Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fast and Easy Dinner: Stir-fry

Stir-fry has the reputation of being a time-consuming meal because of the vegetable prep required, but it's my meal of choice when we get home late. Some vegetables are quicker to prepare than others; green beans, carrots, broccoli, and asparagus require very little time. We forgo meat in our stir-fries and use egg, tofu, or nuts.

I realize that this long recipe doesn't look like a fast and easy dinner, but it does become one with practice. I can have stir-fry on the table with white rice in 20 minutes. It took me longer to type this than to make tonight's dinner, a green bean - carrot stir fry with egg.

If you want an easy dinner the next night, cook extra rice, and make fried rice. More on that another day.

Stir-fry Steps
  1. Drain & press tofu if using (details below); at dinnertime, start baking it.
  2. Start the rice, especially if using brown rice
  3. Clean and chop vegetables
  4. Make sauce
  5. Cook egg if using
  6. Stir-fry vegetables when rice is about 10 minutes from done
  7. Add sauce, reduce heat, and steam veggies until done
1. Tofu:
Drain, wrap in 2 clean dish towels, and place between 2 plates in the refrigerator. This can be done hours before dinner. Cube and toss with a couple of tsp each tamari or soy sauce and sesame oil. If baking, preheat oven to 400F and oil a baking sheet; start the tofu about 30 minutes before you plan to eat. Higher temperature will yield crisper tofu. Tofu can also be prepared in thin slices and baked, then served over the vegetables like cutlets. To cook on the stovetop, after starting the rice, heat canola or peanut oil to high temp and saute the tofu; remove from pan and set aside.

3. Vegetables:
Use what you like, and whatever variety you like. Cut enough vegetables for one meal. Sort into 2 containers: quick-cooking (asparagus tips, for instance) and slow-cooking (larger pieces of broccoli, carrots unless julienned, etc). Vegetables can be prepped early in the day and refrigerated until dinner.

4. Sauce:
There are many jarred sauces, but most of them contain lots of sugar, salt, and/or MSG... and they're simply not necessary. For a stir-fry for 4 people, I use:
1 c water
1 tsp vegetable broth powder (I like Seitenbacher and Rapunzel; both are available at natural foods stores and online)
minced garlic and ginger to taste - at least 1 tsp each (fresh is best, but I won't tell if you use powdered)
1-2 tbsp of something acidic - some dry wine, sherry, mirin, or rice vinegar
1 tbsp cornstarch
optional additions: 1-2 tbsp ketchup, 1 1/2 tsp curry powder, or 1 tsp honey

5. Egg: I use 2 eggs, beaten by hand, and cooked into a thin pancake. I slice this into long ribbons or small squares and add to the vegetables after adding the sauce. Cook the egg first, in the same pan that you will use for the vegetables.

Nuts: Cashews, almonds, or walnuts are what I use.

6. Now, put it all together:
Heat 1 tbsp canola or peanut oil over high heat. Add the slow-cooking vegetables and stir-fry for a minute or two. Add the quick-cooking vegetables and stir-fry for a minute or two.

7. Add the sauce, reduce the heat, and add egg/tofu/nuts at this time; cover and keep at a slow simmer for 5-10 minutes until vegetables are at desired crispness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


It's close to the end of summer now, but sunscreens are on my mind because of the recent statement from Consumers Union.

There are two primary categories of sunscreens:
Chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone, octisalate, and others; and
Mineral-based sunscreens such as titanium and zinc oxides.

Many sunscreen formulations include both of these categories with multiple effective - or supposedly effective - ingredients. Supposedly? Well, according to the Environmental Working Group, "40% of products on the market contain ingredients that may be unstable alone or in combination" when exposed to sunlight.

So, given that the effectiveness of chemical sunscreens is not proven, it seems a given that the particle-based ones are the route to choose. But not so fast; those particles have been engineered to be smaller - nanoscale (1 nanometer = one millionth of a millimeter) in fact - and there is concern that they could be absorbed through the body's largest organ - the skin - and taken into the lungs; Consumers Union also expressed concern about the impact on the ecosystem.

Doesn't the FDA regulate such products?
From The Washington Post: "The FDA regulates sunscreens as nonprescription drugs and does not require extra safety tests specific for nanoparticles. The agency has little authority over cosmetics. " (take note: other topical products are also likely to have questionable safety)

The EWG says,"FDA has spent the past 30 years drafting sunscreen standards (FDA 2007a), which it urges manufacturers to follow voluntarily. FDA issued its latest draft standards in August 2007, which include a proposal for first-ever UVA standards, but still has failed to finalize the standards to make them mandatory. In lieu of enforceable standards, each sunscreen manufacturer decides on test methods, marketing claims, and the level of protection they are willing and able to provide consumers." (emphasis added)

This should be no surprise to people who are familiar with bisphenol-A or parabens, both of which only began to disappear from products following objections from activist groups and restrictions by other countries.

The EWG reports that, this year, 2 of 5 sunscreens on the market are effective (some of these contain nanoparticles) - in other words, 60% are not effective.

Further information:
Review of Scientific Literature on Nanoparticles, published by the Australian Government

EWG's summary on sunscreens - read study data, view the database that lists ingredients and estimates safety and effectiveness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Candles in the News

Standard candles are made from a blend of paraffin wax and stearin. Paraffin is produced from petroleum; stearin can be made from animal or vegetable fats and hardens the paraffin by raising the melting temperature. Candles can also be formed from beeswax, soy wax, or palm wax.

A recent study at South Carolina State University found that unscented, uncolored paraffin candles emitted chemicals including toluene and benzene, while beeswax- and soy-based candles did not. Candle wicks can also create air pollution: metal-core wicks may contain lead, which becomes airborne upon burning. The CPSC banned lead-core wicks in 2003; to avoid lead, do not burn older candles.

All candles produce soot, fine particles which may irritate the lungs. Scented candles contain additional chemicals which increase emissions of both soot and chemicals. To reduce soot, choose unscented candles, keep the wick trimmed, and minimize drafts; further recommendations may be found here. To reduce emitted chemicals, choose unscented candles, and burn candles infrequently or choose soy or beeswax candles.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Easy dinner

Everyone has, or should have, a few meals that can be assembled and cooked quickly, easily, and without a recipe, for those nights when you'd rather not cook or you get home late. One of my favorites is a frittata. It can be vegetarian or not, dairy-free or not, depending on your preferences and what's hanging around in your refrigerator.

Pictured is tonight's dinner - a spinach-summer squash frittata topped with a few bell pepper rings. These freeze well and make excellent leftovers for lunches. I've tried various ways of cooking these - stovetop, oven, and both, and I've found no textural or flavor differences, but I prefer this method for ease. In the summer, I bake in a toaster oven in the garage to avoid roasting us all out of the house.

The 30-minute baking time is sufficient to prep a salad and clean the dishes generated in cooking, so cleanup is quick after dinner, too.

Frittata (6 servings)

5 large eggs

vegetables, sliced thinly (tonight's used 1/2 pound frozen spinach and 1 medium crookneck squash - onions, potatoes (in small cubes), asparagus and green beans work well also. I almost always use spinach, though.)

optional: cheese (I usually don't add)

Oil a pie plate and preheat oven to 350F. Saute the vegetables (if using potatoes, start these earliest, and cook until done) in a small amount of olive oil until most of the moisture is removed. Add seasonings as desired.

Beat the eggs until your arm is really tired. Put the vegetables into the pie plate and then pour the eggs on top. Using a fork, gently move the vegetables around here and there to mix in the eggs. Make a design on top if desired, with pieces of pepper, asparagus, thinly sliced carrots, etc.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until eggs are thoroughly cooked and the frittata is beginning to brown, at 350F. Serve with salsa or ketchup if desired.