Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On Becoming a Vegetarian

I've been cooking and eating vegetarian for a little while, and I promised I'd unpack the reasons in a later post, so let me keep that promise now.

1. Health Reasons
It began simply enough, with a lot of research on what I should eat for better health— as I've said before, most of my research on food and eating has been from a nutrition standpoint. The first stage was a mostly-veggie or "flexitarian" diet. I had previously been consuming a lot more meat than necessary to get my daily protein and fat, and not enough whole fruits and vegetables, so it seemed like a great idea to start replacing some of the common meat-centric dishes I ate with veg-centric ones. Slowly but surely, I was only eating meat (more likely poultry or fish) a couple times a week, usually in the form of a whole cooked chicken or soup stock.

2. Ethical Reasons
Part two of my descent into eating less meat happened when I crossed the boundaries of nutrition and started researching where food comes from.

This research eventually raised my consciousness about Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and the myriad negative health impacts those types of facilities have on the animals and the land. I'd never focused on rights issues regarding animals in factory farms, but once you make the effort to look into it, it doesn't take much digging to understand what's going on every day on industrial animal farms that we're pleasantly shielded from in suburban life. To name just a few of the major problems, when you keep thousands of the same animal together in tight confinement, the living space becomes a serious breeding ground for disease (hence the increased need for antibiotics in non-organic farming), and because of increasing demand for cheap meat, living spaces have become tighter and tighter over the last few decades. Manure lagoons form and, instead of getting recycled as fertilizer, they become toxic waste sites that can contaminate rivers and ground water. CAFOs and other factory farm facilities can also become havens for animal physical abuse and neglect, to say nothing of overlooked cruelty during the slaughtering process later. And understanding that it's our demand for more, bigger, and cheaper cuts of meat that's promoting these practices finally made me say enough. I don't want my dollar going toward institutionalized animal cruelty.

After that decision, it was surprisingly easy not to buy meat from the supermarket. Kind of like how easy it was years ago to stop eating fast food (except for the occasional roadside slip-up) after learning about what it's made of and how devoid it is of nutrition.

I Still Have So Many Questions
I start to think that I could switch to eating meat from humanely-raised animals, but that prompts more questions: Why eat meat at all if I don't have to? I'm getting along splendidly with the other food groups- feeling and looking amazing, in fact. And how can I know which animals were humanely raised and which ones weren't? Do I need to visit the farms, or raise the animals myself for that guarantee? Eating vegetarian is the best I can do right now to get my money out of a sick system and satisfy my health requirements at the same time.

Since I'm still eating eggs and milk, I've been looking into what companies to buy from that are cruelty-free, but finding those is sometimes problematic, too. I thought simply buying organic was a good solution at first, but it's not the whole answer, since it turns out many organic farms use the same confinement practices as conventional ones, just minus the antibiotics and growth hormones. So now I'm on the lookout for better options. For example, Whole Foods Market carries some pasture-raised eggs, which is a quality of life upgrade for laying hens above designations like cage free and free range. The Cornucopia Institute, which researches and qualifies organic food brands based on ethical criteria, gave a 4/5 rating to Wegman's Organic brand dairy, and amazingly the last time I shopped there, their organic cream was the same price as the non-organic. You can read the Cornucopia Institute's Organic Egg Scorecard and Dairy Survey to find out how brands sold in your area rank.

So for the time being, I'm going to continue focusing on cooking without meat, researching and talking about food from the perspective outlined above. On a positive note, cooking vegetarian after almost 30 years of being a meat eater is an interesting challenge, and I'm really enjoying sharing the recipes and the process.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Apples and Avocado

Yesterday's one hour oil paint warm up.

While I'm fixated on color— I found a really excellent food photo set on Whole Living called Eat The Rainbow, featuring whole foods of different colors and accompanied by their common nutrients. Definitely go check that out, as well as the rest of Christopher Baker's food portfolio. Yum.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pistachio Orange Dark Chocolate Bark

I have an unexplained love of things arranged in layers. I've never thought too hard about it, but I bet it's for the same deep psychological reason Friedrich's Wreck of the Hope is my favorite landscape painting of all time that I love the concept of chocolate bark.

Chocolate bark desserts are uncomplicated and welcoming to myriad ingredient combinations, giving me even more things to check off in the awesome column. So, why orange zest and pistachios? Simple. Oranges and dark chocolate are a divine marriage, and one that I associate with Winter because of the iconic chocolate orange of the holiday season.

And my husband really likes pistachios.

Pistachio Orange Dark Chocolate Bark

  • 12 oz dark chocolate
  • 1 oz pistachio nutmeats
  • 2 tbsp orange zest
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt

In a double boiler, heat the dark chocolate over low heat until it's melted and easy to pour. Pour the melted chocolate onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, and use a spatula to spread it out into a layer no more than 1/4 inch thick.

Sprinkle the pistachios, orange zest, and sea salt evenly across the surface. Put the baking sheet in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Once cooled, break the solid sheet of chocolate into chunks by hand or with a knife and serve.

I should note that I tried a new (to me) brand of chocolate for these— Guittard. I think they must have recently started stocking this brand at my local Safeway (or I just haven't noticed it before) but it definitely gets my approval for quality and good taste.

And I don't even care if chocolate bark has been done to death on Pinterest— "You know what we need? Less photos of dessert," said no one, ever. Maybe next time just to mix it up I'll make it out of white chocolate and arrange it in the layered shapes of Friedrich's glacier... mmm... layers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Herbed Roasted Brussels Sprouts

This dish vexed me for years before I got it right. I love roasted Brussels sprouts when they're done well, but it seemed like roasting them well was a sensitive and finicky operation, like selecting the proper temperature for orchids. Or maybe I was just using poor recipes. Who knows?

fig. A.) A sprout, mocking me.

Herbed Roasted Brussels Sprouts

(makes 3-4 servings as a side dish)
  • 24 brussels sprouts
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tsp chopped sage
  • salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Remove the stems from the sprouts, and cut each one in half. In a bowl, stir the sprouts, oil, garlic, thyme, and sage until each piece is thoroughly coated in oil and spices. Spread the sprouts evenly spaced on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake.

The trick is to bake them until they're crispy on the outside, but still tender in the middle, which for my oven was 27 minutes. Because no two ovens are alike, I would suggest experimenting baking them for between 25-30 minutes. You will notice the outer leaves are blackened but the center is still green when they're ready.

Remove the sprouts from the oven, add salt and pepper then serve immediately, with or without a creamy dipping sauce.

fig. B.) Delightful, crunchy sprouts.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Snow Day

Everything is cancelled today because it's snowing and we're expecting a few inches in Northern Virginia. The list of cancellations includes our traditional Friday dinner with friends. It was our turn to cook this week, and I was planning on writing about that, but it will have to wait for next Friday.

Instead of preparing dinner for six, I'm enjoying the world's laziest heirloom tomato and fresh basil sandwich with a Fuji apple, and catching up on some reading. We swung by the library this morning before the snow started and I checked out Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (finally getting around to reading this one!), and Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating by Mark Bittman.

I've been curious about food for a long time from a nutrition and health perspective, but reading Pollan's In Defense of Food last year stoked that fire, and gave me some new avenues to explore including the social and environmental impacts of industrialized food, growing food and learning where it originates, and the local food movement, to name a few.

In Defense of Food is currently at the top of my must-read list for anyone interested in some of the history behind the current state of our modern food system in America, as well as setting some new practical ground rules for choosing what to eat. He also wrote a sort of condensed version of In Defense called Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I haven't read yet, but is said to be a distilled-down version of the former, with lots of pictures. That one might be good to check out if you don't have a lot of time to read or just want the major points.

Anyway, back to reading. Stay warm, all.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Growing Mushrooms

Yesterday I mentioned that the mushroom I used in my vegetarian stuffed red peppers was the freshest I'd ever eaten, and that's because I grew it myself, and picked it an hour before dinnertime!

It started as a Christmas present from my parents. They joked that "Santa was out of stockings full of coal so he brought a box of dirt instead," haha. But this box of dirt was also filled with lots and lots of tiny spores which, if cared for properly, would grow into big tasty portabella mushrooms.

The kit, created by Pulpit Rock Mushrooms, could not possibly be easier to use- the spores are already embedded in the sterile media (dirt), and all you have to do is moisten the top soil casing with 3 cups of water and spread it evenly in the box. Then you close the plastic so the moisture doesn't escape, store the box in a cool dark place, and wait. We started ours right around New Years.

After just one week of soaking and laying down the casing material, you begin to see a white fur start to grow, which is called mycelium. After two weeks, little white buttons the size of pencil erasers start to poke out.

2 weeks: Caps begin to form.

I wish I'd gotten a picture during week 3 when one of the buttons started to grow bigger, but the growth happened more rapidly than I anticipated, and I missed the between-stages from that to THIS:

First prize at the county fair?

I was delighted to find our first big mushroom cap had grown up right as I was trying to figure out what to make for dinner last night. We ate half of it in the stuffed peppers and I'm saving the other half for tonight...

**UPDATE: A friend mentioned that they sell these kits at MOM's Organic grocery stores for much cheaper than you can purchase them online, and obviously minus the shipping cost. So if you're interested in growing your own, you might want to check a local specialty health food store before dropping the dollars online. Good to know. :)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vegetarian Stuffed Red Peppers

I made some more vegetarian comfort food, only this time it wasn't for my comfort.

When I made the decision recently to eat less meat, I had to make peace with the possible culinary conflicts that decision would cause. So that I don't drive my husband insane when it's my turn to cook for both of us, I try to keep the meatless dishes familiar and/or flavorful.

A lot of people I know seem to expect dishes to taste bad if they don't have meat in them, but there are so many creative ways to use the other food groups to make really good-tasting food. I think this dish is a good example that bridges the gap.

Vegetarian Stuffed Red Peppers

Ingredients (makes 4 servings):
  • 2 lg red bell peppers
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 lg portobello mushroom cap, chopped
  • 1 cup lettuce, finely chopped
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 8 oz grated cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cook the rice before starting on the rest of the dish.
Preheat oven to 375° F.

Put the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat, and cook the onions until fragrant, for about 2 minutes. Add minced garlic and mushrooms and continue cooking for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add the cooked rice, lettuce, and spices to the saucepan and mix everything together well. Stir in the egg to complete the filling.

Slice the red peppers from stem to base and remove the seeds and pith. Spoon the filling mixture into each pepper evenly and top each with grated cheese. Place the stuffed pepper halves on a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cheese on top is browned and the peppers begin to shrivel a little bit. Let cool for 5 minutes, and serve with sour cream or guacamole.

Read tomorrow's post for the story of how the mushroom in these peppers was the freshest I've ever eaten...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus

This is a tart and tasty variation on the hummus recipe I posted earlier this month.

Homemade Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus
Use the Hummus I recipe and add the following:
  • 1/2 small can (4 oz) of tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomato slices
  • 1/2 tsp paprika

Prepare the plain hummus as directed, then stir in tomato paste, tomato slices, and paprika with a spoon until combined. Pulse lightly with a hand blender to break up the dried tomato slices a bit. Let sit for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator before serving.

I served this batch of sun-dried tomato hummus with a ring of olive oil and sprinkle of cayenne and cracked black pepper in the center.

I had the unfortunate experience of running out of hummus this week, and being so busy with art deadlines that I didn't have time to make more right away. Because of this, I realized just how much I rely on it as a flavor or binder in vegetable dishes. I have more chickpeas cooking on the stove now...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Baking Cups and Close-ups

No new recipes today. Just playing around with my camera while making a new batch of whole grain raisin muffins and hard-boiling some eggs.

I think food always looks just a bit tastier when photographed in natural daylight- something my townhouse doesn't have a lot of in the Winter months. So tasty that I had to start eating the props...

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stuffed Pitas with Homemade Tzatziki Sauce

There was mention at the table that my Savory White Bean Burgers tasted a bit like falafel. And that's true. They were built on the same principle as hummus, which is what I like to call the "bean + nut or seed paste = awesome" equation. So we decided to remix the leftover burger patties, and picked up some whole wheat pita bread and fillings for a Mediterranean(ish) theme.

The clear star of this remixed meal, however, was the sauce. A homemade Tzatziki (Greek yogurt and cucumber) sauce.

Homemade Tzatziki Sauce

  • 12 oz of plain Greek yogurt
  • juice from 1 small lemon
  • 1/2 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1/2 a cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 tsp dried dill
  • salt & pepper to taste

First, you'll want to remove some of the water from the diced cucumber pieces. To do so, place them in a colander or strainer and coat them with about 1/2 tsp of salt, and let them sit for 20 minutes. When enough moisture has been wicked out, pat the pieces dry with a paper towel.

Combine cucumber pieces, lemon juice, garlic, dill, salt, and pepper in a blender or food processor (I don't own a full-size blender, but my Magic Bullet worked well for this) and blend thoroughly. Add the Greek yogurt to the blended cucumber/spice mix and stir with a spoon until combined.

You can store the sauce in the fridge for a few days. I also read in a couple of places that letting the sauce sit for 1-2 hours after preparing it helps the flavors to fully combine before serving. Enjoy!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sweet Pea and Artichoke Lasagna

I had made those raw veggie collard wraps for lunch on Wednesday, but for dinner that evening, Brendan made a request for a specific lasagna recipe he found.

He subscribes to the email list, and they published an email with five twists on lasagna- this is actually the second I've done from that list so far. I followed the recipe almost exactly as it is on their website and it came out beautifully. I won't transcribe it here, but you can go to and grab the recipe yourself:

Sweet Pea and Artichoke Lasagna [via Epicurious]

I did learn a couple of important lessons about artichokes. Never having worked with whole artichokes before, I didn't realize how little of the innards are actually the "heart" part. I also didn't plan enough time in advance to blanch them, so I was only able to use about half the available tender stuff in order to get it done in time.

This is a deceptively rich food for something that's both vegetarian and bright green in color. It not only calls for non-whole-wheat noodles, but also 4 lbs of cheese, heavy cream, and eggs. It's really tasty, just be careful not to OD on the stuff in one sitting.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Raw Veggie Collard Wraps

"I don't like wraps. You always end up with too much wrap at the end." - Brendan Sheppard

Challenge accepted, husband.

Personally, I like tortilla wraps. They were one of the first ways I started adding veggies to my diet in my early 20's when I was still helplessly hooked on processed and sugary foods.

Somewhere on the internet about a year ago, I saw a photo of a collard leaf being used as a wrap. So it's not a new idea, but it stuck with me as a thing I might want to try someday, and with a mission to make a wrap less wrappy, it seemed like a nice solution to my husband's problem.

To get the leaves ready to roll, I soaked them in a baking dish full of water for an hour and shaved down the large central vein with a paring knife.

You can put just about anything into a wrap, and as usual I was just using what I had on hand, so this is one suggestion of many:

Raw Veggie Collard Wraps

Ingredients (for 1 wrap):
  • a large collard leaf
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 3 generous spoonfuls of hummus
  • 3 fresh basil leaves, chopped

Soak and shave the collard leaf as shown above. Peel the carrot and cut it into 4 lengthwise strips. Wash the celery stalk and cut it in half lengthwise.

You're going to want to roll it up starting at the base of the stem- think of the leaf's spine as a belt that will go around the center of the wrap when it's rolled up. On the underside of the leaf, lay out the hummus, carrots, and celery in a column perpendicular to the central stem:

Roll up the wrap and secure it with a toothpick in the center. Trim the ends and either a.) eat them, b.) compost them, or c.) set them aside for vegetable stock. For fun, I used a long carrot shaving as a garnish around the middle.

So crunchy. So good.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chipotle Black Bean and Red Rice Bowl

Victory was mine in the kitchen today (technically it was yesterday, since I write these things a day in advance, but who's counting?). 1.) I discovered an awesome new food I'd never had before, and 2.) I made something new and experimental from what I had on hand that ended up tasting great. Here are the details.

Organic Red "Volcano" Rice by Lotus Foods

Both my husband and I have a long-standing loathing for Uncle Ben's Wild Rice from our childhoods. It's kept us a little in the dark about what kinds of rice (besides white) are out there, and I've been meaning to try to redevelop a taste for whole grain rices lately. As I was passing by the wild varieties I saw this new kind:

Red rice. Just 24 hours ago I didn't know it existed, and now it's vaulted to the top of my favorite grains list. It's got a unique taste that's really hard to describe. Sweet, almost cinnamony is the best way I can put it. Immediately I thought it would compliment South American cuisine, or maybe Caribbean.

That thought upon tasting the cooked rice led me to my second success. I wondered if it might also work in a Mexican-style rice bowl, but I didn't have many of the classic Hispanic ingredients around the house (no bell peppers, fresh tomatoes, sour cream, avocado, fresh cilantro, or lime, etc.), so I created an onion and black bean mélange with chipotle spices to accompany the cooked rice instead.

Chipotle Black Bean and Red Rice Bowl

Ingredients (2 servings):
  • 1/2 cup cooked red rice
  • 16 oz black beans, cooked and drained
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 lemon quarters
  • 2 handfuls of greens (I used mixed salad greens because that's what I had)
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 16 oz black beans, cooked and drained
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp powdered chipotle
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup grated cheese (omit the cheese to make the dish vegan)

Rice: Rinse the rice with cold water and cook (if you're using a rice cooker, use the brown rice setting). Cooking will take about 15-20 minutes.

Cooking: Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, and saute the chopped onion until soft. Add the black beans, tomato paste, chipotle, cumin, paprika, and salt & pepper. Stir frequently, and let the mixture cook down until most of the liquid is gone.

Bowl Arrangment: Scoop a handful of greens into each bowl, lining the bottom. Divide the rice and bean mixture in half, and add a scoop of each on top of the greens. Garnish with the remaining 1/4 lemon (cut into 2 wedges) and grated cheese.

Gone in an instant.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eggplant and Onions

Last year, I decided to get back to my roots in two ways: 1. I started doing more oil painting, and 2. I started intentionally discovering and re-discovering how to use whole, fresh fruits and vegetables in cooking.

Eggplant & Onions. One of my food paintings, Summer 2012

I felt really rusty at both. But cultivating any skill takes practice, and time, and patience, and more practice.

I began to note around this time that cooking is about more than just making flavors work together. By painting still life food paintings (food portraits?) like this one, I was unintentionally learning to connect a little better with my ingredients.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Vanilla Extract

I recently ran out of vanilla extract during a baking spree- an untenable position. Luckily, I had purchased some whole vanilla beans from a spice shop in North Carolina the previous year. I didn't know what to do with the beans at the time, but figured they'd come into play eventually.

And it's a great way to use the mini gift bottles from a friends' wedding...

When you're an amateur, situations like this force you to learn about new ingredients, which is a great benefit in addition to my having plenty of extract now. I've never used a whole vanilla bean or its seeds in anything before, but now I feel informed enough to try. Meanwhile, here's the very easy process for making the extract.

Vanilla Extract from Whole Bean

  • 1 whole vanilla bean
  • 8 to 12 oz bourbon whisky
  • small glass bottle or jar

With a sharp knife, cut the vanilla bean lengthwise from one end to the other to expose the seeds. Fill your bottle with bourbon and submerge the bean completely. Let it sit for 4-5 days, gently shaking the bottle once a day.

This is one of those easily scalable processes, where you could fill a 1 liter bottle of bourbon (or any liquor that's at least 80 proof) and multiply the number of beans to make a giant supply of extract if you wanted to.

From doing this, I've also learned that if you make larger quantities, it's much cheaper to make your own than buying extract in the grocery store, and you can still use the beans for culinary purposes after the flavor has been extracted. Neat.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Clean Eating vs. Detoxifying

I’m not a huge fan of buzz words to describe eating practices, but there’s always something to be learned from researching the principles behind them. Let me talk about two that have come up in my circle of friends recently: “Clean Eating” and “Detox Diets.”

Clean Eating focuses on consuming mostly plant-based food, drinking plenty of water, and shopping consciously to avoid preservatives, food additives, pesticides, and (for the omnivores) buying humanely-raised animal products. Clean Eaters also try to eat foods that are in season for the freshest produce, stick to reasonable portion sizes, savor their food, and share meals with other people when possible, all of which are considered to be good practices in most cultures.

It’s a new-ish branding term for what used to just be called healthy eating. I can’t find too much wrong with the concepts; I’m not yet sold on the eating 5 or 6 times a day part, and the jury's still out on whether there really is such a thing as humanely-raised meat, but for the most part it seems to be a very sensible outlook on food, and in my opinion, a great place to start if you’re looking for a new way of thinking about what you eat.

Here’s a full list of Clean Eating tenets, from Clean Eating Magazine, which I like to call Eating Magazine in jest.

Detox Diets are a different issue, and I think “detoxifying” is often confused with Clean Eating because there's some overlap. The term detoxifying came about to describe the practice of cleansing your colon, which some believe is necessary to rid your body of ill-defined “toxins” in the mucus lining, and/or to help you lose an extreme amount of weight through a caloric deficit (see also: juice fasting, juice cleansing). The medical community is a lot more skeptical of detox practices, since they believe the body is completely capable of processing and flushing waste on its own without help. Doctors warn us that too much colon flushing may lead to unnecessary suffering, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, to name some of the less severe ones.

The other red flag with the big-D Detox crowd is that they seem very keen on selling you things to help detoxify you. These come in the forms of special juices, supplements, and even colonic irrigation therapy treatments (in layman's terms, they insert a tube into your rectum and flush you out with water). One way to weed out potential snake oil is to ask whether or not the people who espouse certain beliefs are trying to sell you something. If yes, I like to keep a healthy skeptical distance and do more research before buying into it.

It's easy enough to find pro-colon cleansing articles online (and unsurprisingly the first handful are also product ads), so here’s what WebMD has to say about some detox myths.

In terms of food choices, detox diets themselves may not literally detoxify anything, or cleanse you beyond what your body is capable of on its own, but some of the food choices that detoxers make may not be all bad. It does seem like there are myriad benefits from switching to a more plant-focused whole food diet, which is a part of most detox regimens. That part seems fine (and a lot like Clean Eating), and if you're using the term "detox" to mean cutting down on artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and eating more whole foods... that's ok. Just be aware that anything you search with the term "detox" in it may not align with your definition.

This is a delicious banana-blueberry smoothie, not a detox smoothie.

A couple of quick notes to help weed through some of the diet info overload: In the absence of clear scientific data, we have to make informed decisions based on our own observations, reasoning, and research. In practical terms, that means looking around you and asking: who among your friends and family is healthy, happy, and active? What are they eating and what activities do they do regularly, and why? Can you incorporate any of their positive routines into your own lifestyle?

It’s also of utmost importance to pay attention to what your own body is telling you. If you try a buzz word diet and end up feeling energetic and good, that’s wonderful. But if you end up dehydrated and vomiting, listen to your body and stop it right away. Even the best-sounding hype should never override your body’s signals.

More on this later, and more recipes coming shortly.

Apple Walnut Salad

I enjoy uncomplicated food. This is clearly evidenced by my approach to leafy salads- I typically start with the bed of greens, then add up to two flavors and a dressing that sync up well together. Anything more than that and the flavors become too competitive for my palate.

This lunch salad was simplicity itself, but it was also a product of compromise; My husband brought home a beautiful, perfectly ripe avocado last night, and I had to resist chopping it up and keeping it all to myself. Apples seemed like a good alternative.

Apple Walnut Salad
  • greens (your choice)
  • 1/2 apple, rinsed and cubed
  • 1/4 cup walnuts
Simple Honey Ginger Dressing (one serving)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp warm honey
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger

Mix all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl or measuring cup to combine, and stir well. Assemble the salad ingredients and pour the dressing on top. Eat. Enjoy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why I Started This Blog

In my introductory post, I said the following:
After years of being useless in the kitchen and generally unhealthy, I got fed up and learned how to cook. These days I have a passion for making good food, with an increasing emphasis on promoting wellness and eating with all the senses.

But there's more to it than that and it's a slow Friday, so let me back track a little.

As some of my younger friends returned to school after their Winter break recently, it made me reflect back on my disastrous diet during college, when I was probably at my worst health.

If the above looks like a reasonable diet to you, I am so, so sorry.

It was 2001 and I was a 17-year-old Freshman at art school. Most days, my diet consisted of 2 snickers bars and three Coca-Colas. Sometimes that was augmented by a hot dog (plain, without toppings) from a street vendor, or if I was really hungry I'd have a packet of unseasoned Ramen noodles mixed with a Thai Chicken-Flavored Lean Cuisine from the closest convenience store. And that's about it. I never drank water or exercised, and I smoked cigarettes to complicate things even more. Does all that make you feel a little ill? It should.

I feel sick thinking about it in retrospect, but I felt far worse when I was actually living with that diet and lifestyle. My picky eating habits had followed me into adulthood and, damn it all, I was going to have a candy bar for lunch... every day. It goes without saying: I had constant headaches from dehydration, mood swings from a caloric deficit, vitamin deficiencies, and if drawing class ran late in the evening, I would feel faint before it was over. I lived in a constant state of fatigue and stress. And I owe most of that to just plain ignorance.

WTF are these?

So now, more than a decade later, I'm talking about food and health in a blog. Why?

To continue battling (my own) ignorance about food and wellness.
College was Bottom for me, but since then I've been slowly moving toward the healthier lifestyle I live today. And the journey continues. Like any life change, being in good health requires constant attention and discovery, and blogging is a great way to chronicle research and track progress. In addition to just paying attention to how I feel, I've done a lot of reading over the years to guide my eating choices. I (along with a little help from Michael Pollan and other food icons) have come up with my own amateur's list of practical food principles that have been working well for me so far:
  • Cook and eat with all the senses.
  • Avoid processed foods when you can get whole, natural foods instead.
  • Stock healthy foods in your pantry so you always have something nutritious on hand to work with.
  • Alternately, don't stock foods that are devoid of nutrition, or on which you're likely to overindulge.
  • Try to find balance in everything, down to what you put on your plate.

It's a growing list, and I'll revisit those themes throughout my writing. I'll update the list as I think of more important points, too. On a related note, it's about...

Holding myself accountable.
Despite all my research and knowledge, I still have moments of weakness. I love my job as an illustrator, and really enjoy the perks of getting to paint from my home studio and travel to conventions to sign and draw stuff, but any sedentary job can encourage bad habits, especially when there's no mandatory routine to your day. In the frighteningly recent past I've been guilty of nearly all of the bad habits that come with this lifestyle. I'm not talking about the ridiculous "oh heavens, I ate some cake!" food guilt that people seem to obsess over. I'm talking about slipping into bad routines like drinking too much alcohol when stressed, relying on energy drinks to get through 12-hour days at conventions, rationalizing buying crap food because it's faster and cheaper, sitting for too long and skipping workouts... that sort of thing. So writing in a blog should (hopefully) help me stick to my intentions of eating and living well.

Inspiring others.
Sharing what you love is a really important act in my opinion. I spend a lot of time encouraging that practice among art students, so that they can grow from each other's passion and experiences. If my recipes, stories and pictures might inspire someone else to go make a real meal tonight instead of heating up something from a box, that's a win for both of us. Other bloggers and friends have had that effect on my life, and I'm very grateful to them all.

And lastly, of course:

It's an excuse to take and post big, sexy pictures of food.
Yeah yeah yeah, I know there are already a million amazing food pics on Pinterest, but none of them are my food pics, and there's always room for more visual goodness! So this blog is my new food photo sanctuary until further notice.

Ahhh, that's better.

If you grew up eating your fruits and veggies and already have an active healthy lifestyle, this blog might be a bit boring for you. That's totally fine. If you're like me, and you're on the mend after years struggling to get out of Candy Bar Hell, then I hope some of what I have to say will resonate with or be useful to you... or maybe you just want to look at pictures, and that's fine too.

Savory White Bean Burgers

I really love cooking for my friends. I've been having dinner with friends every Friday for three years now- there are normally six of us (three couples), and we each trade off cooking responsibilities in a weekly rotation. Aside from always being awesome to see my friends, this routine has done so much to inspire all of us in the kitchen.

I like to experiment when I don't have friends around, too. One of my best girlfriends who I don't see often enough mentioned on Facebook yesterday that she's about to begin 30-days of plant-based clean eating, so while I was making my lunch, I thought to myself, "what would I make if we were having lunch together right now?" and let that guide me to this new recipe.

Bonus: It's gorgeous outside! And I finally got some Winter sun in my kitchen.

Savory White Bean Burgers

  • 1 lb cannellini beans, cooked and well drained
  • 1 lg carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1 egg*
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup peanut or almond butter
  • 2 tbsp flax meal
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 sea salt
  • 1/2 ground black pepper
For garnish (optional):
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 8 red onion rings
  • 4 fresh sweet basil leaves, chopped

In a bowl, mash up your cooked and drained cannellini beans with a fork- not every bean needs to be completely smushed, you just want to create a thick bean paste. Add the remaining ingredients (egg, grated carrot, peanut butter, flax meal, and spices), and stir to combine everything well.

In a skillet over medium-high heat without oil, spoon in four portions of the bean mixture (approx. 4 oz each). They will be a lot like sticky pancakes, and you'll need to shape them with a spatula a bit after they're in the pan. Cook on each side for 2-3 minutes, or until the outside of the pancakes begins to blacken.

Garnish (optional): Saute 8 red onion rings over medium-high heat in a tsp of olive oil, until translucent and slightly browned. Chop up one leaf of fresh sweet basil for each burger. Garnish and serve with or without bread.

*Note: If you want a vegan version of this recipe, you can omit the egg, skip the cooking steps altogether, and use it as a protein-rich spread for a sandwich or collard green wrap.

You also don't have to serve this with bread (I had some on hand that needed to be eaten ASAP). The bean burger itself is so rich that it was almost too filling.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hummus I

Back to basics today. The first time I set out to make hummus, I bought a large bag of dried chickpeas from my local Indopak grocer. As I approached the register with my bag, the wife of the couple who runs the store looked me up and down, and asked with a mixture of disgust and fear, "just what are you going to do with those?"

Maybe I don't look like someone who knows her way around the kitchen (really, I don't on the outside), but I'm the type of person who takes others' lack of confidence as a challenge. I went home and immediately got to work on making what is now a staple in my fridge.

Hummus I
  • 2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked
  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 3/8 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 fresh garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tbsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • Sea salt to taste

[Pre-prep] Soak your chickpeas in a cooking pot about 12 hours in advance of when you plan to make the hummus.

Bring the soaked chickpeas to a boil, then simmer for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain the chickpeas, reserving the cooking liquid. Rinse the drained chickpeas in a strainer with cold water to stop the cooking, then add back to the cooking pot.

To the drained chickpeas, add the tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. Blend together using an immersion blender (I don’t own one, but you can use a full-size food processor instead). Add the spices and continue blending.

Add the warm cooking liquid back into the mixture a little at a time, until the hummus becomes creamy. If you’re not sure, you can test the consistency by picking up a spoonful of hummus and then dropping it back in- if it just sits on the surface in a clump, add more liquid and keep mixing. If the surface slowly flattens out, that’s ideal.

Chill in the refrigerator and serve. We usually serve the hummus with crisp fresh celery and/or carrots, but you can dip just about anything into this hummus and it will taste great.

-You may adjust the seasonings to your taste- it is very important that you taste it before, during, and after seasoning. For example, I wrote down a specific amount of cumin, but in my cookbook, I've since scratched that out and just written "a lot."

-If it doesn't seem garlicky enough at first, wait an hour and taste it again. I've found that the garlic flavor tends to get stronger as the hummus sits, so be careful not to add more than you want. For that reason, I like to make hummus at least a couple hours in advance of having guests over.

*TIP: If you have any remaining cooking liquid, you can save it for a day or two and add it to any recipe that calls for vegetable stock.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Glamour Veg

We're ready for our close-up.

As a painter, it puts me in a pleasing mood knowing I can construct a glamorous rainbow of fruits and vegetables with what I'm keeping around the house these days. I may not be able to eat paint, but I can still have a variety of color in my diet.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Growing Herbs 2.0

My husband and I made our first attempt at growing herbs in our kitchen in 2010 using an Aerogarden. A gimmicky product? Yeah, a bit. And a lot more expensive to use than growing herbs from seed in recycled planters, (which I'm going to try again very soon). At the time we thought the Aerogarden would be good for us. We wanted fresh herbs in the kitchen, but wanted to avoid what my husband lovingly calls WitherTouch™. I think you can guess what that is.

The Aerogarden was great. Despite its gimmicky-ness, it works very well at keeping plants alive and healthy. Eventually each herb died off anyway, and we didn't refill the planter until now.

About two weeks ago I started some new thyme, globe basil, dill, cilantro, sage, marjoram, and oregano, all of which have sprouted and seem to be thriving. I'd like to grow some herbs from seed and see if there's much difference in the taste or quality of the soil-grown plants vs. the hydroponic Aerogarden, or if I'm able to keep them alive for long.

Aww, I love you too, Cilantro.

That's all for today. More recipes soon.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Honey Butter in a Jar

I didn't know whether to label this a recipe or a craft project. It kind of feels like a craft project, because it's so hands on and doesn't require any cooking with heat. But it is definitely made to eat, and very tasty.

Homemade Honey Butter in a Jar

  • a glass jar (I used an empty peanut butter jar)
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • An immersion blender -or- 3 marbles
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • cheesecloth
  • a colander or strainer

Let the heavy cream come to room temperature, then pour into your jar. Make sure the jar isn't too full- it should be no more than half full with cream, preferably less. Blend the cream with an immersion blender until it thickens; alternately, if you want to do this in hardcore mode or don't have a hand blender, place marbles in the jar, put the lid on, and shake it vigorously until the mixture thickens (this takes a while).

At a certain point during blending or shaking, you'll notice some liquid starting to separate out from the butter- this is buttermilk, and your cue to stop blending.

You're going to need to strain the buttermilk out from your butter mass, so put cheesecloth over your colander and spoon the butter into the center. You might want to wrap up the butter in the cheesecloth and press it against the sides of the colander to help the liquid drain faster. You may also rinse the butter under cold water to help remove some buttermilk, but be sure to let the rinse water completely drain out afterward too.

Once drained, put the butter back into the jar and add the honey, then stir together with a spoon (or pulverize it one last time with the hand blender). If you still see some liquid, repeat the cheesecloth draining process.

Shown atop a sliced Whole Grain Raisin Muffin

You can store the butter in the refrigerator for about a week, or freeze it if you're not planning to use it right away. Serve with fresh bread and enjoy.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Creamy Avocado Pasta Comfort Food

Thursday was a little rough for me. A good artist friend dropped a news bomb that meant things are going to change in a group we've worked together with for the last year, and even when change is logical and fine, it's still a mild shock to the system. Food-wise, that translated to: Meh. I want avocado.

Comfort food that isn't deep fried or covered in chocolate?

Creamy Avocado Pasta

  • 8 oz organic whole wheat linguine
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 heaping tbsp of ricotta cheese
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  • dash of paprika (for garnish)

Bring lightly-salted water to a boil in a pot and add pasta. Cook until tender, about 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the chopped red onion and garlic. Sauté for 3 minutes, or until fragrant. Set aside.

Slice avocados around the middle. Remove the pits, then scoop the fruit into a bowl or cool saucepan. Add the cooked onions and garlic, cream, ricotta cheese, spices, and the other tbsp of olive oil, then mash together and stir until smooth and creamy. Add the warm pasta to the sauce and stir until thoroughly coated. Top with a dash of paprika and/or black pepper and serve.

Makes 4 delicious, comforting servings.

Something I learned here:

I'm sure most serious cooks already know this little fact, but as an artist playing at being a cook on a blog, I had no idea. If you have a spaghetti serving spoon with a hole in it like this one, you can use the hole to measure out a perfect (2 oz.) serving portion of spaghetti or other long pastas. My husband picked that up in a restaurant's kitchen years ago... I always thought the hole was just for letting water drain out. How cool is that??

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Homemade Granola

Here's an easy baked item that isn't a rich pie or casserole-type dish:

Homemade Granola

  • 4 1/2 cups whole oats
  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted walnuts*
  • 1/2 cup chopped raw almonds
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325° F.

*It's simple enough to buy roasted walnuts, but I like doing it myself from raw. To roast your own walnuts, place 1/2 cup of nuts onto a baking sheet, and bake for about 5 minutes at 325° F, or until the nuts are fragrant. This is a good step to do while you prep your other ingredients.

In a large bowl, mix together the oats, nuts, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Combine water, oil, honey and vanilla in a saucepan and bring to a rapid boil, stirring to keep the liquid from burning. Reduce heat immediately.

Make a well in the oat mixture and pour in the liquid. Mix everything with a spatula until all of the oats are evenly coated. Spread the mixture evenly over a baking sheet or glass baking dish (ideally you want as thin a layer as you can get).

Bake for 30 minutes, removing every 10 minutes to stir it around to keep it from burning onto the baking sheet. If you like crunchier granola, leave it in for an additional 10 minutes. It may still be a little soft when removed from the oven, but will become crispier as it cools.

The only downside to taking photos of my breakfast is not eating it immediately.

I normally use my granola as a yogurt topping, but it works just as well as a cereal with milk and fresh fruit, or as a base for homemade snack mix. Enjoy!