Take Your Blender on a Trip!

Vegas, Baby! City of excess shopping, excess gambling, excess construction… excess, period. This applies to the strip; I do know that there is a real city beyond these glittery signs, in which people live real lives. Some of them are good friends! But when one is in town for just a few days in a fancy hotel in the strip, what’s one to do?

If you gamble and enjoy rich foods and alcohol, you’re in luck, and I hope you have a great time! Alas, I am a holdout from the prohibition era and my background in statistics precludes the magical thinking that goes with gambling. And rich foods… by all means, enjoy them if you like, but what if, like me, you’re on a health and fitness kick and wouldn’t want this business trip to stand in the way of your energy and vitality? So if you are like me, you take a lot of joy in the incredible Cirque du Soleil shows that are playing in town (discount tickets can be found online). And what else does one do?

Crazy but doable solution: fly with a blender.

I kid you not. You can do it.

For my everyday blending, I use my trusty Vitamix. Their standard 5200 model is not cheap, but it’s a true powerhouse and very much worth the investment for home cooking. But it’s a fairly hefty device, and so for trips I take the Nutribullet Pro 900 with me. It’s a terrific little machine that does not take up too much room in your luggage and will improve your quality of life fairly significantly when on the road.

It may seem a bit crazy to fly out with a blender, but it’s such a good, low-effort way to start the day with something familiar that is good for you. The more I age, the more my exacting travel schedule wears me down, and it’s good to at least know that a good breakfast will be forthcoming. Conference food is not exactly a paragon of health, between the greasy hotel restaurants and the starchy Starbucks in the corner, and you’ll be happy to have a green smoothie in the morning.

It really is not crazy. It’s doable. Here are some tricks of the trade.

You want a small blender that can easily fit in a carry-on with your clothes. The base of the NutriBullet will take about 1/6 of your luggage space, and you can wrap it in clothes to keep it safe. Unfortunately, even the carry-on bag needs to be checked in, as there are tiny knives at the bottom of the blending base. The cup that you use for blending can go in your purse so you can sip water on the plane.

In addition to the blender, you should plan on packing the following in your check-in bag:

(1) cutting board. I go with a very thin, light, flexible plastic one that you won’t miss if you forget to pack it on the way back.
(2) small but sharp knife with a sheath (so it doesn’t shred your belongings on the way.)
(3) bento or Tupperware box for your food, filled with vegetables, fruit, and nuts.
(4) If you know that buffet options where you’re going will be sad for vegans protein-wise, pack a can opener.
(5) Reusable cutlery (I have a little bamboo set with a fork, spoon, knife, and chopsticks that I always travel with.)

As to your actual food, you have a few choices. One of them is to fly with your produce. This is a good idea if you have slightly bigger luggage or if you know you’re going to a place where a produce market will be difficult to find. In that case, you can pack your vegetables and fruit in the Tupperware box. Another option, which is more realistic if you need your luggage space for clothes etc., is to research a produce source before you leave home, and upon checking in at your destination, to hop out and get supplies for a few days.

You can get anything you want, but my recommendation is to try and rely on fruit and nuts that do not require refrigeration, and to improvise to refrigerate your vegetables and greens.

My shopping list for four days:
2 bunches of kale (one dino, one curly)
1 long cucumber
1 bunch cilantro
2 cups raw cashews
1 container cherry tomatoes
about 10 tangerines
about 8 apples, or a box of strawberries
2 small cans of chick peas and/or a package of ready-made edamame
small ginger root and/or turmeric root, for tea

If you have a little refrigerator, you’re in luck! If you are fridge-less, or are staying in one of those places where the fridge is jam-packed with booze, use your ice bucket. Most business hotels have one, and there’s typically an ice machine in every floor. Drape the little plastic bag over the bucket, fill it about half way with ice, and “plant” your greens and your cucumber in it. Now you have a little edible “potted plant” in your hotel. If the bottom of the leaves freeze a bit, no matter–it’s all going in the blender anyway–and it’ll cheer you up to see some greenery. Don’t forget to change the ice at least once a day to keep your greens happy.

If you are a coffee drinker, usually you’re all set with the coffee machine in the room. But I find that not everyone knows that you can make yourself herbal tea in the coffeemaker. Leave the coffee pod compartment empty, fill the water compartment as you would for coffee, and place your cup in the machine with a few small pieces of ginger and turmeric in it. As the water brews, it’ll drip on your roots, making you a nice and spicy cup of morning tea.

Your green bounty allows you to have a nice morning shake in your hotel room, made from about a cup of kale, a bit of cucumber, a handful of cilantro, a spoonful of cashews, a tangerine, and an apple or a few strawberries. For your daily excursions, I’d pack some tomatoes, cucumber sticks, chick peas, nuts, and fruit in the little bento box, which offer you healthy snacking options in lieu of the danishes and muffins that might be coming your way. And if you’re worried that people might think you’re a freak, I say–so what? You’re humming with energy, happy that you planned to take good care of yourself during a busy business trip, and you’ll also find that people care much less about what you eat than you think.

Incidentally, one thing that has always puzzled me at professional events is the strong peer pressure to drink at the evening events. I think this behavior is on the decline, because so many friends and colleagues are in recovery and thus not drinking, and so it’s become less polite to ask or nag. If you’re a drinker, all the power to you (so long as you’re in control of yourself and feel okay). But if you’re not, you don’t need to apologize for choosing not to partake. If you prefer to just circumvent the situation, one way to divert social pressure is to order a glass of plain water or club soda with a lemon or lime wedge in it. It gives you something to hold and sip that resembles vodka and eliminates questions.

Bon Voyage!

Health v. Ethics in Veganism: A False Dichotomy

A couple of years ago, a friend in Israel spearheaded a farm animal sanctuary. Several of the volunteers were living onsite, working hard physical labor in fixing up the grounds so they’d be suitable for the cows and chickens they were bringing in. He called me from the supermarket: “I’m so appreciative of the volunteers,” he said, “that I’m here getting them snacks: bamba, bissli, vegan chocolates, and the like. I wish I could do more.”

“One thing they might appreciate,” I said, “is a weekly vegetable and fruit delivery box from a local CSA. Maybe I can chip in?”

“They are ETHICAL vegans, NOT health nuts,” my friend responded. And that was that.

Health nuts?

The three main reasons for veganism that are advocated in books, films, and elsewhere, are health, animal rights, and environmentalism. And the conversations about each of these issues tend to be siloed. Some people come to veganism via Earthlings and some come to it via Forks Over Knives.

I came to veganism through ethics (biocentrism and ecocentrism), and even if this were not a healthy way to eat I’d probably make some compromises. Happily, if one is mindful of what and how much one eats, it is a very healthy choice. So, in this reality–and not in the alternative one, in which vegans lack nutrients–I think that the health-versus-ethics debate is a false one. And it is not harmless: it has several pernicious effects.

One side of this problem I’m seeing is an upsetting celebration, on the part of ethical vegans, of food that might not be cruel to animals, but is certainly cruel to people. Lists pop all around the Internet, rejoicing that Oreos and Fritos are vegan. Of course I’m happy that this stuff isn’t cruel to animals. That’s reason to rejoice, but it is not a good reason to eat it. It’s not good for you, and it’s not something that gives you energy and strength to fight for animals another day. This phenomenon is not limited to the low-grade, cheap packaged snack food (which has the scary advantage of being affordable, and thus an easily available sugar/starch fix): all around town, vegan businesses are popping up, which traffic in the upscale, albeit not particularly healthy, vegan fare. Vegan cinnamon rolls. Vegan deli sandwiches and cookies. Vegan cupcakes and donuts.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted to see this vegan renaissance. I’m glad that, in our imperfect world, these businesses exist and even thrive. But giving vegans alternatives that mimic the (bad-for-you) options in the animal-consuming world can also a disincentive to eat better. I confess that I sometimes feel pulled to order some deep-fried thing or sweet from one of these good folks because I want my money to go into vegan businesses, even though ultimately this stuff makes me feel groggy and heavy. And while it’s true that buying sweets and starches is a choice, it is not an entirely free one given our evolutionary attraction to fat, sugar, and salt.

I think these businesses also crop up to counter the prevailing view that veganism is some sort of horrible, self-depriving sacrifice, which always makes me want to ask people: excuse me, have you ever eaten a tangerine or a pineapple? Or enjoyed a dish of freshly-picked greens and white butter beans (just to name what I had for dinner last night)? It is possible to have a very enjoyable and varied diet without making unhealthy stuff the centerpiece of your self-validation.

I understand the “everyone wants/needs a treat once in a while” mentality. But recently, through my work with Tilly Paz-Wolk and reading about emotional eating, I’ve come to realize that the emotional connotations of these treats–as compensation, comfort, you name it–hide deep needs for love, belonging, and acceptance. It takes more work to figure out what you actually want–empathy and compassion from a friend? More appreciation from colleagues or from a boss? Some help with household chores from family members?–but it is ultimately more rewarding, because a donut, vegan nor not, merely dampens your feelings for a few minutes and leaves your deeper needs unanswered.

The other side of this problem is the scorn and elitism of “health vegans” toward diets that are not healthy enough. The world of health veganism comes with a lot of discontents, the most odious of which is perhaps the term “clean eating,” which reeks of pathology and orthorexia. There’s a lot of nutritional Calvinism in that world, and a lot of guilt if the wrong thing touches your lips, and with all that self-flagellation comes flagellation of others–from commenting about other people’s food choices to just keeping your paternalistic and scornful thoughts to yourself (yes, others can read your scorn in your face even if you exercise some restraint and don’t voice them.) I’ve had family members discreetly move food items out of my reach at restaurants “for my own good” when they thought I wasn’t noticing. And of course, much of this goes hand in hand with the disrespect and dehumanization of our fat brothers and (especially) sisters.

Some of the “clean eaters” and health vegans take to spending money on powders and supplements and so-called “superfoods,” with the fads coming and going with the blink of an eye. Careful attention to the ingredients of this stuff reveals some surprising similarities to the food they scorn and disdain. Folks who advocate unprocessed foods (a good idea in itself, of course) sell you their own versions of highly-processed shakes and pills, supposedly to supplant the cheaper processed foods you won’t stoop so low as to eat. Sometimes, this stuff is harmful only to your wallet; other times, it can dissuade you from seeking empirically proven, life-saving medical care.

So, how do we reconcile these differences between the health and ethics seekers and bring some unity and compassion to this situation?

First, we rejoice in everyone who reduces their reliance on the animal industry, for whatever reason they choose. The intent is secondary; what mostly matters is the outcome, which is less cruelty toward animals, and that’s a net good. We thank everyone: flexitarians, vegetarians, vegans before 6, new vegans, old vegans. Each and every one of them, in small or big ways, is bringing us one step closer to the world we want to see, which is free of animal cruelty. We can gently encourage people to step up their ethical game, but ultimately, people need to awaken to compassion on their own.

Second, we decide to rely on fresh, seasonal produce as the main components of our diet, and to eschew our reliance on artificial “nutrients,” whether cheap or fancy. The one exception to this rule is vitamin B-12, which you should supplement if you’re vegan.

Third, we all need to wake up and see through the commercial interests of anyone who is selling us things. Oreos sell us temporary numbing and something very sweet and devoid of any nutritional value. Fancy vegan donuts sell us something more upscale but of similar nutritional value. Fancy powders and shakes sell us an image of health and reasons to snub others. Look at fonts, colors, advertising language, and ask yourself–beyond food, what am I being sold here? How is buying this supposed to say something about my self identity? The more aware we are of this, the more able we are to resist it.

Fourth, we refuse to neglect our health to prove the purity of our ideology. You are not less of an ethical vegan if you eat more fresh vegetables and fruit. It is not a betrayal of your ethics to forego buying that bag of vegan chips. You are not stabbing the ethical vegan movement in the back if you enjoy a banana in lieu of a donut.

Fifth, we provide honest and unvarnished opinions about animal welfare when appropriate (such as when we’re being asked), but otherwise, we stay out of other people’s plates–certainly where issues of weight could make the conversation strained and hurtful. Commenting on ethics is important, because the eater is hurting others, not just himself or herself, with their diet, but when done with animosity and without love and compassion it can be counterproductive. I’m on the fence about the Liberation Pledge, for exactly that reason. Sometimes it works wonders and sometimes it isolates and depresses (more on my version of the Pledge in another post.)

And finally, we listen to our bodies and our souls in making choices about food. When we do that, we start noticing patterns of hunger, cravings, and deeper needs. We listen carefully to our stomachs and reward them with qualities and quantities that are good for them. We take very good care of ourselves with quality fuels, so that we can continue to fight for a just world with energy and verve.

Juice Fast Adventures

(image from Juicey Lucy’s website)

I figured that some of you might want to hear a bit about the experience of doing a juice fast; the concept of not eating solid food for ten days may seem quite daunting for some folks. In fact, it is not a challenging or difficult thing to do if one is willing and able to pay for the logistics, and has amazing benefits.

The decision to go on the juice fast was rather spontaneous, though I’d been toying with it for a while. A dear friend had visited me from abroad, and, as a good San Francisco host, I ended up schlepping him with me to various fantastic restaurants and overindulging in food. I felt somewhat heavy and congested and had eaten a few things that didn’t exactly agree with me; and so, when I met Lisa from Juicey Lucy’s on Saturday morning at the farmers market, I told her I wanted to go on a juice fast for three days. She happily agreed, and the crew made me a set of five juices to go, packed in cute mason jars with handles.

Some experts in Traditional Chinese Medicine recommend going on a cleanse or a fast twice a year, most importantly in the spring. As Elson Haas explains in his Staying Healthy with the Seasons, the spring is associated with the liver and is a particular beneficial time for renewing the digestive system.

Five 16 oz. juices is more than enough food for one day, as I found out; I wasn’t hungry at all, and the flavors were fresh and delicious. Each of the juices was different. Some of them were more earthy than others, heavy with beets and carrots; some of them had more liver cleansing properties and contained celery and cabbage. Lisa kindly put some apple in each of them, making them more palatable. The order of drinking them was quite intuitive, except that every morning started with 2 oz. of wheat grass juice, followed by an alkaline green juice with flax seeds.

After three days of cleanse I felt that I could go on for longer, and eventually did the fast for the full ten days. On busy working days, Paul delivered the juices to me in the morning in a cute ice box and I took them with me; nothing quite like going to a luncheon at work, having everyone around me eating sandwiches and fries, and feeling quite content sipping a reddish drink from a big mason jar!

In addition to the juices, I indulged in tea made of fresh mint, and, on occasion, in a clear broth I made with the remaining organic vegetables in the fridge. I recorded some of my adventures and feelings.

For the first three days I felt absolutely normal. I didn’t feel pangs of hunger. Those days, on a weekend, helped me relax and go into myself; I was quite content sitting in the garden and knitting.

On Day Four I felt well, save for about half an hour of extreme exhaustion in the morning, that went away as suddenly as it came on. I was thinking about some vivid, colorful dreams I had, and really wanted to go back to sleep. Other than that, I could notice that my hair had gotten shinier and my skin was glowing. Swimming that day was big fun.

On Day Five I had a bit of a runny nose, but none of the splitting headaches juice fasters often report having. I was also a tad constipated; after discussing it with Lisa, she mixed up some psyllium seeds in my morning alkaline juice. That really did the trick.

On Day Six, had another half-hour exhaustion pit in the middle of the day while swimming in the pool. Fifteen minutes of rest and I was like new. I also realized I had lost some weight. And still, I wasn’t hungry at all. Some of my juices contained things like nettles and dandelion greens, but there was always one the was tasty and sweet, which Lisa lovingly called “dessert”. I noticed that my tongue had been coated in yellow, which is a typical reaction during a cleanse.

On Day Seven I noticed a few things. The exhaustion moments went away, and my swimming workouts were a joy. I even felt propelled to learn new things, and a lovely lady at the pool taught me how to do flip turns. In the evening I felt a tad hungry, but after having had some mint tea the hunger went away. I was very attentive to noise, too, and felt very calm listening to music and to the sound of the wind outside.

On Day Eight, a dear friend invited me to come to a jazz show at Yoshi’s, which has a lovely sushi restaurant. Upon consulting with my juice people, I decided to eat miso soup and, possibly, a green salad. I got the salad first, ate something like three leaves and a few sprouts, then gave the rest to my friend (who enjoyed every bite). Just didn’t feel the need to eat solid food at all. Then, the miso soup arrived – I drank the soup, which was delicious, and ignored the toppings (didn’t feel like eating them somehow).

I also noticed a few other things:
1. My sense of smell had become very sharp. I could smell a cigarette from blocks away, and could identify which restaurants are on the other side of the street without even crossing it. Body odors in Muni were separately identifiable (not always a good thing!).
2. A white spot on one of my fingernails had disappeared.
3. My skin became incredibly soft and glowing. I did have breakouts once in a while, but they were very small and went away quickly.
4. While at Yoshi’s, I realized that I didn’t really enjoy alcohol very much. Of course, I didn’t drink any (juice fast), but I probably wouldn’t want to drink any even if I were eating. I realized I much prefer tea, and became determined not to drink things that didn’t agree with me, even if social situations created a bit of a pressure to do so.
5. Bowel movements (sorry, guys, but want to be sincere and let you know everything that’s happening): none of the dramatic, bulky, strange-looking detox stuff that people report on. Apart from slight constipation in day 3, which was promptly resolved the next day with some psyllium seeds, I felt absolutely fine.

On Day Nine I realized that, when I sang, I felt the sound vibrating in my entire chest. It positively tingled with the singing. I was happy and alert, and had some conclusions to ponder on during Day Ten.

First of all, I realized that I eat way, way too much. I don’t need as much food as I eat. I should remember that, if I eat a big meal, the other meals of the day should mostly be fruit and veg.

Second, as mentioned, if I don’t feel like drinking alcohol, I shouldn’t drink it. There are tons of social situations in which I can have a cup of tea or juice while others have a beer. An occasional cocktail won’t kill me, but it isn’t much of a pleasure.

Third, I should remember to have whole grains (rice/quinoa/buckwheat) every day. It’s really important.

Fourth, I should eat both raw and cooked veg every day. Raw is important, but winter is cold and I’m not a very large person. Cooked roots will do me good.

When Day Ten was over I had to give some thought to going back to eat again… I decided to combine a few solid foods with some juices, to make the transition easier. It wasn’t easy to go back to solid food, as my stomach had shrunk, and the half-pomelo I ate in the morning was quite enough to deal with for almost the rest of the day. I did have some wheatgrass juice and an alkaline juice in the morning, and a smallish bowl of vegetable soup in the afternoon. Some carrot juice and a few spoonfuls of guacamole, with lots of herbal tea, did the trick.

A few more days of a similar diet – juice in the morning and the afternoon, a smallish soup or salad later – were quite good for me, and that’s how I made the transition to eating again.

Many of the benefits have stayed with me; I’ve been able to keep the weight off, but more importantly, my senses are still sharp and I still feel terrific. I really recommend this. When done properly, with folks who look after you, are attentive to your needs, and make you delicious concoctions with fresh, organic vegetables, it is not a cheap pleasure, but if you can afford it, it is highly recommended.

One of the challenges is continuing to consume green superfoods. Alas, there is no easy wheatgrass juice source next to my house; so, I have a green food powder mixed with some organic apple juice for breakfast. Whenever I feel like having a juice with a meal, I have to settle on carrot, usually, because fancy organic juices aren’t easily available daily near home or work. But every Saturday I bring my mason jar with me to the farmers’ market, and let Lisa and her crew treat me to some lovely juice and one of their delicious tempeh burritos.

This is probably more than you wanted to hear about the juice fast; the bottom line is that it is a wonderful experience, not as hard or dramatic as it would seem (possibly because I was eating quite healthfully to begin with), and highly recommended. Thank you, Lisa, and everyone; and best of luck to those of you who would like to give it a try!

Book Review: Becoming Vegan

My fabulous feeling after the juice fast has propelled me to read more about reducing the amount of eggs, fish and dairy that I eat. I came across Becoming Vegan, hoping it wouldn’t just be a diatribe about how moral it is not to eat animals; and it didn’t disappoint me.

In Becoming Vegan, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina attempt – and succeed – to give an intelligent, nutrition-savvy reader a concise collection of all the information he or she needs to plan a vegan diet. While their style may seem a bit dense for readers who know nothing about nutrition, it is refreshing to read a food book that does not dumb down, or simplify, matters for the readers. The book is loaded with recent scientific findings about nutrition, and does not gloss over the possible deficiencies of vegan diets as some others do.

The book assumes that its readers have chosen to explore veganism due to ethical considerations, and its opening chapter provides a short history of vegan movements and organizations. I’m sure this is helpful for many people who might otherwise feel completely alone in their food choices. It then proceeds to tackle the big nutritional questions of enough plant protein, healthy carb choices, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. In doing so, the book maintains a healthy balance between numerical tables of nutritional values and practical, down-to-earth advice. Calculating our protein needs is simplified by a formula, and various options are suggested for doing so.

The book goes beyond offering the information, and actually makes menu suggestions for people with different caloric needs, ranging between smaller, inactive folks (1,600 calories) to athletes (4,000 calories). It has a special chapter designed for athletes, which provides good advice on nutrition during training. It also has fabulous information for pregnant and lactating women, which does not gloss over the concern about nutritional deficiencies and emphasizes the importance of feeding babies properly. Other specialized chapters are those aimed at seniors (with lots of practical ideas for simple vegan meals) and at people who are overweight, underweight, or suffer from eating disorders. These are very thorough, and they maintain rigorous scientific objectivity; at no point do readers feel that they are being lectured to, but rather respectfully offered useful information.

One quibble I have has to do with the book’s overreliance on prepared commercial “fake meats”. I understand the book focuses on the transition to veganism, a stage at which it might be easier for folks to look for store-bought substitutes for stuff they are used to buying. I also understand why such folks might be turned off by the usual vegan/raw literature that might push them to sprout, soak and dehydrate stuff, all of which is fine and good, but isn’t very practical on a daily basis. And, I also understand that, in some cases, commercial processing might make some nutrients more easily available, as in the case of calcium. Nevertheless, in recommending lunch “meats”, for example, the book neglects to acknowledge that some of them contain lots of wheat gluten and might be problematic for folks suffering from celiac or other intolerances. Perhaps some attention can be given to “the next step” of veganism in the next editions. Another issue has to do with the advice on “vegan diplomacy” offered at the end of the book, which might work in some social situations but not in others.

These are, however, very minor quibbles for an otherwise excellent and helpful book. I think anyone transitioning to veganism, or just in the process of minimizing animal products, would enjoy this book and get lots of benefits from following its information and advice closely. In a publishing market full of hype, superficiality, and dumbing-down, it’s great to be regarded by authors as a responsible adult who can read tables, make choices, and personalize information.

Easiest way to Sprout Grains and Beans

Sprouts. They are good for you!

There’s a variety of reasons why sprouts come so highly recommended by holistic nutritionists. Raw foodists refer to them as “living foods”; others refer to their high content of vitamins and phytogens. Surfing the web, you find a variety of devices and contraptions made for sprouting. Or, you have to get jars and gauzes.

Really, all you need is a collander and a bowl.

1. Rinse the beans or grains, place them in a bowl and soak them in water for a night.
2. The next day, place the beans in the collander and strain all the water out. Rinse them with fresh water; then place the collander on the bowl. Repeat this twice a day for about two or three days.
3. Hurrah! Sprouts!
Works like a charm.

Kidney Support Meal

How do you deal with exhaustion, nutrition-wise? We discussed this at home a few days ago, because we were both feeling tired from the holiday cooking/hosting/working/playing frenzy. We decided to resort to traditional Chinese nutrition principles, and eat a dish of azuki and mung beans with season greens.

As I explained somewhere else, Chinese medicine analyzes food according to its different properties (cold/warm, dry/moist, yin/yang, expansion/contraction). As with other conditions, exhaustion is a manifestation of an imbalance between the five elements – often, as a weakness in kidney energy. The kidneys, associated with the Chinese element of water, are not only responsible for reproductive functions and related to the bladder, but also govern our storage of life energy. When the kidneys are depleted, we have to build them.

Some types of beans are closely associated with the kidneys: remarkably, azuki or aduki beans and mung or mash beans. The fun thing about these small beans is their remarkable resemblance to each other in everything except color: mung beans are green, and azuki beans are deep rich burgundy, but both are small, egg-shaped, and have a little white spot.

There are many great ways to eat azuki and mung beans. This dish takes them down the spicy Middle Eastern route and mixes them with leafy greens. We ate this for dinner, and felt quite heavy later, so you may want to consider eating this for lunch.

Beans and Greens

1 cup azuki beans
1 cup mung beans
2 cups water or vegetable broth, or mix
1 tbsp olive oil
3 heaping tablespoons cumin
1 tbsp nutmeg
3 tablespoons good quality tomato paste
3 garlic cloves
1 large onion
2 dried small chilis
10 large leaves of red or white beet (in Israel, the easiest is manguld).

Place azukis and mungs in a bowl of water for a few hours. If you have no time, place them in boiling water for twenty minutes. Discard the water.

In a large wok, heat up some olive oil. Chop thinly garlic and onion and add to wok. As you fry up, add the cumin and nutmeg and mix. Make an incision in each of the chilis and add them, too. When everything is mixed and the room becomes fragrant, add the strained beans and fry for a few minutes. Then, add the water or broth and the tomato sauce, lower the heat and let cook for about 30 minutes.

Try eating the beans. Have they gone softer? If they are soft, chop up the greens and layer them on top of the beans; cover again. Cook until the beans are soft. You may have to add water as you go.

You’ll have to take my word that this comes out very pretty because of the contrast in color between the azuki and the mung. We have just a little leftover, but the camera has disappeared. I hope to find it by the next time we cook, which will probably be in the not-so-distant-future!

Oh, Boy, What do I do with this?

Yesterday, I had lunch with my dear grandparents at their house.

Lunch at the grandparents’ is always a source of joy. Beyond the pleasure of hanging out with them, my grandma is a fabulous cook. Her cooking influences hail from Russia and from Egypt – two places where the family had been before being in Israel. Accordingly, we get some traditional stuff like gefilte fish (carp balls, which, as opposed to the Polish version, are spicy rather than sweet) side by side with spicy exotic vegetable stuff. However, decades of cooking with the same ingredients have made my grandparents completely ignore the world of whole grains.

Ahhhh, don’t I like all those “traditional foods” advocates, who say that whatever your grandma cooks is good for you! Don’t these people know that white rice and flour, and refined grains, have been available for a long, long time, and enjoyed a reputation of being more palatable? While the grandparents know the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cook wonderful, creative dishes with them, they are a little bit afraid of whole grains.

So yesterday, my grandma took the plunge, and cooked quinoa from a packet that included some raisins and almonds and nuts. It came out very good, but she was very hesitant about doing other things with quinoa.

“You can buy this in bulk, like rice”, I said.
“Really?” she said increduously. “But then how do I know about the fruit?”
“You don’t have to have fruit”, I said. “You can cook this with vegetables”.
I got strange looks.
“Yeah”, I said with lots of conviction. “All those amazing dishes you make with white rice? You can make all of them with quinoa”.
“Wow”, my grandpa joined the conversation. “This is really good.”
“Like your mejeddera“, I said. “You can make your mejeddera just the same, with the lentils and onion, except use quinoa instead of the rice”.
“You know”, said my grandma corageously, “I went to the store and almost bought brown rice. Except, with those rough peels, how can it cook at all?”
“C’mon”, I argued, “if it wasn’t cookable, why would people sell it an eat it? Of course you can cook it. It takes a little more time”.
“But it probably has a different flavor”, said my grandpa.
“Yeah, it does”, I replied. “It tends to be a bit of an acquired taste for folks who are used to refined grains. But it’s really good once you get used to it”.

A short discussion revealed that the grandparents do eat barley and buckwheat and quite a variety of beans. “There”, I said, “you do eat beans and whole grains. So you can just add a couple more to your repertoire”.

My grandma promised she’d do some experimenting, and we’ll see the results next week when I come back for lunch. Hurrah!

In the meantime, for your sakes and for posterity, I’ll try and collect her traditional wonderful Russian and Egyptian recipes, and come up with healthier versions for them whenever needed.

Travelling and Eating Healthy

Hiya all,

We’re en route to Berkeley, California, where we’ll spend the next two weeks – mostly working, but also meeting old and new friends. We’re very happy about the trip, but also somewhat concerned – my health still is far from perfect and the last thing I need is the jetlag.

And the food.

Say what you may about Israeli politics, behavior, whatever – it wins the food competition with America, hands down. When I moved to Berkeley in 2001, I could hardly bring myself to shop for anything that wasn’t vegetables or fruit – everything seemed processed, fatty, and strange. Getting used to foreign food is always a challenge, but apparently American food is particularly problematic. Many Israelis who have lived abroad (my sample includes lots of grad school students, who also sit and study a lot and therefore have somewhat sedentary lives) find that they gain a lot of weight in America.

Is it possible to live and eat in America without feeling bad and gaining a lot of weight? I maintain it is – at least in California. If you stick to the following principles.

1) Go slow at first. It’s hard enough to adjust to a new place, whether you’re visiting or staying to live there. Get a few familiar foods, just so your stomach doesn’t get as homesick as the rest of you. Being so food-obsessed, I remember how I almost cried with joy when I bought a bag of small, deep green “mediterranean” cucumbers at the overpriced yuppie store. Not all of us can afford shopping at places like that on a regular basis, but sometimes it’s important.

2) At the same time, pay attention to the quality of stuff. What is generally good in one place, doesn’t necessarily have a good equivalent elsewhere. For example, in my second year in America I finally realized that the low fat cheese market was a disappointment in comparison to the stuff in Israel, and shifted to tofu, which was much better. On the other hand, good luck finding a decent veggie burrito in Tel Aviv (and if you have found one, please, let us all know!).

3) Do not eat weird processed fake foods (and I don’t mean these, though they certainly are entertaining). The nature of a globalized, large scale capitalist food market is that it offers a load of new, pre-packaged products for our consumption. There is no need to eat stuff that has an unappetizing, artificial list of ingredients.

4) Exit the supermarket and head to the nearest farmers’ market. The markets have much better and fresher – and often cheaper – produce.

5) Do not be afraid of new vegetables. Before coming to America, I didn’t know of mustard greens, bitter melon, jicama, bok choy, and other wonderful things. In my first year in California, I played a game that you may find fun: Vegetable of the Week. Each week I bought a vegetable I didn’t know, and tried to cook it in various ways. My diet got richer, and my palate was certainly happier!

6) Make use of the advantages of immigration countries! In America, try Asian and Mexican restaurants – it’s best to avoid the sanitized chain versions, and go for the real thing.

7) And, finally, find a way in which, when you’re sad or lonely or homesick, you can have and enjoy an old favorite… a small bag of Bamba does wonders for Israeli kids and kids-at-heart, anywhere in the world…

Safe travels!

(images for this post from: www.shcp.edu/ftp/American%20Food-David%20Foro and www.israelimages.com/medium/17126.jpg)

The Very Best Bowl of Oatmeal

One of the reasons for the big break I took from posting was feeling exhausted after spending a month and a half flying back and forth between Israel and the US. The constant jetlag, the lack of adequate food, and the stress of travel, took their toll, and the doctor has officially pronounced me exhausted.

In Chinese medicine, exhaustion can be the manifestation of several different conditions, depending on the person involved and the symptoms he or she experiences. But in many of these variations, the issue has to do with a depletion of the body’s reserve of qi, the energy of life. In my case, the exhaustion manifests itself in (of course!) various annoying digestive issues, headaches, tiredness and moodiness, muddled thinking, and a very strained set of back muscles.

One of the doctor’s recommendations for this situation was a bowl of oatmeal every day. Oatmeal is a pleasantly warming and healthy grain, that provides energy, vitamins (particularly B vitamins), minerals (particularly manganese) and an abundance of fiber. Apparently, there are many people who are allergic to wheat but not to oats, despite the fact that both grains contain gluten. Oatmeal with cinnamon and dried prunes and raisins is truly excellent; cinnamon is a very warming spice in Chinese medicine, and if you add a vanilla pod of a drop of natural vanilla extract, your oatmeal will truly rise to unprecedented levels of yumminess.

Now, please give this a try: I know you’re all busy in the morning, but I find that making oatmeal out of steel-cut oats (as opposed to the quick-cooking rolled oats) doesn’t take up a large chunk of time, especially if you lower the heat after a while and let it happily simmer while you take your morning shower. So, here ’tis, and it’s really worth it.

Oatmeal – 1 serving (more can be made by simply multiplying the amounts!).

1/2 cup steel cut oats
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp vanilla
20 organic raisins
3 organic dried prunes, chopped up into raisin-size pieces
a drop of vanilla extract, or 1/2 vanilla pod

Place all ingredients in a small pot and heat up. Do not wait for it to boil – when things start getting warm, lower the heat. Go about your business, stopping by the stove to mix up your oatmeal every 5 minutes or so, so it doesn’t stick. At some point, the oats will change their consistency and the whole thing will be a lot more porridge-like. Spoon into bowl and enjoy.

Orthorexia: The Sickness of Eating Healthy?

Heyya, folks, gather round and I’ll give you a lecture that has as much to do with sociology (one of my other loves) as it does about food.

How can you tell if one is sick or healthy? With many physical diseases, it’s not a difficult task. If one coughs, sneezes and feels awful – they have a cold or a flu. Things get somewhat trickier in the world of mental illnesses. Sure, popular culture is saturated with examples of extreme psychoses, but less serious patterns – neuroses and disorders – raise a lot of issues. And like many other things, defining a certain set of behaviors as an illness is very much a matter of politics.

Mental disorders appear in a special guide called the DSM. The DSM lists a series of symptoms, and clinicians are supposed to see how many of them are manifested in the patient, in order to establish whether or not a disorder is present (here, take a look). Naturally, the disorders don’t just appear in the newest DSM edition by themselves; many professionals have to acknowledge them as such, and there is much controversy about which behaviors and phenomena are and are not included in it. For example, part of the struggle for gay rights recognition had to do with removing homosexuality from the list of disorders in the DSM.

Why am I telling you this? Because in recent years, some controversy has arisen over a certain set of behaviors, which some people would like to see defined as a disorder. They call it “Orthorexia”, which, in literal latin means “correct appetite”.

According to Steven Bratman, who coined the term “orthorexia” and wrote about it in his book, Health Food Junkies, the disorder consists of a pathological obsession with eating healthy food. For an orthorexic, adhering to rigid nutrition disciplines becomes the focus of life. Eating healthfully and “correctly” is seen as a moral, or even spiritual, virtue; the orthorexic might graudally limit his or her consumption of foods, trying to achieve a “purer” state of being. An orthorexic often feels superior to others who eat a less healthy diet. When “falling off the wagon” and eating something unhealthy, the orthorexic experiences a deep sense of guilt and engages in various health-rites of penance such as fasting.

Now, there’s no much sense in defining something as an illness if it doesn’t cause harm or suffering. Bratman argues that, in severe cases, an obsession with health food can lead to severe physical damage and even to death. However, even when things are less tragic, limiting oneself to what one deems to be extremely healthy food can seriously impair one’s life. People who are more attached to their eating regimes than to other aspects of their lives isolate themselves from friends (restrictive eating habits hinder going to lunch together, and so does consistent lecturing about food!), find it difficult to travel and eat out, and become, to a certain extent, slaves of their diet.

Others oppose the medicalization of health food obsession, for various reasons. One of them is that, in general, being a health nut causes no harm. There is no much cause for concern over someone who gets in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and is interested in wholesome food; that would lead to stigmatizing half of the food blog community, for goodness sake! Cases in which people are taking upon themselves extreme and restrictive dietary regimes could merely be a manifestation of dogmatic, inflexible thinking patterns in general, and not merit a specific disorder title. Moreover, there is no much basis to distinguish between people whose healthy diet is an aspect of their worldview from folks whose dietary restrictions stem from religious decrees (such as kosher or halal diets). What makes one worldview pathological while the other isn’t?

Whether or not you think orthorexia should be medicalized, it’s probably a good opportunity to say here: all in moderation, folks. I’m the last person to recommend polished grains, white sugar and saturated fats, but hey, if you feel like having a good ice cream or a nice bit of delicious chocolate, and it doesn’t hurt you physically, go right ahead and enjoy it. Yes, we should take good care of our bodies, most of the time. Our bodies will reward us by bearing with the occasional treat we have.

To bring this balance to earth, I’ll finish with a short quasi-recipe: Oven fries. As good as, or even better than regular fries. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius. Slice thinly some nice potatoes. Place them on an oiled piece of foil on a baking pan, and sprinkle whatever you like on top. In this house, it’s usually rosemary, garlic and chile peppers, but there’s endless possibilities. Stick in the hot oven for about 35-40 minutes, then munch to your heart’s content. Yeah, it’s carbs. Yeah, it’s not a nutritional powerhouse. But it’s fun. Enjoy.