Left to right, somewhat: Swiss chard, Rhubarb, Peas, Beets, Yellow Squash, Carrots, Collard Greens with herbs in front and back.

My laptop died a couple of weeks ago so I am just getting caught up!

This week’s (July 17th – week 3) CSA share was a rainbow of variety.  One of the first things I learned about plant-based eating is that you should try to have as many different colors on your plate as possible with each meal.  Well, this week’s fare will be quite colorful!

With this variety of colors as inspiration, I combined peas, yellow squash, Swiss chard, red peppers, carrots, Vidalia onions, and chopped garlic, simmered in a bit of vegetable stock with chopped fresh basil.   Served with tri-color couscous, the result was nearly too pretty to eat.   But we ate it, and it tasted as good as it looked!

Peas, yellow squash, Swiss chard, red peppers, carrots, Vidalia onions, garlic served with tri-color couscous.

We also had a few yellow squash from our home garden, this being the time of year when even if you give away squash, cucumbers and tomatoes to all your friends, you still have enough left over to stock Stop & Shop.  So, using the yellow squash as the dinner bowl was one way to use up the little darlings.

Yellow squash stuffed with vidalia onions, beets, carrots, mushrooms and a blend of heritage grains.

For this dish I used those beautiful beets and carrots along with red peppers, Vidalia onions, and sliced baby Bella mushrooms, cooked with a blend of heritage grains from Nature’s Earthly Choice’s Ancient Grains.  Once again, Ocean State Job Lot sells these wonderful grains, but I have also seen them available online at places like Amazon.   The Nature’s Earthly Choice website seems to be down as I type this, but if I find it working again later I’ll add a link.

I sliced the squash lengthwise, then scooped out the seeds before placing the squash in a saucepan with a little water to steam them.  Once they were cooked, I filled them with the vegetable and grain mixture.

It’s so easy to cook vegetables while cooking grains; just estimate the amount of time the veggies will take and add them to the water while the grains are cooking.  Some grains have to cook for only 10 minutes, while others take 40 or 50, so sometimes I’ll saute the veggies first to give them a head start, and other times I’ll add them at the end.  If you’re not an experimental, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cook like I am, just cook them separately and then mix them together when they’re done.

My final CSA-inspired meal this week was  collard greens and beans, with celery, carrots, red peppers, garlic, vidalia onion, fresh basil, thyme and cajun seasoning.  A simple dish to cook, it was one of those one-pot meals created by dicing up all the vegetables and simmering them in vegetable broth, then adding canned beans at the end.  It was like a stew; thick and full of good stuff.

Collard greens and beans, with celery, carrots, red peppers, garlic, vidalia onion, fresh basil, thyme and cajun seasoning.

Collard greens are new to my cooking repertoire, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  I recently added a new cookbook to my shelf: “Wild About Greens: 125 Delectable Vegan Recipes for Kale, Collards, Arugula, Bok Choy, and other Leafy Veggies Everyone Loves”  by Nava Atlas, which I saw featured on the author’s Veg Kitchen website.    This is the perfect supplement to my well-used copy of  “Green on Greens”, as Nava Atlas is vegan and the recipes are completely plant-based.

I am highly selective about buying cookbooks these days, having donated most of my collection to our library’s book sale since I started using “Living Cookbook” recipe software on my laptop.  Most recipes can be found online, and with this software I can capture the online recipe, including photographs, and add it to my own recipe file.  Then, when I have an ingredient such as collard greens, I can search the entire recipe file for “collard greens” and all the recipes with that ingredient will all show up in a list!   Granted, it takes time to set up, but I love the convenience.   And when a book comes along that I know I will use over and over, like “Wild About Greens”, I’ll still spring for a copy.

We picked up our second share from the CSA last Tuesday, and it’s been a mystery and  a challenge.

Left to Right – Kale, herbs, yellow squash, Swiss chard, collards, and bok (pak) choi (I think).  Cucumbers at the top.

I was grateful that Joyce (owner with her husband John of The Good Earth) had given Richard a list of what was included, but I was unfamiliar with many of these plants.  My first job was to identify which were which.   I spent quite some time on Google looking at pictures of greens, trying to figure out what I had.  What a treasure trove of fresh green goodness!   Now I need to find some recipes for inspiration.

Being busy, I started with what I knew: yellow squash, herbs and zucchini.

Whole wheat pasta with mixed vegetables (vidalia onion, grape tomatoes, yellow squash, and cucumbers) with chopped fresh basil.

While the pasta was cooking, I added the grape tomatoes to a non-stick skillet and let them start to simmer before adding sliced Vidalia onion, yellow squash and a few slices of zucchini. Or so I thought.  I held the green veggie out toward Richard and said, “Is this a zucchini or a cucumber?”  He said “zucchini”.  Silly me, Richard is not only color blind, he has no sense of smell.  As we later found out, when the “zucchini” tasted like pickles, sauteed cucumber is pretty tasty, and it added something a little different to this pasta dish.  A bit of chopped fresh basil also gave it a nice flavor.  I’m getting used to having pasta without grated cheese, and now that I have such flavorful fresh vegetables, I’d rather not bury their flavor under Asiago or Romano cheese.  But a glass of Merlot always goes with pasta, of course!

Another busy day, so again I stuck with what I knew:  yellow squash, kale, cucumber and herbs.

Left to right: Tossed mixed vegetables, cucumber salad, basmati rice with chopped greens and honey dijon mustard.

As you may notice, Vidalia onions are available right now, and they are so delicious that I have quite a few of them so they are making their way into many of my vegetable dishes.  This mixed vegetable melange includes 1/2 of a Vidalia onion, some sliced white mushrooms, a sliced yellow squash, and sliced red peppers with chopped fresh basil.  I served the veggies with a bowl of basmati rice which I cooked with some chopped kale and then added a tablespoon or so of honey dijon mustard.  The cucumber salad has balsamic vinegar and a little sea salt.   It was a nice variety of flavors and textures.

Then it was time to get down to figuring out how to make the best use of the week’s bounty.  Here are some of the places where I found recipes to use as inspiration.

FatFree Vegan Kitchen: Sinlessly Delicous 

Whole Foods Market Recipes

Nutrition MD 

Vegetarian Times

I was mainly looking for an idea for Bok Choi (or Bok Choy or Pak Choi)  I found one in Vegetarian Times that had an interesting combination of ingredients which I adapted for what I had on hand.

Bok Choi with mushrooms and red peppers in a soy sauce and honey broth.

I started out by sauteing the mushrooms and red peppers with chopped garlic in some vegetable broth.  As they began to cook, I added some soy sauce and a teaspoon of honey.  When the peppers and mushrooms were nearly done, I topped them with the bok choi greens, covered the pan and let them simmer until the greens were tender.  In another pot I cooked some black rice.  Here’s the end result:

Bok choi, red peppers and mushrooms simmered in soy sauce and honey, with black rice.

This was a pretty luscious meal, if I do say so myself.  Black rice, also known as “Forbidden” rice, has a nutty flavor and is fairly sticky.  There are a lot of claims about its healthy qualities.  All I can say is, it’s delicious!  Like many of the grains and beans I’ve been using lately, I found black rice at Ocean State Job Lot.  They have a large section of whole grains, cereals, rice and beans, many of them the Bob’s Red Mill brand.  I haven’t compared prices with the other stores, but I figure that if I can stay out of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s I can probably save a lot of money.  Between the CSA and the Job Lot, with a small weekly purchase from Stop & Shop, I am finding everything I need for the plant-based diet.

That’s all for week 2.  We already have our new batch of CSA veggies so I will be ratcheting up my stove-side creativity and hitting the recipe websites again real soon!

Romanesco Broccoli from our first share from the CSA – I had no idea what this was!

We joined a CSA at  The Good Earth Organic Gardening Center about 2 weeks ago.  It was perfect timing!  The first share was ready last week, and we received a generous amount of fresh organic produce.  The offerings included a yellow squash, a cucumber, a bouquet of fresh flowers, some peas, bunches of red leaf lettuce, swiss chard, Tuscan kale and collard greens, basil, fennel, parsley, and a beautiful head of Romanesco broccoli.

I felt like a kid with a bunch of new toys, trying to decide which one to play with first!  I decided on the yellow squash and peas.   This was the result:

Yellow squash and peas with mushrooms and garlic over couscous, flavored with fresh basil and dill, from our first CSA pick up.

I am learning to cook without oil, so I used a little organic vegetable stock to saute chopped garlic scapes and mushrooms, adding the yellow squash and peas, with some sprigs of the fresh basil and dill.  Once those were beginning to cook through, I put in a cup of tri-color couscous and let that brown a little before adding 1 1/2 cups more of the vegetable stock.  Couscous takes about 10 minutes to cook, so the veggies got nice and tender.

One of the best results of this type of cooking is the flavor of the vegetables.  Not only are they fresh, but cooking them without oil, sauces or condiments allows their true flavor to come through.

This meal is an example of the way I’ve been cooking most of our dinners.  I mix-and-match vegetables, grains and legumes, and try to include as many different colors as I can.

The next night, I had to try the Romanesco broccoli.  It was so intriguing; not to mention amazingly beautiful.  My photo above does not do it justice.  I had to look it up online to get an idea of how to prepare it, and I found a recipe in which the broccoli was cooked in the same pot as the pasta.  So, I followed suit.

Romanesco broccoli and Swiss chard from the CSA over whole wheat pasta with chick peas.

The result was wonderful!  Romanesco broccoli tastes like regular broccoli, but not as strong and bitter.  The broccoli doesn’t take long to cook, so I put it in the pasta pot when the pasta had about 5 minutes left to go.

While the whole wheat pasta with broccoli was cooking, I sauteed chopped garlic scapes in vegetable broth along with some finely-chopped Swiss chard and a can of chick peas, then poured that over the cooked pasta and broccoli.  Richard loved it!  (So did I.)

My final challenge for the first week was to find a way to cook collard greens.  For inspiration I went to my old stand-by vegetable cookbook, “Greene on Greens” by Bert Greene.  This has been my go-to book for preparing vegetables for more than 20 years.  There are lots of used copies on Amazon, so grab one while you can – it’s out of print.  His chapter on greens included a recipe, “Wilted Summer Greens” that was the inspiration for my final culinary adventure of the week.  I sauteed a Vidalia onion with some julienned sundried tomatoes and chopped garlic scapes, then added the collard greens and let them cook until they wilted.  Then I threw in a cup of whole wheat couscous and some water, and 10 minutes later dinner was ready.

Collard greens from the CSA, Vidalia onion and sundried tomatoes over whole wheat couscous.

Here’s the whole meal:

Collard greens over couscous, garden salad and watermelon.

This meal used up the last of the first week’s CSA share;  collard greens, red leaf lettuce, cucumber, and basil.  Oh, and of course the bouquet of flowers, too!  Tomorrow we’ll pick up the share for week 2.  I can’t wait to see what’s in it!  Stay tuned……

Some of last summer’s backyard harvest.

When my doctor suggested that I watch the movie “Forks Over Knives“, my lackadaisical approach to healthy eating began to change into a more focused move toward a plant-based diet.  The movie described the health benefits of eating plants and only plants, and made the claim that most of today’s chronic diseases can be reversed or cured by cutting animal protein completely out of our diets.  The movie was compelling, and I encourage everyone to check it out of their local library and see it.  (If your local library doesn’t have it, buy it on Amazon for $13.91 and then donate it to the library!)  Or, you can watch it for free (if you don’t mind the ads) on Hulu!

After seeing the movie I still needed more information about starting a plant-based diet, so I followed up by reading “The 21-day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost metabolism, lower cholesterol and dramatically improve your health.” by Neal Barnard, MD.  This is a very good introduction for anyone looking for more information on a plant-based diet. It is clearly written, and simple to follow. Even if you don’t want to exactly follow the 21-day diet, the information the book presents will be helpful in getting started toward better health.

Next on my list was “The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter’s 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that lowers cholesterol and burns away the pounds” by Rip Esselstyn.  This is another fine introduction to beginning a plant-based diet, full of easy-to-follow information and recipes.  One nice thing about this book is that you can go to the index and look up, for example, “cereals, best brands” or “refrigerator, E2-approved foods for stocking” and get real basic, down-to-earth, specific information to help you get started.

There are also some fine websites and blogs available with good information:

MindBodyGreen – Plant-Based Diet for Beginners 

The Mayo Clinic – Vegetarian Diet: How to get the best nutrition  (Includes the Vegetarian Food Pyramid)

Vegetarian Times – Vegan Recipes 

Physicans Committed to Responsible Medicine – Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

And, here’s a list of more books and movies that you can choose from to get more information.   And here’s another list!

Little by little, these sources answered my questions:

Will we get enough protein?  Conventional wisdom tells us that we must get the protein we need from animal products.  This is not the case.  Whole grains, legumes, soy products and nuts and seeds are primary protein sources in a plant-based diet.  The RDA for protein, based upon a person’s weight, averages between 40 and 60 grams per day.  We need only 2.5 to 11% of our calories from protein, and that amount is easily supplied by common vegetables.  Vegetables average around 22% protein, beans 28%, and grains 13%. Have a look at the chart on this page.

Read more: http://www.livestrong.com/article/277983-how-much-protein-is-in-vegetables/#ixzz1zyrhcMBC

Don’t we need some of the “good” fats, like olive oil and canola oil, and aren’t those healthy, plant-based foods?  “Healthy” is a relative term.  Olive and canola oils are indeed healthier than butter or other animal fats, but any excess dietary fat contributes to disease, and the process by which these oils are made removes any of the healthy properties that they once contained when they were vegetables.  They have little or no nutritional or health benefits.   In another post I’ll talk about learning to cook without oil – it’s a process, and I am still working on it.  How am I going to make salad dressing?  Stay tuned……

Here’s a list of 15 reasons to avoid vegetable oils.

Don’t we need calcium to avoid osteoporosis as we age? Dairy products are not the main sources of calcium. The PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) website explains, “The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes, or “greens and beans” for short. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and other greens are loaded with highly absorbable calcium and a host of other healthful nutrients.  ….Beans are humble foods, and you might not know that they are loaded with calcium. There is more than 100 milligrams of calcium in a plate of baked beans. If you prefer chickpeas, tofu, or other bean or bean products, you will find plenty of calcium there, as well.”

Will we become anemic from lack of iron?  Again, common knowledge tells us that iron is supplied mostly from animal products, and again, this is not the case.  Many plant foods are great sources of iron, especially leafy green vegetables and beans.  There is also iron in whole grains, and many grain products are fortified with iron.  Matt Ruscigno’s article, “What every vegetarian needs to know about iron” explains this very well.

Health-Alicious-Ness.com has a list of fruits and vegetables high in iron.

So, I’m feeling pretty certain that we can live healthfully without meat, seafood and dairy.  I’ll add more resources to this post as I come across them.  There is always more to learn!

June 16th’s plant-based meal: Grilled eggplant steaks, couscous with chickpeas, red peppers and baby corn.

We like vegetables!  We grow them when we can, and buy them locally when we can, though much of the time we buy them at the supermarket.  We have them as salads, side-dishes, and ingredients in stir-fry and casseroles.  But they were seldom the main course, or the only thing we had for dinner.

Our attempts at following vegetarian or vegan diets always have “excepts”.  We don’t eat meat, except once a month we grill steaks.  We don’t consume dairy products, except when we have cheese on pizza or pasta.  We like to follow a vegan diet, except when we go out to eat and there’s a great seafood dish on the menu.

After finding out a bit more about how to make plants the main course, I started experimenting with fresh vegetables, whole grains and legumes, mixing and matching them to create healthy, tasty and tempting meals.  The photo above shows one of my early concoctions: I sliced an eggplant lengthwise into 1/2″ thick steaks, sprinkling it with lemon juice as it grilled.  On the stove I sauteed garlic, red bell peppers and baby corn before throwing in a cup of couscous to cook, then adding a can of chickpeas to the mix.   The couscous with sauteed veggies was served on top of the eggplant steaks.  It was a big hit – Richard loved it!

After this, we were on our way to having plants as our main course.  I try to have as many different colors on the plate as possible, and to always have a mix of vegetables and/or fruit with whole grains and legumes.  The variations are endless!

One of the nicer discoveries so far has been that we can eat as much as we want, but that we don’t want to eat as much.  Plants and whole grains fill us up much more than processed foods, fats and animal products.  When I look at the photo above, it now looks like way too much food for one meal.  My Italian “abbondanza” meal-serving mentality is slowly being replaced with a new appreciation of “just enough”.

But, still, I had a lot of questions in the back of my mind.  Will we get enough protein?  Don’t we need some of the “good” fats, like olive oil and canola oil, and aren’t those plant-based foods?  Don’t we need calcium to avoid osteoporosis as we age?  Will we become anemic from lack of iron?   Clearly, I needed more information.  In my next post I’ll tell you how I began finding out what I needed to know.

We are eating plants now.  Lots and lots of them, every day!

June 30th’s plant-based meal : spaghetti squash topped with caramelized vidalia onions , mushrooms , julienned red peppers and red kidney beans, flavored with cumin .

According to the books and websites I’ve been reading lately, switching to a plant-based diet brings magical results.  I can expect to lose weight, lower my LDL (bad) and raise my HDL (good) cholesterol, lower my blood sugar level, lower my blood pressure, increase my level of energy and avoid  heart disease, the chance of stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

I’ve been moving toward becoming a vegetarian for a couple of years, but I still occasionally grill us a nice rare steak.  More recently, I gave up dairy products and moved toward veganism, but still had seafood on a regular basis and grated cheese on my pasta.  I’ve never been very good at following rules, or doing anything 100% by the book, but I reasoned that any improvement would help me get healthier.

6 months ago my cardiologist took a look at my cholesterol numbers and wanted me to start medication.  I decided instead to give up dairy products.  In two weeks I’ll find out whether or not my change in diet has made enough of a difference to change the doctor’s mind.  Wish me luck!

But what has me most excited about these changes is the bounty provided by the CSA we joined last week.  I had heard about CSAs from friends in other states, but never considered joining one until I received an email from The Good Earth Garden Center in Cranston announcing their CSA.  You can read about it at http://www.goodearthri.com/Pages/The_Good_Earth_CSA.html

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Members pay a flat fee at the beginning of the growing season, then get a share each week of whichever crops are ripe.  In Rhode Island, the growing season provides us with 14 weekly shares of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers grown at our local organic farm.

After posting a few photos of my culinary adventures in plant-based eating on Facebook, I decided to expand upon my FB postings in a blog, where I can talk about the plant-based diet, the CSA, and how I take the weekly shares and turn them into delicious healthy plant-based meals.

I hope some of you find this information interesting enough that you will try eating more plant-based meals, and  maybe join your local CSA!

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