Sushi Ethics


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Sushi-Ya, Sushi-here, Sushi-there, sushi every where. Over the past three decades, this refined Japanese culinary tradition, often taking years of diligent practice to perfect, has become as commonplace as McDonald’s. On every street corner in most North American cities, at airports and grocery stores, little morsels look up at us from plastic boxes, waiting to be devoured.

Because of  Canada’s Food Guide recommendations to include fish at least twice a week in the diet, many reach for a quick sushi option as a hassle-free contribution to eating healthier. In fact, sushi can be a healthy option. For example, brown rice sushi rolls or vegan rolls (wrapped in cucumber instead of rice) have allowed for those requiring lower glycemic index options to enjoy this culinary delicacy more often. Some restaurants also offer lower sodium soy sauce or accommodate dressings on the side or none at all (for example, asking for no mayonnaise on the california roll) to help reduce sodium and fat content of the dishes they serve.

But, as foodies, we are looking not only at the health benefits of the foods we eat, but also evaluating the impact of our choices on our surrounding environment – well, at least we try when we remember. To be honest, I order sushi once a week for my family and we usually opt for the mainstream fare of california rolls, assorted vegetable rolls, and a dynamite roll here or there. We rarely order raw fish, and when we do, it’s mostly wild salmon. Basically, when it comes to sushi, I would consider myself a ‘low’ on the risk-taking scale (i.e. boring), so you would not see me ordering sea urchin, eel, or abalone any time soon. So I have to say, it was a bit of a newsflash when I stumbled across this documentary, called Sushi: The Global Catch on iTunes the other night when I was haphazardly searching for a rom-com to watch.

The problem makes sense and it is this: we suddenly have a colossal demand for sushi as cultural culinary practices go global. As mentioned, the per capita presence of sushi restaurants is unparalleled in North America compared to any other country in the world, so it is natural that this would increase the demand for fish and other seafood worldwide. True to our roots, we have always been poor stewards of the sea and have overfished many species already (Sustainable Sushi). Add bluefin tuna, among others, to the mix (believe it or not, the eel I would not be seen eating is one of the most popular sushi items on the menu, and consequently, a species that is also in critical condition for being overfished). According to the film, it is likely that bluefin tuna and many other fish species are already in a state of extinction with no chance of replenishing stocks.

Like in other aspects of our endangered environment, we have to take a pause and re-evaluate our decisions when it comes to food, as well as educate ourselves about better food choices, recognizing the significant impact this decision makes at the point-of-purchase. As for me, I think I will stick to mostly veggie rolls, and maybe throw in a couple of salmon and california rolls. In this case, I am happy to remain boring.

Posted in Culinary Arts, Healthy Eating, Research | 1 Comment

Stuff My Mom Cooks


My mother is a great cook and she is always finding new ways to experiment with ingredients and flavours, so she is a great inspiration and mentor to me. The reasons I do what I do is because of my mother’s support and influence: when I was at a crossroads during my university years, deciding between medicine, pharmacy, or journalism, she suggested I try for “dietetics”, an emerging field that married science, art and communication. “With your indecisiveness, you can’t go wrong being in a diverse field such as this one.” She nodded at me, convincingly. Thanks, Mom, for I’ve never looked back since.

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Shahla’s Lentil Dal

Traditionally, dal is central to the cuisine of South Asia, where the combination of protein from beans or pulses with carbohydrates from rice and fibre from vegetables creates a perfect balance of nutrients from entirely plant-based ingredients. Because my mother wanted to try to bring in some Persian flavours, she played around with the amounts and types of spices, but used a traditional dal recipe as follows.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 Tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1 tsp cumin seed

1 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 small head of cauliflower, chopped

4 medium tomatoes, chopped

1-1/2 cups water

2 cups sprouted lentils

1 medium lemon, juiced

1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

pinch of salt

6 cups cooked brown or volcanic rice (optional)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat.

2. Add onion, garlic and spices and saute for 2 minutes.

3. Add cauliflower and tomatoes. Saute for 2 minutes.

4. Stir in water and lentils. Bring to a boil.

5. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 40 minutes until lentils are tender.

6. Stir in lemon juice and salt.

7. Before serving, add the cilantro to the dal.

8. Serve with rice, bread, or potatoes, with a dollop of greek yogurt, of course.

"Joojeh Parideh" (The Chicken Flew Away)

“Joojeh Parideh” (The Chicken Flew Away)

My mother grew up in Northern Iran in a town called Rasht, which borders the Caspian Sea. In keeping, a major protein source in the Rashti diet is fish, but on a day-to-day basis, most eat vegetarian dishes made with beans and eggs. Lamb, chicken and other meats are often reserved for special occasions. This particular dish, playfully called Joojeh Parideh, or translated, the “Chicken Flew Away”, epitomizes traditional Rashti cooking.

Ingredients:

3 Japanese Eggplants, washed, peeled and cut into 1/4″ slices

4 tomatoes, cut into quarters

1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 Tbsp cooking oil

2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese (not traditionally added, but my mother’s spin on the recipe)

4 large eggs, beaten

1/2 tsp each garlic powder, dried oregano, Italian seasoning, and cayenne pepper

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Roast eggplant and tomatoes on separate baking sheets for 45 minutes.

3. Place roasted eggplant and tomatoes in a casserole dish.

4. Drizzle apple cider vinegar and oil on top of roasted eggplant and tomatoes.

 

5. Combine eggs, seasoning and parmesan cheese.

 

6. Pour egg mixture on top of vegetables.

 

7. Bake for 20 minutes until egg has set.

Noosheh Jaan from our family to yours!

 

 

 

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What’s Pho Good For?


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Recently, I’ve heard comments such as “Let’s go for Pho – it’s healthy”, or “Because I am trying to watch fat in my diet, I’ve been eating more Pho,” from clients, so naturally, I wanted to look into this perception in a bit more detail to confirm whether or not Pho is actually the answer to our healthy fast food conundrum.

For those who are not familiar with Pho, it is a traditional Vietnamese dish which contains vegetables, noodles, as well as beef or chicken, all of which are cooked in a broth of meat bones and marrow along with a series of spices. It is a very popular street food in Vietnam that has now become commonplace in the Western World, similar to sushi’s popularity over the past 20 years. As is the case with sushi, Pho is much more conveniently enjoyed as take-out option as compared to its preparation in a home kitchen, simply because it takes several hours for the flavours to simmer together. In other words, Pho at home is a project, rather than a weeknight dinner affair.

As a fast food option, Pho is desirable because it is easily accessible, affordable, and appears to contain healthier ingredients and cooking methods than other fast food options. So, is Pho really ‘good’ for you?

Taking a closer look at Pho’s ingredients might help shed light on the matter, because preparation methods of stewing are generally low-fat, which works in favor of Pho as a fast food option as compared to most other take-out choices.

1) Beef: Higher in saturated fat, beef intake should be monitored in the diet, with fish, chicken, and vegetarian options used in its place. However, Pho is available in vegetarian or chicken varieties to help reduce saturated fat intake.

2) Sodium: Pho is made with fish sauce and Hoisin sauce, so it is very difficult to control its sodium content, unless you make it at home. There is very little available in terms of  nutrition information or labels on Pho nutrients, but sodium content is generally higher than 1,500 mg per day, or the daily sodium recommendation for adults. Because Pho is pre-made in a high-sodium broth, it is going to be very difficult to ask for accommodations from restaurants for a lower sodium option, so it is important to realize that when you take Pho, you are consuming in excessive amounts of sodium.

3) Fibre: Pho contains noodles that are made from refined rice flour, so you are getting very little fibre from the grain in this case. Vegetable content of restaurant-style Pho is often inadequate (we should be aiming for 2 cups per meal), so you could ask the restaurant to add extra vegetables for you. If you do decide to make Pho at home, it will be easier to use whole grain noodles and a greater amount of vegetables in the stew.

To answer the question, Pho may have fewer calories than other fast food options because of its preparation method. All factors considered, the excess sodium and inadequate vegetable content are significant drawbacks to including Pho on a regular basis as a suitable fast food choice. Sorry, Pho.

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Giving Costco A Chance (And Foods I Would Consider Buying There)


Recently, I took a business course, where Costco was used as a ‘model’ example of how to grow a successful enterprise: apparently, Costco’s success lies in the fact that they value their employees and aim to keep costs as low as possible, which means they will refuse to carry products where the mark-up would have to be significant to be worthwhile. Interesting philosophy when it pertains to food commoditization, but more about that later.

I decided to give Costco a second chance, despite my reservations about the bulk shopping philosophy for regular-sized households, as well as my slight trauma at having been subjected to the Costco parking lot etiquette on a Saturday purely without intention (I took a wrong turn, got lost in said parking lot, and was accosted as people cut me off to find parking – all I wanted was out, man!). I realized as I prepared for my trip to Costco today that I would have to check my expectations at the door, and come to terms with the fact that human kindness becomes significantly muted by the incredible prices to be had at Costco.

My main reasons for subjecting myself to sprinting Mothers operating shopping carts at 40 km per hour and customers blocking aisles as they chomped on the numerous samples offered in white paper cups was to research what food items a family with young children could purchase that were healthy as well as cost-effective. I am also working with a day care providers to incorporate the concepts of Food Flair into their establishment under which healthy meal preparation would fall.

I cruised the aisles of a plethora of products, but focussed mainly on the whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, and meats/alternatives as well as the least processed packaged foods. I have grouped each into its own category for commentary below.

Fruits and vegetables. Basically, most fresh produce offered at Costco is not organically grown nor locally produced, but overall, there was a good representation of produce at a decent price.

Grains. As I had heard from my clients in the past, Costco has the best price on whole grain bread by Silver Hills and even carries a gluten-free variety.

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For a high fibre pasta option, I like Catelli Healthy Harvest whole grain pasta, which Costco offers at a reasonable price.

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I also really liked the idea of these pre-cut sweet potatoes, that can be easily made in the oven for a healthy version of sweet potato fries (sweet potatoes are a vegetable but I’ve included them in ‘Grains’ category due to their starch content, although they can be a great choice for those on a diabetic diet).

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Dairy. I focused on cheese options in this case, because our household does not drink that much milk (we mostly use Greek yogurt, but I could not find the brand we use at Costco), but the cheese options were generally economical in price. However, I hesitate to buy cheese in bulk because when it is in the house, we eat more of it. It is difficult to control portions of this saturated fat-rich dairy product, so I looked at the individually wrapped options. BabyBel was the most affordable, lowest sodium cheese option, with fewer ingredients and food colourings, although saturated fat content was comparable to most other cheeses.

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Meats/Alternatives. Costco has a substantial variety of meat-based protein options but animal husbandry practices follow conventional means, so if you like antibiotic-free, hormone-free, organic and/or grass-fed cattle and poultry, you might want to shop elsewhere. There are also many aisles of frozen vegetarian, vegan, and omnivore patties in packages ranging from a few to many ingredients, so you might want to follow my label reading tip below for navigation. I quite like this almond butter option shown below, if allergies and sensitivities are not an issue for your family.

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Packaged Foods. Whenever I am shopping for foods that require label reading, I use the ‘5-15 rule’. For example, if the percent daily value (DV) of sodium in a food item is less than 5%, then the food has little sodium in it (watch the portion/serving size, however), but if the food has more than 15% sodium per serving, then I would choose not to buy it. Fibre is the exception, however, where a higher percentage (more than 5%) is better.

For cracker options, I liked the following brand, Crunchmaster, because it was in keeping with my 5-15 rule for sodium and fat. It also had a low number of ingredients, all of which I could pronounce. What I realized, however, is that other flavours of the same brand could have a very different nutrition profile in terms of fat, salt, and fibre content, so make sure you read labels carefully.

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If you are in a rush to make these at home, healthier ready-made options for dips such as guacamole (high in healthy fats from avocado) and hummus (high in protein and fibre from chickpeas) are listed below. Again, I used the 5-15 rule as my criteria.

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Overall, I found Costco limiting in terms of cereal, cracker, and dairy options, but knowing more now about their business model, I can understand why: it is just too expensive to carry organic, less-processed goods, because they spoil too quickly and also require more rigorous processes to meet higher standards. Comparatively, mass-produced and in some cases, lower quality foods can be sold to consumers at a more reasonable price. There is a tug-of-war between economizing on food costs and eating healthy and I will admit, the items I have chosen based on the 5-15 rule are some of the more expensive Costco options. One thing is clear: the power of the purse is in the hands of the consumer, so Costco thrives on how much and what we buy.
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A Norouz Feast Is A Feat


The Haf Seen or "7 S's", each of which carries symbolic meaning

The Haf Seen or “7 S’s”, each of which carries symbolic meaning

Yesterday marked the first day of spring, which Persians celebrate as Norouz. So I donned my forgiving drawstring pants, fork in hand, ready for the all-I-can eat Persian delicacies prepared by my mother. It takes days to prepare the ingredients and many hours to let all the flavours come together and meld and although I love to cook, I was very glad to just be enjoying the meal, rather than toil over its details. Apparently, it took my mother several hours to clean and hand-chop the fresh herbs for a dish called kuku sabzi, a frittata often made with egg, cilantro, parsley, green onion, dill, and spices (if you want a short cut, you can buy the herbs pre-chopped, but more traditional Persians frown upon this practice).

Kuku Sabzi

Kuku Sabzi

The same herbs also went into the sabzi polow (hence the marathon herb-chopping becoming a necessity), which is the traditional rice dish for Norouz eaten with smoked fish or cooked white fish (we added a West-Coast flair and chose sockeye salmon instead). The best part of this dish is the rice crust, or tah-dig (bottom of the pot), which is rich, buttery, and loaded with the flavours of turmeric and saffron.

Sabzi Polow and Tah-Dig

Sabzi Polow and Tah-Dig

 

Grilled Sockeye salmon

Grilled Sockeye salmon

So far, our menu could be considered ‘pesco-vegetarian, gluten-free’, but my mother took her inspiration further and made a vegan, gluten-free dish containing mushrooms, kale, smoked tofu, and leeks. This Norouz marked the debut of this new and innovative dish to our celebratory meal, but it was the only dish that was completely devoured by our devoted team of food lovers, so I will be sure to make it an annual tradition from now on. I hope to come up with a name for it someday that does justice to its amazing taste. Noosheh Jaan and Happy Norouz!

A dish that has yet to be named

A dish that has yet to be named

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Chahar Shambeh Souri: The Tuesday of Fire Before Norouz


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Tomorrow marks the day when many Iranians around the world celebrate spring equinox, or Norouz (“New Day”). As much as I love Norouz and the symbolism, tradition and culinary delights that accompany it, I appreciate Chahar Shambeh Souri even more. This event takes place on the last Tuesday before Norouz and is marked by a tradition of fire jumping – sounds strange, but it is quite a lot of fun, and many a pant leg have been subject to some lapping flames on occasion! I remember when, as a child, I was finally allowed to stay up until it was dark and go out into our public courtyard where I could watch what seemed like hundreds of people jumping over dozens of small fires, drawn to its light and energy like a moth to a flame.

But why jump over fires on New Year’s Eve? Well, the belief is that by doing so, you are literally washing the old year out of your hair and preparing for the new and exciting year ahead. The fire symbolizes that which cleanses evil spirits as well as old sins and wrongdoings – the flames takes the blame and everyone can rest happily on this night, knowing they are starting with a clean slate tomorrow.

I love the food we traditionally eat on Chahar Shambeh Souri, especially my Great Grandmother’s Sheesh Andaz (‘Throw in 6’ because it has 6 ingredients pan-fried together – onion, oil/butter, raisins, dried apricots, pomegranate paste/lemon juice, and finally one egg, thrown in sunny side up). We pair this with reshteh polow (a mixed rice containing vermicelli noodles), as well as shaami, or ground meat and potato patties made with turmeric. Tonight, we are not counting carbohydrates, or watching our portions – we are enjoying the moment and jumping over fires.

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A Vegan, Gluten-Free Lunch With The Paper Bag Princess


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In a recent entry on cooking for groups, I highlighted that today more than ever, this means understanding food intolerances and preferences in order to create dishes that are delicious, but also in keeping with specific dietary considerations. Enter my sister-in-law, who is an expert at making delicious dishes that are vegangluten-free, and nutrient-dense. By the way, vegan, gluten-free cooking and healthy eating are NOT always synonymous, because the last time I checked, french fries (high fat), rice crackers (high sodium), and gluten-free beer (high sugar, and high alcohol if you have several on St. Patrick’s Day) can be considered gluten-free or vegan food choices, although they offer little nutritional value.

The vegan and gluten-free approaches have both been popularized in celebrity weight loss diets, and the food industry is rolling with it, offering highly processed, refined, and synthetic options to fuel this weight loss myth. In fact, there is no research evidence that shows gluten-free diets lead to sustainable, long-term weight loss.

But what about vegan diets? Surely those who feast on plants rather than marbled Kobe beef are leaner, right? This is also not the case: in fact, the bottom line for weight management success is entirely dependent on WHAT, WHEN, HOW, and HOW MUCH one eats, irrespective of whether the diet is classified as gluten-free, vegan, or omnivore.

What I respect about my sister-in-law’s approach to vegan, gluten-free cooking is her loyalty to whole foods by using ingredients that are fresh and simple (by that I mean not processed). She has been cooking this way for years and will continue to do so for a long time to come because she believes in the food experience for the right reason, which is optimal health. To boot, she is a great Auntie, who finds time to read her nephew ‘The Paper Bag Princess’ at least twice, while preparing a great group meal for her family. If you don’t know this story by Robert Munsch, permit me to draw the parallel: the Paper Bag Princess denounces the Prince for his superficiality, even though he has good hair and nice looks. As should we when it comes to industry fads and processed nutrient-poor products to instead focus on what really counts: simple, good food. How apropos.

Julia’s Gluten-Free, Vegan Breakfast Rice:
1 1/4 cup brown rice (this time I used volcano rice)
1 1/4 cup wild rice
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds (or hemp hearts)
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, or almond slivers)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried currants (or dried blueberries, etc)
2-3 chopped apples
1 can of coconut milk
shredded orange peel (optional)
cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger to taste (optional)
a few tablespoons of brown sugar or maple syrup (optional)
7.5 cups of water
Rinse the rice in a strainer. Put all ingredients in a rice cooker, cover and turn on.
For stove top, put all ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, cover and simmer. Ready in approximately an hour.

This makes a lot – you can freeze portions. In the morning, you can re-heat in the microwave, and add (dairy-free) milk &/or  berries.

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