Category Archives: Food & Beverage
What constitutes a balanced meal? Believe it or not, I’ve been asked on many occasions. This question generally takes me back to my Asian upbringing, where balance is key to living a good life. Yin and yang—opposite forces that complement each other to form a whole—is what Asian cooks aspire to when creating meals, whether at home or in a restaurant setting. For us, it is a guiding principle from the time we are born and given our first solid meal. And because Yin and Yang is not just a principle practiced in the kitchen, but applied to everything in life, it is deeply ingrained in our psyche.
In Asia, breakfast, lunch and dinner hold the same importance and include the same components, a starch, a protein, vegetables, and often times broth for sipping and cleansing the palate between bites. At the end of the meal, fresh fruit and loose leaf tea are enjoyed to aid digestion. It’s a very simple concept. Eat a little of everything, whether vegetarian or not.
A balanced meal is not only about making sure all the food groups are present, but about developing flavors to satisfy our taste buds. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter— tastes sensations in food— is a combination used as a measuring tool for balance and what we look for in our meals, whether aware or not. Umame is yet another one of these sensations uniquely present in monosodium glutamate, which is naturally occurring in many leafy greens. Though the taste is hard to describe, and somewhat different from yet similar to salt, it is present to gently tickle the senses and awaken your taste buds. In Asia all these taste sensations are present throughout the meal, so much so that dessert such as cake or ice cream is considered unnecessary and never part of the meal, our palates already satisfied by the sweet element we’ve been enjoying all along.
The pressing question still remains. How do we get all of these tastes in a single meal? It’s really quite simple. If making a marinade combining salty soy sauce with sweet sugar, bitter garlic, spicy chilies, and sour rice vinegar for any protein you might enjoy, you’re half way there. A bowl of rice provides a canvas upon which all these flavors can land. Complete the meal with stir-fried leafy greens with garlic, lightly drizzle with soy sauce, and a light broth to sip on the side, and you’ve achieved your goal. A broth could be as quickly to make as a 2-minute miso soup, so don’t let that stop you in achieving balance at every meal, which can be served in 20 minutes, the time it takes rice to cook.
How can we apply Yin and Yang in the western kitchen? It’s easy. Just look for the same taste sensations when developing a meal. A salad has a vinaigrette and in it sour vinegar, spicy mustard (perhaps a touch of the ever so popular Sriracha), salty salt, bitter onion or garlic, and a touch of sweet honey. The umame is in the lettuce! That’s one example. Pasta with freshly made tomato sauce can also have these elements, the tomato itself providing the sweet and tart element, and from there the grated salty Parmesan protein, and the spicy red pepper flakes, with the bitter note from sautéed broccoli rabe on the side.
Pick a cuisine and throw in some Yin and Yang. You’ll see how easy it is to accomplish, if you put your mind to it.
Creating balance in a meal is so much more than developing that sensory experience, however. It should be aesthetically pleasing as well. Taking the time to create a visually appealing meal whether you are cooking for one, two or more, should be just as important. I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese aesthetics, particularly in the kitchen. There a simple bowl of rice is always decorated with something, from chopped scallions, to pickled daikon, freshly julienned ginger, or perhaps a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Taking care to cook something beautiful requires patience and total focus and engagement. It is a meditative act that is well worth while. For one you eat visually, long before you sit down to actually taste the food. You’ll wind up needing very little food to satisfy both body and mind, allowing air (space) to do its work and aid digestion.
Last but not least, just as you need to breathe, so should you leave some white space on the plate!
Eat to live rather than live to eat. You’ll feel the difference.
Pickles. What’s there not to like? They’re refreshing, crunchy, juicy, and bursting with tangy, sweet, and savory flavors. They’re the perfect condiment. In a pinch you can serve them with cheese. They can be chopped and served over a bowl of rice, a humble meal served in many parts of Asia. They complement all sorts of grilled or roasted meat and fish proteins, and more. More importantly, they’re easy to make and you can make lots of them ahead of time. For a busy working person, that might be just enough of a reason to go out and grab a basket full of produce to experiment with, using my basic Asian-style pickling liquid.
Here I use yellow and green string beans, but this recipe is excellent with Persian cucumbers or cauliflower as well. Feel free to experiment with cabbage too or cherry green tomatoes.
PICKLED CURRY STRING BEANS
Be sure to use unseasoned rice vinegar, as the seasoned version already has salt and sugar. It is better to control the amount of sugar and salt. Anything pickled will last a few weeks, even months, but guaranteed these won’t last a week, because they’re that good.
(makes 1 quart)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups unseasoned plain rice or white vinegar
2 teaspoons Indian curry powder
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
5 ounces green string beans (about 1-1/4 cup), stem end trimmed
5 ounces yellow string beans (about 1-1/4 cup), stem end trimmed
1) in a mixing bowl, add the salt and sugar. Whisk in the vinegar until the sugar and and salt dissolve completely. (Do not try to melt over heat or you will weaken the flavor of the vinegar). Stir in the curry, coriander seeds and peppercorns.
2) In a wide-mouthed quart jar, place the string beans vertically. Add the garlic cloves, scattering and pushing them in a bit, then whisk and pour in the pickling liquid. Refrigerate for 1 week for optimum flavor. If you like the string beans more firm, try them after 2 days. If you like them softer, let them macerate for 2 weeks or longer.
NOTE: though there is sugar and salt in the pickling liquid, understand that when eating these string beans the actual amount of sugar and salt going into your body is negligible. It’s all in the liquid, which presumably you will not be drinking!
HEALTH BENEFITS: Vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, K, iron, calcium, folate, potassium, protein, fiber… an antioxidant as well. Eat your beans!
This recipe is adapted from my upcoming book, “Switch-It-Up: 50 Recipes for Perfectly Portioned Meals for Prediabetes, Diabetes, and Heart Health” to be published in 2015 by the American Diabetes Association. Also check out my other book “Asian Flavors Diabetes Cookbook,” which won a 2013 Nautilus Book Award.
Spices are excellent for your health. They can be”warming” and are believed to help fight all sorts of illnesses from common colds to more serious cancers, diabetes and heart disease. So while many people might stick to salt and pepper, when spices are added to food, as is the tradition in many Asian food cultures, you might just find that it makes your meals so delicious that a little will go a long way, skipping seconds, which is key in maintaining a healthy weight.
Many studies show that the more blend your food, the more likely you are to keep eating looking for more interesting flavors until you find them. When you introduce spices, adding complex layers of flavor to your meals, you approach food in a different way. Perhaps you eat more slowly, savoring every bite, truly engaging your senses. And let’s face it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that introducing a good amount of plant-based food to your diet, can only do you good. So don’t feel like you have to study herbal medicine before adding herbs and spices to your meal. Just do and switch them up. Your complexion will improve because your body will slowly but surely get rid of toxins. Anything worth its weight in gold takes time.
Every day, I spice up my food (and also add lots of fresh herbs). It’s common sense. Herbal medicine in both Asian cultures and other ancient (Greek and Roman, for instance) traditions always used herbs to help detox and general heal the body. In order for herbs and spices to have an effect on the body, it’s important to include them in daily meals in various combinations. I switch them up often to get various nutrients that are necessary to maintain proper health. Our bodies go through a lot. We live in an environment that is less than perfect. Getting sick, especially in crowded cities, is easy. I encourage you to practice prevention by eating lots of plant based foods, incorporated herbs and spices.
Here is an easy method for making a fragrant oil condiment you can drizzle over any number of vegetarian, seafood and meat dishes. Enjoy! … don’t know what to give for Christmas, how about a nice fragrant oil?
FRAGRANT COCONUT OIL
Feel free to create your own spiced oil. If you want to add cinnamon, orange peel, ginger and or star anise, do so. Have fun with this.
(Makes 1 cup; 1 teaspoon serving size)
1 cup coconut oil
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons onion seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
7 green cardamom pods
3 black cardamom pods
7 curry leaves
3 cassia leaves
2 dried red chilies
In a small pot over medium heat, add the coconut oil and toast the spices until they pop (but do not burn them), about 1 minute. Remove from heat, let cool and transfer to a heatproof glass jar.
During the holidays, when chestnuts are in season, I buy them once a week. I most often cut a slit in each and roast them in a dry skillet on the stove and eat them as is.
My French grandmother used to braised them in red wine with herbs to serve as a side dish during Christmas, when we traditionally had our turkey dinner. She often would add turkey stock, but you can most certainly use vegetable or mushroom stock instead for vegetarian versions of this delicious creamy yet chunky gravy.
This is perfect as a filler for vegetarian meals. It’s also a delicious complement to all sorts of meat or poultry dishes, if that is what you love. Serve it during your Thanksgiving dinner, or any holiday. I have no doubt you will enjoy it.
ROASTED CHESTNUTS BRAISED IN RED WINE
You’ll notice that as the chestnuts cook down in the liquid, they will break down to create a thick sauce. A perfect gravy consistency, though deliciously chunky.
(serves 8 to 12)
2 cups red wine
3 cups water, vegetable, mushroom, chicken or turkey stock
1 pound chestnuts, roasted and peeled
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
In a medium pot over medium heat, add the wine and water or stock, chestnuts, thyme, bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Braised until the chestnuts break down and the sauce thickens, about 45 minutes or longer depending on the desired consistency. (Do not process in a food processor.)
I see cranberries and I automatically think, “holiday.” I love their vibrant red color and tart flavor. And aside from my favorite cardamom-ginger infused cranberry sauce (a must during Thanksgiving), I love it when cranberries bleed into the fruit I mix them with.
I love crisp anytime of the year, using all sorts of seasonal fruit. During the fall and winter, I have a soft spot for apples and pears, my favorite for baking being Granny Smith and Honeycrisp apples, and Bosc pears.
This concoction of apples, pears and cranberries results in a dessert that is not too sweet, not too tart, but just right and absolutely delicious. This crisp is also loaded with walnuts to round out the flavors and add a nice crunch in every bite.
Have a pleasantly sweet and tart Thanksgiving!
ROLLED OATS AND WALNUT CRISP TOPPING
3 cups rolled oats (thick if you like extra crunch)
1 heaping tablespoon raw sugar
1 heaping tablespoon flaxseed meal (optional)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup crushed raw or plain roasted walnuts (or any nut you want)
1 stick salted butter, melted
In a bowl, toss together the rolled oats, flaxseed meal, flour, sugar, and walnuts. Add the melted butter and mix well. Set aside
APPLE PEAR CRANBERRY MIX
Have enough fruit to fill a 9″ x 12″ baking dish to the top and then some!
6 to 8 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped
6 to 8 Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 cups fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons raw sugar
8 fresh sage leaves, julienned (optional)
Preheat oven to 375°F for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, toss together the apples, pears, cranberries, sugar and sage (if using). Transfer to a baking dish and top with “rolled oats and walnut crispy topping”. Bake until golden and the fruit are softened, about 45 minutes. (you may need to cover with aluminum foil, if topping gets too dark before the fruit is cooked through and softened.)