Kim Murrell had already earned a business degree from James Madison University and started her first post-college job when she decided what she wanted to do with her life.
Unfulfilled at work, Murrell thought about where she found satisfaction and decided it was in the kitchen. Specifically, figuring out what to cook to reach her best shape as she tackled training for running half-marathons.
She watched "The Biggest Loser" on television and saw the people helping the contestants shed weight, and she thought, why can't that be me?
That's when she "knew I wanted to make a career of helping people feel better about themselves, live longer and be happier," Murrell said. Choosing Buffalo State College for its registered dietitian program, she moved to Buffalo, and has one year remaining before getting her degree.
In the meantime, Murrell has taken on the task of lightening up favorite recipes, and publishing them on her blog, applebutterharmony.wordpress.com.
"Since I'm studying nutrition, I'm asked for recipes, ones I've adapted to be a little bit healthier," Murrell said. "The blog gives me something to refer [people] to."
Murrell often feeds her boyfriend, Dan Klee, which makes him "my guinea pig" for cooking experiments, she said. If she's gone too far in making a dish healthy, he'll let her know.
She grew up in Stony Brook, with a mother who made a point of cooking family dinner - "It was at 6 p.m., every single night," she said, "my high school friends even knew it" - and an Italian grandfather who loved to talk about food. "I kind of grew up eating a meal [while] talking about the next meal."
So when she went to college, she started asking her mother for simple recipes - survival cooking. Then she started enjoying it.
When she decided to refashion stuffed peppers in a healthier fashion, Murrell started with the sausage, replacing pork with chicken. "The saturated fat difference is almost four grams a serving, which is a pretty big change," she said. "I wanted to get the quinoa in there instead of the rice, because quinoa has protein, fiber and flavor. It fills you up faster, where rice is mostly carbohydrates."
She added a bell pepper in the mix, for another vegetable. Then she brought the cheese down, to a cup of reduced-fat cheese for six peppers. "It gives you the flavor," she said. "It doesn't have to be full-fat to give you the flavor."
Murrell now works at her internship in local hospitals, helping people meet their specific nutritional needs. So far, food is the place where Murrell can mix business with pleasure.
"I find the kitchen the happiest place in the house," Murrell said. "I really enjoy being here, even if it's really hot. If I can make something people like? I love that."
Stuffed Banana Peppers with Quinoa and Chicken Sausage
½ pound chicken sausage
½ cup uncooked quinoa
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ white onion, diced
1 orange pepper, diced
1a tablespoons olive oil
6 banana or yellow Hungarian peppers
1 cup reduced-fat Mexican blend cheese
14.5 ounce can reduced- sodium chicken broth
28 ounce can low-sodium crushed tomatoes, divided
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
Boil a large pot of water. Chop the tops off the banana peppers and clean them of seeds by making a long slit down the side of the pepper lengthwise. Once water is boiling, add banana peppers and cook for 5 minutes.
While peppers cook, rinse quinoa thoroughly in fine colander or sieve.
Heat olive oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Saute onion, sausage and orange pepper in hot oil until vegetables are tender and sausage is cooked, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic in last 3 minutes of cooking.
Add half of crushed tomatoes, quinoa, chicken broth, basil, oregano and crushed red pepper flakes to the skillet. Bring to a boil; turn down heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and mix in the cheese.
Place 2-3 spoonfuls of remaining crushed tomatoes on bottom of a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Place cooked, sliced open banana peppers into the dish. Stuff each pepper with about ¾ cup of the sausage-quinoa mixture or enough to fill it. Divide what is remaining in the crushed tomatoes can across the tops of the six peppers, then top with a sprinkle of panko breadcrumbs. Brown under broiler. Serves: 6 as appetizer.
Breaded Chicken with Brie and Caramelized Walnuts
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 and 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6 ounces brie cheese, thinly sliced
1/2 cup walnuts
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Salt and pepper
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Trim and rinse chicken breasts. Lightly season with salt and pepper on each side.
Beat eggs in a small bowl. Place wheat flour in shallow dish and panko breadcrumbs in another shallow dish. Dip chicken breasts in flour, then egg, then panko. Set aside.
Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in a medium, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook breaded chicken breasts 3-4 minutes per side until outside covering is lightly golden and crispy.
Transfer chicken breasts to a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes, turn chicken and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
Preheat broiler. In a small bowl, mix basil and cranberries with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil and brown sugar in a small nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add walnuts and cook on low for about 5 minutes until walnuts are coated. Drain off excess oil.
Once chicken is cooked, add sliced brie evenly to the top of each chicken breast and broil 2-3 minutes until melted.
Remove from oven and place an even amount of caramelized walnuts on top of each chicken breast. Dot with basil-cranberry mixture. Serve with mixed greens salad of your choice. Serves 6.