Sunday, April 29, 2007

Our Indian feast

HS and a friend came over Saturday for my first official attempt at real Indian cooking. I made lentil spinach cakes, cauliflower/potato/pea/chickpea curry, brown rice, raita (this was the only non-vegan part, as I used dairy yogurt), and bought prepared garlic naan and mango chutney.

The verdict? Thumbs up on the curry and raita. The curry is a Cook's Illustrated recipe. Often those recipes are very complicated and involve huge amounts of butterfat. This one was not too bad. There are a lot of steps and ingredients, but I would make it again. The raita was simple and tasty, enriched with mint from my new balcony herb garden.

The lentil-spinach cakes, on the other hand...HS has left 2 comments in these pages asking, yea begging, for me to make the cakes. And they sound kind of good, right? Well, don't let the word cake mislead you. This recipe was very time-consuming, and HS wouldn't have touched them at all if I hadn't shamed him into trying a bite. I can see why, though. I only ate half of one myself. The problem seems to be that they call for way too much spinach, and you feel like you're eating pan-fried balls of spinach. One of the steps in the recipe calls for pureeing the spinach in a food processor until it reaches a "pesto-like" consistency. I have one of them expensive Cuisinarts and the spinach was clearly determined to stay semi-fibrous. The cakes did not look like the picture above, so I'm not sure what went wrong. It's probably for the best, though. When HS arrived on Saturday afternoon, I said "I hope you don't like the lentil spinach cakes, because they're a real pain to make."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fasting, part 2 (electric boogaloo)

Day 1:
The weird thing is that I wasn't that hungry. I usually get up at 6:30 and eat breakfast around 9 at my desk. I had some hunger pains around 11, but they were not severe. I had prepared for the fast by eating just fruits, vegetables, and a few nuts the day before. (I could explain why, but it would probably gross you out.) I'd also been trying to make my diet as clean as possible the month before the fast. From what other fasters say, it makes a huge difference in how you feel during the fast. I had a very slight headache, which I might not have noticed if I hadn't been paying such close attention to my body. The reason you feel crappy when you don't eat is because your body is in withdrawal from sugar, caffeine, etc.

I was telecommuting the first day of the fast, and so was able to take it easy and take a nap after the workday was done. I took a 30 minute walk around my neighborhood and was entranced by all the different smells that I could sense so clearly. I felt fairly dehydrated during the day, though I was guzzling water. In the evening, I talked on the phone to take my mind off dinner. It worked well until I went to bed. I had thought I'd go to sleep early, but I felt wired and tense. My mind was racing and I would feel twinges of deep hunger. I was alone and getting a little freaked out. I got out of bed around 11:30 (after 27 hours of not eating) and had a small bit of fruit juice and a few almonds. I thought I would break the fast and eat breakfast the next day. I slept very well after that.

Day 2:
When I got up, I felt fine and decided to resume/continue the fast. I weighed myself and had lost 4 lbs from just the day before! I couldn't possibly have had a 14,000 calorie deficit by that point, and I was drinking tons of water, so I can't explain that.

I went in to the office and told a white lie to avoid going to lunch with my officemate. (I really didn't think it was a good idea to explain my fast to the office.) In the early afternoon, I felt sweaty, weak, and hungry. I now think that this was probably due to eating the night before. It got my metabolism running and my body kicked out of fasting mode. I had thought about doing a juice fast instead of a water fast, but according to this book, taking juice during fasting means that your body consumes your muscles for fuel. If you consume 0 calories, your body goes into protein-sparing ketosis and you consume fat instead of muscle.

I didn't like the way I was feeling and decided to end the fast at dinnertime,48 hours after I started. I ate a bowl of noodles and veggies (a very small portion). I had expected to be ready to eat everything in sight, the way I feel right after I've recovered from a stomach flu, but I didn't have raging hunger. The next day I didn't feel like eating until noon, so that's what I did.

I would like to do another fast, but at a health center where they can tell me if what I'm feeling is normal, and I don't have to be alone and freaked out if my body is acting strangely. I think the fast was an important step towards helping me recognize real hunger and differentiate it from boredom or cravings. It seems a little easier to eat healthily now.

I work out almost every day and it bothered me to feel weak during the fast and not be able to exercise. Still, I think I learned a lot and I'm glad I tried it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Adventures in fasting, part 1

Between Tuesday night at 8pm and Thursday night at 8pm, I consumed:
2 glasses of juice
About a dozen almonds
Several liters of water

and that's it. I had been planning to do a fast for a few months. I'd wanted to do a water-only fast, and to do it for 72 hours, but I ended up modifying it and stopping after 48 hours.

Why would I do such a crazy thing? A few months ago, I thought fasting advocates were completely off their rockers. Then I read 3 books about fasting (here is one that's completely online)and thought what the heck, I'd try it. This book described how to prepare for a fast and how to safely conduct a 3-day water fast. My goals in undertaking this fast were:
--give my digestive system a rest so my body could get to work on healing things like minor skin abrasions that haven't completely healed and my eczema, which is mostly dormant but gives me trouble every so often
--change my relationship to food and stop eating for reasons of boredom, stress, etc.
--try to budge my body off the weight set point it is so stubbornly defending

The most major reason is the first one. Fasting has cured all sorts of conditions, injuries, you name it. It's really pretty amazing. There is also a lot of evidence that the human body is designed to fast.

I didn't write about this until after it ended because I didn't want my two or three readers to worry (though I'd already talked about it with my nearest and dearest). I checked in with HS and had a doctor's appointment the first day. I ended the fast early due to some uncomfortable symptoms. More about the fast in the next post. Here's a teaser: my sense of smell became supersonic. I could smell things in amazing depth. Even today, after breaking the fast, I smelled a jar of honey and could pick out all kinds of notes, like sweat, that I've never smelled before. I could smell the "natural flavors" at the bottom of the ingredients list in whole wheat pasta.

Because it's hard to find a picture that goes with a fast, here's a picture of the furrier of the two men in my life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Indian food, my final frontier

I came across an interesting and relevant article today about cooking vegan Indian food. The couple at the center of the article went vegan after reading The China Study, the book I've written about several times lately. Beware the power of this book!

I like to cook food from various countries' cuisines, but I've always been hesitant about Indian food and sushi. I eat fish very rarely, so sushi is not something I'm motivated to master. But Indian food has a great vegetarian tradition, I love it, and I'd like to be able to cook it better. When I make it, it just tastes like whatever with Indian spices added. It just doesn't come together, somehow.

I found a promising vegetable curry recipe in Cooks' Illustrated a few weeks ago and have curry spices on the way from Penzey's. I hope to try some of the recipes in the Washington Post article when the spices arrive, especially the lentil spinach cakes and the mint chutney. The latter sounds like an excellent palate cleanser.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Please, not the potato chips!

I'm just putting this out there. The source is the Disease Proof blog:

Worst Seven Foods for Health and Longevity
1. Butter
2. Cheese
3. Potato Chips and French Fries
4. Doughnuts
5. Salt
6. Sausage, hot dogs
7. Pickled, smoked or barbequed meat

Top Seven Foods for Good Health and Longevity
1. Black raspberries
2. Strawberries
3. Blueberries
4. Flax Seeds
5. Green Leafy Vegetables
6. Tomatoes
7. Broccoli sprouts

As blog readers know, I struggle with cheese cravings. I don't keep potato chips or fries in my house but it's awfully hard for me to resist them when they are in front of me. Bad foods 4-7 are not a problem for me.

Hey, the top 7 foods sound pretty good! I don't buy too many berries as they tend to be expensive, but I've now decided I'm worth it. I've never had broccoli sprouts--has anyone else?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Annoying stories on the news

Living in my country at the present time means that I am often annoyed by stories on the news. But usually the blood pressure elevators are political and not health-related. This week I heard a story about the new methods health insurers can use to set rates or deny coverage. It seems they may in the future use a family history of disease to increase your premium.

One thing my health and diet research has taught me is that genetics plays a very small part in diseases of excess, such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and even cancer. If a Japanese person relocates from Japan to America and starts eating a standard American diet, he will acquire the same health risks as Americans. His "Japanese genes" won't protect him. The book The China Study by Campbell provides a lot more detail and is a great read. The titular study is the most comprehensive study on diet/lifestyle and disease to date, and has startling conclusions, such as:
--The genes that you inherit from your parents are not the most important factors in determining whether you fall prey to any of the ten leading causes of death.
--Breast cancer is related to levels of female hormones in the blood, which are determined by the food we eat.
--Heart disease can be reversed with diet alone.
--Consuming dairy foods can increase the risk of prostate cancer.
--Type 1 diabetes is convincingly linked to infant feeding practices.

This is a roundabout way for me to say that it's crazy to think that your family history of diseases of excess predicts your fate, unless you eat and live the same way your parents and grandparents did. I wouldn't want to be punished with a higher premium because my grandfather ate half a stick of butter every day.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recipe: Bulghur with caramelized onions

I've been taking some medicine that's making me nauseated, so my mind hasn't been on food lately. What does the picture have to do with this recipe? Well, it was a heck of a lot more interesting than a picture of bulghur.

This recipe is tasty, healthy, and vegan. It's adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant's New Classics cookbook.

Bulghur with caramelized onions
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dry bulghur
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1-1/3 cups boiling water
black pepper to taste

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and stir for about 20 minutes, until the onions caramelize. Add salt and thyme. (To speed up this recipe, you can skip the caramelizing and just saute onions. In that case, I wouldn't use more than 1-1/2 cups of onions.) Stir in the bulghur, raisins, cinnamon, and boiling water. Turn off the heat and cover the pan. Let sit about 15 minutes. When you take the lid off, you should find that the bulghur has absorbed all of the water. Add pepper to taste and fluff with a fork before serving.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Breaking the dessert fast

As I've posted before, I set out to spend the 40 days between Mardi Gras and Easter dessert-free, except for small amounts of dark chocolate. How did that work out for me? Overall, it was a huge success. I think the sugar cravings monster has abandoned me for easier prey. Yes, I had dessert about once a week, using the well-known loophole in Lenten rules that says it's OK to indulge on Sundays. That seems to be a pattern that I can stick with for the longer term--at least, I'll try. It also brought home to me how sugar affects me. As with caffeine, I felt the energy slump and white carb craving much more powerfully after I stopped having sugar regularly.

I'm not religious at all, but my parents came over for Easter dinner, though the focus was more of a birthday party for my mom than an Easter celebration. I made pine nut-crusted fish or tofu, broccoli, and a tasty bulghur pilaf (recipe to come) with help from my sous-chef. For dessert, we made maple cake with maple buttercream, which turned out excellent. Maple is such a lovely flavor--sweet but not too sweet, and almost haunting for me (help, I'm being haunted by a leaf! maybe I'm just on edge after the movie we saw this weekend). It's strange to think that it's really tree sap. It's one of the flavors I've missed the most when I've lived overseas. The cake was not vegan (I had a lot of cooking to do and didn't want to risk converting the recipe and having it flop), but I might try it again sometime in a vegan form.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Caffeine: Teacher, mother, secret lover

Since I've started paying more attention to my diet and my body's signals, I've realized how much caffeine affects me. I've always been pretty sensitive to it; if I have a cup of tea two days in a row, and not on the third day, I will get a headache. I never drink caffeinated coffee unless it's the first day of serious jet lag.

I'm now realizing the other effects of caffeine. First, to the list of Starbuck's transgressions, I must add that their decaf is not always decaf. I saw in a news broadcast a few years ago that samples of their decaf had about 75% of the caffeine of their regular coffee. I thought they would have remedied this, but two experiences with their decaf in the past 2 weeks have shown me that I need to stay away from their coffee entirely.

When I have caffeine (even at the level of a cup of black tea), I feel jittery, my stomach churns, and I get a blood sugar crash along with serious cravings for white flour a few hours later. I think the cravings are to put something in my stomach to mop up the caffeine. I've never noticed that about the cravings before. Maybe it's because I used to have cravings all the time.

By the way, it's easy to decaffeinate regular tea. Just put a little boiling water over the bag, brew it for 1 minute, pour that water out, and then brew the tea as normal. It won't eradicate every bit of the caffeine, but most of the caffeine leaches out within the first minute of brewing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Pleasure Trap

The Pleasure Trap (by Lisle and Goldhamer) is a book I'm reading. So far (I'm not finished yet) it's been very thought-provoking. It says that people are programmed to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy as much as possible. This is supposed to give us our best shot at surviving and reproducing.

The "pleasure trap" is that we have means available to achieve pleasure that end up damaging our health and cutting our lifespan short. A few examples are fast food and cocaine. McDonald's is so successful because it allows people to sit in their cars and exert the minimum effort to obtain a high calorie meal. The meal may please the taste buds, but we all know the consequences of surviving on fast food. Likewise, cocaine delivers an intense feeling of pleasure but has majorly bad health/survival consequences. It's helped me to understand why I crave foods that are bad for me. Hey, it's not my fault!

A second great point concerns the body's mechanism for letting you know you've eaten enough. Apparently we have a very sophisticated system in our stomachs that calculates the carbs, protein, and fat of everything we eat. When we've eaten enough, it sends a message to stop. But why are people overweight, then? Well, the book says, this system only works on foods that our ancestors ate. The mechanism can't accurately count the calories/fat of modern processed foods or high-fat foods. (The fattiest thing our ancestors ate was wild game, which has about 15% fat. Cherry Garcia ice cream has 52% fat.) When our internal calorie counting system fails, we keep eating and get fat.

The book suggests that a surefire way to lose weight is to eat only veggies, fruits, beans, whole grains, and other foods that have been around for thousands of years. If you do this for a few weeks, you'll rapidly lose the taste for fatty, processed, or sweet foods. It recommends consuming no animal protein/products for reasons I'll cover in another post.

I've been trying to eat this way for a few days (except for some stuffed pizza in Chicago which I don't regret one bit). I've been amazed at how few cravings I've had. We'll see if it lasts.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Mysteries of brown rice

I've been cooking since I was about 8 years old, and it's something that comes as second nature now. However, I constantly struggle with making brown rice on the stovetop. In the past month, I have thrown away two batches of brown rice made in my new rice cooker. Both batches came out with way too much water left. The proportions of water to rice I used were 2:1 (what the manual said) and then 1.5:1. I turned to microwave brown rice on the first occasion since friends were coming over. Microwave brown rice is great (it's pre-cooked and you're just reheating it), but they don't have it at my usual supermarket and it's much more expensive than buying the dry stuff.

Tonight I used the stovetop and did what the package recommended: 2:1 ratio, dab of margarine, bring to a boil, simmer on low for 50 minutes, and let rest for 10 minutes before eating. It was edible, but a little wet and overcooked. Perhaps I'll use a 1.75:1 ratio next time.

If I haven't bored my two or three readers by now, please let me know if you have any secrets to cooking brown rice. I need help!