When Health Care is Self-Care

Staring straight ahead with unfocused eyes, an expression of abject terror plastered across my face, the urge to escape grew stronger with every passing minute. A dozen other deliberate prisoners shared my plight, but none seemed nearly as disturbed by the situation. Hands shaky, shallow breaths failed to fill lungs, while a vague buzzing began to resound within my head. For a general well visit, I did not feel very well at all.

Call it classic white coat syndrome or iatrophobia because the symptoms are impossible to deny. I am absolutely terrified of doctors, to the point that merely dialing the phone to arrange an appointment is liable to send me into a full-blown panic attack. No matter how sick I may feel, no matter how dire physical evidence, there is always a good reason why it doesn’t warrant professional medical attention. Unless I was actively dying, it would not be a reasonable option to seek further intervention, and even then I might give it a 50/50 chance.

As you can imagine, many years tend to pass between checkups. Rarely afflicted by anything more serious than a head cold once a year, if that, there’s been no reason to reconsider this routine anyhow. I can’t say that the lack of objective evidence of overall well-being hasn’t bothered me, though. How accurate is my own self-assessment? How do I know that I’m taking the right supplements, at the right dosage, from prime sources? There’s no nutrient you can’t get from a vegan lifestyle, but conflicting nutritional advice makes it an onerous task to plot out a healthy diet on any level.

That’s why, despite my intense anxiety, I was quite excited to find the Vegan Nutritional Maintenance Panel offered by Health Labs. An independent service that needs no primary care physician nor medical insurance, available at over 4,500 labs nationwide, the range of potential tests is staggering, covering more wellness concerns than I thought could be addressed without more invasive measures.

Stunningly, the worst part of the whole experience was just waiting to be seen at my local clinic, which was one of three I could walk to from my home. After presenting a photo ID, I had my blood drawn in under 5 minutes, no pain, no bruising, no problems. It seemed implausibly easy, in sharp contrast to the mountains of paperwork required for even a vehicle’s emissions testing. Still eager to make a quick getaway, I made a break for the door, nonetheless dubious of the whole process.

Two small miracles resulted almost immediately, the first of which being that it was actually immediate. After submitting my blood samples on a Friday, I got back the results on Monday morning. Given the snail’s pace at which such highly regulated exams typically proceed, how is that even possible? Then, to my immense relief and mild surprise, after so much worry, my vitamin levels for the 11 most common deficiencies in a vegan diet were all within optimal range. Every. Last. One.

Having that peace of mind is priceless, and to anyone else even moderately curious about their own nutritional intake for any reason, I can’t recommend this service highly enough. Whether you add supplements or get all of your vitamins directly from food, it’s incredibly challenging to strike the proper balance. There’s no need to go it alone or feel like you’re hunting for answers in the dark; after getting your results, you can even get a personal consultation to help make sense of the numbers.

In the quest for personal health, just knowing your baseline is half the battle. After all, you can only improve upon something if you’re aware of it in the first place.

Many thanks to Health Labs for making this post possible.

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Not Half Bad

Any chance to celebrate is one worth taking, as is evident by the profusion of often dubious national holidays. Adding a touch of whimsy to the monotonous daily routine, marking a date as something special to anticipate, the reason to rejoice is not actually important. Those moving targets simply provide a convenient excuse and a general focus for unscheduled merriment. As silly as National Splurge Day sounds, I still can’t be too mad at it for the joy it must bring a select few. If you have the means and the inclination, why not?

While I’m probably the worst person to consult about commemorating a real momentous date on the calendar, such as my own birthday, I can fully appreciate the potential it holds. It somehow figures that my half-birthday, a real non-event if there ever was one, tends to get more attention.

No matter how many years and months I tack onto my own age, certain things never get old, such as the love of chocolate chip cookies and brownies. Since it’s my half-birthday, I had half a mind to make something special which resulted in this half-and-half mashup of the two. Baked brownies that emerged from the oven with an impossibly lustrous, glossy, crackled crust seemed almost too beautiful to cover up, but it was too late to pull back on the reins by then. Buttery raw cookie dough smothers the entire sheet pan, more decadent that plain whipped frosting yet not nearly as tooth-achingly sweet.

I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I have to admit, these exceeded expectations. First of all, they’re completely gluten-free, which is not my strong suit when it comes to baking, and secondly, there’s no refined sugar. Rather, these decadent treats employ coconut sugar to evoke the nostalgic flavor of earthy molasses, further enhanced by the roasted notes of coffee in the brownie batter. In fact, if you can’t make it past that base and just call it a day with the Best Vegan Brownies Ever©, I won’t blame you one bit. When you want to pull out all the stops and really celebrate life, no matter the real occasion, this dessert is for you.

Half-Baked Bars

Best Vegan Brownies Ever:

1/2 Cup (3 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/2 Cup Hot Coffee
2 Cups Coconut Sugar
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
2 Cups Oat Flour
1 Cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Chopped Walnuts

Cookie Dough Topping:

2 Cups Vegan Butter
1 1/2 Cups Coconut Sugar
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
3 1/4 Cups Oat Flour
1 Cup (6 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a good length overhanging the edges to form a sling. This will make for easier removal later on. Lightly grease and set aside.

For the brownie base, place the chocolate chips in a large bowl and pour the hot, freshly brewed coffee on top. Let sit for a minute to begin melting the chocolate before stirring. Stir vigorously before introducing the coconut sugar. Continue mixing until smooth, dissolving the sugar and fully melting the chocolate. Pour in the oil and blend until homogeneous.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the oat flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Ensure that there are no lumps before adding the dry goods into the bowl of wet. Add the vanilla and nuts last, and mix thoroughly until there are no remaining pockets of flour or cocoa. Don’t worry about over-mixing because there’s no gluten here, so go crazy!

Transfer the batter to your prepared pan and bake for 24 – 26 minutes, until the top is crackled and glossy, and the interior is still just slightly moist when a toothpick is inserted into the center. Cool completely before proceeding.

To make the cookie dough topping, cut the butter into small cubes before placing them in your food processor. Add the sugar and pulse to combine, pausing to scrape down the sides as needed. Add the vanilla and salt next, blending thoroughly to incorporate. Introduce half of the flour to begin with, allowing the machine to run until its fully integrated. Add the remaining measure of flour and puree once more.

If you’d like to keep your chips on the chunkier side, stir them in by hand. I like mine a bit more broken down and random in size, so I toss mine in last and pulse until the pieces are more or less evenly distributed throughout the mixture. It will be very soft, like frosting, at this point.

Spread the cookie dough topping over the cooled brownies in a smooth, even layer. Refrigerate the whole pan for 2 hours for more even, clean slices, or cut and serve right away if you simply can’t wait.

Makes 24 – 36 Cookie Bars

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My Milkshake Brings All the Vegans to the Yard

And they’re like,
It’s better than green juice.
Damn right it’s better than pond scum.
I can teach you,
But we have to get takeout.

While I can appreciate a tall glass of savory vegetable juice every now and then, I never got into the juice cleanse craze and still bristle slightly at the suggestion. As the summer heat intensifies along with a powerful thirst, I look to the offerings at local cafes with equal parts lust and skepticism. Whenever I see those emerald brews, freshly pressed, full of verdant vitality, I project my own true desire on that glass: Mint. All I crave on the hottest of days is a creamy, cool, mint chip milkshake. Thus, the swampy melange I end up with is inevitably disappointing, more often tasting of apple than anything else, leafy or otherwise.

Milkshakes are the easiest things to make at home, but real luxury is being able to get them on the town, prefab and instantly gratifying. Besides, if I have ice cream in the freezer, it’s a hard sacrifice to plop a scoop into the blender when I could just eat it straight. When in the bay area, there are a wide range of options to get that satisfying minty-fresh fix.

Elixiria‘s Last Samurai Shake is my gold (or more accurately, green) standard for mint chip milkshakes. Cashew-based and tinted pastel green with a touch of matcha, it’s sweetened with coconut sugar and is infused with peppermint essential oil for a bright, bold flavor. Cacao nibs add crunch, without a ton of chocolate taste, granted, but the texture gets the point across sufficiently. This formula was actually the essential inspiration for my Cashew Milkshakes in Real Food, Really Fast, for anyone else who can’t just pop into the shop.

For a superfood fix, I’m impossibly addicted to Mint Cacao Chip at Urban Remedy. I can rationalize the indulgence because it employs pea protein powder and really does drink like a meal. On busy days when I can’t stop to sit down for a proper lunch, you can bet this is my first choice for refueling. Although it’s not quite the same as what you’ll find in the refrigerated cases, Urban Remedy also offers a homemade solution that approximates the refreshing experience.

Incredibly similar to the previous pick, Project Juice is also slinging a bottled Mint Chip Shake, but ranks ever so slightly lower by employing dates for an earthier sweetness, and quite frankly, not enough of them. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve snuck in packets of raw sugar on occasion to spike my drink.

Moving on to a no-holds-barred, full-throttle dessert indulgence, Saturn Cafe has you covered. The Thin Mint Milkshake was a limited edition special to coincide with the annual girl scout cookie inundation, but a simpler mint chocolate variation is available all year round. Locally made Double Rainbow non-dairy ice cream provides the thick, rich base, which always exceeds the generous old-fashioned soda fountain glasses, filling much of the metal mixing cup which is provided on the side, as if one mountainous milkshake wasn’t enough. Whipped cream, cookie chunks, and chocolate syrup complete the drinkable dessert. Better yet, Saturn is open late everyday, with a full menu of hot food available, which means you can get my all-time favorite milkshake pairing: French fries, hot, extra crispy, and lavishly salted.

Next Level Burger deserves a shout-out for the effort, but truth be told, this isn’t a blend worthy of a repeat order. Where was the mint? Where were the chips? All I could taste was syrupy sweetness; not even a modest hint of vanilla came to the fore. It’s cool and refreshing, fine pairing for a burger, but you’re better off opting for a different, stronger flavor.

Finally, one more runner up to add to the list is CREAM, with multiple locations scattered across the bay area. Vegan options are limited to just two soy-based ice creams, but as luck would have it, one is the illustrious mint chocolate chip of my dreams. Milkshakes are available, and I’ve been promised there’s non-dairy milk behind the bar as well, although that’s as far as my inquires have gone. Let’s be honest: When you’re offered chocolate fudge cookies and rainbow glitter sprinkles as garnishes, what rational person could really order otherwise?

Plenty of other competent milkshake makers are blending up the goods on a daily basis across the bay, but no one else seems to have a minty melange on the regular. Given such superlative options already, it’s hard to branch out beyond this crave-worthy sip, but do tell- What’s your favorite milkshake flavor, and more importantly, does it bring all the vegans to the yard, too?

Foam, Sweet Foam

Long gone are the days of curdled soymilk clouding an otherwise lovingly crafted cup of coffee. Alternative milks have reached such astounding levels of acceptance in mainstream markets that even the most basic establishment will have at least one suitable substitute, if not two or three, for the dairy-adverse. Home brewers have even more to raise their mugs to, with more options available than one could hope to drink in a lifetime, no matter how prodigious their caffeine consumption. While almond has become the new default alt-milk, coconut is no slouch these days, and oat milk is now making a big splash on the scene, too. A whole world of creamy contenders remains on the fringes of widespread awareness, though, unsung and unappreciated for their own unique qualities. One such challenger poised to hit the big time is macadamia, if the latest submission from Milkadamia is any indication.

Differentiating themselves from the existing “Latte Da Barista” Macadamia Milk, this new line of coffee whiteners is aimed at home users looking for a simple splash of cream in their morning cuppa Joe. They’re so new that information is scant online; even their website hasn’t been updated to include these hot options. Shelf-stable and available in three flavors, Unsweetened Vanilla provides the most clean, neutral flavor while Vanilla and Fudge add an indulgent twist to the array.

Of course, with access to some world-class baristas at my second home at Nourish Cafe, I had to ask the experts what they thought of these innovative creamers. Across the board, everyone was impressed by the most basic entry, finding it hard to believe that absolutely no sugar was included in the unsweetened option. Smooth and rich in a way that’s near impossible to replicate with homemade recipes, this simple blend had genuine body that came stunningly close to true heavy cream. Though it wasn’t designed for foaming or latte art, it performed remarkably well when put to the test, too.

Turning up the flavor dial to 11, the sweetened varieties became my fast favorites, despite my penchant for plain, jet-black coffee in the morning. So called “fudge” lives up to its name, with a round chocolate flavor akin to liquefied truffles. Suddenly, I understood the craze surrounding flavored, fanciful lattes. Though clearly designed with the standard roasted bean in mind, I found it dangerously habit-forming in hot matcha, both green and blue.

I’m already craving my next fix, waiting for supply to keep up with demand. These new creamers from Milkadamia should be hitting store shelves sometime this month, and I’ll be first in line to add a generous splash to my next fresh brew.

No Sweat

What kind of crazy person would recommend diving into a steamy bowl of lava-hot spicy soup in the middle of a heat wave? As temperatures flirt with the 100-degree mark in much of the country, one’s natural impulse might be to crawl into the freezer and eat all the ice cream while waiting for the blaze to subside. Instead, consider the human response to capsaicin, the “hot” component of all chilies and peppers which is actually considered an irritant in large doses. To combat that culinary chemical attack, we naturally begin to sweat, which in turn, actually cools the skin.

Suspend disbelief just long enough to embrace the burn, and your pain will likely turn to pleasure. That’s especially true if the hellbroth in question happens to bear the hallmarks of my favorite Thai soup, tom yum. Sometimes it shows up on menus as a romanized “Tom Yam,” which inspired me to pursue that concept more literally. Dropping the more typical addition of rice noodles in favor of spiralized yams, the sweet, sour, and spicy combination gains greater depth, and preparation is coincidentally simplified. Everything goes into one pot, cooks just to a boil, and dinner is served in an instant.

If you can’t stand the heat, literally, feel free to take down the spice level a notch by incorporating a splash of creamy, cooling coconut milk. Although “Tom Kha Yam Noodle Soup” doesn’t quite have the same ring, it definitely has an appetizing allure all its own.

Tom Yam Noodle Soup

1 Medium Yam, Peeled and Spiralized
3 – 4 Cups Mushroom or Vegetable Stock
1 Medium Shallot, Diced
1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Bruised and Roughly Chopped
6 Makrut Lime Leaves, Bruised
1 Inch Fresh Galangal or Ginger, Sliced
1 Medium Roma Tomato, Diced
6 Ounces Medium-Firm Tofu, Cubed
6 Ounces Mixed Mushrooms, (Cremini, Shiitake, Trumpet, Oyster, and/or Straw Mushrooms) Sliced
2 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
2 Teaspoons Braggs Liquid Aminos
1 1/2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Minced (Optional)

Start by spiralizing your peeled yam and placing it in a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Add in 3 cups of the stock to generously cover the vegetable noodles, along with the diced shallot.

Bundle up the bruised/chopped lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal or ginger in a large tea strainer and toss the whole thing into the pot. This allows for a powerful flavor infusion with easy removal later, since these items are too fibrous to comfortably consume.

Add in the tofu, mushrooms, sambal oelek, braggs, and lime juice. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the yam noodles are fork-tender but well before they start falling apart. Divide between two big bowls, top with cilantro if desired, and dig in immediately, while piping hot!

Makes 2 Servings

Printable Recipe