Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spring Training

February 4 marked the first official day of Spring. Now, this date is significantly earlier than the widely-recognized first day of Spring, March 21st. February 4th is historically the first day of Spring according to the calendars of early societies. When you think about it, this makes sense. February is generally the month that you begin to get a twinge of spring fever. We yearn for sunshine and warmer weather. We start thinking about purchasing our new bright wardrobe. And for all you sports fans, pitchers and catchers reported for spring training camp this week. Go Phillies!

Clearly, these are all signs of Spring. But in all seriousness, Nature’s energy comes to life at this time of year. We observe trees beginning to form buds and tiny leaves. The flowers will begin to push their way to the surface. These visible changes do not happen overnight. All of these changes first begin beneath the surface, and then go through a transitional phase, which is exactly what is happening right now. This is why we all have spring fever, but are still forced to wear our warm winter coats; we feel the change in Nature’s energy, but the consistent warm weather has not arrived quite yet.

So, what can you do with your diet during this transition and in preparation for the warmer season? Here are a few quick and tips to ease you through this Spring so you are ready to bloom when the sunshine is here to stay. 

Light, refreshing, and colorful salads!

  • Increase your consumption light and fresh foods, such as blanched vegetable salad, quick steamed greens, pressed salads, fresh salads and quick sautés. The common point with all these dishes is that they are all light, bright, and crunchy in texture. 
  • Decrease the amount of salt you use, which includes the use of salty condiments. Too much salt makes our bodies more contracted and will not allow us to discharge the extra winter baggage (I think you get the picture)! 
  • Try to make your cooking less excessive. This means cutting back on heavy sauces or thick dressings and use only a light amount of oil. Perhaps you want to go oil free for a bit of time to give your liver and lymph system a break. 
  • Decrease your consumption of heavier, heartier dishes. Cut back on long cooking methods. Instead, use shorter cooking times and, even more important, fewer baked foods. 
  • Emphasize mild sweets and mild sour tastes. For example, try using a little fresh lemon on your steamed greens 2-3 times per week or use some grated green apple as a dressing for your salad. Beets dressed with lemon or vinegar are also a great sweet-and-sour option, or fresh vegetable/fruit juice combo.                      
Stay tuned next week for more information on good-quality sweets, as well as a sweet Spring recipe!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Introducing Your Friends and Family to Vegan, Plant-Based Foods

Holy Guacamole!
When you adopt a plant-based, vegan diet, you will probably experience some positive changes in your overall health and well-being. As with anything else, when you notice a benefit in your own health and life, you develop a desire to share your positive experience with others in your life. This is only natural. However, your friends and family might not feel so keen on sharing your enthusiasm and if you try to push your new ideas on them it may end up turning them off completely.

I have found that a soft, gentle approach is more inviting. By this I mean, “walk your talk” and lead by example. As you begin to look better and have a more calm and focused mind people are going to start asking you for your secret recipe. Now of course if you start talking about foods it can stir up a lot of emotion as food is very personal. Nobody wants to feel criticized or again, be told that their favorite foods are killing them quietly.I prefer to go stealth. I enter the scene and arouse interest by showing up to the party with an awesome dish that looks and smells great and everyone is excited to try. By the time they go back for seconds they don’t even miss the meat or dairy!

The best way to pique others’ interest in your new lifestyle is to share foods that are already somewhat familiar to them. For example, try serving a lentil or split pea soup with homemade croutons, or bring a bright, colorful platter of crudité and hummus to a party, or even some guacamole and chips. Go for plant-based foods that are familiar, easy-to-prepare, and delicious. If you want to take things a step further, try serving a three bean chili instead of a meat chili, or a fresh salad with sautéed wild mushrooms and vegetables. Whatever you do, keep it simple. It’s best not to go for recipes that rely on long lists of complicated ingredients or recipes that may just seem weird to the average omnivore (cashew cheese anyone?). If you go out of your way to make elaborate, vegan versions of animal foods, you are not going to convince anyone to include more plant-based foods in their own diet. While some of these recipes may appeal to the already plant-based converted, it is not going to sound appetizing those who are used to eating animal and dairy foods. In many cases these substitutes are not even healthy. Really, vegan dishes can be the most delicious or the most yucky. I guess this supports the macrobiotic theory that everything that has a front also has a back! If you focus on using simple, traditional foods with high-quality ingredients and seasonings, your friends will be more inclined to give it a try. They will be surprised at how great vegan, plant-based foods can taste. More importantly they will notice how great they feel after they eat food that is easier to digest and begin to gain an awareness of the positive effects that pant-based foods have on the body.

Here is my guacamole recipe. It is easy to make, healthful, and delicious. Bring this to a party or share as a snack or appetizer, along with organic, non-GMO corn chips.

Note: you can substitute raw diced onion for the umeboshi pickled onions if you are pressed for time, but the pickled onion is the secret ingredient that brings a unique healthful quality and special flavor to the recipe.

Susan’s Guacamole
Preparation time (20-30 minutes)
Key ingredients!
Serves 2 - 4
1/2 cup of finely diced onion (marinated in umeboshi vinegar)
Fresh sliced jalapeño pepper, center vein and seeds removed (optional)
1/4 cup of finely chopped Cilantro 
1 1/2 - 1 3/4 teaspoons of Umeboshi vinegar (savory vinegar, check out my previous post)
Fresh lime juice to taste

Preparation of the pickle:
Dice the onion and place in a pyrex bowl.
Add a 1/16 teaspoon of sea salt to the onion and use your hands to gently mix the salt with the onion.
Add 1/2 teaspoon of umeboshi vinegar to the onions.
Mix the ingredients together and allow the mixture to begin
to pickle while you continue to prepare the other ingredients. 
Avocado, chopped cilantro and pickled onion

Susan's Amazing Guacamole!

Putting it all together:
Cut the Avocado in half; remove the pit and the fruit.
Place the fruit in a bowl.
Add the cilantro and peppers.
Add the pickled onions and any liquid in the bowl.
Add 3/4 - 1 teaspoon of umeboshi vinegar.
Use a pestle or other wooden utensil to blend all the ingredients. If you like thicker style guacamole
If you like the chunkier style guacamole then do not mash up all the avocado.
Add fresh squeezed lime juice and fold the top into the bottom to blend all the flavors together.

This recipe will keep longer than most others because of using the savory vinegar. The onions start to pickle, bringing more of a balance for the rich vegetable fat of the avocado. Additionally by not using un-cooked salt my recipe does not have a bloating effect on the body. Keep the guacamole refrigerated in a glass dish together with the pit until
you are ready to eat it.

The pit helps to maintain the freshness. When you are ready to serve remove the pit and place in a bowl. Serve with good quality corn chips (again made with non-GMO, organic corn and sea salt), lightly blanched or raw carrots or celery sticks. Or top off a beautiful vegan rice and bean burrito.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Not All Plant-Based Diets Are Created Equal!

In the past few years, there has been increased awareness of the benefits of plant-based diets. Once considered strange and unhealthy, plant-based diets have been welcomed into the realm of popular culture, thanks to a growing cognizance of the environmental, economic, and personal benefits to be reaped from adapting a plant-based diet.

The common point between all plant-based diets is that the main source of nutrition is derived from, you guessed it, plants! Within these dietary practices there are many differences-- sometimes to the point where things can become a little confusing. To clarify, I will outline a variety of dietary approaches.

The vegetarian approach to eating can be the most confusing because it may or may not include dairy, eggs, fish and even poultry, while at the same time adding more vegetables.

A vegan diet has very clear guidelines in that all animal products are avoided. Raw vegan diets include lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and often rely on a variety of “un-cooking” methods, such as dehydrating. 

The macrobiotic approach to diet can be completely vegan or it can include some fish. That choice is up to the individual. A macrobiotic diet is similar to other plant-based diets in that the main source of nutrition comes from plants. Grains and grain products are the central part of the macrobiotic diet while vegetables, legumes and other protein sources are secondary. To be considered complete, each meal should include both grain and vegetable dishes. The concept of having both grains and vegetables with every meal is the biggest difference from other plant-based dietary approaches.

Additionally, whole and partially refined grains are emphasized over refined grain products or starches. A vegetarian or vegan diet may or may not include grains. Starches are often substituted for grains, but they do not provide the same nutrition and can cause weight gain. The approach of having both grains and vegetables offers more balanced nutrition and helps to keep the blood sugar more stable. Since blood sugar levels play an important role in keeping our mind clear and focussed and our mood calm, making grains our principal food has the ability to lead to greater satisfaction.

The great thing about people choosing to follow a plant based diet is that the physical benefits can be experienced pretty quickly. Another benefit is that it is a more sustainable way of eating, environmentally speaking.

The problem with plant-based diets is that most people do not have the understanding of how to put foods and seasonings together in a balanced way. I have seen many recipes that use vegetable- and grain-based dairy and meat substitutes in order to achieve the similar textures and consistencies in an effort to replicate their “favorite” foods from the past. You will often see raw nut butters used for richness or as a thickener, and tofu or soymilk are often used to make non-dairy desserts or creamy soups*.

While such substitutions might be convenient, they are not going to lead to good health. Too many times in my practice as a teacher and counselor I have seen people continue their old food patterns by using plant based foods as substitutes which do not lead to a balanced condition, but instead get people in trouble. As my husband, Denny Waxman (world-renowned macrobiotic health counselor and teacher) says, “just because we stop eating a food does not mean we discharge it from our body.” What this means is that even though we replace animal and dairy foods with plant foods, we can continue to create the same imbalances that caused our health problems in the first place, unless we change our habits.

For example, creamy dairy foods can cause the intestines to become weak thus creating a problem with efficient elimination of waste. By consuming too many creamy textures, we will continue to weaken our digestive system, even if we switch to a plant-based diet. The same can be said with overuse of salt and salty seasonings, baked foods and overconsumption of oily foods.

The bigger problem is that many people, including professionals who advocate plant-based nutrition, do not understand the impact that regularly consumed food has on our body. While making the switch to a plant-based diet will yield short-term benefits, if not done with an understanding of balanced food preparation, there could potentially be negative longterm effects. It is not so easy to recognize the more subtle effects which may occur over time. Many symptoms go un-noticed before a problem manifests on a physical level. Most people are simply not aware of the fact that all food is energy and that by proper cooking and seasoning you can either make a food more balanced and enhance its energy or make it imbalanced.

My inspiration for this post came after I read a promotional article on vegan Super Bowl recipes. While I think is great that plant-based diets are becoming more mainstream, it does not help anyone’s health if recipes are not balanced. I hope that you will all consider this when preparing food for the game this Sunday or the next time you veganize a recipe. 

I’m planning continuing on this topic in the next few weeks, where I will be discussing how to transition to a plant-based diet and how to inspire, excite, and entice others around you into trying some new and delicious foods.

*Excerpted from my upcoming cookbook, Taste With Integrity