Scrabble as creative aid

scrabble_as_creative_aidI am one of the few people in the world who doesn’t really enjoy playing Scrabble. And because I practice way less than everybody else, I’m not very good at it, which compounds my lack of enjoyment: I am guaranteed to be beaten.

But I like the Scrabble pieces, and tonight I used them to help me idea-generate nonsense-word names for a client. Their new business needs a new name, and one of the avenues we’re exploring is nonsense words. Think Etsy, Zappos, and Flickr. The Scrabble pieces were excellent raw material.

It was fun playing with the letters off the grid. I think it’s the grid that bothers me. (I don’t like crossword puzzles, either.)

Soy. Food of the Gods.

tofu-beijing-china1Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the “soy issue” has come up a few times. Not from doctors (who appear to care little about what you eat – hah!) but from friends. Well-meaning friends who wish to warn me about the “dangers of soy”, particularly for people with hormone-related cancers.

I’m a vegetarian. I eat soy. I love tofu and eat it in some form almost every day. (I go through a tub of Toby’s Tofu Pate a week. I must have put their kids through college by now). I like miso, but it’s so salty it’s more like a condiment than rib-sticking food. I admit I do like “vegan junk food” like tofurkey slices, smart dogs, and the like. I don’t eat this kind of processed stuff every day, but a couple of times a week I’ll indulge. I don’t like tempeh but will eat it very occasionally if it’s well-disguised. I don’t like soymilk, and rarely drink it. The exception is the occasional winter drink of hot soymilk with maple syrup and a dash of salt. Somehow, maple and salt make it divine.

Aaaaanyhow, my point is, I eat a little bit of soy, often. I don’t believe it gave me cancer. And I don’t believe omitting it from my diet will reduce the risk of cancer returning. Quite the contrary.

Japanese women have the lowest rate of breast cancer in the world. A lot has been written about the Japanese diet, and many epidemiological studies have demonstrated a correlation between soy consumption and reduced breast cancer risk there. Now I know that correlation is not cause, but epidemiological studies are all we have when it comes to understanding the long-term relationship between diet and health. You can’t do a double-blind, controlled experiment following several thousand people for 20 years, during which half of them eat real soy and the other half eat placebo soy. It’s just won’t work. So epidemiological studies are what we have, and particularly useful are meta-studies of those studies.

When a Japanese woman has breast cancer, she is more likely than an American woman to survive long term. Her cancer will likely be slower-growing, less aggressive, and hormone receptive. When a Japanese woman gets breast cancer, her tumor is easier to beat.

My tumor was slow-growing, less aggressive, and highly hormone receptive. There’s no way I’ll ever pinpoint the cause or my cancer, but based on what I understand, it might be the case that my 20 years of soy-eating (and general healthful practices) gave the tumor a less favorable terrain to get really nasty. It’s out now, and my task for the rest of my life is to make sure it doesn’t return. It’s a statistics game: I could do everything possible that’s right and good for health, and the cancer might still come back. But if I do everything that’s right and good, at least I’ll know I did everything I could.

So why does soy have such a bad rap among the general public, and also some alternative medical practitioners such as naturopaths?

If you look at the history, it’s apparent that soy’s reputation has slid for political reasons rather than scientific ones.

Here’s a link to a good article about soy and why the bad rap it’s gotten is based on politics rather than science: Is Soy Safe?

More info on soy and health can be read here: Soy improves breast cancer survival

One government that has particularly obvious anti-soy policies is New Zealand. New Zealand’s small economy is based heavily in animal agriculture. Milk there is like corn here: a massive surplus that the food industry mops up by adding milk products to a lot of processed foods, the way corn products are added to many foods here. (New Zealand is a hard place to be if you’re lactose intolerant!).

New Zelanders internalize anti-soy propaganda to the point where, e.g. my brother in law won’t eat tofu because it will “give him titties”. (Ironically, NZ has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease, due to high meat and dairy consumption).

Here in the US the economy is so huge and based on so many variables that pressure comes less from the federal government and more from particular industries. The effect is the same: spread of misinformation and fear-mongering.

So, say yes to soy! Food of the gods, in my opinion.

Astounding sauce combinations

Not being a food purist, I like to experiment. Lately I’ve been mixing sauces and condiments. Now you’d think that sauces and condiments are made to be what they are, and usually their tastes are so intense that they stand well on their own and shouldn’t be mixed. Surprisingly, there are some great combinations that together become more than the sum of their parts.

1. VEGENAISE, GREEN CURRY PASTE, AND CIDER VINEGAR. Mix these together for a complex and tasty sauce that will blast any boring meal into orbit. Approximate proportions: 1/2 c Vegenaise, 1/2 teaspoon Thai Green Curry Paste, and 1-2 teaspoons cider vinegar.

gingerlemon2. EAST-WEST BRAND SPICY GINGER SAUCE, AND LEMON CURD
The first time I mixed these two I kept tasting to double-check because I couldn’t believe I’d created something so amazingly good. It’s very sweet, but works well as a marinade and main dish sauce.Any good quality lemon curd will do the job, but the ginger sauce made by East-West is special.

relishmayo3. MY OWN CUKE-PEPPER RELISH, AND MAYO
Trader Joe’s Organic mayo is the one I use, which has no sweeteners. The relish is a variation on my pickles recipe, but with the addition of green peppers and more sugar.  This mixture far surpasses what you’d get if you combined fast-food sachets of mayo and relish. There is fennel and other spices in the relish that take the combo to another level. Very tasty!

Ay-mazing zucchini bread-and-butter pickles

 

From the 2009 batch. Basil garlic, Tarragon, Ginger chili, and plain.

From the 2008 batch. chili ginger, dill, tarragon, basil garlic

Who doesn’t have truckloads of zucchinis in the summer? Bread and butter pickles traditionally use cucumbers, but zucchinis work just as well. The following will fill 3 quart jars. This is a non water-bath method.

 

Ingredients:

  • 6 lb of vegetables, e.g. 5 1/2 lb of zucchini and 1/2 lb of onion. Or all zucchini and no onion.

  • 3 1/4 c vinegar (I like plain old white, to let the other flavors shine through) 
  • 2 c sugar (this is less than most other recipes, and the pickles still turn out sweet)
About 1/4 c of salt
  • 1 tray of ice cubes
  • 1 T mustard seeds
  • 1 T fennel seeds
  • For herb/spice variations, scroll down

Directions:

 

  1. Slice the veges. Small enough they will fit easily through the mouths of the jars, large enough they aren’t a pain to get out when you want to eat them.
  2. Mix the veges up in a large bowl with the salt. Distribute the ice cubes on top. Alternatively, if your bowl fits in the fridge, put it there.
  3. Allow the veges to sit for about 3 hours or more. Overnight is okay. This step of soaking in salt is what makes the final pickles crisp instead of mushy.
  4. In the meantime, set everything else up. You will need:
  • A large pot. A 6 quart pot is a good size for this amount of food.
  • 3 quart jars (or the equivalent in smaller wide-mouth jars) plus their good metal lids. Do not use lids that have any signs of rust, or dings, or are bent.
  • A pair of metal tongs.
  • A large serving spoon, plus another spoon (regular size okay).
  • A smaller pot for boiling water.
  • An oven.
  • An area where you can ladle the hot pickle mixture into the jars without lifting it too high. I use the kitchen sink.
     

Prepare the tools

About ½ an hour before you are ready to drain the salt-soaking veges, prepare the tools:

 

  • Wash the jars and their lids. Rinse and drain them, then put them upright in the oven. Set the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the jar-lids in there also, spread out and not touching. This sterilizes the jars, and dries them, too.
  • Put your tongs, serving spoon, and the other spoon in a pot of water, enough to cover the round part of the spoons. Boil these on high for at least 3 minutes of rolling boil. This sterilizes these instruments so that you can use them to touch the pickle mixture, and the sterile jars.
     

Now you can start cooking.

 

  1. In the large pot put the vinegar and sugar. Heat on medium till sugar is dissolved. Add the spices (but not the herbs – see below).
  2. Now drain all the salty water from the chopped veges. Even if you didn’t start with ice cubes, there will be a lot of water, and the veges will have shrunk. I also give them a single rinse in cold water, just to reduce a little of the salt. But don’t let them sit in fresh water, or they will re-absorb it all again.
  3. Bring the vinegar mixture to the boil. When at a rolling boil, pour in the drained veges. At first it might look like there is not enough vinegar, but they will shrink down some more.
  4. Now remove the sterilized tools from the boiling water, and place them upright in something like a tall glass or a dishrack. The point is to have a place to put them where their sterilized parts don’t touch any surfaces.
  5. Now bring the vinegar plus veges back to the boil. Because of the volume of veges, this actually takes a few minutes. During this time, set up your jars.
  6. Using the tongs, take the hot, sterile jars out of the oven. Place each jar in the sink. Don’t do this too early, because you don’t want too many airborne bacteria floating into them.
  7. Stir the veges often. As soon as they come back to a boil, they are ready to put into the jars.
  8. Bring the pot over to the sink. Using the large serving spoon, spoon the pickle mixture into the jars. The other sterile spoon is for those occasions when a piece of vege gets stuck on the large spoon, or threatens to fall down the outside of a jar. You may not need an extra spoon at all, but it’s sad to see good pickle mixture go to waste because you can’t nudge it in the right direction with your unsterile fingers, and it falls into the sink.
  9. When the jars are full, pour in extra liquid. Fill to within a half inch of the top.
  10. If necessary, wipe the outside threads with a paper towel. Don’t let it touch the inside anywhere. 

Finishing up.

 

  1. Now get the lids out of the oven using the tongs. Seal each jar. You may need to hold them with a dish towel because of the heat. After about 5 minutes, try turning the lids again, and there may be some more tightening to do.
  2. Let the jars cool. Over the next few hours you will hear the popping sound of the lids contracting as the seals set.
  3. Put the jars away for at least 3 weeks. Something happens to the chemical balance that matures the flavor over this time.

And that’s it. If you’ve been careful about how clean everything is, you won’t need to water-bath them. They keep for months in a dark cupboard. I have not kept any longer than a year, so I don’t know their long-term shelf-life, but I have never had a problem. Needless to say, if there’s a lid that doesn’t contract (i.e. ‘button’ is still up), it’s not sealed. You can keep it in the fridge and treat it like an open bottle of salad dressing. But the pickles won’t have matured, so won’t be as delicious.

And needless to say, if any go a funky color, or have mold on top when you open them, or the lid bulges outwards, then throw them away. But like I said, I have never had that happen.

 

Herb/spice variations

Add in any combination of sliced chili peppers, garlic, dill, cilantro, tarragon, cayenne, paprika, basil, sliced ginger. The flavors that seems to add the most are tarragon and ginger.

I treat whole fresh herbs separately. They are washed, and then right after I put the sterile jars in the sink, and take the spoons etc out of their boiling water, I dunk the herbs in for about 30 seconds to 1 minute into the same boiling water. Then I spoon the herbs into the clean jars. This is before I put the pickle mixture in. So put the blanched herbs into the jars before ladling in the pickle mixture. 

Really tasty Brown Rice. So tasty you can’t stop eating it.

Are you tired of feeding brown rice to the reluctant?  And does the 45 minute cooking time get you down? I like the stuff, sometimes even crave its spartan simplicity, but really, it’s not up there with the quick ‘n tasty.

Ok, so this is what you do.

Get 1 c brown rice.  Wash it thoroughly, rinsing several times. (You never know what floor it’s been spilled on and swept up off of during its journey to you.)

Put an empty, dry, pot on the stove on medium heat. It need not be cast iron, but a flimsy or bent pot won’t work so well.

Tip the wet rice into the pot, and dry it over the heat, stirring constantly.  After a while the dry grains will start to pop.  Not puffing out like popcorn, but its sort of similar.  But gentler: you don’t need to keep the lid on.

Keep stirring till the rice looks different.  Roasted rice is a little lighter, a little yellower, and not as shiny as raw rice. Keep stirring till most grains look transformed this way.  It’s a subtle change, so keep some raw rice nearby to compare from time to time.

When the rice is thoroughly roasted, pour two cups of water into the pot.  Caution: it will boil violently for a few seconds before settling down.  

Put the lid on the pot, and cook on low for about 20 minutes.  Yes that’s right, roasted brown rice takes less time to cook than raw rice.

While it’s cooking toast about 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds and set aside.  Black sesame seeds would look even better than white, but it’s a bit hard to tell how done they are when toasting.  Also fry up 1/2 diced onion.  I used a purple onion which is why there is a slight color to the onion pieces in the image.

Test the rice for doneness.  When done, stir in the onion and the sesame seeds, and that’s it.

The combination of onion and sesame tastes, along with the extra boost of yummyness roasting imparts on the rice itself, makes normally reluctant rice eaters want multiple helpings.  It’s not quite as irresistible as say, well-made stuffing, but it’s surprisingly moreish, and still really good for you.

An astounding discovery!

Agave nectar (which sounds so foreign, so of-the-desert, and damn hard to get out of agave) tastes remarkably like the Golden Syrup of my NZ youth! I mean, it’s like Golden Syrup is really agave nectar but they never said so!  Or someone’s been syringing Golden Syrup into agave plants!

I have yet to try it out as a substitute for Golden Syrup in making Hokey Pokey. 

 

Don’t know what Hokey Pokey is? It’s an easy-to-make candy that’s like honeycombed caramel. It’s brittle like toffee, but full of bubbles like, well, pumice. But it tastes way better than pumice. Here’s a recipe.

Peanutty One-Pot Meal

This soup’s got vegetables, protein, carbs, and fats.  Plus it’s colorful and super tasty and warms not just your cockles but everything else on a chilly Portland evening.

Ingredients

1 leek or onion, chopped fine
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, chopped fairly fine
1 large green pepper, cubed fine
1 medium zucchini, chopped fine
2 large ripe tomatoes, blended to liquid  
1 c leftover carbs, e.g. chopped boiled potato, or cooked rice
1/2 c peanut butter
spices: cayenne, paprika, coriander, ginger
1 scant teaspoon asian style mushroom seasoning.  It shouldn’t have MSG in it but it’s not exactly just made of mushrooms, either. It’s salty and very tasty. 
About 6 c boiling water
1 hefty handful of whole basil leaves
1 scant splash of Balsamic vinegar. 

Directions

Fry leek and garlic till beginning to soften.
Add carrots, spices, and mushroom seasoning and let cook for a while.
Add tomato puree, and let carrots cook longer till softening.
Add boiling water, and return the whole pot to the boil.
Add bell pepper, return to boil and cook for 5 more minutes.
Add carbs and zucchini, return to boil and cook for 5 more minutes.
Add peanut butter and mix in well.  When returned to a boil, cook for another minute or so.
Turn off the flame and stir in the basil.  Keep stirring till it’s wilted, but don’t boil the basil.
Add that splash of Balsamic vinegar if you want that extra edge on the taste.

Creamy and tangy vegan pasta sauce

This isn’t a vegan household, but we don’t eat a whole lot of cheese or eggs, so many of our meals end up bumper-to-bumper plant-based.

Here’s Creamy and Tangy Vegan Pasta Sauce.

In a little olive oil, fry up chopped zucchini, red bell pepper until somewhat softened, then add a large chopped tomato (the one in the photo was a  yellow variety, big and sweet). Add in a couple cloves of crushed garlic, salt to taste, and simmer in the vegetables’ juices till the zucchini is soft but not losing its shape.  Right at the end add in a few bunches of chopped basil and heat it through, but don’t let it cook – basil loses flavor with too much heat.  Then get a big ol’ dollop of Vegenaise (made by Follow Your Heart) and stir it into the dish.  Serve with pasta.  Here it’s organic whole wheat fettucini.  Yum!

Crumbled Savory Tofu

I love tofu and could eat it every day. I like it all different ways, including plain and simple.  But my husband drinks so much soymilk that he’s grown to dislike tofu, simply from over-exposure to the milky bean.  He cooks more than I do, so when my turn rolls around I’m inclined to reach for the spongy white slab kept in the “meat” drawer.  And I think of ways to dress tofu up beyond those inch-square cubes I so readily chop into the dinner pot.

Tonight’s invention is Crumbled Savory Tofu.

Ingredients: Wildwood tofu, Pearl River Bridge dark soy sauce (with the pink label), garlic, ground coriander seed, paprika, a little oil.  Plus cooked pasta to mix it into.
Most of my recipes don’t call for specific amounts, so use your judgement on that.

Directions:
1. Crumble the tofu.  If it’s not Wildwood (the densest, least watery brand) first press and drain it for a while or blast it in the microwave for a minute to release excess moisture, then drain that away.  The crumbled tofu should be dry-crumbly, not sitting in puddles.
2. In a little oil, fry up the garlic, coriander, and paprika.  
3. Tip in the crumbled tofu, and drizzle the soy sauce on it. Pear River Bridge brand is extra-strong, so be careful!
4. Stir it around till mixed and hot through.
5. Stir in your favorite cooked pasta.  In this photo it’s Trader Joe’s organic brown rice pasta.

Tonight’s dinner also included steamed scarlet runner beans (from the garden), and a salad of tomato (from the garden), red onion, green olives and basil (from the garden), dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.