Friday, 9 March 2012

Day 20: Fasting with Fast Food Options: What the chains have to offer

Without meat for one day seems so easy.  But, without meat for a week?  How about no meat, no dairy products for seven weeks?  For some, avoiding certain foods through Great Lent -- fasting -- is such a challenge.  But, it does not have to be!  There are so many food groups that are acceptable, and, there are many restaurants, kiosks, and fast food joints that offer vegetarian options.

So, with that, we have ventured off to a few restuarants trying to figure out what on the menu is appropriate for a diet containing no-animal products or by-products.  Remember, it is not just a matter of choosing fish over steak, we have to inquire and watch out for beef stock or chicken stock in rice or bean dishes, gravy on items, or even what type of oil is used for frying or cooking.  Beef tallow is lard --not something we eat (nor do we want to eat it).  We also have to watch out for eggs in food.  Egg whites hide in many breaded goods.  But, mostly, we know we can find eggs in baked goods, so we avoid them all together.

Source of image:
There are the obvious choices to avoid, but what is left?  Well, we chose to play safe and not order the fried foods at all.  Many times, servers do not know what type of oil is being used for a fryer.  Also, nobody can tell if chicken fingers and french fries are made in the same fryer, so why take a chance?  We know if we go to Red Lobster, for example, the fish, the hush puppies, the clams, and the shrimp are all fried in the same oil.  Therefore, we believe there are traces of the fish and the egg from hush puppies in the oil contaminating our clams or shrimp.  There is no distinction for them between fish and seafood.  But, for us, we need to be aware of these things.

Lick's (a successful and charming, Ontario, Canada-based family oriented fast food chain), we know they have one grill for the meat burgers, and a separate grill for the nature burgers.  They use separate pairs of tongs, different grills, and different refrigerators for holding the raw product.  We feel confident, when going there, that we are getting an actual vegan burger (no cheese).  Or, we have the choice of vegan chili as an alternative (see GRUB).  Some locations even offer a veggie wrap.  And, as with most food chains, there are salads on the menu.  Of course, we would not choose a creamy dressing, but there is usually an oil and vinegar option.  Lick's offers a variety of toppings to add to a veggie burger or a wrap that can make a very filling meal.

Subway and/or Quizno's sandwiches are another good choice.  That is, they have  options without cheese, without meat; and where there are so many vegetable toppings to choose, you could have a delicious, tasty and healthy vegetable sandwich, and would not even notice that there is no meat.  And, if you wanted to try, Subway (some locations) offers a veggie pattie sandwich (although we do like it, it does have a bit of a processed food appearance and texture to it).  The Subway Veggie Delite, basically, is the safest choice.  Quizno's offers a Veggie sandwich as well as a Lobster and Seafood Salad Sub.  We are unclear about what ingredients are in the seafood salad, but it is a good question to ask.  Just a reminder, mayonnaise is made with eggs, as are some of the other sauces used at sandwich shops.  Both chains, though, offer a variety of salads that you can have in a bowl or in a wrap.

And, please be careful when choosing Asian foods.  Egg noodles, fried chopped eggs in fried rice, and Singapore noodles all contain eggs.  You may not see them, but they are a key ingredient to making these dishes.  Sushi sounds like a good option, but that is fish.  And, remember, if you chose the imitation crab sticks, those, too, are made up of variety fish, mostly pollock.  Also, you have to watch for some of the soups offered in Oriental cuisine; they are often made with chicken broth.  You need to make sure the soup is miso based (miso is soy product with barley).  There are several restaurants that will mark the menu with symbols to show vegetarian or spicy; however, vegetarian does not necessarily mean vegan.  And, vegetarian may not meet all of the guidelines that we are working on.

The difference is that vegetarian is a more general category for those who do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, and the word vegan means the avoidance of all animal products  and by-products (meat, fish, poultry, seafood, dairy or any food that is derived from animals.)

Since we are eating shellfish and crustaceans, we may not really be vegans.  Perhaps there is a different term that we don't know yet, or that we need to create.  Either way, we know that those of us following the Orthodox Fast for Great and Holy Lent are following a predominantly vegan diet with the addition of shellfish and crustaceans.

Some well stated guidelines are written here: How to Eat Vegetarian At Fast Food Restaurants: 9 steps
If you want to read another blog about vegan fast foods, take a look at: Vegan Food + Restaurants + Toronto - Search - CHOW; or Vegetarian fast food options - Chains - Chowhound  And, lastly, a rather complete list of chain restaurants (mostly in the U.S., but many have crossed to Canada), PETA provides us some answers of where to go and what to order (we are merely providing PETA's information; it is not the intention of our humble blog to promote their animal rights philosophy.)

It's nice to know that there are options for us.  Not every day needs to be so challenging that we cannot fulfill our calling to be closer to God through fasting and avoidance, and, overall, to be better Orthodox Christians.

Fasting is seen as purification and the regaining of innocence. Through obedience to the Church and its ascetic practices the Orthodox Christian seeks to rid himself or herself of the passions (The desires of our fallen carnal nature). All Orthodox Christians are expected to fast following a prescribed set of guidelines. They do not view fasting as a hardship, but rather as a privilege and joy. 
Wikipedia Eastern Orthodox Church Fasting

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Day 19: The Breakfast Challenge

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" - "Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner" - " You need a good breakfast, that's a fact..."  Well, that IS a fact.  You need to eat breakfast.  Every day during Great Lent this becomes a little more challenging.  For some, eating oatmeal every day is fine.  Or, we could have dry toast with some fruit preserves (make sure it is made with pectin, not gelatin!) and/or peanut butter.  But, how many times have we heard the Greek comedians joke about the only food they ate through Great Lent was peanut butter and jelly.  I guess we could mix it up a little and put peanut butter and banana?  We like a little more variety in life, and we want to make sure that we are fully fasting, so we pray for the strength to have oatmeal another day.

Are there other choices for breakfast?  Of course there are!  There are many many choices of what to have.  And, now, with the additions of soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and tofu, anything that can be made with animal product can just as easily be made without animal products!  (Keep reading future entries about how we make breakfast with these ingredients.)

So, where do we find other choices for breakfast?  Well, this blog is a good way to start.  Every day, we are grabbing breakfast on the go.  It needs to be quick, rather easy, and portable!  If we cannot eat it while driving, we cannot have it during the week days.  Our first choice is always a fruit smoothie.  Smoothies are often made with a banana, some berries, a scoop of yogurt, and some milk and/or juice -- put in a blender and drink.  It's creamy and healthy because it is just fruit and yogurt.  Of course, we add some ground flax seed or some ground nuts in there to give ourselves a little extra nutrient push.  But, you can make a smoothie with fruits and juice and ice and it is light and delightful.  Or, you could use your favourite milk substitute -- almond, soy, or rice milk.  Either way, there are a variety of combinations at our disposal.  And, if you pair a smoothie with your daily oatmeal, then you have a well-rounded, flavourful meal.  Coming in future blogs, we will visit the world of smoothies for you.  But, right now, let's stick to chewable food!

There are many breakfast bars and snack bars that can be made without any animal products. In addition, they are generally much more affordable and healthy (fewer preservatives) than many store-bought ones.  The nice part about these is that they are portable any time of day -- not just during breakfast.  The easiest recipe we use about once a month is this one:

7 cups puffed cereal (Rice Krispies, puffed wheat, whatever you like)
3/4 cup dried cranberries (Craisins)
3/4 cup raisins or dried blueberries
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 cup honey
3/4 cup peanut butter or almond butter (we often use an excellent soy-based Canadian product, WOWBUTTER)
2 Tblsp. margarine (can use butter other times)

Stir all the dry ingredients in a bowl.

Put the honey, peanut butter, and margarine in a microwave-safe bowl or measuring cup.  Heat in the microwave until all is melted together.  Set it aside for now.  Prepare the baking dish by spraying a non-stick coating on the bottom and sides.  Set aside the baking dish.

Pour the liquid mixture over the cereal mixture and stir.  Make sure all the cereal and fruit is coated

With slightly wet hands or with a spoon, press the mixture into a 9"x9" square baking pan; a deeper and smaller pan will yield a thicker breakfast bar.
(we used a 9"x13" rectangular glass baking dish)
Freeze for 30 minutes, then cut.
Keep this in the refrigerator for up to 14 days.

If you are not into eating sweeter things for breakfast, then you may be more interested in savoury dishes.  On occasion, we will make a breakfast burrito with scrambled tofu and soy cheese; it usually has salsa and beans in there, too!  Potatoes are a wonderful, tasty, healthy choice for breakfast, too.  Whether want to make a hash brown potato, or a home-fries dish, they are a good vegetarian choice for breakfast.  Potato breakfast is also a good way to use leftover baked potatoes from the night before.  Sometimes, we bake extra potatoes specifically to have for breakfast the next day.  They reheat nicely, we make home fries with some chopped onion, peppers, garlic, and occasionally some chopped tomato.  When it is all tossed together in a frying pan and heated, it is surely of restaurant quality.

Breakfast doesn't have to be fancy, hot, or even original.  But, it should be a "must have" in every day (except Sundays when we prepare and approach to take Holy Communion).  If you like to eat celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins, or if you would prefer to make pancakes with soy milk and scrambled tofu, it is a personal preference.  We just know that it matters that you eat something.  So, whatever you decide to serve for breakfast, make it complete and mindful.  It is how we start our day, how we start our brains and our bodies working together so we can go about the business of life.  Then,  once our day starts, we can thank God for giving us the wisdom to know the right way to approach each day.

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Day 18 - Milk Alternatives during Great Lent

In the recent past, dairy products have received a failing grade for a variety of reasons. In the U.S., for example, the use of Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in dairy cows has sparked great debate about the merits of enhancing milk production at the expense of potential health risks for those consuming such milk. Consumer backlash has been enormous; this has even caused some of the biggest retailers to respond by curtailing or eliminating the sale of milk and milk products that contain BGH. Walmart, for example, has heard the message from its customers loud and clear and has responded in kind. Even in Canada, Health Canada (federal Ministry of Health) has created a Q&A web page to respond to consumer concerns (see here).

On the other hand, much evidence from various sources, including the influential research group, Blue Zones, has concluded that goat's milk is an important component of the incredible longevity and good health of the population of the Greek island of Ikaria (click here). 

So, what's a person to do? It is not the role of our humble blog to malign milk, a source of good nutrition for hundreds of millions of people. We are, however, genuinely curious to explore the value of  milk alternatives, both as a source of nutrition and as another resource that the Orthodox Christian can use to sustain their health during the period of Great Lent. So, towards that end, we sought to educate ourselves in the field of milk alternatives.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of milk alternative brands throughout the world. In Europe, Asia and North America the biggest brands are large multinationals such as Coca Cola, Unilever and Danone. 

Wanting to see how products from all three categories (soy, almond, rice) can be used during Great Lent, we went out and purchased a variety of prominent brands. Over the next few weeks we will examine each of the products shown below in a variety of contexts: flavour, suitability for use in food and beverages, nutritional value. We are really excited about some uses that we have in mind which we will keep secret, for now. So, until our next blog entry about milk alternatives, please read the package information and nutritional breakdown of all of the following products we purchased.

Front view (left to right): Blue Diamond brand Almond Breeze (Original) almond-based beverage, SoGood brand Original soy-based beverage, Silk brand fortified Original soy-beverage, Ryza brand whole grain brown rice beverage.
Left side-panel view (left to right): Blue Diamond brand Almond Breeze (Original) almond-based beverage, SoGood brand Original soy-based beverage, Silk brand fortified Original soy-beverage, Ryza brand whole grain brown rice beverage.
Right side-panel view (left to right): Blue Diamond brand Almond Breeze (Original) almond-based beverage, SoGood brand Original soy-based beverage, Silk brand fortified Original soy-beverage, Ryza brand whole grain brown rice beverage.
Above (left to right): Front panel of two flavours (Original and Chocolate flavours, respectively) of soy-based beverages from Silk, a WhiteWave Foods brand from Dean Foods.
Above (left to right): Left side-panel of the marketing descritpions of two flavours (Original and Chocolate flavours, respectively) of soy-based beverages from Silk, a WhiteWave Foods brand from Dean Foods.
Above (left to right): Right side-panel with the ingredients list and nutritional facts of two flavours (Original and Chocolate flavours, respectively) of soy-based beverages from Silk, a WhiteWave Foods brand from Dean Foods.

“Bless those that curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you. For what credit is it to you if you love those that love you? Do not even the heathen do the same?” But, for your part, “love those that hate you,” and you will have no enemy." 

From the Didache, Fasting and Praying for Enemies. Did. 1.3

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Day 17: Orthodox Monk's Olive Pie Recipe Disclosed

Olive pie.  It sounds yummy - if you like olives.  It sounds like a food that we should try.  Especially since it seems that, as Greeks, we have olives at almost every meal.  Why not make a pie?  Having never made olive pie before, we are a little unsure of what the end result will look like.  But, that is what we are doing here together -- learning and sharing.  We hope that if anyone has a different recipe, you would be willing to share with us, too.

There are many places around Greece that are known for the various pites (πίτες) made with phyllo dough, and this is a different type with a homemade bread-like dough.  Cypriots, in particular, are known for their delightful olive breads.  And, Macedonia is known for their olive and leek pites. Regardless of where you are in Greece, or in Canada or the U.S., a pita is a good food to have any time of day, any time of year.

At first, we thought this recipe looked very easy.  After all, many of the recipes in the Monastery Cookbook are straightforward and easy to understand.  The trick is knowing that many of the measurements come in the form of "soup spoon" or "drinking glass" and that can be tricky, since we all have different sizes of drinking glasses.  Anyway, the measurements can be figured out after one or two recipes, so we are not too worried about that.  They do have a conversion table in the book to help with grams to pounds, litres to ounces, and celsius to Fahrenheit.  But, when the directions say use a soup spoon, we felt that only an actual soup spoon would be accurate, so we did not adjust that.  Some of the measurements are undefined.  For example, in this recipe, the directions stated to dissolve the tahini in some water.  We did not know exactly how much water is some.  Everyone defines "some" differently, so we felt there was room for error.  Also, the language used can be a little misleading.  The ingredient list called for 1/2 kilo farina.  So, we read through the directions, expecting that the word "farina" would be used there, since it was in the directions.  Well, that was not true.  The word "farina" from the ingredients list was replaced with "flour" in the directions.  That, in itself, was actually helpful, because we then knew exactly what farina was.

We chose to follow the recipe of the Greek Monastery Cookbook for several reasons.  First, we know that the ingredients used in this cookbook are common enough, and many can be found year-round in any grocery store.  Also, we believe that most of what is created at a Monastery can be considered "organic".  Monasteries are known for growing their own food and using only what they can grow.  I don't know if they ground their own flour, though.  And, we all know that organic food and organic ingredients are very popular right now!  Regardless, in this book, there is even a detailed chart about what foods to eat in which season.  It is typical and historical that we (Greeks) eat seasonal foods.  It does seem unnatural to enjoy strawberries in the winter, even if they are available to us.  So, in this book, we tried to find a seasonally appropriate recipe.  Flour, tahini, olives are all year-round staples int he kitchen, so we did not think twice about using any of it.  Even the leeks in the recipe are plentiful this time of year.  For some of us who grow our own herbs, we have fresh herbs year round -- otherwise, we have frozen fresh herbs from the summer harvest.

Back to the recipe and the cookbook... All of the recipes from this book are scaled to feed 10 monks.  That is 10 people unless otherwise noted.  As we were flipping through the pages, we did not note any change to that number, and we stuck to the original amounts.  If you are part of a family or group who are big eaters, you may want to make the full recipe for five people instead of ten.  We considered cutting it down, but thought this would be a nice food to have on hand for the week, so we made it for 10 people.

First, we gather the ingredients we need for this olive pie.  You will need this short list:
1 cup (250 grams)pitted dry black olives (the wrinkled ones),
3 soup spoons of tahini,
2-2 1/2 cups (1/2 kilo) flour,
a little salt,
2 scallions (green onions),
1 leek (another onion),
some dill,
3/4 cup (150 grams)walnuts,
and some water.
If you have a nut allergy, you can omit the nuts and replace that with more of the vegetables, more olives, or just omit it all together.

We have to make sure that all of the olives are pitted.  This takes time, but is safer for our teeth when we bite into this delightful pie.  There may even be tools like a cherry pitter to help in this task.  We used our hands, squeezed the olive, and the pit popped right out!  Or, a knife would cut the olive and you then pluck out the pit.  Whatever way is easiest for you.  This is a good activity to do while watching television or talking on the phone.

Next, all of the filling ingredients are chopped.  We used a food processor, but we are certain this is easy to do by hand.  And, to make sure we got it right, we chopped each ingredient individually.  We think that  we could have put them all together, pulsed the food processor a few times and been done; but, wanting to get it right was more important.  Now, in hindsight, if we are short on time and want to make this, then putting all the filling ingredients together and chopping once seems like a reasonable timesaver.

Then, there is the dough.  You have to dilute the tahini in some water.  The book did not offer an amount of water to use, but it was 3 soup spoons full of tahini.  By our estimates, we thought half a cup, but not more than 3/4 cup was adequate for the 2 to 2 1/2  cups of flour.  Use your best judgement for the water.  You want to create a dough, and the amount of water can vary depending on the type of flour and the age of it.  We used a regular, all-purpose flour for this recipe.

Roll out half the dough to fit the baking dish.  Make sure that the dough goes up the sides so it creates a "pie" in that way.  The book gave no directions on how thick or thin to roll out the dough, or even how big of a baking dish.  So, we took our best guess and used a medium sized glass baking dish.  We, then, rolled out the other half of the dough for the top of the pie.  We tried to get that the same size as the baking dish.

Using a pastry brush, coat the bottom and the sides of the baking dish with tahini.  This will give a nice flavour; like adding sesame seeds on top of bread.  The tahini also adds a little colour and will prevent the dough from sticking to the baking dish.  You could use oil if you prefer.  Our second choice would have been to use a pan spray to coat the baking dish.  But, the pastry brush with tahini was easy, and we had tahini in the recipe, where we have used
no oil, so this seemed to make sense.

Once the dough is fitted to the baking dish, and the top portion is set it aside.  We are going to now mix all the ingredients for the filling.

Make sure that the individual components are evenly distributed in the mix, so that with each bite you get the delightful dill, and the pungent olives.

Then, take this filling mixture and put it in the baking dish with the ready bread crust on the bottom.

Once the filling is spread around to fully cover the bottom of the pie, then, unfold, lay, or place the top dough piece over the entire amount of filling in the baking dish.  It should cover all of the filling.

Next is the part that we found a little tricky.

We had to pinch the dough together, then make the edges fold into the baking dish.  We tried several methods of pinching, crimping, folding, and snipping.  But, we found that simply folding over the edges was the easiest to keep the top and bottom together, and it looked clean and homemade.  We liked the look. 


 Next, we baked the pita at 200 degrees Celsius (about 400 degrees Farenheit) until it got a nice golden  colour.  The directions told us to bake for one hour at 200 C, but we think that may have been a little long for a baking time.   Perhaps baking it for 40 to 45 minutes at such a high temperatre would have been adequate.

 There it is.  The final product.  In total, we were able to do this start to finish in about one hour - that's including all the pictures that we took and all the translating of the recipe.

We have several observations about this delicious Olive Pie.  The next time that we make this, we are going to wash off or soak the olives.  The final product was salty, and the only salt in the recipe was in the dough.  The only salt that was in the filling came from the olives.  For three of our tasters, this was just too salty, so wash the olives, or soak them for a day before use.  If you are a salt fanatic, then don't bother.

Next, we want to point out that the measurements for this recipe were awkward to us.  We came up with the more standardized 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of olives, etc.  The book has the amounts listed in grams.  Without a scale, using weight measures did not work.  We used general converting and rounding off of amounts to come up with what we did.  We think that a few of our amounts could be adjusted to make this even tastier.  We wrote the amounts that we used in pencil in the book, so that next time we make this, we will know what amounts of what we used, and we will be able to refer to this blog to refresh our memories of what worked and what did not.  

Lastly, we want to mention that the recipe called for "some dill".  For us, we love the taste of dill, so we used some by our measure which would be a lot for others.  Each one of us would have a different amount of dill, which would make everyone's pie unique.  The salt of the olives did somewhat overpower the lovely taste of the dill.  But, that's okay.  There were other flavours that shined through everything.  One of which was the tahini in the bread dough came through subtly and perfectly.  It was a lovely taste that lingered a little.

The only other adjustment we would make would be the bread dough -- since the directions did not tell us how long to knead the dough, how thick to roll out the dough, or how large to roll it (nor how large the baking tray), we made our best guesses at all of these -- rolling it to the size of the baking dish made sense to us.  Yet, when we bit into the pie, we  found the bottom crust was too thin and fell apart as we served each piece.  The top dough was good enough, but we believe there are better ways to do this.  Next time, we would roll the bottom a little thicker than the top.  And, we would trim the edges when sealing the two pieces (top and bottom) together.  

The pinched and rolled edges were very crisp and hard after baking.  That's why we think that cutting off the excess dough and then creating a simple crimping pattern will make an edible crust.  We would approach it the same way we do a sweet pie with the pattern -- whether that is using a fork or our fingers, and that will help us to not be embarrassed to serve the corner pieces.  As for tonight's pie, the corners were cut out and discarded because they were inedible.  For future pies, we know better.

Overall, we enjoyed this recipe, and we still think this cookbook is a must for any good Orthodox Christian who follows the fasting schedule.  There is such a large variety of recipes and so much other information in these 367 pages.  Like any cookbook, there will be recipes you love and recipes you don't love.  That's okay.  We will make this recipe again and try a few of the mentioned suggestions.  If you have other ways to make this pie, we would love to know.  This will be a staple in our kitchen for all of the fasting periods.

"Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to dwell in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who because of their laziness have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the day of judgment. For He who promised to grant us salvation simply on account of our faith in Him is not a liar."
—St. Symeon the New Theologian