Conquering the Kitchen: Best Bean Cooking Techniques

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Nutritious Plant-Based Protein at a Fraction of the Cost

Looking for an inexpensive, healthy way to get more protein your diet? Beans are the key!

Beans (and lentils) are the star players when it comes to plant-based protein. And if you learn to cook dried beans instead of relying on canned, you can save a ton of money. For example, a can of organic, no-salt added beans at my local co-op is $2.49 and yields about 1 3/4 cups of beans. I can get at least a pound of the same beans dry in the bulk department for the same price (or less), and they’ll triple in size to yield 6 or more cups once cooked. That’s almost 3 1/2 times as many beans!

Do I even have to ask if you want to spend 3 1/2 times less on a daily staple? Check out the two most common methods for cooking, and get ready to embrace beans at every meal no matter what your budget.

Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)Cooking Beans: Stovetop

Simmering beans on the stovetop is a method that may seem old-fashioned, but it’s time-tested and results in tender, flavorful beans if you’re up for being patient. Since this method can take several hours, it’s best to try it on a quiet afternoon when you’re hanging out at home with the family or working in the kitchen preparing another long-cooking dish.

For tasty stovetop beans:

  • Soak beans overnight in a large bowl with enough water to cover
  • Rinse and drain the beans
  • Add beans to a large saucepan or stock pot with 3 cups of water for every cup of beans
  • Cover the pan, and bring the water to a boil
  • Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer
  • Cook for 1 hour before starting to test for doneness

If you like, you can add some flavor to your beans by tossing in garlic, onions and/or herbs when you turn down the heat to start the simmering process.

I’ve never tried this method, but I’ve read stovetop beans have a way of going from inedible to perfectly tender in a matter of minutes, so it’s important to keep testing them starting around the hour mark. Most beans take at least two hours to get to the right texture. You’ll know they’re done when you can squish one between your fingers and there’s no sign of toughness or hard spots in the core.

Lentils cook much more quickly and don’t require soaking. They’re perfect if you don’t have any cooked beans on hand and need something to add to salads or toss in a dinner dish in a hurry. Start by rinsing lentils and removing any small stones or sticks. Place them in a saucepan with twice as much water as lentils, and cook as for stovetop beans for 25 to 30 minutes. Red lentils take a little less time, around 15 minutes. Drain any excess liquid before serving.

beans and lentilsCooking Beans: Pressure Cooker

My preferred method for cooking beans is to use a pressure cooker, specifically an electric model like an Instant Pot, but stovetop cookers are just as speedy. If you have a hectic schedule and are still trying to get the hang of preparing whole plant foods without spending a lot of time in the kitchen, this is the method for you.

Pressure cooking beans goes faster if you soak the beans first, but it’s okay if you forget. You can still rinse dried beans, dump them in the cooker and get good results. Follow your cooker’s instructions for liquid amounts and cooking times, or check out the handy charts on Hip Pressure Cooking. Cooking instructions also vary between different pressure cookers, so familiarize yourself with the owner’s manual for the model you have.

Plant-based pressure cooking cookbooks like The New Fast Food by Jill Nussinow or Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna J. Sass are handy to have around to answer questions and help troubleshoot if you have difficulty with your pressure cooker. There’s a bit of a learning curve with some electric models, but it’s worth getting the hang of them since you can cook most beans in under 15 minutes if they’ve been soaked first!

Here are a few tips from my own bean cooking adventures:

  • Water ratios don’t seem to be universal, so I put in enough to cover the beans by at least one inch and drain the excess when they’re done
  • Toss in a 1-inch piece of kombu seaweed (dried kelp), available at Asian markets, to tenderize the beans and add trace minerals
  • If you’re cooking chickpeas, save the water to experiment with aquafaba recipes!

Storing Your Beans

Since you’re likely to cook way more beans than you’ll use in one sitting, plan to store the leftovers. Use airtight containers to separate out single servings or meal-sized portions. It’s up to you whether to store the beans in the cooking water or drain them first. I drain it off, but if you use the stovetop method and flavor the water, you may prefer to save it.

Beans will stay tasting fresh for about four days in the fridge or up to six months in the freezer. (If you pull out a container and the beans have a slimy coating or funny smell, don’t use them!)

vegan black bean sweet potato kale quesadilla closeupBenefits of Beans

Okay, so now you’re a bean cooking boss. You have a fridge or freezer full of beans. Why make them a staple of your diet? Is eating beans every day good for you?

It’s more than good — it’s an essential part of a plant-based diet! Beans contain a powerful combination of nutrients and fiber, making them good for:

  • Improving digestion and minimizing constipation
  • Reducing the risk of colorectal cancer
  • Lowering cholesterol and improving heart health
  • Keeping blood sugar in check
  • Managing or losing weight

Beans are lower in calories than animal proteins and contain none of the potentially harmful fats and pro-inflammatory compounds. They’re also nutrient-dense, boasting high levels of iron along with a range of B vitamins and minerals, including magnesium and potassium.

Get inspired to add more beans to your meals with two of my favorite combinations:

There you go! You’re all set to rule the kitchen with your newfound bean cooking prowess.

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It’s Okay to Hate Healthy Foods — Really!

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Ever feel like you’ll never learn to like some of the foods you’re “supposed” to eat? It seems like a new “superfood” appears on the scene every other week, so you go and grab some at the store only to find you really, really hate it. No matter what you do, you just can’t warm up to it, and you’re left feeling guilty for despising the amazing healthy food everyone else is raving about.

I’ll tell you a secret — and this is going to sound nuts coming from a wellness consultant. It’s okay if you hate healthy foods. Really, it is. There’s no dietary law stating you must enjoy every health-promoting food in existence. While I tend to encourage clients to try preparing new foods in more than one way before deciding they’re not fans, it’s silly to try and force yourself to eat something you truly can’t stand.

Of course, I’m not giving everyone carte blanche to toss the kale in the trash and stockpile dairy-free Ben & Jerry’s and Oreos. What I want to do is put healthy eating in perspective, because sometimes it seems as though people think of it as all-or-nothing. How often do we hear — or say — “I was good today!” when meal choices include a lot of whole, fresh foods? Or the opposite: “I was bad” or “I blew it” when a processed treat was on the menu?

This kind of mindset is what’s behind the idea that we need to somehow pile on the healthiest foods possible to give our diets superpowers, when the truth is much simpler and involves absolutely no food-related guilt trips. So let’s take a look at why it’s not going to kill you to leave the goji berries for someone else and why you’re not a horrible person if quinoa isn’t your favorite thing ever.

Personal Tastes (and Restrictions) Guide Choices

The foods you ate growing up did a lot to shape the tastes you have now. This includes ethnic flavors, favorite dishes your parents made on special holidays and any influence the food industry had on your family’s meals. The latter is where most people get into trouble when it comes to food choices and where the majority of “food guilt” comes from. These tastes — the deeply ingrained preference for sugar, salt and fat — are the ones worth changing, and they can be overcome by shifting dietary choices toward whole plant foods.

Intolerances, allergies and diseases also need to be considered when choosing which foods to eat. According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), over 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions, and as many as 15 million people in the U.S. have at least one food allergy. Reactions range from mild, such as an itchy tongue or a skin rash, to severe, including fatal anaphylaxis.

I’m often upset when I hear a doctors are advising patients to take Lactaid pills and continue consuming dairy when suffering from lactose intolerance or when I hear stories of people struggling with non-celiac gluten intolerance for years because the medical establishment isn’t convinced of its existence. If you eat a food and get sick every time, you don’t have to eat it. No matter what nutrients it contains, no matter what anyone tries to tell you, the best thing to do is give it up.

Superfoods Aren’t Always So Super

The term “superfood” has become an almost magical word most often used to describe exotic, expensive or hard-to-find ingredients. Trying to track down acai berries and spirulina when you don’t have a specialty store or food co-op nearby can be a challenge, and hitting the internet to order some can leave your credit card smoking.

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get the nutrients found in some of the most hyped superfoods. Common foods like blueberries, bell peppers, broccoli and lentils pack just as much of a punch at a fraction of the price. Yes, some nutrients may be more concentrated in foods touted as super, but if you’re already eating a plant-based diet, you’re getting an abundance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients every time you enjoy a meal. All whole plant foods have beneficial nutrients, and balancing your food intake between whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in their unprocessed forms is one of the best ways to take care of your body.

It’s All About Diversity

With that said, you don’t have to eat every plant food to enjoy superior nutrition; you just have to mix things up during the day. That’s one of the hidden perks of realizing you don’t like some healthy foods: There are so many others waiting to be discovered and a multitude of delicious combinations to experiment with. Mainstream food and nutrition news tends to only highlight the latest fads, loudly proclaiming the benefits of whatever the most recent study has found to be “good” for you. The next day, there’s either a new superfood celebrity or the darling of the previous day is being denounced as not so good after all.

Don’t let it all confuse you. Thanks to creative plant-based doctors, there are a couple of easy ways to envision a healthy, diverse diet. Dr. Greger has his Daily Dozen, and Dr. Fuhrman champions G-BOMBS. Both provide firm foundations on which to base your meals so that you get the best bang for your buck with every dish — no superfoods required.

Try an Alternative

Although it might feel like you’re missing out if the trendy superfoods — or even some plant-based staples — don’t excite your taste buds, an abundance of alternative choices makes it possible to thrive. Give these choices a go the next time you’re looking to pack super nutrition into a tasty meal.

Don’t like kale? Try…

  • Rainbow chard
  • Mustard greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Broccoli raab
  • Beet greens
  • Turnip greens

Don’t like quinoa? Substitue…

  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Spelt berries
  • Millet
  • Brown, red or black rice

Not a chickpea fan? Say hello to these legumes…

  • Red, brown or black lentils
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • White beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Edamame
  • Adzuki beans

However, as I mentioned at the start of this post, try some new ways of preparing a food before you write it off completely. When people tell me they “hate” a food, I almost inevitably find out it was either cooked to death or not used in a way that brought out its best flavor. If you try something a few times and still can’t get past the taste or texture, don’t feel guilty removing it from your menu.

What’s the takeaway here? All diets, even healthy diets, are influenced by individuality, culture, experience and tastes. Even though tastes do change over time, there will always be some foods you don’t like. Building your daily meals around the variety of choices you enjoy and trying new foods to add even more diversity will create a menu you can feel good about.

And those popular “superfoods?” Most of the time, they’re not bad. There’s nothing wrong with splurging on some hemp seeds or throwing a bit of maca in your smoothie, if that’s your thing, but none of them have to be staples of your diet for you to eat well and feel great. So the next time the mainstream media tries to send you on a guilt trip because you’re not mainlining coconut water and green smoothies, remember how much your tastes have changed so far, think about all the great food you are eating and happily ignore the hype.

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The 5 Mistakes You’re Probably Making When Choosing Healthy Foods

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You know the feeling: You’re standing in the grocery store, eying a selection of cereal, snacks or frozen foods and wondering which ones to buy. Should you choose the cereal with “35% less sugar!” or the chips made with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil? Is the “light” meal better than the others surrounding it in the freezer case? Should you even be eating any of these things on the restrictive fad diet plan you’re trying to follow?

Believe it or not, eating healthy really is straightforward. It’s only in the recent past that the simplicity of eating has become obfuscated by the insane amount of choices the food industry puts before us every day. Just a few generations ago, planning meals and snacks didn’t involve wading your way through a dizzying selection of processed food-like products. Food, for the most part, was recognizable, and it wasn’t necessary to have a degree in food science to understand what you were putting in your body.

Making healthy choices in today’s over-saturated food environment can be more than a little baffling. Food companies make wild claims apparently backed up by science, the media takes nutrition studies out of context and a host of dubious “authorities” fill the remaining space with conflicting opinions on every type of diet known to man. It’s no wonder people have a hard time knowing what to eat.

When you walk down store aisles stuffed with stuff and feel confused beyond belief, you’re not alone. There are several common mistakes people make when trying to sort out what’s healthy and what’s not.

Are you making these healthy eating mistakes?

5 Healthy Eating Mistakes

1) Choosing Packaged Goods with Health Claims

The health benefits emblazoned on food packages are there because food companies want consumers to buy their products, not necessarily because the product is good for you. Chances are you’ve seen most of these labels as you shop:

  • Zero trans fat
  • Gluten-free or vegan
  • Natural, organic or made with organic ingredients
  • Heart healthy whole grains
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Superfood power
  • % daily value of vitamins and minerals
  • More anything potentially healthy than the leading brand

Many of these labels are exaggerated or downright misleading. A product claiming to have no trans fat can have as much as half a gram per serving and still list zero on the package. The term “natural” has no official definition, and using organic ingredients can’t turn a highly processed product into a health food. The synthetic vitamins and minerals added to processed foods are often synthesized in factories overseas from products such as lanolin  and likely don’t have the same benefits as nutrients found in the original context.

Have you ever noticed food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes rarely carry these sorts of labels? These foods contain nutrients packaged together with other compounds, many with functions yet to be documented, which are designed to work together in our bodies to deliver essential nutrition on a cellular level. There’s no need to add anything or make any claims because the health benefits you experience from eating unadulterated foods speak for themselves.

2) Switching to “Healthier” Oil

Olive oil and coconut oil have enjoyed an almost mystical status, being touted as “healthy” additions to any diet. Although these two oils are technically better for you than the highly processed vegetable oils used in most restaurants and packaged foods, no oil can be rightly categorized as healthy. Repeated consumption of oily foods causes stiffening of the arterial walls, making it difficult for blood to flow as it should and increasing your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Olive oil isn't a health miracleSince this is the case, why do you hear so much about the benefits of switching to olive, coconut or another “healthier” oil? Any move away from processed vegetable oils, which are usually made from soy or canola using a chemical-laden process resulting in the extraction or destruction of nearly all nutrients, is likely to show some improvement.

The high levels of omega-6 fats in processed oils cause inflammation. When combined with oil’s artery-stiffening effects, this can promote the formation of plaques in your blood vessels and potentially leading to heart attacks or strokes. Coconut oil doesn’t trigger inflammation, so people who make the switch after years of slamming their circulatory systems with heavily processed oils will probably feel better, at least at first. The anti-inflammatory polyphenols in olive oil may provide a similar effect.

With that said, more research is necessary to determine if consuming small amounts of oil on occasion as part of a diet otherwise made up of unprocessed plant foods has similar harmful effects in the long term.

This doesn’t mean some oils have superpowers or can magically turn a bad diet into a good one. Oil usually contains between 120 and 130 calories per tablespoon, which adds up fast, especially if you’re eating foods containing the stuff at every meal. These calories can be better obtained from unprocessed foods, including the whole fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Whole foods also contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which can help to combat inflammation instead of causing it.

What can you eat for the same amount of calories found in a tablespoon of oil? Here’s just a small sample:

  • One medium apple or pear
  • Two small oranges
  • 3 1/2 cups of kale
  • Just over half a cup of cooked brown rice
  • 1 1/2 slices of sprouted bread
  • About 1/3 of an average avocado
  • 3/4 ounce of most nuts

3) Ordering the Diet or “Light” Option

Remember the Snackwells craze when consumers snapped up and scarfed down more low-fat cookies and snack cakes than stores could keep on the shelves? The thought at the time was, if the label said low fat, the treats were automatically healthier. Unfortunately, people wound up eating more calories — and more processed food-like substances — than they would if they’d stuck with the originals.

The same confusion prevails today in fad diets (see point #4 below) and fad foods like “100-calorie” snack packs and “lean” frozen meals. Restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon with “lighter” menu items for health-conscious diners. To understand why these labels don’t mean you’re getting a more nutritious product, take a look at what’s really in a few mainstream options masquerading as healthy choices:

  • The “Mediterranean Veggie” sandwich at Panera Bread contains 1,090 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of fat. Add a “seasonal greens” salad, and you get an additional 11 grams of fat.
  • McDonald’s breakfast menu boasts oatmeal, but unlike the kind you make at home, their version contains 33 grams of sugar and a collection of preservatives and thickeners.
  • Nearly all of Lean Cuisine’s vegetarian meals contain some form of cheese, butter or milk. The “Classic Cheese Lasagna” has five varieties, and is made with “blanched macaroni product.”

And those snack packs? They may have only 100 calories, but most of these come from processed flour, sugar and oil. (One exception is these 100-calorie roasted edamame packs from Seapoint Farms.) Fortunately, as noted above, there are plenty of low-calorie, nutrient-dense “grab and go” options available right from nature.

4) Compartmentalizing Foods by Macronutrient

Low-carb. Low-fat. High-protein. All these popular diets have one thing in common: they demonize one macronutrient while singing the praises of the others. Such an approach ignores the health benefits that may be gained from whole foods in the “forbidden” group. High-carb diets are prime examples of this mentality. These diets lump all types of carbohydrates together, creating confusion over the difference between processed and whole grains and making vegetables and fruits seem like dietary enemies.

The problem with this approach? Nearly all food is composed of more than one type of macronutient. Beans have protein, but they also contain complex carbohydrates. Nuts provide both beneficial fats and protein. Even green leafy vegetables deliver trace amounts of fat. Diets advocating severe restriction of an entire macronutrient category put you at risk for deficiencies in essential micronutrients and often perpetuate false information about why such a diet is healthier than others. Pay attention to the rhetoric, and you’ll often discover proponents of these diets make their claims seem like something new and revolutionary, a stunning “expose” proving something you always thought was good for you has actually been killing you slowly your whole life. After convincing you of the error of your ways, they’ll probably try to sell you something.

There are certain medical conditions requiring specialized restricted diets, but healthy people should aim to consume foods containing all three “macros” every day. Choosing whole plant foods the majority of the time and eating a variety of different types of food should deliver the right balance of major nutrients.

5) Assuming All Sugars are the SameFructose in fruit isn't the same

Thanks to “low carb” diet fads and the persistent idea that consuming sugar causes diabetes (fat has a lot more to do with it), there’s a great deal of confusion about the difference between naturally occurring sugar and sugar added to products. The biggest offender? Fructose, the same sugar found in both high fructose corn syrup and fruit.

It’s become common to question whether fruit’s concentration of fructose makes it unhealthy. The demonizing of sugar in all its forms makes it easy to become wary of a food that’s been a staple of our diets since God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. However, putting products like soda in the same category as whole, unprocessed fruits ignores a much bigger picture.

In terms of context, the fructose added to beverages and packaged foods bears about as much resemblance to fruit’s fructose as bleached white flour does to whole wheat berries. As this article on Whole 9 points, out, “fruit isn’t just fructose. It’s also a rich source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber – things that make you healthier.”

Because fruit’s sugars come in a package containing all these other compounds, blood sugar doesn’t rise as quickly. In fact, one study showed adding berries to a sugary meal can actually prevent the expected “sugar high,” in which the body releases large amounts of insulin in response to an onslaught of undiluted sugar. You’re also much less likely to over-consume fruit than soda or sweetened processed snacks. It takes a lot more effort to crunch your way through an apple than it does to polish off a bottle of your favorite brand of sugar water.

So what’s the best way to make truly healthy food choices?

  • Consume whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods whenever possible, including fresh and frozen vegetables, low-salt canned vegetables, fresh fruits, unsweetened frozen fruits, whole grains and legumes.
  • Shop in bulk bins or seek out mail-order co-ops for whole grains and dried beans. These are not only healthy choices but also typically much cheaper when purchased in bulk.
  • Flavor foods with fresh or dried herbs, spices and low-salt condiments instead of relying on artificial ingredients.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the white noise in the world of nutrition and the constant battles between proponents of conflicting dietary dogmas. But when you stick with the basics and eat a variety of unprocessed plant-based foods, it’s easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle — and enjoy delicious meals every day.

Want to learn more about living a healthy plant-based lifestyle? Join “A Greener Gut” on Facebook for articles, videos, Q&A and more!

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Make it a Plant-Based Winter, Part 1: Pleasing Persimmons

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It’s easy to sing the praises of fresh produce when the weather is warm and farmers markets and roadside stands are bursting with vibrant edibles in every color of the rainbow, but when winter rolls around, the food selection can seem as dreary as the weather.

Nothing could be further from the truth! I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with a year-round market and several grocery stores with ample supplies of locally grown produce, and I can tell you firsthand that winter veggies and fruits are just as exciting and delicious as what you find at peak times during spring and summer. This is the first in a five-part series on winter fruits and veggies I’ll be posting from now through February to offer insight into the delicious (and healthy!) foods winter has to offer and inspiration for adding them to your meals.

Today I’m focusing on persimmons! Quite possibly my favorite quirky fruit, these little orange oddities pop up in co-ops and at well-stocked grocery stores when other juicy delights like peaches have long since disappeared.

Persimmon Basics

Out of the 2,000 cultivated varieties of persimmons, only two are commercially available: Hachiya and Fuyu.

Hachiya persimmons look somewhat like large orange acorns. Fuyus are more squat, like flattened tomatoes, and both varieties sport a “hat” of hard, dry leaves. The fruit originated in China and was brought to Canada in the 19th century. Today, it appears in stores from late fall through December. It’s a short window of time, so grab them while you can!

An abundance of natural sugars gives persimmons a sweet, almost candy-like flavor when ripe, so they can satisfy a sweet tooth in place of unhealthy processed sugars.

Health Benefits of Persimmonschopped fuyu persimmon by librafan freeimages

In addition to zapping your craving for sweets, persimmons have a variety of other health benefits:

  • Good source of the precursors to vitamin A
  • Good source of trace minerals, including copper and manganese
  • 6 grams of dietary fiber in a 168-gram fruit — that’s twice the fiber of apples! — to promote a diverse gut microbiome
  • 80 percent of the daily recommended vitamin C intake in an average fruit, which can boost immunity, support healthy connective tissue and aid in natural detoxification
  • Contains phenols that exhibit protective effects against cancer, anti-tumor properties and benefits for heart health
  • Contains carotenes, including zeaxanthin, an important phytonutrient for eye health

At 70 calories in 100 grams, persimmons are a little more calorie-dense than other fruits. But don’t let that dissuade you. With all of their health benefits, you can be sure you’re getting plenty of nutrients in every bite!

One word of caution: consuming unripe persimmons may lead to the formation of a bezoar, a “food ball” created when the tannins in the fruit cause other food fibers to stick together. Small bezoars pass on their own, but large formations have the potential to be obstructive. Fortunately, persimmons taste so bad when they’re not ripe, you won’t want to eat one. The feeling is sometimes described as “fuzzy” or having all the moisture sucked out of your mouth.

Selecting and Preparing Persimmons

You can bypass the bezoar problem and avoid a nasty surprise by looking for persimmons that are soft to the touch. Fuyus generally have a firmer texture than Hachiyas, but both varieties should have a little “give” before you consider eating them. Most persimmons in the U.S. are grown in California, with the season peaking around November. If you’re far from the West Coast and find mainly unripe persimmons at the store, place the fruit in a brown paper bag with an apple or banana to facilitate ripening.

The perfect persimmons are “bright and plump and feel heavy for their size. They should have glossy looking skin without any cracks or bruises.” I’ve noticed this when shopping for them myself. A ripe persimmon seems oddly dense, and this characteristic is also noticeable when you slice or bite into the fruit. Fuyus can be eaten like apples with little preparation aside from washing and removing the tough leaves. Since the Hachiya variety tends to be softer, it’s best to slice them in half and use a spoon to scoop out the inside.

Persimmons are also great ingredients and garnishes! Put them in smoothies, on oatmeal or in salads to add a bright, sweet flavor, or roast Fuyus for a unique snack. Hachiyas are generally considered to be better for baking and cooking. These recipes give you a chance to try both varieties:

Are you a fan of persimmons? Share your favorite ways to eat them in the comments!


Don’t miss the rest of this tasty winter series!

 

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A Day in the Life: Easy Vegan Meals from Breakfast to Dinner

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Whether I’m talking to prospective clients, teaching a class or just chatting with people about food, the question I get the most about adopting a plant-based diet is “What do I eat?”

Being vegan for any length of time makes the answer to this question seem so obvious that I’ve had to take a step back to get an objective view of where the confusion lies. It seems that, despite the growing popularity of the plant-based lifestyle, many people still think of “vegan” as synonymous with “the worst salad I’ve ever had, for every meal, every day, and no more cheeseburgers ever.” Couple that with the diet gurus giving people opposing advice from day to day and it’s no wonder everyone is confused!

When I first went vegan, discovering what to eat wasn’t as simple as hitting up Finding Vegan, checkout out Pinterest or searching #whatveganseat on Twitter. The vegan world has exploded with awesome since then, and now it’s easier than ever to find delicious dishes to make for every meal.

I’ll be shedding light on some of the possibilities on January 20th with Vegan for the New Year, a full food demo that looks at a “day in the life” of plant-based eating. My goal is to dispel the persistent myth that veganism is about deprivation and giving things up and to offer tips and tools to help people enjoy delicious, healthy food every day.

If you’re in the Albany, NY area, you can register online to attend! The class runs from 6:00pm-8:30pm at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Stuyvesant Plaza.

For those of you who are further out or are looking for a way to share the wonders of a day of vegan food with veg-curious friends, I’ve put together a quick guide with some recipes to help you (or them) get started.

Going With the (Breakfast) Grain

vegan vanilla strawberry breakfast bowl closeupThanks to hardcore advertising by the food industry, breakfast has become synonymous with a glass of juice, a bowl of cereal and perhaps a piece of toast. If you’re in a hurry, it’s a microwavable breakfast sandwich or something picked up from a fast-food drive-thru on your way to work. Cooking your own whole grains, however, is just as simple and much healthier. Plus, it tastes better!

Some of my favorite combinations are oatmeal with medjool dates and apples, millet and oats with pears and dried apricots and oats and quinoa with berries. A little ground flax or whole chia seeds mixed in and some cinnamon sprinkled on top and ta-daa! A hearty, healthy breakfast. If you like your grains creamy, cook them in a little unsweetened nondairy milk.

A great savory alternative is chickpea scramble, which can be made by sauteing the veggies of your choice with a few of your favorite spices, tossing in some chickpeas and garnishing the whole thing with nutritional yeast. If you’re really in a hurry some days, try whipping up a batch of whole grain, oil-free muffins over the weekend to “grab and go” as you head out the door.

These recipes can help you start your day off right:

Another favorite breakfast of mine is to take about half a pound of whatever greens I have on hand and saute them with garlic, mushrooms, rice vinegar and edamame, sometimes with a sheet of nori or some bean sprouts thrown in at the end. I’ll admit it’s an acquired taste, but it’s pretty amazing when you’re looking for something different from sweet Western breakfast fare.

Super Lunches for Any Day

Healthy Greens by Wong Mei Teng full

Photo by Wong Mei Teng

My biggest suggestion for lunch is to have a salad as the main event and build up from there. Start with a base of 2-3 cups of your favorite leafy greens and add as many other veggies as you like. Toss on some beans or cubes of cooked tofu or tempeh, slices of avocado, steamed sweet potatoes, leftover grains or whatever else strikes your fancy, and finish it off with a drizzle of homemade oil-free dressing. My favorite? Mix 1/2 tablespoon of almond or sunflower butter with 1/2 teaspoon each of maple syrup and miso and enough water to create a creamy consistency.

If you’d rather have your salad as a side to something else, try cooking some grains and tossing in chopped veggies and about half a cup of beans toward the end of cooking time. Red beans, sweet potatoes and barley (or rice) is a particularly nice combination. All it needs before you dig in is a sprinkle of a salt-free spice blend such as Mrs. Dash or Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning Salute. And, of course, you can never go wrong with a sandwich on whole-grain bread!

Some other tasty ways to get your lunch groove on:

If you’re a hardcore sandwich fan, you can try your hand at homemade sandwich rolls — they’re healthier and cheaper than store-bought! English muffins are also a fun change from bread, and they make a surprisingly good PB&J when you need something quick.

Daring (But Simple) Dinners

The concept of “the bowl,” best described as a grain, a bean and a green, is the easiest formula to follow when throwing together a plant-based dinner. Bowls can be made with whatever you have on hand and tailored to any type of cuisine. That makes for endless variety, but these are a few of my favorite creations:

vegan bean and mushroom chiliThen there are the “one pot” meals, anything that can essentially be dumped in a pan and allowed to cook while you take care of other things. Chili and soup are two popular options, with curry and stew also falling into this category. My favorite thing about “one pot” meals? Most of them are straight-up comfort food. Try these the next time you want something flavorful and warming:

Last but not least, dinner can be roasted, baked or wrapped! Roasting and baking share a similar convenience with one pot dishes in that they essentially cook themselves, and just about any veggie tastes even more amazing when it’s been roasted to caramelized perfection. Burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas take a bit more work, but you can’t beat them if you’re looking for something spicy that you can smother in salsa and vegan cheese sauce.

And, of course, there’s always whole grain pasta with tomato sauce. Stir in some greens for added nutrition and flavor! Quick-cooking red lentils are another healthy, hearty add-in that can simmer right along with your sauce.

Don’t Forget Dessert!

chocolate chip cookie closeup by kasey albano

Photo (c) Kasey Albano

One thing I’m surprised to discover that many people think they have to give up when going vegan is chocolate. Or desserts of any type. Fortunately for those of us with a sweet tooth, this is a complete myth. Once you discover the wonders of dairy-free dark chocolate and learn a few tricks about vegan baking substitutions, it’s easy to transform classic recipes for cookies, brownies, cakes and more into amazing plant-based treats. After all, if you can make a chicken and waffle donut vegan, you can make anything vegan.

If you need dessert right now and don’t want to bother with swapping out ingredients, satisfy your craving with one of these simple solutions:

Between-Meal Nibbles

Everyone needs a snack now and then! Snacking helps you spread calories out over the course of the day so that you don’t overeat during meals, and it’s especially important if you work out a lot and need to take in extra energy to meet your needs.

The best snacks, in my opinion, are the simplest: fresh or dried fruit and nuts (hello, trail mix!), homemade granola bars, edamame (steamed or roasted), healthy baked goods and veggies with hummus. In fact, hummus is so easy to make that you can have it on hand all the time. The most basic is just chickpeas, some garlic and a little tahini with some lemon juice and water, but there are so many varieties that I’m betting you could make a different kind every week and not repeat yourself for a long time. These recipes can help spice up your snack time:

Although most of these options are pretty “grab-and-go” friendly, I realize there are going to be times that you really don’t have time to whip anything up. I’m not a big fan of pre-packaged snacks since many contain sugar, oil, salt or unnatural ingredients. However, there are a few I’m comfortable recommending for those super-crazy days. Larabars are mostly fruit and nuts (with a few “treat” varieties thrown in), and GoRaw has some seriously tasty sprouted bars made using nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Two Moms in the Raw isn’t a bad option, either, although I find them to be a little on the sweet side.

The bottom line? Make your own snacks when you can, and when you can’t, look for minimally processed whole-food options without any added junk.

If you like the tips in this post or you’re just looking to add a little more variety to your vegan diet, join me for Vegan for the New Year! Space is limited, so reserve your spot now.

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Pumpkin Joy! Why More of this Squash Should Be On Your Plate

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Every October, hundreds and hundreds of pumpkins make their way from pumpkin patches and into the homes of families eager to cut off the tops, scoop out the innards and get creative with carving. At the same time, sugar pumpkins, which seem tiny in comparison to these giant squash creations, are transported from farmers markets to kitchens and used to make delicious fall dishes packed with powerful natural substances that have the potential to transform your health. Read on to discover the perks of pumpkin and how to use it for more than just pie.

Low Calories, Lots of Nutrients

pumpkins by pasiphae free images

Pasiphae/FreeImages

One cup of cooked pumpkin contains about 49 calories and delivers a healthy dose of nutrients. Vitamins A, C and E are found in abundance along with many B vitamins. Minerals in pumpkin include copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and phosphorous. Like all winter squashes, pumpkin also serves as a good source of fiber. Pure canned pumpkin can provide similar benefits when used in recipes.

Cartoenes Against Cancer

The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods notes that the carotenes giving pumpkins their rich orange color wield antioxidant power once inside your body. In fact, pumpkins are “one of the best-known sources” of beta-carotene according to Medical News Today. Antioxidants serve to neutralize free radicals that can cause cell damage that leads to cancer and other serious conditions. Beta-carotene has been shown to be especially effective in reducing the risk of both prostate and lung cancer. The combination of vitamin C and antioxidants such as carotenes works to boost overall immunity, which may in and of itself help prevent cancer development.

A Healthier Heart

It’s no secret that most people consume far too much sodium every day. Most plant foods, including pumpkins, are low in sodium and also contain potassium in a ratio that helps balance out the two minerals in our bodies. Just one cup of cooked pumpkin gives you 564 milligrams of potassium. Working in combination with fiber and vitamin C, healthy potassium levels help balance blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular damage. Phytosterols present in pumpkin seeds may help to lower LDL cholesterol and further promote heart health.

Blood Sugar Balance

Some properties of pumpkin may make it beneficial for people suffering from Type 2 diabetes. It appears that eating pumpkin can help to lower blood glucose levels, increase insulin production and improve glucose tolerance. This can translate to a more balanced glucose response and an increase in the body’s ability to respond to insulin.


 

Ready to start adding more pumpkin to your diet? It’s simple to prepare and can be used in everything from breakfast to dessert.

Cooking with Pumpkin

pumpkins by DimiTalen public domainTo prep and cook a pumpkin, treat it like any other winter squash. Knock on it to check for ripeness; it should sound hollow. Give it a good wash to get rid of any dirt, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. (You can save them to roast later if you like.) To roast, place the cut sides down on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cook at 350F for 40-45 minutes. When it’s done, the skin should peel right off. If you need pieces of pumpkin for soup, stew or chili, peel the skin off the raw pumpkin and cut each half into chunks of the desired size.

If you fancy making your own pumpkin puree, both Oh She Glows and The Pioneer Woman have great tutorials on the process with photos from start to finish. I’ve never done this myself, but I’m betting it’s much tastier than the canned variety.

Vegan Pumpkin Recipes to Enjoy

Need a little inspiration to help you turn pumpkin in something (even more) delicious? Any of these recipes makes a good starting point.

This is just a small sampling of what you can do with this nutrient-packed winter squash. It just goes to show that this vibrant orange veggie can do so much more than light up your porch every October. Remember that the benefits of pumpkin come from eating the squash in its unprocessed form, not scarfing an entire pumpkin pie — but a pie made from fresh pumpkin or canned pumpkin without additives is still far healthier than all the candy that tends to invade the house this time of year!

Do you cook or bake with fresh pumpkin? Share your favorite pumpkin preparations in the comments!

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Say Hello to Squash (and Other Seasonal Favorites)!

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Enjoying the benefits of diverse autumn produce

Every season has its signature produce, and each harvest provides just the right combination of foods to make dishes that complement the weather. (As I’m fond of saying, God knew what He was doing!) In autumn, we’re greeted with a delightful array of starchy and crunchy vegetables, chewy mushrooms and dense fruits. This combination not only makes for lovely soups, stews, casseroles and pies but also contains high levels of nutrients that support overall health by zapping common disease markers.

Squashes for Roasting and Stuffing

squashes by salsachia

salsachia/FreeImages

There are so many varieties of winter squashes that it’s impossible to list them all! Here are a few that should be on your radar this season:

  • Acorn
  • Butternut
  • Buttercup
  • Delicata
  • Hubbard
  • Kabocha
  • Spaghetti
  • Sugar pumpkin

Each has its own unique appearance and flavor, but the one thing they all share is the vibrant color that broadcasts their abundant antioxidant content. In fact, World’s Healthiest Foods reports that winter squashes are one of the top three food sources of cancer-fighting carotenoid compounds. High levels of fiber contain pectins that protect against inflammation and diabetes. A compound called cucurbitacin has a regulating effect on certain inflammatory markers in the body, meaning that squashes could hold promise for those with conditions that present with or are affected by inflammation.

In terms of nutrition, eating squash gives you a big dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, a range of B vitamins and several trace minerals. They’re also an unlikely source of omega-3 fatty acids despite being a low-fat, high-starch food.

More information about specific squash varieties can be found at Epicurious and The Kitchn.

Ways to Enjoy Winter Squash: Roast in the oven (cut in half or cubed), boil and mash the flesh with sweet spices, use spaghetti squash instead of pasta, hollow out and stuff with a mix of grains and beans or use as serving bowls for autumn soups and stews.

Picking Perfect Potatoes

The potato’s bad reputation stems from the typical Western practice of taking a perfectly healthy vegetable and turning it into deep fried junk food. When you skip the oil and enjoy potatoes in their natural state, they’re amazingly good for you. Browse any farmers market in the fall, and you’ll find Russet, Yukon gold, purple, red, fingerling and sweet potatoes. And that’s just a few highlights from the litany of tasty potato varieties.

white potatoes wikimedia commons

By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Far from being the nutrient-poor “white vegetable” that they’re often made out to be, potatoes contain quite a bit of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and copper. Sweet potatoes are even more nutritious. The bright orange flesh delivers a dose of vitamin A, vitamin C and an impressive amount of B complex vitamins. All types of potatoes are rich in fiber.

Consuming regular potatoes may help to lower blood pressure thanks to compounds called kukoamines. The vitamin B6 content supports the creation of neurotransmitters, which are essential for proper brain and nerve function. Carotenoids are abundant in orange sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes with purple flesh provide anthocyanins. These and other antioxidant phytonutritents might help reduce the risk of damage from heavy metals and free radicals as the food passes through the digestive tract, making sweet potatoes are a sweet treat when it comes to cellular health.

Ways to Enjoy Potatoes: Roast them in the oven, make baked fries with or without seasonings, make curry with cauliflower or spinach, layer in casseroles, add to soups, bake and top with nutritional yeast and vegan sour cream or serve baked and smothered in chili.

Beautiful Brassicas

Also called cruciferous vegetables, Brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and rutabagas. One of the outstanding characteristics of these leafy and crunchy veggies is their reputation for being cancer-fighting powerhouses. Thanks to beneficial sulfur compounds, including sulforaphane, Brassicas may be able to modulate the development of tumors and aid in mechanisms that kill off cancer cells. Phytonutrients known as glucosinolates convert to other compounds during digestion and could also help lower the risk of certain types of cancers.

brussels sprouts by debsch

debsch/FreeImages

World’s Healthiest Foods offers and extensive breakdown of the Brassica nutrient profile. In a nutshell, adding these fall favorites to your diet gives you:

  • The highest amount of vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C and folic acid of all vegetables
  • More fiber than any other vegetable
  • A high dose of bone-building, anti-inflammatory vitamin K

Omega-3 fatty acids appear in Brassicas at levels comparable to those in fish. Although these fats are in ALA form rather than EPA or DHA, you still get an impressive amount of essential fatty acids from eating your favorite crucifers.

Ways to Enjoy Brassicas/Crucifers: Toss raw into salads or slaws, steam lightly and season with mixed herbs, add to curries or stir fries, saute with garlic and mushrooms, add to soups, use leafy greens as wraps, use cauliflower to “lighten up” mashed potatoes, mix broccoli into mac & “cheese” or make hash with Brussels sprouts.

Note that you can enjoy pretty much the whole plant, including the leaves and stalks of broccoli and cauliflower. Chop the stems with the rest of the vegetable and use the leaves in place of another green veggie instead of throwing them away. Broccoli stalks are also great with hummus!

Appreciating Apples and Pears

I literally eat apples by the bushel this time of year, and for good reason. There are so many to enjoy: McIntosh, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Crispin, Braeburn, Cameo, Empire, honeycrisp…the list goes on. You can even find out your “apple personalty” on the New York Apple Country website.

apples in a basket

By Oxfordian Kissuth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

No matter what kind of apples you eat, you reap the synergistic effects that various compounds in the fruit have when combined with the fiber. Along with a high phytonutrient content, this has a powerful positive impact on the health of the flora in the GI tract, which may help explain how apples lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels. Eating apples in their whole form helps to slow carbohydrate digestion, reduce glucose absorption, stimulate insulin release and improve insulin sensitivity at a cellular level. In short, apple lovers have healthier digestive systems, a lower risk of heart disease and more stable blood sugar.

Pears are at least as impressive as apples with their wide variety and numerous health benefits. They’re best consumed with the skins on, since that’s where half of the fiber and a majority of the phenols are found. This time of year, you might munch on Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Forell or red pears. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods notes that all types of pears provide healthy doses of vitamins C and K, as well as copper and the powerful antioxidants known as epichatechins. In addition to fiber’s ability to lower the risk of both heart disease and diabetes, the type of fiber in pears may also be able to bind with excess bile acids to offer protection against gastrointestinal cancers.

Ways to Enjoy Apples and Pears: Eaten raw with or without nut butter, dried, cooked in oatmeal, baked into crisps and crumbles, in pies, stuffed with dried fruit and spices and baked, baked with sweet sauce or on top of waffles and pancakes.

Munching on Mushrooms

With their earthy flavor and chewy texture, mushrooms were one of the original meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. It’s hard to find a word other than “meaty” to describe varieties like portobello and oyster. White and crimini mushrooms are a bit less intense but no less delicious. When it comes to Asian dishes, shiitake are the king, and porcini make their way into a variety of unique recipes that require a deeper flavor.

In The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Michael Murray highlights the cancer fighting properties of many types of mushrooms. Polysaccharides and beta-glucans give button mushrooms this power, and shiitake, maitake and reishi have been prized for their medicinal properties for centuries. Shiitake in particular are known for their lentinan content, a compound that not only boosts the immune system but may also help to lower cholesterol. Administering lentinan along with chemotherapy has been shown to improve survival rates among patients with certain cancers.

Depending on the type, eating mushrooms can give you a good amount of minerals such as selenium and iron along with vitamin C and protein. If you’re lucky enough to have a source for gourmet mushrooms like I do with the Mariaville Mushroom Men, don’t hesitate to try something new like pink oysters, puffballs or the oddly named (but completely vegan) chicken of the woods.

mushrooms by gogsy7

gogsy7/FreeImages

Remember, although guides like this visual one from Epicurious and this interesting article about fall foraging from Mother Earth News give a lot of information about different kinds of mushrooms, you should never pick wild mushrooms without a guide to show you which ones are safe. If you’ve been trained in foraging, pass the knowledge on to someone else to preserve the tradition!

Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms: Sauteed with garlic & greens, as a pizza topping, as a burger or steak substitute, sliced and sauteed as wrap ingredients, marinated and baked, in gravy, in stir fries or on salads (but make sure they’re safe to eat raw).

How is autumn produce making its way to your table? I’d love to hear how you’re enjoying these and other fall favorites!

Want to learn more about how eating fresh, seasonal produce can improve your health? Schedule a FREE 15-minute phone consultation with me and get started on the path to better living through plants!

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