Sunday, March 13, 2011

La Tasca Does Vegetarian Tapas Right

The American Dietetic Association is celebrating National Nutrition Month in March. The theme for 2011 is Eating Right With Color.

I recently published some suggestions to chefs on ways to provide more interesting vegetarian options on their menus. Although I don't claim to be a vegetarian, I am eating far less meat as part of a new low-cholesterol diet. My wife went vegetarian over a decade ago, and meals out are a lot more satisfying for both of us when she's able to eat more than just pasta, salad, and side dishes.

On Saturday night my wife and I hit the the streets of Arlington, Va., in search of a good meal. A Moroccan joint looked promising, but the lighting was too bright. The Thai place was empty and we were already familiar with the Indian restaurant. Then we stumbled across La Tasca, a local franchise that serves a sprawling menu of Spanish tapas (small plates of food to share). There are more options for meat eaters than vegetarians, but the menu does include a section dedicated to vegetarian dishes, and it didn't disappoint.

Our first experience with La Tasca in Alexandria, Va., was just average. The food was tasty, but sharing food between a vegetarian and a meat eater didn't work. In contrast, our affair in Arlington was fun and flavorful. We started with rustic bread and three olive oils for dipping. Then came the battered and fried eggplant slices and the delectable Cabrales cheese sauce.

We hadn't finished our appetizers when the multiple plates of tapas arrived. Everyone has had onion rings, but our plate of onion and red and green pepper rocked. The breading was light, flaky, and oh, so tasty.

If you like homefries, La Tasca's version is complemented by both a mild hot sauce and a garlic aioli. Crispy taters, spicy, creamy dips - how can you go wrong?

The wild mushrooms were fantastic. I've really grown to become a fanatic of funky fungi. The shrooms were nice and firm and the olive oil didn't drown out the earthy flavors.

I wasn't blown away by the paella, but my date loved it. Both of us were impressed by the spinach and pine nut croquettes. The balls were crispy on the outside and creamy and wonderful on the inside. Imagine a savory piece of Lindt chocolate. If you were driving, you'd have to pull over to enjoy the taste rush.

Our meal climaxed with a plate of Canelones de Berenjenas, one of the best vegetarian creations I've ever sampled. The La Tasca menu description says, "Eggplant rolls stuffed with herb-roasted roma tomatoes, grilled, sweet piquillo peppers, and a mild goat cheese." That just doesn't capture the volume of saliva generated by the scent and flavor of these magical rolls. Presented on the plate, they looked like they needed a drizzle of some sauce, but after a bite it was obvious that the flavors had their own legs. (Seriously one of the best things I've ever eaten.) We spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how La Tasca softened the eggplant to make it roll without being soggy, and still couldn't solve the mystery of this masterpiece menu item. Eggplants are pretty easy and fun to grow, so we'll be trying this ourselves this summer.

So if you're in the D.C. or Baltimore area, look for La Tasca for an awesome menu of Spanish tapas. Their selection of sangria is on full display in big vats and wine lovers will not be disappointed by the depth of the list. For me, the bottle of Alhambra Negro was the perfect beer to keep my taste buds moist.

I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions on eating vegetarian.
I'm Blogging National Nutrition Month

Super Glue Saves the Universe

Thanks to a bottle of Loctite Super Glue Ultra Gel by Henkel, a handful of broken Marvel heroes and villains will live to fight another day.

Over the past year, Venom and Red Skull lost their heads, Gambit was severed at the waist, Doctor Doom lost an arm, and the Spider-Man bubble wand snapped at his wrist. Since their repair, the action figures have withstood ferocious fighting and brutal battles at the hands of my young sons. The glue is holding up well.

It's been a long time since I purchased Super Glue. I remember the liquid adhesive running all over the place, bonding things together for eternity. Those days are over. The Loctite gel is more viscous, and the side-squeeze bottle allowed me to apply just the right amount of glue. It was nice to finish a repair project with my digits free and loose instead of stuck together like mutant penguin flippers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March is National Nutrition Month

In recognition of National Nutrition Month, I’d like to share some quick thoughts on eating healthy, low-fat meals, and staying fit. My wife, Angie, recently compiled this information for a family member, and I thought it was worth sharing. She’s been a vegetarian for over a decade, and, lately, I find myself eating less and less meat. Although I feel better when I don’t eat meat, I still love a juicy burger, a tender chicken breast, or a medium-rare steak. So without sounding preachy, here are some dietary and lifestyle choices that are working for us.

Size Matters

Pay attention to portion sizes. What does an average portion looks like? See what you’re eating by clicking here. Click on the food and it will show you a visual for one serving size. Cheese is the size of a die? NOOOOOOO! (It’s true.) When eating out, try splitting an entrĂ© with someone. Most restaurants serve way more food than you need.

Count Calories

Paying attention to portion sizes and your daily calorie intake becomes second nature once you start. If you decide to go big at breakfast, be sure to eat a light lunch and a reasonable dinner. You can’t go big at every meal. To see what it really takes to burn off calories, hop on a treadmill or a stationary bike. Even if you hate exercising in a gym, the experience will make you think twice about snacking on chips, candy, and soda.

Your body can only burn so many calories. Be aware of what you ingest. Here is a free calorie counter. Not only does this site track total calories, but the analysis section tells you your stats for the day: fat, carbs, Vitamin A, iron, etc. This site is pretty helpful.

What to Eat?

Avoid processed foods. If it’s easy, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t eat ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Spice it Up

Eat more grains, more veggies, and less cheese. Make average meals great by incorporating herbs and spices. We’ve been using lots of ginger and light coconut milk. When a recipe calls for water, we use homemade vegetable broth, which we make by boiling down vegetable scraps. (Avoid including asparagus stems, broccoli, and potato peels in your stock. Everything else is fair game – including apples and pears!)

Healthier Ingredients

When cooking, try including skim milk, low-fat sour cream, and low fat cheese. Try Cabot cheese. Their low-fat cheddar tastes almost as rich as the real thing.

Start with Soup

A great place to start is soup. Choose broth or tomato-based soups instead of cream. A big pot of soup can be portioned out and eaten all week long. Find some good soup recipes. Trust me; there are more soups out there than just chicken noodle, tomato, and clam chowder. Once again, try using your own stock. Spice it up with veggie tortilla soup. Try some new flavors and make a pot of curried butternut squash soup. If veggie chili sounds like bean soup to you, add ground turkey instead of beef.

Where’s the Beef?

A veggie stir-fry can be very filling. Who needs meat when the wok is overflowing with cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, green beans, peas, onions, mushrooms, peppers, corn, zucchini, summer squash, and carrots? Add more flavor by using dried spices, or try a jar of stir-fry sauce. (Avoid sauces with high-fructose corn syrup) Try brown rice instead of white.

Ethnic Foods

After living on the East Coast for more than a decade, Angie and I have been exposed to foods from every corner of the globe. Grow your menu by expanding your menu beyond meat, potatoes, and casseroles. If you love Italian food, choose pasta primavera instead of a cream sauce. You can’t go wrong with veggies, olive oil, and a little Parmesan sprinkled on top. Try wheat pasta.

Most Indian and Thai dishes are healthy, and you can’t beat the aromas and flavors.

I picked up an amazing recipe for a Latin bean dish from a former coworker in Queens. It tastes great in a tortilla or in a taco salad. Contact me if you’re interested. It’s not just beans and rice. Also, cut out the cheese and sour cream from time to time and add guacamole instead. My guacamole recipe includes avocados, minced onions, garlic, paprika, cumin, diced tomatoes, cilantro, salt, red pepper flakes, and apple cider vinegar.

We Eat a Lot of Pizza (Pita Pizzas)

Pita Pizzas taste better than most chain pizzas. Simply spread pizza sauce on a whole wheat pita, add toppings, cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and bake at 410 F for about 15 minutes. We like green/red peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, feta cheese, mozzarella, spinach, and grape tomatoes.

What's in Our Cupboards and Fridge?

Low-fat tortilla chips and salsa instead of chips and dip
Veggies and hummus dip
Happy Cow cheese - spread on crackers, it melts in your mouth.
Fruits such as apples, pears, pineapple, tangerines, and bananas
Homemade bread
Pitas and tortillas
Breakfast bars or granola (make sure they are under 150 calories each)
Pistachios and almonds
sparkling juice instead of soda

Meat is OK! Choose Wisely

When buying meat, choose organic, antibiotic-free beef and free-range chicken. It may cost slightly more, but you can taste the difference.

Change the Culture

If your family and coworkers enjoy celebrating everything with cakes and pies, insist yogurt or fruit is provided. You’ll be surprised by how many people forgo the sweets for the healthier options.

Simple Ways to Stay Fit

Skip the elevator and take the stairs.
Park far away and walk.
Take a walk at lunch.

A Note for Chefs

Try offering a vegetarian option other than steamed vegetables over rice or pasta. Salads and raw vegetables just don’t cut it anymore. As a cooking enthusiast, I find making quality vegetarian dishes challenging and fulfilling. There are literally thousands of recipes out there for amazing vegetarian dishes. Why alienate part of your customer base? Experiment with some new menu options and you’ll probably grow your clientele. Vegetarians are very vocal, and word spreads quickly about restaurants that cater to their dietary choices.

Educate Yourself

More information about National Nutrition Month and all things related to food and nutrition can be found on the American Dietetic Association's website.

I'm Blogging National Nutrition Month