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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Old Habits Die Hard

Last Sunday, after a 3-hour-long drive (that was supposed to last 1, but there was traffic and a grand total of 2 access booths to the parking lot, where a zillion cars wanted in), we arrived into a magical place. It was the gateway to autumn.

With stunning shades of bright yellow, green, brown, deep purple, orange and red, the trees welcomed us into Storm King Sculpture Garden. The beautiful nature and the impressive human-made art pieces all seen through the fall sunlight, gave us an incredible sense of warmth.

The crunchy dry leaves covering the ground got me into thinking about this season being the one in which we shed off everything that has dried out. In the fall, everything lifeless is let go of and slowly, we'll prepare for renewal. It's not an easy process, as the harshness of winter makes it cold and some times even painful, but if the leaves don't fall, the new ones, those green and capable of photosynthesis and survival, won't be able to grow in their place. 

All this to say that if we don't try to get rid of whatever is not helping us live, we should let go of. But it's easier said than done. We are all creatures of habit. The known and routine reassure us pretending to offer predictability in our crazy lives. Old habits die hard, especially if we believe they are the right ones. For our whole lives, we've been told to drink milk to maintain our bones, our mothers would sigh with delight if we finished our chicken or meat, and we do the same with our own children. For some reason, we've learned that organic pretzels are perfect snacks for our toddlers, that protein is the only nutrient we should care about, and that it comes only from animal sources. As experts (and everyone else who's lost weight and/or defeated disease and has written a book about it or gone to Dr. Oz's show) continually discuss defending their theories, we go from eating like cavemen, to avoiding gluten, to fearing carbohydrates, demonizing fat, swapping solid food for juices, to eating chicken nuggets that taste, smell, resemble and even chirp like chicken, but have absolutely no chicken in them. Deep down, the meat/chicken/egg/milk base of the American diet is undeniable despite fads and trends. Being able to eat them on a daily basis in a way, symbolizes the realization of the American Dream. While in other cultures and countries (which, consequentially have less incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes), animal derived products are a luxury and people are not able to afford them in large quantities for every day consumption. Here, where immigrants arrived and keep arriving often looking to escape hunger, being able to afford animal products every day and every meal can feel as if they've made it! The animal-derived food eating high status is imbibed in our culture and we've relegated plant foods to an after-thought. We don't think of kale as our main dish (some of us don't even know what kale looks like), nor as lentils and spelt berries as our protein suppliers. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes should actually be our main course, but it freaks us out to think that way! They are rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, phytonutrients, good carbs, fiber. They are good for our bodies, our health, our performance, our skin and everything in between.
Old habits do die hard, but this one is worth to keep in mind. I'm not suggesting BBQ lovers to become vegans, but if we switched the structure of our meals, thinking of the plant-derived ingredients as the center of them, we'd be doing a favor to ourselves, humanity, the planet, and even our pockets.
My husband and I watched this week the documentary Forks Over Knives (Netflix has it, and I recommend adding it to your queue). My meat-fanatic other-half was so shocked with what we saw, that he agreed adopt a plant-based diet. It took an hour and a half to convince him of what my decade-long nagging had failed to do. This is a groundbreaking development in this family!
Officially (because we've actually been on it without him knowing), he's decided to start caring about what he puts into his body. We're not eliminating animal products completely, as despite liking the movie very much, I do think that fish, eggs and some kinds of dairy are beneficial to our health. We're just restructuring our meals eating as many fruits and vegetables as we can. Then pulses and whole grains. The rest will be less prominent. Of course, processed products are a once in a very while for the four of us.

Ideally, we should all pay a visit to the green market and get our produce there. It's the freshest, tastiest, most ecological and nutritious, as the minute fruits and veggies are plugged out of their tree, bush, ground, etc, they start loosing nutrients. The farmer's market offers the shortest route between the soil and our mouths, therefore more nutrients.
However, time is often an issue, and we can't make it to the farmer's market all the time. So we need to resort to convenience. Yes, sacrifying a bit of nutrition, but still, packing in the necessary nutrients in good quantity.
Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

- Most grocery stores offer now pre-washed, pre-cut and chopped produce. There's absolutely no shame in purchasing those (although your wallet might resent it, but if time is money and you have no time...). I'm partial to prewashed kale, salad greens, and vacuum packed peeled organic garlic cloves.

- Child labor: ask your kids to help out shelling pods (mine love working with cranberry beans), cleaning corn, tearing kale or fresh herbs, peeling sweet potatoes, squeezing and zesting citrus, seeding pomegranates, etc; and if they are old enough, start teaching them how to use the knife, or allow them to use kitchen shears. This won't only help you in the cooking, but they'll end up more excited about tasting what they cooked (or handled).

- A slow cooker is the best way of having whole grains and/or legumes ready for you every evening. Pre-soak beans (and grains if you want, too) overnight. Change the water and cook on low if you'll be away for the whole day, and on high if you want them to be ready in a couple of hours. Use a slow cooker liner if you are as lazy as me, they do wonders for clean up! Besides the fresh water (covering beans for about 2 inches), I usually add half a leaf of KOMBU sea weed (Eden's is kosher certified) to the water to add umami flavor and tenderize the legumes. I remove the kombu before serving and salt beans preferably once they are almost ready. Freeze whatever you are not eating.

- Get to know your whole grains and seeds. Experiment with spelt, wheat and barley berries, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, teff, all varieties of whole grain rice. They are all cooked in liquid and a tiny bit of salt. You can't go wrong!

- If in doubt, make a salsa: Mix fruits (any work from tomatoes, to mangoes, avocado, apple, pears, citrus, pineapple, name it), fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil, and mint are awesome) chile (optional), chopped shallots, fresh lime juice (and zest if you want), a bit of salt and a little unfiltered cider vinegar and top off anything. It will be amazingly flavorful!

- Lentils are the legumes (pulses) that cook the fastest and don't need pre-soaking. Red lentils are very quick to make. Throw them into soups, salads or as a main dish. If you only have 5 minutes, go for Truroots sprouted green lentils. They are amazing!

- Yes, you can! Canned products are not ideal, but are way better alternatives than other processed items. Canned beans are OK to keep around. I like Eden organics brand, as they are the only BPA-free brand and are not pre-salted.

-Turn it into soup. New vegetables, grains or anything and you don't know what to do? Add them to a pot with water, carrots, onions, celery, and kombu (optional). Season with salt and cook along. Puree (I love my immersion blender), if you want or leave chunky. Season with spices like cumin, chiles, smoked paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, or a squeeze of lemon juice. Tip: produce that grows in the same season tends to go well together. For example: squash, apples and sweet potatoes; cucumber, tomatoes and mint; pumpkins and quince; asparagus and peas, etc...

- If you've followed this blog for a while, you might have realized that I love roasted vegetables. Very hot oven, baking sheet, parchment paper, good extra virgin olive oil, The Veggie, salt and pepper. A couple of minutes, and golden brown pockets of sweetness and flavor are served.

- Dare to buy new fruits, roots, tubers, greens, or any other kind of produce. Don't be afraid. Even if you have no idea what to do with them, google always has the answer and you might find the new love of your life. This works great with kids also. Together you can make new discoveries.

- Flavor makes everything satisfying. Insipid food is dull. Keeping sweet, sour, salty, umami, bitter and spicy in balance makes everything delicious. Don't buy pre-made dressings or sauces. Make your own thinking of different cuisines as inspiration, here are some ingredients to keep in mind. Mix and match them:
     Japanese: white miso + tahini (I know this is Middle Eastern, but try it and you'll see!) + brown rice vinegar + raw honey + chile flakes (optional) + wasabi + ginger
     Latin: limes + fresh chiles + onions + garlic + cumin + cilantro + tomatoes
     Italian via French: Balsamic vinegar + extra virgin olive oil + garlic + Dijon mustard + rosemary, basil, oregano, lavender or thyme + raw honey
     Middle Eastern: olive oil + cumin + sumac (or zaatar) + garlic + pomegranate molasses + lemon + sesame (and tahini)
     Thai: coconut + peanuts + lemongrass + chiles + coconut nectar + basil + mint + cilantro
     Indian: turmeric, chiles, pepper, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, ginger + coconut + mango + vinegar (in chutneys) + coconut sugar + onion
     Spanish: smoked paprika + saffron + extra virgin olive oil + olives + bell peppers


All in one pot, this Asian-flavored dish is tasty and comforting. It has umami all over it, so don't be surprised if you can't stop eating it. Bok choy, which belongs to the cabbage family, is one of the most densely nutritious foods on Earth, and the remaining ingredients don't fall that far behind.

  • Vegan
  • Free of: dairy, nuts, eggs, wheat and gluten

8 cups water1 leaf kombu
1/3 cup white miso paste, or more to taste
1 (1 1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup white miso paste
1/2 package (4 ounces) buckwheat noodles (make sure they are gluten free if that's a concern)
1 package organic frozen shelled edamame
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, caps removed and caps sliced
3 baby bok choy, washed and trimmed, leaves separated
tamari or shoyu soy sauce
brown rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tahini, optional
Sliced scallions, optional


Bring water, miso and ginger to a boil in a soup pot. Cook for 5 minutes and remove the kombu with tongs and discard it.

Add miso to the broth and mix until completely dissolved.

Add in noodles and cook for 6 minutes. Then add in shiitakes and bok choy. Cover and cook for 2-3 more minutes.

Serve immediately in bowls or keep warm to let flavors infusse a bit more.

Add more miso if desired and season with soy sauce and brown rice vinegar, to taste.

If using, serve with a bit of tahini and scallions

Serves 4-6

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