Is it August already?! Time flies when you’re having fun, especially for those of us who share yummy treats and awesome eats on What I Ate Wednesdays!

Last month was incredibly fun with Jenn’s theme of “Food, Fun and Fitness” and the momentum is carried over to August with “Summer Staples.” One summer staple I’ve been enjoying are big bowls of healthy fruit disguised as lunch salads. Combinations of fresh fruits, veggies, yogurt, and even some protein powder make a wonderful midday meal that is packed with vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, protein, and deliciousness! It’s a mish-mash of raw foods and gut-friendly yogurt, so it’s also great for digestion. Plus, it’s low in fat…reeealll low! ;)

On to breakfast!

Post-workout breakfast was peanut butter jelly toast, coffee and fruit (recycled picture here):

Lunch was a fruit & veggie salad bowl (It’s been my favorite for the past couple weeks now!) If you regularly have a good supply of fruits and veggies, you can come up with some crazy combinations that taste great!

A mish-mash of fruits, veggies, and marinated tofu & cucumber…delicious!

This has got to be the most delicious and healthy snack I’ve made in a long, long time: 6oz yogurt mixed with a spoonful of protein powder, dash of cinnamon (for sweetness and flavor,) and a heaping half cup of fresh fruits:

Make your own yogurt bowl with any combination of yogurt and fruits (no granola needed!)

Dinner was inspired by Paula Deen’s recipe for “Oven Fried Chicken.” I reduced the cheese and oil and added miso paste for flavor (and some salt.) Instead of water and additional oil, I used lemon juice. Serve it up with Lemony Basil Pesto and steamed brown rice (don’t forget the chopsticks!)

With brown rice and Lemony Pine Nut Pesto, this dinner is complete!

Basil Crusted Panko Chicken Strips – serves 2

Ingredients:

1 cup panko or crushed corn flakes
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil (or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons white miso paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 8-oz chicken breast, cut into 1/4″ think pieces
optional veggie sides: asparagus, broccoli, mushrooms, or any veggie you like roasted

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix panko, cheese and basil. Divide in half, set aside. Mix olive oil, miso, and lemon juice. Add chicken pieces and stir to coat. Dip chicken pieces in half of the panko mixture, adding more from the reserve mix as needed. Place on silpat or cookie sheet sprayed with nonstick spray, leaving some room for veggies, if using.

There was enough room to squeeze in the asparagus. Perfect dinner for two!

Using your hand, toss veggies in leftover miso paste, add 1-2 tablespoons panko mixture and tossing well to coat. Place on cookie sheet with chicken or on a new sheet if not enough room. (leftover panko mix can be used in your favorite burger, meat loaf or meat ball mixture. Store in fridge for up to 3 days.)

Bake for 10-12 minutes (3-5 minutes longer if your chicken is cut into thicker pieces.) Serve immediately with Lemony Pine Nut Pesto.

What are some of your favorite fruits of the summer? Got any great recipes for potlucks, picnics or family gatherings?

Several weeks ago I got a care package from my parents. In addition to mom’s delicious cookies, Uncle Kenneth’s coffee and some nori rice crackers, I had a special request for these home grown beauties:

Mom and Dad’s vanilla

Gorgeous, plump pods of flavor-packed vanilla! My parents have several vanilla plants growing outside the house. They’re orchid plants, and are not easy to cultivate because they require self-pollination from a specific type of insect. To make it even more difficult, the flowers bloom for only one day, making the window of opportunity rather small for natural reproduction. My dad keeps an eye out for blooming buds, so when the opportunity arises, he uses a ball-point pen to transport the microscopic pollen from stamen to pistil, then lets nature take care of the rest.  Here’s the ripening fruit of the plant several days after pollination, the dried blossoms are shriveled and ready to fall off the ends:

Vanilla plant, image source: http://www.orchidsasia.com/vanil16.htm.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it? And after several months of staying on the vine, they are ready to be harvested, dried, and used in your culinary delights.

Everybody is familiar with the distinct taste of vanilla, which is often second-banana to chocolate (did you know that both were cultivated by the Aztecs?)  and we often take this rather nondescript flavor for granted. But vanilla is a truly wonderful spice that not only gives its own easily recognizable flavor, but enhances others, including chocolate.

Chocolate just wouldn’t be chocolate without vanilla.

So how about adding some vanilla to your life? Let’s start of with the basics:

Vanilla Bean Syrup – Bring 1/2 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat. Add 1 split vanilla bean, scraping both pod and seeds into mixture, stir and let cool. Reserve the vanilla pod and dry completely before storing for other uses. Pour into clean glass jar, keep tightly closed and let sit one day before using.

Vanilla Bean Paste – Scrape a vanilla bean and mix just enough light corn syrup to make a paste. Can use in place of vanilla extract.

Vanilla Extract – In a jar or bottle, add 2 cups of vodka and 6 vanilla beans. Store in a cool, dark place and let age for 4-6 months, shaking the bottle once a week to distribute the flavors.

Vanilla Sugar – Place a split pod in your sugar container for a delicate fragrance and hint of vanilla flavor.

Beautiful glistening seeds from a Tahitian vanilla pod.

Now that you have the basics, here are some recipes to use your newly made concoctions:

Vanilla Cream Soda – Mix vanilla bean syrup with cold seltzer and add a couple drops of lemon juice.

Panna Cotta (from epicurious.com)In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 envelope (1 teaspoon) gelatin over 2 tablespoons water, let soften for about ten minutes. Menwhile, in a medium saucepan bring 2 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in gelatin until dissolved. Split a 2″ piece vanilla pod, scraping seeds and adding into milk mixture (alternatively, add 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract.) Divide between four ramekins, chill 8 hours or overnight. (options: float 1 star anise in each ramekin, serve with fresh mixed berries, or top with fruit compote.)

Spiced Vanilla Peach Jam – This was an accident when I tried making Rem Cooks’ Vanilla Peach Butter by following his recipe for Spiced Peach Preserves. As I was heating the peaches I thought, “Boy this smells great…but where’s the vanilla?” Looking over his post, I realized it was the wrong recipe! After pulling up the correct recipe I decided it would be easier to make a few modifications and simply add the vanilla bean. It still came out tasty, especially by following his lead and having it with cream cheese on sourdough toast…delicious!

Ingredients:

2 cups peaches peeled, pitted & roughly chopped
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny pinch nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
4″ piece vanilla bean, split and scraped
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

Directions:

Put everything in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 15 minutes or until peaches break up into smaller pieces. Remove from heat and let cool before transferring to a clean glass jar. Will keep in refrigerator for about 10 days.

This peach jam is great on toast, or as a glaze for chicken, ham, or roast pork loin.

In addition to all this sweetness, vanilla can also be used to enhance the flavor of savory dishes, and on Wednesday I will post a special recipe I concocted to celebrate my second wedding anniversary! Here’s a sneak peek at what I’m talking about:

Vanilla can season even the most savory of dishes!

More vanilla goodness coming your way, so stay tuned!

My cats have never expressed this much interest in my salads, and sometimes it’s hard to really get excited about them. But I learned to be a little more colorful, if not creative, when it comes to presentation. Fortunately I’ve never made a salad that resembled the ones you would assemble at fast food restaurants:

Not very appetizing, it’s kind of healthy, but I won’t enjoy eating it as much as I would want to. I’ve never really liked iceberg lettuce in salads unless it was covered in blue cheese dressing, and tomatoes are not meant to be crunchy!

Shopping for salad ingredients was always kind of a chore and I could never get excited about it. Thankfully there are so many great raw food/vegetarian/vegan blogs that can give you some great ideas to make your veggies more enticing. Instead of thinking only green when shopping for your salad ingredients, how about shopping for other colors, instead? Visit the produce department and just look at all the fabulous colors the veggie world has to offer, like golden beets, purple carrots, and fancy heirloom tomatoes from pink to purple! Buy in small amounts to last you a few days so you won’t feel obligated to eat veggies just because you bought them on sale. Try a new item like flowering kale or even those hairy looking sprouts. Also think of texture, and of course, flavor! All those things will come together in one deliciously satisfying bite…that’s how a salad should be!

I like to keep a good variety of fruits and veggies, and am starting to sprout my own grains, too. Here’s what I made for lunch:

Taste the power of the rainbow salad!

And here’s what’s in it: lettuce, grated carrots, chopped celery, chopped cucumber, purple cauliflower pieces, shredded zucchini, chopped apples, diced dried apricots, strawberries, sprouted quinoa, and a sunflower seed sprout (just ’cause it’s good!) It’s a lot more fun when you have so many colorful ingredients…it’s like making art, so why not enjoy making your food as well as eating it?

Speaking of art, if you’re planning a dinner party and want to impress your guests, check out these creative ways to display your fruits and veggies posted by Design Indulgences. Below is my favorite, veggies and dip in one!

Crudites display

Display your veggies in glass vases found at craft stores.

And check out this wonderful salad presentation idea using cucumbers as the bowl! I hope these ideas will help you get a little more creative with your healthy eating, and come back and share some ideas with me, I’d love to hear what you’ve created!