Monday, January 26, 2015

Caesar Salad

The recent edible highlights in my life can be summarized as follows: Caesar Salad and Chocolate.

The chocolate came about because of a couple of small celebrations. And both times, Alice Medrich's beautiful cookbook Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts delivered with great recipes. I'm glad I thought to leaf through the book on my own shelf rather than hitting up the Internet looking for a recipe as I tend to do. 

The first was a birthday celebration at work, and I made a dozen vanilla cupcakes with mocha fudge frosting. This frosting is an excellent option for the buttercream-averse (me!) and it calls for cooking together butter, sugar, cocoa, espresso and cream, then letting the mixture cool into a thick glossy fudge to be spooned onto cupcakes. So easy and oh so good. And given the magical inbuilt portion control of cupcakes, I enjoyed one and the rest were devoured by co-workers. 

Then yesterday we had V's colleagues over for Indian food. Well, everything but the dessert was Indian food. We had the standard oldies but goodies of green bean patties and faux sev puris (faux because of the tortilla chip base and the cranberry chutney instead of the usual tamarind-date one- using what I had in the freezer), egg curry, chana masala, roasted cauliflower, raita and rice.

For the dessert, I broke out the springform pan and tried something new- Medrich's Queen of Sheba Torte version 5.0. It is a dense, creamy, RICH, nearly flourless dark chocolate cake. Easy to make and elegant, at least by my modest standards. V whipped up some raspberry cream to serve with it. I think this will be my go-to company dessert for this year. A tiny sliver is so decadent and satisfying, which is exactly what I'm looking for in a dessert these days.

Sweets apart, I've been gorging on fresh greens. A good salad dressing can make raw greens irresistible. This is my interpretation of a classic Caesar salad dressing. The dressing can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge but I usually make it as needed in under 60 seconds. This amount of dressing serves 1 or 2.

In a bowl, stir together

  • 2 tbsp. mayonnaise (I like Hellman's)
  • 1 tsp. dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp. capers (drained from a jar)
  • 1/2 clove raw garlic, grated (I use a microplane zester)
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Toss with fresh greens and shredded Parmesan cheese (Sartori from Wisconsin is my favorite and I can find it in the local supermarket). Serve right away.

Have a great week and I'll see you next Monday with a round up of books and TV from this month. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

White Bean Chili

Chilly days call for big pots of chili to warm you from the inside out- and that's just what I cooked this weekend. I was in the mood for something a little different from the usual tomato-based red chili, so I tried a white chili instead, inspired by this recipe from The Kitchn.

White chilis generally have green chiles, white beans like Great Northern or cannellini or navy beans and chicken or turkey- which for a vegetarian version can be simply omitted or subbed with some mock meat. This time I used quorn (mycoprotein) mock chicken tenders- stocked up on sale at the grocery store. Here's my version of the recipe, in brief. It is an easy peasy recipe and it was an instant hit. I'll be making this hearty chili again and again. Canned green chiles and white beans (both the dry and canned versions) are easy to find in any US supermarket. For the corn, I used frozen roasted corn from Trader Joe's- I thawed it before using it in the recipe. But any fresh, canned or frozen corn would work.

White Bean Chili
(Adapted from The Kitchn)
  1. Soak 3/4 cup of dried white beans overnight. Rinse and pressure cook them. Set aside.
  2. Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a large pot. 
  3. Saute 1 diced onion, 1 diced green pepper, 1 diced carrot, 1 diced yellow squash and 3 cloves of garlic, minced. 
  4. Add a can of diced green chiles, cumin, oregano, Mexican chili powder, salt and pepper to taste. Saute for a couple of minutes.
  5. Add 1 cup corn, 1 packed mock chicken (I used quorn "chicken" tenders), white beans and 6 cups vegetable stock or water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. 
  6. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, melt 3 tbsp. butter. Add 3 tbsp. flour and whisk to make a roux. Add 3/4 cup whole milk and whisk well to make a thick lump-free sauce. 
  7. Add the white sauce into the soup and mix well. Simmer for 10 more minutes. 
  8. Turn off the heat and garnish with juice of 1/2 lemon and a handful of minced cilantro. Taste and adjust salt and seasonings. 
  9. Serve with hot sauce on the side, plus a topping of crushed tortilla chips and shredded cheese, if desired. 
As the original recipe says, the flavor and texture of the soup gets better a few hours after it is made. If you're looking for a hearty stew this winter, I highly recommend this recipe.

* * *

Half-way through January, I'm pretty excited about how this month is coming along. The goal for this month was to start cutting down on excess carbohydrates to make my diet more compatible with my body's challenges with managing blood sugars.

The way I am eating now does not feel all that different from the way I ate before. There are only a few tweaks in place to reduce or replace the big carb heavy components. So I have been eating dal and subzi, just with a big pile of koshimbir (shredded raw vegetables) instead of rice. I enjoy Mexican flavors, but in a bowl instead of rolled up in a tortilla. I've been trying out spaghetti squash casseroles and loving them. I've been making a dressing for Caesar salad that is so irresistible that it has me craving big bowls of greens.

And so the emphasis is on satisfying vegetable-heavy meals. This is important because what I'm trying to establish here is not a "diet" in the sense of that short-term unpleasant thing you do to get to some goal. This is the way I will eat for the rest of my life.

As for ingredients like rice, it is not an all or nothing deal. Every now and then, I will eat a small amount. For instance, I made my favorite quick winter meal- khichdi- with 1 cup moong dal and 1/4 cup rice. Usually there's at least as much rice as dal, if not more rice than dal. And I enjoyed my dal-heavy khichdi with a large helping of two different stir-fried vegetables- subzis, making vegetables the star of the meal while also enjoying the warm khichdi.

What about snacks?  Crispy salty snacks are my kryptonite. This month, I've completely stopped buying potato chips, tortilla chips and fried Indian snacks like chaklis. If I am served any of these things somewhere, say at a party or a friend's home, I'll eat a few- no problem. But I just can't have the whole package in my house because I know I simply cannot eat these in moderation- the family size bag will vanish in hours. When V picked up a packet of chaklis at the store, I requested that he keep it in his office for snacking instead of at home. Because I don't need a packet of chaklis in my pantry and also, once I get my hands on it, he has no chance of tasting even half a chakli. I'll polish them off in record time. So you do need family buy-in to help you avoid the foods you're trying to steer clear of.

Instead, this month I'm keeping three snacks on hand, all three are foods that I love: (a) nuts,  (b) hummus and veggie sticks and (c) homemade granola with unsweetened almond milk. If cravings strike between meals, I turn to one of these. Many people use high-protein granola bars and smoothies as snacks, but I really don't like the taste of either granola bars or smoothies, so I'm going with what I personally like to eat.

But here's the funny thing: I rarely feel like snacking any more. All my life, I've been on a roller coaster of high and low blood sugars. I get hunger pangs every couple of hours, and need regular snacks between meals to keep from feeling jittery and moody. Once I removed the thing that my body can't handle- excess carbs- the problem of being constantly hungry is going away too. For the first time in my life, I'm not craving snacks all the time and it is a nice feeling to be satisfied from one meal to the next. Let's see what the rest of this month brings. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Synopsis: The End of Diabetes

Image: Goodreads
Every bookstore and library is filled with aisles upon aisles of books on health, diet and self-help. I confess to having very mixed feeling about these books. My approach is to read some of these books to see if they contain anything useful, while being deeply skeptical of embracing any one book or author as the ultimate truth.

Most authors have a central thesis or pet theory. They are often guilty of cherry picking research studies with conclusions that support their pet theory. Don't get me started on how flawed and biased many of the research studies are in the first place. Most books are full of exaggerated claims and promises of a miracle. Authors go to great lengths to explain why everyone who believes anything different is flat out wrong.

But now and then I read these books anyway, because despite everything I just said, I've also come across valuable information, different viewpoints, messages of hope, ideas for changing habits and useful tips and recipes. There is a grain of truth in the hype. I will post a book review every now and then if I come across a book which says something interesting. This is one I read last month.

The End of Diabetes: The Eat To Live Plan to Prevent and Reverse Diabetes by Joel Fuhrman, MD.

The crux of the book is this: Type II diabetes can be prevented and reversed with a nutrient dense diet of plant based foods. Here's what I took away from each of the chapters in this book. Quotes from the book are in italics.

Chapter 1: Understanding diabetes
The actual discussion of the causes of type I and type II diabetes in this chapter was quite garbled, in my opinion. But there is one bit of discussion at the end of the chapter that I really liked. Fuhrman criticizes the system of food exchanges used by the American Diabetic Association (ADA), which is the basis of how most nutritionists teach new diabetics to eat (for example, me when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes). The ADA tries very hard to work with the standard American diet, recommending small portions of low-nutrient, low-fiber foods. "Cereal is OK, just eat only 1/2 cup of it"- that sort of thing. This leaves patients hungry and struggling to comply with the nutrition plan. Instead of just reducing portions of rice and tortillas when I had GD, I wish I had the sense to add in substantial portions of non-starchy vegetables which would have left me sated. Anyway, I agree with Fuhrman that the standard nutritional advice given to diabetics is very poor and it misses the boat.

Chapter 2: Don't medicate, eradicate
"Clearly our present dependency on drugs to control diabetes without an emphasis on dietary and exercise interventions is promoting diabetic complications and premature death in millions of people all over the world". Fuhrman explains how medications-including oral pills and insulin- give type II diabetics a false sense of security that their diabetes is under control which leads patients to continue living the very same lifestyle that led to the disease in the first place. "The best medicine for diabetics is a high-nutrient, lower-calorie diet and exercise, not drugs. This is the only approach that lowers cholesterol, lowers triglycerides, and lowers blood pressure as it drops weight and blood glucose". 

Chapter 3: Standard American diet versus a nutritarian diet
Fuhrman recommends what he calls a "nutritarian" diet- a diet rich in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals). The foods it emphasizes are familiar ones- vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fruits. Animal foods are strongly discouraged. So, he is essentially recommending a vegan diet but minus high-starch foods like white rice, refined grains and bread products. I found this chapter interesting because I eat a vegetarian, predominantly South Asian diet and the recommended foods like vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds are the very pillars of Indian home cooking.

Chapter 4: Reversing diabetes is all about understanding hunger
"Toxic hunger appears at the lower plateau of the blood sugar curve, drives overeating behavior, and strongly increases the desire to consume more calories than the body requires, leading to weight gain and diabetes. True hunger, however, appears when the body has used up most of the calories from the previous meal...and is ready to be refueled. With a change of diet, toxic hunger gradually lessens and resolves, allowing individuals to be satisfied eating less".

"Wrong food choices lead to withdrawal symptoms that are mistaken for hunger...Initially, these symptoms are relieved after eating, but the cycle simply starts over again with the symptoms returning in a matter of hours. Eating when you experience toxic hunger in not the answer. Changing what you eat to stop toxic hunger is."

"...trying to eat fewer calories is ineffective and almost futile. The secret is to desire fewer calories. The high consumption of low-calorie, high-nutrient foods such as raw vegetables, cooked greens, beans and seeds prepared in delicious combinations makes you feel physically full from all the fiber and satisfied from all the chewing. You lost the addictive cravings and then you simply and naturally desire less food."

Chapter 5: High protein, low carb counterattack
Here Fuhrman spends a great deal of time talking about the dangers of low-carb diets that are based on animal protein. I understand advocacy of vegetarian and vegan diets or meat-heavy diets for that matter but I get uneasy when authors cherry pick scientific studies to support their statements. So this is the part where I just moved on. People have all sorts of reasons for eating what they want to eat. I've made my choices so I just want to know how to maximize them.

This chapter also emphasizes that many plant based foods such as beans, lentils and vegetables have a high protein content.

Chapter 6: The phenomenal fiber in beans
Legumes such as beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas have protein, soluble and insoluble fiber and another type of fiber called resistant starch which has health benefits. "Considering their favorable effects on blood sugar and weight loss, they (legumes) are the preferred carbohydrate source for people who have diabetes or are at risk for diabetes". 

Chapter 7: The truth about fat
Fuhrman emphasizes that whole plant-based high fat foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados are an important part of the diet. "I have encountered many individuals who have not thrived on vegan or flexitarian diets...Often they do not realize their real problem. They go back to eating large amounts of animal products, not knowing that they were fat deficient on their low-fat vegan diet. For most of these individuals, eating more healthy fats from nuts and seeds, taking a DHA supplement, and eating fewer starchy carbohydrates clears up the problem". 

Chapter 8: The nutritarian diet in action
In this chapter, Fuhrman outlines his recommendations: The unlimited foods to be eaten liberally are all raw vegetables, all cooked green vegetables and other non starchy vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, onions and cauliflower. Some fruit can be eaten. 2 cups a day of beans are allowed along with some nuts and seeds. "The salad is the main dish". Fuhrman recommends starting every main meal with a big salad.

My take on his advice from this chapter: Fuhrman's diet does not endorse oil, not even for sauteing vegetables. His recommended diet is restrictive and unappetizing with almost no salt. I understand that Fuhrman's patients are often very sick and I don't know what their particular needs might be. For myself, I know that spices and seasonings and sauces are all wonderful things that will support me in eating better.

There is a whole spectrum between eating to live (food strictly as fuel, which is right there in the title of this book) and living to eat (food as entertainment and indulgence). But there is plenty of space to thrive in a middle zone where many of the pleasurable and emotional connections of food are retained while eating food that nourishes the body and is right for one's own metabolism.

Chapter 9: The six steps to achieving our health goals
These involve making the commitment, drawing up a plan, tracking progress, making it public, making your kitchen healthy and the exercise prescription. "In place of dependency-inducing drugs, the proper medical intervention for this disease is to focus on the aggressive use of diet and exercise".

Chapter 10: For doctors and patients
This chapter is a pep talk for physicians to recommend diet and exercise changes and not just prescribe medication.

Chapter 11: FAQ

Chapter 12: Menus and recipes
Breakfast recipes typically contain oats, fruits and nuts. Other recipes are a variety of dips and dressings, lentil and bean soups, bean burgers, vegetable curries and stir-fries.

In summary, this book has two interesting take-home messages. The first is that people diagnosed with diabetes or at high risk for becoming diabetic have very good reason to be optimistic that at any time and any stage, they can change their lifestyle and reverse the disease to a remarkable extent, even reducing or eliminating the need for medication.

The second message is that a plant based diet is compatible with preventing and reversing diabetes. This is reassuring to anyone who has chosen to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet (or mostly vegetarian or vegan) for whatever reason and who feels a bit defeated by the prevailing climate of meat-based low-carb diets. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

"Noodle" Stir Fry

Sowmya requested the recipe for the "noodle" stir fry I mentioned in my last post- so here it is as promised. I swapped out noodles for broccoli slaw to lower the carb content of this meal while making it vegetable-heavy.

This does not have to be an all or nothing swap, by the way. Even if some cooked wheat/rice/other noodles were added to this dish, it would still have a lot more vegetables than standard vegetables noodles which tend to be heavy on noodles with only a few bits of vegetables here and there. Do what works for you!

Broccoli Tofu Stir-Fry

Broccoli slaw is a shredded mixture of broccoli stalks, sometimes with some carrots and red cabbage included. It is sold in packages in the produce section of American supermarkets.

  1. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a wide pan on medium heat.
  2. Drain and pat dry 1 package of extra-firm tofu. Cut into bite-sized cubes. Pan fry the tofu until lightly browned. When the tofu is almost ready, sprinkle it with 2 tbsp. nutritional yeast and a bit of soy sauce. Stir fry for a minute more, then remove tofu into a plate and set aside.
  3. In the same pan, heat 1/2 tbsp. oil. Pour in a 10 oz package of broccoli slaw. Stir fry for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add 2 tsp. ginger garlic paste, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sriracha sauce, a drizzle of maple syrup, all to taste.
  5. Add a handful of crushed peanuts or a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter.
  6. Stir fry for a couple more minutes.
  7. Garnish with minced cilantro or green onions.
  8. Toss with the tofu and serve. 

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Plan for Jan

Happy New Year! I'm glad 2015 is here with a blank slate, and I hope it will be sprinkled liberally with joyful and meaningful moments for you and for me.

I've read of people who, instead of making resolutions, adopt a word or an overarching theme for the new year. It is a great way to help steer one's life in the direction you want to go. I thought about it a little bit and chose the theme Nupur 2.0 for this year. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Seuss goes like this: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” So the goal is to listen to what my body needs and revise my habits to be more true to myself.

In more concrete terms, I'm going to be working on one major goal every month. Based on my family's medical history and my personal medical history that I've talked about before which points to insulin resistance, the most urgent change for me is to stop eating excess carbs. Other factors are important too- getting enough sleep, managing stress, exercising regularly- but this is the critical one. Without making this change, the rest won't matter much.

As far as cutting out excess carbs goes, I'm aiming for the low hanging fruit, so to speak. The stuff that is mostly empty carbs and that I tend to eat too much of- rice, bread, parathas, tortillas, noodles and pasta. These will be replaced by vegetables and more vegetables, both raw and cooked. I happen to love vegetables so this is no hardship. Beans and lentils, nuts and seeds are all in. Beans, legumes and some veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes have an abundance of nutrition even if they are carb-heavy, and if I'm cutting down on the other starches, then I have room in my "budget" for these. The idea is not to cut out carbs altogether but to bring them down to a level that my body can handle.

I'll continue to eat eggs and some dairy- mostly homemade yogurt and some butter, ghee and cheese which I use mostly as flavoring. And I occasionally eat tofu and meat substitutes as well.

Here are some examples of swaps I've been making in December, replacing carb-heavy staples with vegetables.

Our lunch consists of leftovers from the previous night's dinner. Often, my lunchbox would have rice, dal with pickle on the side. Here's version 2.0: garlickly moong dal with a large helping of roasted broccoli and squash and the requisite dollop of pickle. I was pleasantly surprised that I did not miss the rice at all.

Rajma (kidney bean curry) and tortillas are a popular dinner option at my home. On that day, a friend left on a long vacation and stopped by with a big bag of produce that he'd cleaned out from his fridge- could I please use it up so it would not be wasted? The bag contained lettuce, cucumbers and peppers among other things. So I skipped the tortillas and spooned the rajma on a giant salad, dressed simply with lemon juice, salt and pepper. This I expected would taste really weird. It was surprisingly tasty- the hot rajma wilted the lettuce a bit, and everything was juicy and delicious. I thought I would eat seconds but could barely finish this bowl.

Fried egg is one of my favorite breakfasts. Instead of eating it with a couple slices of toast or a whole grain tortilla, I took half an avocado, mashed it with a fork and stirred in a pinch of salt and some hot sauce. I had some salad left over (this was the morning after the rajma dinner) and ate that on the side. This was a great way to start the day.

Another favorite meal at my place is noodle stir fry with vegetables and tofu. For version 2.0, I skipped the noodles, and used broccoli slaw instead. Broccoli slaw is sold in packages in the produce section of US supermarkets- it is basically shredded broccoli stems, sometimes with carrots and red cabbage. I was pleased at how much the sautéed slaw resembled the texture of noodles. The whole meal was a snap to put together and very satisfying.

All this month, I will continue these swaps and pay attention to my mood and energy levels, my hunger and cravings, and to my weight and waist size. I've taken some "before" measurements so I have something to compare to. The idea is to make the changes, see if they work and adjust as necessary.

How did you ring in the new year? What are your hopes and dreams for 2015?