Sunday, July 22, 2012

A healthy spin on two comfort food favorites

For those of you who don’t know, ever since Russell and I got married (so for approximately the past two years), Sunday nights have been dedicated to culinary adventures with my family. My mother and I (and my grandmother, when she isn’t traveling) take turns cooking meals that are entirely new to us.

This week was my turn. Since Lily was born, my dinners have been trimmed down from elaborate feasts that take most of the day to cook, including an appetizer, main dish, at least one side dish, and a dessert. Now I generally just cook and main dish and a side dish, and usually the selections are both quick recipes. I occasionally try a dessert, but as I am trying to lose my baby weight, we are unfortunately avoiding all things sweet. I have spent a lot of time trying recipes from my new favorite Pampered Chef cookbooks: 29 Minutes to Dinner (Volume 1 & Volume 2) and from my new favorite social media app, Pinterest.

Today’s menu included healthy spins on two traditionally carb-packed comfort foods.

Crawfish-Stuffed Bell Peppers

First was a recipe I found in a free Rouse’s magazine. The first thing, as usual, that attracted me to the recipe was the picture [shown to the right].

The crinkles in the skin of the bell pepper, the fact that it was a red bell pepper, and the cute presentation – with the top of the bell pepper placed back on like a little hat – were all very appealing to me. The large pink circle advertising that it is a “low-calorie dinner!” didn’t hurt its case either. When I went on to read the recipe, however, I realized that the picture was rather misleading. The recipe calls for green peppers to be cut in half and then stuffed and for no rice, contrary to the picture, but rather breadcrumbs are used. Because the idea of stuffed bell peppers was now firmly in my dieting appetite’s mind, I decided to go for it despite the discrepancies. I went ahead and used yellow, red, and orange bell peppers to stuff instead of the green anyway, as I prefer their slightly sweeter taste to the sometimes-bitter green bell pepper. I also like the pretty colors. (Who says I’m not mature?)
[Note: Sweet bell peppers are a little more expensive, so if you’re going for price-consciousness, stick to the green. They still make for a yummy stuffed pepper.]

One of the reasons that I never used to be a fan of the stuff bell pepper was the crunchiness of the bell pepper shell. I’m not a crunchy veggie person. Crunchy onions? No, siree. Give me soft caramelized onions any day. Crunchy carrots? Not a chance. Soft carrots in a stew or with a pot roast? Yum. Following that lead, I don’t particularly care for crunchy bell peppers, so I remedy that with one of my tools from The Pampered Chef. To prepare the bell peppers for stuffing, I first cut around the stem of the bell pepper, twist, and pull; this usually takes all the seeds and unwanted pieces with it. Then I cut the bell peppers in half, as the recipe indicates, and put them in our Large Micro-Cooker with about a half-inch of water. Stick them in the microwave for about 4 minutes, and there you go!

In the end, this recipe turned out rather tasty but with several stuffed peppers left over. Per my father-in-law’s suggestion from earlier in the day when he was reminiscing about his mother making stuffed peppers when he was younger, I individually wrapped the leftovers and stuck them in the freezer, making for a perfect frozen lunch that can be easily popped in the microwave (cling wrap and all) at a later date.

Crawfish-Stuffed Bell Peppers
[The original version of this recipe (before my adjustments) 
was published in Rouse’s weekly free magazine.]
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup red bell pepper, finely chopped
3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups Italian bread crumbs
1 lb crawfish tails, peeled and cleaned
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
crushed red pepper to taste
6 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, seeded and halved (any color pepper works)

Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add, finely chopped bell pepper, onion, garlic and celery. Sauté until onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. [NOTE: I sauté until the pepper is soft enough to my liking. You know how I am about crunchy peppers.] Transfer to a large bowl and cool completely.
After mixture is cool, mix in bread crumbs and crawfish tails. Season stuffing with salt and pepper and add crushed red pepper.
Fill bottom portion of each pepper with a generous potion of crawfish stuffing. Place on a greased cookie sheet  [I used the Pampered Chef Large Bar Pan.] and bake at 350˚F for 35 to 40 minutes.

Spaghetti Squash au Gratin

I’ve always been one to like carbs. I’ll take a little rice to go with my potatoes. In fact, go ahead and throw in a side of bread. I remember once being fussed at my grandmother’s house because I fixed myself a plate of just rice with corn. [A meal I continued to fix for myself as recently as last year.] I can take or leave the protein of a meal, and I can easily leave the veggies, so when our “Bye Bye Baby Weight “ diet kicked off, my appetite frowned as my subconscious announced that the carbohydrates had left the building. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but at this point, I’m down for anything remotely resembling carbs. And that is how today’s side dish came about.

When scrolling through Pinterest, this delicious au gratin dish popped up on my screen. After a little research [i.e. clicking once and then reading the 11 word description], I discovered that this was in fact not potatoes au gratin or baked cheesy spaghetti as I originally thought. Rather, it was Spaghetti Squash au Gratin, using the spaghetti-looking veggie in a casserole disguised as a carb-loaded dish. It was right up my alley. I healthified it further by using low-fat cheese and fat-free sour cream and was pleasantly surprised with the result. While I certainly wouldn’t have mistaken it for hash brown casserole in a blind taste test as one pinner’s description suggests, it was similar enough to these sides for this recipe to earn a permanent place in my recipe binder. And it was quick and easy to boot!

Side note: to slice the onions very thinly as per the recipe, I used the Simple Slicer. Here is a video to show how easy it is to use, and the onions came out perfectly thin!

Spaghetti Squash au Gratin
[The original version of this recipe (before my changes)
 was posted on Dandy Dishes.]
Serves 6

1 medium spaghetti squash
2 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, cut in half and very thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more if you like it spicy
½ teaspoon thyme
½ cup fat-free sour cream
1 cup low-fat shredded cheddar cheese

Cut the spaghetti squash in half and remove the seeds.  Place in a covered dish with a ½ inch of water and microwave for 10 minutes.  In a medium sized skillet over medium heat, add the butter, onions, red pepper and thyme and cook until the onions are slightly brown in color.  Salt and pepper to taste. 

Using a fork, scrape the insides of the squash and transfer to a small bowl.  Combine the squash, onions, sour cream and half the cheese together and mix well.  Transfer the mixture to a buttered baking dish and top with remaining cheese. [NOTE: At this point, I covered and put the dish in the fridge. I took it out about half an hour before I wanted to bake it. These days I’m looking for recipe that can be prepped early (like when Lily isn’t hungry, dirty, or crying) and cooked later.]

Place into a 375º for 15 – 20 minutes until golden brown on top. [I cooked it for a little longer, about 30 minutes, because it came from the fridge.]

Overall, I was very pleased with my quick and healthy Sunday night newbie adventure. Try out the recipes, and let me know what you think!

P.S. I was so pleasantly surprised with texture of the spaghetti squash, I may try it with meatballs and marinara one day soon. Hmm… I’ll let you know how it is. Since I thought the spaghetti-esque quality of this vegetable was so interesting, I am posting a video of pulling the squash/spaghettiness out of the casing. [And yes, that is Lily "chatting" in the background. :) ]

If you’re interested in purchasing and of the Pampered Chef products mentioned here today, please visit my Web site to place an order. Contact me (by commenting here, e-mailing me at, or through my Web site) if you’d like to learn how you could get these products for FREE!

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