Conquering the Plant-Based Kitchen: Cooking Whole Grains

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Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains Every Day

Whole grains are a staple of plant-based diets, but if you’ve ever wound up with a pan full of gummy rice, you know cooking them the right way is essential if you actually want to enjoy what you’re eating.

No worries, we’ve all been there! (Ask me about my adventures with buckwheat, for example…) Fortunately, cooking whole grains isn’t hard once you know the right amount of water to use, the optimal length of time to cook each grain and the how to achieve a deliciously fluffy texture. You’re probably already familiar with a few like oats and brown rice, or you might be new to the world of whole grains. Either way, let me share what I’ve learned experimenting with plant-based cooking and few tips from other talented cooks to help you master the technique of cooking perfect grains.

many whole grains (and beans)Why Whole Grains?

I covered the basics of whole grains in my previous post about “carbs,” but here’s a quick run-down of the reasons to make them part of your daily diet:

  • A whole grain has three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm
  • The majority of the nutrients, including protein, minerals, B vitamins and fiber, are in the bran and germ
  • Refined (“white”) grains are stripped of one or more parts and the associated nutrients
  • “Enriched” grains only have a handful of nutrients added back after refining

Most of the grains in the standard Western diet are refined, but switching to whole grains brings back all the missing nutrients and gives your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy instead of delivering a bunch of empty calories. When you eat grains their whole forms you:

  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Lower your risk of digestive cancers
  • Boost your gut health
  • Reach your weight goals more easily

This is all thanks to making one simple swap in your diet. As part of a completely plant-based lifestyle, whole grains contribute to a balanced diet and complement the benefits of everything else you eat.

Cooking Whole Grains: The Basics

The most common method for cooking whole grains is to simmer them in water on the stovetop. To add extra flavor, use low-sodium vegetable broth instead of water or toast the grains over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, before cooking. Toasted grains are done when they smell nutty and are lightly browned.

For basic stovetop cooking:

  • Place the grains and water in a saucepan or stock pot
  • Cover and bring to a boil
  • Reduce the heat to a low simmer
  • When the liquid is absorbed, remove the pan from the heat
  • Let rest for 5 minutes with the lid on
  • Remove the lid, fluff and serve!

cans of whole grainsThe ratio of liquid to grains differs depending on what you’re cooking, as does the cooking time. Here are the basics for the grains you’re likely to use most often on a plant-based diet:

  • Brown rice: 2 cups liquid to 1 cup grain (2 to 1), 40 to 45 minutes
  • Quinoa: 1 1/2 to 1, simmer for 15 minutes, turn the burner off, let sit for 15 minutes
    • Note: Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh sieve first to remove the natural bitter coating
  • Millet: 2 to 1, 20 to 25 minutes
  • Barley (pearled): 2 to 1, 40 to 45 minutes
  • Oats (rolled): 2 to 1, 5 to 10 minutes
  • Oats (steel cut): 3 to 1, 20 to 30 minutes

If you want to cook large batches of grains, a pressure cooker or Instant Pot is more efficient. Liquid ratios and times are different from stovetop cooking, so consult the booklet that came with your cooker for the best cooking method. You can also refer to the charts for whole grains and rice from Hip Pressure Cooking, which I find to be the most accurate of all I’ve used.

What Whole Grains are Best to Eat?

wheat stalk and grains featureIf a client asked me this, I honestly would have to say, “ALL of them!” Every time you choose whole grains over refined, you do your body a huge favor. But there are some grains that are more nutrient-dense than others, meaning they have more nutrients per calorie. Whether you’re completely plant-based already or making the switch, you want to include as many nutrient-dense foods as possible to maximize the health benefits of your diet.

When it comes to whole grains, the best choices include:

  • Whole rye
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Whole wheat
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Amaranth

What makes these the best? They’re high in fiber, trace minerals and antioxidants, and they contain ample protein. Many of these grains are also beneficial if you’re trying to keep your blood sugar in check.

Getting Started with Grains

Use the cooking guidelines in this post to experiment with as many whole grains as you want. If you have access to a store with a bulk department, such as Whole Foods or a co-op, spend some time browsing. Pick up a few grains you’ve never had before, and try adding them to meals or experimenting with recipes like these:

The USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest 5 to 8 servings of whole grains per day, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends at least five. A serving works out to about 1/2 cup cooked grains, 1 slice of bread, 1/2 of a bagel or 1/2 of an English muffin. Whole grain pasta serving sizes vary, but the most common is 2 ounces of dry pasta.

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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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Secrets of the World’s 3 Healthiest Nuts

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Did you know November is National Peanut Butter Lover’s Month? (It’s also National Stuffing Month, but we’ll save that for Thanksgiving.) Being a peanut butter lover myself, I spent some time a couple of weeks ago scouring the Internet for some tasty vegan peanut butter recipes to share, which have been popping up on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in recent weeks.

I also got to thinking about nuts as part of a plant-based diet. Nuts seem to be either much maligned or joyfully celebrated depending on dietary views. Some people avoid them like the plague, fearing their high fat content. Others liberally munch on them and merrily drizzle nut-based sauces on anything and everything. I fall somewhere in between, preferring to get a dose of whole-food fats from a variety of nuts and seeds every day without going overboard.

There’s no reason to avoid these nutritional powerhouses in your own diet. Nuts are much more than a source of unprocessed fats, and looking at the top three healthiest choices shows why they deserve a place on your plate. (Or in your hand, on salads, in baked goods…)

california-almonds-by-blary54-free-images

blary54/FreeImages

Almonds

Almonds are a personal favorite of mine. Back when there was a shortage of Trader Joe’s raw almond butter, I freaked out when I found jars of it at the Northampton location and promptly bought every single one. I’ve also been known to snack on apples, raisins and almonds pretty habitually in the afternoon to the point where I still refer to the combination as the “old-school Sam snack.”

While you don’t have to be quite so obsessive, it’s a good idea to munch on almonds or enjoy almond butter stuffed dates once and a while. Almonds contain high levels of vitamin E, a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Eating the skins increases the antioxidant power.

Compared to other nuts, almonds are high in fiber (3.5 grams per ounce) and protein (6 grams per ounce). They’re also an excellent source of biotin, part of the B vitamin family responsible for helping to metabolize macronutrients, keep nerves healthy and aid in amino acid production. Monounsaturated fats support a healthy heart and cholesterol levels, and eating almonds has been shown to be beneficial for blood sugar levels.

Almonds are perfect in muffins, sprinkled on salads, stirred into oatmeal or used as garnish on Moroccan-spiced dishes!

Pecans

For years, my mom has made the pumpkin pie from The Joy of Vegan Baking for Thanksgiving. The recipe calls for exactly 16 pecan halves, which I’ve diligently picked up from the co-op’s bulk section just in time for baking.

It turns out you don’t need to make excuses to garnish dishes with (or scarf down) pecans during the holidays. The nutritional profile speaks for itself:

  • 12 grams of monounsaturated fat per ounce
  • Lowers LDL and raises HDL for a more favorable cholesterol balance
  • High in antioxidants, including carotenes and ellagic acid
  • High in B vitamins for energy production and metabolism
  • Good source of trace minerals, including copper, manganese, phosphorous and zinc
  • Packed with anti-inflammatory magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure

Of course, if you’re eating pecans covered in sugar or as part of a gooey pie, you’re getting a lot of bad along with the good. Stick to raw or lightly toasted nuts most of the time, and save the treats for special occasions. (Sweet potato casserole, anyone?)

walnuts-by-crispul21-free-images

cripul21/FreeImages

Walnuts

Walnuts are stars when it comes to omega-3 content. High in polyunsaturated fats, these nuts have been studied quite a bit for their heart-healthy qualities. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and promote good blood flow, making them key players in cardiovascular health. One study showed walnuts may be beneficial for bones, too, citing a correlation between high consumption and lower levels of certain bone turnover markers in the body.

Tossing some walnuts on your salad or in your granola also delivers:

  • Phenols
  • Flavanoids
  • Tannins

These all have antioxidant properties, with tannins in particular showing anti-carcinogenic and antimicrobial effects. Some of the antioxidants found in walnuts are hard to get from other foods, so make room for them in your meals whenever you can.

In a (Healthy) Nutshell

I chose these three nuts as “the healthiest” based on Dr. Michael Greger’s video ranking nuts by antioxidant content and several other sources linked throughout the post. But that doesn’t mean other nuts aren’t just as good for you! Peanuts, for example (because, hey, Peanut Butter Lover’s Month!), are high in protein, monounsaturated fats, antioxidants and important trace minerals. Macadamia nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachios and their other nutty companions are also worth checking out.

So go ahead, get creative. Have some peanut butter toast in the morning. Sprinkle pecans in your salad. Try out cashew butter in your next cookie recipe.

Or get your fix any time of day with these nutty ideas:

Need help making nuts (and other healthy foods) a regular part of your diet? I can get you on track! Start a consulting program with GreenGut Wellness today to get a personalized health plan.

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