Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quick and Easy Vegetarian Tacos

You know when you get home from a long day and have no idea what to eat? You open the fridge and stare for a while, stumped. Then you spot that one magical ingredient and smile. For me, that magic ingredient used to be marinara sauce. We've all been there, right? Pasta. Night after night. No matter how much you love pasta and no matter how healthy you make it - you know, by throwing in tons of spinach, chick peas, whatever - it's still pasta and it's far from a perfect meal, especially when you have it more than once a week!

Enter my new magic ingredient: beans. Pinto. Kidney. Black. Lentil. Whichever I happen to have on hand work just fine in this tasty taco recipe! The best part is that you can keep most of the (cheap!) ingredients stocked and improvise based on what you have on hand. Oh, and you can whip these up using the microwave and toaster oven if you want! No need to heat stuff on the stove, though that does improve the end result!

What to stock:
  • Canned beans (dry are even better if you can plan ahead!)
    • Black
    • Red Kidney
    • Pinto
    • Vegetarian Refried
  • Taco Shells
    • Read the label to make sure they're free of nasty partially hydrogenated oils
    • Can you find a mult-grain version at your grocer?
  • Cheese!
    • Skip the pre-shredded stuff. It's loaded with preservatives and anti-caking agents, doesn't taste as good as the blocks, and is 2-3 times the price!
    • Go for a local organic Cheddar labeled "RBGH free"
    • Monterey Jack or Pepper Jack work too!
  • Spices:
    • Don't fall for taco seasoning packs. They're usually made from the same ingredients (but tend to contain fillers and extra sodium!) I've listed them in proportional order:
      • Chili Powder
      • Cumin
      • Paprika
      • Cayenne
      • Garlic Powder
      • Onion Powder
      • Oregano
      • Kosher Salt, Red Pepper Flakes, and Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
  • Taco Sauce
  • Salsa
  • Greek Yogurt 
    • Use this instead of sour cream!
    • My favorite is Fage 2%
  • Avocados!
  • Lettuce/Tomato/Onion/Sliced Black Olives
  • Tomato Paste and/or Diced Tomatoes are nice to have if you have time to heat stuff on the stove, but it's not necessary.
Super Fast Version (great for 1-2 people):
  1. Preheat Toaster Oven to 300. 
  2. Slice the cheese (and tomato if using) into small pieces and lay flat on inside of taco shells. 
  3. Pop them in the toaster oven for 5 minutes while prepping the rest. Keep an eye. Toaster Ovens can be finicky.
  4. Empty can of beans into microwave safe bowl. (Rinse and drain if desired)
    1. black, kidney, pinto, or vegetarian refried are my favorites!
    2. Season with spices listed above and stir/mash with a fork or potato masher until desired consistency (or don't - up to you!)
  5. Heat in microwave for 45 - 60 seconds, stir, repeat until warm throughout
  6. Remove taco shells from toaster oven 
    1. Add sliced avocado
    2. Spoon mixture into taco shells 
  7. Top with salsa, taco sauce, yogurt shredded lettuce, chopped red onion or scallions, and/or cheese
  8. Take a bite and smile because you just found your new favorite super fast dinner!
20-Minute Version (perfect for a fast taco night with friends!):
  1. Follow steps 1 - 3 above, but use the oven if prepping more than 3-4 taco shells
  2. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Add 1/2 a finely chopped yellow onion and 1 minced clove of garlic. Saute for about 5 minutes, until onions are soft.
  3. Add a can of beans and a couple tablespoons of tomato paste 
    • if you don't have tomato paste, you can substitute salsa or diced tomatoes
    • you can use lentils instead of canned beans, but you'll need to add more liquid (water, veggie broth, or water + liquid from diced tomatoes) and cook longer
  4. Season with spices listed above.
  5. Cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat, uncovered, stirring every couple minutes. 
  6. Remove taco shells from oven and add sliced avocado
  7. Spoon in heated bean mixture
  8. Top with salsa, taco sauce, yogurt, shredded lettuce, chopped red onion or scallions, and/or cheese!
  9. Enjoy!
Taco night with my roommate, Tandis!

PS: A side of quinoa or brown rice completes this meal nicely!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blue Potato and Leek Soup (Vegan + Cheese)

Last winter, I got a few pounds of blue potatoes in my Boston Organics shipments. They were delicious, but a few went past their prime before I had time to cook them. Determined not to let them go to waste, I studied up and figured out how to plant them. Fast forward a few months, and I had a full harvest Somerville-grown Blue Potatoes! Fresh potatoes store well for months in the right conditions (cool, dry, and dark), so I decided to save most of my harvest for a chilly winter evening, envisioning a beautiful BLUE potato and leek soup!

The soup was warm and deliciously filling, but it didn't exactly turn out blue. Nonetheless, here is the recipe:

2 tb Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2-3 leeks, white & light green parts, chopped and rinsed thoroughly
1 cup celery*, rinsed and chopped
1 medium carrot, rinsed and chopped
1 tsp red peper flakes (optional)
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tb dry sherry
1 liter box of low-sodium vegetable broth
1 lb (blue) potatoes, scrubbed or peeled and chopped
1 - 2 tb fresh parsley, chopped
1 - 2 tb fresh dill, chopped
kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Saute the leeks, celery, and carrot in the olive oil over medium for about 10 minutes, or until the softened. (Tip: Keep the pot covered when sauteeing veggies for soup. It locks in the moisture and speeds up the softening.) Add the garlic and some salt and pepper and saute for another 5 minutes. Turn heat to high, deglaze the pan with the dry sherry, pour in the broth and cover. Bring to a boil and add the potatoes. Make sure there's enough liquid in the pot to cover the veggies. If not, add more broth and/or water. Cover and return to a boil. 

Gently boil for about 10 minutes, then lower heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes or more (30 is the minimum to cook the potatoes through, but the longer you cook it for, the more time the flavors have to get to know each other). Add the fresh herbs toward the end of your cooking (maximizes flavor and nutritional value). Blend with an immersion blender or in batches in your blender (or don't blend at all if you prefer a thinner chunky soup!).

Finish with freshly ground black pepper to taste and top with a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a dollop of Greek yogurt, or a small handful of freshly shredded cheddar (or all 3!).Enjoy!

*Celery is one of the "Dirty Dozen." Buy it Organic or you'll end up ingesting a large side of pesticides with your otherwise healthy veggie! For the full, dirty dozen list in a convenient pocket-sized printable PDF, click here. (courtesy of the Environmental Working Group)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Lies About Milk

My friends and family routinely float online articles about food past me for my thoughts. Today, my mom asked my thoughts on a yahoo article by none other than the Eat This! Not That! guy David Zinczenko. First of all, let me say that I think the well-intentioned Zinczenko routinely oversimplifies his nutritional suggestions, creating false choices for the hundreds of thousands of people who have likely read his books, articles, and magazine (he is the editor of Men's Health). 

He makes some valid points (I highlighted the things I agree with in yellow) in his recent yahoo article, The Truth About Milk, which is copied below. 

But unfortunately, he misses the point. Overall, I simply don't think milk is worth drinking for nutrition's sake. The evolution of how people even came to drink milk is interesting in and of itself and when you examine the societies who drink milk today, America tops the list (arguably because the USDA is in the back pocket of the dairy industry and has been brainwashing us with its health benefits for decades). Part of the reason for that is that much of the world remains lactose intolerant. People of African and Asian descent have strong negative reactions to lactose because they don't have lactase in their stomachs to break it down. America is more diverse now than it was 50 years ago and part of the reason milk consumption has declined is likely related just as much to that as it is to the marketing of cheaper, sugar-filled alternative drink options. I do think (and history and nutrition confirm this) that the right way to consume dairy is in the form of cheese and yogurt (the real stuff, not American cheese or dannon/yoplait yogurt)! The addition of bacteria to dairy helps break down the lactose. Aged cheeses are practically lactose free, as are cultured yogurts, making it more easily digested and more nutritionally beneficial. The stuff I blatantly disagree with in this article is highlighted in red. I also added notes in blue. 

The Truth About Milk

Milk: Healthy and nutritious drink, or fattening, contaminant-filled menace?

You might expect an organization called the Dairy Education Board to promote milk as a good thing. But instead, this advocacy group claims that “Milk is a deadly poison.” Oops. And as Americans have grown more wary of saturated fat, and more concerned about hormones and other substances fed to—and injected into—dairy cows, milk consumption has fallen dramatically. In the post-war days of 1945, the average American was consuming 45 gallons of milk a year. By 2001, per capita consumption was down to just 23 gallons. In 1945, most of America was WHITE and milk wasn't full of puss and then pasteurized to kill the germs in the puss, as it is today! You got your milk from a local dairy by way of a milk man, right??? 
But here’s the thing: Plenty of new research says that we should be drinking more milk, not less. (most of this research is funded by... ahem... the dairy industry!) In fact, swapping soda, juice, sweetened iced teas, and other beverages for milk might be one major reason why Americans are gaining weight at such a rapid pace. (fair enough) Milk not only helps boost protein intake and cut down on sugar, but consuming calcium through dairy foods such as milk may actually reduce the fat absorption from other foods. (Our bodies don't absorb the calcium from dairy as well as we absorb calcium from calcium-rich plant sources! we can also dramatically increase our calcuim absorbtion by pairing it with citrates, so calcium fortified OJ might be a better source than milk!) Who wouldn’t want that? 

Here are four milk myths you might have heard, and why you should consider answering the cowbell more often.
Claim #1: “Milk is a fat-burning food.” (no such thing, especially not from animal sources!)

The Truth: Maybe. In a 6-month study, University of Tennessee researchers (who funded this research?) found that overweight people who downed three servings a day of calcium-rich dairy lost more belly fat than those who followed a similar diet minus two or more of the dairy servings. In addition, the researchers discovered that calcium supplements (what kind of "supplements" are we talking here? I hate how this stuff is over-generalized. As we know, there's a wide variety of supplements availalbe and it's hard to know which ones are best absorbed by the body unless you have a lot of expertise in nutrition and biochemistry! Any walk down the vitamin aisle makes my head spin!) didn’t work as well as milk. Why? They believe that while calcium may increase the rate at which your body burns fat, other active compounds in dairy (such as milk proteins) provide an additional fat-burning effect.  

Claim #2: “Drinking milk builds muscle.” (I think lifting weights builds muscle and I'm sure I can find a strong contingency of fitness experts to back me up on this one!)

The Truth: Absolutely. In fact, milk is one of the best muscle foods on the planet. Milk is full of high-quality protein: about 80 percent casein and 20 percent whey. Whey is known as a “fast protein” because it’s quickly broken down intoamino acids and absorbed into the bloodstream—perfect for post-workout consumption. Casein, on the other hand, is digested more slowly—ideal for providing your body with a steady supply of smaller amounts of protein for a longer period of time, such as between meals or while you sleep. (if you're looking for amino acids, there are much better sources. try Braggs Liquid Aminos for a start. Use it to flavor soups and stews and in place of soy sauce! It's available in the "healthy/organic section of most grocery stores, sold online, and available at most naturals/health food stores) 
Claim #3: “Cows are given antibiotics. Doesn’t that make their milk unhealthy?”  (um, not to mention the growth hormone RBGH, which has been linked to weight gain and the early onset of puberty. The antibiotics fed to cows are more of a global health risk as widespread use of such antibiotics promotes the growth of "superbugs" that are resistant to andtibiotics. Don't think this is serious business? Pharma companies sell more antibiotics to farm animals than they do to people!)
The Truth: No one really knows. Some scientists argue that milk from cows given antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance in humans, making these types of drugs less effective when you take them for an infection. But this has never been proven. (this isn't the right way to look at the issue of antibiotic resistance. we're not talking about humans being resistant to drugs. we're talking about the bacteria being resistant to them! plenty of viruses and bacteria can/do mutate and cross species. H1N1 ring a bell? see note above)

It is true that hormones and antibiotics have never been part of a cow’s natural diet, and they have been shown to have adverse effects on the animals. Canadian researchers, for example, discovered that cows given hormones are more likely to contract an udder infection called mastitis. If you’re uneasy, you can purchase antibiotic-free (and typically hormone-free, as well) milk from producers like Horizon and Organic Valley at most major supermarkets. The cows will certainly thank you. (skip the nationally distributed brands in favor of local organic dairies. your local economy and the environment will thank you!)

Claim #4: “Fat-free milk is much healthier than whole.”

The Truth: Nope. While you’ve probably always been told to drink reduced-fat milk, the majority of scientific studies (funded by... ?) show that drinking whole milk actually improves cholesterol levels—just not as much as drinking fat-free does. One recent exception: Danish researchers found that men who consumed a diet rich in whole milk experienced a slight increase in LDL cholesterol (six points). However, it’s worth noting that these men drank six 8-ounce glasses a day, an unusually high amount. Even so, their triglycerides—another marker of heart-disease risk—decreased by 22 percent. The bottom line: Drinking two to three glasses of milk a day, whether it’s fat-free, 2%, or whole, lowers the likelihood of both heart attackand stroke—a finding confirmed by British scientists. (in place of other beverages or in addition to?)

EAT RIGHT RULE: If your food can go bad, it's good for you. If it can't go bad, it's bad for you. (I generally agree with this sentiment, but remember that beef goes bad and beef isn't good for you. Dried legumes and grains on the other hand, don't really go bad and are good for  you...)