Month: March 2014

Choose the Right Cooking Oil

Supermarkets these days have a vast array of products on their shelves. Cooking oil is a typical example where the choice is ample. Plus, it tends not to be really straightforward which one to choose and why. Being an avid home cook, I faced the dilemma of choosing the right cooking oil myself, so I did a bit of research to be able to make an informed choice in the matter.

Cooking oils -
Just a Bit of Science

It is important to understand some basic features of cooking oils, which may sound a bit scientific. Nonetheless, it is not too complicated as we only need to understand a few basic features and principles of fats and fatty acids, as cooking oils are made up of these compounds.

Fatty acids differ based on their chemical shapes. Generally, depending on their shapes, fatty acids can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. All fats contain all types of fatty acids, but they are classified into one of the above categories based on the type of the fatty acid that makes up most of its structure. Fatty acids differ from each other based on how well they pack together. Saturated fatty acids pack together tightly. This feature makes them stable even if they are exposed to heat and light. Monounsaturated fatty acids do not pack together as well as their saturated counterparts do. Therefore, their stability level is lower when they are exposed to heat and light. The polyunsaturated fatty acids don’t pack together well at all, therefore they are unstable.

The stability level of cooking oils is decisive in terms of whether they are suitable for cooking or not. Stable oils can resist chemical changes when heated to high temperatures; therefore they are suitable to cook with. However, unstable ones may go rancid when heated up, which means that they undergo chemical decomposition and other changes. Their so-called smoke point, the heat at which they start to go rancid and a bluish smoke becomes visible, gives a good guidance whether it is suitable for cooking or not.

I collected eight of my favourite cooking oils. Let’s see why they made to the list of my top eight!

all_about_oilART_HEAD.jpg, Pinterest
Best Cooking Oils to Use

  • Almond Oil: Almond oil is stable up to approximately 255 Celsius and it is composed of a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (approximately 62%). It is associated with health benefits including cardiovascular health and high amount of vitamin E levels and phytosterols that are known to improve cholesterol numbers. It s suitable for cooking at high temperatures and also works well in salads and desserts because of its natural almond flavor.
  • Avocado Oil: Avocado oil has a very high tolerance to heat. It can be heated up to approximately 265 Celsius. It is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and it is considered heart-healthy as it is known to improve cholesterol levels. Avocado oil is very versatile due to having high heat tolerance as well as a mild, nutty flavor. It is perfect for high heat cooking including grilling, sautéing, frying, stir-frying and baking. It works well for salad dressings, too.
  • Coconut oil: Coconut oil is very stable as it is 86.5% saturated fat. The saturated fat contained in this oil is different to saturated fat found in animal products. They contain medium chain triglycerides that are metabolized in a different way than animal fats and therefore they do not clog our arteries. Coconut oil was found to lower cholesterol levels as well as to maintain a healthy digestive tract. It remains stable up to 230 Celsius, which makes it ideal for frying, baking and cooking at high temperatures. Always use certified organic coconut oil, which means that it does not go through refining, hydrogenation, bleaching or deodorizing.  Also, don’t be surprised to find that it is solid at room temperature.
  • Red Palm Oil: Red palm oil is derived from the fruit of the palm tree. It is high in saturated fat and has a high proportion of healthy fatty acids. Also it is rich in vitamin E, Beta-Carotene, Alpha-Carotene and Coenzyme Q10. Due to its saturated fat content, it is a stable type of oil, which makes it perfect for high heat cooking. If you wish to try using red palm oil, go for brands that source the ingredient sustainably. Palm oil has courted controversy due to its potential harm to endangered rainforest environments. The palm trees from which the oil is extracted are integral to that ecosystem. Large-scale commercial activity in these settings has potential to threaten the balance in this environment.

Cooking Oils to Use with Care

Many cooking oils have a vast array of health benefits, but are not suitable for cooking at high temperatures. If you heat them to high temperatures, their nutrients can oxidize, which means the oil goes rancid. This can lead to vascular diseases and other health damages. 

cooking oils -
  • Olive Oil: Olive oil, particularly its extra virgin type, is a very good source of monounsaturated fats, which is linked with hearth health. It has a range of further health benefits including lowering total blood cholesterols, being rich in antioxidants, decreasing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, aiding blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. There is some evidence that its consumption helps reduce obesity, the risk of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Its consumption is therefore very much recommended. However, apart from the best quality extra virgin olive oils the smoke point of which is at around 210 Celsius, its resistance of heat is not higher than 160 Celsius. Unfortunately, the very good quality extra virgin olive oils are too pricy to cook with. Therefore, olive oil is best to be spared for cooking with lower temperatures, e.g. drizzling on steamed vegetables, sautéing or in salad dressings.
  • Peanut Oil: Peanut oil is a good and healthy choice as it is free from cholesterol, it contains essential fatty acids, it is a good source of plant sterols that can reduce cholesterol levels and it contains vitamin E as well as resveratrol, which is associated with protective function against a range of diseases including cancer. It also has a nice, nutty aroma and a sweet taste. It is good for all sorts of cooking and it is particularly suitable for Asian recipes. Nonetheless, use it sparingly, as it is richer in Omega 6 fatty acids than in Omega 3 fatty acids. While both of these fatty acids are necessary for human health, the Western diet tends to create an imbalance between the two, in the favour of Omega 6 fatty acids. Also, if you have peanut allergy, be careful with it, especially with the cold-pressed versions, which may contain allergens.
  • Sesame Seed Oil: Sesame seed oil has a number of health benefits including reducing blood pressure and the risk of health disease. It is cholesterol friendly, too. It contains sesamol and sesamin, two powerful antioxidants. It is a good choice for low-heat cooking, sautéing and low-heat baking due to its high smoke point. It is one of the cooking oils that are less prone to go rancid. It is best for sautéing, low-heat cooking and baking and due to its nice and light flavor, it is good in stir-fries, too. It is excellent for Chinese, Indian and South-East Asian recipes. 
  • Walnut Oil: Walnut oil is a healthy choice for low heat cooking. As it contains 63 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is not a very stable oil for cooking. Heating rapidly reduces its quality and also damages its flavor by producing a bit of a bitter taste. It is best to used in salads, where its delicate nutty flavor adds a great taste. Alternatively, use it on steamed vegetables, marinades and sautés.

Cooking Oils to Avoid

I did not list commonly used vegetable oils like sunflower oil, canola oil, rapeseed oil and corn oil among my favourite cooking oils. The reason for that is that these types of commercial oils tend to be partially hydrogenated or refined. This process is known to create trans fats that are unhealthy for human health. Also, often these oils are made from genetically modified crops. Vegetable oils tend to be richer in Omega 6 fatty acids than in Omega 3 fatty acids, therefore they need to be consumed sparingly to avoid imbalances in the diet.

Flaxeed oil, hemp oil and hazelnut oil did not make it to my favourite oils, either. While they have excellent health benefits, they are too delicate to cook with. They can be used in salad dressings and in dips and should be consumed in their cold form.

A Final Word of Advice

As cooking oils are delicate substances, some of which can go rancid even if they are exposed to light and air, always buy them in small quantities, keep their lid on when not using and store them in cool, dark and dry places.

Living Long in Ikaria

Ikaria is a tiny Greek Island surrounded by the Aegean Sea in the far east of the Mediterranean, just 30 kilometers off the Turkish Coast. Why is this isolated little island so special? It is unique as it is one of the few places on Earth, where longevity is not the exception, but the norm.

Ikaria, Pinterest, Pinterest
The Blue Zone Island  

Ikarians tend to live much longer than people normally do. It is not surprising to come across centenarians on the island, who enjoy good health and an active life.

Dan Buettner, a former long-distance cyclist discovered this special feature of Ikaria in 2004, when he researched demographics and longevity in the world. He teamed up with physicians and demographers and investigated locations where life expectancy was high and the concentration of centenarians exceeded the average. He only found five such locations in the world, which he named “blue zones”. One of these blue zones is Ikaria, where approximately 8,000 people enjoy the privilege of longevity.

In Ikaria, the likelihood of people living to the age of 100 is a staggering 10 times higher than in other parts of the world. Ikarians not only live long, often to 100 years of age and beyond, but they do maintain good health throughout their lives. For example, Buettner and his team discovered that elderly Ikarians tend to be free of dementia, depression, cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

Ikarian elderly -, Pinterest, Pinterest
When Buettner and his team started to investigate the reasons of longevity on the island, they looked into the island’s history, culture and climate and they also interviewed locals about their lifestyle, nutritional habits and general outlook on life.

From a historic point of view, it turned out that in the past, Ikaria was frequently invaded by Persians, Romans and Turks. The invasions prompted the local population to move to the central area of the island, where they lived in isolation. Because of their isolation, they developed a micro-culture, which is unique and completely their own. In the Ikarian micro-culture, family, traditions, social life and support of each other are very important values. As an elderly Ikarian pointed out, “It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”.

Climate may also be a contributor to the exceptional life expectancy on Ikaria. The warm weather, the proximity of the sea and the good quality air definitely support health. Just like the mountainous terrain that prompts locals to maintain an active, outdoors lifestyle.

The traditional, low calorie Ikarian diet may also contribute to the healthy and long life of locals. Ikarians don’t’ consume refined sugars or processed foods and they eat meat very rarely. Instead, they maintain a primarily plant-based diet, consisting of home-grown vegetables. They consume beans, lentils, potatoes and wild greens. They eat plenty of fish, too. Dairy is rarely eaten, except for goat’s milk. Also, Ikarians drink lots of coffee, herbal teas infused with sage and mint and well as home-produced, pure red wine. Everything they eat and drink is home-grown and locally produced, therefore they don’t consume pesticides and chemicals. Ikarians also fast occasionally, which is also said to be beneficial for their health by slowing down their aging process.

As Ikarians grow their food and raise their animals themselves, they maintain an active, outdoor lifestyle. They spend a lot of time outdoors and they also walk fair distances every day, mostly on the mountainous inland terrain of the island. Life in Ikaria is active, but not stressful. Locals take afternoon naps, don’t rush and spend a lot of time with their families, friends and neighbours. They have purpose in life.

The research came to the conclusion that longevity in Ikaria is down to a multitude of factors including culture, geography, climate, nutrition, lifestyle and positive spirits. Life is not only long, but it is of high quality.

The Recipe of Ikarian Longevity

Let’s see what we can take over from the Ikarians to support a long and healthy life for ourselves:

  • Adopt a Mediterranean diet: Follow a primarily plant-based, organic diet. Add lots of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses and try cooking with olive oil. Drink some good quality red wine and try herbal teas. Avoid meat as much as possible, but do include some fish in your diet.
  • Minimise your dairy intake: Minimise processed dairy intake, and replace cow’s milk to goat’s milk in your diet.
  • Be active: Exercise is key in the traditional Ikarian lifestyle in the form of farming, gardening and walking. It is advantageous to adopt some of these practices into modern, urban lifestyles, too. Try walking, a bit of gardening if possible and just spend time outdoors.
  • Drink herbal teas:  Herbal teas include antioxidants that keep diseases at bay and strengthen the immune system. Sip a cup of tea infused with mint, sage, rosemary or oregano and enjoy their health benefits.
  • Take a nap: A midday rest can be beneficial for your health as it lowers stress hormone levels and rests the heart. It is, unfortunately, wholly impractical to include naptime into urban lifestyles. Nevertheless, if you try having a nap at weekends, you may enjoy some of the benefits.
  • Fast: Ikarians are Greek Orthodox Christians, who occasionally fast due to religious purposes. Try restricting your calorie intake occasionally by 30 percent or more, as it is a proven way to slow down the aging process of mammals.
  • Socialise: Spending time with family, relatives and friends is beneficial for our mental health. Keep good spirits and socialise!
  • Manage your stress levels: Ikarians are not stressed-out folks. Do try to manage your stress levels to maintain your health and enjoy a longer life!

Let’s learn from Ikarians and adopt their way of life as much as we can! We may live longer and happier lives!

How to Have Healthy Hair?

We all love to have beautiful, strong and shiny hair. However, sometimes our hair starts to show signs of weakness. It becomes dull, dry and lifeless and sometimes it even starts to shred excessively. When the hair loss starts to be visible, we all start to worry.

Hair problems are often down to nutritional deficiencies. This is especially true in the case of people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets. They do need to pay special attention to create a balanced diet for themselves. Otherwise, they may become deficient in certain important nutrients, primarily vitamins, proteins, minerals and fats. The nutritional deficiencies can rapidly start to show and the first signs concern the health of the all so precious hair.

Hair Health from BBC Good Food
BBC Good Food
Let’s take a look at these important nutrients that we absolutely must consume in other to preserve or restore our hair health.

  1. Protein: Protein deficiency is very common among vegetarians and even more among vegans. It is challenging to consume enough protein from plant-based sources as mostly protein is found in meat and fish. However, we must find appropriate, plant-based protein sources, as it is the building block of our hair as well as of our essential organs. If we are protein deficient, our bodies utilize whatever protein we consume to tissue growth in essential organs. The body will always prioritize these organs, therefore our hair will suffer first. Therefore, consuming some protein is not enough. We have to consume enough for our hair to glow. The best plant-based protein sources include quinoa, seitan, tofu, soy, tempeh beans, lentils, nuts, chick peas and white beans. Milk, cheese, dairy products and eggs also contain plenty of protein.
  2. Iron: Iron is a very important mineral and deficiency leads to anemia, which can cause hair loss by disrupting the nutrient supply to hair follicles and the hair growth cycle. Unfortunately, iron is found mostly in animal products, especially in red meat. Nevertheless, there are plant-based sources, including lentils, spinach, broccoli, okra, kale, salad greens, watercress, beets, dried apricots, figs, prunes, soy beans, pulses and almonds. However, the iron from plants is not as easily absorbed by the body as iron from meat, therefore these foods need to be consumed in large quantities to avoid iron deficiency. In case you have very low levels of iron, a good quality supplement may help to overcome your deficiency.
  3. Vitamin C: While Vitamin C is generally important for the human body, it has a particular role to help our hair glow. It helps the absorption of iron and boosts the production of collagen, a protein made up of amino-acids, which is the major component of hair. Vitamin C can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, broccoli, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, guava, red pepper, grapefruit, Brussels sprouts and cantaloupe.
  4. Omega-3: Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for our scalp and hair, because they keep them hydrated. Unfortunately, omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in fish including salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel, the consumption of which is not in line with most vegetarian diets. In case you want to avoid eating fish, you need to consume flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, avocados, walnuts, soybeans and leafy greens to maintain your strong and lustrous hair.
  5. Vitamin A: Vitamin A is necessary for our bodies to make sebum, an oily and waxy substance that lubricates and waterproofs our skin and hair. If our bodies do not produce enough sebum, we might find our scalp itchy. Also, our hair may become dry. In order to help our bodies produce sufficient amount of sebum, we should eat liver. However, that is not an option for vegetarians and vegans. Vitamin A from plant-based sources can be found in sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy vegetables, squash, dried apricots, cantaloupe, red peppers and mango.
  6. Zinc and Selenium: The consumption of zinc and selenium is important for maintaining a healthy scalp and preventing hair loss. Seafood and eggs generally contain ample amount of these minerals. Plant-based sources include spinach, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, beans, mushrooms, Brazil nuts, whole-wheat bread, sunflower seeds and whole grains.
  7. Vitamin E: Sufficient intake of Vitamin E can help us avoid sun damage to our hair and skin. Nuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, tomatoes, Swiss chard, avocado, asparagus, mustard greens, kale, papaya and kiwi are all excellent plant-based sources of Vitamin E.
  8. Biotin: Biotin is a B complex vitamin, which can help grow healthier and stronger hair, skin and nails by improving the keratin infrastructure, which is a basic protein that makes up hair, skin and nails. Biotin deficiency is fortunately very rare, but when it occurs it may show signs of brittle hair and nails. If you eat eggs, milk, Swiss chard, carrot, nuts, strawberries, raspberries, onion, avocado, cauliflower and cucumber you probably don’t need to fear biotin deficiency.
  9. Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a complex vitamin that our bodies need for healthy hair growth by supporting the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to hair strands. If hair strands do not receive sufficient amount of oxygen, the hair cannot grow in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, B12 vitamin is only found in meat, seafood, eggs and dairy. Vegetarians may consider eating eggs and dairy to consume sufficient amount of Vitamin B12. Vegans may consume soy milk and cereals fortified with B12. Also, they may benefit from taking a supplement to maintain healthy hair.

hair health, pinterest, Pinterest
Let’s include these foods in our diets and maintain our shiny, beautiful and strong hair!

Oui Ratatouille!

Ratatouille is a great vegetarian stew with full of summery flavours and nutrients. It is quite easy to make and it is also very versatile. It can be served as a main or as a side, or even as filling for sandwiches or savory crepes. Also, the base recipe can be easily adjusted according to different personal preferences. It may even be served hot or cold, according to individual taste.

Ratatouille inspired sandwich - from via Pinterest, Pinterest
Ratatouille originates in Nice, in Provence. It is known to be a country dish, created by farmers during the summer season, when fresh vegetables were abundant in this region of France. The name of the dish comes from the French world “touiller”, which means “to stir” or “to toss” in English. The first part of the world “rata” is a French slang word that means something like “chunky stew” in English.

Typically, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic are included in the traditional recipes of Ratatouille and the dish is spiced with fine herbs. If you like other vegetables like mushrooms, squash and potatoes, you may add them to your own preferred version of Ratatouille. Spicing is also a matter of personal preference. For true French flavours, use “Herbes de Provence”. You may also consider trying marjoram, thyme, basil and parsley.

Some recipes suggest that for the best result, Ratatouille’s ingredients should be cooked separately before combining them. This method is known to preserve the flavours of the individual ingredients better and it avoids a soggy and mushy texture in the stew. This tip is definitely worth trying!

Ratatouille’s taste, versatility and the simplicity of its preparation definitely contributed the global success of this quintessential French dish. Now, let’s try making it based on the below recipe of BBC Food (serves two people as a main course):

Ratatouille from BBC Food
BBC Food

  • 2 aubergines
  • 4 small courgettes
  • 2 bell peppers
  • 4 large tomatoes
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • “Herbes de Provence” spice mixture
  • small bunch basil, roughly torn

Preparation method:

  • Cut the aubergines into 2.5cm/1in slices. Cut the courgettes into 2.5cm/1in slices. De-seed the peppers and cut them into bite-sized pieces.
  • Score a cross in the base of each tomato and place them in a pot. Pour over boiling water to cover and set aside for one minute. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel away the skins. Cut them into quarters, then scoop out and discard the seeds. Chop them up into small pieces. Alternatively, use good quality canned plum tomatoes.
  • Place the aubergines and courgettes in a pan and drizzle them with olive oil, salt and pepper.Fry the aubergine slices in batches for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden-brown on both sides. Remove from the pan and set aside to drain on kitchen towels.
  • Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onions. Cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden-brown and very tender. Stir in the peppers, garlic, sugar, some salt and pepper. Add the “Herbes of Provence” spice mixture and half of the basil. Mix the ingredients, cover and cook over a very gentle heat for 20 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the aubergines and the courgettes, mix the ingredients and cook for a further few minutes. Scatter with the remaining basil and serve.

Bon Appetite!