Basil leaves on a wooden table.

Pesto isn’t just for the fine dining of the rich and famous. Rather, it can be a part of the regular ol' American family dinner. While it may seem like a fancy and unnecessary addition to an otherwise tasty meal, its bold taste can elevate a food to a whole new level. Take a simple grilled chicken, for example; even when seasoned with a dry rub, it is just ordinary chicken, but when pesto is spread on top, it creates a completely different dish. And the best part of pesto is its simplicity.

I’ll admit; I’m not the most patient person. Most standard recipes will begin with the step to preheat the oven. But my growling stomach sometimes causes me to skip over that part and sneak the casserole in the oven before it “beeps,” alerting me that it’s preheated. The casserole seems to always turn out just fine, which makes me pose the question: Is it really necessary to preheat the oven?

When someone asks you to bring a salad to a potluck, do you bring a lettuce, meat, vegetable, gelatin, or dessert salad? You may need more explanation from the potluck planner or you'll just have to guess as to what dish is actually needed and desired!

Does Aunt Bethany's green Jell-O® mold with bits of cat food in it on "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" make you turn up your nose to gelatin salads? Well, most gelatin salads aren't filled with pet food but rather various fruits, vegetables, nuts, marshmallows, whipped topping, pretzels and more.

Halloween is this Friday, which means sugar-laden children dressed up as princesses and monsters running through the neighborhood. If you're strong willed, you've been able to resist opening and biting into the candy early, but if you bought the good stuff, like chocolate, you may have had a harder time backing off.

I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger and Illinois State University, Food, Nutrition and Dietetics student, Tessa Spinelli!

Do I need to salt the water when cooking pasta? My years of watching cooking shows on TV would tell me “yes.” But this hefty debate between chefs, dietitians, and the like has gone on for years. As a dietitian, my obvious answer is “no!” but it’s not quite as simple as that.

There are two main reasons why some are adamant about salting pasta water.

My saving grace during the winter, where calorie-laden foods seem to be everywhere, is citrus fruits. The clementine is one of my favorites. It's juicy, sweet, and serves as the perfect snack. But what exactly is a clementine?

Many people think that a clementine is the same as a mandarin orange, but that's not entirely correct. A clementine is a variety of mandarin oranges, but they are not the same as what you buy in a can or fruit cup. Most canned mandarins are a variety called Satsuma, originally from Japan. Tangerines are also a variety of mandarin oranges.

Who doesn't love cheese? Grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, baked lasagna with ooey gooey cheese melted all over it are common cheesy dishes. But with over 2,000 varieties to choose from, it's time to put a little more thought into your cheese choices.

Cheese is formed from milk. Milk is curdled by the addition of acid, rennet (enzymes) or bacteria. The mixture separates into whey (water) and semi-solid curds (mostly fat and protein). Acid and salt are then added to the curds to promote longer shelf life and impart flavor.

The holiday season is a time of giving, and what's not the perfect gift but a homemade treat from your kitchen? While peanut brittle, fudge, and cookies are a popular and generally safe choice, you'll need to consider a few things before giving away homemade jarred goods, such as jams and jellies, dessert sauces, and even cake in a jar.

I get this question all the time: is honey any healthier than granulated sugar? The short answer is no, but there are some differences to make note of.

Both honey and sugar are carbohydrates, but each carry different characteristics. While ounce for ounce, the nutrients in honey and table sugar are generally the same, honey weighs more than sugar. Therefore, a teaspoon of honey actually has slightly more calories and carbohydrates than a teaspoon of sugar.

I’ve always been a sucker for fettuccine alfredo. I can distinctly remember my very first taste of the creamy white pasta; I was a long-haired junior high kid on vacation with my cousin, and when she ordered the dish at an Italian restaurant, I had to be just like her, so naturally I ordered the same thing. And it was love at first bite!

Many people find cauliflower bland and uninspiring, and when this colorless vegetable is unseasoned and eaten by itself, I’d have to agree.

But you should never underestimate the power of the cauliflower. It’s remarkably versatile with a mild flavor that can work to your advantage, and although it is not a starchy vegetable, its unique texture makes it a perfect substitute for other starchy foods.

Typically, cauliflower is eaten raw, steamed or boiled. Try it roasted, however, and it will knock your socks off.

Happy New Year! Now is the time that many people reflect back on the previous year and look forward to a new year with a fresh start. Morning news segments, talk shows, and advertisements are all about giving advice to help you set your new year's resolutions. You'll hear about foods that you should eat, foods that you shouldn't eat, vitamins, herbal supplements, diet pills, exercises that work, exercises that don't work, BPA-free water bottles and high-SPF sunscreen.

Christmas morning breakfast in my house is more than just the usual oatmeal, cereal or smoothie. I admit; it generally consists of an unhealthy Danish, donut or cinnamon roll…but with a bowl of fruit, of course! This year, I am fixing my fellow co-worker's healthier take on Apple Donuts.

As my son is nearing the age of starting solid foods, I've began to contemplate whether or not to make my own baby food. I want my child to receive fresh food with no additives. However, I'm a little daunted just thinking about the work it may involve! Let's think about this a little more…

Tis the season of cooler weather and comfort foods. Nothing warms up the heart better than savory dishes, such as macaroni and cheese, potato soup, meatloaf, or fried chicken. But while these all-star fare are certainly delicious, they're also heavy and high calorie.

Burgers are the quintessential all-American grilling favorite. Nothing beats biting into a juicy burger with all the fixings. But when it's dry and under seasoned, it can be a disappointment. Just how do you get the perfect burger?

It starts with the right kind of beef. Most grilling experts will recommend a high grade chuck beef that's about 80% lean and 20% fat. However, you can still get a juicy burger using a 90% lean and 10% fat ratio, all while saving about 90 calories and 10 grams of fat. The juiciness really depends on how you cook it.

A hot summer day often calls for an icy cold treat. While ice cream and popsicles are both adult and kid favorites, they're typically loaded with added sugars and sometimes fat. Luckily, there are numerous frozen snacks that are kid-friendly, healthy, and so simple to make!

I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger, Virginia Luchini! Virginia is an undergraduate student at Illinois State University studying Food, Nutrition and Dietetics.

The oblong, pale yellow winter squash that you may have seen at the grocery store or farmers market is known as spaghetti squash. It acquired its name for a reason. Once cooked, the flesh is scraped out with a fork into long thin strands that resemble spaghetti noodles. And because spaghetti squash is not as sweet as its winter squash companions, such as acorn or butternut, it actually tastes similar to pasta.

Have you ever tried spaghetti squash before? This oblong, yellow winter squash is a fun vegetable the kids will love. Once cooked, the flesh is scraped out with a fork into long thin strands that resemble spaghetti noodles. And because spaghetti squash is not as sweet as its winter squash companions, such as acorn or butternut, it actually tastes similar to pasta.

My husband and I grew jalapeno peppers in our garden this year and made bowl after bowl of fresh salsa. After making a perfectly medium salsa and then a "so fiery hot you want to dip your whole head in a glass of milk" salsa, it made me realize how one type of pepper can have quite a long range in heat. That heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). A jalapeno pepper can have a score of 2,500 to 10,000 SHU. Of course, my two very different in heat salsas could have also been due to not scraping out the ribs well.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a coupon in the mail for hazelnut spread. I've always wanted to try it so I sent my husband on a grocery run and instructed him to pick some up. I was shocked when I took a look at the nutrition facts label and found out how unhealthy this stuff actually is!

Much controversy exists about whether the foods you eat or do not eat affect symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. No evidence has shown particular foods will stop rheumatoid arthritis from getting worse. However, some studies have shown short term improvement in symptoms with certain foods. These foods may be described as "anti-inflammatory."

Quiche. The word alone sounds fancy-shmancy, but don't let the tart pan or the perfect egg to cream ratio scare you. It's doesn't have to be fancy, and it doesn't have to be heavy and high-calorie.

Ham tends to be a traditional entrée for the Easter holiday meal, and because of its ease, you don’t need a professional chef to cook one. However, you do need to know what to look for when purchasing a ham.

Ham comes from the hind leg of a hog. There are many different varieties of ham to choose from. You should decide if you want it cooked, cured, smoked, bone-in or canned.What’s the difference?

Now that the kids are back in school, and you suddenly have to get everything prepared for the day, your nights and weekday mornings are probably a little more hectic. But keeping your child's lunch safe should never be compromised. A poorly packed lunch could lead to foodborne illness, which is more common than you think. In fact, each year one in six Americans will have foodborne illness, and because their immune systems are still developing, children are more at risk than healthy adults.

Many of us tend to get stuck in a rut when it comes to eating the same vegetables over and over. It's easy to pass up the unfamiliar and sometimes odd looking produce at the market when you have no idea what to do with them. Kohlrabi may be one of those foods, but if so, you're missing out!

The microwave oven is generally used for leftovers and TV dinners, but have you ever thought about making cakes or omelets in the microwave? These foods may actually cook better in the microwave than by other heating methods.

Ever since I saw the grind your own nut butter machines at Fresh Market, I wanted to make my own peanut butter. It's simple in its truest form. What are the ingredients? Peanuts. That's it. No hydrogenated vegetable oil, no sugar, no molasses, no mono and diglycerides and no salt.

Although it is the season of giving, foodborne illness is a gift nobody wants! Many of the favorite holiday foods pose a potential health risk if not stored, prepared and handled properly. Two of the most important rules to remember are:

1) keep hot food hot and cold food cold

Not long ago, I discovered yet another use for the slow cooker: use it as a rice cooker! After making soups, stews, dips, ciders, oatmeal and even cakes in the slow cooker, I have realized how much I truly love this appliance.

While some might turn up their nose at canned produce or canned meats, they do have their advantages. They're inexpensive and convenient, making them an easy pick to stock your pantry. And while some foods lose nutrients during the canning process, there are others that actually increase in healthy compounds. For instance, canned or cooked tomatoes have more antioxidant availability than raw tomatoes, thereby reducing cancer and cardiovascular disease risk. The same goes for carrots, spinach, asparagus, and corn. Check out my top picks for the healthiest canned foods.

Pears are a member of the rose family, mainly grown in the Pacific Northwest, and peak in season during the fall and winter months. They're a delicious fruit to keep on hand, both for snacking and cooking. Complimentary flavors include spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and ginger, cheeses, such as goat cheese, blue cheese or mascarpone, and nuts, such as pecans and almonds. Try pears on top of salad greens, pureed into soups or sauces, or poached to add a fresh taste to most any dessert.

Macaroni and cheese is generally popular among the young tykes, but as an adult, I just can't shy away from it either. It's creamy and delicious! But  mac and cheese is not known for its outstanding nutrition. High fat ingredients such as cheese, whole milk and butter make it a high calorie dish. However, a few modifications and additions and voilà! Mac and cheese can turn into a healthy entrée or side dish.

 

I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger and Illinois State University dietetic student, Tessa Spinelli!