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What to Substitute for Oil in All Kinds of Dishes

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In my cooking demos, when I talk about avoiding oil, I don’t get a lot of smiles and nods. I get it. We’re bombarded with info about the health benefits of coconut, olive, and flaxseed oils. And they taste good. It’s no wonder people don’t want to hear that oil may not be as good for them as they think.

Why Decrease Oil Intake?

The more I’ve read over the last few years, the more I’ve moved toward using very little oil in my cooking. I could go on about the reasons why, but actually Matt Frazier, the “No Meat Athlete,” wrote a blog about his very similar journey, called Why I’ve Finally Stopped Eating Oil. I recommend it highly. Essentially, reducing your intake of oil (and vegan butter and shortening) translates into fewer calories, less processed fat (as opposed to natural fats, which our bodies need), and less stress on our arteries. If you want to know more about the science behind this, you could start with videos on Nutritionfacts.org’s page on oils.

Where to Start Decreasing Oil?

But oil is in everything! Yes, many of our favorite dishes have evolved to depend on oil—or apparently so. I used to keep my pantry well-stocked with oil and started most recipes by pouring a glug of olive oil into the pan.
I’ve worked a lot the last few years to decrease and, in most cases, eliminate oil from my cooking. In some of my recipes I’ve used solutions I haven’t seen elsewhere. So I wanted to lay out my ideas and approaches.

Evolution? Or Revolution?

You may want to take a more evolutionary than revolutionary approach to this idea about reducing your oil intake. If so, you can simply decrease the amount of oil in recipes. See what you think. In many recipes you’ll likely not even notice the difference. Actually I prefer the lighter texture of many dishes now.

Oil Substitutes

Sautéing vegetables for soups, stews, casseroles, and other dishes
In most cases, using water, broth, or wine works perfectly well for softening the vegetables, and you don’t need the oil. The vegetables won’t brown much, but that usually isn’t important anyway. You can also microwave vegetables instead of sautéing them on the stove. See any of my soup recipes for examples of water-sauté.

Roasting vegetables
Yes, you can roast vegetables without tossing them in several tablespoons of oil. You can use spray oil on the pan and then on the top of the vegetables for significantly less oil, or you can use a light coating of non-oil ingredients, as in my No-Oil Roasted Sweet Potatoes in Bowls. I use a similar technique for Oven-Roasted Vegetable Fajitas. Some bloggers explain how to roast vegetables by misting them with water, tossing them with broth, or pre-steaming the harder vegetables before roasting. I prefer some kind of coating for maximum flavor, but you may want to experiment with these ideas.

Salad dressings
There are many recipes for salad dressings without oil. Tahini-based dressings are great, as are creamy dressings with cashews or sunflower seeds as a base. Here are some delicious examples of oil-free dressings: Kale and Quinoa Greek Salad, No-Sacrifice Tahini-Dill Dressing, Gracious Vegan Oil-Free Tahini Dressing, Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing, and Gracious Vegan Mexican Salad with Creamy Lime-Cumin Dressing

Grilled sandwiches
You can use tahini or no-oil mayonnaise like you use butter on the bread of a grilled sandwich. I use this technique in my Grilled Olive Tapenade and Almond Goat Cheese Sandwiches.

Sauces
There are a lot of ways to eliminate oil and butter from sauces. Sometimes I just leave out the oil for the initial sauté, as in the Gracious Vegan Marinara Sauce and No-Oil New York-Style Pizza Sauce. Sometimes raw cashews provide enough natural fat to thicken a sauce, like my No-Oil, No-Butter White Sauce and Gracious Vegan Creamy Tomato Sauce. Some sauces are based on peanut butter, which has plenty of good fat on its own, as in my Thai-Inspired Peanut Sauce. For a dessert sauce without butter or cream, try my Healthy Chocolate Fudge Sauce (no added sugar, vegan, gluten-free).

Stir-fry sauces
Many stir-fry sauces call for sesame oil. I discovered that roasted sesame paste (here’s my FAQ on it), made from darkly roasted, ground-up sesame seeds, substitutes very nicely for sesame oil in most recipes. Try my Sugar Snap Pea Stir-Fry, Moo Shu Vegetables, and Candle-Cafe-Inspired Stir-Fry.

Peanut sauces and dressings
Some sauces are based on peanut butter, which has plenty of good fat on its own. These don’t need oil. But some recipes also call for sesame oil. I substitute roasted sesame paste and water for the sesame oil. For recipes, see Thai-Inspired Peanut Sauce and Cold Sesame Noodles, Without Oil.

Gravies
Gravies without oil or other fat are kind of sad. It took me a long time, but I finally found a winning combination for my Gracious Vegan Easy Gravy. The secret was adding some tahini—it helps blend and smooth out the flavors.

Mayonnaise
For most homemade mayo recipes, the largest ingredient is oil. You can get pretty close to the taste of vegan oil-based mayo with some clever no-oil recipes. I like Kim Campbell’s tofu-cashew recipe, which can be found here.

Pesto
Pesto recipes always depend on oil, right? While I haven’t found a way to reproduce exactly the effect of pesto on pasta (because the oil from the pesto coats the pasta), I achieve a nice texture using tahini and water instead of oil in my Gracious Vegan Kale Pesto and No-Oil Vegan Basil Pesto. If you are super-aware of pesto’s texture, you’d notice the difference, but, for example, my husband has never seemed to notice it. I use avocado in my Zoodles with Creamy Pesto Sauce, which is not like a classic pesto but is delicious.

Broiling or baking tofu, tempeh, or seitan
Most recipes for cooking slabs of soy- or gluten-based proteins call for oil, especially if you’re baking or broiling. Through trial and error, I’ve found some combinations using tahini and roasted sesame paste that work very well. For a quick coating for broiling, see the bottom of my blog on 15-Minute Plant-Based Bowls. I also have a great combination for Baked Tofu and a wonderful marinade for Banh Mi Sandwich with Seitan.

Mashed Potatoes
Most mashed potato recipes call for a knob of butter. You can substitute half as much tahini and achieve a rich texture.

Plant-based cheeses and sour cream
Many recipes for plant-based cheese call for oil. I have experimented with various substitutes (and just plain leaving it out). Two of my go-to “dairy” recipes are Gracious Vegan Ricotta Cheese and Gracious Vegan Crema.

Baking
Baking is a whole world until its own when it comes to substitutes for butter, oil, and shortening. Recipe developers use applesauce, vegan yogurt, mashed banana, mashed sweet potato, mashed pumpkin, and sometimes water thickened with cornstarch as substitutes for pure fat ingredients. The five recipes in my I Love Desserts But Not the Guilt! collection (free download) are my answer to some of baking’s challenges, but there are many other great no-oil recipes out there.

I’d love to hear from you -- your questions and ideas or any comments on this topic. Just email me. Thanks!

Oil photo by Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau on Flickr

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What are the Options for Vegetable Broth?

If you cook vegetarian or vegan, you need a vegetable broth solution that works for you. There are lots of options, so I thought I’d offer my take on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

A couple of caveats. First, salt. Some prepared broths and bouillons contain more salt than others. Until you’re sure about the broth you’re using, taste your soup or dish before adding additional salt.

Second, back up your supply, whatever option you choose. It’s one of those ingredients that you can run out of without noticing, and you discover too late that you don’t have what you need.

There’s no rule that says you have use just one solution, even in the same dish. Combining them might be a good way to go too.

Vegetable broth powder (aka bouillon powder)

This is what I use. It’s very easy to measure, and each container lasts a long while. It doesn’t go bad and has a nice flavor, although you wouldn’t mistake it for homemade broth from a good recipe. I use Seitenbacher Vegetable Broth and Seasoning, which is easy to buy on Amazon and is not heavy on salt.

Vegetable bouillon cubes 

Cubes have about the same advantages as broth powder, with some small differences. Salt is the main ingredient in some cubes (such as Knorr’s), and the cubes often contain oil and thickeners to hold their shape. I’ve heard good things about Rapunzel cubes, and they have a choice of no-salt cubes. If you like the taste of them, bouillon cubes are convenient, have a long shelf-life, and are simple to use.

Vegetable Base Bouillon

This very thick concentrated liquid, similar in texture to molasses, comes in jars. “Better Than Bouillon” is the brand people know best. The taste is fine but not any better than the powder I use, in my opinion. I find measuring this product very difficult; it sticks to the spoon, and I often get more than I need. Because of that, it seems to run out quickly, way before I get the 38 teaspoons promised on the label.

Ready-to-Use Broth in Shelf-Stable Quart Containers

Full-strength broth ready to pour directly into the pan offers the ultimate convenience. Pacific Foods makes the most widely available vegetable broths (regular and low-sodium, both organic), but several other national and generic brands are available. For me, the taste of many of these broths is not very good—carrots seem to dominate the flavor. There’s a brand called Imagine that has a “Vegetarian No-Chicken Broth” that I’ve heard is good-tasting. Boxed broths are more expensive than all the other options, usually from $2.00 to $4.00 per quart, so if you cook a lot, that can add up. Also, they take up a lot of room, and once they’re open, you have to use the rest within about a week or freeze it.

Homemade Broth from Scraps

Some enterprising cooks clean and collect scraps when they cook and put them in a freezer bag. When the bag is full, they simmer the scraps with water for about an hour, strain the mixture, and use the broth right away or freeze it. They use onion skins, carrot peels, celery leaves, mushroom stems, the green ends of leeks, the tops of bell peppers, and whatever else they’ve cut off their vegetables.

I don’t use this method for two reasons. 1) It’s extra work I don’t feel is worth it, partly because 2) the taste of the broth varies by batch, depending on the scraps, and I don’t necessarily want a surprisingly strong onion, celery, cabbage, or other taste in a soup or dish.

Homemade Broth Following a Recipe

Judging strictly by flavor, this is the best solution. There’s nothing like fresh broth with balanced flavors made at home. There are many great recipes available for different kinds of broth: basic vegetable broth, mushroom broth, Asian-inspired broth, etc. Of course, the downsides are the time investment and making sure you have the ingredients on hand. For special soups or for the base of a special gravy, I make broth from scratch, but I do it only a few times a year.

Summary of Vegetable Broth Recommendations

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What is Edamame? 

Edamame is the word (from the Japanese) for fresh young soybeans, picked before the bean matures and dries into those familiar yellowish-white beans. Edamame pods aren’t edible—they’re tough and fibrous. But the inside bean is delicious.  

Where to Find Edamame

Edamame is not commonly available in supermarket produce sections. Luckily the frozen kind are very good. I’ve only had fresh once in my life—actually I picked them right from the field at a co-op farm. I have to say they weren’t that different from frozen, so I’m happy with frozen. 

Edamame come either in the pod or already shelled. Trader Joe’s sells “ready to eat” shelled edamame, already cooked. 

How to Eat Edamame

Many people eat edamame in only one way: in the pod as an appetizer at an Asian restaurant. They’re seasoned simply, just with salt. You open the pod with your mouth or fingers and eat the beans inside.

You can use edamame in lots of recipes. Shelled edamame are great added to a stir fry. There are lots of recipes on the internet for edamame hummus and for glazes that you can stir into cooked in-the-pod edamame, so that when you put the pod in your mouth to get to the beans, you get a tangy or garlicky boost. You can throw some cooked shelled edamame beans into practically any salad. 

I’ve create three edamame-centric recipes so far, both delicious!

How to Cook Edamame

Edamame beans are fast-cooking. They can go from perfectly tender and bright green to mushy and olive green in a flash. I don’t use the Instant Pot for edamame except for soup. 

To cook shelled edamame on the stovetop, boil the water, then add the edamame and boil for 4 minutes. If they’re not tender enough for you, let them boil a minute or so longer. Or you can cook them in the microwave for 4 minutes with a couple tablespoons of water. 

For in-the-pod edamame, boil the water, add the pods, then boil till they float, then let them boil another 30-60 seconds. Or use the same microwave technique as for shelled edamame (4 minutes with a couple tablespoons water). 

Edamame is a Champ When it Comes to Nutrition

Edamame (and all soybeans) are incredibly nutritious. One cup of shelled edamame gives you 18 grams of fiber and 22 grams of protein -- with only 240 calories. That’s about 70%of the daily fiber recommendation (25 grams) and 50% of the daily protein requirement for women and 40% for men. 

Soybean Controversies

There have been a number of controversies related to soybeans. I’ll touch on three of them below. I recommend Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s article on soybean myths for further reading. 

The most controversial aspect of soybeans is a compound they contain called isoflavones. Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen, which are plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity.For a while, many experts claimed that these phytoestrogens had the same effect as the hormone estrogen in the human body. 

  1. Some claimed that phytoestrogens could have feminizing effects on men. This claim has now been shown in a number of studies to be false at reasonable levels of intake. Evidently one man who’d been drinking three quarts of soy milk every day for over six months developed breast swelling. But once he stopped, the issue was resolved.  

  2. Another controversy relates to breast cancer in women. Since the human hormone estrogen can stimulate breast cancer cell growth, there was an early theory that there might be a link between soy foods and breast cancer. Hundreds of studies followed. No studies in humans have suggested an increase in breast cancer risk; most show a decrease. And in Asian countries, where soy is a staple food, breast cancer rates are much lower than those in the United States.

  3. Do soybeans help decrease hot flashes? Unfortunately, taken together, research studies have not yet established a reliable connection between dietary soy intake and occurrence of hot flashes. However, there is much less occurrence of hot flashes among women living in Asian countries where soybeans are a key part of most people’s diet. 

Five or fewer servings of soybeans a day are very good for you, and there appears to be no harmful effects at all. So eat!

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What is Flaxseed Meal?

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Flaxseed meal, or ground-up flaxseeds, is more of a silent partner than a big bold star in plant-based cooking, but it’s incredibly valuable because of its nutrition and texture.

Egg Substitute

Flaxseed meal is one of the most commonly recommended vegan egg substitutes in baking, because if you mix flaxseed meal (1 Tablespoon) and water (3 Tablespoons) and let it sit a few minutes, the mixture takes on the viscous consistency of an egg. You can also add a tablespoon of flaxseed meal to smoothies or oatmeal, or a few tablespoons to a pot of soup for the same thickening effect.

How to Use Flaxseed Meal in Recipes

Recipes that call for flaxseed meal as an egg substitute will provide instructions on how and when to combine it with water and add to the rest of the ingredients. If you have recipes that call for eggs, try substituting flaxseed eggs (1 Tablespoon flaxseed meal and 3 Tablespoons water for each egg – mix them together and let them sit 5-10 minutes before adding to the rest of the ingredients). 

Nutritional Value

The reason to find ways to eat flaxseed meal is that it’s so nutritious. Flaxseeds contain fiber, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids that are very good for your health. 

  • Omega-3 essential fatty acid sare "good" fats that have been shown to have heart-healthy effects. 

  • Lignans have plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities.

  • Fiber is great for the colon and for helping to prevent chronic diseases.

Note that unground flaxseeds can go straight through your digestive tract without breaking apart, meaning that these wonderful nutrients are not released and absorbed. I just buy flaxseed meal already ground. 

Where to find it

Flaxseed meal is now sold in most grocery stores, including many bulk sections—that’s the most cost-efficient way to buy it. It is definitely available in natural food stores. 

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What is Chinese Roasted Sesame Paste?

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Over the years—no, decades—one of the hardest dishes for me to re-create at home was Cold Sesame Noodles. I ordered them almost every time I ate at a Chinese restaurant (as a vegetarian; unfortunately most places use egg noodles). I adored those thin noodles tossed with the sweet-salty, peanuty, sesame-infused sauce. But I could never get close to the taste and texture in my own kitchen, no matter what recipe I tried. Until now. 

Eureka! The secret ingredient!

Finally a recipe by Sam Sifton in the New York Times for Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles clued me into roasted sesame paste, also known as Chinese sesame paste. It’s a thick, dark-brown paste made from roasted sesame seeds. 

Where to find it

You can find roasted sesame paste in Asian grocery stores or online. I drove to the closest Asian grocery store here in Portland and found the elusive ingredient with the help of the staff. The kind I got is translated as “Original sesame jam,” and, in addition to sesame seeds, it contains a little soybean oil, soybeans, and peanuts. There are brands made with 100% sesame seeds (for example, Wang Zhihe Pure Sesame Paste available on Amazon). 

Not the same as tahini

You may be familiar with tahini—a paste made from raw or lightly roasted sesame seeds. Chinese sesame paste smells and tastes more like sesame oil than tahini. Its glorious deep-roasted taste has a slightly bitter edge that only enhances the flavor, in my opinion. It will not be a strange, new flavor if you have used and liked sesame oil.

Cooking with roasted sesame paste

The good news for health-conscious cooks is that roasted sesame paste can substitute for sesame oil in many recipes. In recipes where sesame oil is used in a sauce, you can experiment by substituting the same measure of sesame paste as oil, plus the same measure of water as oil. 

My adaptation of Sam Sifton’s Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles recipe—Cold Sesame Noodles, Without Oil—eliminates the sesame oil, increases the sesame paste and water, offers an alternative to sugar (date paste), and has notes about non-egg noodle choices. 

I also created recipes for Moo Shu Vegetables and Candle-Café-Inspired Stir-Fry that use roasted sesame paste instead of sesame oil.

It’s very, very thick

Be aware that sesame paste is quite thick, so you need to make sure that any thick lumps are smoothed out before putting it into a recipe, unless you’re adding it to a blender or food processor, in which case the lumps will be taken care of. I use a fork to mix the paste in its jar before measuring out what I need, the same way I wrestle with tahini and natural peanut butter to achieve a smooth texture. 

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What is Nutritional Yeast?

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Nutritional yeast is not the kind of yeast that expands and bubbles in bread doughs. It’s deactivated and comes in the form of yellow flakes or powder. It has a pleasant cheesy flavor and is used in many plant-based recipes and as a topping for dishes and snacks. Nutritional yeast is also different from “yeast extract,” which is a dark brown paste. 

How nutritional yeast is made

Nutritional yeast is made by letting yeast grow in a glucose solution for a few days. Then the yeast is deactivated with heat, washed, dried, and packaged. 

Uses in plant-based cooking 

Nutritional yeast is popular as an ingredient in dishes where a cheesy flavor is desired. It’s used in recipes like Gracious Vegan Creamy Tomato SauceSun Dried Tomato RisottoGreen Goddess Garlic DressingCreamy Broccoli Soupand No-Oil, No-Butter White Sauce. It’s also used in recipes for plant-based cheeses, like Gracious Vegan Parmesan Cheese and Gracious Vegan Ricotta Cheese. Many people sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn. 

A+ for nutrition 

Nutritional yeast is an excellent source of fiber and protein. Many brands of the yeast are also fortified with iron and B vitamins, including the all-important B12, which vegetarians and vegans need to make sure they get enough of, given you can’t get enough from plant foods. Taking B12 supplements is probably a less expensive and easier source of Vitamin B12 than nutritional yeast for most people. 

The fiber in nutritional yeast, according to recent research, may help stimulate the body’s immune defenses. In one study, people who ate the equivalent of a spoonful of nutritional yeast a day experienced a 25% reduction in the recurrence of common cold infections and, if they did get sick, a decrease in cold-related sleeping difficulties. 

Where to find it

Nutritional yeast is now sold in most grocery stores, including many bulk sections, too—that’s the most cost-efficient way to buy it. It is definitely available in natural food stores. 

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How to Cook Quinoa

The question of how to cook quinoa elicits strong opinions from those who make it often. Find the way that matches your taste preference and cooking style and go for it. 

Pre-toast? Some cooks swear by pre-toasting the quinoa. It’s worth a try if you are a quinoa fan or didn’t like quinoa the first time you tried it. 

Soak and/or rinse? Some people claim that you have to soak and/or rinse quinoa to get rid of the “saponin,” the natural coating that protects quinoa seeds from pests in the field. According to many, the saponin lends a stronger, sometimes bitter flavor to the quinoa. A lot of quinoa is pre-rinsed, including the kind found in bulk sections of grocery stores. (Note that pre-toasting and soaking shouldn’t be combined. One or the other.)

Amounts.The quinoa will about triple in size, so start with one-third of the final amount of cooked quinoa you want. Cooked quinoa also freezes well, so you might want to make a good amount and freeze it in 1- or 2-cup amounts.

Soak, rinse, and stovetop. Soak the quinoa in plenty of water for at least 30 minutes, up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse the quinoa using a mesh strainer. Put the quinoa in a saucepan with as much water as the amount of dry quinoa you started with (e.g., 1 cup), plus a little salt, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, cover the pot, and simmer about 10 minutes. 

Pre-toast, rinse and stovetop. Pre-toast the dry quinoa (or skip this step) by pouring the measured dry quinoa into a sauté pan or skillet and turning on the heat to medium-low. Within a couple of minutes the quinoa starts to smell a bit like popcorn and begins popping. Once it pops a minute or two, take it off the heat. Then rinse thequinoa using a mesh strainer (or you can skip this step too). Put the quinoa in a saucepan with twice the amount of water as the amount of dry quinoa (e.g., 1 cup quinoa, 2 cups water), plus a little salt, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat, keep the cover on, and let the quinoa sit for 10 minutes. 

Instant Pot or other pressure cooker.Rinse the quinoa if desired. Optional to spray the insert pot with spray oil to keep the quinoa from sticking to the pot. For each cup of quinoa, use 1.5 cups water. Put them (and a little salt) in the pot, lock the lid and set the steam valve to the “sealing” position. Select “MANUAL” button and cook for 1 minute on high pressure. Allow the pressure to release naturally for 10 minutes and then release any remaining pressure. 

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What is Xanthan Gum?

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Xanthan gum is used in many manufactured food products because it helps thicken foods and keep ingredients blended while they sit on the shelf. Salad dressings, ice creams, and yogurt are commonly made with this ingredient.

It’s popular in gluten-free baking circles, too, because it provides elasticity and stickiness in doughs that don’t contain gluten.

Invented in the 1960s, xanthan gum is made by fermenting sucrose, glucose, and lactose with a bacteria, Xanthomonas campestris, then drying the mixture and grinding it into a fine white powder.

You can find xanthan gum in some supermarkets’ bulk sections, allowing you to buy just a little at a time. It’s also sold in packages by Bob’s Red Mill and others. Bob’s is vegan—check the label to be sure.

I use xanthan gum in egg substitutes, such as Baked Indian Fritters.

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What is “Nutrient Density”?

Examples of nutrient density scores. 70 calories of each food is shown here.

Examples of nutrient density scores. 70 calories of each food is shown here.

“Nutrient Density” refers to the ratio between the amount of beneficial nutrients in a food and its caloric content. Foods high in nutrients (like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber) and low in calories get a high (favorable) nutrient density score, while foods low in nutrients and high in calories get a low (bad) score. 

The gold medalists

There is no single authoritative nutrient density scale, but all of the systems I’ve seen, whether on a 1 - 100 or 1 - 1000 scale, arrive at similar findings. When you look at the leaderboards, the powerhouses are always dark leafy greens like kale, chard, collard greens, and spinach. Dark leafy greens are low in calories and contain many antioxidants, calcium, nitrates, carotenoids and other phytonutrients. 

Also on the platform

Other low-calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables follow, such as romaine and Boston lettuce, broccoli, artichoke, and cabbage. Some rankings might surprise you. Even whole foods like bananas, nuts, avocados, and brown rice rank low on nutrient density scales because of their calorie count—i.e., you can get equivalent amounts of nutrients in foods that are much lower in calories. 

The losers

Not surprisingly, fast food, processed food, oils, sugary foods, meats, dairy, and eggs are low on all nutrient density scales. 

Why getting lots of nutrients matters

Most Americans believe that lots of protein and low levels of fat and carbs are the keys to health and slimness. The obesity rate in the U.S. would suggest that these beliefs are not working. In reality, a focus on whole foods high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other amazing micro-nutrients) would help improve our health. Nutrients help the body function properly, including the immune system and cellular repair mechanisms, which protect us from chronic diseases. People who call themselves “nutritarians” focus on eating as high on the nutrient density scale as possible.

For more information

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, is the best known proponent of nutritarianism and the person who coined the term. He offers books, welcome kits, checklists, and cookbooks. You can download a .pdf copy of Dr. Fuhrman’s nutrient density chart

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What is “Caloric Density”?

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If you don’t have to watch your weight, you can ignore this post. For the rest of us, the 99%, “caloric density” matters. 

Caloric density is the concentration of calories in a food, essentially the relationship between the food’s calories and its weight. Some foods have many more calories per ounce than others. For example, 

  • Vegan chocolate cake – 93 calories per ounce (1488 per pound)

  • Fresh apple – 14 calories per ounce (224 per pound)

Big difference, yeah. But we all could have guessed that one.

Some otherwise healthy plant-based foods are relatively calorie-dense. 

  • Oat bran bagel – 71 calories per ounce (1136 per pound)

  • Raisins – 84 calories per ounce (1344 per pound) (not too far off the chocolate cake)

  • Dry roasted mixed nuts – 166 calories per ounce (2656 per pound) (almost doublethe chocolate cake!) 

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables have the lowest caloric density, as we see from the apple example. Fruits and vegetables tend to have high water content, high fiber content, and low fat content. This means they provide a lot of bulk without a lot of calories. 

Grains

Grains are higher in caloric density than the majority of fruits and vegetables. Whole-grain and refined grains don’t differ much in calories, but whole grains offer more fiber, which slows the movement of food through your system. Fiber also regulates sugar levels and helps keep you fuller longer. 

Oils

Oils and butter are the most calorie-dense foods. Oil is 100% fat, and butter (even vegan butter) is nearly that, too. 

  • Olive oil – 248 calories per ounce (3968 per pound)

Avoiding hunger pangs

Caloric density matters if you want to avoid hunger pangs. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables means you can eat more and feel fuller. But you can’t live on fruits and vegetables alone—you need protein and grains too. Tilting the balance toward fresh fruits and vegetables and trying to include them in every meal and snack will help you feel satisfied. 

Using dried fruit and nuts between meals to stave off hunger can be dangerous if you really do need to watch your weight. They are deceptively high in calories, even though they are much healthier for you than chocolate cake. 

For more information

If you want a visual representation of the caloric density of dozens of foods, download this chart

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What is Buckwheat?

Have-It-Your-Way Smoothie  with buckwheat groats

Have-It-Your-Way Smoothie with buckwheat groats

When I was asked to do a cooking demo on buckwheat dishes last year, I lied. “I adore cooking with buckwheat,” I said. “I’d love to do the demo.” Actually I’d almost never cooked with buckwheat. In four weeks I had to become a buckwheat ninja, an encyclopedia of buckwheat facts, the Emeril Lagasse of buckwheat “Bam!”

Buckwheat's not a grain

Luckily I learn fast, because I was way off when I started. I thought buckwheat was a grain. It’s actually a seed. Okay, I could deal with that, and it’s a good factoid to have on hand. My second mistake was thinking buckwheat came in only two forms. Actually it comes three ways: flour, raw groats, and roasted groats. Um, what’s a groat?, someone might ask in class. Merriam-Webster’s says a groat is a “hulled grain [ha! could also be a seed, guys] broken into fragments larger than grits.” A groat is a big grit? Well, I know corn grits from the South are one step coarser than cornmeal, and cornmeal comes in fine, medium, and coarse. Jeez, do I need to memorize all the gradations of meal, grits, and groats? If asked, I decided, I’ll keep it vague.

Exploring raw groats

I found the raw and roasted buckwheat groats in the bulk section of my supermarket—meaning a lot of people must be cooking with buckwheat. They were sure keeping quiet about it. And I hoped none of them would come to my class. 

What do you do with a raw groat? A lot of people make breakfast porridge or they cook and serve it like rice. Those are okay, but a tiny bit boring. I wanted something out of the ordinary. I found an amazing way to use raw groats in a smoothie! You soak the groats and some nuts in water for several hours before putting them together with frozen bananas, frozen berries, dates, and water. Once you liquefy for a minute or so, the groats and nuts are completely dissolved, and you have a healthy smoothie with a luxuriously creamy texture. No yogurt, no milk, no sugar. I felt like I’d cracked open a secret cabinet of miracle ingredients. 

On to roasted groats

Now that the raw buckwheat groats were a slam dunk, I moved on to the roasted groats. I knew that these roasted groats were also called kasha, because I’d had some leftover kasha in my pantry for years before I threw them out. I’d made a vegetarian version of “Kasha Varnishkes” before I went vegan. It’s an old Eastern European Jewish dish with bowtie pasta and roasted buckwheat, usually flavored with goose, duck, or chicken fat. In the vegetarian version, the dry groats were stirred up with a raw egg and toasted in a pan before adding vegetable broth to cook them. So now, no egg. Could I recreate this dish without it? I remember liking it a lot. I dug around and found a wonderful vegan version that introduces dill and mushrooms for flavoring. There’s actually no added oil, and the dish still bursts with flavor. Two for two!

Buckwheat flour

It was easy to find buckwheat flour recipes (pancakes and cookies lead the pack) and dishes made with soba noodles, i.e., buckwheat noodles originally hailing from Japan. I chose a pancake recipe with no added oil and just a few mini chocolate chips for sweetness. My cabbage-soba noodle slaw, with a peanut-sesame dressing, rocked. The cookies with cocoa nibs came out sandy and delicious. 

I was ready. I made the samples, packed up the demo ingredients, and drove off to my date with buckwheat destiny. 

The recipes

Breakfast

Chocolate Chip Coconut Pancakes – The coconut flakes and buckwheat flour give these pancakes a fantastic texture and flavor. The chocolate chips mean you can skip the syrup, a nice change of pace. 

Have-It-Your-Way Smoothie - Soaked raw buckwheat groats and almonds form the basis of this dreamy, creamy berry smoothie. This is so worth a try.  

Dessert

Nibby Butter Buckwheat Cookies– Studded with cocoa nibs, these cookies have a wonderful sandy texture. They aren’t sweet, but the subtle pleasure they bring will have you reaching for them over and over.

Entree

Kasha Varnishkes – One of the attendees at my demo recalled Kasha Varnishkes as a staple at her grandmother’s house. She tried this no-added-fat, vegan version, and said, “This is exactly how it’s supposed to taste.” Woo hoo! The layers of flavors and texture in this dish work incredibly well.                                                                                                                 

Salads

Noodle-Vegetable Salad with Peanut-Sesame Dressing - The cabbage slaw and buckwheat noodles provide a super accompaniment to the peanut-sesame dressing's zing. You can taste all the subtle notes that make this a great alternative to coleslaw—fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. 

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What is Miso?

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My first “miso moment” came as I was searching for a vegan pesto recipe. I wondered if there could really be a substitute for the salty, earthy, slightly tangy undertones of parmesan cheese. The pesto recipe in The Candle Café Cookbook called for one tablespoon of sweet white miso along with basil, oil, nuts, and garlic. I was desperate to find a solution to my pesto problem, so I drove to the nearest natural food store and wandered the aisles until I found miso. The result was an epiphany! The pesto was as good as any I’d ever eaten. I was smitten. I’ve since tweaked Candle Café’s approach and created my own Gracious Vegan Basil Pesto recipe. Of course, the  irreplaceable miso is still there. 
 
Miso basics. Miso is a paste made from infusing soybeans with a mold called koji. The mixture (with salt added) is fermented for weeks, months, or even years, and the enzymes in the koji break the beans down into a thick paste. Traditional miso is made from soy, but miso can also be made from barley, rice, or other grains. Japan is the birthplace of miso, and the paste’s history goes back thousands of years. 
 
What miso tastes like. Miso is not spicy-hot at all. It has a salty, earthy flavor. There are many kinds and colors of miso, so you might hear about “red miso,” “white miso,” or “barley miso.”Generally speaking, the lighter the color of the miso, the lighter and sweeter the taste. Red and brown misos are the tangiest, with a deep earthy (or umami) flavor. If you’re reluctant to try new things like miso, start with white miso. 
 
How to find miso. Most large grocery stores stock small white plastic tubs of miso near the tofu, dairy substitutes, and vegetarian meats. Asian grocers often carry a larger variety of miso, some in sealed plastic bags or clear plastic tubs.
 
How to store miso. Miso keeps a long time, like most fermented foods. It can last 9-12 months in the refrigerator in a container with a tight lid. 
 
What to make with miso. Miso is not meant to be eaten straight out of the container. The most common use of miso is miso soup. It can also star in gravy, stir-fry sauces, and as part of a paste for broiling tofu. Here are two of my favorite dishes with a healthy dose of miso: Candle-Café-Inspired Stir Fry and Creamy Broccoli Soup
 
As in my pesto recipe, miso can also be a small but foundational ingredient in vegan cheeses (see my Gracious Vegan Parmesan Cheese and the Mascarpone in my Rich and Creamy Vegan Tiramisu).
 
Don’t boil miso if you can help it. The healthy probiotics that miso contains (because of the fermentation process) can be broken down in boiling liquids, so it’s important to heat foods containing miso just until hot, not to the boiling point. 
 
Miso’s nutrients. Although miso has a relatively high level of sodium (200-300 milligrams per teaspoon), recent research has shown that miso does not seem to affect our cardiovascular system in the way that other high-sodium foods can. Miso contains copper, manganese, Vitamin K, and a number of phytonutrients that nutritionists are just starting to understand. 
 
There appear to be only upsides to eating miso. Given how its unique flavor adds a flavor bump to all sorts of dishes, it’s worth a try if you don’t use it already.

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What is Tempeh?

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Tempeh—like tofu and seitan—is one of those foods you might be reluctant to try. It seems a bit risky, right? What’s inside that rectangular, bumpy, vacuum-sealed package? 

How it’s pronounced. It’s pronounced “tem-pay” with both syllables accented equally. It’s a great source of protein: about 18 grams of protein per serving, about the same as a breakfast of two eggs and two strips of turkey bacon.  It’s also high in fiber, calcium, and iron and is free of cholesterol.

How it’s made. Tempeh originated in Indonesia and is made from soybeans. The soybeans are partially cooked then fermented. This controlled fermentation process binds the soybeans together into a cake form. Some tempeh is made with added whole grains (e.g., “5-Grain Tempeh”). Tempeh’s flavor has been described as nutty, and its texture as chewy—some say it’s meaty. Like tofu, it picks up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. 

How it’s used. Some cooks use thin slabs of tempeh for sandwiches. The tempeh is often steamed or boiled first to loosen up its texture, then either fried, sautéed, or added to a dish. Diced or grated tempeh is used in chili, stir-fries, soups, salads, and stews. 

Why I like it. I really like tempeh because of its texture, which is firmer and chewier than tofu. It doesn’t have a strong taste on its own, which means it goes with everything—the little black dress of the soybean world. For a few recipes and menu ideas with tempeh, see these tempeh posts and recipes on my website. If you like those, explore the internet for many more. 

Tempeh freezes well and is available at health food stores, Trader Joes, and in many supermarkets. 

Tempeh photo by SalTheColourGeek on Flickr

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How is Tofu Made?

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A lot of people who eat tofu don't know how it's made. Don't worry -- it's not gross! 

I watched all the available videos about this on Youtube (so you don't have to!) and found a favorite. A bit more than 3 minutes long, it's worth it if you're curious. 

How to Make Tofu by Food Factory.

Enjoy!

Photo by Jules on Flickr

 

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What is Seitan?

(Psst! It's pronounced say-TAN.)

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Seitan is an excellent source of protein. It has over twice the protein of tofu, 50% more than beef, and the same amount as a cup of cooked lentils. Its texture is dense and chewy, which is why a lot of plant-based cooks use seitan as a meat substitute. Another nice thing about seitan is that it’s already cooked, making it very easy to work with.

Origins in China

Seitan’s origins date back to ancient China. It was made by creating a dough of flour and water, then rinsing the dough in water until the starch and bran washed away. All that remained were the gluten proteins, which made a stiff, elastic dough. This dough was simmered in a broth, cut into bite-sized chunks, then usually fried or sautéed. The name for this is usually translated as “wheat meat” or “mock meat” in the U.S. 

Seitan’s emergence

Chinese mock meat is technically not seitan, which is a very similar wheat gluten product flavored with soy sauce. The name was coined around 1960 in Japan. Like Chinese mock meat, seitan is chewy, flavorful, and moist. 

Where to find it

You can find seitan in some grocery stores and in almost all natural food stores. You can also make seitan yourself using powdered vital wheat gluten. There are many recipes for homemade seitan. 

What to do with it

You can slice or chop seitan and use it in sauces or stir-fries. A search on the internet will turn up hundreds of recipes. I combined many of my favorite flavors in this recipe: Banh Mi Sandwiches with Seitan.

 

Photo of seitan stir-fry by John on flickr

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What's the difference between Indian and Thai curries?

Viva la difference

Many of us love curries of all kinds. But when you stop and focus on the differences between Indian and Thai curries, you realize they're quite different, but in a good way. Some of the differences can influence your meal planning--e.g., Thai curries can be made more quickly than Indian, meaning they might be better when you don't have much time. 

Indian curries

I like Indian curries because they have a velvety texture that comes from longer cooking. The ingredients, including a lot of spices, blend into each other and make for ultra-satisfying flavors.

  • Dry spices (coriander, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, black mustard, dried chilies, etc.)

  • More like a stew than a soup

  • Simmered longer

  • Served with basmati rice

Thai curries

Thai curries have a brighter flavor and soupier consistency, because they use lots of fresh herbs and are cooked for less time than Indian curries. It’s worth your time stocking up on some of the unique ingredients — you can freeze herbs like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves for multiple future uses.

  • Fresh herbs and chilies (lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallot, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro stems, etc.)

  • More like a soup than a stew (usually made with coconut milk or other creamy liquid)

  • Shorter cooking time

  • Served with jasmine rice

Make some!

Here are my favorite Indian curry recipes:

And here are my Thai curry recipes. Note that I try to keep my intake of saturated fat down, so I’ve replaced coconut milk with fresh cashew milk and coconut extract. You save a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat per serving, about the same amount that’s in a Burger King Whopper!

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What is Amla Powder?

Amla (Indian gooseberry) is an antioxidant powerhouse

In a recent test of 3,000 different foods, Indian gooseberries emerged as the number-one antioxidant-rich food -- ahead of goji berries, raisins, acai berries, and anything else you can think of that might be at the top of the rankings. Check out this video for the details.

Anti-inflammatory too

Amla is also anti-inflammatory and, in one study, it reduced and reversed cancer cell growth in vitro. It can help normalize blood sugar levels in diabetes patients, and it’s high in vitamin C. 

Inexpensive and easy to use

And did I mention it’s cheap? I bought a 12-ounce bag of amla powder a month ago for $13 on Amazon, and we use 1 teaspoon a day in smoothies. It has a slightly bitter taste, but that gets counteracted in smoothies or sweet baked dishes like custards or pumpkin pies. For a smoothie with more antioxidants in one serving than most people get in a week, try my "How Not to Die" Pumpkin Smoothie.

You can also buy amla powder in capsule form. 

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What is Protein Combining?

About 40 years ago, someone came up with the theory that plant-based proteins were incomplete and that vegetarians had to eat “complementary proteins” during the same meal, for example, rice and beans, or tofu and sesame seeds. This fallacy was refuted decades ago, but the myth persists.

It turns out our body maintains pools of free amino acids that it can use to do all the complementing for us. Some 90 grams of protein are dumped into the digestive tract every day from our own body to get broken back down and reassembled, and so our body can mix and match amino acids to whatever proportions we need.

Plant-based eaters do not need to be concerned about amino acid imbalances from plant proteins. For more information, see this video on Nutritionfacts.org.

 

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What's With the Vegan Obsession with Cashews?

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Cashews are creamy

If you haven’t tried using cashews as a substitute for cream, or for making plant-based cheeses, you’re missing out on a tasty alternative to dairy products.
Cashews are a soft nut. When you soak raw cashews in water, then blast them on high in the blender with some water, they dissolve and make a thick, smooth nut cream that can play many roles. Some nuts, like almonds, are much harder and take longer soaking and blending times to reduce them to a smooth consistency.

Uses for cashews

Soups and Appetizers

Cashews are great in soups and as part of sour-cream-like appetizer dips.
Hearty Potato ChowderCreamy Mushroom SoupGracious Vegan Corn ChowderCurried Butternut Squash Soup,Creamy Broccoli Soup, and Creamy Artichoke Spinach Dip

Sauces

Cashews also help make sauces creamy. 
Gracious Vegan Creamy Tomato Sauce

Curries

Cashew cream can substitute for coconut milk, saving about 12 grams of saturated fat (the amount found in a Burger King Whopper) per serving. 
Curries Made Healthier

Cheeses and sour cream

It’s easy to combine cashews with a few other ingredients to make cheese and sour cream substitutes.
Gracious Vegan Parmesan CheeseGracious Vegan Ricotta Cheese, Gracious Vegan Crema

Desserts

Cashews can be made into a wonderful whipped cream substitute and as part of other creamy desserts.
Vegan Whipped CreamRich and Creamy Vegan Tiramisu

Cashews and “cashew cream” are a fantastic way to please the palate while avoiding the cholesterol, hormones, and toxins in dairy foods. 

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What is Tahini?

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Tahini is a thick paste made from hulled, ground sesame seeds. Sometimes the seed kernels have been lightly roasted, and sometimes they are left raw.

How tahini is made

Sesame seeds are soaked in water and then crushed to separate the outer skin from the kernels. The crushed mixture is then soaked in salt water, causing the outer skins to sink. The floating kernels are skimmed off the surface, toasted (or left raw), and ground to produce a paste. 

Because of tahini's high oil content, many manufacturers recommend refrigeration after opening to prevent it from spoiling.

Uses of tahini in plant-based cooking

Tahini is exceptionally versatile because it doesn’t have a domineering or cutting flavor, it blends well with many textures, and it lends creaminess to dishes. The best known food containing tahini is hummus, where cooked garbanzo beans are mashed with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and sometimes additional spices or ingredients. Babaganoush is another well-known dip that includes tahini, along with roasted, smoky mashed eggplant. 

Those of us who love falafel are very familiar with tahini sauce. It’s a mixture of tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and water. This sauce goes with many foods besides falafel: cooked vegetables, grains, and many kinds of savory fritters or burgers. 

Tahini serves well in the marinade for Baked Tofu, also as a binding ingredients in No-Oil Basil Pesto. For a no-oil approach to grilled sandwiches, you can spread a very thin layer of tahini on the bread instead of butter. 

Tahini can be the basis of delicious and creamy oil-free salad dressings, including Green Goddess Garlic Dressing, Gracious Vegan Mexican Salad with Creamy Lime-Cumin Dressing, Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing, and Gracious Vegan Oil-Free Tahini Dressing.

Nutritional Benefits 

Sesame seeds are very nutritious, providing dietary fiber, lignans, antioxidants, and Vitamin B1, among other things. Lignans have been shown to have a cholesterol-lowering effect in humans, as well as help prevent high blood pressure.

Raw or toasted?

I usually use the toasted kind of tahini, because it’s available more places, is less expensive, and tastes better to me. But some people swear by the raw stuff.

Where to find tahini

Tahini is available in many sizes, in glass or plastic containers, in most grocery stores, usually near the peanut butter or in the “ethnic food” aisle. There are many brands. It’s also available online. 

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