Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thriving for Gold

So, I don't know about you, but the Olympics have completely consumed my life these last few weeks. So much so that I nearly forgot about salad of the week. I wanted to create some kind of salad inspired by Canada's 14 gold medals.... or maybe something to symbolize both of our fabulous hockey teams that conquered their american foes. I really wanted to.... but I couldn't think of any way to represent hockey in salad form. And I don't have the money to make a salad dressing with real gold flakes in it.

So I decided to be inspired by fitness instead. One of my favourite vegan Canadians is Brendan Brazier, a professional ironman triathlete. He is living proof that you can be a top athlete and a vegan, getting all the protein and nutrients you need from plant based sources. He takes it one step further, he gets his nutrition from mostly raw, whole foods. He wrote a book on vegan nutrition, the Thrive Diet, one on fitness, Thrive Fitness, and created his own product line, Vega, of vegan meal replacement powders and energy bars. He's pretty impressive, and I may or may not have a wee crush on him. I have the Thrive Diet, and it's an excellent book, filled with the knowledge amassed by Brendan on his quest for ultimate fitness, treating himself as a guinea pig to find the best food, not only for athletes, but for all of us who want more energy and better health.

After last week's cake-filled binge-fest, I was feeling pretty lousy about myself, and decided to get inspired again, and he is usually my go-to guy for healthy inspiration. I noticed that he has a new program, called "Thrive in 30". It's a 30 day program in which you get emails, lessons, and videos featuring our favourite vegan/triathlete/hunk. I've signed up for it and I'm hoping that this will help me stay healthy, and avoid mug cake temptation. One of the basic tenets of the Thrive Diet is to have a nutritious smoothie and a large green salad every day. The book contains a number of recipes for tasty salads and dressings.

Unfortunately, I was unable to go to the store to get any ingredients I needed to make a snazzy salad because I was too engrossed in the hockey game. So, I made the one recipe that I had all the ingredients for - Creamy Ginger dressing, and put it on a basic salad of romaine, cucumber and carrots. Now I know I can't reproduce the recipe here, I will tell you it's creaminess is created by the addition of tahini, with apple cider vinegar providing zing, and of course, ginger. The recipe didn't contain any sweetness, so I added a bit of honey to take away the bitter edge that tahini often has.

I'm not going to say it was my favourite salad dressing in the world, but it did have a satisfying richness that I'm sure will inspire future recipes. It was also a fully guiltless salad, as Brendan never puts anything frivolous into his food, everything is nourishing. Now that I've eaten such a healthy salad for dinner... does that mean I get to have mug cake tonight?

This is kind of a weak entry for the salad challenge, but let's face it, I was bound to drop the ball sooner or later. I was just hoping it would be later.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 8 Salads left: 44

Monday, February 22, 2010

Heaps of Ruination

You know when you make weight loss or diet goals and everything is going well, you feel great about yourself and your excellent will-power, and then something happens. It can be any number of things - you injure your foot, derailing your running regimen, or you go through a busy spell causing you to eat entirely too much falafel. These set-backs can often be overcome after an undetermined period of moping and regret. Sometimes something happens that threatens your entire future health, no end in sight, no foreseeable solution, and you feel that you might as well give in to a life of muffin tops and flabby arms. This has happened to me.

What could possibly have occurred to ruin years of hard earned health and fitness? What could be so epic so as to cause a blog entry of such extreme melodrama? A part of me warns me not to tell you, for it will no doubt destroy you as well, but like those who sucked me into the swirling void of diet-ruining bliss, I must share this bittersweet epiphany. It can be none other than...


Yes folks, just 5 minutes stands between you and chocolate cake at almost any moment. I was infected with this affliction via it's facebook page. I tried it later that night, and at that moment I knew, it would take all my will power to avert obesity. 4 days and 4 warm, melty, chocolate mug cakes later, my will power has yet to even show up for battle.
The accused is pictured here, accompanied by SO Good vanilla soy ice cream, and a dollop of coconut whip. Take note of the still melty chocolate chips. I already have a head full of ideas of different variations that I want to try out. I'm doomed. At least by sharing it with my mom I'm only ever eating half a mug each time... that justifies it right?

Edit: So obviously on facebook this is not vegan, so I used soy milk and commercial egg replacer. I have also discovered that nuking it for 3 minutes and 20 seconds is perfect in my microwave. Your microwave may be different still.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom." Thomas Carlyle

You may not believe it, but we really wouldn't survive without fungi. Often unseen, fungi are all around us and exert a powerful influence on the world. They are the major driving force of the nutrient cycle, they possess the necessary enzymes to break down tough plant material, returning the nutrients to the soil. There's hardly a natural molecule in the world for which there isn't a fungus that can break it down. Mighty trees are no match for these potent decomposers. Many plants form important symbioses with fungi, known as mycorrhizae, without which they could not get all the nutrients they need to survive.
Mushroom overlooking UWO campus, London

We are no exception. Yeasts are fungi too, and they make up an important part of our intestinal flora. You know all those Activia commercials with the happy bellies? They're happy because they're getting good yeasts that help them digest food. Yeasts are used to ferment soy to create soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. Yeast is used to ferment beer and wine. It is added to bread to make it rise. It is grown on a nutrient medium to produce nutritional yeast, an important food additive for vegans with no other means of obtaining vitamin B12.

Factoid: Fungi produce awesome antibiotics, including penicillin, which is often celebrated as one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Millions of people owe their lives to the everyday genius of a simple fungus.

Many fungi produce fruiting bodies, commonly known as mushrooms. These fruiting bodies are like the tip of the iceberg. The mushroom is used only for reproduction, the main "body" of the fungus stays in the soil, and the mushroom is akin to a flower bearing pollen. There are major biological differences in the life cycle, and the life cycles of fungi are very complex, but this analogy will do for the purposes of a food blog. Mushrooms are quite beautiful and fascinating structures. When I photograph mushrooms I often feel that I am stealing a glimpse at a magical world that is hidden away from us. Some mushrooms are so tiny, and yet to some organisms, they would seem like towering trees. Mushrooms always serve as a reminder to me that there are millions of organisms in a teaspoon of soil, a thought I find very humbling.

Sunlit Mushrooms, Ojibway Park, Windsor

It may or may not surprise you to know that only 1% of the mushrooms we know of are edible. Most of the rest are actually poisonous. According to my mycology textbook, The Fifth Kingdom, all mushrooms contain carcinogens, even the ones we eat all the time. Lucky for us these are easily destroyed by cooking them. The author warns to always thoroughly cook all mushrooms before consumption, even though they are routinely served raw. Sorry raw foodists, but it turns out there is at least one thing out there that isn't better for you raw.

Not surprisingly, mushrooms are quite nutritious. Because they are soil organisms, they are good sources of many trace minerals. They are an excellent source of selenium, an element necessary for DNA repair, thus making mushrooms a good member of your cancer prevention roster. Mushrooms are also good sources of copper, manganese, zinc, potassium, and iron [1]. And they're a good source of B vitamins to boot.

Agaricus bisporus is the species to which button, crimini and portobello mushrooms belong. Portobellos are my personal favourite because of their large cap and rich savory flavour. They easily stand in for beef in many situations because of their flavour and texture. They also pair well with the same bold seasonings usually used with beef, such as Montreal steak spice. And it just so happens that these are the focus of this weeks salad challenge.

Entrée salads became popular a little while ago when the western world became obese and realized that it needed to eat healthier. So what did they do? They created the steak salad, often smothered in blue cheese dressing. Somehow people convince themselves that since it's served atop lettuce this is a health food. But you and I know otherwise. The thing that steak salads do have going for them is that they are bold and hearty, and those are good things. I've taken that inspiration and created a healthy and vegan alternative to this entrée salad favourite.

Week 7: Montreal Spiced Portobello Steak Salad
Serves 1 for a main, 2 for a side

1 large portobello mushroom
1 roma tomato
Robust greenery such as romaine and radicchio
cucumber, radish and green or red onion slices

2 tsp vegan worcestershire sauce
(or roughly: 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 1/2 tsp cider vinegar, pinch brown sugar, dash garlic & onion powder)
1 tsp montreal steak spice
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp olive oil

Remove mushroom stem. Heat up a lightly oiled pan or grill to medium-high. Fry or grill mushroom cap, about 10-15 minutes per side with a splash of balsamic vinegar or worcestershire sauce. Slice tomato into 4 thick slices, add to pan/grill during last 5 minutes. Slice portobello into thin strips. Assemble salad portobello and tomato slices arranged on top.
Whisk together dressing ingredients and drizzle over salad. Top with some freshly ground pepper. Enjoy with a glass of red wine and a clear conscience.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 7 Salads left: 45

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pancake day!

Today I found myself on Facebook, as I often do, while procrastinating and watching Olympic curling. I noticed that a lot of people were posting messages about pancakes, more specifically, about pancake day. I had never heard of this, but it sounded like a delicious idea. Wikipedia informed me that what these people were talking about was "Shrove Tuesday", aka Fat Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, which I can only assume is a day created to celebrate my birth, since I was born on a Wednesday, and my name is Ashley, but they seem to have their seasons all wrong.

Evidently in the UK, and by extension Canada and our other commonwealth cousins, celebrate Shrove Tuesday by eating pancakes. How, in 26 years of life, I had never heard of pancake day is beyond me. I'm no fan of religion, but when it involves an excuse to eat pancakes for dinner, you're darn tootin' I'll be jumping on that bandwagon!

I had pancakes just a few days ago for breakfast, so I needed to do something extra special to celebrate the day before my holiday. In my research on this flap jackin' holiday, I learned that in Sweden they celebrate by eating a pastry called "semla" which is a decadent little pastry bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream. This sounded pretty awesome and I wondered if there was some kind of almond based vegan whipped cream. Instead, I came across this recipe for vegan whipped cream, which would be more appropriately named whipped coconut cream. Sold. I made this recipe and added a spash of almond extract and vanilla extract to give it a little extra somethin'.
This whipped coconut cream was HEAVEN! It had a decadent fresh coconut taste and just the right stiffness. Unlike the recipe said I only left the cans of coconut milk in the fridge for about 2 hours, and whipped it using a chilled metal bowl and beaters and it came out perfectly. It also stood up well to the heat of the pancakes, better than real whipped cream I'd say. It might not be your first choice on a hot summer day, but it served me well today.

I served this whip on a stack of pancakes with lots of sliced banana, which made for a fresh tropical taste. I also made a side of Yves veggie breakfast links since pancakes aren't the most nutritious of foods. I was pleasantly surprised, they were quite tasty! I had tried Yves veggie bacon before and wasn't overly impressed, but I would buy these sausages again. Even my mom, who fears fake meats of all kinds, said they weren't bad.
Then I celebrated Ash Wednesday by eating leftover pancakes this morning with strawberries and coconut whip! MMmmmmm..... And as you can see it kept well in the fridge overnight, came out exactly as it was when I put it in last night.

Monday, February 15, 2010

More Thai Peanutty Goodness

My spicy Thai peanut dressing from last night put me in mind of spicy peanut dipping sauce, and my favourite thing to dip in that sauce is Thai fresh rolls (aka summer rolls). They are crunchy, fresh (as the name
suggests), snazzy looking and super easy. If you want to wow a date or dinner party, whip up some of these babies. They can be made up to a day ahead if you store them covered with a damp cloth (don't use terrycloth, the little loops and fluffs will stick to the wrappers), but they're such a snap to make, I would just get all my veggies sliced ahead of time and assemble right before serving.

The other great thing is that fresh rolls are easy to make only as much as you want at the time, with one exception - the noodles. Fresh rolls usually contain rice noodles, which usually come in bundles fit to feed a family of four, and are impossible to separate into smaller bunches without getting dry noodles in every corner of your kitchen, only to linger there and poke your bare feet for weeks afterward even though you've swept the floor several times. I may be speaking from experience. An excellent option is to plan your meals around noodles. The cooked noodles store well in the fridge and you can use them the next day for a noodley stir-fry, or in a delicious soup like the one I made tonight with my fresh rolls.

Thai Fresh Rolls
Makes as many as you want!
-slivered veggies such as peppers, carrots, cucumber, green onion, sprouts, avocado
-cooked & cooled rice noodles
-rice papers

Cook your noodles according to the package directions. When they're cooked, pour them out into a colander and rinse well with cold water til the noodles are totally cold. Slice all your veggies and have them ready. If you're using avocado, brush them with a little lemon juice to keep them from browning.

Fill a large bowl with the hottest water that will come out of your tap. Dip a rice paper sheet in the hot water, count 3 steamboats and take it out. It will still be firm, but don't worry it will continue to soften while you're assembling your roll. Line your toppings up neatly in the middle, leaving enough room on the ends and sides for proper rolling. Start bundling by folding over the two ends, then fold over one side, then roll up burrito style. It should be a pretty tight bundle, but if you roll it too tight the rice paper will tear.
*Alternatively you can skip the noodles and it can be rolled up in lettuce or other flexible leafy green leaf for a truly raw dish.*

Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
This will make enough for about 4 rolls

1 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 clove garlic minced
Hot sauce or chili flakes (optional)
1-2 tbsp water to give desired sauce consistency

Stir ferociously til well blended and smooth.

The soup I made with this meal has pretty typical Asian elements and would go well with any type of meal, or all by itself as a quick lunch. The nori sheets in this recipe impart the flavour of the sea, as soups from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and the like often are made with fish broth or other fish/seafood flavourings. You can leave it out if you're not partial to the flavour of nori. This soup is also very adaptable - you can add any number of vegetables you want. I think shredded carrot, peppers, and sprouts would be wonderful additions. Tiny cubes of tofu would also be great in this soup, and make it a more complete meal. I've given you the basics, and my personal favourite way of preparing it, it is now yours to personalize.

Super Easy Asian Noodle Soup
Makes 1 big bowl

4 or 5 shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 tsp chili flakes (optional)
1 strip* toasted nori, broken into small pieces
1 green onion, sliced
1 baby bok choy, chopped
handful of cooked rice noodles*

In a hot pot, saute shiitakes, garlic, and ginger with soy sauce for a few minutes. Add vegetable broth, chili flakes and nori. *Nori is often perforated into about 6 or 8 strips, use only one of these strips, NOT a whole sheet. Let the broth simmer for about 5 minutes to let the flavours mingle. Remove from heat and add onion, bok choy and rice noodles. *If you happen to have single serving rice noodle "nests" add them in a few minutes before removing from heat. Serve in a big bowl.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thai me up and make it hot

The winning ice sculpture at this year's international ice carving competition at Winterlude

I've been distracted this week by statistics homework, winterlude, and a kickass show featuring two fantastic Canadian bands, the Sadies and Young Rival. With all this fun, I almost forgot about my salad of the week! This does not bode well seeing as how I almost dropped the ball only 6 weeks in.

That being said, I did make a delicious salad tonight. As the title suggests, it is inspired by Thai cuisine. The things I love about Thai food? Peanutty goodness, ginger, and heat. This salad has all of those elements. My goal for this dish was to take a spicy peanut sauce stir-fry and turn it into a salad. I think I succeeded.

The salad dressing has fresh grated ginger in it. A few years ago I learned a really great tip for ginger from Rachel Ray on her "30 minute meals" show. I'm not really a big fan of hers, (I think she's a little over the top) but she makes some good food. She suggested peeling the ginger root and putting them in a ziplock baggy in the freezer. When you need some just pull it out and grate from frozen. I tried it and I can tell you it makes grating ginger SO much easier. Give it a try, you'll never go back.

Week 6: Thai Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing
Makes 1 salad

Greenery of choice
Sliced red bell peppers
snow peas
sliced green onion
unsalted peanuts

1 tsp peanut butter
1 tsp soy sauce*
1/2 tsp seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/4 tsp red chili flakes

*To make this gluten free make sure you're using gluten-free soy sauce or tamari
Whisk together dressing ingredients. Assemble salad, top with dressing, peanuts, and a squirt of fresh lime juice. I think sliced avocado would be an excellent addition to this salad, but unfortunately, I have recently learned that I may have an oral allergy to avocado and was told by my allergist to avoid it. So sad.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 6 Salads left: 46

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hungry for Change

That's the tagline of the one of this year's nominees for Best Documentary Feature, Food Inc. I just finished watching it, and am here to tell you, all of you and everyone you know, to watch this movie. It might be the most important movie you ever watch.

I've watched a number of food documentaries, but this is the one that I would recommend to absolutely everyone I know. So what makes Food Inc. so different? First, as a disclaimer to anyone out there who might disregard this endorsement because of its source, this is not a vegetarian propaganda movie. In fact, one of the "heroes" of this documentary is a beef, pork, and chicken farmer. What this movie does is show you where your food really comes from, what you're really eating. It informs the audience so they can make informed decisions about what they want to put into their bodies.

You have a choice to make. First you can go out and watch the movie. It will tell you things you probably don't want to hear, probably already have an idea of locked away somewhere deep in your mind, but need to know for the health of yourself and your planet. Or, you can continue to live in denial, you can choose the deception, you can choose to ignore what is really out there because it is cheap and convenient. But I assure you, cheap comes at a great cost. So what will it be? Will you take control of the food you eat and become informed? Or will you stick your head in the sand?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes" - Douglas Adams

That is, of course, unless your problem is hunger or scurvy (more on this later). It's been a while since I've posted a soup recipe, which is quite unfortunate because soup truly is the perfect winter food. It is the ultimate comfort food, made all the more comforting by the addition of the humble potato.

As a Canadian and descendant of some collection of Celts and Brits, I am obliged to adore the potato. And really, why wouldn't I? It is delicious, worldly, versatile, and surprisingly good for you! Proponents of the Atkins diet and other equally foolish anti-carb schools of thought have made an enemy of the potato, but it will always be an ally in my kitchen. An average sized potato has about 4 grams of protein, nearly no fat, almost half your recommended daily intake of vitamin C, and they're a good source of thiamine, niacin, vitamin B6, magnesium and iron. Bet you didn't know this beige tuber was as good for you as it is delicious, did you?

More than just delicious and nutritious, the potato has been an important part of history and has shaped our society in ways many of us do not realize. Potatoes were domesticated in Peru between 3000 and 2000 BC. They grew thousands of varieties of potato, though much of this diversity has never been experienced by the "first world". Spanish explorers brought the potato back to Europe in the 1500s, where it became one of the most important food crops. Potatoes helped save Spanish sailors from scurvy due to their high vitamin C content. It was a staple crop in the 18th century among peasants, a fact that would forever change history.

Factoid: The 'bottleneck effect' occurs after a die-off, migration or other such event where a small proportion of the population is left to carry on or create a new population, which is left genetically impoverished due to the loss of genetic diversity in the gene pool.

Because European potatoes lacked the genetic diversity that the Andean potatoes possessed, they were more susceptible to disease, such as the fungus Phytophthora infestans, which lead to the Great Irish Potato famine that you've most likely all heard of. It is estimated that over 1 million deaths can be attributed to the potato famine in Ireland, while around 1 million more emigrated from Ireland around this time due to the famine and other hardships, most of whom came to Canada and the United states. In the 1851 census it was revealed that over half the population of Toronto was Irish. In Statistics Canada's 2006 census, 14% of Canadians claimed to have Irish ancestry, no doubt thanks to the potato.

So I, like many of my fellow North Americans, owe my very existence and current circumstance to the unfortunate ills of the 19th century Irish people. And what better way to honour such an important food than by putting it in a soup? One of the things I love about soup is that it is possible to make a delicious home-cooked meal with minimal ingredients, dishes, and time.

Easiest Ever Potato Soup
Serves 1

1 Medium potato, skin on, diced
1/4 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable broth
Salt & Pepper

In a pot sauté onion and garlic til soft. Add diced potatoes and broth. Tip: the smaller you dice the potatoes, the faster they will cook! Bring to a boil and simmer til potatoes are soft. Blend and serve topped with some freshly ground pepper.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Bowl of Beans in this Crazy World

This week I am taking a break from the traditional lettuce-based salad in favour of a protein packed bean salad. I simply adore bean salad, and it has long been a fixture on the BBQ potluck table in my family. While the old stand-by bean salad is delish, and perhaps the subject of a future salad challenge post, I decided to do something a little different.

As we all know beans are awesome, both in their versatility in cooking and their nutritional profile. However, edamame beans are frequently overlooked. Edamame are soy beans that have been harvested while they are still green. Although they only have about 1/4 of the protein they would have when mature, 1/2 cup of soy beans still contain about 10g of protein, not too shabby. They are served steamed and sprinkled with sea salt while still in their pods at sushi restaurants, but you can also find them shelled in the frozen vegetables section, ready to add to recipes. These green soy beans could be used much as you would use green beans or peas. I chose to make a fresh asian inspired salad with them.

Week 5: Gingery Edamame Salad
Makes about 3 or 4 servings

1 cup frozen shelled edamame beans
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
3/4 cup red bell pepper, diced
1/3 cup diced red onion or green onion
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp olive or sesame oil
1 tbsp honey (or other sweetener)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tsp soy sauce
Microwave edamame and corn according to package directions. Cool and put in bowl along with pepper and onion. In a small bowl combine the remaining ingredients and whisk together. Pour over veggies, stir, and let the salad marinade in the fridge for at least an hour before serving. I served mine on top of some cold rice noodles, but it would be just fine on its own.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 5 Salads left: 47

A Tale of Tails and Zen

When I think of Ottawa and winter, one thing comes to mind: the Rideau Canal. It is the worlds largest skating rink at 7.8km in length. It is home to Winterlude, which kicks off this weekend. And what's the first thing most people think of when you say the words "canal" and "winterlude"? BeaverTails. Not the actual tails of beavers, but a delicious pastry that is deep fried and covered in cinnamon sugar. It is as Canadian as maple syrup, and a must for any visitor to the canal. The first BeaverTail stand opened in the Byward Market in 1980 and has since become a fixture on the Rideau Canal skateway and at festivals throughout the region. Even President Obama had one on his visit to our nation's capital.
I figured that there was no way the delectable BeaverTail was vegan, but I was curious to find out just how much cheating I was about to do on my first skate of the season. I e-mailed the company and promptly received the following enthusiastic reply:

"Dear Ashley,

Thank you for submitting your questions regarding our addictive product! For your information, you will find no animal-based products in the whole-wheat dough portion of the BeaverTails, however, we do smear butter on them in order to hold the toppings (which are all vegetarian) like our famous cinnamon and sugar blend. Also, our product is deep fried in Canola or Soya oil (depending on the store you visit). "

So there you have it, vegan except for the butter they "smear" on. We can't be perfect all the time, and BeaverTails are well worth the indulgence. They have a maple butter version of the BeaverTail, and if it is actually pure maple butter, would be vegan. I intend to ask about it next time I go.

Our next stop after the canal was to Zen Kitchen, an upscale all vegan restaurant in Ottawa's chinatown area. My friend Brett and I were feeling adventurous and sprung for the chef's tasting menu, which consisted of 4 courses of vegan amazingness, the final course being a devastatingly delicious dessert. Seriously people, if you're in the Ottawa area and looking for an amazing place to eat, this is it. As good (or better) as any high end restaurant I've ever eaten in, it was all at once surprising, fresh, and decadent. They even make note right on the menu which dishes can be prepared gluten-free. I will definitely be going back.

I really wish I had brought my camera in so I could take photos of the amazing food, but having just come from the canal I only had my backpack which I opted to leave in the car, which of course had my camera in it. So sad. I'll be sure to take pics next time!