Social Eating: Tips To Stay On Track

It’s finally time for another 3-day holiday! Who couldn’t use a break from the normal Monday routine? Though, the holiday is no excuse to completely throw your health goals off track. Adopt these simple rules and you will not have anything to regret (at least not about your health goals)!

With summer and 4th of July upon us, what better excuse (weather permitting) to dust off the barbeque and enjoy some time outside in the fresh air with family and friends. Creamy macaroni salad¸ buttered corn, burgers, and an 8 layer United States flag cake. Sounds delicious, but not good for any health and fitness goals! Following these simple survival tips will save you hundreds of calories and guilt, without you feeling deprived¸ and keep your health and fitness goals on track.

1. Have Healthy Options Available

Bring or make healthy alternatives to processed meats, dips and macaroni salads. This way you can fill up on the healthiest foods first, without worrying about bad calories and unhealthy fats.  Chicken, fish, vegetables and even fruit are delicious cooked on the barbeque. Chicken Kebobs with tons of veggies grilled are delicious and super simple to make. Other alternatives include fresh salads (made with greens, fruits/vegetables, nuts, and a light dressing) and summer fruits (peaches, plums, berries¸ melons).  This could also be a way for you to introduce your family and friends to tasty¸ healthy foods. Other great recipes can be found here¸ here, and here.

2. Small Plates, Big Health Benefits.

If you keep portion sizes reasonable, it’s easier to eat the foods you want and stay healthy. By using smaller dishes, you can easily avoid “accidentally” eating too many calories. Use a dessert plate or grab one from the children’s table.

3. Mix and Mingle

Choose three or four items you really want to eat, and then step away from the food table so you’re not tempted to graze. You will be less likely to keep mindlessly refilling your plate if you are in the middle of an interesting conversation and standing on the other side of the room from the food. Being with friends and family and having a great time at a BBQ also contributes to overall good health.

4. Go for the Greens

 Skip the chips, bread and crackers. Refined carbohydrates spike your insulin levels, leaving you hungry and craving for more.  Unless it’s amazing, it’s not worth the calories. Make sure to complement any meal with lots of vegetables – especially green leafy veggies like kale or spinach.

5. Make Room for Dessert

Instead of saying “There’s always room for dessert,” actually leave room for it. Eat a little less of everything else so you can have a piece of that cake, cookie or ice-cream. Also, remember portion control!

6. Think before you drink

A drink that is not a glass of water has calories and sugar. Drink at least eight ounces of water or so that your thirst is quenched and stomach already feels a little full.  You will be less likely to chug the alcoholic drink to quench your thirst. Make your choices worthwhile and sip on a glass of wine or beer.

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Coconut-Curry Chicken, South Indian Style

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By popular demand, I am sharing a special Indian recipe from the Club Dine In! test kitchen. This is the perfect dish for a cold winter evening (it’s supposed to snow in SF this weekend). Like most Indian dishes, it tastes better the next day so don’t worry about having leftovers. I highly recommend using organic, cage-free chicken for health, environmental, and ethical reasons. If you cannot find rasam powder, use 1 tablespoon gharam masala. The gharam masala will change the flavor, but it’s a still a good substitute.

Ingredients
serves 4
* 2 pounds chicken breasts, boneless and skinless, cubed
* 1/4 cup coconut milk
* 2 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
* 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
* 1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic
* 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
* 1/4 cup dried curry leaves*
* 1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
* 1 tablespoon rasam powder* (see headnote)
* 1/4 teaspoon asafoetida*
* 1 teaspoon red chile powder, more or less for your palate
* 1 teaspoon turmeric
* 1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes or 3/4 cup canned tomatoes
* 1 teaspoon salt, less if using canned tomatoes
* 1/4 cup water
* 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
* 1 tablespoon coconut flakes*
*Can be found at specialty Asian and Indian markets.

Method

1. Rinse the chicken breast under cool, running water. Cut them into 1-inch cubes and marinate in coconut milk and 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, and ginger for 15 minutes.

2. Add 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and then add the onion. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until onions are soft and golden. If the onions start sticking and browning, add 1 tablespoon of water and stir.

3. Add the curry leaves, mustard seeds, rasam powder, asafoetida, red chile powder, turmeric, and salt to the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and water. Stir well.

4. Add the chicken with the coconut milk and stir well. Cover and let cook for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and add a few tablespoons of water at a time if sauce is burning out.

5. Garnish with cilantro and coconut flakes. Serve with basmati rice or roti.


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Ubuntu- Raising the Bar on Compassion and Ingredients

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Since Valentine’s day fell on a Monday this year, we used it an excuse to finally check out Ubuntu in Napa. We have been meaning to go for the last three years, but always got distracted by the other restaurants in wine country. Anyway, we couldn’t think of a better place than Ubuntu for a romantic Meatless Monday meal. I have to admit, we made reservations only three nights before the big, romantic day and were so happy that we got the only time slot left on Open Table.

In a time of restaurant apps, blogs, and review sites, we walked in with no expectations. I had always wanted to check out this restaurant and I have always heard really positive things about it. Though, contrary to our usual ritual when making a reservation at a new restaurant, we simply booked it. No Yelp, asking friends, or reading up on the gossip. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy a good meal. We didn’t even bother looking up what “Ubuntu” meant, even though I just knew it meant something really good. Satish told me that Ubuntu was a Linux software distribution, so he couldn’t imagine it being the name of a vegetarian restaurant. What I did know was that Ubuntu has it’s own culinary garden, there was a recent chef change, and it had one Michelin star. I even debated leaving my camera at home, but couldn’t go through with that silly idea.

As we walked in, we were surprised to see how large and beautiful the restaurant was. I had always imagined a tiny, funky space with hippies and yogis (not that there is anything wrong with that) with a yoga studio directly above the dining area.  Though, the design is comparable to any of the new, modern restos in San Francisco. The airy space puts you at ease with large, vibrant artwork on stone walls adding warmth. The yoga studio is on the second floor loft directly above the open kitchen. The floor to ceiling window is opaque and overlooks the dining room. There was a class in session  and all you can see are silhouettes of people doing yoga. There were no empty tables, but the noise level was low, making the ambiance perfect for a modern, romantic dinner.

Since we arrived a bit early for our reservation, we got wine at the bar. Their wine list features mostly sustainably farmed wines from around the world. We were served marcona almonds to make up for the wait. They were really good, but a little sweet for a starter and we were really hungry. The micro-green garnish provided a great balance between sweet and savory.

The marcona almonds were delicious, but a tipped on the sweeter side.

We ended up waiting 35 minutes after we our reservation time and it turned out that there was a communication error between the two hostesses. I was a little upset, but the waitress and hostesses were very apologetic, and we did not want that to taint the rest of our night. They comped our wine and brought us a chickpea dish that was not on the menu. The chickpea dish, alone, made up for the miscommunication. This dish had almost every flavor profile I crave. It was meaty, saucy, sweet,  light, spicy, and pretty. It’s the kind of dish that inspires me to be a better cook and explore unfamiliar flavors.

Slow Cooked Chickpeas a la Catalan

The amuse-bouche made up of mushroom stock and green coffee beans was only a teaser of what we had to expect for the rest of our dining experience.

We ordered 3 dishes total for the two of us, even though about 2-3 is recommended per person. We are not big eaters and we already had the macarona almonds, chickpeas, bread, and amuse-bouche. I was almost full, but gladly managed to find more room in my stomach. The menu compromised of local, seasonal produce (as expected), and many of it came from their biodynamic gardens. We ordered a side of the Arbuckle Grits cooked with goat’s milk whey and sharp cheddar cheese ($7), which was decadently rich and amazing. The Garden-Infused Fiore Pasta ($19) was our least favorite dish of the night. We thought it was rather bland. The Rutabaga and Bread ($16) was our favorite dish. It had a medley of citrus, including perfectly crimson blood oranges, a thick citrus-saffron sauce, a moist wedge of bread, and rutabaga. I wish I could eat that everyday. The saffron sauce was just divine; the flavor was sheer perfection. Really, I have no words to describe the sensation I got when I ate that dish. The runner-up was the Little Potato Pillows ($18) and I normally do not like radishes. The potatoes sat on creamy sauerkraut mousse and were adorned with caramelized sauerkraut, black kale, radish giardinieria, including the pretty watermelon radish.

Garden Infused Fiore Pasta

Rutabaga and Bread

Rutabaga and Its Bread

Little Potato Pillows

Little Potato Pillows

After all of that and two more glasses of red wine, we were in a perfect state. Though, we could not pass up dessert. All of the options looked good and we debated between the chocolate brownie ($10) and a dessert made out of celery. Our waitress (Rachel) told us that the celery dessert was really like dessert and not a vegetable dish. Me being me, got the brownie. The micro-greens on the brownie balanced out the sweetness of the candied kumquats. I loved that this dessert wasn’t overpoweringly sweet. Compliments from the kitchen, we also got the celery root dessert. Wow. I don’t even know how to describe it, but Satish liked it over the brownie.

Compressed Chocolate Brownie

The flavors and textures are inventive and we didn’t even miss the meat. My enthusiastic husband just loved every bite. I did too, but my meat-loving sweetheart loved every single bite. He was right, every single bite offered so much good flavor.  At most places, the first five bites really pleases and then your taste buds get used to it, but at Ubuntu, each bite is unique and kept teasing you. And at the last bite, you are sad that it’s all over, but you are equally satisfied and left in a zen-like state.

After our meal, executive chef Aaron London, came over to talk to us. I was surprised to find that he was younger than me and that he is not a strict vegetarian. His food seemed to come from a much more experienced chef. Though, Chef London has been cooking since his teens and has worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Au Pied de Cochon, amongst other acclaimed restaurants.

Ubuntu pushes boundaries on not vegetarianism, but the importance of sourcing ingredients. We live in a world, where our eating habits are not sustainable and are damaging to ourselves and the ecosystem.  Ubuntu stands for “an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing and generosity.” Restaurants are leaders for what consumers demand and Ubuntu certainly creates a demand for fresh, local food. Most of us also do not know where our food comes from and Ubuntu does a fine job of reminding you the importance in knowing all aspects of your food. The restaurant takes ingredients to new heights and pushes boundaries on sustainable eating.

I would really like go back during the Spring and late Summer to experience the different seasonal flavors and vegetables. Though, next time I would come in a large group, because there is nothing better than eating good food with great friends!

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Brunch for Lovers or Just You: Blood Orange Pancakes

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People either love or hate Valentine’s Day, with very few people oblivious to February 14th’s significance. I had a roller coaster of emotions when it came to V-Day. I loved it for what it stood for- hopeless, romantic, I will do anything for you, fairy-tail kind of love. Of course, V-Day never was that easy as a single girl. I’ve been through my fair share of relationships, but my husband was my first real Valentine. For the first 25 years of my existence, I never seemed to be in a relationship circa Feb 14th. Strange. I am a sucker for the commercialization of the whole thing, and I think a girl should be showered with pretty flowers, chocolates, and gifts. Equally, a man should receive the same thought and affection. I am all for fancy romantic dinners, but the prix-fix menus and price mark-ups annoy me. It also does not feel as special when you know you are in a dining room with 50 other couples who are there just because it’s Valentines Day. So it’s nice to cook a romantic, thoughtful meal at home. It’s also just as nice to cook a special meal for yourself!

Valentine’s Day or Single Awareness Day just so happens to fall on a weekday this year, so a pre-brunch is in order. Nothing is more luxe and seductive as blood oranges. Sure, strawberries are the fruit of love and seduction, but that’s only because no one has looked at blood oranges. Their season is fleeting between the months of January and February. Sometimes, they appear as early as December and last until March. They are mysterious, seductive, and one bite makes you want more. In my opinion, strawberries are played out (and not in season)!

Blood Orange Pancakes
serves 2
Ingredients
1 cup Almond meal
1 cup buckwheat flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
zest of one medium blood orange
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tbsp melted, unsalted butter or 1 tbsp blood orange olive oil
1 egg
1/2 cup whole milk
butter for coating
blood orange compote

1. Combine buckwheat flour, almond meal, baking soda, and salt together in a medium sized mixing bowl and mix well.  In another bowl, whisk together zest, ginger, melted butter, egg, and milk until well combined.

Zest of one blood orange

2.  Add dry ingredients slowly into the wet ingredients. Stir the batter gently as you add in the dry ingredient. The batter should be lumpy and slightly thick. Add a teaspoon of whole milk at a time if batter is too thick.

The batter should be lumpy.

3. Heat a  griddle or heavy bottomed pan to medium-hot, and place 1 tablespoon of butter into it. Let the butter melt before spooning the batter into the pan.

3. Pour 1/4 cup batter onto hot pan. Cook until bubbles break on surface, turn and cook for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until browned. Remove from the pan and smear a tiny bit of butter on top. Keep warm by placing the cooked pancakes in the oven, covered loosely with foil.

4. Serve warm with blood orange compote and blood orange juice.

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Super Bowl Tacos

Even if you are not a football fanatic, you can’t deny the delicious junk food the Super Bowl parties offer. Nachos, pizzas, chips, wings and they taste good in their own right. Well, don’t think of Super Bowl as a sabotage to your health goals or new year’s resolutions. It’s just one day (as long as it really is just one day) and it’s okay to have a cheat meal every now and then. If you are truly worried about falling off track, follow these Healthier Social Eating Rules.

If you are hosting or  taking something to a party, consider these alternatives to the traditional taco. They are easy to assemble, easy to eat, and seriously delicious.

Garbanzo Bean Tacos
serves 8
Ingredients
– 15 oz Garbanzo Beans, from a can (drained and washed)
-1 medium onion, chopped
– 1/2 cup salsa
-1 teaspoon cumin (optional)
– salt and paprika, to taste
– 8 taco shells or soft mini tortillas
– 1/2 cup yogurt or sour cream
– 1 cup arugula

Method
1. Saute onions in heated oil until translucent on medium heat (5-8) minutes.
2. Add in the garbanzo beans, salt, cumin and paprika. Stir well and cook for 10 minutes.
3. Turn off the stove and stir in the salsa.
4. Immediately, spoon the mixture into each taco shell. Top with the fresh arugula and serve immediately.

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Traditional Meatless Greek Dolma (Recipe)

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Follow me on Twitter or Facebook. A friend, Carina Ost, made a new year’s resolution to learn how to make dolma and set up a learning session at Mezes Greek Kitchen. Carina invited a few other blogger friends, including myself, … Continue reading

A Meatless, Unprocessed Christmas (With Pumpkin Soup Recipe)

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Satish and I drove down to LA last Wednesday to spend the Christmas holiday with his sister and family. I had planned to make the Christmas Eve dinner as I really want to create tradition for Satish and I.  This entire  meal was going to be vegetarian, since my sister-in-law is a vegetarian and with all respect doesn’t like meat cooked in her kitchen. Therefore, I had packed up all of my key spices, herbs, oils, and favorite kitchen tools. I almost packed up my most versatile pan, zester, and spatula, but decided I could live without them. (Later, I learned I can’t live without the zester.) It’s tough cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. I had plans to visit a farmer’s market in LA for the main ingredients.  LA has at least 120 farmer’s markets happening during the week, so there is hardly no excuse to not go.  I curiously went to the Westwood farmer’s market on Thursday, with high hopes of finding all of the ingredients I needed for the Christmas Eve dinner.  I was disappointed to find that it was a sparse market, but I still bought kale and parsley. Later, I met my dear friend for tea and hot soup. She suggested we stroll through the farmer’s market nearby, but time seemed to slip by at the Jewish bakery as we sipped our tea, flirted with the rows of baked goods, laughed, cried, shared, and reminisced. By the time we were ready to leave the bakery, it was dark and I needed to rush back to avoid being stuck in traffic. Of course, I didn’t listen to our GPS, made a couple of wrong turns, and missed the closest 10W onramp. Awhile ago, I stopped getting upset with myself for making wrong turns and getting lost and started enjoying the new route I created. Due to the wrong turns, I happened to drive by the La Cienega Farmers Market. Since, I was crawling in the local traffic, I got to look into the farmers market held at the parking lot of the La Cienega Plaza Shopping Center. It was beautiful. The sun was already gone, Christmas lights were bright, food trucks, fresh flowers, all amidst red break lights. Peering, I saw berries, popcorn, chestnuts, citrus, and greens. I was surprised by the berries…maybe it’s the mild, spring like weather in SoCal. I was tempted to pull into the driveway and finish shopping for the ingredients needed to make the next day’s dinner. Though, I knew that every minute I waited to get onto the highway would be to risk being stuck in major LA traffic. I sighed and kept driving.  The next morning, I woke up early and rushed to the nearest Whole Foods in hopes of avoiding the last minute mad dash for groceries. I had a simple grocery list: pumpkin, Delicata squash, arugula, eggplant, spinach, ricotta, feta, and Parmesan. The Whole Foods in Santa Monica has a very tiny fresh produce section so I drove to the one in Brentwood. Surprisingly, most of the Whole Foods in West LA are much smaller in general. I nearly had a panic attack when I couldn’t find half of the fresh ingredients that I needed. The problem was solved easily by asking the grocers, who went into the back to get what I needed. (I had not made a back-up dinner menu)…

After getting a great latte at Caffe Luxxe (which was recommended to me on twitter), I was ready to start cooking. The menu was simple but I wanted to give myself ample time and not rush to finish during the end. The starter was a rather easy pumpkin soup spiced with cumin and cinnamon. I had an incredible pumpkin soup at Garibaldi’s earlier this week, which was the main inspiration. I had even made it on Tuesday, using my beloved Fairy Tale Pumpkin. Next on the menu was the Squash and Pomegranate Salad, Kale and Quinoa, and Garlic + Bread (inspired by Little Star Pizza). The main course was a variation of my vegetable rich lasagna. My niece helped me make the pistachio cookies that I made for 18 Reasons’ cookie swap, which would be dessert along with rich, hot chocolate.

Cumin Scented Pumpkin Soup

1 medium Sugar or Fairy Tale pumpkin (4-6 lbs)
olive oil for coating pumpkin
4 large garlic cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons cumin, fresh grounded
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
1/2 stick of unsalted butter or 1/3 cup olive oil
6 cups water, approximately
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup Creme Fraiche (optional)

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Cut pumpkin in half, discard the stem, seeds and stringy pulp.  Rub oil over the pumpkin, coating well. Place the pumpkin cut side down on the prepared pan. Tuck 2 garlic cloves under the cavity of the pumpkin. Bake pumpkin until it is very tender. Remove from the oven and let cool. Once the pumpkin is cool enough to touch, remove the peel. Cut the pumpkin into smaller pieces so it’s easier to puree.

2. In a large stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add in the cinnamon sticks. Once the cinnamon sticks open up, add in the cumin and ground cinnamon. Cook for 30 seconds. Remove pot from heat.

3. Puree the pumpkin in batches by adding in 1 cup of the pumpkin pieces  with a 1/3 to 1/2 cup of water. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Add water to reach a consistency of your liking.

4. Put the pot back on the stove-top and heat on medium. Once the soup is heated thoroughly, add salt and pepper to your liking. Stir in the Creme Fraiche. Taste and adjust seasoning.

 

Pumpkin Soup garnished with Sage

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My Sustainable Holiday Table

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Last month for Thanksgiving, Phantom Floranista and I collaborated to make a beautiful Thanksgiving table arrangement. We tried to use all compostable and sustainable materials to create a feeling of warmth, abundance of food, and elegance. The table arrangement was so beautiful that I had a hard time taking it apart once Thanksgiving was over and it was time to transition into Christmas. Therefore, we consumed all of the edible fruit and composted the flowers and some of the leaves. Even though, we didn’t have any specific plans to entertain during this month, I just had to do something with the table now that Phantom Floranista showed me the basics of floral arrangement. We also got our first tree as a married couple this year and decided to really get into the spirit of things by decorating our apartment. Inspired by magazines and in-store displays, I bought extra glass ornaments and other decorative knickknacks to put on our long, rosewood table.

I carefully placed large, round ornaments in places where the apples, corn, pomegranates, and mandarins were for the Thanksgiving table.

I also placed a few taller ornaments to give height and character.

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I also replaced the Fairy Tale pumpkin with a cubed vase filled with ornaments and decorative balls for the centerpiece. I bought the red cubed vase last year and filled the bottom with tissue to prop up the decorative pieces. I also used  tall candles that I already had to give more height and depth.

I covered up an empty aluminum can into a festive utensil holder with tissue paper, rubber band, ribbon, and an ornament.

Please share your holiday decorating tips and pictures!

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