Tuesday, June 18, 2013

0 Cheese, Please: A Cautionary Tale of a Dairy-Loving Lass and Her Ensuing Internal Conflict :-D (Part 1)

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Since this post has expanded from its original conception, I've decided to break it up into multiple, more easily digestible parts. :)

I grew up in an area with lots of dairy farms and so, not surprisingly was raised in a cheese-a-holic family. :) You could probably toss a wheel of cheese into the air like a frisbee, and it'd land on a cow. Lol. Our town had one particularly excellent ice cream place, which was also a dairy and restaurant and -- you guessed it -- there was a large replica of a white and brown spotted cow on top of the building. :) College students who attended the nearby university used to love playing the following, very memorable prank: they'd unhinge the cow from the top of the restaurant and then would place it in various locations around campus. When you're going to school in a small town, apparently this can provide endless hours of amusement. ;) While removing the cow from the top of the building might've looked like a herculean task, it was later discovered that the cow was actually made of a styrofoam-like material. So, it didn't require "Man of Steel" strength to remove it, after all. :) The restaurant eventually had to close, which was a very sad day for the town, as not only were we losing the place where most of us got our milk and ice cream, but many of us felt like we were also losing a little piece of the town -- the place was an institution and so many of us had formed fond childhood memories there. Before the place closed, I think my mother was singularly responsible for buying the very last of their exceptionally delicious peanut butter ice cream. :) It was rich and creamy, and had these thick, luscious ribbons of peanut butter spun throughout. Seriously, to this very day, aside from one other place in my state, I can honestly say that I can't even think of one place in my home state that even comes close to matching how good their PB ice cream was. In fact, it's probably the best peanut butter ice cream I've ever had, and believe me I've tasted enough PB ice cream to know the difference. ;) Anyhow, I'll stop waxing poetic about the myriad virtues of their PB ice cream. You get the basic idea. :)

My mother's family also grew up in an area with excellent dairy farms, and there was one dairy, in particular, that used to make excellent buttermilk. It had these wonderfully tasty, golden orange flecks in it. (No, the flecks aren't some weird aberration; that's the "butter" in the buttermilk. :-D Not very many places seem to offer it this particular way anymore, probably because it's freaked out one too many people. Lol.) And while a large majority of Americans probably think of buttermilk as an ingredient, we grew up drinking it. When we'd go to visit our maternal grandparents, our grandma would buy it for us as a special treat. And of course, since we were from the "land of pretzels and potato chips," our grandmother would typically serve us glasses of buttermilk accompanied by pretzel rods.

Growing up, if you'd have opened our refrigerator, it was almost certain that you'd find skim milk, buttermilk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, cream cheese, butter, and multiple kinds of cheese. In fact, the inside of my parents' fridge still probably looks like this, even though I've tried to encourage them to reduce the amount of dairy they eat for various, and quite valid, health reasons.

Later in life, I stopped consuming as much dairy, as it stopped agree with me. This didn't happen overnight, but over the years, I began to notice a gradual change in my body's response to it, which became particularly self-evident over last 5 years. More and more, it seemed to wreak havoc with my respiratory system, not to mention what it did to my gastrointestinal system. (Don't worry, I won't elaborate any further. Hahaha.) This was particularly true of milk, cottage cheese, regular yoghurt, and (GASP!) ice cream, although cheese, especially hard cheese, and sometimes also Greek yoghurt, didn't seem to bother me so much. It was then that I started to notice that I would cough quite a lot after consuming milk and regular yoghurt. It felt horrible to cough so much, not to mention, I had to avoid it completely when eating in public so as not to be disruptive to the other diners. :) And while I'd never been diagnosed as lactose-intolerant, nor did I exhibit any of the symptoms, nonetheless, dairy had still apparently taken its toll. So, I made the decision to cut out all dairy from my diet altogether, and for a very long time, this also included cheese. 

Upon making these changes, it was clear to me from the start that I'd just have to make sure I was getting enough calcium from plant-based food sources. And here's an added bonus: As I later found out, consuming plant-based forms of calcium is actually a way more effective means of getting calcium, as plant-based calcium can be actually absorbed by our bodies at a much higher rate than the calcium contained in dairy products. (This is due to latter's problematic calcium-magnesium ratio and the presence of vitamin D, both of which hinder the absorption process. This is an important point, but let's put a pin in that topic for now, because I'll be revisiting it in greater depth a bit later.)

The great thing is that there are lots of calcium-rich plant-based foods from which to choose: cruciferous vegetables (especially broccoli and Chinese cabbage), okra, rhubarb, taro (particularly the Tahitian variety), soy-based foods, figs, dried fruits, quinoa, grains (like brown rice, amaranth, corn, and wheat), nuts (particularly almonds and Brazil nuts, and to a lesser extent, hazelnuts and pistachios), seeds (particularly sesame, flax, and pumpkin seeds), legumes (like garbanzo, kidney, great northern, navy, and French beans, and black-eyed peas), blackstrap molasses, hijiki (a brown sea vegetable), herbs (like savory, celery seeds, thyme, and dill), and leafy greens (like spinach, collards, kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, turnip greens, dandelion greens, beet greens, and various lettuces, etc.). So, since I love all of the above foods, I knew that getting enough calcium from plant-based foods was going to be a piece of cake. (Well, not literally, unless we're talking rice cakes, which, as far as I'm concerned, are the bane of all rice products -- i.e., evil, tasteless torture devices repackaged as low-calorie, low-fat hockey pucks, er, I mean, snack food, that I wouldn't feed to my worst enemy, that is, unless I wanted them to permanently lose the will to eat. Hahaha. I'd only eat them if I was stranded on a desert island, and that's only after we'd already exhausted the island's supply of bananas and the coconuts first. ;) Don't ask me what rice cakes would be doing on a desert island in the first place, unless they'd washed ashore, in which case, I really wouldn't want to eat them then. ;) Anyhow, let's get back on topic, shall we?!)

As I was making the above changes to my eating behaviors, not so coincidentally, this was also around the same time I got involved with writing recipes for The Vegan Athlete, which gave me many other valid reasons to re-examine my consumption of dairy. In fact, I learned a lot from the book's author, Ben Greene and credit him for completely shifting the way I now look at animal-based products in terms of how they affect the body. While I was already aware of the many health benefits of limiting red meat consumption, I hadn't explored the deleterious effects of dairy in as much depth, other than being aware of its saturated fat and cholesterol content, that is, until our collaboration on this book project. This peaked my curiosity and I wanted to know more. So, I began doing more extensive research on dairy and its effects upon the body and also delving into the latest findings on public health and safety issues resulting from dairy product modifications, many of them which have been made over the last 20+ years. 

(To be continued....)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

0 Recipe #364: Date & Almond Clusters

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From the photo, I realize that this sweet, no-bake treat might look like a cookie, but it's not. However, if you'd like to imagine it's a cookie while you're eating it, of course, that's perfectly fine too. :) What it is, actually, is a healthy, quick, and easy-to-make snack that's great to eat as a pre- or post-workout snack, and of course, that's why this recipe will be appearing in The Athlete's Cookbook. This recipe can literally be made in a matter of minutes! So, it's perfect for busy athletes, families on the go, or for those times when you just want to eat a quick snack without putting a lot of effort into the process. In other words, it's for those moments when both your brain and your stomach are screaming in unison, "FEED ME NOW!!!!" :)

During the recipe creation phase, the idea was to take the classic Mediterranean combination of dates and almonds and do something a bit more unexpected. Instead of just making these ingredients into another bonbon or energy bite recipe, (although you could certainly do that if you'd like!), I thought it'd be fun to turn them into a new kind of bite-sized snack. And thus, this is how the idea for this snack was born.

Date & Almond Clusters

1 c. Deglet Noor (common) dates, pitted*
1/4 c. slivered almonds
1/2 c. almond meal
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
12 raw, unsalted almonds

Directions: Place all ingredients, minus the whole raw almonds, into a food processor and pulse until well combined. Spread a large piece of wax paper across a large, clean plate and set aside. Wet your hands first, then roll a piece of the dough in your palms to form a half-dollar sized ball, and place onto the wax paper. Repeat this process until all dough has been rolled into balls. Then rewet your hands and flatten each ball into a disc. Press an almond into each cluster, then refrigerate for 10-15 minutes to solidify. Serve and enjoy! Refrigerate any leftovers.

Yield: 12 clusters.

Chef's Notes: *Be sure to use super fresh and soft dates to avoid damaging your food processor. :)

If you're going to make a batch for future use, I'd advise wrapping each cluster in wax paper before storing them in a sealed container or resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator. Or alternatively, you can place a layer of wax paper on the bottom of a wide, shallow container, followed by a layer of clusters, and then another layer of wax paper, etc., and then seal it with a tightly fitting lid. Even after refrigeration, they can still be a bit sticky, so the wax paper will ensure that you won't have to pry them apart, or force yourself to eat 6 clusters at once. ;)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Recipe #363: Red Beans & (Black) Rice

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I created this version of a Creole classic and Mardi Gras favorite for my friend, Brian, who asked for an easy beans and rice recipe to eat as a pre-race meal for his upcoming Eagleman Half Ironman (70.3) this Sunday. He'll be competing in this race -- as well as the Nations Triathlon this September, and the Seagull Century Ride and Marine Corp Marathon, both of which are in October -- to help raise funds to find cures and more effective treatments for blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma. This will help to vastly improve the quality of life for patients and their families. To help make a difference and donate to this worthy cause, please visit his TNT Team Lewis Contirbution Page. Good luck with your race this Sunday, Brian!

Beans and rice make for an excellent pre-race meal, because they are a great source of complex carbs, protein, and fiber, and thus, have a lot of staying power. So I hope that this recipe will help power Brian across the finish line! :)

And of course, since this recipe is perfect for (endurance) athletes, it'll be appearing in The Athlete's Cookbook. So thank you, Brian, for being the source of inspiration for this recipe. :-D

Although every Louisianan seems to have their own version of red beans and rice, there are some common elements, namely, well, beans and rice. :) At any rate, I've kept this version fairly straightforward and traditional -- red beans, rice, hot sauce, celery, green pepper, onion, Creole seasoning, etc. The only place where I've strayed a bit from tradition is the use of black rice (a superfood) instead of white (for its antioxidant/health benefits) and canned red beans versus dried ones, which, let's face it, take forever to soak and cook. Of course, the latter substitution was done in order to expedite the cooking process. We endurance athletes are a busy lot, and most of us don't have an eternity to spend cooking.

This version is just straight beans and rice, although it's typical for NOLA natives to add various forms of "oink." There's a very small list of (unprocessed) foods I won't eat, and that's one of them. (You can add liver, tongue, and meatloaf to that list as well. Lol.) At any rate, since chefs often like to make recipes their own, feel free to add whatever other complementary ingredients you like. Just be aware that any additions to the recipe might alter the balance of ingredients, so you might have to make some adjustments to even out the amounts, particularly with regard to the water, onions, celery, and seasoning. Of course, cooking is all about ratios, and baking, even more so. If you need to add more water, the way to incrementally calculate cooking time is as follows: For every cup of water you add, add 10 minutes to the total cooking time.

Anyhow, I hope that you will enjoy this simple but flavorful classic! Laissez les bon temps rouler!


Red Beans and (Black) Rice

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. uncooked black rice (a.k.a. Chinese "Forbidden Rice"), washed
1 c. yellow onion, peeled and finely diced (about 1/2 medium-sized onion)
1 Tbsp. garlic, peeled and finely minced (about 2 large cloves)
1/2 c. celery, finely chopped (about 2 celery stalks)
1 large bay leaf
4 c. water
1 15.5 oz. can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 c. green bell pepper, finely diced
1/4 tsp. (or more) cayenne pepper hot sauce (optional) (for authenticity, use the Crystal brand, which Louisianans swear by)*
2 Tbsp. fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Creole Spice Mix Ingredients:
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
3/8 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper (or substitute 1/8 tsp. ground chipotle pepper, if you prefer a smoky flavor)**

Directions: Combine Creole spice mix ingredients in a small bowl until well blended. Set aside. Heat olive oil on high heat in a large stock pot until glistening. Reduce heat to low, then add the uncooked rice and brown for 2 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure the rice is completely coated with the olive oil. Let rice crisp but do not burn. (Crisping the rice seals its exterior to keep it from getting mushy when the water is added.) Then add onions, garlic, celery, and bay leaf, and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add water (it should sizzle when it hits the pan), then stir in kidney beans, green bell peppers, hot sauce (if using), and spice mix. Thoroughly combine ingredients. Turn up heat to high and bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to low again, quickly cover pot with a tightly fitting lid, and simmer for 40 minutes. IMPORTANT: To perfectly cook the rice and maximize its fluffiness, do NOT, under any circumstances, lift the lid and peek at the rice while it's cooking. Only after the 40 minutes is up should you check the rice to see if it's ready. If necessary, use a clear (glass lid) so that won't be tempted to peek. :) When rice is done, remove from heat. At this point, the water should be fully absorbed and all of the rice grains should've split open. Rice should be fluffy, not dry or sauce-like. If grains are still hard and haven't yet split, add another 2 cups of water and cook for another 15-20 minutes or so. Allow rice to steam, uncovered and undisturbed, for 5-10 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Gently fluff with a fork. (For a more authentic consistency, you can mash the beans with a fork.) Garnish with parsley and serve hot.

Yield: 3-4 servings.

Chef's Notes: *Tabasco sauce or other hot pepper sauce can be substituted for the cayenne pepper sauce in a pinch.

**Chipotle pepper can be used as a substitute for the smoky flavor that would typically be provided by porcine products. :)

Please note: If you'd rather use dried red (kidney) beans instead, you'll have measure out about 1/2 lb. dried beans, and then soak them overnight in a large bowl of water. (The ratio of water to beans should be 2:1.) They'll also need to be boiled in water for about 2-3 hours (!) to soften them before combining them with the other ingredients. And this, my friends, is why my recipe calls for canned beans. :)

Also, avoid using stale dried beans, because they either won't disintegrate or will take a lifetime to do so. I realize that the expression, "stale dried beans" might seem like an oxymoron, but even dried beans can get stale to the point of being über-rock-hard and unusable. (Plus, they'll be completely unpalatable as well.) The hallmark of well-made red beans and rice is a nice thick sauce-like consistency, and the beans need to be broken down as they're cooked in order to achieve this. If your beans don't break down, you can always use an emulsion blender, or mash the beans and add them back to the pot, but of course, it's easier to just use dried beans that haven't been in your kitchen pantry for ten eons. :)

If you're going for a super authentic end product, go with Camellia red (kidney) beans, a popular new Orleans brand used for this dish. Southerners will obviously have more luck finding this brand locally. However, this product can be ordered online, directly from their company website. However, when you factor in shipping, it actually costs less to order them directly from Amazon.com. To ship a 1 lb. bag, which costs $2.49, Camellia's site charges $10.20! For the same 1 lb. bag at a more or less comparable price, one Amazon third-party vendor charges $6.20. (Third party vendors aren't eligible for free shipping using Amazon Prime.) However, the best deal is to buy directly from Amazon.com, so you can use Amazon Prime. The only option I saw was to order 6 2-lb. bags for $20.70. Of course, when you buy in bulk, the unit price is less expensive, at 11¢ per oz., as compared to 18¢ per oz. if you were to buy a 1 lb. bag from the aforementioned third-party Amazon.com vendor. Then again, if you buy 6 2-lb. bags, you'll have to make a lot of dishes using red beans. :) However, dried beans will keep for a long while, so it's not like they'll be spoiling anytime soon.

Alternate cooking methods: You can also make this recipe in a slow cooker (i.e., a crock pot). Since I haven't yet made it this way, I'm not going to provide precise instructions at present, although I guestimate that the process will take somewhere around 6-8 hours on low heat and about 3-4 hours on high heat, in order to fully cook the dish in this manner. (In general, when you're cooking rice in a slow cooker, just remember that the harder the grain of rice that you use, the longer it will take to cook. For example, white rice will cook faster than brown or black, which have a tough outer hull, and therefore take longer to cook) Also, the order that you add the ingredients during cooking would be very similar. At some point, I'll try using a slow cooker, and will then update the instructions at that point.

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