Monday, May 10, 2010

Healthy social responsbility

Eating a healthy meal does not start in the kitchen with grilling chicken and cutting up vegetables for a salad. Eating a healthy meal starts with social responsibility.
Social responsibility is an integral part of living a healthy Jewish life. If the world we live in is not a healthy place then it is impossible for us to ever be truly healthy.  Food does not grow on shelves at the supermarket; rather, there are people, pieces of land, and complex processes that are involved in bringing food to our plates.  As Jews we must come to understand the multifaceted ethical implications that our food choices have in our lives and in the life of the land and the people involved in supplying our food.
            Tzedaka is part of the universal language of Jewish social responsibility.  However, tzedaka is not restricted to giving money and donating time.  The Torah links agricultural production to social justice and establishes the importance of health and wholesomeness in Judaism, thereby elevating the act of feeding the hungry to a holy level.  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9-10). 
Although most of us are not farmers and cannot strictly abide by this concept, it provides an interesting way of looking at our food.  Everything we have and everything we eat is not necessarily our own; part of what we have belongs to those who have not, as a means of balancing out our bounty.  If we consider those who may not be able to provide for themselves every time we produce or eat a food we create a healthier world for all in the future. 
This idea is relatively easy to put into practice in every day life.  Perhaps every time you go to the grocery store you can buy one extra non-perishable item to give to a local food pantry.  Or you can take your leftovers from a meal and give them to someone in need of nourishment or carry an extra apple in your bag for someone who may need it.  Finding a way to reserve some of what you have for someone who is in need balances out social inequality and helps to build a healthier Jewish life for you and the world around you.
            I’ve included a recipe below that can easily be doubled, tripled or quadrupled so that you can share your bounty.
(This is the first in a series of posts on food and social responsibility)

Turkey Sweet Potato Shepard’s Pie

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, diced
4 small carrots, diced
2 lbs ground turkey
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
¼ cup flour
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon worschetire sauce
1 ¼ cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup frozen peas

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat.  Add the onions, carrots, turkey, garlic and bay leaf and sauté until the turkey is cooked through and the vegetables soften and brown.  Add the flour and coat the turkey mixture.  Add the tomato paste, worschestire sauce and chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Simmer 1 minute and season with salt and pepper.  Remove from the heat and add the peas.

4 sweet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
½ cup soymilk
1 tablespoon canola oil 
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook potatoes in boiling water until they are fork tender.  Drain the water and return the potatoes to the pot.  Add the soymilk, oil, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.  Mash until you get a smooth consistency.

Pour the turkey filling into an 8 x 12 casserole dish and spread the potatoes evenly over top.  Make cross hatches with a fork in the potatoes.  Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are slightly crisp.  (1 casserole serves 8 people)

Sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A, which is good for your immune system, your eyes and your skin, and potassium, which helps with muscle growth and water balance in the body.  Ground turkey is an excellent lean alternative to ground beef and is especially high in selenium, which is an important antioxidant.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Weight loss can mean spiritual gain

Rabbi Hillel, a well-known rabbi from the Mishnaic period, was once famously asked by a non-Jew to relate the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  Hillel's timeless response was, "Do not do to your neighbor what you would not want done to you.  That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary"  People are constantly asking me about loosing weight.  Here's my answer: Eat less and move more.  The rest is commentary.  I know, its a bit Michael Pollan-esque (who says, "Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants") but it really is that simple.  1 pound equals 3500 calories.  If you eat 3500 calories more than what your daily needs are (which generally ranges from 1500 - 2500 calories depending on age, sex and physical activity) you will gain a pound.  If you eat 3500 calories less than what your daily needs are, you will loose a pound.  This adds up over time, so if you eat 500 calories a day less than what your body needs, in a week you will loose a pound.  It all sounds very neat and simple and easy.  And we all know that its not.

When trying to lose weight we deal with cravings and patterns that often feel impossible to overcome.  We set up unrealistic goals for ourselves and are not honest about what we can and should do.  We refuse to feel positive about our bodies and our appearance until we meet a random number on the scale.  In short, in our quest for physical fitness, we often lose sight of our spiritual fitness.

What is the best way to lose weight and still remain spiritually fit and positive about ourselves and our bodies?  Its important to recognize that our bodies have a tendency toward a certain weight and a certain shape which is not easily changed; our bodies naturally crave homeostasis.  You can starve yourself to take off those extra 5 or 10 pounds, but you won't stay there, because thats not where your body wants to be.  If you accept your body's natural tendencies, your future weight struggles will be a lot easier.  Also, keep yourself happy when you're trying to lose weight.  Eat delicious food, go out with friends, do activities that you enjoy.  Don't get sucked into the weight loss gym vacuum, so focused on the scale that you lose site of the rest of your life.

Every morning when you first wake up think of a body part that you are thankful for.  Try and be aware of that body part throughout the day and remain thankful for it.  You could be thankful for your biceps because they help you lift heavy grocery bags, or you could be thankful for your navel because it connects you to your mother and gives you a sense of your past.  You can also try to consider the deeper reasons for why you are trying to lose weight.  Is it because you have high blood pressure and are at risk for heart disease, or is it because you want to look good on the beach or be more attractive for someone else?  The first is an excellent and spiritually fulfilling reason to lose weight.  The second reason is okay to have, but it is more superficial and may be harder to justify spiritually.  If you make your weight loss about you and your self-image the reward will be greater and the blow to your spiritual self will be lessened.

Losing weight is a good kind of loss, but it also represents losing part of yourself.  My last suggestion is to put something back into yourself every time you lose a pound or reach a goal.  When you lose a bit of weight find a new way to connect to your community, contribute to a different charity, go online or into a library and teach yourself something new, write a prayer or a mantra, help a friend, or find a new way to observe and connect to your religion.

The basics of weight loss really are easy on a practical level, however its the spiritual plane that often gives us the most trouble.  I challenge you to couple your weight loss with a serious spiritual
gain - I promise it will lead to great health and fulfillment.

 Below is a spicy and delicious recipe for carrot soup.  Soup is a great thing to eat when you are trying to lose weight - it is filling and is the ultimate comfort food. 

Spiced Moroccan Carrot Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 small yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 ½ lbs carrots, roughly chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 small Yukon gold potatoes, roughly chopped
¼ tsp cayenne
1 tsp cumin
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper
7 cups water
8 mint leaves
Makes 8-10 servings

In a large heavy-botttomed soup pout heat olive oil over 
medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until translucent. 
Add the carrots, garlic and potatoes and sauté 3 minutes
more, until they begin to cook.  Add cayenne, cumin, 
cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste.   Stir continuously 
until the spices coat the vegetables and until they begin to 
cook, about 1 minute. Pour in the water and bring to a boil, 
then cover the soup and simmer about 30 minutes, or until 
all of the vegetables are very tender.  Add the mint leaves 
and puree in a blender or with an immersion blender. 
Adjust seasonings and serve.
Carrots are high in fiber, which is good for digestion and for
lowering your cholesterol. They are also high in vitamin A, 
which is good for your immune system, your eyes, and your 


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trans-fat troubles

Keeping kosher while maintaining a healthy lifestyle can present many challenges.  If you don’t eat milk and meat together and wait a set amount of time between eating meat and milk and still want to have a balanced diet you need to think carefully about menu planning and food choices throughout the day.  Also, there are fewer lean cuts of meat and fewer lean animal protein sources that are kosher.  It can even sometimes be difficult to find low-fat or healthy foods that have a hechser (a kashrut symbol).  However, I think that the most interesting challenge comes with dessert.  It is a natural and wonderful thing to crave a bit of rich and sweet dessert after a savory meat meal.  However, most desserts are made with butter, sugar, cream, cream cheese, or milk, which most people who keep kosher will not eat after a meat meal.  In order to deal with this predicament, most people turn to margarine.  It closely matches the consistency and behavior of butter (although most certainly not the taste) and is easy to work with.  Most packaged kosher baked goods are made with margarine or some other trans-fat and many home bakers make all desserts with margarine in the hopes that they will be eaten at both meat and dairy meals.

So what’s the problem with this?  If we are already eating dessert, which is not necessarily nutritious, does it even matter that we are eating huge amounts of trans-fat?  The answer is simply, “YES!”  Trans-fat raises your “bad cholesterol,” (LDL) lowers your “good cholesterol” (HDL) and drastically increases the risk of developing heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke.  The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 2 grams of trans-fat a day.  I can assure you that parve (non-dairy) desserts made with margarine have well over that amount.  For a variety of scientific reasons, saturated fat (such as butter) isn’t nearly as bad for your health as trans-fat.  In addition, margarine does not create the same satisfying and rich mouth-feel as butter and therefore often drives us to eat more in the hopes of satiety.

As you know, I never say never to any food.  However, I do say rarely.  I do not suggest keeping margarine in your refrigerator or using it on a regular basis.  If you want to make a birthday cake for a friend after a meat meal or are simply craving the perfect (or almost perfect, since it will be made with margarine and not butter) apple pie after a 4th of July barbeque, go ahead and make it, eat it, and enjoy it.  However, for parve desserts on a regular basis, invest in some vegan and non-dairy dessert cookbooks and get creative.  There are a lot of truly interesting and delicious desserts and vegan and non-dairy is a growing trend.  Also, explore with using soy products, fish, and other lean non-meat proteins so that you can have a satisfying scoop of ice cream or a thin piece of chocolate cake after a meal.

According to Maimonides, "Maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d - for one cannot understand or have knowledge of the Creator if one is ill - one must therefore avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1).  Maimonides clearly says here to avoid things that are bad for us (like margarine) so that we can have a closer relationship with God.  I would extend this to say that we must avoid things that are bad for us so that we can have a closer relationship with ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Lets find new ways to enjoy parve desserts together while nourishing our bodies instead of harming them!

Below is a recipe perfect for a springtime Shabbat meal  - mocha mousse.  Enjoy!

Mocha Mousse

1 (12.3 ounce) package silken tofu
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
¼ cup Dutch process cocoa
¼ cup strong coffee
1 tablespoon soy milk
½ cup sugar

Serves 4

Puree the tofu in a food processor until it is very smooth.

Fill a small saucepot with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer.  Put the chocolate chips, cocoa, coffee, and soy milk in a bowl that fits in the pot of water but does not touch the water.  Stir continuously until the chocolate chips are melted.  Remove the mixture from the heat and slowly add the sugar, mixing well.  Add the chocolate mixture to the pureed tofu and puree until smooth and well blended.  Spoon the mousse into serving dishes and refrigerate at least 2 hours to allow the mousse to set.

Tofu is high in calcium and low in fat.  Dark chocolate has important minerals like iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese.  Manganese and magnesium keep your bones healthy and helps you use other nutrients and copper is needed for blood health. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

I want MORE!

Jews seem to have a thing for abundance.  Pesach is about renewal and the abundance of life and freedom, Shavuot is about the abundance of Torah, and Sukkot is about the abundance of the harvest. Tu B’shvat has become about dried fruit and nuts and Channukah is about the abundance of both gifts and oil.  One of the prominent biblical features of Shabbat was that the Israelites received a double portion of manna, which is a sure sign of abundance.  Even the biblical image of Israel is of "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 33:3).  Jewish life cycle events like weddings, bar mitzvahs, britot mila and baby namings include a seudah, a festive and plentiful meal.  The stereotypical Jewish grandmother is soft around the middle and is always offering more food or pushing leftovers on her grateful grandchildren.  Anyone who has been to a Jewish holiday meal knows what this modern form of abundance looks like.  As a nutritionist and concerned Jew, I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with all of this abundance.

A sociologist or psychologist would say that the tumultuous history of the Jewish people has helped to form the collective Jewish psyche.  Centuries of tyranny and exclusion from society, coupled with the textual basis for abundance, may have created a modern Jew who craves plenty.  While abundance can be a good thing, it can also be wildly unhealthy.  

There is a line in the shema that has always spoken to me: "You shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless" (Deuteronomy 8:10).  Nowhere does it say that you shall fill your plate with brisket, chicken, chopped liver, potato kugel and a piece of overcooked broccoli and follow it with a trans-fat filled tasteless apple cake.  This line of the shema teaches that we should eat to satisfy ourselves and our hunger, but that we should not overindulge.  However, we are often not satisfied until we overindulge.  So how do we stop this?

If we pay attention to both quantity and quality we can have large and festive meals and can be satisfied without overindulging.  Quantity is something I have written about before and will continue to write about because it is vastly important.  You should only eat as much as you need and should keep in mind that every bite after the first bite of cake tastes the same as the one before it.  We have to train ourselves to be satisfied with the taste of food and not the amount of food.  This brings me to quality.  Eat good food.  It sounds simple, but its not.  If you're eating mediocre, bland food you will tend to eat more of it - you're not being satisfied by quality, so you will turn to quantity.  Try to fill your meals with strong flavors, fresh ingredients, and things that you truly want to eat.  If you eat slowly you will appreciate your food more and will be able to pause to understand your hunger cues better.  We should continue to fill our lives with abundance of family, community, celebrations and tikun olam, (repairing the world) but must abandon the need for unhealthy abundance of food.  As modern Jews we need to counteract our past oppressions not with abundance, but with satisfaction with our food and our life.

I’ve included a recipe for tilapia with strong flavors like sun-dried tomatoes, olives and currants that is definitely satisfying.  Also, A serving of tilapia is a lot larger than a serving of salmon or tuna and will look abundant on your dinner table!

Mediterranean Tilapia

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced in half moons
½ cup chopped sun-dried tomato (not packed in oil)
½ cup chopped pitted green olives
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons currants
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Pinch of red chili flakes
1 cup dry white wine
4 6-8 oz. tilapia fillets

Serves 4

Heat 2 tsp. of the olive oil over low heat in a sauté pan.  Add onions and cover and cook about 5 minutes, until onions begin to soften.  Take the lid off and turn the heat up just a little and continue cooking the onions, stirring often and allowing them to slowly brown and caramelize.  If they begin to stick add a splash of water to the pan and stir to pick up the brown bits. 
Once the onions have reached a dark brown color (this will take about 20 minutes) turn the heat to high add the sundried tomato, olives, and garlic and sauté about 2 minutes, until garlic begins to brown.  Add the pine nuts, currants, salt, pepper, and chili pepper and cook 30 seconds more.  Add ¾ cut of the wine and stir, allowing alcohol to reduce and thicken.  Cook 2-3 minutes, or until most of the liquid had evaporated. 
Remove the olive mixture from the pan and heat the remaining 2 tsp. of olive oil over medium-high heat.  Season the fish well with salt and pepper, and place in pan.  Cook the fish 3-5 minutes per side.  Just before the fish is done, add the remaining ¼ cup of wine and the olive mixture and let cook 30 seconds.  Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Tilapia is high in protein and very low in fat.  It is also very high in vitamin B12, which is extremely important for your brain and nervous system, and selenium, which is important to the immune system.    

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Count your blessings

Why do we say blessings before eating? Most people would say that Jews say blessings over food to thank God. But the basic blessing formula, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates…” does not actually contain any expression of gratitude. The basic food blessing merely states a fact – God is powerful and God created our food. So what is the purpose of food blessings and how can we connect to them on a real level?

The tosefta (a selection of rabbinic commentaries contemporary with the mishna) teaches that, “One who derives any benefit from the world without first reciting a blessing has stolen sacred property…” (Tos. 4:1). The act of blessing is actually our way of asking God for permission to eat the food that God created. When we bless our food we are taking something sacred and making it profane and fit for our consumption.

I’d like to find a way to connect the colloquial understanding of blessings (expressing thanks) with the rabbinic understanding in order to make the act of blessing our food less rote, more frequent, and relatable in new ways. Saying a blessing over food gives us a chance to consider what we are about to eat. If we think about our food critically before eating we will transform the character of our food from imperceptible to apparent, from sacred to profane. When we say a blessing over a tomato we are given a unique chance to think about that tomato. Where and how was it grown? Do the workers who harvested it have families they are supporting? What nutrition does it hold? We are often so rushed that we don’t even think about what we are eating, let alone how it got to us. When we engage in this thought process before eating, a natural gratitude will emerge. From this we can forge the colloquial and rabbinic understandings to create a new and meaningful way of blessing our food. I encourage you to take a moment before you eat your next meal. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale appreciate what you are about to eat and think about it for a moment. Say the formal blessing or make up your own - trust me, your first bite will taste better.

I’ve included a recipe below that I think is SO good that it provokes blessings and praise easily. Make this with fresh, beautiful ingredients and take a moment before eating to bless it in whatever way you choose. Look below for my new feature – important nutrients in the recipe and why they are good for you!

Cornmeal Crusted Tofu with Ratatouille

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup large diced yellow onion (about 1 onion)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups large diced eggplant (about ½ a small eggplant)
1 cup large diced red pepper (about 1 large pepper)
1 cup large diced zucchini (about ½ a zucchini)
1 cup large diced yellow squash (about ½ a squash)
3 large cloves of garlic, sliced thin
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
3 cups large diced tomatoes (about 4 tomatoes)
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon roughly torn basil leaves
1 large thyme sprig
Black pepper
2 14 oz packages of tofu
1 ½ cups yellow ground cornmeal
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
2 eggs
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Serves 6

For the ratatouille
In a large sauté pan heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Add the onion and salt and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the eggplant and sauté until the onion and eggplant begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the red pepper, zucchini, yellow squash, garlic, and chili flakes and sauté just until the vegetables begin to soften and brown, another 5 minutes.

Add the diced tomatoes, water, and herbs and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook covered for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve over tofu.

For the tofu
Open the tofu, drain it, and place it on a large plate or dish. Cover each piece of tofu with a few paper towels and place a heavy book on top of each piece to press all of the moisture out. Let the tofu sit like this for 20 minutes.

Pat the tofu dry and cut the blocks horizontally so that you have 2 pieces for each block, each one half the thickness of the original block. Cut each of these 2 pieces into 4 rectangles.

Combine the cornmeal, salt, and pepper on a plate and set aside. Beat the egg with the balsamic vinegar and set aside.

Dip each piece of tofu first in the egg wash and then in the cornmeal. Make sure that you cover every surface of the tofu and that you dust off any extra cornmeal.

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a sauté pan. Carefully add the tofu (in batches if needed) and sear about 2 minutes per side, until a crust forms.

Top the tofu with the ratatouille or keep warm in a 200 degree oven before serving.

Tomatoes and red peppers are high in vitamins A and C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that prevents cell damage and plays a role in immunity. Vitamin A plays a role in immunity, skin, bone and eye health and is also an antioxidant.

All the vegetables are high in fiber, which helps you feel fuller faster, lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar and keeps your gastrointestinal track healthy.

Tofu is a lean source of protein and is high in calcium. Calcium is not only good for your bones, but also helps regulate blood pressure and may be involved in cancer prevention.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Restrain Yourself!

With Passover behind us, our pantries are once again brimming with pasta, bread, rice, corn, beans, tofu, and hopefully not too much high fructose corn syrup. We are hungry for the forbidden foods of the past week. Who knew that just one Shabbat without challah could be so painful? As matzah fades from our memories we will wander through grocery store aisles and fill our carts with leavened goodness in the form of happiness. Passover is about restraint; the days immediately following are often about gluttony.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Welcome to my blog!

“And you should love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). These words describe a way of loving God, but they can also be understood as a way of loving ourselves, as an extension of God. We must love ourselves with our heart by nourishing it with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy meats, dairy, and even sweets. We must love ourselves with our soul by feeding it new ways of connecting to our Judaism and our community. And we must love ourselves with our might by not only physically exercising our bodies, but also by exercising our minds and character to constantly strive for new levels of nourishment.

In the posts that follow, I will give you recipes and tips for how to live the healthiest Jewish life possible keeping in mind heart, soul and might. For now, with only a few hours before I start to cook yet another Passover meal, I want to share an exciting and delicious recipe with you (I'm assuming you are as sick of potatoes as I am). This recipe for spaghetti squash is high in vitamins A, C and K as well as folate and iron and is low in fat and carbohydrates. The earthiness of the mushrooms and balsamic vinegar lends an intensity of flavor to the squash and will ooze comfort into your heart and soul for the end days of Passover. Enjoy!

Spaghetti Squash with Mushrooms and Spinach

1 spaghetti squash (3-4 pounds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ pound baby spinach

Serves 4

Prick squash all over with a fork or knife, like you would a potato. Microwave on high for 5-8 minutes, depending on the power of your microwave. Turn over and microwave another 5-8 minutes or until the squash feels tender to the touch. Alternatively, roast the squash in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until soft. Cut the squash in half and gently scoop out the seeds. Scrape out the strings of squash into a bowl with a fork.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil over high heat in a large sauté pan. Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned and almost fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper and cook 2 more minutes, or until garlic is lightly browned. Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan and cook until all of the liquid cooks off. Add in the spinach and cook until it wilts, about 1 minute. Combine the mixture with the spaghetti squash, season with additional salt and pepper if needed, and serve.