Words Not Included

Monday, May 20, 2013

   Some of the best things in life don't need a lot of words to explain them.

   Like summer flowers.

   Or fat ran drops on warm afternoons.

   Local bundles of asparagus so thick I can barely can't get my hand around them.

   This dish, too, requires few words.

   It looks like a random jumble of vegetables but in fact there is a tomato kissed sauce, bright asparagus and sweet onions, all in a perfect sort of harmony together. It evokes the memory of succotash but with its own little spin on that favorite tune. It's just wonderful and rather than wasting time on more words, I'll just be quiet so you can go ahead and make it.

Asparagus 'Succotash'

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter (or another tablespoon olive oil if you'd like to make this dish vegan)
1 large sweet onion, halved and sliced into half moons
1/2 pound red cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 (not gigantic) bundle asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cups vegetable broth or stock

   In a medium sized saute pan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very soft and starting to brown, about 7-10 minutes. Add in the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes, until the tomatoes start to give up their juices.
   Add the asparagus and the veggie broth or stock to the pan. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to a sauce and the asparagus is tender, 5-8 minutes. Taste and season with additional salt if needed.
   Serves 4.

Cooking For One

Saturday, May 18, 2013

   When I first started cooking in my early teens, it was for my big, hard working, hungry family of seven. We had over 450 acres of land, 200 plus cows, pigs, chickens, horses, goats, family pets- all things that needed attention, often in the form of manual labor.

   In the summer we collected thousands of square bales of hay, preparing for the long and frigid winter. Our cows were all pasture grass fed and there was no cheating in the winter months- high quality hay or bust. Each bale weighed at least 60 pounds and had to be collected from the field in large wagons, moved from the wagons to the barn and stacked in towering, sweet smelling lofts.

   During all of this the cows were rotated amongst our many fenced off pastures every few days to ensure they were getting as much fresh green grass and fallen crab apples as they pleased.

   For the most part, my siblings and I loved growing up this way. Being homeschooled meant we could spend a concentrated few hours on schoolwork in the morning and by the time the sun was high in the sky, we were free to work on projects or take care of the daily demands of the farm. It was a childhood filled with fresh air, responsibility, hard work, and an incredible amount of fun.

   As much as I loved being outside, I quickly learned that my favorite place to be was our huge, airy farm kitchen. My father built the farm house over a period of two years before we moved from our teeny first home in Massachusetts to the sprawling hills and fields of upstate New York, and he built it with the intention of harnessing as much energy from the sun as possible. Every room, and especially the main floor, was outfitted with gigantic, floor to ceiling windows that effortlessly heated our home on sunny winter days. This meant that every part of the house had a beautiful view, but my favorite was the one I had from the kitchen counter.

   There was no room to hold back when we prepared meals in that kitchen. Everything had to be done in huge bowls, cavernous pots and pans and platters with more servings than you have fingers. After meal time it was a rare bonus to have enough leftovers for lunch the next day.

   When I moved away from home, my first attempts to cook for my sister and I in college, and later just for myself in medical school, almost always resulted in meals so huge we couldn't hope to finish them in a reasonable amount of time. Who would have thought cooking for one was so hard? I quickly learned to bring lunches or go home for a mid day meal and to freeze individual portions for future use.

   These things are useful, especially when you work hard and are committed to cooking all your own meals, but every once in a while I really just want a meal fit for one.

   This recipe is exactly that- an entire meal in one dish, perfectly portioned for one. Often times when I'm cooking just for myself, it's on lazy weekends while Steve is at work and I want something simple, easy to prepare, and flavorful.

   It's early summer here in the south. There are no hay bales to collect and no toasty warm cows to run my hands over, but this life after the farm has its charms too.

   In the mid evening moonlight, nothing has every been as beautiful as our oleander blossoms.

Frittata For One

   This dish works with pretty much any vegetable you have laying around; I've made it with summer squash, cherry tomatoes, green beans and a few times with cauliflower. You are limited only by your fridge and your imagination.

1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 small onion, minced
6 asparagus spears, cut into one inch pieces
2 eggs
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon non dairy (or dairy if you prefer) milk
1/2 ounce cheddar cheese, grated (optional)
1/3 avocado, diced (optional)

   Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in an 8 inch skillet. Add the onions, a pinch or two of salt, and cook until translucent but not browned. Add in the asparagus and cook, stirring occasionally, until just barely tender, about 4 minutes.
   While the onions and asparagus cook, beat the eggs, a few grinds of pepper, the parsley and the milk in a bowl with a fork until well incorporated.
   When asparagus is bright green and tender, remove the skillet from the heat. Use a spatula to evenly distribute the asparagus and onion over the bottom of the skillet. Pour the egg mixture on top. Sprinkle with the cheese, if using.
   Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the eggs are set when you jiggle the pan.
   Top with the avocado and additional fresh parsley, if desired.
   Serves one.



Morning, Powered

Monday, May 13, 2013

   Let's get back to business as usual, shall we? The tequila is back in the liquor cabinet where it belongs and we're back at juggling healthy living with our many work and life obligations.

   One of the questions that I often struggle with, and I venture most people who are dedicated to eating and living well do too, is just how exactly to make time for all those responsible choices and rock star veggie meals.

   The answer is often a simple matter of preparation. If I leave the question of what to bring for lunch to the last minute, not only am I rushed but I generally have trouble even thinking of what to bring. Instead, I dedicate a few of the evening's minutes to tomorrow's lunch and it makes things much more manageable.

   This applies to breakfast too, of course. My go to breakfast changes every month or so, right now it's a big bowl of oatmeal with lots of fresh fruit and a touch of blackstrap molasses and chia seeds mixed in (molasses is a fantastic source of iron). This is quick to prepare the morning of, but sometimes I crave something a little more nutrient packed- like a green juice. This past week I had a bear of a day ahead of me and I knew I would need the green juice boost.

   The idea of waking early enough to prepare and juice all those veggies was not appealing so I simply did most of the work the night before. After choosing the veggies and fruit for my juice, I washed and cut them up and sealed them in a zip lock bag. The next morning throwing it all into the juicer was a breeze. I toasted my bread while washing the juicer and one green bonanza and crunchy peanut butter toast later, I was out the door with a major nutrient boost already under my belt.

   By the way, if you haven't tried chia seeds I highly recommend picking a bag up and giving them a shot. Chia seeds are an omega-3 power house and don't require the preparation that flax seeds do (flax seeds must be finely ground in order for our GI tract to access their omega-3's). I also find their flavor to be highly superior to flax seeds. Flax sometimes leaves a weird, gritty, grassy flavor in my mouth but chia is all nutty, crunchy goodness. They release an aloe like gel when exposed to water so they also act as an ideal smoothie or breakfast cereal thickener. Plus, any of us who have lived through the eighties get a huge kick out of eating something called chia. Or maybe that's just me.

   Everyone says it and we all know it: eat breakfast and make it count. Hopefully some of these prep principals help you start the day off right this week too.

   Don't forget to enjoy the early morning light.

The Night Before Juice

1/2 head romaine or green leafy lettuce, washed and roughly chopped
1 large handful kale
1 medium sized beet, scrubbed clean and cut into pieces small enough to fit in your juicer
1 apple or 4 strawberries, washed

   The morning you make the juice, cut the apple into pieces or cut the strawberries into quarters. Juice everything and sip while you make your toast.

Crunchy Peanut Butter Chia Toast

1 slice whole grain bread (Ezekiel is my favorite brand)
2 tablespoons all natural peanut butter
2 teaspoons chia seeds

   Toast bread to desired crunchiness. Spread with peanut butter and sprinkle the chia seeds all over.


Cocktail Hour

Saturday, May 11, 2013

      Weekends remind of the saying 'get back up on the horse.' Sometimes we fall off the horse during the week and by the time Saturday rolls around it's just the boost we need to get back up again. For this weekend's boost the strawberry gets naughty: hello, cocktail.

   I'm a big believer in making many small healthy choices throughout my day, building my way to the big picture of good health and peace of mind. Weekdays are very much dedicated to this philosophy. My job requires constant focus and critical thinking and for me that's impossible to achieve for 10 straight hours unless I've been keeping myself in tippity-top shape. But I also believe in indulgence and pure enjoyment; these two things are absolutely key to overall wellbeing and happiness, and I like to save them for the weekend.

   Sometimes that means butter on my popcorn, or french fries, or maybe it means meandering around the block with the dog instead of going for a run. This weekend, it means adding booze to my homemade juice.

   This is probably hugely offensive to some juice believers out there but oh well. I can't please everyone. But I think this cocktail will please you! And that's all I care about.

   If you don't have a juicer, have no fear. I'll explain in the recipe how to make the drink base with a blender or food processor instead.

   This drink comes just in time for Mother's Day- it's pretty, lovely and fun to be around, just like my mom.

Strawberry Lime Margarita

8 strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 lime, peeled (slice the ends off with a sharp knife and then peel the sides like you would a pineapple) and cut into quarters
2 ounces high quality tequila
1 ounce triple sec
Unflavored seltzer water

   Juice the strawberries and lime, running the pulp back through the juicer a few times to extract as much juice as possible. If you don't have a juicer, use a food processor or blender to achieve an extremely smooth fruit puree and then press the puree through a fine mesh sieve with a rubber spatula- you should end up with about 1/2 to 3/4 cup very thick juice, almost the texture of a smoothie.
   Place the juice, tequila and triple sec in a cocktail shaker half filled with ice. Shake and divide the drink among two 8 ounce glasses. Top off with fresh ice and the seltzer water. Garnish with half a strawberry or a slice of lime.
   Serves 2.

I'll Have the (Vegan) Bolognese

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

   Is there anything better than a man who knows how to cook? I think not.

   It's pretty common for one person in a household to assume the lion's share of cooking responsibilities; in our house that person is me. The familiar activities of chopping, sauteing and stirring are meditative to me. It's a no fail end of the day chill pill.

   I admittedly sometimes get into cooking ruts, as I think many of us who cook on a daily basis do, which is one of the reasons I love it so much when Steve decides to cook dinner. He goes into it with absolutely no idea what the final dish may be, searching cookbooks, websites and maybe even a few of my cooking magazines. Eventually he picks whatever looks tasty- even (perhaps especially) if he's never cooked anything like it before or it requires a trip to the grocery store. The recipe I have for you today is one such creation of his- delicious, unexpected and, perhaps best of all, prepared just for me.

   His fearless, no holds barred approach to cooking always reminds me of the rewards to be had when we venture outside of our comfort zone.

   One of the pitfalls of 'going vegan' is trying to replace familiar animal products with processed vegan alternatives. There is a vegan version for pretty much anything you can imagine- cheese, hot dogs, sour cream, ground meat. The list goes on. But just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's good for you- processed is processed. Whole foods are where it's at! This dish especially resonated with me because it doesn't rely on manufactured vegan ground 'meat' but rather a thoughtful combination of whole foods that resemble the richness and texture of a quality bolognese sauce. 

   Every component of this sauce is laden with goodies. Omega 3's from the walnuts, lycopene from the tomatoes, loads of mushroomy folate, plus loads of fiber and flavor.

   This recipe is just the thing when your brain is wrung dry and you've been on your feet for twelve hours. Step out of your pasta sauce comfort zone and maybe make it for your sweetie when they've had such a day- they'll worship you for it.

Pasta with Vegan Bolognese
Slightly adapted from Chloe's Kitchen

1 pound whole wheat spaghetti
1 cup walnuts
4 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces shitake mushrooms, de-stemmed and sliced
1 15 ounce pinto or red kidney beans, rinsed, drained and allowed to dry (or pat them dry with towels)
1/2 white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 24 ounce jar marinara sauce
1/2 cup non dairy milk
1 tablespoon maple syrup or brown sugar
Chopped fresh basil, to finish

   Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti according to directions on package. Drain and set aside.

   Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: pulse walnuts in a food processor until a fine meal forms (but not so much that you get a paste). Add mushrooms and pulse until mushrooms are finely chopped. Add beans, flour, basil, salt and pepper and pulse just until chunky and crumbly (do not over process).

   Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add in the mushroom/bean mixture, reduce heat to medium and cook, turning with a spatula, until it is evenly browned- 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in marinara sauce, soy milk and brown sugar or maple syrup. Heat through and serve over the prepared pasta, garnished with the fresh basil... extra basil if you love it as much as I do.

Serves 4 to 6.

Juice For Life

Sunday, May 5, 2013

   I thought long and hard about a fantastic recipe for this year's Cinco de Mayo. This is a great weekend for rich drips, cheesy quesadillas and tacos of all different sorts as well as celebration in general. All good things, all things I love.

   But sometimes the 'ol stomach needs a break; every once in a while we need a 'pause' button when we've gone a little overboard with the dips and the chips. Enter the magnificent juice.

   I've never been much of a juice person; my mother essentially never bought juice when we were growing up. We equated store bought juices with soda- sugary, additive laden beverages that had no place in our daily lives.

   But recently I've discovered a new kind of juice: the home made vegetable variety. These elixirs are everything our bodies want and need not only on a daily basis, but especially when we've celebrated perhaps a bit too much. Unlike what you find in the store, home juicing ensures all the vital nutrients of the plant are kept intact- no added sugar, preservatives or destructive pasteurization allowed.

   Home vegetable juicing is nothing super new to me, my little brother has been doing it for years with a centrifugal juicer that my mom purchased when we were little. She intended the gift for my dad but he wasn't very interested; my brother on the other hand immediately developed a life long juice habit. He still has that ancient juicer and tells me his favorite recipe is based on red cabbage. That boy is going to live to be 100.

   For some reason I wasn't compelled to get on the juicing wagon until I read about it in Kris Carr's Crazy Sexy Diet. I was so intrigued and talked about its benefits so much, my mom generously bought me a juicer (unlike my brother's, mine is a masticating slow juicer). Have I mentioned how awesome my mom is?

   As soon as that puppy arrived in the mail Steve and I haven't looked back. We juice at least 4 days a week, seven when we have time. Juicing extracts all the lovely minerals, vitamins and other micronutrients from vegetables and fruits and presses it away from the fibers and solid parts of the plants. It is incredibly easy to digest and basically equals a super easy on your gut explosion of veggie and fruit goodness for your skin, immune system and energy level.

   That said, it is totally possibly to make a disgusting juice. I've made a few that were so herbaceous and strong and just, well, so powerfully 'green' that I could handle only a few sips. But take heart: with a bit of experimentation (and a few sources of tried and true recipes) it's very easy to find a formula that works for your tastebuds. Kris Carr suggests a ratio of 3 : 1, veggies : fruit in juice and I find this works best for me as well.

   If you don't already have one, I highly suggest investing in a juicer. It amounts to an investment in your daily well being as well as your long term health. It just doesn't get much better than that.

   This juice is my most recent favorite.

My Morning Green Juice
Adapted from The Big Book of Juices 

1 large handful kale
1 large handful green lettuce
2 carrots
1 small ruby red grapefruit

   Wash the kale, lettuce and carrots. If you have a slow juicer, cut everything into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Cut away the skin from the grapefruit and slices out the wedges of fruit- as shown here. Juice everything and enjoy over ice.  Serves one.

Memories and Flavor

Friday, May 3, 2013

   We've all heard of the idea that every person has what is called an aura. The theory goes that our aura is sort of like our personality thumbprint; instead of being left behind on things we touch, it hangs around us like our own personal light source.

   I'm not a particularly mystical person- perhaps I have too scientific a mind for it- so I don't put a lot of stock into this sort of thing. But I do believe that people leave their own individual imprint when they come in and out of our lives. There are all different kinds of ways to interpret this imprint. Some of us associate it with a feeling or prominent memory; others may call it an aura.

   Personally, the important people in my life always bring images of different kinds of food when I think about them. Perhaps this is odd, but certainly no stranger than seeing auras.

    Snow peas make me think of Steve- probably because we ate so many of them when we first started dating. I prepared them in all different kinds of ways: fresh in salads, lightly blanched on top of grilled fish, sauteed and steamed. They were fantastic that year and we got every last tasty bite we could out of them. I will always remember these meals with great happiness and fondness; the plates hastily thrown together in his poorly outfitted bachelor's kitchen, ironically perfect and appealing.

   My sister conjures images of big, comforting bowls of minestrone soup. It was one of my go to recipes when we lived together in college and she loved it so much that the leftovers sometimes pulled her out of bed for a midnight snack! She is one of the most caring and nurturing souls I know; it feels highly appropriate that I associate a soup thick with fresh vegetables and beans with memories of her.

   Radishes always mean my dad. For whatever reason, my earliest food memory I have of my father is watching him take a bite out of a crisp, peppery radish- so impossibly bright white and red. He loved them and they never lasted long enough in our house to be anything other than a snack, snagged fresh from the fridge and eaten whole. To me they were impossibly sharp and spicy; I could never handle more than small nibbles of this potent root vegetable. Now, they are one of my favorite foods and I think of him every time I pull one of the stout bundles from the produce shelf.

   I think he would like this salad. I hope you do too.

Asparagus and Radish White Bean Salad

4 cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch radishes, washed and thinly sliced
2 scallions, thinly sliced
4 ears fresh corn
1 large bunch asparagus, cut into 2 inch pieces
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup white wine vinegar

   Bring a medium sized pot of salted water to a boil.  
   While waiting for the water to boil, place 1 1/2 cups of the fresh parsley and the olive oil in a food processor. Process until smooth. Scrape this into a large mixing bowl.
   When the water boils, boil the corn until bright and tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the water and allow to cool. Place the asparagus in the same boiling water until just crisp tender (just 1 to 2 minutes). Drain and immediately submerge in an ice bath to stop the cooking and keep the crispness and green color. Once cooled, drain.
   Cut the kernels from the cooled corn cobs with a very sharp knife. Coarsely chop the remaining parsley.
   Add the radishes, scallions, beans, corn kernels, asparagus, chopped parsley, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper to the bowl which contains the pureed parsley dressing. Drizzle the vinegar on top. Toss to coat evenly.
   Serves 8. I like this best the day I make it, but it also makes delicious lunch leftovers.

Only (Rice) Salad Will Do

Thursday, May 2, 2013

   Making new habits is a true puzzle to me. On the one hand, habits are incredibly, alarmingly easy to make. Before you know it, you hit snooze exactly three times every morning (and are therefore always feeling ever so slightly rushed getting ready for work). Suddenly, rather than studying two hours a day you've whittled it down to a consistent single hour without even noticing.
   But on the other hand, there are habits that feel so hard, so painfully difficult to develop- like healthy habits. Getting rid of coffee, or just the creamer and sugar, is like a stake through the heart every. single. morning. It can seem nearly impossible to see the light.

   But, so they say, if you stick with it, the day will come when you've had your coffee with soy, no sugar, and you don't even think for a second about what your morning beverage used to be. Exactly when or how this happens is impossible to say. To me, this vagueness is precisely why forming new healthy habits can be such a herculean effort- no one can tell you how long you need to stick it out before it doesn't feel like sacrifice.

   So I prefer a different approach. I like to be a bit gentler with myself when it comes to making better or healthier lifestyle choices. Rather than view my choice as a black or white new rule to live by, I chose to see things on a more immediate level. Just because I've decided not to have coffee this morning, doesn't mean I can't tomorrow. I don't feel like having a hamburger this week, but maybe next week or next month I'll want one. You never know. Suddenly, it's no big deal.

    Once you accept the idea that nothing is off limits, the choices and opportunities to expand your life and health become endless. It's sort of like revealing the Wizard of Oz- if you refuse to believe that a doughnut is a sinful forbidden food, you've taken away its power over you.

   To me, the key to well rounded living is a series of small choices. It not only amounts to the choices we make to better ourselves, but also occasional decisions to be indulgent and to simply enjoy. This is how our plant based eating experiment began- a gentle, nothing is permanent exploration. Before we knew it, plants made up 99% of our meals and we've never felt better.

   The next time you're faced with a small decision, such as taking your lunch to work or risking the cafeteria, or cream versus soy milk in your coffee, give this a try. Before you know it, you'll be making hundreds of small decisions that add up to one big change in your health. And you eventually won't even notice that you're doing it... I promise.

   Maybe start with this salad. It's bright and fresh, crunchy and creamy. I think you'll like it.

Edamame and Cherry Tomato Forbidden Rice Salad
Inspired by Bon Appetit

1 cup forbidden rice (also called black rice or black Japanese rice)
1 3/4 cups vegetable broth
1 pound orange cherry tomatoes (or whichever color cherry tomato is fresh and available)
juice from 1 to 2 large lemons (about 3 tablespoons)
14 ounces frozen shelled edamame
8 ounces green beans, cut into 2 inch pieces
Kosher salt

   Rinse the rice thoroughly in a sieve. Place the rice in a small saucepan, add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce to a mere simmer and cook 40 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to sit with cover on for at least 10 minutes.
   Meanwhile, bring a medium sized pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the edamame for 4 to 5 minutes or until just crisp tender. Drain and run cold water over them until cooled. In the same pot of boiling water, boil the green beans until bright and just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and immediately submerge in ice water to cool. Drain again.
   Slice the cherry tomatoes in half. Place them in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Spoon the warm rice over the tomatoes. Squeeze the lemon juice over the rice. Add in the edamame, green beans and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Toss everything to incorporate evenly. Serve warm or chilled.
   Serves 6, or 2 with leftovers for lunches.