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!!!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday brunch spotlight - Green Tomato Grill

It's been awhile since MOH and I have gone out to eat, but we finally visited a restaurant on our list that has a great brunch menu and it did not disappoint! We spent our Sunday having a great meal in Orange at a tiny place called Green Tomato Grill, a little mecca for meat-lovers, vegans, and vegetarians alike. It's a cute restaurant with a cafe type setting that feels like a mash up between a Veggie Grill and Peet's Coffee.

Green Tomato Grill has a wide menu of breakfast items such as burritos, breakfast bowls, and egg scrambles, in addition to a huge variety of healthy lunch options (grilled bowls, salads, and wraps). There's also room for customizing your dish if you want that little extra kick or sauce to top your dishes - just simply grab a blank menu and circle your choice toppings.

Let me just say that everything we had tasted amazing. The food is super healthy, We started our meal with one of their most highly rated sides, chili lime popcorn.

The popcorn had a great lightness to it - not at all buttery, but full of a great tangy kick. I just kept popping these little kernels into my mouth until my actual meal arrived. Poor MOH, I ate more than half our shared bag.

Everything here is delicious and fresh. I ordered the BBQ Tofu bowl, one of their most popular items (at least through Yelp). Crispy lemongrass tofu is served atop brown rice with a great heap of stir fried vegetables that consists of cabbage, snap peas, tomatoes and onions. And to top it all off? Green Tomato's signature chipotle sauce with sliced avocado. The bowl combination was so delicious. The crispy tofu was so well seasoned and stayed crispy despite being mixed through all the sauteed vegetables. The dish was extremely filling.

Definitely a great welcome back to trying new foods. I'm not a fan of bowls when I go to restaurants, but the great sauce combination with vegetable stir fry was too delicious to pass up. And who can say no to fried tofu???

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Half-marathon success!!!

One of the things on my bucket list is to run a half-marathon or even better, full marathon. I've entertained the idea whenever I see cool running events, but never follow through with signing up. Of all the events available through California, Surf City definitely looked like "the one" to try. With a relatively flat route and beautiful backdrop (who can say no to running alongside the wonderful ocean view?), Surf City is hard to say no to. So when early registration rolled up last year, I finally signed up, scheduled in my training schedule runs, monitored my "healthy food" intake, and started counting down the months.

Today, everything came together despite battling a fever and nasal congestion the night before. 

It was such an amazing experience and big accomplishment for me. For the past few years, running has been a great outlet for me to de-compress and just relax. I'm not a fast runner by any means, but running allows me to have a few moments every day to just be with my own thoughts and it's something that I have control over in life. Life is full of so much unpredictability, with so many things out of our hands (no matter how much we try to handle it). Life is so short that you need to do everything in your power to just find more bubbles of happiness.

Like finding an awesome person to share big moments in your life.

What do I find when I arrive home? My own special medal that MOH handcrafted with felt.

More happy moments to end this weekend! 

Super Bowl just ended, and hopefully you enjoyed your weekend, no matter what the outcome.

What was on the menu tonight? Easy-grilled cheese sandwiches complete with sliced onions and mushrooms... yum. Happy eating all!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Burger night! Sloppy 'fus (sloppy tofus)

MOH just got over being sick and the first thing to come to mind was BURGERS. A good juicy burger with fries. We had some leftover shredded chicken breast that I was using for MOH's pasta noodle soup, so MOH creatively whipped up a mesquite mix and created a riff off "pulled chicken" to top his burger bun. It smelled so deliciously sweet and tangy (my favorite kind of BBQ flavor) that I thought about just having a little bite o' meat. Times like this channel my inner fried-chicken fatty.

But to make sure his little chef wasn't feeling left out, MOH surprised me with tofu sloppy joes (or sloppy 'fus).

These bad boys are so delicious and come with great flavoring. I usually make a quinoa burger but MOH's little creations had a great kick and smoky flavor to them - great for a casual Sunday dinner. These darlings are super easy to make - the key to cooking with Tofu is to make sure you pull out as much water as possible (my favorite tofu is firm or extra firm - I only use silken or soft for soups) and let the tofu simmer in your sauce of choice.

For these sloppy 'fus, MOH made a rub of his favorite BBQ sauce, honey, maple syrup and spices. I'm not going to showcase too much measurements because MOH just threw stuff together, so when you make your rub of choice, just follow the bare bone recipe below!

- 1 packet of tofu, drained
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- Spice rub: your favorite BBQ sauce (1 cup), 2 tablespoons maple syrup, 2 tablespoons honey, and your favorite spices (onion powder, paprika, garlic salt, fresh ground pepper)

- Mash tofu in a bowl into little pieces (this also helps take out some water)
- Marinate tofu pieces with rub
- In a small saucepan, add tofu marinated mixture
- Let tofu and sauce simmer until thickened (be sure to mix and cook down the tofu until the tofu is firmed and has a consistency of ground beef, or close to that)
- When cooked, let cool - then put on bun of your choice with all the "burger" fixings!

This sloppy joe mixture doubles over as a great snack and is jam packed with protein (tofu contains all the essential amino acids we need). Perfect munchies to prepare me for my half-marathon, which is next weekend!

Until next time, happy eating all!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tackling mortality at the genetic level

Ever care for someone while they're sick?

MOH has been extremely sick for the past couple days (and counting) and has been putting the whole "in sickness and health" vow to good use. Aside from walking around like a zombie, coughing sporadically, and taking in tons of tea/soup, he's been moping around requesting that even if he dies, I stay unmarried.

MOH's constant death remarks got me to thinking about a question that we normally don't think about until we get much older... What determines our mortality? Is there a such thing as an elixir of life that can keep us our youthful selves, free of disease, free of aging? 

Immortality in art: "Four immortals saluting longevity" by Shang Xi
While life expectancy has gradually increased with the advent of technology and better health care, our life span has remained pretty constant (the maximum life span is currently ~120 years old). While this life span is quite long, other animals, even mammals, have been known to live longer. For instance, a large whale called the bowhead whale can live up to 200 years. In addition to a long lifespan, this whale species also has low prevalence of many diseases associated with aging. 

Bowhead whales can reach up to 20 meters in length and weigh up to 100 tons (photo courtesy of Olga Shpak)
Why so old and healthy? And is it possible that with today's technological advances, can we tap into some of those genes and maybe get clues as to why we don't live as long?

In a recent article published in Cell Reports, scientists have uncovered the genetic makeup behind why long-living mammals like the bowhead whales are able to live so long, disease free.

Scientists were able to map the genetic map (or genome) of this whale species and compared the bowhead gene map to another whale species that does not live as long (Minke whale which lives for about 50 years) and identified several genes that may be the reason for why these whales live so long. 

Not surprisingly, many age, cancer, pro-growth, and DNA repair genes were found in the bowhead whale. Some interesting genes that turned up were the gene called histone deacetylase 1 (HDAC), a gene that is important for packaging DNA, and excision repair cross-complementing rodent repair deficiency (ERCC1), which when mutated, affects the lifespan of rodents and accelerates the aging process.

It's an experiment taken right out of what seems like a mad scientist's brain, but how do you apply these genetic findings to humans? Finding natural ways that animals are able to live so long, disease free, offers us new ways to study how these same genes may be changed in humans. If we could understand how these genes work naturally (to ward off age-related disease), we can potentially figure out how to fight these same genes when they get funky and altered. Though it's a long stretch to believe that we can take a cocktail of assorted genes that are "anti-aging/anti-disease," it's definitely a possibility in the future (realistic or not, it's possible!).

Hope everyone's enjoying their weekend. In between caring for MOH, I've been making peanut butter energy bars that when frozen taste like frozen yogurt.... so good.

Until next time, happy eating all!

Keane, M et al., 2015. Insights into the evolution of longevity from the bowhead whale genome. Cell Reports. 10: 112-122.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Holiday wind-up and warm vegetarian quiche (coconut milk base!)

MOH and I just got back from visiting our family in Northern California and just had our engagement ceremony and it was so memorable.

Our families came together to celebrate our engagement and take part in some good food. We were so fortunate to have the day documented by our wonderful cousin, Sid, who was a total trooper in photographing every moment!

A traditional vietnamese engagement ceremony involves the groom's family coming over to the bride's side with an assortment of gifts - a dowry almost. Gifts include fruits, cake, liquor, and tea. Each gift has special symbolism for wishing the couple a happy, lucky marriage.

Matthew's side brought so many delicious treats including dragonfruit, sticky rice cake, durian sweetcakes and a big roast pig! Another key part of the ceremony is a tea ceremony and lighting incense, where both our father's light incense to wish us good luck in our future union.

The day was full of so many happy memories for MOH and I (even despite a slight misspelling in the desserts), but MOH and I were so overjoyed to have our families support us in this next step in our life regardless.

Unfortunately, when we got back, both of us seemed to catch a NorCal cold - we've been in bed and walking around the apartment like zombies. Such a far cry from how happy and excited we were a week ago! After four days of a "flu-like" outbreak, the skies have cleared and we're feeling slightly better.

What better way to ring in the new year than to celebrate with quiche?

I love to make quiche when there's a bunch of "roast-friendly" vegetables. I like to make quiche with mushrooms, onions, broccoli, carrots and even eggplant. Today, I decided to make a quiche that's a little on the healthier side than using the typical heavy cream or half and half. Coconut milk is often a great substitute for any dairy ingredient. I was debating on almond milk, but the one in my fridge is slightly sweetened, otherwise I'd use it.

Quiche is super simple to make - simply sautee quiche ingredients in a saucepan until slightly cooked.

Then add in cream base (dairy option of your choice or almond milk, or coconut milk), eggs (egg white can be good), and cheese. Then toss this mixture into ramekins and bake, and then eat to your heart's delight!

MOH likes to have a crust in his quiche, so I line his ramekins with croissant dough. Quiche is just as good without the crust, which is how I like to eat it.

Hope everyone is having a great start of the new year! May this year be full of lots of happy memories for everyone - happy eating all!

- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 large broccoli crown, chopped
- 1 package of mushrooms, sliced
- 1/2 large eggplant
- 3 garlic cloves chopped
- 3/4 cup coconut milk
- 1/2 cup cheese (mixture of cheddar and four-cheese blend)
- 2 eggs
- optional: croissant-crust (I used Pillsbury croissant mix)

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees
2. Heat butter in medium saucepan
3. Sautee broccoli, mushrooms, eggplant and garlic until slightly softened
4. Turn off heat once vegetables cooked through, add milk and cheese and egg mixture - once mixed, pour into ramekins (if you want a crust, line the ramekins with the crust first, then pour mixture on top)
5. Bake quiche for 30 minutes and browned. Once cool, enjoy!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Second wind for older flies - special food source can ward off memory problems

Why do spring cleaning when it's warm and you get all sweaty cleaning dirt and grime, when you can do winter cleaning right before the holidays?

Every year MOH and I prepare for our trip up North by turning our apartment inside out and doing a thorough clean. Sure we clean up every now and then, but a real good scrub down is few and far between. Things that we accumulated over the year are either removed or packed away, depending on if it's still useful. Sometimes we forget about how much dust, dirt, and junk piles up, but when the home is clean, a fog feels like it's been lifted. You can breathe a little easier, maneuver through the rooms faster, and find things easier.

Our bodies also do "winter cleaning" regularly. Through a process called autophagy, proteins or cell parts that are non-functional, defective, or not needed anymore, are removed with the help of our disposal center part of cells called the lysosome. This process is very important for regulating efficient cellular processing and often becomes defective with age and several aging disorders like Alzheimer's. Ineffective autophagy results in a massive accumulation of junk proteins hanging around the cell, gradually piling up and impeding cellular function.

Structure of spermidine, a polyamine. Polyamines contain two or more amine groups (NH2) 

Recently, scientists have discovered a food source that has the ability to slow aging memory deficits in flies by upregulating autophagy processes. In this study, scientists wanted to look at the role between a compound called polyamines and age, since polyamines have been found to be downregulated with age. Using an olfactory memory test, flies were taught to associate a particular odor as being predictive of an electric shock. When old aged flies were given a type of polyamine (spermidine), scientists found that their learning was enhanced. In addition, the extra polyamine source enhanced production of more polyamines and was able to improve memory through increasing autophagy processes in this aged group - these flies had less junk proteins lying around as a result of efficient clean up . Weirdly enough, this boost in memory was only seen in the aged flies, as the younger flies showed no improvement in memory.*

While the verdict is still out on how effective polyamines are for warding age-related cellular problems and memory loss in humans, it certainly gives some incentive to try to incorporate more foods into our diet that are high in polyamines.  Luckily, our options for sources of polyamines are quite varied and tasty! The polyamine used in this study can be found heavily in foods such as aged cheese, mushrooms, soy, legumes, and corn.

Brown criminis stuffed with goat cheese (photo courtesy of Stacy from wikimedia)
Just my luck too - this week at the Farmer's Market, MOH and I stumbled across a goat cheese stand called Soledad Goats that doubles as an animal sanctuary and cheese farm. The cute little stand had a mix up of different goat cheese spreads and an olive oil herb mix with fresh goat cheese tossed into a cute little mason jar.

Delicious mix of cheese and herbs - my new thing to put on salads
This mix goes great on a salad (especially topped with some balsamic and black pepper), but can also be a great cooking oil source.

Hope everyone's ready for the holidays - have a great time eating and spending time with family and loved ones!

Until next time, happy eating all!

Gupta et al., 2013. Restoring polyamines protects from age-induced memory impairment in an autophagy-dependent manner. Nature Neuroscience.

* Age-related memory loss was tested using aversive olfactory memory test, where flies learned to associate a particular odor as predictive of an aversive stimulus. Aged flies that were given spermidine showed improved performance in the aversive olfactory task compared to their control counterparts. Scientists discovered that spermidine enhanced autophagy in aged flies by looking at an autophagy protein marker  Atg8a. Furthermore, the enhancement in learning was shown to be dependent on autophagy, as autophagy defective mutant flies showed no improvement in memory after spermidine administration.