With such a cool, rainy spring, I’ve been extending my soup season much longer than usual. I love soup anytime – it’s a filling, naturally low-calorie and vegetable packed food. Instead of hearty soup this time of year, I aim for light and bright – focusing on what tastes best during spring cleansing period when we naturally crave lighter foods with inherent detoxifying properties.
Root vegetables are still available – and they can bridge the season from winter to spring vegetable dishes beautifully. I was craving the flavors of this soup a few weeks ago when I had Israel on my mind. Four springs ago we made a trip there to visit dear friends, and were treated to a grand tour around the small country. After one excursion, we returned to find that Grandma, who had generously offered to babysit, had also prepared a delicious borscht for us. It was a perfect soup - flavorful and bright, whether eaten plain or topped with crumbled hard-boiled egg, dill, diced potatoes, pickles and a little dollop of yogurt.
With that in mind, I created this quick beet soup. Beets are a lovely food – earthy, naturally sweet and mineral-rich – as well as a being a wonderful tonic for the liver. It’s a good idea to take a little extra care for our livers this time of year since they’ve (most likely) had a busy season cleansing our bodies from winter excesses of rich foods, alcohol, and sugar from the holidays that started at Thanksgiving and lasted up through spring. Beets are rich in folate and potassium as well as the antioxident betacyanin, found in deep red color varieties of the root. Betacyanin is one of the antioxidents that is especially important for cancer prevention, especially colon cancer. Beet roots also contain a little discussed nutrient called betaine which is important for cardiovascular health by helping to reduce homocysteine, a protein that can build-up in the blood and contribute to heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Beets are great eating year round - whether shredded raw, roasted, or steamed - and added to salads, eaten as part of a roasted vegetable plate, or juiced with other fresh vegetables.
In this case, I was in the soup mood. For this recipe, adding a potato to the soup gives it a little more body, while garnishing it with fresh basil gives it spring-like and optimistic nod to summer. Use any tender herb that’s coming up in your garden, though - anything fresh will taste delicious.
If you happen to make this soup in the weeks to come, be sure to save the green tops from the beets to use just as you would kale, chard or spinach – it’s delicious simply sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil while providing a phenomenal source of iron, calcium and magnesium.
Spring Beet Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large beets*, scrubbed, trimmed of tough peel
1 small Yukon Gold potato*
1 medium carrot*, scrubbed and diced
1 large leek*, white and tender green parts only
2 large shallots or 1/2 sweet or red onion*, chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 cups (one quart) water
freshly ground black pepper
large handful fresh basil (or fresh parsley, oregano, marjoram, dill, or tarragon), chopped just before serving.
Heat a medium saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. When it is warm to the touch, add the oil, leeks, shallot and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes until tender and starting to color. Add beets, potato and carrot, season with 1 teaspoon of sea salt, and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon to release any browned bits of potato that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Bring the soup to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat, and to allow to simmer for 25 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper, add fresh herbs and serve immediately.
What’s standing in the way between you and a good dinner most evenings? If you’re like most people, you’ll say some combination of time, expense, lack of skills and a shortage of ideas.
So, what can we do about it?
We can’t get more time in the day, but we can free up more available time by simply shifting our attention. Maybe it doesn’t exactly mean killing your television, but by turning it off or allocating more time to making real food we have the potential to have a real impact on our health. One of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your family is to make it a priority to prepare real, whole foods meals with nutritious ingredients that are organic, locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible - this week, next week, and all year.
Why cook? Because you were born with one amazing machine, my friends - emphasis on one - and the best way to fuel your machine is with nutritionally-dense real, whole foods. Period. We may get extra chances now and then to clean up our act and shift our eating style, but most of us wait until something drastic is staring us in the face to make those tough decisions about doing the best thing for our bodies. (Nutritionally dense foods are essentially foods or ingredients that are as close to their original state as possible as when they were grown or harvested - unprocessed, unrefined, and with a correspondingly high nutrient value.)
You may need a few more resources to help you on your way if you’re ready to get started right now. By asking friends whose healthy lifestyle inspires you to share a few recipes, subscribing to pra approachable food magazines like Real Food or Whole Living, taking a cooking class, or following a healthy food blog, you’ll get access to new ideas and tested recipes to start moving in the right direction of learning how to prepare great food.
To keep things affordable, consider shopping for staple items in bulk at a co-op grocery or at most grocery stores. Foods purchased in bulk allow us to buy more without paying extra for packaging, plus we contribute less garbage to the waste stream and we can buy just what we need, eliminating excess food being thrown away or not used. To save money while keeping it local, shop for pantry basics when they’re on sale, sign up for a CSA share this summer and plan to frequent a farmer’s market throughout the growing season to make use of fresh foods while they’re in season. Learn how to preserve foods for later – by freezing or canning fresh foods when they’re at their peak of flavor and nutrition – to eat fresh and locally on a budget throughout the year. If your family eats a lot of meat, consider sharing a portion of a large animal to freeze to have access to top quality, ethically-raised meats without paying the highest prices in the grocery store.
No matter what, using any of these thoughts to help shift us toward adopting a more nutritious way of eating will have us spending more time in the kitchen. That’s not a bad thing. The kitchen is typically the heart of any house, so let’s bring it to life and start cooking up some better stuff for our bodies with the goal of simply living better.
Curried Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
adapted from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
6 - 7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1.5 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup carrots, diced
1 jalapeño, minced (optional)
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
5 cups sweet potato (choose one with deep orange flesh), diced
1 14-oz. can organic coconut milk
2 cups dried red lentils, sorted and rinsed
8 cups vegetable stock or bouillon
juice of one lime
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Sauté red onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil for 15 minutes in a large soup pot. Add curry powder, hot pepper, carrots, bell pepper, and sweet potatoes. Sauté another 5 to 10 minutes.
Add coconut milk, lentils, and the stock. Simmer, covered, until lentils are done and sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 45 minutes. Add lime juice and cilantro and serve.
To make this in a crockpot, prepare soup on the stove through the addition of adding coconut milk, lentils and the stock, then transfer to a crockpot on low to cook for 6-8 hours. Reduce stock by 1 cup and add lime juice and cilantro just before serving.
In the best possible world, we would always have access to the freshest, most life-giving food - whether from ingredients used make our own meals – or from some terrific person who prepared them for us. The meals would be balanced, chock full of nutrition and delicious. Quite simply, there is no better way to give your body the most optimum diet than to eat whole (real!) foods that have been thoughtfully put together and prepared from scratch.
On a daily basis, though, in spite of all logic that would guide us otherwise, we consider the nutritional needs of our body a hasty afterthought. Life gets in the way, of course.
So what do you do when the light has gone on and you know what you should be eating, but anticipate having busy mornings, afternoons or evenings when you’ll be on the run?
Plan ahead. Keeping healthy and convenient food items stocked in your refrigerator will make grabbing a quick meal simple and practical.
Consider “wrappers”, pockets or vegetables for quick foods. Sprouted whole grain tortillas, whole grain pita pockets, nori seaweed sheets, or collard greens are all perfect vehicles for rolling and stuffing with nutritious ingredients. They’ll work for breakfast, lunch or dinner and are easy to vary depending on what you choose to put in them.
Make a practice of cooking a batch of rice and beans (or lentils, quinoa, hummus and wild rice) on the weekend to have available all week long. It is a good habit to make basic foods to us as the backbone of filling for your quick wrap or pocket meals in addition to eating them a variety of ways throughout the week. Chopping greens, crunchy brassicas like broccoli or cauliflower and peeling whole carrots to store in airtight containers will make filling your wraps, pockets or green rolls with abundant vegetables a fast, easy choice.
Keep a fruit bowl available on the kitchen counter. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to remember a piece of fruit or two to take with you on your way out the door if you see it. Fruit will last just fine on the counter for a few days and can be replenished from extra stored in the refrigerator.
Blend up a smoothie and pack it along with you in a glass jar. This is a good way to have a healthy option ready in advance - blended up with fruit, some greens, and a little nut butter it will keep just fine without refrigeration for several hours - just shake it up before drinking.
Make your own snack packs with raw nuts for a healthy between meals option, as is preparing your own sandwich snack crackers made out of whole grain flatbreads (Ryvita, Wasa or RyCrisp) – filled with nut butters and a little honey or raisins, or hummus and sliced veggies, or cheese. Or take along big slices and chunks of raw organic vegetables - whole peeled carrots, big wedges of red pepper, thick slices of cucumber - and pack along a small container of hummus or nut butter. Any choice will fill you up and help you to avoid resorting to unhealthy snacks with zero nutritional value.
Even if you took one of these options and incorporated it into to your need for quick meals once, twice or a few times a week you’d be doing yourself a HUGE favor by reducing bad fat, sodium or sugar grams in fast food options. It will also cost less, it will contribute less garbage to the waste stream and you’ll feel better at the end of the day.
Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t achieve the optimum, but keep an eye on making these small changes become the new habit - and you’ll make a big impact on your health in no time.
Collard Green Wrap
1 collard green leaf
1/4 cup hummus
1/2 sweet red pepper, cut into strips
1/3 cucumber (skin on) cut into spears or flat slices
Cut the spine out of one large collard leaf (washed and patted dry). Lay each half flat on a cutting board and spread with hummus. Fill with avocado slices, sliced red pepper, cucumber wedges or a small handful of spinach. Roll up starting at one pointed end. Secure with a toothpick and fill the second collard leaf half in a similar manner.
A bounty of vegetables from Gracie's Garden in Ely, MN – August 2010
Yesterday, columnist Mark Bittman announced the end of his weekly “The Minimalist” column in the weekly Dining section of the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Bittman’s column for the ease and sense of “no big deal” with which he approaches everyday cooking – while paying attention to details and great flavors all at the same time. I’ve also admired his shift in direction towards eating more plant foods in his own diet by adopting a "vegan until 6" eating style on an earth conscious as well as health conscious premise, and sharing that story through his column and most recent two books, Food Matters and Th≠e Food Matters Cookbook.
An occasional feature of The Minimalist was to produce a big list of super fast, tasty, and 3 ingredient “recipes” – again, aimed at encouraging people to cook more often and to dispel the myth that great tasting food has to be complicated or too long to prepare.
With this blog, I pay homage to The Minimalist by keeping this short, and by making a short list of my own based on all of the things that are close to my heart: eating more vegetables and fruits, increasing the nutritional value of what we’re putting in our bodies every day, and keeping things delicious and interesting.
So here it is – 21 ways to boost the nutrition on your plate. Why 21? Because it’s three weeks of good ideas - and hopefully enough time to turn some of these new ideas into lifelong nutritious eating habits. Some of these may seem obvious, but on the other hand; some ideas may not have occurred to you yet. Either way, I encourage everyone to keep up the good work – and to keep striving to make your way of eating even better.
21 Ways to Eat More Plant Foods (and Boost the Nutrition on Your Plate)
1. Keep a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter so that fruit is always visible and accessible for snacks.
2. Thaw frozen organic blueberries or organic mixed berries in a glass jar in the fridge; add to breakfast oatmeal, use for yogurt topping or as smoothie ingredient.
3. Chop up vegetables at the beginning of the week and refrigerate in an airtight container for easy, affordable snacking.
4. Pack a piece of fruit and a mixed container of veggies every day - for snacks, for errands, and to eat with lunch.
5. Add greens to your fruit smoothies.
6. Add greens to your pizzas.
7. No matter what you’re eating for dinner, add a salad with 1 or two extra (colorful) veggies on it and add a side vegetable (corn, potatoes and green beans don’t count).
8. Make sure that at least 1/2 – 3/4 of your plate is green and colorful.
9. Stir a green leafy vegetable into your favorite soup - escarole, chard, spinach or kale are all good options.
10. Choose a different colored fruit for every snack.
11. Put vegetables on, under, and in between your sandwiches.
12. If you’re eating an egg, have it with vegetables.
13 Make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with half pasta, half cauliflower.
14. Better yet, make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with all cauliflower!
15. Eat fruit with nut butter for your own “power bar”.
16. Make your own batch of dried fruit and seeds for your “energy snack”.
17. Switch to dipping your hummus, guacamole, baba ganoush or yogurt dip with sliced vegetable “chips”.
18. Blend fresh spinach into your hummus or yogurt dip.
19. Eat your cheese or nut butter with an apple instead of crackers.
20. Eat a main dish salad once a week for dinner and use protein for your topping, not the main course. (2-3 times a week in summer!)
21. Count your veggie and fruit servings every day for a week to get used to the idea of how much to consume.
My husband and I recently returned from a quick trip to Europe - a day in Amsterdam waiting for a connecting flight and a short week in Vienna. What I was struck by while wandering the two cities and stopping into cafés to warm up or have lunch was the variety and amount of soup being eaten for meals.
It sounds weird to say that this was something remarkable - soup was being eaten for lunch everywhere, by women and men. But it’s not so weird to notice the contrast when you read the stats on what's going on over here in the US: we’re eating more breads or food prepared with bread products for every meal, more than ever before.
What I love about soup is this: it’s warm, it’s filling and satisfying, and it is a simple way to deliver a number of good things – vegetables, whole grains, beans or pulses, root vegetables, garlic and onions, an earth-friendly amount of meat, and even meat broth (if you make your own stock) – in one convenient bowl. Better still, it delivers all of the good stuff for a minimum of calories (as long as your spoon isn’t standing on its own or the name of the soup doesn't include the words beer and cheese) – making it a wholesome, waistline-friendly meal option.
We ate some delicious soups in Amsterdam and Vienna: tomato soup; a light, fresh mushroom soup; pumpkin soup; winter root vegetable soup; and a carrot-chickpea soup. Nothing fancy or exotic – just simple, nourishing and delicious.
Soup doesn’t just taste good - it’s especially good to eat during these chilly seasons, when viruses abound and our immune systems and sinuses are prone to overworking. You may have heard by now the famous study done in 1993 by a researcher named Stephen Rennard, M.D., from the University of Nebraska who was able to show in the laboratory that chicken soup did indeed slow down the activity of cold and flu viruses. Isn't it gratifying when research proves what grandmothers around the world have known all along?
On the other hand, what’s wrong with eating so much of our food on, in, between or under bread? For one, when we’re consuming so many calories from one food group, chances are that we’re not eating an adequate amount of foods from the other food groups - namely fruits and vegetables or even non-wheat whole grains. Additionally, if it’s not 100% whole wheat, you’re most likely consuming GMO grains that have been stripped of any nutritive value by the processing and degerming processing – leaving an empty source of calories that wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels. (More on the bread issue in an upcoming blog.)
But what happens instead when you have a bowl of soup and a couple of whole grain crackers with a piece of cheese, or slice of turkey or a couple of spoonfuls of chickpea hummus? You are filled with warmth and a sustained source of energy, with vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrient-dense calories to keep you operating without suffering the classic craving/crash cycle. If you think that a bowl of soup is not filling enough, then eat it with a salad or have two bowls of soup - you’d STILL be better off than eating two slices of pizza.
As far as stressing out over the amount of time it takes to make soup, why not make a big pot over the weekend? It reheats quickly and transports easily in a lunch box to work and tastes good all week long. Or use a crockpot by preparing the ingredients in the morning (or the night before and refrigerating) and letting the soup simmer while you’re out for the day. Few things smell as good as a dinner waiting for you when you walk in the door, hot and ready to go.
Of course homemade soup is better than canned, packaged or deli soups - high sodium content, excess sugars and quality of ingredients would be the main reasons to avoid them. In a pinch, a couple of local companies sell freshly prepared soups ready to go in some refrigerated sections of area grocery stores, as do local bakeries.
Ultimately if I can convince you to make a pot of soup – or at least eat soup for at least a couple of meals a week, then I’d think you were on to something good.
2 cups corn, either cut fresh off the cob (in summer) or frozen kernels
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or a combination of both
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, (green sprout removed) and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
3 medium potatoes, cubed (3 cups)
5 cups vegetable stock or low-sodium bouillon, dissolved (or corn stock in summer)
1 tsp. salt
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, basil or other herbs, chopped
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Sauté onions in olive oil or butter for 3-5 minutes or until golden. Add garlic, carrots and celery (and potatoes at this point if you’re cooking at high altitude) and sauté another 5 to 8 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add potatoes (at sea level), corn and stock. Season with salt and half of the herbs; cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
For a creamier soup without the cream, remove 2 cups of soup and purée in a blender. Add the purée back to the soup. Finish seasoning with additional salt, if necessary, the remaining herbs, and freshly ground pepper before serving.
(To make in a crockpot, sauté onions and garlic until tender in a skillet on the stovetop. Add to crockpot along with remaining ingredients (reduce water to 4.5 cups) and cook on low while you’re away. To finish, season to taste with fresh pepper and additional salt, if neccessary, and add fresh herbs.)
We should be worried, but we’re not. We should care about what we put in our bodies, but we don’t. I am guessing that many of us know what we should be eating, but decide that we can't or won't do much about it and continue to eat junk.
Well, we are becoming exactly what we deserve, as a nation, on our current diet: overweight, patched together with drugs, unhappy, and sick.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a study this month which reveals that Americans still aren’t eating their vegetables, in spite of a decade of campaigns designed to bring awareness to the importance of a healthy diet. The New York Times article that details the report shows that we’re eating fewer salads than we were 16 years ago, and only 23 percent of our meals include a vegetable.
In order to meet the recommended guidelines for 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or 41/2 cups for a person who consumes 2000 calories each day, that means eating at least two vegetables or fruits at each meal, plus snacks in between. If we were eating that many veggies, we wouldn’t have room in our bellies to be hungry for the bad stuff.
Except that all we want is the bad stuff. As a nation, we are addicted to sugar, fat, hyper-salted foods, caffeine and artificial flavors. And it is making us sick.
Of course we want someone to blame when we become sick. We want a pill when our blood pressure is too high, when our cholesterol is out of whack, and when we get heartburn every time we eat. We accept Type-2 diabetes as if it were inevitable. We don’t want to prepare a meal with fresh foods: we want convenience and instant satisfaction.
Of course it’s all our fault - no one is shoving those fried, sweetened, microwaved, chemical-laden food into our guts. We are. Until we can wake up and take ownership for our health before our desire to eat another meal of junk takes over, nothing will change. We have to make a commitment to our bodies that will require carving out a little extra time to treat ourselves better.
I have no illusions that a frustrated rant against the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) will change anything, but I am passionate about helping people who are interested in making a change for their health by seeking out ways to learn more about it. I teach healthy cooking classes, I lead healthy living retreats and I do one-on-one food coaching where I help clients by designing custom food plans, complete with shopping guides and recipes.
At the end of the day, I believe that there is hope. I know how good it feels to eat well, get exercise, and sleep for at least seven hours per night. I also know that the basics of what I'm talking about are completely achievable for everyone, no matter where they live. Barriers exist for all sorts of reasons - I am aware of that - but if something is important enough, there is always a way to make a difference at any level.
Recipe for Making a Personal Change
A commitment to a change in lifestyle takes more than just thinking you want to change. In order to find success, following a series of steps is the surest way to reach your health goals.
1. Decide exactly what you want to achieve for your personal goal.
2. Write it down CLEARLY and in as much detail as you can.
3. Set a specific deadline. If it is a large goal, break it down into subdeadlines and write them down in order.
4. Make a list of everything you can think of that you are going to have to do to achieve your goal. As you think of new items, add them to your list.
5. Organize the items on your list into a plan by placing them in the proper sequence and priority.
6. Take action immediately on the most important thing you can do in your plan. This is VERY important.
7. Do something every day that moves you toward attaining of one or more of your important health goals.
8. Share your plan with the world - the more people who know what you’re doing, the more support you’ll gather, plus you’ll increase your accountability – and you’ll probably even inspire a friend or two!