February 28, 2011
Don't get me wrong--it was a hassle initially. I had to spend extra time at grocery stores reading labels while searching for things that fit within the strict parameters of the diet. I had to drive to multiple grocery stores to get all the items on my list. I had to stand for hours at a time in the kitchen prepping and chopping vegetables. But after a few days, after I made some soups and casseroles and got some dishes stashed in the freezer for those times when I might not have time or want to cook but would still need to eat, it got easier. Cooking once again became an enjoyable part of my daily routine.
Among our group of participants, our foodie friend Lisa turned out the be the person who most enjoyed the diet--so much so, in fact, that she plans to continue eating a strict vegan diet. Honestly, she is the last person I know who I ever thought would be a vegan (well, aside from me). But she says that she's never felt better. She thinks that she may be lactose intolerant and, until this month, routinely ate cheese. The abrupt halt in her consumption of animal products and by-products led to her feeling more energetic. (I should note that she did not follow strict Plant Perfect or Plant Strong/Engine 2 guidelines, and instead took a traditional vegan approach based on advice from some folks she knows who are (and/or were) vegan enthusiasts and products she found at Trader Joe's.)
One couple, who are parents of two young children, report that their blood pressure dropped significantly after switching to the Engine 2 diet. Their children fell in love with black-eyed peas and some other foods that were introduced during the month. This couple plans to continue many aspects of the diet, but will consume fish from time to time.
My husband Dean lost a few pounds and overall enjoyed the diet. But I must admit that I think part of what he loved was the fact that I cooked at home more frequently.
We all lost some weight--a few pounds, nothing dramatic--but the men lost more than the women. Isn't that the unfair way diets always go?
I enjoyed the research aspect of the diet. Though I'd eaten kale, lentils and beets before, I'd never cooked them. I found that they're easy to prepare and satisfying to eat, so I'll continue making them. I also discovered some foods that I had not tasted previously and now will definitely continue to buy--most especially mahogany rice, but also tempeh and almond milk.
As a cook, I found it disappointing to serve some of this month's dishes, knowing that with a few additions of certain off-limit ingredients they'd taste so much better. I most missed Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is not Plant Perfect but is certainly still vegan and so is the first thing I'll add back into my cooking. I also missed dairy--a bit of milk, eggs and cheese can really enhance flavors and food textures. Vegetarians certainly have it easier than vegans.
As an eater I was surprised that I did not crave the food items that I anticipated that I'd miss --such as chocolate or soda. And hunger was never a problem.
To our modest surprise, Dean and I did not miss meat at all. Certain occasions call for it--I certainly won't serve tofurky for Thanksgiving. But we agree that we don't need to eat meat every day and it definitely doesn't need to crowd veggies off the plate.
Some celebrities, including Melissa Joan Hart and Ellen Degeneres, advice folks to "lean into it," suggesting that bit-by-bit you can add more veggies to your diet and subtract animal products. I disagree. I think it's quite beneficial to leap head-first into the vegan, Plant Perfect, Eat to Live, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it diet. Give up meat, dairy, oil, sugar, and of course all processed foods and eat only vegetables, fruits and whole grains for 28 days. Commit 100% to the experiment--the time will fly by much faster than you think. Sure, it's an adjustment, but you're either willing to do it or you're not. Let's not waste time toying with the idea.
Making the dramatic switch forces you to discover new foods rather than fall back on convenient habits, restock your pantry with only healthy foods, and assess your body's reaction to the new diet. Like our friend Lisa, you might feel better than you'd imagined. You'll likely be surprised what you don't miss. You'll give it a fair test without interruption or distraction.
And then you can decide what you'll reintroduce to your diet, if anything.
You probably won't switch back to all of your old dietary habits and will likely find yourself eating more vegetables on a permanent basis.
Before starting the diet I predicted this would be the case. Milk is my go-to beverage. Dean knows I typically drink two gallons of skim milk each week when I'm home; although I often avoid or can't get milk when traveling, it's the first thing I consume upon returning home.
My foodie friend Lisa laughed at this revelation. Why? Don't you drink milk?, I asked her. "Yeah, when I was nine," she said.
I adore skim milk. I grew up in a household where 2% and later 1% was the only thing you'd find in the 'frig and so I didn't drink much milk back in those days unless I went to a friend's house where there lived (I assumed) a more enlightened mother. But in college I was spoiled by the ice-cold skim milk readily available at each meal. Since then, I drink skim milk at nearly every meal unless I'm having wine--and then I'll typically have a glass of milk a few hours later before heading to bed. Milk seems to soothe my blood.
During the first two weeks of this diet experiment I had a bone-deep craving for milk. But I resisted temptation.
I did not find the sort of satisfaction from alternatives that I get from real honest-to-goodness organic skim milk. When I first tasted the soy and almond alternatives--why are they called milk since they don't come from a teat?--I thought they tasted like sugar water somehow stained white. But over time I learned to make peace with them. These two brands were favorites, by far:
Silk Pure Almond Unsweetened--trust me, it's sweet enough without added sugar--is especially tasty on cereal and oatmeal. It's nothing I'd grab to sip alongside lasagna, but it's tasty with a banana. In Atlanta it's sold at Publix.
I searched high and low for a soy milk that was organic. I wasn't about to drink Round-Up-resistant genetically modified junk. It proved difficult to find a soy milk that wasn't loaded with oils--since oil is out-of-bounds on the Plant Perfect diet--and excess sugar. WildWood Organic Unsweetened Plain Soymilk, which in Atlanta is available at the DeKalb Farmers Market, proved to be the best option. It met the strict parameters that I set and actually tastes OK. I had to get used to it, but now I'll go so far as to say that I've grown to like it. It lacks the more viscous mouthfeel of skim milk, but it's a decent option.
Will I drink milk again? Most certainly. But I'll try to avoid getting back into my two gallons a week habit. (Addiction? There are worse things.)
Plant Perfect Stir-Fry
4 small yellow, orange or red sweet peppers, cut into rings
3 scallions, white and light green segments cut into rings
1 clove garlic, minced
1 package tempeh, cut into cubes
1 package baby bella mushrooms, cut into quarters
1 cup frozen peas (or another vegetable of choice)
1 Tablespoon tamari
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
splash of dry white wine (optional)
3 generous handfuls spinach leaves
red pepper flakes
Warm a non-stick fry pan on medium heat; coat with cooking spray. Saute garlic, onions and peppers until soft. Add tempeh and mushrooms. Add liquids. Stir to coat ingredients and stir periodically while ingredients cook, until mushrooms are tender. Add spinach and peas for the last minute or two, cooking and turning until spinach wilts. Season to taste.
Serve alongside a brown rice mix.
Made of a mix of herbs from a recipe that has been passed down since 1868, it mixes well into a variety of cocktails. Dean is particularly fond of the Midnight Smash: When he sees blackberries in the grocery store, he starts craving this cocktail.
2 oz. Averna
1 oz. Grand Marnier
1 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. ginger beer
1 orange wheel
Muddle blackberries in a glass mixing pint, add Averna, lemon juice and Grand Marnier. Add ice and shake. Strain into a highball glass over ice. Add ginger beer and garnish with orange wheel.
-Recipe Courtesy of Amaro Averna; recipe created by Duggan McDonnell of San Francisco, California
February 27, 2011
Fortunately, things turned out well when I hosted a vegan dinner party for my "Plant Perfect" diet cohorts. No one left hungry. And, if I do say so myself, the food was darn tasty.
For the entrée I chose to make Italian Vegetable Stew (Ciambotta), one of two recipes listed in the vegetarian section of the Gourmet Today cookbook that also qualify as Plant Perfect, Engine 2 and vegan. I hadn't tested the recipe beforehand and was a bit concerned that it didn't include any oregano or other herb. But it proved to be as tasty as promised in the paragraphs preceding the recipe--even when omitting the bell peppers due to one dinner guest's food allergy.To serve alongside I tossed together a salad of leafy green lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, carrots and cannellini beans.
Plain vinegar as a salad dressing works in a pinch, but it's a one-dimensional sour note. I adapted a dressing recipe from The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook to meet the Plant Perfect guidelines.
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup minced green onions
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon apple juice (organic, no sugar added)
2 Tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 Tablespoon water
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
Combine all ingredients in a container with a tight fitting lid, shake vigorously and chill until ready to serve.
At the DeKalb Farmers Market I found some whole wheat baguettes. Since we couldn't spread butter on our bread, I decided to make an asparagus spread. My inspiration was a recipe that I'd picked up at a cooking school in Quebec, Canada, but that recipe uses Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil plus asparagus and not much else. So I had to get really creative with this recipe.
Fresh Asparagus Spread
1 bunch fresh asparagus, washed and ends snapped off (raw)
1/2 cup walnut halves or pieces
1.5 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (adjust to taste)
2 garlic cloves (3 if yours are small)
1 Tablespoon apple juice (organic, no sugar added)
5-7 baby bella mushrooms, washed, stems removed and caps quartered (more if yours are really small)
Place first 5 ingredients in a food processor and pulse until well combined. Add a few mushrooms and pulse. In small batches, add as many mushrooms as necessary to help mixture bind, but avoid adding too many or you'll lose its bright green hue. Adjust seasonings to taste as needed.
Bottom Line: With some creative thinking, you can adapt some recipes to meet vegan diet specifications. Other recipes, of course, cannot be changed--but with some luck you might find new ones that you enjoy just as much.
February 26, 2011
For me, it was Day 25 of The Plant Perfect Experiment and quite honestly I was never happier to test a restaurant. After a month of cooking at home or sitting hungry at restaurants where the vegan options are slim, facing a menu with dozens of temptations that fell within the Plant Perfect / Plant Strong parameters was exhilarating to say the least.
The best news is that the food tasted delicious.
Our discerning foodie friend Lisa, who is among those who joined the experiment, ordered the mushroom risotto. The risotto was the best dish of the evening. Its rich mushroom flavors are so meaty that you may wonder if some beef somehow slipped into the broth. The risotto rice was creamy and cooked to perfection.
I opted for the handmade ravioli, which was stuffed with squash, spinach, veggies and tofu; it was sweeter than expected, but very tasty. Dean ordered the pad thai, which was appropriately spicy.
For dessert we happily devoured a peanut butter chocolate pie ... and chocolate cake:
Bottom Line: Healthy food never tasted so good.
Not quite as dramatic visually is this plate of mahogany and black rice, sauteed mushrooms, roasted okra and steamed asparagus with a starter of celery sticks and white bean dip:I'd never before had (or even heard of) black and mahogany rice, but it's super delicious and a grain mix that we will keep stocked in our pantry even after this experiment concludes. With this dinner we served Bonterra Zinfandel, a jammy red wine we rate with a thumbs up and routinely purchase.
Tempeh-Mushroom Stir-Fry was the first stir-fry recipe that I tried from "The Engine 2 Diet" book and I was disappointed in the sour, thinly textured sauce.
Raise-the-Roof Sweet Potato-Vegetable Lasagna also comes from Rip Esselstyn's "The Engine 2 Diet" book. Reading through the list of ingredients (which includes items such as broccoli, carrots, corn and sweet potatoes), I must admit that I didn't think it sounded very good. But Rip wrote, "This lasagna is so good Jill and I chose it to be the main dish at our wedding reception." Now Rip seems like a nice guy and I'm sure his wife is a lovely person, but let me just say that eating this lasagna made me glad that I wasn't on their wedding invitation list. It was not bad; it was actually much tastier than I'd anticipated. But it does not taste Italian. My one general complaint about Rip's recipes is that too many use the same few ingredients. Maybe there's some dietary reason for that, or maybe he only likes mainstream vegetables, or maybe he was writing for an audience that he imagined wouldn't have access to or enjoy eating "exotic" vegetables like eggplant. But if I'm going to give up meat, cheese and other food groups, then at the very least I'd like each vegan meal to be distinct. I'd like my lasagna to taste Italian, my stir-fries to taste Asian and so on. This recipe does yield a tasty dish of layered vegetables that freezes and reheats well. But I think I can come up with a lasagna recipe that tastes Italian plus also meets the Plant Perfect dietary parameters.
As an entree one night we tried roast organic beets. It was the first time that I roasted beets and it couldn't be easier--scrub them and trim off stems, wrap in foil and pop them in a 350 degree oven for 60 to 90 minutes until easily pierced with a fork. Cool until you can handle them, peel the skins off (they'll slide right off), then slice the beets on a plate or a cutting board that you won't mind getting stained. The "Gourmet Today" cookbook recommends pairing the roasted beets with horseradish cream. It sounded weird but we tried plain horseradish (since dairy is out-of-bounds) and yum! Suddenly the beets were stand-ins for prime rib.
Dry Creek Valley is among our preferred appellations because wines we've sipped from that region are consistently enjoyable. This deep garnet wine did not disappoint with robust jammy dark red fruit flavors and hints of chocolate-covered cherries and rosemary. A bit more spice would have been welcome.
This wine retails for approx. $15.
Bottom Line: Food friendly and enjoyable, this wine is a pleasant quaff though some drinkers may prefer more sophistication. We give it a thumbs up for casual dining.
February 17, 2011
But a funny thing happened when we did slip up and reveal our plans. While at a dinner party with several of Dean's coworkers in mid-January we explained that we planned to eat "Plant Perfect" in February. After sharing some details about Forks Over Knives, the Engine 2 Diet and what this meant--no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no processed foods, no oils or fats only fruits, vegetables and whole grains--others decided that they wanted to give the diet a try, too.
And, quite frankly, that shocked me because you've got to admit that the list of restrictions is pretty comprehensive.
But getting others on board has turned out to make the experience more fun since we can swap recipes, share "diet approved" food discoveries and compare notes along the way. It's also made it easier for Dean to stick to the diet, since when he and his coworkers go out to eat they search out vegan options like Cafe Sunflower.
Last night we took dinner over to some other friends' house--folks who weren't at that dinner party and didn't know about our current experiment. I prepared a build-your-own burrito buffet, as it was easy to transport and also is the tastiest recipe I've found (so far) within the boundaries of this diet. Though I packed some sour cream and cheese for my friends to use (we skipped those elements that are outside the bounds of this diet), they didn't notice that we were eating vegan and didn't miss the meat. So...
Bottom Line: Eating "Plant Perfect" doesn't mean isolating yourself from society. You can eat just plants and have friends, too.
February 16, 2011
1 small lime cut into eighths
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 oz. cachaça
Muddle the lime and sugar in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Fill with ice. Pour the cachaça into the glass. Stir well and enjoy.
A conference call was scheduled and I mixed two cocktails just before it was scheduled to begin:
Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil, is the third highest selling spirit in the world and the fastest growing spirit in the U.S. It's base is sugar cane juice while rum is made of sugar cane molasses.
"The point is to start thinking of the differences between cachaças, which are growing in relevance in the U.S.," said our host. "Still, with all the dialogue about cachaça, there's very little information about how they are different."
He went on to explain that traditionally cachaça is single distilled; mass-produced brands in Brazil are typically distilled using a column still while more artisanal brands use a pot still. After distillation, different woods are used for aging, including Brazilian native wood jequitiba rosa barrels, French oak and American oak. Sometimes barrels that have been used are preferred, for example the distiller may choose a French oak barrel previously filled with cognac or an American oak barrel that once held whisky in Scotland.
We were asked to sip both samples neat at room temperature and then each cocktail. Both cachaças held up consistently in that the same characteristics found in the straight pour could be detected when the spirit was mixed into the cocktail.
Sample A had a brownish-yellow tinge while Sample B was crystal clear. Sample A had more earth and wood notes on the nose and palate while Sample B was more crisp and clean. There's no right answer, of course, but I preferred Sample B.
Then it was finally revealed which cachaças were sampled: Sample A was Leblon Cachaça and Sample B was Cabana Cachaça.
February 9, 2011
Impressed by the diversity of food choices available within the vegetable, fruit and whole grain categories.
Bored by the sheer volume of carrots, onions, bell peppers and so on that must be chopped for each recipe. It's time consuming to cook three meals a day, so I dedicated three days in a row to cooking up a backlog of dishes that could be heated quickly. On Sunday morning I answered my husband's question, "So, what are you doing today?" with what felt true: "Apparently, I will spend the rest of my life chopping vegetables."
Stuffed because these meals can be satisfying. I'm not fighting off hunger pangs as much as I'd feared. However, I do find it helpful to eat several smaller meals because that "full" feeling tends not to last very long.
Hungry because I crave milk and cheese. My dairy craving is bone deep, unlike the chocolate craving that can be diverted with healthy sweets like raisins and mango.
Inspired to cook with ingredients that are new to my kitchen, including black rice, lentils and kale -- all of which proved to be easy and delicious!
Frustrated because I now hate a guy I've never met before: I'm referring to the dude who went vegan for one week and lost 11 pounds. For several years, I have weighed X. It varies slightly, for example it was X-5 the day after flying home from Hamburg, Germany and X+3 the day after Christmas, but it always returns to X whether I spend weeks starving myself or weeks feasting on bonbons. It is still X after nine days of banning all meat, dairy, fats, sugars and processed foods from my diet. If it were X minus something, I'd feel more reward for my efforts.
Bored and frustrated by the vegan cookbooks that I've so far encountered. The recipes seem aimed at folks who typically dine by standing in front of an open refrigerator while shooting Cheese Whiz into their mouths. These authors seem to write for an audience that knows nothing about healthy cooking and has no taste buds. Too many of their recipes yield dishes that are bland, even with herbs and spices added to the mix. It's hard not to feel like a bad cook when following these recipes to a T. Let's face it: Muffins made without eggs are dense little buggers compared to muffins made the traditional way.
...and so I'm inspired to improve upon these recipes.
February 2, 2011
Whole wheat bagel with 100% fruit spread = Good breakfast.
Truly tasty. I adore these French spreads and their creative flavors! Don't miss Royal Fig. (FYI for Atlantans: These spreads are available at Your Dekalb Farmers Market.)
Kashi 7 whole grain puffs with soy "milk" = Bad, bad breakfast.
Tastes like what I imagine sawdust topped with a splash of liquid bird poop would taste like.
Nothing against the Kashi brand, as I know from experience the company produces some very tasty products like dark mocha almond chewy granola bars. But these puffs are dry yuck.
Eating plants and whole grains for a month (or longer, if you dare) doesn't mean things have to be bland and tasteless. Doing so may reset your palate, but "reset" doesn't have to mean "kill with boredom."
February 1, 2011
I can't say that I wholeheartedly buy into everything that was presented; as with most documentaries it presents primarily one point of view. But the movie makes a compelling case that it's good to eat plants. These experts' ideal is to eat only plants: No meat, no dairy, no eggs, no animal products or byproducts, no oil, no processed foods. As the doctors described the diet in more detail during a Q&A session following the film presentation, it sounded to me very much like Vegan for people who still want to wear leather shoes.
I have long subscribed to the "all things in moderation" diet. I've suspected that it would be impossible, plus of course undesirable, for me to become a vegetarian or vegan--especially as a food writer and restaurant reviewer.
But the movie persuaded me to consider a plant-based diet with its assertions that:
(1) it can actually reverse the growth of cancer cells. Cancer runs rampant in my family; I'll spare you the details.
(2) it can rapidly lower cholesterol. Neither Dean nor I have dangerously high cholesterol, but we could both benefit by lowering it some.
(3) most of the patients and regular folks featured in the movie who switched to a plant-based diet lost weight. Neither Dean nor I are huge, but we could both stand to lose a few pounds.
Rip Esselstyn (son of Dr. Esselstyn) details his "Plant Strong" diet in his book, The Engine 2 Diet. Rip's Plant Strong diet allows some minuscule use of oil, plus oil-rich foods like avocados and nuts, while Dr. Esselystyn prefers to put his patients on a Plant Perfect diet that does not allow these foods.
After some discussion, Dean and I decided to conduct a 28-day experiment. We'll do our best to eat Plant Perfect for the month of February 2011.
It's not our goal or intention to switch to a Plant Perfect diet for the rest of our lives, but we're willing to give it a go and see what happens. Maybe we'll feel better. Maybe we'll learn some new good habits. Maybe we'll learn to love collards. We'll see what happens.
Whether visiting White County to hike Unicoi State Park and view the breathtaking Anna Ruby Falls, explore Babyland General in Cleveland, float the Chattahoochee River, or poke through the various boutique shops in Sautee or Helen, you’ll work up an appetite. Satisfying dining options abound as local restaurants serve a range of tastes from classic German to contemporary Southern American.
Old Heidelberg, established in 1975, was Helen’s first German restaurant and is housed in a blue and white structure that’s the most photographed building in Georgia. New owners assumed operations in January 2010 and “brought in a chef from Bavaria with 30 years of experience,” says Mark Turner, co-owner and manager. “The menu is completely new and definitely authentic,” he says. In addition to 60 different beers, it features traditional German dishes like jägerschnitzel, goulash, sauerbraten, sausages and spätzle.
Hofer’s Bakery and Café, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in Helen in 2011, was started by Horst Hofer, a certified master baker and pastry chef originally from Schwabach, Germany. “I learned from my dad,” says Ralph Hofer, who now owns and operates the business that has been featured on “The Secret Life of Wedding Cakes” on the Food Network. “We bake all our breads in a stone hearth oven and use the finest-quality ingredients available,” he says. Menu temptations include Bavarian pretzels, Belgian waffles, Rueben sandwiches, knackwursts, apple strudel, apple fritters, imported German coffee and more.
A new farm-to-table restaurant celebrates local flavor. “Our mission is to define the cuisine of North Georgia wine country,” explains John Boyes, who owns and operates The Vines with his wife Ginevra. “For us it means embracing the local wine country—there are 12 wineries within 40 miles of our restaurant and four tasting rooms in White County.” Chef Jason Vullo, who trained under a master chef in Austria, transforms local, seasonal products into upscale signature dishes such as venison strudel, rainbow trout with lump crab bacon stuffing and house made charcuterie.
Chef Monda Dodge may be the daughter of owner Bernie Yates, but she earned helm of the kitchen at Bernie’s Restaurant in Sautee by graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Signature favorites include crispy roasted duckling finished with orange or raspberry sauce, seared rack of lamb with roasted cherry tomatoes and a balsamic vinegar reduction, chicken picatta and marsala, daily quiche creations and seasonal homemade desserts.
The Nacoochee Grill, a full-service restaurant in Helen with a warm vibe, has an eclectic menu with items like duck tacos, flash-fried calamari, shrimp and grits, veal meatloaf, steaks, burgers and more. The wood fire grill is fueled with local hardwoods, most often red and white oak. Popular with locals as well as tourists, the restaurant recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
At its sister restaurant Nacoochee Village Tavern & Pizzeria, “Everything is made from scratch in house using fresh ingredients,” says Matt Egerton, assistant manager. While the brick hearth pizza oven is in near constant use cooking artisanal pizzas, the menu also features hoagies and salads. Pizza dough is made daily using flour from Nora Mill Granary, a water-powered grist mill established in 1875 that’s located across the street—“It’s very local,” he says of the flour, “I can walk there and get it.”
From Atlanta, it would be a long walk to White County, but it’s a pleasant two-hour drive. And the chance to taste fresh local creations is a tasty attraction.
If You Go…
Nacoochee Valley Guest House, Sautee
Hofer’s Bakery and Café
8758 N. Main St., Helen
7277 S. Main St., Helen
Nacoochee Village Tavern & Pizzeria
7275 S. Main St., Helen
8660 N Main St., Helen
Sylvan Valley Lodge, Sautee
Alpine Helen / White County Convention & Visitors Bureau
- Photos Courtesy Alpine Helen / White County CVB