Archive | April, 2013

Foods That Fight Stress

Moist and delicious oatmeal blueberry cashew vegan cookies

It’s a natural tendency to reach for a cookie when we’re feeling stressed out. In addition to providing a little respite, they also make great projectiles. But these tasty Vegan Spiced Oatmeal-Cashew-Blueberry Cookies (recipe below) aren’t like most comfort foods that provide only a fleeting moment of emotional anesthesia. These cookies are actually packed with incredible ingredients that alter your brain chemistry to reduce stress hormones and increase the production of chemicals that will elevate your mood.

Can you believe that something as simple as eating the right foods can decrease anxiety, depression and stress? It’s pretty amazing! It’s all chemistry, really. Every time we feel tension, our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol, which elevates blood pressure, impairs the immune system, makes our shoulders reside near our ears, and inspires some of us to throw objects at the heads of annoying people.  Here’s why I’ve felt a bit stressed lately:

Our stress-inducing apocalypse-style patio

Yes, it’s loads of fun trying to write articles with the pleasant sound of the jackhammer just inches away! Stress is a killer – literally. John knows four people who have dropped dead at his workplace in the past year. Yikes!  So when I started seeing his brain-vein pounding more prominently in recent weeks, and when my legs began jackhammering at my desk (even when the demo guys were taking a break), I decided to do a little research about ways to combat our tension with food.

Check this out:

Oatmeal makes your brain produce the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin. It modulates mood, helps us combat stress and makes us feel happier.

Blueberries are high in vitamin C, which researchers have found reduces the psychological and physical effects of stress by curbing the secretion of cortisol. It has also been shown to help people bounce back from stressful situations more quickly. And bonus: blueberries are rich with anthocyanin, which improves cognitive function and memory. They’re also a source of potassium, which lowers blood pressure.

Cashews are rich with zinc, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. (By the way, did you know that our bodies can’t store zinc? Unless we consume some every day it can lead to zinc deficiency, which causes a host of other nasty problems like hair loss, mental lethargy and sexual health issues. So unless you want to be an impotent, balding slug, eat your cashews!)

So I figured: why not combine all these stress-busting, anti-anxiety foods into a delicious and healthy snack? Give these easy-to-make Spiced Oatmeal-Cashew-Blueberry cookies a try – they’re moist, delicious, addictive, and they’ll even help you suppress your urge to use one as a projectile. They’re so good that even carnivores who are fearful of anything vegan will love them.  And since they’re packed with complex carbs (verses the empty simple carbs found in most cookies) and are super good for you, there won’t be any guilt-related stress if you happen to gobble up, say, all 25 of them in one sitting. Enjoy!

Vegan spiced oatmeal-blueberry-cashew cookies. YUM!

Stress-Busting Spiced Oatmeal-Cashew-Blueberry Cookies

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 25 cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/8 tsp nutmeg
a pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup agave nectar**
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 olive oil
2 cups old fashioned oats (uncooked)
1/2 cup dried blueberries, rehydrated (soak in hot water for 5 minutes. Be sure to pat them dry)
1/2 cup toasted and unsalted cashews, chopped

* Whole wheat pastry flour is a little lighter and yummier for baking, but you can use regular flour if you can’t find the pastry flour, but if you do, just use a tiny bit less than ½ cup since regular flour is denser.

** If you prefer, you can use 2/3 cup brown rice syrup in place of the agave nectar. But cut back on the salt to 1/8 tsp. The cookies turn out even chewier this way, and with slightly crispier tops. 

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare cookie sheets with parchment paper or a light spray of olive oil.

In a small bowl, stir together flour, salt, baking soda and all the spices. In a larger bowl, mix the applesauce, agave nectar, vanilla and oil until blended. Then add in the flour/spice mixture and stir well. Add the oats, blueberries and cashews and mix until blended. Now let the mixture sit for 10 minutes – this will soften up the oats and make the cookies chewylicious.

Using your cookie scooper or a spoon, create 25 little cookie mounds on your baking sheets and bake for 12-13 minutes, until the cookies are golden brown. Now here comes the hard part: wait at least 10 minutes before wolfing down the cookies. They hold together better after they’ve had a chance to rest. Plus, waiting will help you keep the flesh on the roof of your mouth!

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Go MSG-free: Tasty Thai Yellow Curry with Sweet Potato and Chickpeas

Thai yellow curry with chickpeas and sweet potato over millet - YUM!

“Stop goldfishing*,” I tell my husband as he plows through a bag of Doritos that’s roughly the size of a bathtub. “I can’t. They’re addictive!” he pleads as I pry them from his bright orange hands.

(*Goldfishing – [gohld-fish-ing]. Noun. 1. The act of a person who eats non-stop with blatant disregard for the physical limitations of his/her stomach. 2. Stuffing oneself to the point of spontaneous gastric explosion, like a goldfish.)

Really, he can’t stop? C’mon, like an invisible hand is shoving Doritos in his face. Well, after some research, I’ve found that actually, that’s pretty much what’s happening. The makers of the florescent nacho-flavored triangles of doom use a secret ingredient to turn consumers into goldfish: MSG.

MSG-fed lab rat

No, this rat has not swallowed a beach ball. Poor little guy has been fed MSG to make him obese.

Did you know that scientists actually use MSG to induce obesity in lab rats and mice (ironically, so they can test products to ‘cure’ obesity in humans)? In fact, scientists found that when they give MSG to mice, it increases their appetite as much as 40%. When people eat it, it turns us into mindless eating machines. But that’s not its only harmful side effect. There are all kinds of other nasty ailments associated with MSG, including asthma attacks, mood swings, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, chest pains and headaches. Some scientists are even speculating that it may cause – and exacerbate – autism.

MSG is used as a flavor enhancer and it’s in lots of packaged foods, from chips to salad dressings, sauces to microwave meals. If you spotted MSG on a label, you probably wouldn’t buy the product, right? So those sneaky manufacturers hide MSG behind different names like “autolyzed yeast,” “soy protein isolate,” and “hydrolyzed protein.” For example, Annie Chun’s Soup Bowls contain maltodextrin and yeast extract – both of which are forms of manufactured glutamic acid, the ingredient in MSG (and yet they have the balls to advertise that they’re MSG-free. Campbells does the same. Bastards!) As for Doritos? They don’t even bother hiding it on the label, and the chips are basking in MSG – no wonder John can’t put down the bag! It’s not just in packaged foods, either. Tests found that most chicken, sausage and even parmesan served in restaurants is flavored with MSG. (Yet another great reason for carnivores to convert into vegetarians or vegans!)

The good news is that the antidote is simple: cook healthy foods from scratch to eliminate MSG from your diet (and from that of those you love, especially those who sometimes have goldfish-like tendencies). There are lots of other ways to add flavor than with MSG. One of my favorites is by making meals in the pressure cooker. Cooking under pressure retains the nutrition of food while also amplifying the flavor naturally. And bonus –  you can cook an entire meal from scratch in 15 minutes using the ultra fast pressure cookers, even soups and stews that normally take hours!

Today’s recipe is my take on an incredibly flavor-packed and super healthy Thai-style yellow curry with chickpeas and sweet potatoes. (Special thanks to Lorna Sass and her fabulous “Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure” cookbook – I’ve altered one of her recipes to give it my own twist). If using a pressure cooker, the gorgeous sweet potato flavor enhanced with yellow curry will be utterly infused into every molecule of coconut milk. It is divine! This has become one of our favorite meals, and it’s quite nutritious. So I don’t really mind if John goldfishes on it. 🙂

I’ve also created a non-pressure cooker version of this recipe for those who don’t have one (but I highly recommend you get a pressure cooker – they are phenomenal and it will become your go-to kitchen tool). Here’s the one I use, which I adore (click on the text and it will take you to Amazon where you can buy it): Fagor Splendid 4-quart Pressure Cooker.

Yummy Thai yellow curry with sweet potato and chickpeas over rice

Yummy Thai yellow curry with sweet potato and chickpeas

Serves: 6
From fridge to table: 20 minutes (if using pressure cooker)

1.5 cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight (if using pressure cooker. For non-pressure cooker method, see notes below)
2 cans coconut milk
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1” cubes (if using pressure cooker. For non-pressure cooker method, see notes below)
1.5 cup tomatoes, chopped
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp yellow curry paste* (it’s hard to find in stores, so click here to buy a really yummy one)
½ cup cilantro, minced
½ cup fresh basil, minced
2 tbsp MSG-free tamari soy sauce
a handful of roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
Cooked rice or millet

For the pressure cooker method:

Drain and rinse chickpeas. In your pressure cooker pan, combine all the ingredients except the basil, tamari, peanuts and rice/millet. Lock lid, then bring to high pressure over high heat. Lower the heat just enough to maintain high pressure and cook for 18 minutes. Use the quick-release method (by running cold water over the locked pressure cooker until the pressure comes down all the way). Remove lid, tilting it away from your face to let steam escape. Add the basil and tamari and mix well. Serve atop rice or millet and sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

For the non-pressure cooker method:

Take the unpeeled sweet potato, prick with a fork and microwave until it’s slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Cool a bit, then peel and chop into 1” cubes.

Also, you’ll need to used cooked chickpeas – 3 cups (or roughly 2 cans) will work perfectly well.

In a large, deep sauté pan, sauté garlic and ginger in 1 tbsp of oil over medium heat. Cook until the garlic starts to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Add curry paste, tomatoes, cilantro, coconut milk and chickpeas. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add potatoes, then return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook at a low-boil for 12 minutes. To thicken the sauce and infuse more of the sweet potato flavor, break up some of the sweet potato chunks with the back of a fork. Then blend in the basil and tamari, serve over rice or millet and sprinkle with chopped peanuts. Enjoy!