Thank you, Thank You Sam I Am

Thank you, thank you Sam I am, because if it weren’t for my willingness to try zucchini again, I would never have been able to eat this for dinner last night. It is zuchinni manicotti from Laughing Seed* in Asheville, NC. It was unbelievable, fantastic, otherworldly. Really, really good. And the funny thing is that the “noodle” in this manicotti, as you may have guessed from the picture is simply very thinly sliced raw zuchinni. I do not like raw zucchini, Sam I am. I will not eat it in a boat. I will not eat it with a goat. I will not eat it and I’m not bashful; I will not eat eat it while I’m in Asheville…. Unless it’s this…. Holy Moly.

It was filled with what I believe was some sort of cashew cream and grated zucchini with pesto. Chunky marinara as a sauce, and drizzled basil infused olive oil. Olives on the plate and a basil garnish, as you can see. It was all raw and while not cold, not heated. I will not eat a cold squash dish; I will not eat it with a catfish. I will not eat it in the mountains; I will not eat it in the fountain… until this dish, which I fully intend to attempt to reproduce at home and will eat in a fountain to amuse you…

In the past, as you may have guessed, I have not been a fan of zucchini, and more recently while having conceded to eating cooked zucchini, I have specifically been an anti-fan of raw zucchini in any form. The interesting lesson for me over the years is that from time to time, one dish that can transform how we feel about a food that we have “always hated.”  I will try it Sam I am.  If you will leave me be, I will try it.  This has happened twice for me with the unlikely zucchini.

My relationship with zucchini began in a more modest preparation than the spectacular raw zucchini manicotti – a baby step that was a bit of a squash revelation for me. If you are not a zucchini fan, you may want to give it a go; if you are, try a new way. As I recall,l I read about this preparation in Cook’s Illustrated and it turned me on to zucchini – and helped me identify what I didn’t like about the veggie as usually cooked. It was the mush. I don’t like sliced sautéed squash because it gets too mushy. So here, we are, another way…

Grate Green Zucchini
I usually prepare at least three average sized zucchini at a time in this way to serve as a side dish. Wash the zukes, cut the ends off. Using the large side of a box grater, grate the little devils almost to the core. Do NOT grate the middle part with the seeds; this is where all the liquid is. Put grated zucchini into a fine strainer or sieve. Add a quarter teaspoon of salt and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Occasionally stir and press down to encourage the liquid to leave.  Give the zucchini one final (and thorough) press from the top. Remove to a towel and squeeze out as much remaining liquid as possible. Warm small amount of olive oil in pan on lower medium heat. Add zucchini to pan and sauté, stirring gently until the green from the skin becomes more vibrant and the flesh is slightly softer. Add salt and pepper to taste. I also like a little lemon with mine. We like ours as a simple side, but it also good mixed into any number of dishes, and added to sandwiches, tortillas, you know how we roll over here. Before you know it, you may be adding sautéed zukes to all kinds of things… and one day, you may even find yourself slicing some paper thin to wrap around some basil cream… Delish!

*For those of you interested in the restaurant, or in vegetarian and vegan cuisine specifically, we also ordered a fantastic seitan curry and the boy had a seitan and hempseed burger. My picky one was delighted to sample the pita pizza. We all enjoyed the dinner immensely, ate at a table outside in the 78 degree sunshine and relished our last evening in North Carolina.

Eat Food. Real Food.

This is the subtext for our blog.  Eat food.  Real food.  And as we have met so many fascinating people through this blog – and seen so many fascinating and clever approaches to eating healthfully (and joyfully!), Little Sis and I come back to what started all of this blogging for us.  Real food.

It is a difficult but rewarding journey to procure, prepare and eat real food within this crazy, convenience-ized, instant gratification culture of ours.

There are many wonderful epicurean lifestyles out there that claim to improve people’s health.  Sometimes they are at complete odds with each other and both sides claim to have scientific ‘proof’ that their diet is the one that will lead all people to optimum health.  Well, since when has one approach ever led even 75% of the world’s population to the same conclusion or end goal?  I mean even the notion that we should be kind and not kill each other is present in all the world’s major religions and yet, we’re still killing each other!  But let me get back to food.  Real food.

I would argue that be it the Paleo diet (lots of meat and veggies – little carbs) or a plant-based diet (with or without oil), vegan vs. vegetarian, no dairy vs. yogurt-makes-people-in-the-Caucasus Mtns-live-into- their 100’s… these diets improve people’s health when, and perhaps primarily because, they decrease the amount of processed foods in the diet.  And do you know what processed food includes?

Sugar.

Sugar is not a natural food.

What?  Bigg Sis have you lost your mind?  Sugar is the MOST natural food.  It’s what plants make from water and sunlight.  It’s what your brain consumes to allow you to sit there and type out your thoughts.  Sugar is the only food.

Let me elaborate.  Refined sugar…. concentrated sugar…. sugar beyond the amount that exists in the wonderful fruits, vegetables and milk we have at our disposal is not natural.  Even sugar cane has other stuff in it.  It doesn’t pour out of the end of the cane like a Pixie Stick!  Our bodies use incoming calories to make sugar and energy, but our bodies evolved, were created, came into being, with lesser amounts of the stuff than we currently consume.  And sugar, as in refined, as in un-natural amounts, is proving to be a very bad physiological choice for humanity.  Hummingbirds seem to do okay with it, but not humans.

So, as far as taking the first steps to improve your health via a nutritious, and beneficial diet?  Reduce processed food.  Reduce processed food and you reduce sugar – along with a host of other nasty chemicals that are also used as rocket propellant (sodium nitrite a meat preservative) and boat cleaner (azidocarbamide – a dough conditioner).  Little Sis and I are thinking that along with the series we did on sugar, we’d like to share how we have reduced the processed foods in our lives.  We’re looking for the common things that many people like to use and abuse that they think are cheaper and more convenient.  We abused too!  I promise.  I used to think it was a healthy choice to buy Mrs. Paul’s fish filets as opposed to the sticks!

I think once you get used to a slight change here and there in your routine, you will find that our methods do not take more time and are definitely not more expensive if you measure cost per nutrient.  And hey… hospitals, diabetic supplies, dialysis, drugs, and coffins are WAY more expensive than any of the concoctions my cheapskate little sister and my-cheapskate-self have come up with.

So I’d like to offer several more alternatives to boxed cereal – one of the MOST egregious users of sugar.

Little Sis has given you lots of great ideas for oatmeal – both cooked easily overnight, and soaked easily overnight.  Here is another soaker cereal recipe:

Buckwheat Groats

Buckwheat Breakfast Bowl (Gluten free)
Buckwheat is not actually wheat – it is a seed from a non-wheat plant that is somewhat pyramidal in shape.  For this recipe you want the actual seeds, not flour.
1 handful of buckwheat groats per person
1 handful raw sunflower seeds per person
Place in a bowl and cover with about 2″ of water.
Cover the bowl and let it sit overnight.
Rinse until the water runs clear the next morning – it will look a little cloudy and slimy.
Serve as is or add a little almond, soy or cow’s milk along with some raisins or chopped dates, nuts, or other fruit, a little cinnamon adds some sweetness as well.

Make your own Granola on the weekend and enjoy all week long!
Recipe adapted from Ruth Yaron’s Super Baby Food
Pre-heat oven to 350
Spread 5 cups oats in a 9×13 dish (I usually do 2 dishes at the same time)
Heat the oats for 10 minutes
While the oats are heating, mix:
1/2 cup oil
1/3 cup honey, maple syrup or a combo
1 teaspoon vanilla
(for each batch : if making 2 batches at once I mix this in 2 separate measuring cups so I can add one to each dish of 5 cups oats)
Chop or break one cup of nuts for each batch
When oats are warm add the nuts plus:
1 cup coconut (unsweetened is less sugar and available at some groceries in the bulk and definitely at health food stores)
1 teaspoon cinnamon and
an oil/sugar mixture to each pan
Stir
Bake, mixing granola after 10 minutes and then after every 5 minutes for a total of 25 – 30 minutes, or until brown.  Let cool.  Keep in airtight container

And lastly – for replacing processed breakfasts – to add to Little Sis’ wonderful pancake recipes – a relatively simple mix.  Make the dry ingredients ahead of time and your morning routine will be quicker.  In fact make 2 or 3 dry batches in advance!  After everyone has eaten, lay the leftover pancakes on a plate, put them in the freezer and the next day transfer them to a plastic bag for future breakfasts.
Buttermilk  Whole wheat Pancakes:
1 cup whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
1 cup oats
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 & 3/4 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. oil
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
handful raw cashews (optional but very tasty!)
I usually make 1 & 1/2 or 2 times this recipe so there will be leftovers to freeze.
Mix dry.
Mix wet.
Mix the 2.
follow usual pancake cooking procedure – see Cast Iron Pancake Chef for tips

One need not eschew everything one loves to achieve a more healthy diet.  Unless of course all you love comes from the back of a Hostess or Frito-Lays truck.  But part of the journey is finding the healthy foods that work for you and your family.  Find the foods that bring you pleasure while nourishing your body.  You may just find that list expanding as you try new things without the numbing overly sweet and salty tastes which the processed food industry would like us to crave.  Keep us posted on the new discoveries that you make.  We have learned so much from the input, comments and blogs of our on-line companions on this journey.  It is nice to be in community with you!

The Pollen Count is WHAT?! Why Don’t I Feel It?

I have always had atrocious seasonal allergies.  I was that kid – you know the one with the constantly drippy nose, who carried tissues while other kids carried personal treasures, and who more often than not in the Spring was likely to be a little spacey because at that time Benadryl was the best answer to swollen eyes and gooey noses.  “Most people grow out of it…” they said.  And so I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I’m 42 now.  While I’ve not outgrown all of my childhood foibles, many have indeed gone by the wayside.  Not my allergies.  Last year was one of my worst.  I loaded up on prescriptions and struggled through the Spring, feeling a bit punished for my love of gardening and super fresh, super local (backyard grown) food.  I used my Neti pot, I used steroid nasal spray, I did everything I could to remain coherent AND breathe.

Over the last year my family and I have made a series of dietary changes.  We’ve been paying a lot of attention and have made every effort to eliminate as many processed foods as we can, and recently we’ve DRAMATICALLY decreased the amount of meat and dairy that we consume.  We still eat it, but mostly on the weekends, and try to keep the portion MUCH smaller.  More of a flavoring than an entree.  So here we are, feeling better than we have in a LONG time and tree pollen season is upon us.  I’ve noticed and had a few days that made me think about medicating… but I haven’t.  Mostly I feel pretty good.  I’ve been out in the garden; I’ve been doing yard work.  Yes, I feel that pollen, but this is a whole different world.  Everyone around me is complaining about their symptoms and trading tips on symptomatic relief.  I am breathing through not one, but TWO clear nostrils and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So what’s going on here?  Is it the strange weather?  Is it still too early and in a few days I will regret ever commenting on my relative comfort?  Possibly.  But the fact is that I feel better than I have ever felt.  In my life.  Ever.  There are doctors out there who will tell you that dietary change can influence your allergies…  No, really.  It’s true; the food you eat MAY actually have something to do with how your body functions.  I’ll be darned.  I’ll give you one link, but all you need to do is Google “diet and seasonal allergies” and you’ll get a quick roundup of the suggestions as to how and why these two may go hand in hand.  My personal experience is suggesting that there is something in either processed food or animal products that taxed my system in such a way that the additional load brought on by Spring pollen was just too much to bear.  I suppose I could do an elimination diet, testing one of these items at a time to see exactly which one, or which ones, are causing the trouble….  but I feel great.  So why would I do that?  I’ll just keep on keeping on and we’ll see what the rest of Spring looks like.  Maybe I’ll avoid being groggy at all.  Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

So here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you to eat what I eat so your problems will go away.  I’m not going to do that.  Our diet has been an evolution.  A long process of incremental change that has landed us here.  You may not find the idea of really cutting meat and dairy interesting, and I can understand that.  But maybe, just maybe, you’ll wonder what would happen if you made some changes.  What would happen if the next meal you made didn’t include food that could sit on a shelf for a year without changing?  I’m serious, what would that look like?  If you have made changes, and you’ve noticed a difference, I want to hear about it.   And for the first time with pollen counts this high, I’ll probably remember what you say when you respond.

Favorite Chef Gush


Once again I am reminded that good food is just a few steps away, in the pages of my Deborah Madison bible, I mean cookbook.  A fabulous friend introduced me to this book and my kitchen has not been the same since.  Just to be clear, I am not a vegetarian, at least not at the moment; however, for the past few years my family and I have been pursuing a diet that includes less meat and highlights as many vegetables as possible.  Madison’s book title is absolutely spot on.  The dishes she includes can be eaten as an entree, or a side dish and are all based on the principle that real food tastes good and that real food combined in just the right way is transcendent.

Our recent Deborah Madison experience was her Chickpeas with Potatoes and Tomatoes.  Know what’s in it?  Mostly chickpeas, potatoes and tomatoes, along with a few other items for flavor like onion, garlic, carrots, herbs and seasonings.  It is exactly the kind of dish that I love to find.  The ingredients list doesn’t take up the whole page, is markedly lacking in exotics, and the procedure is 5 sentences long; the results are spectacular.  Because I’ve made this dish, I have children who eat chickpeas and enjoy it.  The first time I made it, my husband and I enjoyed it and my children passed, instead eating the rice and yogurt I served alongside the dish.  The second time, my son joined us; my daughter stayed in the resistor’s camp (this is actually where she lives most of the time, occasionally emerging to visit the rest of us).  This time (what’s that about the third time being the charm?), everyone played.  It still wasn’t her favorite, but she REALLY loved the chickpeas and the rest of us loved the whole thing, this time served with quinoa.  Deborah Madison knows what REAL food is all about.  Essential ingredients in combinations that entice the senses and tickle the taste buds rather than drowning them.   The more I set my palate free from factory food and chemical habituation, the more I am able to appreciate the simple and spectacular on my plate.  My body already thanks me; and now, having been at it a while, my children do too.  Life in the kitchen is grand.

My Sister’s Recipe

It was a day for sisterly cooking.

First of all I prepared a quick and easy recipe my litlsis sent me.  Oddly enough, I cooked it while also scrambling eggs for breakfast so it would be waiting for us when we returned from a TaeKwonDo tournament.  The house filled with the smell of oregano and onion as we packed up our sparring equipment, packed some snacks of almonds and cashews and rehearsed our forms one last time.  The lentils and rice were slowly and surely soaking up all that wonderful smell and taste within a bath of chicken stock.while we kicked, punched and yelled, “Yes Sir!”

For lunch we slipped out of the hot and loud tournament facility to a lovely little cafe nearby which served all organic, local and field raised meat, veggie and grain dishes.  The owner of the cafe was being helped today by her sister and her sister’s children.  Despite child labor laws ; ) our order was taken by a very cheerful and handsome 10 year old boy who was very eager to help his aunt.  He carefully wrote down our order… no abbreviations allowed… and then ran into the kitchen to help prepare the meal.  His mother and his aunt were clearly aligned not only genetically but idealogically as well.  What fun to watch another loving family in action.  I expressed my appreciation to the owner for offering healthy alternatives in a retail sea of grease and sugar.  And I express my appreciation to my own sister as well as she fights the good fight for healthy food for her children and for her community.

Oh, and the lentil and rice casserole is delicious.  A little cheese on top.  Savory, filling, satisfying, and my grown up and getting to be grown up boys loved it as well!