Sunday, April 20, 2014

Brussel sprouts - tasty and not feet-like at all

I've just tapped into how great Brussel sprouts are.

I always thought Brussel sprouts tasted nasty, largely basing my opinion of these green minions by an episode from Full House where the father Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) confessed to his mother how much he hated brussel sprouts, claiming they smelled like stinky feet. As a child, Full House was the definitive show for learning "life lessions," so I took everything they said as truth. I never looked at brussel sprouts, nor had any inclination to try them. If I saw them on a menu, I actively avoided them. I think it's probably akin to when most people see the word "durian." (sidenote: I love durian, too!) It wasn't until I was on one of my weekly runs with a friend that we got on the usual topic of "what was the best thing you ate this week?" He mentioned sauteing brussel sprouts in a pan and tossing in a light vinaigrette. I asked him, "don't they taste like feet?" When he told me how delicious they could be, if cooked right, I decided to give them a try.

Image courtesy of ThorPorre
Maybe seen as physically offputting, brussel sprouts are quote the opposite in health benefits. It's in the same family as kale and broccoli, the cruciferous vegetables. Its health benefits include having the ability to prevent DNA damage that happens to our bodies, lower cholesterol levels, and possess anti-cancer properties. Loaded with tons of nutrients, it's definitely an underdog vegetable that deserves more attention.

I think one reason counting against brussel sprouts is their slight bitter taste, paralleling its sibling kale.Most recipes for these lovely greens calls for steaming, but I personally love to roast brussel sprouts with a light coating of olive oil and salt and pepper. It's really simple, but if you roast until they're lightly brown, they taste delicious. Simply toss in olive oil, sprinkle on seasoning, and roast for 15 minutes at 400 degrees F in the oven. So tasty. If into cheese, try these with a light coating of parmesan cheese.

Some more news this weekend: I attended my first WonderCon in Anaheim. Similar to Comic-Con, WonderCon is a meeting of all things comics, film, art, and was lots of fun.

MOH and I took a break from our studies to check out this annual meeting, and we picked up some great art commission pieces. One piece that I'm pretty excited about is this zombie runner, done by Joel Gomez. I asked for a piece of a zombie running toward a finishing line with parts flying to and fro, and couldn't be happier with the results.

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Take it all with a grain of salt

It's feeling like a lazy Sunday, but I know I have work to do.

I'm trying to advance to candidacy soon, so I apologize if the future posts sound a bit scattered. "Advancing to candidacy" means different things for different graduate programs, but usually entails a qualifying exam to see if a project is worthy of getting a PhD. For my department, five professors sit around a round table, listen to my summation of four years of work, critique the inner workings my project, and then deem whether I am worthy of becoming a PhD candidate.

Astrocytes - one of my research interests
That said, I'm trying to brush up on my reading and am heavy in hermit crab mode. Reading scientific papers critically is an art that you hone over time. For me, I don't know if I'll ever fully grasp this skill. You need to consider how good controls are, how sound the experiments are, and if you believe the central theme of each finding. Sometimes you'll come across really great papers that provide findings that really speak to you; other times, you're left feeling more questionable rather than satisfied.

I dealt with this dilemma a little when I came across this paper through a news report that I found through a friend's Facebook - the headline was "Vegetarians are less healthy and have a lower quality of life than meat eaters." The title itself was very provocative - considering the many sources (anecdotal or scientific) regarding how plant based diets tend to yield healthier results, I was very curious about what the scientific source was.

The article, published in PLOS ONE, reported that vegetarians are at higher risk of being unhealthy, more prone to certain diseases, higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. In addition to their findings, they also reported vegetarians as having lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption.

HOLD THE PHONE. Vegetarians have lower BMIs (a crude measurement of physical healthy that can be used to make cut offs between healthy and unhealthy weight range), but are more prone to diseases? Normally both low BMI and alcohol intake has been indicators for better health, not worse. Strange as it sounds, I looked further into this paper and found that some things were worth noting before taking into consideration the findings:

1. Of the "vegetarian" group, only 0.2% were vegetarians that ate ONLY fruits and vegetables. They had to pool together vegetarians, vegetarians that ate eggs and milk, and vegetarians that eat fish.

2. Vegetarians are considered less healthy because more of them were reported as having allergies, cancer and mental illness. While the numbers may be different between the vegetarians and meat diet groups, you cannot link this directly to diet. Correlation does not imply causation and another factor may be confounding your findings. What does this exactly mean? Think about survey findings of a large city like New York  as having more firefighters and more fires than any other city. Does that mean that the firefighters caused the increase in fires? Not necessarily - because the city is large, has many buildings, there is a higher probability for fires happening, hence a larger need for hiring more firefighters.

3. Vegetarians "required" more health care because this group had people who were vaccinated less and visited the doctor less often than other diet groups. Again, not necessarily linked, and not the best choice for looking at health care.

Overall, there are definite merits to doing large scale epidemiology studies like this mentioned study - you just need to take everything with a grain of salt and look critically at the actual findings. Needless to say, whenever you see an eye-popping article proclaiming to find the newest cure for disease, or a solution for curing memory loss, be sure to keep an open mind!

With that, hope everyone's weekend winds down well.

Happy eating all!

PS. A recent study actually concluded that the best diet for someone is a diet favored heavily towards vegetables and fruits, with lean meats included. Not a big surprise, but good to know!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Art for thought

Hello everyone,

From previous posts, I had mentioned revisting an old hobby of mine - art!

For my birthday, I received some pastels, art paper, and sketch pencils, and have been having the time of my life. Art has been a great release for me and often helps me clear my head.

I've been focusing mainly on landscapes, but occasionally I do some abstract strange pieces.

The piece above is an abstract rendition of a terrarium with marimo balls. These moss balls are normally found in the bottom of Japanese lakes and are supposed to bring everlasting luck in Japanese tradition.

My art pieces have consisted mainly of things I enjoy taking photographs of (sunsets, nighttime views), as well as my own musings. Working with pastels has definitely been a fun journey. I'm naturally a messy person, so working with pastels works perfectly with my personality. You work with various color palettes, mixing in colors onto a blank canvas. I usually use my fingers to mix in the colors, so by every finished session, my fingers are varying shades of blue, purple, green.

Please stay tuned for the occasional posts on new artwork!

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring celebration - bringing in the season with spring rolls

Spring is here, which means flowers are in full bloom and the cold wintry weather should be coming to an end. For MOH and I, we're super excited because our blueberry plant is finally showing signs of pseudo-ripe blueberries! We purchased a blueberry plant almost half a year ago and waited patiently for blueberries to sprout. A couple months in, berries sprouted, but they were green and extremely sour. So imagine our delight when we finally saw some hints of purple and blue on some of the berries! Hopefully we can harvest ripe berries to use for yogurt toppings and homemade jam.

It's also Spring Break here in Irvine, so MOH and I spent our weekend lazying it up. We walked through the farmer's market and picked up tons of fresh produce and were racking our brains on what to eat for dinner.

What better way to ring in Spring than to have spring rolls? Spring rolls, or goi cuon, are a great way to make a light, healthy, and refreshing meal. The prep is minimal, if at all, and there is so much flexibility with what you can put inside your rolls, as well as what type of dipping sauce you choose (the name itself is pretty non-specific and just means "wrapped roll.") Our usual go-to spring roll choice is shrimp with hoisin dipping sauce, but I've done spring rolls filled with tofu, carrots, broccoli, and mushrooms - all delicious in their own way!

For this round of spring rolls, we decided to do baked salmon spring rolls. You can use any fish you like, so long as it's flaky and easy to fillet. MOH and I enjoy to do our salmon with a soy glaze, so we normally marinate it in a teriyaki or bulgogi mix* (super strange, I know, but one day we were out of teriyaki sauce and tried marinating our fish with bulgogi sauce, and lo and behold, it turned out pretty good!). If you want, you can steam your fish, or do a different type of seasoning, like lemon.

See where I checked the fish for if it was cooked? Always make sure your meat or fish is cooked through!
Once you have your fish cooked, you can go ahead and make your sauce. Normally for fish spring rolls, we do a fish dipping sauce (nuoc mam) that is usually on the sour and sweet side. There are a variety of fish sauce recipes out there, but the minimum ingredients call for citrus, water, sugar, and fish sauce (see my rough recipe below). For today's dish, I was craving something with a little heat, so I added ground ginger - it provides this great bite to the spring rolls.

From there, you can prep your greens - I like the rule of having tons of greens with just a little bit of meat. Depending on who is eating, you can have a variety of herbs, lettuce, beansprouts, cilantro, etc. I only had romaine, cilantro, mustard greens, and beansprouts on hand.

Now comes the fun part. Eating spring rolls is really interactive and can be lots of fun. The first time MOH tried spring rolls, he came to my house and had to learn on the spot how to make a good roll! He was sweating bullets under his shirt trying to make a perfectly wrapped spring roll without the rice wrapper busting on his plate. I would say breaking your spring roll is almost as embarrassing as being unable to lift pho noodles seamlessly into a soup spoon in my parent's house. Now, 8 years later, he is quite the pro... at both.

To create your roll, wet rice wrapper with water and place on a plate equal in size to the wrapper (I like to use three ladies rice wrapper brand, but there is a ton of brands to choose from - just choose one that is flexible enough to be stretched without tearing). Then line your soft ingredients first (like lettuce) - don't make the mistake of putting in something hard like beansprouts as the first layer unless you are a pro. I like to protect my beansprouts with lettuce, then top with some fish, and then wrap. I like to wrap my spring rolls burrito style, first rolling up long ways, then rolling the two sides inward. If you're into low carb, sometimes I just make a lettuce wrap with salmon and greens and just dip that into my fish sauce.

No matter what you choose, the nice thing about spring rolls is there is no one size fits all. When done rolling, eat immediately and enjoy!

Hope everyone is having a great Sunday! Happy eating all!

Fish sauce recipe (modified from Ravenous Couple):
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/8 cup of fish sauce
- 5 gloves of garlic, chopped finely or crushed
- 4 thai chilis
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons lime (or 1.5 juicy limes/lemons)
- 3 tablespoons of ground ginger

Depending on my mood, I sometimes vary the sugar, fish sauce, lemon. The recipe is super flexible, and can be modified however you prefer! I think for me, I usually like to alter the sweetness, so I change the amount of sugar and lime but keep the same 1:1 ratio. Most nuoc mam recipes on other website follow a similar layout with regards to ratios and ingredients.

*Bulgogi fish sauce mix:
This mix is a MOH favorite - simply use bulgogi sauce (meant for pork and beef), and add some garlic salt, ginger powder, sprinkle of paprika, and green onions, and you are all set!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Guest post: Wankstronomist's favorite gluten free treats

Hey culineuro nom-lovers, 

The Wankstronomist returns, and not with a flavor pairing that's weird and delicious for you to try.

Unfortunately, the Wankstronomist is undergoing some digestion challenges. Since returning from a fellowship in Vietnam, she can't eat too much meat, wheat, or dairy. So now, her pantry is stocked with vegan, gluten-free treats to satisfy her appetite. Here are the top three things to keep yourself at bay with hunger.

1. Green Lentils. Here's a recipe on how simple it is to cook. Make sure to take out irregular lentils out, and add salt last. Top over rice and get a delicious, filling, vegan dinner.

2. Dates. Your tummy is happy and fulfilled, and your poop comes out easier. Win-win in my book. Pick dates from Wholefoods or Trader Joes. They don't add sugar, are perfectly dried, and taste waaaay better than the normal gross mush you buy at regular stores. For the best dates, you can go to Dubai. You know, just in case you can drop $$$$$ for the plane ticket.

3. Coconut Water. I know this doesn't count as a hunger-defying snack, but forreals, the electrolytes and potassium found naturally in this water top all choices in energy drinks. Add some chia seeds to make it more power punched.

Back to the beginning of this post of "digestion challenges". Part of these challenges are derived from returning from a developing country that lacks strong health and clean water standards, but the second is not having a good work-life balance. It doesn't matter how many vegan meals the Wankstronomist eats, or how many chia frescas she drinks. If there isn't work-life balance where a person can do a quality job at work and still meet up with friends for fun, exercise for mental well-being, and have time to catch up with loved ones far away; life's just not as great as it can be. When life's not at awesome as it's meant to be, our minds and bodies respond. Skin rashes flare up, insomnia creeps in, depression burdens our shoulders, or if you're like me, you might not be able to poop.

So readers, I wish you healthy eating, happy living, and balance and peace, because you deserve to feel good about yourself.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pass on the shrimp, reach for the 'shrooms: why eating that rack o' ribs may be better saved for your 75th bday

It seems that there's always a new diet craze that helps improve health, metabolism, or general wellness. From the Atkins, South Beach, Raw Food, and even Blood Type diet, there's a diet that seems to cater for everyone's selective culinary preferences. And everyone's got their favorite.

A more recent diet is the Paleo, or Caveman diet. This diet focuses heavily on natural food (as in straying away from processed or preserved foods) with a particular emphasis on proteins.

The diet is supposed to be healthier and reflect our earlier ancestors' diets. While not much evidence really promotes or debunks this diet, a new article published in Cell Metabolism recently showed that depending on your age, you may want to consider altering your protein consumption level. This epidemiology study tracked the health and food intake of 6,000+ male and female participants aged above 50, and looked at any relationships between health and protein intake. They found that subjects who consumed a high protein diet had a higher chance of all cause and cancer mortality if aged 50-65. In contrast, subjects over 65 who consumed a high protein diet had a lower chance of all cause and cancer mortality. On an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense to shift your diet to more protein as you age. Aging bodies tend to lose more muscle anyway, so it makes sense to consume more protein. Their claims were further supported in experimental studies done on mice and yeast that showed similar results and even pointed to a possible molecular pathway.*

Something interesting about this finding was that the protein evaluated was predominantly from animal sources. Considering that many vegetarian based diets (veganism and Mediterranean style diet) champion huge health benefits, it was surprising that the paper did not look at if parsing out subjects who ate protein mainly from non-animal sources would have shown similar results.

In light of these recent findings, MOH and I spent our Sunday grabbing most of our protein from non-animal sources. My favorite source? FUNGUS! These past two weeks have been great because the supermarket has shitake mushrooms on sale = yum. Mushrooms are not only tasty, but have a higher protein content than most vegetables and are full of fiber. To showcase the mushrooms (I personally feel that they taste like dirt, in a good way), I did a variation of my Bun Xao, which I normally do with tofu or shrimp. This time, I sauteed mushrooms with lemongrass and ate my stir-fry medley on top of a bed of greens with vermicelli. Really delicious and a change of pace from my original recipe.

The results turned out great and were quite tasty.

Hope everyone's weekend is winding down well and you're all ready for the upcoming week. Until next time, happy eating all!

*** Authors were mainly interested in how caloric consumption affects growth hormone (GH) and insulin growth factor (IGF), and how these two factors may mediate health and life expectancy. They used mice to support their findings that A) high protein diets tend to favor all cause and cancer mortality in younger mice and, B) high protein diets in aged populations is more beneficial than low protein diets. Furthermore, researchers used yeast and identified that proteins may be affecting life expectancy by activating the Tor-Sch9 and Ras/PKAy pathway.

Levine, ME et al., 2014. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metabolism. 19(3): 407-417.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tea time - converting over to loose leaf

"Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one." - Chinese proverb

A typical weekend tradition for MOH and I is to enjoy our mornings with a nice cup of freshly brewed tea.

We enjoy choosing between different loose leaf blends, depending on our mood. And there's a TON to choose, ranging from soft mellow flavors that you'd normally find in green tea varieties, like our jasmine pearl, to something bold and assertive, like our vanilla mint chai. No matter what our selection, morning tea time is a great time for us to reset and calibrate ourselves for the day to come.

MOH and I actually used to be purely bagged drinkers. We never thought there was much of a difference between loose leaf or bagged tea. It wasn't until we purchased some loose oolong leaves that we noticed a substantial difference in the aroma and taste of the tea.

Tea as it turns out, is not all created equal. Bagged tea tends to contain tea extracts that are more processed and lower quality compared to loose leaf. If you compare rough blends together (a loose leaf Jasmine tea blend versus its bagged counterpart), you can see the difference with your naked eye.

Comparing loose leaf versus bagged tea is probably similar to freshly brewed coffee to stale, day old coffee. There's still the taste that's reminiscent of something in a dream, as if this sorta tastes like green tea...? But it's nowhere near as fresh, aromatic, and crisp tasting as you'd like. If you compare loose versus bagged tea, you will notice that bagged tea often tastes more bitter and has this off-putting aftertaste that clings to your mouth.

Taste aside (though a big factor), nutrients can also be affected by processing. Loose leaves tend to be closer to the true source of tea (often containing whole dry leaves) and maintain the natural vitamins and nutrients found in the leaves, whereas bagged teas contain the processed, bits of leaves, that all get compressed together into a nice doggy bag. As a result, some of the nutrients can get lost through the packaging process.

Whether you're an avid tea drinker, or enjoy the occasional afternoon intermission of tea, trying loose leaf blends is worth a try. You'll find that there's a ton of suppliers that do loose leaf varieties, and several membership services that do tea subscriptions where you get a different blend every few weeks. Hopefully you'll appreciate the immense taste behind these loose leaf blends and become a convert, like me!

This weekend was daylight saving's time, where we turn our clocks one hour back. Major downside - loss of sleep. The upside? There's a higher chance of doing evening runs where the sun is still up and shining in all its glory.

Happy end of weekend, everyone, and happy eating all!