Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter traditions of one Russian family

With Easter coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to share our Russian Easter holiday traditions. Allie in that sense is a very lucky girl. She  has a lot more holidays to celebrate than many other children. 2 Easters, 2 Christmases, not to mention many other Russian holidays like March 8 (International Women’s Day which is huge in Russia), February 23, which is really meant to celebrate Defenders of the Fatherland, but over the years turned into a Men’s Day, Old New Years on January 14th and many others.
When I’m saying “our Russian traditions”, that means I am relocating back in time and think of growing up. All the major preparations for Easter in our family took place on a Saturday before Easter. My mom boiled lots and lots of eggs and my sister and I were in charge of decorating them. We would mostly use colorful markers to draw on eggs and my sister’s “art” always looked great and my eggs looked like something Allie can make now at the age of 2. Fancy dye wasn't really available when we were growing up, so my mom used her signature dye which was boiling lots of onion peel until it turned the water bright orange/red/brown color. Then she just placed eggs into the colored liquid and kept them there until a desired color was reach, much like we do now with all the dye. So our eggs were always the same color, but luckily it was a great rich color, so we liked it (plus we didn't know until later that it was even possible to dye eggs any different color).
My mom also made a traditional kulich, which is an Easter sweet bread that’s baked in a tall round tin, drizzled with white icing and decorated with colorful sprinkles.  Kulich is then taken to the priest to be blessed. Some people also take eggs to be blessed. Perhaps I should make it my resolution this year to master a kulich. I only tried making it once and let’s just say it wasn't as good as my mom’s. On Easter's Eve my mom baked several kuliches because on Easter you share/exchange kuliches with your friends. At the end of the day you end up with several kinds baked by multiple families.  My mom also made Pascha for Easter morning. Pascha is a traditional Easter dish made out of farmer’s cheese which is molded into a shape of a pyramid (symbol of church). She decorated it with raisins and nuts.
The Russian Easter Mass starts on Saturday night and lasts through the night, many Russian families attend it.
Easter morning was very exciting. My sister and I would wake up to a nicely set table. My mom would use a festive table cloth and would neatly arrange the food on the table: dyed eggs in a nice basket, kuliches and pascha. We all greeted each other with the traditional Easter greeting which translates into “ Christ  is risen” and the other one answers “Truly, he is risen” and then you exchange a triple kiss on cheeks. You also share this greeting with all your friends and family that day.
After a family breakfast, us, the kids from the neighborhood, would get together to participate in the egg fight (that sounds very Easter-y, doesn't it?) Kids brought their eggs from home and then in pairs we hit each other’s egg trying to maneuver our moves to keep the egg from breaking. Whichever one didn't break continued competing with the remaining eggs. The winner of the game is the one with the strongest egg. I just reread this paragraph and while this game doesn't sound very sophisticated (to say the least), I remember we always had so much fun and it went on for hours (with all the arguing “you hit too strong”, ”no, you hit too strong”, “your egg is not real”, “at least mine’s not raw and didn't get anyone’s clothes dirty”, etc).
Because our parents always gave us gifts for all kinds of occasions and holidays my sister and I got Easter gifts. A part of the gift was always a chocolate covered egg that you eat and find a surprise toy inside. Those chocolate eggs were always the best part. We had collections of items coming from those eggs!
A special Easter dinner would always take place in the evening with either us going over to a family’s friends’ place or them coming over to ours. Those were the days!
This Sunday Allie will become familiar with American Easter traditions (and so will I) and will do her first Easter egg hunt. But in just a few weeks when our 2nd of the season Easter (the Russian orthodox Easter) comes, we’ll definitely do the egg fight!
What Easter traditions do you have (that I can steal?)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

10 easy ways for your child's healthier diet

A challenge of the day: how do you continue with the whole "time out" routine, if your child purposely misbehaves ans says 'I want to go to time out'. Time out is not supposed to be appealing to her... Anyway, that has nothing to do with this post, just a problem that presented itself today and I need to figure out what to do about it. Lots of mommy's blogs will be read over the next couple days...

At least, I have Allie's food figured out... Although with all the snacks and fast food and sugary treats available to us, sometimes it becomes a challenge to stay on track with feeding your child a healthy diet. Here are 10 ways to ensure a better nutrition and healthy habits for your child. They are small changes to your probably already existing routine that are so easy to implement:

1. A super popular snack (well, at least in the US) peanut butter in its different forms (PB&J sandwich, PB on celery, on bananas, etc) can become so much healthier if you use unsweetened peanut better. If you read regular peanut butter label, sugar is the #2 ingredient, or event #1! It often says "made from peanut butter and sugar" and it just makes you wonder if there are actually pretty equal parts of peanuts and sugar? Well, that's a lot of sugar... If you or you little one does have a sweet tooth, just add a bit of honey to your unsweetened peanut butter, it makes it just as sweet as regular PB would be and honey is way healthier than just regular white sugar. Allie actually loves PB&H (honey) sandwich on wheat bread and has it a lot more often than a classic PB&J.

2. In baking when possible substitute part of the flour you're using for a whole-wheat flour. In many recipes you can use event parts of white flour and whole wheat flour and you almost can't even taste the difference. Your muffins all of a sudden have a much better nutritional value.

3. It seems like every kid likes pancakes, right? Instead of syrup use honey. And I usually add very little to none sugar to pancakes, so all the sweetness comes from honey. It's delicious and honey has so many great health benefits.

4. Another thing all kids seem to like is dipping. Allie will eat pretty much anything if it's dipped in something (ketchup, some kind of sauce, etc.). A couple months ago I posted a recipe for a healthier homemade ketchup, you can find it here. Offer this healthier alternative to a regular ketchup whenever she asks for it (which is in our household pretty mush always). It's also great to use as a pasta sauce for adults, it's delicious!

5. For a vegetable dip instead of using store bough stuff with a bunch of preservatives, try using some plain Greek yogurt mixed in a blender with some garlic, dill and cumin. It's a  delicious dip that's great for kids and adults. Allie likes to use this dip for dipping her carrot sticks, celery, cucumber, bell pepper or even green beans.

6. Instead of using sweetened store bought yogurt for snack or dessert, use plain Greek yogurt and add some honey to sweeten it up. Most flavored yogurt that we buy have crazy amounts of sugar in them! I promise I'll stop with the honey now... I know I included it in nearly every paragraph here.

7. Use whole-wheat pasta. It's the healthiest variety, it tastes nice and nutty, and your little one probably won't even notice the difference. It's especially unnoticeable when you serve it with stronger tasting sauces, like tomato or pesto. 

8. To promote healthier eating habits, make sure that she/he gets to the table hungry, whether it's breakfast, lunch of dinner. Don't allow too much snacking in between meals and try to serve snacks at a table only. She is more likely to eat what you want her to eat, if she is hungry.

9. Stick to healthy drinks. Water is best if she is thirsty. Milk is great to accompany a meal. Allie has juice very rarely as a treat and it's diluted with water big time (80% water, 20% juice). I also make a cranberry drink pretty often. It has tons of vitamin C and antioxidants and Allie loves it and calls it "happy sok" (sok is juice in Russian). Check out the recipe here. If you have a juicer, making your own juice is also a great way to sneak in some veggies in there. Check out a recipe that I make often here. I am not even going into soda drinks for kids. Allie has not had one yet and I am going to delay it for as long as possible.

10. For "special treats" use healthier things such as prunes, raisins, dried apricots or dried mango. For Allie they are pretty much an equivalent of candy.

If you have anything to add, please include it in your comment.I always look for new ways for Allie's healthier nutrition and diet.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My 30 day ab challenge completed!

If you read my blog about a month ago, you might've seen the pressure I put on myself by posting and committing to do a 30 days ab challenge, where I had to do at least 100 ab moves at a time every single day. You can check it out right here and see what motivated me and how I've decided on it.

Well, happy to report today marks the day #30 of the challenge. The last day! I did it! And I can't wait to share what amazing results I am looking at now! There is actually a good news and a bad news. Let's start with a good news. The "bonus" part of my stomach is completely gone, I lost 10 lbs, my early wrinkles completely disappeared,  my body feels and looks 100% toned and I am ready for the swim suit season!! 

The bad news is that it was not true at all, but it felt good to say it. When I started the challenge, that was the paragraph that I was hoping to conclude it with, but just as my common sense warned me, that was not going to happen in 30 days. I am however SO HAPPY that I did it! Let me explain...

First of all, did I actually end up doing it every day? Almost. I missed 3 days out of 30. I had good excuses though every time: 1 day I was too upset to do it, 1 day I was too excited to do it and 1 day I was just too tired. Oh and then there was one day when I made this new muffin recipe (Plum and poppy seed) by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen which turned out to be the best muffins I had in my life and instead of trying just a bite, I ate 3 muffins and could not physically perform my ab moves.  But frankly I did better than I thought I would. Days 1 through 3 were the hardest because I was simply not used to any kind of physical activity that time of the day (I committed to do it after Allie went to bed which put me in around 8 pm zone). I would settle down with my yoga mat in the living room and the couch all of a sudden turn into a magnet that I had to resist very hard But then after a few days, it became a new normal and was getting easier and easier. Pretty soon I started realizing that 100 moves is actually not much at all and I could do way more, and I did. Some nights however I was so tired that I could barely go through 100, and I chose really easy one. But who cares, I did it and it counted. 

The results: no idea if I lost any weight, I don't own a scale. Did my stomach get any smaller? I think it did a little bit. Maybe not... But most importantly, what this challenge gave me is that it formed a new habit and I am going to continue with it from now on. I probably won't do it every night, but I will do my best. Doing these little exercises definitely made me feel better about watching educational programs stuff like  3-hour long season finale of Bachelor, or reruns of "The office". I won't feel bad about skipping a day or 2 here and there since I am not on any kind of self-challenge, but I know that I can do it almost every day, it only takes about 5 minutes and it will eventually pay off.

Glad I did it and thank you if you joined me (even, if you cheated a bit! Jill? :))

Monday, March 18, 2013

Whole-wheat pizza with chicken, veggies and white sauce

What kid doesn't like pizza? Or for that matter what adult doesn't like pizza? There are also a very few things that are easier to make than pizza (as long as you have the pizza dough). It's so versatile, you can top it with literally anything! The first pizza I've ever tried was my mom's pizza. It was a love at first bite! I believe the toppings were cut up salami, onions, cheese and maybe peppers. My mom often made pizza when my sister or I had birthday parties and those pizzas were always a huge hit! Like me, Allie gets excited for dinner the second she hears a word "pizza". Pizza can be very healthy, just choose your topping carefully. Whole wheat pizza crust doesn't taste any less delicious than white. To me I don't even taste the crust, I think it's all about the toppings! For a healthy meal, top your whole wheat crust with lean chicken meat, veggies and cheese (use low fat if you like). 

Whole wheat pizza with chicken, veggies and white sauce

1 lbs store bough whole wheat pizza dough
2 Tbsp garlic infused olive oil
1 C Ricotta cheese (whole milk or low fat, whatever you prefer)
1/2 bell pepper (any color)
1 tomato
1 cooked chicken breast 
3/4 C Swiss cheese (or use sharp cheddar for more flavor. Or actually I haven't yet tried a cheese I didn't like. Whatever melts)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp dried basil

Start preheating the oven to 450 degrees.

Make a ricotta mixture by mixing 1 cup of ricotta with some salt, black pepper and dried basil or other dried herbs if you prefer.

Work the pizza dough by rolling it out or stretching it out (I always stretch it in my hands for a while and finish stretching it right on the baking sheet). Drizzle a bit of garlic infused olive oil on top of the dough and brush it all over the dough.

Next drop spoonfuls of ricotta mixture all over the crust.

Top with the vegetables and chicken.

Sprinkle the cheese on top of the crust in an even layer.

Place in the oven for about 15-20 minutes until the cheese melts and crust browns a bit.

Enjoy and find another pizza recipe of mine here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Roasted Tomato-bread soup

This recipe is a take on a classic tomato soup. It's another one of Claire Robinson's recipes that I really liked. It's kind of a nice variation of tomato soup- grilled cheese kind of meal, when you have everything on hand but the cheese. It's a great lunch meal and perfect for kids!

Roasted Tomato-bread soup

1 lb fresh tomatoes, quartered (the original recipes calls for seeding the tomatoes, but I don't mind the seeds, so I don't usually seed them)
3 Tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (if you don't have any, just saute some garlic in a bit of olive oil for a couple minutes - you just made garlic olive oil)
1/2 C fresh basil, chopped
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 C water
3 C day-old sourdough baguette torn into 1/2 inch cubes
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Quarter the tomatoes, toss them with 2 Tbsp of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in the over for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil in a saucepan, add the basil and cook while stirring for about 30 seconds.

Add canned tomatoes with their juices, then add the water into the can to gather the remaining juices and add into the saucepan too.

Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, add some salt and cook for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, cut the bread into small cubes.

Remove the roasted tomatoes out of the oven

Add them into the soup and blend with an immersion blender or in portions in a regular blender.

If you are planning on eating the soup right away, add in the cubed bread and cook for another 2 minutes. If you are cooking for later, or especially a day in advance, do not add the bread. Just before you're ready to eat it, heat it up and add the bread then. Stir all together.

Top with some fresh basil and enjoy!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Allie's favorite Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's Pie to me is one of those perfect dishes that combines everything in it: meat, starch and veggies. It's very easy and pretty quick to make and you can build the whole thing and pop it in the fridge until the next day when you're ready for it. Or you can freeze it fully prepared and just defrost is quickly on the night you are particularly tired to cook. It's also a nice dish to feed the kids because it has quite a  few colors in it that you can use to make a funny faces out of. I haven't done it myself with Shepherd's pie yet, because Allie has no problem eating it un-decorated, but sometimes I do have to fancy up some meals. Like I did here

Allie's Favorite Shepherd's Pie

1 lbs of beef or turkey
1 carrot, shredded
1 onion, chopped
3 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
5 medium potatoes, quartered
1/2 C milk
1 C frozen green peas
3/4 C cheddar cheese, chopped (although I've used ALL kinds of cheese, they are all good)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat over to 375 degrees.

Start by placing potatoes in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, add salt and cook for 15-20 minutes.

In the meantime, brown the meat. Once it's browned, drain the liquid that it released, add onions and carrots, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and continue cooking for another 15 minutes. If I have beef stock or/and tomato paste on hand, I add a little of each in the meat too.

Defrost the green peas in a microwave or just place them in a bowl with hot water for a couple minutes. Transfer the meat into a baking dish and top evenly with peas.

The potatoes should be cooked by now. Drain the water from them, add milk and mash them until very smooth.

Spread mashed potatoes over the peas in one even layer.

Top with shredded cheese

Place in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes.Then turn the broiler on for 3-4 minutes to brown the top.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Soup with tiny meatballs for tiny people

Allie is a big fan of soup. Most kinds of soup. I suspect it is because a soup provides her with two forms of fun: eating with a spoon like a big girl or dunking her bread in it. What kid doesn't love dunking? (well, I guess not everyone loves it but from what I hear, read and know it seems like dunking is extremely popular!) Soups are so easy to make and they are such a great comforting food. When I was growing up, I don't think I can remember a day without eating a bowl of soup. It's such a staple in Russia that I'm pretty that having soup every day is something most families in Russia can identify with.

The soup with meatballs that I sometimes make is one of Allie's favorites. She loves that she can eat a whole meatball in one bite, because I make them tiny enough for her, and she really enjoys fishing out other goodies out of her bowl: potatoes, pasta and carrots. It's so quick to make! Instead of rolling every single meatball by hand, I use a melon baller to scoop out the meat and put it right in the soup. And yes, those meatballs are not in a perfect round shape, but no one in our household has complained yet, so it's working. Try to make this soup for dinner, it's a meal on its own with some nice crusty bread.

I often make a small amount of soup, just enough to feed dinner to the 3 of us, but feel free to double recipe.

Turkey meatball soup

1/2 lbs ground turkey
1 carrot, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced and divided
4 stalks of green onions, chopped
2 medium potatoes, sliced
1/2 C orzo pasta
2 chicken bullion cubes
salt to taste

Start by sauteing onions, carrots, celery and 1 clove of garlic in some olive oil. Let them cook for about 5 minutes and add water. I used about 4 cups, but if you are doubling the recipe use more, just make sure the water doesn't come up above 3/4 of the pan you're using. I added room temperature water this time, but if you can remember to start boiling some water in advance, it will speed the process even further.

While the water is coming to a boil, do some prep work. Mix the meat with a clove of very finely minced garlic, green onions, some salt and pepper. Slice potatoes and prepare your bullion cubes.

Once the soup boils, turn the heat down to medium, add the bullion cubes and some salt and while it simmers, start scooping the meat with a melon baller and dropping them into the water. Continue until your meat bowl is empty.

 Once the meatballs are in, drop in sliced potatoes and orzo

Cook for another 6 minutes, turn off the heat, cover with a lid and let sit for at least 10-15 more minutes before serving, just to let all the flavors combine nicely.

Serve with some crusty bread or heated up dinner rolls.

Enjoy your meal!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Baked fresh ricotta: breakfast or dessert

Saturday or Sunday breakfast is probably my most favorite meal to make. I don't have to rush to or from anywhere and can afford to cook as slowly as I can. It's ok to get distracted by a skype call with Allie's grandpa in Belarus, or relax with a cup of coffee and a nice magazine or watch Allie play. I enjoy trying new dishes for a weekend breakfast. For a little while I was on a frittata kick and  made them out of anything I could find in our house, but then I got kind of bored with those. 

Recently I came across a cookbook by Claire Robinson ("5 ingredient fix" is the show she has on Food Network. She is one of my favorites, I love her recipes and her simple approach.) A breakfast recipe for baked ricotta caught my attention, because I thought it would be similar to one of my favorite things to make, zapekanka that I wrote about recently, only it requires ricotta, which is so much easier to find than farmer's cheese. I tried out this recipe today and wow, was it good! It's supposed to be a breakfast dish, but it can just as well be a healthy dessert, it almost tastes like a lemony cheesecake without all the sugar. She uses honey to sweeten it up and it works so well! The recipe calls for fresh cherries, but all I had was blueberries, so that's what my version has and it tastes fantastic. But the next time I see cherries in a store, I am going to make the original.

Baked Fresh Ricotta with stewed blueberries

1 1/2 fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large egg
3 Tbsp honey, divided
1/2 tsp salt
zest and juice of 1 lemon, divided
1 C fresh or frozen blueberries (I actually used half fresh and half frozen)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the ricotta in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and let stand to remove access liquid. It took about 20 minutes.

Transfer the cheese to a bowl, add the egg, 1 tablespoon of honey, salt and half the lemon zest.

Stir together and transfer to a buttered dish. 

The deeper and smaller the dish is, the longer it's going to cook. The recipe calls for an 8-once shallow wish, which would result in 35 mins cooking time. I ended up using a dish that's smaller and the layer of ricotta seemed pretty thick, so mine baked for about 50 minutes. Place the dish in a preheated oven and cook it until it gets puffy and begins to brown (anywhere between 35 and 50 minutes).

Meanwhile, cook the blueberry sauce. Put blueberries, lemon juice, remaining zest and 2 tablespoons honey in a saucepan.

Simmer over medium heat

Continue simmering for 25-30 minutes, until it thickens. The test that I use to know if it's done is I swipe a spatula against the bottom of the saucepan and if the sauce stays separated, it's cooked. 

Serve baked warm ricotta as a spread for your morning toast and top with some blueberry sauce. It's so decadent and delicious and just sweet enough to be a treat!

Later today after ricotta cooled down I had some with my tea as a dessert. Really, it tastes like a cheesecake!

Have a great week!