Monday, December 22, 2008

Is an Alkaline Diet the Holy Grail?

pH and Dietary Direction
(adapted from a paper I wrote for my one of my courses)

Dietary direction is a term used to describe the cumulative effect of the individual foods that we consume. Each food potentially has a different result on the pH of the body--they are said to be "acid-forming" or "alkaline-forming." This may be different from the pH the actual food has: lemons are an acidic food that have an alkalizing effect on the body. If a food has an alkaline effect, it is generally considered catabolic or cleansing. These are usually plant foods and most ferments, though a few animal foods are in the low alkaline-forming category (e.g. duck and quail eggs). A food that has an acid effect is ususally considered anabolic or building in the body. These are often animal foods, but include quite a few plant foods, especially grains, legumes and most oils. Some foods tend to be neutral, or balancing in effect. Most refined foods are usually considered to be acidic, such as white bread, noodles, sugar, cereal, refined fruit juice. In general these foods are not anabolic, but catabolic--yet not in the sense of being cleansing foods either. They are destructive, rather than "breaking down in order to clean house."

To determine the dietary direction of a meal or overall diet one would assess each food and add the effects of the group. For this to be representative for one's diet over time it would be best to look at at least a week of normal eating (in other words, not during unusual times such as travel or holidays). One way to describe the general pH balance is to look as the balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat. In general, the alkaline foods are carbohydrates and acidic foods are protein and fat, but in reality there is more nuance, as looking at a detailed chart would show. For example, if most of one's carbohydrates came from grains, that would skew the grouping scheme below, because the alkaline category must assume that the carbs are mostly from fruits and vegetables to consider carbs predominantly alkaline. If we instead look at each food's pH impact in the body, we might come to different conclusions.

An approximate guideline (given the above caveat) for each category:
Alkaline: 70-80% Carb 10-15% protein 10-15% fat
Neutral: 50-60% Carb 20-25% protein 20-25% fat
Acid: 40% carb 30% protein 30% fat

Sample Day:
Breakfast: Tea, eggs, butter, meatloaf, pickled beets,
Lunch: coconut crackers, avocado, pumpkin & squash seeds, tea, yogurt,
Dinner: soup made with kale, onion, carrots, stock, sausage
To see the chart I used to analyze this day's ph, see here.

My sample day tended tended to acidic or anabolic if we use this last rubric. I clearly take the majority of my calories from fats and proteins. This is by design, as I am working on undoing years of health issues including hypoglycemia, allergies and sinus troubles. The anabolic--or building--direction of my diet is healing and soothing to my particular issues.

I was not raised eating this way, though I was raised on a whole foods diet. Rather, my family was Macrobiotic for many years, eating a primarily grain-based diet. I eventually became a professional baker and pastry chef, again eating a predominantly grain-based (and mostly vegetarian) diet for many years. I did not know it at the time, but this diet did not suit my constitution, as evidenced by my illnesses and added digestive troubles. Still, I did not see the connection until one of my children had such severe digestive problems (ulcerative colitis) that I was driven to find a solution and stumbled upon the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Using the SCD (and now the GAPS refinements of it) I found the key to my former ill health--a diet full of starches and sugars, albeit "natural" ones.

On the other hand, if we look at the individual foods I consumed as compared to the food pH chart prepared by Russell Jaffe, we can see a different picture. According to this understanding, my breakfast was Low Acid in effect, my lunch was Low Alkaline and my dinner Neutral, giving an overall neutral effect. I find this very interesting, because I am in what is essentially a maintenance phase of my diet, not really looking to build or cleanse at the moment. So the neutrality of the dietary direction is fitting. Though this is anecdotal, I have noticed on some of the GAPS discussion boards that the mothers describe their children eating massive amounts of meat, broth and fat at the beginning stage (when the healing is most critical and active) and tapering off to a more neutral diet, including many vegetables, which the children would never have eaten before taking starches out of the diet. In other words, the diets become more balanced, more neutral, as healing occurs. And this is children essentially selecting their own foods out of what is offered.

It is definitely important to understand the balance in one's diet (or the lack of it). This can be used to guide the food selections as circumstances change. It is also important to know what definitions we are using to describe our subject, and to use our own experience and intuition to guide our choices. I can see that it would be very easy to choose a path "by the numbers" and stick rigidly to it, either because it has been recommended by someone we trust or because it sounds compelling. There is a lot of information (and misinformation) available on the Internet about "cleansing" diets and regimes and some people choose them the way others choose antibacterial soap, assuming that we are all dirty and need to be cleaned up. The reality is again more nuanced: we are all different and have subtly different dietary needs. This is the basis of the concept of "biochemical individuality." We must use guidelines such as the ideas of pH balance in foods and food effects with the proverbial "grain of salt." This concept can be part of a larger set of principles by which we guide our "dietary direction."

Bartholomy, Paula. Class Lecture. MHNE 606. Hawthorn University. 2008.
Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. Washington, DC: New Trends, 2005.
Haas, Elson. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkley: Celestial Arts, 1992.
Murray, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.
Jaffe, Russell. "Food & Chemical Effects on Acid / Alkaline Body Chemical Balance." Sterling, VA: Health Studies Collegium, 2007.
Worthington, Virginia. "Acid-Alkaline Balance and Your Health". Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation: 1997-2008. <>

Addendum: I came across this on one of my discussion groups, and am including it because it speaks to the controversy mentioned above (if it is yours, I apologize for not giving you attribution--let me know who you are and I will gladly):

"The "acidic ash" question is really interesting and I've never seen a good answer to it. The people who publish the "acidic" tables, it seems, rate foods
based on how they affect their urine. If their urine goes acidic, then the food is assumed to be "acidic".

Now, this COULD be because the food has "ash" products that tend toward acidic. Like phosphates. And the "alkaline" foods tend to be ones with calcium
or potassium. By that standard, kraut is alkaline.

But fermented foods also have lactic acid, and one of the two isomers of lactic acid is not usually used by the body: it is excreted. In fact, if a huge
amount of it is ingested (or produced in the body, as it sometimes is in cows) it can be toxic. Usually though, it doesn't cause any harm, and lacto-fermented
foods are associated with better healthy.

Ingesting lactic acid though, will tend to make your urine acidic. It won't make your blood acidic unless you have major health problems.

So, lacking a good definition of what "acidic" and "alkaline" foods really are (if someone can enlighten me I'd love to hear such a definition), I came up with my own: "alkaline" foods are ones with calcium, potassium, or magnesium, which we tend not to get enough of. Eating greens and
veggies and fruits gives you these. Eating starches and sugars tend to cause bacterial/yeast overgrowth, which is bad (and can cause acid production
in the gut, which might be why those foods got labelled "acidic" .. but also whole grains can block absorption of cal/mag)."

Posted via email from justine's posterous

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Help me Change America (free Raw Milk from it's chains!)

One of the ideas on Obama's site is Legalize (Raw) Milk. It needs a lot more votes to go into the next round of consideration. You can see it and can comment at the bottom of the page. Add your voice!
The top 10 ideas are going to be presented to the Obama Administration on Inauguration Day and will be supported by a national lobbying campaign run by, MySpace, and more than a dozen leading nonprofits after the Inauguration. So each idea has a real chance at becoming policy.
Get involved! It takes very little of your time to be heard . . .

Posted via email from justine's posterous

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grass is best! Edison knew, and we should too . . .

Thomas A. Edison

(Image via wikimedia)

The famous inventor who didn't actually invent the light bulb, Edison shunned religious dogma but held nature sacrosanct. "Until a man duplicates a blade of grass, Nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. Remedies from chemicals will never stand in favorable comparison with the products of Nature, the living cell of a plant, the final result of the rays of the sun, the mother of all life."

see entire piece at

Posted via email from justine's posterous

Friday, December 12, 2008

You Should Know: Kristof to Obama: "We need a Secretary of Food"

This is the best article I have seen so far analyzing the desperate need we have for Obama to choose wisely as he picks a Secretary of Agriculture (and commentary on why even that name should be changed)

Posted via email from justine's posterous

Saturday, December 6, 2008

You Should Know: Food Raid in Ohio

An example of how our food freedom is threatened.  Good links in the comments section.

Posted via email from justine's posterous

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let Us Now Braise Famous Hens

So last evening, too late as usual, I was pondering the dinner situation. I had taken a chicken out of the freezer in the morning, but hadn't checked either how many would be here for dinner or what other provisions I had in store. I often do this, and usually it works out rather well. Or at least I imagine it does--but don't ask my children, they complain about the food as a matter of course.

Unfortunately, as I noticed the hour I also observed a few too many bodies in the house. And one still frosty chicken on the counter. A mental struggle ensued--to roast or make soup? Roast chicken may be my family's overall favorite meal, one I can make and expect happy smiles and empty plates. Soup may be one of my family's least favorite meals, accompanied by the aforementioned complaints or (if I am lucky) just blank stares. As any cook knows, though, soup makes one chicken feed a lot more people. Just add veggies to stretch.

I faced facts: one roasted chicken would mean complaints anyway, as everyone in my family expects seconds. I rummaged through the fridge, resigned to making soup, when a sad container of forgotten mushrooms caught my eye. That's it! "I'll make some hunter's style thing" I thought. A braise! "Let us now braise famous hens" I actually said out loud. Ok, so my kids already think I am weird, but if you don't get the reference, don't feel bad, because it's pretty old--from the New Deal era. It is pertinent, though, because we are getting a small taste of the insecurity of those times today, and some of the lessons and tools our grandparents used to muddle through could be of use now.

Braises feed more than roasts, but more elegantly than soup. First, I cut the chicken into pieces, making two parts out of each breast. I suppose there's a perfect way to do that, but I just cut at the joints and it works fine. Then I browned the chicken in some duck fat I had in the fridge (bacon fat would have served just as well, but we happen to be out of bacon), added some cheap red wine and some stock and set that pan to simmering. In another pan, I sauteed some onions, added the mushrooms (sliced) and some garlic. I did the two-pan thing to get ahead, because this way the chicken was thawing/ cooking while I worked with the veggies, which I then added to the chicken. Not classic technique, but functional. I might have added some thyme and black pepper. I threw in some olives--not hunter-ish, but they were winking at me when I grabbed the duck fat. Everything simmered for a bit less than an hour, with the stock and wine cooking down into a lovely sauce. Even I had been concerned for a bit that it looked too much like soup, so I cooked it with the lid only partially covering.

And, it worked. Not the only the braise, but the tactic. Every bit was eaten with gusto, and no kvetching about "not enough." I made a salad, put out some lactofermented veg (I think it was a French cabbage salad that was left over and so left to turn into a sort of garlicky "kraut"--nothing goes to waste here) and we all ate well.

In big families or in lean times, knowing how to make the food we have feed us all is paramount. I imagine FDR's "chicken in every pot" was probably braised (or stewed). A famous hen, indeed.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Souse for Thanksgiving

Every year my dad hosts a large Thanksgiving feast. Perhaps because we live in South Florida, where the weather is mild and the culture very mixed, this is rarely a typical "Turkey plus the fixin's" affair. Or perhaps it is because my dad is passionate about everything to do with food. No matter, the result is always the same, that is: Different. From anyone else, from anything you have every called "Thanksgiving." It took us some time to get used to, but now, we (the family, the guests--who are all asked to bring something, though often the request is accompanied by an attached recipe and an offer to source hard-to-find ingredients) just show up expecting Good Eats.

This year we are expecting 65 people to a Southern-themed spread. So far, I have gathered that we will be eating: fried chicken and catfish, fried green tomatoes, oxtail stew and barbequed ribs, coleslaw, cornbread, hoppin' john, and souse (my part). Also, pecan and squash pies, and who knows what else. Personally, I am hoping what else is beer, because I can't imagine a wine to go with that meal.

Souse is what made me want to write this, not merely because I am making it. If you've never heard of it, maybe one day it snuck by under one of its aliases, brawn or headcheese. It's not a cheese, though it is molded, and it comes by the name "brawn" through the Old French for "meat." And it has no alcohol, though you might think so from the term "souse," which here means to wet thoroughly or cook in a marinade. So what is it? An age-old dish to use the bonier parts of pig or steer--the ones with all the gelatin, such as the head and the trotters. You cook them in seasoned, vinegared liquid until the meat falls off the bones, then chop the meat finely and cover with the gelatinous broth. This sets hard, like Jello, then is sliced and served as an appetizer or lunch, on lettuce with mustard and pickles.

It is a thrifty dish, one our Foremothers who created the Thanksgiving Feast would have been familiar with. It is also an Autumn dish, coinciding with butchering time. So maybe, just maybe, this is not the first time Souse has been served for Thanksgiving. Maybe, alongside our National Bird, slaughtered for the occasion, there was a lovely dish of souse. Because, to be properly thankful for the Bounty we are privileged to receive, we want to use every bit that is given with the same appreciation and relish.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy every last morsel . . .

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Self-fulfilling Prophesy

I try not to rant (at least not publicly), but after I read this article today I was pretty upset. It's not terribly long, so I won't go into much detail--read it for yourself. It seems that we have known for quite a while that mammograms are not only not helpful, they may even cause the cancer they purport to detect??!! I know this is not new news for some of us, but this is the first comprehensive article I have read. I know plenty of people that would not question their doctor's demand for such an invasive test. And the magazines still push this type of "prevention"--guess who the advertisers are?

I don't have much more to say than what is the the very clear article. Just pass it on to your moms, sisters, your best friends . . . they might not know yet.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's 5pm--What's for Dinner?

How to Stock a Healthy Pantry

If you are anything like me, life gets away from you and soon enough, someone's whining loudly: "what's for dinner?" If you can't answer that question easily, maybe it's time to think about what's in those in those cabinets, the freezer, and the fridge. With a little planning, we can have on hand the makings of all sorts of meals: last minute, slow-cooking and in between--all delicious and full of nutrition.

When we are working toward eating a whole foods diet patterned on what our great-grandparents would have recognized as food, the choices are actually simplified. Choose real foods preserved in traditional ways. These will serve as the basis of wonderful home cooked meals. Healthful forms of preservation are canning, drying, freezing, cooling, lacto-fermenting. Traditionally salt, honey/sugar, alcohol, oil, and vinegar have also been used, each with specific applications. Refrigerators and freezers now replace root cellars and burying things in the ground/snow (depending on the desired result), but the intent is the same.

I am not going to go into the mechanics of food preservation, as there are excellent resources for that information (see below). Instead, I will outline a basic array of real foods to have in your pantry that might form the building blocks of most any meal, especially with seasonal fresh foods added into the mix. This is undoubtedly a personal list--everyone should take this with a grain of (sea) salt, and adjust it according to taste and dietary preference.

I was asked to specify brands, because "good quality" can be hard to judge, but I will defer to a couple of good shopping guides: the Weston A. Price Foundation puts one out every year, available for purchase at or as a membership gift when you join (which I encourage--you also get their wonderful quarterly journal, Wise Traditions). The other is available for download at the Institute for Responsible Technology (see sidebar); it shows how to avoid foods made with GMOs. Also, check Truth in Labeling (sidebar) for lists sources of hidden MSG (shocking, really--go read it!) Other than that, look for a reputable company (and this shifts quickly, unfortunately), no or few additives, organic preferably. Everyone has different tolerances, so you have to work with those in your household (we, for example, avoid ALL additives, but this can be very difficult).

Pantry (dry goods)
  • Oils: extra virgin olive, coconut, maybe palm
  • Vinegars: red wine, raw apple cider
  • Sea salt
  • Herbs
  • Spices
  • baking soda
  • condiments such as tamari, hot sauce, chili paste, etc
  • Raw Honey and/or other natural sweetener (I only use honey, but some use maple syrup, Rapadura, agave syrup, molasses, etc)
  • Herb teas
  • Good quality canned tomatoes
  • Good quality tomato paste
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Sun dried tomatoes
  • Sea vegetables (nori, wakame, kelp, etc)
  • Coconut cream/butter, canned coconut milk if with no additives (hard to find, so I use the cream mixed with water)
  • shredded dried coconut (no sugar)
  • Dried fruit (no sugar and no sulfites)
  • Crispy nuts (see Nourishing Traditions)
  • organic cocoa or carob
  • Canned seafood, packed in olive oil or water--avoid cottonseed oil! (tuna, sardines, salmon, clams, oysters, anchovies, etc)
  • Dried legumes
  • Whole grains: brown rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, wild rice, amaranth, etc.
  • Some ferments (e.g. I have my preserved lemons in the cabinet and I rarely refrigerate kombucha)
In baskets in kitchen or pantry:
  • Onions, garlic, shallots
  • lemons/limes
  • less perishable fruit in season: banana, citrus, apples,
  • fruit that needs to ripen/soften: pears, stone fruit, melon, avocado, papaya, tomato
  • potatoes (not exposed to light), sweet potatoes
  • winter squash
In the freezer:
  • bone broth in jars--leave space for expansion! (chicken, beef, fish,)
  • chicken, whole and parts (they thaw faster--buy whole and cut yourself to save money)
  • ground meat (beef, pork, turkey)
  • other cuts of meat (roasts, chops, steaks, etc)
  • raw shrimp
  • other seafood: salmon fillet, scallops, etc
  • chicken livers
  • butter, lard, tallow
  • hot peppers (jalapeno, serrano, habanero)
  • peas, other veggies ("emergency veggies"--for when you run out of fresh)
  • flours for baking (I use coconut. Any flour will last longer in the freezer, as anything ground begins to degrade due to oxygen exposure)
  • fruit for smoothies and compotes (peel and cut those over-ripe bananas, and save the bits of cut fruit the kids don't eat--it adds up fast)
  • good coffee for guests and special occasions
  • nitrate-free sausage, hot-dogs, bacon (there are some brands with no sugar and that use well-raised meats)
  • left-over egg whites and yolks (only freeze whites in glass to keep them grease-free so they will whip up)
In the refrigerator:
  • eggs
  • cheeses
  • milk, yoghurt, kefir
  • vegetables: carrots, celery, lettuce and other greens, peppers, and whatever is seasonal
  • fresh ripe fruits in season (berries, etc.)
  • condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, salsa, miso (buy good quality or make yourself)
  • fermented veggies: sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, beets, etc
  • nut butters
  • certain oils (e.g. sesame, sunflower)
  • pan drippings (usually from roasting chicken, these keep well under their fat layer and are great for making quick sauces)
  • leftovers! (these make some of the best meals . . .)

What can you do with all of this? I hope things are jumping out at you, but I will leave you with a quick fall "skillet dinner":

  • Set some stock and sausages (such as bratwurst) to thaw in a bowl of room temperature water--change the water as it gets really cold.
  • Shred some cabbage and chop an onion.
  • Saute the onion in butter, add the cabbage, and when softened, add the stock. Add some pepper. Turn the heat down and add the sausage. If you can only find uncooked sausage in the freezer, brown it in a separate pan while you saute the veggies, then add.
  • Cover and simmer while you make another vegetable or a salad
  • Have someone set the table while you are doing all of this. Don't forget a lacto-fermented vegetable and/or condiment such as mustard! Kombucha or a micro-brew beer is good with this.
  • I know you are asking "how much?" and "how long?" I don't know how many people you are serving, but figure 1-2 sausages per person, and enough cabbage to accompany them--eyeball it, and have the leftovers with your eggs for breakfast. As for how long, well, "until it's done" was the answer I was given as I was learning to cook. It's infuriating to hear at first, but as you become comfortable with recipes without specific directions, you will see the wisdom in it. If the sausages are pre-cooked, they are done when heated through, so judge based on how tender the cabbage is. If they were raw when you started, the whole mess will be done when they are no longer pink inside.

Have fun inventing meals from your larder full of real wealth!


Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. Gives a comprehensive approach to a whole foods pantry.

The Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante. Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. Traditional methods of preserving.

Hood, Joan. Will It Freeze? Good resource for what will freeze and for how long, and how to stock a freezer efficiently.

Hupping, Carol. Stocking Up III. More modern preservation methods.

Katz, Sandor Ellix. Wild Fermentation. THE fermentation guide.

Reader's Digest. The Cookery Year. Wonderful tour through the foods available seasonally, with many recipes. Very British.

Rombauer, Irma and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. A basic, with information about how to set up a kitchen, a pantry, and most any other thing you want to know about food. Get the oldest edition you can find, before the "newfangled" appeared in the book.

Hello again . . .

I don't know what came over me--some aversion to writing? Can't be! I love to write, and--as some have noted--I love to share what I know and am thinking about. So, chalk it up to overload, busy life, whatever. I wish I had a mind reader that would have translated all of those posts I wrote in my head over these last few months, for there were many. I have some other writings I will work at posting as well. In the meantime, I'm here.

My humble apologies for my absence.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The True Cost of Food

The rising costs of living have everyone fretting. I am old enough to remember biking past lines of cars waiting to buy overpriced gas during the oil "shortage" of the 70's. Seems we have come round to the same place again, that very little real reflection and change has taken place in the intervening years. Somehow, we as a nation have a habit of putting up with this--complaining, yes--but not doing anything real to shift the situation. My biggest concern surrounds food: I want people to see what the real cost of food is and choose the path that will eventually end this nonsense. To do that we need to retake control from corporate food production. I want us to realize that we don't have to participate in this twisted scenario where costs escalate and we either quietly pay or starve.

I got Shannon Hayes' newsletter in my inbox today (as of this writing it is not yet posted on her website, but will be soon I hope: For those of you who don't know, she and her family have a diversified farm in New York State which provides well-raised food locally. Luckily, Shannon is also a writer, and through her writing she provides nourishment to those of us who can't attend her market days. I have her wonderful guides to cooking pastured meats--which have taught me to treat my meats very gently, and I get her occasional ruminations by email. Today's is a tearjerker, for sure, as she describes how the fuel and grain price spikes are affecting the family business, causing them to cut production of poultry, which will in turn affect her customers in months to come. I am so very glad that she shared this with us all--glad on many levels. We need to know what makes real food so expensive, we need to value what we are eating. We need to understand who is really profiting from this uncontrolled escalation in costs (Shannon does a good job of making this clear in just a few paragraphs). And we need to focus on the solution: uncoupling from the agribusiness model to which we have hitched our wagons. We need to buy our food from farmers like Shannon Hayes.

We tried to bring our monthly order down from the farms this week. There were not enough orders to make the trip sustainable for Steve. Accounting for the regular participants who are traveling (a fair number, as it is early summer) we still shouldn't be in this position. This urban area is HUGE and I regularly get calls and emails from people looking for real food. So what happened? People are balking at the $25 delivery fee, in addition to the real cost of real food. I have been meaning to say this for a while: This is what it costs to eat real food! And if we don't pay it now, cutting somewhere else if need be, then REAL FOOD will soon not be available.

It frightens me that folks are willing to spend $25 a week on lattes, but unwilling to pay $25 each month to get food raised healthfully and sustainably in our own state. I know this, because two of my daughters work at Starbucks: They have many regular customers whose customary orders they begin when a familiar face walks in the door. People are willing to eat food out that they say they wouldn't eat at home, and then pay many times over for the privilege of someone else doing the cooking. And some of us feel that the kids "need" boxed cereal so they can feed themselves breakfast (have you figured out the cost per pound of that "food"?) And I haven't factored in the cost of medical care necessitated by eating a steady diet of such SAD food. Or the cost for subsidizing farms where food is eventually plowed under, a victim of pricing schemes managed by the interests of big business, not of the consumers. What about the cost of manufacturing and disposing of mountains of superfluous packaging? Or the societal cost of cleaning up toxic waterways contaminated by agricultural chemicals and pooled effluent (which on a sustainable farm is known as "manure" and "compost" and is used instead of the toxic chemicals to strengthen the crops.) What about the cost to us all of droughts caused in part by trying to grow crops and animals in ways that work against Nature, needing high inputs of water, as well as chemicals.

I know that this is getting very close to a lecture, and I apologize for that. Yet, I am not sorry for telling the truth. We say we want to be healthy, that we want to ease the burden on the environment, that we don't want to be dependent on foreign oil. But to do those things, and to recapture the slower way of life that we admire, we must support America's small farms. Switching away from the dominant agribusiness model we have today may sound impossible, but it is entirely possible. It has not been that long since we surrendered our food production and sales to corporations. We can and must courageously change the way we eat. Everything will flow from there . . .

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Food to Celebrate

End of the (school) year celebrations have brought with them celebratory food. Our home school group just had a wonderful, old-fashioned party, complete with croquet and badminton, a small pool for the little ones, sidewalk chalk, and--of course--FOOD. We had burgers and dogs (no junk, of course), grilled veggies, salads, dips with veggies, lacto-fermented sodas, and desserts . . . It is the desserts we are going to talk about today, because the day after the party I got an email reminding me to PLEASE post recipes. Who can deny such a request? Especially when the recipes are simple, healthy and fun to eat.

So I will give you few recipes that may solve all of your dessert problems forever: what to bring to a potluck, what to make for a birthday, what to serve for a holiday celebration . . . Variations on these recipes are about all I make anymore for those occasions and more. Master the basics, and then use your imagination coupled with what is available. Your desserts will always be a hit and won't be a chore to make or a nutritional black hole.

A note about ingredients: I use the best I can afford or find. That usually means organic, sometimes it means something more, as in using baking powder or other ingredients without unnecessary additives. Do your best to source good quality ingredients, and then don't worry any more--just enjoy making good food!

Basic (grain-free) Chocolate Cake (adapted from Bruce Fife's Brownie recipe)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8, 11x17, or a 9'' round pan. Double recipe for two 9" rounds or three 8" (for a layer cake)
For brownies, leave out the baking soda and bake in an 11x17 pan (for chewy) or 8x8 (cakey)

1/3 c. coconut oil or melted butter (I used Tahitian Vanilla Jungle Oil, just for fun)
1/2 c. honey
6 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c. cocoa
1/2 c. coconut flour
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda

Mix the oil, honey and eggs with a whisk in a large bowl. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl (I use a big sieve) and stir in thoroughly. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 20-35 minutes, depending on how big your pan is. A larger pan for the same amount of batter will take LESS time (it is thinner)--so set the timer for the shorter time and check for doneness. The tip of a sharp knife will come out clean when stuck into the middle.

I served this as a sheet cake (one large layer) frosted with Chocolate Buttercream adapted from the Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum:
(read through and understand the directions before starting. Have things at the right temperature! This is easiest with a stand mixer and a candy thermometer, though not impossible without)

1 pound unsalted butter, softened but cool
1/2 cup honey + 2 tbs water
5 large egg whites
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
5 oz. melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate

Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it reaches 248 to 250 degrees (firm ball stage, though it really is best to use a thermometer)
Simultaneously, beat the egg whites in a large mixing bowl, adding the cream of tartar when foamy. As the syrup reaches the right temp, beat the whites until stiff peaks form.
Carefully pour the hot syrup into the whites as they beat (try to avoid getting the syrup onto the whisk or beaters as they will throw the syrup onto the sides of the bowl where it will glue itself until you scrub it off--and you won't have enough for the frosting).
Beat the meringue (this egg/syrup mixture is called Italian meringue) until it is absolutely cool. With the mixer running, start adding the butter about one tablespoon at a time--I do this with my hands, throwing in one soft lump as soon as the previous one is incorporated. It may look funky at some point, have patience. If it looks curdled, like broken mayonnaise, beat it a bit more before adding more butter. You might have to stop and chill the mixture a bit if the room is hot, but this only happens rarely. When all of the butter is incorporated the frosting should look smooth and satiny.
Add the chocolate and mix thoroughly.
If you prefer plain frosting, add vanilla or up to 3 oz. of a liqueur. You could also add fruit purees for different flavors and color (up to 3/4 c.), sweetening if necessary.

The Granitas

Granita, or Italian Ice, is traditional in different parts of Italy. For the party, I made what might be one of the most popular, espresso with cream (though usually the cream is whipped--I ran out of time!). Lemon is also a very traditional flavor. In Italy, many restaurants, and even small shops. sell hollowed out oranges filled with orange granita--I made a twist on that, by inventing a mixture that tasted like Creamsicles (TM). Last New Year's Eve I made one with cranberry juice and Lady Grey tea (so lovely!); for the party I "summerized" it with pomegranate juice and a beautiful Earl Grey that has lavender and rose petals.

The basic procedure is simple: you place a sweetened liquid into the freezer in a shallow pan (like a stainless steel roasting pan--it will freeze faster in metal, but glass works too). After 45 min or so you stir it, scraping the ice crystals from the sides. Keep stirring and scraping every so often--don't forget or it will turn to a block of ice that you'll have to melt down and to have start the process again (not a big deal, but if you have a dinner party waiting, well . . . it's worth the wait!) I use a serving fork or spoon to scrape the mixture into mounds that look like snow (remember what that looks like?) Serve in goblets if you are being fancy, and add a nice garnish for your dinner party. At our more casual party, we put it in paper cups and sucked on it, just like we did in Central Park when I was a kid.

A few notes: you can use liqueur or wine, just be aware that if you add too much the mixture won't freeze. I made a white zinfandel granita for my dad's 75th birthday party last summer by adding a syrup made from water, honey and thyme. You can find proportions for concoctions with alcohol on many sites online. Too much sugar will also keep the mixture from freezing, but since I don't like things too sweet I have never found out what the threshold is.

There aren't really recipes, but I will give you guidelines:

Coffee: I used decaf coffee brewed VERY strong (about a cup of grounds to my French press, which holds about 4 cups of water), sweetened it with honey, and with a touch of lemon flavor (which is just lemon oil) added--to recall the twist of lemon at the side of your espresso . . . Serve with whipped cream.

Tea/juice: I made a pot of strong Earl Grey tea (maybe double the tea?) and steeped it until it was cool. I added one quart of unsweetened pomegranate juice (I think the brand was Knudsen's "Just Pomegranate") and honey to taste.

"Creamsicle": I mixed a half gallon of good supermarket ("not from concentrate") orange juice with two cans of coconut milk (no preservatives). I added orange flavor (orange oil) and a bit of orange flower water (which I am sure you could leave out). I think I also added a bit of our great grass-fed raw cream. It needed no honey. It was SO good!

My fan also asked for another cake I make, which is straight out of the Cake Bible--a chocolate truffle torte, flourless and luscious. I am going to defer that recipe to another day, but don't worry, I won't forget!

Have a wonderful time experimenting with treats for your family and friends! And invite me to your next party, so I can try your inventions . . .

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Pregnant Post

Recently I was asked for some advice concerning "the critical nutritional, medical and lifestyle changes to consider for (the) final trimester" of pregnancy. Being the rabble rouser that I am, I really couldn't take that question at face value. I felt I had to address what I think are some of the real issues of pregnancy, especially if they have not been considered until the third trimester! I thought maybe you might find something of use in my comments. What follows is an edited version of my somewhat rambling response:

Hmm. That's a BIG question.

I always recommend the book Birthing From Within. It has associated childbirth classes if you can find an instructor (try the Birthing From Within website for listings)--they are the only ones I recommend (other than the ones I teach, of course!) There is also a workbook, if you can't find classes and want more hands-on work. Pam England's approach is emotional/psychological/spiritual preparation for birth and parenting, not about learning some artificial breathing pattern. Special Delivery is another good book, also written by a midwife. It also has a workbook available.

I believe that how we are pregnant and how we birth is usually how we parent--therefore it IS important to have a good birth. Not that it's destiny (I know people who have had awful births who are wonderful parents and vice versa) but that a pattern is often set. It is easier to learn and change before the baby is born! And then we can allow ourselves to be open to learning from our kids, from the circumstances, since we have been learning on ourselves. Honestly, a great pregnancy, wonderful birth and successful (not "easy") parenting are about letting go. They are about surrendering to the process, listening to our intuition, allowing our own strength determine what happens--instead of giving away our power to "experts" (even me, though I came by my expertise honorably, though experience . . .) No one can birth vaginally while trying to control the process--it just won't happen. And little humans come equipped with their own agendas--from day one! So I tell moms that pregnancy is a perfect time to practice, to give in to the sensations, the experience of having another being inside their bodies (I mean, how incredible is that?)

So, that's all first and foremost. Pregnancy being a time of "other-ness"--not being this (maiden) or that (mom). A time to ponder the absolutely unfathomable nature of being a vessel of creation. So just be there, in that Zen place that no one else could understand--it is an opportunity to experience Consciousness, if we let that happen. Don't mean to get all Existential on you, but, splitting hairs about supplements hardly matters if we are stressing about which character the nursery is going to be decorated with . . .

I guess you could call those "lifestyle changes" of the "stop and smell the roses" sort. On a practical level, I think most women have no idea how strong their attachment will be once the baby is here, and therefore don't prepare to be home for long enough. Or for always . . . It creates a lot of heartache later, and can cascade into a lot of unfortunate decisions (put baby in daycare, baby gets sick all of the time, antibiotics are given, ear tubes are inserted . . .and yes, it all starts at the beginning, like dominoes). And most families can live on one income if they really analyze it in glaring light (I won't go into that now, but I can . . .). And I do talk about this with women. Midwifery is not just about the physical, it is about really hearing what women need and want, about helping to clarify expectations, about being a mirror and a support.

"Medical" is not the right word to use with pregnancy. Birth is a normal life passage, not a medical event. Midwives are not medical caregivers (by law!) Birth is the only normal thing that happens in a hospital--everyone else is there for sickness or injury . . . Would you eat or have sex in a hospital just because there is a small element of risk? (Very small, in real terms, for birth. Most problems are iatrogenic.) If by "medical" you mean "physical," I would say that eating well and maintaining a comfortable level of activity are important. One does not need to stretch the perineum unless there is scar tissue (from a previous episitomy, for example) or "toughen" nipples, or any of the many things recommended. If one has a caregiver, they are monitoring the physical basics (that's all doctors have time for anyway)--meaning blood pressure, blood sugar, signs of toxemia, etc.

I do usually recommend that a woman attend La Leche League meetings while pregnant, to identify the available support system in advance. It also helps to bring the father, which some meeting allow and some don't. Nursing is natural, but it does not always come naturally, and we don't have the right cultural supports in place, where we have seen aunts and sisters nurse their babies . . . I don't think much of LLL's nutritional info--that's not their forte--but they absolutely know nursing. Hospitals, doctors and their staff are forever undermining breastfeeding, so we have to actively combat that. And I think just about every one can nurse successfully with help.

Nutritional: This is huge, and luckily most women are really motivated during pregnancy. Cravings are often very accurate in identifying needs and sensitivities--the trick is figuring out which is which! There's a pretty good outline of a pregnancy diet on the WAPF website, and the recommendations at the Brewer website, are important--somewhere between the two, with allowances for each individual, is a good start. Protein is hugely undervalued--the Brewers found that toxemia could basically be avoided or reversed with adequate protein and salt to taste (the details are on the website)--and they were not even addressing food quality--that's where WAPF comes in.

I find that women know what their bodies need a lot of the time, but they often don't listen to that voice. I used to have heartburn like fire with each pregnancy and I KNEW that bread was causing it. But somehow I didn't look at the bigger picture and even try taking wheat out of my diet until a year after my fifth baby was born! I wasted so much time, and maybe contributed to their allergies, eczema, asthma, etc. I have had many vegetarians admit to meat cravings. I have had clients with very odd pica cravings (ice is common--usually related to lack of calcium, but sucking on a watch? We think that was anemia-related. It takes some research and some lab work, but usually it's a good clue)

It should go without saying that whole foods are preferable. But it can be a hard sell when a woman is fatigued, trying to arrange maternity leave, fearing the birth, etc. I just know that it is easier to get in the habit NOW. Maybe starting with a few herbal infusions (oatstraw and raspberry leaf are two great pregnancy teas), substituting them for water throughout the day. Maybe learning to cook enough to freeze an extra meal is a good place to start. Talking through what kind of a mom she wants ultimately to be often helps put the cooking and whole foods ideas into perspective . . . (in other words, you are in this for the long haul, and it may seem like more work, but the payoff is great--and the work doesn't get any easier after the baby is born!)

We often (as friends or as midwives) set up a list of friends who will provide meals after the birth. One friend organizes the list and calls everyone when the baby is born, telling each one which day they will provide dinner. They bring a dinner that is big enough for leftovers for lunch, so the family only has to do simple things for breakfast. We also suggest short (15 minute) visits in which some job is done (sweep the kitchen, start a load of laundry, etc) It is good for the mom to think about this now--again, she will have no idea how valuable this will be! Best if it lasts at least two weeks and takes dietary quirks into consideration.

In my first pregnancy, someone told me "don't be afraid to ask for or take help." It's good advice! We all have to get over ourselves and act like a community . . .

I see I didn't talk about supplements. I don't use them really. Though Yellow Dock for iron is almost miraculous (see Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Yearby Susun Weed for more about herbal pregnancy support). Mostly I use real food! There is usually a whole food that will help address a deficiency, as long as the quality is good.

There's so much more to say, but let this be a start. If there is interest, I can call on my training in midwifery, my work consulting with pregnant and new moms, and my personal experience as the mom of many. There are quite a few aspects to this life passage that deserve our attention, and even if you have no kids (and aren't planning any) there are parallels to other areas of our lives where we are moving away from "newfangled" methods (the ones mislabeled as "conventional") toward traditional ones (not "alternative"--that language is a way of marginalizing what has been with us throughout the ages!) At a gathering the other day, we--a group of homeschooling moms--came to the realization that this is all the same issue: how we birth, educate, feed and heal our families. So let's keep the conversation going!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Food Fight?

I came across this short article and had to share it with you. Not only is Dr. Briffa on point about real food vs. product, but he also gives us a wonderful window on the behind-the scenes workings of companies in shaping our food landscape.

Supermarket Bans Aspartame From Own-Label Products
A food fight is brewing
By Dr. John Briffa
Special to the Epoch Times

Help your customers and be sued.

It might be corny and a bit naïve, but I recommend that eating a
diet found as close as possible to what is found in nature makes
good sense. This means, of course, avoiding, when we can, substances
not to be found naturally in the food chain. Perhaps rather
predictably, science supports this notion. For instance, the much-
reviled but naturally-occurring saturated fat found in red meat and
eggs has no strong links with disease, while industrially produced
trans fats do.

So, when the food industry introduces a novel food or food
ingredient into our diet I admit I generally come at it from a
skeptical perspective. This is the case when all the ingredient is
doing is making a food a bit bluer or redder or extending its shelf
life or palatability. However, I become even more suspicious when
claims are made that some new-fangled foodstuff is better for us
than, perhaps, something that we've had in our diet forever.
Let us not forget, for instance, that the partially hydrogenated
fats from which industrially produced trans fats are derived were
originally sold to us as a healthy alternative to saturated fat (and
what a load of rubbish that turned out to be).

Another example of where we have been sold a bit of a dummy by the
food industry concerns artificial sweeteners. In the past I have
attempted to highlight the science that shows that artificial
sweeteners have considerable potential to cause harm, and at the
same time, do not appear to have any obvious benefits for health.
These particular posts have focused mainly on the potential hazards
of the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet, Canderel, Equal).
One of the reasons I've focused so much on aspartame is that most of
the published research on artificial sweeteners has focused on this
particular substance.

There are now hundreds of studies, which have focused on the safety
of this substance. The manufacturers use this science in an attempt
to convince us that aspartame is safe. Yet, right from the beginning, there has been plenty of evidence that aspartame has the capacity to cause harm. And there is, as I've highlighted before, evidence of considerable bias in this area: while industry-funded research invariably finds in favor of aspartame, independently-funded work almost always comes to the
opposite conclusion. These things, and the fact that anecdotal
reports of aspartame toxicity are easy to find, means that aspartame
continues to be viewed with suspicion by many.

It seems that at long, long last, this skepticism in the general
public has filtered through to food retailers. Generally speaking,
supermarket chains give customers what they want. There has been
growing awareness quite recently here in the U.K. that a lot of food
has a lot of junk in it. As a result, many supermarkets have gone
about formulating foods that are devoid of commonly-recognized
baddies such as saturated fat (sigh), salt, added sugar, and
artificial additives. However, I was interested to read that here in
the U.K., the Wal-Mart-owned supermarket chain Asda has explicitly
named aspartame is a list of "nasties," and it has set about
removing from it's "Good for You" range of foods.

Such a move was not going to go unnoticed by aspartame's
manufacturers, of course. It turns out the Ajinomoto, the Japanese
company that makes aspartame, has served a writ in London against
Asda, and is suing on the basis that Asda has suggested that
aspartame is unhealthy and is something that consumers concerned for
their health should avoid. An Ajinomoto spokesperson is quoted as saying: "This is a UK initiative and a relatively cynical one," adding: "It doesn't reflect concerns at a consumer level—it is just bandwagoning." However, an Asda spokesperson maintains that: "We have removed some of the ingredients our customers tell us they don't want in their food. That includes aspartame."

So, what we have here is an example of where what seems to be well-
guided consumer pressure has led to a major supermarket chain to
take action over a very dubious food ingredient indeed. This, I
think, is an example of people power, and I am, personally, hugely
enthusiastic about this turn of events. Now that a writ has been served, my hope is that Asda does not capitulate and "do a deal" with Ajinomoto. Ajinomoto's lawyers are notoriously aggressive. (I've had personal experience of this myself as I've had exchanges with over what I believe to be factually correct and utterly defensible comments in the Observer magazine some years ago). However, now that a writ has been served, my suspicion is any attempts for a deal to be done have failed. So, it looks as though we're heading for a full-blown battle.

As this plays out, it might be that Asda's lawyers may want to draw
attention to aspartame's checkered political history, the fact that
this substance has been continually mired in controversy, and that
there is (whatever its manufacturer maintains) more than enough
evidence to view this substance with considerable suspicion. It
might be, therefore, that this legal action will only serve to sow
further seeds of doubt about the safety and legitimacy of aspartame.
While Ajinomoto obviously feels the need to defend its product and
no doubt will instruct its lawyers to give Asda both barrels, in
mounting this action it may well end shooting itself in the foot.

Dr. John Briffa is a London-based doctor and author with an interest
in nutrition and natural medicine.
Dr. Briffa's Web site

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Does Milk "Do a Body Good?"

Note: Part of my motivation in keeping this blog is to serve as a resource for many food and nutrition issues. Some of you know that I am currently in a Masters program in Nutrition and Health Education, that I am studying in a more formal way what I live and research because it fascinates me--and maybe just because I am driven (or is that led?) to it! Anyway, I regularly have to write on various topics concerning nutrition for my program, from formal research papers to creating client handouts. I will begin sharing some of these writings here, so we can all benefit from this work I am doing (and you help me too: I write more clearly with an audience in mind).

Fair warning, gentle reader: I am very opinionated, and my bias will no doubt be obvious. I will try here to provide links for my assertions--and I will include many sources, even (especially?) some that do disagree with my personal viewpoint.
Please let me know if there are topics you would like me to address, and if there are resources you are wanting to find. And tell me if posting these papers helps you in any way . . .


Is milk "nature's perfect food?" In the USA, we have certainly all been told this many times. But is it true? And which milk are we talking about anyway? This has become a heated issue for some, one that touches on how we feed our most vulnerable citizens, our children (ok, and the rest of us, too). There are now websites on both sides of the issue (see NotMilk for many articles and links against drinking milk, and see RealMilk for argument supporting milk drinking.) There are those who think milk is poison and those who believe it is nectar of the gods . . . I am not sure I can settle the controversy for all, as the food we eat is such a personal decision--and because "milk" is not really one thing. I will try to illuminate what I feel are some major issues.

First, a definition: milk (mlk) n.
1. A whitish liquid containing proteins, fats, lactose, and various vitamins and minerals that is produced by the mammary glands of all mature female mammals after they have given birth and serves as nourishment for their young.
2. The milk of cows, goats, or other animals, used as food by humans.
3. A liquid, such as coconut milk, milkweed sap, plant latex, or various medical emulsions, that is similar to milk in appearance.

Part one hints at one of the foundations of the controversies: Milk's biological purpose is nourishment for the young of a species. Milk, as we generally understand it, is meant as the sole food for mammalian young for a species-specific period of time. Some feel that we humans have no business drinking the milk of other animals, and certainly not past the natural age of weaning of our own species (that--weaning--is a controversy for another day!) On the other hand, many believe that if milk can function as a complete source of nutrients, macro and micro, then it must be an ideal of sorts: "nature's perfect food."

The definition does cover some of the variety we need to address. Most basically in our culture, we are usually referring to mammal milk, especially from cows. Not all cultures depend upon the cow--throughout history, humans have drunk the milks of goats, sheep, water buffalo, horses, reindeer, camels, yak, and others we might find odd or improbable. And we now have commercially available soy, rice, almond, coconut and hemp milks. At home, milks can be made from many nuts and seeds. And yet, are these milks similar in nutritive value? Are they traditional foods? It seems they might not be, though the history is not very clear. Neither is nutritional information on these "alternative" milks easy to come by, perhaps because they are newer (see this link for a comparison of human and some animal milks).

While I was researching this topic I came across numerous comments to the effect that "humans are the only animals that drink the milk of other animals." Curiously, not one of these statements was backed up with a citation. This may be a case of something that we believe to be true because it seems to make sense--but may not actually have science behind it. I did find, on the other hand, accounts and photos of animals being fostered by another species (think Romulus and Remus--but played out in zoos and neighborhoods the world around where babies need a surrogate mama and another willing animal is found). These cases, while isolated, show that animals will do what it takes for survival, and humans drinking other animals' milk may be another example. It seems that humans have been enjoying dairy for at least 8000 years, from archeological evidence in Europe and in the Middle East. There is also evidence of extensive dairying in African history, something that continues today in tribes such as the Maasai. It has been postulated that this was an adaptation humans made in the transition to a more agriculturalist way of life, from a longer history of true hunting and gathering.

So why the controversy, if many humans have adapted over time to milk drinking? Well, being humans, we tend not to leave things as they are. Instead, we create, we innovate. And sometimes we mess with things until they are not at all the same as when they started out. And these altered substances just might not be very healthy. We have done this with the lowly beet, from whence comes that evil, white sugar. We have done this with grains, changing whole grains into things like Twinkies(TM). It may be that this is what we have done with milk, and why there is such confusion and conflicting "evidence." If we are not ingesting the same substance in each study, and if the substance being used in a study is not "the Real Thing" (thanks to CocaCola for their slogan . . .) how can we say it is the real thing causing the trouble? That is, the only real milk is the one straight from the animal (setting aside the issue of plant-based milks, for now) that is eating its natural diet. Anything else is a cultural manipulation.

And yet there are all of these studies that implicate milk in all sorts of illnesses, from cancers to diabetes to heart disease (look at this and this for an overview of some of the health issues that have been associated with milk). Yet what milk was the subject of these studies? Modern commercially produced cow's milk, the kind we buy in supermarkets. And what is commercial milk? Is that all one thing? No, it comes with varying percentages of fat, it might have dried milk added in to thicken it, it is pasteurized and usually homogenized. And it comes from animals raised in confinement, fed grain, cottonseed meal, bakery waste, citrus peel cake, the waste of ethanol production, and so on (see this and this for information on some of these feeding practices). This milk most likely has the residue of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides that were either given directly to the cow or were in the feed the cow ate.

It is true, that milk may indeed be harmful for us all. The studies are there to show problems (see the above links). Many people are indeed sensitive to both the lactose (milk sugar) in the milk and to the casein (milk protein) that is damaged in the pasteurization process. On the other hand, that thing we call milk only bears a visual resemblance to real milk, which comes from cows raised on pasture, and is not treated in any way--just put in clean bottles and consumed locally and in real time, soon after it came from the cow. The milk some are now calling "fresh, unprocessed milk" has all of the nutrition that a cow can glean from grass--its natural food. It has fragile proteins in their natural state. It has many enzymes, including lactase--which helps "digest" lactose, that help our digestion and our health. It has high quality fats, including some EFA's--which carry vital fat soluble vitamins, and these fats naturally separate, allowing us to have cream or butter (or homemade ice-cream, but don't get me going, or I may have to put a recipe in here!)

What of alternative milks? What if we can't drink milk, or don't want to? Are these milks acceptable substitutes for Nature's Perfect Food? It really depends upon what we are looking for in a substitute--an occasional milk-like substance to fill a need in a particular meal (what else goes so well with cookies? and what is a cream soup without cream?) or a daily food, contributing essential major nutrients. If the former is the desire, for sure almond milk or coconut milk would be great--and they are delicious. I have heard that oat sprout milk even tastes much like cow's milk. If we are looking for a nutritional mainstay though, we have to do the same sorts of calculations that vegetarians must do to ensure that complete proteins are being consumed--we have to look at what we would be getting in the cow's milk and try to balance with other foods, or supplements. For example, coconut milk, while full of wonderful fats, including antimicrobial lauric acid (the other main source of this is human milk), has very little calcium, and--especially when diluted to have a similar calorie content as cow's milk--is not a significant source of protein. So, if I wanted to use it regularly as a milk substitute, I would have to make sure that I had other good sources of protein and calcium in my diet, or I could fortify the the milk (as suggested in Eat Fat, Lose Fat) with a calcium source.

Why drink milk at all? In some cultures, it might be the most reliable source of protein and fats (and some carbohydrates--remember this is a "complete" food), especially if there is a religious taboo about the consumption of flesh. In a fascinating interview, anthropologist Marvin Harris goes into great detail not only about the nutritional "choices" made over time, but also about why biological adaptations may have set the stage for varying religious beliefs concerning foods. He also describes why some groups of people are adapted to drinking fresh milk and others to fermented dairy.

Fermented dairy is actually the way most peoples consume "milk." The lactose in the milk is broken down by a culture, making it more digestible, even for those who are not lactose intolerant (see table of sample rates of lactose intolerance by ethnicity.) And, as the pre-refrigeration world discovered, the cultured forms keep instead of spoiling. Each region has a favorite type, ranging from the world's many cheeses, to cultured buttermilk, sour cream, kefir, yoghurt, koumiss (from mare's milk), longfil, piima . . . (See Nourishing Traditions for descriptions and recipes of many types of fermented dairy, as well as further discussion on the consumption of dairy in general.)

Personally, I have experimented with many forms of dairy and dairy alternatives over my life. I enjoy the varied tastes and the qualities of richness and creaminess that dairy can add to food. Like many Americans, I am of mixed ethnicity, though I can trace most of my ancestors to Eastern Europe, where dairy is/was eaten almost exclusively in cultured form. And that is generally what keeps me most healthy, eating yoghurt, kefir, some cheese. I am certain that my forbears did not consume soy or hemp milk. And while they didn't consume coconut either, I do live in Miami and have somewhat adapted to this semi-tropical environment, so I do use coconut milk on occasion, especially when I get fresh, local coconuts.

Choosing a foodway is not something our ancestors had to do. They ate the foods their local environment gave them and they prepared them in the ways of the only culture they knew. We are confronted with many choices about food, and must find a way of navigating the confusion. With milk, as with every other food, we would do well to look to the traditions of the world and to those of our own people for guidance. And then we owe it to ourselves to experiment with an open mind.

Some Further Reading (not exhaustive, but a good start):

Pro Dairy: (has a good resource list)
The Untold Story of Milk, Ron Schmid
The Raw Truth About Milk,William Campbell Douglass

Con: (also has an extensive resource list)
Don't Drink Your Milk, Frank Oski
Milk A-Z, Robert Cohen

Good To Eat, Marvin Harris

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Tale of Two (Cities') Restaurants

Two meals out recently have gotten me to thinking about restaurant food.

I am not in the habit of writing restaurant reviews, but since I have finally found some food worth commenting on, I can't pass up the opportunity.

First, some context: the more Rick and I have moved to eating whole, unadulterated, traditional food, the less we eat out. This is because we inevitably come home from a restaurant meal filled with regret and iffy food. It's not only because I have spent years working in restaurants and food service that I feel I could do better for less money. In general, just about anyone could do better for less money. And the usual reason people eat out is to save themselves the trouble of cooking (though they may tell you it's because they just love that ___ Factory just down the street). But for me it's generally enjoyable to cook and I have the time, so that isn't a good motivation to go out. We go out for two reasons: when we travel and on special occasions (because really, who wants to look at the pile of unfolded laundry on a wedding anniversary, even if you love to cook?)

Recently, I went to a conference in Durham, North Carolina. I have never been there and didn't know a thing about the area, so we went on several recommendations and tried a restaurant in walking distance to the hotel. Now, usually I am truly wary of others' recommendations. My taste is very different, my standards admittedly more severe, than most. But this place truly provided everything I look for in a restaurant: food that tastes wonderful but is not overwrought, dishes I generally won't make at home, locally sourced ingredients, good service in a calm neighborhood environment, a willingness to accommodate food sensitivities/preferences. It's a long list, and Piedmont did this so well that I came home sad that we have nothing comparable here in Miami.

I guess if I am going to talk about this, I need to describe my meal: An arugula salad with crisp lardons topped with a perfectly poached egg sporting an almost-orange yolk. Instead of an entree I ordered one of the charcuterie plates, choosing the housemade headcheese with vinegared shallots and grainy mustard. Normally this would be accompanied by toasts, but they happily substituted sliced green apple, which went very well with the rich headcheese. It didn't faze the waiter to make a substitution and he was game to help me figure out what would not just fill the plate, but would also complement the dish I was ordering.

The food was fresh and honest--it remembered where it came from, which was evidently pretty close by. It wasn't ruined by some genius rendition that was trying to transform simple ingredients into something else. For my tastes, the ideal would be if the food might have been cooked by someone's very talented grandparents for a special occasion, even just Sunday Dinner. And Piedmont definitely met that ideal.

Coming home and needing to plan our anniversary dinner, I cast about for a similar unpretentious and equally gifted spot in Miami. I almost despaired because, though I understand it has marvelous food, Michael's is impossible to get into on short notice. Plus, I am kind of a miser, and a meal there might be outstanding, but so would the debt . . .

Literally on the appointed day a friend (thanks so much, C!) came up with a brilliant suggestion, a tiny place in walking distance to our home. Who knew? Whisk is in a little strip mall on Le Jeune Road, north of Ponce De Leon Blvd. has three tables and a huge heart.

It was the perfect choice for us--close, local food, run by a smart and generous brother-and-sister team (love the family thing--makes me feel right at home, without having to do dishes!) Brendan (chef) and Kristin (who does most everything else) dished up a lovely meal, full of bright flavors and allowed us to bring a bottle of wine to celebrate our occasion, along with the other patrons in the intimate space. It was almost as if they had put on a small dinner party for us, as if we were eating at the edge of their lively kitchen.

Kristin is involved with Slow Food Miami, and that aesthetic is evident in the food we enjoyed, the camaraderie, and the unhurried pace of our meal. Rick had the house specialty, Dry Marinated Skirt Steak w/ Caramelized Onions, Gorgonzola & Sliced Avocado Salad. Brendan not only cooked it absolutely perfectly rare, but he also came out to check to be sure he had gotten it right for Rick. I had Spicy Seared Beef w/ Garlic Chili Coconut Sauce, Jasmine Rice & Braised Baby Bok Choy, and just as in Durham, when I asked to substitute something for the starch, I was met with creativity and genuine accommodation (I ended up with beautifully fanned grilled summer squash slices, sweet and smoky, a perfect foil for the sauce). We shared a salad with cheese and nuts, dressed with an able hand--just the kind we love.

I have a sense now that it's not hopeless to want to eat out, that there are some folks trying to do the right thing by food, even in a commercial setting. That we can find a few places here and there that support and express our own approach to food: begin with the best local food, cook it in a way that enhances rather than masks, its loveliness (and nutrition), and present it as if you were serving family on a special occasion--with love and joy.

Now I need to figure out what is the next special occasion on our calendar. There must be one coming up--I am sure of that (do let my husband know if you see him!)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out of Hibernation . . .

The New Hunter Gatherer has been in a sort of Winter's hibernation. I apologize for the absence, but somehow the rhythms of my life took over and forced a narrowing of focus. Winter has been about family and it's many demands: holiday celebrations (we do Hanukkah and Christmas), illnesses--including two trips to the hospital, and my sister's gala wedding that my children and I got to take part in many ways.

We are just now emerging into our South Florida Spring, which is making it's appearance with a vengeance. We have 80 degree weather almost daily and the mango trees are in full bloomy dress, calling all insects and troubling all allergy sufferers. Even the avocados are blooming--it seems very early. So I suppose I am talking about the seasonality of things today--that our activities and our food can and should be informed by the flow of the natural world around us.

Here, that can be a bit more difficult or subtle, depending on our orientation and sensitivities. The calendar and my ancestry may say that I should be eating heavy stews, as mid-February is serious winter in most places, but when I walk outside the ground is steaming and the air is full of avian courting. This presents a dilemma. My mind wants braises. My body wants to go lighter. This is where my old Macrobiotic training kind of kicks in unbidden: look to the local environment. And interpret it with a heavy dose of modern sensibilities (Macrobiotic teaching was actually a latter day invention based on older traditions--therefore a blueprint of sorts for our own process). I look at traditional foods in similar climates for inspiration during this odd season.

When it rains, I make soup. Never mind that the rain is as warm as my shower. Rain calls for soup, a cup of tea, a book. When I can get away with it while respecting family tastes, I make those soups and stews with an Asian spin. I pull out the coconut milk and Thai curry paste. I use as much seafood as I can get away with (picky kids again). Or I make Indian curries and Mexican posoles. These foods are stews adapted to the heat, perfect for our sunny Winter and steamy Spring. If I am really pressed for time, or if I have a bunch of odds and ends in the fridge that want using, I improvise. I experiment, and some of these experiments have turned into old standby recipes over time.

My friend J. loves my Thai-inspired seafood stew. It took a while to convince her that it is ridiculously easy to make, as long as you have a few things on hand. Actually, it even fits my idea of a "shelf-supper"--one I can make when I don't have much of anything fresh on hand--because it uses the few canned and frozen staples I keep around.

This is what I do (and get ready, because it goes fast): I set some chicken or fish stock to thawing in warm water. I saute an onion, some garlic, some ginger if I have it. I might add other veggies if I have or want them--or want to use them up. Red peppers are pretty, carrots and celery add bulk, greens or frozen peas I add at the end. There are many possibilities. Next I add the stock and a can of coconut milk. I use full-fat coconut milk with no preservatives, and I try to use a brand that has no thickeners as well (hard to find--there is one brand availably locally). If I have no coconut milk, which is rare, I use thinned coconut cream, sometimes marketed as coconut butter. This is NOT the product sold for pina coladas--instead it is made like most nut butters, grinding the meat of the slightly dried coconut with no added ingredients (the other stuff is loaded with sugar).

Ok, so now you have a broth with veggies. Almost done. Set the table, or get someone else to do it--you have to pay attention and throw a salad together too . . . Now you add some frozen seafood. I sometimes use a mix that has no additives--it has shrimp, scallops, octopus, and squid, or I use wild shrimp, which I don't bother to peel, but you might. I actually eat the shells and find the shrimp stays more moist this way--less risk of turning them to leather. All that's left is seasoning while the seafood cooks, which happens very quickly, in mere minutes. Seasonings: some Thai curry paste (red or green, your choice), fish sauce, lemon or lime juice and maybe a smidge of honey. If you have basil or mint (dried or fresh) that lends an authentic air, but I rarely bother. Same with chopped cilantro, scallions or crisply friend shallots--nice additions, but this is supposed to be a painless shelf supper.

That's it. Taste it. Does the balance of salty, spicy, sour and sweet work for you? If not, play with it. Go open a bottle of wine or a an unpasteurized beer, if that's your thing. Or pour a glass of kombucha. Then, sit down to a simple supper with not-so-simple flavors.

I hear you asking about amounts. Sigh. I can't really say exactly, but I will try--for you. For my family, which is usually 5 or 6 at dinner these days, I might use two jars of stock (4-6 cups?), an onion, a cup or more of other veg, a bag of whatever seafood (around a pound) and season to taste. The latter means start with a little an add till you like it. There is no rule about that--it's what you like. If you can't stand fish sauce, use a bit of tamari (but do try the fish sauce at least once, as it is very mild and gives a subtle flavor that soy sauces can't). If you are not fond of spice, go easy on it. And so on.

So today it looks like we're in for rain again. And I am going to visit J. And maybe we'll make soup. Because that's living with the seasons in our neighborhood. And to you I have this suggestion: go enjoy the season, whichever one it happens to be in your neck of the woods! And send me the recipes that come from your kitchen improvisations . . .
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