About the Tomato...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

   For me, summer is all about long, lazy weekends spent mostly outdoors and similarly lazy meals, also preferably eaten outside.

   In New York this meant a lot of walks and hikes, especially in the late afternoons when the sun's fury had abated a bit. Since moving to the south summers mean slow, sun drenched days at the beach and endless evenings cocooned in the safely of our screened in porch, mosquitoes mercifully thwarted.

   And, of course, summer is tomatoes and corn on the cob. Spicy shrimp boils and icy beers.

   I've written about my favorite succotash recipe before and it graced out patio dinner table as soon as corn and tomatoes were both local and drippingly ripe. Served alongside a perfectly grilled grass fed steak and glasses of white wine chilled with frozen strawberries: heaven.

   Admittedly, I was slow to the tomato camp. With a childhood of picky eating behind me I came to adulthood with the concept of tomatoes as these slimy, oddly seed ridden, wet things- or, even worse, mealy! Like a badly ripened apple only worse.

   Then I went to Croatia to visit my brother and everything about the tomato that I thought I knew flew out the door. I ate an amazing seafood risotto, so resplendent with local seafare that at first I didn't notice the barely cooked chunks of fresh tomato amidst the rice. Once I did I could hardly ignore them- so sweet and velvety, so full of the sun.

   There is nothing in this world like a truly vine ripened, in season, local tomato. Find some and make this salad. I hope you eat it outside, in the late dregs of summer sun, over a meal so lazy the candle snuffs itself out in a pool of wax. 

Summer Tomato Salad
Serves 4
I like this best with an array of baby heirlooms, but any in season tomato will do. This salad is dynamite served along side crispy roasted baby potatoes.

1 pound tomatoes, diced (to about 1/2 inch chunks)
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 avocado, diced (to about 1/4 inch chunks)
Freshly squeezed juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

   Place the tomatoes, parsley and avocado in a mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Whisk until well combined. Pour the dressing over the tomato salad and gently toss everything together. Taste and season with additional salt if desired.  

Grocery Store Survival 101

Monday, June 23, 2014

   It would come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I spend a significant amount of my time reading health and wellness books, articles and blogs. These subjects are fascinating to me and I enjoy finding ways to implement the things I agree with or think may have merit into my life.

   But today I learned a huge lesson while shopping for dinner and I hope you can benefit from my new found wisdom without making the (in retrospect silly) mistake I made today. I learned that it doesn't matter how many times I read something; unless I actually take a step back and use the tools I read about, it is all for naught.

   Before I get to my grocery store antics, I'd first like to say that up until last week I had never cooked or eaten a spaghetti squash (!). I love all things squash and adore trying alternatives to the wheat based noodle, so I finally corrected this major life oversight and made an insane dish of basil pesto spaghetti squash. Game changing deliciousness ensued.

   Fast forward to today: while day dreaming about ways to introduce this dish to all of you lovely people in a dynamic, enticing way that will convey to you how much you need it in your foodie life, I convinced myself of that very thing and decided I needed it for dinner. At one of my favorite organic grocery shops I snagged two of the beauties and hopped in the shortest check out lane.

   "Your total is 22.50" The clerk helpfully reported.

   "What?! 22:50?? How is it that wheat is subsidized while us innocent, whole foods lovers are so unfairly punished?! No thanks!" With that, I politely replaced the squashes on the shelf and left the store, wallet and foodie morals firmly in place.

   Except not really. I was so stunned and embarrassed about being the complete dodo bird who grabbed a few items without even looking at the price tag (in my defense, squash should never cost more than a few bucks a pound), that I handed the cashier my payment and left the store with my tail between my legs. 

   I stopped for a price check at the local chain grocer on my way home and the same (albeit non organic) squash was 1.29 a pound.

   The moral of the story is that we all read those articles on how to afford eating well and (mostly) organic and they always tell us to pick our organic battles. Use the dirty fifteen to guide you- as you can see, if I had implemented this advice even just this one time it would have saved me a lot of money. There are many foods which it is perfectly safe to chose conventional over organic- squash, with its hard shell that we discard, is a perfect example.

   It may be some time before we can convince the powers that be to subsidize organic, sustainable farming, but until then we really do have tricks up our sleeves to make good choices. We just have to remember those tricks when it counts. 

   As mentioned above, I have lots of lovely things to say about this dish, but I thought you might appreciate my story more than me waxing eloquent about earthy, sweet basil and noodles you would never know didn't come from a box. The short of it is that you should make this for dinner. Soon.

Basil Pesto Spaghetti Squash
Serves 4  to 6

We like to serve this with a roasted chicken breast sliced alongside it.

1 large spaghetti squash (a little over a pound)
olive oil
3-4 cups fresh basil
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted a little in a hot skillet
2 cloves garlic
2 ounces parmesan cheese, grated, plus additional for serving

   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and brush the cut surface with some olive oil (about 1 tablespoon per half). Sprinkle with a little salt (about 1/4 teaspoon per half). Place, cut side down, on a foil lined baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, or until a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool a bit.
   While the squash cools, add the rest of the ingredients plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt into your food processor. Turn the processor on and drizzle in 4 tablespoons olive oil, processing until evenly combined.
   Use two forks to 'pull' the squash flesh into spaghetti like strands into a bowl. Scrape the pesto over the squash and gently toss to combine.
   Serve garnished with a bit of additional cheese.  

Got it in the Bag (lunch that is)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

   Work lunch. Weeknight dinner.

   These four words are enough to strike fear into the heart of any person aspiring to make healthier food choices. Especially people taking care of children or with a not stay at home job. Which is, by my estimation, nearly everyone.

   I've mentioned before that getting into the habit of bringing my lunch to work was without a doubt one of the best things I've ever done for myself as a working adult (and study exhausted college and medical student, for that matter). Choosing to take control over what passes your lips at work is a sure fire way to achieve whatever health related results you are interested in whether that is weight loss, clearer skin or better sleep- you name it and home cooked, well chosen meals will get you there.

   I work in a hospital and one would think that would give me cafeteria access to foods that promote health and well being, but one would be very, very wrong. It is an unfortunate and well known fact that hospitals are eons behind the times in providing fresh, additive free, whole foods based meal options for not only the people who work there, but for the patients inhabiting their rooms.

   There are articles out there about the fabulous, health nut foodie approved fare offered by companies like Google, but not all of us are fortunate enough to work for corporations this forward thinking. My hope, of course, is that all work places (hospitals especially!) will kick out the fast food chains and the vending machines and offer real nutrition one day.

   In the meantime, we all have the power to make choices which tell our employers that the calorie dense, nutrient free food they have on board is just not acceptable. We can send that message by consistently taking our food to work and not handing our precious dollars over to companies that by no means have our best interests in mind.

   Bringing lunches and cooking after work isn't easy; I of course know this. But with a little persistence and planning, it is absolutely possible.

   Enter, the lovely and adorable lentil. Lentils are just fabulous. They are nutty, rich and complex in flavor and provide lots of minerals, vitamins, fiber and protein.  Properly soaking them makes them cook much faster (and therefore become weeknight meal friendly) and also allows them to more readily release all their nutrient goodies once they hit your gut.

   Growing up my mother and I were the only ones in our household who really loved legumes, lentils in particular. Because everyone else disliked them so much they rarely graced our stovetop, and in my pre-cooking-ability days I often got my lentil fix with salty, naughty cans of Progresso. Thankfully I can now re-create my childhood bowls of beany goodness without any of the BPA or other unpronounceable additives, but to this day my heart twinges with fondness when I pass those metal towers in the grocery store.

   I thought about putting a fancy garnish on the bowl I took photos of but ultimately decided against it. This soup is delightfully brown with just a flash of green and orange- strong and proud in all her sturdy simplicity. A garnish would just be totally beside the point!

Simplest Lentil Soup
Makes 8 - 10 servings

I like to make a huge pot of this soup on Monday night. We have it for dinner (usually fancied up with a side of creamy brie and sliced baguette) and then enjoy the leftovers for lunch the rest of the week. 

2 1/2 cups french green lentils, rinsed
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 cups vegetable broth (I usually do 8 cups broth and 4 cups water)
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Salt, to taste
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
8 carrots, sliced
8 stalks celery, sliced
1 large bunch tuscan (dinosaur) kale, sliced into thin ribbons

   The night before making your soup, place the lentils in a medium sized mixing bowl and fill with cool water, enough to cover them by about three inches.  Cover and set on the counter overnight. In the morning, drain the lentils and rinse them well. Replace lentils in the bowl and cover with another 3 inches fresh water. Cover, place in the fridge while you go about your day.
   When you're ready to make dinner, drain and rinse the lentils again. Heat the olive oil in an 8 quart soup pot. Add the onion and sautee until translucent and beginning to brown. Add in the lentils and your broth/water. Add the spices and stir to combine. Cover your pot, bring to a simmer.
   Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and tomato paste. Stir to combine the paste and simmer for an additional 15 minutes, until the carrots and celery are your desired tenderness. Add the kale, bring back to a boil, then turn the heat off and allow the kale to get nice and soft while you set the table (kale should sit for 5 minutes at least). Add additional salt if needed prior to serving.


Your Whole Life

Sunday, June 15, 2014

   Paleo. Vegan. Vegetarian. Pescetarian. What do all of these words actually mean and who is right??

   I've noticed over the last year or so that there has come a huge divide in the healthy lifestyle community. If you've been tuned into the argument, you might think this divide is between the meat eaters and the non meat eaters but I think the divide truly resides between the who is rights and the who is wrongs.

   This argument over who's lifestyle is best, who is most moral, who is most righteous and clean- it is so beside the point, my friends.

   I find it extremely interesting, and alarming, that the 5 - 10% or so of Americans who live a 'healthy lifestyle' are entering into this strange war with each other over who is right and who is wrong. Isn't the point supposed to be that we all have the power to find the right choices for ourselves? Isn't the message supposed to be that no matter your healthy choices, there is a community out there that agrees and supports your ambition and goals?

   Personally, I don't care if my best friend has found that she feels best on a completely vegan diet but I find that I need fish a few times a week to feel my best. I don't care (in fact, I rejoice!) that the thought of eggs in the morning turns my stomach but my husband eats three beside his sauteed spinach and looks, feels and has the energy of a man ten years his junior.

   The thing that fills my heart with happiness is that all of the people I have just described have eschewed modern food production and found the recipe that best suits their needs. The underlying theme in every single diet and lifestyle book, website or retreat out there is this: find real food and eat it. Don't eat the ones that make you feel crummy. Eat more of the ones that make you feel strong and clear minded.

   I would go an inch further and say find a way to bring those foods that matter to you as close to your home as possible. We pick blueberries from our front yard, harvest oyster mushrooms from our porch and coo over the laying hen chicks frolicking in our backyard. This morning I planted 30 cayenne pepper plants on my back porch and eagerly anticipate making my own cayenne pepper and some Sriracha from our homegrown chilis.

   These are only a few of a thousand examples in which you can take control of where your food comes from and what you chose to put in your body. Don't put a label on it- take the labels off of your food and bask in the benefits.

Health in the Fast Lane

Saturday, June 7, 2014

   Happy weekend!

   Instead of a TGIF cocktail, how about we mix things up with a deliciously cool and creamy weekend green smoothie?

   It's no secret that everyone nowadays is way busier and time crunched than we would prefer. We all have jobs or families (or both), passion projects, health goals and much more stretching us ever thinner every day. I think it is easy to look at popular health gurus and think 'well, if it were my singular job to look fabulous and well rested I could do it too!' I will fully admit that I am sometimes guilty of this too- after all it can feel like I'd rather have hot coals raked over my body than exercise after a long and possibly frustrating day at the hospital.

   But the secret is that we all have the ability to find a spare moment or two to help our bodies and minds out. Maybe we have to be creative to find those moments, and maybe we have to chose our health and well being over, say, an extra 30 minutes of TV at the end of the day, but those small choices add up to a big reward and major happiness in the long run.

   For me, getting as many nutrients as possible into my body first thing in the morning helps me start everything out on the right foot- whether it be work, a day off or even a vacation. Suddenly energy isn't a question and my focus is spot on for as many hours as I please. It may be a little bit of a bummer that I don't have time to sit down to a relaxing, mindful breakfast followed by a leisurely meditation to start my day, but carrying a big travel cup of major nutrition into work is pretty dang awesome too.

   Green smoothies boost your morning in a huge way; I can't encourage experimenting with these beauties enough. I've read that a 2 cups fruit to 2 cups leafy greens is the best ratio, but I actually prefer 1 1/2 to 2 cups fruit to at least 4 cups leafy greens. Experiment and find your own sweet spot- I bet you will find that over time you prefer your smoothies greener rather than fruitier. Either way, don't sweat it, as Jason Vale once said "If your major vice is an extra bit of banana you're in uber good shape!!"

   As far as exercise goes, those of you who know me know that this is always a work in progress. My motto is a little is better than nothing and I try to remind myself of that as often as I can. I squeeze in a quick walk after lunch (my schedule at the hospital allows for this maybe 3 out of every 5 days), do tricep dips in my office chair and follow that with 30 to 40 squats (door closed and officemates no where to be seen, of course!). It may be years before I have gobs of free time to explore all the cool yoga and fitness classes and hobbies that I want, but in the meantime I remember that lots of little efforts add up to big results.

    And remember: enjoy!

Strawberry Banana Green Smoothie (with vegan option)
Serves one

6 frozen strawberries
1/2 frozen ripe banana (use the whole banana if you prefer your smoothie on the sweeter side)
1 cup unsweetened plain kefir 
1/4 cup cold water
4 cups spinach, well packed

   Place the ingredients in your high speed blender in the order listed. Blend on high until perfectly smooth.
   Dairy free/vegan option: replace the kefir and water with 1/2 cup full fat, unsweetened coconut milk and 1/2 cup water and add half a peeled lemon to the smoothie.