Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts about Cancer Research

After reading Gina Kolata's recent New York Times article on the continuing search for a cancer cure, I wanted to throw my hands up in the air in frustration. Apparently Barack Obama has pledged increased funding for cancer research over the next few years in the hope of finding a cure for the disease. He is, of course, just the latest in a line of leaders who optimistically encourage us to think that if we keep on the current track of scientific research, this plague of the modern world will be eradicated.

Noble intentions, certainly. But as Kolata points out, hundreds of billions of dollars have already been poured in this type of research with only the slightest drop in cancer deaths over the past 55 years. And here's the thing: most of the more innovative research never gets funded, because of its riskiness compared to research that will make tiny, incremental advances. A lot of what is being funded is basically drugs and treatments that will keep cancers at bay, maybe give patients a little bit longer to live.

I'm not saying that any of this is bad. It's fantastic that there are doctors and researchers out there trying to improve the prognosis for cancer patients. And how wonderful that some government money is going to health research. But I just think the entire system is approaching this disease from the wrong angle. I know I don't have a medical background, so I'm only saying this from my own perspective. But doesn't it seem like more than a coincidence that the rise in cancer coincides with an increase in processed food consumption, increased industrial activity, and the use of chemicals in our homes? I mean, how obvious can it get?

I think this is a disease that is going to be slow to eradicate, and I say that because I think what is required is a fundamental shift in the way we live. We're just exposed to so many carcinogens in our modern world, and really the obvious solution is to remove as many of these toxins from our environments as possible. Eating non-processed, organic, plant-based foods, using natural cleaning and beauty products, drinking the best water we can get, and keeping our minds positive will go a long way towards stopping this disease in its tracks. There are stories of people who have "cured" their cancers with juice feasts, affirmations, or ever laughter! I wonder how much research money is looking at these sorts of possibilities?

But the problem here is that the research money seems to be looking for more of a quick-fix - a drug or treatment regimen that will "cure" cancer in an individual patient. Yes, I understand this desire. Like most people in this world, I'm no stranger to friends and family who have struggled through - or died from - cancer. It's scary, and I like to think that should I receive such a diagnosis, I can be cured. But I'm not convinced that this sort of research is the best approach. And cancer drugs and treatments can have so many side effects - after all, it's not just the cancerous cells that are affected by pharmaceuticals and radiation.

These are just my thoughts on the subject - I have no medical background and really know very little about the topic. And I certainly wouldn't tell any of my loved ones to ignore a doctor's recommended treatments and use entirely alternative approaches - though in all honesty if I received such a diagnosis myself you can be sure that I would research every single alternative/complementary option before trying anything that conventional medicine has to offer. I would be really curious and grateful to anyone who has any more information on this topic and would like to share to leave a comment - I think this is a really important discussion.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Few Reasons to Love Winter

Someone must have been playing a big joke when the universe ordained that I be born on a cold, gray January day in cold, gray Hartford, Connecticut - insurance capital of the Western world. Ha ha, very funny. The truth is, I'm not a big fan of winter. I start shivering just about the time when we turn back the clocks, and can't get rid of that bone-knocking chill until it begins staying light well into the evening again.

For a girl who grew up in New England, escape was the only answer. Yet somehow I still manage to find myself in cold climates. I know, Australia is supposed to be warm, but not Melbourne! I might yet make the move to the tropics, but for now I have to face facts and learn to embrace winter. There are actually many things to love about the colder months, and I've compiled a little list as an exercise to psyche myself up for the blustery days ahead.

1. Hot chocolate. Need I say more? There's nothing like curling up with a big mug of spiced hot chocolate and a good book. It's a great way to pass...

2. Evenings by the fire. Okay, so my old single-front worker's cottage doesn't have a real fireplace, but there's still something cozy about huddling in the lounge room with my partner and my dog, electric fireplace ablaze, all of us reading or watching movies or typing away on our laptops (dog excluded - he's more likely to be sticking his snout on the keyboard, angling for a pat). It's a snuggler's paradise.

3. Hot baths. I love a good soak in the tub, complete with essential oils to relax my mind and candles to set the mood. I like to follow an evening bath with a cup of chamomile for ultimate relaxation.

4. Soup. So simple, so satisfying. Sometimes in winter my body cries out for a warm meal, and soup just does the trick. One thing I've learned on my raw journey is to take it slow and listen to my body, so if my body says, "Cooked foods, please!" then a big bowl of homemade soup is my answer. And if I want to keep it raw - preserve all those lovely enzymes - I simply heat it slowly over a low flame until it reaches baby bottle temperature, or leave it a bit longer in the blender until it gets warm. I love making a pumpkin soup using veggies and herbs from the garden, and I am dying to try this Butternut Squash Coconut Soup from Raw Epicurean.

5. Cups of tea. I drink herbals teas constantly year-round, but in winter they're all the more appealing. Peppermint, rooibos, green tea, lemongrass, sage, ginger, chamomile, and on and on. I can't get enough. For my birthday, my amazingly insightful mother gave me a book about herbs called 2009 Herbal Almanac and I can't wait to read more and vary my tea regimen accordingly.

6. That crisp, clean feeling in the air. I associate it with falling leaves, jack-o-lanterns, hayrides, and apple picking. You can't take the New England out of the girl! We don't have all the appropriate accoutrements of autumn here in Melbourne - it even comes at the wrong time of year! But we do still have lovely crisp mornings, those first days of sweater-wearing and digging out of hats and mittens from the depths of the closet. And it is a relief to know it's never going to get cold enough for me to wear my deep-winter jackets from back home.

7. Red wine. I spent 2 1/2 years living in South Australia, land of shiraz, so I learned to love a hearty red. And you just can't drink them on hot summer days. So bring on winter, and with it a nice drop o' red. These days I try to splash out with moderation, and I prefer to drink something organic and preservative free - if I'm avoiding nasty chemicals in my food, why on earth would I want to drink them in concentrated form in my booze? My favorites at the moment are Kalleske from the Barossa Valley and Seresin Estate from Marlborough. Yum.

That's a good start towards get me feeling a little more positive about the cold days to come, and I am actually feeling kind of warm inside now! Time to go do a little yoga practice to stoke the internal fire.

Please share your favorite things about winter via comments...I am needing all the encouragement I can get!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fun with Figs: five ways to enjoy my favorite fruit

This post is so late in coming! I've been obsessing over figs over the past few months, and sadly they are no longer on offer at my local farmer's market. But I have spied a few juicy specimens hanging from some of my neighbors' trees, and there's nothing like a fresh fig sneakily plucked from over the fence. If they're still available where you live, enjoy my suggestions on ideas to jazz up these perfect gems. If not, enjoy my homage to my favorite fruit, and let it be an inspiration to you for next fig season (the only good thing about the end of fig season is that it means it's almost time for persimmon season). With no further ado, I give you my meditation on figs.

I’m a cook (or un-cook), so what I’m about to say is a little bit hard for me. I’d like to suggest that there are some foods out there that are already perfect just they way they are, and can’t be improved upon through kitchen tampering. I’ve come to this decision after many attempts to write an article about my favorite fruit, figs. They’ve just come into season in Victoria, and I can’t get enough. But each time I buy or pick some ripe, juicy specimens to bring home and experiment with, I encounter the same problem. They never make it home. I just can’t help myself – I love fresh figs so much that I always eat them all straight away! I can’t think of any preparation I can do that could possibly improve upon the pure pleasure of a fresh fig. So you know what? I give in. Mother Nature, you win. You are the ultimate chef, and with the fig you’ve created the perfectly balanced food.

That being said, I feel that I’d be letting you dear readers down if I didn’t at least try to conceive of a few ways to dress up your figs. So while I don’t expect any of my inventions to rival those of my muse and culinary hero, Nature, they are still worth a try for a little variation, particularly if you happen to be one of those lucky folks with a fig tree in your backyard (if this is you, please invite me over! I can offer zucchinis, pumpkins, rocket or lemons in trade). Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to blend, dehydrate, or otherwise adulterate your perfect figs. The recipes are only ideas, playful flavor combinations. If you feel inspired, have fun with them - if you can get your figs home without eating them all!

1. Fresh figs au natural (courtesy of Mother Nature)

Eat them right off the tree, sun-warmed. Best recipe ever, though I can’t take credit for it!

2. Fresh figs with pistachio mousse

16 fresh figs
1 large, very ripe avocado
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp light agave
1/2 tsp Himalayan salt
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup raw pistachios, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dark agave or raw honey
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut figs into quarters from the top downward, leaving the base intact. Arrange on a platter.

Combine avocado, vanilla extract, light agave, salt and water in a food processor, and whir until smooth. Add 1/2 cup chopped pistachios and pulse until well combined.

Place a dollop of mousse in a the center of each fig. Sprinkle with the remaining chopped pistachios and drizzle with dark agave or honey.

Variations: Replace the vanilla extract with rosewater. Decorate the plate with edible rose petals.

3. Watercress, pickled onion, fig and candied walnut salad

For the pickled onions:
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp agave
large pinch himalayan salt

combine and marinate at least 8 hours at room temperature

For the candied walnuts:
1 cup walnuts
2 Tbsp agave
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cinnamon

Toss walnuts with agave, oil and cinnamon. Spread on teflex sheet and dehydrate for 2 hours.

For the vinaigrette:
2 T apple cider vinegar
¼ cup walnut oil
1 T agave
¼ t salt
grind of fresh black pepper

Whisk together all ingredients, or combine in food processor.

For assembly:
1 bunch watercress, stems removed
1 head endive, sliced thinly
12 fresh figs, cut into quarters

Mix watercress and endive together and arrange in a large bowl or platter. Top with pickled onions and fresh figs. Sprinkle nuts over top. Drizzle with vinaigrette, toss lightly, and serve.

4. Fig, Almond and Cream Parfait

A bunch of figs
A handful of raw almonds, roughly chopped
Your favorite raw whipped cream recipe

Cut figs into quarters. In parfait dishes (I use old-fashioned champagne glasses for great presentation) layer a dollop of whipped cream, chopped figs, chopped almonds. Repeat with as many layers as you like.

5. Red Fruit Salad with Spiced Floral Syrup

A bunch of figs
A handful of red grapes
A few little blood plums
Seeds from ½ a pomegranate
A few dried figs

2 Tbsp Agave
Juice of 1 lemon
Dash of rosewater
Dash of vanilla extract
1 tsp minced fresh lavender, or 1 drop lavender oil
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cardamom

Cut figs into quarters, grapes into halves, and blood plums into quarters. Remove seeds from ½ pomegranate. Chop dried figs into slivers. Arrange all fruit in a bowl.

Combine syrup ingredients in a bowl and whisk by hand. Drizzle over fruit salad and let marinate for 1 hour before serving.
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