The Ultimate Salad Cheat Sheet by Kelsey Vlamis

Kale & arugula drizzled with olive oil & balsamic, topped with pumpkin, sunflower, & hemp seeds, bell pepper, carrot, radish, pickled beets, and avocado.
Kale & arugula drizzled with olive oil & balsamic, topped with pumpkin, sunflower, & hemp seeds, bell pepper, carrot, radish, pickled beets, and avocado.
But, I can't eat salads every day! It would be so... boring.

I think it's safe to assume that at one point or another, most people have been able to relate to this sentiment (myself included)--or would be able to, should someone propose such an atrocious idea to them. However, since learning to redefine what "salad" actually means, that statement couldn't be further from the truth for me. I do eat salads for lunch, just about every day--and let me tell you, each one is significantly (okay I'll admit it, sometimes not-so-significantly) different than the last. The goal of my Ultimate Salad Cheat Sheet is to help you do the same.

So what makes something a "salad"? Let's look to Merriam Webster:

saladnounsal·ad\ˈsa-ləd : a mixture of raw green vegetables (such as different types of lettuce) usually combined with other raw vegetables : a mixture of small pieces of raw or cooked food (such as pasta, meat, fruit, eggs, or vegetables) combined usually with a dressing and served cold

And then, my personal favorite:

:  a usually incongruous mixture

Though the two initial definitions work just fine, the third is perhaps the most creativity-inducing definition to go by. The possibilities of what makes up a salad therein being... endless! So, how could this level of potential variability illicit such notions as "boring" or "monotonous"?

I contend that these feelings are merely a result of being conditioned (probably due to what was served on the too-rare cafeteria salad bar all those years in public school) to think of salad and picture crunchy, wet, flavorless lettuce and blah veggie toppings with ranch or Italian dressing...a thought that simultaneously evokes both comfort and disgust for me. Comfort because well, have I not been served this salad my entire life? And disgust because, when this is what salad meant to me, I thought I hated salad. Alas, I've come to define salad in new terms and I want to inspire you to do the same. So when I tell people I eat salad every day, they can stop looking at me like I don't enjoy every second of it.

Kale, quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pickled beets, pumpkin & hemp seeds, drizzled with a blend of tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. Uffda.
Kale, quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pickled beets, pumpkin & hemp seeds, drizzled with a blend of tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. Uffda.

THE ULTIMATE SALAD CHEAT SHEET

The key to loving and eating salads frequently is to stock your kitchen with anything and everything you might need. I've concluded that there are five general categories of salad ingredients, though they can be mixed and matched and combined in absolutely any way you choose. They are:

  1. Greens
  2. Veggies
  3. The "Meat"
  4. Toppings
  5. Dressing

Greens, of course, can be any (or no) greens--the more unique, the better.

As for the Veggies, either fresh from the grocery store or leftover in the fridge from last night's dinner. Try washing and chopping a variety of vegetables Sunday night and storing them in the fridge, ready to be added to any salad at a moment's notice.

The "Meat" refers to the bulk of the salad, or the ingredient that is most likely to leave you filling full and nourished--this does not necessarily mean meat, but could also be fish, avocado, sweet potato, etc. If you are a meat/fish/egg person, try cooking something at the start of the week (chicken, salmon, hard-boiled eggs, etc.) and keeping it in the fridge to add to salads as you wish.

The Toppings, can quite literally be anything sprinkled atop or stirred into your gorgeous heap of produce. My personal favorite? Goat cheese--you wouldn't believe the creaminess it adds, I'll tell ya.

And finally, the Dressing, or the primary flavor vehicle in your salad, which can include a variety of oils, vinegars, spices, or any liquid/sauce of your choosing.

Keeping this in mind, I created the simple salad cheat sheet below that includes example salad ingredients that you can start stocking in your kitchen right now--just print it out and pin it on your fridge for inspiration, and check it before you head to the grocery store. Of course, the salad cheat sheet is not exhaustive; rather, it's merely meant to inspire you to begin to imagine all the possibilities that should come to mind when you hear the word "salad". Not to mention, what better time to take your first steps down the road of salad-enlightenment then at the start of the New Year?

What's your view on salads? Any ideas/tricks/tips to share on how you work salads into your own life?

"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.

Tempeh Fajitas with Red Chard Wraps by Kelsey Vlamis

Tofu, Tofurkey, tempeh, seitan, Beyond Meat meats... it's very apparent, there are a lot of "meat substitutes" out there. Some of which (tofu, tempeh, seitan) existed long before making their way into the trendy restaurants and vegetarian households of the West.

Truthfully, I am not a big fan of most mock meats, especially ones consumed in the West. Though I won't go into too much detail (I'll save that for another day), in cultures where these meat substitutes have been a staple for hundreds of years, they tend to be prepared much differently--usually by fermenting soy--than how we process the same products here in the states. The debate is ongoing, but many believe these differences in preparation make all the difference in whether or not soy is healthy.

As for the more recently created mock meats, like Tofurkey and Beyond Meat, their ingredient list doesn't quite meet my own personal standards for "real food". Though I can recognize the potential benefits of these products, I personally choose not to consume them--again, a conversation for another day.

But today: Tempeh. Tempeh is made from naturally fermenting whole, cooked soybeans. It originated in Indonesia, where it has been consumed for hundreds of years; and perhaps most importantly, has been fermented for hundreds of years. Thankfully, traditionally fermented tempeh is easily available here in the U.S. as well, hence my preference for tempeh over other soy-based products. The other good news is, tempeh is actually delicious. Really, I mean it. Take it from this meat-eater, tempeh can have a place in your kitchen, not necessarily as a satisfying substitute to prime rib, but as a unique and tasty food product that can hold it's own. And if you're one of those people who try to avoid certain meat products due to the environmental impacts, such as myself, then yes--it could be considered a more environmentally friendly alternative.

As with most meals I make, these tempeh fajitas were pretty simple. Although tempeh has a nice, earthy flavor all on its own (what does "earthy flavor" even mean anyways??), it took on the flavor of the marinade wonderfully. I went with a classic Mexican taste, with lime juice and jalepeno being the key players.

The kicker--I ditched the usual tortilla for a big, beautiful leaf of red chard. I loved the color addition, but more importantly red chard is awesomely and surprisingly flexible (and let's be honest, it's a lot more appealing health-wise than the atypical enriched bleached white flour tortilla). I encourage you to try it, even if the tortilla is usually your favorite part. I find that as long as what's inside the tortilla packs a flavor punch, I don't usually miss the soft texture and light sweetness that a tortilla provides.

So, if you've never tried tempeh, these tempeh fajitas are a very simple way to step out of your comfort zone! And if you have, hopefully you've been inspired to try it with a new twist. Enjoy!


TEMPEH FAJITAS WITH RED CHARD WRAPS

Ingredients
1 package of tempeh
1/2 red bell pepper
1/2 white onion
2 spoonfuls of coconut oil (or another oil/butter)
1 large leaf of red chard
1 avocado
1 scoop of your favorite salsa

For the marinade
1/2 lime, freshly squeezed
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 jalepeno, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

Instructions
1. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a small container and set aside. Mix well.
2. Slice the tempeh into 1/2-inch thick strips and place into a bowl, lying as flat as possible.
3. Pour the marinade over the tempeh, being sure to coat every piece. Place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, turning the tempeh over half way in.
4. While tempeh is marinating, begin work on vegetables. Slice the red bell pepper into long, thin strips.
5. Chop the onion into flat, square-like pieces.
6. Heat 1 spoonful of coconut oil on a skillet over medium-low heat for about a minute.
7. Add the peppers and onions, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and begin to brown. About 7 minutes.
8. Remove the tempeh from the fridge. Push vegetables to one side of the skillet. Add 1 spoonful of coconut oil to the clear area of the skillet. Let heat for 1 minute.
9. Place the tempeh flat onto the clear area of the skillet. Pour remaining marinade over the tempeh.
10. Let tempeh brown for about 8 minutes. Flip each piece to let the other side brown for about 8 minutes as well.
11. Once tempeh has browned, incorporate the vegetables with the tempeh. Let sit on low heat for a few more minutes.
12. Cut the hard lower stem off the red chard leaf and place the leaf veins up.
13. Add the tempeh fajitas mixture to the top of the red chard.
14. Serve with fresh avocado and your favorite salsa.
15. Wrap the leaf around the goods, and eat up your tempeh fajitas!!

The Chocolate Hoax and Learning to Synthesize Information by Kelsey Vlamis

A few months ago, various media outlets reported on a study published by the International Archives of Medicine that came with a very awesome message: the daily consumption of dark chocolate accelerates weight loss! People everywhere, my own mother included, rejoiced at the idea of working chocolate into their daily diets. When my mom called to tell me the good news, I took it with a grain of salt and didn't think much of it. Truthfully, I was just excited to get my mom trying my favorite brands of fair trade, organic, and 80-90% cacao chocolate.

However, if the idea of chocolate accelerating weight loss sounds too good to be true, well, that's because it is. Shortly after making some noise in the media, it was revealed that all of these headlines were based on a poorly conducted study, carried out with the intention to prove just how easy it is to spread information based on junk science, particularly in the field of diet research. Hence, "the chocolate hoax".

For details on how this entire event was planned and executed, you can hear from John Bohannon, the journalist behind it all, on how he made it happen here. I highly recommend reading through his explanation, as it reveals some serious flaws committed by researchers and publishers alike, that often slip by unnoticed, only to be tightly packaged and sold to the media, and in turn the public.

Now, the most important question here to be asked is "so what"? I mean, it hardly seems fair--a supposedly peer-review-based journal posts a faulty study conducted by a supposed research institute, the media responds, and the public listens. Seems like a logical flow of events, right? After all, we are not all scientists, so how can we be expected to recognize bad science?

I agree, this is where things get tricky. As Bohannon writes,

"The only problem with the diet science beat is that it's science. You have to know how to read a scientific paper--and actually bother to do it."

I'll be the first to admit, this is not easy. I myself have a science degree and still can acknowledge that navigating your way through a scientific paper well enough to actually have an opinion on the science conducted, is quite frankly challenging.

Bohannon does offer some tips: "If a study doesn't even list how many people took part in it, or makes a bold diet claim that is 'statistically significant', but doesn't say how big the effect size is, you should wonder why." He goes on to say that when we don't ask these questions, we leave journalists to serve as the peer review system, and when the journalists fail, "the world is awash in junk science."

Ultimately, the purpose of this experiment was to encourage people, both journalists and the public, to be more skeptical. To ask more questions. To not believe everything you hear. With the creation of this blog, I also hope to encourage people to do this as well. To educate themselves on the information that is available to them, and to learn how to synthesize that information. To be a filter, not a sponge. To tell the difference between a dietary fad or far-reaching claim, from something that might actually carry some weight.

In the end, the best way for you to navigate the world of conflicting and confusing information when it comes to food, is to learn to be more skeptical, to pay attention to your source (and read multiple sources!), and at the same time remain open to innovation. I'll leave you with a Carl Sagan quote, as he is quoted in A.J. Jacob's book "Drop Dead Healthy":

"What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas."

Here's to the scrutiny, and here's to the openness. Now let's have fun with both.