Thursday, February 24, 2011

Court's Favorite Things: Steel Cut Oats

Today's post is inspired by an editorial I read in the New York Times this morning. Apparently McDonalds has decided to offer a healthier breakfast item on its menu: Oatmeal. Great, right?

Not so fast.

According to the article, a serving of their oatmeal (in addition to being full of processed, difficult-to-pronounce ingredients) "contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and 10 fewer calories than a McDonalds cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin."

Damn! I'd rather have the cheeseburger. (Just kidding. Mostly...)

Anyway, I thought I'd take a page out of McDonalds' book and share one of my favorite ways to make a yummy breakfast. Except mine is nutritious, fast, convenient, and free of processed garbage: Steel cut oatmeal.

Steel cut oats are the same nutritionally as regular rolled oats, but they taste a bit heartier and chewier. I started eating them last year when I was training for triathlons. I wanted to fuel my body with something hearty and filling that would stabilize my blood sugar and also give me energy for my morning workouts. Cooking steel cut oats on the stove, however, takes forever. Or at least 30 minutes. Who has time for that in the morning?

Enter the Crockpot. It is one of my most favorite inventions ever, especially since I discovered that they aren't just for pot roast. In the evenings, before I go to bed, I put 1 part steel cut oats to 4 parts water, hit the "start" button, and voilà—I wake up to a hot, healthy breakfast that's already cooked.

Here's my official, uh, "recipe":

1 c steel cut oats
4 c water (or soymilk, if you want it creamier)

1. Put oats and water in the Crockpot
2. Put Crockpot on the 8-hour setting
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake up in the morning feeling gleeful because someone (you) made breakfast for you, and it's ready to go
5. "Garnish" oatmeal with yummies: e.g., bananas, cranberries, raisins, honey, brown get the idea.

The quantities I listed here will make about 4 cups of cooked oatmeal. Needless to say, I don't eat this in one sitting. It stores very well in sealed container and lasts for the 3 following days it takes me to eat it. It takes just a few minutes to heat up in the morning.

And there you go.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What the Hell is an Adzuki Bean??

First of all, it's pronounced "ah-ZOO-kee," not "ad-ZOO-kee." Ok?

These are tiny little puppies that, according to the official adzuki bean website (who knew??), are very popular in Japanese cuisine. They are also apparently a staple of macrobiotic cooking, being "the most yang of beans."

I had no idea what that meant, so I looked it up. After an extensive search (and by extensive, I mean about 5 minutes clicking through Google), I learned that "yang" is associated with masculine, contractive, hot energy. You want to balance yang with yin (which would be the opposite of yang) for optimal health.

Got it? Alrighty then. Let's get cooking.

I've been tempted to make Creamy Adzuki Beans (yes! I'm posting the recipe!) for awhile, just because the *picture from the book looks so friggin' awesome, as you can see below.

Also, one of the cool things about this recipe is that you don't have to soak the beans ahead of time...very helpful for those of us who have a hard time doing difficult preparative work, like putting beans in water and letting them sit overnight.

The ingredients are also fairly simple to start with: adzuki beans (duh) onion, cumin, diced tomatoes, coconut milk, and the magic ingredient, kombu.


Kombu. The golden ticket of vegans, basically, a type of dried seaweed that brings out the flavor of food, adds nutrients, and...improves the digestibility of beans. Confused about that last part? Just think to yourself, "Beans, beans, the magical fruit..." and you'll get the idea.

So. I loaded the aforementioned ingredients and a 3-in. piece of kombu into my pressure cooker (my adventures with the pressure cooker might warrant its own blog post) and heated it up. Once the top started spinning, I let it cook for about 30 minutes, but when the pressure released, it was clear that my beans weren't done. I'm still trying to figure out the pressure cooker thing, so this was likely a user error. I closed the lid, heated the pot again, and cooked for another 10 minutes once the top started spinning. And, voilà—perfect beans. I dumped in the rest of the ingredients: lemon juice, garlic, peanut butter (!), and salt, put a tiny dollop of vegan sour cream on top, and garnished with cilantro. Nom.

As it so happens, I also treated myself to a carton of gorgeous organic strawberries today, as a reward for not buying a coffee and pastry this morning when I went to my neighborhood coffee shop.

Why is it that I don't think twice about dropping $5 on a latte and cinnamon roll, but balk at the idea of paying $5 for healthy, not-covered-in-pesticides produce? They were beautiful, no comparison in color to the pale, non-organic strawberries, and the flavor was amazing as well.

So, in order to best utilize my strawberry prize, I decided to serve Spinach–Strawberry Salad—one of my absolute F-A-V-O-R-I-T-E-S from Radiant Health, Inner Wealth—alongside the adzuki beans.

And here is the finished product. Sweet, holy deliciousness. I imagine a nice slice of whole grain bread would go really, really well with this, as would some brown rice.

For dessert, I had—you guessed it—a vegan organic dark chocolate truffle filled with crystallized ginger and raw cacao nibs, rolled in raw cacao powder. Those really deserve their own blog post, too. Stay tuned. =)

*Photo of adzuki bean dish by Michelle McCluggage; appears in Radiant Health, Inner Wealth.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lonestar Stew

A name befitting a Texas-style vegan dish, and a delicious one at that!

Today was actually a cook-free day for me, since I had leftovers for lunch (almond burger with creamy fresh herb spread on a sprouted whole grain bun, yum!) and ate dinner at my friend Margaret's, who I have decided to deem "Queen of Crockpot Cooking" and "Sire(ess) of Soups" (yes, I'm aware that I just made up a word, but I think Margaret would approve). Margaret and I often make big vats of things and share them with each other, which is a Godsend when you are single and lazy.

Lonestar Stew is from a crockpot cookbook and is very simple, very comforting, and apparently very easy to make (according to Margaret), since it requires only the effort needed to toss ingredients in a crock pot (those ingredients being black-eyed peas, jalapeños, squash, red onion, and spices). It's nice to find another black-eyed pea dish that I enjoy; I never ate them growing up, since my mother hates them. Discovering new yummy food is a huge part of this process for me!

The original recipe calls for pork, but Margaret substituted Tofurky kielbasa, a product I've always made fun of, but have never tried. I'm cautious about eating "fake meat," but Tofurky is made from real organic tofu (very important when you're eating soy products, because of GMOs), and it made a really nice addition to the stew. I'd definitely use it, but I imagine you could also just add more squash in lieu of Tofurkey, if you wanted.

I'm going to see if I can find a copy of this recipe online somewhere, since I'd rather not go to jail for posting copyrighted material online. I do happen to have a personal copy of the recipe, however, so you could possibly twist my arm into giving you some when I make it for myself.

We served the stew alongside several this-es and thats that we had snacked on earlier, including hummus and whole grain crackers, black-peppered cashews, baby carrots, toasted almonds, and, for dessert...vegan organic dark chocolate truffles filled with crystallized ginger and cacao nibs, rolled in raw cacao powder (a recipe I made last week from Radiant Health, Inner Wealth). Can I get a yum-yum holla??

Trying to decide what tomorrow's cooking adventure will be ..right now it's a toss up between Black-eyed Peas and Kale (a favorite that I've made a couple of times) and Creamy Adzuki Beans (which I've never made before. And I'm not even sure what an adzuki bean is...but it looks damn good). Both are from Radiant Health, Inner Wealth.

Thanks for all your support and comments! I'm still trying to figure this blog thing out, as far as design and functions and content and whatnot. As always, would love your feedback!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

An unemployed editor starts a blog about vegan cooking.

First of all, I'm not trying to copy Julie & Julia.

Well, ok, yes. There are similarities. She blogged about cooking her way through a cookbook, and that's sort of what I'm hoping to do. However, there are several differences between that Julie lady and me:

1. I hear she's a big bitch in real life. I'm not. Mostly.
2. I am doing basically the opposite of the Julia Child cream & butter experiment...I'm cooking vegan. Yeah, that's right, vegan. It doesn't get any more anti-Julia Child than that.
3. Although I'm mostly using one cookbook as my guide, I'm going to cook only the stuff that I feel like eating (i.e., I'm not cooking every single recipe in the book).
4. I'm actually good friends with the author of the cookbook I'll be using, so I think she'll probably be quite pleased that I'm blogging about it. I hope so, anyway.
5. Those are the only differences I can really think of for right now, since I actually don't know that much about the Julie & Julia lady. I did see the movie, however, so I'll go ahead and state up front to all of you Hollywood producer types that I wouldn't turn down a movie offer if it came my way. I'm unemployed and could use the cash. I'd like Toni Collette to play me, please.


Now, to continue:

There are many tenets of the vegan diet that I believe in:
  • It's healthy for you (well, it is if you are eating a properly balanced diet and not junk food, processed meat substitutes, and candy)
  • It's better and more sustainable for the planet
  • It doesn't hurt animals (although I don't think that you're an evil animal hater if you eat meat and animal products. Personally, though, when I do eat meat, I try to eat free range/organic)
I became inspired to start incorporating more vegan food into my life because of my friend Tess, author of Radiant Health, Inner Wealth. I've known Tess for just over 10 years now (ask me sometime how she and I met! It's a great story!), and she's responsible for feeding me my first organic tomato. I still remember how good it was, and thinking, "So this is why tomatoes are fruit."

I had tried being vegan around that time, but it didn't stick, mainly because I was doing it so my then-boyfriend would like me (stupid). Also, I didn't really know much about cooking, or how to make food that was vegan AND tasted good. So I chalked the vegan experiment up to being young and stupid, and turned back to my animal product eating ways.

A few years ago, Tess published her first vegan cookbook (she's now working on her third), and I bought a copy, both as a supportive friend and with the desire to eat a little healthier. I made a couple of the desserts (of course) in her book and then put it away on my shelf. Not exactly the healthy change I had hoped to make. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of finding and buying all the spices and ingredients I had never heard of, and it was much easier to just walk to the taco stand down the street. Walking to the taco stand cancels out the calorie content of the taco, right? Probably not.

Now, I don't want to make it sound like I'm an unhealthy person who eats at McDonalds three times a day. Actually, I've had great moments of eating healthfully and exercising, and have even competed in triathlons the last 2 years. I like fruits and vegetables, and I probably know more than the average person about nutrition. The problem is, I'm an emotional eater, so any time there is stress in my life, my first reaction is to quit exercising and to pick up the chocolate cake, my drug of choice.

In July 2010, my coworkers and I learned that we were all being outsourced and that our company would close by the end of the year. Thus kicked off the latest round of stress-induced sugar binging as I attempted to start an apprenticeship in a new field, tried to procure freelance work so I could accumulate some extra income and pad my savings, and, of course, finish up my "real" job. Needless to say, I was soon heading down self-destruction highway at full speed, and I finally had a "come-to-Jesus" moment with myself when I stopped long enough to listen to my body and hear it say, "ENOUGH!"

I reconnected with Tess and decided to do her 2-week vegan cleanse. It sounded reasonable to me, as far as cleanses go. Basically, you could still eat. You weren't supposed to be hungry all the time. And the food sounded good. She even made out a handy-dandy shopping list and meal plan for the full 2 weeks. So, armed with my shopping list and fresh determination, I bought all of the ingredients—including all of those spices I had been afraid of years ago—organized my pantry, cleaned out my refrigerator, started the cleanse...

...and quit after about a week.

But, some things had changed:

First: I was no longer "scared" about buying all of those produce items, staples, and spices. I now knew where to find them in the grocery store, and I was actually pleasantly surprised at how simple and affordable the bulk bins made buying them.

Second: I had exposed myself to some really delicious food and mostly overcome my fear of trying something new. And, now that I had all of the staple items in my pantry, I had the desire to try out more of those recipes. Who knew I would ever like something called "Black-eyed peas and kale" or "Bailey's tofish with tartar sauce"?

Third: My job finally ended, I quit my apprenticeship, and cut back on my freelance work so I could find a new job...which left me with ample time during the day to "try new things," such as vegan cooking. A friend of mine even lent me her audiobooks of the Harry Potter series, so I could now re-read the series AND cook at the same time...two great escapes from the unemployment blues.

Soon, I found myself cooking up a regular vegan storm, and before I knew it, I had eaten mostly vegan for about 3 weeks. I felt better, my skin looked better, and I had more energy. I had been posting regular food status updates onto Facebook (probably more than I realized), and several friends suggested I start writing about it.

So, here I am. Writing a blog about going vegan.

One thing I need to clarify, however: When I say I'm going vegan...I'm actually going "vegan-ish." Oprah coined that term recently, and I like it. Rather than proclaim, "I am cutting out all meat/dairy/other animal products from my diet for the rest of my life!" I'm going to try to incorporate more vegan food into my lifestyle. Actually, I think that's the best way to make any change. Deprivation has never served me well. And I want the change to be enjoyable.

And, to be honest, I'm not sure that being completely vegan for the rest of my life is a change I want to make. Never eat Texas BBQ again? Plus, I do lurves me some dairy products. I've more or less adjusted to soymilk, but have yet to find a good substitute for yogurt and cheese (sorry vegans, the ones currently on the market just don't cut it for me). I lived in France, for doesn't come away from that experience without a significant taste and appreciation for "les produits laitiers," and the mile-long aisle they take up in the supermarchés...

But. I would be ok with reducing my consumption of these items, and eating them only if they're organic.

Regardless of definitions, it's definitely time to make healthier eating a more integral part of my life and to strive for some balance. I am now officially "in my thirties," only 8 years younger than my dad when he died. My family has a long history of heart disease, heart attacks, coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, and dying young. Rather sobering statistics, and I'd rather not become one.

So, my hope is that, through this little experiment, I'll not only find some balance, I'll make new healthy and delicious foods a regular part of my lifestyle.

Food can be delicious and healthy? We'll see.