Saturday, March 31, 2012

Milk Alternatives

While the dairy industry would like to have us convinced that milk does a body good, there is plenty of compelling evidence to the contrary. Milk has only been in the human diet for a few centuries, and many Eastern cultures do not consume dairy at all. Tons of people suffer from lactose intolerance and dairy allergies, and milk and milk products are high in cholesterol. Additionally, if you are consuming non-organic dairy products, they are often ridden with hormones and antibiotics. Finally, corn-fed cows emit methane gases which hurt the ozone layer (grass-fed cows do not, but the vast majority of commercial dairy is from corn-fed cows.) I was a hard-core dairyist, with a particular weakness for cheese and cream-based desserts, until I finally decided it was hypocritical of me to shun meat yet support the dairy industry, in which cows are often treated badly and male calves are slaughtered for veal. Within a few days of eliminating dairy, I felt more energetic, my digestion improved, my sinuses cleared, and within a few weeks I dropped about 10 lbs.

If you're interested in reducing or eliminating your dairy but feel it would restrict your diet excessively, here are some non-dairy alternatives which are tasty, often as rich in calcium as milk, and lactose- and cholesterol-free. 

Soy Milk
Uses: can be substituted for dairy milk in pretty much any scenario, from coffee or cereal to cooking, baking, puddings, etc.
Varieties: endless, flavored, sweetened, unsweetened, zillions of brands. Ideally, go for an unsweetened organic variety which is GMO free.
Pros: easily obtainable (even grocery stores in low-income areas are starting to carry it and bodegas now commonly have it as an option for coffee, as does Starbucks), high in protein, calcium and vitamin D enriched, extremely versatile, very long shelf life even after opening. 
Cons: can be hard on the tummy if you drink it constantly, sometimes has a weird aftertaste.

Almond Milk
Uses: can be a dairy milk substitute in almost any scenario, although I've found it doesn't thicken well in puddings.
Varieties: there are a few brands, and most of them have the down side of using some sort of starch to thicken the milk, which can be unpleasant or clumpy in coffee. The brand I prefer is Almond Breeze, which has the fewest additives and comes in unsweetened, vanilla, and chocolate varieties.
Pros: versatile, light, very tasty, relatively easy to find, most varieties vitamin D and calcium enriched, also naturally high in vitamin E
Cons: not appropriate for those with nut allergies, low in protein

Rice Milk
Uses: ok for coffee, cereal, drinks. Not the best for cooking
Varieties: plain, vanilla, chocolate
Pros: light, easy on the tummy, relatively easy to find
Cons: I personally think rice milk is watery and has no taste. If you are allergic to nuts and soy, however, it is a viable option and is usually vitamin enriched.

Hazelnut Milk
Uses: absolutely delicious in coffee. In my opinion, too rich for anything else. Varieties: generally only plain, which is quite rich and tasty
Pros: yummy, high in several vitamins and minerals, calcium enriched
Cons: hard to find (you really have to go to a health food store for this one), not terribly versatile. I like to get it as an occasional treat for coffee use. Also somewhat higher in fat than the first three items.

Hemp Milk
Uses: I feel that hemp milk is good for smoothies and that's about it. It is WAY too rich for coffee or cereal in my opinion.
Varieties: plain, unsweetened, vanilla, chocolate
Pros: Hemp is a complete protein with all essential amino acids, although hemp milk has a lower protein content than soy milk. Also naturally rich in magnesium, potassium, iron, and a host of other vitamins including calcium and D.
Cons: It has a rather high fat content (still less than whole milk and no cholesterol), which in my opinion renders it way too rich for a beverage by itself. If you liked a thick, creamy whole milk though, this might be a good option for you, and it makes a terrific smoothie or milkshake. It can be found mostly in health food stores.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trinidadian Cuisine

Thanks to some wonderful family friends, I've been eating Trinidadian cuisine since before I could talk. To me, it's Indian food meets comfort food: I enjoy traditional East Indian cuisine, but often find the spices too hot and the flavors too complicated. Trini food has all the savor of India with all the mmm mmm good of soul food. It is an omniverous cuisine, but due to the heavy Hindu influences of the region, it is extremely easy to find vegetarian fare on the menu, and many of the Trini specialities are in fact vegan. Dal, aka lentils, channa, aka chickpeas, roti, aka flatbread, and a host of veggies and fruit chutneys prevail.

The best Trinidadian food I've ever eaten was of course made by my adopted Trini grandma Maria, followed by the beach vendor food I ate while visiting Trinidad, and I've often lamented that the few places to get authentic Trini food in New York are in the wilds of Queens and Brooklyn. Thus, imagine my excitement when I discovered the grand opening of Elsie's, a Caribbean restaurant on 135th and Lenox (aka 7th), which has a big sign outside declaring those magical words: We Have Roti!!

Elsie's doesn't specify which region of the Caribbean its cuisine hails from, but the Trini influences are unmistakable. Their primary claim to fame is their roti. If you've had East Indian roti, it pales in comparison to its West Indian counterpart. Trini roti is an enormous, ultra-thin, doughy bread pliable enough to fold up like a burrito (yet even softer and chewier than a tortilla), with an internal layer of delectable crumblies made from dal (lentils) and assorted spices. (It's also known as a dalpuri, but isn't exactly like East Indian dalpuri either.) Roti can either be cut into triangles and used to sop up other foods or filled with curries and folded up like a burrito. At Elsie's they use the second option, and you can choose 5 fillings for your veggie roti (which, incidentally, is roughly the size of your head, so come hungry.)

The most traditional filling for the roti is channa aloo, aka curried chickpeas with potatoes. (It's so traditional that when the waiter asked what I wanted in my roti and I answered, channa aloo, he said, well obviously, but what else?) I've happily devoured pounds of roti filled only with this delicacy, but at Elsie's one has other options to supplement the staple ingredient. I highly recommend the callalloo, another Trini speciality which Elsie's does to perfection: chunks of spinach and okra are blended into coconut milk for a result so rich I almost can't believe it's vegan (it is-- I asked). Their callalloo is reminiscent of alfredo sauce with its thick, cloying decadence. Yams, rice and peas (not the green ones Mom made you eat-- West Indian "peas" are beans), plantains and several other veggie options. The food is well-spiced but not water-guzzling hot, and so filling you will wish they had a bed for you to lie down in immediately after eating!

I highly recommend that you A. Visit Trinidad, B. Find a Trini grandma of your own, or C. Venture to the aforementioned wilds of Queens or Brooklyn (Lefferts Blvd and Crown Heights are probably your best bets) in search of truly authentic Trini food (or start making your own: recipes coming soon), but in the interim, Elsie's is a welcome addition to the Harlem Caribbean restaurants for those of us who live uptown and simply cannot survive without roti!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Vegan Complete Proteins

One question that vegetarians and vegans quickly tire of hearing is, "but where do you get your protein??" My personal favorite answer to this question is "Mind your own business" (lol), but for those interested in a plant-based diet yet concerned about protein, here are some useful facts.

A food is rendered a complete protein by its containing all 9 essential amino acids necessary for human nutrition. Conveniently, when one combines any legume (beans, lentils, or peanuts) with any whole grain (rice, bread, pasta) they form a complementary protein in which the amino acids lacking in one are made up for by the other. However, contrary to popular belief there are a select few single vegetable food sources of complete protein available.

This food has become newly popular. It contains all 9 of the amino acids on its own and is light and quick-cooking. It is technically a grass, but has a grain-like appearance. It can be used in place of rice or barley or marinated with veggies for a yummy salad. I've also cooked it in almond milk with fruit for a dish akin to rice pudding. I've heard that for optimum nutritional content it should be soaked in water overnight prior to cooking but it will cook fine boiled in water for about 12 min without soaking.

Buckwheat (Kasha)
Can I even begin to go on about how delicious kasha is? It is a delicious substitute for rice and has a fantastic nutty, chewy flavor. If you buy the toasted variety it cooks very quickly-- about 5 to 10 min max. Delicious with mushrooms and onions. I also love it with blackeyed peas and collard greens. It is a staple of Russian, Polish, and Jewish cuisine.

No THC, I promise! The protein in hemp comes from the seed, not the leaves which have a far different well-known attribute :x Hemp powder can be added in to a smoothie and doesn't have much affect on the taste. Other than that I can't think of too many uses for it, but it's a good protein and energy booster as a supplement and is rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals.

This is one of the most commonly known veggie complete proteins and is incredibly versatile. Stick to tofu, tempeh, and soymilk and keep foods such as the highly addictive yet super-processed and salty tofu hot dog to a minimum! 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Arthur Aviles, Professional Dancer, Shares His Story: Part One: Diet, Age, and Genetics

Arthur Aviles is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer, whose most notable accomplishments include being a soloist and featured dancer in the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company, founding his own company Arthur Aviles Typical Theater, and creating a performance space in Hunts Point called the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance--BAAD! This is just a small sampling of his extensive career. Arthur and I recently began a dialogue about his new diet and weight loss, and he agreed to be interviewed for my blog! This is part one of a two part post.

Arthur is 48 years old, and realized over the past 6 years that his body was no longer what he wanted it to be. Arthur is 5'3" and extremely muscular and dense. When he began his new weight loss plan, he weighed 179 lbs, up from between 145-151 in his late 30s. Arthur said he had essentially eaten the same foods his entire life, but around age 36 the weight started to pile on. He attributes some of it to a reduction in the amount of dancing he was doing, but feels that it mostly was because of a change in metabolism. We discussed how many young people who are naturally slender and physically active tend to think they are infallible when it comes to diet, and that the junk food they consume has no effect on their well-being.

Arthur mentioned "I'm glad...young people are getting the discussion, cause I never really had the discussion, with anyone, when I was younger about, like, what I was eating, and how lucky I am... to have my metabolism so strong and that I'm a dancer... That's important, and I think when we're young we don't really know how amazing that is for us to have such strong, able bodies, and then they way in which we abuse them, at that moment is ok for us because our bodies keep tellling us it's ok...and our bodies aren't telling us, you don't know, but in the future it's not going to do that anymore. And you can start to train yourself on a different path now. And that's what I'm doing now at 48. I'm trying, I'm doing my best." Arthur said he wished he had made certain dietary changes earlier, as changing one's habits at 48 was certainly a challenge.

Arthur described his "before" diet as a typical breakfast of eggs and bacon or ham with potatoes or pancakes, lunch of a pork chop or fried chicken and vegetables, and usually no dinner. Generally his meals came from fast food or takeout restaurants. He had grown up eating similar foods as a child. He also snacked throughout the day on candy, and in the past 3 years started drinking loads of soda-- sometimes up to 2 liters a day. It is important to point out that this is not a really gluttonous amount of food. It was clearly Arthur's high consumption of meat and refined sugar which caused the weight gain.

In order to lose weight, Arthur chose to go to an extreme. He set his limitations as "no meat, no sugar, no liquor, only drink water, no eating after 6pm," all of which seem somewhat reasonable. However, his interpretation of these requirements translated into an ascetic diet of oatmeal for breakfast, a variety of vegetables for lunch, and essentially nothing else. He subsided on these foods alone from December to February and started aerobics and yoga classes at Crunch gym. These combined factors brought him down to 151 lbs at the date of the interview.

I shared with Arthur that as a female dancer who had always struggled to meet the stringent weight requirements of the dance world, I found veganism to be the most liberating diet because I was able to maintain a low weight while not having to obsess over calories. If I stayed within the "confines" of the vegan diet I could eat freely and remain slender. He responded, "What we seem to have in common is, there's a structure. And the structure actually dictates the direction that you can go into in a way that really makes it easier for you to actually go in that direction. You see, my extreme diet only had four elements to follow, and if I follow those, I just have to see where it takes me. And so, every time I came upon something, I was like oh, there's sugar in that! There's meat in that!... Any anything, it's all sugar! You can't go into any store and find a drink product which doesn't have sugar!"

I asked Arthur what his long-term plan was, since clearly a diet of solely oatmeal and veggies was not sustainable forever, mainly because it has such a low protein content (although I think it should be noted by protein fanatics that he neither wasted away nor keeled over during this 3 month period of a very low protein intake.) He admitted he was unsure, and spoke of trying to find a balance between eating things he liked and eating things which were maintaining his optimum weight. He mentioned that he doesn't cook, which certainly limits his options, but seemed open to the idea of expanding his choices, stating "If I can make oatmeal, I could learn to make other things".

Arthur said he feels "great" after his weight loss. "Overall, I feel way better. I feel good about my body. I feel light. And light in spirit... When I walk, I can tell the difference between how fat feels and how a solid body feels. And you don't have to be a 'fat' person or a 'skinny' person to understand that... It's not about 'skinny'." His one complaint was that his energy level was lower, but noted, quite profoundly, that "it sounds weird, but I don't think you necessarily need to feel energetic in order to do things and be alive in the world." I pointed out that his reduced energy was probably due in part to not eating any protein, and suggested he add some brown rice and beans to his diet, an idea he seemed enthused by.

Arthur's final thought was regarding genetics. He said he came from a "Botero family" of stocky people who tended to be overweight, but asserted "I think, and I know, that we could counteract what our genes tell us we're supposed to be doing. And that's important because I think a lot of people use genes as an excuse, and I think that no more is it an excuse, because (while) you can't change your genes, you can change the direction that your genes want to send you into. And I say that because I know my family are robust people...and I know I have the affinity to go in that direction. My genes... are telling me to get bigger. And I'm saying... I don't have to be unhealthy in that reality. I'm no longer going to take genes as an excuse. I'm not going to accept that anymore."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Westerly Natural Market

Westerly Natural Market on 54th St and 8th Ave, is in my opinion the best health food store in the city, second only to the Fourth Street Food Coop. Conveniently located in midtown, Westerly's narrow aisles are stocked to the gills with nearly more health food possibilities than the mind can fathom, with prices which leave the Whole Foods down the block in the dust. Your first visit to Westerly may overwhelm you (there are actually 47 different kinds of organic almond milk? who knew??), but if you've grown accustomed to visiting a conventional supermarket and being limited to about 2 percent of the offerings there, the hyper-variety may come as a welcome change. Westerly is also often on the cutting edge of new health food products and supplements, and often have free samples available of products ranging from probiotics to medicinal honey to raw acai juice.

Raw foodist? Macrobiotic? Gluten free? Partial to kimchee or kombucha or nori or garam masala or vegan marshmallows? Only want certified fair trade? Compostable? Westerly is the place for you. Their products include an entirely organic fruit and veg section; organic and raw dairy as well as non-dairy milks, cheeses, and yogurts; organic and pastured meats and fish; breads and crackers which include sprouted, gluten free, organic, and whole grain; a modest bulk bin section with various grains, beans, and nuts; a wide variety of fair trade chocolate, coffee, and tea; a huge variety of multi-cultural foods, particularly Asian and Indian; snacks ranging from vegan muffins to tofu jerky; a large section of specialty raw foods such as dehydrated kale chips and raw chocolate truffles; a hot soup bar and a fresh juice bar; and a deli-style section of sandwiches and salads to take out. Whether you're planning a four-course gourmet meal or having one of those weeks where you thank humanity for the invention of frozen veggie burgers, Westerly has something for you. And that's just discussing the food! There is a whole other section to the tiny store which contains a zillion nice natural soaps, beauty products, aromatherapy oils, candles, and natural cleaning products and still ANOTHER section wherein you may purchase any herbal remedy, vitamin, or nutritional supplement you could possibly think of.

Here's why they remain number two under the Co-op:
#1 they don't have a good system set up for bulk. If you bring your own containers, which I'd imagine someone buying in bulk would want to do, the cashiers look at you like you're an alien and refuse to subtract the weight of your container.
#2 their produce prices in particular, and their prices in general, are sometimes exorbitant (seven dollars a pound for peppers? No thank you.)
#3 their checkout clerks are often harried and unfriendly (although their floor clerks are incredibly helpful.)
On the other hand, you can only get a fraction of the items available at Westerly at the Co-op, or most other health food stores for that matter.

If you want a bargain, you can't really do better than the Co-op, but you can definitely get a good deal at Westerly if you shop their sale items, of which there are always a ton. I actually like just going in and buying stuff on sale because their variety is so extreme I inevitably end up trying something I never would have tried otherwise (my last trip yielded mustard greens, watercress, and rutabega.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Making Your Own Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar, an elixir whose many benefits are enumerated here, is relatively inexpensive, but I like the challenge of making things myself. Unlike other sorts of vinegars which require a starter batch and a several-step process, ACV-making is about as easy as it gets. One needs only apple scraps, water, a jar, a paper towel, and some patience.

How To Make ACV:
1. Let apple scraps (cores, peels, apple bits) sit out for 1-2 days to brown. I'd suggest scraps from a minimum of 4 apples, but you can use as much as you want. 

2. Place scraps in a jar and cover with water. The scraps should come up close to the top of the jar, not float in the water. (I used a peanut butter jar, which winded up yielding such a small amount of vinegar that it almost wasn't worth it. I'd suggest using at least a quart-sized jar to make a decent amount of vinegar.)

3. Cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth or a paper towel and secure with a rubber band. Put the jar in a cool, dark place such as a kitchen cupboard.

4. Wait. Vinegar is made through fermentation, so there's no quick way to make it. I allowed my first batch to ferment for a month, which I would say is the bare minimum. It did not come out strong enough for my taste, so next time I will let it ferment for at least 2 months. Just smell it periodically and you will have your answer as to whether or not it has become vinegar yet.

5. Pour through a strainer into a bottle to separate the scraps. The cloudy brown gunk which remains in the water is actually what makes this particular vinegar so good for you, so don't strain too vigorously!

Again, commercial ACV is cheap enough if you'd rather not go through the 2 months of waiting, but I love the idea of making something out of what would ordinarily be garbage!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Neighborhood Eats: Spotlight on Astoria

While the most well-known NYC vegan havens are the East and West Villages in Manhattan, healthy, vegan-friendly fare can be found in the outer boroughs as well. Astoria, Queens, my childhood stomping ground, has always been known for its diverse and delicious restaurants. Growing up, the majority were Greek and Italian (not impossible to find vegan fare in these cuisines, but mostly cheese abounds.) However, in the past few years the neighborhood has further diversified and modernized, making it quite vegan-friendly. I'll take you on a short food tour of 30th Avenue, a major shopping/eating strip, with a couple detours along the way.

Get off the N train at the 30th Ave stop and you will first encounter Sai Organics, a top-rate health food store with a multitude of vegan take-out options, including pastries and muffins, sandwiches, soups, fresh juices, salads, and organic fair trade coffee with soy milk. The store is run by friendly people with a Zen attitude and they proudly announce that their bathroom is open to all humans whether customers or not, a welcome change from the typical New York restroom policies.

Continue up the avenue with the street numbers increasing, and you'll come across a strip of fruit and vegetable markets. The produce isn't organic, but the products are always very fresh and quite reasonably priced. The variety is excellent as well.

My next snack stop is usually Mama's, the new self-serve fro-yo spot which recently opened in Astoria. This is the only of its kind I've encountered which has 3 or 4 non-dairy sorbets among the various yogurt options. Judging by the taste and appearance, I'd say the flavors come from real fruit and the sugar content is low. Grab a few self-serve squirts of the various flavors (pomegranate and mango are two of my faves), then head over to the toppings bar, where a ton of fresh fruit is accompanied by nuts, seeds, carob chips, coconut flakes, and mochi, a chewy Japanese treat made from rice. You pay for your concoction by weight, so feel free to sample as many different toppings as you wish!

Next up is one of my favorite establishments, Brooklyn Bagel. There weren't too many foods I missed when going vegan, but a chewy NY bagel with a schmear of cream cheese was definitely one of them. Brooklyn Bagel has the solution, with 5 varieties of tofu cream cheese (plain, chive, veggie, walnut raisin, and recently, spinach) paired with a variety of bagels including many whole-grain options (whole wheat everything is my favorite.) I'd suggest going for the mini-bagel, as the "normal" sized bagel is roughly the size of my head. Additionally, they usually offer a vegan soup option, have a full salad bar, and soy milk for coffee.

Hang a left at Steinway Street and you will come to the strip of Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores between 28th Ave and Astoria Boulevard. Middle Eastern food is tricky: on one hand, shwarma and shishkebobs abound, and sometimes I avoid these places because of the meat smell and possible cross-contamination between the meat grill and the falafels. On the other hand, Middle Eastern cuisine has a ton of healthy vegan options, such as hummus, tahini, falafel, fava beans, and a host of interesting salads. There are also some Middle Eastern pastries resembling the Greek baklava which are made with sugar and vegetable oil rather than honey and butter. Turkish Delight is another vegan treat which can be obtained on this block, as well as very reasonably priced nuts and dried fruits. One advantage is that most of these restaurants cook the food on grills that you can see when you walk in, so it's pretty easy to figure out if your pita is being grilled right next to a lamb chop.

Astoria is also home to several Thai and Indian restaurants, also on 30th Ave, where there are quite a few vegan options. I've yet to discover a specifically vegetarian restaurant in Astoria (if I'm wrong, please let me know!) but these various snack shops keep me well satisfied when I teach dance in the neighborhood. It's always a pleasure to go somewhere where you can get some healthy, yummy, unique munchies.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Vegan Soul Food: Blackeyed Peas and Collard Greens

 I'm a northerner and tend not to like much American food, but there is something about soul food... Unfortunately a lot of soul food favorites tend to be heavy on the fat and the animal products, but here is a healthy vegan version of some of my favorite Southern-style dishes.

Saute one onion, chopped, in olive or vegetable oil til soft.
Add large bunch of chopped collard greens, saute til wilted.
Add 3 cups cooked blackeyed peas and 2 cups veg stock.
Optional: add 1/4 tsp liquid smoke, which if you are used to having this dish with meat will add to the authenticity of the flavor.
Simmer on medium heat until the water becomes thick and gravy-like, about 20 min. Serve over any grain for a complete protein, I myself am partial to buckwheat groats with this dish.

The side I like to serve with this is mashed yams: boil or pressure cook several yams until soft (15 min in pressure cooker, much longer in regular pot). Mash with almond or soy milk and non-dairy butter (Earth Balance is my preference.) If you can't find the butter just the yams and milk are also quite tasty.