Transitioning to a WFPB diet: Part 2

It has been quite a while since my last post and for those of you patiently waiting for the follow-up to Judy’s story, I haven’t forgotten about you! I promise I have not been idle; on the contrary, I’ve undertaken an all-consuming task of changing careers! I’ll be sharing some exciting news right here very shortly so stay tuned!  

Now, in her own words, I will let Judy continue telling her story …..

“I promised to keep you posted so here we are. This is not the success story that I would like to be writing but it is my reality, and perhaps there are other diabetics reading this that can relate to my story. 

At my doctor’s appointment in May 2017, my A1c dropped from 9 to 8. That was an improvement from the previous month, but not as big an improvement as I had hoped for. I was actually really disappointed. I was secretly hoping to be in the 6.0 range. Admittedly, I am impatient, and my expectations may have been high, but I thought the dietary changes I had made over the 30 days between appointments would produce better results. I had started doing my own research during that time and I read many stories about other diabetics actually reversing their diabetes in a matter of weeks, so I guess I had set myself up for expecting better results.

I continue to learn about this disease and discovered that dietary fat causes insulin resistance in diabetics and the hidden fats in some of the foods I had been eating may have affected my A1c levels. Breads and some processed foods in particular are high in fat and gone from my diet now. I even avoid certain high fat whole foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds in an effort to reduce my overall fat intake. Armed with this new knowledge about the role that dietary fat plays in diabetes, I have become more conscientious about my food choices every single day. It’s still a challenge. Knowledge isn’t enough. I know that I need to be more diligent with planning and prepping whole food plant-based (WFPB) meals so that I don’t find myself making food choices out of convenience or necessity. And I am working on that. I am actually quite excited about it. But it isn’t always easy.

I am learning to accept that slow changes and learning about the factors contributing to my diabetes bit by bit is what is allowing me to make positive changes for the long-term. I have really enjoyed the learning curve that has come with my WFPB transformation so far and Carol has been a huge support and sounding board as I continue my journey. Helping me look at low fat options and reworking recipes that contain oils to oil free has been a huge help. My favourite thing so far is having several oil free salad dressings that are so quick and easy! I am also building a repertoire of healthy WFPB meals that my family actually approves of!

Finally, to other diabetics reading this, I would say that the key to improving your health and trying to come off medications is to celebrate each small success, and stay the course. Just don’t give up.

I celebrate the small successes I have had to date and I accept that reversing diabetes is going to be neither a quick nor linear process for me. I look at the full point drop in my A1c in 1 month and see the success that is there. I am extremely grateful to Carol for helping me stay the course this month, for her practical guidance while making dietary changes and for introducing me to the idea that diabetes is a food-born illness in the first place. She has inspired me to take charge of my health in a way my doctor never could. Next blood work is coming at the end of August. I will keep you posted”.

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The photo of Carol and I above was taken on a trip to the Badlands, when I visited Alberta 6 years ago.

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The photo above is Carol and I, taken in Mexico last month. 

Transitioning to a WFPB diet: Part 1

This week’s post about a really rewarding experience I had helping a friend who’s trying to put the plant-based diet into action. A few months ago I introduced a childhood friend of mine (Judy) to the whole food plant-based diet as a means to help her control her diabetes. My friend was encouraged by the amount of credible research into the effects of plant-based eating on diabetes and she became determined to make some serious changes to her diet. It wasn’t long before she set a new health goal to get off her current medications and reach a higher level of overall wellness at the same time. Well, I know my friend – she is smart and disciplined and she can do anything she sets her mind to, so when she told me she was struggling with the transition to plant-based, something didn’t seem right. Judy is an elementary school teacher and she also coaches a swim team 3 or 4 nights a week. On the nights she coaches, she sometimes has 30 minutes or less in between jobs to grab something to eat! Judy also spends a fair amount of time on weekends grading student assignments or planning the following week’s lessons, in between attending to the needs of her own family. (No wonder she was finding the transition challenging!) It became clear to me after we talked, that her biggest challenge is her ridiculously crazy-busy work schedule which leaves her very little time to plan and cook her own meals. I also learned that Judy is unfamiliar with some ingredients on a plant-based diet and lacks a bit of confidence when it comes to using them in recipes. I knew I could help her with all of those things! These are a few of the things that I do best!

Read on to learn about Judy’s struggle with diabetes in her own words ….

After my third child (age 35) I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and the doctors noticed that my triglycerides were high. I also had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and I was diagnosed with Metabolic X syndrome and told that diabetes was inevitable. That was 20 years ago.

I am now a type-2 two diabetic with progressively deteriorating blood sugar control. When first diagnosed and medicated I thought I could fix these things. Being an elite athlete in my teens and early twenties, I knew I could commit to a plan and I was not a stranger to hard work. I refused to believe diabetes was my destiny. I believed that if I figured this out and worked hard enough, I could lick it. My doctor didn’t agree. He gave me no hope of improvement and prescribed another medication to control my blood sugar – in addition to the medications I was already taking for my thyroid and triglycerides. The only recommendation my doctor made was to lose weight – but he didn’t say how.

So I did. I lost, gained, lost, gained . . . and really, nothing changed. I have always believed that what we do with and to our bodies and what we put into our bodies matters. But, life has a way of interfering the best of intentions and my exercise regime went from 4 hours a day while training and competing in my teens and early 20’s to next to nothing in my 40’s and 50’s. Eventually, my medications were no longer effectively reducing my A1c blood glucose (it was continuing to creep up) so I knew the next step for me would be insulin, and I was terrified.

For years, I continued trying all sorts of diets. And they would work for a while, but in the long run none of them were sustainable. I was dieting – not making a lifestyle change. Around the time I was at my wits end and ready to give up, I was introduced to the plant-based diet and lifestyle. I began reading many convincing arguments about the benefits of this way of eating and even more encouraging, about the potential to reverse and cure diabetes by embracing a plant-based diet. I was skeptical but I really had nothing to lose and thought it was worth a shot.

Since January 2017 I have been moving closer to a vegetarian diet, and I am working towards becoming vegan. The meat was less of a challenge to give up than I thought it would be, but the dairy has been harder to give up. Cooking vegetarian and vegan meals has been stressful for me because some of the ingredients are new to me and the methods, unfamiliar.  And I would like to say that I am not an incompetent cook. On the contrary I love to cook and have made some wonderful meals. However, oil-free, plant-based cooking is a different beast and I have definitely struggled to stick with it.

I have spent hours scouring a multitude of cookbooks, blogs and websites for plant-based recipes and found the process of figuring all of this out on my own extremely time consuming.  I tried a few recipes from websites and books and found that they were either lacking in taste or that the recipes were complicated and labour intensive to prepare – at least for me. In March I enrolled in a free on-line diabetes summit and listened to experts explain the science and research behind the plant-based diet. That was when I learned that the food also needed be low fat. In fact, I needed to avoid all oils. That really threw me for a loop! I was already struggling with the giving up dairy and I didn’t know how was I going to manage without oil as well. The transition definitely wasn’t easy for me. My blood sugars were improving but my stress levels were going up.

By this time, I knew I needed help or this would end up being just another effort that too would fail.

That’s when I had a heart to heart with Carol at (https://thecalgarybeet.com/)                      

In my initial consultation with Carol, I explained my dietary needs, the problems I was having with transitioning to a whole food plant-based diet and we went through my work schedule. Carol immediately saw that a big part of my problem, apart from lack of time, was lack of confidence and we agreed to an in-house hands on cooking demonstration a week later. A few days prior to that, Carol provided me with a list of 4 meals that could be made in an afternoon, would last me the week and would fit into my lifestyle of often “grab-and-go” meals. She took into consideration that I live in a house of meat eaters and the meals needed to either appeal to them too, even if only as a side. She also sent me the recipes and a grocery list so that I could look everything over for allergies (one of my kids is allergic to avocado), and potential “ no ways.” Having the grocery list in advance was a huge bonus because I was also to check the ingredients against things I already had in my pantry and wouldn’t need to buy before the demonstration.

Carol even came with me to MY local grocery store. This was super helpful because she knows what to substitute for what if your grocery store doesn’t carry something on the list – which was always a source of stress for me!  I can’t tell you how much time I have wasted driving all over town looking for specific ingredients because I didn’t know enough about the ingredient itself, and whether not it was one I could substitute. Being a professionally trained chef, Carol is intuitive in all things related to plant-based cooking and she is really comfortable replacing items on the list – either with ones that are less expensive or ones that will work just as well. (Sometime bloggers or recipe books will suggest using brands that are not available in my local stores, and as a newbie – if it says amino something or other – I would not know what to do if I could not find it. Lord knows I have sent my husband on numerous grocery scavenger hunts for items that were listed in a recipe but neither one of us knew what they were or what affect its omission would have on the recipe!

The grocery shopping took less than an hour from start to finish and I felt confident that there would less wastage, which in the long run means cheaper grocery bills. On the day, Carol organized the order of preparation and we set about working in MY kitchen. We had to function with MY pots and pans, MY kitchen layout . . . this was more of a challenge for Carol. Where we were just cutting vegetables or measuring spices, Carol lent a hand. Where process or procedure was needed, I did a lot of the work. That was to ensure that I would have the confidence to repeat these recipes on my own. More often than not, Carol had to improvise with the pots and pans and utensils that I had and showed me how to make them work. I didn’t feel that I had to run out and spend money on new equipment or kitchen supplies!

Summing up …in an afternoon, we had shopped at MY grocery store, cooked 4 complete main meals (5, if you include one switch-up option) in MY kitchen and prepared condiments that would keep in the refrigerator for the week. Everything was nutritious and prepared without any oil, and BEST OF ALL, worked with my hectic life style! And the food was delicious! All of it. And everything we made was a hit with my two adult omnivore daughters and even satisfied my carnivorous husband, though he will never admit it (but he had two helping of the quesadillas).

We even managed to fit in 3 oil-free salad dressings (forgot to photograph) to keep me going throughout the week – and these were not on our original plan!

The following day, I actually relaxed in my back garden because for the first time, I didn’t have to plan dinner for the family – it was was already done. For once, I felt like I was ahead of the game and this was something I could do! The whole experience reminded me of the Chinese proverb, “You give a poor man a fish you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish; you feed him for a lifetime”.  My day with Carol showed me that a low fat plant-based diet and lifestyle change is a real possibility for me and I am no longer overwhelmed by it. For my particular meal plan I learned what to buy at my own grocery store with an eye on possible substitutions and fiscal management. I learned how to prepare the food in my own kitchen using my utensils and appliances and how to work in a time-efficient way. Carol really knew how to organize prep stations and our time which ensured that we achieved all that we had set out to do in an afternoon. I have four new wonderful meals to add to my repertoire and I am comfortable making adaptations where necessary. Interestingly, the morning after having eaten a very hearty meal of quinoa and roasted vegetable casserole, corn and salad, my blood sugar was the lowest it has been in almost 2 years. And more importantly, my recovery sugars after eating are falling within the normal range. I am still on medication but will be returning for an A1c check in mid-May. It’s early days, but I am very encouraged, so I will keep you posted!

Simplifying a plant-based Easter

In my family, a big part of the excitement at traditional holiday time is the food. But I am the only one who follows an oil-free plant-based diet. So how does this plant-based girl feed her family of omnivores at Easter?  

When I first started following a plant-based diet it was a bit tricky maintaining my food values on major holidays. My omnivore family looks forward to a traditional feast on special occasions, and by that I mean the meat and the usual slew of side dish they have grown to know and love over the years. It is definitely OK to add new side dishes and change things up but some of our family favourites only come out once or twice a year and they are longed for, which just makes them harder to pass up or tweak to make them healthier.  They say that old traditions die hard and there are certainly some traditions around food that my family wants to keep. I think we’re pretty normal in that regard – that other families feel the same way. Happily, I have come up with a solution that has worked beautifully with the fam and requires almost no extra time and effort on my part. I do not have to prepare a bunch of new and separate dishes just for me. Watch my interview with Kate McGoey-Smith of Forksmart where we talk about plant-based food-related challenges. I also share my solution to staying true to my plant-based values at holiday time, and other times too. It’s a simple strategy that would work for anyone and it isn’t as hard as you might think!

Tune in here:

 

Banana Milk

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When I ditched dairy a few years ago, I gave up having breakfast cereal too because I didn’t always have a dairy-free milk on hand to pour on top and frankly, I didn’t always have the time or inclination to make  my own. I was trying then, and still try to limit my use of the alternative milks you can buy because most of them are loaded with additives, including oil and sugar. Nut and seed milks can also be pretty high in fat whether homemade or store-bought so they are not something I want to indulge in everyday. Rice milk and oat milk are  a bit lower in fat but they require the same amount of time to make from scratch.

So …. naturally, I jumped all over the idea of banana milk!

Banana milk is low in fat, nut-free, grain-free and it goes perfectly with cereal! It will definitely revolutionize your mornings! Who knew the banana was so versatile? Bananas don’t need to soak like nuts do and you don;t need to strain it either. It isn’t really a milk, per se but it is a great sub for one.  Just peel it and throw it in your blender with some water and flavourings and Bob’s your uncle! It’s perfect for anyone on an all-raw diet or anyone concerned about watching calories or monitoring their fat intake because it is much lower in fat than nut milks. Do you need more reasons to try it?

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On the subject of healthy breakfast cereals …

I grew up with parents who believed that everyone should start their day with a “good” breakfast. I have vivid memories of one or the other of my parents preparing a full sit-down hot meal on weekends, consisting of bacon, eggs, toast and sausages, and sometimes blood pudding (not my favourite). Week-day breakfasts were less elaborate – (oh, my dad tried to get my sister and I to eat something substantial but neither of us had an appetite that early). Nope, week-day breakfasts were usually a glass of orange juice and a piece of toast or a bowl of cereal with milk. There were always a few different cereal choices to satisfy a family with different tastes but my parents were generally uncompromising when it came to the less healthy, sugar-laden varieties. They weren’t completely oblivious to their children’s pleas for the sugary cereals they had seen advertised on tv or tried elsewhere though. I can remember lighting up when a box of Captain Crunch arrived home in the bags of groceries as a special treat for me and Lucky Charms for my sister. But these occasions were pretty rare and more often than not the only way to sweeten a bowl of cereal in our house was to add a handful of raisins or slices of banana to the bowl.  

Knowing what I know now, my idea of a healthy breakfast is vastly different from that of my parents, although theirs changed with the times too. And happily, I haven’t given up all  breakfast cereals either. I make my own sugar-free granola and top it with this banana milk or  a homemade alternative milk when I have the time and inclination. 

To get you thinking about healthier breakfast cereals, I am providing a link to a list of oil-free cereals you can buy, at the end of this post. The list was created by Dr. McDougall, who only recommends cereals that are natural, made from whole foods, and are oil-free. However, not all of his recommendations are sugar and gluten-free. You’ll have to check the ingredients for sugar and gluten on all of them to know for sure. But at least they’re oil-free. You can also check out my older posts for  cereal and granola, which are of course gluten-free, vegan, oil, soy and sugar free.

Banana Milk

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 large banana
  • 1 – 1 ¼ cup cold, filtered water
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla, optional
  • Pinch pink Himalayan salt or Celtic sea salt

Make the banana milk just before you intend to use it. Place the banana in a high-speed blender with the half the water to start, vanilla and salt. Blend until smooth.Add the remaining water to thin the consistency. It is not necessary to strain the milk; just pour over a big bowl of cereal. Banana milk is best consumed right away. 

Notes:

For really cold milk, use a frozen banana or remove a little of the water and throw in a few ice cubes to make up the difference. 

Link to Dr. McDougall’s approved  list of cold cereals.

 

Perfect Chickpea Hummus

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Hummus is the ultimate simple health food – proof that healthy food can be quick to whip up and super tasty. Although I used dried chickpeas in this recipe, you can avoid soaking and cooking time completely by using canned chickpeas instead. This is a modified version of the recipe for ‘hummus bi tahini’ in The Complete Middle East Cookbook, by Tess Mallos. I have been making hummus this way for at least 20 years. Just haven’t found a better hummus and the family loves this stuff. 

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This hummus is thick and emulsifies really well without any oil to help that along. You won’t miss the oil. There is no compromise the taste – in fact, this hummus tastes so much fresher than the stuff you buy. It keeps for a week, refrigerated.

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To serve this in a traditional way, spread the hummus almost to the edges of a plate or shallow bowl and garnish with coarsely chopped fresh parsley, toasted pine nuts and a dash of chilli powder. Tear off pieces of freshly baked pita bread and use the bread to scoop up the hummus. Can also be served with crackers or fresh vegetables. 

FOR THE HUMMUS

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup dried chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans)
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup tahini
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled, coarsely minced
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt

Pick through chick peas and remove any pebbles. Rinse and cover with about 3 cups of water. Soak 12 hours or overnight. Drain the soaking water, thoroughly rinse the beans and place them in a pot with 6-8 cups fresh water.

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Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and gently simmer the beans for 45 – 60 minutes. Drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. At this point, if you want a really authentic hummus you can place the beans in a large bowl filled with cold water and when the beans are cool enough to handle, rub them between your fingers to agitate them.  The skins should slip off fairly easily. (You can do this with canned beans too). 

This step isn’t as tedious as it sounds. The skins tend to float to the top of the bowl and the beans sink to the bottom making it pretty easy to discard the skins. It isn’t necessary to remove the skins from every single bean, but your hummus will have a silkier texture and creamier consistency if you take the time to remove the skins.

Tip: the average person won’t notice – it takes a fairly discerning palate to know whether or not the skins are removed. 

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Place chickpeas in high speed blender or food processor fitted with metal blade. Add lemon juice, minced garlic, one teaspoon of the salt and ½ cup of the reserved cooking liquid. Puree mixture a few seconds to break up the beans and then add the tahini. Continue blending until smooth and thick, adjusting the flavour with additional salt and lemon juice. Adjust the consistency by adding more reserved liquid if needed. Hummus will thicken up on standing. 

Yield: 3 cups

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Jumbo Lima Beans and Mash

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I came across a classic bean dish during a 3-week tour of Turkey several years ago. The type of bean varied from place to place but the beans were always really large and cooked in a really delicate tomato sauce, seasoned with just the right amount Mediterranean spices. Regardless of the type of beans that were cooked in this dish, the textures and flavours were always incredible – so well balanced. But what I remember most, apart from the amazing flavour, was that the beans would be swimming in olive oil – and I do mean swimming! I cringe when I think about that now,  but oh, what flavour! So addictive and so satisfying.

I don’t proclaim to reproduce that classic Turkish bean dish here but I’ve come up with something similar using jumbo lima beans. And I have completely omitted the oil. Jumbo lima beans are perfect in this dish – they are buttery and creamy and I absolutely love them. If you don’t have jumbo lima beans or can’t find them, you can use the regular sized dried lima beans or cannellini beans instead. It’s funny; I hated lima beans growing up. Of all the beans my mother served me when I was a child, I liked lima beans the least and yet they are one of my favourites now. Really! 

The recipe below fills a 9X13-inch lasagna pan, which is a large amount for me but the beans keep well – 5-7 days refrigerated, so I usually make the full recipe, as I like having leftovers during the week. However, it wouldn’t be difficult to halve the recipe. 

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For practical reasons, I soak and cook the jumbo lima beans a day or so ahead and assemble the sauce ingredients when I am ready to bake. 

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound dried jumbo lima beans
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 ½ cups chopped onion, or one large
  • 1 cup chopped celery (approx 2-3 stalks)
  • 1 medium carrot, finely chopped
  • 3 jumbo cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 4-6 Roma tomatoes* coarsely chopped (about 2 cups, packed)
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme or oregano
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh mint
  • ½ tbsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
  • 3-4 cups reserved cooking water from beans

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DIRECTIONS

For the dried jumbo lima beans

Soak dried beans 8 hours or overnight. They will double in size. Drain and rinse. Some of the beans may have released their skins into the water during the soaking time. You can remove the skins that are floating in the water but do not purposely remove the skins from the beans before baking as you could end up with a big casserole of mushy beans. It’s the skin that helps the beans hold their shape during the long slow cooking process.

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Place soaked beans in a clean pot with 8-10 cups fresh water, bay leaf and 2 whole cloves garlic. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the beans for 40 minutes. Add a teaspoon of salt after 30 minutes of cooking. (Lima beans tend to produce more foam than other dried beans and you may have to remove the scum a few times while they simmer to prevent the pot bubbling over). Test the beans – they should be soft to bite but not mushy, and they should hold their shape. Discard the bay leaf and garlic cloves. Strain the beans, reserving 4 cups of the cooking liquid. You may not use all of it, but better to have excess than not enough. At this point the beans and cooking liquid can be refrigerated separately in covered containers for a few days until ready to complete the dish.

For the Sauce and Assembly

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Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, place the chopped tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic, parsley and spices. Add 3 cups of the reserved cooking liquid and the cooked beans, gently stirring to distribute the ingredients. Pour everything into a 9 x 11-inch baking pan. The beans should be almost completely submerged in the sauce – stir in a little more of the cooking liquid or add a little extra water if necessary. Place the fresh sprigs of thyme or oregano and mint on top of the dish.

Now, you could sauté the onions, carrots, celery and garlic before adding the tomatoes, beans and reserved cooking liquid, but that’s an extra step, and I haven’t found it to be necessary. Either way, once everything is combined in your 9 x 13-inch dish, bake, uncovered, for 2 hours. Most of the liquid will be absorbed and the sauce will have thickened slightly. Allow baked beans to rest for about 15 minutes before serving.  Adjust the seasoning and spoon over mashed potatoes or serve along side a chunk of rustic crusty bread to soak up the sauce.

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NOTES:

*I have made this with canned tomatoes and did not like the flavour as much. Fresh tomatoes give the dish a much more delicate flavour, but in a pinch you could certainly substitute 1 28-0z can whole tomatoes. Chop the whole tomatoes before adding to the sauce.  

 

Queso with Black Beans and Pickled Vegetables

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Game day is coming up! For those of you not in North America, I am referring to the annual Super Bowl championship football game being played next weekend. The Super Bowl marks the end of the American professional football season and is an excuse for family and friends to get together to eat and watch the game. It’s watched by many Canadians too – did I say watched?

Does anyone actually watch the game?

Well sort of, but we also feast our way through the afternoon while engaging in playful banter over plays, players, bad calls, half-time shows and of course the final score. In fact, last year at about this time, some newspaper (can’t remember which one) stated that we eat more food on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year except Thanksgiving. 

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It must be true. In my experience, no one hosts a Super Bowl party without providing tons of food and no one leaves a Super Bowl party feeling hungry. Chilis and guac’s are standard Super Bowl grub but it’s a given that the spread will revolve around classic junk foods. It makes for a tough afternoon if you are dieting are trying to eat healthy.  

So, here’s where I can offer a Super Bowl menu item to help you stick to your healthy food goals and enjoy the game with family and friends at the same time. No Super Bowl spread is complete without a great queso dip as far as I am concerned and this vegan version is just the ticket when surrounded by less-healthy options. It’s pretty quick to throw together using ingredients you most likely have on hand and it’s delicious. In fact, its addictive and I know you’ll make it again and again. And why not? This won’t leave you  feeling stuffed and lethargic – even if you end up indulging a little more than you intend!

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Cheesy flavour is a must in a good vegan queso and so is a little heat from some sort of chilli.  

Queso

  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup almonds or cashews, soaked
  • ½ cup sliced pimentos (4 oz. jar, including juice)
  • 1 ½ tbsp. fortified nutritional yeast flakes*
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1½ tsp. pink Himalayan salt, or Celtic sea salt
  • ½ tsp. onion powder
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder

Blend the nuts with about ½ cup of the water until completely smooth. This takes about 20-30 seconds in a VitaMix, scraping down the sides once during blending. Add the remaining ingredients and puree another 15-20 seconds. Pour everything into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2-3 minutes until cornstarch is cooked and sauce has thickened. Adjust the seasoning and keep warm.

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Load it up!  The addition of all the ingredients below take this dip to a whole new level!  

  • 1 can cooked black beans, drained and well rinsed
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red pepper
  • ½ cup chopped tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped red onion
  • 2-3 tbsp. finely chopped pickled vegetables (I used a few beans from a jar of pickled beans in my fridge but you can use any pickled vegetables you have)
  • 1 tbsp. chopped pickled jalapenos (or finely chopped fresh jalapeno)
  • 1 tsp. fresh lime juice
  • 1 tsp. maple syrup
  • Sour cream (optional)

Heat an oven dish while prepping the ingredients above. Reserve a few of the beans, chopped tomatoes and cilantro for garnish. Place everything except the sour cream in the hot dish. (For those of you who like a lot of heat, add extra fresh or pickled jalapeños to kick it up a notch). 

Pour queso over top of the beans and pickled vegetables, swirl in a little of the sour cream and serve warm with corn tortilla chips, raw or lightly steamed vegetables. 

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The queso is scrumptious with or without my vegan sour cream but I prefer it with! 

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Leftover queso reheats well in the oven. Just cover the dish with foil and reheat at 350 degrees fahrenheit for 10-15 minutes, or until mixture begins bubbling. That means you can make this ahead too. Add the sour cream just before serving, if making ahead. 

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NOTES

*I use nutritional yeast rarely and sparingly because it is a controversial ingredient and frankly I am not crazy about the flavour. It does however, provide a necessary cheesy flavour in this queso recipe and I know of no other substitute for it. You can add up to another 1 1/2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast to the recipe if you want an even stronger cheesy flavour. 

Turmeric Soup with Soba Noodles

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If you love turmeric, this is a relatively quick and easy soup to kick start healthy eating habits this year. Along with anti-inflammatory properties and detoxification support, turmeric adds a distinct and delicate aroma wherever it is used. Turmeric’s peppery, slightly bitter and earthy essence imparts a depth of flavour to soups and stews that is quite unique.

This amazing, vibrantly colourful little root has been in use for thousands of years. The compounds found in turmeric are well known for their medicinal properties and researchers continue to uncover new health benefits. Recent studies suggest that turmeric has the potential to improve cognitive and kidney function, regulate blood sugar, and lessen the degree of severity associated with some forms of arthritis and digestive disorders. And, apparently you don’t need much to reap these benefits. In some studies, health benefits have been seen from as little as 50 milligrams of turmeric over a period of several months. This is less than a ½ teaspoon. It wouldn’t be difficult to add that amount of turmeric to your diet – and your body will thank you!

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Use the broth in this recipe as a guideline for the soup. To keep it simple, just add the spice paste, noodles and a few fresh herbs as I did and you’ll have a really nutritious and vibrantly colourful soup. For a bit more oomph, add a few vegetables, greens or legumes. The broth is relatively failsafe and you can easily elevate the heat by increasing the amount of chilli. Likewise, you can reduce the heat by decreasing the amount of chilli in the spice paste. 

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I use nitrile gloves when handling fresh or powdered turmeric because the orange colour stains everything. I thoroughly wash everything that comes in contact with turmeric in cold soapy water before subjecting it to hot water. Hot water seems to seal the stain and makes it harder to remove the colour from counter tops, utensils, cutting boards, fabric and containers.

Tip: Although I don’t use oil in any of the recipes on this blog, for this recipe I placed a tiny amount of coconut oil on a paper towel and rubbed every nook and cranny on the inside of my VitaMix jug to prevent the turmeric from staining the inside of my jug.

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INGREDIENTS

For the Spice Paste

  • 1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh turmeric*
  • 1-2 chillies, birds eye, Serrano, seeded
  • ¼ cup cashew pieces
  • 1 tsp. powdered turmeric
  • 3 stalks lemongrass, tender hearts only, finely chopped
  • 1 cup peeled and sliced shallots, about 3 medium
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled

Blend all of the ingredients to a smooth paste with 50-60 ml of water in a high-speed blender or food processor. If not using paste right away, refrigerate in a covered container.

For the Broth

  • 1 litre vegetable stock, preferably homemade
  • 200 ml tamarind liquid (see directions below)
  • ¼ cup Naked Coconuts (or soy substitute)
  • 1 tbs. fresh lime juice
  • 1 tbs. maple syrup
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 tsp. salt (I used homemade broth which had very little salt to begin with)
  • Large pinch freshly ground black pepper

For the tamarind liquid, dissolve 2 tablespoons of tamarind pulp in 1 cup boiling water,. Strain the pulp and add 200 ml of liquid in the broth.

Place the remaining broth ingredients in a medium-large pot and add the spice paste. Bring everything to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and discard the kaffir lime leaves. Adjust seasonings.

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Add-ins

  • Soba noodles*
  • 1 long red chili, finely sliced
  • 2 spring onions, green part only, finely sliced
  • Handful of fresh mint,
  • Handful of fresh cilantro

To Finish

Cook the soba noodles in boiling water according to package directions. Drain and distribute evenly between 4 bowls. Ladle the broth over the noodles; sprinkle the soup generously with spring onions, fresh cilantro and mint. Top with a few slices of red chilli and serve with a wedge of lime.   

Yield: 4 generous servings

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Notes

*You can double the amount of fresh turmeric and omit the addition of powdered turmeric if you want. (I didn’t do that because fresh turmeric was really expensive when I went shopping for the ingredients in this recipe – $14.99/lb. at my local health food store!! I’ll be looking for a cheaper source in the future).

*Not all brands of soba noodles are GF. Some contain wheat so be sure to check the list of ingredients on the package if you are gluten-intolerant.

Crazy Good Granola without Oil or Sugar

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January is a significant month. It’s refreshing. It’s all about new beginnings. January is also a time to reflect on all of our accomplishments in the past year and appreciate how far we’ve come. In January we feel strongest about setting new goals, living healthier lifestyles and creating better eating habits to start the year off right. And I am definitely on board with that. I feel energized right now and I am ready to make 2017 my healthiest and strongest year ever! Is eating healthier one of your top priorities this year? If it is, one way to help you achieve that lofty goal is to define smaller measurable goals within that big one, such as reducing your intake of sugar. Or oil. It will take time to completely cut back on your intake of sugar and/or oil, but just start. It won’t be long before you begin to notice that you no longer miss them. Another healthy habit to adopt is eating a nutritious breakfast. Eating a nutritious breakfast every day is one of the best ways to energize your body and kick-start your entire day. You don’t have to eat a lot and you don’t have to eat the minute you wake up – you just have to be consistent so that your metabolism gets going early on. So, let’s aim to make 2017 “the year of being strong and healthy” by starting the day with a truly nutritious breakfast.

Ah, but is granola really a healthy breakfast, you ask?

Well, it definitely can be.

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Most store-bought granolas are much too high in sugar and fat to be considered healthy. They are also expensive when you consider that boxes of granola are usually smaller than boxes of other cereals. Homemade granola is extremely easy to make yourself and it is always cheaper and tastier. But making your own isn’t necessarily going to result in a healthier granola. If your homemade version is loaded with nuts and seeds or contains oil and sugar, it can be equally high in fat and and unhealthy sugar. In this recipe, I ditch the sugar and oil and cut back on the amount of nuts, seeds and dried fruit without compromising any of the flavour or crunch. This granola has roughly half the calories of most boxed granolas and it is completely sugar and oil free. So, to answer my own question, yes, this granola truly is healthy! The recipe can be customized to meet any dietary restrictions you have or to fancy it up as you please. Oh, did I mention that it’s crazy good? 

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On busy days, I throw a handful of this granola into a small container and take it with me wherever I go so that I have something to snack on later on in the day. I have also eaten it for dinner with my favourite almond milk. And this granola has saved my life on the occasional nights when the fridge is bare or I get home late and don’t feel like making anything. Have you ever resorted to having a bowl of cereal for dinner because you took too long trying to decide what to eat?? I have. And on those nights, I was grateful to have this in my cupboard because it saved me from grabbing something less healthy.  

I generally aim for a minimum of 4 dry ingredients for a good balance of flavor and texture. When you’re gathering your ingredients, make sure that your dry mix is made up of at least 50% oats. Cutting back on the amount of nuts and seeds lowers the overall calorie and fat content of the granola.  Ok, lets get started on my crazy good granola with no oil or sugar! 

DRY INGREDIENTS

  • 8 cups whole rolled oats (gluten free or regular)
  • 1 cup whole or chopped almonds
  • 1 cup coconut (flakes or shredded)
  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds

Rolled oats are the core of this recipe but it may be possible to substitute quinoa flakes for the oats if you can’t have oats. (Don’t use the quick cooking oats because they do not hold up as well when baked). The other dry ingredients can be swapped in or out in infinite ways.

FLAVOUR ENHANCERS

Do you want to spice it up? I prefer the granola without any additional spices, but ground cinnamon would be nice, as would cardamom and nutmeg. Add as little or as much spice as you want to your dry ingredients before you mix with the wet. You could also add lemon or orange zest or a dash of cocoa powder. 

WET INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup pitted dates, soaked 4 hours
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 ½ tsp. pink Himalayan or Celtic sea salt, scant

Process all of the wet ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth. I like to add salt to the wet ingredients – I just feel it blends in better than it does when added to the dry or at the end once the wet and dry have been combined. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir until the everything is well coated.

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BAKING DIRECTIONS

Preheat your oven to 200°F.

Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper and spread the mixture in an even ½-inch layer. I needed 3 cookie sheets for this amount of granola. (The recipe makes a lot, but it is easy to half).

Bake for about 1 1/2-2 hours or until the granola is completely dry and lightly browned, stirring 2 or 3 times during baking to help the drying process and break up the mixture.  If your mixture is thicker than 1/2-inch, it will take longer to become really crunchy. Add another hour to the baking time but don’t increase the temperature – keeping the oven temperature low ensures that the granola doesn’t get too dark before it is completely dry and crunchy. 

A few clusters of granola are nice once it is baked so be sure to leave a few clumps undisturbed on the baking trays. Allow the granola to dry out completely in the oven. 

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ADD FRUIT

Since the fruit is already dried, I prefer to add it at the end rather than risk it becoming a bit hard or unpleasantly chewy. It doesn’t need to be baked again. Stir 1 cup of dried fruit such as cranberries, dates, raisins, currants, goji berries, cherries, figs, or apricots into the granola after it has baked. (If adding dried apricots, dice them or cut them into smaller slices).

Leave the granola to cool completely. Once cool, transfer to a large mason jar with a tight-fitting lid, or a  Ziploc bag and store in your pantry.

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Alternative nuts and seeds

  • Use walnuts, brazil nuts, pistachios, macadamias, cashews or pecans in place of the almonds
  • Use sunflower seeds, squash seeds, flax or hemp seeds instead of pumpkin seeds.
  • Alternatively you can use any combination of the above as long as you stick to a cup of nuts and a cup of seeds. 

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NOTES

If you would rather bake the granola overnight, set your oven to the lowest temperature it has (that’s 170°F on my oven) and leave the granola in the oven overnight. The granola will be done in the morning, without any stirring.

Amazingly Healthy Festive Dessert

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December is typically a month of festive indulgence, but this year, why not make an amazingly healthy dessert that no one has to pass up? Nor will they want to! Start with a simple sugar-free tart shell, which can be baked or eaten raw by the way, and fill it with a creamy custard that has been sweetened using whole dates. There are no added refined sugars anywhere in this ensemble. Add a few of your favourite fresh fruits and you’ve got one heck of a festive dessert! Best of all, these tarts are so scrumptious that no one will even know they are eating healthy. I promise!

Both the shells and the filling can be prepared a few days ahead which is an even bigger reason to include them on your holiday menu. I love recipes that I can make ahead at this time of year because it means that I can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with family and friends on the big day!

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INGREDIENTS

For the Tart Shells 

This recipe makes enough to fill 8, 4 1/2-inch individual tartlet pans but the quantity of ingredients for both the crust and filling can easily be doubled to fill more tart pans to feed a larger crowd. Both the tart shells and the filling can be made ahead and refrigerated for a few days. The tart shells can also be frozen. (If you decide to freeze the shells or store them for a day or so in the refrigerator, keep them in their pans to maintain the shape and protect them from breakage. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight before filling). 

  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 1 cup dried coconut, shredded, raw and unsweetened
  • 8 Medjool dates, seeded, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. date syrup (homemade or store bought)
  • 2 tbsp. water
  • Seeds from a 4-inch vanilla bean, scraped
  • ¼ tsp. salt

Place nuts, coconut, salt, dates, water, date syrup and vanilla bean seeds in a food processor and process until quite fine and mixture is sticky. Divide between pans. use wet hands if you need to. At this point the tartlets can be refrigerated overnight but refrigerate for 30 minutes before baking, regardless.

Remove tart pans from refrigerator and poke a couple holes in the base with the tines of a fork to prevent the crusts form rising during baking. Bake the tartlets at 350°F for about 14-16 minutes or until crusts begin to darken around the edges and the base seems done. (In my oven, this is exactly 14 minutes). If your oven bakes a little unevenly or has hot spots, spin the baking sheet around halfway through total baking time. When done, remove from the oven and cool the shells in their pans on the baking sheet. Cover the shells in their pans with saran wrap and freeze or refrigerate. 

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For the Custard

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • ½ cup cashews or blanched almonds
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • Pinch salt
  • Selection of fresh fruits such as assorted berries, pomegranates, cherries, apricot, peach or peach slices, etc.
  • Pistachios or hazelnuts; roasted and coarsely chopped.

Process everything except the fruit and nuts (first 6 ingredients) in a high-powered blender until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. This should only take a few minutes. Pour the thickened custard into a clean bowl and place saran wrap or sheet of parchment cut to size directly on the surface of the filling. Refrigerate until completely cool and set. 

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ASSEMBLY

When ready to serve, place one tart shell on each of 8 plates. (If you have made the custard ahead, you will need to whisk it again before using). Spoon or pipe some of the custard into each tart shell and decoratively arrange fruits and chopped nuts on top. Serve at once. (In the photos, the tarts are topped with fresh blackberries, a couple of satsuma orange wedges, pomegranate seeds and roasted chopped pistachios)

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Want in on a secret? This is a great “switch-up” dessert – just do away with the tart shells and layer the custard, fruits and nuts in a large wine glass and you’ve got a dessert parfait! 

It’s hard to believe that this year is almost over. I wish all of my readers the happiest of holidays and a big thank you for your support this year! I can’t wait to develop a fresh new batch of great, healthy recipes for you in 2017!