Thursday, May 24, 2007

Vegans on the road

I'm celebrating my last day of being 33 today, and as 34 bears down on me, HS and I are taking off for vacation. I haven't had more than a 4-day weekend in a year, due to scarce vacation time in my first year at this job. I can't complain too much since my last vacation was to Hong Kong and then on to Laos for the ultimate destination wedding.

We are headed to Montreal and NYC. Both of these cities are highly vegetarian/vegan friendly. I've noticed that quality and availability of good veg food is an important factor in my decision of where to travel. For example, I'm not keen to go to Russia, and a major reason is because I don't want to eat cabbage and potatoes on vacation. However, I've also traveled to many a non-veg-friendly place and not minded a boring diet too much.

Highly vegetarian-friendly countries I've been to:

Not-so-friendly to veggies:
South Africa
Every country I've been to in West Africa (unless you really like rice & beans)
Portugal (unless you really like grilled cheese sandwiches)

How does a country's food affect your desire to visit it? Vegetarians/vegans, what's the veg-friendliest country you've visited?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Doctor, it's worse than we thought!

Today Yahoo links to this discussion of the frozen drinks of summer. There have been a lot of articles about the sweet, sweet nutritional disaster that is Frappuccino. Starbucks posts their nutritional information online, but the information is presented in a more reader-friendly format here.

However, I wasn't prepared for drinks that manage to pack more calories than the Frappuccino into a 16 oz cup. Consider the Dairy Queen Peanut Butter Malt: 15 oz, 870 calories, and 46 grams of fat. That's basically like eating an entire stick of butter, or a pizza dinner.

Back to Starbucks: It seems like no one who's done a little nutritional research on the 'bucks would think that health food is sold there. But to me, Starbucks still projects an image of health. You know, with the feel-good quotes on the cups and the cushy chairs and the soft music and the fair-trade coffee (actually, they may publicize fair-trade coffee, but they don't serve it unless you specifically request it, and sometimes not even then).

(Edited because I've been thinking about this and have a better way to say what I mean.) Starbucks pulled off a huge marketing magic trick. They set up the atmosphere of the shop to contain all the symbols of health-seeking yuppies. 90% of their food and drink is not health-promoting, but because all the symbols are there, people think what they're eating and drinking (including that 438-calorie chocolate chip cookie) isn't that bad for them.

Does anyone else have thoughts on this?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Urban Foraging (or, Welcome to Freegan-ville)

I've known about freegans for some time, and decided to post about them based on a conversation I had yesterday. Here's a definition of freeganism:

"Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able."

The word freegan is made of free + vegan. Veganism isn't the central tenet of freeganism, but it does make the word freegan catchy. I also love their term for dumpster diving: urban foraging. Although it's probably the last thing s/he would do, I think the person who coined this term should write real estate advertisements ("Rustic, character-filled home in up-and-coming neighborhood...").

The person I was talking to yesterday said he used to be vegan but would eat meat once in a while, if it was free. According to this glossay of freegan terms, this makes him a meagan.

I wonder how healthy your average freegan is. Not because they might be eating contaminated food (I think packaged food from a dumpster has only a negligibly higher chance of being unsafe), but because it seems it would be hard to get a balanced free diet. I suppose the key is to do the rounds on several dumpsters to find a variety of foods.

In NYC, it seems that Freeganism is acceptable enough to enable hosting a Freegan dinner party:
"On the menu at one recent freegan dinner party at an upmarket Greenwich Village apartment was eggplant (aubergine) parmesan with a salad of mixed greens and avocado dressing, and hors d'oeuvres of smoked mozzarella and crackers."
You just may want to warn your guests they will be eating a freegan feast beforehand, lest the following ensue:
--This eggplant is delicious; where did you find it?
--In a dumpster!

I'm happy, truly, that freegans exist. There's way too much waste in most of the world, and it seems like a fair exchange to provide that waste for free to those who want it. But I am happy to remain on the supply side of the freegan equation. If you feel differently, here is a Dumpster directory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I'm not eating any food that has a disease named after it

To the Hazards of Processed Food file add this: popcorn with artificial butter flavor, associated with "popcorn worker's lung."

It seems that a high exposure to artificial popcorn butter can make popcorn workers very sick indeed. Here's an excerpt from a recent article in The Washington Post:

"Also known as popcorn workers lung, because it has turned up in workers at microwave-popcorn factories, the disease destroys the lungs. A transplant is the only cure.

Since 2001, academic studies have shown links between the disease and a chemical used in artificial butter flavor called diacetyl. Flavoring manufacturers have paid out more than $100 million as a result of lawsuits by people sick with popcorn workers lung over the past five years. One death from the disease has been confirmed.

Even less is known about the health effects of eating diacetyl in butter-flavored popcorn, or breathing the fumes after the bag is microwaved."

OSHA and the EPA do not have our backs on this one, so I'm blogging about this as a public service message to my 2 or 3 readers. Here is a comprehensive article about lab tests and our government's failure to regulate this chemical. An excerpt:

"In the middle of 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that a study on the chemicals released in the popping and opening of packages of microwave popcorn was underway and was expected to be completed by the end of that year. The EPA has yet to disclose the results of that study."

I wonder what the lungs of movie concession stand workers look like.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pizza night

We made one of my favorite meals, pizza, on Friday. The pizza was completely vegan. It had a partial whole wheat crust and was topped with tomato sauce, seitan, soy pepperoni, caramelized onions, red peppers, mushrooms, soy cheese, and basil. The lovely results are shown above.

I hope that posterity will know me as a great philanthropist, an arm-wrestling champion, a licensed forklift driver, and as one of the premier collectors of Smiths-related memorabilia. But dare I hope that my legacy will also include making one or two cooks unafraid of yeast? Yes, the following recipe contains yeast. Don't be scared. Pizza crust is not nearly as fussy as making bread. Just pick up one of those little Fleischmann's 3-compartment packets next time you go to the store. They're usually in the refrigerated section near the dairy products. Keep it in your fridge and say kind words to it. Then, on a warm and quiet day, send the yeast on its way to its karmatic reward.

Pizza Crust
2 cups flour (I use 1.5 cups white and .5 cup whole wheat)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons or 1 packet of yeast
3/4 cup wrist-temperature water
1 heaping teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
Additional olive or canola/vegetable oil

Stir the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Turn on your kitchen tap to slightly warm water. You'll know it's the right temperature when you run your wrist under the water and the water feels the same temperature as your skin. Got it? OK, now the hardest part of the recipe is over.

Put the yeast in a small bowl and add the warm water and sugar. Stir (preferably with a whisk). Let sit for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the yeasty water to the flour in the large bowl. Pour the tablespoon of olive oil on top. Now knead everything together for a few minutes until it feels like dough. Add more flour if the dough is sticking to your hands.

Put the dough back in the large bowl and cover it with a clean dishtowel. Put it in a warm place and keep the death metal turned down for the next half hour. After 30 minutes, you should notice it looks a little puffy. Punch that bad boy down and knead it some more.

If you don't have a large pizza pan, take 2 9" round pans (cake layer pans) and pour some oil in the bottom of them. Don't be stingy--you need enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. If you're using 2 9" pans, divide the dough ball into 2 equal pieces. Gently stretch the dough out to fit the pans. Once the dough is in the pans, place your toppings, except for the cheese, on top. Turn the oven to 425 degrees. Once the oven is heated, place the pizzas inside for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, take the pizzas out and put the cheese on top. Put the pizzas back inside the oven for 7 more minutes. Take them out and let them rest in the pans for about 5 minutes before eating.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Call me a snob

There are a few things about which I might be said to have snobbish tastes:
--Shoes (just can't buy the cheap ones anymore, and it's only partially due to my fallen arches)
--Perfume (don't get me started about how the classic old perfumes have been reformulated to use cheaper ingredients. Chanel is one exception. Ormonde Jayne uses stunningly high quality ingredients, especially for the price.)

I don't seek out the most expensive or gorgeously packaged chocolate, but I'm pretty picky about chocolate, I only eat the dark stuff, and my 3 favorites are quite hard to find. They are bars from:

I feel the last one especially marks me as a snob. It's a chocolate bar produced by a very small Ecuador-based co-op. I bought two of their bars at the GreenFest in DC last year. I gave one to HS, and when I ate mine a few days later, I was blown away by the aroma, texture, taste--the whole package. I then tried to deviously score myself another bar.
Me: Did you try that Kallari chocolate bar yet?
HS: Yeah, it was great!
Me: (damn)

It took me a few months to track down a means to order more Kallari, but I finally was put in touch with a woman in Pennsylvania. I ordered 15 bars, and hoard them jealously. However, today I am mailing out a chocolate care package for my pregnant friend Pam. Shown above are 2 of the 3 bars that she'll receive.

Kingsbury chocolates is closer to home, fortunately. I love the bar shown above, which is dark choco with tamari-flavored almonds and coarse salt. They also have a delicious bar with dried chipotles and chinese 5-spice powder.

Is it chocolate time yet?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

I'm strong?

Today at work I was in an all-day class about conflict resolution. Exciting stuff. One of the segments involved arm-wrestling someone else. Yeah, really. I was partnered with Denise, a woman a few years older than me who looks pretty fit, or at least thin. I wondered if she knew how to arm-wrestle because it was so easy for me to pin her arm down. When we finished, she said "Amy, you're really strong! Do you lift weights?" This is the first time anyone has ever called me strong so I had to preen about it here. For the record, I do light weight-lifting but I have no delusions about my upper body strength. Still, I'm going to avoid arm-wrestling anyone else who might burst my bubble.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Is weight predestined?

I wrote recently about my body holding on to a weight set point like grim death. My suspicion has always been that weight gain or loss is not directly related to calorie intake. I think calorie intake is one factor, but not 100% of the picture. This article in the NY Times is relevant, and a little bit of a downer to read. Here are some excerpts, although the whole article is definitely worth reading.

"Every time the result was the same. The weight, so painstakingly lost, came right back...There were a very few who did not get fat again, but they made staying thin their life’s work, becoming Weight Watchers lecturers, for example, and, always counting calories and maintaining themselves in a permanent state of starvation.

The implications were clear. There is a reason that fat people cannot stay thin after they diet and that thin people cannot stay fat when they force themselves to gain weight. The body’s metabolism speeds up or slows down to keep weight within a narrow range. Gain weight and the metabolism can as much as double; lose weight and it can slow to half its original speed."

I don't think any weight loss venture is hopeless, but I agree that weight lost will come back unless one is hyper-vigilant. I notice that I personally have been thinnest when I've had a more active lifestyle, such as walking a couple of miles each day and working out in addition to that. Genetically, I think I'm destined to be thin, but an extra 20-25 lbs has crept on due to my desk job and suburban life. I'm looking to increase my daily activity past the 5 hrs a week I spend working out, and hopefully the cubicle physique will fall by the wayside.

In terms of diet, I definitely don't want to stay in "a permanent state of starvation." I'm moving my diet towards lots of vegetables, small amounts of whole grains and nuts, and minimal sugar or white grains. A bowl of vegetable soup is very filling and has few calories, and it's that type of food that I want to have as my mainstay.

Monday, May 7, 2007

My favorite lunch

Last night I made tabouli to take for lunch this week. The recipe comes from the cookbook Moosewood Lowfat Favorites. I used to make tabouli with a boxed mix before my sister introduced me to this recipe. It's delicious and has many good nutritional qualities. To wit:
--whole grains
--lotsa fiber
--contains a large amount of parsley
Parsley is amazingly good for you, but it's hard to eat in large quantities (at least, for me) unless it's in tabouli. Here is the modified recipe.

Tabouli (4 lunch-size servings)
1 cup dry bulghur wheat
1 cup boiling water

Juice of 2 lemons
4 scallions, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 bunch of parsley, washed and leaves chopped
About 4 sprigs of mint, leaves chopped
2 large or 4 roma tomatoes, chopped
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 avocado, chopped into small pieces
4 packed in oil sundried tomatoes, chopped fine (can also use the non-oily ones)
Salt and pepper

Combine the dry bulghur and boiling water, cover, and let sit 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare everything else and dump it in a large bowl. When the bulghur is ready, add it to the other ingredients. This tastes best after being refrigerated for a few hours.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Can you stand one more post about fasting?

I thought I'd report on my fast in retrospective (2 weeks later). My goals were:

1. 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.

I didn't notice significant healing happening, but I think 48 hours was too short to see anything significant here. My facial skin was nice and glowing during the fast, though, which is commonly reported.

2. Change my relationship to food and stop eating for reasons of boredom, stress, etc.

This was pretty successful for the first week post-fast, but the effects have diminshed. I think I am eating more consciously overall, but I've had a few non-healthy foods since. Since this is a behavior I built up over many years, I think it will take at least a year of hard work to change.

3. Try to budge my body off the weight set point it is so stubbornly defending.

This has been a moderate success. I lost 4 lbs during the fast and have only put 2 back on, even though I have not been especially careful about my diet lately. My body had previously retained the same weight within 5 lbs, no matter if I was eating healthily or badly (up to a point). I haven't been back up to the high point since the fast. I won't use fasting as a weight loss tool, but I thought this was interesting.

Also, I missed working out during the fast, but it didn't seem to set my fitness level back. I ended the fast on Thursday evening and ate only one real meal Friday, but on Saturday I ran 5 miles at about 90% of my usual speed/endurance.

I know the fast was only for 48 hours, but it has given me a lot to think about.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Jocalat, the sequel

A month or two ago, I wrote a review of various vegan energy bars. One of the bars I reviewed was Jocalat by Larabar. The good people at Larabar found my writeup, which was positive for Larabar but not for Jocalat, and offered to send me all varieties of Jocalat so I could give it another shot. That was an offer I couldn't refuse, so here is Jocalat revisited.

Chocolate flavor: my favorite of the bunch. There is some chance, however small, that you could mistake this for a real brownie. It is a satisfying dessert. If you're not a nut fan, you might want to stay away, since it contains a lot of nuts. I'd buy this again.

Chocolate Mint flavor: my second favorite. The mint is not too overpowering. It's no Thin Mint, but I'd buy it again.

Chocolate Orange flavor: this is the bar I originally tried and did not like. My second tasting supported my first opinion. I think the problem is that the orange flavor is just too strong. The pinnacle of chocolate-orange deliciousness is Terry's Chocolate Orange (whoa, I just had a mild shock to learn that Kraft makes them). TCO is one of my favorite candies ever, and here's why: the orange is very subtle, almost an afterthought. I'd compare it to the base note in a perfume. In the Jocalat version, the orange is too strong, and comes on as a top note instead of a finishing note. If the orange-ness was toned down to the Chocolate Mint flavor level, this Jocalat would be better. As it stands, I wouldn't buy this flavor again.

Chocolate Coffee flavor: my least favorite. Although I like mocha flavors, the coffee note was muddy and tasted more like coffee grounds than brewed coffee. I wouldn't buy this again.

I see Jocalat bars as dessert substitutes, not energy bars. Their calories and fat are not much better than candy bars. The Chocolate variety has 190 calories and 10g fat. However, I put a lot more emphasis on eating unprocessed, natural foods than on counting calories, and the ingredients in Jocalat pass muster for me. I don't believe that weight loss is as simple as calories in/ calories out, and more research is backing that up. Maybe I'll do a post on that idea later.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Ruminations on beans

I’m trying to get out of my bean rut, which is a trifecta of canned chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans. Last week I received my order from Rancho Gordo. I ordered 4 lbs of heirloom dried beans (4 different varieties) and a bag of wild rice from them. Over the weekend, I made a pot of Flor de Junio beans (pictured). I cooked the beans with some onions and garlic and added chili powder at the end. I’m eating them for lunch this week over brown rice, with some fresh salsa and avocado on top. This is a great lunch which keeps me full and happy. The beans have a better texture than canned pintos (which they resemble), but I haven’t noticed that the flavor is much different. Maybe the Rio Zape beans will have a more distinctive flavor. Fun bean fact: the Rio Zape bean was re-discovered during an archaeological dig!

I also wonder: is $5/lb an outrageous price for beans? It’s much more than a bag of dried Goya beans at the store, but since bean-based dishes are always relatively cheap, I think I can live with that.