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Superfood Muffins: The Sequel (this time with Nibs!)

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Some of you may have read about my first Superfood Muffin recipe, a mix of healthy flours, oils, and ‘superfoods’ like goji berries and chia seeds. Well, today I want to share with you a different version, one that I think I may like better than the original!

While the recipe I use for both versions is similar in many ways, I used a different website for my inspiration this time around—Blissful Blueberry Banana Spelt Muffins provided by oh she glows, a great website about vegan and gluten-free living (and eating).

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries...hard not to eat them all right now!

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries…hard not to eat them all right now!

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

This time around, I changed up my superfoods. The muffin batter has a similar base, including banana and avocado. But from there I took some different turns, including the addition of almond milk, and apple cider vinegar–thanks to oh she glows’ inspiration. For the add-ins, I incorporated a whole lot of fresh blueberries and a large handful of raw cacao nibs—my new favorite Super ingredient! I bought mine from Chocovivo, an amazing local raw chocolate shop that I will post about very soon. You can also find nibs at health food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, and of course online.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

On their own, cacao nibs (if they are 100% cacao with no added sugar) are quite bitter and potent, but once you add them into a recipe or mix them into a smoothie, their flavor is mellowed out and provides a rich, chocolatey complement to whatever you serve them with, plus a bunch of great minerals and nutrients. Raw cacao nibs are packed with fiber and beneficial polyphenols, much more than processed chocolate. Turns out you can have your cake—er, chocolate—and eat it too!

I wrote about the health benefits of many of the other ingredients in my previous recipe post, so feel free to check it out for more info. If you do make any of these versions, let me know how they turn out and how you modify them. Hope you have fun trying out your own twists on these recipes!

May the Food be with You,

-Dr. K

Fresh out of the oven

Fresh out of the oven

Superfood Muffins: The Sequel

Ingredients

-2 bananas

-Approx ½ medium avocado

-¾ cup almond milk (you could use hemp, coconut, soy, or whatever floats your ‘milky’ boat)

-1 tsp apple cider vinegar (if you don’t have any on hand your muffins will still be edible, this just helps the batter rise a little better for a lighter texture)

-1 tsp vanilla or almond extract

-¼ cup coconut oil, melted

-2 cups flour; I used 1 c. spelt, ½ c. oat flour, ½ c. millet flour (you could use any combo of flours your heart desires!)

-1/3 cup coconut sugar (you can find at TJs!)

-½ cup oats

-2 tsp baking powder

-1.5 tsp cinnamon

-¼ tsp Himalayan sea salt

-½ tsp baking soda

-1-2 cups fresh or frozen* blueberries (I used 1 whole punnet of fresh berries)

-Optional add-ins: ¼ cup chia seeds or hemp seeds, ½ cup chopped walnuts, ½ cup goji berries, ½ cup cacao nibs (I went with the nibs, added amazing depth of flavor and are little bits of superfood goodness!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil
  2. In a medium bowl, mash bananas and avocado.
  3. Add the milk, vinegar, maple syrup, and vanilla to mashed banana/avocado mix. No need to stir it yet.
  4. Melt the coconut oil in a small pot over low heat (or in microwave). Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda).
  6. Stir coconut oil into the wet mixture. Pour wet ingredients onto the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not overmix as spelt is a fragile flour.
  7. Gently fold in your chosen add-ins and then the blueberries, being sure not to overmix as this can result in dense muffins.
  8. Spoon batter into muffin tin cups about 3/4 full (or if you are like me, all the way to the top!)
  9. Bake at 350F for 23-27 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean, or when you press the tops gently they are somewhat firm (not doughy) to the touch.
  10. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes and then transfer muffins to a cooling rack and cool for another 15 minutes.

*Note: If using frozen blueberries, be sure to leave them in the freezer (do not thaw) until just before you stir them into the batter. This helps prevent bleeding—unless you like purple muffins, in which case disregard! J

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23rd Street Café: Where Mexico and India meet—in your mouth

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Hidden a few blocks away from the USC campus (though not so hidden for a lot of students!) is the 23rd Street Café, a little gem tucked humbly amongst the eclectic homes, apartments and storefronts of the University Park/West Adams neighborhood. From the outside, it looks somewhat like a convenience store, with a small bakery counter and refrigerated cases of drinks. But this café offers a lot more, and is particularly known for its Mexican-Indian fusion specialties like Tikka Tacos and Curry Burritos.

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

This is not a fully vegan or vegetarian restaurant; in fact, the menu is quite meat heavy. However, there are several vegan options to choose from and many more vegetarian, including a whole section of vegetarian thali plates (combination plates with multiple types of curries, rice, and sides). I came with friends, some of whom were not vegetarian, so the café offered a little something for everyone. One of my friends ordered the vegetable sandwich with avocado, but it came with mayonnaise so vegans be sure to check ingredients before ordering. I can see the appeal to USC students, since the menu has options ranging from burgers and burritos to curries and salads, plus a whole breakfast menu—all for remarkably low prices. L.A. weekly has highlighted its fusion fare, as has USC’s online newspaper the Neon Tommy.

I was a bit skeptical about the quality and health of the food, but I decided to be adventurous. I skipped the purely Mexican and Indian sections of the menu and ordered the Samosa Sandwich from the ‘fusion’ menu. My boyfriend chose the Aloo Gobi Burrito so we could try both (detailed food reviews below). There are ample healthy beverages to choose from, including a range of Yogi brand teas and bottles of Kombucha. Unfortunately, none of the desserts were vegan from what I can tell. This is a pretty no-frills café as far as the food goes. No brown rice, spinach tortillas, or black beans here, although the online menu lists a kale salad that is sometimes available. According to an interview with the owner, however, the sauces and fillings are all fresh made on site.

We decided to sit outside in the peaceful courtyard at the back of the restaurant. The interior had a decent ambiance though. It was clean and simple, just like what you’d expect from a neighborhood café, but with added accents like paintings of Gandhi on the wall. Super casual vibe, which I imagine would be a nice place to study (or take a study break!) if you are a student, or to do some writing or reading even if you’re not–lots of little tables where you can sit with a laptop, a coffee (the café serves espresso drinks), and maybe a big burrito.

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

You can read my food reviews below, but overall this place will satisfy a growling stomach, but it definitely doesn’t hit the health spot. Eating this food made me feel pretty guilty–it was heavy with oil, salt, and refined carbs. I also didn’t see anything organic on the menu, and I’m guessing they are using at least some lower quality or unhealthy oils to fry and saute foods with. Perhaps some of their other items on the menu (like the salads) would be an exception, but this is not the place to go when you are trying to eat a healthy whole foods diet. That said, if you are cruising around USC and you want a cheap, filling meal, or if you can’t decide between Mexican or Indian tonight, the 23rd Street Café has you covered. For a once-in-awhile craving, this is definitely a little spot to try out.

23rd Street Café, University Park

Individual food reviews:

Samosa Sandwich

 

Samosa Sandwich

Samosa Sandwich

Going into this I knew it was going to be indulgent, and indulgent it was. Two crispy fried vegetable samosas (filled mostly with potatoes) wedged between wheat bread, laced with mint and tamarind chutneys. Though it definitely wouldn’t qualify as particularly healthy (the wheat toast seems like a half-hearted attempt), this sandwich was definitely packed with flavor, texture, and fried tasty goodness. As a splurge, it was well worth the probably hefty amount of calories. I mean, how often can you find a sandwich stuffed with samosas??

Health: 1.5 out of 5 (if the bread was fried too it would be a 1; comes with lettuce, tomatoes, and whole wheat bread…but the fried samosas and starchiness are going to weigh you down)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (interesting, satisfying, a bit spicy)

 

Aloo Gobi Burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

 

I was really excited at the prospect of this burrito. One of my favorite dishes when I visited India was aloo gobi (a spiced cauliflower and potato dish), so putting it in a burrito sounded pretty epic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations. The aloo gobi just tasted like an insanely salty mush, and the rest of the burrito filling was mostly rice with some pinto beans mixed in. The burrito itself was definitely not the health-food variety of wrap, and probably contained a lot of fat as well as refined white flour. So basically, this is just a classic bean and rice burrito with a bit of salty veggies stuffed in. The other vegan fusion burrito on the menu is the Chole burrito, a mix of spinach, chickpeas, and burrito filling, which I would consider trying to compare.

 Health: 1 out of 5 (oily, salty, starchy, with little to redeem itself except the bit of protein from pinto beans and slight bit of vegetables)

 Taste: 1.5 out of 5 (I know its harsh, and other people might not be so picky, but a fusion burrito has to have a nice balance of flavors, and this just tasted like a salty bean and rice burrito. Fusion fail!)

S’up with Soy?

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

As a trained scientist, I can’t help but get discouraged sometimes at the amount of unsubstantiated or misleading information that exists on the internet. While it can be empowering to have so many sources of information and opinion at our finger tips, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us are by nature very easily swayed by the power of anecdote.

This tendency is taken advantage of by all sorts of interests, not least by the food and health industries. Every day I read conflicting ‘evidence’ about things like grains (they are either the foundation of a healthy diet or the source of all our health ills, depending on who you ask), meat, dairy, GMO’s, and more. Recently, I’ve investigated some of the debate over soy.

Depending on the sources you choose to ‘believe’, soy is either a nutrient dense super-food or a cancer-causing poison–at least, according to the sources that garner the most attention. Just do a Google search for ‘soy health benefits and risks’ and you’ll see what I mean. It can be overwhelming! Like any issue, being an extremist is more likely to get you noticed, for better or for worse. Or get your book published. Or get you your 15 minutes of fame. That’s why I am always skeptical of completely condemning or glorifying any one food source, perspective, or idea.

As a centrist, my ideas probably aren’t that ‘sexy’. However, I think being cautious but open is much preferable to taking someone’s word because they’ve cited a few non peer-reviewed or biased studies. The underlying problem is that most readers have not been trained to differentiate between opinion and fact, or peer-reviewed versus non peer-reviewed scientific research. Even among published scientific studies, if you don’t realize whether a journal is funded (or controlled) by some corporate interest or other, versus being a more independent journal, you fail to understand the underlying biases of a piece of evidence.

peerreview

Many health articles cite faulty science or non-peer reviewed sources that lack substantial scientific evidence to back up their claims.

While some authors and bloggers purposefully deceive their readers, I think that it’s the ones who unwittingly mislead the public that may be even more dangerous to true rational thought. I’ve read many a web page that either references faulty or non peer-reviewed studies, or fails to reference any sources at all for their information. While some viewers point out these flaws, many take these posts at face value or even claim them as gospel.

Regardless of the topic, taking the initiative to do a little of your own research (to the extent possible) and read with a dose of healthy skepticism (which is not the same thing as disbelief) will go a long way toward improving your critical thinking skills, and hopefully encourage writers to do their homework on sourcing accurate information.

S’oy vey!

So, back to soy. Not too long ago, soy was considered the staple of a modern vegan diet. Don’t eat meat? Eat tofu. Don’t drink milk? Drink soy milk. Luckily, these days most of us have a lot more options—ranging from coconut, almond, and hemp milks, to protein sources like mung beans, quinoa, and millet. Still, is soy really so bad a food choice?

In a matter of years, soy went from being touted as a miracle food to being ostracized for its hormone-wrecking, cancer-causing compounds. Are any of these supposed characteristics actually founded in scientific fact? According to Holly Wilson, MD, a doctor who practices a vegan lifestyle, the misinformation regarding soy has resulted in a number of ‘myths’ that have unnecessarily made people fearful of consuming soy products.

To Wilson, soy is a reliable source of a variety of nutrients as well as protein, and has played a healthy role in Asian diets for centuries. She attempts to debunk a number of negative perceptions about soy (with the exception of genetically modified soy, which she says to avoid as a precaution and opt for organic non-GMO instead), claiming that a lot of the ‘research’ comes from one particular organization—the Weston A. Price Foundation—that has a vested interest in protecting the rights of dairy and cattle farmers, who see the rise of soy as a threat to their business. In other words, the science against soy is biased, in Wilson’s opinion.

Her arguments are convincing, and she provides a number of peer-reviewed articles to substantiate her claims, and she writes with a clear, rationale approach. However, it’s very possible she has a personal vendetta against the Weston A. Price Foundation. Maybe the Foundation is actually doing legitimate research in the name of sustainable farming. Maybe the studies cited by Wilson as providing evidence that soy is safe were funded by corporate entities with a vested interested in soy production (which is a massive industry in the U.S.).

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Ironically enough, when I did a bit more perusing on this topic, I came across a post by Kristen Michaelis on her website called Food Renegade, detailing the dangers of soy. Michaelis is neither vegan nor a doctor, so she approaches this topic from a very different perspective. She advertises a way of eating that condones eating red meat and lots of fresh dairy. Her post is laid out clearly, covering a number of supposed health issues of soy—but surprise surprise, her cited evidence largely comes from one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Are you starting to see how conflicted the ‘evidence’ is out there? Some of Michaelis’s links didn’t work when I tried to follow them, or were not from peer-reviewed papers, which is a bit of a caution sign for me. Still, a lot of her nutrition perspectives on the website hold weight, and I appreciate her support of local, sustainable agriculture. It may very well be true that large amounts of soy (especially GM soy) can cause problems for our bodies—but the same can likely be said for pasteurized dairy, meat, or even a number of fruits and vegetables eating in too large of quantities.

The point of this post is not to demonize one view over another, but rather to argue that we all have biases, and that we must each come to reasonable conclusions based on the information available. I’m also not going to discuss every study ever published for and against soy–there is plenty of that already in existence on the web. It’s easy to get misled by catchy headlines that scare us out of (or into) eating something OR ELSE, but the world generally doesn’t work that way. Both Michaelis and Wilson provide some valid points, but neither can provide the entire perspective.

After doing a lot of research and reading, my tentative conclusion is that moderate amounts of soy will not harm your body (assuming you are not allergic to it), and it may in fact be a valuable source of protein and certain nutrients. However, it should not be a product you rely on as a cure-all. Rotate soy products with other nutrient-rich foods, like coconut milk/oil, legumes, organic whole grains, and more importantly organic fruits and vegetables. I would also suggest opting for the least processed soy products possible, such as miso, tempeh, and tofu, rather than soy-based fake meats and cheeses, which contain a lot of fillers and other ingredients that are probably much worse than soy for our bodies. Most reasonable health practitioners seem to agree that fermented soy products are generally safe to consume, while processed foods such as those containing soy protein isolate are not recommended.

Also, definitely stick with organic soy products because over 90% of conventionally grown soybeans are genetically modified (although most of these are fed to animals, which means if you eat meat you are eating GM soy). Plus, conventionally grown soy, the second largest crop by acreage grown in the U.S. (after corn), requiring the application of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides each year. Much of this soy is converted into cheap oil, diesel fuel, animal feed, or used in processed foods.

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Bottom line: Just as there is no short cut to long-term good health, there is no short cut to educating yourself. Sifting through information and doing background research takes time, but when your health is on the line, I would argue that it’s worth it. That’s just my opinion though—I guess each of you ultimately have to determine that for yourself!

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line--look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don't believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line–look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don’t believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Good Karma Never Tasted So Good

Finding the trifecta of food perfection (vegan, organic, and most importantly TASTY) can be difficult, especially on a college campus where fast food is the go-to lunch fare. Even most of the salads and vegetarian options are not very healthy. Luckily, last semester one of my students introduced me to the Good Karma Café, a bastion for vegans and starving students alike.

The Good Karma Cafe serves up amazing vegetarian food and friendly smiles! Left: A volunteer serves up tasty dessert. Right: Chef Sarvatma Das serves up his pesto pasta.

The Good Karma Cafe serves up amazing vegetarian food and friendly smiles! Left: A volunteer serves up the tasty dessert. Right: Chef Sarvatma Das dishes generous portions of his pesto pasta.

The Good Karma Café is hosted by The Office of Religious Life and the United University Church, and run by chef and Hindu Monk Sarvatma Das. Das is often at the ‘front lines’ serving students and staff and initiating witty banter. A long-time monk, cook, world traveler, writer, and artist, Das never fails to hit me with a sidelong comment that starts an impromptu conversation—about the mystery novel he’s working on, for example.

The Good Karma Café is Das’s brainchild, but was initiated at USC thanks to the Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, who saw the need for better vegan and vegetarian options to accommodate the Hindu and Jain communities on campus, as well as vegetarians more generally. All of the food is consecrated according to Vaishya Hindu tradition. Yet you’ll find just as many meat-eaters at vegetarians lining up at the Café because the food is so fresh and flavorful—and the setting is so enticing.

Follow the sign down stone steps into a hidden courtyard to find the vegetarian pot of gold!

Follow the sign down stone steps into a hidden courtyard to find the vegetarian pot of gold!

The Café serves up organic, all-you-can-eat vegan meals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12-2pm in a pleasant sunken courtyard next to the Unity University Church on 34th Street. You can eat at one of the many community tables outside amongst soothing fountains, flowers, and vines, or inside the adjacent mess hall. On Tuesdays, Das serves classic Indian fare called kitcheree—a thick rice and bean ‘stew’ filled with vegetables and lovely mild spices. On Wednesdays you can get your Italian on with a hefty dose of pasta (Das rotates between marinara and homemade pesto sauces).

I can hardly wait for my plateful of pesto-ey goodness.

I can hardly wait for my plateful of pesto-ey goodness.

Both meals are served with organic mixed greens topped with a home-made almond dressing that has such a strong following that Das now sells bags of it on-site and online. You also get a big scoop of Halava with every meal—a sweet, semolina based dessert that melts in your mouth. The flavor of halava changes each day, ranging from walnut-chocolate chip to vanilla hazelnut, cardamom raisin, and more. All are De-Lish.

For those who like to burn their taste buds out of existence, the Good Karma Café always has a sufficient supply of hot sauce on hand (I’m a major self-proclaimed spice wuss, so alas I cannot comment on the hot sauce), as well as a cooling drink—the flavor of which rotates like the halava. Some of the flavors I’ve seen include lemon tamarind tea, pineapple passion fruit, and lemongrass fennel.

An entire meal, including main course, salad, dessert, and drink, costs $10. Ten bucks may not sound cheap for a student meal, but the servings are generous, and the best part is that you are welcome to seconds (and thirds if you really want, though I imagine you might explode by that point!). Better yet, the servers are happy to fill any Tupperware containers you bring so you can take extra food to go as well. I usually have enough left overs to last me for at least one, if not two, extra meals.

If you happen to find yourself in or around the USC campus on a Tuesday or Wednesday around lunchtime, especially if your stomach is growling, do yourself a favor and hit up the Good Karma Café. Your belly (and maybe your karma) will thank you!

Good Karma Cafe, University of Southern California

Individual food reviews:

A plate of Chef Das' famous vegetarian kitcheree, chock full of vegetables and Indian spices.

A plate of Chef Das’ famous vegetarian kitcheree, chock full of vegetables and Indian spices.

Kitcheree

This rice dish is quite rich and filling. Definitely chock full of wonderful spices, beans (e.g. lentils and mung beans) and mixed vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots). I am not sure how much oil or ghee (clarified butter) is used, but the Chef sources mainly organic ingredients and appears to take great care in making good quality, healthy meals. I usually can’t finish a full helping because the kitcheree is so hearty. Definitely satisfying, and tastes great mixed in with the salad served on the side. I imagine this is a gluten-free dish as well as rice is the only grain. If ghee is used, this dish is not fully vegan, only vegetarian.

Health: 4.5 out 5 stars (may have oil or ghee, but generally appears very healthy)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (the richness makes it hard to finish a whole serving)

Incredibly fresh, flavorful basil pesto served up every other Wednesday.

Incredibly fresh, flavorful basil pesto served up every other Wednesday.

 Pesto Pasta

I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of Chef Das’s marinara sauces yet, but the pesto is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Wholesome fresh basil and olive oil succulently coat organic pasta. The pasta was also cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness to firmness ratio–so delectable! Even though the pasta is filling, I could easily eat a whole serving because the pesto has such wonderful, tantalizing flavor. This is one of the best pesto sauces I have every tasted.

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (due to high oil content and high carb content of pasta)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (That’s right! This is a big flavor winner!)

Divya's almond dressing can be purchased for use at home. Just add oil and water.

Divya’s almond dressing can be purchased for use at home. Just add oil and water. A little goes a long way!

Divya’s Almond Dressing

This is a remarkably creamy vegan dressing that is used on all the side salads served with the main meal. A small amount packs a whole lot of flavor, and seems to go with EVERYTHING (even the halava!), not just salad. The ingredients are simple: almonds, nutritional yeast, amino acids (a vegan sort of soy sauce type mix), oil, and water. But the ratios must be perfect, because the result is divine. You could make something similar at home (in fact, I just recently tried), but something about this version just can’t be topped.

Health: 4 out of 5 (high fat content, but its good fats from nuts, plus some oil, not sure what kind they use; all natural, no fillers)

Taste: 5 out of 5

Halava with juicy bits of fruit (the chocolate is still my fave though!)

Halava with juicy bits of fruit (the chocolate is still my fave though!)

Halava

Assorted flavors. I am never disappointed with the halava, regardless of what flavor is being served. The walnut chocolate was one of the best ever, but I’m biased as a complete chocoholic. The dessert is sweet but not sickeningly so (as some Indian desserts can be), and makes a nice end to a wonderful meal. Not appropriate for gluten-intolerant folks because this dish is made with semolina, a type of wheat. Also may contain ghee, so not vegan (though Das sometimes has an alternative vegan option as well).

Health: 3 out of 5 (Das doesn’t use refined sweeteners, but you still are getting some sugar and wheat with this dish)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5