Saturday, January 29, 2011

Vegan Eggplant And Red Bell Pepper Lasagna - Low In Calories And Fat, High In Fiber. Perfect For Entertaining!

Eggplant and  red bell pepper lasagna in a 9' x 13" tray
How to Turn Lasagna into a Healthy Family Meal
When you think about lasagna, the words, "healthy", "low fat" and "low calorie" don't exactly come to mind but you can truly made a delicious lasagna that's light and guilt free. 
I don't know what the Olive Garden restaurant puts into their lasagnas but they have managed to turn this traditional Italian delicacy into a "heart attack on a plate". Their own website shows one dinner serving of  their  "Lasagna Classico" has 850 calories, 47 grams of fat, (25 grams of which are saturated), and 2,830 mg of sodium, (nearly twice the daily recommended limit by the American Heart Association). Oh, and by the way, this was their light lasagna! Their "Lasagna Rollata Al Forno" weighs in at 1,170 calories, 68 grams of fat, (39 grams of which are saturated), and 2,510 mg of sodium. And this is before they come around and bury it in extra parmesan and hand you a basket of bread sticks. Is anyone wondering why their is an obesity epidemic in this country?
My yummy recipe has less than 300 calories per serving, only 7 grams of fat, (only 1/3 gram of which is saturated)! You can feel really good about serving this to your family and since January has been "weight loss month", you can even serve this for dinner and easily stay within your 1,200 calorie per day limit!
Ingredients for our veggie lasagna. For 30% more fiber, use whole grain noodles.
Today's recipe bulks up the layers with eggplant that is naturally low in calories, and a good source of dietary fiber, folate, potassium and manganese. It also uses red bell peppers and onions and has a creamy ricotta filling made from tofu. I like SprouTofu, from Wild Wood Organics that uses sprouted soybeans but any organic, non-GMO firm tofu will do.
Steamed eggplant high in fiber, folate, potassium and manganese
Eggplant itself is a very healthful vegetable. The problem is that cooks love to fry it up. Eggplant, for some reason, soaks up oil like a sponge so it's almost impossible to lightly sauté it. The secret to this dish and other dishes, like an Asian stir fry, is to first "steam" the eggplant. In the lasagna, the steamed eggplant will soak up the wonderful flavors of the sauce and the sautéed peppers and onions so you won't miss any flavor but you will cut out tons of calories.
Sauté onions and red bell pepper
Cut the red bell peppers into larger slices and chop the onion and sauté until soft. You can use other veggies too. Add mushrooms or artichoke hearts. Let you imagination go wild! 
Vegan seasoned ricotta 
For those of you who avoid dairy, you can make a ricotta substitute by blending tofu with ground flax mixed into water and some seasonings. It firms up just like ricotta and tastes great! I pulsed in a handful of fresh parsley at the end. You can also use fresh basil if you'd like but right now the only herb still alive in my garden is parsley!
Building the lasagna
Now's the fun part! If you are using a 9"x13" pan that's only 2 inches high, you'll only be making 3 layers of noodles with 2 layers of filling. I usually spread the tofu ricotta directly onto the cooked noodles and layer everything else on top of it. For some added nutrition (especially for vegan critical vitamin B12 requirements), sprinkle Vegetarian Formula Red Star Nutritional yeast over each layer. 
Serve with a raw tossed green salad and dazzle your guests!

Vegan Eggplant and Red Bell Pepper Lasagna
[makes 8 servings]
1 eggplant, approximately 1 1/4 pounds, sliced in 1/2" slices
A few pinches of salt for eggplant
1 pound firm organic, non-GMO tofu, cut into large cubes
2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds
1/4 cup water
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, (or to taste) 
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (or fresh basil)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, (or 2 small), cleaned and sliced
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon dried basil
12 (or more) regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles, cooked according to directions
4 cups prepared tomato sauce, unheated
4 ounces of your favorite vegan cheese, (more or less to taste)
4 heaping tablespoons vegetarian formula nutritional yeast

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 
Take out a 9"x13" baking dish.
Place a steamer basket in a large sauce pan or Dutch oven. Steam eggplant slices, sprinkled with a bit of sea salt, until a fork easily pierces them, about 6 to 8 minutes. You may have to do this in two batches. Remove from sauce pan and set aside. Empty water from sauce pan as you will be using it to cook the onions and peppers.
Place the tofu cubes in a food processor with an S blade.
Mix the ground flax seed in with the water and beat with a fork until well blended. Add salt, pepper and garlic salt and mix together well. Add the flax mixture to the tofu and process until smooth. Pulse the fresh parsley into the tofu ricotta just until mixed. Set aside.
In a sauce pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the red bell pepper and onion, together with the dried basil, until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Set aside.
Cook the lasagna noodles according to the package directions. Leave them a bit "al dente" because they will be cooked again in the oven. Drain, rinse and keep them in a dish or their cooking pot in cold water until needed.
To build the lasagna, put a cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of the 9"x13" baking dish.
Cover the bottom with 3 cooked lasagna noodles. If they have been stored in cold water, shake off the water before using.
Spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles.
Lay half of the eggplant, half of the red bell pepper and onion mixture, and one third of the cheese over the ricotta mixture. Drizzle a cup of tomato sauce evenly over the layer and sprinkle half of the nutritional yeast over the sauce.
Cover with 3 more lasagna noodles and repeat, using up all the rest of the ricotta mixture, eggplant, red pepper and onion mixture, and 1/3 of the cheese. Cover with another cup of tomato sauce and sprinkle the rest of the nutritional yeast over this layer.
Top with the rest of the noodles. Cover with the rest of the sauce, making sure to coat the noodles completely and sprinkle the top with the rest of the cheese.
Tent with aluminum foil, making sure not to touch the top of the lasagna with the foil, and bake in the preheated oven until hot and bubbly, about 40 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 5 minutes.
Cut into 8 servings and serve immediately.

Per serving: 291.7 calories, 7.4 g fat, 0.3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 14.9 g protein, 35.3 g carbohydrates and 7.9 g dietary fiber.

Per serving using whole grain noodles: 286.7 calories, 7.3 g fat, 0.3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 16.1 g protein, 41.6 g carbohydrates and 10.2 g dietary fiber.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Omega 3 Power Seeds: Chia, Hemp And Flax - What They Can And Cannot Do For Vegans. Omega 6 Rich Foods That Can Interfere With The Body's Ability To Make EPA & DHA If Eaten In Excess.

Chia seeds on top, hemp seeds on left and flaxseeds on right.
Omega 3 - Still a Hot Topic
I wrote an extensive post on this in 2009. But it's such an important topic, I want to discuss it further, especially as it relates to vegan nutrition.
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid critical for heart health, brain development, reducing inflammation and joint pain, managing depression, preventing dry eyes, lowering cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, protecting bone health and more. There are 3 types of omega 3 fatty acids, each of which are needed in the diet and have unique beneficial qualities:
ALA - Alpha-linolenic alcid is the omega 3 found in our power seeds, chia, hemp and flax, as well as other sources such as English walnuts and some fruits and vegetables. This is the omega 3 that you get from plant sources.
EPA  (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are generally found in fish and some algae and are said to be the most beneficial of the omega 3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are especially critical during pregnancy for the development of the baby's brain, nervous system and retinas. Studies have shown that pregnant women whose diets were higher in DHA had offspring with higher IQ scores.
The body partially converts plant ALA omega 3 to EPA and DHA. Where the debate lies is whether or not vegans, especially pregnant or lactating vegans, can count of this conversion to get sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA. Some studies show the conversion rate to be extremely small. Information given at an Integrative Mental Health conference I attended indicated that some people were unable to make the conversion at all. If you avoid fish, I personally wouldn't count on getting everything you need from plant sources. Here's what you can do.
What's a Vegan to do?
* Eating power seeds like chia, flax and hemp which contain plant based ALA omega 3 fatty acids is still very beneficial. Besides the conversion to DHA and EPA, albeit small, they are an excellent source of energy and other nutrients. We'll discuss their individual benefits later.
* Vegans should be very conscious of how much omega 6 they consume. Conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is greatly diminished when you consume too many plant foods containing omega 6. Although in the past a 4 to 1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio has been recommended to vegans for optimal conversion, some experts now recommend a ratio closer to 1 to 1. Unfortunately, the American diet is closer to 14 or 20 to 1. We'll talk more about this in a bit.

Comparing Power Seeds

Chia seeds per ounce
Flaxseeds per ounce
Hemp seeds per ounce
Omega 3
4.9 g
6.4 g
2.8 g
Omega 6 
1.6 g
1.7 g
7.0 g
Omega 6 to  omega 3 ratio
0.33 to 1
0.26 to 1
2.5 to 1
10.3 g
11 g
8 g
1 g
177 mg
71.4 mg
38.9 mg

Omega 3 winner
Flaxseeds are the clear winner in both the amount of omega 3 and the ratio to omega 6. Each ounce (approximately 3 tablespoons) provides over 6 grams of ALA omega 3 and has 4 times the amount of omega 3 as omega 6. Although you actually need more omega 6 than omega 3, you are probably eating other foods that tip the scale the other way so overall, by eating flaxseeds, you will get closer to where you need to be. 
Flaxseeds are also the least expensive of the three. They are also pretty high in fiber and a very good source of thiamin and manganese. Try making Raw Crackers with flaxseeds or just throw ground flaxseeds in your smoothies or over hot oatmeal. 
The High Fiber Champion
Chia seeds have the most fiber with a whopping 11 grams of dietary fiber per ounce. A diet high in fiber helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar levels and helps prevent constipation.  I love creating chia seed recipes. They make great desserts (like Vegan Chocolate Chia Pudding), salad dressings (see Raw Vegan Waldorf Salad with Apple Chia Dressing ) and you can use them in smoothies (try Apple Cinnamon Smoothie with Chia Seeds and Goji Berries). 
They are also extremely high in omega 3, providing almost 5 grams per ounce,  with three times as much omega 3 as omega 6. They certainly give flaxseeds a run for their money in this department. Chia seeds are also an excellent source of calcium so for all of us who avoid dairy, this is an important food.
The Protein Powerhouse
Although hemp seeds are also a very good source of omega 3, providing nearly 3 grams per ounce, they are known for their high protein content weighing in at 10.3 grams of quality protein per ounce of hemp seeds. Nutiva makes an excellent Organic Shelled Hempseed product that we enjoy. Another company that makes some wonderful hemp products, like hempmilk and hemp ice cream, is Living Harvest
They are All Winners!
All three of these power seeds are winners. I include at least one and sometimes all of them in my diet daily, especially if I'm eating foods high in omega 6. 
Foods Rich in Omega 6
The reason the balance of omega 6 to omega 3 is so high in the American diet is because our diets are filled with nuts, seeds and oils high in omega 6. If you are a vegan who doesn't supplement with DHA and EPA, this can be a real problem. 

Nuts and Seeds and their Omega 6 Content

Nuts and Seeds
 Omega 6 per ounce
Omega 3 per ounce
Ratio of omega 6 to omega 3
English walnuts
10,666 mg
2,542 mg
4 to 1
  5,777 mg
   276 mg
21 to 1
Pistachio nuts
  3,818 mg
     73 mg
52 to 1
Sesame seeds
  7,063 mg
     74 mg
96 to 1
Poppy seeds
  7,921 mg
     76 mg
104 to 1
Pumpkin seeds*
  5,797 mg
     51 mg
114 to 1
Pine nuts
  9,410 mg
     31 mg
300 to 1
Brazil nuts
  5,758 mg
       5 mg
1150 to 1
  3,378 mg
       2 mg
1987 to 1
  4,393 mg
     <1 mg
5500 to 1

* Pumpkin seed values vary widely across several sources, some of which showing them to have a much more favorable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. To be consistent, all information here is from SELFNutritionData.

All nuts are very high in omega 6 fatty acid which can prevent your body from converting ALA omega 3 fatty acid to the more beneficial DHA and EPA fatty acids. English walnuts are extremely high in omega 6 but have the best "balance" of omega 6 to omega 3. Peanuts are the absolute worst because they have practically no omega 3 to balance out the omega 6. If almond and peanut butter are staples in your diet, and you avoid fish, you are at risk for being deficient in DHA and EPA. I'm certainly not suggesting that all vegans should avoid eating nuts as there are many Health Benefits of Nuts and Seeds. Just make sure you eat plenty of omega 3 power seeds to balance out the omega 6 and you supplement with an algae derived omega 3 supplement.

Oils and their Omega 6 Content

Omega 6 per ounce
Omega 3 per ounce
Ratio of omega 6 to omega 3
Coconut oil
     504 mg
           0 mg

Flaxseed oil
  3,556 mg
14,925 mg
.24 to 1
Canola oil
  5,221 mg
  2,559 mg
2 to 1
Walnut oil
14,810 mg
  2,912 mg
5 to 1
Olive oil
21,088 mg
  1,644 mg
13 to 1
Sunflower oil
  1,010 mg
        54 mg
19 to 1
Corn oil
14,983 mg
     325 mg
46 to 1
Peanut oil
  8,961 mg
           0 mg

Sesame oil
11,565 mg
        84 mg
138 to 1
Grapeseed oil
19,485 mg
        28 mg
696 to 1
Safflower oil
20,892 mg
          0 mg

Looking at this chart, you can understand why the American diet has such a poor omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. Many baked goods, pre-made salad dressings and chips are made with safflower oil which has the highest content of omega 6 and has no omega 3. Corn oil is also popular and has an unfavorable 46 to 1 ratio. Flaxseed oil, with its stellar content of omega 3, unfortunately cannot be used for cooking but it can be used in salad dressings. To get the best flavor and omega 3 benefits, mix some flaxseed oil in with extra virgin olive oil when making a salad dressing. Canola oil has a good ratio but make sure you buy one that is organic and GMO free. Most of them are not! Coconut oil is very low in omega 6 and makes a good substitute for butter when baking. It also is a good oil to use in raw food dessert recipes as it firms up when chilled.
Should I supplement?
Most DHA and EPA Omega 3 supplements contain fish oil and vegans, of course, avoid fish. But now there are products that contain both EPA and DHA that are derived from algae. The reason fish contain omega 3 is because they eat algae so why not go directly to the source! Check out V-Pure Omega 3. Whether you are pregnant or not, adding a DHA and EPA source of omega 3 to your diet would be a good addition to eating power seeds. 
V-Pure Omega 3
Vegan V-Pure contains 20 mg EPA and 400 mg DHA
Here's a Quick Summary
* Plant based omega 3 fatty acids are critical to your health so eat lots of chia, flax and hemp seeds.
* Your body may be able to make some EPA and DHA from these plant based  omega 3's if you are healthy and VERY careful about your omega 6 to omega 3 balance.
* HOWEVER, vegans still may be at risk for EPA and DHA deficiency so it's wise to take a daily supplement.
* If you are a pregnant vegan, supplementation is extremely important for the development of your baby's brain, nervous system and retinas.
* If you are not vegan and eat fish rich in omega 3, DHA and EPA conversion is not an issue but eating plant based omega 3 fatty acids still provides additional health benefits.

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