide to indulge a bit. We might have a glass of wine for a special occasion, but we don’t polish off a whole bottle over dinner. If my sweet tooth is nagging me, I make dessert from scratch instead of running to the corner store for candy. That sort of thing.

7. Eat at the table: Sit down and enjoy your food. Don’t rush through a meal. You will enjoy your food more, and it will be easier to recognize when you are full. Besides, it’s just nice to eat together and connect with friends, family or co-workers over a meal.Tomatoes

8. Cook your own meals whenever possible: This is the only way to know what is going into your food, and if you are committed to clean eating, this is the best way to ensure that your food contains the “cleanest” ingredients possible. The other benefit is that people who cook for themselves tend to eat healthier and consume more reasonable portion sizes. Cooking together is even better; you have a chance to connect before you even sit down at the table. And for families with young kids, it’s a great way to teach them about healthy eating without preaching and teaches them a valuable life skill–and those Mother’s and Father’s Day breakfasts in bed will start tasting better too.

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Menu: June 5-11

MenuWe made it out to Trout Lake again this week and picked up almost more than we could handle. If we had picked up one more ingredient to inspire one more meal, we would have picked up more food than we needed for the week.

This week we purchased 12 bagels (6 poppy seed, 6 whole wheat sesame), strawberries, spinach, goat cheese, rhubarb, pancake mix, Provencal-style chicken bratwurst, radishes, tomatoes, mixed lettuce, green onions, pea tips, heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini and new potatoes. From this we have created the following menu:

Sunday’s Breakfast: Farmers’ Market Feast

Breakfast all week: Toasted bagels with cream cheese and a citrus salad

Saturday’s dinner: HELL Pizza, Strawberry Spinach Salad and Tropical Rhubarb Crisp

Sunday’s dinner: Entree provided by Joanna (yummy cannelloni, garlic bread and salad) and Vanilla-Coconut Rice Pudding

Monday’s dinner: Ma Po Tofu with brown rice and garlic sauteed pea tips

Tuesday’s dinner: Grilled Wasabi-Honey Shrimp with Heirloom Cherry Tomato and Baby Bocconcini Salad

Wednesday’s dinner: Rhubarb-braised Chicken Thighs with steamed asparagus and garlic bread

Thursday’s dinner: Double date night at The District

Friday’s dinner: Chickpea and Veggie Curry and brown rice

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Rhubarb Season Coming to a Close

RhubarbAt the farmers’ market this morning, it quickly became apparent that my days of rhubarb splendour may be drawing to a close. Fewer stalls had rhubarb on offer and most of the ones that did were displaying some pretty unappealing stalks. Luckily, we found a good batch at one of the booths and I stuffed my produce bag as full as I possibly could. I plan to freeze what I don’t use this week for use over the summer. The vendor said he hoped to be back next week with more, so hopefully I still have a chance to stock up.

If you want to get in on the the glories of the rhubarb season before it’s too late, here are some of the many rhubarb creations we’ve made this spring: http://justinliew.com/tonightsdinner/?tag=rhubarb

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Making Our Own Baby Food

Zayden enjoys some solid food.Before Zayden was even born, we decided we wanted to make our own baby food. We wanted to expose him to as little processed food as possible in order to avoid unhealthy additives and excess sugar, salt and fat. Once Justin and I took on a clean eating goal for ourselves, it became even more important to us. Why would we feed our baby something we were trying to avoid eating ourselves?

For the first few months of his life, he was exclusively breastfed, so we didn’t worry about how we were going to start making his food when he started solids. But then I went to the Nutrition talk at our local Moms and Babies drop-in and started to realize that the days of solid food weren’t too far away. I credit this talk with giving me the confidence to get started with making my own baby food. The talk really demystified the process: I didn’t need to buy special food, I didn’t need special equipment, I didn’t need to fill my freezer up with huge batches of baby food unless I wanted to. It was right after I went to this talk that Justin and I set a new goal: Zayden would eat what we eat.

We started him on baby cereal, but every food we have introduced since has been prepared as part of one of our meals. When we had bananas with breakfast, Zayden got to try bananas. When we made Thyme Braised Carrots, Zayden had carrots for lunch the next day. We simply set aside a portion of the food at the appropriate time during cooking and then puree it in our mini prep and store it in small portions for Zayden to eat later.

For the two of us, who live in fear of raising a picky eater, this seems the most natural way for our son to try a variety of healthy foods. It also cuts down on the workload for us because we are not preparing special food just for him. For those of you who want to join us on this journey of turning tonight’s dinner into tomorrow’s baby food, we’ve created the baby food category where you can get recipes for all the meals that we then transform into food for Zayden. We’ll also post reviews of baby food-related products and anything else we happen to learn along the way.

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This Week’s Menu and Grocery List

Menu

This week's menu

After visiting the farmers’ market on Saturday morning, our next step in preparing for the week is to create a menu and put together a shopping list. In the winter, when we can’t go to a farmers’ market each week, this is the first step of meal planning for us.

We use a weekly calendar with magnets on the back that we bought for $1 at Michael’s to help us plan out our meals. Thanks to the magnets, we can easily display it on the fridge to remind us of what’s for dinner each night and what we will be eating for breakfast and lunch the next day. It also acts as a reminder if we have ingredients (usually meat) that need to be removed from the freezer and transfered to the fridge to defrost for the next night’s meal. When putting together our menu, we check our weekly calendar to make sure that we don’t plan dinners for busy days where we might have plans or be eating out. Sometimes plans come up at the last minute, and those meals tend to get shifted to the following week’s menu. We also make sure that we plan healthy snacks for the week and come up with ideas for dessert as well. My sweet tooth is so powerful that I have to feed it everyday and if I don’t have something homemade on the menu, I end up eating junk from 7-11. This is the compromise we came up with in order to make our clean eating goal a goal that we could realistically keep.

Once we have the menu ready, I go through it and pull out the recipes we will be using to help make the shopping list. As I write down the ingredients we need to buy, I check off the meal, which is a really important step for me. With a new baby at home, it is easy to get distracted and on more than one occasion, we would start cooking a meal only to discover that we had forgotten to purchase all the ingredients because I had made an incomplete shopping list. To help keep our shopping trips as speedy as possible, we also categorize items as we make the list based on the sections of the supermarket in which they can be found. The categories we use are: Produce, Bulk, Deli, Natural Foods, Dry Goods, Bakery, Dairy and Frozen (yes, we are that dorky). Some weeks we also need a miscellaneous category for items that we can’t pick up at the supermarket and will have to buy from a specialty store.

Shopping list

This week's shopping list

Here is this week’s menu. As we prepare the meals, we will create links to the reviews and recipes, so that you can follow along and try them out yourself.

SATURDAY:

Breakfast: Eat at the farmers’ market

Lunch: Finish off remaining leftovers from the week

Dinner: Ratatouille with garlic toast

SUNDAY:

Breakfast: Breakfast Hash

Lunch: Leftover Ratatouille

Dinner: Steak Tacos with Avocado Cream Sauce and Tomato and Cucumber Salad, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

MONDAY:

Breakfast: Leftover Hash with fresh fruit

Lunch: Leftover Ratatouille

Dinner: Black Bean and Zucchini Quesadillas with Beet and Goat Cheese Salad, Vanilla-Coconut Rice Pudding with Rhubarb Compote

TUESDAY:

Breakfast: Apple Crock Pot Oatmeal

Lunch: Leftover quesadillas and salad

Dinner: Blue Cheese Crusted Steaks with steamed beet greens and Thyme-Braised Carrots, leftover rice pudding

WEDNESDAY:

Breakfast: Leftover Apple Crock Pot Oatmeal

Lunch: White Bean and Goat Cheese Wraps with leftover veggies

Dinner: Grilled Mozzarella and Spinach BLTs with leftover rice pudding

THURSDAY:

Breakfast: Leftover Apple Crock Pot Oatmeal

Lunch: Leftover wraps

Dinner: Black Skillet Beef with Red Potatoes and Green Beans, Cornmeal Muffins and leftover rice pudding

FRIDAY:

Breakfast: Leftover cornmeal muffins and fresh fruit

Lunch: Leftover skillet beef

Dinner: Fettucine with Chicken, Goat Cheese and Spinach and leftover rice pudding

BONUS RECIPE: Blue Cheese and Apple Strudel


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