Thursday, December 31, 2009

Trusty Tomatoes!

Tomatoes may not be in season at the moment, but the great thing about these lovelies is that they are fantastically healthy even in processed, rather than fresh, form. Specifically, the lycopene content of tomatoes is much more concentrated in products such as tomato paste. What is lycopene? It is a type of carotenoid that has great antioxidant and cancer-preventive properties - how great is that! Delicious and nutritious indeed!

Tomatoes are fantastic for colon health, prostate health, pancreatic health, cardiovascular health, healthier cholesterol levels, as well as protecting all cells in the body from free radical damage. They really are a nutritional powerhouse. The key is to consume the food rather than a lycopene supplement, as it is not lycopene alone that does the work, but the whole synergy of all the nutrients found in tomatoes. They work together as a team, so relying on capsules containing only lycopene will not have the same effect.

When choosing products such as tomato sauce, tomato juice, etc., go for the deepest red ones - they have the most lycopene. Organic products are often the best way to go.

Even at this time of the year, it's incredibly easy to integrate lots of tomato goodness into the diet. Use tomato sauce, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, etc. in soups, stews, pasta dishes. Roasted tomatoes are amazingly delicious. Tomato juice, salsa, cherry tomatoes can be used year-round.

When possible, use tomatoes and tomato products that haven't been peeled - as with other fruits and veggies, large amounts of nutrients are found in the peel and more of them are absorbed by the body when the peel is eaten.

Tomatoes are extremely versatile, can be thrown into so many dishes, and even humble organic ketchup delivers some lycopene! Whichever tomato/tomato product you choose, you'll get some great health benefits, along with deliciousness, from it!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crazy for Cornmeal!

When I'm baking, one of my favourite ingredients to use has to be cornmeal. Not only does it give a sweet, delicious crunch, but it is also a great source of fibre, antioxidants, and other nutrients. It's extremely versatile and can even be eaten by those with gluten allergies.

Corn is a North American staple, but it's also something to be a little bit careful with. Corn on the cob, corn chowder, corn tortillas, even popcorn are all fantastic and so tasty; however, this vegetable is now one of the main genetically modified crops grown in giant fields all over North America (and, sadly, throughout the world). The growth of this GM "corn" is subsidized by the government, leading to unfortunate items such as cheap corn syrup which can be found in many many many processed/packaged/fast foods. So on top of the debate re: genetically modified patented seeds which threaten life on earth, there's the whole cheap, low quality corn products issue. This GM corn is fed to farm animals to fatten them up, used for biofuel (along with GM soybeans, other sugar and starch crops grown in giant fields that wipe out life), and used to cheaply sweeten everything in sight.

Getting back on topic, corn and cornmeal are fantastic foods to integrate into your diet, and they are so versatile that it's very easy to do so. The key is to opt for organic, non GM choices. Not only will this benefit your health, but it will also send the message that you do not support the use of GM crops.

And now it's time for a scrumptious corn muffin, baked with plenty of wholesome whole grain cornmeal and muffin-y passion :)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Young Victoria - Film Review

Another film I recently saw in theatres is The Young Victoria, starring lovely Emily Blunt in the title role, along with Rupert Friend as Albert, and some other terrific British actors. Having recently been to London and having just visited Buckingham Palace and the Victoria & Albert Museum, this film was especially enjoyable to watch. It's a period piece full of extravagant sets, costumes, feasts, and other royal treats. Just the look of the film on the big screen is worth the ticket price if you enjoy that kind of beauty :) Which I must confess I do :)

In terms of character and story, it was a little bit inconsistent. Initially the focus is on politics and Victoria's struggle with even getting to the throne, while other figures stand in her way and attempt to take advantage of her youth and inexperience in order to achieve their own goals. Emily Blunt melts into her role perfectly and is surprisingly convincing and sympathetic as the young queen. In her previous roles she has played mainly icy characters, so this a complete (and very successful) turnaround. I should mention that in this film, the youthful Queen V is portrayed as a warm, energetic, lively young woman rather than as the austere, frowning figure typically associated with her name.

The story gets more interesting and much more engaging when her relationship with Albert starts to deepen. Rupert Friend is also brilliant in his performance and it is easy to understand how Queen V fell in love with this compassionate, soft-spoken, intelligent, earnest young man. Just as she was being used, he too was maneuvered and ordered about so other people could pursue their carefully hatched political plans. The two came together and their marriage created a strong foundation that empowered and liberated them so that they could rule in their own way.

It's interesting that in a film about royalty and politics, the most believable and interesting aspect turns out to be the love story. And in this case, the love story isn't just heart-warming fluff, but likely the very reason why the Queen went on to have such a long reign after a very rocky start. Apart from each other, both felt somewhat useless and fumbled about unable to bring their ideas to fruition. Together, they became strong, confident, and able to effect the world around them.

This was such an interesting time in history. My favourite books are still Victorian novels and anything about this particular time stokes my interest and passion. Long live Victorian costume dramas :)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Awaiting Avatar 3-D

And then seeing it! Over the holiday weekend, I went to watch Avatar on a big giant screen in 3-D. The fancy 3-D glasses were very stylish :) Geek chic all the way :) The film itself, I must confess, took my breath away. The reviews I had seen mentioned that the 3-D technology and visual spectacle were absolutely amazing, but that the story was weak and really nothing new or meaningful. I ended up disagreeing.

First, the effects. Yes, this brand new 3-D technology is groundbreaking. Much as I dislike a lot of tech toys and gadgets these days, when it comes to creating a fully immersive, enriched, magical experience different from normal movie-watching, I do embrace this new stuff. While so much technology these days takes us away from the present moment and has people trying to juggle ten things at once (all on a tiny little screen), this foray was all about getting completely absorbed in an extraordinary experience. You forget that you're sitting in a movie theatre and feel like you're actually in the movie, experiencing everything that the characters do. There was a real sense of wonder and discovery and excitement in the air, and afterwards I felt like watching the movie again on IMAX because it was just that great and completely new of an experience.

Second, the story. Reviewers are discussing and analyzing political, environmental, anthropological, etc. themes all with a good dose of cynicism and intellectual superiority. I was expecting not to care much about the story based on what I had heard, but instead I found it quite compelling and I really embraced the themes and characters. There are very explicit environmental and political messages that have been accused of being too left-wing, which I didn't mind as they pretty much reflected my own views. The Na'vi live in harmony with their planet and are deeply spiritual and completely in touch with nature. Cynics say this is boring, unrealistic, idealized, etc. I honestly believe this is how it is meant to be. The way we live now is no more "realistic". All other creatures, plants, even the weather live in balance, following the cycles of life and maintaining delicately balanced ecosystems. This is life, and it's very real. Human beings brandishing money, guns, technology, and caring more about these things than about the planet that gives them life is definitely not more "realistic" and meaningful to me. So yes, it saddens me a bit that people don't wish to connect with themes about respecting nature and living in community with each other. Apparently only 6 year old girls would wish to live in this kind of magical world.

Aaanyways, this is not about disagreeing with critics or defining what constitutes a great film. This is about experiencing something new, beautiful, possibly thought-provoking, and really fun. Through this new technology, you can discover a beautiful new planet, fly, run through a colourful rainforest, and see through someone else's eyes. Soon many films will be shown in 3-D, and I think this is a great one to start with. Beautiful, colourful, hopeful, and encompassing themes that really do mean something :)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Wishing peace, love, and joy for everyone! What a splendid day to celebrate being together and appreciate the beauty of life! Hooray!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve!

Well, it's already December 24th! And that means that it's Christmas Eve, hooray! I love this time of year as it really does seem to bring people together and the festive spirit can be felt everywhere you go :) Yesterday I popped into JD Farms for some turkey items (not a whole turkey - we're roasting a big organic free-range chicken instead) and was amazed to see all the people lining up to get big, organic, specialty turkeys. It's wonderful to see that people really do care, both about their own health and about the treatment and well-being of the animals.

I also popped into Fieldstone Artisan Breads for a fresh loaf of Miller's Grain Country bread, yum yum! Fresh, whole grain bread from an actual bakery is so incredibly delicious and flavourful, and it has the real texture that bread is supposed to have. There was a massive lineup here as well, especially since they were also selling many Christmas treats and traditional items such as mince pies. Nobody seemed to mind though, and there was a great buzz in the air - great fun!

Now it's time for last minute preparations before all the festivity really gets into swing. I was reading about what people eat on Christmas Eve in other cultures and some of the dishes were quite surprising. For example, in France the dinner is long and luxurious (well, that's not so surprising), including appetizers such as oysters, lobster, and escargot. In Provence, they have a tradition of 13 desserts, wow!

Happy Christmas Eve! I hope everyone has a lovely time with their loved ones :)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today is a very special day - it's the Winter Solstice! It's the shortest day and the longest night of the year, and it officially marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. It is also a special day that has been celebrated around the world all throughout history which I find really exciting. I love those special occasions that occur every year, going back to ancient times. These traditions tie us together with the earth and with all the fascinating people that came before us, it's very neat :) It's also an important time to get super connected with the people around us - to find comfort in each other during the darkest time of the year. Before we had supermarkets, this was a dangerous time during which famine was quite possible. People prepared for months and months in order to be able to survive the winter.

Here are some extra tid-bits about the Winter Solstice:

  • "Solstice" comes from the Latin phrase meaning "sun stands still".
  • Massive prehistoric monuments (ex. Ireland's Newgrange tomb) are aligned to capture the lights at the very moment of the Winter Solstice sunrise.
  • In many cultures, this is seen as a time when the year is reborn.
  • In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice.
  • There are countless different celebrations and traditions happening in different places and cultures at this time of the year.
This is a great time to connect with the world around us and celebrate an exciting experience, as has been done for thousands of years. Starting tomorrow, the days will get shorter and the nights will get longer.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beating Holiday Stress

The holiday season usually implies fun and festivity, tasty food, and cozy times with family and friends. Wow, that sounds great! However, all the expectations that come with the holidays - perfect meals, perfect decorations, perfect presents, etc. - can contribute to stress levels in a not so fun way. Of course, it's great to take the emphasis off of superficial ideals and silly gifts that we don't really need and to bring our focus back to relationships with our loved ones; however, that does not mean that any Christmas magic has to be lost.

What makes a perfect meal? When food is cooked with love, care, and enjoyment rather than worry it tastes better! Cooking for someone is a powerful way of showing your love for them. Not only is it special because you've done something just for them, but by feeding someone you're nurturing them in a very direct way. Of course, it helps if the meal tastes good too :)

To help with that, choose a recipe that you're comfortable with - it doesn't have to be fussy and pretentious to taste fantastic! Get all your ingredients prepared, and if you can, do some of the cooking ahead of time. For example, if your starter is a soup, then make that a day ahead. Then there's less work on the big day, and many soups taste even better once they've had some time to settle.

If you feel comfortable with other people's help in the kitchen, then why not ask someone to help with chopping veggies, greasing muffin pans, keeping an eye on the oven, etc. Having company in the kitchen can be fun, and it makes the work load less daunting if you have to cook quite a lot of food.

My last cooking tip is to trust your own instincts and to taste your food as you go, rather than following recipes religiously. Cooking is an art, and it makes more sense to make it your own and to use flavours that excite you rather than to worry about following the perfect recipe. Substituting ingredients, using less or more spices, adding something extra can work very well most of the time and is not something to be afraid of. Baking is a bit different as it is like chemistry, but even then you can usually make some changes, such as substituting some whole grain flour for the white. The key is to do only what you feel comfortable with. If you're trying out a recipe for the first time and don't want to risk it by changing anything, then follow the recipe, taste the result, and then decide if you'd like to make any changes next time. Just remember, cooking is a fun creative act and you are the master of the kitchen, capable of creating the most delicious dishes that will feed you and your loved ones in a deeply nourishing way :)

As for decorations and presentation, I think it makes more sense to once again go with your own instincts and to follow your personal creative impulses than to copy pages out of a magazine. Whatever warms you heart, makes you feel cozy, makes the room feel special and welcoming - that is what works. Presenting someone else's idea of Christmas will never have that special touch. And there's no pressure when you're just doing your own thing and expressing your own soul :)

Whether you're cooking in the kitchen, putting up decorations, or thinking up a gift for someone you love, just do what feels right and toss out any preconceived idealized images of what things are supposed to look like.

Also, don't forget that exercise is a great stress-buster too :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bean Dip

Something I always try to keep in the fridge - yummy creamy bean dip! It's great as a snack with fruit or veggies, on whole grain bread, with tortilla chips, etc. Plus, you don't have to stick with a strict recipe, this is one dish you can play around with. All you need is some beans, preferably soaked overnight and put on the stove to simmer for about an hour (chickpeas may take a bit longer), a couple tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon (or you could try lime), a sprinkle of salt, a drizzle of olive oil, maybe a bit of water...and whatever else you'd like to add! Just blend it all up so it's nice and smooth and you're good to go.

Today I added a dash of turmeric and a dash of cinnamon, which went quite well with the flavourful pinto beans I used. Herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, spinach, various spices, etc. are just some of the possibilities waiting to be tried out. Of course, you could always stick with classic hummus. Chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, salt, olive oil, maybe a bit of garlic and you're all set! It's so quick and easy. Great for snacks AND for some fun entertaining :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hail to the Kale

Since this is such a fantastic time of year for getting into the kitchen and cooking up some lovely dishes, let's introduce ourselves to some more tasty and fantastically healthy seasonal foods. This entry is all about the leafy green super-food KALE. Now, this is one that some people have never even tried before. It is quite tough, as it has to be in order to grow in cold temperatures. The leaves are gorgeous and perfect for all sorts of dishes, but before we get to that, let's take a closer look at all the great nutrients that are bursting from this vegetable.

Like all dark leafy greens, kale is absolutely full of loads of vitamins and minerals. These include Vitamin K, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, several B vitamins, manganese, copper, magnesium, iron, calcium, folate, along with lots of fiber and even Omega-3 essential fatty acids. There's more too, but we'll keep this short and sweet. Just remember that kale is a powerhouse full of high amounts of nutrients. This is one vegetable that can actually withstand quite a bit of cooking and still retain good amounts of nutrients because it has such a huge amount to begin with.

Kale is a cruciferous vegetable that aids detoxification by the liver. It contains carotenoids that support healthy eyes. It's a great source of antioxidants that protect all our cells. As a dark leafy green rich in calcium, it's perfect for supporting bone health. It's also great for mental health (especially since it contains Vitamin E). Cruciferous vegetables have also been shown to be very heart-healthy as well. This is another paragraph that could go on and on :)

Please don't try to eat raw kale. We are only human and our digestive tracts need some help. My favourite way to have kale is in (pureed) soup. That way you don't have to chew much, and you consume ALL the vitamins in your veggies, including the water soluble ones that escape into the soup water. If you don't fancy the idea of green soup (but it's beautiful!), try sauteing kale with garlic. You can pour on a bit of lemon juice and some kind of healthy fat (ex. good olive oil...or even cook it with butter!). Some people chop up kale into small pieces and bake it in the oven topped with some olive oil and spices to make 'kale chips'. Others use it as a pizza topping. I've also had delicious warm kale salad in the past. Really, the possibilities are endless!

If you can find just one way to enjoy kale, doing so on a regular basis will ensure great boosts of nutrient intake. Kale is a super-food that yearns to be enjoyed! And you can experiment with all sorts of flavours to go with your kale. I'll be enjoying plenty of kale soup this winter season :)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cranberries for Christmas!

Even in Wintertime there are plenty of delicious seasonal foods to enjoy. One of these is none other than the sensational cranberry. Not only are they absolutely beautiful, they are also full of phytonutrients and antioxidants that make them one of the world's healthiest foods.

Cranberries are great sources of vitamin C, fiber, manganese, and vitamin K. They also help to prevent urinary tract infections, protect against macular degeneration, improve blood vessel function, and have a positive impact on cholesterol. They do even more than all this, but there just isn't enough space to list all the great research results!

These cute little berries are also super easy to integrate into our diets. Cranberry juice is always a good choice (and can be diluted with water, especially if it contains added sugar). Dried cranberries can be sprinkled into oatmeal, cold cereal, and other grains. They are also great in all sorts of baked goods, and can usually be used in place of raisins. Mix them with lightly roasted nuts for an easy snack and throw the fresh (or dried) version into salads. If you have a blender, you could also experiment with blending cranberries along with other ingredients to make all sorts of tasty concoctions. I recently saw a great recipe for cranberry-pear relish that I just might try out this year!

I hope you get to enjoy these festive berries this year!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brain Food

While I'm here, I'd like to post on one of my favourite topics - the brain! It's a fascinating thing that is still being continuously researched and admired, and one topic I'm especially fascinated by is how to achieve optimal brain health! Now, that kind of topic could easily turn into a giant essay (or tome!), so for now I will just share a few nutritional tips.

In order to work, the brain needs plenty of fantastic nutritional goodies. Since this organ is mainly comprised of fat, it requires lots of healthy fats which make up the structure of nerve cell walls among other functions. These healthy fats include plenty of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which can be found in oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies) as well as walnuts, flax seeds, grass-fed animals, etc. Eating fish twice a week, putting flax oil in smoothies/overtop of food (once it has cooled down), throwing nuts into your oatmeal, salads, baking, snack mix, etc. are all great ways to ensure good Omega-3 intake. Oily fish is perhaps the ultimate #1 superfood for a healthy brain. Other healthy fats include nuts, seeds, unrefined high quality oils, and natural fats in general rather than the processed kind. A can of Pam or a tub of margarine call for cries of horror, whereas butter, coconut oil, and good olive oil will always be your friends.

Protein is required to create neurotransmitters, which are the brain's communication chemicals. As with fat, the main issue is to opt for high quality protein that hasn't been denatured by processing and poor cooking methods. Organic, free range, grass-fed, locally sourced from real farms rather than scary factory farms - this is all very important, and while high quality meats can cost more than the standard supermarket version, the health benefits (and ethics) are priceless. Vegetarian sources of protein, such as legumes, nuts, some grains (like quinoa), hemp seeds require proper preparation in order to be utilized by the body. Please don't forget to soak your legumes, nuts, and grains! I cannot say that enough. Vegetarians who eat eggs and cheese will enjoy these foods a lot more if they are from good sources. It's quite easy to find local free range eggs and you will see how much bigger they are and high much brighter the yolk is right away. Real cheese is not the stringy plastic found on many a pizza, but a fermented delicacy that can knock the socks off your taste buds with its various flavours.

Getting back on topic, the next category of nutrients is carbohydrates, which the brain uses as fuel. No wonder people on low-carb diets may find themselves feeling irritable and having low energy levels - they are running on empty. When it comes to carbs, the main thing is to go for the complex, unrefined type rather than the white and empty type. Whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, millet, oats, even whole grain pasta are all great and delicious choices that provide long-term energy, whereas white flour, white rice, cookies, crackers, etc. will not keep you going for long. Give your brain superb fuel, and it will reward you with brilliance :)

Now, what about those fruits and vegetables that we're always told to eat? Eating the rainbow is absolutely crucial because it provides us with loads of vitamins and minerals which we require in order for our bodies to function. They are like the little workers that come together to work all the machinery and make things happen. If some of them are missing, then the team cannot function as it should and the work doesn't get done. You can never eat too many veggies :)

Lastly, we also require some special dietary items that work to protect our brains (including delicate nerve cells). Dietary antioxidants are like superheroes that protect all the cells of our bodies, including brain cells, from free radical damage. Free radicals are unstable particles that come from all over the place - pollution, processed food, cigarette smoke, stress, chemicals, etc. Just breathing in and out naturally produces some free radicals, which our bodies instantly takes care of by using its supply of antioxidants. In order to have superb protection (especially in these modern, chemical-y times), we need to ensure that we eat plenty of antioxidant rich foods. This is not hard though as most whole foods (that have not been processed) provide us with antioxidants. The best sources are brightly coloured fruits and veggies, including blueberries, dark grapes and cherries, pomegranates, broccoli, tomatoes, and spinach. But really, just eat a nice variety of fresh produce (or frozen when fresh is not an option) and smile :) Other antioxidant rich foods include whole grains, nuts, legumes, spices (turmeric and ginger are superstars), and herbs. One more time - if you eat a varied whole foods diet, you're covered. Nothing to worry about.

I would also like to quickly mention fiber. We know it's good for digestion and gut health, but it's also really great for you brain! Toxins bind to fiber and are thus eliminated from the body, so they cannot pose a threat to that lovely brain. It is a very important protective factor that should never be underestimated :) One last time, a whole foods diet provides plenty of fiber so you don't have to sprinkle any dubious powders on your food.

Whew, we covered a lot there! I hope it was useful and that you now have some extra incentive to take a bite out of that big red apple or cook a big pot of soup :)

Returning Home

Well, I'm back home for the festive holiday season after traveling in beautiful old Europe for two amazing months. I got to experience life in jolly London, England, spend a few delicious and picturesque days in gorgeous Paris, and travel quite a bit in Italy, where I spent time in Verona, Lucca, Pisa, Venice, and a couple other little spots of beauty.

London was such a lively, buzzy city full of culture and infinite things to do. It's an extraordinary city and since it's so very old and has been written about in many, many books (Victorian mystery anyone?), walking through it really feels like walking through the best, most energetic museum ever :) I made sure to go to as many performances as I could, including two operas (Rigoletto and Turindot), a ballet (Sleeping Beauty), a play (Breakfast at Tiffany's), and two musicals (Phantom and Chicago). The air was electric and I was glad there were also some beautiful parks to go and unwind in.

Italy was absolutely gorgeous and Tuscany's rolling green hills and sunshine were delightful. While I could imagine living somewhere like London, Italy felt like a completely different and very alien planet. The culture was a great contrast to the busy rush of what I was used to - people were never in a hurry, they talked a LOT in any context, they enjoyed people watching and promenading, the food was quite different, and just the pace and priorities of everyday life were completely and utterly different. And I don't mean to say different in a bad way, it was really fascinating to experience it, but Italy definitely felt more like a holiday destination than a place where I could feel at home. For one thing, I missed whole grains, nut butter, and vegetable soup :) All in all though, it was like a wonderland full of natural and architectural gorgeousness, warm people, and a deep appreciation for the truly important things in life.

Being back at home means I get to do much more cooking, and I have been making plenty of soups and stews to keep the chilliness at bay. Having a warm bowl of slow-cooked deliciousness is sensational, especially when you can share with those you love.

I will now try to post regularly, and perhaps throw in some book and film reviews. This is a great time of year to do a bit of reflecting (burrow that brow!) and figure out what to focus on in the coming new year. It's all very exciting!