The Oldways Table Blog

Celebrating health,
happiness, heritage,
and delicious,
nutritious food.

March 3, 2015 | Oldways Table

Karen Page’s latest book, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, is a novel concept, offering readers not recipes, but the tools and resources they need to elevate their plant-based cooking. The book wasn’t written to preach; it is here to educate and enlighten. Including a historical timeline of vegetarianism, flavor profiles of hundreds of foods, an alphabetical list of dish ideas, and even a color-coding system for vegetables, this book is a true celebration of plant-based cuisine.

We have been making our way through the book, learning something new on almost every page!  When we heard Karen was willing to chat with us for a Q&A we couldn’t wait to share the conversation with all of you!

OLDWAYS: What is the biggest way your cooking has evolved over the years and how has this evolution changed the way you write about food?
KAREN:  I’m a lifelong hedonistic food lover.  Having eaten meat at least two or three times a day for a half-century, I thought it would be even more of a radical change than it turned out to be when I shifted to a plant-based diet in May 2012.  What was radical was how much better I felt as soon as I did -- and how easy it actually was!  I still cooked and ate most of the same things I always did – whether pasta or burritos or curries – and just shifted toward meatless versions of them, which often featured more vegetables.   The lesson that hit home through my new way of eating is that the flavor profile of a dish is not rooted in its animal protein – it’s really rooted in its vegetables, herbs, and spices.  Take my love of bacon – I learned that it was not the bacon itself that I craved, but rather its smokiness, its richness, and its crispiness.  And I’ve learned that I can satisfy those cravings through plant-based options that are just as delicious and even more healthful.  Especially given America’s current health crisis and the frustration out there – in that 52 percent of Americans would rather do their taxes than figure out what to eat to be healthier -- I’m happy to be able to share what I’ve learned through writing and speaking.

OLDWAYS:  In the book you talk about your own transition to a plant-based diet. For someone thinking of taking a similar journey can you share some recommendations or insights to get them started?
KAREN:  Start with what you love.  If you love pizza, eat pizza – just introduce yourself to its pleasures without meat.  My husband Andrew Dornenburg (who provided the book’s beautiful four-color photography) and I shifted from our usual sausage pizza to mushroom pizza with roasted garlic – and also shifted to half-cheese and eventually to no-cheese pizza.  If you love Ethiopian food, don’t give up the pleasure of those deeply-flavored stews and tangy injera – just order the vegan combination.  But even though vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower cholesterol levels and BMIs, a meatless diet isn’t necessarily a healthful one – so learn some basics of nutrition.  If you think about eating one-quarter vegetables, one-quarter fruit, one-quarter legumes and one-quarter whole grains at an average meal, you don’t have to count calories or grams of protein or anything else.  And be sure to eat a variety of plant-based ingredients so that you’re also getting a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

OLDWAYS:  In researching the history of vegetarianism, what  surprised you the most?  And what are a few interesting facts you learned?
KAREN:  I had initially thought of writing a brief overview of vegetarianism in the United States starting in the 1960s or 1970s, but found the research so enthralling that it carried me away – so much so that the book’s historic timeline starts with the founding of Hinduism in ~3000-2000 BCE.  I wasn’t previously aware that so many of history’s greatest geniuses – including da Vinci and Einstein – endorsed vegetarianism, and that those who abstained from eating meat were often known as “Pythagoreans” (named after the famed mathematician and philosopher) before the term “vegetarian” was coined in the late 19th century.  It was also fascinating to see how distinct threads of influence – including religious, ethical, environmental, agricultural, nutritional, and even gastronomic – started being woven together to create today’s majority (54 percent) of Americans seeking to reduce (47 percent) or eliminate (7 percent) meat from their diets.

OLDWAYS:  We truly love your idea of eating in a different country most days of the week.  Can you explain this cultural eating concept and its health benefits?
KAREN:  Not only are vegetables, herbs, and spices the heart of the flavor profile of any dish, but they are also the most nutrient-dense elements of any dish – that is, they deliver the greatest nutrition for the fewest calories.  But even though leafy greens are among the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, you can’t get the full range of nutrients your body needs from eating kale or other leafy greens alone – so it’s important to eat a variety of different vegetables.  I’m fortunate to live in Manhattan, where I can literally have food from more than a dozen different countries delivered to my doorstep in less than 30 minutes – and I often do!  And I discovered that enjoying a wide variety of cuisines also enables me to eat an equally wide variety of vegetables – from the bok choy, long beans, and snow peas of Chinese cuisine to the celery root, eggplant, and leeks of French cuisine to the cauliflower, chickpeas, and spinach of Indian cuisine to the avocados, beans, and squash of Mexican cuisine – providing a cornucopia of nutrients.

OLDWAYS:  Can you talk with us about the basic principles of flavor and how understanding them can elevate one’s cooking?
KAREN:  During our research for THE FLAVOR BIBLE (2008), we strove to clarify the difference between flavor and taste – two terms often used erroneously as interchangeable.  So we developed our Flavor Equation:  FLAVOR = TASTE + MOUTHFEEL + AROMA + THE X FACTOR, which reflects that fact that flavor is all-encompassing of what is experienced via the tongue and the mouth as well as the nose – not to mention via all our other senses, plus our hearts, minds, and spirits.  The point is simply that the more deeply you think about flavor, the more you can bring to every dish you make.

OLDWAYS:  What is the best way for a reader to approach reading (and using) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible?
KAREN:  Readers should know that this book isn’t a celebration of me or my creativity; it’s intended as a celebration of them and their creativity.  As the creative process can start with literally anything, they’ll find list after list of possible inspirations – cuisines, seasons, flavors, ingredients, techniques, and more.  One inspiration (say, summertime) will lead to another (say, grilling), which will lead to the selection of an ingredient (say, eggplant).  That primary ingredient will lead to a secondary ingredient (e.g., basil, bell peppers, chiles, garlic, olives, tomatoes) which should be compatible with the first.  Any tertiary ingredient added to a dish (e.g., capers, cilantro, curry spices, dill, ginger, soy sauce, tahini) should be compatible with the first two selected – and indeed, every subsequent ingredient should be compatible with every other ingredient.  The Vegetarian Flavor Bible helps to steer the reader toward compatible flavors and flavor affinities that will enhance their successful experimentation in the kitchen.

February 26, 2015 | Oldways Table

Comfort foods often hold a special place in our hearts.  They transport us to a time or place in our past that feels like home, with happy memories and pure joy.  At least this is how it is for me!  One such dish that does this for (almost) everyone is macaroni and cheese.  Need I say more?!

Some time ago I wanted to find a recipe that would satisfy my mac and cheese craving and also offer some nutritional value.  I found it!  Vegetable filled, comforting and honestly delicious, this recipe hits the mark and is a great weeknight dinner. The original version was for an individual serving but my husband and I love to make this using the entire spaghetti squash, ensuring we have plenty of leftovers for lunches the rest of the week.  (P.S. We usually serve this dish on a bed of greens for an added serving of vegetables.)

Spaghetti Squash ‘Mac & Cheese’

1 medium spaghetti squash
1 red pepper, diced
1 cup frozen peas
1 bunch green onions, chopped (greens only)
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk (we use 1%)
1 ½ cups pepper jack cheddar cheese, shredded
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper (optional)
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Cut the spaghetti squash in half, lengthwise.  Remove the seeds and place face down in 9x13 baking dish. Add  2 1/2 cups of water.  Bake for approximately 35 minutes.  Remove from the oven, lift the squash from the water using a large spatula, and let cool on a cutting board.  When cool enough to handle, use a fork to  scoop the squash flesh into a bowl. Set aside.

Spray an 8x8 baking dish with cooking spray.

Combine  the red pepper, peas and green onions in a bowl; set aside about a half cup of the mixture to sprinkle on top.

In a large saucepan, over medium heat, mix the flour and salt & pepper. Slowly whisk in the milk until smooth, stirring until thickened, about 3 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the stove and stir in the pepper jack cheese until melted.

Stir in the cooked spaghetti squash until combined, then stir in the vegetable mixture and the Aleppo pepper.  Spread the mixture into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining vegetable mixture and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

February 24, 2015 | Oldways Table

We all know the real punch line to this old chestnut of a joke is, “take two aspirins and call me in the morning,” but rather than taking a pill, wouldn’t it be more satisfying (and in many cases less expensive) to enjoy whole foods to make you feel better?

It’s been estimated that as much as 80% of disease can be tied to unhealthy food and lifestyle choices. But, if you turn that statement around, you can see that achieving good health can start with the food on your plate.

Health studies have shown that a balanced diet of whole foods can help prevent the causes of disease and illness. These foods, which are at the heart of the Mediterranean Diet - a lifestyle and way of eating that has been well researched and documented – are filled with nutrients and vitamins that are essential for a strong body and mind.

Heeding the words of the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, who said, “let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food” you can eat your way to better health. Here are a few ways you can incorporate nourishing foods into your diet:

  • Embrace a plant-based diet. You’ll have plenty of delicious and nutritious foods to choose from including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • Eat lean meats in moderation, and try eating fatty fish filled with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, at least twice a week.
  • Go meatless at least once a week. Instead, opt for whole grains, beans and lots of vegetables. Think meatless stews, soups, chili, and whole-grain dishes like brown and rice, quinoa, millet, and teff.
  • Stay hydrated and drink lots of water. Try sugar-free teas in place of sugar-laden sodas; 100% fruit and vegetable juice can be enjoyed in moderation, too.
  • Choose healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, avocados, almonds and walnuts.
  • Add herbs and spices to your dishes. Cooks from around the world used these bundles of flavor in their cuisine for centuries. Today, research confirms that herbs and spices are not only full of flavor, they’re healthy as well. They add antioxidants to our diet and are a versatile and tasty alternative to salt; they’re known to help reduce inflammation, relieve some digestive disorders and so much more.
  • Select snacks from a variety of healthy options. A light snack can keep you sated and help you avoid a mid-day slump (which can lead to choosing a not-so-healthy food). Reach for a piece of fresh fruit (or a few pieces of dried fruit); keep sliced veggies on hand, they make terrific “dippers” for hummus, or enjoy a handful of almonds, walnuts, or sunflower seeds when you’re craving something crunchy.
  • Choose a variety of foods to ensure you’re getting a well-balanced intake of nutrients and vitamins. Foods can be fresh, frozen or canned. Be sure to look for minimally-processed products that are low salt or salt free, low in fat, and low in sugar or sugar-free.

Check out our February Toolkit, “Food As Medicine.” We explore this topic in more depth and present recipes, research, and more foods to enjoy!

We hope you’ve found these tips inspiring and will incorporate some or all of these ideas into your daily diet. Cheers – here’s to your good health!

P.S. We have a Toolkit dedicated to the nutritious and delicious sweet potato – don’t let this sweet spud fool you – it’s full of nutrients and low in calories and perfect for a healthy diet.


February 20, 2015 | Oldways Table

Remember how eagerly you awaited your birthday, or Halloween, or perhaps Christmas, when you were a kid? At least each of those came around annually. For those of us in the nutrition world, a similar is-it-here-yet anticipation revolves around release of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report – something that happens only once every five years.

This report summarizes the findings of more than a dozen of the nation’s top nutrition experts who have been working together for two years; their recommendations are forwarded to USDA and HHS (Health & Human Services) to support updates to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, expected later this year.

Yesterday afternoon the DGAC report became public, and we immediately dove into its 500+ pages to spotlight some of its most interesting points for you.

All Hail Mediterranean and Vegetarian Diets
Rather than prescribe one single model for healthy eating, as in the past, the 2015 DGAC report has three models: the “Healthy US-style Pattern,” the “Healthy Vegetarian Pattern,” and the “Healthy Med-style Pattern.” Oldways created the original Mediterranean Diet Pyramid (with the Harvard School of Public Health) in 1993, and followed in 1997 with the first Vegetarian Diet Pyramid.

The DGAC report says – and we agree – that all three of these patterns have much in common:

Common characteristics of dietary patterns associated with positive health outcomes include higher intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate intake of alcohol (among adults); lower consumption of red and processed meat, and low intake of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains. Vegetables and fruits are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes. Whole grains were identified slightly less consistently compared to vegetables and fruits, but were identified in every conclusion with moderate to strong evidence.

We’re scratching our heads just a bit, however, at the way the report describes the components of both the Med and Vegetarian Diets. For the Med Diet, for instance, the DGAC model includes 12.5 ounces of poultry, 10.5 ounces of red/processed meat, and 15 ounces of fish per week, while also splitting grains between refined and whole grains. The Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid (and a commonly-used Mediterranean-Style Dietary Pattern Score developed in 2009 by leading researchers) features much less meat and poultry, more fish and seafood, and more whole grains.

Despite the fact that they’re not marching exactly in step with us, it’s gratifying to see the US government joining the parade Oldways has been leading for two decades. Our two 28-Day Menu Books, for the Mediterranean Diet and for Vegetarian/Vegan diets, can provide all the tips and recipes anyone needs to implement these two healthy, plant-based diets today.

The Value of Traditional Diets
Oldways has long championed traditional diets from around the world, as evidenced by our slogan, Health through Heritage. We’re glad to see that the report’s executive summary recognizes the importance of this, by calling for "food and nutrition assistance programs to take into account the risk that immigrants have of giving up their healthier dietary habits soon after arriving in the United States." Oldways’ work helps people stay connected (or get re-connected!) with the healthier eating patterns of their ancestors, especially through our six-lesson cooking curriculum “A Taste of African Heritage” and its forthcoming cousin “A Taste of Latin American Heritage.”

Whole Grains Strongly Recommended
Since 2005, the Dietary Guidelines have recommended that we all make at least half our grains whole. The 2015 DGAC report makes it clear that this recommendation will continue, saying, “a major shift from refined grains to whole grains is needed.”

In fact, the report reminds us that if everyone at the recommended three of more daily servings of whole grains, “whole grains would provide substantial percentages of several key nutrients, such as about 32 percent of dietary fiber, 42 percent of iron, 35 percent of folate, 29 percent of magnesium, and 16 percent of vitamin A.” And just think: if you made all of your grains whole grains, you’d get twice those levels of nutrients, before you even lifted a forkful of legumes, leafy greens, and other vegetables and fruits.

Whole Foods, not Empty Calories
We’re big proponents of thinking outside the (food) box, and creating great meals from minimally-processed foods, most of which don’t come in packages. For whole foods like these, empty calories aren’t a problem: when sugars occur in nature (in fruits and in milk, for instance), they occur at relatively low levels and bring along welcome “baggage” such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. A whole-foods diet, with sweets enjoyed only rarely, serves up very few empty calories.

The Standard American Diet (SAD), however, is full of empty calories. The DGAC report considers both added sugars and saturated fats as “empty calories” and suggests that the two together be kept under 20% of total calories, including limiting added sugar to 7-12 teaspoons. This translates to a largely plant-based diet, without sugar-heavy processed foods, an approach we certainly endorse. We wonder, though, whether it makes sense for even 20% of anyone’s diet to be given over to empty calories. Makes it so much harder to get the nutrients you need in the other 80%.

And Lots More to Like
We’ve only scratched the surface; there’s lots more we like in this report. For example, it says that in order to reduce sodium, “Emphasis should be placed on … helping consumers understand how to flavor unsalted foods with spices and herbs.” Check; we do that in all our traditional diet programs. The report also emphasizes how largely plant-based diets can contribute to sustainability, stating that “adherence to a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern— compared to usual intake—reduced the environmental footprint, including improved GHG emissions, agricultural land use, and energy and water consumption.” Check; sustainability has been part of Oldways’ mission from the start. We’re also pleased to see that cholesterol in whole foods like seafood and eggs will no longer be demonized; the report recommends dropping the long-standing recommendation to limit cholesterol in food, since science shows little or no connection between cholesterol in foods and high cholesterol levels in people. Goodbye, pallid egg-white omelets! Welcome back, all the great egg dishes in so many traditional diets!

What do you think should be in the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines? If you were writing the Guidelines, what are the three most important pieces of advice you would suggest? Add your comments below!


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