Saturday, June 30, 2012

Quick no-bake chocolate ginger cake

Do you remember going to birthday parties when you were young? The thrill of that morning, the arrival at your friend's house, when all the other kids would flock to greet you and would then take you by the hand and carry you away from your parents, who'd be wandering off with the other parents toward another corner of the house where there'd be chatting and martini glasses, while you'd be off to much more exciting water balloons and running games. And then, as the party drew to an end, everyone would turn a bit lethargic and gloomy, and the games would be lessened by a note of sadness because it would soon be time to go. But fortunately, there was always cake to cheer everyone up. And it always did, because despite all its offences to do with calories and sugar and cholesterol and food coloring and whatnot, cake has an irresistible lure of instant gratification. Were those birthdays any different for you?

The other day I made a cake that I'm planning to make again on my birthday. It really was that good. This is one of Kim Snyder's recipes, but I don't have a food processor so I tweaked the recipe a bit to work for me. I especially love the concept of making a raw cake, because this also means: no flour! What? Cake without flour's blasphemy, you're thinking. Well, not exactly. This particular recipe uses almonds and walnuts as a base and coconut nectar to hold the whole thing together. Ah, and avocado to make the frosting! I'd like to have a slice of this every day for the rest of my life, please.

Raw chocolate ginger cake
~ serves 6

1 cup almonds
3/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup raw cacao (actual cacao powder, not hot chocolate mix or some other sugary powder)
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 tsp grated ginger root
3 Tbsp coconut nectar (or thick maple syrup; don't use agave)
5 Medjool dates, pitted and minced
1/8 cup coconut oil
1 tsp vanilla

1 small avocado, scooped out
3 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
2 Tbsp raw cacao
1/4 cup coconut nectar (or maple syrup)

Before we begin: this is not a pretty process, especially if you don't have the right tools. You need muscle and it will get messy. If you feel like giving up, you just have to tell yourself that it will all be worth it. Because it will.

I used a coffee grinder to process the almonds and walnuts in batches until they resembled small bread crumbs. If you don't have a grinder, you can also smash the nuts with a mortar and pestel until you get them really small. It's hard work, I know, but remember: it'll be worth it. 

Now put the nuts in a bowl and add the salt, ginger, dates, vanilla and coconut nectar or maple syrup. You are going to put your hands in there and knead the whole thing. Be careful, it's sticky! My dough was a tad too dry, so I added 1/8 cup coconut oil to moisten it. If yours is moist enough, you can skip the coconut oil. Knead until the dough is homogeneous.

Then take a 1 quart glass pan (it's important that you choose a glass pan because the dough won't stick to it) and press the dough firmly into it. You don't have to bake the cake. The coconut nectar and oil will keep it all together.

For the frosting, blend together the avocado flesh, dates, cacao and coconut nectar. This will be a softer mixture, so you'll be able to use a hand blender. Make sure it's smooth, and then spread the frosting evenly on top of the cake. Cover and chill for at least an hour before serving. 

To serve, use a sharp knife to cut triangular (or rectangular, depending on the shape of your pan) slices. And don't worry, if you pressed it well the cake is pretty sturdy so the slices won't break apart when you take them out.

Note: the original recipe uses a food processor. If you have one, use that recipe instead. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Impossibly smooth pea soup

I recently bought a Vitamix blender. I consider it one of the best purchases I ever made. In fact, this photo hardly does this soup justice. The Vitamix is like the Ferrari of blenders. That thing will blend rocks! So obviously, that's how I prepare my Glowing Green Smoothie every morning, and it's also a whole new avenue of experimentation when it comes to blended soups, drinks or ice cream. Mine also came with an entire book of recipes and, leafing through it in the excitement of the moment, I found most of them easy and unpretentious. My favorite kind.

Peas are great for you, by the way. They contain not only lots of fiber, but also iron and vitamin C. Besides, peas have a lot of protein for a plant: 3/4 cup of peas contain 8 grams of protein, more than a whole egg. I like to heat up peas and saute them with minced fresh dill weed and a little butter, which makes a delicious side for any meat of your choice. This soup, though, is vegan and it's something else. I love peas, but this brought peas to another level of awesomeness. I had this soup both hot and cold and to be honest I was partial to the cold version. Sooo refreshing!

Blended pea soup
~ serves 4

1 quart vegetable broth
4 medium potatoes, each cut in 4
8 oz frozen sweet peas
1/2 shallot or 1/2 small onion, uncut
1/2 inch piece of lemon peel

Place 2/3 of the broth in a pot together with the peas, quartered potatoes, shallot or onion and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat until the potatoes are tender (20-30 minutes). 

Then blend the mixture with the rest of the broth and the lemon peel. You can use a hand blender, regular blender, food processor or a Vitamix. You just might end up with a chunkier soup than I did, depending on the device you use. Blend about a minute or so, until you achieve maximum smoothness. Enjoy and thank me later!

Note: try this chilled, too. It will surprise you.

Recipe adapted from Vitamix Whole Foods Recipes.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Unbeautiful vegetarian broccoli casserole

The nutritional plan I'm currently testing categorizes foods very clearly: beautiful and unbeautiful. Broccoli is beautiful; cheese is unbeautiful. Broccoli has vitamin C, calcium, beta-carotene and fiber. Cheese obstructs digestion, but is disarmingly delicious. So I decided to marry the two, mostly because I had a package of cheese left in the fridge that I wasn't going to throw away. So, broccoli casserole it is! A green dish that's not pretty according to Kim Snyder's rules, but that certainly looks pretty on a plate. With this, I'm also going to say goodbye to dairy for a while. So enjoy every bite!

Unbeautiful vegetarian broccoli casserole

3 or 4 heads broccoli, cut into florets
1 can water chestnuts, sliced
1 cup of shredded cheese of your choice (if given the choice, always go for raw goat's milk Cheddar or Jack)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 egg
2 small jalapeno peppers, minced
2 tsp paprika

2 egg yolks
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon

First, prepare the mayonnaise. I always make my own, and this is how: place the two egg yolks in a glass bowl. Start adding olive oil little by little and stir very fast. It's important to stir this constantly and quickly, otherwise the mixture can get separated and the mayonnaise is ruined (If this happens, add a tablespoon of milk and mix very fast, that should mend it). Stirring constantly, continue adding the oil little by little until you incorporate all of it. The mixture should be creamy but thick. Add the mustard and stir well. Add the lemon juice at the end and mix well. At this point you can actually taste the mayonnaise and add more lemon juice if you like.

Beat the egg well in a large bowl. Add the chopped onion, chestnuts, jalapenos and broccoli florets and mix. Stir in 2/3 of the shredded cheese and lastly, add the mayonnaise. 

Grease a 9 x 13 pan with olive oil and pour the mixture into it. Sprinkle the remaining cheese. Sprinkle paprika on top. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until it looks amber and crispy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Beautifying, glowing and going green, all the way

Last week I was talking about embarking on a new diet plan. Not a diet, but a solution! Sounds promising, right? Short story about how I got here: a couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of Elle magazine from the Sacramento airport before boarding a plane back to Albuquerque. "We tested them all!," a title on the cover announced. "3 diets that really work." I flipped to the article out of sheer curiosity. Let's see what crazy things people are doing these days to lose weight, I thought. The first diet on the list was the Beauty Detox Solution, a nutritional plan created by Kimberly Snyder, a Certified Nutritionist whose knowledge and talent are touted by the creme de la creme of celebrities. Drew Barrymore and Fergie swear by her advice, the article said. So I rubbed my chin in deep thought. I was intrigued, not because the plan was recommended for weight-loss, but due to the favorable review by the Elle staffers: "I love that the focus isn't on counting calories or losing weight but on achieving glowing skin, shiny hair, and healthy digestion." Healthy digestion, eh? Gotta check this out.

So I remembered the name and the book, and a week later I picked up The Beauty Detox Solution from Barnes & Noble. It was their last copy, so I took this as a good sign - it must be popular. I read the book within a couple of days. It's not a heavy read, especially because Kim has a friendly instructive style and explains things very, very thoroughly. Her explanations also make sense, even if one is ignorant of the science behind them. 

For instance, one of the basic rules of the Solution is that fruit must be eaten only on an empty stomach. This was a blow for me, because I often have some fruit for dessert, instead of some starchy pastry or some sugary pudding. I thought this was the right way! But here's why it's not: fruits, according to Kim, are one of the most cleanse-promoting and nutrient-rich foods there are. But fruits also spoil at high temperatures and start to ferment. If we eat fruit after a substantial meal, we are queuing them up to be digested last, after the protein and starches from our main meal have been processed, which could take many hours. The chewed-up fruit will stand in line to be processed by the stomach at the 98.6 degrees inside our bodies. Now, that is a really high temperature to be keeping food. Not only will the fruit lose some of its nutrients while it's standing in line in there, but it will also start to poison our bodies as it starts to ferment. So that is why fruit should only be eaten on an empty stomach, and never after a meal.

Halfway through the book I started to really like Kim. And I decided that I would try to live the Beauty Detox way. It felt right. It also felt like a challenge, and I am always game for those. Unfortunately, in my pantry there are still items that Kim would disapprove of (mostly gluten flours - the Beauty Detox recommends gluten-free), and even though the book advises me to ruthlessly discard anything in my kitchen that's not a beautifying food (let's call these ugly foods), I am not one to throw away food. So little by little, I will try to phase them out by working them into my recipes in small quantities. This past week, for instance, I made a cranberry-banana cake with wheat germ that I didn't even get to take a photo of - it disappeared almost immediately it was so good! 

Here are some highlights of the week, in the spirit of Beauty Detox. Some of the recipes below are from Kim's blog.

This is the Glowing Green Smoothie, Kim's signature beauty drink. I watched Vince Vaughn talking about it on Letterman and then Dr. Oz drinking it on national television, so you understand how I absolutely had to make myself one. What is this concoction that famous people are praising? Well, it's definitely tasty, positively green and pretty filling. I am going to try to have this for breakfast every day for the next week. Stay tuned for reviews!

Ah, millet. The book recommends millet as a wheat substitute. To be honest, I'd never tried millet before. It looks a lot like white quinoa, but it has a softer texture. If you boil it enough and add lots of liquid, you get something that looks and tastes like mashed potatoes. This salad is Kim's recipe and contains olives, tomatoes, green onions, parsley (yet, this reminds me of Tabbouleh quite a bit!) and a delicious tart dressing. Very filling!

Home-made protein bars! Seriously awesome. Also one of Kim's recipes, these are creamy bars made of blended cashews with lime juice and other goodies. You get 10 grams of protein from just one of these small bars! If you like, you can substitute some other nuts for cashews. In fact, I just soaked some Brazil nuts to try a variation of the recipe. The process? 5 minutes to prep and blend, then freeze for 4 hours and ready. Mmmmmm!

Creamy cauliflower bisque - definitely in my Top 10 for soups! And although a blended soup with cauliflower and potatoes has a strong potential to be rather bland, the thyme and cayenne pepper in this one give it unsuspected, satisfying flavors.

cauliflower, 2 small heads or 1 humongous head, cut into florets
potatoes, 10 small (red) or 4 large (russet)
1/2 large onion
1 quart (32 oz) vegetable broth
1 cup evaporated milk (regular 2% milk or half and half will work too)
2 Tbsp butter
garlic, 2 large cloves, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (ground)
1/2 tsp thyme (ground)
parsley, cilantro or green onions for garnish
cheese for garnish (I passed on this, because the Beauty Detox denounces dairy, but if you really like cheese go for raw goat's milk Cheddar)

For slow cooker: layer cauliflower, potatoes, onion, garlic, cayenne pepper and thyme in slow cooker. Pour in vegetable broth and add a little water to cover. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours.
Blend the soup with a hand blender or regular blender, until almost smooth (I like chunks). Return soup to slow cooker. Add milk, butter, salt and black pepper and stir well. Cover and cook for 30 minutes on high.

If you don't have a slow cooker, just follow the directions and simmer the soup in a large pot, covered, for about 2 hours on low heat.

To serve, garnish with shredded cheese and the greens of your choice.

Recipe adapted from The Soup Bible.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Transitioning meals

My new favorite soup for lunch: Spicy curried squash soup from Frank's RedHot. Seriously awesome!

All right, so I know firsthand how challenging it is to have a healthy diet. It seems the more I delve into studies and theories about nutrition, the more persistently I'm revealed that I've been doing it all wrong. Despite my diligent efforts to eat simply, to eat salads, to cut down on wine and coffee, there's always some new diet du jour, some new "detox" plan that suggests I'm still not doing enough, and that my diet should be further disciplined.

I like to look at restrictions as challenges. This is not always easy, though. I will admit that food is a significant comforting factor for me and the prospect of not being allowed (or rather, denying myself) my favorite foods after a long day's work is somewhat daunting. I associate foods with memories, so familiar tastes and smells for me have a healing quality. I could be sipping Turkish coffee out of a small espresso cup, and it could be raining outside, or my mind could be mired by work affairs, but I close my eyes and for a moment I'm no longer there. I've been teleported to a small sitting room in Bucharest, where my grandma is manhandling the buttons of the remote and my grandpa is reading the paper. And that sip of coffee can rescue a moment, however hopeless. When I'm teleported back, I'm peaceful.

So you see how it would be a real sacrifice for me to give up such symbolic foods. But I think that a serious diet, one that is meant to be embraced as a lifestyle rather than a brief detox program, must be forgiving. We have to allow ourselves the occasional slip in order to keep motivated and to stay on track. Indulgences offer so much more value and satisfaction if they become occasional treats. That is how I feel about chocolate, for instance. I remember a time, not too long ago, when I'd devour an entire Nutella jar in one go, right before the horrified eyes of my college roommates. There was no limit. These days I only go for dark chocolate, and only have a square or two as dessert. Not only is my stomach grateful, but I cherish a small bite much more.

I've bought a book that proposes a rather stringent diet plan. It doesn't advertise itself as a diet, but a "solution." So, a way to improve and maintain. A way to live. And because I want to give it a shot, over the past week I've tried to test out the principles of this nutritional plan to see how scary they are. The conclusion: not that scary. Certainly not if I can allow myself the occasional treat. Here are a few things I've prepared last week in preparation to engage in the Beauty Detox Solution.

First rule of the Beauty Detox Solution: Fruit should only be consumed on an empty stomach. For breakfast, watermelon, banana and grapes.

Snack: Avocado, cheese and tomatoes wrap on brown rice tortilla. This makes a great quick meal. Mash the avocado with a little salt.

Dinner: Omelet with basil, green beans, tomatoes and green bell peppers.