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

photo-17

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.

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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)

The International Vegetarian: Part 2, India

If you are a vegetarian, familiarizing yourself with Indian cuisine is almost a must. Indian food is really a complex array of various regional cuisines from the Indian subcontinent, with some U.S. menus including items that are a fusion including Portuguese- or British-Indian combinations. Wikipedia’s Indian cuisine page contains a lengthy list of different regions and foods, if you’re interested in all this.

Throughout India’s diverse population of 1 billion+, many people are vegetarian for religious or cultural reasons. Even for those who are not, semi-vegetarianism is common. The slaughter of cows is illegal in some areas, following Hindu belief, and pork is taboo for Muslims. Buddhists, of course, are generally vegetarian, and even many individuals who don’t follow these dietary restrictions often go long periods of time without eating meat. What’s the necessity, when there are so many other options?

If you are new to Indian cuisine, going to a restaurant is a good bet. Many have vegetarian-friendly Indian buffets, and given the complexity of some Indian recipes, trying it at home may be daunting at first. If you are cooking and want a shortcut, Trader Joe’s has a variety of prepared Indian Fare you can try, and cooking sauces from brands like Sharwood’s are widely available in U.S. supermarkets. Here are some common dishes for you to try.

  • Korma is a sauce that, in Western restaurants, is generally mild in preparation. This sauce is usually flavored with cashews and coconut, yogurt, and/or cream. If you’re wary of spicy foods, or if you like Thai dishes with peanuts, this may be a good choice for you.
  • Tikka masala is my personal favorite. This tomato and yogurt-based sauce is sometimes dyed to create the vibrant red-orange color. The flavor is tangy, and you can order it hot or mild to your taste in most places. This dish may originate in Punjab, but some have also claimed it was a UK-Indian fusion. It is most commonly seen as chicken tikka masala, but you can usually find a version with veggies, fish, or paneer–a soft cheese that is kind of like a cross between cheese and tofu.
  • Vindaloo is popular in the Goa region and is often a very spicy dish. You could order it milder… but why not be daring? Given Goa’s history of interaction with the Portuguese, some cross-cultural influence is present in the dish, which blends vinegar, ginger, chilis, and other spices. You can often find it with potatoes, which may reflect the European influence.
  • Samosas are a tasty appetizer, usually containing potato, onion, and peas in a fried package. The history of samosas is interesting, as this dish is served widely with variations throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa.
  • Naan is a type of flatbread popular in the Punjab region. It is usually cooked in a clay tandoor oven and brushed with butter or ghee.
  • Basmati rice is often served with Indian dishes. It is fragrant with long, delicate grains.

Vegetable masala over basmati rice, served with half a tortilla because I forgot to buy naan. Note that I am not a professional food blogger. 🙂

I made the vegetable masala pictured above with Trader Joe’s Masala Simmer sauce, a potato, half an onion, and half a bell pepper. The potato should be peeled, chopped, and boiled in water until soft. In a skillet, sauté the chopped onion and bell pepper about 10 minutes. Then add the boiled potato, masala sauce, and heat through. After a minute or so, lower the heat and let everything simmer for 5-7 more minutes. Total cooking time is about 35 minutes, and if you get bored with this combo you can also try adding chickpeas, boiled cauliflower, or cherry tomatoes.

Once you master the basics, you’ll find there’s a lot to enjoy in Indian cuisine. Don’t be afraid to experiment! I’ve pretty much never met an Indian recipe I didn’t like.

Foodie Finds of the Week

Seems like it’s been a while since I blogged. This week has been totally chaotic. In addition to the usual classes and research, I also had to complete a presentation for a conference next week and practice it in front of the department (always super unnerving), deal with some family issues, work on an event I’m planning on Monday for 50 people, and on top of all that there was a six-hour long hostage standoff yesterday that closed down my street. Seriously. Gotta love Tucson.

But let’s talk instead about something I love: food. It’s been nearly three months that I’ve been living almost totally meat-free (I’ve gotten down to eating meat once monthly or less, though I still eat fish and seafood) and without alcohol, and I can hardly believe the results. I am down 22 pounds since last Christmas, my mood is improved, I look really fit, and I don’t particularly miss those things anymore. Yesterday I went to happy hour with my friends, had a veggie quesadilla and an iced tea, and didn’t get the “wet blanket” feeling or peer pressure that I would’ve had two months ago. This has given me a huge infusion of pride in my body and in my willpower. Even better is that I keep finding new and delicious things to add to my healthy diet. Here are a couple of recent Trader Joe’s finds:

1. Kimchi Fried Rice

If I hadn’t tried a sample of this in-store, I never would have thought to purchase this item. I’ve never been a fan of kimchi, but this rice is delicious and has just the right balance of spice. I bought it to pair with shrimp as a main course, but it could be good as a side dish all on its own.

2. Chickenless Crispy Tenders

Imitation meat products are a real mixed bag, and that is doubly true of things that pretend to be chicken. For instance, Morningstar Farms makes meatless buffalo wings that are great, but their chick’n strips meal starters did not wow me at all. However, these chickenless tenders from Trader Joes are sooo good, I didn’t believe that I wasn’t eating meat. They actually taste like chicken! I don’t know how they did it, since the main ingredients are basically the same as all meat substitutes: soy proteins and wheat gluten. Perhaps what makes the difference here is the inclusion of “ancient grains,” which I found rather amusing. Is quinoa any less ancient than your average rice? And can the copyrighted brand Kamut be considered all that “ancient” if it has a copyright?

Anyway, with a side of ranch or BBQ sauce, these are just as tasty as real chicken. You will want more than the recommended serving size of three pieces. Also, I suggest preparing these in the oven or toaster oven, but use a nonstick baking sheet. On my sheet, a couple of them got stuck and I lost some of the delicious coating. Bon appetit!

More Trader Joe’s Finds

My last post on meat-free items I’d found at Trader Joe’s was a hit, so I thought I’d update you all with some more product reviews. I try to grab new items every time I go, so expect further updates in the future on what worked and what didn’t!

1. Low Fat Mocha European Style Yogurt

This tasty treat is not fat free, but at 130 calories and only 2 grams of fat, why not indulge? I use it as a low-calorie dessert–creamy, delicious, and chocolatey.

2. Salmon Burgers

I forgot to take a picture of this one, but I highly recommend the salmon burgers for those who eat fish. At $5.99 for a 4-pack, they are cheaper than the other fresh fish dishes that were on offer at my TJs and you get more servings per package. Plus, they are made from wild Alaska salmon, not farm-raised, so you get more of those good Omegas. The burgers are pre-formed and have seasonings, green onions, and breadcrumbs mixed in. They can be grilled, pan-cooked, or baked, but I should add that with pan cooking I had a hard time getting the internal temp to a recommended 145 degrees without overcooking the outside. If you are a food safety nut, consider grilling or baking. I served mine on wheat bread dressed with mayo and pickle slices. Yum!

3. Sweet and Tangy Almonds

These were a pleasant surprise! I bought them after I was unable to find the marcona almonds I posted about earlier. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but these are not overly spicy. As the package promises, they’re just tangy with the slight hint of spice. If you enjoy super-hot snacks, you may be disappointed, but these make a great on-the-go item, and unlike the marcona almonds they have no added oil.

4. Chocolate Filled French Toast

Is it true? Can it be? Yes, this is delicious as you think it is. When I tried a sample in-store, I knew I had to buy it. The outside is rich, crisp french toast, and the inside chocolate filling is much like what you’d find in a fresh chocolate croissant. Is it healthy? Not terribly. 280 calories and 12g fat per slice. You also only get two slices per box, and they need to be cooked in the oven. (There are microwave directions as well, but I’m wary of how these would turn out.) However, it’s chocolate french toast and you probably deserve it. I hear you’ve been working hard.

Thanks for tuning in to my reviews! As always, feel free to pass along any recommendations of yours. Maybe I’ll pick them up and review them on a future blog entry.