Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Deceptively Tricky Salad

When you think of going on a diet and eating out, do you often think that it will be a good idea to have salad for lunch? It seems so innocuous, all those leaves and crunchy bits. So, you hit up a salad bar or restaurant for some ensalada. Factor in an oily dressing--on the side or otherwise--, heaps of protein like grilled chicken (probably been grilled with oil and who knows how much), pieces of steak, some shrimps (as Brian and I like to call them), or even the innocent-seeming tofu (which is quite fattening, no, really, it is), some croutons, a generous sprinkling of nuts or seeds, maybe a heaping spoon of full-fat cheese, and you can easily go into the stratosphere, calorically-speaking. Here are ten tips to make or order a salad that's filling, wholesome, and scattered with some crunchy bits.

1. Branch out by using interesting or rarely used salad bases.
There's a world of leaves out there--romaine, escarole, endive, raddichio, even iceberg can seem exotic when you tend to use baby spinach all the time. For an even more varied spin on salad, try leftover brown rice, whole wheat couscous, red quinoa, whole wheat penne pasta, or any other whole grain as a base. This is especially useful if leaves don't entirely satsify you.

2. Beans, beans, beans.
Beans are a powerhouse of protein without the excess fat and cholesterol found in animal-based ingredients. As a bonus, they have the fiber that limp breast of chicken is lacking. Lately, I've been topping my salads with Quick Chicks. Black beans on salad that uses salsa as dressing would be great too, which leads me to...

3. Make your own dressing (or use something other than "dressing" to dress it up).
Full fat dressings are delicious but you know the deal. It's so easy to pile it on when the salad base is uninteresting. And try putting it on the side and not finishing off that small delicious cup of oil. Ken's Steakhouse makes some decent lower fat varieties but don't you dare use fat-free. Why would you when you can use salsa on a salad full of black beans, roasted peppers and corn? Or use some Dijon mustard in place of oil when making homemade dressing. Mustard will still emulsify with the vinegar and adds a creamy spicyness without added fat. Add some flavored oil and vinegar--such as garlic, chili peppper, or lemon rosemary--to your salad. They are everywhere now. If you measure out a teaspoon of oil and toss it very, very well, you don't need as much.

4. The judicious use of nuts, seeds, and other crunchy bits.
Add a small handful of walnuts or almonds or some sunflower seeds to your salad for some fat, vitamins, protein, fiber, and lots of flavor. Think of them as nutrient-packed, nature-made croutons.

5. Very things can go wrong when you eat some avocado.
Instead of cheese, which is, yes, delicious, but also is quite easy to eat too much of when you're standing over big blocks of them at a salad bar. Buy a whole Haas avocado and chop up half into your salad. Just half of one is two ounces, which is just 2 Weight Watchers' points, which is very good. Avocados are full of healthful monounsaturated fat, folate, potassium, and very few things taste as good with so little adulteration, save a small sprinkling of sea salt.

6. Make a salad your side dish.
I don't think leaves are supposed to make a meal, which is why salads have become these heaving beasts chock full of bacon, eggs, and cheese. Have a traditional salad of lettuce, tomato, onions, carrots, and other veggies and help yourself to a cup of soup or a whole wheat pita lightly slathered with some hummus and filled with red onions, cucumber, and a few cubes of baked tofu.

7. Sun-dried tomatoes are like nature's bacon bits.
Skip the ones packed in oil and drop a few slivers to your salad. They have a smoky, salty flavor reminiscent of bacon and a chewy texture that's such a pleasure to eat. This with avocado? Oh so good.

8. Watch your portions.
A large salad bar container can hold up to 6 cups of food. A small one holds about 2 1/2 cups. If you're filling the large container with mostly fresh veggies, you're good. But if you enjoy the selections that clearly contain more fat and calories, use the smaller vessel.

9. Try going around the salad bar once before you start serving yourself.
This will help you decide what you really want to eat rather than randomly grabbing whatever happens to look good every two seconds. If you know you want some of that oil-drenched pasta salad with olives (it's ok, I like oil-drenched noodles too), you can help yourself to a small serving of it while you forgo the hard-boiled eggs that always have that green ring around the yoke anyway. Blech.

10. Ask.
Salad bar nutritional info for major supermarkets are often posted on their web sites. Dottie's Weight Loss Zone contains information on many chain restaurants in the US and Canada, as well as nutritional data for Wegmans and Whole Foods. You also can ask a market employee what the food is actually made of. If they don't know, a manager probabaly will. Asking is crucial not only for monitoring calories but for verifying if that pasta salad is indeed vegan. Making your needs known also increases the chances that the stores you frequent will carry the items you want to consume. When dining out at a restaurant, ask the server how the salad is prepared, if there are healthier dressing options or if you can swap the globs of blue cheese for some extra roasted red peppers.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It's Friday. We Need Pictures of Puppies.

It's been a long week. Yesterday felt like Friday. Today is Friday and feels like the longest day ever. But you can't be sad looking at that puppy, now can you? There's more where that came from at the better-than-Prozac web site, The Daily Puppy. And Prozac doesn't really work as touted, anyway. Puppies better.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Veggie Brian

Next time you visit New Brunswick, NJ, treat yourself to a Veggie Brian at one of the legendary Grease Trucks. Of course, I have access to my own Veggie Brian most of the time, who got a kick seeing his name and culinary preference joined together on a menu.

Monday, January 14, 2008

NPR Interview with Veganomicon's Isa and Terry. And are fish finally safe around me?

While I don't post a new entry, why don't you listen to "Secrets of the Ultimate Vegan Kitchen" on NPR's Weekend Edition? "Host Liane Hanson speaks with vegan chefs Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, hosts of the TV cooking show The Post Punk Kitchen. The pair have authored a new book, Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook."

Coming soon, am I still a pescetarian? Doesn't look likely after I saw gutted dead fish and very large and alive fish swimming in very small captivity at Spring Garden Market in Philadelphia. However, Brian came home from the market with a very large log of Vege Chicken Ham. It scares me and pleases him. Oh, he deserves it because he also bought some eggplant, plaintains, bananas, apple, and spinach.

Anyway, off to eat some beans and corn and whole grains and, well, some cheese. Which makes me only marginally less evil than when I had what may have been my last piece of salmon on Friday.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

My Food Resolutions for 2008

One of its main tenets of Brazen Careerist's latest post on making resolutions you'll keep is that you should make only one or two goals. As someone who has made only one resolution that I've ever actually kept (vowing to lose weight January 8, 2005, doing so, and then keeping most of it for those three years), I've learned that a goal is not unlike writing an outline for a school paper: break down one idea into smaller, manageable parts. My overall culinary aim this year is to eat consciously, to really think about what I eat. Not obsess or create an eating disorder but to, as often as possible, think about if what I'm eating is what I want and if it supports my beliefs. To that end, here we go:

1. Learn how to grow a container garden
I don't know what happened this New Year's Eve but while my mother and stepfather were out partying (with silly string, no less) until 3 AM, Brian and I spent the evening making and eating hot-sauced glazed tempeh (recipe courtesy of Veganomicon), roasted sweet potatoes, and too-bitter rappini; doing a crossword puzzle; watching an episode of My So-Called Life; and then setting the alarm for 11:30 PM so we wouldn't miss the ball drop at midnight. The next day, I spent a few hours at Barnes and Noble looking through gardening books and decided that, this year, I really want to grow a plant of some sort without killing it in a few weeks. I'm very much settling into my slide into domestic middle-age. Anyways, I don't want to spend $4 for a bag of out-of-season sugar snap peas anymore. And I'm sick of buying fresh parsley and only using a few sprigs of it. With the world as crazy as it is, peak oil and all that stuff, I'd better learn to grow at least some of what I eat.

2. Eat more fruit (and a little dark chocolate in moderation) and less refined, processed sweets
Before I started Weight Watchers in 2005, my downfall was greasy Chinese takeout and lots of it. I enjoyed sweets but never gorged on them. Then after dieting for a while, my sweet tooth grew. Most of the extra weight I've put on this last year is due to my need for two desserts: one after lunch and one after dinner. I'm vowing to eat more fruit throughout the day and substituting my after lunch treat with fruit and if I want to be really decadent, maybe some dried mango (yum).

3. Eat out less and cook at home more
The rest of my weight gain is due to weekends of greasy vegan Chinese takeout, not bringing my lunch to work and eating out, or bringing an Amy's Organic frozen meal or another paltry serving of food to work and supplementing it with vending machine goodies. A main culprit of eating out more is not because I have an aversion to cooking but my lack of sleep and poor menu planning. To make sure I have the energy to cook at night, I'm aiming to go to bed just an hour earlier so I am less tired and have more energy and time to devote to properly planning what I'll eat all week.

4. Eat less cheese
This gives me no pleasure but it is an attempt at virtue. Do it for the cows. Besides, cheese has no nutritional value whatsoever, unlike eggs and fish (says the pesceovotarian). Any calcium and protein in cheese is negated by all the fat. Oh, the luscious fat. I'm no monk though so I think I'll start by just eating less of it. Rather than buying grocery store cheese every week and melting it on anything edible, I'll save my cheese indulgence for the really good stuff, the stuff that isn't neon and melted.

5. Eat more beans
Listen to the recent Food for Thought podcast on beans (the episode from December 14, 2007). Beans are a staple in many culinary traditions, including the Puerto Rican one I come from. As a child, I wasn't a fan of beans. I would only eat pigeon peas, or gandules, which my grandmother would make for me. Now there isn't a bean I won't eat. I'm particularly fond of pink beans, black beans, chickpeas, and cannellini beans . Canned or fresh, I'm going to make an effort to eat beans everyday. There's really no reason not to since canned beans are readily available, priced right and just a can opener away. My lunch salad today was elevated with the addition of chickpeas with sauteed onions (recipe below). And I'm not hungry nearly three hours later, miracle of miracles.

6. Cook and more soups and chilis
I'll concentrate on making soups, chilis, rice and beans and other large servings of beans, grains, and veggies that can go for a few days. If it tastes good, I don't mind eating the same thing three days in a row but I'll keep on hand some avocado, nuts, different sauces, already cooked tofu, an egg, etc. to keep things interesting for lunch and dinner.

7. Make my own granola and trail mix bars
This might be one of those pipe dream resolutions. I may just continue to buy Clif Nectar bars. But considering bars are just some grains, nuts and dried fruit binded together with some sticky syrupy sugar, it would be much cheaper to make it. If I get around to it, I can follow this recipe from Mother Earth Living.

8. Sign up for community-supported agriculture
With Philly's own Greens Grow right in Brian's neighborhood, we have no excuse not to buy shares in a local farm and pick up weekly boxes of fresh produce. Here's more information on their CSA.

Quick Chicks with Onions (vegan)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ medium yellow onion, diced
1 can (15 ounces) organic chickpeas, drained and rinsed
sprinklings of the following spices to taste:
ground cumin
ground cayenne pepper
dried Italian seasoning
freshly ground pepper

Heat olive oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent and just slightly browned—about five minutes. Add chickpeas, cumin, cayenne pepper, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper. Stir well, cook for another 5 minutes or so (until chickpeas start to pop open) and taste and adjust seasonings to your liking as you go along. I like a lot of cumin and a generous dose of cayenne for flavor, bite, and a nice orange tinge. Chill and serve over salad or eat immediately.