Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Southern Feast

Tonight my Georgia (the state)-native mother-in-law helped me create a delicious vegan southern feast for dinner. Sorry we forgot to take pictures! I made this collage of the staples we used, which brought back memories for my MIL and got my preschooler excited about trying some new foods.

Dish #1: Pan-fried okra and potatoes. I'd never bought okra before yesterday. Honestly I'm not a big fan of the gooey vegetable. But my MIL loves it and I wanted to surprise her. I learned that, when choosing fresh okra from the store, smaller is usually better, and firm is better than flimsy. But they should not be too hard either. I think I did ok. We sliced each thin (they're very pretty once sliced, like little stars) and cubed a few potatoes into tiny pieces. I tossed them both in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper. Then pan-fried them in canola oil. Yum.

Dish #2: Collard greens with "bacon." Traditional southern collards almost always call for a ham hock or bacon. Or both. I pan fried some fakin bacon and used that in simple braised fresh collards. I was surprised at how yummy they were. They were my son's favorite. There's nothing like watching a 3-year-old stuff his face with cooked leafy green vegetables.

Dish #3: Blackeyed peas with "sausage." Ok have you ever tried soy chorizo? The stuff is unbelievable. And the recipe is laughably simple: 2 cans of rinsed, drained blackeyed peas, and 1 tube of soy chorizo (1/2 a package). (I used the Trader Joes brand.) Heat, stir, serve. Tastes like a complicated dish slaved over for hours.

Dish #4: Quinoa pilaf. Ok, NOT traditional southern, but I wanted to include a healthy grain. We pretended it was grits, but of course quinoa is a much better source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Dish #5: Sliced cucumbers and tomatoes in vinegar and dill. Southern, I'm not sure... but what American vegetable garden is without cukes and tomatoes? I watered down the vinegar and threw on some dried dill.

It's fun to pick a food theme and run with it. And in this day and age, there's almost nothing you can't veganize yet still maintain an authentic look and flavor.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Vegan Treats Get Fancy

Check out this recent story from the Washington Post -- a former Ritz Carlton pastry chef is baking vegan cookies! Every week I see more evidence of a mainstream acceptance of vegan foods and a vegan lifestyle. This article also features a recipe for vegan biscotti -- a challenging cookie to veganize. I can't wait to try it. Here's the recipe for Chocolate Ginger Biscotti, and Pecan Snowballs. One thing is for sure: vegans aren't hurtin' for dessert. And even non-vegans (as this article agrees) are jumping on the vegan dessert bandwagon -- my dad (a self proclaimed NON VEGAN) prefers the vegan version of Whole Foods bakery chocolate chip cookies to the traditional ones. It's endearing, the way he thinks he's boosting his health with these cookies as if they were steamed kale, but I'm not about to burst his bubble. And I've yet to meet anyone who did NOT take second helpings of my vegan chocolate mousse pie, made, of course, with tofu.

Now, to find a vegan meringue....

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bone Health: not only about calcium

It's always been a pet peeve of mine that "calcium" is synonymous with "bone health." There's no question that bone is predominantly calcium and that dietary calcium is important. However, there are so many other factors that are crucial to bone health, but they don't get all that much attention. This is probably due to the Dairy Council's fine job at convincing most Americans that without dairy products and all that calcium, they can't possibly have strong bones. Nutrition experts know that this is ridiculous; dairy products are just one food (essentially milk from a cow), and cultures worldwide and for thousands of years have enjoyed superior bone health without a spec of dairy. Dairy farming is a relatively recent advent in history, and not practiced by all cultures. Furthermore, we know that dairy is not the secret to osteoporosis prevention, because the countries with the highest intakes of dairy products also have the highest osteoporosis rates. Calcium is abundant in whole plant foods; we don't NEED dairy products to get calcium.

Want strong bones? It's not only the calcium you take IN that matters, it is important not to LOSE the calcium that you have. And it turns out that if you're doing all the wrong things and you're LOSING calcium from your bones, all the calcium pills in the world won't do much for you. You have to RETAIN that calcium, and the best way to promote calcium retention is to practice those habits that make the most difference. These include:

EXERCISE. Weight-bearing exercise is the cornerstone of bone density. Even seniors can build bone mass by doing regular, moderate exercises. Indeed, studies have shown tremendous benefit to certain exercises with regard to reduced risk of fractures. Free weights, running, walking are all good bone-building activities. Swimming and biking are great cardio workouts but aren't good bone-builders; mix up your routine for the best results.

MAXIMIZE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. A recent study out of Boston published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showed that forcing an alkaline environment in the gut promoted bone retention, while an acidic environment promoted bone loss. This relationship has been known for some time, but this study actually measured the results in a methodical fashion. The authors suggest that increasing fruit and vegetable intake will naturally help lean the environment more alkaline, helping to retain bone mass. Yup, ANOTHER benefit to eating lots of fruits and vegetables! Foods like meat and dairy promote acidic environments, leading to bone loss.

MINIMIZE ANIMAL PROTEIN AND SODIUM. Both have been linked to calcium excretion.

TAKE A VITAMIN D SUPPLEMENT. The research keeps pouring in about vitamin D. Vegan or not, take 1000 IU a day. Vitamin D is absolutely crucial for bone health; indeed the #1 symptom of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, which is a bone disease. Furthermore, studies have shown that supplementing with D reduces fracture risk. See vitamindhealth.org for more information.

EAT YOUR SALAD. Vitamin K is an important vitamin for bone health. It is found mostly in leafy green vegetables (raw or cooked, doesn't matter). Potassium, a mineral found in abundance in most fruits and vegetables, is also important. Do you see a pattern?

Getting back to my point that calcium intake is still important, the best vegan calcium sources include leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified soy milk and OJ, and some dried fruits. Base your diet on a nice variety among the Basic 4 (whole grains, nuts/beans/seeds, fruits, and vegetables), and follow the guidelines above, and you're well on your way to optimal bone health.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A vegan gelatin?

Has it really been this long since I've posted? Yikes, time flies this time of year, doesn't it? I'll be more consistent in '09.

Well I am excited about a story I just read, brought to my attention by the nutrition news group nutraingredients: a new vegan gelatin is in the works!

This is great news for vegans and vegetarians (since an animal must be slaughtered to manufacture traditional gelatin), because a few treats are almost always made with gelatin, most notably marshmallows. And sadly, our beloved Emes vegan marshmallows (which were made with seaweed-based "gelatin") have ceased to exist for many years now. (There are vegan marshmallows out there -- Sweet & Sara's -- but they're not priced like the Campfire ones [nor do they look like the ones we used to float in our cocoa]. You can get them at Cosmos and Vegan Essentials.) According to a recent article in Vegetarian Journal, the reason for the lack of vegan gelatin is simply cost: it is far more expensive to manufacture a vegetarian gelatin than an animal gelatin. But if the folks at Avebe (an Australia-based company) can swing it, gelatin made from slaughterhouse byproducts might become a distant memory.

Things like candies and supplement capsules often contain gelatin, so hopefully this new vegan gelatin will be the standard for such products and more.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A good week for nutrition news

We all love to read good things about foods we love but we know, deep down, are not really nutritious (yes, me too). As a vegan, I also enjoy reading things about foods that people justify, over and over, as healthful and appropriate, when we all know that regular consumption of these foods is the foundation of chronic disease. The more evidence that piles up against the consumption of animal products, the bigger push there will be towards the general acceptance of plant-based diets.

This month, the journal Diabetes Care (click here for the abstract) published a study by Harvard researchers who reported that people who eat eggs daily may substantially increase their risk of type 2 diabetes.

According to the study, this is the first time researchers investigated this particular connection. The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; no conflict of interest has been reported.

The study analyzed the eating habits of 57,000 people (a combination of the Physician's Health Study and the Women's Health Study) and concluded that men and women with the highest level of egg consumption (one a day or more) were 58% more likely and 77% more likely, respectively, to develop type 2 diabetes than those who did not eat eggs.

That's pretty impressive. Sometimes study results can be attributed to chance or confounding variables. With numbers this high (57,000 subjects) and the effect this strong, it's highly unlikely that these results are not real. Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation, so the effect may not be quite this strong, and of course not generalizable to everybody. Some alternate explanations for the reported observations include (per the lead researchers): First, the data did not include repeat fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and other biomarkers of glucose metabolism to comprehensively examine possible physiologic mechanisms. Second, he observational studies may also have been limited by self-reporting and residual confounding, Third, the generalizability may have been limited as well by the homogeneous, primarily Caucasian health professional population, which may have different behaviors than the general population (reference).

In other news, a recent Dutch study presented at a recent American Heart Association Meeting reports that all trans fats -- regardless of its source -- raise blood cholesterol levels. (Click here for more details.) This is an important finding because historically, nutrition professionals have warned against the trans fats that are manufactured as a result of hydrogenation of fat (listed on a label as "partially hydrogenated oil" -- found mainly in processed foods like crackers, cookies, and condiments), essentially ignoring the contribution of naturally-occurring trans fat, that is, trans fat found in dairy products and meat. Most people aren't even aware that animal products are a natural source of these damaging fats. The amount of trans fats in a typical serving of meat or dairy is relatively low, but over time the amounts do add up and are indeed significant. Add yet another reason to follow a primarily (or exclusively) plant-based diet.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hummus Heaven

I love hummus. I crave it like some crave chocolate cake. When I was pregnant, my favorite meal was a sesame bagel smeared with hummus and topped with a thick slice of tomato.

Hummus is a simple spread made from cooked, mashed chick peas (garbanzo beans), sesame tahini (ground sesame seeds, or sesame butter), lemon, garlic, olive oil, and seasonings. The recipe originated in the Middle East, and sure enough if you visit different ethnic restaurants, each region does something a little differently with their hummus. The quality, type, and proportion of the ingredients yield wildly different results. Vary with herbs like parsley; other beans like black beans; add-ins like roasted red pepper or hot peppers, and the possibilities are endless. Cedars brand used to make a chocolate hummus!

A trip to your local grocery store will reveal no shortage of hummus; there are at least 7 different brands I can think of, with a huge variety of flavors, sizes, and prices. I have sampled many, many types of hummus in my time, but none compare to the one pictured here: it is from my local bagel store, called King of Bagels, at 560 Bloomfield Ave, Montclair. The woman who works there makes the hummus herself, and it's delicious.

Since I love hummus so much, I thought I'd share some favorite ways to use it, and give you my own recipe:

1 can chick peas (drained, liquid reserved)
1/4 cup sesame tahini
3 cloves garlic
juice of 1-2 lemons
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
fresh parsley
salt, pepper, and cumin to taste (note: you may not need salt because the liquid that the chick peas are canned in is already salted.)

In a blender, puree the drained chick peas and remaining ingredients. Add reserved liquid slowly until desired consistency is reached.

Hummus is good for you too! Of course it is -- it's 100% whole plant foods (plus the olive oil, which you could leave out). It is a good source of iron, calcium, zinc, protein, fiber, and vitamin C. And it has a nice balance of carbs, fat, and protein, making it ideal for stabilizing blood sugars and avoiding that spike that often results from sugary or low-fiber snacks.

Some uses:
  • In a pita with lettuce, tomato, and chopped raw veggies
  • As a mayonnaise or pesto stand-in, on a roasted vegetable sandwich (see my last post!)
  • Thinned out and used as a salad dressing
  • As a dip for raw veggies, chips, pretzels, mini toasts, rice cakes... anything you can dip
  • On a cracker
  • On a slice of bread or bagel, topped with red onion, sprouts, lettuce, tomato...
  • In a wrap with tabouli (another Middle Eastern salad) or falafel
  • As a sauce -- try tossing with piping hot spaghetti and freshly roasted or steamed vegetables
  • As a topper for brown rice or other whole grain
  • Mixed with chopped olives, roasted portabello mushrooms, and roasted red peppers for a chunky side-dish
  • Right off the spoon -- a great pre-workout snack!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Top 10 Calorie Wasters

Even though I'm a dietitian, I don't believe in counting calories (or fat or carbs for that matter), in the strict sense, and I don't advise others to do it, even if they need to lose weight. The reason is because calorie counting is tedious at best, and, if you're susceptible to OCD or all-or-nothing thinking, the very act will drive you loony. Who wants to feel that way, when the GOAL is to feel great?

Nonetheless, the harsh reality is that calories do matter. Calories are merely the measure of energy in a food. So if a food contains 100 calories of energy, that 100 calories enters your body to do one of 2 things: 1) supply the energy your body needs to function (whether that be to think, walk, jump rope, produce a heartbeat, lift a dumbbell, or breathe), or, 2) become stored for later (fat). That's it, it's pretty simple. Where it gets complicated is asking questions about how many calories we need, which sources of calories (food) should we focus on and in what proportions, balancing calories with exercise, and so forth. Unfortunately we can get so caught up in the hype that we lose the big picture: Calories are a GOOD thing. They are our fuel for life. But when we overindulge in food, the excess energy gets converted into its ever-feared storage form: fat.

Last night my family went out to a local pub, as they offer face-painting and a kid-friendly atmosphere. I ordered an eggplant and red pepper panini (hold the fresh mozz cheese but please, yes, still DO charge for it), which, to my surprise and initial delight, came with a gigantic side of french fries: a rare treat. I tasted a fry and was immediately disappointed: they were tasteless. I had to add salt and ketchup to make them edible. After a few I stopped, realizing that the ketchup and salt were what I was enjoying, and why eat ketchup and salt plus a bland, deep-fried host-carrier? That's when I got the idea for this post: why even eat food that is loaded with calories but does nothing for our taste buds (and usually, nutrition)? If we're going to indulge in a rich food, shouldn't it be absolutely scrumptious?

I've come up with a top-ten list of calorie wasters: those foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients but don't taste delicious. In other words, "not worth it."

1. French Fries. Unless the first bite makes you sigh with ecstasy, pass on the fries. You're eating mostly oil anyway. Want potatoes? Get one baked with the skin, or roasted with olive oil and rosemary. Yum.

2. Store-bought national brand cookies. There was a time that I celebrated the fact that Oreos are vegan (they weren't always). And having one now and then is fine. But talk about a calorie waster -- Oreos are available EVERYWHERE, if I ever want one, so why splurge on something so everyday, so loaded with calories and fat, and completely devoid of anything health-supporting? Bake your own (at least you KNOW what's in them) and share with your neighbors. You'll feel better and save money and packaging. Plus you'll be very popular on your street.

3. Bad chocolate. (Enough said.)

4. Stale foods. Have you ever eaten those last few crackers, even though they've transformed into cardboard, because you didn't want to "waste" them? I have, and now I realize, they were wasted on ME -- better in the trash, and I should have grabbed a banana instead.

5. "Buttered" popcorn. I know I said I'm not a numbers gal, but did you know that the glop you can add to movie popcorn (which is usually vegan, mind you, but possibly not suitable for human consumption) is primarily hydrogenated oil? According to an article from CSPI/Nutrition Action, a large popcorn has about 80 grams of fat (due to the oil it's POPPED in), and adding "butter" topping adds 50 more grams of fat? Do you really want 1170 calories from fat ALONE while you sit at the movies and barely taste what you're eating? I'm a fan of freshly popped movie popcorn, but I find if I share a no-"butter" small size with my movie partner, the indulge factor is just right, and I don't have to worry that I just clogged an artery.

6. Sugary drinks. I once had a client who, after following my advice for weight loss, completely eliminated all calorie-containing beverages, and lost 55 pounds in 3 months. No other changes. 55 pounds. Mind you, he was drinking about three 2-liter bottles of Pepsi a day, which is unusual, but it demonstrates how quickly calories can add up and how they count just as much as calories in food. In fact, I would argue that the calories in drinks count MORE because the body does not have to work hard to digest it. If you have a sandwich, for example, you have to chew, digest, and assimilate all those nutrients, processes that require energy, so you're actually burning some calories just to process the sandwich. Sugary beverages, on the other hand, aren't much different than an introvenous feed of sugarwater. Go ahead and sip on sparkling organic grape juice now and then, but gulping down soda or juice on a regular basis is just a waste, pure and simple.

7. Large portions. I've been guilty of this: I am out to dinner or eating at someone's home and I realize I am full, but I keep eating anyway because [insert excuse here]. People around me are eating, I don't want to insult the host, the food is really good, I don't want to waste food, I'm not paying attention to my satiety because I'm too busy socializing, etc. etc. etc. If you're full, stop. Food that goes into your body that it does not truly need is worse than trashing it: either way, the food has been made (thus waste is not really an issue at this point), and the only real difference between that food ending up in your stomach or the garbage is, it won't end up as body fat if its destiny is the trash. Feel guilty about wasting food? Ask for a doggie bag. Start composting. Best yet: take only a little food, and if you're still hungry, take seconds.

8. Supersizing to "save." In this value-driven society, sellers tempt us to "maximize value" by spending just a little more to get a lot more of whatever it is you're buying. This is especially true for food. And who isn't tempted (for just one more dollar you can double your portion!)? But we must look at the "extra" we're getting and ask ourselves if we really need (or even want) extra. Extra food that our bodies don't need will, by design, end up as extra body fat. Remember, even if you pass up that great deal, you STILL end up with more money in your wallet at the end of the day. (On the other hand, I encourage this behavior at the grocery store for non-perishables: if you get a free can of beans if you buy 3, but you only need 2, by all means buy 3 and get the one free! You won't end up eating more; you'll just save some money.)

9. Pre-sweetened stuff. From soy yogurt to breakfast cereal, it makes sense to buy the "plain" or "unsweetened" variety and doctor it up yourself. Maple & Brown Sugar instant oatmeal packets, for example, have 160 calories and 13 grams of sugar, while the plain has 100 calories and 0 grams of sugar per packet. You're better off eating the plain with a cup of chopped fresh apples and a dash of cinnamon for the same calories, plus a handful of nuts for smart calories and fat, and staying power so you're not famished by 10AM.

10. Fancy coffee drinks. Consider this scenario: a week of Starbucks on your way to work, each time a grande (medium size).

Monday: Soy Caffe Mocha (250 cals)
Tuesday: Soy Cappuccino (110 cals)
Wednesday: Soy Gingersnap Latte (270 cals)
Thursday: Iced Soy Caramel Macchiato (220 cals)
Friday: Soy Hazelnut Hot Chocolate--Hey, it's Friday!... (510 cals--yup, that's sans whip).

Grand total: 1360 calories. Over a month's time, that's enough extra calories to make over a pound of body fat.

Need a morning buzz? Save about 1100 calories a week by choosing a Starbucks grande brewed coffee with a splash of vanilla soy milk. Better yet, save money and packaging and make it youself (a French press is great, or set up your machine the night before).

Deprivation stinks. That's not what this is about. It's about making minimal sacrifices and wise choices in order to maximize optimal health and longevity, while still leaving room for occasional indulgences. Isn't that ultimately what we all want?

(By the way: I only ate 1/2 my sandwich last night, so at lunch today I reheated it and added a spread of hummus--it was amazing. Hummus is a great mate for eggplant and peppers!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ban the BMI?

You know the BMI (Body Mass Index), right? It's a number that represents a relationship between your height and your weight, and is supposed to be a decent predictor of chronic disease risk (go HERE to calculate your BMI).

Well, step aside, BMI: According to a new study, a simple measurement of waist size is an even better predictor. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a large waistline increases the risk of premature death even for people who are not technically overweight. In fact, the heaviest 20% have twice the risk of dying, according to the research.

The authors conclude, "These data suggest that both general adiposity andabdominal adiposity are associated with the risk of death and support the use of waist circumference or waist-to-hip ratio, in addition to BMI in assessing the risk of death," meaning, in English, that waist circumference and/or waist-hip ratio will give us more information than just the BMI -- but not to scrap the BMI, just use both measurements to better assess risk of death.

There are strengths and weaknesses to all methods of body measurement in predictability of death: for one, skeletal sizes vary, so what is slender to a large-framed person might be overweight for a small-framed person. Second (this is the main weakness of the BMI), having a lot of muscle mass will put a potentially very fit individual into the "obese" BMI category. Third, for waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio, there is inherent measurement error (give three people a tape measure and a subject, and you're likely to get 3 different measurements, because there is variation in angle of the tape measure, the placement of the tape measure, and the force with which the tape measure is pulled around). Regardless, these measurements are still useful- as part of a larger assessment that includes diet, exercise, and genetics- to predict death and disease risk. Of course, what many people forget is that ALL of us have some degree of risk, and of course our overall risk of dying is, indeed, 100%. What we care about is, not dying because we're not healthy (as opposed to dying of simple old age).

If this sounds too clinical for you, then let's get back on the ground and look at the big picture: Eat right (and not too much) and exercise, and these measurements won't mean much for you. Maintain a healthy body with lean muscle and minimal fat, and you can be sure that your chances of living long and healthy will skyrocket.

But it's not all about weight. I could get skinny on a diet of tea and celery, or I could be far healthier with a little more "meat" on me and optimally nourished. That's why vegan nutrition is so exciting to me. We, as intelligent, free people in charge of our bodies and with real control over our fates, have the power to feed our bodies the healthiest foods and to move our bodies in the healthiest ways. What a privilege! We have this incredible gift: a body, that is all ours, the only thing, really, that belongs to each of us 100%. We have the power to choose when to say no, when to push ourselves away from the table, when to take seconds, and when to exercise. We have the power to choose the foods we put into our bodies and how much, to lift heavy objects or jump up and down or walk rather than drive. Yet so many of us take this freedom for granted, and become slaves to our jobs and other responsibilities. Not that these things aren't important: they're just not MORE important than keeping ourselves healthy. So make your good health a priority today. You and your loved ones will thank you.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sweet Potato Muffins

I love to bake on Sunday mornings. And now that my son is 3, he's really into helping. I was going to make pumpkin muffins, but I'm getting a little tired of pumpkin these days, so instead I created a sweet potato muffin recipe. I'm sure it will be just as good with pumpkin puree. Probably any puree, like applesauce, mashed banana, or butternut squash. In fact, I bet this recipe is quite versatile in general: add nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, go crazy. My version is "naked" but really tasty. It was delicious with coffee and fruit, and should be a nice pairing with a savory soup too. I'm going to freeze some so there's always something yummy for my son's lunchbox over the next few preschool days.

By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this recipe is quite nutritious. Sweet potato is PACKED with beta-carotene, and not a bad source of vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and iron. I analyzed the recipe with NutritionData.com, and here's what you get per muffin (click on the label image to see the values)--less than 150 calories, just 3 grams of fat, and about a third of the vitamin A you need in a day:

Weekend Sweet Potato Muffins
  • 1/3 cup of organic, trans-fat-free shortening (such as Earth Balance)
  • 1 cup vegan sugar
  • Egg Replacer prepared as the equivalent of 2 eggs (1 tbsp E.R. + 1/4 cup water, beaten well)
  • 1 15-ounce can sweet potato puree
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hemp milk (you can substitute soy or rice milk)
  • 1 cup organic all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder

Let shortening get to room temperature (or soften in nuker a few seconds at a time). Beat in a large bowl, using a hand beater, with sugar, prepared egg replacer, vanilla, and sweet potato puree.

In a medium bowl, whisk together ther remaining ingredients until well-blended. Add gradually to wet ingredients, folding in gently with a rubber scraper or large wooden spoon. When the ingredients are just mixed (don't overmix), fill 24 muffin pan cups evenly (a little more than 1/2 full for each) and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes.

Make the most of leftover ingredients

I admit: I wasn't always very careful about food waste. Not a week would go by where something in the fridge didn't get deep-sixed as a result of being neglected and forgotten. Oftentimes, a recipe called for parts of a whole, for example, 1 cup of pumpkin puree (and a can contains almost 2 cups) or 1/2 block of tofu, or 1 tbsp chopped parsley.

These days, with most of us feeling "the pinch," thus being more mindful about maximizing our food dollar, paired with the awareness of consumption and waste patterns that are literally ruining our planet, it is more important than ever to do our best to minimize food waste. At the same time, of course, we want to maximize nutrition and flavor.

Here are some tips around what to do with leftover ingredients.

Fresh parsley, cilantro, or other fresh herb

Many of us buy parsley a lot: quite a few recipes call for a tablespoon or two of fresh parsley, and it always makes a fine garnish. But if your parsley (or other fresh herb) is starting to look a little sad, remove the big stems, rinse well, chop it up (or put it in your food processor for a couple of pulses) and use it as the base of a tabouli salad. Traditional tabouli is made with parsley and cracked wheat (bulgur), but you can make awesome tabouli with nutritious, gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet, and any herb you want. Just cook up a cup of dry grain with 2-4 cups of water (depending on the grain: refer to a grain cooking chart like this one). Use a pressure cooker, if you have one, to save time. Then fluff the grain, let cool, and toss with the parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. Get creative and add pine nuts, halved cherry tomatoes, and/or cooked beans. Fresh herbs are also great for homemade tomato salsas, bean dips, hummus, and dressings.


Grains

Not only should you welcome incidental grain leftovers -- I recommend cooking up extras for future meals. Cooked grains will keep fresh in a covered container in the fridge for up to 5 or so days, and they cut time off of meal prep. You can use them at every meal: hot porridge in the morning with soy milk, nuts, and dried fruits; a lunchtime salad (see herbs above), a side dish at dinner, or made into a main dish with the addition of any combination of cooked vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, and seasonings.


Tomato paste / tomato sauce

Raise your hand if you never witnessed your tomato paste grow a fine white or green mold. No one? Not surprising. Most recipes call for just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, and while they come in little cans, they're still too big for most recipes. I have found that measuring it out in 1-tablespoon blobs and storing it in a covered ice cube tray in the freezer is a great solution. If you'd rather use it up, keep in mind that opened tomato paste keeps in a covered container in the fridge for about 2 weeks. Tomato paste can boost the flavor and texture of tomato-based sauces, salsas, and most soups and stews (whose flavors would not be overpowered by the addition of tomato). I often add tomato paste to canned low sodium lentil soup for a nice flavor kick, and tomato paste can even be added to some baked goods, like hearty muffins and homemade yeast breads.

Tofu

Leftover tofu goes bad fast. Even faster if you forget to change the water it's stored in each day. Here are a few great ways to use up leftover tofu: sliced, fried in a bit of oil, and used as a sandwich base. You can cube and add to most any main dish. Or freeze it: squeeze out the water, wrap it tighly in plastic wrap, and freeze. It lasts several months, and can be used as a chicken substitute, as it takes on a chewy texture once frozen. One of my favorite ways to use tofu (leftover or not) is in a tofu "egg" salad. Mash it coarsely and add chopped celery, vegan mayo, salt and pepper, and fresh or dried dill. Serve on crackers or in a pita with leafy lettuce and sliced tomato. (My son loves to find this in his lunchbox, on whole wheat bread with crunchy romaine lettuce.)

Potatoes

I love leftover potatoes! I make extra, just to have leftovers. Sweet or white, potatoes have endless culinary potential. You can do a breakfast hash, twice-baked stuffed potatoes (scoop out the pulp of a leftover baked potato, mash it up with other stuff, put it back, and bake again!), cubed and added to curries, soups, and stews, cubed and made into a salad (try one of the awesome potato salad recipes at vegweb.com), mashed and served with golden gravy, the list goes on and on.


Coconut milk

I end with this one because if you noticed in my last post, my recipe called for just 1 cup of lite coconut milk. Usually I try to use all of a can of something, but coconut milk is pretty rich, and stretches very well between two recipes.

The photo above is one of my many curry renditions. This one used leftover cubed tofu, leftover coconut milk, and leftover curry simmer sauce. You can make up your own version too. This recipe goes great with leftover potatoes too.


Make-the-most-of-leftovers curry

  • 1/2 can lite coconut milk
  • 1/2 jar vegan curry simmer sauce (Trader Joes makes a nice tomato-based one, which is what I used here)
  • 1 small onion, preferably organic, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic (or 1-2 tsp jarred garlic)
  • 1 tbsp canola or olive oil
  • 1 1-lb bag frozen chopped spinach, preferably organic
  • 1 can chick peas, preferably organic, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 block tofu
  • garam masala (optional)
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds or whatever nut you've got on hand

Whisk together the simmer sauce and coconut milk. Adjust to taste by adding curry powder or, if too strong, add water. Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until the garlic starts to brown. Add the spinach and cook, stirring and breaking up any blocks of frozen spinach, until the spinach is heated through. Add about 1/2 of the sauce. Add the chick peas and tofu, stir well, and add the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with garam masala to taste. Stir until heated through. Serve with leftover or freshly cooked rice, and sprinkled with sliced almonds.

Note: The variations here are truly endless. You can start with an onion and a sauce, and then really anything goes!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Perfect Autumn Dinner

Every fall I buy butternut squash and frankly, it always intimidates me. I never quite know what to do with it. It is so robust when raw but so delicate when cooked. And its mild flavor is particularly vulnerable to the sauces and seasonings one pairs with it. In the past, I've stuffed it and baked it, cubed it and roasted it, or made soup. This year I thought I'd get creative: I made a Thai Cashew Butternut Squash Curry, and it was really good. I served it up with freshly cooked millet and a mixed green salad. It was a perfect fall dinner.

This dinner is perfect on a cold fall night, with a glass of nice red wine or organic sparkling grape juice. I was just thinking, it's amazing how something can taste so good and still be so good for you. One cup serving of butternut squash gives you about 3 times your daily needs for vitamin A and fewer than 100 calories. It's packed with fiber, vitamin C, minerals, and is practically sodium-free.

The squash and most of the greens came straight from the Montclair farmer's market, from my favorite local organic farm (John Kreuger's). The cherry tomatoes were from another local farm; there's nothing like late season tomatoes. The organic millet and raw cashews came from Whole Foods' bulk bins. The curry paste is from an Asian market (if you buy it, look for one without fish sauce). The recipe sounds like a lot of work and time, but it was surprisingly easy and fast.

Dina's Thai Cashew Butternut Squash Curry with Millet
  • 1 cup millet, rinsed and drained
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
  • 1 cup lite coconut milk (organic is available at Whole Foods), divided
  • 3 tbsp Thai yellow curry paste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • fresh parsley for garnish

Toast the millet in a shallow saucepan until fragrant, about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring or shaking frequently while you're preparing the curry. Add the water and salt and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about 35 minutes or until water is all absorbed.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan, and saute the garlic until it starts to brown. Add squash and turn the pieces around until it becomes coated with the oil/garlic. Add all but a couple of tablespoons of the coconut milk and stir to blend. Add the curry paste to the remaining coconut milk and blend well; add to the pan. (If you add the curry paste to the pan by itself, it might clump and not distribute evenly.) Add salt and pepper to taste.

Reduce heat to low-medium and simmer until the squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Just before serving, stir in cashews and top with parsley.

BONUS -- the millet and squash are ready at the same time!

Serve with a salad and resist the temptation to take seconds right out of the pan!

Friday, October 10, 2008

What to do with kale

Kale is one of the most nutritious foods in the world. Calorie for calorie, it's got more protein than steak, more calcium than milk, and a slew of protective minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

But besides being a pretty garnish, what do you do with it?

How about as is? Well, unless you shred the leaves to the width of hair, you'll be chewing for several hours. In other words, you can eat it raw, but... make it a slaw :-)

Here are a few of my favorite ways to prepare kale, which all take under 30 minutes:

Kale and Tofu in Peanut Sauce

  1. Rinse the leaves well and discard the thickest part of the stem. Tear into large bite-size pieces and steam for about 5 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare some brown rice or other whole grain.
  3. Tear open a package of Thai peanut flavored tofu and slice into cubes.
  4. Mix a few spoonfuls of good-quality peanut sauce with some water.
  5. Toss the kale, tofu, and sauce over high heat and serve right away over the rice.


Kale, Black Beans, and Tomato

  1. Rinse the leaves well and discard the thickest part of the stem. Tear into large bite-size pieces.
  2. Take out the biggest pot in your kitchen.
  3. Saute a chopped onion in some olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  4. Throw in a 14-oz can of diced organic tomatoes and heat through.
  5. Add a can of rinsed, drained black beans.
  6. Season with salt, pepper, cumin, and a little chili powder.


Garlicky Kale

  1. Rinse the leaves well and discard the thickest part of the stem. Tear into small bite-size pieces and steam for about 5 minutes.
  2. Toast some pine nuts (but don't burn 'em!)
  3. In a large saute pan, saute lots of minced garlic in olive oil.
  4. Add the kale, heat through, and throw on the pine nuts.


Lemon Tahini Kale

  1. Rinse the leaves well and discard the thickest part of the stem. Tear into small bite-size pieces and steam for about 5 minutes.
  2. In a bowl, throw in a blob of hummus. Add some, tahini, lemon juice, and salt. Stir to desired consistency (add water if needed) and toss with the kale.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Leftover Magic (Recipe: Stuffed Peppers)

Tonight I created a real winner: a nutritious, tasty meal that was also quick and simple to make, not to mention easy on the wallet.

I got fresh bell peppers on sale a few days ago, and they've been sitting in my crisper while I contemplated how to use them.

Last night we got treated to Chinese food, and we had a full quart of leftover brown rice. Peppers + Whole Grains = Stuffed peppers!

I also had 2 Tofurkey Sausages in the "meat" drawer of the fridge, 1/2 onion, 1/2 jar of leftover tomato salsa, and my usual collection of seasonings. You see where this is going!

Here's one of my recipes for stuffed peppers. Use what you have on hand to make them your own. I'll give suggestions for substitutions for each ingredient:

Fabulous and Frugal Stuffed Peppers

  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp olive oil or vegan margarine
  • 4 whole peppers (for fun, use yellow, green, red, and orange)
  • 4 cups cooked brown rice (or any whole grain, such as quinoa, millet, or wheat berries)
  • 2 large vegan sausages, such as Tofurkey, chopped (if you're going soy-free, try 2 crumbled Sunshine Burgers)
  • 1/2 jar tomato salsa (or more or less to taste) (you can also use ketchup, BBQ sauce or teriyaki, depending on the flavor you're after)
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes
  • 2 tsp chili powder, or to taste
  • 2 tsp cumin powder

(Feel free to use other spices in place of the ones I used, especially if you're going for a different dominant flavor.)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Slice each pepper in half lengthwise , cut out the stem, and scoop out the seeds.
  3. In a small frying pan, saute the onions in the oil or margarine until translucent.
  4. In a big bowl, stir together brown rice, sausage, onions, and remaining ingredients until well-blended.
  5. Stuff each pepper half with the mixture, pressing down firmly. Place each pepper on a baking sheet, filling side up.
  6. Bake for 10 minutes, then cover with foil and bake another 30 minutes.
  7. Serve with vegan sour cream and a big salad.

Bon apepperitit!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Comfort food goes vegan

My 3-year-old recently started asking me to make "mac 'n cheese." I'm not exactly sure how he knows what mac 'n cheese is (he's never seen a single TV commercial to my knowledge... well maybe at Grandma's house). My best guess is that he was exposed to it at his daycare, where he used to attend part-time. (They made lunches for the kids there -- not vegan friendly, as you can imagine). I'll never know whether he actually tasted the stuff, but he evidently saw other kids eating it.

Anyway, I took the opportunity to introduce him to Road's End Organics Mac 'n Chreese. I was pretty psyched about it too, because they have brown rice penne, a nice break from wheat pasta. I paired it with the two healthiest foods on the planet: greens and beans. As usual, I took a shortcut; I used a bag of frozen turnip greens and canned organic white beans. I simmered both in roasted vegetable broth and drizzled on a bit of liquid aminos and olive oil.

The result? A quick and delicious, nutritionally complete meal that everyone enjoyed.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Chicken tonight?

Go ahead, do a double take. It looks like chicken. It tastes like chicken. But my version has no hormones, antibiotics, animal protein, animal fat, cholesterol, or cruelty.

I get a lot of my recipes from non-veggie sources. Mind you, I don't actually purchase cookbooks that feature flesh, but I do find great recipe ideas from my mom's chicken cookbook collection, the library, and the web (I'm just careful not to click on any ads!). After all, the flavor of meat dishes comes from the sauce and/or seasonings. So find your favorite (from another life) beef, chicken, lamb, and fish recipes, and simply substitute ingredients for a health-supporting, compassionate, yummy meal.

Tonight I made May Wah cutlets Piccata. (May Wah gets my vote for the tastiest faux chicken ever). The recipe was so easy, I really didn't deserve the accolades I got from my hubby and son. But I'm glad they enjoyed it. I made it even easier than the recipe specified (I used organic lemon juice in place of freshly squeezed lemons and jarred garlic rather than fresh, and I skipped the capers and fresh parsley). Since the recipe is so changed, it's now mine, and I can post it here without having to provide a reference! (But if you want to find the original, simply google "easy chicken piccata.")

Veggie Chix Piccata
  • 1 package May Wah faux chicken steaks (you can use another brand or type, of course)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated vegan margarine

Season the "cutlets" on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge them in the flour.

In a big skillet, heat the 4 tablespoons oil over high heat until hot. Add the "cutlets" and sauté about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Transfer the "cutlets" to a plate.

Add the garlic to the pan and cook, stirring, 30 seconds, being careful not to let it brown. Add the sherry and lemon juice, reduce heat to medium-high, and stir while it simmers. Reduce the sauce by half, stirring occasionally.

Add back the "cutlets" and mix with the sauce until everything is hot.

Serve with brown rice and veggies.

By the way, here's proof that this meal passed the kid test (he is 3):

Yes, he ate the green beans FIRST (so you're probably wondering how I prepared them). I steamed fresh green beans for a few minutes while whisking together a jarred mandarin marinade with some agave nectar and canola oil. Tasted like something you get at a takeout Chinese restaurant (a good one of course!). The brown rice was compliments of Seeds of Change Organic Nuke and Serve Basmati Brown Rice (I know, a terrible waste of packaging and ridiculously expensive, but I keep it on hand for days like today, when DS was starving and I had to get din din on the table pronto).

Anyway, this one gets added to my permanent collection for its simplicity, yumminess, and broad appeal. It's also the answer to the ever-persisting comment by many: "I could never give up chicken." Of course you can!!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Web Site of the Week: The Vegetarian Channel

Got some time to browse? You'll love The Vegetarian Channel. This site covers everything vegetarian: food (of course), with over 1000 recipes; shopping; lifestyle; environment; news; and organizations. Use their handy search function to find other specific veg-related sites. If you enjoy a sense of community, you can connect with other vegetarians who share your interests and passions.

The site is easy to navigate, allows you to rate everything and read others' ratings, and covers pretty much everything you can think of, from veg travel to religion to listings of vegetarian-related events.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Would you like a protein with that?

From Wikipedia.com, this is a 3D representation of "a protein."

Struggling to get caught up on work after a week's vacation, I haven't posted regularly lately. Sorry. But today I had to fire up the blogger to vent about something that really irks me, which is the misuse of the term "protein." It seems that most people's minds are perfectly programmed to regard food in such a way that they need to have a chunk of "protein" at every meal (particularly dinner). For example: "Ok, I have a vegetable and a starch, and now I need a protein." Or, worse (Mother to school-age child): "No, you can't have a banana, I want you to have a PROTEIN now." I see this time and time again as a dietitian and mom: parents flip out if their kid has a meal without a concentrated protein source. I've seen more than one mom force feed their child a McDonald's burger (sans bun) or slab of cheese. Not because the child is enjoying it but because the mothers actually believe that they are doing their children a favor.

For optimal nutrition, humans need approximately 10%-15% of their calories from protein. For an average 2000 calorie diet, this means about 200 calories from protein, or about 50 grams. It would be a challenge to eat even a marginally healthy diet and NOT reach this level. Most Americans eat double, triple, even quadruple this amount -- and we see a concomitant increase in heart disease, kidney disease, and bone disease.

People ask me all the time, "Where do you get your protein?" It is a reasonable question, because Americans have been brainwashed to believe that meat = protein and plants = not protein. But this myth needs some serious shattering.

Keeping in mind that our food should average about 10-15 percent of its calories from protein (a good goal is around 12%; those with higher protein needs, such as athletes should aim higher), consider the following foods and their respective percent protein contents:

broccoli: 43% protein
whole wheat bread: 16% protein
tomatoes: 12% protein
mushrooms: 21% protein
chick peas: 22% protein
lentils: 31% protein
tofu: 43% protein
string beans: 22% protein
bagel (white!): 15%

Source: Nutribase Software, and The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications, by Virginia Messina, Reed Mangels, and Mark Messina, 2004.


Again, these numbers represent the amount of protein as a percentage of calories, not as a percentage of weight or volume. Since most vegetables have relatively few calories, small servings obviously have little total protein. So you'll need to eat a lot of vegetables to get a lot of protein, but of course no one is recommending that you eat only vegetables. The point is that if you eat enough calories from a variety of plant foods, your protein needs will most likely be met. Remember, you only need 10-15% protein, so eating an appropriate amount of calories from a variety of vegetables and other whole plant foods will supply plenty of protein, and a healthy balance of nutrition.

See, even a vegan can have too much protein! But round these foods out with healthful lower protein foods such as fruits, and you've got a balanced, health-supporting diet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Getting by in a vegan-un-friendly place

Greetings from Cape Cod!

I'm staying with the inlaws in a rather remote area of Cape Cod, land of seafood shacks and ice cream stands. I found a few veg-friendly places but none very close by; we're staying with a houseful of people (most of them under 10) so regular dining out isn't really an option. So, we took a trip to the local supermarket.

The problem with renting a house for a week (when it comes to eating well as a vegan, anyway) is that shopping for ingredients can mean a lot of waste (or, at best, lugging extras home). And it's challenging to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen. So we had to get smart and figure out what to buy that would get us through the week with minimal leftovers.

It's not hard at all, it turns out. We bought bagged salads, dressing, hummus, tabouli, veggie "hot dogs" (a fave of my toddler, of course), oatmeal, soy milk, frozen whole grain vegan waffles, whole grain bread, non-hydrogenated, organic margarine, soy yogurt, soups (I bought a natural soup mix and an onion; homemade bean-barley soup is on the menu tonight), whole grain pasta, jarred organic marinara, beans, organic tortilla chips and salsa, and of course, plenty of fruits and vegetables, sliced up and served fresh.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Web Site of the Week: Vegan Chamber of Commerce

What a great idea. If you want to focus your business efforts on working with like-minded folks, check out the Vegan Chamber of Commerce. According to their site, "Supporting vegans reduces our impact on the environment, prevents global warming, and reduces the suffering of animals..." and, "Our Business Directory lists vegan businesses, professionals, service providers, and vegan supporting organizations anywhere in the world."

The directory needs to be beefed up (so to speak) -- so if you're vegan and you provide services, please sign up today! It's free to post your business, and $100/year to become a sponsor. I'd love to see this site grow to the level it deserves to be.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Adding Music to the Mix

While hiking this morning in Mills Reservation (check out the photos!), stomping to the beat of "Push" by Matchbox 20, I got to thinking about how much better I feel when I exercise with music. And clearly, I'm not alone: check out all the ipods and MP3s donning the ears of all the folks at your gym or jogging down the street! Something about music inspires us to move, sweat, and keep going. I wondered if anyone's ever looked into this phenomenon using a scientific approach, and lo and behold, a study was done in 2005 suggesting that exercisers moving to music lose more weight than music-shunning exercisers, and helped with consistency as well as compliance.

And music boosts mood, to boot!

What kind of music? That's up to you. If you have an ipod, you can create a playlist that corresponds to your exercise; for example, if you like a slow warmup, choose an easy listening song you enjoy as the first tune. Then, if you like to gradually build speed, for example, choose tunes with beats that match your workout. If you complete your workout with a stretching routine, bottom out your playlist with Enya or something.

Need ideas? Dowload workout playlists from FITNESS magazine's web site! Cool stuff.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Recipe: Sneaky Slaw

Ok, this photo is not going into the Food Styling Hall of Fame. The truth is that I started eating my dinner before I thought to take a picture, so what you see is my meal after a few bites. The ravioli came from the Whole Foods Deli (I'd love to tell you the ingredients of their "Vegan Ravioli" but the label said nothing more than "Vegetable Feature #1").

The slaw, though, I made myself. Now, if you have time and don't make a major mess in your kitchen when you try to deal with a head of cabbage, go ahead and buy a whole cabbage and chop up the sucker (or feed it to your food processor). I took advantage of the Lazy Food at Whole Foods -- this time, an actual plastic container (which I recycled) of chopped red cabbage.

Why cabbage? Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli. It is overflowing with beneficial phytochemicals that have been linked to cancer prevention, heart health, thyroid health, and ulcer prevention. It is protective against several types of cancer, but what I find most interesting is its effect on breast cancer prevention. Indole-3-carbinol (I3C), a compound in cabbage, appears to play a role in hormone regulation: it seems to decrease harmful estrogens while increasing good estrogens.

Yet another reason to eat your veggies, and more of them.

Here's the recipe, more or less. Everyone loved it.
  • 4 cups or so of shredded red/purple cabbage
  • 1 green onion, sliced thinly
  • a handful of fresh parsley, rinsed well and chopped
Dressing:
  • apple cider vinegar
  • canola oil
  • agave nectar

Toss the veggies. In a separate bowl, add a little of this and a little of that until you get a yummy balance of oil, vinegar, and sweet. You might want to add a bit of water too.

As always, this recipe is adaptable. Throw in some shredded zucchini, finely chopped celery, shredded carrots, chunks of apples, whatever! Had my nut-allergic son not been joining us, I would have added in a handful of sliced almonds too.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Web Site of the Week: Cosmo's Vegan Shoppe

There's no shortage of vegan shopping sites on the Web, but I recently enjoyed a particularly nice browsing experience on Cosmos. They understand what vegans really want-- they actually have a separate shopping category for "vegan cheesy foods."

I love shopping on vegan web sites because first, I don't have to scrutinize every label for hidden animal products; second, I like supporting vegan companies; and third, I can shop for items I may otherwise have never encountered elsewhere.

Other highlights -- a huge selection of supplements, a gluten free area, vegan gift ideas, a books area, and clothing/accessories areas. They also feature a top 10 best seller list on the homepage, so you can see what is popular on any given day.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Off my butt, on the ball!

I don't particularly love to exercise. I love how I feel afterwards (both physically and mentally) but transitioning from whatever fun thing I'm doing to something physically challenging doesn't come naturally to me. Also, I accept that a little discomfort now will mean tremendous benefits in the future -- I want to be a healthy, active grandma one day, and I won't accomplish that feat by sitting around and making excuses about why I don't exercise.

Probably the biggest barrier to regular exercise is TIME. For years I carved out an hour block whenever I could for exercise. But running a business, being a mom, and running a household leave little time for such continuous stretches. However, I (and you, and you, and you) DO have 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, throughout the day. What's the best use of that time? Not a jog through the woods, because once you get your running shoes and ipod ready, your 10 minutes are up. No, the best thing is to have something set up where you spend the bulk of your day.

For me, the bulk of the workday is spent in my office. It's too small to put in an elliptical machine but not too small for a few pieces of key equipment. I have the Fit Ball, Bosu Ball, Weight (medicine) Balls, free weights, resistance tubing, and a pilates mat. You would not believe what one can do with this stuff -- you can literally work out every muscle in your body.

So, what about you? What can you do to fit in more physical activity? How about a jump rope in your backyard, or in your vehicle, if you drive a lot? Hand weights in the corner of your office? A treadmill in your family room? How about biking to the bank and post office rather than driving? Taking your child for a walk in the stroller or pull-wagon rather than watching TV? There are hundreds of opportunities for more movement in your day. You know it's better for you -- it's just a matter of thinking about what to do, and setting your plans into action.

Need more inspiration? There's no shortage of personal trainers in your area. If you're short on cash, consider buddying up with a friend or neighbor who also wants to be more fit; motivate one another. Tell your spouse, parents, roommate, or kids that you're trying to exercise more, and ask for their support. And keep in mind that the best match might not be someone you see face-to-face. My fitness expert, John Pierre, lives in Chicago and often trains in L.A. (I live in Jersey.) Yet, he is my exercise inspiration. He helps with my fitness routines and motivation (via email and telephone). He is incredibly knowledgeable and a terrific person. (He's a vegan, too, and single... any single vegan women out there?)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Recipe: Black Bean and Corn Salad

I admit it: Before making this salad, I'd never hand-cut corn from the cob. I guess the corn was always gobbled up! This time, though, I went a little overboard at the Montclair Farmer's Market and had 3 extra ears. What to do with cooked, leftover corn on the cob? A cool summer salad is just the thing.

You don't have to follow this recipe exactly. In fact, vary it to your taste. No rules here!

You will need:

  • 1 large (29 oz) can or 2 regular (15.5 oz) cans black beans, rinsed well in a colander
  • corn from 2-4 ears, cut off with a sharp serrated knife
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 3 green onions (scallions), sliced thinly
  • 1/3 cup Spanish olive oil
  • juice of 1-2 limes (taste after 1) or 2-3 tbsp bottled lime juice
  • 1-2 tbsp ground cumin
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper to taste

I would have put in fresh cilantro but I didn't want to bug my neighbor to invade her herb garden again! So if you have some on hand, put in a handful (chopped).

Add in bell peppers, if you have, chopped cucumber, or anything else you think would be good.

If you like a little heat, add jalapeno peppers or chili powder.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dairy AND Soy Free Decadence

Over the years, many people have asked me to recommend a dairy AND soy free yogurt, milk, and ice cream. There are plenty of milks out there, but as far as yogurts and ice cream...a tall order! Well, the folks at Turtle Mountain (So Delicious yogurts and Purely Decadent dairy-free frozen desserts) listened and delivered.

Now we have an extensive line of organic, non-dairy, non-soy ice creams and yogurts to choose from, all based on coconut milk. I recently purchased all of the yogurt flavors and two of the ice cream flavors (vanilla and chocolate) at the Whole Foods Market in West Orange, NJ. All are rich and creamy and delicious. The ice creams rival the flavor of premium dairy-based varieties, and got a big thumbs up from the rest of the family. The yogurts are cultured, just like soy and dairy yogurts, so you get the benefits of the probiotics (good bacteria). These yogurts are also fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B12, to mimic (or be superior to) the nutrient profile in other yogurts. The yogurts are very sweet and delicious (they are relatively high in sugar), so those of you who don't like an overly sweet flavor might wish to mix the plain and fruit flavors together.

Being that the base is coconut milk, the saturated fat content of these products is a bit higher than their soy-based counterparts. The saturated fat found in coconut is not damaging as is the saturated fat found in foods like beef and whole milk. But that doesn't mean it's ok to eat a pint of the ice cream a day; any rich food is meant to be eaten in relatively small amounts. So if you're avoiding both soy and dairy (or if, like me, you just want more variety) these products are a true godsend which, eaten in moderation, will not unravel a healthy diet based on primarily whole plant foods.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Soy and Male Fertility Study

(Photo compliments of Image*After, and I'm pretty sure these are tadpoles, but you get the idea!)

If you're a veg*n, chances are that someone forwarded you one of the rather warped interpretations of a recent study suggesting that soy products have a negative impact of male fertility. If you're not a veg*n, you probably heard about it anyway, because people love to spread bad news about diets they know they should be following for optimal health.

Published in the journal Human Reproduction, this study was carried out by Jorge Chavarro and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases, and the Yerby Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.

This cross-sectional study investigated a connection between sperm count and intake of isoflavones (phytoestrogens found in some plant materials including soy) and soy foods. 598 men who were being evaluated for infertility were recruited from the Mass General fertility clinic between 2000 and 2006. Those who were actually eligible for the study totaled 99.

The 99 men were weighed and measured, and asked to provide a sperm sample, a medical/lifestyle history, and diet records (a food frequency questionnaire) that indicated how often they consumed 15 soy-based foods within the last 3 months.

The researchers analyzed the association between soy intake and ejaculate volume, total sperm count, sperm concentration, sperm motility, and sperm structure. They controlled for other factors such as body mass index (weight for height), age, abstinence time, and intakes of caffeine and alcohol.

Of the 99 men who took part, the majority (72%) were overweight or obese. In terms of sperm count, 42% had normal levels while 10% had very low sperm counts (defined as being below 20 million/ml). Just over half the men (55%) had sperm with low motility (poor movement).

There was a significant relationship between soy intake on sperm count, with men in the highest intake category having an average of 41 million sperm/ml less than those who did not eat soy. The researchers also found that men with higher sperm counts had a stronger relationship between sperm quality and count to different levels of soy intake. (Meaning, men with high sperm counts were affected by soy more than men with low sperm counts.)

So what does this all mean? Is the relationship really there? We have to be careful in our interpretation of this study.

First of all, it says nothing about vegetarianism. Some vegetarians eat no soy at all, and some meat eaters eat a lot of soy. The articles that hint about some sort of danger of vegetarianism are all about hype and selling ads.

Second of all, if soy products really rendered men infertile, how could one explain the population issues in Asia, where soy is consumed several times a day?

Third, one must look at the study design: cross-sectional means that it is impossible to establish a causal link between sperm quality and diet. In other words, we have no idea whether the soy intake necessarily preceded problems with sperm count and quality, or whether it is the only or major factor responsible. In addition, a study with a sample size of 99 cannot possibly be used to develop healthy eating guidelines. There are too many other factors that may be affecting the findings.

Fourth, the majority of the participants were overweight or obese, and the researchers acknowledge that it is possible that excess body weight affects the relationship between soy intake and semen quality. For this reason, it is not possible to apply these results to average-weight men. That, and the fact that they were recruited from a fertility clinic, suggests a possible impact of soy on infertile, fat men, rather than an impact on the overall general male population.

Fifth, retrospective (recalling the past) data were used to determine food intake (i.e. the participant's responses to a questionnaire about how much soy they had previously eaten) using an unvalidated questionnaire (one that was never before tested). Thus, we can't say for certain how accurate this tool is in assessing soy intake.

Sixth, while isoflavones are found in non-soy-based foods as well, the study did not examine isoflavone intake from non-soy sources. Chances are that if this were recorded, the association between isoflavone intake and sprem count would be weaker.

This study, while legitimate and important, was taken out of context by the mass media and used as yet another excuse for the exclusion of health-supporting foods in one's diet.

Here is my take: First, obviously, men who eat soy father children. There are billions of examples in Asia, and millions more in the US (meet my vegan husband and child who was a bit of a surprise). Second, consuming soy foods has proven benefits, one of which is reducing risk of heart disease. The number one cause of death in the US is heart disease. So let's look at the big picture: Skip the soy because of one tiny study that says the sperm in soy eaters is a bit lower, or eat it and reduce the risk of a deadly disease that affects about 81 MILLION people a year in the US?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Web Site of the Week: vegweb.com

Need to know what do to with those wilting scallions, blackening bananas, or squishy avocados? Sure, you can look in the indexes of all your cookbooks (and be completely starving by the time you find a recipe doesn't require a trip to the store), but you could instead save a ton of time and logon to vegweb.

Vegweb.com is web 2.0 at its vegan best. It's got a ton of recipes -- all vegan (so you don't have to check out ingredients) -- and all searchable. Granted, the recipes are posted by random people, so no guarantees that everything is delicious, but recipes have user comments and ratings (a lot like Amazon.com) so you can see what others' think before you preheat the oven. Many of the recipes come with photos, too, so you can see what the finished product is supposed to look like.

And while the vast recipe collection is what vegweb is best known for, other goodies can be found here. Articles, links, shopping, and veg friends are other main areas of the site.

To get the site's full benefit, sign up for a user account. It's free! Simply create a username and password, and once you're logged in you can make your own and check out others' profiles, change your layout, and mess with all sorts of preferences. My personal favorite feature, though, is the ability to organize recipes. You can store your faves in My Recipe Box, choose recipes to automatically create My Grocery List (how easy is THAT!?), and plan your week with My Meal Planner.

Sometimes I just go on there to browse recipes for inspiration. They're not all necessarily healthy, but it's a fabulous community for vegan sharing.

My vegweb user ID is veganRD - see you there!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Eatin' Locally and Lovin' It

Today's lunch was inspired by locally grown and prepared ingredients as well as my good friend and colleague, Kate Geagan. She is the author of the much anticipated upcoming book, Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low-Carbon Diet, and in it she encourages a diet heavy on local foods, while maximizing plants.

My wonderful next-door neighbor left me a voicemail a couple of weeks ago, letting me know that she was going away for 3 weeks and to please help myself to her herb garden. Lucky me! This morning I snipped off several basil plants, returned to my kitchen, and got to work. I made 2 pestos. The first was a traditional green pesto with a lot of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and salt and pepper. The second was a roasted red pepper pesto, with olive oil, a little of the basil, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and a couple spoonfuls of soy cream cheese to thicken (walnuts would have been nice too, but I wanted a nut-free rendition for my nut-allergic DS). I put the pestos in the fridge and headed to the farmer's market with my DH, DS, and MIL.

A couple of hours later I had in hand a loaf of freshly baked whole grain bread from the Montclair Bread Company (which has a booth at the Market--check out their web site here), a bunch of arugula from local (and organic) farmer John Krueger, and a locally grown fat Jersey tomato. I also had 2 ripe avocados (the only non-local ingredient). After slicing the bread, I spread one of each pesto on each of the 2 slices. I then piled on sliced avocado, sliced tomato, and fresh arugula. A sandwich from heaven. My MIL loved it (I love cooking for her) -- she even appreciated how healthy it was. For dessert? Locally grown organic peaches from the Market.

From a nutritional perspective, this sandwich is bursting with goodies. The monounsaturated fats from the avocado and olive oil (in the pestos), the calcium and antioxidants from the arugula and basil (whose fat-soluble nutrients are more bioavailable due to the fats present), the lycopene from the tomatoes, and the trace minerals and fiber from the whole grain bread all make this sandwich a nutritional superstar. And need I say, it was really delicious.


Incidentally, on the way home from the Farmer's Market, we passed a performer on Church Street who I thought was exceptionally talented. His name is Joel Jelinski, and I couldn't help but buy his CD. He's a cool guy too, gave my little guy a high-5 and let him get right up in his face to check out his guitar. Maybe we'll see him on the next American Idol.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Vegans aren't the only ones who need vitamin D

We live in modern times; that's for sure. Once upon a time, children and adults spent the majority of their days outdoors, exposed to the sun's natural rays yet protected from sunburn by the ozone layer. Nowadays, we spend most of the time indoors, and when we are outside, we slather our skin with sunscreen to protect against skin cancer (great idea of course).

The downside to this lifestyle is a relative lack of Vitamin D the way nature intended -- from the Sun. Back in the 1940's, when rickets (bone disease seen in children resulting from vitamin D deficiency) was becoming a widespread problem (due to kids spending less time outdoors, more time indoors in the factories, for example), the US government mandated synthetic vitamin D be added to cow's milk. At the time, this made sense; most kids drank at least a glass of milk a day, and the risks of milk drinking were unknown (and probably not as bad as they are today, what with the added hormones, antibiotics, and other stuff that we shouldn't be ingesting). The point is, cow's milk was the perfect delivery mechanism for vitamin D into kids' diets.

Now that we are better educated and things have changed somewhat from the days of Bessie the Cow providing milk for the local families, milk is no longer considered a healthy or necessary food. It also means that many kids are not getting the vitamin D they need.

A recent study out of Boston reports that 40% of the 380 kids examined have lower-than-optimal levels of vitamin D in the blood. Being vegan isn't a risk they identified, but, interestingly, being obese is. Not getting vitamin D in the diet (from fortified food, whether milk, soy milk, cereal, whatever) is, obviously, also a risk. Only 3 of the kids studied had clinical signs of rickets (still very unfortunate), but the others (with low blood levels) are said to be at risk for future bone disease and/or autoimmune problems.

Again. We live in modern times. It's time to accept that some things have changed (in this case, the near destruction of the ozone layer and generous use of sunscreen), and that "unnatural" risks face us. Many vegans claim that a natural, all-plant diet is all we need to meet all of our nutritional needs, but modern living has made this an untrue and dangerous assertion. Back in the day, before modern agriculture, global industrialization and factory farming, we got the vitamin D we needed from the sun, without risk of overexposure. We need to encourage ALL people -- children and adults, veg*ns and omnis alike -- to take a vitamin D supplement and/or regularly seek vitamin-D fortified foods.

Vegans, opt for the D2, not D3, as D3 is usually not vegetarian. Check labels. Fortified soy milks, vegan nutrition bars, and vegan cereals are other possible sources of vitamin D. Again, check labels.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My favorite health food secret

Guess what this is? It's what I keep in the fridge at all times, front and center, first thing I see when the door opens.

Why? Because, as my dear friend Carol says, "When in doubt, eat a vegetable." You're not the only one who needs a nosh now and then and pokes around the fridge. We all do it. The secret to healthy snack choices is to be armed and ready.

This cool contraption is quite simple: five triangle-shaped clear plastic containers atop a lazy susan (covers not pictured). I try to always keep it stocked with fresh, in-season veggies, washed and sliced and ready to eat.

I rotate among many: bell peppers, carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes (whole), green beans, snow peas, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. All of these veggies are SO jam-packed with protective nutrients and SO low in calories that they really do deserve to play a major role in everyone's daily fare.

Warning: sliced cucumbers only last a day or two -- they get slimy pretty fast.

Parents, listen up -- this approach is THE perfect way to get the little ones into the veggie habit. My DS expects the veggies to make an appearance at every meal and snack, and he digs right in and helps himself most days. He sees raw vegetables every single day so of course he eats and enjoys them; they're as normal to him as french fries are to most little guys his age, as much as I hate that analogy.

I have found that setting aside two blocks of time each week is the secret to keeping this habit alive. Usually Saturday, right after returning from the Famer's market, and Wednesday nights, are the times I wash and slice the veggies. And it only takes 10-15 minutes or so.

The veggies are perfect alone or, when the stomach is grumbling, dipped in hummus, almond butter, or salad dressing. They are a wonderful addition to a salad, and are great for quick meals: use as a chili bulker, stir fry with tofu, side dish saute in olive oil and lemon and fresh herbs, or just a colorful garnish.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Modern convenience meets old-fashioned wholesomeness

Speaking of Lazy Food (see my last post), I can get even lazier -- how about things you just open, heat, and eat? Anyone who's eaten at my house or heard me lecture at a conference knows that I'm a big fan of high-quality convenience food. Don't get me wrong -- I love to cook, and I often cook meals from scratch. But I also love having a career, being a homemaker, and being a wife and mom. So sometimes cooking goes on the back burner (so to speak)... but we all still have to eat.

I just got back from Whole Foods, where I got a bunch of Amy's entrees. I just adore this company. They really make an effort to use natural, organic ingredients, and all of their stuff is labeled VEGAN when it is so. I bought the frozen veggie pot pie, which DS absolutely loves (and is a guilt-free hot meal from Mom). I also got the Shepherd's Pie (which, incidentally, is also wheat/gluten free). I'm looking forward to trying that. I've tried their dairy-free roasted vegetable pizza, black bean burritos, chilis, and many, many soups (my pantry is NEVER without at least 4 cans of Amy's soups -- love the lentil, pasta-3 bean, rice and bean, and of course the alphabet soup... we usually mix the alphabet soup with a beany soup to give it more protein and calories for DS, who LOVES the tomato broth and all the letters).

Thanks, Amy and her parents! (Amy's parents founded the company, named after their daughter Amy).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lazy Summer Dinners

Sometimes it's a drag to cook, especially in summer. After all, when you're playing outside with your kids and before you know it it's 7:30 (hey, it's still light out!) and you haven't thought about dinner yet, you can't expect the family to wait around while you cook a full meal. It's too hot anyway! So I have a repertoire of what I call Lazy Food. Here are some examples:

- Buy a pound or two of marinated, roasted veggies from the deli. Toss them in a big bowl along with 2 bags of salad greens, a can of rinsed and drained white beans, and your favorite vegan dressing (Annie's Goddess gets my vote).

- Throw assorted frozen veggies, a can of rinsed and drained chick peas, and any plain leftovers (grains, potatoes, veggies) into a big pot with a jar of vegan curry simmer sauce (Trader Joes has a fabulous one).

- Make hummus roll-ups: tortillas + hummus + roughly-chopped raw veggies

- Fruit smoothie made with silken tofu, frozen fruit, flax seed, and rice milk... served with fresh whole grain bread from the bakery slathered with nut butter or trans-fat-free vegan margarine

- Middle Eastern Delite: 1 can dolmas + 1 tub hummus + 1 tub baba ghanoush + one tub tabouli, served with fresh whole grain bread and chopped veggies (if you're ultra lazy, run to the store and buy pre-washed, pre-sliced veggies in the produce section or from the salad bar)

- Sandwiches made with tofu eggless salad

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Veganism is not about exclusion

Veganism is not about exclusion, deprivation, and sacrifice. On the contrary, following a vegan diet is adventurous, fulfilling, and motivating. Knowing that we're consuming foods known to protect health and allow our bodies to function at their best is a powerful thing.

Probably the biggest misconception about vegan diets is that they are restrictive. While it's true that we shun flesh, dairy, and eggs, it is also true that we enjoy literally thousands of different plant foods eaten in different ways. The available combinations of colors, textures, and flavors of vegan foods are literally endless. Just pick up a vegan cookbook at your local bookstore or library!

A little creativity and imagination unleashes myriad possibilities for healthful vegan meals. Ethnic variation is, to me, the most exciting aspect of a vegan diet. In fact, I get far more variety in my diet now than when I was an omnivore. Everything from African stews to Indian curries to Thai noodle bowls to Chinese stir fries to Italian risottos to Ethiopian spreads to Mexican bean dishes to Middle Eastern delights (and on and on!) keep my tastebuds on their toes. Soups, salads, grain dishes, bean dishes, burritos, tacos, chilis, pasta dishes, dips, pizzas, casseroles, sandwiches, spreads, cereals, breads, loaves, sweets, burgers... all can be made vegan, healthful, and delicious.

Vegans celebrate their health with good food, not mourn what they might be missing. We don't feel deprived: we feel empowered!