Mushroom Soup

There is an Asian grocery store on Refugee Road, not far from our favorite farmer’s market in Canal Winchester.  This small store has a great selection of mushrooms in varieties not found in the larger chains and at a fraction of the cost.  Like most of our adventures, we make the trip an all-day affair, stopping at the farmer’s market (if it is summer) and one of our favorite restaurants.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, mushrooms are a great alternative to meat.   Mushrooms are rich in fiber, protein, and antioxidants, low in calories and sodium.  Nutritionally, mushrooms are known sources of zinc, copper, potassium, and certain B vitamins.  If they are raised with ultraviolet light exposure, they also can be a good source of Vitamin D. 

After each trip, I can always count on mushroom soup.  Each time, the results are a bit different.  This time, John tried a new recipe.  Of course, he always gives his creations, his special magic touch.  The results are delicious, healthy, and nutritious. 

Note: You can find this recipe at https://www.theawesomegreen.com/vegan-mushroom-soup-for-a-comforting-autumn-dinner/.  Bon appétit!

The Not-So-Great Escape

According to the police report, the entire fiasco could have been avoided.  The day began innocently, a typical family of edamame out for a stroll.  They left the cool comfort of the refrigerator as they had done on countless days, trekking southward through lush green pastures of fresh spinach.  The fatal error occurred when they forgot to bring water.  With temperatures soaring, heatstroke was inevitable.

Police found the bodies beneath an avalanche of shredded butternut squash topped with tomato salsa.  As a last resort, the edamame family had taken refuge within the hollow of an avocado buried in the rubble.  Perhaps, they thought they would escape, but the fork had other ideas.

Not Your Typical Breakfast

Imagine it is breakfast time. What is on your plate? Is it eggs or sausage? Maybe you are a starch lover and opt for pancakes, grits, oatmeal, or potatoes. On a fancy day, perhaps you throw in a steak. You may decide on a certain food based on health or simply choose what sounds good.  

Many of you know that we (John and I) are plant-based eaters, so we forgo the animal-based options in our diet. Many days, I find whole wheat pancakes or steel-cut oats waiting for me at the kitchen table. Typical breakfast food, right?

Yet, on some days, breakfast is a source of amusement. Why? Because, on some days, not only does breakfast surprise me, but my surprise is also surprising.  Yes, I know. There were far too many surprises in the last sentence, but please bear with me.

(John’s Breakfast Cheese Sauce)

I am surprised (and delighted) by the fact that breakfast sometimes challenges my preconceived notions about food choice. Certain foods belong only to specific meals. Take our Monday morning breakfast fare – a colorful assortment of tomatoes, potatoes, salsa, avocado, broccoli, and mushrooms. Add a plant-based cheese sauce and you have all the fixins’ for an omelet without egg or cheese. My brain saw all the lovely vegetables and assumed we were having lunch at 9:30 a.m. 

I bet if you think about it, you probably have few “notions” of your own. Take the typical restaurant menu. If you were the breakfast customer, would you think it odd if the menu listed roast leg of lamb, pasta marinara, and bean burritos, but not omelets or waffles?

Why the nerve of those people!  Where is a good egg when you need one?

The eggs were set aside, of course, in favor of a more adventurous food choice. Breakfast was delicious and I was not arrested by any breakfast police because I broke established food rules. Honestly, it is a lot of fun to challenge these notions, opens a whole new world of culinary possibilities.  Try it!  You might be pleasantly surprised. 

Jack is Back

This time of year, some people are dreaming of a white Christmas.

As for me, I am dreaming of salmon, specifically, plump juicy salmon filets Asian-Style, the way my husband fixed them for me when we were dating. It was our first home-cooked meal together as a couple.

These days, John’s focus has been on healthy plant-based meals and although I still occasionally feel a bit “fishy” his creative breakfast meals have never failed to delight my palate. New surprises seem to await me with every meal and on a recent weekday morning, I was introduced to Jack.

I have known many Jacks in my life. As a child, Jack was a character nimble and quick until he broke his crown and tumbled down the hill with Jill. Perhaps he was weakened by his inability to eat fat, saved only by his wife who could eat no lean. At some point, Jack ended up in a box, held hostage by the turn of a crank. Poor Jack! I just hope he found the music comforting.

Two years ago, Jack was born anew as a beloved grandson, a much better fate than living in a box, don’t you think? It was high time for Jack to make a comeback. So why should I be surprised to find Jack on my plate?

Move over salmon, Jack is back!

I had no idea that Jack is also a fruit and a very interesting one indeed. Jackfruit is a species of tree native to tropical regions, reminiscent of banana and mango when ripe and meaty when still green. Sounds like a bit of a rebel to me, perhaps a relative of the equally rebellious pirate Jack Sparrow.

In the plant-based diet world, Jackfruit is a versatile meat replacement and has been used to replace pork in pulled pork recipes due to the fruit’s string-like qualities. Jackfruit also works well in Asian dishes as was the case on this particular morning. The fruit is large with a rather prickly exterior. A formidable foe when purchased fresh, jackfruit can weigh up to 100 pounds (average is 30-50 pounds) apiece. However, you can find jackfruit in a can or in a pouch, just check the label. Some varieties are very high in sodium. The jackfruit we found at the Asian market was worth the search; as a protein source, jackfruit is low in calories and fat, as well as a good source of potassium and fiber.

Alas, this fruity namesake seems destined to replace my former Jacks, except my grandson, of course. I suspect that Jack might enjoy a fruity BBQ.

What Shade of Healthy Eater Are You?

Attempting to remain a plant-strong vegan in the deep south would make for a good comedy. Recently, John and I took a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama for our semi-annual vacation. In the past, we looked forward to the many fresh fish choices compatible with our Mediterranean meal plan. However, we knew that adhering to a vegan diet in this area of the country might certainly present some interesting challenges.

We tried to plan ahead. The result was Plan A & Plan B.

Plan A – Have breakfast at the condo with our own foods and recipes. Our first trip upon arrival was to a couple of local markets. We were delighted to find a grocer near our condo with a decent supply of vegan-friendly food items.

Plan B – Research food options for those times (and there were many) when we would be away from the condo. I installed a vegan app on my phone to help locate appropriate resources and researched local food venues ahead of our trip. Not many choices appeared on my app, but many Asian, Mexican and Indian restaurants typically have vegan-friendly offerings or the ability to modify a meal to vegan specifications.

On our first evening, weary from many hours on the road, we visited the local pub at our resort.  The only food possibility on the menu was a crab-stuffed tomato.

“So let me get this straight,” said the waiter, “You want crab-stuffed tomatoes without the crab?”

“That’s correct,” I replied.

I saw his eyebrows twitch. “No fish?”

“No fish,” I confirmed.

“We have cheese,” he countered.

“No cheese,” I said.

Although his surprise was obvious, the waiter accommodated our request without any issues and the tomatoes were so tasty that we returned the next night for more.  Our waiter wasn’t there, so we proceeded to explain to the new waiter the events from the night before along with the complete set of instructions.

Did I mention that the tomatoes were fried?  Whoops – I think the halo just fell from my head. Technically, the choice may have been vegan (no animal products) and the tomatoes may qualify as a whole food, but the “fried” part is not the healthiest preparation option – just a tasty one.

Which brings-to-mind a couple of other recent dilemmas, such as:

  • The suspicious “buttermilk” strategically located in the middle of our pancake batter ingredient list
  • The eggs and dairy products that I “know” are hidden in restaurant pasta and bread

At a recent event, I spoke with another self-proclaimed vegan hoping to reclaim my halo.

“Don’t you feel so much better since you made this diet change,” she gushed.

“I do,” I replied.  “The tasty recipes have been a pleasant surprise.”

“I really like having salmon once a week to augment my primary diet of whole fruits and vegetables,” she added.

I suppressed a laugh. I am not aware of any plant by the name of “salmon.”

Fast forward a couple of weeks to my son’s wedding. Pizza and pop were on the rehearsal dinner menu. John and I loaded up on salad (after we removed the pepperoni) and fruit. I had brought a cup of iced tea and John opted for a diet soda. Still hungry at the end of the evening, John decided to have some pizza crust.

“I’ll bet that crust has egg and milk in it,” said one observant friend at the table.

“Is diet pop vegan?” one family member asked.

Both the observation and the question were thoughtful and valid, illustrative of two important points. 

  • Not everything that technically qualifies as vegan is healthy. In fact, you can follow just about any diet plan and still not have healthy meals. You can be vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, etc. and still consume a wholly unhealthy diet devoid of whole food, plant-based options consumed raw or prepared using healthy methods.
  • In an imperfect world, options present in shades of gray, not black and white. Many choices will have pros and cons. The choice will be yours to make.

Shades of Healthy Eating

When John and I embarked on this journey, we put in place one research-based absolute with one philosophical clause:

  • We would pursue a whole food plant-based diet as the foundation for our vegan aspirations. This means that our choices overwhelmingly favor vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, lentils and other naturally occurring foods over processed items that may qualify as vegan, but are not healthy. This also involves preparing foods, when not consumed raw, in healthy ways with attention to limiting potential pitfalls associated with the use of oils and sodium while favoring beneficial components such as fiber. Research supports whole foods and plant-based eating as key to obtaining and maintaining health. This commitment represents our research-based absolute.
  • From a philosophical standpoint, we would pursue this journey within the many shades of gray present in our choices and circumstances. This means that we move forward with grace and freedom versus rigidity and judgment, viewing our new commitment as a true learning journey. In a structure that provides excellent healthy choices at least 95% of the time, there shall be no chasing of halos after a rare diet soda, egg or other wayward item. The goal was never about perfection. The goal is health and enjoying the life we have been given.

If that sounds complicated, here’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself in your journey towards a healthier life, even if it includes salmon disguised as a plant. What does matter is the choices you make most of the time and whether those choices support health – mentally, emotionally and physically. Strive to be closer to that goal today than you were yesterday and closer still tomorrow. 

Note: The image in this post depicts a recent favorite breakfast – a medley of fresh asparagus and quinoa on a fresh bed of spinach complimented with tomatoes, onions, carrots, pumpkin seeds and a splash of Asian dressing. This delightful meal is no more difficult than many standard meat-based breakfast options but infinitely healthier. Don’t be afraid to experiment; learning is a process and can be lots of fun. Enjoy.  

 Did You Know?

We think of quinoa as a grain that we cook and eat much like rice. However, from a botanical standpoint, quinoa is much closer to spinach, chard, and beets, than it is to grain. What we actually consume are the plant’s seeds, although the leaves also are edible. 

Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. This lovely seed works well as a stand-alone alternative to rice or pasta and “sprinkled” on top of other dishes and salads.

Vegan? You Must Be Kidding!

My dad was an excellent provider. Each year, he joined a group of friends in Wyoming for a yearly hunt. My childhood was filled with images of dad armed with a hunting rifle, surrounded by friends in the brush and in barns filled with hanging meat. Trophies of past kills hung on dining and living room walls.  Wild meat was showcased on the plate, most often venison simmered in Worchestershire sauce, surrounding by ample potatoes smothered in gravy.  On the side, a minuscule serving of vegetables hid under mountains of gravy, usually canned peas with onions or French style green beans.

We did not eat out often, but the year I turned seventeen, dad decided to treat the family to a steak dinner at the Ponderosa steakhouse on the westside of Columbus. This came as no surprise. Bonanza was dad’s favorite TV show; we often had dinner on tray tables in front of the television set while we watched the latest episode. I knew that dad liked steak, but in hindsight, I suspect he was looking for Hoss, Ben or Little Joe.

That Friday night, we piled in the car and headed for the Ponderosa. Once inside, we were greeted by a cafeteria style lineup of choices. 

Tray? Check.

Napkin? Check.

Silverware? Triple check. Wait!  I almost forgot the steak knife.

Next was a suspicious looking clump of greenery arranged in a bowl gingerly placed next to containers of some type of thick sauce.

I was first in line.  “What’s that?” I asked mom, pointing to the bowl of green.

“I think it’s salad,” she said.

“Do people eat that?” I replied. “Isn’t that rabbit food?”

“Just slop some of that stuff on it,” she said, pointing to the sauce.

“Which one?” I pressed.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Try the orange one.”

I scooped a generous serving of thousand island dressing from the container and drenched the salad until it looked like gravy on potatoes. Passable, I thought, but I really just wanted the steak and a baked potato loaded with butter.

It would be many years before salad would become a staple in my diet, much less consider that meals are possible without…gasp – meat.

John and I have followed a true Mediterranean diet for years with lots of fish, olive oil, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, with smaller amounts of dairy, primarily in the form of skim milk, low-fat/sugar yogurt and an occasional dusting of cheese.  A substantial amount of our diet has been whole (defined as unprocessed and unrefined) and plant based foods for years, but no one was more surprised than me when we moved decisively away from meat, eggs, and dairy.

Which brings me to that word – vegan. The term has always conjured up images of bland overcooked broccoli on my plate or skinny bead-wearing people waving spears of asparagus in the wind.

My apologies, vegetable-loving friends. Please don’t write your senator or throw any tomatoes my way. As the good reporter once said, “There is more to the story than meets the eye or, perhaps, in this case, eyeballs.”  Let’s be clear and fair. It is entirely possible to be a vegan or vegetarian and not follow a healthy eating plan. There are plenty of refined and processed foods that qualify as “animal-free,” but are completely stripped of any nutritional value. Yet, there is considerable wisdom and evidence in support of plant-based, whole food eating.

Ah…I already hear the naysayers chattering in the background. What about protein? Calcium? Vitamin B12?  What about studies in support of fish, dairy, and other animal-based foods?  Was the move away from meat, eggs, and dairy necessary?  Weren’t you already including a substantial amount of plant-based, whole foods in your diet?

These are valid questions and ones that I have entertained and studied at length. Perhaps, these concerns are topics for additional posts, otherwise, my post becomes a book. For now, I invite you to a grand experiment. Let’s put the evidence to the test.

Despite my former and relatively healthy meal plan, and commitment to remain 27 years of age for life, I have not found a way to stop getting older. At age 61 (yes, I admit it), I am relatively healthy. My doctor says if it wasn’t for my snout, there would be nothing wrong with me. I would like to stay that way, but do feel and see the effects of age in the way I feel and in objective health measures that skirt the borders of “normal.” Then, there is the question of pesky genetics. I have watched too many family members struggle with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure, including my dad. 

Frankly, I miss him.  He would have loved all of the grandchildren and great grandchildren. There is a piece missing from life because he is not in it.

I know there will always be threats that could “get me” no matter what I do, but why resign oneself to a fate, whether real or imagined, when life is worth fighting for. I am worth it. Dad would have been worth it. You are worth it. Adding more whole and plant-based foods to your diet can only be healthful, no matter where you fall on the meat and/or potato spectrum.

Maybe, if we ask nicely, John will share some of his amazing new recipes. No bland, lifeless overcooked vegetables here. Maybe, we will invite Hoss, Ben and Little Joe for dinner – if we ever find them.  Since the Ponderosa closed, they seem to have disappeared.

 

Invisible

All butterflies are beautiful, but this one was special. To me, what made him special was not his lovely colors, intricate form or even the way he hung so delicately from the edge of a flower. What made him special was the plant life I could see through the transparent patches in his wings. I marveled at the wisdom of his physical makeup, how easy it would be for a predator to miss a butterfly so perfectly blended into the background of his surroundings.

Look at me. What do you see? Perhaps, you will like what you see in the background. Perhaps, you will only see the background and miss seeing me.

What was it Oz said to Dorothy? “Don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.” In other words, only see what I want you to see, in this case, the formidable green apparition of a powerful wizard, instead of a meek, insecure, and fearful man.

Meditation

Like wings, life sometimes carries us to unexpected places, where danger lies in wait. The imprints these experiences have on our life can often leave invisible marks that impact the way we view and interact with our world. Interwoven together, our cumulative past shapes us and provides a foundation for future experiences.

This week, I finished the mini-series “Thirteen Reasons Why,” about a high school girl who left a series of tapes detailing the thirteen reasons why she had taken her own life.  This morning the series haunts me. I had difficulty watching it, especially the final episode which was far too realistic for comfort.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? Some experiences in life should never be comfortable. It should pain us that such tragedies exist, much less constitute a much more common experience existing on the fringes of our awareness.

The series has been the subject of much controversy. Some have said that it glamorizes suicide, while others have seen it as an exercise in finger pointing at the expense of attention to serious underlying mental health issues.

But life is flawed anyway, is it not? Even our attempts to shed light on the ugliness just beneath the surface fall short of our own expectations. It is easier to find fault in the light than it is in the dark.

In the end, I hope we fight for a world that isn’t afraid to face our own failures because failure belongs to all of us.  Pain, domination, abuse, hopelessness and the like are not isolated to the young but interwoven throughout every level of society. Just ask any homeless person. Or veteran. Or battered spouse. Or the frail and forgotten shut-in next door.  

Perhaps, you will see beauty while I delicately hang on to life.

Perhaps, predator, you will look at me, but not see me.

Perhaps, friend, you will look at me, and not see me either.

The Pelican Life

I have a confession. Beaches make me feel much like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Wide-eyed and almost giddy, I am absolutely captivated by brilliant sunsets, roaring waves and the magnificent wildlife found along the shoreline. The ocean feeds my soul and my imagination.

On one particular morning, our second visit to the beach, I was delighted to find a large flock of pelicans covering much of the landscape. Some were basking in small groups gently afloat on soft waves. Others were fishing for breakfast. A few juveniles were interacting with local Terns along the shore. One pelican turned towards his smaller companions as if to speak. I imagined this young pelican providing fishing tips to a young charge as if to say, “Watch how they dive from the sky with such precision and grace. You will not find a better fisherman than a seasoned pelican.”

I grabbed my camera and cautiously waded into the center of the flock until I was waist high in water. The pelicans watched me from a short distance away and tolerated my presence while I quietly snapped several images. I stood among them for several minutes, until a jogger provided the impetus for flight and the entire flock soared past me, close enough to feel the rush of winged wind against my face.

I returned to the shore.

“You are a brave soul,” John said.

Perhaps, I thought, but I honestly had not even considered the risk of wading into an active flock of birds. I was simply grateful for the temporary sanctuary I had found among them.

Meditation

Silly as it may sound, I felt called into the water, invited to join a pelican family for this brief span of time. To watch the interactions within this bird family was an honor. Feathered communities are much more dynamic, intricate, and bonded than they may seem to be at first glance.

Several years ago, National Geographic and author, Dan Buettner, combined forces to study the common lifestyle practices seen among people who live longer than the rest of us. As expected, healthy practices related to nutrition and exercise were cited. But also on that list, often overlooked in our society, were the strong bonds people in these areas cultivate with each other and the larger community. Lives were lived in relationship and with a keen sense of purpose. 

Sounds much like the pelican life, doesn’t it? 

Inclusive.

Supportive.

Purposeful.   

I came away from my time with the pelicans not only with a profound sense of peace, but inspired and reflective. So much for the busy, disconnected existence I see too often masquerading as life. Isolation is not good for the body, much less the soul.

Alas, I cannot live on the beach. Yet, truth be told, I could certainly use more pelican ways in my life.

Wrestling with Temptation

On Monday morning, I made my usual trip to McDonald’s for my daily dose of iced tea. The gal at the window was new, with a pleasant smile and warm personality. “Unsweet iced tea,” she said as she handed me my order. I smiled, thanked her, and wished her a pleasant day.

It wasn’t until I arrived at work that I realized that she had mistakenly given me a 30 ounce Styrofoam cup of sweet tea. One sip was all it took. It was freshly brewed, deliciously sweet, and likely one of the best cups of sweet tea I had ever been given. I was immediately transported back in time by fifty-five years.

Iced tea has been my beverage of choice since age five. My mother always had a fresh pot on the kitchen table waiting for consumption during breaks from backyard play. Loaded with sugar, mom’s sweet tea was a specialty in our home and as close to heaven as this five-year-old could possibly get.  From sunup to sundown, sweet tea was served throughout the day, capped by the final 16 ounce Tupperware tumbler serving shared with my dad on the front porch before bed. 

From this one sip, an honest mistake became a huge temptation with all the trappings from fond childhood memories. My mom has been gone for decades, but suddenly she was present, represented by an innocent Styrofoam cup.   

It took me years to move from sweet tea to the unsweetened variety. I began by moving away from sugar, first to artificial sweeteners and then to plain tea. I am now a tea purist with nothing in the glass except tea and ice. 

I sat the dreaded drink on my bookcase shelf, while in my mind; I entertained ideas for consuming it without the guilt.

I could dilute it with unsweet tea. That wouldn’t be so bad.

I could cut calories elsewhere, to “even out” the calories in the end.

When was the last time you had sweet tea, Deb? Don’t you deserve to have it just this once?

It’s only one cup of sweet tea. What’s the harm?

Your office door is closed. I won’t tell if you won’t.

From the top of the shelf, the Styrofoam cup of sweet tea seemed to leer at me, grinning from bottom to straw.

Meditation

Thoughts can certainly be a mixed bag of rationalization and compromise when allowed to run amuck. Unwanted situations and events can place us at risk for choices based on emotion, rather than reason and balance. Yet, there is power in pause, the practice of making choices that are considered rather than impulsive.

Room can be made for indulgences if the choice is made with forethought and attention to balance.  I could have opted for the tea. But, I thought about the grueling 45-minute workout I had completed earlier in the morning. I simply did not want to spend that many calories on sweet tea at the expense of other life possibilities.

Choices matter. Balance matters even more.

I took a final sweet sip, sighed, and dumped the entire drink in the sink.

All things considered, it is better to have less sugar in substances and more substance in life.