strawberry cardamom lassi

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The dining room in our house is in a large room off the kitchen with taller, exposed beam ceilings in what is the converted garage.  Being on the south side of the house, all the plants grow prolifically here and this time of year, that combined with the shrubs and trees outside make the room private and my own personal plant sanctuary. In this room being surrounded by soothing, green life, I can palpably feel all my routinely wound up nerves and muscles relax.

With each passing term in my nutrition program, the interlink between stress and dis-ease comes up. In this last week, like so many others, my digestive health professor discussed a recommendation for a client with many digestive imbalances to take at least an hour of complete downtime twice each day, during daylight. With something like every other post here relating to my own stress in some way, I guess you can say each term, these sorts of recommendations hit home.

Beyond plants or downtime, technology breaks and soothing music, there’s a lot to do with food and nutrition that can reset our symptoms (whether physical or mental), since so much of the body’s mood-regulating transmitters like serotonin are manufactured and reside in our gut. The Recipe Redux theme this month calls for Probiotic Cocktails and Gut-Health Mocktails since they’re apparently popping up on trendy drink menus. I’m not particularly up on or following trends at this point in my life, but I do appreciate that I can request locally brewed kombucha in lieu of alcohol at basically every drinking establishment here in Eugene, and drinking that instead of alcohol helps me feel a lot better afterwards since the over-stimulation of going out, eating perhaps a little too much, and socializing for hours can definitely distress my system, even before sugary and alcoholic drinks are involved.

And beyond the sometimes necessity and enjoyment of going out to do all the above, often I simply would rather invite friends over for an intimate tea or lassi party in my plant room. I just need slightly cushier chairs and a gauzy curtain transitioning it to the main house and the space will be ready. For sure, I’ve got the gut-health friendly drinks all prepped.

 

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For the occasion, I’ve made strawberry lassi, amped up with hints of cardamom. Lassi is a traditionally Indian drink, and though I can’t say for sure, it’s base of yogurt makes me believe it originated to soothe and balance the digestive system. Beyond yogurt, foods with probiotics — those that contain live beneficial microbes — and prebiotics — those that feed those beneficial microbes, can do so much for our health including enhancing how we utilize nutrients, preventing infections and regulating the immune system, balancing or modulating metabolism,  regulating inflammation, appetite, cravings, mood, and bowel movement, and much, much more. Basically all the things that are off in us in our modern society can be significantly restored by rebalancing and feeding our beneficial gut bacteria.

In this drink, I started with a base of plain, unsweetened coconut yogurt. Cultured non-dairy yogurt is not only a live, fermented food which directly contributes healthy bacteria to our gut ecosystem, but it is also an exceptional alternative to dairy yogurt for those of us that have digestive health complaints, since both dairy’s protein and sugar (lactose) are highly problematic and inflammatory for large populations of individuals. It’s important to start with unsweetened yogurt too, since refined sugar is one of the best foods to enhance all the problematic microbes that also live in our systems.

Then I added cardamom, because it’s been calling my name, and cardamom is a spice that acts in many ways similar to ginger. It is mildly pungent and anti-inflammatory and in addition to adding a lovely taste to these lassi, it can help the digestion wake up, utilize digestive enzymes better, and combat bloat and nausea. Whereas ginger is a very heating spice, cardamom is more cooling for this warmer season we’re transitioning into.

Lastly, chia seeds and honey both contain non-digestible carbohydrates which serve as food for our gut bacteria, i.e. they’re known as pre-biotics. And raw unheated honey, used in small amounts, can be dually beneficial, since it contains over 1 billion colony forming units of 13 unique strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, making it both a probiotic and prebiotic, and containing nearly as many beneficial microbes as commercial yogurt!

 

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If you’re in the neighborhood and can use a little reprieve in my plant room with a glass of strawberry lassi in hand, let me know. I might just let you in. Or perhaps, I’ve given you food for thought on creating your own gut-healthy drink and sipping sanctuary situation.

 

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strawberry cardamom lassi
, makes 4 small glasses
1 pint whole strawberries, rinsed and halved
2 cups unsweetened plain coconut yogurt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground cardamom
1 Tbs. chia seeds
2 tsp. honey, use more or less to taste
a good squeeze from about 1/4 of a fresh lime

  • Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender and puree until evenly mixed. Start with a little less honey and add to taste.
  • Pour into glasses and enjoy right away. The longer it sits, the thicker it will get due to the chia, making it a little more spoonable rather than sippable.

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tempeh tikka masala

tempeh tikka masala

 

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Do you remember when I talked about my shame/pride of buying my tofu in bulk or that I was actually in the anti-tofu and soy foods camp for a whole lot of years? Well…let me tell you about the first time I bought tempeh, the fermented soy product that I now love and enjoy often.

At some point in mid-college I purchased a package of this wonky, brown and slightly moldy-looking fermented tempeh at my co-op since it was different and not meat. I was still eating meat regularly then but was also very veg/health foods curious. I took the tempeh home, cut it up and used it in something…and I thought it was gross. I didn’t try it again for a good number of years until after Deborah Madison in The New Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone convinced me it was actually quite good for me and not a “fake meat.” And following her cooking suggestions, I tried again and found I enjoyed it a whole lot!

One of the reasons tempeh is good for us is because it is fermented and it helps to inoculate our gut with good microbes. If you haven’t heard me gushing about the microbiome in past posts, well…you probably haven’t also spent an hour or two in my presence because I’m pretty sure the topic makes its way into everyday conversation on the regular. The two big reasons I’m pretty darn fascinated with the topic is that much of our immune system is housed in the gastrointestinal tract, thanks to the plethora of microbes that make their homes there AND about 90 percent of serotonin, one of the feel-good neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood, relaxation, sleep, and even appetite, is also made and housed in the gut. I’ve struggled with immune dysfunction for a number of years, thanks largely to food sensitivities and compromised gut health, and also with anxiety in various forms for much of my life.

This month, The Recipe Redux challenged us to share a recipe that promotes gut health, and good timing too, because cold and flu season is upon us, as are the dark, damp, and cold days of late fall and winter when moods tend to take a nosedive.

 

Before I do, I want to share three important things you can do to enhance your internal microbial community, and thus immune health (and likely mood too!)

The first is eating more fiber. The good bacteria that promote health need fiber, which they digest into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate and propionate. SCFAs are not otherwise available in the diet, and they’re responsible for a whole host of disease preventative effects, one of which is combatting inflammation. The more fiber we consume, the more diverse our microbial life (a good thing), the more short chain fatty acids that are produced, and the more health tends to improve. Fiber in foods comes in the form of fruits and vegetables, whole, unprocessed grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. If you have trouble digesting fiber-rich foods, it likely means you just need a little time to increase them in your diet gradually, as the good bacteria that digest them will grow prolifically if only given their preferred foods, and this can happen in a matter of just a few days!

The second thing to promote gut health, as I hinted above, is to eat more fermented foods like tempeh, miso, sourdough bread, raw sauerkraut and kimchi, and fermented unsweetened yogurt. When we eat fermented foods, we’re introducing the beneficial bacteria instead of feeding the ones already there. Aim for a large variety of fermented foods as this further promotes diversity of bacteria populations and optimal health.

The tempeh that I’m now so fond of is made from organic soybeans that are inoculated with a spore and then fermented. The fermentation process breaks down phytates, which are anti-nutrients and bind minerals and vitamins, so we can digest them. Tempeh is also rich in protein, B vitamins, fiber, phytonutrients, and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, and copper. What’s more, tempeh doesn’t actually have to be cooked so it makes for a quick addition to meals. What Deborah Madison taught me is that steaming it for about 10 minutes before adding into a dish does make it tastier, as it can sometimes be a little bitter without this extra step. I tend to steam when I have the time and just dice and toss into recipes when I’m ready for food on the quick!

Lastly for optimal gut health, reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates, as they promote the proliferation of bad bacteria. Like a kid on too much Halloween candy, more sugar makes the disease-promoting bacteria really happy and they grow in number and increase inflammation and a whole host of less than ideal health outcomes.

 

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Now, for the recipe! Tikka Masala is actually a British dish that came about when a tomato sauce was combined with Indian-spiced vegetables and meat. It is super popular in Britain and Ireland as simply “Chicken Curry,” and this recipe began a number of years ago as a quick dairy-free chicken curry that William and I loved. Over the years, I dropped the chicken, added tempeh, and made several gentle tweaks, and we now have a gut and immune-friendly tempeh tikka masala that can be adapted depending on the season, and comes together quickly without all the marinating and spice rubs of a traditional tikka. Any type of canned coconut milk can be used here, but the whole fat kind will obviously make for a richer, more-rounded dish, and it’s the type I favor these days.

 

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Tempeh Tikka Masala, serves four
16-oz. tempeh, cut into about 48 pieces
1 tsp. coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob of fresh ginger
2-3 cups chopped seasonal vegetables (yellow/orange/red bell peppers, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, peas, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 medium garden-ripe tomatoes or 14 oz. canned unsalted whole tomatoes
1 cup coconut milk
juice from one lime
cooked brown rice to serve

  • In a small saucepan with steamer basket and 1-2 inches of water in bottom, steam the diced tempeh for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the coconut oil, and then add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Once the onions have begun to caramelize and turn golden, add the remaining vegetables and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes. Then add the spices and mix in.
  • Give the mixture a minute or two and then add the tomatoes and stir. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so, and then add the coconut milk, tempeh, and lime juice.
  • Stir everything together, let the flavors meld for an additional 10 minutes or so, taste and adjust seasonings as necessary, and enjoy over steamed rice.

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References:

BMJ. (2015). High dietary fiber intake linked to health promoting short chain fatty acids: Beneficial effects not limited to vegetarian or vegan diets. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150929070122.htm.

Cresci, G.A. and Bawden, E. (2015). The gut microbiome: What we do and don’t know. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 30(6), 734-746. doi: 10.1177/0994533615609899.

Rich, P. (2017). Gut science is radically changing what we know of the human body. University Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/gut-research/.