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Counter Intelligence: Drive past the drive-through

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It has been reported that the most commonly used appliance for family meals is not the stove, oven, gas grill or even microwave. It is the power window.

Drive past any fast-food restaurant and witness the scores of cars in line. Engines running. People sitting, drinking in the exhaust of the cars all around them. Waiting for an underpaid worker to hand them an overpriced bag of food.

Is this really fast? Is it really good?

We seem to be so busy that we opt for food from the window instead of cooking for ourselves and our family.

Our lives are full.

But really how long does it take to assemble a sandwich or roll up a wrap? Allow a few extra minutes before rushing out the door.

Blend a healthful fruit smoothie to enjoy on your commute. Quickly scramble an egg with last night's grilled veggies. Wrap it in a whole-wheat tortilla and you have a breakfast burrito.

Once you've mastered this new morning groove, you can step up to the dinner plate. When evenings are full of meetings, kids' activities, you name it, the drive-through often becomes dinner default. Drive on past.

Research shows that the things parents are concerned about can be improved by sitting down to dinner together.

Believe it or not, you'll be saving time and money. This change of routine will add extra minutes to your day, and help create quality time with your family. Who wants to spend precious time waiting in a drive-through line?

If you've simply taken a break from cooking at home, make a commitment to get back on track. If you are a stranger to the kitchen, gradually master a few quick recipes and it will become a happy habit.

People who report kicking the fast-food habit brag about their slimming waistlines and their growing cash savings. That's something to smile about.

Dress-It-in-a-Bowl Caesar Salad

Keep these ingredients on hand so you can quickly toss this amazing salad whenever the Caesar craving hits.

     Juice of 1 lemon

     1    head of Romaine lettuce

     1     teaspoon Gulden's mustard

     Pinch of salt and a few cracks of pepper.

     3     tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

     1/2  cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

WASH and dry the lettuce (a salad spinner is a big time saver). Keep chilled until ready to serve.

MIX the lemon, mustard, salt and pepper in a large salad bowl. Gradually whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil, then add about 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

TEAR the lettuce and add it to the bowl. Toss the salad, then top with remaining Parmesan. Add grilled chicken and/or croutons, if desired.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad

     1 1/2     pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

     3     tablespoons olive oil

     1     teaspoon salt

     1/2     teaspoon black pepper

PLACE chicken between two sheets of plastic wrap and gently pound with a meat mallet to an even 1/2-inch thickness. Remove the top sheet of plastic wrap, and brush the chicken with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with half of the salt and pepper.

HEAT a lightly oiled, well-seasoned large-ridged grill pan (see note) over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Place chicken, oiled side down, onto hot grill. Brush the other side of chicken with remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn chicken after 4 or 5 minutes, when golden. Cook on the second side until just cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes longer.

TRANSFER chicken to a cutting board and slice crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. Place chicken on top of salad and serve.

Note: A cast-iron grill or skillet works well here. Chicken can be grilled over a traditional grill also. Pounding the chicken helps it cook very quickly and evenly.

Garlic Croutons

     1     baguette, torn into bite-size pieces

     2     tablespoons olive oil

     3     cloves garlic, peeled and gently smashed

HEAT oven to 375°.

TEAR the baguette into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and drizzle with the olive oil, add the garlic and toss.

SPREAD bread pieces out on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Carefully toss and turn the croutons and continue baking for 5 to 10 minutes longer until croutons are crunchy and golden. Serve with the salad. Leftover croutons can be stored in an airtight container for a few days (discard the garlic before storing).

Summer Peach Smoothie

Peaches make a delicious, creamy smoothie. West Virginia-grown peaches are available at Capitol Market throughout the summer. You can make up your own creation depending on the fruits that you have on hand.

     2/3  cup plain yogurt (see note 1)

     1/3  very ripe banana, peeled, sliced and frozen (see note 2)

     1     fresh peach, well rinsed, pitted and sliced

     1/3  cup orange juice

     Honey, to taste (just a squirt)

     Ice cubes

PUT the yogurt in the container of a blender. Add the banana, peach and orange juice. Put the lid securely on the blender and blend on high speed until smooth. Turn the blender off, add a squirt of honey and blend again. With the machine running, remove the center part of the blender lid and drop in a few ice cubes and blend until ice is crushed. Freeze any leftover smoothie in ice pop molds or small paper cups for smoothie pops.

Note 1: I like to use Greek yogurt; it has double the protein and calcium of regular yogurt. Plain Greek yogurt is available in large containers, but be sure to choose the fat-free or low-fat variety. The "full-fat" type is very high in fat -- not what you want in a fruity, refreshing smoothie.

Note 2: Hold on to those blackening bananas. Rather than toss your overripe bananas, peel and slice them and lay them on a  cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze them, then bag the frozen banana chunks into freezer bags, ready for smoothies any time.

Taco Salad Wraps

This vegetarian wrap, made with a flour tortilla, is a salad you can eat with your hands. Pack it for a lunch on the go.

     1    15 1/2-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

     2     teaspoons olive oil

     1/2     teaspoon ground cumin

     1     teaspoon chili powder

     6     flour tortillas (10-inch diameter), preferably whole wheat

     3    plum tomatoes, chopped

     1    cup shredded cheddar cheese

     1     handful fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

     1     avocado, chopped (optional -- see note)

     6     large green-leaf lettuce leaves

MASH together with a potato masher or fork the beans, olive oil, cumin and chili powder.

LAY tortillas out on a work surface. Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons bean mixture on each tortilla, halfway between the center and bottom edge.

TOP each with some chopped tomato, cheese, cilantro leaves and avocado. Cover with a lettuce leaf. Fold bottom of tortilla up to hold the filling in, then fold in one side over filling and roll it up to make a tidy wrap. Wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap.

KEEP refrigerated or in a lunch cooler until ready to serve. Extra wraps keep for a day or two.

Note: If reserving wraps for another day, sprinkle the avocado with a little fresh lime juice to keep it from browning.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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