Amaranth and Apple Pudding

Makes 1.5 C

These cool mornings have quickly brought with them the craving for creamy oatmeal for breakfast.  While preparing some for my husband and I, I also had some amaranth cooking for Claire.  (Quinoa was her first ‘grain’ and this would be her second.)  Experimenting in the kitchen is always fun.  Experimenting with recipes for Claire doubles that fun!

Amaranth is still somewhat of an obscure grain though it enjoys a very rich history.  While quinoa was the sacred, power food of the Incas, amaranth was the sacred, power food of the Aztecs.  (Not surprising, quinoa and amaranth are distant cousins.)  When the Spaniards arrived, they forbade the cultivation of amaranth, mostly because it was often used in sacred, religious ceremonies.  This was inconvenient for the spread of Christianity.  (Food permeates every aspect of life!)  Still, amaranth was resilient and its spread around the globe proved inevitable as its name indicates.  Amaranth comes from the Greek amarantos, “one that does not wither,” or “the never-fading.”¹  (You’ll think about this “never-fading” again, when you’re cleaning up after your baby dines on this goody!)

Rebecca Wood writes that, “the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has encouraged the use of amaranth since 1967 because wherever amaranth is consumed there is little or no malnutrition”.²  That’s a bold statement for the health properties of this poppy seed-like “grain”.  Like quinoa, it is a protein power-house, at about 14%.  It also contains more protein and calcium than milk.  Go ahead and read that sentence again.  This is one reason why amaranth is such a perfect food for pregnant and nursing moms and for children.  It’s also what makes it ideal for babies since babies are well equipped to digest proteins.  Amaranth contains lunasin, a peptide thought to have cancer-preventing benefits and preventing inflammation that accompanies chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.¹  It’s also naturally gluten-free, which is really just a bonus.

Amaranth can be added to thicken soups, it can be popped and spiced up as a snack or it can be added to baked goods.  It’s tiny, it’s versatile, it’s nutritious and yes, it’s delicious in all its wild nuttiness!  Your body will do cartwheels in gratitude for adding this to your diet.

Needless to say, we traded in our steel-cut oats and that morning, we all ate this amaranth and apple pudding for breakfast.

You’ll need:

1/2 C amaranth, soaked in 1 C water and 1 T lemon juice

1/2 C coconut milk

1/4 t sea salt

1 t vanilla extract

3 T raisins

1 T unrefined, extra virgin coconut oil

1/4 C stewed apple, diced (bananas work lovely wonders here, too)

sprinkle of ground cinnamon

sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg

To make:

1. Place amaranth with its soaking water, coconut milk and salt in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil then lower heat to simmer.

2. Add vanilla extract and raisins and cook for 20 minutes, stirring often, until the liquid has gotten thick and creamy.

3. Remove from heat and stir in coconut oil.

4. Serve by scooping some of the pudding into a bowl and topping with apples, cinnamon and nutmeg.

5. Enjoy!  (And if you’re feeding this to a little one, don’t be put off by the mess.  Just be prepared to find amaranth EVERYWHERE – remember it’s “never-fading” – and know that it’s well worth it!)

¹http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/amaranth-may-grain-of-the-month-0

² Rebecca Wood, The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia

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A Fishy Story

As life would have it, a few weeks after first watching this TED presentation, I found myself standing next to Dan Barber, plating small dishes for a private party at his famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  I was nervous.  I was one of many interns he randomly chose to help on the line and I wanted to tell him I thought his presentation was brilliant and that he was funny.  The words stayed trapped in my mouth.  I was far too busy concentrating on plating!

I bring this presentation to you today because fish is, well it’s kind of fishy.  There are no real standards for seafood so we’re not exactly sure what we’re getting.  Our waters are in much worse condition than our soil is.  The key word here is runoff.  Everything industrial agriculture uses such as pesticides (including arsenic and agent Orange among other toxins), antibiotics, hormones, etc., animal waste, industrial garbage and pharmaceutical trash, they have all found a home in our lakes, rivers, seas and oceans.  (Air pollution plays a role here, too.)  Have you heard of the aquatic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?  It sounds serious because it is.

So, we think farm-raised fish is sustainable, healthier, and better for the fish.  It isn’t.  Now, we may not even be able to tell if our salmon is even a real salmon or a product of Genetic Engineering, aka frankenfish.  We can thank the FDA for that.  (And this brings us back to the importance of LABELING!)

I realize how precious your time is.  I do.  But I posted this 19+minute presentation anyway because aquaculture or fish farming will be a necessary part of our future.  We need to be informed to make the best decisions we can for our health, that of our family and that of our planet.  We are all responsible.

If you can make the time to watch this, I can guarantee you 2 things:  1. You will learn a lot about the right and wrong ways to farm fish and 2. You will laugh a lot.

In the meantime, I’m off to find me some wild caught Alaskan Salmon, because I haven’t found a farm I can trust yet.

(For more info on what fish to eat and what fish to avoid, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.)

Thanks for reading and watching.  And, Enjoy!

Late Summer Ratatouille

Serves 6

When I opened my CSA box last week, I was giddy with all the late summer produce that greeted me.  I pulled out eggplant, squash, tomatoes, peppers, jalapeños, kale, green beans, yellow ones, the visual feast went on and on and immediately ideas began brewing. The first 4 vegetables I pulled out seemed to scream ratatouille to me. Anyone would have heard it and so I had no choice but to comply.

Ratatouille is a typical French dish with many variations.  I prefer cooking the vegetables separately so that they have the opportunity to showcase themselves as individuals before joining the party and participating in the synergy that a good ratatouille demands.  (I’m glad to have just read that so did Julia Child.)  It all comes down to appreciating unique flavors that contribute to a dish.

As a health-supportive chef, an interesting fact about this dish stands out:  most of the vegetables in this dish are nightshades. The nightshade family, or Solanaceae, are a mysterious bunch.  This family has over 2,000 species of medical, ornamental and poisonous plants including tobacco, belladonna (this is a deadly one), potatoes, goji berries and not to mention the veg (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers) in this ratatouille.

The members of this family are highly suspect when it comes to our joint health.  Nightshades are unique in that they are high in alkaloids. Like protein, they contain a significant amount of nitrogen, however unlike protein which builds and repairs tissue, alkaloids are stimulants, hallucinogens, poisonous, and have been known to disrupt the calcium balance in our bodies.  If we look at traditional cultures who consume these veg often, we see that they are often accompanied by some form of dairy; cheese, yogurt, cream, etc. Without the excess calcium in dairy, nightshades will absorb the calcium from our bones and deposit it where it doesn’t belong, in our soft tissue ,our joints and in other unwanted places like our arteries.  This aggravates inflammation and could make for creaking, cracking, painful joints.

It gets worse.  In Food and Healing, Annemarie Colbin mentions “calciphylactic syndrome”, a term coined by Austrian endocrinologist, Hans Selye.  This is the “calcification” or deposits of calcium in our soft tissue and “it is involved in arthritis, arteriosclerosis, coronary disease, cerebral sclerosis, kidney stones, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, even some forms of cancer”.  Unfortunately it seems that this condition “is possibly the most prevalent physical symptom in modern industrial cultures”.

So, why would you make and eat this delicious and seemingly dangerous dish?  For starters, you’re not eating it everyday!  Or you shouldn’t be anyway.  Secondly, it is paired with Parmigiano Reggiano so you are eating this dish in balance for your body.  Lastly, it is a traditional dish and there are many health benefits to all the veg involved.  Everything needs to be in moderation and in balance.  The key is to always listen to your own body.

We enjoyed this dish 3 ways.  The first was over couscous, then over pasta and finally, and this is my all time favorite, over a chunky piece of sourdough toast with a fried egg on top.  Trust me on that last one.  It is pure gourmet brunch bliss material!

P.S. If you do experience joint pain or suffer from arthritis, you may want to forgo eating any nightshades for a few weeks to see if your condition improves.  It’s worth the experiment.  (Macrobiotic diet could help here, too.)

You’ll need:

1 large eggplant, peeled and cut in 1” dice

1 zucchini, ½” dice

1 yellow squash, ½” dice

1 green bell pepper, ½” dice

1 Spanish onion, diced

3 large cloves garlic, separated and minced

1 28oz. can whole tomatoes or 4 large-ish ripe tomatoes (heirloom would be great), ½”dice and reserve juices

2 T tomato paste

1 t herbs de provence

2 sprigs fresh thyme

Splash of red wine

Sea salt to taste

Fresh ground black pepper

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

2T fresh parsley, finely chopped

To make:

*Pre-heat oven to 350°

  1. Place egglplant in a colander and season generously with salt.  Let sit for 20min while moisture is withdrawn from eggplant.  Rinse and set aside to dry.
  2. In a sauté pan, heat 3T olive oil and add onion, a pinch of sea salt and herbs de Provence.  Saute for 5 minutes until just tender and then add 2 cloves of minced garlic and sauté for 3 more minutes.  Then add tomato paste and mix well.
  3. Once mixture is blended well and very fragrant, deglaze with a splash of red wine and cook out for 2 minutes.  Then, add tomatoes and reserved juices.  Let simmer for 15-20min.
  4. Meanwhile, in another sauté pan, heat 3T olive oil and add remaining garlic, eggplant and season with thyme.  Stir often and cook until just tender.  Remove from pan.
  5. Add zucchini, squash and pepper and another T of olive oil to pan.  Season with salt and pepper and sauté for 5-7 minutes, making sure vegetables stay al dente.  Remove from pan and add to eggplant.
  6. In a shallow baking dish, add half of tomato sauce and then top with cooked vegetables.  Top off with remaining sauce and bake for 20 minutes.  This is just enough time to let the flavors blend and to finish off cooking the veg without overcooking them!
  7. Serve over couscous, pasta or enjoy alone with some thick sourdough bread!

How to Cook When You Don’t Have Time to Cook

Let’s face it.  The best meals you eat are the ones you cook yourself, or someone cooks for you, if you’re lucky!  Nothing beats home cooking.  You know exactly what you’re eating, how it’s prepared and YOU can control portion size.  Portions have gotten pretty ridiculous and most of us get through our plates because we paid for them.  Then we feel terrible afterwards and we think that this is normal.  It isn’t.  (Neither are “all  you can eat” buffets!)  Additionally, home cooking is usually made with LOVE, an ingredient that elevates most dishes and nourishes body and soul.

When I give workshops on Food and Health or am otherwise chatting about food and cooking, I oftentimes hear from people that they would cook and eat better if they only had the time to.  They tell me how lucky I am that I’m a health-supportive chef, that I must have a Rolodex of ‘healthy’ recipes and menu ideas in my head so no wonder I can cook and eat well.

I am lucky.  Culinary school was invaluable for me, not just in the professional kitchen, but in my own kitchen as well.  It isn’t however, what makes dinner possible for me on most nights.  My mom is not a chef, neither was my grandmother, yet they cooked everyday. (And trust me, I draw blanks for dinner all the time, too.)  What makes dinner possible is a bit of strategizing and planning.  It’s very much like teaching.  All the work gets done before you even walk into the classroom.  So much so that if you’ve lesson planned properly, the class can basically teach itself.  It’s the same with cooking.

Here’s what you need to know and what you need to do:

1. Organize Your Fridge and Pantry

Of course this would come first and it’s usually what trips everyone up.  Few people like to organize; with the exception of chefs and teachers maybe!  But, you have to.  You must organize the fridge and the pantry.  What do you have?  What can you use?  What needs to be re-stocked?  What gets thrown in the trash?  Take inventory and start your list.  You can think beyond the week for staples such as long grain brown rice, black beans, coconut milk, etc.  (Those are some of my staples.)

(Note:  Part of the organizing will entail you have containers to organize in.  Glass jars, ziploc bags, tupperware, it all works to get you organized.  A roll of masking tape and a sharpie really help, too!)

2. Organize Your Thoughts

OK, so you now know what’s going on in your fridge and pantry and you’ve gotten it together.  Your mind is either racing with ideas or completely blank.  Don’t worry.  Both are normal and either will happen every week!  To keep you focused, take a look at your inventory and decide what you want to use/eat/cook that week.  Rice?  Quinoa?  Lentils?  Chicken?  Want to finish that cabbage that is still good but doesn’t have much time left?

This is how you start to build an idea of the meals that will come together.  What can you do with what you have and most importantly, what are you in the mood for?

3. Menu Plan

Now comes the fun part.  Don’t be intimidated by the looming blankness of your canvas, the menu plan.  Planning is messy and it takes many revisions and what you end up cooking may be slightly different from what you planned anyway.  Be flexible and take pleasure in knowing you’re making careful decisions for your and your family’s enjoyment and health.

When thinking about the menu plan, keep these things in mind:

  • Try to eat seasonally.  Strawberries in January (on the East Coast) don’t taste good anyway.  Eating seasonally keeps you in tune with the rhythm of the Earth and that connection is another form of nourishment.  Not to mention, seasonal (and local) food tastes infinitely better!
  • Organic, Grass-fed, Pastured, Non-GMO; these are all terms that ensure that you are buying and eating the highest quality food, the most nutrient dense and also the most delicious.
  • Balance!  If you’re having pasta on Monday, try not to do cous cous on Tuesday, sandwiches on Wednesday, pasta on Thursday again, etc.  Mix it up.  Also, you want to “eat the rainbow”.  Nothing is more boring than eating and looking at a plate that is one color, nor will it do you much good nutritionally either.  Eating a variety of colors guarantees a good mix of macro and micro nutrients, anti-oxidants, phytonutrients, etc.
  • Keep it simple!  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every night.  Try to use similar ingredients throughout the week so your prep time is kept to a minimum and you’re sure to eat what you bought instead of throwing anything away.
  • Plan a leftover day.  For example:  Soups and grain and bean salads make great leftovers, roast a chicken and use the legs for dinner tonight and the breasts for dinner on Friday.  (Save the carcass for a stock;)
  • Example of a weekly menu plan:
    Lunch Dinner
    Monday coconut lentil soup
    Tuesday lentil soup chicken, black bean, rice, apple salsa
    Wednesday leftovers mushroom omelettes w/ salad
    Thursday veggie burgers w/ green salad
    Friday grain salad lamb chops, swiss chard, grain salad
    Saturday chard and mushroom risotto, green salad
    Sunday roasted asparagus soup/grilled cheese

Notice the blank spaces for lunch.  Nothing can be so perfectly planned and it’s good to leave a few blanks for spontaneity and bursts of inspiration.

4. List and Shop

Throughout the above steps, you already started your list, at least mentally.  Now finish it.  Fill in the holes.  The biggest holes will probably be fresh produce, eggs, bread and other perishables.

Shop!  The next most fun part!  Do you your best to stick to the list so you don’t get sidetracked and start re-doing your entire menu-plan in the produce section!  Remember to be flexible.  If you’re looking for chard but all they have is kale, kale will likely work, too.

5. Mise en Place

Mise en place literally means, “everything in its place”.  You’ll do some version of this every time you cook (usually).  It just means having everything ready; spices measured, veggies cut, protein marinated, etc.  I take this a step further.  For the week ahead, I’ll wash, dry and store any greens, such as kale, chard, collard greens, some lettuces, etc.  I’ll dice onions, celery and carrots and keep them in tupperware.  (These make up the mirepoix which is a basic flavor profile for many foods.)  If I’m making rice or beans, I wash and soak them for the next day.  If I’m making veggie burgers for dinner, I’ll make extra, store, label and freeze them for another dinner.

In order to be successful in your menu plan, you have to keep thinking at least a day ahead.  Cooking most things from scratch takes time (this isn’t bad!), but if you do things in parts, it won’t seem like so much time.  I usually reserve a weekend to do all this pre-work while my husband is home and I can have a couple dedicated hours in the kitchen.  Trust me, this saves a world of time and it makes dinner possible even when unexpected things pop up in your day.

6. Ready to Cook

With your fridge and pantry organized, your menu plan written out, your fridge stocked for the week and your mise en place ready to go, you’re ready to cook!  With all these steps, all the pre-work, you’ll be able to tackle most dinners in about 30 minutes.  And when you need to compromise, then do so.  A can of beans (Eden Organic are BPA free) won’t kill you if you forgot to soak beans the night before. Neither will take-out.  Just don’t let these become habit.  You’ll notice that once you start to cook and eat your own food from scratch (most of the time) most other prepared foods just don’t taste as good.  You’ll also start to feel the difference after you eat.  Pretty soon you’ll be addicted to this cycle, you’ll feel better in body and you’ll be happier, too.

These steps will get much easier with practice.  They seem involved and daunting now but before you  know it, you’ll be a skilled cook in your own kitchen doling out advice to friends and family!

So, what’s for dinner?