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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fall Foods for Immune Enhancement

One of the hightlights of the annual Hoes Down festival in California's Capay Valley is the mass pumpkin-carving.
Fall is the season which Chinese medicine associates with the metal element, the lung and large intestine organs, and the energy of letting go. The health of these organs is reflected in the health of our sinuses, skin and the ease of elimination. This time of year we prune away the excesses of summer like we prune a fruit tree after it bears, consolidating our energy, focusing on what is most important, and preparing for winter. It is also a time when our lungs are vulnerable, and it is easy to catch a cold or flu.
The seasonal foods we find at the farmer’s market in the autumn are traditionally used to strengthen lungs and large intestine.  Many also help our bodies fight the effects of both breathing polluted air and exposure to pathogens. Onions, garlic, and other naturally spicy foods are thought to be protective to the respiratory system. Dr. Irwin Ziment, a professor at UCLA, based on the finding that Hispanics who smoke in the polluted Los Angeles area have a surprisingly low rate of lung cancer, routinely prescribes chilies for respiratory problems. In addition to chilies, radishes, turnips, ginger, cabbage and white pepper are considered mildly spicy in flavor in Chinese medicine and will help strengthen the lungs. Modern research has validated the age-old remedy of chicken soup for fighting respiratory infection and it is even more effective with the addition of garlic and chilies. Many common culinary spices, like turmeric, ginger, fennel and rosemary, have been found to have cancer-fighting properties as well (Aggarwal & Shishodia, 2004). Pears and Asian pears are another traditional remedy for lung irritation from illness or pollution, and can help soothe a dry cough.
While we seek seasonal foods to use in fall cooking, the techniques of cooking should also shift to support our bodies in adapting to the changing climate. Sautéed, baked and roasted foods should begin to replace and complement the raw, steamed or sprouted foods of summer. While mildly spicy foods keep energy moving, we should also seek out sour flavored foods such as sourdough bread, pickles, leeks, umeboshi vinegar, and sour apples, plums and grapes, which will help consolidate the body’s energy, while we should begin to choose more salty and bitter flavors as the season progresses to further internalize our energy. These two recipes feature fall foods and flavors, and make use of the healing powers of seasonal spices.  Choose a Sugar Pie pumpkin for your Halloween decor, don't carve it, and enjoy it in soup.  If you've already cut into that Halloween monster, pick up a Kabocha, green or red Kuri squash, or butternut.  And yes, all squash peels are all edible--whether you do so depends on your intestinal fortitude!

Curried Apple Cabbage Slaw

It's a rare salad that improves with a day or two of aging, as this one does.1 medium head red or Savoy cabbage
2 carrots
1 celery root, strawberry daikon or other fall root vegetable
3-4 tart green apples
½ cup minced parsley or cilantro
¾ tsp sea salt
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sesame, olive or coconut oil
2 tablespoons fresh ginger cut in tiny matchsticks
2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
2 tablespoons curry powder

Thinly slice the cabbage, shred the carrots and celery root, and finely dice the apples. Place in a large mixing bowl with the parsley or cilantro, salt and lemon juice. Mix well, and let sit a few hours to soften if you have time. When ready to serve, heat the oil in a small skillet on medium low heat. Drop in the ginger strips and fry gently. As they begin to brown, add the mustard seeds and turmeric. Stir quickly for a moment or two until a fragrance is released. Scrape the toasted spices into the slaw and mix. Correct the seasonings and serve. Additions: many—try toasted coconut, peanuts, soaked almonds, raisins, dried cranberries, red grapes, the list goes on and on. Top with shredded chicken for a meal salad.

Pumpkin-White Bean Soup

Adapted from Love Soup by Anna Thomas. Serves 10, or makes many meals for one or two. Overnight soaking, and cooking the beans with kombu seaweed, will optimize their cooking speed, digestibility, and nutritional value.  Would you believe that beans are high in antioxidants?

¾ cup dried navy, baby Lima or cannellini beans
1 teaspoon and 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
½ onion, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 6” strip kombu seaweed
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 medium Sugar Pie pumpkin or similar, or butternut or Kabocha squash
2 large leeks, white and green part, chopped
4-5 cups water or stock
½ bunch Swiss chard, chopped
½ cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chickpea  or sweet white miso
Juice of 1-2 lemons
¼ tsp or more freshly grated nutmeg

Put the dried beans in a large soup pot and cover by about 2” with water. Soak overnight. Bring the water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan, and add the onion and celery. Sauté for 5 minutes until beginning to brown, then add to the beans along with the strip of kombu. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and continue to cook until they are tender. When the beans are soft, add a teaspoon of salt.

While the beans are cooking, prepare the pumpkin: split it in half, and place on a cookie sheet.  Roast at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork.  Let cool, and remove the seeds and strings (I rinse the seeds clean and roast in the oven with tamari and cayenne for a snack and garnish). 
Using a butter knife, remove the peel and coarsely chop the pumpkin flesh.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet and add the leeks, then sauté until they are beginning to brown. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the soup pot with the beans, and add the stock or water, pumpkin pieces and the chopped chard. Simmer together until the chard is tender, and add the cilantro or parsley leaves and garlic. Mix the miso with ½ cup water in a bowl until smooth, and add this to the soup—don’t let the miso boil. Add the lemon juice, and season to taste with black pepper and nutmeg. Serve it with a garnish of fruity olive oil or a big dollop of Parsley-Lacinato Pesto.   

Friday, October 8, 2010

Granola Out of the Box

The following appeared today as my guest post on Eating Rules as part of October's Unprocessed Challenge.  

When I pledged to join the Unprocessed Challenge this October, a few of my close friends were amused. “You don’t eat any processed foods,” they said.  Well, that statement is largely true. I’m a holistic healthcare professional, for gosh sakes. Yet there are still a few areas where things sneak in, and, judging by the orders at my local food coop, these areas are common ones where even hardcore locavores, scratch cooks and farmer’s market shoppers sometimes cut corners: Cereal, crackers, mayonnaise (and other condiments) and energy bars.  Sometimes when I work at night or my husband is home alone, I find empty boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese and Trader Joe’s shrimp wontons.  Most of these foods can be found in packaged form in relatively less processed states, e.g. our favorite Café Fanny granola only has real ingredients, Mary’s Gone Crackers are actually real food, and Annie’s is a world apart from Kraft, yet in the spirit of October it would be nice to break free of even this dependence.

Sometimes the best way is to just eat a bit lower on the (refined) food chain, as in homemade trail mix instead of energy bars, homemade crostini, otherwise known as (artisanal, unprocessed) bread brushed with olive oil and baked until crispy, or a mini-batch of aioli (whips up quick with a handheld blender) instead of commercial mayonnaise, or hot oatmeal instead of boxed cereal in the morning.

Another huge reason to go unprocessed and try to avoid all food in boxes is that this is one of the few ways to avoid ingesting Genetically Modified (GM) foods.  After extensive research on the topic, I am quite convinced that GM foods are nutritionally inferior to natural foods, are likely to cause harm, carry an increased risk of allergic reactions, and may play a role in the increasing diabetes and obesity rates we see in populations who ingest industrially processed foods, the vast majority of which contain genetically modified ingredients.  Most scary to me is that a single meal containing GM soy was shown to alter the intestinal flora of people who consumed it. The only way to ensure food that you are buying in a box, bag, package or can is GM free is to buy certified organic foods.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  The best site out there covering the topic is the Institute for Responsible Technology.  You’ll find all the data you need.  It’s a happy coincidence (or is it Gastronicity?) that those folks have also declared October National GMO-Free Month.  Heck, why not take the GMO-Free pledge, too?  Visit to find out more and download GMO-free shopping guides.

Ok, so on those rushed or groggy mornings when no one quite feels like whipping up a hot breakfast, you don’t have to succumb to the siren call of the food industry. Just be sure to bake a batch of homemade granola right now to get you through. Inspired by my pal Vanessa Barrington, author of the newly minted book D.I.Y. Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Food from Scratch, I have developed my personal favorite omega-3 granola formula which makes two quarts — one to eat now and one to freeze for later.
DIY granola enables you to have it your way, using the exact ingredients which meet your particular culinary and nutritional needs.  Check out my post on 18 Reasons to DIY if you need further inspiration to get you doing it yourself.


Mostly Local Granola

I like to source as many of my ingredients as possible from my own bioregion.  In this case, the fat, sweetener, orange zest, fruit and nuts are all from my local farmer’s market. I like it with raw milk or plain full-fat yogurt and chopped Granny Smith apples for breakfast or as a garnish on fruit anytime.  For maximum digestibility, mix with yogurt the night before and let it soak. Some folks like to carry little baggies of granola around for a snack, too.  Cinnamon helps regulate blood sugar, and may help prevent diabetes.  I mix it into all sweet, baked goods to even out the blood sugar roller coaster.  Be sure to make as many of your ingredients organic as possible — omit the orange zest if you can’t find an organic orange, as orange peel can be particularly high in pesticides.  Adapted from a recipe by Vanessa Barrington, who warns, “honey will produce a sticky granola that clumps together” — you’ll want to scoop it out with a spoon.

1/2 cup melted pastured Butter (such as Straus) or melted Coconut Oil or a combination
1 Tbs. Cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly grated Nutmeg
Zest of 1 Orange
4 cups Rolled Oats
1 cup Organic Coconut Flakes (I leave these out for my family, in for myself)
1 cup Coarsely chopped Walnuts
1 cup Coarsely ground or chopped Almonds
1/3 cup Raw, local Honey
1 cup Unsweetened dried Cherries, Raisins, chopped dried Apricots or a combination

Mix everything except the honey and dried fruit thoroughly together in a large bowl.  Spread it in a thin layer on a large baking sheet, and bake at 350° F until evenly browned, 20-25 minutes.
You’ll want to stir it once or twice, and keep a close eye on those coconut flakes.  Remove from the oven, and drizzle the honey over all while it is still warm.  Stir to evenly coat the ingredients.
When the granola is cool, place back in the large bowl, and stir in the dried fruit.  Pack into a couple of Mason jars, lids on tight, and keep in the fridge or freezer to protect those essential fatty acids until serving time.
Note: You can omit the oats and use 3 cups of large coconut flakes if you want to make a paleo-friendly, lower-carb version.  Or try quinoa flakes instead for a gluten-free start to your day.  Or skip the sweetener, fat and baking altogether to make muesli, best prepared by soaking in yogurt overnight before serving.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Defining Unprocessed

October 1st--the start of the unprocessed challenge.  The unprocessed experiment has already sparked a wave of interest and controversy.  How do we define processed food?  A favorite of mine is "any food that you can buy in a liquor store or 7-11."  Hmm...the exception to this rule occurred once on St.Patrick's day in Ireland, when I concocted a fantastic meal of real cheese, freshly baked bread, Nutella, local rutabega and apples all from a gas station, the only open source of food in a tiny coastal Irish town where all the rest of the residents were celebrating happily in the single pub. 

Traditional methods of food processing like soaking, sun-drying, and fermenting, generally increase the digestibility and nutritional value of food, while modern ones, such as making high fructose corn syrup from sugar cane and making packaged foods largely out of derivatives of wheat, corn and soy, usually dramatically decrease food's nutritional value.  As one commenter put it "I want to avoid factory-processed food." 

Difficulty may arise in evaluating artisinal foods, and foods made industrially, but on a small scale.  I would say that a Clif bar is processed food, while an 18 Rabbits bar (locally made with a short list of real food ingredients) is not.  Yes, it would be better to make your own fruit and nut bars, or just go with trail mix (the kind that only contains real food, not yogurt-covered peanuts and the like), but finding a local, small scale packaged food might be a great way to meet your goals of best nutrition, sustainability, and the pressures of your busy lifestyle.  Andrew Wilder, originator of the Unprocessed October idea, has a great, detailed post on his blog that defines unprocessed here

In a great example of gastronicity, October has also been declared non GMO month. Choosing unprocessed foods goes a long way toward avoiding GMO's as almost all factory-processed food in the US which is not labeled "organic" contains GMO's, usually in the form of soy, corn or canola.  Funny, I remember a previous October which was declared an Eat Local challenge.  October is an easy month to focus on eating fresh, local and organic food as it is the peak of harvest time in most areas.  An upcoming post will cover the health effects of GMO foods--scary! 

Last night's dinner was  unprocessed, or rather processed only in the old-school sense. It started with my first harvest of tomatoes and tomatillos of the year (finally!), and a pork shoulder roast from local Clark Summit Farm.  After dissatisfaction with my last batch of crock pot carnitas, I stumbled upon a method that retains the flavor of the taqueria-style, lard cooked version while letting me save my precious home-rendered lard for another use.  You allow the pork to cook in its own fat rather than substituting stock or beer as is commonly done.  I found the luscious recipe here on Serious Eats and was delighted that it includes using the leftover cooking juices as a base for salsa.  The bone in the middle of the roast went straight into the crock pot with some pork neck bones and vinegar to be made into bone broth for soup on another day.   I roasted my tomatoes, onions, garlic and tomatillos in the oven alongside the pork and also put in some apples to bake, so I felt like I was making good and thrifty use of the oven heat.  We served the tacos with a recent batch of homemade curtido (Salvadoran style fermented cabbage slaw) and locally made Primavera corn tortillas (traditionally processed with lime which liberates nutrients) and a side of Romano beans.  Local, organic, non-GMO, traditionally processed and satisfying!

UPCOMING CLASS: Learn the art of fermentation, a traditional, health-enhancing way to process foods, with me at Biofuel Oasis on October 17th.  We'll cover kraut, kombucha and beyond, including brewing your own bubbles!  Visit the Biofuel Oasis site to sign up.