September 28, 2013

My 100th Post - My Quest to the Quick'n'Healthy diet

It feels nice to reach a milestone by penning my 100th post. So I wanted to do something different this time around and it is not a recipe. Rather, it is a reflection of the past 3 years with my new blog and on our new lifestyle, along with our own experiences on how it has had a positive effect on me and my family. What better day than today, being the Family Health and Fitness Day 2013. I feel wonderful with my new lifestyle as I eat the food I love to my heart’s content, with no compromises on health, and you feel good about contributing to local communities and the environment. Hard to beat that feeling :-)




A background:
So here is a small background on the genesis of this blog. I have always had an interest in cooking and always look at trying new things. I came from a vegetarian family that was very concerned about health as well, so I did had a little background of healthy cooking. In fact, my dad has written a book on natural living back in India. I come from Kerala where the basic diet is still very healthy, though Indian food was becoming unhealthier by the day because as people got richer so did their food too.

Before coming into the US 13 years back, most people we were under the impression (like many others) that US is a very healthy country, with the likes of all the athletes/sportsmen and the Hollywood stars.  Even after coming into the country initially we felt that anything we get here is healthy, even things that come in boxes, as it comes from a reputed big company and with agencies like FDA/USDA, etc. there is strict control on all things related to food/health.  So all breakfast cereals were thought to be healthy and better than the steamed idli or puttu (I cringe now on the thought). The juices in the box looked nice were also thought to be better than water or coconut water and luckily we did not venture into Sodas yet. So gullible do we become ( in spite of the two of us having a master’s degree) and believe that capitalism ensures all checks and balances. Having said that, we cannot generalize on the country because there are also a lot of good things happening in the US that is outside of the mainstream, and even we started learning about most of the positive possibilities from here. 

The turning point and the learning:
Then a few things happened along in life that caused us to pause, ponder and question our lifestyle and our food choices. One was when I was diagnosed with a possibility of a medical condition (which thankfully was a false alarm). This made us do a lot of reading of the food we eat and we started to get more educated about good food choices and having a holistic view of health. The other is when my son’s class teacher read Michael Pollen’s ‘Omnivores Dilemma’ to the class, and my son used to come home every day and educate us on what he learnt from class. This got both of us interested (and excited at the same time) in learning more about the origin, ingredients, process involved in commercial food available. During this time, we also watched the movie Food Inc which was another eye opener. We were shocked to learn what we discovered from all of this, and the more we tried to dig in, the more bad news we found. There were quite a few around us who said that why try to find what is behind the food and then discover that we cannot eat them, so being ignorant was better. I beg to differ, and feel that the most important thing is for one to know and be aware of what is in the food, and then to make the optimal choice based on the situation. I can list down more than 100 things which might surprise many, but here are a few examples:
  • Organic: Most fresh fruits and veggies are loaded with pesticides that you cannot eat them raw or cooked, it is good to be aware of what are the worst produce on this list that you can look for organic produce. Many people know this, yet do not buy organics. In fact, there are some I know that say veggies/fruits are full of pesticides, so they prefer taking meat instead :-), which makes for a good joke but not funny in real life.
  • GMOs: A whole lot of food we eat in this country is genetically modified. It has very board effects on health and environment, and there is no way one can avoid GMO food. Most peanuts, corn, oats and rice produced in the US are GMO, and along with a hoard of other fruits and vegetables. GMOs are thought to be the major factor in the rise of allergies in the US, while also contributing to many other health issues. The shocking fact is all baby formula in the US is loaded with GMO stuff, and at the same time doctors ask parents to refrain from giving them some natural foods till they are 2-3, funny world we live in.
  • Breakfast cereals: These are the worst possible breakfast you can have as it is loaded with bad sugar and hoards of chemicals and unwanted stuff. Also, corn is the unhealthiest grain out there and Americans (humans and cattle alike) are being force fed corn by the food industry. Most people (including me) who had been on a good traditional breakfast moved to eat this junk thinking it is healthy, and I am glad that this was one of the first things I moved away from. I still know a lot of close friends with health conditions who eat only processed cereals in the morning thinking it will make them healthy.
  • Processed food: All food that come in boxes or packed is loaded with unknown chemicals, gmo ingredients, bad sugar and salt. Checkout the ingredients on the food you buy and if you cannot make sense out of it, then don’t buy it. After all, if you were to make it at home, you would understand each item when you look at the ingredient list. In general, if any item has more than 5 ingredients, there is something wrong with it, and in most cases a whole lot is wrong with it.
  • Special ingredients: There are many ingredients used by the food industry that we would not even imagine to consume as it is not food, yet they are in the majority of processed foods. One good example is Gelatin which is made from the waste from the meat and leather industry. It is made from pork, horses, and cattle/cow bones and skins, or split cattle hides. It is a key ingredient in most yogurts, gummy bears, fruit snacks, marshmallows, gelatin desserts and many more products targeted at kids. Most vegetarians are unaware of this and take all of this on a regular basis. I know most Indian vegetarians in the US use a lot of gelatin filled yogurt. Would it not be better if you know about this and then make the right choice?
  • The all-powerful food industry: This is one of the most powerful industry group in the country and only cares for profits. They consider everything in terms of how much money they can make per unit of land or per animal or per person, health of a customer does not matter. So their focus is in how they can get you addicted to processed/junk food and make you buy more of it. 


The change and our new guiding principles:
During the initial years the focus of my cooking was on taste and I also felt that if I cook at home, then it is usually healthy (which is still valid, but there are other factors). I have now realized that while cooking at home is important, what is more important are what we cook and how we cook (and do we really need to cook?). I have also realized that the real taste lies in the most natural of ingredients, and what we taste from store/restaurant is not the natural taste. We are not tied down with a specific diet, like to call ourselves as Flexiterians (flexible vegetarians). 

We are predominantly vegetarians, with a small dose of sustainably caught fish added to our diet. Vegan and raw food diets are wonderful and has their merits, and we love both of those concepts. I am not a vegan nor do I subscribe to a completely plant based diet. I understand the health benefits of getting your daily calorie intake as well as your nutrition intake from plant based food. I also understand the adverse effects of consuming large amounts of animal products. I give myself a few exceptions on my plant-based diet. I grew up in India, the land of Ayurveda and other ancient medicines. I have read about (and experienced as well) the medicinal, therapeutic and nutritional benefits of ghee. I believe that consuming ghee in small amounts is very beneficial if not essential. It has been used over centuries by Ayurvedic practitioners with good results. Another one is yogurt, which is an essential part of the South Indian diet. I believe the homemade yogurt is our best source of daily probiotics (which is so essential for health) and I am not ready to forgo that. Finally, milk, yogurt and ghee are essential part of our religion, tradition and folklore. Having said that, we have reduced our dairy intake and we try to get whole milk that is local and organic, and definitely not from a dairy factory. 

We have also supplemented milk with almond or coconut milk (both freshly prepared), and we have started liking cheese for the first time via cashew cheese :-). We also like to have wild caught fish once in a while. Try to have some of our diet to be raw. I also love to cook (and eat) our traditional Kerala dishes, which is in general on the healthy side. So while we are not vegans or vegetarians or raw-foodies, we are a mix of all of that and would like to call us as Flexitarians :-).

Here is what I consider as the guiding principles to my cooking:

Ingredients: Wholesome, natural, sustainable
  • Buy the most natural/wholesome form of the ingredients. So no coconut milk in cans for me, just pure coconut and I make the milk from it. Same with peanut/almond butter, I get raw organic nuts and make my own butter.
  • Completely eliminated processed food – any food that comes in a packet or can
  • Try to buy organic as much as possible, best is local organic, else local without pesticides, else organic from a grocery store like WholeFoods/Trader Joe’s.
  • Completely avoid GMO – the only way to do that is to stop buying any packed/processed foods, and buying local/organic
  • Always buy things which are good for the environment, the small farmers and for humans, and try to avoid things that cause harm. No, we are not Buddha or Gandhi, but it just makes us feel good, is that not a good reason?, maybe you can call us selfish :-)

Cooking process: Quick, Healthy, Raw or Mild cooking
  • I cook 3 meals a day and prefer to have freshly cooked food. I have been doing this all my life, while at work or while taking a break from work. 
  • Having a fulltime job, I have limited time available for cooking, so I prefer to make my cooking simple and quick. 
  • Raw is best, it tastes awesome and your body will say so too, but don’t restrict to just raw
  • I don’t overcook as it spoils the taste and kills the nutrients
  • If I don’t get the right ingredients, I look to substitute with another whole ingredient instead of getting the canned or bottled version of the original. 



The Results:
The change in our food choices was not a quick one step change, it has evolved over a period of 2-3 years and we are still evolving as we learn more. The first major change we did was in moving to consuming more vegetables, fruits and whole ingredients. We then switched to some organic produce and later to mostly organic and non-GMO, and included a lot of raw nuts into our food. The last step was in moving to a more raw-food and vegan based diet, and eliminating all processed/canned/packaged foods. I would not like to brag about the health improvements we have seen because one never knows what is in store in the future as there are a lot of things beyond our control, but we can still do things from our end and leave the rest to a higher element. Having said that, we believe food plays the biggest part in health and the results we have seen are very encouraging. In general, the instances of us getting sick has gone down drastically too. We also found that all our health numbers changed to the positive side, including good cholesterol increasing and bad cholesterol decreasing (raw nuts and coconut did the trick), our sugar levels went down (though we took more natural sugars via fresh fruits/juice, dates, honey and palm sugar). One could see change on the physical side too, especially for me. My husband and son did not have much to lose, but even for them the change was there to see. As for me, I have tried to shed a few pounds in the past via exercise and different diets, but here all I did was to eat what I liked and in a matter of 6 months I became lighter by 25 pounds. I was quite surprised too, but I know and realize that there is a lot of power behind good food. 

What we feel about the change:
Beyond the looks and numbers, what is more important is the fact that we feel so good mentally also with our food choices as it has so many benefits:

  • Eating the food we love, all made at home and fresh
  • Food that is tasty and immensely healthy, and made with the best ingredients (organic fruits, vegetables and grains in its most natural form)
  • Food that is ethical and does not harm animals or the environment
  • Food via sustainable methods that provides for future generations
  • Support small organic farmers and local communities, and thus share the profits instead of it going into large multinational firms
  • Works out cheaper too as we avoid all processed foods
  • Make ourselves healthier and look better
  • Make us feel good about what we do



So that is the story of my blog.  Thank you for reading. Next time I promise, I will be back with a recipe. Now off to some biking as part of Family Health and Fitness Day 2013.

Cherry Banana Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Admit it, we all love ice creams, but do we know what all goes into a store bought pint of ice cream? Do we care? I do, and I try to read the labels, but most of the time I have to say that I am disappointed with the ingredient list. Loads of sugar is my main concern with these store bought ice creams. Of course, the ingredient list does not tell you how much of sugar is loaded into it, and most of the time you just have to guess what kind of sugar it is. There are some health conscious and responsible brands too which use very minimal and basic ingredients. They use all-organic, gmo-free, and soy-free ingredients. I have problems here as well, I guess it is not easy to satisfy me :-).

There are some brands that one might associate with as healthy and socially responsible, and Ben&Jerry is one of them (or used to be one until it became part of the food giant Unilever). On a recent visit to lock Island, we checked out their store and on looking at the ingredient list we found something was not right. On checking with the associate there, they were kind enough to provide a detailed ingredient list (It was good to see that they are transparent), sure enough it had GMOs and corn based ingredients and hardly anything organic..., surely a far cry from the old Ben&Jerry. So we thanked them and stepped out of the store. Btw, it is good to see B&J take a stand against GMOs by pledging to move to a GMO free menu in 2 years.

We limit buying ice cream to an occasional affair and try making my own organic versions of our favorite flavors at home. This way I know what is in my ice cream, how much sugar (or anything for that matter) goes into it, and at the same time enjoying our all time favorite frozen dessert, the ice cream :-). So here is my take on the Ben&Jerry classic 'Cherry Garcia', with a little twist to it.



This one has just 5 ingredients, that includes the 3 ingredients used to make my homemade chocolate chips! You just need to remember to freeze a couple of bananas and also remember to pit the cherries and freeze them too. You could also choose to just pick up a bag or two of organic frozen cherries when they are on sale at the grocery store. If you have these 2 tasks done ahead of time, then the ice cream just takes less than 10 minutes to put together. To top it all, it is raw, vegan, dairy free and all organic :)



For chocolate chips:

  • Raw cacao butter - 1/4 cup (shaved from blocks and loosely packed)
  • Raw cacao powder - 2 T
  • Raw turbinado sugar - 1 T

  • Melt cacao butter over a pot of warm water.
  • Dissolve the sugar in a tablespoon of water.
  • Mix everything without lumps and pour into a small container lined with parchment paper. 

  • Keep in freezer for about 5-10 minutes and there, you have your homemade chocolate block which you can chop up and add to your ice cream.

         




For Ice cream:
  • Frozen bananas - 2 
  • Pitted cherries - 1/2 cup (frozen)
  • Pitted cherries - 1/2 cup (fresh - optional for topping)

  • Add frozen banana slices and frozen cherries into vitamix jar.
  • Process at high speed, continuously  tamping down till everything nice and creamy. Everything should take less than a minute. 
  • Scoop out and serve immediately topped with chocolate chips and fresh cherries.
  • This is a soft serve kind of ice cream and should be enjoyed immediately for best results. 
  • I have not tried freezing this ice cream and serving it later, but definitely something that I would try for serving for guests. 




September 20, 2013

Nutella Reinvented

I am sure most of you have tried the Nutella spread and it might even be your favorite breakfast spread.  I grew up in a middle class family in India and Nutella was something you have seen at houses of more affluent friends and relatives. After we came to US, we saw that it was everywhere and places like Costco has big jars for very affordable prices. So there was a time when we always had it as stock and used it daily on anything we could get our hands to. Then as we started changing our diet to a healthier, natural and responsible approach to food, the ingredients inside the Nutella jar was no longer acceptable on our table. We loved its taste and so figured that I should try it with the basic whole ingredients because with raw cacao, raw hazelnuts and unrefined sugar you cannot go wrong by much. It worked out really well and we are back enjoying the ‘New’tella.
  • Raw hazelnuts - 1 1/2 cups
  • Raw cacao powder - 1/4 cup
  • Raw coconut palm sugar - 2 Tbs 
  • Milk (dairy or non-dairy) - few tablespoons.

  • Add everything except milk into vitamix jar and quickly turn to high speed and blend frequently tampering everything down. 
  • Aim is to finely grind the mixture taking less than a minute, since you do not want everything to heat up. 
  • Transfer everything to a bowl, add milk one tablespoon at a time to mix and make a smooth spreadable consistency. I used about 3. 



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September 14, 2013

Carrot Pulp Crackers - for zero waste juicing

Juicing has been a routine in our morning schedule for the past 8+ years. It has evolved from just squeezing fresh orange juice using a citrus juicer, to taking orange-carrot juice using a centrifugal juicer to finally upgrading to vegetable juice in a masticating juicer.

Masticating juicer is the newest addition to my kitchen and I am loving it so far. It is so easy to clean and also, I love the way it takes out all the juice from greens. I was surprised by the amount of juice we can get out of the greens, though the carrots (and similar veggies) work a little different on this juicer. In the centrifugal juicer, carrot juice would produce pulp, but the pulp was not really usable as in it did not seem to contain anything useful. On the other hand, the masticating juicer produces significant amount of pulp from carrots and because of its masticating action, the pulp seems to be still 'healthy' and it looks like finely powdered carrot. So I did not feel like just throwing them away. I have been exploring ways to save them and use them in creative ways.




Here are a couple of versions of crackers that I have made using the carrot pulp. The first one is a 'sweet & soft' version while the second one is a more 'crispy & spicy' version. They both go well with soups or as a mid-day snack. I would like to hear from raw-foodies on how this turns up on a dehydrator as I don't have one yet.


Carrot Pulp Dates Crackers

  • Carrot Pulp - 1 cup
  • Flax seeds - 2 T
  • Almonds - 1/2 cup
  • Deglet Noor Dates - 1/2 cup
  • EV olive oil - 2 T
  • Sea salt - 1 tsp
  • Cumin seeds - 1 tsp
  • Turmeric - 1/4 tsp
  • Pepper - 2 tsp

  • Put all ingredients into Vitamix jar or food processor and process to get a dough consistency. You will have to use the tamper to push everything down and scrape the sides few times. 
  • Make the dough into sort of a log and refrigerate for couple of hours so that it is firm. 
  • Once ready to bake, take out and slice into thin slices. 
  • Spread them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 degree toaster oven for 25-30 minutes.


Carrot Pulp Buckwheat Crackers

  • Carrot Pulp - 1 cup
  • Chia seeds - 2 T
  • Buckwheat - 1/2 cup
  • Pepper - 1 tsp
  • Sea salt -3/4 tsp
  • EV Olive oil - 2 T
  • Dried rosemary - 1 tsp

  • Put all ingredients into Vitamix jar or food processor and process to get a dough consistency. You will have to use the tamper to push everything down and scrape the sides few times. 
  • Make the dough into sort of a log and refrigerate for couple of hours so that it is firm. 
  • Once ready to bake, take out and slice into thin slices. 
  • Spread them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, sprinkle rosemary and bake at 350 degree toaster oven for about 20 minutes.



Sharing this on Healthy Vegan Friday MoFo

September 8, 2013

Vegan Leek Potato Soup With An Asian Touch

Potatoes do not belong in my regular shopping list, but I used to buy potatoes just for an occasional stew or roasted potatoes. Guess what we found at Guy's Eco Farm at our local farmers market? Organic potatoes and organic leek.  I just did not want to miss the opportunity and got them to make leek potato soup.





My son loves soups, but most of the soups made in his school lunch have bacon, beef broth or other similar ingredients which do not belong in our acceptable food list. I sure wanted to give him an enjoyable soup, at the same time without any of the 'bad ingredients'. I also wanted to give it an Asian touch with the addition of coconut milk and turmeric powder (which can also safe guard against any small traces of toxicity if at all it exists in the potatoes)

  • White Potatoes - 6 small
  • Leek - 2 stalks -whole
  • Garlic - 2 cloves
  • Red onion - 1 medium
  • Dried rosemary - 1 tsp
  • Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp
  • Coconut oil - 1 T
  • Homemade coconut milk - 11/2 cups
  • Sea salt as per taste.

  • Mince garlic, chop onion and dice potatoes. Chop leek stem and leaves.
  • Heat coconut oil on medium heat in soup pot and add minced garlic, rosemary and chopped onion and give a quick sauté.
  • Add chopped leak, potato and enough water (about 3 cups) to cover.  Add turmeric powder and bring to boil.
  • Simmer covered till potato is just cooked enough. (If you are making your coconut milk this is the time, while you are waiting for the potatoes to be cooked ).
  • Purée one half to a creamy consistency and the other half to a chunky consistency. Return everything back to the soup pot, add coconut milk and salt.
  • Simmer till everything is mixed and heated well. Serve warm.

September 6, 2013

Black Bean Raisin Soup

Black bean and raisin ?, really??, and that too in a soup??? This is exactly what I thought when I first heard of the Curried Red Lentil Apricot Soup from Ravisoups. I decided give it a try anyway as it was simple, interesting and had an honest feel to it..., and it turned out to be a really good try. Sweet'n'sour and pleasant'n'refreshing, and needless to say Quick'n'Healthy :-). Once we made the original one a few times, my son wanted me to try it with black bean (he is a big black bean lover). When I got around to make the black bean version, I was out of dried apricots, so I had to substitute with raisins. This is by far the best black bean soup I have made or tasted. I guess we all love this version more than the original lentil version now ;-)

  • Black beans - 1 cup
  • Raisins - 1/2 cup (I used Newman's own organics)
  • Tomatoes - 3 
  • Red onion - 1 medium
  • Ginger - 1 T (chopped)
  • Garlic - 1 T (chopped)
  • Coriander seeds - 1 T
  • Cumin Seeds - 1 tsp
  • Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp 
  • Homemade coconut milk - 1 cup 
  • Virgin coconut oil - 1 T 
  • Sea salt - as per taste.

  • Wash and soak black beans about 6 hours or overnight
  • Drain and cook black beans with about 3 cups of water (in a pressure cooker or on soup pot) 
  • Meanwhile, grind coriander and cumin seeds together in coffee/spice grinder.*
  • Chop ginger, garlic, onion and tomato. 
  • Heat coconut oil on low-medium and saute, onion, ginger and garlic, just till their raw smell goes away. Add chopped tomatoes, raisins, ground spices, turmeric powder and salt. Saute for a minute or so. Remove from flame.
  • Transfer this to a blender jar. Add couple of scoops of cooked black beans and puree well. 
  • Transfer back to soup pot, add remaining cooked black beans and remaining liquid. 
  • Warm on low heat, add coconut milk, adjust salt if necessary.
  • Serve warm. Enjoy!! 
  • This serves 4.






September 2, 2013

Chuvanna Cheera Avial - Red Amaranth Leaves Cooked In Coconut'n'Yogurt

Cheera avial might sound like an oxymoron because avial is synonymous with multiple vegetables where as in cheera avial, cheera is the only vegetable (raw mango is optional). Now, since this is my mother-in-law's recipe and is also my husband's favorite, it is still an avial ;-)





How do I get hold of a bunch of red amaranth leaves in this part of the world? You would be really lucky if you stay near a Malayali grocery store where you might find an occasional bunch of red amaranth. The other option is to get the seeds and grow it yourself (only in summer months). Another option would be to become friends with an organic farm and have them grow it for you, which is what we did this summer :-)

Now coming to nutrition; cooked amaranth leaves are supposed to be rich in vitamin Avitamin C, and folate; (makes sense when we think of how women are fed this when they are pregnant or nursing) plus multiple dietary minerals including calcium, iron and magnesium. Enough reasons to love these tasty and beautiful leaves? 

The recipe as mother-in-law makes it has raw mango and/or yogurt. Mango chunks will be cooked along with the amaranth stems. Yogurt quantity should be adjusted or completely eliminated depending on how sour the whole thing becomes with the raw mango. 

Ingredients: 
  • Red amaranth leaves - 1 big bunch
  • Coconut - 1 cup 
  • Green chilly - 1-2
  • Cumin seeds - 1 T
  • Homemade Yogurt - 1/2 cup
  • Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp
  • Sea salt - as per taste
  • Virgin coconut oil - 1 Tbs

Directions:
  • Separate amaranth leaves from stems. Tender stems count as part of leaves. Only thick bottom stems need to be separated. Chop leaves fine. Cut a few stems into 2 inch pieces.
  • Grind coconut, green chilly and cumin seeds to a coarse mixture. Mix it with yogurt and keep aside.
  • Start cooking the cut amaranth stems in about half cup of water and turmeric powder. Cook covered on medium heat till they are about 3/4th done.
  • Add the chopped amaranth leaves and continue cooking till the leaves are just wilted. Stir to wilt them evenly.
  • Add the coconut-yogurt mix and salt and continue cooking till amaranth leaves are cooked just enough.
  • Drizzle coconut oil and serve warm along with rice.