Major Mac and Cheese Makeover

I love comfort food. Who doesn’t? My favorite has got to be macaroni and cheese. Good old-fashioned, rich, creamy, gooey, stick-to-your-ribs (and to your hips) macaroni and cheese. It sure does hit the spot on a cold winter evening or when you feel you need some home-style cooking. But seriously, who needs all that extra fat and calories?

I spent years trying out recipes of “lightened up” mac and cheese. They sure did save on fat and calories, because they were so awful I couldn’t eat them. Maybe that was the intention all along. But I still wanted my mac and cheese. So, I used my stealthy ninja skills along with my sharp objects to cut down on the bad stuff and to sneak in some healthy additions as well.

By using high protein pasta, decreasing the amount of butter (but not eliminating it completely), using unsweetened almond milk instead of whole milk, substituting butternut squash for 1 cup of cheese, and tossing in baby spinach for good measure, I believe I finally nailed it. After many tried and true attempts, here is my Major Mac and Cheese Makeover.

16 ounces  Barilla Protein Plus penne pasta

2 TBSP butter

1/4 cup flour

1 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp white pepper

dash hot pepper sauce

2 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk

1 cup cooked butternut squash

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

3 cups chopped baby spinach

Spray a casserole dish with no-stick cooking spray. Cook the penne pasta according to directions, drain and place in the casserole dish. Add the chopped spinach and toss gently. In a medium saucepan,  melt butter. Stir in flour, mustard, pepper, and hot pepper sauce and blend until smooth. Mix the cooked butternut squash in a food processor with 1 cup of the almond milk and blend until completely smooth.

(Note: I buy the butternut squash already cubed in the produce section of the grocery store. I got tired of wrestling those bad boys and losing the fight. Guess my ninja knives aren’t as sharp as I think. Or my ninja skills).

Add the squash and almond milk mixture to the pan, and slowly add the remainder of the almond milk. Cook until the mixture boils, stirring constantly. Add the cheese and cook just until cheese is melted, stirring constantly. Pour mixture on top of pasta/spinach mix, cover and cook on 350 degrees for 1 hour. The results are a smooth, creamy, mild flavored, and oh-so-satisfying macaroni and cheese. Without the fat, calories, and the guilt.

Time to Get On the Ball

When I was in grade school, our teachers used to tell us to “get on the ball!” It was a metaphor for get to work, stop slacking, quit fooling around (and having fun). Basically, time to get serious and grow up. Sheesh! What a bunch of kill joys!

But I sure wished that they meant it, literally. Because getting on the ball is a fantastic (and inexpensive) addition to any fitness program, or just simply to have some fun. In fact, it’s so much fun that you don’t feel like your doing any exercise at all. And, you can do it every day, all in the privacy of your own home. Just sitting on the ball for a few minutes each day can:

1). Improve posture, balance, core strength, and flexibility.

2). Increase blood flow, lymphatic flow, and environmental awareness.

3). Improve cognition, attention, and creativity.

4). Relieve stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

5). Make you feel like a kid again. (That one just happens to be my personal favorite).

Start by simply sitting on the ball. Once you are comfortable, you can add gentle rocking back and forth, and side to side. Start doing gentle bounces. You can even do an aerobic workout on the ball. Put on some music and go to town bouncing around. Or course, keeping safety in mind at all times. I even like doing light weights for my arms while sitting on the ball, because it gives me more bang for my buck. What can I say–I like multitasking.

If you are new to using an exercise ball (also called fit ball, Swiss ball, physio ball, Pilates ball), you might want to check in with a physical therapist to make sure you get the correct size and you know how to use it correctly and safely. But most of all, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be tedious. It can be fun and uplifting. It can even make you feel like a kid again. Without the nagging teachers.

A Day In the Life Of a Penguin

My love affair with penguins started in the 5th grade when I had to do my first research paper (ack!). We were able to chose any topic that we wanted to write about. I was completely at a loss, so my mom suggested I look in something called The Encyclopedia Britannica for ideas.

Yes, that’s the way we did it back then. No quick internet search right at your fingertips or in the palm of your hand. No, Sir-ee, not for my generation. We had to do things the hard way. Like walk a mile back and forth to school in 2 feet of snow, uphill in both directions.

Anyway, as I was flipping through the entire collection of books I saw a picture of a penguin. Eureka! I had my topic! My mom looked a bit skeptical when I told her I wanted to write a paper on penguins, but she agreed to help me. Over the next few days, we both fell in love with these adorable mammals as we learned about their habits and patterns. I even remember a few fun facts to this day.

For example, penguins are incredible social. And, even though they can’t fly, they can jump as high as 9 feet. That sure would come in handy in a ballet class or during my ninja training days. Also, penguins display very intricate courting behavior. I guess that means the females preen their feathers and the males flex their muscles.

I even remember how they know if it’s safe to go in the water. They all gather at the waters edge and begin pushing and shoving each other until one of them falls in. If the penguin swims around, they’re good to go. If the hapless penguin gets eaten by a predator….well, you get the idea.

I learned a lot of life’s lessons doing that report. First of all, it’s good to belong to a community. After all, there is safety in numbers. Next, sometimes you need to be able to jump and rise above the fray to get to where you’re going. Finally, don’t make it a habit to push to the front of the line in a crowd, because you might not make it out alive, literally and figuratively.

This sweet memory was triggered when my sister showed me a video of the penguin parade at the Pittsburgh Zoo last month. And, the fact that National Penguin Day was last month. Who knew?

I still love penguins. And I love the fact that for the next 40 years, any time my mom and I saw a penguin, we would look at each other and smile. My mom would always ask if I remembered “our” report on penguins. Which , by the way, I got an “A” on. I always assured her that I did. Because I remember everything, especially a day in the life of a penguin.

Hallelujah Kale Salad

I have a love-hate relationship with kale. On the one hand, I love the incredible health benefits in this beautifully colorful but pungent vegetable. On the flip side, I don’t like to eat it. Period. End of discussion.

A few years ago, I used my stealthy ninja tricks to sneak more kale into my diet. I had started juicing, because I heard about the almost magical benefits of this latest dietary fad. One of my friends even assured me that her green juices gave her “super powers.” Hmmmmm….I thought to myself, who wouldn’t want that? And I started adding kale to my juices.

Since my martial arts class started at noon, it was always a challenge to figure out when to eat lunch. Eat too close to noon and you feel like you’re going to throw up. Which would certainly defeat your opponent, but there are better ways of doing that. Eat too early and you’re defeated by your own plummeting blood sugar. Having a freshly rendered juice before leaving for the dojo seemed to be the perfect solution.

Until the day when I was feeling exceptionally adventurous and put an entire bunch of kale in my juice before I ran out of the house to go to class. Class always began with a vigorous acrobatic warm up including a complex series of rolls, falls, cartwheels, etc.  After my first 2 rolls I realized I had made a serious error in judgment. I managed to keep it together (if you catch my drift) for the rest of the class, but I assure you, I never did that again!

Recently, a friend of mine shared her kale salad recipe with me. It involves “massaging” the kale to make it soft and tender. Always skeptical, I tried it in spite of my misgivings, figuring I could always put it in the composting if it was inedible. It was delicious! So good that I ate the entire bowl in one sitting, without the dire side effects I experienced from the kale juice. Halleluja! Kale really can be irresistible! So….here it is. My Hallelujah Kale Salad.

1 bunch green kale

1 ripe avocado

1 lemon

sea salt

Mash the avocado in a large bowl. Strip the leaves from the stem, tear into smaller pieces, and toss them into the bowl. Add the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon and “massage” the ingredients together with your hand. Not only does it soften and tenderize the leaves as you work the avocado into the kale, it’s an awesome way to work out some anger issues. Not that I would know anything about that. (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes right now). Sprinkle sea salt to taste and mix together.

You might want to add a bit more lemon juice. I like things that are tart (like myself), so I actually use an entire lemon. During a creative streak, I tried adding ingredients like garbanzo beans, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., but it didn’t quite work out. In this salad, the kale stands alone. Enjoy!