Gluten Free: My two week journey

gluten free logoMaybe you’ve noticed “gluten free” displayed prominently on products up and down the grocery store aisle. Is this a new food trend or is something else going on?

I would say it’s a little of both. First, let me briefly explain what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related gains, including barley, spelt and rye. It is what gives dough elasticity and helps it rise; much desired qualities for making breads and pasta.

On one hand, people without gluten sensitivity are buying gluten-free products with the idea that these foods are healthier to eat. So in this sense, it can be looked at as a health trend akin to fat-free fad (or debacle as I like to call it).

On the other hand, gluten can cause unpleasant and often dangerous symptoms in people who have sensitivity to it. While celiac disease, an auto-immune disease involving an adverse reaction to gluten, was once uncommon, it is clearly on the rise, which might explain the surge in gluten-free products. A study done by the Mayo Clinic found that celiac disease has increased four fold in the last 45 years. What is interesting about this study is that it was able to test frozen blood samples taken between1948 and 1954 and compare them to blood samples from similar recent study groups. This shows that the actual rate of celiac disease is on the rise and not just a rise in the diagnoses of it.

Unfortunately, the study did not say why we are seeing more problems with gluten. One common speculation is that the wheat that is grown today in our country has a much higher percentage of gluten than older varieties.

Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, so the symptom can include a wide range of ailments such as abdominal cramping/bloating, mouth sores, muscle cramping, constipation, night blindness, dry skin, weakness, fatigue, arthritis, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, dementia, migraines, epilepsy and acne. Since the symptoms are so varied, a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity may be overlooked.

There are different degrees of gluten intolerance ranging from gluten sensitivity to Celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity symptoms can range from mere annoyances to downright debilitating ailments. Celiac disease can be quite dangerous if left untreated (the treatment is eliminating gluten). The disease can be confirmed with a blood test and intestinal biopsy.

Basically, celiac disease is malnutrition. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse states, “When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying villi—the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine. Villi normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished, no matter how much food one eats.” Eating healthy food does no good unless your body is absorbing the nutrients.

My friend and blogger, Suzanne (http://sthibeault.wordpress.com) is gluten sensitive. Suzanne had been suffering from arthritis. “I had been experiencing joint pain in my fingers for several years,” she told me. “I read an article in The Chicago Tribune, which linked arthritis to an inflammatory response gluten-sensitive people experience when they ingest gluten.” So she gave gluten-free a try. “Hazzah! Clouds part, angels sing! Within a week, my fingers stopped aching for the first time in years,” she said.

My neighbor Ann was diagnosed with celiac disease last year. She went to the dermatologist because of acne that had plagued her since her late teens. A few tests later she was diagnosed with celiac disease. She cut out all the gluten from her — her acne cleared up and she feels great. If she eats even a few wheat crumbs, the acne comes back along with a host of other unpleasant symptoms.

She has a brand new blog, Naturally Gluten Free, where you can read her whole story.

Of course, these anecdotes are not suggesting that giving up gluten will cure your arthritis or clear up your acne, but if you’ve tried everything else, talk to your doctor about food intolerance. In addition to wheat, eggs and dairy can also be culprits.

In the interest of solidarity to my celiac and gluten sensitive friends, I decided to give up gluten for a couple of weeks. I wanted to see if a.) I felt different and b.) how hard it was. I dragged my poor husband along for the ride.

Yes, it is hard, at least until you get the hang of it. There is gluten in everything from, of course, bread, cakes, and cookies to soy sauce, bourbon, lipstick, and the glue on postage stamps. Plus there isn’t always a gluten-free option available when you’re hungry, so you need to be prepared. It can also be expensive. A small loaf of gluten-free bread can run you six bucks.

I also found that gluten free prepared foods, like packaged cookies, in general taste bad. Plus I think processed food is still processed food so I try to steer clear from them, gluten- free or not.

Ann mentioned to me that she finds it easy to go with foods that are inherently gluten free. Mexican and Asian foods are a good place to start as long as you stick to corn tortillas and rice or bean-thread noodles. If you eat dishes that never had gluten in them in the first place, they’ll most likely taste better and won’t break the bank.

I can’t say I felt better, but luckily I wasn’t feeling bad before I started my experiment. I did loose a few pounds but that was mainly because I wasn’t always prepared and didn’t eat the snacks containing gluten that I might otherwise have eaten to get me through the day.

I don’t plan to entirely cut out wheat, but I might pass up some items containing gluten. Wheat cereal, I can do without, but a hot baguette with butter is something I plan to hold on to.

Now that I’m back eating wheat, I try to notice if I feel differently. I’m still experimenting but I think I’m a little congested on the days I eat wheat. Spring, though, probably isn’t the best time to blame wheat for my congestion!

Stay tuned for recipes!

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Cashew Cream

If you want to waste the better part of an afternoon, the online Carrot Museum isn’t a bad place to do it. It has the history of carrots, fun carrot trivia and some very cool WWII posters featuring carrots. It was all interesting, but I kind of got stuck in the musical instruments wing.

The Carrot Museum is set up in such a way that I wasn’t sure if the whole musical instrument thing was just a spoof or not. I quickly did some fact checking on YouTube. Sure enough, there are many videos on how to make instruments out of carrots. There is even a Vienna All-Vegetable Orchestra. If I was late turning in this column, it wasn’t because I was in the basement drilling out my very own carrot kazoo.

As a kid, I loved raw carrots and watching Captain Kangaroo. Once he said that, in a pinch, eating a carrot could be a substitute for brushing your teeth. I liked to eat carrots more than I liked brushing my teeth, so I hid my toothbrush.

Whether or not that was the intended lesson, it’s what my 5-year-old mind took in. I told my mom that I couldn’t find my toothbrush and that Captain Kangaroo said I could just eat a carrot instead. Her response was that I had best find it. It was worth a try. I’m guessing I still got a carrot, but I don’t remember that part.

While carrots may not be a substitute for a toothbrush, they are still good for you. One cup of raw carrots is jam packed with about 428 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. They are also a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K and potassium.

If you are lucky, you will have carefully stored last fall’s carrot harvest in your root cellar and you are still enjoying local carrots. While luck may come into play, careful crop planning and proper storage will improve your odds. I am not lucky or prepared. Our carrot crop last year was meager, so I am now buying California carrots. I shouldn’t complain too much since I picked up a two pound bag of organic carrots for $1.99 the other day.

Keep your eye out for multi-colored carrots this summer. Better yet, plant some. The Hudson Valley Seed Library sells packs of Kaleidoscope Carrot  seeds. I plan to be the first one on the block with a purple carrot kazoo!

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Cashew Cream

This recipe is adapted from Rebecca Katz’s recipe in One Bite at a Time: Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends. The first time I made it, I started to peel the carrots. Three pounds is a lot of carrots to peel. Being lazy, I stopped about three carrots in and just chopped the rest. The soup was delicious.

Ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
3 pounds carrots, washed (not peeled), cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric (or curry powder)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)
8 cups water or vegetable, chicken or beef stock (I use a combination of stocks)
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt (to taste)

Method

  • In a large soup pot (6 to 8 quarts), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the carrots, spices and vinegar.
  • Add water or broth and salt. Cook until the carrots are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Use an immersion blender to puree soup. You can also use a traditional blender. Let the soup cool a bit before transferring it to the blender. Be sure to keep a towel and your hand firmly on the blender lid. Hot soup has a tendency to spew.
  • Ladle into bowls and top with cashew cream.

Serves 6

Cashew Cream

This cream is just plain delicious and would be good on a variety of things, including pasta, sautéed kale or a baked potato.

Ingredients

1 cup raw cashews
1 cup water
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Method

  • Soak the cashews in water overnight.
  • Drain and place cashews in a blender. Pulse a few times, then add water, lemon juice, salt and nutmeg. Blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.

The importance of splurging: part two and how to make a cake with your bare hands

This is the second time my husband has requested a strawberry cake. I think it is the long winter that gives him a craving for a summer taste. For his cake, I followed a recipe in a book that my brother and sister-in-law gave me called the Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book, ©1934.

The author, John MacPherson, had one very good reason for wanting to remain a mystery — his mother. Apparently, she was “horrified” that her son had taken up the hobby of cooking. In fact, she recommended that he “keep it under his hat.” I guess cooking didn’t seem like the thing a man should be doing in the ’30s.

I like two things about this recipe. One, the ingredients were few and simple. Two, he recommends that all the stirring be done with your hands. Not by hand, as in with a wooden spoon, but with your hands. Whether this was a lack of an electric mixer, which were pricey in the 1930s, or his predilection for making a big mess, I couldn’t tell you, but I was intrigued by the idea. I’m no stranger to pushing my sleeves up past my elbows and digging in, so I gave it a try,

Squishing the butter and sugar together was kind of fun. When I added the eggs and milk, it got very sloppy. If you ever decide to go this route, I recommend a few things. First measure all of your ingredients and have them in containers that you can easily pick up with slimy hands. Or have an assistant to dump all the ingredients as you need them. Better yet, find a kid and have them do all of the mixing while you add the ingredients. I think that would be a win-win solution.

I now know that if I find myself with a hot oven, flour, butter, baking soda, eggs, milk, sugar and a bowl, but nary a spoon in site, I can still confidently make a cake. Step aside, I would tell my hapless cohorts; I’ve done this before.

Strawberry Cake

Modified from the Mystery Chef’s Master Butter Cake recipe. If you are too much of a wimp to mix this with your hands, then by all means get the electric mixer out.

Ingredients
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs yolks
1 1/2 cups of sifted flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup of milk
1/2 cup of sliced strawberries (fresh or frozen)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 egg whites
1/2 cup strawberry jam

Method

  • Heat oven to 375.
  • Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans
  • Measure all ingredients and have them ready to use.
  • Sift all dry ingredients together and set aside.
  • Beat the egg yolks until they are thick and lemon in color.
  • Place the butter and sugar into a large bowl and squeeze the butter with your hands until it is well mixed with the sugar.
  • Add the egg yolks and continue to mix with your hands.
  • Slowly add the flour mix and continue to mix with your hands.
  • Add milk, strawberries and extract and mix some more. It will be a bit runny and you’ll start to question the whole mixing with your hands technique.
  • If you don’t have an assistant, you will have to stop and wash your hands at this point to whip the egg whites. They can’t be whipped before hand. Whip them until they form soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter. I found this the hardest part and probably over mixed, which resulted in a cake that didn’t rise as much as I would have liked.
  • Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans. Place pans on the middle rack and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
  • Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely before frosting.
  • Spread strawberry jam on one cake layer. Place the other layer on top and frost with strawberry cream-cheese frosting.

Strawberry Cream-Cheese Frosting

I tried mixing this with my hands, but quickly gave up and grabbed my immersion blender.

Ingredients

1 cup chopped strawberries (fresh or frozen)
3 tablespoons butter, softened
8 ounces of cream cheese
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons almond extract

Method
Using a hand mixer or immersion blender, blend all ingredients until smooth. If your frosting is runny, either chill until it sets a little or slowly pour it over the cake and allow it to drip down the sides (that is what I did).

So, what’s wrong with sugar anyway?

The American Heart Association’s main push for decreasing the amount of added sugar a person eats is that adding such empty calories may lead to weight gain and weight gain can lead to heart disease.1

If that was all there was to it, I might not change my habits. I have a terrible sweet tooth. If my weight goes up, I cut calories across the board and don’t just zero in on sugars. But, as I’ve found out, there are other reasons to limit sugar.

Here are two good ones:

Excess sugar consumption may lead to insulin resistance.2, 3

When you eat sugar, your blood sugar levels rise. Then, your pancreas releases insulin to help move sugar from your blood into your cells. As blood sugar levels go down, your insulin levels return to normal. Over time, it takes more and more insulin to get the job done. It is thought that, eventually, your pancreas sort of wears out and may be less effective at lowering blood sugars. Excess sugar builds up in the bloodstream and you’ve got a stage set for type 2 diabetes.4

Excess sugar consumption promotes inflammation in the body.5, 6

Apparently, inflammation is the real killer and is thought to be linked to a host of ailments, including heart attacks, strokes and dementia.

One thing to look at is the amount of “added sugar” in your diet. Added sugars are just that, sugar (whether it is refined or unrefined) added to a product.

According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their intake of added sugar to about six teaspoons (or 24 grams) a day. For men, it’s about nine teaspoons (or 36 grams). One 12-ounce can of soda can have eight to 12 teaspoons of added sugar. Ouch.

Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits and vegetables (fructose) and milk (lactose). Naturally occurring sugars aren’t empty calories. With them, you are getting vitamins, minerals and/or fiber, a.k.a., the good stuff you need in your diet. If you are keeping track of your carb intake, be sure to add any naturally occurring sugars in your count, but you don’t need to fret too much over them when watching out for added sugar.

Spotting added sugar requires a bit of label reading. Food manufacturers aren’t required to separate naturally occurring sugars from added sugars. The ingredients to look for in prepared products are sugar, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, maple syrup, honey, concentrated fruit juice and anything that end with “ose,” such as maltose, dextrose or sucrose. As my nephew Brennen once told me, if it ends with “ose,” it’s gross.

For now, I’m going to pick on refined, white sugar. Some say it’s the devil incarnate. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but I don’t think it is doing your body any favors, even in moderation. When you eat white, refined sugar, not only are you spiking the level of sugar in your blood, you aren’t giving any nutrients to your body.

The reason to switch to less-refined sugars is they offer a bit of nutrients along with their sweet kick. Raw honey has enzymes; molasses and maple sugar have trace minerals. Plus, I just think it is a good idea to choose foods that are closest to how they are found in nature. I don’t like my food mucked around with.

Switching to less-refined sugar isn’t a license to eat more. It’s still sugar and will spike your blood levels and add calories.

When you do indulge in a sweet treat, eat one that has a little fat in it, like whole-milk ice cream or a dark chocolate bar with nuts. According to Sally Fallon, author of “Nourishing Traditions,” adding fats to sweets “slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream while providing fat-soluble nutrients …”

Yes, that means whole-milk ice cream with nuts is back on the menu! Especially if you can find it sweetened with natural sugars or make it yourself.

Here are some of my favorite natural sugar recipes:
Pear Walnut Cream Cheese Wontons
Pasteli- Sesame Honey Candy
Almond Date Balls
Peanut Butter Cups
Maple Syrup Bread Pudding
Maple Pralines
Maple Turtles
Almond Joy Knock Offs

Food for Thought:
“Sugar in any form or refined carbohydrates (white food) drives the good cholesterol down, cause triglycerides to go up, creates small damaging cholesterol particles, and causes metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes. That is the true cause of most heart attacks, NOT LDL cholesterol.” Mark Hyman MD; Why Cholesterol May Not Be the Cause Of Heart Disease

end notes
1 http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3068932
2 http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/292/8/978.extract
3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17709452?dopt=Abstract
4 http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/type-2-diabetes/DS00585/DSECTION=causes
5 http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/What-you-eat-can-fuel-or-cool-inflammation-a-key-driver-of-heart-disease-diabetes-and-other-chronic-conditions.shtml
6 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17402291?dopt=Abstract

Participating in Monday Mania.

Secret Ingredient Black Bean Chili

When the weather is cold and snowy, I find comfort in a big pot of bubbling chili and hot-out-of-the-oven cornbread with lots of butter. It almost makes the latest snowstorm tolerable … almost.

There are endless variations of and opinions on what goes or does not go into a good bowl of chili. Some think that there is no place for beans in chili. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is illegal to add beans to chili in the state of Texas. Others insist on using red kidney beans and nothing else will do. What I like about all the variations is the assortment of “secret” ingredients. Any chili chef worth his/her salt has a secret ingredient or two in their pot.

In the January/February issue of Cook’s Illustrated, the test kitchen looked into many chili secret weapons, including red wine, peanut butter, cola, prunes, coffee, cornmeal, beer, molasses, cocoa powder, anchovies and mushrooms. They gave the boot to all but beer, molasses, cocoa powder and cornmeal. While I was tempted to try them all (yes, all the winners and losers in the same pot), I refrained and only used a few.

I usually make chili with ground beef. My husband recently made a delicious pot with sirloin steak (coffee is his secret ingredient). Since I had lots of beans in my cupboard, I decided to go the veggie route. I always use dried beans. They do take time, but don’t require much effort.

I use dried beans for several reasons.

-They are more flavorful than canned beans.
-I have fewer cans to recycle.
-They are cheaper. Canned beans are pretty cheap, but organic beans can be around $2 a can. The dried, organic equivalent is about 60 cents.

A big reason I go for dried beans is that I try to avoid cans in general. Most cans are lined with Bisphenol A (BPA). The FDA assures us that it is safe, but I’ve read enough studies to think this endocrine disrupter isn’t anything I want touching my food.

Luckily, if you are in a hurry, there are a couple of options for beans. Eden Foods beans are packed in Bisphenol A (BPA) free cans. Amy’s Kitchen is going to start rolling out BPA free cans this year.

Unfortunately, canned tomatoes are the worst offenders because their acidic nature causes more of the BPA to leach into the food. I have yet to find canned tomatoes free of BPA. Don’t be fooled by thinking that organic canned tomatoes are BPA free, most, if not all are not (I’ve called and asked). Supposedly Muir Glen (owned by General Mills) has BPA free cans of tomatoes on the shelves, but they are being a bit cagey about it. If you buy a can today, it may or may not be BPA lined and there is no way to tell by the date canned. I’m assuming when all of their cans are BPA free, they will send the all-clear signal. Until then, I use home-canned tomatoes in glass, store-bought tomatoes in glass or those packed in aseptic packaging (the waxy-looking box).

My favorite part of chili is all the fixings. Sour cream or plain yogurt, cheddar cheese and raw chopped onions are a must for me. I also like to throw in avocado and cilantro if I have them hanging around.

And, of course, probably the best garnish for chili is a cold mug of beer!

Stay warm!


Black Bean Chili

This is a vegetarian recipe but, if you fancy, by all means, add some meat!

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons molasses
1 large box (26 ounces) chopped tomatoes, undrained
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups vegetable stock
4 cups cooked black beans
2 cups fresh or frozen corn
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon black pepper (more to taste)

For garnish:
Cilantro, chopped
Cheddar cheese, grated
Sour cream or plain yogurt
Onions, chopped
Avocado, chopped

Method:

  • In a large pot, add olive oil and onions, sauté over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes. Add peppers and garlic and sauté another minute.
  • Add spices, cocoa powder, tomatoes, vinegar and stock; bring to a boil. Add black beans and corn.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle a hefty serving into each bowl and top with garnishes.

How to cook dried beans:

  • Decide on the amount you want to cook. One cup of dried beans equals 2.5 cooked. While you are cooking beans, you might as well make extra. You can freeze the leftovers and grab them when you want a quick meal.
  • Sort through the beans, rinse and pick out any little pebbles. Most of the time I don’t find any, but that time or two that I do, my teeth are happy I took the extra step.
  • There is a big culinary debate about whether to soak or not to soak beans. Apparently it is a toss up on whether you save time and reduce the bean’s gas-producing properties. I always soak unless I forget, then I just cook them.
  • To soak, place beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with cold water. If any beans float to the top, remove them (they are too old). Soak for at least six hours, but preferably overnight. I keep them out on the counter.
  • Drain the beans and discard the liquid.
  • Place the beans in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover them with water. Add enough so that there are a couple inches of water above the beans. Bring to a boil, cover and turn the heat to low. Add more water if the water level dips below the beans. Stir occasionally. Cook until bite-tender. This will take one to two hours, depending on the beans.
  • Drain and use now or freeze.

Slow-Cooking variation: Place beans in slow cooker, cover with water and soak overnight. Drain; add fresh water to cover with two additional inches. Cover and cook on low for eight hours.

This post is part of  The Nourishing Gourmet’s Pennywise Platter Thursday and Fight Back Fridays and The Healthy Home Economist Monday Mania.

How I was deprived of grits…

The first time I remember eating grits was in Boulder, Colorado. After college, I worked at a fancy-pants restaurant called Q’s in the Hotel Boulderado and we served pan-seared pork chops with blue cheese grits. It was the perfect, albeit not traditional, introduction into the corn-mush dish.

If you are wondering how I, as a southerner, made it until my 20s before I had grits, you aren’t alone. I wondered this, too. I asked my sister about it. Like me, she didn’t have grits at home growing up. I would say her first grits experience was a little more true to our southern roots since she had them in Columbus, Georgia, with our grandfather, aka, Poppa Gus.

I also asked my mom. She first said, “What? Are you going to write about how I deprived you of grits growing up?” I would never do such a thing. Then she said that she and my dad did indeed eat them often but “You guys just weren’t interested in them.” Yes, my mother, who was born in Mississippi, says “you guys” instead of “y’all.” Go figure.

My brother could not be reached for comment, at least not by my deadline. I do know that at least now, he eats grits. He recently sent me a pound of stone ground grits from McEwen & Sons Gristmill in Wilsonville, Alabama. They mill excellent organic corn products.

Let me back up a bit. Though the package was clearly labeled “grits,” my brother didn’t really send me a pound of grits, he sent me a pound of coarse, stone-ground cornmeal. I can turn the cornmeal into grits, polenta, cornbread or hamburger corn pone (Southern fare my family did eat).

What’s in a name? With grits and polenta, not much. Grits and polenta are both made with the same thing — ground dried corn kernels. The terms grits and polenta really just refer to the dishes made from ground corn. Some food companies, Bob’s Red Mills for one, label their coarse cornmeal with both “grits” and “polenta.”

To make matters more complicated, southern grits are often made from white corn hominy, so you will often see hominy grits on menus.

Hominy grits are a bit different. Hominy is hulled corn kernels, stripped of their bran and germ and nixtamalized. Nixtamalization is a process of treating the corn with an alkaline solution, such as lye. This makes the kernels swell to several times their natural size and increases the bioavailability of niacin (a fancy way of saying it’s easier for your body to use). When ground, the hominy grits are, well, grittier, than regular grits. They have more of a tooth to them.

For some people, it’s hominy grits or nothing. For me, I prefer yellow stone ground grits, but then, what does a late grits bloomer like myself know!

Blue Cheese Grits

Ingredients
4 cups water
3/4 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup coarse stone-ground grits
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (more to taste)

Method

  • Bring water and salt to a boil in a large heavy saucepan. While stirring, gradually add grits. Stir often with a wooden spoon.
  • Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently. Cook until the water is absorbed and grits have thickened, about 25 minutes. As the grits start to thicken, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan (they have a tendency to stick).
  • Stir in butter, milk, blue cheese and pepper. Continue to heat on low until it is the right consistency, which for some is on the thin side but, for me, is more like mashed potatoes.
  • Salt and pepper to taste. I almost always need more pepper.

Serves 6-8.

Participating in Monday-Mania.

Homemade Butter…in a jar!

My Kitchen Aid stand mixer has started to sound a little like a jet taking off. I’ve taken to wearing ear plugs when mixing.

I was reminded of a somewhat quieter time of butter making. It was pioneer day at elementary school. We used a jar. Add cream to a jar and pass it around a roomful of school kids and soon enough you’ll have butter. Pretty cool. In the interest of peace and quiet, I decided to give the jar a go again.

I poured cream into a mason jar, screwed the lid on tight, noted the time and started shaking. After what felt like an inordinate amount of time, my cream had reached the whipped cream stage. I though about stopping there, since my husband would be happy eating whipped cream even if it was on cardboard. I glanced at the clock and noticed that only three minutes had slipped by. Surely I could give it another three minutes or so. The next five minutes went by fast. The whipped cream suddenly gave way to a solid mass of butter sloshing around in buttermilk, no earplugs required.

Cows munching on grass produce milk that is particularly high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA wasn’t identified until the mid 80s, but quickly piqued many nutritionists’ interest. CLA is purported to have anti-cancer properties and helps fight inflammation. Meat and dairy from grass-fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than cattle on a typical fed-lot diet of corn silage grain/corn.

I am not one to shy away from using butter. It seems that after the trans-fat debacle, good, old-fashioned butter is back in favor with many health experts, though most still say that you should enjoy it with moderation. I’m in the camp that butter from grass-fed cows is actually healthy for you, so I eat it with impunity!

Ingredients
Heavy cream (from grass-fed cows, preferably)
Salt (optional)
Note: a pint of cream will yield 1 cup of butter

Method

  • Dump the cream in the jar with a tight fitting lid and start shaking.
  • First the cream will turn into whipped cream. Keep shaking.
  • Then it starts to get stiff and looks like whipped butter. Keep shaking.
  • The butter will turn a pale yellow, and liquid will separate from it.
  • Drain the buttermilk and reserve. The buttermilk isn’t cultured so it isn’t the delicious thick kind my granddad drank, but you can use it in baking recipes in place of milk.
  • Next, the butter needs to be washed. Any buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to go rancid quickly. Place the butter in a bowl with cold water and knead using a wooden spoon or your hands. Press the butter against the side of the bowl to squeeze out the buttermilk. Drain and repeat the “washing” until the liquid is clear.
  • Salt to taste, if desired.

I find that homemade butter spoils quickly (I may not be washing it enough). When I make a batch, I only keep out what I plan to use in a day or two. I store the rest in the freezer. In both the fridge and the freezer, I make sure it is wrapped up tight.

This post is part of The Healthy Home Economist Monday Mania.

Make your own…

My friend Bill doesn’t claim to be much of a cook. He told me that once in college he wanted to make a white sauce, or béchamel, if you want to be fancy. He mixed the flour, melted butter and milk. He stirred and stirred and it wasn’t thickening. He called his mom for guidance. She suggested that he add a little more flour. He did, but it still wasn’t thickening. He called her back to say that it still wasn’t working. She then suggested that he turn up the heat a bit. Bill said, “Heat?”

So when this non-cook tried his hand at making yogurt, granola and bagels, I took note. Apparently Slate Magazine had posted an article about how cost-effective it is to make certain pantry staples and it convinced him to give these a whirl.

As far as being cheaper, the article reported that yogurt and bagels are indeed cheaper to make at home (bagels check in at around 23¢ each and yogurt is around $1.75 for 4-cups). Granola is a toss up ($1.45 per cup). Bill said that he would definitely make yogurt and granola again. The jury is still out on making bagels. Bill wasn’t thrilled with his results.

These are easy, but require a little patience. No worries though, we all have a little patience to spare, right?

Homemade Yogurt
Bagels
Granola

What I will do for a good ginger scone and hot cup of chai

chaiI will brave Washington, DC traffic in rush hour to get a ginger scone and hot cup of chai from Teaism, one of my favorite DC cafes. I also love their cilantro scrambled eggs with naan and never leave without getting one of their salty oat cookies. But their chai and scones are worth the agony of sitting on the beltway.

Chai is an Indian spiced tea. It’s become quite popular and you can find it in many coffee shops and markets. While I’m not a picky eater in general, I am a picky about my chai and there are few places that meet my high standards. I don’t like it overly sweet and I don’t like it with a cloying vanilla flavor. I don’t want it to taste like a ginger snap. I like it complex, slightly sweet but with a nice bite. Teasim makes the perfectly balanced chai. Since I live six hours away, it was necessary for me to learn how to make my own perfect cup.

If you must be lazy, you may order both chai and ginger scone mix from Teaism’s website.

Ginger scones

These are a snap to make. I altered this recipe from the blog, Orangette. I used honey and white whole-wheat flour and was very happy with the results. If you want to be decadent, use white flour and sugar.

Crystallized ginger can be found in better food markets. If you can’t find it, ask your grocer to pick it up for you or make your own.

These are best served warm with a pat of butter.

Ingredients
2 cups white whole-wheat flour (or whole-wheat pastry flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the butter. Using your fingers, blend the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. You may also use a pastry knife or a fork. The goal is to incorporate the butter into little pea-sized or smaller pieces. This will give you a flakey scone.
  • While gently stirring the mixture, drizzle the honey over it. Add the ginger and stir to mix.
  • In a small bowl, beat the egg and milk together. Save a tablespoon for the glaze and pour the rest into the flour mixture, stir gently to just combine. Using your hands, press and knead the dough into a rough ball. It will be a little dry. If it isn’t holding together, add a little water.
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead it. Do not overwork the dough, a half dozen kneads should do it. Pat it into a round disc about 1 inch thick. Cut into 8 wedges.
  • Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush them with the reserved milk/egg mixture.
  • Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden. Cool briefly on a rack, and serve.

Makes eight medium-size scones

Up next, spicy chia…

Happy New Year!

In Spain, they eat 12 grapes for good luck on New Year’s Eve. In the Southern United States they eat a slightly more caloric good luck trifecta of greens, blackeyed peas and hog jowls. I didn’t catch on to this good luck charm until college and hog jowls never sounded like anything I ever needed to eat. Personally, I think it has an image problem more than anything; neither “hog” nor “jowls” are particularly nice sounding words. But hog jowls are a lot like bacon; they are smoked and cured. Call them by their Portuguese name (bochechas de porco) or Italian name (guanciale) and the stuff would cost three times as much and fly off the shelves.

My Granny was very experienced with this Southern New Year’s Day tradition. She grew up in the mountains of northern Georgia. In the 1920s, when she was a young girl, it was customary to go out in the front yard with pots, pans and spoons and “make a big noise” to ring in the New Year. The next day she always ate greens and Hoppin’ John. She told me that blackeyed peas and hog jowl bring good luck in the New Year. The greens, usually turnip, collard or mustard, bring money. Granny said, “If you eat greens on New Year’s Day you are supposed to get rich.” She added that although she was often disappointed that her wallet wasn’t fat the next day, the meal still tasted “mighty good.”

So get out your pots, pans and spoons, go out to your front yard and make a big ruckus for the New Year. Then eat some greens and Hoppin’ John and enjoy a prosperous year!

Next post: Hoppin’ John recipe.

Now Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding!

The other day as I was procrastinating, I mean doing research for this column, I came across a quiz that tested one’s knowledge of food in holiday songs. Here are a few questions that I remember (see answers below):

1. What did Grandma drink too much of before she got run over by a reindeer?

2. In “Let it Snow,” what is the food item and how are they going to prepare it?

3. In “The Christmas Song,” what’s roasting on an open fire? What other food item is mentioned?

4. The quiz left out some of my favorite food references from the “Grinch.” Name three food items.

And, of course, we have the following:

We wish you a Merry Christmas; We wish you a Merry Christmas …

Now, bring us some figgy pudding! Now, bring us some figgy pudding! Now, bring us some figgy pudding and bring some out here!

We won’t go until we get some!

We won’t go until we get some!

We won’t go until we get some, so bring it right here!

So people come to your door, wish you a merry Christmas, then demand figgy pudding and don’t plan to leave until you bring it. That’s flat out holiday extortion. You know they are serious because they repeat it three times. The gall!

I’ve never been exactly sure what figgy pudding is, but have always loved the lengths that people purportedly go just to get some. I pictured people clad in winter gear, holding a cup of pudding and trying to maneuver their spoons while wearing mittens. Turns out figgy pudding is more of a cake, so may easily be eaten by bundled up, caroling extortionists.

Figgy pudding is a nice break from all the cloyingly sweet treats that I certainly eat quite a bit of this time of year. It’s a moist, spiced, bread-like cake. The flavor deepens as it ages; so make it a couple of days before you plan to eat it. For an extra treat, top each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.

Ingredients
2 cups dried figs (about 1 pound), stems removed, chopped fine
1/4 cup bourbon
1/4 cup water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup milk
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Method

  • Chop dried figs and place in medium-sized bowl. Pour bourbon and warm water over fruit and let sit, preferably overnight, but an hour will do.
  • Grease and flour a bunt pan or loaf pan. This cake has a tendency to stick, so grease it well. You can also line the pan with parchment paper.
  • In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg; set aside.
  • Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and molasses and beat again. Mix in the dried fruit (with liquid if any), lemon peel, milk and walnuts.
  • Mix in dried ingredients.
  • Bake at 325º F for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • Makes 12 to 14 servings.

    Answers to the above quiz:

    1. Eggnog.

    2. Corn for popping.

    3. Chestnuts; turkey.

    4. Bad banana with a greasy black peal; garlic; dead tomato splot with moldy purple spots; three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.

Mini Dark Chocolate Melts

There is only one word for these cookies, decadent. They are modified from BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent RecipesShirley O. Corriher’s recipe in Bakewise. I like to make these bite-sized because they are super rich.

Ingredients
7 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter
4 ounces (one bar) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 ounce (1/4 of a bar) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs

Method

  • Preheat oven to 350º F.
  • Melt chocolate and butter together. This can be done using a double boiler or in the microwave on 50 percent power for about a minute.
  • Beat eggs and sugar. Stir in the chocolate-butter mixture and vanilla and almond extract.
  • In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
  • Add the flour mixture to the batter. The batter will be slightly runny.
  • Spoon a teaspoon of dough onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet. These cookies will spread, so don’t crowd them.
  • Bake on center rack in the oven for eight minutes.
  • Let them cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer them to a wire rack.

Makes three dozen mini cookies

Potatoes

My husband and I are not good potato growers. We’ve tried. Last year we only got a handful, many of them micro-sized, which I think will be very trendy someday, mainly because the gum-ball sized tubers are so darn cute.

This year I did a little research and came across a method that insured a bumper crop. It involved building a box of sorts (no top or bottom). You plant the tubers in the ground inside your three-foot tall box and as they grow you cover them with dirt.

The box allows you to build up the dirt giving the potatoes plenty of growing room. I guess this is old news to farmers who have used old car tires to achieve the same thing, but the idea was new to me and I was excited.

We lovingly tended the plants all summer, not even disturbing the soil to grab a few early potatoes. We wanted them fat. We added a mixture of dirt and compost from our backyard compost bin, which we affectionately call our “little black gold maker.” I imagined having to add a storage bin in our basement to accommodate the pounds of potatoes we were sure to harvest. I had the perfect spot all picked out.

In early fall we decided to start digging. My husband loves to harvest potatoes because it is like a subterranean Easter egg hunt– every potato is a big surprise… especially in our case. We ended up with about eight, medium-sized potatoes and a few micro-potatoes, which we split amongst the four people sharing the garden. Dang.

Luckily we have plenty of talented farmers in our area who can easily pick up the slack for us. I’ve added the Farm at Miller’s Crossing in Hudson, NY to my list of favorite farms. They meet my two criteria: They are organic and reasonably priced. Plus they are quite skilled in potato growing. I am particularly enamored with their “majestic purple” potatoes.

James Beard in his Theory and Practice Of Good Cooking categorizes potatoes into two types: mealy and waxy, neither of which sound too appetizing to me. Seems the more modern nomenclature is “baking potato” or “boiling potato.”

“Cooks Illustrated” has an excellent “Potato Primer” on their site. This tells you everything you want to know about potatoes. They add a third category, appropriately named “in-between” potatoes.

Here’s the low down:

Mealy and Baking Potatoes:
These potatoes have a high starch content and are good for baking, frying, and mashing. Examples: Idaho or Russet potato.

In-between Potatoes: These potatoes have a medium starch content and are good for steaming, baking, roasting, grilling, and au gratin dishes. Examples: Yukon Gold, Purple Majestic.

Firm, Waxy or Boiling Potatoes: These potatoes have a low starch content and are good for boiling, roasting, grilling, sautés, stews, salads, and au gratin dishes. Examples: Red Bliss, French Fingerling.

Potatoes sort of get a bad health rap, mainly because they are a carbohydrate and have a high glycemic index. If you are watching your sugar, don’t go overboard on them. On the plus side, they are rich in magnesium and copper, high in potassium and vitamin C and a good source of dietary fiber. Go for potatoes with blue or yellow flesh. These contain more phytonutrients than their white-fleshed cousins.

Eating the skin ups their nutritional value but with a caveat. Potatoes contain a glycoalkaloid (solanine), which is a mild toxin and most of this toxin is found in the skin. The amount found in most potatoes is considered harmless, but some nutritional experts still recommend that you peel all potatoes. I love a good crisp potato skin so I usual don’t peel them. Green and sprouting potatoes contain a higher amount of the toxin so I do peel those.

The blog Whole Health Source has an excellent three-part series called “Potatoes and Human Health.”

Potatoes were added to the latest Environmental Working Group dirty dozen list. This is a list of the top 12 of the most pesticide contaminated fruits and vegetables. So I search out organic potatoes.

Potatoes can be stored for up to 6 months. Ask your farmer about which ones are better for storage. They should be stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area. Exposure to light will turn them green. Nobody wants green potatoes.

If anyone has extra potatoes to store, we have the perfect place in our basement for them!

Vampires Beware, we’ve been eating garlic!

Vampires cross the street when they walk by our house, especially since our visit to Virginia Ambrose from Scarecrow Farm. We met her at the Hudson Farmers Market last weekend. And we’re glad we did.

If you have a question about garlic, ask Virginia. She knows her garlic. They grow more hardneck varieties than softneck. Apparently hardneck is the garlic connoisseur’s choice. The flavor is said to be more complex. The cloves are larger, but fewer. They are easier to peel but don’t store as well as the softnecks. Softneck garlic is the type you most often see in the supermarket, though I doubt our local supermarkets carry either the Korean Red or Mediterranean Soft neck that Scarecrow Farms grows.

Scarecrow Farm has many types of garlic, each with their own characteristics. Virginia will mark each bulb with the name so you can go home and have your very own garlic tasting, which is exactly what we did.

I methodically set up for the tasting. First I labeled plates with each type of garlic.

The line-up was:
Two porcelain hardnecks: Carpathian and Romanian Red
One purple stripe hardneck: Siberian
One soft neck: Mediterranean.

Then I heated up bread with a little butter and placed the raw, minced garlic on each piece. I’m sure you could also conduct this taste test with cooked garlic, but I felt we would catch more subtleties eating it raw. Plus vampires hate raw garlic.

We sampled each one, noting their bouquet, start and finish. We cleansed our pallet between each sample, which with raw garlic is no small feat.

I had hoped to be able to pick out the nuances of each variety and write something that mimicked a wine review, but my pallet just isn’t trained that way. The only thing I got was hot and hotter. The Carpathian was by far the hottest.

My husband claimed that after our dog got a whiff of his garlic breath, she hopped off the couch, something she usually only does with great reluctance and a dirty look.

I’ve always used a lot of garlic in my cooking— going through at least a head a week, if not more. Conventional wisdom says that I’m doing my body a favor. Garlic is purported to have a host of medicinal properties including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, antibacterial and antiviral benefits. I do believe it can ward off a cold, which may or may not be the result of its lingering aroma. In my experience, other people are the main cause of colds, so I feel garlic is pretty effective at keeping them at arm’s length. They don’t call it “the stinking rose” for nothing.

All food prices have increased in the last year but the price of garlic has skyrocketed. Last year I found that much of the garlic that you find in the supermarket comes from China. Apparently there has been a bit of speculation in the China garlic market and people have been pouring money into it. I read stories of farmers hoarding their garlic crop and of businessmen investing in fields of garlic rather than real estate. Is there irrational exuberance in the China garlic market?

I don’t know what the price of garlic in China has to do with our local crop, but the prices have risen here also. Last year I paid 50¢ a head, this year it is double that.

But I buy it anyway. Maybe if I hold on to it, I can sell it and double my money next year. Yes, I’m giving out investment advice in a food column!

Roasted Garlic
While I will eat garlic raw, I love the mellow taste of roasted garlic. Roasting garlic caramelized the cloves and creates a delicious, creamy paste. Spread it on bread or toss it into mashed potatoes.

Ingredients
Whole heads of garlic
Olive oil

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
  • Peel away any loose outer skin of the garlic bulb. Using a knife, or kitchen shears, cut off about 1/4 inch of the top of bulb, exposing the individual cloves.
  • Place the garlic in a baking dish, I use a small ramekin for each head, but they can all be in the same dish. Drizzle each with olive oil.
  • Cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cloves feel soft when pressed.
  • Allow the garlic to cool. You can either use a fork to gently pull each clove out or squeeze the garlic clove directly into your mouth, I mean directly on a piece of nice, crusty French bread.

Roasted garlic may be stored in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for several days.

————

Shared on The Nourishing Gourmet.

Popcorn Accidents

Making popcorn is dangerous. My top two kitchen accidents happened while making popcorn. First there was fire. In my early 20s, I invited a date over to watch a movie. I thought homemade popcorn would be a nice touch. I placed oil in a pot, turned it on high, and then retreated to my bedroom to quickly finish getting ready. I returned to near ceiling-high flames. Yes, this is how people burn down kitchens. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me. I managed to turn off the heat and place a lid on the pot. We watched the movie while snacking on saltines.

Lesson learned: Ask the date to bring the popcorn.

Second, there was an explosion. I had recently learned that you could make popcorn in the microwave with a paper bag. Brilliant. It’s a fraction of the cost of store bought microwave popcorn, you know exactly what you are eating and there are no perfluorooctanoic acid lined bags. When I ran out of paper bags, I thought why not try a glass bowl with a lid. I recently told my friend Christine this, and she laughed and said something like “Everyone knows you can’t microwave glass covered dishes.” Almost everybody.

I placed the oil and popcorn in a glass casserole dish and covered it with the lid. Shut the door and turned it on high. The gentle popping sound was followed by a big “BOOM.” Oops. One of my much-used casserole dishes exploded. It didn’t just crack in half; it shattered into tiny little pieces. The microwave nicely contained the disaster, but we kept finding glass bits for weeks.

I was surprised the microwave even worked after that. I still shy away from it. This week I started to use it to store flour (a tip I got from “Cooks Illustrated.”) I keep waiting for my husband to protest. I imagine it is coming.

Lesson learned: Microwaves are great for storage.

I finally mastered cooking popcorn. I make it on the stovetop in about five minutes. This method makes the best tasting popcorn and it is easy and cheap. A big bag of popcorn kernels will last forever. You only need a third of a cup to make a large bowl of the snack.

My new favorite popcorn topping is nutritional yeast. I first bought it for our dogs. My aunt told me that a sprinkle or two on their food is good for them. I then discovered that it is delicious. It has a tasty, cheesy flavor. It also supplies a bit of protein and a good dose of B-complex vitamins. I’ve been adding it to everything, but especially love it on popcorn. You can find nutritional yeast in the bulk section of most health food stores.

Of course, I also always add melted butter. Everything is better with a little melted butter!

Stovetop Popcorn

Ingredients
3 Tablespoons olive or coconut oil (I use a combo. Other types of vegetable oils will work, I just feel these two are the healthier option. )
1/3 cup popcorn kernels

Method

  • Heat the oil in a 3-4 quart saucepan over medium-high heat.
  • Place 3 popcorn kernels into the oil and cover the pan.
  • When the kernels pop, the oil is ready. Add the rest of the popcorn kernels. Cover and gently shake pan to distribute kernels.
  • Once the popping starts, gently shake the pan by moving it back and forth over the burner. Keep the lid slightly ajar to let the steam from the popcorn release (but be careful to keep all popped kernels in the pot).
  • Once the popping slows, remove the pan from the heat. Remove the lid, and dump the popcorn into a wide bowl. While hot, season as desired.

Makes 2 quarts.

Shared on http://www.thenourishinggourmet.com/