The Year of the Snake

Happy Lunar New Year, everyone! This is the year of the snake, and according to Chinese astrology snake years can be volatile–full of unexpected events and opportunities. I’ve never considered myself a superstitious person, but the year of the dragon brought me great things after I followed some good luck tips, so why not try again?

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One of the things you can do to ensure good luck in the new year is to prepare a meal that will please the new year’s governing animal. Last year, my friends and I had sushi because the water dragon likes seafood. This year, I was told that the snake likes eggs. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to make tea eggs. My Chinese aunt told me about them when I was in California and I was intrigued. Here’s how mine turned out, I love the patterns on the egg and shell after they have soaked overnight:

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This recipe also made my house smell delicious, like licorice and cinnamon. As to the flavor of the eggs themselves, I thought they were pretty subtle. I actually went lighter on some of the ingredients than I should have because I wasn’t sure how strong they would taste. If I make it again, though, I’ll follow the directions more closely. With this batch I got a hint of sweetness and spice especially in the yolks, but otherwise it tasted like a normal hard boiled egg. They did make a good breakfast with toast and honey, though.

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Potstickers and a Busy Life

Well, if I haven’t been posting it’s because I’ve been insanely busy this week… but not necessarily in a bad way. Things on a number of fronts are starting to come together, but more on that later.

In busy times, it’s hard to keep up with cooking and exercise. I’ve had my share of “comfort food” meals recently (I think I had cheese pizza for lunch or dinner no less than four times this week), and since my knee is still bruised I’ve been taking it easier on running, too. One thing I recently discovered, though, is that potstickers or gyoza make a quick and easy meal. If you haven’t made them before, it’s totally easy. I got a package of wonton skins at the local Chinese grocery for under $2 and took my cues from this basic recipe. At the behest of reviewers, though, I chose not to pre-cook my mushroom filling and they turned out fine. Another recommendation is to cook them with vegetable stock instead of water for a richer flavor.

Filled potstickers, waiting to be cooked.

Filled potstickers, waiting to be cooked.

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Post-cooking, drizzled with a rice wine vinegar/soy sauce combo

This recipe has given me a few good, quick meals in the past couple of weeks. Also, be on the look out for these almond cookies if you have a Chinese store near you. My Chinese aunt bought them for me in California and they are quite good! Chinese new year is just around the corner… Perhaps I’ll make some more new recipes soon to celebrate.


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2012 in Review: Food, Glorious Food (and Drink)

Pizza with fresh basil and black olives, with a strawberry and baby spinach salad.

Pizza with fresh basil and black olives, with a strawberry and baby spinach salad.

In my continuing series on things I did right this year, I’d like to focus on one of my favorite things: eating. I started 2012 with a week-long vegan challenge, which ended with my decision to go vegetarian again after a several year hiatus. Since then, I’ve really embraced the meat-free life. There’s such a variety of meat-free dishes from cultures all around the world, and if you’re really stuck on eating animals, the wide availability of meat substitutes can help you make the transition. My decision to go vegetarian was primarily influenced by my compassion for animals and ethical concerns, but the health benefits are also clear. I’ve lost just over 50 pounds since last Christmas, and I still get enough calories and nutrients to fuel me through 20+ mile weeks of running.

If weight loss is a goal for you in 2013, here are some tips I’d share from my experience:

  1. Give up meat, at least part of the time. If you’re not ready to make the vegetarian commitment, consider becoming a weekday vegetarian or giving up meat a few days at a time. Meat certainly can have a place in a healthy diet, but especially in the U.S. our portion sizes are out-of-control and concerns about the environment in which meat is produced cannot be ignored. If you’re concerned about a lack of variety in meat-free diets, check out my posts on vegetarian living.
  2. Cook more. This can go hand-in-hand with number one. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and was never one to eat at restaurants every day, but becoming vegetarian really forced me to become engaged in meal planning to ensure variety, proper nutrition, and because the menus at some of my favorite restaurants just didn’t have many options. By cooking at home you can prepare foods with better portion sizes, less salt/fat/preservatives, and you can also share the joy of cooking with family and friends. Cooking to me means love, and it also is a creative outlet. I look forward to every trip to the grocery store these days because of the possibility of finding something new. Some of my favorite sources of meal ideas this year have been Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, The Pampered Chef’s The Vegetarian Table cookbook, Giada de Laurentiis’ Everyday Italian, and of course a variety of Internet sites. The more you cook, the more you’ll find that you also learn tricks to improve every recipe and make it your own.
  3. photo-16Drink less. Giving up booze was harder for me than giving up meat, but ultimately it came down to the same issue: compassion. I gave up meat because of my compassion for animals; I gave up alcohol because of my compassion for myself. Given my struggles with depression and emotional health, I finally had to acknowledge this year that I just drink too much and it makes me too emotionally volatile. Even if you consider yourself an average drinker, consider the double-whammy that alcohol does on you: Every drink is extra calories you take in, and it also slows your metabolism over time so that your other calories burn more slowly. While I haven’t been perfect on this by a long shot, I’m proud to say that I’ve only drank once in the past six months. I know there are people in my life who would never believe that I could do that, but I truly believe that anyone who has the right knowledge, a good reason, and a dedicated will can also kick the habit. If you need some baby steps, I recommend toasting 2013 with sparkling cider or grape juice. The variety pictured here is an affordable $2.99 at Trader Joe’s. A ginger ale or soda from the bar is also indistinguishable from the real thing if you’re worried about looking cool in front of your friends.
  4. Don’t skip dessert. In case I sound like some sort of foodie saint, I’m not. I may have given up alcohol and meat, but I’m a total junkie for pastries and cheese, and you can pry my Starbucks from my cold, dead hands. It’s just a matter of moderation. Make what you eat so you understand portions and calorie counts. Read every label. Share treats with friends. Exercise. If you have to, download a smartphone app (I enjoy the Livestrong calorie tracker, which has an extensive food database and syncs your mobile data with your online profile) or keep a food journal to ensure balance. As Buddha would say, the Middle Way is best. Total deprivation, just like total indulgence, is a path to failure.

I hope these tips will help some folks looking for success in 2013. In the days to come, I’ll also talk about exercise and particularly running, which has been a major part of my life this year. In the meantime, stay warm out there and enjoy some food porn–courtesy of my holiday baking frenzy.

Brown sugar cookies with white chocolate chips and almonds.

Brown sugar cookies with white chocolate chips and almonds.

Chocolate Chip Muffins, recipe from Food.com

Chocolate Chip Muffins, recipe from Food.com

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Last known photo of my Cocoa Brownies (recipe by Alton Brown) before they were scarfed up by me and my two friends. Lousy photo, delicious food.

Vegetarian Comfort Food Night

I know I already posted once today, but when you make a great meal you just want to share. Tonight’s theme: Vegetarian comfort food night with carmelized parsnips, cheesy polenta, and a green bean casserole. The parsnips are made with nutmeg, adding a holiday flavor, and green bean casserole just feels special all the time. This was filling, delicious, and was surprisingly quick and easy to make. Green bean casserole takes 30-35 minutes to cook, and while it’s in the oven you can make the polenta (4 parts boiling water, add 1 part corn meal, cook until tender and add cheese) and the parsnips (cook 1/2 pound of sliced and dried parsnips in 1 tbsp. butter and nutmeg to taste. When the parsnips are brown, after 5-8 minutes, add a tablespoon of water and cover until the water is evaporated).

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For dessert: Home made white chocolate chip sugar cookies. This is what I can do on weekends when I’m not working!

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The International Vegetarian: Part 8, Morocco

[This is an entry in my occasional series on vegetarian meals from around the world. Check out my earlier entries on Ethiopia, India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, China, and Japan.]

It’s been a while since I did one of these entries, but I had to take a small break from international cooking while the semester has gotten busier. This, however, is a quick recipe entry that is nice for fall.

Spice is central to Moroccan food, given the country’s location and history in international trade. Ras el hanout is a spice blend associated with many Moroccan dishes, but the actual term “ras el hanout” means “best of the market,” and it should be noted that it refers less to a specific recipe for a spice blend and more to some guidelines on blending spices. As noted at the site linked above, sometimes this blend can include over 30 different spices! For me, making ras el hanout was a good way to use up some extra spices that I had from many of my other vegetarian dishes. Plus, the inclusion of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg makes the blend feel like fall.

Rather than trying a stew, I was inspired by the acorn squash that I bought at Trader Joe’s and took some inspiration from Martha Stewart and my Pampered Chef “The Vegetarian Table” cookbook to make a rice dish. I used some leftover medium-grain rice as  the base, but wild rice or the more traditional cous-cous would work equally well. I re-heated the cooked rice in the microwave, combined with chopped, dried apricots and prunes (my go-to substitute for raisins, which would work just as well in this recipe). The steam from the rice helps plump up the dried fruit a little. Then I toasted some crushed almonds on the stovetop, set them aside, and heated garbanzo beans with a little water and ras el hanout to taste. The rice, seasoned beans, almonds, and fruit should all be mixed together to create the rice. While doing this, I hollowed out my acorn squash, brushed it with brown sugar and olive oil, and baked it at 425 degrees until tender (about 25 minutes). The squash bowl makes a great serving vehicle, and the entire dish looked very classy and filling. This almost felt too fancy to eat on a Monday!

I highly recommend this as a fall dish, I think it will impress meat eaters and would even be fancy and unique enough to serve to company. I plan to make it again soon, but this time instead of acorn squash I will try serving it in a little tiger pumpkin that I got at the market. Who knew that Moroccan spice and American traditions could blend so well!

Enjoying the Foods of Fall with Trader Joe’s

So, last week on the ABC World News telecast there was a hard-hitting story on the topic of whether we have too many pumpkin-flavored foods. I have two responses to that:

  1. What an idiotic story for a nightly newscast. Seriously, even Diane Sawyer looked embarrassed introducing it.
  2. No, we absolutely do not have too many fall foods.

I recently went on a fall-food-buying bonanza at my local Trader Joe’s and would like to report back on some of my vegetarian finds. Even if you don’t like pumpkin, there is something here for you… but probably not these first few items.

1. Pumpkin Spice Coffee

I have to admit that I’m not generally a fan of pumpkin spice coffee and this was no exception. This is better than some types I’ve tried, and the coffee itself is strong and tasty, but the sweet aftertaste of cinnamon and nutmeg did not blend well to me. With milk and sugar, things mellow out… but I don’t usually take sweetener in my morning coffee so I’d call this a miss. However, if you are someone who prefers sweet coffee drinks perhaps you should try it for yourself. The roommate loves it, so it fits someone’s tastes! ($7.99, 14 oz.)

2. Country Pumpkin Spice Granola

This was an unexpected win, since I don’t often buy granola. But an in-store sample of this granola with some vanilla yogurt sold me. The granola is sweet, rich, and filling and in addition to the pumpkin flavors and real pumpkin bits, it includes raisins and honey (so, sadly, not vegan-friendly). Mixed in with yogurt, it tastes amazing and makes a filling snack or dessert. It’s also delicious on its own. ($2.49, 16 oz. and 210 calories for a 2/3 cup serving)

3. Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix

This is just plain delicious. What else can I say? Essentially it’s pumpkin pie batter that comes in dry form and you mix it up with egg, butter, and milk. The huge caveat, though, is that this isn’t health food. Take a look at the label and you’ll see that the final product is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Even worse, the ingredient label gives data for a 1/3 serving size of mix, but preparation calls for 1 cup of mix. If you follow those directions, then, you end up with a whopping 900 calories of pancakes. I found that 1/2 cup of mix (essentially, 1.5 servings) makes a filling meal, but still not a healthy one. Buy this, but use it only as an occasional treat! ($2.99 for a 21.1 oz. box, 300 calories for the recommended 1/3 cup serving)

4. Spiced Apple Cider

Finally, something for the non-pumpkin people out there. This cider is a must have, flavored with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. The spiced taste is not overwhelming, and if you’re like me you may want to add some freshly grated cinnamon or a spoonful of honey. Warmed, this cider makes a great after dinner drink or a substitute for coffee and tea. It will also promote good digestion, thanks to the fiber and cinnamon content. ($2.99 for 64 oz., 130 calories per 8 oz. serving)

5. Acorn Squash

This is one you can enjoy even if you’re not near a Trader Joe’s, though Trader Joe’s does carry a wide variety of squashes this time of year. Acorn squash is easy to prepare and versatile. It can be used in pies, as a puree, and hollowed out it makes a great edible bowl. Martha Stewart’s website has a great primer on acorn squash, so don’t be afraid to try this! I used one half of the squash to make baked wedges drizzled with cinnamon butter and served with nutty manchego cheese, which complimented the dish perfectly. What did I do with the other half? You’ll find out in a future post! (Prices and sizes vary, check out the selection at a store near you)