Monthly Archives: April 2013

Veggie Burger Throwdown!

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Veggie burgers are kings of the vegan world, the reign of which is threatened perhaps only by  the mighty burrito, which deserves, and will receive, an upcoming post of its own.  An extremely versatile food, veggie burgers can be fried, baked, or grilled. I’ve seen the power of veggie burgers to bring people together, all huddled along the buffet, working individually, yet connected in their mission to create an incredibly satisfying sandwich. It is a thing of beauty.

I have been on a quest to find a nutritious, delicious, easy, and homemade vegetarian burger.  This is an important distinction, homemade, because as any vegetarian knows, there are myriad veggie burger options in the frozen foods section.  If you’re proudly snoshing on a Boca Burger right now, put it down and listen.  Most of the frozen veggie burgers on the market are full of protein, yes, but also full of sodium, mysterious soy products (isolates, concentrates), “succinic acid” and other bizarre ingredients, and, perhaps most misleading of all, “natural flavors,” a catch-all phrase which equates to any plant or animal-based substance added for flavor, not nutritional value.  I still enjoy an occasional Griller –the best-tasting frozen veggie burger, in my opinion–but as a general rule I try to avoid processed vegetarian meats. Just because something is “vegan” or “vegetarian” or has “8 grams of soy protein” slapped on the package does not mean it is good for you. Oreos are vegan. Enough said.

So I’m challenging you to make your own veggie burgers. From scratch. As Mark Bittman so eloquently states in Cooking Solves Everything, “real cooking is. .. varied and challenging and rewarding” and “will pay you back in spades every single time you do it.”  I am increasingly aware that when I do not take the time to cook my own food, I don’t really know what I’m eating, and I’m much more liable to fall back on (and serve my captive family) convenient, highly processed items.

Back to our dream-come-true veggie burger.  All of the best burgers I’ve tasted have been variations on a combination of beans, rice, vegetables, nuts, fresh herbs, and spices.  If there is a flavor you really dislike (for me, cilantro) in a recipe, switch it out for an herb you like, or just leave it out altogether.  I’m going to share two variations on veggie burgers I’ve made recently and really enjoyed.

Black Bean-Chipotle Burgers (adapted from the Candle 79 cookbook)

2 cans black beans

2 yellow onions, chopped

1 tsp. chipotle chile powder

3 bay leaves

1 tsp salt, pinch pepper

1-2 tsp tamari/soy sauce (optional)

2 T. fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

3 cups brown rice, cooked

1 T. olive oil, more as needed

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds

1 T smoked paprika

1) Saute onions in 1-2 tsp. olive oil about 5 minutes; add chipotle chile powder, bay leaves, 1 tsp salt, pepper, and beans. Heat for several more minutes. Remove from heat.

2) Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add pumpkin seeds, smoked paprika (I LOVE this stuff!), and pinch of pepper. Stir seeds, cooking until they are lightly toasted, about 4 to 5 minutes. Set aside.

3) Combine rice, bean mixture (remove bay leaves first), and pumpkin seeds in a bowl, mixing everything together, adding tamari or a bit more salt. Place about 2/3 of the mix in a food processor and blend until smooth, adding vegetable broth or water so the mixture sticks together. Return to the bowl and mix well.

4) Heat olive oil in a pan; form beautiful patties with your bare hands and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side. You can also bake them at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, turning once.

5) Serve up your black bean beauties and swoon!  Here’s how I like them – add grilled onions, avocado, fresh tomato, mustard, pickles, lettuce, vegan mayo (sometimes with pesto or fresh basil mixed in), and maybe, just maybe, some chipotle hot sauce. Yummy.

Black bean-Beet Burgers (adapted from Post Punk Kitchen and The Kitchn)

1 cup cooked brown rice

1 medium onion, chopped

2-3 medium beets, peeled and chopped (depending on how beety you like things)

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 T. vegetable broth (or combination of tamari, water, etc.)

2 T. apple cider (or red wine) vinegar

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 T. olive oil

2 T. parsley, chopped

1 tsp dried thyme

1/2 fenugreek or coriander (optional)

2 T. flour

salt and pepper, to taste

1) Saute onions in 1-2 tsp olive oil for 4-5 minutes; add garlic, cook for another minute, then add beets and 2-3 tablespoons of liquid and cook for about 20 minutes, until beets are tender. Add the vinegar, set aside.

2) Place black beans in bowl, smash with fork. Add lemon, olive oil, parsley, rice, seasonings, and beet mixture.  Add flour until the mixture is a good consistency for making patties.

2)  Form burgers, cook about 4-5 minutes on each side over medium heat (or bake!), until browned and delicious looking.  Serve on a bun with your favorite fixin’s, or in a tortilla as a wrap, or on a bed of wild rice or quinoa, or on a salad, or by itself. . . you get the idea.

(Variation: If you want to go all smokey, you can add cumin, chile powder, cayenne pepper, and liquid smoke to these and replace the coriander and thyme.)

Long live the veggie burger!

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My Mother, Pepper, and Those (almost) Forgotten Walnut Balls

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My mother didn’t leave much behind when she died in 1997; I have two of her rings, a few pieces of pottery, two wooden chests, scattered letters and photos, and three cookbooks.  From what my grandmother and father say, and my meager memories of living with her, she was a wonderful cook.  I was only five years old when my parents separated, however, and my mother never cooked much again.  I do credit her with teaching my sister and me how to eat with chopsticks (my dad did not like Chinese food, so we often went out while visiting her) and to appreciate the over-the-top treats she placed in our Easter baskets and Christmas morning stockings.  Mom always made sure we felt celebrated on our birthdays, too, including our favorite cakes, the flavors of which she declared when we were infants.  She insisted that my sister Meaghan was like her, and therefore had to wear her hair long, preferred fine china and jewelry, and favored chocolate cake, while I was, without question, to sport the Dorothy Hamill hairdo until my teenage years (jealous? I thought so), enjoy pottery and casual crafts, and receive a freshly-baked lemon-lime cake every birthday.

When Mom asked for a bite of whatever you were eating, it behooved you to consider the request carefully.  One time, as I graciously held up my slice of pizza, her mouth suddenly seemed too cavernous for her small face, and I watched in horror as she bit down on both the pizza and my finger.  I shrieked in pain, Meaghan screamed with laughter, and Mom just shrugged and looked at me apologetically.  I knew she loved pizza, right?  Yes. And my finger was technically still attached?  Check.  But she kept us guessing, too, because she was also one of those people who asked for a taste of ice cream and then did not eat the entire bite, but just politely skimmed the surface of the spoon.  I still occasionally take a nibble of Meaghan’s food in this manner; she loves it.

My mother’s copy of The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas is one of the cookbooks I inherited.  I wish something other than the “Baked Walnut and Cheddar Balls Bechamel” were annotated, but there it is.  This recipe has too much dairy in it for my taste, but perhaps I’ll try to recreate it sometime, just to feel closer to Mom. I do respect her for trying to master a higher level of vegetarian cooking than baked potatoes, side salads, and grilled cheese sandwiches — the extent of most restaurant menu offerings in the 1980s.  She loved to make complex soups, bean and grain dishes, curries, bran muffins, and delicious salads. I remember her eating leftover vegetable quiche  with a heaping spoonful of cottage cheese on the side, sprinkled liberally with pepper.  She peppered everything. It took me years not to tear up whenever I put pepper on my plate; I still often think of her when I use it.  

 

Flavors and smells are embedded deep in our memories. Spices such as sage trigger a craving for my grandmother’s veggie burgers, and the smell of chocolate pudding immediately conjures up images of my dad standing at the stove, book in hand, stirring and stirring.  Buttered popcorn reminds me of living near my sisters and watching movies late into the night. And fresh brewed coffee, my favorite smell of all, will forever be linked to leisurely pajama-clad morning visits with my closest friends and family.

 

And now I’m making new traditions with some of my favorite spices –smoked paprika, ginger, thyme, cumin, cinnamon. . .wonderful flavors that I hope one day will remind my children, and my grandchildren, of my kitchen, and of time spent with me.

Perhaps my mother left me more than I realize, after all.

Back by popular demand: Baked Walnut and Cheddar Balls Béchamel

1 ½ cups ground walnuts

4 oz. grated, mild (Mom: “medium”) cheddar

½ cup breadcrumbs

½ cup wheat germ

½ onion (Mom: 1)

¾ cup milk

2 Tbs. parsley (Mom: “fresh”) 

fresh ground pepper

salt

3 cups Sauce Bechamel (butter, flour, minced onion, hot half and half, peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf, salt, “fresh” nutmeg)

2 eggs

In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients together. Add well-beaten eggs last. Roll the mixture into balls, slightly smaller than eggs in size, and arrange in a buttered baking dish. Pour sauce over walnut balls and bake at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. Serve very hot, with pepper.photo.JPG

Rice, soy, and quinoa. . Oh my!

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So.  You’re trying to eat more natural, unprocessed foods. You finished those Pop-Tarts in the back of the cereal cupboard (and the “healthy” baked Cheetos. . who are you kidding?) and have committed to avoiding Aisle 6 at the supermarket. You decide to make a vegetable tofu stir-fry for dinner and serve it over rice. Isn’t this healthy living?  Well, I hate to burst your bucolic bubble, but I’ve discovered that there is a darker side to some of the one-ingredient staples we foodies take for granted. Trying to figure out what to eat has often been confusing and frustrating for me — and never more so than with these particular foods.  

“Awesome,” you’re thinking, “I’ll just live on air and wheat grass, thankyousomuch.” Before you break down and throw the soybeans out with the vegetable broth, let me share with you what I have discovered about rice, soy, and quinoa. 

I have recently become a bit obsessed with jasmine rice cooked in coconut milk (see recipe below). It is simply delicious, and I have yet to find a meal where it is unwelcome.  I also enjoy brown rice, but mostly to hold a big ladle of curry, make into veggie burgers, or order with Thai food when I want to appear extra healthy (I always wish I’d just ordered the white).

I was deeply unhappy to read several articles recently about arsenic levels in rice.  Apparently Basmati rice and rice grown in India and Taiwan have lower levels of arsenic, and components of brown rice (wheat germ, etc.) help us eliminate toxins more easily, but because it’s difficult to tell exactly where the rice we buy is produced it’s important to limit our intake.  Yes, even my coconut rice, I’m afraid.  Another way to lower the amount of arsenic is to rinse rice well before cooking.

With all of the marketing that has gone on with soy in recent years, you would think this wonder food could take 20 years off your face and cure cancer while making all of your wildest dreams come true!  While I do still occasionally eat organic tofu, use meat substitutes (which tend to be very high in soy), or use soy milk for baking, I think it’s important to limit this sneaky bean, for many reasons.  Check out the ingredient label on most foods and you’ll be shocked at how much soy you find.   

90 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified and sprayed with a host of pesticides. Soy contains high levels of phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to many problems, including increased risk of certain cancers. Soy also has properties which can limit our ability to absorb vitamin B12 and vitamin D.  Further, I read that feeding your baby soy formula is akin to slipping them several birth control pills a day, which is of particular concern to me as I supplemented both of my babies’ early diets with soy formula.  If G starts her period next year, and Ev sprouts breasts, I will never forgive myself!  If, like me, you have calmed yourself down and tried to forgive yourself for the countless wiggly squares of yumminess you’ve consumed, there is a silver lining: fermentation.  Miso, tempeh, and soy sauce are examples of fermented soy products that don’t carry the same risks as unfermented soy.  There are copious amounts of information out there about the dangers of soy, but my recommendation is to limit your use of soy milk, edemame, and tofu, only buy organic, and instead get creative with tempeh and other milk alternatives such as coconut milk (my favorite) or almond milk. 

Not quinoa! Leave me one guilt-free grain, please. In terms of nutrients, quinoa is the real deal –high in protein and fiber, delicious, and even gluten-free (cue celestial music).  However, from what I’ve read, the problem is not about the grain itself but about the effects of quinoa production on farming communities in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.  Because quinoa’s popularity has grown so rapidly, especially among vegetarians and vegans, prices have risen and local producers can no longer afford to buy their own crop. At the same time, these farmers rely heavily on quinoa to support themselves and their people.  It’s a complicated situation. Again, and as you might predict, my advice is to limit your intake of quinoa, but to continue to support fair trade practices.  There is also a Colorado based company that sells quinoa called White Mountain Farm.  

Coconut Rice

2 cups jasmine rice
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk 
2 1/2 – 3 cups water
1/2 t. sea salt
1/2 t. raw sugar
 

Combine ingredients and cook as you normally would on the stove or in your rice cooker. Enjoy responsibly.

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(What) to eat, or not to eat: that is the question.

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I became a vegan about three years ago, following the birth of my youngest child, Everett. Although it goes against my fairly disorganized nature to systematically remove something from my diet to see if my heath improved –especially my beloved organic vanilla bean yogurt from Trader Joe’s — I did, and it did.  As I have read more about nutrition, food history, and the meat and dairy industry it has only confirmed my path. That said, I am not a “militant” vegan; I occasionally indulge in a few bites of pizza, ice cream, or a favorite dessert that encompasses and flaunts almost every ingredient I try to avoid, or at least limit: bread pudding. With its white bread, sugar, eggs, and milk, the only redeeming antioxidant is cinnamon, and perhaps berries, which only slightly eases my conscience. Really, though, life is about pleasure, and food is one of the greatest joys. I am on a path to eat well, to eat healthy, and to create delicious meals for my family and friends.  

When I consider my childhood and young adult diet, I shudder. .. lots of fast food, cheesy, salty casseroles with bread and iceberg lettuce coated with ranch dressing, and daily (helmet-less) bike rides to acquire candy from the local 7-11.  Yes, those were the days. . the days of bad skin, bad hair, bad teeth, and bad clothes!  Would I have somehow skipped my 10-year awkward phase had I eaten more whole foods and sipped lemon and mint-infused water?  Doubtful. And nobody knew better, honestly. It was the age of TV dinners, drive-thru windows, and convenience.  My college years were no better. I was always trying to lose weight, always hungry, and somehow thought my daily consumption of low-fat, high-sugar treats (remember Snackwells, anyone? TCBY?) were key.  Bread and mochas were my constant companions.

One of the most misleading – and most dangerous — dietary teachings of the 1980s and 1990s was that fat is bad in all its forms, an idea that is tattooed on our psyches. I have learned that this simply is not true, but I still catch myself noticing fat grams and calculating calories. Overall, I’ve been so much happier and more satisfied since I quit paying attention to fat and focused more on real food.

So, have you been wondering what to eat? What to feed your kids so they grow up not only physically healthy, but with a healthy attitude towards food?  Here are a few suggestions if, like me, you’ve struggled with how to answer these questions.

First of all, don’t stress so much about providing “balanced” meals for yourself or your kids.  Eat as many fresh foods as possible, of course, but make it easy. Serve your children vegetables first at a meal so they’ll eat them when they’re hungriest, for example, or offer them cashews or almonds as a mid-afternoon snack. I used to think I always had to have a protein, a vegetable, and a starch for every meal, and while we still often do, we also eat a lot of “one-pot” meals, such as vegan bowls of quinoa, beans, sweet potatoes, greens, avocado and salsa, an udon noodle stir-fry with veggies and fresh herbs, or a hearty soup.  Skip the bread and the salad; put greens on top of your other food, or add grains and nuts to your salad bowl to make it a meal. It’s easy to feel defeated and give in to your children’s desire for bland, sugary, processed foods, but keep putting your creations out there. My rule is that Genevieve and Everett have to at least take two bites of anything I make; then they can have second helpings of something else.  I never force them to clean their plate! I want them to have a healthy sense of when they are hungry, and when they are full.  One of the effects of my diet early in life was that I lost all sense of my appetite; I often ate when I was not hungry, and snacked much of the day.  Now that I eat more natural fats and regular meals, I rarely crave unhealthy late-night snacks. That said, if I am (or one of my kids are) truly hungry at 10 pm, we eat. The key is to listen to your body and figure out what foods make you feel good.  Also remember: your kids can – and should – eat almost everything you eat.  Not all children hate tomatoes, bread crust, mushrooms, and broccoli; in fact, these are some of my kids’ favorites!  This week I’ve had some success and several failures in this arena.  I made black bean-chipolte burgers one evening. Ryan thought they were incredible, but G and Ev literally gagged. They still had to try a few bites if they wanted to get to an alternative. Yesterday I made a lentil soup with spinach and onions.  Both kids actually ended up eating most of their servings as I watched them nervously, sure they would reject it because of the unsightly spinach.  Be bold or go home. Oh, you’re in your kitchen. . . well, be bold! Be brave and proud of your cooking. 

Which brings me to . . . cook your own food!  Don’t be thrown off if you don’t have all the ingredients for a particular recipe – just find a substitute and have fun experimenting.  So you don’t know what kombu is?  Who cares?  Just leave it out, or look up a similar ingredient and go for it. One of my favorite things to do is try out new dishes on unsuspecting company; for some reason it takes the pressure off, because if it’s a failure I a) don’t have to throw it away or eat it out of guilt, and b) I constantly remind my guests that it is a new recipe, and one that won’t be repeated. Get your kids involved in the cooking process as much- and as early – as possible. This teaches them patience and they feel more invested in the meal, and more appreciative of your efforts to prepare good food for them.  Do they make a mess and do you want to pull out a bottle of wine while cooking with young children?  Yes, and yes.  But it’s worth it.

Be patient. If you’re trying to go vegetarian, or vegan, or simply cook more and eat less processed foods, be compassionate with yourself.  Food is not only sustenance, but it can be –should be — a beautiful, satisfying way to connect with the people around you.  So, as Michael Pollen has said, eat mainly plants, and not too much.   

Happy cooking!