Learning to Cook, One 'SparkPeople Cookbook' Recipe at a Time


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
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Editor's note: Shannon is using The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight to teach herself to cook. She is blogging about her progress.
I am back and still well-fed.  There were no major disasters, a few minor ones but all is well.  The first thing I would like to say is Meg is right: real food tastes good.  I have found myself fuller, less thirsty (due to lower salt intake) and satisfied.  And that is just from changing out a few recipes in a couple of weeks.  I am not going to pretend to be perfect and say that I did not rely on the old dinner in a box once or twice.  If it’s bought and paid for, it’s not going to waste.  Plus it gives you some real perspective after having healthier foods.  You can really start to taste the salt and other chemicals in the boxed meals.
I would like to start off this week by talking about the first few chapters of the cookbook.  Chapters in a cookbook?  Yes!  The cookbook starts off with an introduction, a little SparkPeople history and inspiration from people who have been here.  Then on to more good stuff: meeting Meg and the reasons behind the cookbook.  The reading was very informative talking about the sciences behind food, hunger and satisfaction.    No healthy cookbook would be complete without some healthful tips on portion sizes and some nutritional guidelines.  I found this part very nice to read, informative without being preachy and judgemental. 
Chapter 3 – The New Healthy Kitchen is the most important part for a beginner cook, such as myself. It is full of cooking methods and tips, some of which I had never heard of before.  Now I have a handy reference to go to when a recipe tells me to sweat my onions, garlic and peppers.  Then onto the tools, most of which people, including myself, already have (I have one item to add to the list: mixing bowls). 
Now it’s time for ingredients and the must-have pantry staples (nothing I couldn’t find at the supermarket, and nothing too expensive!).  This is where I had to do a little more shopping, being a from-the-box eater.  I can’t wait to put some of these ingredients to use.
The last section they included before the recipe chapters is devoted to motivation: inspirational stories from real people, how they added healthy eating into their lives and the amazing results they achieved.  In regular “Spark-tacular” style, they have really captured the essence of why so many of us are on the website and purchasing the cookbook.  These are real people who were motivated to change and now their stories can be your motivation to start on your own journey.
Part II is called Get Cooking and that’s exactly what I did.  The first thing that I made was a breakfast recipe.  Previously I would eat a honey-based oat cereal cut with some bran cereal to bring down the syrupy sweetness of it and give me some fiber.  Now I must say I am hooked on Stepfanie’s Oatmeal Mix (page 79).  In fact I am going to have to prep my next batch.  This is where a mixing bowl is crucial, a large one for this recipe.  Mixing it out was super simple, even simpler if you bought pre-ground flax and pre-chopped walnuts.  Stir it up (you can tell when it is fairly well-mixed by the colouration of the cinnamon throughout), portion it out, and you're ready to eat.  The only other tool you need for this recipe is a large spoon or ladle to aid in getting it from the mixing bowl to your fridge storage system, which can be as simple as a plastic zipper bag. 
Each morning before work, I just scoop out my portion, add boiled water from the kettle, and then go pack my snacks for work.  By the time I am done I have a hot and ready breakfast.  I preferred adding a little less than the suggested 3/4 cup of water because I like my oats a little thicker.  The taste and texture are wonderful.  The only thing I did find I wanted with this recipe was a little sweetness.  The dried cranberries do add some, but by adding just 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar (unpacked) it brought out some sweetness and really accentuated the flavour of the walnuts.  That portion of brown sugar adds only 6 calories.  This recipe is a keeper and has become a staple in my house already.  Experiment a little on your thickness preferences and maybe a little sweetness if you are so inclined.  Just remember if you add it, track it. 
My next recipe was a little more difficult. 

The recipe itself was really quite good and very easy.  The difficulty for me lay in the ingredients.  I prepared the Taco Seasoning (page 371).  As the side note stated, most commercial chilli powders contain added ingredients.  I never thought about this, I figured most spices were exactly what they say they are; chilli powder.  I searched high and low for one that was pure chili powder with nothing else.  After scouring almost every grocery store in town I found it in a supermarket chain’s organic line. 

This was important to me because I have a dear friend who has an allergy to garlic.  On the chance that I may have her over to try out some of my new-found cooking talents I wanted to make sure she could eat anything I cook with this seasoning.  So once I found the chili powder, it was smooth sailing.  A little measuring, a little mixing and voila a beautiful smelling spice blend that I hope to use in many dishes to come.  I did in fact use it in my next recipe, the famous and beloved by members Slow-Cooker Salsa Chicken (page 181).

Photo from "The SparkPeople Cookbook"

What could be easier? Throw your ingredients in a cooker, wait several hours and, magically, supper is served.  While prepping this recipe, I learned why my cooking attempts have failed in the past.  For a recipe to taste its best, you need to read the whole recipe when making your grocery list, while cooking and after to make sure you have added everything on the list.  Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?  I did catch myself before it was too late and added my omitted ingredient, phew.  The really difficulty in this recipe was being home all day smelling the lovely Mexican aroma wafting from my kitchen.  I wanted to graze on tasty nachos with salsa and cheese all day.  But I refrained, and I do say it was well worth the wait.  The smell did the dish justice.  It was flavourful with a little kick from the homemade taco seasoning and salsa.  My husband wasn’t even aware that he was eating extra servings of vegetables. 

The next time I make the recipe I may make a tweak or two.  I was thinking of adding some corn and maybe some black beans.  I know I have to watch the numbers of anything I may want to add but a cup of corn or black beans divided by 8 servings could still work into my calorie range.  Trust me, this was a very filling meal and all you need is one serving over 1/2 a cup of brown rice.  If I added those extra things I may even cut the servings to 10. 

You will not want to graze after this meal.  You will be full and satisfied.  With only two of us in the house, this was definitely a meal that lasted as leftovers through the week, which is good o when I have school in the evening.

In my last blog I promised I was also going to try the Crunchy Chicken Salad (page 127).  I ran out of time and relied on the boxed meals one too many times, but I hope to give you my thoughts on it next time.  And I also hope to tell you about my experiences with Lemon Berry Tartlets (page 351), the Dark Chocolate Angel Food Cake with Rich Chocolate Glaze (page 359), Roasted Root Vegetables (page 315) and the Tomato-Cheese Frittata (page 92).  This may seem dessert heavy but I am used the dessert recipes as Christmas treats. I'll let you know whether anyone noticed that the recipes have been tweaked to be healthier. 

Until next time, eat well and have fun!  

Here is my most recent "after" photo (70 pounds off my 6-foot tall frame!):

What are some of your essential healthy cooking tools? 

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