Health On A Budget

Quinoa-Chia Energy Bars

Though energy bars may have been designed with elite athletes in mind, they’ve become an absolute staple for active, busy people as well. (Present company included!) And though there are SO many prepackaged options to choose from (some of which I do admittedly enjoy often), as I’ve mentioned before what I really love best is making them at home — not only because they can they be made into gazillions of various flavors, but also because homemade efforts allow 100% control over the ingredients.

With your perfect bar just a mixing bowl away, it’s hard not to get creative with such a hands-on, simple snack. Need more protein? Pack some protein powders in. Looking for lower calories? Add shredded vegetables like carrots in as filler. And of course, so often energy bars are overly (as in, crazily overly) sweetened. I mean, not every snack needs to have an over-the-top candy bar flavor, nor the sugar content to match. With this in mind, I’m happy to share a recipe I’ve been making a lot at home lately: extra-natural bars sweetened entirely by fruit, with no added sugar, no honey, no agave … nothing. How nice for a change! They’re also gluten free, and even stash a bit of protein with their quinoa base. Plus, fabulous chia seeds are responsible for holding everything together in each and every delicious bite. Grab-and-go energy a la superfoods!

Quinoa-Chia Energy Bars

These bars are entirely fruit sweetened, and have no added sugar.

Makes 16 bars


¾ cup Medjool dates, pits removed (about 7-8)

2/3 cup white grape juice

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

¼ cup chia seeds, divided

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1½ cups quinoa flakes

1 cup unsalted pistachios, shells removed and coarsely chopped

½ cup raw walnuts, coarsely chopped

¼ teaspoon sea salt

1½ teaspoon cinnamon

1½ cup dried figs (White Turkish variety is the best), chopped coarsely


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 8×8-inch pan* with parchment paper. Combine the dates with the white grape juice and vanilla in a small blender and let soak for 10 minutes to soften. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl, and add the chia seeds. Mix well to avoid chia clumps, and set aside for 10 minutes to allow the chia to thicken.

Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the quinoa flakes, pistachios, and walnuts. Cook, stirring frequently for 3-4 minutes until the quinoa and nuts are fragrant. Add the sea salt and cinnamon and cook for 30 seconds more, then remove from heat and transfer contents to a large bowl. Mix in the chopped figs, and add the saturated chia mixture. Stir well to distribute the ingredients and form a chunky dough.

Transfer the dough to the prepared baking pan, and press down firmly into a flat layer. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool before cutting into 16 2×2-inch squares. When wrapped, energy bars will keep up to a week.

*If you don’t have a pan this size, line a baking/cookie sheet with parchment instead, and simply hand-form the bar “dough” into an 8×8 inch flat square.

© 2012


Wild Rice with Kabocha Squash & Sage Butter

I promised I had a special recipe to share on the way, and at last, the hungry wait is over!

Well, almost over … first, I can’t help but briefly gush about what a true pleasure it’s been reading all the comments on the Thrive Foods Giveaway so far. What does positive environmental change look like? Apparently, it looks like us: from the person who is looking to incorporate a few more meatless meals each week, to the person who avoids using disposable plasic, to the person who chooses a car-less daily work commute, to the person who epitimizes local food by having a vegetable garden. One of these actions is awesome enough, and when you read all of these actions collectively, it’s downright inspiring. Have you entered the giveaway yet? There’s still time to enter here now.

As I mentioned in the last post, this week’s special recipe is one that I developed for Brendan Braziers’ fascinating new book, Thrive Foods. One look at the photo above, and I think you’ll agree, this entree is begging to be the subject of your next recipe adventure. With a new crop of winter squash just now coming into season, this dish features my favorite squash of all: Kabocha (aka The Japanese Pumpkin). Kabocha is naturally so immensly flavorful, that it asks for very little from us in the seasoning department, offering decadant, impressive tasting results just on its own. But. Mix kabocha in with some comforting wild rice, toss in a sage-infused “butter” (made from coconut oil and simple, fresh flavors), and you’ve got the makings of a masterpiece. In fact, Brendan names this recipe as one of his top 5 favorite dishes ever. (I’ll let you in on a secret: when he first taste-tested it, I went to go get a little more sage from the garden, and when I came back the recipe was GONE. It’s one of those dishes.)

To make this a truly well-rounded meal, I like to serve this with a generous salad, made with mixed baby greens, shredded carrots, chopped walnuts and a simple vinaigrette.

And that’s how we do Thrive Foods.

Wild Rice with Kabocha Squash & Sage Butter
Serves 4

To save time, make the rice and butter while the squash is cooking. Yams may also be used in place of the kabocha.

½ cup wild rice
½ cup brown rice
2 cups water
1 pound kabocha squash (about ½ medium squash)
3 Tbsp melted coconut oil plus 1 Tbsp (divided)
½ Tbsp chopped fresh sage, packed
1 Tbsp minced shallots
½  tsp sea salt

To make the squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the squash in half, then scoop out and discard the seeds. Use 1 Tbsp coconut oil to lightly brush the cut areas of the squash, and place cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until soft when pierced with a fork. When cool enough to handle, cut into large 1-inch chunks (skin may be left on for extra flavor and nutrition or disposed of). Keep warm.

To make the rice: In a medium pot over high heat, combine both varieties of rice with the water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until rice is tender and cooked through (about 25-30 minutes; time varies slightly upon exact type of rice used). Keep warm.

To make the sage butter: In a food processor, blend 3 Tbsp coconut oil, sage, shallots and sea salt until smooth.

To serve: In a large pan, heat the sage butter mixture over medium-low heat for one minute. Add the cooked rice and toss to combine, then cook for one minute longer while stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and carefully fold in the squash. Serve warm.

Spring into Green!

I seriously can’t believe spring is already here – it seems like just yesterday I was dusting off my pumpkin knife and looking for any and all excuses to put the oven to some loving use. But the flower buds outside have a schedule to keep. And as for the rest of us, it’s time to get recharged and re-greened.

Greens are becoming more and more popular lately, not only because they’re super nutritious, but because they’re super delicious too! Excitingly, it’s easier than ever to get the vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and alkalizing antioxidants that greens provide in inventive ways that go beyond “just a salad.” Here are a few of my key ways to keep my favorite food group in constant rotation – and ensure that this spring is energizing, clean, healthy and green!

5 Great Ways to Get Green:

1. Bars: If you eat energy bars, don’t short-change yourself with ones that just have natural ingredeints … make sure they contain some kind of green powder as well (like freeze-dried vegetables, chlorella, grasses, etc.) You won’t taste a difference, and you’ll get all the benefits of green! (Of course, you can always just make your own, too.)

2. Wraps: Time to ditch the tortilla, taco shell or bread. Instead, try using a big green leaf such as swiss chard, collard greens or kale to wrap up your favorite savory fillings. These leaves make a fantastic natural wrapper, contain very few calories, and add plenty of nutrients.

3. Smoothies: It’s no secret that one of the smartest tricks amongst healthy know-how’s is the great “Green Smoothie.” By blending up handfuls of mild greens (like spinach) with sweet fruits (like pears, apples, bananas, or mangos), the vibrant color may just be the only giveaway that your fruity treat is full of the extra good stuff.

4. Sauces: Customize a pasta sauce with some hearty minced kale or spinach. My method: saute finely chopped greens for 1-2 minutes in a little safflower oil and minced garlic to soften, then stir them into the finshed sauce-of-choice for an exceptionally tasty and textural addition.

5. Plate fillers: You’ve probably heard dietitians recommend portioning out foods groups by size: such as a serving of cereal equaling the size of your hand. In the case of greens, aim to make them cover the base of your plate (placing the entree on top of the green bed). Not only will they instantly make your dish look more beautiful, the greens will also lend an extra-tasty touch (green vegetables go with almost everything). Try lightly-dressed arugula, fresh and peppery watercress, or marinated kale for a seriously boosted plate.

Homemade Energy Bars

We all know we’re supposed to be eating more fruits and veggies (and are kinda sick of hearing it),
but let’s face it: the craving for a tasty snack isn’t always conveniently synonymous with a bag of peeled and washed carrot sticks. If you love your gastronomical pleasures like I do, you’ll agree that life is too short for food experiences that don’t provide a serious case of the “mmmm’s.” The antidote? Exploring new kinds of food architecture that enable a golden combination of energy-giving nutrition and genuine enjoyment.

A classic example of one such architecture is the smoothie. Great tasting fruits, superfoods, and sometimes even a few sneaky veggies get blended together into delicious drinks that even kids give a thumbs up to. However, as the seasons take a turn for the colder, the idea of a frosty one can be a little hard to swallow. Luckily, there’s an excellent runner-up out there: the energy bar.

Of course, most stores are already absolutely overflowing with pre-made energy bars. But just because we buy them in little wrapped packages, doesn’t mean they have to come that way. Homemade energy bars are remarkably easy to create, and also allow full control over the ingredients (many “nutrition bars” contain unhealthy filler ingredients, refined sugars, and difficult-to-digest protein isolates). Additionally, the DIY route also produces a bar that is less expensive, cuts down on excess packaging, and (in my opinion) is much more delicious! If you can make a smoothie, you can make an energy bar: they’re that easy.

Needless to say, I often will make these guys to subdue my snack-monster tendencies. I look at energy bars with an opportunistic attitude: how much goodness can I pack into a great tasting treat? Make that energy bar live up to its name! To make a truly natural bar, I start out with a no-fail base of dried fruit and nuts, then blend in various superfoods to douse my snack with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and long-lasting energy. I even made a new version the other day using, of all things, a freeze-dried wheatgrass powder — which has become a instant hit as it’s so surprisingly good. The wheatgrass powder has almost no taste at all, so the bars contain all the benefits of highly-condensed vegetable nutrition, without the undesired influence of veg-flavor. Though energy bars in general are a phenomenally flexible recipe; here’s my simple wheatgrass-infused base recipe to get you started. In addition to the mega-vitamins from the wheatgrass, hemp seeds provide protein and healthy omega fats, cashews add an even further protein boost, dates bring minerals and natural sugars, and (optional) goji berries provide broad-spectrum nutrition and antioxidants. Here’s to snacking…

Green Energy Bars

1 cup cashews
1 cup medjool dates, pits removed (about eight)
2 tsp freeze-dried wheatgrass powder
1/4 cup hemp seeds
1/4 cup goji berries (optional)

Mix the cashews, dates and wheatgrass powder together in a food processor just until a rough dough has formed (allowing some cashews to remain coarsely chopped). Add the hemp seeds and pulse several times until combined.

Place a sheet of saran wrap on a cutting board and spill the dough out on top. Use your hands to press and form into a 1 inch thick rectangle, then cut into 8 pieces.

Wrap and keep in the freezer for long term storage. Makes 8 bars (double or triple the recipe if desired).

Making the perfect kale crisps – the munchie of the millennium

It’s a really good thing I have the opportunity to work with food for a living, or I’d undoubtedly be destined to spend my days fully distracted. I think I must have been born musing about what I was going to eat next.

My house is weighed down with cookbooks. Food magazines stuff my mailbox. My computer is backlogged with bookmarked pages of delicious oohs and ahhs that I promise myself I will come back to and try out one day. I read recipes like they were tourism guides to far-off adventures. I read about things that inspire me, and sometimes I read about things that I will never, ever make. I just like “knowing” food.

Like the dedicated food fan I am, I take a sense of pride in watching niche healthy food trends grow into mainstream stars. It’s like seeing that underground band you’ve listened to for years (like seriously, I saw them once in their garage, dude) finally walk into the 20,000 person arena for the first time. You can’t help but sit there with a quintessential index finger-shake, exclaiming, “I knew them back when . . .” while looking to the punk next to you to be impressed. (He’s not.)

This is how I feel about kale crisps. I can’t remember the first book I saw featuring kale crisps (also known as kale chips to some), but one thing I do know is they’ve been around a long time. They’re amazing: somehow, dried-out kale that’s been coated with seasonings, takes a nutrient-dense leafy vegetable and turns it into the most crave-worthy crunchy snacktime. A bizarrely excellent way to consume all the calcium, manganese, protein, fiber and abundant nutrients kale has to offer in the most munchy of munchlicious ways. Kale crisps may not win the beauty contest any time soon, but their flavor and texture is so appealing, their most common description is almost always “addicting.” And this month, when Food & Wine Magazine included kale crisps as a featured recipe, these fantastic niche snacks finally got the stadium gig they deserve. Yes! I totally knew you guys back when.

By this point in time, I have more recipes for kale crisps then I care to admit. There really is no one right formula to make them, but there are a few tricks in getting them to cook properly.

A few suggestions on making the perfect batch of kale crisps:

Keep it fresh: Use the kale when it’s as fresh as possible (don’t put it off in the fridge for a week) as kale gets significantly more bitter as it gets older.

Think big: When tearing the kale into pieces, don’t tear the kale up too small – after it’s dried out it will shrink dramatically, turning smaller pieces into mere crumbs.

Line it up: If using an oven to bake the kale crisps (using a dehydrator is great . . . if you have one), line a cookie sheet with parchment paper before spreading the kale chips on top. Parchment not only makes clean-up a cinch, it also helps even out the cooking and prevent burning.

Stay low: The lower the temperature of baking, the more nutrients remain and the less chance of burning. Try 250-275 degrees (F) as a general rule. This way, the crisps are usually done in 60-90 minutes, and the kitchen hasn’t gone up in smoke.

Ready to make your perfect batch? Here’s a new kale crisp recipe to try out.

The Tao of Parsnips

I wish I had a brownie for every time I’ve been informed that eating naturally is simply too hard. While making fancy shmancy meals can be a fun project, uber delicious healthy food doesn’t have to be complicated. Some of my favorite “recipes” are not recipes at all. Take, for example, a fig. Bite into it and . . . whoa! All those little seeds and colors and textures are like whole universe of magnificent complexity tucked inside a shriveled-looking edible fruit package. Imagine if the fig didn’t exist, and some company “invented” the recipe for one: would the fig not be the most amazing “product?” So much of our food experience comes down to mindset.

There’s a style of Japanese brush painting called shodo – a form of calligraphy with an abstract offshoot that attempts to capture energy and kinetics through a few simple brush strokes. Whereas most styles of painting take days, months, even years to complete, shodo takes just a few calculated moments. A swish. A swash. Maybe one last accoutremental zing . . . and then, the decision to end. And within this philosophy of “less is more,” the biggest challenge becomes when to step away and recognize perfection in “just enough.” It’s an empowering judgment call – a kind of discipline in a way – embracing simplicity in this funny world of ours that is obsessed with faster, newer, hotter, and anything that begins with “now with more.”

Poor ol’ “less.”

In the realm of food — for the most part — modern cuisine teaches “just enough” is never enough. Our perfectly lovely foods are processed, packaged, mixed, mingled, extracted, added and bastardized until they’re pretty much unrecognizable. Then we process them again, add healthyish-looking colorings, artificial vitamins and preservatives, and reshape the result into forms that pass for food-like. I don’t think most people would be too impressed if I took a beautiful shodo painting, sprayed graffiti all over it until it turned grey, covered it in white-out to get to a white page again, and then drew a couple of lines mimicking the original painting in magic marker.

I find natural foods can take us back to a Tao-like state — appreciating beauty in simplicity. Take the humble parsnip: a wonderfully useful root vastly overshadowed by its more rotund cousin, the potato. While usually just reserved for an occasional hodgepodge-style stew or roasted medley of sorts, the parsnip offers a complex flavor functioning as a gorgeous balance between a potato, a carrot, and fennel . . . all rolled into one (aka a “recipe”). And it even contains more vitamins and minerals than many of its other root friends (especially potassium). What a guy.

Homemade parsnip fries utilize this idea of “ingredient economy.” Slow roasting them allows for a caramelization of their inherent sweetness, and a little coconut oil keeps them crisp on the outside and soft within. There are a billion ways to make this recipe fancier, but in pulling them out of the oven, I’m personally hard-pressed myself to add a thing. There’s simply no need. I find these parsnips perfect: Just. The way. They are.

Here’s the basic recipe for parsnip fries.

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