Oceans of Inspiration

Culturally inseparable from its crunchy breaded or battered exterior, the default notion of calamari unfailingly involves deep frying. Even adventurous omnivores typically balk at the idea of eating naked squid, approximating both the look and chew of thick elastic rubber bands. That makes it delightfully easy to replicate in myraid plant-based forms; it’s hard to go too far wrong with anything crispy, still hot from a bubbling cauldron of oil, and lightly salted.

If you’re so lucky as to randomly find ready-made vegan calamari while idly shopping around Austin, TX, however, such a rare delicacy demands greater finesse for proper appreciation.

Yes, I’m that oddball who treats grocery stores like museums when traveling, with the added benefit of being able to eat the art if it resonates. Essentially seasoned rings of seitan, it would be easy enough to replicate on your own, but the novelty factor is what sold me. Stripped down and freed of breaded boundaries, the toothsome wheat spirals afforded me the opportunity (and inspiration) to consider a fresher, lighter side to this cruelty-free creation.

Gaining in popularity due to profusion of poke eateries opening up around the country, chuka ika sansai is a traditional Japanese salad made of thinly sliced squid and an assortment of tender vegetables, marinated in vinegar and ginger. Served as a side or a feature in rice bowls, the gently oceanic flavors satisfy a craving for seafood like nothing else.

Tomorrow, June 8th, is World Oceans Day. The importance that our oceans play in everyday life cannot be overstated, and yet rarely do we consider the greater implications of this fragile ecosystem. A vegan lifestyle is the best way to make a positive impact right away, everyday. With so many great alternatives, there really should be more fish in the sea, and fewer on the plate.

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Sticky Situation

So deeply rooted in history, so utterly essential that in many cultures, the word for “rice” is the very same word for “meal,” or just simply “food.” The whole world as we know it could have quite plausibly begun from a single grain of rice. Trying to break down the myriad varieties though, from ancient to modern hybrid, is where things start to get sticky.

That’s exactly what I want to pick apart today: Sticky rice. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common long grain white rice, and no amount of special preparation will come close to its unique characteristics. Don’t let any blissfully thrifty cooks tempt you into thinking that any overcooked long grains, gummy and swollen with too much water, are even remotely acceptable substitutes. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed. It all boils down to its starchy constitution. Glutinous rice contains just one component of starch, called amylopectin, while other kinds of rice contain both molecules that make up starch: amylopectin and amylose. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking, which keeps grains separate and fluffy. Without that buffer, you’ll find a range of creamier or downright cohesive results.

Thai sticky or glutinous rice has been the object of my affection and frustration since the very first forkful I enjoyed in Thailand itself. Back at home, understanding the culinary transmogrification happening to turn out such a familiar yet entirely unique staple has been a fascinating, humbling experience.

A medium-to-long-grain rice hailing from South East and East Asia, glutinous rice does not actually contain gluten, but the name refers to the rice’s glue-like sticky quality, which easily binds it into rice balls and cakes. Black Thai sticky rice is simply the wholegrain version, meaning the bran has not been removed. Contrary to the name, it’s actually more of a mottled, deep purple color and has an exceptionally chewy, toothsome bite. Like other unmilled or brown rices, it takes slightly longer to cook than white varieties.

Typically soaked overnight, gently steamed in a special bamboo basket, and painstakingly tended all the while, traditional methods of cooking are as intimidating as they are ultimately gratifying. Every minute of planning and preparation is well worth the effort, but not exactly an endeavor for an everyday meal. If you’re willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of almost-instant satisfaction, I’m happy to share a secret shortcut to get those sticky morsels on the table in a fraction of the time.

Use 1/4 – 1/2 cup dry grains per person and bundle them up in a nutmilk bag. Plunge into a pot of boiling water, keeping the top drawn tightly closed and out of the water, as if you were steeping an oversized tea bag. Turn off the heat and let soak for 10 minutes. Bring the heat back up to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Elevate the bag in a large strainer, raise the heat to high, and steam for a final 10 – 15 minutes. If using black sticky rice, soak for 15 minutes and simmer for 25.

Most Americans might be familiar with mango sticky rice, a simple dessert featuring ripe mango slices crowning tender grains in a pool of sweetened coconut cream. The combination is hard to beat, tried and true, but so easily adapted for further flavor sensations. Consider the avocado, if you would, as an alternate fruit to feature. Straying a bit from the beaten path, I played around with this Blue Lagoon Sticky Rice by adding a touch of butterfly pea tea powder to the rich and creamy sauce, since it’s also a native Thai ingredient.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh, hot sticky rice straight-up, ungarnished in all its fully fragrant, tenaciously clingy glory.

 

 

 

The Mother Lode

She a teacher, a cleaner, a party planner, and a cheerleader. She’s your biggest fan and most honest critic. She drove you around town after school while driving you crazy at the same time. She’s your mom, through good and bad, and while she deserves more than just a day for a lifetime of love, this coming Sunday is at least a good opportunity to say thanks. Naturally, I’m most inclined to express my appreciation through food.

Fixing a fresh brunch spread for your beloved mother is really a gift for everyone, including yourself. Who wouldn’t want to settle into a leisurely midday meal, ideally taken al fresco, surrounded by friends and family? I’ve shared some ideas for a crowd-pleasing menu in the past, but I’ve hit upon so many new winners since them. Freshen up your own maternal celebration with something different this year.

Let mom wake up slowly with a chilled Cloud Macchiato in bed. If she’s late to rise anyway and ready to party before her feet hit the floor, consider adding a little splash of coffee liqueur for an extra little indulgence.

While she’s busy greeting guests, surprise them with an early appetizer of crackers or crudite served with Pea Leaf Cazuela. If you’re contending with unseasonably hot spring weather, prepare it in advance and serve cold. You’ll save yourself the hassle of last-minute cooking in the morning, too.

Kick off the main event with small bowls of punchy Chive Pesto Soup. Though unassuming on paper, the verdant green blend comes together in a matter of minutes and pays off in surprisingly complex layers of flavor.

I can only speak for myself, but if I was a mom, I would all but demand that avocados show up at my party in some form. Avocado Grapefruit Salad features my favorite fruit with a zippy citrus dressing that will satisfy any cravings.

When it comes to the entree, don’t hold back. This is an event worthy of this show-stopping, unconventional, unforgettable Green Cauliflower Cake. A savory torte reminiscent of a thick frittata stuffed with tender florets, you’ll do your mother proud by finally eating your vegetables with aplomb.

When it comes to dessert, you know your own mom best, but it’s hard to go wrong with chocolate. My own happens to have a soft spot for cheesecake, so this Marbled Chocolate Chip Cheesecake would be an easy win on my table.

To all the strong women leading the way (deliberately or not) for future generations, Happy Mother’s Day!

May Flowers

Long before it became associated with the labor movement and civil unrest, the 1st of May was a Celtic festival celebrating fertility, the renewal of springtime, and the coming summer crops. Marked more by flowers and bonfires than any food or drink, it’s not exactly high on the list for modern revelry. That said, there’s no reason why we can’t have our bouquets and eat them, too.

Nasturtium are some of my favorite edible flowers for their shockingly vibrant red, orange, and yellow tones, but most importantly when we’re talking about food, the spicy bite they conceal in those bold petals. Peppery, like a spicy mustard in flavor, they’re reminiscent of watercress and go a long way to add a bright punch in any fresh dish. The leaves, seed pods and flowers are all edible although of course, the blossoms have the most brilliant visual impact. Beyond that eye candy factor, they’re quite the little nutritional powerhouses, high in vitamin A, C, and D.

For the super thrifty, buds and seeds can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers. Used in concert with the flowers, you’re well on your way to a unique seasonal treat.

Another approach to preserving your harvest is to turn the greens into pesto. Use right away or freeze in cubes for long term storage. Simply pop out a cube or two and thaw directly in hot pasta to enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor all year round.

Make the leaves into a Greek-inspired meal by using them to prepare dolma, instead of the traditional preserved grape or fig leaves. Chose larger leaves to accommodate a greater volume of filling and steam lightly to make them a bit more pliable before rolling.

Anywhere you might use tender greens like spinach or arugula, nasturtium leaves can fill in the gaps, too! Shred them into thin ribbons and incorporate into quick stir fries, soups, and of course both raw and lightly wilted salads.

Consider stuffing the blossoms with cashew cheese and serving them chilled or flash-fried like you would with baby squash blossoms. Since I find it almost impossible to track down the latter at any reasonable price, the allure of a readily available, completely free, foraged alternative is too much to resist. They’re brilliant served all by their lonesome, or used to top crackers, sliced cucumbers, or toast.

Speaking of toast… As you can see from the photo above, one of my favorite ways of highlighting the bright flavors and bold colors of the nasturtium is to simply use it as a toast topper. Instantly elevate the mundane, everyday slice of bread to something Instagram-worthy, and awaken your taste buds with the surprising peppery pops of flavor they conceal. Once you have these potent and beautiful blossoms in hand, there’s truly no way to go wrong.

Eat to Beat Anxiety

The connection between diet and mood is more than just food for thought. “A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” according to Felice Jacka, and she should know. She’s the president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” As someone who suffers from both, I’m acutely aware of the difference in how I feel when choosing healthier whole foods, but what exactly is it that causes this shift? It’s tough to pick apart such a tangled ball of yarn, where so many elements are inextricably tangled together. When it comes to anxiety though, I’ve seen amazing and rapid improvement by focusing on a few select superfoods to keep all-out panic at bay.

Almonds are often praised for their high levels of healthy fats, touted for heart health. Moreover, these nutty superfoods bring iron and zinc to the table in ample measures, both of which are key nutrients for balancing one’s mood and overall energy level.

Hemp seeds are another good source of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help with anxiety. Naturally, it stands to reason that CBD oils derived from hemp has the very same nutritional properties, along with chemicals called cannabinoids that bind to specialized receptors in the brain. These affect everything from appetite and pain perception to mood and memory.

Chocolate, dark and intense, without added sweetener or milks, is more than just a feel-good flavor. Yes, it does help boost moods based on great taste alone, but it also has been shown to reduce cortisol, which is a stress hormone that can wreak havoc if left unchecked. Additionally, the flavonoids in the cocoa are protective for all the cells in your body. These antioxidants have shown promising results in lowering blood pressure, boosting the blood flow to the brain and heart, which all adds up to less anxiety. Just be careful not to overdo it, since the natural caffeine compounds could add up and have quite the opposite effect.

Maca root is bit less common, but particularly potent. Adaptogens are all the rage these days, promising protective properties against stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical or biological. Maca in particular is a remarkably concentrated source of phytonutrients such as magnesium and iron, which are both critical for controlling anxiety.

Whole grains, packed with satisfying, satiating fiber, are the complex carbohydrates that help maintain a steady energy boost. If you’re hungry, you’re less rational, less patient, and quicker to irritation. Oats especially are said to help increase the production of serotonin, most famously known for addressing symptoms of depression.

Coconut, and all the individual ingredients it creates, from coconut milk, oil, flour, and butter, are made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are smaller fat molecules that are easily broken down and used as a backup source of energy. The brain is made of approximately 60% fat, so it needs these essential fatty acids to function properly. The brain can’t store energy and can continue to function properly for a very short amount of time without it. You need to consistently feed your brain these good fats to keep it happy and healthy.

Taken individually, these separate ingredients can do a world of good, but when they join forces in a fully balanced diet, they make the most impact. Beyond the powerful nutritional punch you get from the array of vitamins and minerals you get from so many unique sources, they happen to add up to a really delicious combination, too. Joining all of these anti-anxiety superfoods in sweet blended harmony, the resulting creamy shake will blow any powdered meal replacement out of the water. Malt shoppes only wish they had the true earthy goodness that maca brings to the table, playing off the subtle woodsy notes of true cocoa. Thick and rich with whole oats and fresh coconut, rather than sugary scoops of ice cream, you can drink it down to power up, rather than crash out from a sugar coma later.

There are no overnight cures, no quick fixes for holistic lifestyle changes, which can also be said of many medications, too. You really are what you eat, though; eat well to feel well!

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