Thursday, January 31, 2008

Low-Cal Superbowl Party Snacks

I am not a football fan. If I didn't live in Connecticut, midway between the homes of the New York Giants and New England Patriots, I may not even know who was playing in this Sunday's Superbowl. However, liking football is certainly not a prerequisite for hosting or attending a Superbowl party. I'm game for any kind of party that involves flip that coin and count me in!

While normally I'm all over the chips and guac, the Buffalo chicken wings with a side of blue cheese, and the deep-dish pizza, this year I find myself in a bit of a different mind-set. I just don't want to consume 5000 calories in one evening, which is easy to do at a Superbowl party. Funny how as we get older those wings and pizza seem to stay put a little longer than in past years! While I can't expect everyone else to give up those things on this holiest of football days, I am going to put up a good fight and control the munchie mania.

One way to do that is to prepare a big colorful veggie platter, with baby carrots, sweet sugar snap peas, strips of red and yellow bell peppers, and some sliced up jicama. The key is in the dip. Forgo the sour-cream and mayonaise based dips for something lighter like my Herbed Cannellini Dip. It whirrs up in your food processor (or blender) in seconds, can be made in advance, and keeps well for a few days afterward. The best part, is that it is full of protein, very low in fat, and absolutely bursting with flavor.

I also love to serve chilled shrimp as a low-cal option for my guests (it is also a perfect thing to bring to a party--- no one turns away shrimp!). Shrimp is low in fat and cholesterol, and amist the pork-rinds and beer, tends to "class-up" the joint a little. You can certainly serve it with a store-bought cocktail sauce for a classic combination, or try my Cilantro Dipping Sauce, for something just a little different.

So, this Sunday, enjoy the game (if you're watching), enjoy the snacks, and know that you can still have a good time without hating yourself the next morning!

Herbed Cannellini Dip

Makes about 2 cups

2 cans white cannelini beans, drained and rinsed

2 cloves garlic, peeled

¼ cup olive oil

1-2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary OR fresh sage, minced

Zest of 1 lemon (coarsely grated)

Salt and pepper

Put beans and garlic, ground pepper, and a large pinch of salt into food processor and pulse until combined.

Slowly add olive oil while pulsing. Process until smooth.

Add more garlic if preferred.

Transfer puree to a bowl and stir in rosemary or sage, lemon zest, and 1 T of olive oil.

Add additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Use as a dip for grissini, veggies, or as a spread for crostini.

Cilantro Dipping Sauce for Shrimp

Makes about 3/4 cup

1 bunch cilantro, thoroughly washed

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 Tablespoons lime juice

1/2 teaspoon sugar (or more, if preferred)

Olive oil


In a food processor, combine cilantro and garlic and pulse until chopped.

Slowly add olive oil in a drizzle while pulsing to make a pesto.

Add lime juice, sugar, salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Restaurants: Coppia, Fairfield, CT

***Please note that Coppia is now closed.

After driving by it for ages, I finally decided to try Coppia Ristorante, located at 937 Post Road in Fairfield. I'd read a good review and was intrigued, but had never actually met anyone who'd been there. Then, about a month ago when my daughter's play group decided we all needed a "grown-up girls' night out", I suggested we try Coppia, and everyone readily agreed.

Inauspiciously sandwiched between the Midas repair shop and Mo's Wine and Spirits, it is easy to miss. Tucked back in the corner of a small plaza, Coppia seats only about 20 people inside, but with the addition of an outdoor patio (enclosed and heated in winter), it doubles the number they can serve on weekends. Despite the small size, the kitchen certainly turns out big flavored Italian fare.

On my first midweek visit with the gals, we all ordered salads and pasta, and agreed that each of the dishes were excellent. I began with a basic tomato and mozzarella salad, which came drizzled with a richly flavored balsamic glaze. For my entree, I was immediately drawn to the Penne with Sweet Sausage, which comes served in a deliciously authentic tomato sauce enhanced by Gorgonzola cheese. Both were fantastic choices. We also enjoyed a fantastic bottle of wine, a Pinot Noir recommended by the host. The $75 bottle of wine drove up our bill a bit, but it was, overall, reasonably priced for the area.

On a subsequent visit, my husband and I walked in without reservations on a Saturday night. The staff was very accommodating and willing to shift a few things around in order to fit us in. We sat in the enclosed outdoor patio, which although a tad brightly lit, was quite comfortable despite the freezing temperatures outside.

To start, I ordered a mixed green salad with crumbled Gorgonzola, which was very tasty, although a bit on the small side. For my entree, I opted for the Pollo Picatta, which was delicious and lemony, and served in a smooth butter-caper sauce. The dish is typically served with a vegetable and roasted potatoes, but I asked to skip the potatoes and double up on the veggies, a request to which they graciously obliged. Based on my rave reviews, my husband ordered the pasta dish I had on my first visit, and he was equally impressed. For dessert, we split a Chocolate Indulgence Cake, which was basically a lava cake smothered in fudge sauce with freshly whipped cream and sliced strawberries. Indulgent, for sure, but a very nice ending to our meal.

There were lots of things on the menu that I wanted to try, and definitely will go back many times to do so. One appetizer that stood out was "Warm Mozzarella" wrapped in prosciutto, and I always like to try every restaurant's version of calamari. There were several pasta dishes with seafood that sounded very good, as well as several veal dishes, including one of my favorites, "Vitello Sorrento" (veal topped with eggplant and prosciutto) that were beckoning to be ordered. Another visit, another meal. Although I've only visited Coppia twice so far, I'm pretty sure it is going to become one of my local favorites. Instead of driving by again, stop in and check it out soon (but make a reservation first!).

Coppia Ristorante
937 Post Road
Fairfield, CT

Monday, January 21, 2008

Restaurants: Wild Rice, Fairfield, CT

It seems as though I'd been watching the renovation at 1612 Post Road in Fairfield forever. The tired building that once housed a chocolate store, an insurance agency, a short-lived tea shop, and an aging "townie" bar, slowly began the process of modernization well over a year ago. The space was gutted and redivided, and the facade got a complete face lift. When a cosmetics store and a trendy men's clothing store opened, I was happy enough, but when I saw the sign announcing that the remaining space would open as "Wild Rice---Sushi and Pan Asian Cuisine"--then I got really excited. Wild Rice opened in October 2007 and has been bustling ever since.

The fun, contemporary vibe of Fairfield's newest Asian eatery starts before one even enters the door. Modern, cylindrical exterior lights are mounted above a wall of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, and give passers-by a glimpse into the dimly lit, urban-chic interior. Once inside, guests are greeted by the hostess, who leads the way through the dining room, which features high ceilings and wooden plank walls. A long sushi bar runs down the center of the L-shaped space, with plenty of seating for curious diners.
Upon being seated, a small plate of marinated veggies is placed on the table. It doesn't look particularly appetizing, but he crunchy combination of carrots, cucumber, cabbage, and horseradish (yes, horseradish!) is fabulous. Even my kids liked it. The manager explained that the veggies are marinated in vinegar, sugar and chili peppers, which infuse all the veggies and render them sweet and delicious with a tiny kick. It is definitely a healthier and tastier alternative to the greasy fried noodles and duck sauce typically found in Asian restaurants.

The pan-Asian menu is extensive, but not overwhelming once you figure out the format. The appetizers are divided into five categories: Dim Sum, Sushi, Kitchen Appetizers, Soups, and Salads. Entrees are also divided into sections--sushi and Asian dishes. If you're in the mood for sushi, there are several entrees which feature assorted sushi and sashimi, and come with soup or salad. If you prefer to make your own selections, there is a large "a la carte" menu featuring Classic Rolls, Contempo Rolls, Veggie Rolls, and Sushi/Sashimi.
The rest of the menu is dedicated to other traditional Asian dishes, with category headings like Contempo Dishes, Noodle & Rice Dishes, and South East Asian/Red China Dishes. The Contempo menu includes traditional Chinese favorites like General Tso's Chicken and Mandarin Beef. I always seem to be drawn to the noodle dishes (the pasta lover in me!), and Wild Rice offers plenty of options. A wide variety of noodle and rice dishes may each be ordered alone, or with chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, or vegetables.

The South East Asian/Red China selections allow diners to choose their type of protein (chicken, pork, tofu, shrimp, scallop or calamari), white or brown rice, and one of the many specialty sauces listed to create a personalized Pan-Asian dish. There is definitely something for everyone, from the pickiest eaters, to those more on the adventurous side. All the dishes are served family style and are perfect for sharing. However, if you are like me, and don't like to share food with anyone other than my husband, the bowls in which the food is served are not so embarrassingly big that you'd feel self-conscious.
Although there was plenty on the regular menu that would appeal to kids, there is not an actual children's menu offered. They do have high-chairs, but no booster seats, nor do they offer plastic cups (with or without tops) for the younger diners. Be sure to ask your server if s/he will fashion a kid-friendly set of chopsticks. Your little ones will love trying to master them, even if a few things do end up on the floor.

Wild Rice is a welcome addition to the Post Road in Fairfield, and is a sleek but casual, spot in which to sample a wide variety of pan-Asian dishes. I overheard one diner proclaim, "thank goodness I don't have to go out of town anymore to get a good Pad Thai fix!" Thank goodness is right!
Wild Rice
1612 Post Road Fairfield, CT 06824
My favorites: WonTon Soup, Steamed Vegetable Spring Rolls, Sesame Chicken, & Chow Fun Noodles.

Monday, January 14, 2008

School Lunch: Healthy, Make-Ahead Alternatives

The first time I saw a public school lunch menu was this past September when my oldest child started kindergarten. To say I was shocked, is putting it mildly. Considering that the percentage of kids who are overweight has doubled since the time I was a kid in the 1970s, the fact that school lunches are loaded with so much fat and sugar is unconscionable.

Some recent entree selections from the "hot lunch" menu: "Mozzy Sticks" (those would be fried mozzarella sticks), "Italian Dunkers" (bread sticks dipped in tomato sauce), "Nacho Chips with Meat, Cheese, and Salsa", and "Chicken Tenders". Hmmmm----to me this reads more like the appetizer menu at a TGIFridays than a lunch menu for elementary school students. Mozzarella sticks and nacho chips for LUNCH? Is the person making these menu decisions high?

To be fair, about once per week there is a selection that sounds at least semi-healthful. The baked chicken with cranberry sauce and whipped potatoes may not be terrible, and the turkey breast on a multi-grain roll could qualify as wholesome. But I draw the line at "Belgian Waffle Sticks with Sausage Links and syrup". Sounds to me like a sugar/fat fest on a plate. I wouldn't want to be the teacher of 22 five year-olds who just scarfed down a plateful of white-flour waffles and processed syrup. Oh, and don't forget the Trix-brand cereal flavored yogurt on the side. Talk about sugar-induced hyperactivity!

As much as I like the idea of not having to pack my daughter's lunch every day, I find myself doing it anyway. I wouldn't serve her nacho chips for dinner, so why would I allow her to eat it for lunch? Thankfully, she likes bringing her lunch. The students only have 20 minutes to eat, and if you buy "hot lunch", you spend half of that time waiting on line to purchase it. Great---so in addition to teaching our kids that it is okay to eat fried mozzarella sticks for lunch, we are telling them to shove it down their little throats in under ten minutes. Good eating habits that last a lifetime!

For those of you (like me) who hate packing lunch, don't have the time to pack lunch, and/or would rather sleep an extra 15 minutes in the morning, here is an idea for a make-ahead sandwich that requires no preparation in the morning. Toss in a piece of fruit and an organic milk box (oh yes, they also do not serve organic, hormone-free milk), and you've packed a healthy lunch in under 2 minutes.

To make these rolled sandwiches, you'll need to set aside about 30-45 minutes on a weekend. You can prepare enough for enough for a few weeks' worth of lunches.

Make-Ahead Lunchbox Rolls
Makes a dozen small sandwiches (you may double this recipe as needed)

2 - 1 lb packages whole wheat pizza dough, or other variety (usually found in the refrigerated deli section at the grocery store)

3/4 lb sliced turkey breast, ham, or other lunch meat (look for low-fat, low-sodium, nitrate free varieties like Applegate Farms brand)

1/4 lb low-fat sliced cheese (Swiss, cheddar, or other non-processed, hormone-free variety)
1 egg, lightly beaten

Non-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray two large cookie sheets with non-stick cooking spray.

Divide each 1 lb dough into 6 pieces (for a total of 12 pieces).

On a lightly floured surface, roll into circles (about 6" in diameter).

Place 1-2 slices of deli meat and 1 small piece of cheese on each circle.

Roll into "wrap" like sandwiches, and seal the seam and ends by gently pinching dough together.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden and baked through.

Transfer to a baking rack and cool completely.

If you like, cut each roll in half (on the diagonal), and place in a ziplock baggie, and freeze for up to 2 months.

In the morning, simply remove desired number of sandwiches from freezer and place in lunchbox. By lunchtime, it will have defrosted, and acted as an ice-pack for the other items in the lunchbox.

Alternatives: For a vegetarian variety, substitute steamed broccoli, spinach, or other vegetable for the deli meat.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Dinner--What's YOUR Tradition?

For my family, Sunday dinner was always special. My mother's Italian-American family always celebrated Sunday with pasta and "gravy", the homemade tomato sauce simmered with meatballs, sausage, and pork ribs. First we'd eat the pasta and gravy, then my grandmother would serve the meat cooked in the sauce as a second course. This was followed by another entire meal consisting of some type of roast, vegetables, and salad. To the uninitiated, it may have seemed excessive. But for my grandmother, a bountiful table was her way of showing love. Refusing seconds was almost an insult to her; "Come on!" she'd say. "Eat!' The more you ate, the happier she would be. It was a small miracle that the entire family wasn't obese.

While my memories of Sunday meals at my grandparents' house are vivid, unfortunately, due to the 200+ miles between our homes, they weren't something we enjoyed on a weekly basis. However, my mother felt very strongly about keeping the tradition alive, and Sunday dinner with my nuclear family remained intact. We may not have eaten 3+ courses like at my grandparents' house, but my mother stayed true to her roots and always made the gravy and meatballs with my grandmother's family recipe.

Now that I have a family of my own, I am carrying the tradition to another generation. Sunday dinner at my house isn't always pasta (as we're all trying to cut back on those carbs), but is something just a little fancier than our weeknight meals. We don't do take-out, and we don't eat on the run. We sit at the table, catch up on the week's events, and talk about what's ahead. Most importantly, we enjoy being a family. Isn't that what it's all about?

What do you do on Sundays? Do you have any special traditions? Do you have a special Sunday meal? Tell me about it! I'm writing a magazine article on Sunday dinners and would love to hear what my blog readers have to say! Share your experiences by leaving a comment below. In the meantime, enjoy grandma's meatballs!

Sunday Meatballs
Makes about 18

2 lbs of ground beef (or a combination of beef, veal, and pork)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup dried bread crumbs--1/2 cup more if you like softer meatballs (Italian flavored)
1 small onion, finely diced or grated on a box grater
2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4-1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 T fresh parsley, minced (or 3 t dried)

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together with your hands. Be sure everything is evenly distributed.

Heat a large skillet to medium-high heat and drizzle with olive oil. Fry the meatballs until golden brown on each side. Drain on paper towels.

Add browned meatballs to a pot of your favorite tomato sauce, and allow to gently simmer until cooked all the way through and the flavor of the meat has permeated the sauce--at least an hour (time will vary depending on how much you cooked them in the skillet).