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Monday, January 23, 2012

Beyond the label

I asked, begged and cried to get my mother to buy me a white long-sleeved shirt that said "benetton" in large blue low cap letters. She refused. She said that the clothing company should pay us to announce their brand, not the opposite. I was 12-years-old, and very disappointed.  

How could I show my schoolmates that I was well-informed in the world of fashion, that I was cool, stylish, and could afford to wear brands (even if none of the above were necessarily true)? I wasn't really interested in promoting the Italian clothing line, I was interested in what the label represented, and in wearing what my friends (and the people I thought I wanted to be friends with) were wearing.

Branding and labeling is all about creating a perception in our eyes. We get manipulated and inevitably fall for the labeled product, thinking that we are making a choice. Beauty, high quality, coolness, elegance, intelligence, health, sophistication, knowledge, value, responsibility, etc, etc...We purchase the idea of what we want to be or have.
And that's true with clothes, cars, shampoo, toilet paper, and everything else, including food.
And food labeling has become so complicated, that we barely understand what we are eating, or eventually, what we want to be or have.
Non-GMO, organic, trans-fat free, low fat, fat free, whole grains, omega-6, omega-3 (plus the DHA, EPA, ALA subdivisions), RDA, enriched, reconstituted, fortified, reduced, not-from-concentrate, fruit-sweetened, sugar free, GF, EGCG, BPA free, prebiotic, probiotic, bioactive, antioxidants, good source of... A bit confusing, right? And those are just a few.
There's even a whole category of foods and beverages known in the industry as Better-For-You (BFY) products, which claim or imply to be better for us and our health. We would buy them thinking that they are healthier versions of other equally processed foods, we will feel better about purchasing them, smarter and more responsible, but they might not even be healthier, often just marketing gimmicks to increase sales.
We would actually need to go to the grocery store with a lawyer, a nutritionist, a chemist, a mathematician, a lobbyist, a chef, and a doctor in tow to decipher the truth behind the labels. 
We think it is, but food labeling is not an exact science and their requirements have been built by negotiations between the food industry, the FDA, brilliant marketers, health associations and all sorts of parties, plus resourceful mathematical and semantics manipulation. Read this and visit Doctor Marion Nestle's Food Politics blog for more information. 
In the meanwhile, how do we solve our food purchasing issues going beyond the labels?
- Eat the rainbow every day (fruits and vegetables of all colors don't only look beautiful, but they are full of nutrients, even if they have tiny labels)
- Buy foods that could be sold in bulk without labels (such as seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, grains), even if you buy them prepackaged and labeled.
- Usually, the less bells and whistles a food has, the more wholesome it is (and the lower the marketing budget involved).
- Be suspicious. Not everything that implies to be healthier, is.
- Buy foods that have listed in their ingredients only things that you recognize as edible.
- Read Food Rules (please!!! it's a very short book that takes 15 minutes to read and that gives amazing parameters on what we should eat)
- Whenever possible, shop at a farmer's market
- As for organics, I do believe in purchasing organic dairy, eggs and meats, if possible. In terms of produce, click for the EWG's lists of "dirty dozen" (produce that should be bought organic, as is the most heavily pesticized), and "clean 15," (which are OK to buy conventional).
- This is a good, fun and informative podcast I recommend:
- Let yourself be creative, daring and have fun. Come up with your own combinations with produce: contrast colors, textures (crunchy, leafy, smooth, rich, etc) and sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavors. Buy fruits or vegetables you've never tried, and experiment. You might discover amazing ones!

I just experimented, and this is what I got in my second attempt (the first one is not postable!).


Avocado is botanically a fruit, and in countries like Brazil, they eat it as such. Not in guacamole and chips, but in smoothies and sweets.
This one is a good recipe to kill the craving for something sweet. It is very satisfying and provides very good fats, lots of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Vegan
  • Free of: gluten, wheat, nuts, soy, dairy, sesame and eggs
  • Super ingredients: Natural cocoa powder, dates, hemp seeds, mesquite and avocado (and pomegranate, if using)
1/2 cup date puree
1/4 cup non-alkalized cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
2 tablespoons hulled hemp seeds, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
2 teaspoons mesquite flour
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 avocado, halved and pitted
pinch of salt
Garnish: pomegranate seeds in the Fall/Winter and organic berries in the Summer

If you are making a smoothie: water or the milk of your choice (hemp, almond, hazelnut or dairy work well)


Place the date puree, cocoa, hemp, maple, mesquite and vanilla in the bowl of a food processor. Scoop out the flesh of the avocado into the bowl, add salt and process until everything is pureed and smooth. Add a bit of water, if needed and adjust seasoning.
Serve mousse sprinkled with pomegranate and hemp seeds or use as cake icing.

For smoothie: add liquid, 1/4 cup at a time. Add a bit more hemp seeds and blend until a drink consistency is achieved.

Serves 4.
My mother was right!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Winter heat

I know I shouldn't complain, because this winter so far, hasn't been that terrible. With the exception of a few couple gelid days, the cold has been survivable. But for the first time ever, our apartment is not the tropical jungle that's always been during the coldest months of the year, courtesy of the central heating system in our building. Someone thankfully turned it down, and I'm finally debuting the usage of a sweatshirt inside my home! I'm drinking steaming green tea non-stop and I've been craving chile peppers on everything I eat. Swirled in my soup, sprinkled on chicken, spicing up salad, and I even added chipotle powder to a new chocolate cookie recipe I developed for a client. I guess my body craves heat, and that's a good way of getting it.
I thought the cookies would be crazy, but they were quite addictive. My daughter thought it an insult to deceive people (aka sweet innocent children like her) looking at a sweet, fudgy chocolate cookie, with a treat that would ignite a vengeance fire in their mouths at the very end of the taste experience. But that's what I love about them: the heat. I finished all the leftovers by myself.
My client texted me asking if the cookies could be made without the chiles. Her customers weren't into them either.
Disappointed, yes! But that's not the first time that I've seen spicy sweets rejected.
Some years ago, when I was working at the James Beard Foundation, the temple of foodie-ism, I brought in with me some Mexican candy to the office, so my coworkers could get a taste and go through the cultural experience of the addictive sweets Mexican kids love. Plenty of them are sweet-sour-salty-spicy combinations, mostly flavored with CHAMOY, a sauce (kind of a brine), that takes many different incarnations: it can be a liquid, a powder or a paste made with salt, water, vinegar, chili, and sugar. It's eaten topping industrialized artificially-flavored candy, fresh fruits, vegetables, sorbets, popsicles and any other edible thing.
That time, I shared some little sweet gummy spheres covered in powdered chamoy. No discretion: everyone spit them out making gestures of disgust and disbelieve. I told them I thought their palates were immature.
Well, I guess I can't say that to my client's customers...

However, I can share with you this recipe for a delicious sweet-sour-salty-spicy (don't worry, it's not the chocolate-chipotle cookie one) soup that we've been eating in this household. Even my 7-year-old is into it with chipotle (which is smoked, dried and ground jalapeno pepper) and all!
Chiles are an amazing seasoning and a very nutritious addition to our diets. They are a good source of antioxidant carotenes, flavonoids and Vitamin C, and their spiciness is given by a substance called capsaicin, a potent anti-inflammatory. Chiles have been shown to have cardiovascular benefits and increase thermogenesis (heat production) in our bodies, which gives a nice sensation in this cold weather and if that weren't enough, burns more calories! 

I think I just gave you the whole ingredient list in the title, but here we go:
  • Vegan
  • Dairy, egg, nut, gluten, wheat, and soy free
  • Super ingredients: All of them are full of fiber, antioxidants and vitamins

20 ounces butternut squash (about 1/2 medium squash), peeled, seeded and cut
1 organic sweet potato, peeled and cut
2 organic apples (I used Gala), peeled, cored and cut (OR 1/2 cup unsweetened apple sauce)
3 cups (24 oz.) apple cider
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon (more to taste)
1 small can coconut milk
2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste


In a large saucepan, mix squash, sweet potato, apples, apple cider, cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Let simmer until squash and sweet potato are easily pierced with a fork, about 35 minutes.

Remove from heat and puree with an immersion blender, adding some water or cider if the soup is too thick. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and cinnamon.

Serve soup on bowls and add some coconut milk (about 1 tablespoon one each bowl) right before serving, in scribbles and sprinkles with chipotle powder.
Serves 4-6.
Enjoy and keep warm!


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Getting old, honey!

There are few things more uplifting than a little retail therapy, and very few less demoralizing than a visit to a department store's cosmetic counter floor. I don't know if it's only me, but if by any chance I'm browsing at Bloomingdale's ground floor, inevitably, a salesperson with a bright lipsticked smile approaches me and comments on my tired looking face, my bad complexion, my lack of skin glow, elasticity, plumpness, radiance or whatever else; and promises to fix it with her (or his) new DNA, enzyme, Japanese crystallized lava, whale's gastric juices, or Australian seaweed extract-infused potion. I always fall for those. They never help my skin, but they do a great job at augmenting my lack of self esteem and reducing my bank account.
Lately, I've been noticing--without the help from any individual with perfectly made-up eyes and a name tag-- how my face is wrinkling more and more.
If the creases were around the lips or eyes, they would be witnesses of laughter and smiles, and I would be able to sport them proudly. But my forehead is the most affected area. And that, I cannot take. It means that most of the time, I frown and have a worried-look expression. That's pretty sad...
Coincidentally, I just finished reading Stacy Schiff's excellent biography about Cleopatra, which inspired me--I'm sure the author would jump of joy if she knew about the deep impact her book had in me--to try to find the secrets to a youthful-looking skin, naturally.
OK, the book wasn't really about the Egyptian queen's beauty secrets, quite the opposite, as Schiff's main point is to document how Cleopatra's intelligence was far more defining in history than her beauty. But to my favor, in those days and location, honey was often used to concoct cosmetics, medicine and even to embalm bodies, besides sweetening the Queen's wine.  
So inspired I was, that I proceeded to smear ambrosia (a mixture of raw honey, royal jelly and pollen that I bought at Andrew's Honey's stand in the farmer's market) all over my face. My family shrieked in terror. My kids begged me to rinse it off and my husband inquired why I had chia on my face. I corrected him, explaining that for the first time ever, it wasn't about chia, but bee pollen. Which I'm sure made him feel relieved...
I've been trying to apply the mask every night before I shower. The children are getting used to their sticky-ugly looking mommy one evening at a time (or might explain why they are afraid to sleep!). Do I look 25 years younger? Nope, but my skin does feel softer, less dry and looks a bit better (I think), and since the family didn't love the ambrosia as much as they like Andrew's other honeys, I still have a nice part of the jar to document the shrinkage of my wrinkles...

What exactly is the rationale behind this act of vanity(besides desperation and an urgent need for a shrink)?

Well, I'm not THAT crazy: bees collect flower nectar in their mouths and add salivary enzymes to turn it into honey, which then they deposit in cells in back in the hive. They aerate the sweet liquid by fluttering their wings to remove excess humidity, making honey a food that never spoils.
Through this fascinating process, a collaboration of the plant and insect worlds, the sweet liquid ends up being loaded with trace minerals, amino acids, B vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants (and makes pollination possible).
RAW honey (it has to be raw, as most attributes are removed from it if processed) is an antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal substance. It's scientifically proven to help relief the symptoms of upper respiratory infections, and it is effective at healing infected wounds. It reduces swelling and scarring, helps remove infected and dead tissue, and stimulates the growth of new tissue*.
Honey also acts as a humectant, attracting and retaining moisture. 
The mechanisms and characteristics of the many different compounds present in honey are not fully understood yet, especially because each jar of honey has a different concentration of them. Just like wine, each batch of honey reflects the characteristics of the flowers from where the bees collected the nectar. The flavor, color, consistency and scent of the honey vary according to the type of flower, the soil, season and weather in which the blossoms grew.
Usually, lighter-colored honeys are mild in flavor, while darker ones tend to be bolder tasting AND RICHER IN ANTIOXIDANTS. Try it: smell the honey and see how there's a reminiscence of either orange, eucalyptus, or lavender origin.
The best place to taste different kinds and purchase fresh, raw honey is at local green markets.

There's even some evidence that honey may increase immunity and help better blood sugar control, although there are still many specialists stating that sugar and honey are metabolized similarly. So stay tuned for the newest research, but in the meanwhile, enjoy honey (in reasonable amounts, of course), and do NOT feed honey to children under 12 months old!
Also, be aware that often, what is sold like "honey" in supermarkets isn't the real thing. As I mentioned, look for RAW honey and don't heal your own wounds with it, unless you get medical advice first.
*most studies were made using manuka honey from New Zealand, which is especially known for its bioactive properties and antioxidant richness, and can be found in some health food stores or pharmacies. However, Andrew, the apiarian (beekeeper) behind Andrew's Honey, told me that his buckwheat honey is comparable in its properties to manuka, and it's local (if you are in the NYC area)
For more information on honey visit:


As fabulous as the ambrosia masks could be (and we'll see...), I know it's also really important to keep hydrated and eat foods with lots of antioxidants to give my body the tools to fight the aging process. Not only to avoid wrinkles, but to help prevent heart disease, arthritis, cancer, osteoporosis and Alzheimer's. 

This salad could be an appetizer, a side dish of a whole meal by itself. It has complete protein (which happens when a whole grain and a legume are combined), it's full of fiber and every single ingredient is abundant in antioxidant phytonutrients, and an indication of it are the beautiful colors, which make it a gorgeous winter dish.

  • Vegetarian (uses honey). Free of gluten, nut, egg, soy and dairy
  • Super ingredients: All of them!
For salad:

1 cup organic forbidden (black) rice, cooked according to packaging instructions and cooled
1 can organic chickpeas, rinsed and drained (I buy Eden brand, as it's BPA free)
1 avocado, pitted and cubed
1 pomegranate, seeded
1 bunch (about 2 ounces) organic arugula (pre-washed is fine)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup kombucha (original flavor) OR apple cider vinegar
Fresh juice of 1 orange (I used blood orange)
2 Tablespoons raw honey, or to taste
1 teaspoon sumac
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a serving bowl.

In a jar with a lid, add the ingredients one by one. Cover and shake until emulsified. NOTE: if using Kombucha, don't open the jar right away, as the carbonation in Kombucha might splash. Wait a couple of minutes. Taste for seasoning and pour on the salad, mixing so all the ingredients are dressed.

Serves 4-6 people

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I LUV NYC (again!)

Back to school yesterday. And I'm happy to announce that for the FIRST time ever in the current school year, we got to my children's educational institution ON TIME!!!!!
The getting ready process went smooth. To my surprise, I didn't have to resort to screaming nor threatening and we didn't forget anything at home.
Is 2012 bringing us some magic or is it the sign for incredible family accomplishments to come? I certainly hope so...
Maybe it was the lovely staycation we had during the school break that left us with a feeling of tranquility, restfulness and satisfaction.
The weather was incredibly cooperative and not rushing anywhere was quite nice. Some days, the kids just wanted to stay home and play. Other times we visited with friends and relatives, celebrated Chanukah with oily latkes and churros, lights, candles and warm conversation. We said farewell to 2011 (which I have to say, was NOT the easiest of years) with people we love, and we also explored the City a bit.
I schlepped the kids Downtown promising doughnuts at Babycakes. After a zillion "are we there yets?" throughout a very long walk on Broome street, we finally got to the bakery and the three of us almost cried: it was closed. However, I did get to show them the signs with Chinese characters in Chinatown and even found this Chinese and Hispanic market (my son was freaking out after the doughnut fiasco, so couldn't make it in).

Isn't it a logical combination???? can't wait to go back and find out what they sell in there. A new project for 2012!

We watched the Chipmunks movie. I thought it would be completely safe. Both of my kids screamed for a good part of the movie at the top of their lungs as if Freddy Krueger had jumped out of a 3-D screen threatening to perforate their lungs with his pointy nails (yup, that man/character did scare me. But the Chipmunks???). Note to self: NO more movies until they beg for them!
But I would say that that was it regarding non-successes. We went to see dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History (again....) and a tree decorated with unbelievable origami ornaments, and we even tried some origami ourselves.

we had a really good time at the New York Historical Society, we sketched a Picasso at The Met (well, my daughter did, while I chased her brother through the Modern Art wing to prevent a very costly accident)

and we saw the holiday train show that hypnotized my son in Grand Central.

This wasn't the train show, but I do love the Grand Central feel, and for me, this image captures it a bit
 We chilled and I fell in love again with Manhattan. I had been exhausted and a bit disillusioned before the vacation. Walking, sharing and discovering with the kids reminded me how much I love this crazy place where so many sticky, tight, smelly, small and dirty things happen, but that is also the most fascinating compilation of cultures, histories and stories in the World.
I love walking and finding new things every day.
I saw this painting (sculpture?) on the window of an art gallery on Madison Ave. one day, and I'll purchase once I become rich (so please keep clicking on the adds on the side and bottom of this blog, so I can increase my $4.35 earnings!!!).

I loved seeing a chrome, silver-colored Any Warhol walking right next to his former Factory (now a Petco) with a Bloomingdale's medium brown bag in his hand and a fresh bunch of purple flowers that someone attached to the sculpture. The artist is in the middle of the intersection of Broadway and 17th St, a pedestrian sliver that feels like an island surrounded by an ocean of cars and trucks, that faces of all things, the City's largest and most celebrated green market. I love the contrast and irony of everything: the celebrated artist right next to the place where he created all his work, that is now a mega pet store, the urban traffic across the fresh farmed produce of the season. Dedicated foodies, business people, struggling musicians, hipsters, artists, farmers, tourists, scientists, school children, intellectuals, happy people and desolate people, everybody going on with their lives, but Warhol.    

As a tribute to NYC, I decided to give the molten chocolate classic a vegan shot. I admit that my version is not exactly the same as Jean Georges Vongerichten's allegedly accidental dessert. The French chef's is probably the most imitated and popular chocolate concoction of all times, and I have to admit that I always enjoy it, and whenever I bake it, people think I'm a genius. My wholesome version is not exactly the same, but has a really nice texture and flavor, it's as easy to prepare, and very delicious. Served warm, these rich and creamy individual cakes are pure love, plus they are loaded with chia benefits!!!  

Loosely based on Jean Georges Vongerichten's recipe

The recipe can be doubled or tripled.

  • Vegan and dairy, egg, nut, gluten, wheat and soy (if Enjoy Life chocolate is used) free
  • Super ingredients: chia seeds (obviously!!!!), non-alkalized cocoa powder (rich in antioxidants)
0.6 ounces chia seeds, ground in a spice grinder OR chia flour
1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon cold water

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chunks, pellets or chips
1.5 ounces (1/4 cup) coconut sugar (or sucanat)
0.5 ounces (2 Tablespoons) whole oat flour (gf if needed)
0.20 ounces (1 Tablespoon) unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 450 F.
Place 4 self standing individual baking molds on a baking pan or line a cupcake mold with 4 cupcake liners and set aside.
If using whole chia seeds, grind them in a spice or coffee grinder and whisk the chia flour with the water in a small bowl trying to break all the lumps. Set aside.

In a double boiler melt chocolate.

While chocolate melts, whisk coconut sugar into the chia mix, making sure no large lumps remain.

Once chocolate is melted, pour chia-sugar mixture into the bowl with the chocolate and whisk until all combined.

Add the flour and cocoa at once and whisk until all smooth and combined.

Fill up molds with batter all the way to the top (these cakes don't rise) and bake for 8 or 9 minutes minutes (until the outside area of the cakes seem cooked and the middle forms a "pool" of batter that still wobbles when lightly touched.

Let cool for 2 minutes and unmold turning mold upside down onto a plate. Serve IMMEDIATELY!!!

Note: cakes can be made and refrigerated up to 2 days ahead and baked just before serving (they might take a couple of minutes longer to bake). As an alternative, eat straight from the fridge, the batter can be eaten raw!

Makes 4 individual cakes

PS: This is all I had to wash at the end of this recipe!