Sunday, July 5, 2015

June gloom slump - sending happy vibes

It's the start of July and Southern California is slowly losing the "June Gloom" feel. The weather is beautiful and it's nice for a change to have clouds rolling in with little sun, but these last few months have been really stressful.

June Gloom over Seal Beach (photo courtesy of Darkest Tree)

I'm starting to hopefully wind down my graduate career (fingers crossed), but the idea of the "next game plan" is a little daunting to say the least. My lab just put out a grant renewal which was really hard on our little lab - imagine two main people running around like two headless chicken scrambling to put together figures and preliminary data. Yikes! Sleep has been evading me and a majority of the time, I think I could successfully pass as a zombified freak. Just in time for Comic-Con too.

It's over though. But it was a painful set of stressful weeks with one horrible week of bad digestion problems. I'm not going to go all TMI on you, but it was bad. June was hard, but the sky is clearing up, the weather is looking more "Socal," and there's a silver lining appearing... hopefully.

I never quite understood the power of positive thoughts. I'd talk to friends and family and always hear the "keep your head up," or "stay positive!" but never got it. I say those things too, but they're more for inspiration. You say that kind of stuff to people to make them feel better, hoping that their luck does turn up. But do happy thoughts, good meditation vibes, or positive chakra really translate into something physically changing in your body or brain? Or is it more placebo effect?

It turns out that thinking happy thoughts, or remembering happy memories actually can reverse the negative effects of stress... At least in mice.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a recent article in Nature documenting a phenomenal finding. In this study, Ramirez and colleagues optically stimulated "happy memories" into the memory specific region of the brain (dentate gyrus) within mice subjected to stressful environment, and discovered a reduction and amelioration of stress-induced behaviors and cell loss. Mice that normally experience stressful environments display different behaviors such as anhedonia (lack of pleasure), less mobility, and even cell loss. All these behaviors were restored to levels similar to control mice when happy memories were reactivated.  The researchers also identified the pathway responsible for mediating the control of maintaining depressive symptoms as  network connecting the memory-rich dentate gyrus with the more emotional regions of the brain like the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus. By stimulating the dentate gyrus and reactivating the "happy network" of cells, depressive symptoms and protection against cell loss were kept at bay.

It's an interesting possibility, and definitely something that we can all take to heart. I always try to tell people to think positive, but implementing it myself is hard. As a "glass is half empty" type of person, it's hard for me to try to maintain positivity when stress hits you hard. But finding moments of happiness may just help reduce the impact of stress on your life (and hopefully, ward off those wrinkles on your face!).

 If you think back on rough patches in your life, what really helped pull you out of the rut? It might have been the kind words of family, a little "get well" card from your BFF, recalling a fond memory of the last time you were happy, or even looking forward to something after this stressful moment in your life. One of my major motivators? My family and MOH.

Blissfully happy in Irvine (photo courtesy of MJD)
That and finding my happy place in my mind when I'm running.

Sending good vibes to everyone on this Sunday - enjoy the remainder of your weekend! Until next time, happy eating!

Ramirez, S et al., 2015. Activating positive memory engrams suppresses depression-like behavior. Nature. June 18: 522(7556):335-9.

Monday, May 25, 2015

What to do with my plain yogurt... home-made granola

Lately I've been eating lots of oatmeal. It's super easy to make in the morning and jam packed with tons of good nutrients. And the great bowel movements I get are an added plus!

My favorite way to eat oatmeal so far is cold. I like to put in a 1:1 ratio of almond milk to oatmeal and drizzle a little agave nectar, and top with fresh fruit. Then leave it in the fridge overnight and voila - you have a quick, hearty breakfast before you start your work day. It's great for me because I'm super lazy and hate having to wash the little sauce pot that I normally use for hot oatmeal.

But what if you're not into oatmeal and all its gushy, mushy goodness? If you're a texture kind of person, get your oatmeal fix by making granola! No, I'm not talking about granola from the store - I'm talking about home-made granola adjusted to the sweetness level you like.

Raisin and date granola - a little on the chewy side, but great with plain yogurt!
MOH and I have been trying to eat healthier. I'm hoping that this isn't one of our sweeping declarations that only gets implemented once and never again (like our "post-exam" sushi making nights that happened once in sophomore year of undergrad), but rather a long term, permanent fitness goal. One of the ways we're trying to get healthier is reducing our sugar intake. Oreos are out of our apartment, and the only cookies we're making now are ten-grain, minimal sugar babies (still good, but healthier!).

This granola recipe is super easy, modifiable, and healthy. What more can you ask for? I like having a minimal sweetness to the granola, so I used honey or agave nectar. No other sugar needed (except from the dried fruits). If you like  granola, this is something you should try - it saves on money and you can make it exactly how you like it.

Hope everyone's enjoying the long weekend! The weather here in Socal is beautiful - MOH and I went on a great scenic hike at Santiago Oak Regional Park in Orange. The park was beautiful and lush with green.

Raisin-date granola (I recently tried coconut-raisin granola and it was pretty good too, so feel free to experiment with different dried fruits!)
- 2 cups of granola
- 1 1/2 tablespoon of honey (less or more depending on how sweet you like it)
- 4 dates chopped finely (the coarser you chop, the higher likelihood of having clumpy, chewy granola bits, so your call)
- 1/2 cup of raisins

1. Mix in dry ingredients (everything except honey)
2. Add in honey and mix with your hands until fully coated
3. Spread on baking sheet and bake at 350 for 15  minutes until lightly brown
4. Let cool on rack and then eat! Store granola in fridge for freshness.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Coffee-laced chili = yum

I love hot sauce. It goes on anything ranging from starches like rice, proteins like eggs, or carb-y starches like beans. Whether it's Tabasco, Sriracha, or Tapatio, hot sauce has a special place in my heart. And just because I'm getting older, experiencing more bouts of "heartburn-like" symptoms, I still like to do at least a dash of hot sauce on my food. It just makes it more tasty, even if my gut sometimes feels like it's on fire.

So this weekend when MOH and I went to the Farmer's Market, we ventured to a cute little stand called Dadman Farms. Their signature sauces are part of a line called "Nukeyerbungo" and feature a range of mild to spicy hot sauces that are similar in taste to the tangy sour Tabasco sauce. The owner was super nice and really passionate about hot sauce.

Of all the sauces there, one sauce that really caught my eye was their signature "coffee-laced" Chiletenango Sauce No. 4.

It sounds strange - coffee? In a hot sauce? But the coffee offers a great smokey after taste that gives the sauce a little bit of a kick. It goes great with eggs, but AMAZING with chili.

The stars were aligned it seemed - this weekend's weather was a little more muggy than usual, not to mention cold. So chili and cornbread was a great warm treat.

Chili for me is just something I throw together using residual ingredients and almost-going-to-expire beans (I know, MOH, I buy in bulk and forget these cans exist!). I had a little tomato sauce leftover from tacos, so just threw in the remaining sauce, some chopped tomatoes, onions, corn, and beans (pinto and black), and just let the mixture simmer over a medium heat. For seasoning, I just added some cumin, cayenne, paprika, onion powder, and garlic salt. People like differing levels of spice, so I just like to season accordingly (but be careful because too much cumin will come off too bitter). Then I topped it off with the hot sauce for the extra kick! It was a super hearty soup that went fantastic with some corn bread. The hot sauce adds this slow burn at the end that has a little extra caffeine to rejuvenate your spirits!

Until next time, happy eating!

Cornbread recipe without cornmeal or cornbread instant mix! (adapted from this recipe):

- Canned corn (I used half a can, but feel free to add more)
- 1 1/2 cups of flour (gluten free or 10 grain are good - 10 grain will be more gritty but equally delicious)
- 1/8 cup truvia
- 1 tbsp baking power
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup almond milk
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup of Smart Balance butter blend
- 1/8 cup of honey
- cheddar cheese (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degree F
2. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl
3. Add in wet ingredients into bowl and mix thoroughly (add cheese last)
4. Pour into a pan (I did a loaf, but muffins or a square pan would be fine)
5. Bake for 20 minutes or until brown

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Short break - will be back!

Hi all,

I've been posting fewer and fewer posts here and I just wanted to let everyone know that I'm still alive, just behind on a couple of things. Life's been getting busier, and as a result, I haven't been doing things that I love (writing about science, experimenting, or even sketching), but I'm trying to manage my life better, promise!

Posts will still come every so often, just not in as great frequency as it used to be.

In the mean time, everyone keep eating well, staying healthy, and keep happy thoughts along!

I miss sketching...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Food fun ventures part 2

MOH and I just celebrated our 9 year anniversary - 9 years. Time flies.

Whenever an anniversary rolls around, MOH and I like to reminisce about how we used to be. You think back and realize just how far you've come on a physical, mental, or in this instance, foodie standpoint. We remember back when we first met - our go-to surviving college student meals consisted of packing sandwiches with all the fixings (wheat bread with cheese slices, romaine or cabbage, and ham) and dinners with either ramen or baked goods (fish sticks, pizza rolls, chicken nuggets). A "healthy" meal to us was stir frying green cabbage with eggs and topping off this healthy mix with thai chili sauce. Serve over white rice, and dinner was served! Now, we're making better attempts to eat healthier and have sworn off using the thai chili sauce on all occasions except as a dipping sauce for samosas or eggrolls.

As a throw back to our younger days, MOH and I decided to venture into the Anaheim Packing House, a collection of more than 20 old school meets modern food vendors and restaurants all located conveniently inside a giant warehouse. Many of these restaurants take food classics and put a twist on the favorites. Each restaurant has its own autonomy with decor and range from old parlor feel to the up scale bar scene.

Inside decor of the packing house - beautifully lit, lots of spaces to eat and hang out

Little vendors strewn throughout the district including this "springtime stand" featuring easter eggs, bath towels, and specialty floral soaps
Of the 20+ restaurants located in this food district, where do MOH and I beeline to? Perhaps the gourmet dark chocolate shop? Or the tea vendor with the monkey picked oolong sampler? Nah, neither of those places catch our eye this time.

The restaurants all vary with some specializing in just ice cream bars, or dark chocolate mixes, or Japanese hot-pot
We decide to keep stay true to our classy selves and head straight to the grilled cheese bar of course.

The Black Sheep Grilled Cheese Bar (GBC) is this cute little mini-diner that specializes exclusively in grilled cheese delights. The menu lists about 10 items, everything grilled dairy.

MOH and I tried their signature #1, which consisted of fromage blanc cheese (super creamy and nutty), caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and pesto. 

This place will creep up on you. We ordered one sandwich to share and wished that we ordered two. The sandwich is surprisingly creamy but not heavy. The cheese proportion was perfect with the bread. I normally don't like cheese too creamy (sharp cheddar is my favorite), but this cheese was so soft against the crunchy bread that it just worked. The onions and pesto were really good contrasts to the otherwise nutty bread as well.

As if our arteries weren't already shot from eating cheesy goodness, we decided to do more damage by ordering a side of fish and chips from good 'ol Chippy's.

For some reason, ordering fish and chips is something that I'm always drawn to whenever I see it on a menu. I didn't eat it much as a kid but the fried flaky, white fish and tartar sauce combo is one of my favorite things to eat. I think it's the guilty pleasure of eating deep-fried goodness because I have a similar love-hate relationship with french fries (something I always order, even if it's at a fancy restaurant where it goes by the name "pommes frites").

We ordered their sampler of fish, calamari and fries and the size was pretty decent for the price.

I sometimes encounter fish 'n chips having too much batter compared to fish, but the fish to fried dough ratio was really good. The fish was a good size and the calamari had a good bite to it (not too soft or chewy). The fries were sadly, just fries, but the fish was really delicious.

We tried to sample more places, but our tummies just couldn't handle it (although we were seriously considering getting more grilled cheese). Instead of getting dessert, MOH and I opted to just save dessert for next time. There's a cute little popsicle bar that does creamy/fruity variations of ice cream bars that I think we'll try for next time.

The trip to the Packing House was a great success - MOH even walked out with a cute little friend and we spent our special day happily eating grilled cheesy goodness. Fried fish didn't hurt either.

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fun food ventures part I

Every so often, you just need to take a few breaths and just relax. And having good food doesn't hurt.

Restaurant week rolled around last week for Costa Mesa, and MOH and I went with a friend to try a great little tavern called the Wild Goose.

This little hole in the wall serves up delicious bar food for a great price. You can relax with your favorite starters with a twist, against the backdrop of sports blaring in a western, hunting background (picture staff in flannel, animal headmounts with hanging decorations). The place can get super cramped, so get comfy and be cool with the friendly, not-so-occasional human contact. This bar is a no-fuss, get in, get comfy, and eat good kind of place. And the food is FANTASTIC.

My favorite starter? Sweet potato and goat cheese fritters atop a cilantro glaze. It's like the perfect marriage between sweet potato fries and fried goat cheese. I'm super biased because I'm a sucker for any fried starch, but these little fritters were little bites of heaven. Creamy, savory, spicy pieces of heaven.

Photo courtesy of Mai N. from Yelp
And what trip to a cavern would be complete without a mouth-watering, perfectly mouth-proportioned burger? 

Photo courtesy of Jeff K from Yelp
I'm always on the look-out for good tuna burgers, and this one did not disappoint. For me, a really good burger has just the right amount of toppings that doesn't sacrifice in size. Another thing that really gets to me is if a burger is too large to fit in the average mouth (I mean, no one likes to cut their burger into pieces, or eat it in half-bites). This burger had a great flavor, with a great asian cole-slaw and sweet hot mustard sauce. So delicious and no need for extra condiments.

By the time we were done eating, our bellies were stuffed. No room needed for dessert (although MOH and I did come across a great dessert place later in the week - more on this in the next post: quick eats and sweets).

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Roll with the punches, but let's go light on the coconut dear... Vietnamese rice rolls and Thai custard fun

This weekend was a quadruple threat for MOH and I. It was a three-day weekend, Valentine's day, our anniversary (for the month), and my birthday weekend, so we had to do something special. What better way to spend a great weekend than staying in, cleaning cages, and making some good home-cooked meals?

MOH and I have been on this quest to find pandan leaves. Pandan leaves originate from Asia and are often a flavoring component in many desserts (ever had Pandan waffles?). Every one of my dad's birthdays has featured a beautiful, tasty Pandan cake full of young coconut stuffing. It's the same cake every year, from the same bakery, but my tummy never complains.

Pandan is a popular flavor for many cakes (especially paired with coconut)
While you can put Pandan in several cakes and other types of baked desserts, MOH was craving a Thai custard, sangkhaya, that is often flavored with pandan. So when we finally found Pandan in a grocery store (our fourth effort), we were super excited to try to recreate a Thai favorite that is near and dear to MOH's heart.

The results were delicious, but a bit high on the coconut side. If you like a subtle coconut flavor, I would suggest doing a half-half mixture of coconut milk and almond milk (I'm going to definitely try it next time). If you LOVE coconut milk though, you're in luck - this recipe has the flavor of vanilla and pandan with a kick of coconut. Super creamy, and great to dip with any type of bread.

And with the weather being hot lately (at least for Southern California), I decided to make something light and simple - Vietnamese rice rolls, or banh cuon.  Banh cuon is a type of rice roll that has different types of fillings (meat, vegetable, seafood), and is often eaten over a bed of hearty greens, with steamed meat and fish sauce. Banh cuon is one of my favorite dishes that my mother would make. She would make everything from scratch, even the rice rolls. This was a staple in our house and often was served for brunch during the weekend. It's also a fun dish to eat because you can customize how you want to eat it. If you're more into the rice rolls, you'd stuff your dish full of these little rolls. If you're more into the vegetables, then you could skimp back on the rolls and pack on the greens. For me, I'm super lazy and decided to just buy the rice rolls from the grocery store. If you choose this easy cheat route (totally fine, no shame), preparing the dish can take as little as 10 minutes... seriously.

Super simple, and really healthy (depending on how you make your plate). Either way, a great way for MOH and I to end our Sunday night.

Happy Valentine's to all! And happy eating, please!

Pandan sangkhaya recipe (modified from this awesome recipe):
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar
-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 pandan leaves, washed and wiped
- 1 1/2 cups coconut milk (although to get lighter coconut flavor, do half mixture with almond milk)
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 1/8 tsp salt

1. Blend pandan leaves with 1 cup of coconut milk until pandan leaves blended thoroughly- strain the mixture and set aside
2. Mix yolks, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla extract, and salt until mixed thoroughly - then add in pandan milk mixture
3. Over low heat, stir the mix (from #2) until thick - you are aiming for a consistency that's like yogurt. Don't overmix - as soon as it thickens, turn off heat and set mixture aside in bowl
4. Once cool - enjoy with bread, dipped!

Banh cuon recipe (this doesn't need a recipe, but ingredients are just listed)
- Package of banh cuon
- 3 cups beansprouts, blanched
- 1/2 head lettuce, shredded
- Herbs (mint or Vietnamese perilla), chopped
- Steamed fish cake (or Vietnamese ham, cha lua)
- Fish sauce (can be made using this recipe)

To make your banh cuon, customize your dish with as much greens or meat as you like - top off with some fish sauce and enjoy!!!