Christina Gray, Pleasanton photographer, author and real estate professional, also has made it her mission in life to develop healthy recipes and share them with others. And since the pandemic began, cooking has become a family affair with husband Lonnie and son Ethan, 16, and daughter Lauren, 14, both students at Amador Valley High School.
“The kids have had time to really dive into cooking and baking, and it was our most precious family time every day,” Christina Gray said.
For healthy meals, they came up with new recipes for chicken piccata and shrimp fettuccini, which are now in regular rotation.
“And if it can be skewered and put on a barbecue, we have done it,” Gray said. “That is an excellent way to keep things low in fat and calories but high in flavor.”
But Gray said the “meal winner” in her home during isolation has been a recipe she developed for the Sept. 11, 2014, “Chili Cook-Off” in Dublin — which she won.
“This chili recipe is a great combination of both carbohydrates and proteins that come from vegetables, legumes and meat,” she added. “It freezes great, and if you’re a vegetarian you can easily omit the meat and substitute extra beans and vegetables.”
The list of ingredients is long, she admitted, but that is what makes it different from other chili recipes, which was important when entering the contest.
“It may look intimidating at first but it’s worth a family meal adventure to make it,” she said.
Gray published a cookbook in 2015, “Be Free Cooking — The Allergen Aware Cook,” which was named a bestseller for the year by Towne Center Books. She said the recipe from this book that gets the most compliments for being tasty is Tabbouleh Quinoa.
“This dish is a favorite of mine to make during the summer because the lemon and mint make it so light and refreshing,” she said.
She also noted, “Not all lemons are the same: Some lemons are very sweet while others are tart. If you find your dressing is too tart, just add a pinch of sugar.”
Gray said her cooking changed at first when sheltering in place began.
“The pandemic encouraged us to eat things mostly from the pantry or freezer,” she said. “We tried to leave the house as little as possible so we even froze many of our vegetables so we would have them on hand.”
They also baked “countless cookies and cakes.”
“It was a bright spot in an otherwise scary situation of COVID-19, death, isolation and virtual schooling,” Gray said.
2 cups water
1 cup quinoa
2 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup mint, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup cucumber, peeled and diced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
In a medium pot, bring water to a boil. Add quinoa, stir well, cover and turn heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes or until liquid has been absorbed. When quinoa has cooled, add the green onions, mint, parsley, cucumber and cherry tomatoes. Mix well.
In a small sealable container, add the dressing ingredients and shake well. Drizzle the dressing over the quinoa and mix. Serve warm or cold for a delicious meal.
(For added flavor, include cubed avocado or a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.)
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes (simmer up to 2 hours)
1 roasted and seeded pasilla pepper
1 lb ground beef (85% lean)
1 lb ground pork
1 tsp Most Powerful Stuff (brand of salt blend) or seasoned salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp chipotle peppers in adobo: 2 tbsp of the liquid and 1 tbsp chipotle pepper, seeded and finely chopped
15 oz kidney beans, drained
15 oz pinto beans, drained
28 oz crushed tomato
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cacao, unsweetened
2 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Roast the pasilla pepper over an open flame, either on your BBQ or gas range. Blacken the skin on all sides. Once black, remove from heat and place in a paper bag or covered container (to help the blackened outer layer pull away from the flesh of the pepper). Once cool, carefully scrape away the black outer layer. Cut the pepper lengthwise and scrape the seeds away. Chop the seeded roasted pepper and set aside. (Roasting step can be skipped if necessary.)
2. Cook the ground beef and pork in a large pot over medium heat.
3. Add 1 tbsp Most Powerful Stuff or seasoned salt and mix well. Once cooked, drain the meat and set aside.
4. In the same pot, heat the oil over medium heat.
5. Add finely chopped bell peppers, onion, garlic and roasted pasilla pepper and saute for about 10 minutes.
6. Add chipotle peppers, kidney beans, pinto beans, tomatoes and water. Stir well. The chipotle peppers in adobo are very spicy, so if you prefer less heat consider reducing or omitting this ingredient. Be mindful of the seeds, which are the spiciest part of all.
7. Add white and brown sugars, cacao, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Add more or less to taste.
8. Add the cooked meat back into the pot and mix well.
9. Simmer on low for 60 minutes with the lid on. Stir frequently so the bottom doesn’t burn. The longer it simmers, the more the flavors develop.
10. For those who prefer meatless, this recipe is easy to modify so have fun with it. Add in your favorites — extra beans, bell peppers, fresh tomatoes, whatever your taste buds desire. You will have a hearty and delicious meal in any direction you take this.