April 5, 2015

Lunch Wraps

April 5, 2015
Like all patterns of behavior, you can change food habits, too.

Last October I went cold turkey on sugar. I didn’t intend to quit sweets permanently, but wanted to experiment what – if any – short-term benefits reduction of glucose has on my health. Little did I know how much it would affect my cooking, eating and well-being!
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Up until I was 40, I had a healthy relationship with sugar, and honored a sweet treat usually on Sundays during a feast in the temple ashram. When my interest in cooking developed, I found desserts to please most people: serving a knock-out cake or fudge would patch whatever shortcoming the main course might’ve had. When I started to organize cookery courses, baking pies and cobblers along with preparing candies and puddings became everyone’s favorite class. To the degree I enjoyed inhaling the scent of caramel, cardamom and butter in the kitchen – who wouldn’t – my tongue acquired more and more sweet taste, and sooner than I realized, I was buying ice-cream, chocolate bars and vegan gummy bears from the shop – something I hadn’t done since my teens.

Within a couple of years an innocent pleasure transformed into sugar addiction. Instead of supplying energy for the body, the constant munching of confections made me chronically fatigue and contributed to all sorts of ailments from brain fog to eczema, hot-waves, insomnia, heartburn, over-weight and other endocrine complications. Finally, when a blood vessel in the wall of an ovarian cyst ruptured and caused me to bleed all September and the beginning of October last year, I was inspired to break up the love affair with sugar and carbohydrates. In fact, I was ready to do anything to alleviate the physical mayhem, hoping that paying a closer attention to nutrient intake would help my hormones to moderate energy reserves and balance out the metabolism.
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Of course I had cravings at first. Every afternoon around 4 pm, when the blood glucose levels hit rock bottom, the mind knitted hypotheses to refute my new found sugar-free lifestyle, and statements like “you are seduced by righteous eating” and “you have orthorexia nervosa or abnormal attachment to health food”, and “eating is a social experience you are ruining by your fanatic attitude” ambushed my determination. At the same time, there were results that counteracted these arguments: the eczema I had battled with for six years cleared out; I regained a normal sleep rhythm; and all premenopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, heartburn, irregular periods and moodiness ceased. When I figured out, in two or three weeks, how to maintain a steady energy level by increasing fats and proteins in the morning, and consuming highly concentrated nutrients from items like raw beets, avocadoes and cruciferous greens on each meal, I no longer hankered after creamy tarts and pastries. My body started to burn fat instead of sugar and, as a bonus, I lost 12 kg (26lb) within six months. It seems that by replacing excess sugar and carbohydrates with more substantial elements, the body will gradually burn its fat supplies, and find its ideal state.
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From the point of view of food-blogging, I’m facing identity crises. The most viewed posts on this site have been infused with sugar. Some of you may wonder if I’ve become a food-fascist that will  torment you by condemning all syrup-dripping desserts by uploading only vitamin-laced recipes from the platform of entitlement!

I haven’t worked it out yet how to proceed or whether I will ever cook with sugar again. Probably when time goes by, I might start adding a teaspoon of sweetness to cancel overly sour ingredients like tamarind or tomatoes, but for now I’m happy to stick to recipes that don’t require even that. My objective is to be stronger and more active in my 50’s than I ever was in my 40’s and, somehow or other, I hope this blog will reflect the mood, too.
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Letting something go is never one dimensional. Omitting sugar from the diet bound me to fresh foods – salads, sprouts and all kinds of greens, and fruits – which I hardly ate before. In some ways I think I have been “a carbohydrian” or “a protenian” rather than a vegetarian, because grains and pulses covered my plate in a larger extent than vegetables. Now I find myself thinking of food in a different way, and couldn’t imagine a meal without an uncooked component that gives the instant burst of vitality. Instead of eating cooked beans and lentils daily, I prefer them three or four times a week in small portions. Unlike before, I can well skip rice and bread.
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I’m developing new recipes every day. Here is one of them:

Butterbeans, cashews and oven dried cherry tomatoes wrapped in lettuce leaves

Ingredients:
250 - 500 ml (1 - 2 cups) butterbeans + water for soaking and cooking
Lettuce leaves
A bunch of watercress
A bunch of sage leaves
Oven dried tomatoes (recipe here)
2 Tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp hing powder
¼ tsp cayenne powder
250 ml (1 cup) cashew nuts
1 Tbsp desiccated coconut
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp dry roasted jeera (powder)
½ tsp amchoor powder (green mango powder)
1 tsp kala namak powder
1 ½ tsp Himalayan salt

Method:
Sort, wash and soak the beans overnight. Cook them in a pot or pressure cooker until they are soft but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

Wash the lettuce, watercress and sage. Set aside to dry.

Heat up the olive oil over a moderate heat and add the hing and cayenne powder, immediately followed by the cashews. Roast the nuts until they are light golden on all sides.

Add the coconut and toast until they change the hue and become fragrant.

Add the beans, tomatoes and sage leaves. Sprinkle everything with black pepper, jeera, amchoor and kala namak powder, and salt. Remove the pan from the stove.

Place a spoonful of beans in the middle of each lettuce leaves, and add a couple of stalks of watercress. Wrap up the leaves and secure them with cocktail sticks.

If you cook the beans and roast the tomatoes in advance, it takes only couple of minutes to assemble a quick lunch or snack.

I sprinkled the tomatoes with olive oil, cayenne powder and Himalayan salt before roasting them. You can use other spices and herbs for variety.


Thank you.




March 4, 2015

Bok Choy, Spinach, Broad beans & Piquant paneer

March 4, 2015
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Cruciferous vegetables – like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale and radish – are one of the dominant food crops worldwide. Today they are perhaps more popular than ever: not so much because people crave for vitamin A or C, soluble fiber and phytochemicals, but because modern scientific research shows that Brassica vegetable consumption correlates with lower cancer rates. There isn’t another food group that would match for nourishment across the variety of nutritional categories.
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Although I’ve always eaten my “cole crops” with gusto, I became interested in their anti-estrogenic properties after battling with hormone imbalance for years. Estrogen is a fat-making hormone that, in excess, blocks fat-burning hormones needed for a healthy metabolism. As a result, every morsel of food (whether a carbohydrate, sugar, fat or protein) turns into a layer of lard around the belly, hips and tights to protect the organs underneath, especially the ovaries. The liver is a powerhouse through which all hormones are processed, and cruciferous vegetables – especially when eaten raw – help the liver to break down the chemicals, and to detoxify. Sulfur, which is ample in all cabbage family, plays a major role in this process.
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Bok Choy or Chinese cabbage’s medicinal value was known to the Ming Dynasty naturalist Li Shizhen (1518 – 1593) who popularized it outside the Yangtze River Delta region, making it a Manchurian staple long before it spread to Japan and around the world.

Unlike regular cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens or rutabaga, bok choy has a very mild scent and flavor. It cooks in a couple of minutes which makes it an attractive alternative for those who can’t afford spending much time in the kitchen. If you make the paneer and clean the beans beforehand, my today’s recipe takes less than ten minutes to assemble.
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Before you jump to the recipe, let me say that soy sauce (that I’ve used to boost the paneer) is high sodium food. Many brands that manufacture soy sauce or tamari in a non-traditional way enhance their product with table salt (NaCl) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) – two culprits that cause water retention and joint pain when consumed. Studies have shown that MSG triples the output of insulin, and we all know what effect table salt has for blood pressure and cardiovascular health table salt has no nutritional value. Most boxed and canned foods, gravies, TV dinners and condiments are laced with them because they give that extra punch and make a meal taste just a little bit too good to be true. People who eat them regularly loose appetite for natural flavors found in whole foods.

I don’t generally promote any soy-derived products because they are too processed and heavy for my yogic lifestyle, but occasionally I use Bragg Amino Acids for the flavor. It is a seasoning made from non-GMO soy beans and purified water and is without added MSG, preservatives, coloring, alcohol, gluten or salt. If you would like to substitute it with soy sauce, you will have to adjust (probably lessen) the amount in the recipe.
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On the side I’ve served beetroot yogurt: A little bit grated beets, yogurt, black pepper and Himalayan salt.
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Bok Choy, spinach, broad beans and piquant paneer (serves 2 - 4)


Ingredients
For the broad beans:
125 ml (1/2 cup) fresh broad beans (removed from the pods)
Boiling water for parboiling
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For the tomato sauce:
2 tomatoes
1 red chili pepper (fresh), seeded
½ tsp jeera seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 Tbsp Bragg liquid aminos
(Extra whey if needed)
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For the paneer:
450 g/16 oz shortly pressed and diced paneer (from 3 liters/12 cups milk + 1 lemon)
2 Tbsp ghee, butter or oil
¼ tsp hing powder
(The tomato sauce from above)
½ tsp kala namak powder
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For the greens:
1 large bok choy (coarsely chopped)
500 ml (2 cups) baby spinach
1 Tbsp ghee, butter or oil
A good pinch of hing powder
1 Tbsp finely grated ginger
1 green chili, slit
½ tsp Himalayan salt


Method:
Prepare the beans first by parboiling them for a minute to loosen the exterior coating. Then drain and rinse them under cold water, and cut a slit on the outer layer and slip the bean out with your fingers. Discard the skins. Set the beans aside.

Make the tomato sauce by peeling the tomatoes and removing their stems. Combine the tomatoes with the chili and spices in an electric spice mill or food processor to make fine paste. Add the soy sauce and set aside.

Heat up the ghee, butter or oil in a non-stick skillet over a medium heat and add the hing powder. Toss it once or twice with a spatula, and add the paneer dices. Fry them, tossing and turning, until they are golden brown on all sides. Then pour in the tomato sauce. Let the paneer cook in the sauce until the sauce becomes very thick and dry, sticking to the paneer. If you want more sauce, add a little bit whey from cheese making to achieve the desired consistency. Finally, add the kala namak powder and turn off the heat.

While the paneer is cooking in the sauce, heat up 1 Tbsp ghee, butter or oil in another pan or pot. Add the hing powder, grated ginger and chili. Toss the mixture for 20 to 30 seconds with a spatula then add the chopped bok choy stems. Sauté them for a minute or two then add the chopped leaves and the spinach. Sauté the greens for a minute or two, and then add the broad beans and salt. Mix well, and then fold carefully in the tomato sauce infused paneer. Turn off the heat.




Thank you.




February 23, 2015

Breakfast

February 23, 2015
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Many of us grew up thinking breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it provides fuel to the brain and body after an overnight fast (thus the name: “breaking the fast”). There is, however, an ongoing debate about good food habits, and some studies indicate that skipping a cereal, toast and jam may not – metabolically speaking – be as noxious as believed. It would be interesting to know how many of these researches are done with a weight loss rather than a healthy and balanced lifestyle in mind.

Arguments aside, my personal experience is that more regular way I live, hungrier I feel in orderly intervals. Every three or four hours the acoustic signals of my stomach are pounding like a heavy metal band, making me cranky and disoriented, if I don’t turn down the volume by eating a wholesome snack or meal. Such sensation of hunger is the body’s way to communicate the need for energy and, despite of being a nuisance, it is a healthy sign. When the metabolism becomes too weak to send out a distress call, the belly no longer growls in the absence of protein, carbohydrates and fats. By then, there are probably other silent malfunctions related to the liver, hormones and glands, too.
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An ideal breakfast depends on a person; there is not only one way to start a day. I approach it as the most exciting and nutritious meal of the day because I have a ferocious appetite, and I also see how much strength and vitality it gives. Actually, I “break the fast” already upon waking up by drinking two cups of hot water with lemon juice as a liver and kidney tonic. Then, after my morning duties and meditation, I eat an apple or two. Apples are high in malic acid, pectin, dietary fiber and potassium, and tend to kick stagnant bile, increase digestive flow and slow down insulin response. For the main breakfast, around 8 or 9am, I choose homemade dairy, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and gluten-free grains such as buckwheat, quinoa or basmati rice.

I recently – and finally – bought a pressure cooker which makes it so effortless to prepare chickpeas and other beans and lentils in a jiffy! Instead of boiling the legumes for an hour, it takes from five to ten minutes, and saves energy. I recommend it to every vegetarian.

To make seeds and nuts more digestible, soak them overnight in clean water because, like legumes, they have enzyme inhibitors that otherwise force the pancreas to work overtime and use its own enzyme reserve, causing bloating and heaviness in the abdomen. In a long run, “un-sprouted” nuts may weaken digestion. Germination will increase the availability of additional enzymes, vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.

To activate the enzymes:

  • Soak the seeds for 12 hours
  • Rinse the seeds several times to remove any liquid containing enzyme inhibitors
  • Eat the seeds immediately or store in the refrigerator for a couple of days. It may be a good idea to aerate or dry them before storing because, as wet, they are more susceptible to spoiling.
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BREAKFAST (serves 2 to 4)


Ingredients
125 ml (1/2 cup) chickpeas
500 ml (1 cup) different nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts
1 liter milk for paneer + lemon juice
2 avocadoes
100 g (4 oz) baby spinach and other greens (2 – 3 generous handfuls)
2 handfuls of sprouts (alfa alfa, mung, broccoli)
Coconut slivers
Olive oil
Lemon juice
Black pepper powder
Hing powder
Cayenne powder
Kala namak powder
Himalayan salt

Cooking method
Wash and soak the chickpeas for 8 to 12 hours. Rinse and cook them in fresh water until soft but not mushy.

Wash and soak the nuts for 8 to 12 hours. Rinse and chop them coarsely.

Make paneer from 1 liter of milk and lemon juice. Strain it for 10 to 15 minutes and break it into chunks. Save the whey for a later use.

Mix the cooked chickpeas, nuts, paneer, peeled and cut avocadoes, baby spinach, sprouts and coconut slivers in a bowl.

Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, spices and salt in a separate bowl or jar, and add it to the salad just before serving.


Thank you.





February 4, 2015

Saffron Paneer

February 4, 2015
Say cheese!

Nutritionally, cheese is concentrated milk with a longer shelf-life and many uses. Despite that it may smell like old shoes, people – especially Europeans – have cultivated an acquired taste for it since prehistoric times.

The fermenting process was likely accidentally discovered by storing milk in containers made from animal stomach, in which it naturally curdled as a reaction to rennet. Gradually it led to using the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber of slaughtered, unweaned calves as the main coagulation agent necessary for making hard, ripened cheese.

By Roman times, pressing curds, and salting and aging them, was already an established art. Today, Europeans are still the world’s top cheesemongers and consumers, closely followed by Americans who started to produce their cheddars in an assembly-line as early as in 1851. Although at the dawn of 1900s scientists developed microbial starters to replace the more laborious and expensive animal rennet, there are some cheeses – like Parmesan – that solely rely on traditional ingredients and methods.
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For those who follow dietary cultures of Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, or even the ethical codes of vegetarianism, eating cheese that requires slaughtering is out of question. From the point of view of sattvic (pure) lifestyle, the process of ripening itself is questionable because it is actually nothing else than controlling spoilage: many of the odor and flavor molecules in an aged cheese are same as those found in rotten foods.
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In India, acid-set soft cheese known as chhena could be perhaps called "the mother-cheese" that predates recorded history. It is prepared by adding lemon juice (or some other sour-agent: yogurt, buttermilk or citric acid) to boiling milk to separate the curds from the whey. It is the simplest kind of fresh cheese widely used both in savory and sweet preparations.

When you wrap these curds in cloth and press them under a weight until they turn into a solid mass, which you can dice and use in curries or salads, you get paneer. It is probably the best known Asian cheese in the West, and you have likely bumped into it when dining in an Indian restaurant. Does palak paneer, kadai paneer, matar paneer, paneer butter masala, paneer tikka, paneer korma or shahi paneer ring a bell?
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It’s no secret I love paneer and usually make it once or twice a week. For me, it personifies the generosity and kindness of cows. It is luscious and comforting. These are my tips for making light and fluffy paneer:
  1. Use only organic full-fat milk
  2. Cook it in a heavy bottom pan over a moderate heat
  3. As soon as it reaches the boiling point, turn off the heat and add gradually as little lemon juice as it takes to curdle the milk (about 1 lemon per 3 liters / 12 cups milk)
  4. Stir the milk very gently (not vigorously)
  5. Drain and wrap the curds in cloth, and press the bundle under a weight (a pot filled with water, for example) only for 5 to 10 minutes: paneer will remain moist but you are still able to cut it into cubes
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Although this dish is all about paneer, it’s also about aromatics and texture to which paneer lends a plump body. There are countless spice combinations you could opt for, but I have used a simple and subtle one today to highlight the unique hay-like fragrance and vivid pigment of saffron.

There is a lot of inconsistency in the potency of saffron. Look for deep crimson stigmas and don’t compromise the price!

Just because I found a coconut loitering in the kitchen this morning, I utilized it, but I’ve made the recipe succesfully with cream or even with homemade yogurt instead of coconut milk. If you go for the yogurt, add it after the cashew paste has properly thickened and simmer it over a low heat to prevent it from curdling.


SAFFRON PANEER

Ingredients:
Paneer from 3 liters / 12 cups organic full fat milk
2-3 tomatoes
1 long red, seeded chili (mild), or to taste
A thumb-size piece of peeled ginger root
A little bit of water to paste the chili and ginger
125 ml (½ cup) cashew nuts
125 ml (½ cup) whey (or water)
A half of fresh coconut
500 ml (2 cups) whey (or water) to make coconut milk
2 Tbsp ghee (or butter or oil)
2 tsp freshly ground coriander powder
1 tsp freshly ground jeera powder
125 – 250 ml (½ - 1 cup) additional whey (or water) for attaining desired consistency
2 generous pinches of freshly powdered saffron
1 generous pinch of freshly powdered cardamom
2 tsp Himalayan salt or to taste

Cooking method:
Make the paneer as instructed in the text above. Press it for less than 10 minutes. Preserve the whey.

Wash and peel the tomatoes, and remove the stems. Purée the tomatoes in an electric spice mill or food processor. Set the purée aside.

Make a paste from the chili, ginger and as much water as needed. This amount of chili gives only mild heat. Use more, if you want a stronger taste. Set the paste aside.

Make a paste from the cashew nuts and whey (or water). Set it aside.

Cut the coconut half into smaller chunks and blitz the pieces with whey (or water) in an electric spice mill or food processor. Place thin cheesecloth in a sieve and place the sieve over a bowl. Now pour the coconut paste onto the cloth, make a bundle and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Set the milk aside and use the coconut meat for chutney or other cooking.

Heat up the ghee (or butter or oil) in a pot or pan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the coriander and jeera powder, mix once with a spatula and immediately pour in the chili-ginger paste. Cook it for about 10 minutes until the ghee (or butter or oil) separates from it. You may want to mix it a couple of times to prevent it from scalding. Always grind the spices as needed because they quickly lose the aroma.

Pour in the tomato paste and cook it for another 10 or 15 minutes until the ghee (or butter or oil) separates from it.

Add the cashew paste. Mix it well and then add the coconut milk. Lower the temperature and simmer until the sauce thickens. You may add some more whey (or water) to achieve a desired consistency.

Finally add the saffron, cardamom and salt. Mix well. Then add the paneer dices. Let the flavors infuse for a couple of minutes before serving.


Thank you.