“Mostly Plants”*: 5 Food Books for Starting the New Year Right

oh-she-glows-cookbookI am obsessed with cookbooks.  When I first started to learn to cook for real (in my early twenties, just after I turned vegetarian), I would entertain myself for whole afternoons by going to the cooking section of a bookstore, sitting down on the floor (this was in the days before bookstores provided comfy reading chairs), and pulling a cookbook off the shelf to read it cover to cover.  Now that I have a regular income, I periodically break my budget (or fill my Christmas wish list) with a stack of cookbooks that I can pile next to me on the coffee table and read one after the other like novels.

Although I’ve been more or less vegetarian for the past 25 years (with exceptions made for fish and seafood because they made my life easier and, I believed, made me healthier), my diet has taken a sharp turn to the left recently.  I stumbled upon a string of documentaries, the most notable of them being Forks Over Knives and Vegucated, that convinced me of something I already half believed: I should try to eliminate all animal products from my diet.

So I’m starting 2015 with this tentative goal.  I’m not yet ready to demand that restaurants make my sag aloo without any ghee, or to carry a vegan bento to dinner parties in case my friends put eggs in their handmade pasta.  However, I’m having fun going through old cookbooks and buying (or demanding) new ones, and learning how to make cashew cream and multigrain chia power bread.  And the smoothies!  So many smoothies.  It’s a good time.

On my path to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, the food books below have been both helpful and enjoyable.  If you love a good cookbook, whether or not you want more plants and fewer animals in your diet, these books will give you hours of reading entertainment, an excuse to spend leisurely afternoons in the health-food store buying buckwheat groats and sorghum, and freezers full of healthy, tasty meals.  Which, when taken all together, is pretty much my definition of bliss.

1. The Oh She Glows Cookbook (photo above): A friend introduced me to Angela Liddon’s blog at around the same time this vegan, allergy-friendly book was released.  It’s where I learned to make overnight oatmeal, and it inspired me to buy a vegetable spiralizer.  It’s also super pretty, especially the Canadian edition with the chia pudding fruit parfait on the cover!
thug-kitchen-cookbook2. Thug Kitchen: Caution: profanity.  Lots and lots of profanity.  My husband sent me the “trailer” for this book/blog because a) he couldn’t stop laughing, and b) he wanted to gauge, by my reaction, whether he should buy me the cookbook for Christmas.  And, because I said, “Holy &%$*,” he did.  It is great, and the blog is too.  Best recipe so far is the citrus tofu marinade, but I’m looking forward to trying the “Warm the F%*# Up Minestrone” next.
YU_Book_Main3. YumUniverse: This book is a wonderful compendium for someone embarking on what Heather Crosby calls a “plant-powerful, whole-food lifestyle.” As a bonus, all recipes are gluten free and most are made without soy.  The first chapter compiles research on why we should eat lots of plants and less of other things.  The second gives lots of good advice on filling your pantry and your kitchen tool cabinet.  The best part, though, is the pages dedicated to making staples like dairy-free milks (I have been avoiding buying these lately because they’re so full of preservatives), soaking and sprouting, storing vegetables, etc.
fok4. The Forks Over Knives Plan: The companion to the documentary mentioned above, this book details the research on the advantages of low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diets entirely from a health perspective.  It then offers recipes and techniques (like how to saute without oil – it works!)  If you’re interested in the research behind plant-based eating, I would also recommend two books upon which this one is based: The China Study and Whole, both by T. Colin Campbell.  The China Study was a foundational text for the Forks Over Knives documentary, and gives excellent arguments for giving up all animal protein, as well as reducing added fat and salt, in order to ward off or even reverse chronic disease.
SS-b5. Salad Samurai: This was another Christmas gift, and I love it even though I haven’t yet made a thing out of it.  Just reading about Coconut Samosa Potato Salad and Tempeh Rubenesque Salad has made my life better.  Terry Hope Romero is one of the geniuses behind the classic vegan cookbook Veganomicon (with Isa Chandra Moscowitz, a vegan punk icon).  This book is not light on the fat – its subtitle includes the phrases “ultra-hearty” and “you don’t have to be a vegan to love” – but it is heavy on the veggies, legumes and grains, and is a gorgeous little handbook to making every salad a meal.

What food books have improved your year?  Do you have a favourite vegan or vegetarian collection?  Have you made any changes to your diet recently that you feel were for the better?  Let me know your thoughts.

*Note: post title from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, another great food book not on this list.


Food: Right, not Light

miveDu2I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but I’m planning one for this year: Eat Right.

This is not a weight loss resolution.  A few years ago, I lost a lot of weight, and kept almost all of it off without too much trouble for a couple of years.  I’m concerned that it’s creeping back on – the last six months have been stressful, and bad old habits have reared their heads – but focusing on that hasn’t been helpful.

True, my bras no longer fit, but it’s really time to get some new ones anyway.  My husband loves me no matter what I look like.  (That’s what he tells me, and, given that I was many pounds overweight when he met me, I see no reason to disbelieve him.)

Most importantly, it’s the bad habits, and not the weight, that are the problem.  I’m not the slender thing I was at my wedding two years ago, but I’m not overweight right now either.  The problem is that I’m overeating and not exercising.  I’ll deal with the exercise later, but for now, I’m focusing on my attitude toward food.

I love food.  I love to cook, and I love eating in restaurants, and I love grocery shopping, and I love reading cookbooks as though they were novels.  Losing weight was actually fun, because I got to focus on a whole new aspect of food that I’d never given much thought: making things delicious AND low in calories.  The bloom has faded from that rose, because the truth is, if the calories are all that matters, your options are limited and often involve things like fat-free whipped topping.  (Don’t worry: NO fat-free whipped topping was consumed in the course of my weight loss.  Ugh.)

What never grows old is making food that’s delicious and also good for you.  Of course, every six weeks or so, someone comes out with a study that says that something we thought was good for us is bad for us.  Is coconut oil good or bad?  What about whole grains?  Wheat is evil!  No it’s not!

I can’t be bothered to keep track of all this stuff.  What I CAN get my head around is that brown rice is better than white, vegetables are better than fast-food hamburgers, and a tablespoon of olive oil never hurt anyone.

To that end, I’m planning some new regulations for the New Year, and I’ll work up to them over the holiday season.  (There’s only so much a girl can do at Christmas.)

1. Breakfast Must Be Filling

While I was losing weight, I ate the same breakfast pretty much every day for a year: 3/4 cup of wholegrain cereal flakes, 1/4 cup of a sweet and crunchy high-protein cereal, 3/4 cup low-fat soy milk, and sometimes a handful of berries.  It was a surprisingly tasty breakfast, and it kept me full from my 5:30 a.m. schoolday rise until lunchtime (which, granted, was usually around 10:30 a.m. on those earlybird days.)

I’m heartily sick of that breakfast now.

I’ve tried mixing it up, choosing other healthy options: a slice of wholegrain toast with almond butter and a bit of jam; yogourt topped with berries and the aforementioned high-protein cereal; smoothies; oatmeal.  None of them filled me up properly.  I was ravenous halfway through my first class.

On days when I’m working at home, being full is less crucial.  On school days, however, I need to be sure I’ll be ok, so I’m investigating other avenues.  One is eggs.  Another is homemade granola (light on the sugar and fat) instead of commercial cereals.  Another is breakfast bars.  The priority is that they be stick-to-my-ribs filling and tasty; a lesser concern is that they not be astronomically high in calories.  Suggestions welcome; please leave them in the comments.

2. Salad Means a Lot of Different Things

My favourite lunch  is a pile of greens and other veg, lightly dressed, with a piece of fish on top.  Preferably salmon or tuna.

Unfortunately, there’s no good fish market near my new home.  The butcher shop down the street sells a delicious salmon sausage, but it’s incredibly salty and always leaves me feeling dehydrated and a bit off for the rest of the day – a lot of sulfates or sulfites or something?  And I’m tired of dumping half a can of tuna on top of a pile of baby arugula.

I’ve lately discovered the delights of farro, and am particularly fond of a salad of farro, chickpeas, feta and herbs.  Not low-calorie, but how could it be wrong?  I also bought some fishcakes from the fruiterie up the street yesterday.  Perhaps not the most virtuous meal, but I love fishcakes.  I’ve been eating a couple with greens on the side and following with a cup of black tea + milk and sugar for dessert.

I’m looking to experiment with sprouting (my wheat berries are coming along nicely) and to broaden my repertoire of bean and grain salads.

If you have a favourite lunch that makes you feel satisfied AND properly cared for, please share it in the comments.

3. Eat Dinner When You Need Dinner

Because I eat breakfast very early, the rest of my eating schedule is a mess.  The worst is the period between when I get home from school (usually around 3) and when my husband gets home from work (usually 6 or later).  I’m ready for dinner by 4.  By the time we can eat together, I’ve made good progress on eating everything in the house.

We don’t have proper sit-down dinners anyway, as we don’t have a dining room at the moment.  We eat on the couch, so it’s not like dinner together is an important family ritual – we can just as easily discuss our day and watch the news while he eats and I don’t.  So there’s no good reason I can’t make dinner when I get home, eat it when I’m hungry, and keep his warm until he arrives.  I sometimes do this when I’m desperate, but I’m going to make it a regular thing.  We can still dessert together, which brings me to my next point.

4. Dessert Should Really Mean One (Small) Thing

And that small thing is a bit of dark chocolate.

Which is what it usually does mean in our household.  We go through chocolate too quickly, though – 2 squares is wont to turn into 3 or 4.  This is not necessary.

Another problem is that I love to bake.  Then I’m left with a dozen banana cupcakes or a pie, and there’s only two of us.  I like cupcakes and pie just fine, but I rarely crave them.  I need to channel my baking energy elsewhere.

An exception is bread pudding, which is necessary occasionally because the freezer is filling up with odds and ends of our homemade bread.  If made properly, bread pudding can provide one dessert and then a week’s worth of breakfasts, at least if it’s a week when I don’t need to be out of the house too much (see “Breakfast Must Be Filling,” above.)

5. Avoid Junk (mostly)

Salty snacks are my Waterloo.  It’s astonishing how quickly I can be rendered helpless by a bag of cheez puffs.  When I’m stressed, tired or sad, I find myself running to the dep minutes before closing time because I can’t make it through the night without chips.

Of course, I CAN make it through the night  without chips.  I have in the past, for months  at a time.  However, flatly denying myself this sort of indulgence will backfire badly.  So I’m making a rule: once a week – maybe on Saturday or Sunday evening – I’m allowed to have a small bag of something, if I’m home in front of the TV or a book and really want it.

Otherwise, I have a very helpful and delicious substitute: my go-to not-junk-food crunchy snack: pop a couple of tablespoons of popcorn in a brown paper bag in the microwave.  Pour on a tablespoon of melted butter or warmed oil, perhaps with a dash of truffle oil in.  Sprinkle with salt and nutritional yeast.  Full of fibre, and cheesy, and totally takes the edge off.

6. Just Relax About It, Would You?

These days, when I’m home all day, marking a few papers and then puttering around doing fun things like making risotto and buying seeds, it’s easy to feel that life is totally great and there’s nothing to worry about and who cares if I’ve put on seven pounds? (Or maybe ten?  I’ve been avoiding the scale for a while.)

It’s tougher during the school year, when I’m tired all the time and people are looking straight at me for 2-4 hours every day and I feel like if I could just fit into that little pink sweater again I’d be a better teacher and a happier person.  This leads to a downward spiral in which I have no energy to get off the sofa and I end up snapping at my students because they don’t have the self-discipline to show up to class on the hour.  Who’s projecting?

The fact is, food is one of the greatest sources of enjoyment in my life, and I’m going to enjoy it.  Before the winter vacation is over, I’ll spend a few straight days cooking up soups and stews for the freezer.  When March rolls around, I’ll start seedlings that will later go into the garden and (if I’m lucky) become vegetables.  I’ll continue to curl up in the armchair in the library with cookbooks, and I’ll go to a cafe and eat a chocolatine with a latte if it’s the only way I can convince myself to grade papers.

Hell, every woman needs new bras from time to time.

Image by Ariel da Silva Perreira

A Question About Losing Weight the Wrong Way


Let’s say you wanted to lose a small amount of weight.  Let’s say, oh, seven pounds.

Let’s say that you had recently lost a lot of weight and kept it all off for a couple of years, but due to recent very stressful life events – like, say, finding your first home and negotiating a mortgage and buying said home and moving to said home and repairing said home – you’d put a few pounds back on and would just like to take them off again please.

Let’s say you had a lot less money than you used to – because of, say, the extreme financial smack in the head you had suffered due to recent purchase and repair of home – and so could not afford to re-join the effective but expensive weight-loss program that had helped you take off and keep off the aforementioned large amount of weight.

Would any of this be an excuse for indulging in the kind of weight-loss program – say, some sort of protein-shake-based or ultra-low-carb or jackfruit-only type thing – that you previously would have just rolled your eyes at?  A program that you know is insane but that might result in short-term weight loss?  Is there any hope in hell that you could take weight off with such a method and then keep it off by returning to the healthier habits you had established through aforementioned expensive but effective program?

I would like to hear others’ experience of such scenarios.  Please leave your thoughts!

Image by Sanja Gjenero