Something Fishy

Fish is one of my favorite foods.  I like eating other kinds of meat, but am picky about having lean cuts.  With fish, I never have to worry about cutting off slabs of fat.  Fish is also a great source of protein without a lot of saturated fat like cheese, red meat and poultry have.  You’ve probably also heard that many fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which sort of sounds like a bad, gross thing but is actually good for your brain.  You may have also heard that some seafood is high in mercury. This is unfortunately true.  According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Mercury is emitted to the air by power plants, cement plants, certain chemical manufacturers and other industrial facilities. In addition, over the years, many companies have used mercury to manufacture a range of products including thermometers, thermostats and automotive light switches. These products can release mercury, particularly at the end of their useful life during waste handling and disposal. Mercury pollution released into the environment becomes a serious threat when it settles into oceans and waterways, where it builds up in fish that we eat. Children and women of childbearing age are most at risk…. During the first several years of life, a child’s brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities. Less frequent, high dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.  In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. “

The Simpsons puts a humurous spin on polluted water, but it's a serious matter.
The Simpsons puts a humorous spin on polluted water, but it’s a serious matter.

So what’s a girl to do when she wants to eat fish but also plan for a healthy pregnancy in the future?!  Luckily there is lots of delicious seafood that does not pose a risk in terms of mercury ingestion (like salmon, flounder, crab, shrimp, and canned light tuna).  It might take a few minutes of research before you dig in to your dinner, but it seems a good rule of thumb to avoid foods high in mercury if having a getting pregnant in the near future is a possibility.  Even if you’re not pregnant now, chemicals can stay in your body long after exposure.

I often find myself wanting to order fish when I’m out at a restaurant, but it’s hard to remember off hand which ones to avoid.  I got into the habit of referencing a guide that I bookmarked on my phone.  When I come across an unfamiliar fish on a menu, I can discreetly pull out my phone and quickly access the list without having to type and search.  Though there are several websites that list mercury levels in different kinds of fish, I’ve found the Eat Fish, Choose Wisely brochure produced by the NYC government to be the most helpful because it directly notes how often it’s safe to eat specific fish, ranging from several times a week to never.

It’s definitely a sacrifice to give up tuna, my favorite thing on a sushi menu.  Perhaps in my golden years I’ll treat myself to it once in a while.  But for now, I would rather know that I’m doing the best thing for my body and any future Hilary Jr.

Friday Favorite: Environmental Working Group

My favorite resource for researching the ingredients in my make-up and shower products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.  The website (there’s also a free app!) allows you to search tens of thousands of products from mascara to toothpaste to sunscreen to see how they are rated in terms of toxicity.  For example Neutrogena Skin Clearing Oil-Free makeup scored an 8 and Dove Cream Oil Shea Butter Body Lotion scored a 6 (0 being low in toxicity and 10 being extremely high).  Before I started really looking at ingredients, those are both products I would have bought and used without a second thought.  Now, before I buy any new product I research it on the database first to see what the toxins in it are linked to (endocrine disruption! reproductive concerns! cancer!).  Given the choice between a face wash that has parabens or SLS in it versus one that is made with only nature-produced ingredients, I’ll take the latter.  I now try to stick to products that score a 0-3 on the Skin Deep database.  I encourage you to try out the user-friendly database — put in your favorite deodorant, perfume, blush, or face cream.  You might be surprised at the results!

Recipe: Greeña Colada Smoothie

It’s 5 o’clock and 85 degrees somewhere… and because it is, I ignored the snowstorm outside yesterday and whipped up a green piña colada smoothie (virgin, because it was a pre-workout snack and nobody wants to be that girl who falls off the back of the treadmill).  This smoothie brings together the typical piña colada flavors with coconut oil (no, it doesn’t make the smoothie greasy, just adds to the taste), frozen pineapple chunks, banana to add creaminess and a squeeze of lime.  The greeña comes from kale — you can taste no hint of it and it’s a great way to add calcium and fiber to a smoothie.  Many tropical cocktail mixes are made with high fructose corn syrup, so this easy homemade alternative skips the over-processed additives in lieu of fresh, whole ingredients.

Ingredients:
½ frozen banana, cut into chunked
½ cup frozen pineapple chunks
1 ½ tsp. coconut oil
⅛ cup pineapple shavings (or coconut milk for a smoother drink)
1 large leaf of kale, stripped of the stem and torn into pieces
½ cup almond milk
squeeze of fresh lime

Put banana, pineapple, coconut oil and shavings, and kale into a blender and pulse until finely chopped.  Add the almond milk and blend until smooth.

P.S. – I totally thought that I came up with the name Greeña Colada, until I googled it and saw it’s already a thing.  Is this how Al Gore felt when the internet happened?

Speak up!

On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s to stock up on nuts, dried fruit, and frozen foods, I was very happy to come across organic teas at a low price. Cha-ching!  I bought a few boxes of chamomile and ginger-pear.  When I got home and opened the first box I was TJs teadisappointed to find that each tea bag was individually wrapped in clear plastic.  I went from feeling good about the prospect of drinking tea whose leaves had not been sprayed with pesticide, to feeling guilty that each time I made a cup of tea, I was dumping plastic into a landfill. Maybe one tea bag wrapper doesn’t seem so bad, or even the 20 wrappers that come in each box. But picture every plastic wrapper from every tea bag from every box of TJ’s organic tea sold around the country, all piled up together.  I’m guessing that would be an enormous amount of plastic.  Why couldn’t Joe wrap his tea in a more eco friendly package?  Especially given the likelihood that people who are interested in organic tea are also concerned with the environment.

I figured it couldn’t hurt to write to the company to see what they had to say.  I remember my resourceful grandmom often did this, and with online feedback forms now it’s easier than ever.  I was thrilled to hear back from Trader Joe’s customer support a few weeks later noting that they are I am Only 1 text-piclooking into the issue with their supplier.   We’ll see if the next box of TJ’s tea that I buy will be any different.  If not, I’ll have to find a new favorite.  But I hope my little story helps to show that you shouldn’t feel silly or shy about asking your retailers about packaging or sourcing.  It is your prerogative as a customer.  And the more they hear about it, the more likely they are to change their products for the better!

40 Days of Meatless Mondays

Fat Tuesday has come and gone, and now the season of Lent is here for the next 40 days.  As a product of many years of Catholic school, I was immersed in the tradition growing up and it has caught on in my adult years.  I like a healthy challenge and the idea of making a conscious effort over 6 weeks to make a personal sacrifice.  It’s like a new year’s resolution but a much shorter commitment and at the end you get Cadbury eggs and sweet religious greeting cards from elderly relatives.  This year, I’ve decided to do a version of Meatless Mondays during Lent.  Yes, it’s only one day a week over the forty days, but I’m going to eliminate all animal products on those days instead of just meat so I figure the extra sacrifice sort of evens out.  I thought that eating vegan would be a breeze for me, because I’m not a huge meat eater.  Don’t get me wrong, I could never be fully vegetarian in my real life — I love cheeseburgers and bacon and prosciutto too much. But I can easily eat more than half my meals in a week without meat without and not bat an eye by sticking to my normal routine of salads with nuts and cheese, soups and tacos with beans, and rice and pasta dishes with vegetables.  But committing to one day of complete vegan-eating each week makes me realize how many animal products I actually rely on  for my food: deviled eggs for a pre-workout snack, cheese on vegetarian tacos and on salads, yogurt for breakfast or in dressings and sauces, even some pasta is made with eggs and my half-Italian self will never give that up completely.  So while my vegan days won’t be impossible, they will certainly require a conscious effort.

People go vegan for many reasons ranging from issues with animal cruelty to lower-cholesterol diets to food allergies to Vegan Mondays pictextsustainability.  For me, it’s the sustainability factor that convinced me to give it a try.  Even if we aren’t eating huge slabs of meat for every meal, non-meat dairy products take a toll on the environment too.  Take cheese.  Seems completely harmless, right?  No animal had to die to make your brie en croute, true.  But the cow that produced the milk to make that cheese had to be fed, and was most likely given corn and soybean meal — most cows grown in the U.S. for milk are given this kind of feed rather than being grass-fed, as cows would do left to their own devices.  Well, that corn and soy had to be grown, probably on another farm which required a lot of land and water, and then had to be harvested and trucked over to the dairy cow farm.  The cows had to be given a lot of water (think hundreds of gallons) only to produce a relatively small amount of milk.  Then after the cow was milked, the milk had to be shipped in a refrigerated truck maybe as far as 7 states away.  If that doesn’t sound so bad, think of this process for every jug of milk, container of yogurt, slice of cheese, pint of ice cream all 320 million Americans eat in a week.

Livevegan.org suggests that “switching just two meals per week from animal products to vegan products reduces greenhouse gases more than buying all locally-sourced food.”  This speaks to the heart of my little test.  Will I give up all meat and dairy forever?  No.  But having just a couple more meals centered around whole grains, vegetables, beans or nuts rather than meat and eggs and cheese could make a small impact on the water usage, pollution and other problems that come with raising animals for food.

I’ll post at the end of my Vegan Monday Lenten journey, but I’m predicting a lot of whole grains and veggies in my future over the next month or so.  Stay tuned…

 

The end result: My Vegan Food Diary

Cleaning House

A dear friend of mine gave me a really thoughtful gift the other week — a book called The Naturally Clean Home.  It’sHomemade non-toxic cleaning text-pic a neat little book containing basic homemade recipes for easy concoctions to clean anything in your home from wood furniture to bathtub tile to carpet.

I already liked the idea of homemade, natural cleaners because conventional cleaning products often contain harsh and toxic chemicals.  The smell of bleach makes me dry-heave.  But so far I had only tried a vinegar and baking soda mix to clean pans with burnt-on food (which works well!).  This little book has many variations of cleaners, but it seems that castile soap, vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice are the main stars.  Surprised that so many cooking ingredients can be used for cleaning?  Vinegar and lemon juice have antibacterial properties.  And baking soda is a great alternative to toxic chemicals in household cleaning scrubs.  The other benefit of these homemade cleaning formulas is that they are very economical.  You can buy huge containers of white vinegar and baking soda from Costco and use those for several different cleaners rather than separately spending $9 on bathroom cleaner, $8 for counter spray, $7 for wood cleaner, and so on.  Check out this great little book or do some online research about homemade non-toxic cleaners.

In the meantime, here’s a little recipe of my own that works well to clean things around the house that can get grimy, like an electric facial cleanser brush head, razor handle or make-up brushes.

Hilary’s Cleaning Concoction

Fill a glass with two teaspoons of baking soda, ½ cup of white vinegar, and ½ cup warm water.  Sink the item into the glass — it may float, so to keep it immersed in the cleaning fluid you can hold it in place with a clean butter knife or something similar.  Keep it submerged for a few hours or overnight.  For makeup brushes, rinse with cold water and lay out on a clean washcloth to dry.  For plastic or rubber items, you may need to lightly scrub with a clean toothbrush to remove grime or mildew before rinsing and drying.

Recipe: Homemade Chocolate Candies

Valentine’s day is on Saturday and Russell Stover is hoping that you stock up on its candies made with corn syrup and “natural flavor.”  But why not give your special someone a homemade treat that says ‘I made an effort for you and here’s something homemade without questionable ingredients’?  Man, I should be a greeting card author…

I came up with this recipe for chocolate candies because every day after lunch at work I crave a little something sweet. A palette cleanser if you will. And yeah, I will, because I like to be fancy. But seriously, if I don’t bring a little sweet treat with me I end up going to CVS and buying those little homemade chocolate candies text graphicHershey’s nuggets and 3 other things I really didn’t need. So one day I thought, why not make my own chocolate candies?  I like dark chocolate, but most “dark” chocolate is still so sugary sweet, ick.  On the other side of the spectrum, unsweetened chocolate is also pretty gross.  It’s a bit of a Goldilocks dilemma.  I figured if I made my own candies, I could combine the two to make the chocolate as semisweet/dark as I want.  (Hint: look at the percentage of cacao in your chocolate.  If it’s less than 65-70%, it’s going to  be pretty sweet and sugary.)  And let’s face it sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you feel like 3 nuts and Almond Joy isn’t almond-y enough.  With my own candies, I can choose the filling I want and make them extra nutty and crunchy.

When you make these, you can use whatever filling you like best! Try: pecans, peanuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, coconut flakes, dried apricots, dried cranberries, dried pineapple, or any other fruit or nut. It’s pretty much as easy as melt, drop, harden, and eat.  Have a happy Valentine’s Day!


Ingredients:

6 oz. unsweetened chocolate (easiest to buy a bar of this kind of chocolate)
1 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips (semi-sweet has more sugar than bittersweet)
1 cup filling (nut, dried fruits or both) 

Recipe:

Fit a baking sheet with a silicone liner or wax paper.  Fill the bottom of a double boiler* with water and bring to a boil.  In the top part of the double boiler, melt both the semi-sweet and unsweetened chocolate together, stirring constantly until smooth.  In the meantime, on the lined baking sheet,  form small clusters of nuts/dried fruits 2 inches apart.  For a 12 x 16 baking sheet, I can fit 24 clusters.  With a spoon or small spatula, drop about a tablespoon of melted chocolate on each cluster, being careful to let the melted chocolate get in all the nooks and crannies to bind the filling together. With any extra melted chocolate, add an additional drizzle to each cluster so that all the nuts and fruits are fully encased in the chocolate.  Put the baking sheet in the fridge for 2 hours or until the chocolate is hard.  Transfer the candies to an airtight container. Enjoy for many weeks!


*I WISH I had a had kitchen storage space for a double boiler.  For now in my tiny apartment, I boil water in a large saucepan, with a glass mixing bowl settled on top. Tiny kitchens require creativity!

Field Trip: “Food: Our Global Kitchen” Exhibit

[November 2012] For months, I’ve been seeing ads on Metro trains for an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC called “Food: Our Global Kitchen.”  The posters described it as a farm to table experience which really piqued my interest.  Learning more about non-toxic food ingredients has made me more interested in where my food comes from and how it is grown, and I try to be a locavore whenever possible.

I had a great experience at NatGeo.  I thought the layout of the exhibit was really clever.  The “farm to table” effect involved taking the museum-goer through the full experience of food, winding us through displays on history and development of agriculture, to facts about food production and trade, to global cooking techniques.

The exhibit was sponsored by Whole Foods so I was curious how topics like GMOs would be presented.  I assumed that it might be very biased but while all of these issues were mentioned throughout the exhibit, but I never felt it was one-sided or forced.  Because those issues affect food production and consumption, it is important they are mentioned when describing the global landscape of food. But visitors were left to draw their own conclusions.  Some highlights of the exhibit were:

  • Learning about cassavas — who knew they were such a staple of the human diet, or that they could grow to be as large as a person!  I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten one, but now it’s on my to-do list.
  • A scale of heat rankings for peppers — I’ve seen comparisons like this before, but it was interesting to see it in person and see all the kinds I’ve tried (my experience stopped at about the third from the bottom with the jalapeno.  No thank-you, ghost pepper!).
  • A model scene of a historical food market in South America — very cool to see a life size re-creation of a market and all the different types of animals and produce considered exotic to me, but normal to a person in that time and place.
  • A display of cookbooks from around the world, in all different languages — really makes you think that food is one of the few things that all humans have in common as a need.  We’re not so different after all!

One theme reiterated throughout the exhibit is the fact that humans are using more food resources that ever, and growing the food to feed all of us has very real environmental and health consequences for us.  The main take-away is that it is so important for each of us to understand where our food is coming from, and what exactly is in it.  In most cases, ignorance is bliss but with food, increased knowledge of what we eat, how and where it was grown, and how it was prepared, makes it more enjoyable and healthful in the end.


The exhibit is open until February 22 and tickets are $11 — well worth the price.  Hope you can check it out!

Recipe: Crock-Pot Granola

Who knew that you could make granola in the crockpot?  Well, you can and it’s changed my breakfast routine.   I used to buy granola in the health food section of the grocery store, but there is so much sugar in most store-bought granola.  And a box of organic granola is not cheap.  Also, how frustrating is it to buy some “nutty crunch” cereal that has maybe one measly nut per every few spoonfuls?  Lame.  The best part of making granola at home, besides how easy and inexpensive it is, is that you can add as many nuts or fruits as you want.  Me, I like a little oats with my nuts and dried fruit but you can customize this recipe to your tastes by eliminating or reducing some off the add-ons.  This original recipe came from my sister on a trusty little 3×5 card that I’ve lovingly spilled on and wrinkled over the years.  That recipe only specified “oil” so canola oil or most others will work.  But I like coconut oil because of the taste and the great health benefits.  You have to be close by to stir it often so it doesn’t burn, so it’s a good recipe for a Sunday afternoon, or when you work from home.  Your kitchen will smell delicious while it cooks.

Ingredients

6 cups rolled oats
½ cup coconut oil
½ cup honey
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp powdered ginger

 

Add-ons

½ cup each of the following — feel free to substitute and be creative:
dried cranberries
raisins
golden raisins
dried apple pieces
coconut flakes
pecan pieces
walnut pieces
pumpkin seeds

Put the first seven ingredients is a crock-pot and stir together.  Set the crock-pot on low for 2 hours.  Stir after the first 30 minutes, and then stir every 15 minutes after that, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot.  Cool completely, then stir in the add-on ingredients.  Store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for several weeks.

 

 

The Sweetest Thing

A few months ago in an ongoing quest for perfect, supermodel skin I tried cutting sugar from my diet.  I did some research which showed that the androgen hormone, which is linked to insulin, can cause breakouts.

Unfortunately, the only true fact I’ve learned in my 15+ year quest for skin like the Noxema girl’s  is that apparentlysugar me being me is what causes breakouts and no limitation of sugar is going to be a magic cure. However, giving up sugar for about 8 weeks did open my eyes to how much of it was in the foods I was regularly eating, from fruit to processed foods and everything in between.  And after eliminating it I felt more energetic and less thirsty.  My clothes fit better and I didn’t crave sweet foods the way I once had.  So while I don’t avoid it entirely anymore, I am much more discerning about the sugar I do eat.  For example, I’m just gonna say it…once in a while I like to eat a whole bag of Twizzlers.  Or a doughnut. Like a frosting-drenched, sprinkle-topped doughnut.  So to balance out those sporadic cravings, and because those foods have approximately 0 health benefits, I avoid sugar in other ways that aren’t as much of a sacrifice for me like:

  • Reading the ingredients of my groceries and avoiding foods with added sugar, corn syrup, sucralose, etc.  Even “savory” foods like crackers and chips sometimes contain sugar.  So sneaky!
  • Making my own granola. Cereal is often very high in sugar, even most granolas which are marketed as “healthy”, “natural” or “with a HINT of sweetness”.  When I make my own, I add just a small amount of honey and lots of dried fruits.  If i’m going to consume sugar, I want it to be from natural sweeteners as much as possible! Here’s my recipe!
  • Making my own salad dressing.  Most bottled dressings from the grocery store have really nasty ingredients like corn syrup.  Have you ever seen a yummy homemade dressing recipe say, “slowly whisk in the high fructose corn syrup and xanthum gum”? Ew.
  • Making my own chocolate candies.  Many popular candy bars are overloaded with high fructose corn syrup or sugar.  I like making my own dark chocolate that’s actually dark and bittersweet. Here’s my recipe!
  • Fulfilling my ice cream cravings with coconut or almond milk ice cream with no added sugar.  Don’t be weirded out!  There are some delicious brands and flavors and they still taste sweet while eliminating the processed sugars.
  • Using agave syrup as an alternative to processed, white sugar when baking.  It has a lower glycemic index and you only need about half the amount when compared to sugar.

I’m always looking for other ways to eliminate processed sugar from my diet.  But for now, I think this is a good start!