Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Recipe recommendation: Queen Elizabeth cake

My lovely girlfriend, Julie, offered to make me a cake for my birthday so I asked her to bake me a Queen Elizabeth cake. It's been my favourite type of cake for as long I can remember. It's a dense, moist date cake with a sweet, rich coconut icing. Why is it called a Queen Elizabeth cake? According to a Maclean's article the story is either that it was invented for Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 or for the coronation of the preceding Queen Elizabeth (the Queen mother) in 1937. Either way, it's a classic and it's delicious.

Julie followed a recipe from the blog Hungry in Halifax. It's very similar to more traditional (but non-vegan) Queen Elizabeth cake recipes. It's very good! I give it three thumbs up and urge you to give it a try next time your sweet tooth acts up.

What a nice birthday cake! Thanks, Julie!

Doesn't that look tasty?

Cooking with Dr. Mom: Spicy lemongrass tofu

I can vouch that this tofu is really really tasty. I recommend you give it a try!

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Each time I have cooked this recipe, people have asked for the recipe - even some people who say they don't like tofu!  Leftovers are also delicious, so feel free to make more than you need. 
Note that the recipe calls for 1/4 cup of chopped lemon grass.  For convenience, I use already prepared fresh chopped lemongrass sold in tubes in the fresh produce refrigerator section of most large grocery stores. It is very handy to have in the fridge to add to any asian style recipe.  If you use fresh lemon grass for this recipe,  peel off the hard, dried outer leaves and finely mince the lemongrass soft inner core.

Spicy lemongrass tofu  (Adapted from original recipe by Mai Pham on Epicurious.com)

1/4 cup finely minced lemongrass 
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 - 1 tsp sirachi sauce (to desired heat level)
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (to desired heat level)
1 tsp ground tumeric (optional - it gives a pleasant yellow colour to the cooked dish but is not vital to the flavor)
1 tbsp white sugar
1 package firm or extra firm tofu (350g), cut into ~1.5cm cubes

Stir fry:
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 medium sweet (vidalia) onion, cut into 5mm slices
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 red sweet pepper, cut into 1-2cm cubes
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped 
1/2 - 2/3 cup asian basil leaves, juliened if large

Combine the marinade ingredients in a shallow container and toss with the tofu cubes.  The marinade is quite thick.  Allow to marinate at least 30min, but it can sit for a full day (or 2!) before cooking.

Heat a heavy fry pan with 2 tbsp oil over high heat.  When the oil is very  hot, add the marinated tofu.  (If there is left over marinade in the bowl, save to add to the veggie stirfry part of this recipe.) Allow the tofu to sit in the hot oil fry pan in a single layer without moving for about 3 minutes - the idea is to let the sugar carmelize on the tofu to form a delicious crust on each cube - if the tofu is moved too much while frying then the crust doesn't develop. To prevent the tofu from burning give the fry pan a gentle shake every ~30-60 seconds.  Keep checking the bottom of the tofu cubes for crispy doneness, and then use a spatula to flip the cubes over with the goal of getting at least 2 sides of each cube cooked to crispy brown perfection. It takes about 8-10minutes to achieve this.  When the tofu is cooked lower the temp to very low and do NOT cover the fry pan - if you cover it then the crispy coating turns soggy.

In another fry pan or wok heat 1-2tbsp of oil over moderate heat.  Cook the onion and garlic until soft and fragrant,  about 3 minutes. If there was marinade left in the tofu bowl, add it to the fry pan now. Add the chopped red pepper until lightly cooked, about 2 minutes. Just before serving toss the cooked tofu cubes, peanuts and basil together with the onion pepper mixture and serve on a bed of steamed rice.

Serves 4-6 as a main course.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Link: Almond milk isn't as great as you think

There are so many choices of milks out there: cow milk, goat milk, soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, hemp milk, coconut milk. How's a person to choose? My personal favourite non-dairy milk is soy because it has a lot of protein and is supplemented with calcium. I think it tastes pretty good, but a lot of people find that it has a strange aftertaste. My brother argues that anything that's not from a mammary gland shouldn't really be called milk, but I say if it's a white, creamy drink then it's milk. My mom sent me a link about almond milk that points out its drawbacks. If you do want to make your own almond milk like the article suggests, here's a recipe from Oh She Glows!

Almond Milk Isn’t As Great As You Think

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Plant intelligence?

WARNING: This post is long and has nothing to do with veganism or food!

To be honest, most of the time I find plants kind of boring. As a biologist, I’m much more interested in studying animals. They move around and do stuff, while plants just kind of sit there. Except I know that’s not true. There are plenty of biologists out there who are fascinated by plants. I first began to understand why when I watched the time-lapse opening sequence of the Plants episode of BBC’s Life a few years ago. I was captivated. The plants stretched out their leaves and opened their flowers. They seemed to taste the air with their tendrils and explore the soil with their roots. They seemed purposeful and alive in a way that I previously thought only animals could. It suddenly struck me that plants seem boring and inert only because animals and plants live on different time scales. Suddenly I could see that plants do move around and do stuff, just really slowly.

This is the time-lapse sequence that blew my mind.

Another really cool time-lapse clip.

Studying plants is like studying alien organisms. Animals and plants last shared a common ancestor about 1.5 billion years ago. Considering that life on earth is about four billion years old, 1.5 billion years is a long time for plants and animals to be following separate evolutionary paths. If you ever read science fiction, you must be familiar with the idea that we need to expect the unexpected when it comes to alien biology. Maybe these same cautionary tales can be applied to plants. Animals and plants may be distantly related, but we have evolved to adapt to some similar challenges. It’s possible we have even come up with analogous solutions to some of these challenges. When unrelated groups of organisms evolve similar solutions to a similar problem, this is known as convergent evolution. The wings of insects and birds or the fins of sharks and dolphins are two examples of convergent evolution. These adaptations are analogous solutions which evolved independently. Could it be that plants and animals have convergently evolved analogous behavioural or sensory mechanisms? Could plants be said to have anything analogous to intelligence, or pain, or memory? Maybe we’re thrown off by their form and their slow lifestyle, so alien to our own, so we have trouble recognizing when our functions converge.

Convergent evolution of Marsupial and Eutherian mammals. They may look and act similarly, but they got that way through convergent evolution, not through being related.

It’s less of an “out there” idea than you might think. In fact, “plant neurobiology” is a real, albeit contentious, field of study with real conferences and journals and labs. Plant neurobiologists recognize that plants don’t have neurons, but they argue that plants have systems analogous to animal neurology. Plants use electric signals to communicate between cells. Plants can be “knocked-out” by the same drugs as are used to anaesthetize humans. Plants can “smell” and “taste” chemical signals from other plants. They can “see” light to grow towards it. They can “feel” if their roots hit a rock or a pipe. They may even be able to “hear”. A recent study found that plants can be primed to produce defence chemicals only by being exposed to the sound of a caterpillar munching leaves. There’s some evidence that plants have memory and can learn. They even have neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, although it’s not yet clear what their purpose is.  

An interesting (but hyperbolically titled) video about electrical signaling and anesthetics in plants.

These findings are all very interesting, but they’ll probably never tell us in any definitive way whether plants are intelligent or can feel pain, or at least the plant version of those things. Then again, we don’t even know for sure if animals are intelligent or feel pain. Indeed, a few hundred years ago, most scientists believed that animals had no capacity to suffer and that their cries were simple physiological cause-and-effect. We now know that animal brains react analogously to human brains to painful stimulus and similar stress hormones are produced, and so we infer that they feel pain. We take a more sophisticated view on animal intelligence and awareness than we did in the early days of biology. Many agree with Peter Singer’s argument that there’s no black and white of “intelligent” and “unintelligent” or “aware” and “unaware”. Instead there are gradients along which every animal individual falls.  
            We can never know what it’s like to be another animal, even another human, and so we can’t know if it’s aware or if it feels pain. Instead, we assume that if it acts as though it is aware or as if it’s feeling pain, we make the assumption that it is. For all you know, every other living creature on this Earth could be a philosophical zombie, a biological automaton with no more inner life than a rock. The Turing test has gotten some coverage in the media lately, and it operates on the same principle. Alan Turing argued that if we can’t tell a computer from a human when we interact (talk) with it, then we should apply the same logic to computers as we do to humans, we should assume that the computer is self-aware and intelligent. We just can’t access the inner life (be it existent or non-existent) of another being, so we’re forced to infer based on the behaviour and physiology we observe. 

            What can we infer from the behaviour and physiology of plants? Certainly it would be absurd to argue that they have the same intelligence or capacity to experience pain or memory as a human. But cognitive traits exist on spectrums. Plants are “aware” of the world to some degree in that they have at least as many senses as animals. Plants have “intelligence” to some degree in that they are phenotypically plastic – individuals can response appropriately to changes in their environment. They can “make decisions” to some degree in that individuals need to “choose” between, say, growing a root towards the left or the right. Plants have chemical “languages” they use to communicate between individuals. Plants respond to damaging stimulus in a way that’s loosely analogous to animal pain response by producing chemicals and sending electrical signals.

You might argue that it’s semantics and that plants are so unintelligent that it’s silly to even call it “intelligence”, even with quotation marks. Or to say they are “aware” or “make decisions”. But I think there’s an important point to be made here: the difference between human beings and all other living things is one of degree, not of kind. We once thought that only humans have intelligence; only humans can suffer; only humans have a whole host of traits. If you go back in time enough in the certain areas of the world, you could even replace “human” with “white human”. But every generation our understanding of the pervasiveness of traits we once thought were the sole domain of humankind grows. Maybe as science continues to progress we’ll come to realise that plants too have the capacity for certain traits we now believe only animals can possess.

            I’ll admit that this post is only (very) tangentially related to veganism. Let me try to connect it back as best I can. I was just thinking about whether the animal rights argument for vegetarianism or veganism makes sense. If animals have the capacity to suffer then we shouldn’t eat them, is the argument. Then I was thinking about how we can’t know if any living being suffers or doesn’t suffer. We need to make assumptions. I wondered the science that’s out there about plant pain, and whether it could exist. I spend all morning reading about it because I thought it was fascinating! Don’t get me wrong; even if plants could be said to be “intelligent” or “suffer” I don’t think we should be launching some sort of plant rights campaign. I think we need to deal with the serious amount of human suffering on this planet before we even think of starting any questionable new project. Instead, it’s an interesting thought experiment and a possibly fruitful avenue of research.

Want to read more?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Is soy bad for you?

The humble soybean plant, Glycine max

If you're like me, maybe you feel vaguely suspicious of soy. You've heard rumours that maybe there's something dangerous about it or that you shouldn't eat a lot of it. Maybe you've heard that it's linked to breast cancer. If you're like me, you keep meaning to look up why soy could be unhealthy, but you never get around to it, so you eat soy and wonder in the back of your mind if it's completely safe.

Well. Today is the day, I decided, that I stop being vaguely suspicious and actually look up the cold, hard facts. Is there any evidence that soy is unhealthy? Is it linked to breast cancer or any other cancer? Is soy good for you?

Dangerous? Or just delicious?

It turns out that the evidence is in favour of soy being good for your health and not dangerous. It's full of protein, low in sugars, and cholesterol-free. Soy is especially healthy when you compare it to another source of protein: meat. You won't find any growth-hormones, cholesterol, trans fats, or antibiotics in soy. If you think about it, it's not surprising that soy is healthy; many Asian cultures have been eating soy products for millennia with no obvious ill-effects.

The main reason soy has come under suspicion health-wise is due to its isoflavones, which are weak phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogrens can mimic the activity of estrogen in animals, although they are much less potent than actual estrogen. Some breast cancers, called hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers, are triggered by estrogen. Could phytoestrogens from soy trigger these breast cancers? The weight of the evidence changes depending on whether you look at animal studies or human studies. Some, but not all, animal studies find that animals fed high doses of soy protein isolate or isoflavins have greater growth rates of breast tumours. Studies of humans, on the other hand, have found either no association of soy with breast cancer or a protective effect (!) of soy.

A ball-and-stick model of an estrogen molecule.
 A ball-and-stick model of an isoflavone molecule. As you can see, it bears some similarity to the estrogen molecule.

The difference between the findings of the animal and the human studies could be for a couple of reasons. First, maybe the study animals (usually rats) and humans metabolize soy differently. What's good for one animal maybe be poison for another. Think how chocolate is poisonous for dogs, for example. Another reason may be that the animals were fed high doses of soy protein isolate or isoflavones while humans often eat soy in less processed contexts. It could be that soy protein isolate (often found highly processed soy protein supplements or soy "meats") is associated with breast cancer while more traditional forms of soy are not.

It may be better to stick to traditional soy foods and avoid highly processed soy foods.

Sticking to non-processed soy has other benefits as well. You'll avoid the high salt, fat, and sugar levels often added to processed food. Traditional ways of processing soy also remove lectins, protease inhibitors, and phytates, which are all substances found in soy that have raised the concerns of some researchers. Some time-tested healthy and delicious soy foods include tofu, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, and soymilk. Research about the health effects of soy protein isolate is not yet definitive and until more evidence is available, it may be prudent to avoid highly processed soy food. But as with most things, if soy veggie dogs are your weakness, a bit of processed soy foods probably won't do much harm. As for traditional soy foods, it looks like there's no need for suspicion after all!

To learn more about the health effects of soy, check out these links:

-The American Cancer Society quashes cancer alarm about soy
-Scientific American worries about the effect of excessive soy on babies
-The American Nutritional Association reviews a book that is critical of soy
-The New York Times explains that soy doesn't increase risk of cancer

Monday, 14 July 2014

Recipe: Vegan Anything-Goes muffins

Here's a flexible muffin recipe that can fit whatever flavour of muffin you're craving or the ingredients you have on hand. It's based on Canadian Living's Anything-Goes Blueberry muffins recipe.  It's one of those recipes that's really really hard to mess up. My favourite version is carrot muffins because the carrots make them deliciously moist.

You can tell how often I make this by the terrible shape the paper is in!

Recipe: Vegan Anything-Goes muffins
Makes 1 dozen muffins

2 cups whole-wheat flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
Optional: nutmeg, cardamom, orange rind, almond extract, grated ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1 mashed banana
1 cup non-dairy milk (almond, soy, coconut, etc)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 cups anything*

*Some ideas for your "anything" (any combination of the following): chocolate chips, grated carrots, grated zucchini, chopped pecans, chopped walnuts, chopped almonds, raisins, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, chopped dates, more banana, chopped apple

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

2. Mix together the wheat, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon (plus any other dry spices) in a large bowl.

3. Mix together remaining ingredients (expect for your "anything") in a separate bowl.

4. Pour the wet ingredients slowly into the dry ingredients and mix gradually. Don't overmix; there should still be a few streaks of dry flour.

5. Fold your "anything" into the batter and separate the batter into muffin tins.

6. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the muffins are domed and golden. Allow to cool before eating.


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Simple recipe: Almond and date energy balls

Here's a quick recipe that's so simple it shouldn't even be called a recipe: almond and date energy balls. It's perfect for a snack or a healthy dessert. I made them tonight because my girlfriend has night shifts this week and I thought it would be good for keeping her energized through the night. It has fruit sugars from the dates for an immediate fix of energy as well as almonds to give some longer-lasting energy. It also has cocoa to give these energy balls a delicious fudgy taste, reminiscent of brownies. They aren't the most attractive-looking snacks (my dad, who introduced me to this recipe, likes to call them "poo balls"), but I've tried to make them a little prettier by rolling them in shredded coconut.

2 cups dates
2 cups raw almonds
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1-2 tbs peanut butter, if required

1. Place the dates, almonds, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract in the blender. Blend until smooth. Depending on the strength of your blender, this may take a couple minutes.

2. Try to roll a bit of the mixture into a ball. If it doesn't stick together add a bit of peanut butter and blend it again until the mixture becomes just sticky enough to roll into balls. 

3. Roll the mixture into balls. They can be any size you like, but I like mine about the size of a timbit (a "doughnut hole", for any non-Canadians). Roll the balls in the shredded coconut.


Cooking with Dr. Mom: Vegan Mofongo (Puerto Rican mashed plantains)

Another installment of Cooking with Dr. Mom!


I had not heard of Mofongo before Shaun's trip to Puerto Rico but wanted to try it after hearing how much he enjoyed it.  I made a few tweaks to a recipe for a low fat vegan version of Mofongo by Eddie McNamara that I found on the website Tossyourownsalad.tumblr.com.  This was different and delicious.  Unfortunately the photo does not do the dish justice.  Perhaps a few sprigs of parsley garnish would make a prettier presentation.

Plantains are now easy to find in the local grocery store. Typically stored beside the bananas. For this recipe you want to use ripe plantains ( the skin should be completely black). If you can't find smoked tofu then I suggest substituting plain firm tofu and using smoked paprika in the recipe.

The garlic and plantains roasting in the oven

This is one brand of smoked tofu which we like.

Mmmm... roasted smoked tofu with paprika.

Vegan Puerto Rican Mofongo
3-4 ripe plantains.  Peeled and cut into 1/2" chunks
6 cloves garlic
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 package smoke firm tofu (8 oz)
1 tsp chili powder (or to suit your "heat" preference)
2 tsp paprika
3 limes
2 tbsp sweet onion, finely chopped
2-3 tomatoes diced
2 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 400F

Toss the plantain chunks and whole garlic cloves with 1 tbsp olive oil.  Spread out on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake in oven for 15-20min then flip the garlic and plantain over to brown the other side. Bake for another 15-20 min until the plantain is nicely browned and caramelized on both sides and the inside is soft.

While the plantain is roasting, cut the tofu into 1/2" cubes.  Toss with chili powder and paprika then fry in nonstick fry pan in 1 tbsp oil until all the sides are crispy and browned, about 15min.

Make the salsa by juicing 2 limes and tossing with diced tomatoes, onion and cilantro.

When the plantains and tofu are cooked, put the roasted garlic in the food processor with the juise of 1 lime and pulse until completely puréed.  Add the roasted plantain and pulse until just mashed (about 3 sec). Toss in half the tofu cubes and pulse until just incorporated into the mashed plantain.  The goal is to have a plantain mash that still has some soft chunks of plantain and small chunks of crispy tofu scattered through the textured mash.

Place a large mound of plantain mash on a plate with a generous serving of fresh salsa and a spoonful of the fried tofu cubes on the side.  Garnish with a lime wedge.

Delicious served with beer!