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Salted Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies by Kelsey Vlamis

Here's something you've probably never heard before: My mom is the best cook I know. Okay, I know everyone says that about their own mom. But I challenge anyone who doubts me to try my mom's veal with pine nuts, her lobster-vodka sauce with homemade 8 finger cavatelli, or her inexplicably addicting rack of lamb (I think her seasoning must include trace amounts of cocaine? idk for sure). While her savory dishes are some of the best I've ever had, don't even get me started on her desserts.

I say this whole-heartedly, her desserts are on another level, and for all my life all of my friends lucky enough to experience them have agreed. This has served as both a blessing and a curse: I am greeted with mounds of heavenly rich desserts every time I come home; I also am near-incapable of fully enjoying dessert made by anyone else (including myself), because as my boyfriend has heard countless times (and has been annoyed by ever since we met), "It's good, but you need to try my mom's."

In the past couple years, my mom has adapted an oatmeal cookie recipe to create the most insanely delicious cookie I've ever had, littered with too-much chocolate chips (if such a thing were possible), and chewy pieces of homemade toffee. In the spirit of fall, and the salted caramel trend that doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, I adapted this recipe from hers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy my mom's.


Salted Caramel Apple Oatmeal Cookies
makes about 24 large cookies

ingredients
for the apples
2 cups raw apples (I used fuji), chopped into 1/2 inch cubes (about 2 apples)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon brown sugar

for the cookies
1 cup (or two sticks) butter
2 cups brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 + 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups quick-cooking oats

for the caramel drizzle
1/2 - 1 cup salted caramel

optional**
scant 1/2 cup of cooled caramel, roughly chopped into small pieces

suggestions
make caramel*
I've used this recipe for dry caramel, and this recipe for wet caramel. If you've never made caramel before, wet caramel is typically easier to make than dry (though the end result is basically the same).

sauté apples
If desired, skin apples (I didn't), and chop into 1/2 inch cubes. Set a skillet over medium-low heat and add about 1-2 tsp butter/oil. When warm, add apples, cinnamon, and brown sugar, and sauté until soft but not mushy, about 5 minutes.

prepare cookie dough
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine butter, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat together until well blended. Add flour, baking soda, and salt. Beat again until blended. Stir in oats, sautéed apples, and chopped caramel (if desired**) until evenly distributed.

bake cookies
Scoop dough and drop onto greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Size your scoops at 1/2 - 1 rounded tbsp, depending on preference. Bigger scoops will take slightly longer to cook. Bake about 10-12 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool for 3 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool completely.

drizzle caramel
Once cool, drizzle warm caramel over cookies, using as much or as little as you prefer [as far as I'm concerned, more is more ;) ]. Full disclosure: I actually drizzled more caramel over these cookies after I took the photos.

notes
*If you have never and do not want to attempt homemade caramel for this recipe, you can use a thick, store-bought caramel sauce instead. Preferably one that hardens up a bit at room temp.
**Adding chopped pieces of caramel to the cookies add an extra caramel chewiness that I love, however, can result in some divots in the cookies where the caramel pieces melted during baking. While totally delicious, the cookies will look less perfect/uniform. I like it that way :) but it's your call!

Meal Prep Idea: Healthy Egg Salad With Purple Cabbage and Pumpkin Seeds by Kelsey Vlamis

I've decided to start a category for posts that specifically include "meal prep" ideas, mostly because I've had some friends ask for suggestions on how to eat healthy. I realize that when many people hear "meal prep" they picture body builders and personal trainers steaming 10 pounds of broccoli, boiling 15 sweet potatoes, and grilling 20 chicken breasts all at once, to be consumed in perfect portions throughout the week and in between their daily sweat-inducing workouts. For us mere mortals, the idea of consuming the same and relatively plain foods day after day, meal after meal is simply unattainable--perfect body potential be damned. I'm here to tell you that meal prep doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to eat blah chicken or soggy broccoli to prep easy, healthy meals for a week at a time. I promise there is a better way.

I spend a few hours, typically on Sundays, prepping food to be eaten throughout the week. Yes, a few hours--usually between two and three, depending on what I'm making--which seems like a small price to pay for not having to cook the rest of the week and yet still having bomb combinations of healthy food to eat for every meal. It's also not very active cooking, so I can usually get work done at the same time.

My meal prep typically consists of 5-6 different preparations of grains, proteins, fats, and carbs. Usually some combination of roasted vegetables. A raw vegetable salad. A grain and/or legume of my choice, sometimes in flatbread form. A couple different protein dishes. Sweet potatoes. Etc. It changes week to week depending on my mood and what's in season. Better yet, the different combinations I can make with all of the things I prep means different meals throughout the week--you just have to be a little creative.

Take this egg salad for instance. This time I put it on homemade sourdough with crisp raw kale. Sometimes I dip crackers in it (side note: I am convinced there is no better store-bought cracker than Mary's Gone Crackers; the ingredients cannot be beat). Sometimes I spread it on homemade dosas. Sometimes I mix it in with grains and vegetables. Sometimes I put on a bed of greens. I think you're getting the picture...

The point is, here is one awesome, easy thing you can make in advance and eat throughout the week as you please. Simplicity, flavor, and healthiness all included.


Healthy Egg Salad With Purple Cabbage and Pumpkin Seeds
makes about 5-6 servings

ingredients
8 eggs
1/4 cup plain yogurt (any type you prefer, I use full fat)
1/8 cup Dijon mustard
4-5 sprigs fresh dill, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 of one medium onion)
1/2 cup purple cabbage (about 1/4 medium purple cabbage)
1/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
salt and pepper

suggestions
Hard boil the eggs using your preferred method. In the meantime, chop your onion, cabbage, and garlic, and prepare other ingredients. When eggs are cooked, cooled, and peeled, chop them into roughly 1/2 inch pieces. Transfer eggs to bowl and add yogurt, mustard, dill, and garlic. Mix well. Once incorporated, add onion, purple cabbage, pumpkin seeds and salt and pepper to taste.

notes
This egg salad is so easy to make that I hardly think it requires a recipe. I included measurements for those who really think they need it, but I implore to you to scoop the ingredients on freehand and taste as you go--I make this egg salad a little differently every time, and I like it that way.

-Kelsey

Dreaming of Jamaica | Sourdough & Garlic Sauce by Kelsey Vlamis

On the north coast of the island of Jamaica, 1.5 hours from the hustle and bustle of Kingston, 3 hours east from the resort relaxation of Ochorios, and just a few miles up the road from Robins Bay town and into "the bush", sits Yerba Buena Farm. And on Yerba Buena Farm, bananas, mangoes, and sugar cane thrives. Chickens, goats, kittens wander. And a family lives.

I had the privilege of staying with Kwao (kuh-wow) and Agape (ah-gah-pay) at their small farm where they keep bees and raise their six boys (and do plenty of other things). All of the boys resemble their father, whose long, lean, dark frame is topped by his wild dreads--with the exception that 4 of the boys' dreads are blonde and none of them can grow a beard. Agape, looks similar, but has longer, thicker dreadlocks that graze her lower back.

Atop a hill sits the kitchen, a mostly wooden structure, relatively open to the elements, where racks of bananas and plantains hang from the ceiling. Buckets of fresh Jamaican all spice (a key ingredient of 'jerk') rest along the wall. Kittens and lizards come and go as they please. And in the middle of the day, the entire family gathers to escape the Jamaican heat, during which time you can hear any of the boys (Kwao included), pining for a refreshment: "Agapeeeee, watahmelonnnnn."

When you exit the kitchen and follow the stone path downhill towards the ocean, the farm surrounds you. The compost pile and sugar cane on your left. A massive mango tree and a built-by-hand brick oven on your right. You pass two bungalow-type structures that serve as bedrooms, until you reach the largest one at the end that the whole family stays in.

We stayed in one of these rooms, towards the bottom of the hill, right on the coast. Days were slow, salty and sweaty. Spent wrestling with 7-year-old Enoch. Learning to make sea salt from 13-year-old Melchizedek. Trying to understand 4-year-old Kofi's mix of English and Jamaican Patois. Visiting the market with Kwao and 15-year-old Emmanuel.

But often, days were spent talking with Agape. About her life, and Kwao's, and theirs. About Jamaican culture, about their farm, and of course food. They are Rastafarians, which--contrary to popular stereotypes--is not very common in Jamaica. It's why their whole family has dreadlocks--also not very common in Jamaica--and why they eat entirely vegan.

Agape cooks exclusively over fire--either on a metal stove made of rebar, or the brick oven Kwao built. They eat what grows on their farm, what they can get from the market in Kingston, and a lot of oil. Upon finishing the last of a bowl of sautéed green bananas, in which I admittedly left more than a tablespoon of oil at the bottom, Agape said:

You know, Kelsey, the real Jamaican way to eat that would be to mash up your bananas so you could sop up all this oil--for the calories.

Though she smiled as she said it, my mind filled with the talk of low-calorie foods and calorie-counting diets, and I couldn't help but feel a bit silly wondering how we in the United States (as well as other developed nations) had gotten ourselves into such a strange predicament.

At Yerba Buena, when we weren't passing around guinep from the market or sucking on sugarcane pulled straight from the ground, we were eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains. We ate starches like plantains, breadfruit, or cassava, and rounded out meals with grains like rice, lentils, or Agape's insanely delicious homemade sourdough.

In the style of traditional sourdough, she mixes flour and water and let's it sit out in the heat, kickstarting a fermentation process that results in a unique, thriving colony of bacteria and yeast--essentially, an active sourdough starter. After she prepares her dough and lets it rise, she places it into her cast iron skillet, and puts the whole thing right into the fire of her brick oven.

Agape actually was raised in San Fransisco. Her and Kwao have both lived in the United States and Jamaica, and have gained a valuable and unique perspective because of it. Alongside her nourishing sourdough, Agape often served a sauce made by blending garlic and oil, which somehow results in a creamy, white and extremely potent garlic sauce. This, she learned from her Greek grandmother.

This is the world we live in today--so connected to each other that two Americans, one of Lebanese descent and the other Norwegian descent, can sit in a kitchen in the Caribbean and share a meal with Jamaicans that includes tropical fruits and vegetables, a bread preparation that likely originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago, and a dish from Greece.

Cuisine fusions are not so much a category of restaurant as they are the natural and unavoidable result of our interconnectedness and our ability to travel places--and get ingredients--that were historically inaccessible.

Last week, I found myself longing for Jamaica, and Yerba Buena, and the boys, and Kwao and Agape, and really Agape's meals. And so we decided to recreate this one dish to get a taste of our Jamaica--which ironically, is actually a taste from Greece. We made a dense loaf of sourdough that included sprouted lentils, rice, and wheat in our cast iron skillet, and paired it with a blended sauce of yogurt, olive oil, and plenty of garlic. We opted for yogurt instead of using just oil because we're lucky enough to not have to eat strictly for calories.

Despite the apparent differences in lifestyle between Yerba Buena and my hometown in Illinois, there are unavoidable similarities as well. As I watched and interacted with the boys, I was reminded of my own little cousins, and I was struck by how similar they really were to each other. How they are motivated and entertained by the same things. How they try to play with and engage me in the same ways.  How I could use the same exact tactics to dodge getting dragged into something if need be.

And even beyond the kids--when it's dinner time and Agape calls out to everyone, and they trickle in one by one to gather in the cozy kitchen and eagerly fill their bowls... how different is it really than my own home, my own mother, calling out to my own family when dinner is ready and waiting to be served? Though I am not the first to notice it, there is comfort in that fact. That maybe the one thing that is really shared across most cultural divides is the creation, anticipation and nourishment of a meal--and perhaps most of all, the enjoyment that comes from sharing it with others.


CREAMY GARLIC SAUCE
For dipping, spreading, or drizzling.

Ingredients
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
pinch of sea salt

Instructions
1. Add ingredients to blender.
2. Blend until creamy and garlic is totally incorporated.
3. Enjoy however you please - I recommend as a dip with hearty sourdough.

Note: This will have a strong raw garlic flavor! If this is off putting to you--or you're worried about your breath--try using less garlic, or roasting it first.

Farm-to-Fork | Pig-to-Plate by Kelsey Vlamis

Inspiration: Video, Of Land and Sea | Patience and Preservation from Terasu.

Farm-to-fork -- the ever trendy, catch-all term for food that was cultivated by hand on a homey little farm, and transported directly to your plate for happy, guilt-free consumption. Don't get me wrong--I love a good farm-to-fork restaurant as much as the next hip 20-something. But let's be honest here: what do you picture when you hear farm-to-fork?

Admittedly, I picture manageably-sized rows of fresh greens, of carrots, of tomatoes, of peppers. I picture a wise, able man in a worn-in flannel kneeling next to his bounty as he scoops purple heirloom potatoes out of the cold, promising soil. I picture a brown woven basket filled to the brim with Mother Nature's gifts, ready for transport from the farm straight to a white, bright, minimalistic kitchen to be quaintly prepared by a true artisan, ethical chef, and served to me within the walls of an earthy-toned, uber-trendy, self-aware restaurant.

Farm-to-fork experience at O'o Farms || Maui's upcountry || January 2016

Farm-to-fork experience at O'o Farms || Maui's upcountry || January 2016

That sounds great and all, but unless you are a vegetarian or vegan (which most estimates say make up 5% or less of Americans), you're not thinking about the same process that had to occur to put that 100% grass fed beef, or organic, free range chicken on your plate right beside those farm-fresh vegetables. To ignore this aspect of the farm-to-fork experience, doesn't do justice to the farm or the fork.

This video from Terasu beautifully shows the process by which Brandon D'Imperio converts pigs to prosciutto at his Washington ranch--a true farm-to-fork, or pig-to-plate, experience. The video does not shy away from the harsh reality that the pig must be killed, nor does it vilify it, but rather, it invites the viewer to confront that reality. The reality that even if the pork on your plate was ethically raised, make no mistake, life was lost.

In most cases, it seems we either condemn the killing of animals for food, or we choose to ignore it. Many people are horrified at the thought of killing an animal, and yet they eat meat on a daily basis. Herein lies the tragedy. We are so far removed from our food that, somehow, we are able to eat meat and not once consider the life that was lost in order to bring it to us. In this blindness, the relationship between man and animal is forgotten.

Watching the video was a bittersweet experience for me--as meat consumption probably should be. Though I don't think eating meat is unethical, it is still a sad thought that a breathing, sentient being is slain on my behalf. Sad, but surely beautiful. In the video, Brandon tells how his relationship with food has evolved:

In the beginning for me, food was more about flavor and nourishment, but through the times and experiences I’ve had it’s grown into being more about relationships, love, and patience.

Because he understands everything that goes into putting a piece of prosciutto on his plate--caring for the pig, killing the pig, cleaning the meat, salting, waiting, the patience, the care--he is able to fully appreciate it. He's able to appreciate the relationship between man and animal, the love and care that can go into food preparation, and the animal itself. After all, when all "pork" is to you is a tasty piece of meat that has magically been prepared and served to you neatly on a plate, can you really appreciate the animal from which it came?

In some sense, life on earth exists in clear, decipherable ways. Plants rely on microorganisms to grow, plants convert sunlight into energy, animals eat plants to obtain this energy, animals eat each other, and of course, life after death persists in the form of new life.

And so it goes, humans play our part too. But when we ourselves do not kill an animal, when we don't even think about the fact that an animal was killed so that we could eat it, our role in this cycle grows undecipherable, and we lose the closeness that we once shared with our food and with the earth. And only by once again deciphering our role in that cycle, can our food systems begin to be repaired and our relationship with the natural world be restored.

Do you think about the relationship between man and animal when you eat meat? Do you refuse to eat meat? Or do you choose not to think about it? Let me know your take in the comments!

"Wait, you eat meat... I thought you were healthy?" by Kelsey Vlamis

I'm not sure when vegetarian/vegan became synonymous with health (perhaps around the same time people still thought "low-fat" was a good idea?), but I don't quite understand it. Admittedly, if you google "Is meat healthy?" you are greeted with an overwhelming amount of articles asserting one thing, and an equal amount asserting the opposite. On one side, there are studies linking red meat consumption to a host of health issues, like cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. More recently, studies have begun linking only processed meat, not all red meat, to similar health ailments. Take this study conducted on 37,035 men with 12 years of follow up, that concluded only processed red meat consumption, but not unprocessed red meat, is associated with an increased risk of heart failure.

As with most things worth talking about, more than likely the answer isn't so black and white. Any blanket statements declaring all meat consumption is healthy, or vice versa, are most likely ignoring the complexity of the issue as well as all the potential variables that could be affecting the answer to that question. Though you can read study after study on the topic, I think it's important not to discount this simple fact:

Human populations have evolved and thrived on the consumption of meat for thousands of years, across both geographical and cultural divides.

In fact, common estimates place the domestication of animals for food around 8,000-10,000 years ago (around the same time plants were first domesticated as well), starting with sheep and followed by pigs and cattle. Personally, this is enough to convince me, at least somewhat, that meat can be a healthy part of the human diet. The odds that we as a species have cultivated, depended on, evolved with, and in fact thrived on the consumption of something that suddenly is found to be detrimental to our health, just don't look good. I would even venture to say that it seems slightly arrogant of us to ignore the evidence that history provides us with, namely the survivors--the humans that came before us who elevated our species to its current status on this planet, all while consuming meat.

Past vs. Present

However, as mentioned before, there is a host of factors to consider. To assert that our modern day cultivation and consumption of meat should, or even could, mirror our caveman ancestors (I'm looking at you, Paleos), is a hopeful fallacy at best. Of course, there is the case of unprocessed vs. processed meats, which are loaded with sodium and nitrates and other things that very clearly were not a part of meat consumption in the past. But even in the case of unprocessed meat, the animals are not the same ones that existed in the paleolithic age. Most animals we consume today have been selectively bred by humans, and therefore the idea that we should eat literally the same foods as our caveman ancestors, is built on a near-impossible foundation. Though I am not necessarily making the case against the Paleo diet, I do think the distinction between the foods we eat today and how they existed in the past is important, and this is explained well in Dr. Christina Warriner's TED talk "Debunking the Paleo Diet" (apologies to Paleos, but there's some good information there on the transformation of our food).

Regardless of the status of meat consumed, you're probably eating a lot more of it than our ancestors would have been as well. Yes, there is some evidence suggesting that large quantities of meat were consumed in the paleolithic era (approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago), but I'm going to assume most readers aren't paleo and focus on more recent history. According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (compiled here by the Earth Policy Institute), meat consumption in the United States has risen from 15.8 million tons in 1960 to 34 million tons in 2013, more than a 100% increase in less than 50 years. So, if modern day studies reveal correlations between meat-eaters and certain health ailments, isn't it possible that over-consumption, not mere consumption, is the real culprit?

Vegan = Healthy?

Though the debate over meat consumption is on-going, can we at least acknowledge the tragedy of conflating a meat-free diet with a healthy one? Let's consider this common scenario: a young girl who has admirably decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle decides to go vegan after doing some in-depth research (AKA spent countless hours scrolling the #vegan Instagram feed), and--with the inspiring enthusiasm of a recent convert--dives right in. The first items on her new and improved shopping list: Tofurkey deli slices, Vegenaise, Amy's Vegan Margherita Pizza, Sambazon Frozen Acai Berry Blend, loads of fresh fruit, and (hopefully) some fresh vegetables as well.

I've included links to each of the products so that you can investigate the ingredients for yourself, but if you trust me to provide an accurate snapshot, here's what this newfound, health-seeking vegan has decided to rely on as substantive staples in her diet: A LOT of canola oil, brown rice syrup, soy and wheat in their various processed forms, and plenty of sugar (consumed most frequently as "breakfast" in the uber-trendy but typically sugar-overloaded acai bowls). I think it is safe to assume that a diet relying so heavily on processed food, non-traditional food, and copious amounts of sugar is not at all "healthy" by design. Again, I mean not to discount the vegan or vegetarian diet, as there are plenty of examples of healthy ways to pursue either, but rather to shoot down the conflation between "vegan" and "healthy", that is so evident when perusing the cyber-vegan community. In case you are still not sure--VEGAN is not the same thing as HEALTHY.

SO, SHOULD I BE EATING MEAT?! IS MEAT HEALTHY?!

Call it a deflection, but if I had to give an answer to this question, I would probably say "Maybe." Personally, I feel healthiest when I include very limited amounts of unprocessed meats--of any variety: chicken, beef, pork, wild game--into my diet. However, I am not a dietician, and wouldn't venture to say exactly what is right for you... although, I would recommend trying to work unprocessed meat into your diet for only about 3-4 meals a week, and seeing how you feel. Whether meat consumption works for you or not, the point here remains the same: all meat consumption is not created equally, and the lack thereof is not inherently healthy, so we need to stop searching for such simple answers, ie. "Meat consumption always leads to heart disease" or "All vegans have healthy diets". If it were that simple, there wouldn't be this much to talk about.