Eat your way to healthy this cold and flu season

It is that time of year again. Temperatures are in single digits and and noses are sniffling everywhere around us. Most of us are out of the house earning our living and our kids spend their days at school. Germs are abundant for us to bring home and share. Not a pleasant picture,is it?
Well,put the sanitizing wipes and the can of Lysol spray down, and read on as I share some true and tested tips on how we keep our family healthy and happy without a flu shot and over the counter medication.
You have heard me say it many times before: food is your best medicine. It is the only medicine that prevents you from getting sick and can help you heal faster. It is even more true for little growing bodies. We all know how sugar affects our children and we avoid giving them candy before bed or a meal. So, why then, are we blind to the fact that every food affects our kids,some in a harmful and some in a beneficial way? Food can build up our immune system, it can keep our bodies strong and healthy, it can nourish our minds, and control our behavior. The effects of food are very noticeable in children and small changes reflect tremendously on their health.

  • Rethink milk - Are you drinking raw milk, or maybe low temperature pasteurized grass-fed milk? Good for you! Keep doing what you are doing. If those two are not an option for you, then you might have to rethink milk. Ultra-pasteurized, homogenized milk, often from cows treated with antibiotics and growth hormone,is less than ideal food for you and your kids. If your little one is suffering from chronic ear infections, milk should be the first thing to go. Store bought milk ,of the kind mentioned above, is very mucus forming,which means that you are looking at constipation, ear infections, sinus infections, chronic coughs, eczema, and behavior issues in the long run. Your best option is raw milk, but it can be hard to find, depending on where you live. That is why, in our house, we opt out for nut milks , like almond, cashew , or coconut. Make sure it is unsweetened and not flavored, so it can work in any recipe. Our son has been drinking primarily plant milk since age 2. We mix it up every once in a while by purchasing high quality whole milk from grass-fed cows that has been pasteurized at low temperature and has not been homogenized.
  • Add Healthy Fats - Our kids need fats to develop. They need good sources of saturated fat in order to feed their constantly developing brains and nervous systems. The best choices are coconut oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, avocados, grass- fed butter. Cook with butter and coconut oil; put flax oil in smoothies; spread avocado on toast; and give cod liver oil by the spoonfuls. These are easy ways to get good fats into your kids. Fats have an important role in helping the body to absorb nutrients and vitamins. Calcium, vitamins A, D, and E , can not be absorbed without the help of fats. Fats keep us full longer. and help us regulate blood sugar better. Fats like coconut oil have added anti-bacterial properties. Flax seed oil contains beneficial omega 3 and 6.  And, believe me, just when you think that your five year old will spit out that spoonful of cod liver oil, they surprise you by asking for seconds.
  • Add fermented veggies  - This is my favorite way to get probiotics into our bodies. Probiotics are very important for the health of our immune system. Good gut health is the surest way to good overall health. And fermented foods are the best way to supplement your gut flora and eat delicious creations in the process. The most popular fermented food in our family are saurkraut, fermented veggies ( carrots and cauliflower) , fermented garlic, fermented pickles, and kombucha. When I say fermented , I mean the process of lacto-fermentation. The Weston A Price website describes the benefits of this process: "... the fermentation of dairy products, preservation of vegetables and fruits by the process of lacto-fermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine. "
  • Use meat on the side  - Buy high quality grass-fed and pasture raised meat and eggs, and use them as a side dish. That's right. I said a side dish. Good quality meat is expensive and that is often an excuse for people to buy factory raised meat full of antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals used in the processing of the animals. Well, it is no excuse at all. We solve the money issue by purchasing and consuming less meat and eggs. Build your main dishes around plants and add meat as a flavor, to enhance the dish. Even better, eat completely meat free a few times a week. It is good for the budget and your health. I personally had some issues with meat and animal fats , which I was able to cure with a few months of plant- based diet after which I slowly added pasture meats in small quantities. I stick to vegan and vegetarian food outside our home.
  • Use herbs daily - Drink hot tea once a day and take a spoonful of Elderberry syrup to keep your immune system strong. We drink tea in the morning and at night before bed. We often enjoy black and green teas in the morning , but our night routine includes a blend similar to this Get-Well-Soon Herbal Infusion. Our five year old boy loves this with a spoonful of local raw honey. In the winter months, I make a big batch of Elderberry Syrup, and we each get a spoonful every day. I also make sure that we stock up on Echinacea tincture and Elderflower tincture or tea. Echinacea is great for preventing a cold , when you take it with the first symptoms . Elderflower works magic when you have a fever. It will lower a fever by one degree or more in a matter of minutes. It is a very safe herb for kids and it makes a delicious infusion. 
  • Cook at home - This is maybe the best tip anyone can give you about staying healthy. Make things from scratch. Muffins, pancakes, waffles, bread, cream soups, broth, sandwich spreads, salad dressing, etc. It is a lot less complicated than it sounds and a lot more satisfying than someone who hates cooking wants you to believe it is. If you have time to put make up and do your hair in the morning, you have time to make breakfast and bag lunches. Or maybe you just need to think about your priorities. Making everything from scratch takes time , but it doesn't require "slaving in the kitchen all day". Whoever came up with that expression just needed an excuse. I work outside the home five days a week, take my little boy to sports after school four days a week, and I still have a home cooked meal on the table every night. I am not exhausted. I am simply prepared with a meal plan and a list of real food ingredients. 

Food is the best medicine. It is the best prevention and the best treatment. We are what we put in our bodies. If we put neglect and disease , we will be sick, tired and depressed. Good, real, healthy food takes away the meaning of cold and flu season. Follow these few tips and you will have a season of memories and cheer.
 Wishing you lots of health and happiness, from my family to yours!


Vegan Spanakopita : a comfort food makeover



 Oh, how I missed spanakopita! I grew up in Bulgaria and spanakopita, or as we call it,"banitza", was part of our everyday cuisine. Here, in the States , it is mostly popular in its Greek version, which is simply put a spinach pie with feta cheese in phyllo dough. In Bulgaria,the making of this traditional pie, includes a lot of eggs, feta cheese and butter. You can also add other fillings like greens, leeks, onions, sauerkraut , etc. It's delicious and it is a great anytime food. I had to find a way to bring it back into my plant-based world, and so the experimenting began. Here are the results - a delicious, vegan comfort food with all the traditional flavors of spanakopita.
 The first time I made this recipe ,I actually made two pies, one vegan and one traditional for the omnivores in my family. When I served myself a piece of delicious spanakopita, my husband thought I had fallen hard from the "plant-powered" wagon. He was surprised to find out he was eating a delicious vegan treat , and actually preferred it to the real thing.
  Needless to say,you can easily modify this recipe and make it with the flavors your whole family will enjoy, omnis and veggie lovers alike.

 Here is what you'll need:

1 package of phyllo dough (*see note bellow)
1 package of firm or extra-firm tofu (14 oz)**
1 package silken tofu (12 oz)***
1 cup frozen greens (spinach, kale) or 2 cups of fresh greens,sauteed in a tablespoon of oil
1 stick Earth Balance vegan butter or 1/4 to 1/3 cup coconut oil,melted
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional)
salt to taste

* Phyllo dough (also spelled "filo") is thin sheets of rolled out dough,which you can find in the freezer section of your grocery store. Most brands are vegan , but it will be wise to check the label and make sure there are no eggs or milk in the ingredients list.There are two packages of dough per box. This recipe requires only one, the second one can be left frozen , or will keep in the fridge for about a week.

**When purchasing tofu, I always recommend that you choose an organic, non - GMO, brand. Tofu is very affordable and it is present in all grocery stores. Different brands have different consistency. Use any brand you like. Personally, I really like Wildwood Organic. It has a firmer, drier texture, which really resembles feta cheese, and all their products are made with sprouted soybeans, which makes them more easily digestible.

*** Have this in mind, when you purchase silken tofu: the little packs that you find in your Asian food isle, and don't need refrigeration, are only 12 oz. If you purchase silken tofu from the refrigerated section of your store, it is normally between 14 oz and 16 oz, so you will need to use less, or your spanakopita will have more of a quiche consistency.

Putting it all together:

 Preheat oven to 375 F.
 Melt vegan butter or coconut oil.
 Brush some oil on the bottom of a 9 x 13 in pan.Set aside.

 To make filling:
 In a large bowl, mash the silken tofu, using a fork, until you reach scrambled eggs consistency. Add turmeric, salt, black pepper,and nutritional yeast ( if using).Stir well. Crumble the firm tofu in this mixture. We don't want any large chunks but we also don't want it mashed. We are aiming to achieve the texture of feta. Saute greens in a tablespoon of oil and add to the tofu mixture.
 Open the package of phyllo dough and roll the sheets out into their natural rectangular shape. The sheets should be pliable and easy to separate from each other.
 Place 3-4 phyllo dough sheets on the bottom of the pan. Brush the top sheet with some of the melted oil and spoon some of the mixture on top. Keep layering the dough sheets and the tofu mixture until you run out of product, ending with a top layer of phyllo dough. Cut the unbaked spanakopita in squares and brush the top with the remaining oil.
 Bake for 30-40 minutes,or until golden brown an flaky on top. When you take the pie out of the oven, cover it with a kitchen towel and let it rest for about 30 minutes. I do not recommend covering it with foil,because we don't want any condensation forming and dripping back on top of the pie. 
 It is important to let your spanakopita cool down a bit. This will set the filling and let it firm up. The pie is best eaten warm, but I would not turn it down the next day,straight out of the fridge. It is that good!
 If you feel brave enough,after you make this a couple of times,you can experiment with a variety of fillings. In early spring,I enjoyed this pie made with fresh young nettles and leeks. Changing the greens alone will give you subtle changes in flavor. 
So,let the experimenting begin! Share your thoughts, yummy discoveries and other traditional favorites you've re-discovered on you plant based path!





Root vegetables - the forgotten nutritional powerhouse ( recipes included)



                                                      main picture by www.motherearthliving.com



We live in a society which is slowly loosing its roots. Take this literally or metaphorically, it will still be true. We forgot the foods of our ancestors, the way they prepared those foods, or how to eat foods in season. I am sure that 80 % of people don't even know which produce is actually in season at their supermarket.
 I grew up in a Eastern Europe in the 80s and 90s, where there was no big supermarkets loaded with leafy greens year round. Everything was produced in your own garden or someone else's
 garden. We canned fruit and veggies for the winter season and almost everyone had a root cellar to store onions, potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins, and a variety of root vegetables. Root vegetables were a staple in our winter cuisine - potatoes, beets, turnips, a variety of radishes, onions , garlic.
 When we think of healthy vegetables, or are told to eat our veggies, today, we often think of leafy greens (kale anyone), or broccoli, cucumbers and tomatoes. Those are all wonderful, but they are not the full spectrum of the bounty our mother Earth offers. Root vegetables are the forgotten powerhouse of the veggie world, They were pushed aside by exotic trends and visually more appealing foods. Sometimes they were vilified, and often simply neglected.
 Roots are often the most potent part of a plant. They store all the nutrients that feed the plant and help it grow. They have the ability to withstand difficult conditions and reach deep into the earth in  order to be nourished and share her healing power. In herbal medicine some of the most powerful remedies come from the roots of the plants - dandelion,burdock, Valerian, blackberry, goldenseal.
 Some roots have made their way into our kitchens as potent flavoring agents, but we often forget their benefits. Onions, garlic, ginger - those are all roots/bulbs and they carry powerful medicine in them. They have strong antibacterial properties and can be used to treat common illnesses, like ear infections, chest cold, or even to boost the immune system.Sulfur compounds in garlic also help with heart health by improving circulation and regulating blood pressure.  Ginger is great for digestion and adding it to heavier foods like meats or beans/legumes can improve the way your body handles these foods.
 One of the most vilified root vegetable is the potato. It has gained bad reputation in the health food world and a lot of people avoid it. What most people don't know about potatoes is that they are loaded with vitamin C, potassium and healthy fiber. It is all about preparing them right and avoiding the heavy sauces and condiments we usually use.I posted a great recipe for a German Style Potato salad a while back, find it here.  If you are not convince that potatoes are good for you, you still don't need to ban them from your table. Mix white potatoes with other varieties like purple potatoes, or with other root veggies like yams, carrots and parsnips.

picture by www.prevention.com
Root Vegetable Mash

Cut up a mix of potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, and turnips. (I like to use a ratio of about half potatoes and half other veggies). Bring them to a boil and let them cook until soft enough to puree.  Depending on your dietary preferences you can mash them by adding grass fed butter, olive oil, coconut oil, or simply some of the cooking water. I like to season my mashed veggies with sea salt, black pepper and sometimes garlic powder.
Enjoy!




 There is one root vegetable, which is gaining popularity as the health food movement becomes mainstream. It is the not so humble beet root! Beets get their distinct color from a phytochemicals called betalains ( unlike other purple/red vegetables , which contain anthocyanins).According to Dr. Weil "betalains, in addition to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, trigger a family of enzymes that bind toxic substances in cells, neutralizing and allowing them to be excreted from the body".


Beets, Carrots and Daikon Salad:
1 medium size red beet root
daikon radish - approx. 4 in long piece
2-3 large carrots
a handful of parsley
lemon juice
sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
Grate all the vegetables in a bowl. Chop parsley. Mix everything with lemon juice, olive oil and salt to taste.
Enjoy!



Yams and carrots are full of beta-carotene. Raw carrots are often used as a healthy , gluten free snack, but remember that only 3% of the beta-carotene is released to our bodies during digestion. This can be improved by 39% during the process of cooking. .

A more scary member of the root vegetable family is celeriac, or celery root. It is a little more difficult to deal with, since it has a harder texture and a sturdier, uneven outer layer of skin. I like celeriac mixed with other vegetables in  homemade chips.My parents use it to add to sauerkraut or other fermented veggies. If you like the strong celery flavor, use it as an addition to soups and stews. Celeriac is a good source of Vitamin K , which is linked to healthy bones.It is also rich in phosphorus and copper, which support cell metabolism.

There is a much greater variety of root vegetables than I can mention in this blog. These are some of the few I use in my kitchen, which are also easy to find and incorporate in your everyday cooking. I use a few medicinal roots in my cooking as well - dandelion, burdock and horseradish.I like to infuse apple cider vinegar with those roots and use it as a condiment in soups . I also use roasted dandelion root as a coffee substitute. Dandelion and burdock have wonderful benefits for the liver and they add some bitterness , which improves digestion. Horseradish is one of my favorite ways to help any sinus congestion or pressure in the sinuses. It is also a great digestion help, which is why traditionally it was added as a condiment to heavier meals, containing red meat.

Last, but not least, I would like to mention turmeric. We use this root mostly in a mix of spices , since it does not have a strong flavor on its own. When I was little , my grandfather used to add turmeric to noodle and rice dishes. It was fun for us kids, since it turned our food bright yellow. Little did we know that it is also one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. There are hundreds of studies showing the benefits turmeric,and its active compound curcumin, have for preventing disease like cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer's. It has amazing anti-inflammatory properties and is very beneficial for treating chronic pain and swelling.

It seems as if I have touched just the tip of the iceberg. It is impossible to put all the benefits our food gives us in just a few sentences. Still, I hope you are intrigued and inspired to explore the world of root vegetables.While I was writing this blog I did some major experimenting in the kitchen and I discovered how fun and satisfying it can be. Both recipes above are husband approved. It was a little harder to convince a four year old to try grated raw beets, but let's just say he is in a "cruciferous" stage. So give it a try,have fun and bon appetite!





















Backyard medicine: ELDERBERRY




Botanical name: Sambucus nigra, Sambucus canadensis

Parts used: flowers, berries

I have decided to dedicate yet another blog on elderberry. I think it is only fitting this time of year and it is one of the most useful plants to have as an herbal ally.
 Elderberry is part of our herbal pantry year round. It is a magical plant with thousands of years of history in herbal lore and medicine. The gypsies in Europe used to call it " the most healing plant of all" and it was often connected with Faery and Goddess-centered mythology. Elderberry was considered protective against evil spirits and negative influences, The last berries were picked on Samhain ( today's Halloween) and wine was made, which was then used in ritual to provoke prophecies and divination.
 Elder weaves its magic in our bodies in so many ways. It is the perfect example of "food as medicine". When I was growing up in Bulgaria, my grandmother made elder flower syrup and elderberry jam for the winter. It was part of her pantry more than her medicine chest.
 There are over a dozen species of Sambucus native to the United States. Sambucus nigra, one of the most popular species used for medicine , was brought over from Europe . The name "elder" comes from the Anglo-saxon word "aeld", which means fire. Even though this is attributed to the practice of using hollowed out elder branches as blowing tubes to kindle fire, I think the name is also very fitting when we think of elder as medicine. Elder flowers are one of the most efficient herbal remedies for bringing down a fever. It is most often used in an infusion, it is pleasant tasting and safe enough for infants and children.
 Elderberries are and excellent source of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and B6. They have a wonderful antioxidant and anti-viral power.They inhibit the virus' ability to infect cells within our bodies. I like combining elderberries with echinacea, an immune stimulating herb, since they act on different levels in fighting a virus/bacteria in our bodies. Echinacea helps to boost the production of white blood cells, which leads to the destroying of the foreign cells in our bodies.
 We all know how difficult it is to fight a virus infection. Even modern antibiotics are helpless against it and we often leave our doctor's office with the recommendation to drink plenty of fluids, and the advise to think ahead and get the flu shot next time. Well, if you have been reading through this blog, you know well how I feel about the flu shot. So, I turn to nature, once again, for the answer to healing our bodies. Viruses can not reproduce on their on and they use our body's cells to do it. Simply put, they turn our own bodies against us. Elderberry manages to prevent them from doing this and thus they loose the ability to infect us. This is why elderberries are so effective in stopping a cold or decreasing the duration of the flu.
 Elderberries are also used for their antioxidant activity. They are great for lowering cholesterol and improving heart function.A daily dose of elderberry syrup is all you need to keep your body healthy. I use the berries in our Get-Well-Soon herbal infusion and this is what we have every day in our house. My husband and my four year old love it with raw honey in the morning or before bed, My husband in particular likes to use it as an alternative to the Brave Heart herbal blend I make for him, to help regulate his blood pressure.
 If you are not convinced about how amazing elderberry is, let me tell you this, IT TASTES GOOD. I know, it seems like the last reason you would choose a remedy, but thing about your kids, and your non- herbal fanatic spouses. You know what I am talking about! Sometimes all your herbal knowledge is powerless before the mighty tongue. Elderberry is food, so it is safe for all ages and it tastes good. You can sneak it or serve it in multitude of forms. Jams, jellies, syrups, even wine. If you have access to fresh berries, I would recommend you dabble in  the art of kitchen herbalist. I like to make elderberry syrup, which preserves well and can be poured over pancakes and waffles, or mixed with sparkling water tor a refreshing drink. In time of need you can always turn to tinctures and infusions, but meanwhile, you can keep your family healthy by providing them with healing foods, like elderberry.
 I hope this inspires you to add another staple to your herbal pantry and to explore the wild bounty our mother Earth has to offer. Share with me your experience and maybe a delicious recipe or two! Stay happy and healthy!