Monday, March 30, 2015

Daily Meals #1

           Last week, a couple of people asked to see what my daily meals look like. What I eat seems to change quite a bit from day to day, but last week I managed to note down and take some pictures of what I ate over three weekdays. Here's a peek.

Breakfast: Half an avocado mashed with a few drops of hot sauce, with one boiled, sliced egg. Avocados and eggs are a match made in culinary heaven.

Lunch: Chana masala with spinach, eggplant with mustard greens (recipe from this post), with a couple of tablespoons of jeera rice.

Often, I find a middle ground between eating no rice at all, and eating vegetables/dal on a heaping bed of rice, by adding just a bit of rice to my meal. Somehow it gives me all the feel of eating a "proper" rice-dal-subzi meal while cutting down drastically on the carbs.

Snack: Three cookies with tea. Neighbor kid came around with Girl Scout cookies and we bought a couple of boxes to support her. These are the shortbread cookies (trefoils, I think they are called)- the only Girl Scout cookies I like. I kept 3 cookies for myself and put the rest in the office kitchenette- where they thankfully vanished before I had the chance to go grab some more.

Dinner: Taco salad with lettuce, pinto beans, mock chicken (quorn) and a side of guacamole with pickled green tomatoes.

* * * 

Breakfast: (not pictured) Eggplant-mustard greens curry and a bit of jeera rice and yogurt- I wanted to finish off some leftovers.

On this day, I had some minor drama. Went to the grocery store, and back in the parking lot, my car wouldn't start. V and a colleague had to come out and help me jump start the car, drive it to the body shop to get the battery replaced, yada yada. I was a bit frazzled :)

Lunch: So I finally stopped at the chain restaurant Chipotle at 2 PM to grab some lunch. Got the taco salad- bed of lettuce with black beans, fajita vegetables, tomato salsa, hot salsa, sour cream and cheese. The portion size is pretty huge.

Dinner: Vietnamese curry with green beans, sweet potato and oven baked tempeh. Served with sautéed broccoli slaw.

The curry was inspired by this recipe. I've enjoyed vegetable coconut curries for years in Vietnamese restaurants and finally realized how very simple they are to make at home. The secret is in buying Vietnamese curry powder which gives the dish all the flavor it needs. I found some at our local Asian store called Ca Ri Ni An Do Madras curry powder (oh the fusion of cuisines) which looks bright yellow with all that turmeric and comes in a glass jar. Once the curry powder and some coconut milk are stocked in the pantry, this curry is the easiest thing ever to put together. I did skip the lemongrass and it was still tasty.

* * * 

Breakfast: (not pictured) Egg and half an avocado.

Morning snack: Chia pudding.

I bought some chia seeds at Trader Joe's- one of my many impulse purchases in this particular store- and made chia seed pudding. It is the easiest thing: I use small plastic lidded containers (1/2 cup capacity) and make 3-4 containers at a time.

In each cup, add 1 heaped tablespoon chia seeds. Fill the container almost to the top with almond (or any other) milk. Add a drop of vanilla extract and a drizzle of maple syrup. Stir, close lids, store in fridge. Over a few hours, the seeds swell up and you have your pudding ready to eat.

Chia pudding has a wonderful refreshing taste, it reminds me very much of the basil seeds (sabja) used in falooda, the Persian/Indian ice cream sundae. I've been enjoying chia seed pudding a few times a week as a treat. Chia seeds are a very popular "superfood" these days, and like all superfoods, are reputed to be absolutely magical and cure everything. Regardless of the hype, I just like the taste and texture so I eat them.

Lunch: Broccoli slaw with Vietnamese tempeh curry (leftovers from the previous night's dinner).

Afternoon snack: A slice of apple cake. I often bake a treat for our weekly work meetings.

Dinner: Creamy lentils (inspired by this recipe), mushroom soup and a side roasted kale.

* * * 

Then came the weekend, and Saturday was a total free for all. I went out with my knitting friends to a pub for lunch, and had some hard cider and a veggie Reuben sandwich with a side of Belgian fries. Then we had friends over for dinner and I made some aloo tikki chana chaat, cauliflower coconut curry soup and tandoori tofu and peppers. A feast day for sure. But the point is, if I eat in a carb conscious, vegetable-heavy way about 80% of the time, I can eat whatever I like the other times and still stay on track. So far it has been working out that way.

Your turn: What have you been eating these days? 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Veggie Box: Mid-March 2015

Last December, V signed us up for a produce box. This is the concept known as CSA or community supported agriculture, where we pay a local farm to supply us with vegetables for a certain amount of time- in our case, a box of fresh veggies every two weeks from mid-March to mid-November of this year. With a CSA subscription, you never quite know what veggies are going to land up in your kitchen. Most people end up discovering some veggies that they've never used before.

Our family has always enjoyed vegetables but I didn't know at the time that come March, we would be eating more produce than ever. Our first delivery came last week- vegetables dropped off in a box packed with ice packs at our back door- and it was as exciting as opening a birthday present.

Being Spring and all, the box was loaded with greens and more greens. We got 9 types of vegetables and here's how I used them.



1. Turnips: Right off the bat, this is a vegetable that I'm not too familiar with- I have eaten it a few times, of course, but don't really remember cooking with it. 

That evening, it was rainy and cool and I was in the mood for something warm and comforting, so I looked up some recipes for mashed turnips. Same concept as mashed potatoes, only turnips have a slightly different texture (they are more watery) and a different taste, and way fewer carbs than potatoes. 

For the mashed turnips, I simply peeled and cubed the turnips, boiled them until fork-tender, then pureed with an immersion blender (a masher did not do the trick- it left them too lumpy), and seasoned with cream and butter, salt and pepper. The result was unexpectedly delicious! 

2. Swiss chard: To go with the mashed turnips, I made a quick Swiss chard egg curry; it also used up a half-cup of coconut milk that I had in the fridge. This combination made for a wonderful supper.

3. Cabbage: With the head of cabbage, I made my favorite simple Marathi kobichi bhaji or stir-fried cabbage- with a tempering of curry leaves and mustard seeds and a seasoning of cumin and coriander powder. 

4. Collard greens: We had a St. Patty's day potluck at work and I need something green to contribute. The big bunch of collard greens was shredded into ribbons, sautéed and made into a creamy collard greens dip. I made the dip in a mini slow cooker and served it with tortilla chips. 

5. Lettuce: The day we got the produce box, I immediately tore the lettuce into bite size pieces, washed and dried it in a salad spinner, and stored it in the fridge nestled in paper towels in a plastic box. For me, that's the way to get delicate salad greens to stay crisp and fresh for a few days. 

We used the lettuce for a big taco salad. I started by making a stir fry of onions, peppers, pinto beans and mock quorn chicken, with tomato puree, oregano, cumin and chili powder. Then we spooned the mixture on a bed of crisp lettuce and topped it with a creamy avocado dressing and a few crushed tortilla chips. 

6. Spinach: The small bunch of spinach got chopped up and added to chana masala

7. Sugar snap peas: This is another vegetable that I don't cook with on a regular basis. I sliced the sugar snap peas on the diagonal and used them in a Chinese-style stir fry with tofu and mushrooms

8. Mustard greens: I made a Marathi style bhaji with mustard greens and eggplant- this might have been the first time I used eggplant and greens together in this way but it certainly won't be the last! The results were fantastic. Here's a short cut recipe:
  • Temper oil with mustard seeds, turmeric, asafetida and curry leaves.
  • Add ribbons of mustard greens (washed and stalks trimmed off). 
  • Add cubes of eggplant.
  • Add salt, cumin coriander powder, your favorite masala (I used koli masala) and crushed peanuts. (The crushed peanuts add wonderful taste, richness and texture and really make this dish come together).
  • Add a bit of water, cover and let the veggies steam, stirring occasionally until tender. 
  • Add a touch of jaggery.
  • Garnish with plenty of cilantro. 

9. Fennel: This was yet another vegetable that's relatively new to me, and to be honest I am not a fan of the fennel taste in a vegetable, although I like fennel seeds in some dishes. But I wanted to use it up. It went into a fridge-cleaning pulao of sorts- I sautéed together sliced onions, sliced fennel, kidney beans and a handful of cooked rice with some spices. It worked and was more than edible- it was quite tasty and used up all the odds and ends in the fridge to produce a quick dinner. 

All in all, this first veggie box was a grand success- in that we managed to eat up every last bit of the vegetables before they wilted away, and I discovered some new-to-me veggies and creative ways to use familiar veggies. Let's see what next week's box brings. I'm betting there will be more greens! 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Synopsis: The South Asian Health Solution

The South Asian Health Solution: A Culturally Tailored Guide to Lose Fat, Increase Energy and Avoid Disease by Ronesh Sinha, MD.

I found this book via the South Asian group on the forums of Ravelry (the knitting website). There was a discussion on diet and fitness and someone mentioned the author so I looked up the book. I bought a copy to read and pass along to my parents.

The author is a physician and his practice in Silicon Valley, California, treats many South Asian patients. The central premise of this book is that South Asians are suffering from an alarming epidemic of chronic diseases fueled by eating an extremely high amount of carbohydrates, and that these diseases can be prevented by changing the diet and exercising more. Here is a chapter by chapter synopsis of the book.

Inflammation and Insulin: The Real Culprits
This chapter opens with a question: Why are South Asians at such a high risk for diabetes and heart disease? And goes on to provide an answer: Excess insulin is the underlying thread that weaves together virtually every chronic ailment currently afflicting South Asians...Along with insulin resistance, chronic inflammation has emerged as a powerful threat to health and longevity.

Sinha goes on to explain the effects of excess insulin and how these in turn lead to chronic inflammation: high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and obesity, especially stubborn belly fat.

Insulin resistance is so common in South Asians that I now assume all South Asians are to some degree insulin resistant until proven otherwise...Most of the South Asians who appear slim are likely "skinny-fat". Their fat lurks under the surface, blanketing their liver and other internal organs. 

How can a person know if they have insulin resistance and if they are at a high risk for metabolic disorders? Sinha describes a set of measurements that he calls the metabolic 6-pack. Not meeting the metabolic 6 pack numbers is an indication of high risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. One of the numbers can be measured at home (waist circumference) and the rest would need a check-up and blood work at a doctor's office (triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting blood glucose, HbA1C and hs-CRP). Sinha suggests that instead of obsessing over weight and BMI, tracking these numbers and keeping them where they should be is a better and more achievable indicator of keeping insulin and inflammation in check. Sinha also lists other clues that point to a person being insulin resistant, including a family history of diabetes, a history of gestational diabetes, a history of PCOS and a history of exceptional difficulty losing weight.

The next part of the chapter explores why South Asians have this strong tendency for insulin resistance, and mentions genetic and evolutionary factors (the genetic variations that promoted survival during feast-famine cycles and mitochondrial adaptations to a tropical climate) and cultural and lifestyle factors, including the tendency to be sedentary and the abundance of carbohydrates in the diet.

Despite the role of genes and evolution, you will be amazed by the resiliency and potential of the South Asian body to overcome years of abuse and transform into a leaner, more energetic, insulin sensitive, fat-burning machine within just a few months. 

Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Here Sinha states that the conventional wisdom on the mechanisms and risk factors for heart disease is flawed. As a result of the cholesterol fixation, we now have a population that is grossly overtreated with statin medications and undertreated with proper lifestyle changes. Sinha suggests focusing on triglyceride levels (instead of total cholesterol) and keeping them low.

The standard risk calculators for heart disease and stroke are based on outdated studies and on Caucasian patients. They end up underestimating risk in South Asians by ignoring key markers like high triglycerides, prediabetic blood sugar levels and abdominal obesity.

Blood Pressure: The Pressure is Killing Me
High blood pressure is called a "silent killer" because most patients with dangerously high blood pressure may have no symptoms at all. But even a mildly elevated blood pressure has a cumulative toxic effect on virtually every organ of the body.

Although sodium (salt) does play a role, especially in the form of processed foods, the balance of sodium and potassium is far more important in the battle against high blood pressure....Plant-based sources rich in potassium include spinach, broccoli, avocados, oranges, nuts and seeds.

This chapter looks at the causes of high blood pressure and ways to control it.

Your Body: Width Over Weight
This chapter looks at body fat. We used to think fat cells were just inert storage containers that took excess calories from our foods and stored them. We now know that fat cells have a different impact on your body depending on their location. 

If we were to look at peripheral fat (fat in the arms and legs) under a microscope, there's not much going on. But belly fat/ abdominal fat cells are now classified as an actual endocrine hormone because they produce so many inflammatory hormones.

The two primary defining features of the typical South Asian physique (regardless of gender) are excess belly fat and the relative absence of muscles, especially in the arms and legs. Insufficient muscle mass has consequences beyond mere looks- it worsens insulin resistance, results in bone and joint problems, greater chance of sports injuries (due to lack of core strength and general flexibility) and difficulty with weight loss.

This chapter has a section on "skinny-fat", the phenomenon where a person may have a normal body size, even be underweight, and yet have plenty of fat stored around the organs and invading the liver. The medical term for this is "metabolically obese, normal weight" which describes a person who has metabolic evidence of obesity (for instance, with blood tests showing fatty liver disease) even though their weight falls within the normal range. Whether you are skinny-fat or fat-fat, you need to lose fat and add muscle.

Studies show that insulin resistance and heart disease occur at a lower BMI (body mass index) for South Asians, so we should be evaluating ourselves based on an Asian-adjusted BMI scale, where the healthy range is 18.5 to 23. But BMI is only one measure of health, and measuring abdominal obesity is arguably more important. Using a simple tape measure, we can measure waist circumference (the goal is less than 35 inches for men and less than 31 inches for women) and hip circumference, and calculate the waist to hip ratio (should be less than 0.85 for women and less than 0.9 for men). Sinha emphasizes that these numbers are guidelines (to make progress towards) and not absolute goals.

The South Asian Struggle with Fat and Weight Loss
Sinha attributes weight loss struggles to myths, including the myth of eating low-fat, high-carb foods to lose weight, and the myth that exercise alone can help you lose weight. Eating greater portions of the right foods will control your weight more effectively than eating smaller portions of the wrong foods. This chapter is a detailed discussion of the role of carbohydrates and fat in weight gain and weight loss.

The good news is that once you reduce your dietary carbs and insulin levels, you will free up years of stored fat deposits for use as energy. Significant changes can occur within a few short weeks of carb reduction, such as a drop in weight, a reduction in food cravings, and an increase in energy. 

CARBS Approach to Burning Fat
This whole chapter is devoted to the idea of drastically reducing carbs in the diet. Sinha uses the acronym CARBS to identify what he calls fat-promoting carbs, where C=chapatis (and other flatbreads and bread in general), A= aloo (potatoes and starchy vegetables), R=rice (and other grains), B=beans (and lentils and other legumes) and S= sugar (including sweet foods and beverages).

Net carbs in any food= Total grams carb - Total grams fiber. Bargain foods are the ones with low net carbs and lots of nutrients and expensive foods are the ones with high net carbs and little nutrition. Sinha suggests that a daily diet of 100 grams of net carbs is generally the zone at which fat burning is activated.

The rest of this chapter has plenty of tips on what foods to eat more of and what foods to avoid, and strategies to cut carbs while eating a satisfying diet. Sinha especially emphasizes eating more vegetables, in the form of salads, smoothies, soups, snacks, sauces and as a substitute for grains.

Exercise: An Enjoyable Approach to Fitness and Strength
Sinha explores three reasons why South Asians tend to not enjoy exercise: (1) A high carb diet results in excess insulin which in turn causes a chronic state of fatigue by shunting fuel from food into the fat cells and into muscle and liver glycogen but having none available in the bloodstream to burn for energy, (2) Sedentary influences in culture and upbringing which place academic success way above sports and activity and (3) Exercise aversion because exercise recommendations feel too overwhelming or exercise is assumed to be painful and a burden.

He recommends first changing the diet to increase energy levels and starting slowly by moving a little more during the day, and choosing a physical activity to enjoy (enjoy being the critical word) for 30 minutes a week- like a hike with a friend, walk with a neighbor, dance or yoga class or sport like tennis or cricket.

The benefits of exercise are listed- and there are many. There is a discussion of the benefits of standing and walking and cutting back on the time spent sitting down. Then the author suggests a fitness plan with exercises (some based on yoga) that can be done anywhere, tips on walking for health and how to fit exercise into a busy schedule.

Recharge! An Approach to Energy and Stress Management
This chapter deals with the problem of fatigue. It does not have to be accepted as an inevitable part of hectic modern life. Sinha lists what he calls 5 S-factors that are major contributors to fatigue and ways to manage them:
(1) Stress, often experienced as rapid breathing, heart palpitations, poor mood, headaches and a disrupted digestion. Suggested ways to manage stress are yoga, pranayama (breath control), meditation, music and spending time in nature.
(2) Sugar and starches, which against a background of insulin resistance, result in food being stored as fat instead of being utilized as energy. The suggestion is to pay attention to your energy levels after different types of meals and make changes to what you eat.
(3) Sleep- lack of quality sleep has serious consequences. The suggestions for good sleep include having a consistent sleep schedule and restricting light.
(4) Substances- Caffeine and alcohol should be consumed in moderation.
(5) Sedentary lifestyle.
Sinha also lists medical conditions that can cause persistent fatigue (even when all the factors above are corrected), such as thyroid disorders, depression, anemia and sleep disorders.

Optimal Health for South Asian Women
This chapter has a detailed discussion of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which is a common hormonal disorder in women and even more common in South Asian women. There is also a section on gestational diabetes.

Sinha also talks about different reasons why women may have difficulty losing body fat. South Asian women often hit a weight loss plateau due to lack of strength training...The type of drastic cyclical dieting that many South Asian women periodically engage in- which often involves periods of severe caloric deprivation from exclusive juicing and Ayurvedic techniques- leads to a loss of not only fat but also precious lean muscle tissue.

Sinha has several suggestions, everything from dietary changes like reducing carbs further and eating more fat to checking one's thyroid and intermittent fasting.

Building a Healthier Future for the South Asian Child
Sinha's wife is a pediatrician whose practice sees many South Asian kids. This chapter addresses many common concerns that parents come to her with- about kids who are too skinny, refuse to eat fruits and vegetables, and so on. This chapter has pretty much common sense advice on the importance of sleep, restricting screen time and how physical fitness is correlated with academic performance.

Anti-Aging and Improving the Health of the Elderly
This chapter again has pretty much common sense advice on dietary guidelines, exercise, mental stimulation and stress reduction for optimizing health in seniors.

Achieving Your Goals
This chapter has tips for setting realistic goals and changing habits for life- in terms of nutrition (eg. cutting out one problem food like sodas or sweets), activity (eg. sitting less) and stress/sleep (eg. no screen time in the final hour before bedtime). If you've reduced your daily carbohydrate intake from 400 grams to 100 grams and this modification is proving too difficult, then approach in a more step-by-step fashion. Reduce carbohydrate intake in 100 gram increments with each passing month. Stay positive at all times, and realize that some change is better than no change.

Sinha suggests building a "health team" which includes not only medical professionals like doctors and nutritionists but also one's family, workplace and community (social circle, place of worship etc). He has some suggestions, for instance, to create healthier social gatherings that focus not on elaborate food but other activities, such as meeting for a hike or for movie night.

Day after day, I greet kind, intelligent, hard-working South Asian folks pursuing the American Dream, only to receive the bad news, or very bad news, that I often must dispense...the vast majority of my work includes battling against cultural forces that create diet- and lifestyle- related health conditions and disease. 

The final part of the book has case stories, recipes and a list of resources.

What I liked about this book:
1. Sinha writes from a place of deep sincerity and compassion. It is obvious that his motivation is to inform and help, and sort of put himself out of business.
2. There is an abundance of specific tips in this book for changing diet and lifestyle. And the tips are based on common sense, simple changes that any ordinary person could do.
3. Sinha does hit on the major cultural norms that hold us back (eg. being force fed sweets by loving relatives), and this book would be relatable to many South Asians.
4. It is important to know where you stand as far as health and wellness goes. The book has a series of numbers which you and your doctor can keep track of, to know how well you're doing. I found this very practical and helpful.

Things I did not like as much:
1. The writing could have been better edited to be less wordy and repetitive.
2. The book is very Paleo-diet focused, so there are things in here that make me roll my eyes, like the whole "wheat belly" thing and cautions about eating soy and enthusiastic support for eating grass-fed meat while warning that legumes contain anti-nutrients. As usual, I'm taking away some good ideas from this book, and ignoring some others.

I can say for myself that even before I read this book, I'd started to make some of the same changes that the book suggests, and they are working beautifully for me. I have a family history of diabetes and a personal history of gestational diabetes, and I know from a DEXA scan that I am skinny fat. I've cut down moderately on carbs about 3 months ago, replacing them with lots of raw and cooked vegetables. This is not about being in dieting mode. If you're feeling hungry and deprived, you're doing it wrong. I'm nourishing myself very well, and also living quite normally, in that I go and eat at parties and restaurants and social events once or twice a week.

Since I made these changes a few short weeks ago, I've lost 11 lbs, I've lost inches off my waist (I really need to buy pants in a smaller size), and I'm feeling motivated and energized to exercise more than I have my whole entire life. I don't feel hunger pangs every couple of hours and I'm not constantly foraging for snacks. I eat dinner at 6 PM and don't eat a thing for the next 12-14 hours. I can't tell you how surprised I am at all this.

When you see it working for you, you know it is not a fad. This is how I want to live for the rest of my life. And right after I finish writing this post, I'm calling my primary care physician to schedule a check-up and blood-work so I can track some of the numbers, like HbA1C. To anyone who's thinking of making these changes, just start. Small changes can surprise you with good results. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

Pasta Dishes, version 2.0

I'm recovering from an exhausting and exhilarating week. My quilt guild had its biennial quilt show from Friday through Sunday. It is an ambitious project for a small guild like ours and takes months of preparation and hundreds of hours of volunteer work. The show kicked off on Thursday when we transformed a large and completely empty hall into an exhibit of 200 quilts- starting from the ground up, building frames, putting up sheets and then hanging the quilts. It took all day. It was an amazing experience to be part of the team working on such an event.

And to my surprise, my quilt even won a ribbon- third place in the novice category. I'm officially a quilter, y'all. I may not ever progress beyond the novice stage (let's be honest) but I get to play with the big kids and that's a lot of fun.

Between spending long hours at work the first half of the week to make up for being at the quilt show the latter half of the week, my schedule was upside down. I didn't get to the gym at all and missed my favorite classes. But there was plenty of physical labor involved in hoisting around blocks and poles and assembling the show, then walking around for hours greeting visitors to the show.

Things were different on the food front too. Every day at the show, we pitched in and set up a potluck breakfast and lunch- and you should see what amazing food Southern ladies dish up at a potluck. Vegetarian chili served on fritos, carrot pecan sandwiches, olive salad, pimento cheese, lemon pound cake- I enjoyed it all, in modest portions. I'm changing my eating habits, but when I give myself permission to enjoy eating whatever I want once in a while, I find that it makes it very easy to stick to my plan the rest of the time.

In the same vein of choosing the middle path, I'm trying to modify rather than abandon some of my family's favorite dishes. Every evening, Lila asks me what's for dinner, and she's always hoping to hear the answer "pasta". Carb heavy pasta is no longer something I want to eat very much of but I'm not throwing it out altogether.

I would use an entire box of pasta (say, macaroni or shells) in 1 recipe- 6 to 8 servings, and we'd eat the meal for dinner and then leftovers for lunch the next day. Not any more. These days, I use a single box of pasta over 3 or 4 recipes, using a whole lot of vegetables to make up for the balance of the pasta in the dish. Here are three examples.

Macaroni and cheese is a favorite in many homes, and definitely in ours. We enjoy the same bechamel (white) sauce in a baked vegetables casserole. I put the two dishes together to make what I'm calling Macaroni and Cheese and Peas and Trees. Trees being the little broccoli florets. Here is an outline of the recipe:
-Make 2 cups white sauce and stir in some cheddar and lots of pepper. Set aside.
-Roast a tray (half sheet size) of broccoli and cauliflower florets until tender.
-Measure out a cup of uncooked pasta and boil it until tender, add a cup of frozen peas to the boiling pasta to blanch them. Drain the pasta and peas.
-Combine pasta, peas and vegetables in a baking dish. Pour on the white sauce. Bake.

Spinach lasagna- a recipe I first saw on the Cook's Country TV show on PBS- is a keeper. I've made it for dozens of guests to rave reviews. This time, I used 3 lasagna sheets for the entire tray rather than the usual 10-12. For the rest of the lasagna sheets, I used slices of roasted eggplant to make an eggplant spinach lasagna. The result is something like a mash up between spinach lasagna and eggplant parmesan- how could you go wrong?

Pesto pasta salad is another favorite, and a convenient make-ahead dish. This time, I used only 1/4 of the pasta, the rest was made up of mixed roasted vegetables- peppers, cauliflower, zucchini to make a vegetable pesto pasta salad. To make it even more of a main dish, I'd be tempted to add cooked white beans next time.


In each of these dishes, the pasta could certainly be left out altogether. But putting in just a bit of pasta is a good compromise to give enough of the bite and "feel" of pasta while still cutting down drastically on the carbs, especially if you serve these meals with a good salad or soup on the side. The funny thing is that each of the dishes is made much tastier with the addition of those veggies, so far from sacrificing anything, you're in fact gaining flavor. And that's my little tip for today- pasta can stay on the menu, only less frequently and in a much smaller quantity.

What have you been cooking and eating these days? 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Masala Dosa with a Twist

I made dosas for brunch a few weeks ago and realized at the last minute that I had no potatoes on hand to make the potato masala. So I improvised and made the filling with the two vegetables I did have on hand- kale and butternut squash. It was such a successful variation that it is something I made again this weekend. I think this is our new favorite dosa stuffing.

The recipe I used was much the same as my usual potato masala recipe.

Kale and Butternut Squash Masala 
for Masala Dosas with a Twist



1. Cube and cook (microwave steam/roast) 2 cups butternut squash. Set aside.

2. Heat 1 tbsp. oil and temper it with
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. chana dal
1 tsp. urad dal
1 tsp. cumin-coriander powder
pinch of asafoetida
1 sprig fresh curry leaves

3. Add 1 medium onion, cut in half and sliced thickly. Cook until translucent.

4. Add salt, turmeric and a small dab of ginger garlic paste.

5. Add 1 bunch washed and chopped kale and stir-fry it for 12 minutes or until the greens are tender.

6. Stir in the cooked butternut squash. Cook for a minute more and the masala is ready.

Fold in the masala into a dosa before serving. It is a versatile dish and can be used in other ways and other meals; I have some of this masala left over and tomorrow morning, it will accompany a fried egg at breakfast.

The kale-butternut squash masala has a wonderfully complex flavor- a bitter hint from the greens and the sweetness of onions and squash, plus the savory notes of the spices. It complements the dosa so well. And the colors are beautiful.

I love greens but don't seem to eat them as much as I like, so this recipe is a good one for me to make again and again. (And any greens would work in place of kale).

Dosas are a favorite of mine, and even as I'm cutting down on carbs on a daily basis, dosas continue to feature in weekend breakfasts every couple of weeks. Instead of eating 3-4 at a sitting, I'm eating 1 or 2 at the most, with a larger portion of eggplant sambar and coconut-cilantro chutney and a filling featuring green leafy vegetables.

*  *  *

A fun thing happened last week- I got a box of goodies in the mail. My blogger friend The Cooker has started a small business called The Roost Boost- creatively crafted care packages. 

She sent me her low-carb care package to try so I got to nibble on tasty snacks all week- olives, roasted peanuts, almonds and edamame, popcorn and hummus. Two items that were new to me and very tasty were nacho-flavored protein chips and oorja whey protein bars.

It is hard to come up with ideas for snacks that are lower in carbs and can be sent in the mail, so I was impressed with her selection. It is a thoughtful way to send treats to someone who may have a very limited range of goodies that they can safely eat. Good luck to The Cooker and her new venture!

Have a great week, friends. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lemon Tahini Dressing

This, right here, right now, is a pretty exciting time for anyone who's trying to eat better- whatever "better" means for them. And I say this for two reasons. First, we are seeing a revival of home cooking and an enthusiasm for "real" food, so that any kind of diet change is more likely to involve tasty, wholesome food and less likely to involve some kind of package with a manufactured low-calorie concoction. Second, there are hundreds of books, blogs and websites out there with recipes and ideas for almost every kind of diet one can think of. So if you're looking to make a change, there are resources out there to help you.

In my case, eating better means eating in a more carb-conscious way, because I have insulin resistance and my body struggles to metabolize carbohydrates. I'm making this change while eating the way I've chosen to for the last 20 years- a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.

My desire to cut down sugar and limit carbs overlaps with many of the popular diets of our time- Paleo, Whole 30, South Beach and others. My desire to eat a more plant-based diet overlaps with those who eat a vegan or raw food diet.

I don't have to follow any of these diets. I don't have to embrace any of them (in fact, some of them irritate me with their pseudo-science) or agree with all of their features. But I can use ideas and recipes from people who are on these diets. The important thing is to keep meals interesting, tasty and varied within my new food rules, such as they are. Because that's what will help me stick to the plan.

So I've been busy bookmarking new recipes to try. I don't need to watch my fat intake- in fact, fat keeps me feeling full and satisfied, so creamy salad dressings are definitely on the menu. Apart from the Caesar salad dressing, I've been making an avocado yogurt dressing, a lemon caper olive oil dressing and a tahini lemon dressing. I've started stocking the fridge with a jar or two of dressing and a bowl of prepped salad. Add some cooked beans, lentil dal or pan-fried tofu and a good meal is just seconds away.

This tahini lemon dressing recipe came from a cookbook I found at the library, Oh She Glows by Angela Liddon, a book that came out of the blog of the same name. Angela has a knack for making vegan recipes that sound very hearty and tempting. I picked up several ideas from the book- the favorite being falafel bites- baked falafel served in lettuce cups with a cucumber-tomato chopped salad and a tahini dressing. Doesn't that sound good?

The lemon tahini dressing recipe is at the bottom of this post on Oh She Glows. You simply blend the ingredients in a food processor: tahini, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, minced garlic, salt and pepper, adding some water and olive oil to thin the dressing as needed. Pour the dressing into a jar and store it in the fridge. It is a bold, flavorful dressing, with a cheesy flavor although there's no dairy in it at all. Lila begs me to lick the spoon and will eat the dressing straight-up with a spoon if I let her.

So our supper last night was a bed of greens with cooked green lentils, olive tapenade and a good bit of lemon tahini dressing. It is amazing how much my tastes have changed in a few short weeks. I would have sworn up and down that a salad plate like this is a skimpy dinner that would never leave me satisfied. But it left me fully satiated when I ate at 6 PM yesterday, and kept me so full through the night and morning that my first meal today was at 10 AM. Color me shocked.

The dressing is also wonderful over roasted vegetables, by the way, especially roasted cauliflower and roasted eggplant.

So my three simple tips for today:

1. If you think salads are dull and boring, try a zippy dressing and you just might change your mind.

2. Keep raw veggies prepped and ready in the fridge and you'll start reaching for them when you need a snack.

2. Explore recipes from vegan, paleo, low carb (and other diet-based) blogs for fresh ideas to eat more of the things you want to be eating. And also to change your mind-set that leaving out the rice, tortillas, noodles and pasta means there's nothing good left to eat. Don't be deterred by labels. We can take different paths to get to the same goal. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Stumbling Into an Exercise Habit

The first 6 weeks of 2015 were, on the face on it, very ordinary ones in my life. But underneath it all, it has been a time of profound transformation for me. Of small changes that led to big realizations. One of the biggies was the start of an exercise habit.

I hardly need to repeat the benefits of being active- there are too many to list and we are all aware of them- but it is one of those things that is definitely easier said than done. I've been trying to embrace an exercise habit for so many years, and I've failed repeatedly. By last year, I wasn't even really trying any more.

Then one thing led to another. It started last April, when our neighbors across the street came over for a meal. Neighbor lady said, hey, how about we start going for walks around the neighborhood after dinner? It sounded like a good idea- low key, low commitment. And it was. Since then, we've been walking a few times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on our schedules and the weather. Our neighborhood is hilly, so there is some exertion involved. But the important thing is that I felt like I was doing something active. Of course, going on long walks is also therapeutic as you get to have a heart to heart chat with a friend.

When May rolled around, this neighbor told me about an outdoor pool in town that is only open during the summer months. I loved to swim as a child, but hadn't been in a pool for almost 2 decades. She urged me to go check it out. I already owned a swimsuit that I'd bought years ago for a beach vacation. So I gathered up some courage and went to the pool. And saw men and women of all different ages and all different body types and body sizes swimming gracefully. I swam several times a week last summer. A cool dip in the pool in the hot Georgia summer, with blue skies overhead, surrounded by shady trees- my lunch-time swim was the highlight of my days. At the end of the swim, I often felt a wave of exhilaration- the exercise "high" that I've heard about. On swimming days, my sleep was deep and sound.

I can swim laps easily and stay afloat indefinitely but my swimming technique is not great. Basically, I keep my head above water- and if you've seen good swimmers doing the freestyle stroke, you know how they submerge their faces and come up for air every few seconds. My poor technique was straining my neck and slowing me down. By the end of summer, I made a promise to myself to take some swimming lessons so that by the time summer 2015 rolled around, I would know how to swim "properly" once and for all.

After summer came our trip to India and there was very little time or opportunity while we were there to get any real exercise. Back home, I knew I wanted to get moving again. The pool was closed and it was getting too cold and dark for regular post-dinner walks (although we still go a couple of times a week). I found this post with some free home workout ideas and tried some of them. I was doing one of the routines (a YouTube video) every other day for a couple of months and it was OK but I wasn't too excited about it.

Meanwhile, a friend gave me the phone number of her occasional babysitter, a young nursing student who also works as a swim instructor. In Jan, I texted the instructor and set up a 30 minute swim lesson at a community gym with an indoor pool. She turned out to be a wonderful instructor- she knew how to teach the right technique of breathing during freestyle swimming plus she was very sweet and reassuring. The first time I dipped my face in the water, I started spluttering and choking. It feels very unnatural for a land-dwelling mammal to put their head underwater. But I was told that the whole inhale-outside-exhale-underwater cycle comes with practice.

I might not love to exercise but I LOVE to learn. I feel alive and happiest when I am learning something new. And as an "obliger", I want to please my teacher so I work hard for the praise. Granted, most times, I'm learning something that requires mental skills (knitting a lace pattern, using a new computer program), but still, I embraced this physical challenge of learning to breathe correctly while swimming. I needed access to the pool to practice, so I got a 30 day membership (it was super cheap, since it happened to be January, the month of enticing gym discounts). I went to the pool 2-3 times a week and did my best to practice what the instructor taught. It was hard but in a matter of weeks, I'm about 75% of the way there. It turned out that wearing swim goggles made a huge difference in being comfortable with putting my face underwater. And it is exciting to feel like I will soon be a "real proper swimmer" zipping through the water quite effortlessly.

When I got the gym membership for the pool access, the person at the front desk told me that all classes come free with the membership. Well, if I'd sort of already paid for the classes, why not drop in and see what they are like? The first couple of classes weren't ideal- the first one was too crowded with about 25 people jammed into the room, and in the second class, the teacher kept chatting about sports and politics during the class, which I did not enjoy. Then I found a twice-weekly class that is quite perfect- at a good time (in the morning after I drop off Lila), with a half hour of stretching and a half hour of strength training. It has all the ingredients of being perfect for a beginner- an enthusiastic and welcoming instructor, 5-7 people in the class, upbeat music, workouts that are not too easy and too not hard for my out-of-shape self. Again, this taps into my true nature. I am not inclined to exercise on my own at home, but I am very good at showing up on time for a class and obediently doing whatever the instructor says to do.

For the last month, I've been swimming twice a week, and doing these classes twice a week. And to my utter disbelief, this is all a lot of fun and I look forward to it. It is a small and basic community gym, with friendly and mostly older patrons, so I don't feel out of place and intimidated like I might in a swanky gym surrounded by picture perfect bodies. I've paid for another 3 months of gym membership.

And then a couple of weeks ago I went down two floors to see a colleague about something, and she was standing at her desk. She gave me a spiel about how sitting long hours is terrible for our health. For a lark, I found some boxes and thick books to put under my monitors and keyboard and rigged up a standing desk for myself. And then I loved it/got too lazy to remove the boxes and so I've been standing (more like fidgeting around on my feet) the whole time during my working hours. I only work 3 days a week, but still, it feels great to not be trapped in a chair. The office manager did order an anti-fatigue mat for me to stand on which makes it much more comfortable.

Walking, swimming, exercise classes, standing at my desk. That's a whole lot of changes in a short time. None were planned but I am so grateful that things started to fall in place. Only time will tell if I continue to stay this excited about exercising, but I definitely have a good feeling that this time it is different and maybe the habit is clicking for real. There's a sense of relief that maybe I'm not the hopeless couch potato that I thought I was. "The best exercise is the one you do", it is said, and I am glad that friends have encouraged me to start doing something and not keep waiting for the perfect moment and the perfect workout.

If you have any tips for an exercise newbie, send them my way! I'd love to hear about how you're fitting exercise into your life, or if you're struggling to fit it in.