(Extra) Green Goddess Dip

Hi there, world!  I haven’t posted anything in quite a bit because I’ve been in graduate school, a completely rewarding and eye-opening experience that also unfortunately ate all of my free time.  I spent an intense year studying public health and more specifically, nutrition and food access. My interests in sustainability, food production, and overconsumption were piqued even more this past year, so I plan to post in the coming months about some of the fascinating topics I researched.

Now that I’m back to real life and have more time to spend in the kitchen, I decided to perfect a dip recipe that would be tasty with fresh vegetables.  I’ve come across many green goddess dip recipes over the years, but wanted to make one that packed in as much greenery as possible, and swapped out much of the mayonnaise for greek yogurt.  It’s easy to make a batch to divide into several small containers to take to work and one larger one to keep at home.  

Ingredients:

½ cup parsley

½ cup chives

½ cup dill

1 cup fresh spinach leaves (or ¾ cup frozen spinach)

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 cup lowfat Greek yogurt

1 tsp. Lemon juice

1 anchovy (or 1 teaspoon anchovy paste)*

5 turns freshly ground pepper

Generous pinch of salt

 

Prepare the herbs by washing them all thoroughly.  A colander and lightly flowing cool water usually works best, but really get in there and move the leaves around because they can be gritty and dirty.  Dry the herbs on a clean kitchen towel. For the parsley and dill, pull off the leaves/fronds and discard the stems.  For the chives, just trim any dingy-looky ends.  Put all of the prepared herbs into a food processor fitted with a regular blade.  Wash and drain the spinach and add that to the food processor.  Pulse to blend into a rough chop.  FInally, add the other ingredients and blend again until smooth.

Serve with fresh vegetables or chips for dipping.  You can also use it as a salad dressing.

 

* Don’t be weirded out –try it!  It won’t taste fishy at all, it simply adds a salty and umami flavor.  And, anchovies are the secret ingredient in delicious foods you love like caesar dressing and puttanesca sauce too, so you might as well keep a tube of it in the fridge!

 

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Organic? Natural? Confused!

What is organic food versus non-GMO? What does the word ‘natural’ mean on a food product?  I would wager that every person who has been to a grocery store has been confused by the labels on the sea of products on the shelves. It’s important to always read the ingredients label and to really consider what is printed on a product — from beef, to orange juice, to chips. Remember, food manufacturers are businesses.  The logo, pictures on the box, recipes on the back of the package, and words like “healthy” are all ways to try to sell their product and make a profit.  We should be knowledgeable about the food we buy and what the following labels mean:

USDA Organic

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began using an official USDA Organic seal on food that is certified organic. For a food to display the official seal, the farmers raising the crop/animal have to follow strict guidelines issued by the FDA to meet the requirements. It’s not just a matter of withholding pesticides — there are other criteria that organic food products must meet. According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

When you buy organic food, you know that not only was is grown without toxic chemicals, but it also promotes sustainable organic labelenvironmental practices, and if it’s an organic animal it wasn’t raised in a restrictive tiny cage.

Be sure to look for the organic logo on products noting that it is officially recognized as meeting these requirements.  Although, sometimes you may come across a food item with the word ‘organic’ on it which not display the USDA seal. This does not necessarily mean that the product is not organic. Some smaller manufacturers, farms and farms markets don’t turn enough profit to meet the requirements to apply for certification and do not consistently use the label. Whenever there is any rule or regulation, there are some rule-breakers so it is possible to come across foods claiming to be organic when in fact, it is not.  However, the USDA is strict about enforcing the term and violators can be fined several thousand dollars for non-compliance.

Non-GMO

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button topic in the U.S. and globally.  Advocates say GMOs are a crucial way to feed the world’s growing population and combat hunger in third-world countries. Opponents argue that genetically modifying products all along our food change will have a definite negative effect on our health. Delve into some more research of your own to decide where you stand on the matter. However, when it comes to food labeling, know this. For a food to be labeled organic, as mentioned above, one of the criteria it needs to meet is being non-GMO. However, a food can be non-GMO but not organic. Food producers who can’t or don’t want to meet all the criteria for organic certification but who don’t use GMO crops in their production can still tout the non-GMO on their label.

Natural & Other Claims

You have probably seen terms on many food items like: All-Natural, Raised Naturally, Made with Natural Ingredients/Flavors. Currently, there is very limited regulation on food products labeled ‘Natural.’  The exception is meat/poultry which can calim it’s natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.   However, because the regulation is not air-tight, food manufacturers can take advantage of the context of wording.  According to the USDA, “For example, claims indicating that a product is  natural food, e.g., “Natural chili” or “chili – a natural product” would be unacceptable for a product containing beet powder which artificially colors the finished product.  However, “all natural ingredients” might be an acceptable claim for such a product.”  Consumer Reports did some really interesting research on the topic, showing 7 foods labeled as natural but revealing the very unnatural added ingredients.

 

On your next trip to the grocery store, take a closer look at the food packaging.  On any given product, you will often see an important-looking statement like “made with all-natural oats”, “X grams of whole grain”, or “100% Whole Wheat”.   A statement about one thing like whole grain or protein content, can be a distraction and it is often used as a marketing ploy.  You will focus on how much protein it has but not turn the box over to read how much sodium it contains, or that the top five ingredients include sugar AND malt syrup AND invert sugar.  Don’t rely on the bold statements on the front of the package, but instead on the legally required information on the back which will allow you to draw your own conclusion about the product.
wheat thins full

The more you get into the practice of reading food ingredients, the less confusing it will be when you do your shopping.  You will start to pick up on the marketing tricks of food manufacturers.  There is a lot that needs to be done in the area of improving regulations, and that requires us as consumers putting pressure on the food product industry.  But the most useful resources that we have right now are our hands and eyes.  Don’t just put food into your shopping cart.  Turn it over and read!

 

Share your comments or questions!  What labeling do you look for when you buy food?

Friday Favorite: Tolerant Lentil Pasta

I love me some pasta.  Picture the Cookie Monster going to town on some chocolate chip cookies, and that’s pretty much me every time I’m around macaroni and cheese or spaghetti pomodoro.  It’s delicious, filling, and works with all kinds of sauces as well as in soups and in casseroles.  So what’s a girl to do when trying to cut back on refined white flour?

There are a lot of gluten-free pasta options available.  Always read the ingredients on the back of the box so that you know exactly what it’s made from.  I was too naive the first few times I bought gluten-free pasta, only to get home and see that the pasta I had bought was made with corn or rice flour.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with those ingredients, but the rice pasta sat in my stomach like a rock, and the corn pasta came apart into a mushy mess when cooked.  I also tried a few brands of lentil pasta but it didn’t hold its shape and created a slimy foam when I cooked it.

Then one day I walked down the pasta aisle at the grocery store and a light from heaven shone down over a box of Tolerant brand red lentil penne.  Actually, it wasn’t that dramatic — my best friend recommended the brand to me.  But it did end up being a game changer.  NOTHING can really be a substitute for real pasta, so I recommend saving that for your favorite recipes. But for a quick and healthy (Lentils provide protein!) mid-week meal, throw together some Tolerant red lentil penne with marinara, or their green lentil elbow macaroni with pesto.  You can find it at most natural food grocery stores, or on Vitacost.com.  And skip the spiral shape kind which is too dense and hard.

 

Recipe: Cashew Broccoli Stirfry

I like meat, but sometimes I just don’t feel like I need or crave it in my meal.  And it seems from recent research that skipping meat a few times a week is fine, even healthier (psssst…Americans eat too much protein).

Asian cuisine is one of my favorites, and I’m always tempted by the cashew chicken or the chicken and broccoli dishes on IMG_1183 menus.  But what I really like is the combination of crunchy cashews and tender broccoli in a savory brown sauce.  And anyway I can never get the chicken into those thin slices while cooking at home like the restaurants do.  So I set out to make a go-to recipe with just cashews and broccoli as the main stars.  You can easily add chicken chunks to this recipe and I like to serve it over brown rice but it’s also great with noodles or just on its own.

Ingredients
  • 1 cup uncooked brown rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 4 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp natural ketchup (such as Tessemae’s)
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger (fresh or jarred)
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 cups cooked broccoli florets (steam and then run under cold water to stop cooking)
  • red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup cashews

 

For the rice:

Put the rice and 2 cups water in a small pot and stir together.  Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce to a simmer.  Cover and stir periodically until the water is absorbed.  Test the rice and add more water if needed until it is tender and cooked-through.

 

For the stirfry:

Heat the sesame oil on medium heat in a large pan. Add the sliced garlic and cooked until golden and fragrant.   With a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked garlic to a bowl.  In the same pan, combine the soy sauce, ketchup, brown sugar, minced ginger and rice vinegar.  Stir as the sauce simmers.  Combine the 1 cup of water and the cornstarch in a small pitcher until the cornstarch is dissolved.  Stirring constantly, slowly add the cornstarch mixture to the sauce in the pan.  Stir the sauce slowly as it simmers and thickens.  Add the cooked broccoli and cashews and coat with the sauce.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Serve the cashew-broccoli and sauce on a bed of the brown rice.

Bag It Up

How many plastic bags do you use in an average week?  It may be more than you realize.  Think about buying green beans or apples at the grocery store — what do you put that loose produce in?  How do you bag your groceries when you leave the store?  And if you bring grapes or crackers to work, what do you put those in?  It’s so easy to use lots of plastic bags for food without noticing it.  But cutting back on that excess plastic is completely doable with reusable alternatives.  

Let’s start with the source — produce at the grocery store.  Hopefully you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables (they should be taking up half your plate at every meal!).  For a while, I was going to the grocery store and farmers’ markets and feeling really good about the large variety of vegetables IMG_4872and fruits I’d bought for the week, yet feeling badly that everything I bought was in lots of separate plastic bags.  What a waste!  I did try to reuse them as much as possible, but they often got wet or sticky or tore apart.  Reusable produce bags are a game-changer.  These sheer mesh bags hold all the produce that I buy, and I never have to worry about throwing them out and creating waste.  When they get dirty,  just throw them into throw washing machine with the laundry.  You can buy sets of them online at retailers like Amazon.com.

For grocery bags, recyclable paper bags are certainly preferable over non-biodegradable plastic bags.  But even better are reusable tote bags.  It’s pretty easy to accumulate these.  They’re given out at special events all the time, or you can buy them from grocery stores.  The tough thing is remembering to use them.  Try to keep them by your front door, or in the trunk of the car where they are easily accessible when you’re going on a grocery run.  After a few times of remembering them, it will come ingrained in your memory to bring them into the store.

I’m also a big proponent of bringing lunch and snacks to work.  It saves so many dollars and calories compared to buying over-proportioned and over-priced meals out.  But after munching on those carrot sticks or trail mix, the zip-locked baggies get immediately tossed in the trash.  What a waste of plastic to use something for a few hours and then send it on to a landfill!  Luckily, there are a lot of companies that now make reusable snack bags.  My favorites are Lunchskins and Itzy Ritzy.  And lots of Etsy stores sell these reusable bags.  I wash these in the laundry or dishwasher after each use.

So try cutting back on plastic with reusable bags.  It will keep heaps of plastic out of landfills, and will save you money in the long run!

Recipe: Cold Soba Noodle Salad with Vegetables

This noodle dish is like an Asian version of pasta primavera.  Just whole wheat noodles, fresh veggies, and a slightly IMG_4217tangy and savory dressing.  It’s great for leftovers because it’s meant to be eaten cold, and the flavors continue to meld together after day one.  You can substitute your favorite vegetables or whatever is in season — aim for a colorful mix!

 

Ingredients:
(4 servings)

8 oz. buckwheat soba noodles
1 small onion, peeled and cut into thin strips
2 cups broccoli, washed and chopped
1 cup bell peppers, washed and chopped
1 cup mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 cup summer squash, washed and sliced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed and rough-chopped


Dressing:

1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon oyster sauce

Directions:

Boil noodles according to package directions. Drain, toss with olive oil (so that it doesn’t stick together in a clump) and cool. In a large pan or dutch oven, heat sesame oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and vegetables.  Stir occasionally until the onions are translucent and the vegetables are just tender. Remove from heat and let cool.  Meanwhile, in a small bowl or pitcher, combine dressing ingredients and whisk together.  Mix noodles together with the vegetables, add the cilantro, and pour the dressing over all the ingredients. Toss together until the noodles are well coated.

Recipe: Cous Cous with Collard Greens & Squash

One of my favorite stalls to visit at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market every Sunday is New Morning Farm.  The organic farm in south-central Pennsylvania produces fruit, vegetables, and herbs that are always colorful and flavorful.  The other week, I received a Twitter message from the farm challenging me and some other local bloggers to create new recipes for the collard greens that are often overlooked at the market.  Kale and spinach are now trendy, leaving collard greens behind in the dust.  I was excited to get my creative (green) juices flowing.  I’ve eaten collard greens before, but only in its most common southern-style form — slow cooked with a salty ham hock.  I decided not to overcook it into a grayish-green oblivion, but instead keep the vibrant green color by wilting it with fluffy whole-wheat cous cous, tender chunks of acorn squash, and tart dried cranberries.  The result was a flavorful dish for early autumn.

Ingredients

1 small acorn squash
*3 cups cooked whole wheat cous cous
*vegetable bouillon
1 bunch collard greens
1 medium sweet onion
1 cup dried cranberries
1 + ½ tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
salt to taste

Peel the squash and cut off the stem.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.  Cut the two halves into small bite-sized pieces.  Prepare the collard greens by washing them thoroughly, cutting out the stems and then rolling them into a bunch lengthwise and chopping them into 1-inch strips. Dice the onion.  Heat ½ tbsp. of the ghee in a large pan over a medium flame.  Add the onions and stir until they become a golden-translucent.  Transfer the onions to a bowl and add 1 tablespoon ghee to the pan and melt before adding the cubed squash.  Lower the heat to medium-low.  Cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender when stabbed with a fork. Add the greens a stir until they just start to wilt.  Remove from the heat and add the cous cous, onions and dried cranberries.  Gently fold all the ingredient together to combine.  Add salt to taste (but remember the bouillon already added some salty flavor).

*Follow the instructions on the box to prepare your cous cous, but instead of plain water, add the appropriate amount of vegetable bouillon for flavor.

Water Bottle Woes

Humans are supposed to drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day to stay healthy and hydrated.  And in the past decade, more people actually are reaching for water as their daily thirst-quenching drink rather than soda — a great step towards better health!  But because so many of us are on-the-go, we are much more likely to drink water from bottles in our cars than from glasses sitting at a dining room table.  However, disposable plastic bottles have a huge impact on the environment.water bottle fact text

Most empty water bottles are tossed into a garbage can rather than a recycling bin and end up in a landfill or incinerator.  And by most, I mean billions of them every year.  With billions more to come the next year. The Natural Resources Defense Council states that, “Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”

Plastic water bottles also require a huge amount of oil in the process of getting into our hands.  Yes, the trucks and ships that transport pallets of water bottles around the world daily require energy, and don’t forget about the bottles themselves!  Plastic is a petroleum product and water bottle manufacturing in the U.S. alone requires millions of barrels of oil.  Not to mention, when you buy a whole case of water the whole thing comes shrink wrapped in plastic as well.

You can choose help diminish the environmental impact from plastic water bottles with a few simple actions:

  1. Avoid plastic water bottles.  Instead use a water filtration system at work and at home, and use glasses and/or reusable water bottles.  My favorite is the glass Camelbak Eddy
  2. When you must use plastic water bottles, always recycle them.  Even if it’s not convenient and it means carrying around your empty bottle for a while until you spot a recycling container.
  3. Encourage recycling in your community.  If your neighborhood streets and parks have trash bins but no recycling bins, petition your local government.

Also, this quick video does a great job of showing how water bottles are marketed, manufactured and disposed of — with shocking truths all the way through the process…

Recipe: Kale Caesar Salad with Greek Yogurt Dressing

In the past few years it seems to be hail to the kale in grocery stores and on restaurant menus.  Kale salads are available everywhere from the trendy DC restaurant Lincoln to the WaWa before the Bay Bridge. And now kale chips are much more widely available than just at health food stores.  Maybe someday we’ll even see kale on the dollar menu at McDonalds!

My favorite way to enjoy kale is in a caesar salad.  Caesar salad is pretty standard on restaurant menus, and the traditional version with romaine lettuce is tasty, but kale has more health benefits than lettuce (it has more iron than even beef!).  I make kale caesars with lacinato kale — also sometimes called dinosaur or tuscan kale.   It is flat and smooth and I find it a lot easier to eat than curly kale which is completely unruly on your fork and makes you feel like a slob.  Kale is definitely tougher than lettuce but that’s why I think it’s complemented so well by caesar dressing, which is really creamy and flavorful.  I generously dress this salad, even though I’m usually a light-on-the-dressing girl, so that the flavor balances out the vegetal toughness of naked kale.  This dressing does not contain raw eggs, like a lot of caesar dressings.  It’s also made with greek yogurt to boost protein.  Don’t be intimidated by the anchovy paste.  They sell it in squeeze tubes in most grocery stores and it DOES NOT make the dressing fishy.  You won’t even know it’s in there.  Spoiler Alert: It’s the secret ingredient in every real caesar dressing.  Go crazy with toppings like radish slices, homemade croutons, hard-boiled eggs, or anything else!

 

Ingredients

1 large bunch Lacinato kale

Dressing:

¾ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. lemon juice/juice from a large lemon wedge
1 tsp.anchovy paste
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove

Wash kale leaves thoroughly in a colander.  Especially organic kale can often contain little buggers, obviously, because it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticide.  But no thank you to eating those little guys.  Dry the kale thoroughly and tear out the stems.  Tear or chop the kale into bite-size pieces and put into a large bowl.

For the dressing, combine all ingredients in a mini-blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  spoon desired amount of dressing onto the kale and toss until fully combined.  It’s best to let the salad sit for a while after dressing it.  With most salads, the greens get soggy and wilted, but with tough kale you want the dressing to somewhat saturate the greens.

Note — You can keep the dressing in a container in the fridge for up to a week and a half and use it as needed on individual-size salads — these are great to take to work for lunch.

Buying Eggs: Cage-Free to Pasture-Raised and Everything In Between

When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade egg optionsA Extra Large, brown or white.  Those were basically the only choices.  Now with consumers being more concerned with how their meat and dairy products were raised, there are many more options in the dairy aisle.  Have you ever wondered what the actual difference between pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free eggs are or even assumed they are the same thing?  Or have you ever felt kind of guilty about buying the regular eggs when the free-range eggs are right next to them but $2 more expensive?  I definitely have, so I did some research.  Here’s a quick guide:

Battery cages
Battery cages are what most chickens produced in the U.S. are kept in.  It’s basically like spending your whole life in an chickens-battery-cagesovercrowded jail cell where nobody ever changes out the latrine bucket.  Ick.   According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, for many chickens raised in these conditions, “their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death.”  If you buy eggs that aren’t labeled pasture-raised/cage-free/free-range or buy any breakfast sandwich from a fast food place, you’re almost sure to be eating eggs raised in this environment.

Cage-Free
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds.  However, cage-free really cage-free-chickensjust means the chickens just have the ability to roam around a larger enclosed structure like a giant warehouse that holds thousands of birds.  At least then they can literally spread their wings, make nests, etc.  But see the light of day during their lifetime? Not so much…  This looks like a red-line Metro platform during a rush-hour delay!

Free-Range
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry.  If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking Free-Range-Hens-Overcrowdedaround a wide open field each day and Farmer Frank gently guiding her back into the coop at night, you’re about to have your bubble burst.  In order for a poultry product to be labeled Free-Range,  the UDSA only requires that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  Often this still means a HUGE warehouse of thousands of chickens, with one little access door, or a high-up strip of windows.  But since they are overcrowded chickens, and not National Geographic explorers, they’re not likely find the outside access door especially if it’s not near their food and water source.

Pasture-raised/Organic
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way.  This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier. Pasture-raised chickens.  Image courtesy of Honeyhillorganicfarm.com People say that eggs from this environment taste better, and while I’m not an egg connoisseur I would probably agree with this.  After all, are you more likely to turn in a fantastic report to your boss if you’re extremely stressed or relaxed and enjoying life?  It’s probably the same for chickens and the product they make.  Not to mention I don’t want to feel badly that a chicken led a wretched life just so I could have my omelette. However, it can be really difficult to find pasture-raised or organic eggs in conventional grocery stores.  Also just because eggs are labeled organic, doesn’t mean they are pasture-raised.  They could have been stuffed into a “free-range” warehouse and just given organic feed.

So with all that being said, it’s really not my intention to scare you into being a vegan.  I actually really like eating eggs.  My suggestion is just to be more conscious of egg labels and where your eggs come from. Know what you are comfortable buying and eating.  If you want pasture-raised, organic or free-range eggs and don’t see them available, take 2 minutes out of your week and talk to your grocery store manager.  Tell them that you’d like to see more of those products on their shelves.  Same thing with restaurant menus.  Retailers listen to their customers — that’s how we’ve gotten this far from those days in the 80’s with 2 kinds of eggs.

If you want to learn more about this, here are some good resources:

Poultry labeling terms: www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chickopedia/
Where and how to buy organic chickens: www.localharvest.org/organic-chicken.jsp
Facts about pasture-raised poultry: www.apppa.org/getting-started-in-pastured-poultry

P.S. — If you do some google image searching on this subject, be prepared for horrifying visuals.  I tried to only include PG pictures.