Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Busting Food Ruts

Even just my timid steps into the world of plant-based eating has taught me the importance of seeking out, finding and trying new recipes. Over the past few months, I have amassed a library of resources to support me in my endeavors: I have a collection of cookbooks; I subscribe to a variety of food blogs; have various vegan/vegetarian websites bookmarked; I've even created my own Pinterest board devoted to plant-based recipes.

My new lifestyle is much more challenging than when I was an omnivore. Even though both my husband and I love to cook, our meat-based meals fit one of two formulas: Our standard was 1 part animal protein and 2 parts vegetable; about once a week, we'd switch things up with 1 part animal protein, 1 part vegetable and 1 part starch (beans, grain or pasta).

Eliminating the animal protein has made for some boring nights. The choice of eating vegetables with vegetables or vegetables with starch wears easily on my husband. Also, as a diabetic, he doesn't feel like he can have a lot of starchy meals without feeling adverse affects to his blood sugar so pasta with veggies and sauce is not what he wants for dinner. We have an agreement that if he doesn't like what's on the menu, he can have tuna and crackers without fear of hurting my feelings. But I know that if he's eating tuna and crackers, that means I'm stuck eating the leftovers of whatever I've made for the entire week. It also means that I'm more committed to weekly meal plans featuring new and different meals to avoid getting stuck in a rut.

Even I get sick of lentil soup every day. My goal is to try three new recipes each week and then to cycle through about 10 favorites from the past. If I do it well, we only end up eating the same meal once or twice a month. To make life a little easier, especially during the workweek, I try to have a least 10 meals ready to go in the freezer and I'm always thinking of ways to modify recipes so I can repurpose leftovers in a variety of ways.

For example, I might make pilaf as a side dish one night and then use it as a stuffing for cabbage rolls or squash later in the week. Pureed soups can make great sauces when thickened with coconut milk, a roux or a cornstarch slurry. Options are only as limited as your imagination -- and imagination makes everything taste so much better.

Monday, February 18, 2013

CSAs Rock

I have some serious goals this year. In addition to wanting to end the year with more days of eating plants vs. eating animals, I want to fill my body with nutrient-rich whole foods, exercise daily and experiment with growing my own food. And I want to support others with similar goals.

That is why we have become members of a community-supported agriculture operation (CSA).  When you join a CSA, you become a partner with equal rights to its products. Depending on your farm's policies, you pay a regular fee in exchange for a share in the farm's produce. Simply put, you're supporting the farm's efforts, and you share in its bounty. Some CSAs offer home delivery, others require you to pick up your share at the farm. We're fortunate to have a pick-up location at my place of employment so I can just pick up my box when I leave the office.

We are members of Rancho Piccolo Farms, and receive a full share of vegetables every week. There are three CSAs that currently serve our area, but I chose Rancho Piccolo for two reasons: their farm is the closest to our home (making it the most local) and they offer vegetable shares separate from fruit shares. Given that my husband is allergic to most fruits, this ensures that we can fully utilize all that we receive. It also helps me live out my goal of working more vegetables into our daily diets.

What I love most about CSAs is what others dislike: the element of surprise. You never know what you're going to get each week, and that makes for a culinary adventure. Last week, we received red cabbage, Swiss chard, diakon, lettuce, beets, rutabaga, fennel, beets and spaghetti squash. The week before, we got carrots, watermelon radishes, lettuce, rainbow chard, cauliflower, Napa cabbage and kale.

Each week, I've been challenged to try new things. Some great; others not so much. Some winners have been roasted cauliflower with garlic, spaghetti squash with chickpeas and Brussels sprouts, pickled watermelon radishes, fennel-endive salad with navel oranges, and fried beet and carrot salad. The biggest loser was colcannon with curly endive (the bitterness was overpowering).

If you want the benefit of fresh, organic produce, joining a CSA is probably the most affordable option next to growing your own. Visit localharvest.org for a list of CSAs in your area. Some offer additional benefits to members, such as tours, farm-to-table dinners, and you-pick harvest events. It's also a great opportunity to try unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Before my introduction to CSAs, I had never tried fennel, swiss chard, rutabaga, turnip, or even fresh beets. Now, those vegetables are familiar and favored. Not only do I benefit from the experience, but so does my daughter who is being raised with the daily habit of trying new things.

Unpacking our produce box has become one of her favorite weekly activities. She loves to name each vegetable as we pull it out. When she doesn't recognize one, I tell her what it is, let her touch it and talk about what we can make with it. Sometimes she gets so excited that she sneaks a bite on the spot (my poor rainbow chard stems were her latest victim).

To me, this is the epitome of a healthy lifestyle. Raising a daughter who recognizes and values fresh, whole foods is my answer to ending the cycle of obesity in my family, and also our society's general apathy about the food we eat and where it comes from. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Oatmeal Muffins

Oatmeal muffin with dried cranberries.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but between getting ready for work and school, it can also be the easiest to skip. That's where these muffins come in. Easy to make the night before, they ensure you send everyone in the family away with a hearty breakfast. These also freeze really well and make for a hot breakfast after 45 seconds in the microwave. The key here is to not overbake the muffins. Pull them from the oven when they seem just shy of being done. They will cool to perfection. If you bake until an inserted knife comes clean, you will end up with dry hockey pucks that nobody wants to eat.

My standard recipe is to add 1/4 cup of sliced almonds and 1/2 cup of orange-flavored dried cranberries. Other popular variations include: 1/2 cup frozen blueberries; 1/2 cup chopped fresh apple and 1/2 cup diced dried apricots; and 1/2 cup dried cranberries and 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips.

Oatmeal Muffins

Makes 12-16 muffins

Dry Ingredients
Oatmeal muffin with fresh apple
and dried apricot.
  • 3 cups quick-cooking oats
  • 1 cup almond meal
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar or turbinado sugar
  • 2.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
Wet Ingredients
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 "flax eggs"
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/2 cup applesauce (pumpkin puree or mashed banana also works)
  • Dried or fresh fruit (1/2 cup dried cranberries; fresh or frozen fruit works well too)
  • Nuts (slivered almonds, chopped walnuts)
  1. Make 3 "flax eggs" by whisking together 3 tablepoons of ground flaxseed with 9 tablespoons of warm water (1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon water). Store in refrigerator while assembling remaining ingredients (at least 15 minutes).
  2. Mix together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients until blended well
  4. Slowly stir dry ingredients into the mixed wet ingredients.
  5. Stir in any optional ingredients such as dried/fresh fruit or nuts. Allow mixture to rest.
  6. Line muffin tin with paper liners or grease with cooking spray or coconut oil.
  7. Spoon mixture into muffin tin, packing until level with rim.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
  9. Cool on wire rack. Serve solo or with coconut oil.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ups and Downs

Five months ago, when I created this blog, I felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Our family was two weeks into a plant-based lifestyle: no dairy, no eggs, no meat, no fish, no cheese, etc. I was feeling great. Our daughter's allergy symptoms had disappeared and her sleep pattern improved. My husband seemed to be doing equally well.

The experiment lasted six weeks, during which time I lost 10 pounds and my husband had significant health improvements. His blood sugar dropped 60 points and his cholesterol dropped 20 points. His doctor said if his blood work was the same or better in three months, he would officially not be considered a diabetic.

Then we got cocky. We knew if that doctor visit wasn't positive, he'd be put on insulin. Since it went well, he thought he could indulge here and there. A celebration of sorts. And then I decided that I would go off the wagon to enjoy some cheese for my birthday in late September. The challenge, though, when going off the wagon is that sometimes, you never manage to get back on. I can't even articulate how much I love cheese and all things made with cheese.

My birthday in late September seemed to bleed into Thanksgiving in November and then Christmas in December. Staying meat-free wasn't hard for me, but dairy...dairy is my addiction. Whether we're talking butter in cookies or cheese as a party appetizer, I have just never met a dairy product I didn't like.

I recommitted myself to a plant-based lifestyle in January. My husband, however, isn't nearly as into it as I am. And that poses a variety of challenges. I don't want to be a short-order cook, making multiple meals at home to suit everyone. And I still like meat, which means watching him eat it tempts me to do the same.

But I'm working on it. We still don't keep dairy products in the house. No cheese, milk or sour cream is a big change for me. We have gone from eating 18 eggs a week to about 12 a month, and I only make chicken  two to three times a month. Red meat (beef, pork and lamb) never make their way into the grocery cart. Neither does fish.

We aren't perfect but we're making progress. And that's a big accomplishment.