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Last week a lot of people asked me for the rest of the recipes from cooking with Ashley. Happy to oblige. They were all delicious, easy and made lunch a lot more interesting. Enjoy everyone! More adventures to follow

Asparagus and Baby Bok Choy

Boil pot of water, add sea salt. Take same color vegetables – suggestion: 1 bunch of asparagus, 2 baby bok choys – and drop in the roiling water for 1 to two minutes. Remove and immediately put in pre-prepared bowl of ice water. Test to see if tender but still crisp.

Dressing: Chop ½ bag of scallions, mince knob of ginger, add 1 t. orange zest (not the white part – will make it bitter) and juice of one orange. Add salt and pepper. Pour over vegetables and allow to marinate.


Acorn Squash and Oyster Mushrooms with Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Cut acorn squash in half and then slice into ¼ inch slices. Use 1 t. olive oil on baking pan. Spread out acorn squash and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook at 400 for 20 minutes.

Saute oyster mushrooms in 1 t. canola oil (olive oil will smoke) until mushrooms turn golden. About 5 minutes. Add ½ of a minced Thai chili. Wash hands immediately after chopping chili and do not touch anything else before you do. No, this will not make the dish very spicy. Squeeze juice of 1 orange into dish and add ½ t. balsamic vinegar and 3 T pepitas.


Chicken Salad

Bake chicken breast with lemon oil (found at Oh Olive!) or slices of lemon. Chop cooked chicken, add 1 c Greek yogurt, chopped scallion, basil, salt and pepper.


Chef Ashley Runner showing Martha how to 'shock' vegetables without killing them off.

I started cooking differently, which means at all, on October 26th of last year. That’s the day I finally decided to change a few things about myself from the inside out and it came out as more vegetables, smaller portions and nothing processed. So far, that also means 70 fewer pounds and a size 22 to a size 10.

My first attempts at cooking, like I said last week, resulted in a lot of braised pans, charred steaks, mushy vegetables and very dry chicken. For some reason I just kept going this time and pushed through all of those horrible weeks of trying to learn how to cook.

But even as the meat became more tender and the vegetables weren’t so limp, the bland factor was still pretty high. Everything kind of tasted the same.

Just last week, however, I learned that my friend, Ashley has been a professional chef and loves to teach newbies like me how to make great dishes with affordable ingredients and not a lot of time.

In just two hours we made pork chops with granny smith apples and cabbage, roasted red peppers with basil and scallions, a vegetable tartlet without the tart that has eggplant, tomato, red onion and squash, asparagus and baby bok choy shocked vegetables with an orange and ginger dressing, and acorn squash with oyster mushrooms. It was all so easy that I could do it again without wondering how we got to the ending and it was in my budget.

My refrigerator is now full and I will be the envy of everyone at the office tomorrow.

Vegetable Tartlet (without the tart)

Slice two red onions, a small eggplant, two yellow squash and three roma tomatoes. Drizzle 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a tart pan or baking dish. Arrange the vegetables and top with fresh thyme, oregano or marjoram. Drizzle 2 teaspoons of olive oil over the top. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes. Baste with the juices and bake for 20 more minutes. Voila!

Thank you, Ashley for being a part of this journey and helping me to continue to change. Seventy pounds lost so far, more adventures to follow.

Ashley Runner is available for private cooking lessons – leave a comment here if you live in the Chicago area and would like to learn more.


Yes, that's my pan. A lot of scorched food has led to a few good cooking lessons

Back in October of last year I finally found a way to eat that wasn’t so crazy and the pounds started to come off.

However, just two months later I was doubled over in pain wondering if I had stomach flu till I realized that the flu doesn’t tend to come and go. About an hour or two after I ate something, even the smallest bites, I was curled up, unable to do anything else, wondering what had happened. A couple of tests later and I found out I had Celiac and my body was fed up with the way I was treating it. No more gluten, which means wheat, rye or barley and in my case, and a lot of people with celiac, no more soy.

I’ve made the joke more than once that God was doing for me what I had refused to do for myself. Nothing like pain as a motivator to get my hand to stop reaching for that cupcake or cereal or cheese-filled pretzels. Instead, I was reading labels down to the last ingredient and ranting about soy being in chewing gum. Trader Joe’s has become my favorite place to shop because unlike Whole Foods they have gluten-free options that don’t include soy. I’ve discovered the web site and read up on the topic while finding some recipes. I’ve gone out for tea with a gluten-free friend, Jess who smiles at my frustration and then calmly makes suggestions about how I can do things differently. She has an ingenious way of ignoring my sighs and getting me to believe this too will be okay.

At first, I burned a lot of food or at the least dried it out till it was pretty inedible. I’ve also rolled the dice on some salad dressings that said ‘canola or soy’ hoping for the best and realized that occasionally it’s going to be soy and bad things will follow. But over time I’ve turned down the flame on the stove and found the store, ‘Oh Olive’ that has unbelievably good oils and balsamic vinegars that make cooking so much easier. And, I’ve discovered that another friend, Ashley can cook and is willing to come over and teach.

One of my hope-to-do items was to learn how to cook better but I never had much real ambition until I had a good enough reason. Boring green beans and plain chicken is apparently my breaking point.

The good news is, Jess is rubbing off on me and I seem to be more excited about learning to cook with natural ingredients and expanding my repertoire than focused on being unable to pick something up quickly and just eat it. Makes me wonder how that new way of looking at life – some things are worth doing right – will pay off in other areas. I’ll let you know. More adventures to follow.


Ann Ogden Gaffney, founder of Cook for Your Life

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer I feel an instant kinship with anyone else who’s had the same label slapped on them. It’s an afterthought to me to find out what kind.

The word cancer though actually encompasses a myriad of forms of cells growing out of control inside the body. But hearing that someone else has the Big C, whether it’s the same form or not, instantly creates a bond.

I know what it’s like to have the idea put into a more concrete form that I may not live as long as the rest of you.

It’s after that initial wave passes that a strange and wonderful thing happens to a lot of survivors. We look for ways to insert ourselves back into life while being of service to others with our newfound appreciation.

Blessings pop up as we create a way for all of our fellow survivors to plug back into a new definition for their life.

Ann Ogden Gaffney who is a 10 year survivor of kidney cancer and a five year breast cancer survivor took that universal philosophy and melded it with her love of cooking and created, Cook For Your Life, in 2007 by teaching patients at St. Luke’s in New York City and that’s when she saw the huge demand and decided to make a change.

Classes are held in the NYC area for both cancer patients, survivors and even caregivers to offer them a chance to learn how to cook, pour their emotions into chopping and stirring and find some understanding among fellow travelers. “The cooking classes help them get through difficult times,” said Ann. “It’s a warm situation with a lot of chopping and chatting.” Classes are also offered in Spanish and Ann hopes that Cook For Your Life will eventually spread to other cities.

I’m hoping Chicago is next.

Somewhere in the middle of being diagnosed so many times with skin cancer I realized that eating better would probably benefit my immune system. The trick was going to be finding a way to learn how to eat what they call “closer to the ground”, or less packaged food without overwhelming myself. [click to continue…]