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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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.

Once in a While…

…it occurs to me that I could walk into the bar I used to go to any time and order a cheeseburger and a beer and they would give it to me for a nominal fee. Absolutely nothing prevents me from going back to who I used to be a year ago. When I am at home alone again, when a “friend” has cancelled plans with me again, when I wonder if I will ever be loved again, I very often miss the taste of a beer and a late night burger. Only my own willpower stands between me and this.

What holds us to the paths we choose, in the end, is almost nothing.

The International Vegetarian: Part 6, Japan

[This is the sixth post in a series on vegetarian foods from around the world. Check out my prior posts on Ethiopia, India, Italy, Mexico, and Spain.]

One thing that stood out to me as I was preparing this blog entry is the extent to which Japanese foods have become a part of the American diet. Not only do I have three restaurants that serve sushi within walking distance of my house, I can also purchase pre-packaged sushi at the corner Albertsons. Teriyaki sauce is always in my fridge, and in the past couple of years I have noticed edamame also showing up on store shelves. All of this is good news. Much of Japanese cuisine is healthy and delicious, and even if you don’t eat seafood there are an array of vegetable dishes, noodle bowls, and tofu offerings to choose from.

As with past blog entries, I decided to try making my own Japanese meal. After visiting this site, I was surprised how easy making vegetable tempura looked. This dish, which consists of lightly battered and fried veggies, supposedly was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s. In the intervening centuries, though, Japan has made tempura its own. For my meal, I used a zucchini, a sweet potato, and several snow pea pods. I also made the simple batter described at the link above, and did my best to prepare according to the author’s tips. The result was edible, and the sweet potato was actually delicious, but I’m not sure I did this totally right. The pea pods cooked very quickly in the canola oil, and the zucchini turned out kind of mushy. If I try this again, I may slice the zucchini into matchsticks and leave it out to dry longer before cooking. I’m also not sure if I overworked the batter. I tried not to, but the texture here just doesn’t look like restaurant tempura. This meal was served with white rice, a bit of soy sauce, and instant miso soup, which was quite good!

 

 

 

 

For those who aren’t convinced by my attempt at Japanese cooking, here’s a friendly reminder that you can always get tasty options elsewhere. Here’s a delicious veggie sushi platter that I got last night for dinner after work. The roll contains cucumber, asparagus, and cream cheese, the nigiri on the lower left is a sweet egg omelette, and the one on the lower right is lightly fried tofu with ginger sauce. Completely filling and great tasting. I even got to compare food notes with the guys sitting next to me at the sushi bar, who had a tasty-looking mushroom and soba noodle dish. Maybe an option for a future Japanese meal!

More Vegetarian Living with Wegmans

What can I say? I can’t stay away from Wegmans while I’m visiting the East Coast. This week, I decided to see if good things really do come in small packages.

I like hummus now and then as a snack, but sometimes a whole tub is too much to get through. Hence I was intrigued by Wegmans’ Snack & Go Hummus in Red Pepper flavor. ($1.99) This snack is reasonably sized and easy to pack, including flatbread crackers and a small tub of hummus in a re-sealable pack. Nutritionally, it weighs in at 280 calories and 12 grams of fat. The hummus has a distinct red pepper flavor and a citrus tang. The crackers didn’t do it for me, though. I was surprised to find just five thin flatbreads, which didn’t come close to using up the portion of hummus. The crackers themselves looked nice, but were brittle and not filling. The next day, the leftover hummus tasted much better on Triscuits. Unless you are planning to pack this in a lunch or bring it on a hike as a snack, maybe spring for the full-size hummus and spread it on whatever you choose!

Picture from About.com

I also couldn’t pass up this sample-sized packet of Justin’s Maple Almond Nut Butter. ($.99) As a single person, peanut butter is another thing I rarely get through an entire container of before it goes bad, so I’ll only get a large size if I really like it. What appealed to me about this is the simple ingredient list: almonds, palm fruit oil, maple sugar, and sea salt. (A non-maple variety is also available, for those who hate trees or Vermont.) The taste was also simple, but delicious. The almond flavor is mellow and earthy and the maple adds a very subtle touch of sweetness. It was great on toast, but I could also imagine this spread working well on a dessert wafer or cookie. Buyer beware, though—a single 1.15 oz serving packet is 200 calories and a surprising 17g of fat. Enjoy in moderation and you’ll be fine.

Picture from Wegmans

Finally, I at last got to try Wegmans Portobella Mushroom Burgers, one of various kinds of Wegmans brand veggie burgers available. ($3.99, also in Black Bean and Southwest varieties) I’m kind of stretching the “small-item” theme here. On the one hand, these burgers come in a 2-pack, which is smaller than the normal 4-pack of frozen veggie burgers that I’m accustomed to. On the other hand, the burgers themselves are massive compared to the usual frozen fare. A single patty is a quarter pound, with a whopping 250 calories, 11 grams of fat (5g of saturated fat), and 17g of protein. Kind of makes you wonder if you’re really saving on nutrition by choosing this over a standard beef burger! On the other hand, these burgers are delicious. Made primarily of mushroom, egg, and cheese, they are thick and have a rich taste. Chunks of portobella mushroom are evident right in the burger, and the texture is amazingly meat-like. I was amazed by how it browned up in the pan and of the moist, crumbly texture on the inside. On my stovetop preparation, the center didn’t quite cook up completely, but on a grill or in the oven I bet these would be divine. Pull the burger apart and you can even see the strings of cheese woven into it. A single patty has 2.5 times the calorie count of my normal veggie burgers, so it’s no surprise that this left me full all night. Of course, the calorie count and high fat content are a little off-putting, as is the cost. This is the kind of burger I would bring out for a party or a BBQ, but that I may not keep around just for myself. Who knows, it may even make a convert out of the carnivore in your house.

Cross Training by Kayak

Yesterday I decided to give myself a pass on my usual Friday run. I’ve still been feeling the strain of last week’s PR, and I thought that a day off might help my hamstrings and ankle recover. Instead, I went with some friends on a kayak trip. The excursion was run through Bay Creek Paddling Center in Webster, NY and was a very affordable $16 (including boat rental!) thanks to a discounted offering through the Adirondack Mountain Club-Genesee Valley Chapter.

This was my first time in a kayak in probably four years, but I used to love kayaking before I moved to Arizona. I’ve spent time on the water in the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, and even took a memorable kayak trip on San Francisco Bay. If you’re new to kayaking or are thinking about trying it for the first time, here are some things to know:

  • On flat water, unless you’re doing something seriously wrong, your odds of capsizing are almost nil. Today’s kayaks are very stable, and the loaners that you will rent at most places are easy to maneuver. The trickiest part is getting in and out.
  • The bigger the body of water, the tougher the paddling. Beginners may want to stick to creeks, canals, and streams (which are plentiful in Upstate New York) and then build to more ambitious trips.
  • Paddling on flat water can be as hard or as easy as you make it. I enjoy a leisurely pace to explore the scenery and watch for birds and animals. Some of my friends last night seemed to think it was the Indy 500. But, you know, whatever works for you.

Not my picture; courtesy of Wikipedia

Our trip lasted about 2.25 hours and we covered 4.5 miles of back streams between Irondequoit Bay and the Ellison Park/Browncroft Blvd. area outside of Rochester. Along the way I saw one snake, a family of swans with signets, a family of Canada geese, some ducks, and a handful of herons (my personal favorite members of the avian family). Others on the trip saw an otter. I heard the splash, but was sorry to miss it. Otters are very cute.

I regrettably didn’t get to take pictures, since I left my camera phone lodged in my breast pocket and would have had to remove my life jacket to get to it. (No, I wouldn’t have died… but I would have gotten yelled at by our guides.) I do hope to go out on the water again before my time here is out, though. My shoulders and wrists are feeling the burn today, but I’d forgotten how much fun it is to get out and do something that isn’t running or a gym workout. Maybe I do need to branch out a little! I leave you with this, my post-paddle reward, a delicious meat-free version of MacGregor’s Mexican Pizza. Yum!

Vegetarian Living With Wegmans

Since I frequently sing the virtues of Trader Joe’s and its vegetarian options, I figured it was only fair to give a nod to Wegmans while I’m visiting New York. Over the years, Wegmans has steadily expanded its organic and vegetarian options. Their stores often co-locate these items in a “Nature’s Marketplace” section, which makes them easy to find. In some stores, like the Brockport, NY location, the Nature’s Marketplace section is sizable and offers everything from frozen foods to supplements and toiletries.

My strategy while staying with non-vegetarian relatives is to find convenience items that are quick to make and unobtrusive, getting me in and out of the kitchen fast and with little hassle to others who are preparing meals. Frozen foods seemed like an ideal choice, given the circumstances. The first item I tried is Wegmans Organic Soy Chorizo and Potato Burrito ($1.99). This item weighs in at a reasonable 300 calories, and I had high hopes for taste. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that vegetarian chorizos I tried in Tucson were on par with the real thing. This burrito, though, didn’t quite live up to expectations. The combination of thick whole wheat tortilla and potato dominated the flavor, drowning out the spices of the chorizo. The burrito was also rather dry. Instructions advise cooking the burrito in the microwave wrapped in a paper towel, but I feel like the paper towel soaked up moisture. This is probably not a product that I’d make a repeat purchase.

I also purchased Quorn Cheese Burgers, a new product to Wegmans that was on sale ($3.99 for a 4-pack, $4.99 regular price) and advertised in their seasonal magazine. At 100 calories per burger, I give these patties high marks. Quorn burgers are made from mycoproteins derived from fungi and are available in four different flavors. These cheese burgers contain Cheddar and soft cheeses. The texture is very meat-like, though the product itself has an almost layered appearance on the inside. Smoke flavoring is a great addition, creating a taste reminiscent of a bacon cheeseburger and making this the best smelling veggie burger I’ve ever tried. Though I give these burgers a definitive thumbs-up, a couple of tips are in order: First, the burgers are not individually wrapped in cellophane or plastic within the box. I’m not a fan of useless packaging, but this did strike me as odd. Some interior packaging would probably prevent freezer burn on the patties, which was already developing on mine within a week. If you’re keeping them in the freezer for an extended period of time, you may want to re-package the burgers in foil. Also, I recommend a stovetop or grill preparation for the burgers. They were more moist and tasty coming from the stovetop than they were coming out of a microwave.

On a final note, fans of veggies may want to check out the Summer edition of Wegmans Menu Magazine ($4.99, but mailed free to many customers). While the issue is not all-vegetarian (a feature on ethical meat producers that Wegmans purchases from is included), there are some tasty looking vegetable recipes and tips on grilling your favorite vegetables. Valuable coupons are also included.