Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Turmeric and Coriander and Cumin, Oh My!

Last night I attempted to introduce my cat, Skrabble, to my friend Brett's cat, Lily, in a hope that they would become the best of friends and have an outrageously adorable play date. This didn't occur. They generally just growled at each other and avoided each other for the majority of the evening, punctuated with the occasional screaming encounter.

You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with food? Be patient, all will be revealed to you at the proper time. Lucky for you, that time is now. While over at Brett's place for kitty party (aka kitty growl-fest) I made a curry and onion bahjis for us for dinner. I decided to use this as inspiration for this week's Salad Challenge. The onion bhajis got me thinking about these battered fried onion bits that they put on the veggie burgers over at Darcy McGee's, a chain of pubs in the Ottawa area. Not only are these the best veggie burgers I've ever had, but atop their already fantastic burger, they put a grilled portobello cap and onions that have been battered in a curry-spiced batter, then deep fried. SO GOOD. Seriously, if you're in Ottawa you HAVE to go to one of these pubs and get their veggie burger. They also have some very good beer on tap - I recommend Erdinger.

Ok, I'm getting off topic again. The point is, I was thinking to myself that these crispy onions would make a super tasty salad topping. And so the idea for Bahji salad was born! These crispy fried onions would be an excellent topping for salads of all kinds, veggie burgers, sandwiches, portobello or tofu steaks. They're basically just delicious.

Crispy Bahji Bits

1 onion, cut in half, then thinly sliced
1 tbsp water
2 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chickpea flour
1/2 tsp each turmeric, coriander, cumin and chili powder
cayenne pepper to taste
olive oil

Mix cornstarch and water together. Add onions and toss to coat. In a tupperware container mix chickpea flour and spices. Add the onions to the container, put the lid on, and shake to coat.

Heat about a half centimeter of oil in a pan or pot over medium heat (I like pots cause they contain the oil splatter better). Put in only as many onions as the pot/pan will hold in a single layer. Fry until onions are crispy, turning once so that both sides are browned. Remove with slotted spoon and place on paper towel to absorb excess oil.

Bahji's are often served with Cucumber Raita for dipping. Raita is usually made with yogurt, but I replaced yogurt with soft silken tofu, and it turned out pretty well, but I think it still needs improvement. I used the raita I made as a salad dressing, and constructed my salad with baby spinach, grated carrot, sliced cucumber, raita, and of course, topped it all with a generous helping of bahji bits!
I rounded out dinner tonight with this Rice & Lentil Pilaf which was SO delicious (I used kale in place of dandelion greens), and Sweet Potato Falafel from my favourite vegan food blog, FatFree Vegan Kitchen. Also, totally delish. All in all, this was a kickass meal, even if I do say so myself!
Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 13 Salads left: 39

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eat Your Sunshine!

It's been a dreary, cold, blustery week here in Eastern Ontario, which is particularly disappointing after we had an unseasonably warm spell a few weeks ago. So this kind of weather usually makes me want to make soup (which I did), but for this second of this week's two salad challenges, I decided to bring summer into the kitchen by making my friend Laura's Sunshine Salad. Made with spring greens and fresh fruit, this recipe is sure to fool your tummy into thinking that the sun really has returned. This week strawberries and blackberries were on sale, so those are the berries I've opted for. The last time Laura made this for me she used strawberries, blueberries and grapes. Any berries will do. She topped it with raspberry vinaigrette. We always have frozen raspberries in the freezer (stored from the previous berry season) so I made my own dressing, but one from the store will work just as well.

Sunshine Salad
Spring greens or baby spinach
Berries of choice
Oranges, supremed
Red onion, thinly sliced
Sunflower Seeds

Fresh Raspberry Vinaigrette
Makes about 1/4 cup

1/4 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp raspberry or red wine vinegar
2 tsp honey (or to taste)
1 tsp orange juice

Mash raspberries with a fork. Add the oil and blend until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, adding more orange juice if you want a thinner dressing.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 12 Salads left: 40

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dropped the Salad Ball Again

Why did I think I could do this 52 week challenge again? It's amazing how quickly a week can fly by without you noticing. Particularly if that week is filled with a lot of driving and apartment hunting. Lucky for my blog, I found an apartment. Next up, however, I must buy a car. How on earth will I manage car shopping, a Sens game, AND 2 salad blogs in one week? Yes, 2 salad blogs, since I must make up for last week's fail. After all, if I make 52 salads in a year, it all evens out in the end, right? That's the theory I'm going with anyway.

The first of this week's salads features quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah"). This illustrious little seed hails from the Andes in South America. It is in fact a seed, though it is used as you would a grain. It was considered a sacred food by the Incas, which is actually why it is little known today. Despite its supreme nutritional content, the Spanish explorers shunned quinoa because of its association with Incan religious ceremonies (read: non-Christian), and instead brought back the potato as their prize from the new world. Far be it from me to say anything negative about potatoes, but they can't hold a candle to quinoa as far as nutrition goes, and the Spaniards clearly made the wrong choice.

Quinoa is unique in that is one of a noble few plant-based foods that are a "complete" protein source. Complete, for anyone who is unsure, means that it contains all the amino acids that humans need to obtain from diet. This is often cited as the reason why animal products are a superior protein source. It is also why soy, which is also a complete protein, has become so dominant in the world of veg cooking. A cup of cooked quinoa contains 8g protein, 5 g fiber, and 15% of your recommended daily intake of iron.

So what does it taste like and how do you use it? Well, let me put it this way - if rice and couscous had a lovechild, I think it would turn out to be something like quinoa. Use it as you would rice. In fact, you'd be better off eliminating rice altogether and eating only quinoa. It has twice the protein content of brown rice (for the same number of calories), and cooks in 1/4 of the time. In this fresh and healthy salad, I've used quinoa as I might use couscous.

Quinoa and Black Bean Salad
Makes about 5 cups

2 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup cooked black beans
3 green onions, sliced
3/4 cup red pepper, chopped
3/4 cup cucumber, sliced & quartered
1 plum tomato, slimy middle stuff removed, chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp cumin
a few dashes of cayenne, to taste (optional)

Mix all the ingredients together. Refrigerate a little while, serve cold.

One of the things I have come to dread as a vegan is potlucks. Usually full of things I can't eat. I of course bring something that I can eat, but it is important to bring something that everyone likes, and offers a complete meal in one so I don't feel like I'm sacrificing my nutrition. This would be the perfect pot-luck dish that would feel quite at home at a barbecue as well.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 11 Salads left: 41

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blue Days Salad

I'm sure it's not surprising that this week's Salad Challenge recipe is based on my last entry on the Blue Days Diet. As a review the blue day diet includes: tryptophan (to boost serotonin), spiciness (to release endorphins), B vitamins (increase energy & elevate mood), carbohydrates (increase tryptophan uptake), and chocolate (cause it's awesome).

Ok, so this salad doesn't have chocolate. I couldn't come up with a way to do that, so i'll just have to make some hot cocoa later. Since I was eating this salad with a stir-fry that I served over quinoa, I figured that satisfied the carb requirement, and really, when are we ever lacking in opportunities to incorporate more carbs in our diet? So lets focus on the other three, tryptophan, B vitamins, and heat.

As I already mentioned, I was making a stir fry for dinner, so I decided to go with an asian influence in this salad. This salad features crimini mushrooms, which have nearly all of the different B vitamins as well as being an excellent source of tryptophan; cucumber, miso, sesame seeds and the baby greens are all sources of tryptophan as well. The dressing contains a good dose of cayenne pepper which will warm your tongue and get those endorphins flowing.

Crimini Mushroom Salad with Spicy Miso Dressing
Makes 1 salad

Dark leafy greens
4 or 5 crimini mushrooms, sliced
soy sauce
cucumber, sliced
sesame seeds

1 tsp miso paste
1 tsp oil (use sesame oil if you have it)
1 tsp rice vinegar
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/2 tsp water

Saute mushrooms with a bit of soy sauce until well cooked. Set aside.
Whisk together dressing recipes. If you're not partial to spicy food start with a little and add more until it suits your tastes. You may want to add more or less water depending on how thick you want the dressing to be.
Drizzle dressing on top of greenery, cucumbers, and mushrooms, and top with sesame seeds.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 10 Salads left: 42

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blue Days Diet

The Brothers Gibb once asked "How can you mend a broken heart?". I don't have the answer to this age-old, disco question, but I have been told that time heals all wounds. The problem with that is that you're probably going to feel pretty darn miserable in the meantime. The good news is that food can help take the edge off. Think of it like nature's morphine.

You're stressed, had a rough week at work, or just had your heart broken, and what do you do? You reach for a bar of chocolate or your favourite starch-filled comfort food. Why do we do this?, you might ask. Well you're in luck, because I'm about to tell you!

Many people are emotional eaters, and there's good reason for it. Foods have the power to elevate your mood by releasing endorphines, and increasing serotonin, among other methods. Deficiencies in certain nutrients can also cause depression symptoms. Here is a breakdown of important mood foods.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that our body uses to synthesize serotonin. When serotonin levels are low, we become depressed, lose focus, and disrupted sleep patterns. Many anti-depressants act on serotonin levels, such as the ever-popular SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as Prozak. But you don't need drugs to increase your serotonin, all you need is more dietary tryptophan. Many of you know that turkey is high in tryptophan, but there are many excellent sources as well.

Vegan sources of tryptophan (for a complete list go here):
  • Mushrooms
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, mustard greens, swiss chard)
  • Soy (beans, tofu, tamari, miso)
  • Lentils & Beans (Kidney, black, pinto, navy etc)
  • Cauliflower, cucumber, celery, peppers, eggplant
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower) and Nuts (walnuts, cashews, almonds)
  • Whole grains (oats, buckwheat, rye, bulgur)

The word "endorphine" comes from the words endogenous morphine, suggesting that it is a morphine-like substance that is produced by the body. They are natural pain relievers that are released when we experience pain and danger, but they are also released by good things such as exercise and orgasms, which is why people tend to feel so great after exercising (the so-called "runner's high"). Essentially, they are released when we experience excitement, good or bad. Eating spicy food is also known to cause the release of endorphins. Who needs morphine when all you need is a hot pepper?

B vitamins
There are 8 B vitamins (oddly named 1,2,3,5,6,7,9,12) but are frequently known by other names: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folic acid (B9). Many of them are known to have effects on mood, energy levels and cognitive function. They are also important for supporting metabolism. Unlike many nutrients, B vitamins can be harder to obtain in a vegan diet. Good sources of B vitamins include:
  • Bananas
  • Lentils & beans
  • Chili peppers
  • Potatoes
Vitamin B12 is the only one that can not be found in plant based foods. Nutritional Yeast is a good vegan source of B12, can be easily added to soups and sauces, and is easy to find (locate it at Bulk Barn in the spices section).

Perhaps the best known go-to mood enhancer is chocolate. It's not just that it makes us feel better by virtue of it's luscious deliciousness, it boasts a laundry list of natural mood boosting chemicals. Chocolate contains tryptophan, theobromine (a stimulant similar to caffeine), anandamide (a cannabinoid- aka similar effects as cannabis), and phenylethlyamine (a neurotransmitter that is a precursor to amphetamine). It's no wonder chocolate makes us feel better.

Think about our favourite comfort foods - bread, pasta, potatoes - all carb heavy foods. Why is that? It's because carbs affect our tryptophan and serotonin. When we eat sugar and carbs, blood sugar rises, triggering the release of insulin, which lowers blood levels of all amino acids except tryptophan. When tryptophan outnumbers the other amino acids, it enters the brain more quickly, where it is converted to serotonin, and ultimately making us feel better (for more details check out this site). When we binge, we're self-medicating. Try to self-medicate with healthy carbs such as fruits, whole grains, and potatoes.

Ok, so sunlight isn't a food, I know, but it can still play an important role in our mood. I'm sure you're all familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) aka the winter blues. Those of us who live in the snowy north have probably felt its effects as the days grow shorter and we spend more time indoors. Tanning releases endorphins, which is why it feels so good to lay out in the sun, or why people become addicted to tanning booths, causing us to engage in these cancer-causing activities against our better judgement. Sun exposure also affects our melatonin and serotonin levels, causing us to sleep better and feel happier. Best of all, sunshine is free and totally vegan. So when the weather permits, get out and enjoy the sunshine, but be smart about it, and wear sunscreen.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

You can't have-a-da Mango!

Actually, you can, and should have-a-da Mango. Just as long as you don't steal mine! I absolutely love mangoes, but I don't buy them as often as I should. I was in the grocery store the other day picking up some bananas when I spied a basket of mangoes, and inspiration hit. Mango salad. Mmmm.... what a delicious idea. I grabbed the least cement-like mango, not having any idea what kind of dressing I would make to compliment the fresh fruity flavour.
Factoid: Mangoes are often used as a symbol of fertility in Indian culture, and it's no wonder - mango trees can live for over 300 years and still bear fruit [1]. They're also a symbol of love, so next valentines day, ditch the chocolates and buy your sweetie a basket of mangoes for a sensual and healthy treat.

One of my pre-vegan favourites was the Mango Lassi. For those of you who are not familiar, it is essentially a mango-yogurt smoothie found in Indian restaurants, and not surprisingly, India, which is the mangoes home and native land. It's tangy, gently sweet, creamy and luscious. So I set out to create a gently sweet, tangy, creamy dressing. I've also brought in a little extra south Asian inspiration by incorporating coconut and curry. I had some coconut whip in the fridge and just used a spoonful of that, but feel free to use coconut milk, or add a drop of coconut extract to soy milk.

Mango Salad with Creamy Coconut Curry Dressing
Makes 2 salads

1 Mango, peeled and sliced
1/3 red bell pepper, slivered
1 green onion, sliced
Salad greens

2 tbsp soft silken tofu
1/2 tsp coconut milk
1/4 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
soy milk

Whisk together all of the ingredients until the tofu is blended smooth, adding soy milk a little at a time to reach desired consistency.

If I hadn't added the green onion and pepper to this salad I might have confused it with desert, it was so good. It has a bright, clean, fresh taste, and the perfect accompaniment to the warm and spicy chickpea curry I had for dinner.

Salad Challenge Countdown
Salads made: 9 Salads left: 43