Monthly Archives: February 2010

Comfort food?

A recent post over at Soulveggie on “comfort food” caught my attention enough that not only did I feel the need to comment as I often do for his posts, but to reflect some and write my own thoughts on the matter. My first thought is that all food should be considered comfort food. Right? I mean, if you’re hungry and you eat, aren’t you comforted? But clearly there is a distinction between being satisfied and being comforted.

A quick perusal of the cooking magazines shows many cover stories on comfort food. The accompanying photos are usually high fat, meat based concoctions we remember from our childhood. What is being comforted? Certainly not our arteries! Yet somehow we ignore the physical consequences of these dishes with an excuse that they comfort us. Where is the disconnect? Why do we choose short term emotional benefit over long term health? After reading Dr. Kessler’s book The End of Overeating, I think I see a reason. He explains some of the new research in neuroscience that shows how bad food, that is, food high in some combination of sugar, salt or fat has a drug effect on the brain quite similar to other drugs like caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. So, at a biological level, we truly are being powerfully comforted by food we know rationally is not good. Couple that drug effect with all the residue of past good feelings associated with this food, and you have a powerful brain cocktail.

I say that it is time to rethink what comfort food should be, and make solid efforts to define comfort as how we will feel in our 60s, 70s and beyond. Kessler details other psychological research that gives some suggestions about how to rewire our brains for new habits. But I am just as encouraged by Dr. Esselstyn’s program to reverse heart disease that explains that within three months those brain receptors that respond to fat so enthusiastically can be retrained. Also, Dr. McDougall always refers to his food as comfort food, since it is starch based and therefore very satisfying. My experience has been that if I keep the starch, eliminate the fat, and stick to tastes and flavors I like, I find a different kind of comfort. One that feels good today, and I know will feel good far into the future.


Book Review: Indian Running

While all the running literary buzz now surrounds Christopher McDougall’s fine book Born to Run, I thought I would go a bit old school and look at this out of print book that covers various threads of the Native American running story. It describes in part the Tarahumara running tradition that has been fascinating in recent years, but also covers some lesser known aspects of Native American running throughout history. It turns out that many tribes throughout North America have a long history of running messengers. In some cases, the relays would make modern communications blush! For instance, the Aztec capital knew of Cortes almost within hours of his arrival in the Yucatan. The Incan messengers were a veritable postal service, fueled at least in part by coca leaves! In the American Southwest, a unique moment in history used the power of long distance runners to produce the largest and most successful uprising against the Spanish in North America. The five hundred year anniversary of this event was commemorated by a group of Pueblo tribes in the early 1980’s with a reenactment of the terrain covered by running a multi day event that linked all the Pueblos involved in the original revolt.
While the writing and storytelling in certainly not as snappy or entertaingl as McDougall’s, it is an interesting read. Nabokov alternates between first hand accounts of the commemorative event with digressions into history. Sometimes this switching back and forth can be annoying, but then McDougall does essentially the same thing by narrating the Copper Canyon ultra with digressions into many different topics. Since it is out of print, the only way to get a copy is to browse used bookstores or use Amazon’s network. If it makes its way to you, its worth some bedtime reading.

Shepherd’s Pie with Little or No Plan

What a discovery! My sister has mentioned the fun of shepherd’s pie for awhile, but I didn’t get it until I tried it myself. Part of the problem was reading five fairly different recipes, but eventually I created an easy one. It still takes a couple of steps because of the mashed potatoes. But we all agree, the mashed potatoes are what make the dish.

So the basic game plan was to use primarily ingredients that would be found in the freezer and pantry. Frozen veggies, canned beans, potatoes and onions are easy to keep on hand won’t require trips to the store.

4 med. potatoes
prepared horseradish to taste
4-8 oz. mushrooms fresh; or equivalent dried rehydrated and finely chopped
1 onion chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 T ea. dried parsely, sage, rosemary and thyme
1 6 oz. tomato paste
1 T Bragg’s or soy sauce
1 can each kidney beans and chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 16 oz. bag frozen mixed veggies (like peas, carrots, corn)
1 16 oz. frozen broccoli
a little red wine or broth for sauteeing

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Peel potatoes and boil until done. mash with a little cooking water or non dairy milk. Add horseradish to taste, about 2-3 T.
  2. While potatoes cook, saute onion, garlic, celery, and mushrooms in wine or broth until soft.
  3. Add dried herbs and Bragg’s or soy sauce.
  4. Add beans and cook until well combined and veggies are well cooked. Add tomato paste and combine well. Transfer bean mixture to a sprayed baking dish.
  5. Add frozen veggies to skillet, season with salt and pepper and cook to taste.
  6. Spread veggie mixture over the bean mixture.
  7. Spread the mashed potatoes over the vegetable layer, sealing the edges well. Dust with paprika, and bake for about 30 min., uncovered.

Note that the vegetables used are very flexible. Many variations of fresh or frozen veggies could be used, depending on season, availability, or inclination. This makes a big batch, but it won’t stay around for long! Plus, it freezes and reheats well.

Hero #1 Rip Esselstyn

First in an occasional series of plant based warriors who put the walk to the talk, so to speak, is former pro triathlete and current firefighter Rip Esselstyn. Son of doctor Caldwell Esselstyn who has pioneered heart disease reversal through low fat plant based diet, the whole family walks the walk. In Rip’s case, he also talks a lot. In his new book The Engine 2 Diet, he skillfully creates a plan for regular people to change from an unhealthy SAD (standard American diet) to what he calls plant strong eating. What he does is take the phenomenal research that his dad has done into heart disease reversal and create a very accessible plan. Just to make sure, he tested it a couple of times on fellow firefighters and community members in Austin, Texas. The result? Maybe to their surprise, but certainly not to Rip, everybody improved their health with improved cholesterol, blood pressure, increased energy and well being.

Rip clearly has been living this lifestyle for awhile. In fact, the whole family transitioned rather late based on father Caldwell’s research. There are a lot of family stories surrounding the recipes that show how this has been a collaborative effort for some time. It also makes the recipes more accessible, as many are based on familiar foods. In most cases, these old favorites are simply reworked to eliminate the meat, dairy, and oil and add in some nutrient dense ingredients like kale.
So why is Rip a feed the beast! hero? Because there are not many who have combined true low fat vegan plant based living with outstanding athletic performance. Rip ate plant strong while competing professionally as a triathlete for ten years. Plus, his current job as a firefighter requires some athleticism as well! He puts to bed the misguided notion that athletes need a richer diet, or are even able to tolerate richer food. My only wish is that he would write and speak a little more about the athletic experience he has had eating this way, since there is so much misinformation surrounding sports nutrition.

To see how he presents this lifestyle in person check out this performance on national television.
Great recipes include: the burger recipe (my family favorite), the lasagna, and the “meat” loaf
For more Esselstyn info check out dad’s book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (I think mom Ann’s recipes are even better!)

Lent Leftovers

Be honest: What happened to your New Year's Resolutions? If you're anything like me, Life is what happened. As in, Life is what happens when you are making other plans. For me, the usual scheduling challenges of final exams and basketball season derailed my January base training goals. Nor did I lose those couple of holiday pounds. Of course that means that my race weight is rather distant at the moment. 

Enter the Leftovers. So what if mistakes were made? That's what Lent is for. Not being Catholic or Orthodox and with no cultural connection to the religious significance, it always just seemed like a good idea. After the holiday feasting, a time of withdrawl, fasting and reflection to last out the winter until Spring's new growth comes in. Especially when combined with a tradition of New Year's Resolutions, Lent looks to me like a perfect second chance! 

So what does Lent mean? The popular definition is giving something up as a sort of discipline, spiritually or otherwise. I suppose it is sort of proving to oneself that one CAN do it. In the traditional sense it was to practice three spiritual disciplines: 
  1. Fasting- This was to overcome the temptations of the flesh and show mastery of one's appetites. The rules were varied, and possibly came from a practical need to conserve food supplies in the lean times of late winter and early spring when food could be scarce.
  2. Prayer- Since the tradition has a religious foundation, the days leading up to the Easter celebration should focus on more personal meditation of spiritual matters.
  3. Almsgiving- The Christian ideal of charity is also highlighted with the faithful encouraged to give to others by donating time, money, or energy to worthy causes.

I was inspired by a Buddhist friend who gave up beer for Lent to try the same effort last year. I gave up cheese, and for six weeks I had to avoid it, which was sometimes easy but sometimes difficult. So this year I will expand my Lenten effort to cover all three categories. The intriguing thing about Lent is that it is temporary, roughly six weeks or 40 days. WHat happens after Lent? The traditional practice seems somewhat blank. I suppose the ideal goal would be to continue the new habits indefinitely. But then it seems like any other "self-improvement" scheme. Perhaps making it temporary makes it somehow special? I suppose I will have to answer those questions later.