The Cleanest Lunch: Warm Beet Salad with Fresh Tomatoes and Herbs

After several days of “convenient” food, and far too much ice cream, my body was crying out for a clean lunch.  I despaired, however, upon looking in the fridge and freezer to realize how limited – aka, nonexistent – my options were.

While still thinking over my lunch options, I decided to go out to pick the last ginormous watermelon in my garden – which was SO heavy I dropped it and cracked it open.  Sure looks yummy in there, doesn’t it?

Then I just about smacked myself for my stupidity when I realized there is FOOD in that garden to eat.  Food that is 100% clean.  Food that I could eat that would contain…

  • NO pesticides
  • NO herbicides
  • NO fertilizers
  • NO petroleum (for transport)
  • NO refrigeration
  • NO chemicals
  • NO grains
  • NO saturated fats
  • NO processed anythings
  • NO time in a factory, truck or store
  • NO packaging

So I just picked what I had and went into my kitchen feeling like a Chopped chef.  “Chefs, for your entree today you MUST use: beets…swiss chard…tomatoes…basil…and chives.  Also available to you, our pantry and fridge.”

Here’s what I came up with.  My body is singing with the amazing clean food now coursing through my system!

Warm Beet Salad with Fresh Tomatoes and Herbs

Serves 1 as a main course or 2-4 as a side, and is very easy to increase

  • 1 large beet, with greens
  • 1 small clump swiss chard, greens only
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 2 tbsp chopped basil
  • 2 tbsp chopped chives
  • 6-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • balsamic vinegar, to taste
  • Parmesan cheese, to taste
  • freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
  1. Chop chard and beet greens, wash thoroughly and set aside.
  2. Peel beet, quarter then slice into thin wedges.  Add to a large frying pan with 1 tbsp olive oil, 1/4 cup water, and salt to taste.  Cover and cook 5-10 minutes until beets are tender.
  3. Add cleaned greens to the pan.  Toss until wilted then continue cooking until most of the water has cooked out.  Stir in the herbs.
  4. Turn out into a serving dish and top with halved tomatoes.  Drizzle on the remaining olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan, and freshly cracked black pepper.

Beets: The Most Misunderstood Veggie

When you mention beets more often than not you’ll receive a “ugh” face with a disgusted person proclaiming their hatred.  Now, I do not know what their mothers or grandmothers did to beets, but I can assure you that garden fresh beets are amazingly delicious and beautiful.  They have the richest red color (you’ll want to wear gloves when peeling them lest you look like you were involved in a massacre), a sweet earthy flavor and a toothsome al dente texture.  The greens are obviously edible as well, taste no different than spinach, and offer all the same health benefits.  Once I used the greens in a creamy pasta sauce and it came out a fun and kid-friendly purple color because of the pigment still in the veins.

The more richly colored a vegetable is, the more antioxidants it has.  Therefore, the deep ruby-colored beet and the dark green leaves that support the root are both chock full of good stuff.

The antioxidant responsible for the beet’s red color is called betaine.  Betaine helps to lower homocysteine levels in the blood, which lead to coronary heart disease.  Beets are low in calories, and high in fiber, just about every vitamin, folic acid, and minerals such as manganese, potassium and iron.  This website offers more details about the health benefits.

If that all isn’t enough to convince you, just remember that they extract sugar from beets.  So when I say they’re sweet, I’m not kidding!

When buying, look for beets with the greens still on – they’ll wilt far sooner than the root so it’s a sure sign of freshness.  If you can’t find them with greens, at least ensure the root is smooth, firm, and not wrinkled.  Then feel free to substitute spinach or just use all chard in the above recipe.

And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try this recipe for Amish Purple Eggs, which is hardboiled eggs in pickled beets.  It sounds weird, but is really fun, unique, delicious, AND saves you the trouble of peeling each egg when you want it.  It calls for canned beets, though, so if you really want to go all out, start out with my beloved Alton Brown’s recipe for Pickled Beets.

They say its important to try out new fruits and vegetables.  With their impressive health pedigree, gorgeous color and rich fresh flavor, beets deserve a chance.

Freezer-to-Slow-Cooker Meal Mania

My dinner took me all of about 45 seconds to prepare today.  That’s less time than it takes to pull the frozen dinner out of the box, and I get delicious homemade Thai braised peanut chicken.  I have a dozen more meals two-minute meals lined up that are homemade with fresh ingredients, chock full of vegetables and seasonings with no chemicals or Frankenfoods anywhere to be found.

What’s my secret?

The “secret” is organization and planning.  I’ll admit those two things have always come incredibly naturally to me and I know that’s not the norm.  When I shared a room with my messy (and older!) brother at age four, I would clean up the whole room, and then lock it shut.  Yes, I locked us both out, but it was organized and I planned to keep it that way, at least for a little while!

You don’t need to be an organizational neat-freak like me, though, to experience the benefits of a little advance planning.

In no way do I take credit for this idea, there are plenty of blogs floating around with recipes for a big session of shopping and chopping that will result in a dozen or so Freezer-to-Slow-Cooker meals.  But as I looked at them, I realized I liked some and didn’t like others.  So I’ll give you my recipes, but I’ll also tell you how to do it with your own favorites!

In the end, including planning, shopping, preparation and cleaning, this whole endeavor probably took four hours.  But I have three months of meals ready for that one night a week when I get home too late to get a proper meal together.  And I really like chopping veggies.

Step 1: Pick Your Recipes

  • Pick 5-6 slow-cooker recipes you and your family will like.
  • Be sure the recipes don’t require advanced cooking of any ingredients (like searing off the meat).
  • Be sure the recipes contain primarily freezer-friendly ingredients.  Of course, you can always leave a non-freezer-friendly ingredient out of the bag and write on the bag what to add when you dump it into the cooker.
  • Get a variety!  In my mix, I have three chicken recipes, two beef recipes and one pork recipe.  Also go for a mix of homey/comforting and zesty/light.  This will prevent your family from getting sick of the offerings.
  • Optional, but will save a ton of time in preparation: Write or copy/paste them all into a single document that you can have printed, instead of flipping around from book to book to website while your hands are covered with raw chicken.

Step 2: Make a Shopping List

  • Most slow cooker recipes will repeat the same ingredients, like chicken breasts or onions.  This is one of the keys to the success of this plan!  You’ll be amazed how few separate ingredients you need to make several batches of several different recipes!
  • Get a sheet of paper and write down these categories: Meat, Produce, Canned/Dry, Frozen, and Other
  • Decide how many batches of each recipes you are going to make, and start listing ingredients.  Use tally marks to keep track of how many pounds of chicken you’ll need, how many onions, peppers, or bags of frozen peas.

Step 3: Go Shopping!

  • Because you’ll be buying a lot of ingredients, consider going to a warehouse store.
  • Since most of the ingredients will be pretty basic, I hit Aldi and got everything for a dozen family meals for about a hundred bucks.  I don’t think that store is nationwide, so you might be out of luck.  But Aldi is awesome.  Since they only sell their own brand and don’t have fancy amenities like baggers, their stuff is really cheap compared to national brands, and I’ve never found anything that’s not as good.

Step 4: Label Your Freezer Bags

  • Be sure to get zip-top freezer bags.  I’ve seen some pretty flimsy plastic bags these days (yeay eco-consciousness!) that are fine for most stuff but I wouldn’t trust them in the freezer.
  • Using a permanent marker, label each bag with the name of the meal.
  • Write out the cooking instructions, including time and heat setting as well as any other ingredients you need to add.
  • Jot down serving suggestions, such as “serve over rice”.
  • Revel in your cleverness that you labeled the bags before they were filled.

Step 5: Prep Bags

  • Fold over the top 1/3 of the bag to help them stand up
  • Set them up on the counter or stovetop in some logical way – you’ll be able to see the labels you made but it’s still easier to have them in order.

Step 6: Get Choppin!

  • I started with meat first because I hate cutting up chicken.  I doubt it matters what order things go into the bag though.
  • Consider the recipe you’re chopping for.  You may be cutting up a dozen onions, but you probably want them in squares for a stew and strips for a pepper steak, for example.
  • Do all of each ingredient at the same time.  Start with chicken, then go to beef, then onions, then peppers.  Or whatever.  But you’ll move faster if you work it assembly-line style instead of each bag at a time.
  • Top off the bags with whatever ingredients remain.

Step 7: Freeze

  • Pick up and drop each bag gently a few times to try to get out air bubbles.
  • Squish as much air out of each bag as you can while you zip it up.
  • Freeze flat, preferably in a mixed up order so you can be sure of variety if you just always grab the bag on top.

Step 8: Clean

  • …and think about how nice it is to clean up 12 meals’ worth of prep mess all at once!

Step 9: Cook

  • Take the bag out of the freezer the night before you plan to cook it.  If you have a dedicated slow cooker day, this will be easier to remember.  This is also a good time to make sure you have any additional ingredients needed, like cheese or coconut milk.
  • Dump it in the cooker, turn it on and go.
  • Here’s a tip if you work all day.  Some slow cooker recipes only call for a 5-6 hour cook time, and if you’re away from home that can be tricky.  If you thawed the food only since the night before, chances are good that it’s still fairly frozen in the morning.  Break it up as much as you can and put into the cooker.  Plug the cooker into the wall with an old-school lamp timer set to turn on six hours before dinner time.  Since it’s still frozen, it won’t warm up enough to get to the danger zone, especially since the crock will help keep it cool.
  • Be sure to plan time to make the rice, pasta, salad, or whatever other accompaniments you have planned to go with the meal!

Step 10: Eat

  • Yum.

Wow, that looks like a lot of work.  I swear it’s really easy, but when you break something down into step-by-step it can seem like a lot.  It literally took me longer to write this post than it does to actually do it.  You can see from the stove clock it took just over two hours to do all the slicing, dicing, and bagging!  I didn’t mean for that to happen, but what a happy surprise to have the time documented.

Or, if you’d prefer, you can just use my recipes and avoid Steps 1-2!  Two of these are just recipes I’ve had forever, and the other four came from two different blogs about this.  The links will take you to their blog so you can see what other recipes they had in mind.

THE RECIPES

Beef Stew

Per bag:

  • 2 lbs beef stew meat, cut into 1″ cubes and tossed with ¼ cup flour, salt and pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 cups baby carrots, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 ½ cups beef broth
  • 3 potatoes, peeled and diced (see note)

Directions:

  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze.  Thaw, then cook on low for 10-12 hours, or high for 4-6 hours.
  • Note: there’s some controversy over whether or not raw potatoes freeze well.  You can risk it and freeze them along with everything else – as I did – or leave them out and add to the slow cooker at the start of the cooking time!

Island Sausage

Per bag:

  • 1 pound smoked sausage
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 1 can (14-½ ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 20-oz can unsweetened pineapple chunks
  • ½ cup beef broth
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • ¼ tsp garlic powder
  • pepper

Directions:

  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze. Thaw, then cook on low 4-6 hours.
  • Just before serving, combine 1 tbsp cornstarch into 1/4 cup water and stir in to thicken.
  • Serve with rice.

Savory Pepper Steak

Per bag:

  • 1.5 pounds of round steak cut into ½ inch thick strips, tossed with 1/4 cup flour, salt and pepper
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 green pepper, sliced
  • 1/2 red pepper, sliced
  • 1 16 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp beef bouillon
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp steak seasoning
  • 1 tbsp steak sauce

Directions:

  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze. Thaw, then cook on low 8 hours.
  • Serve with rice.

Salsa Chicken

Per bag:

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans
  • 1 pound bag frozen corn
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with chilis (like Rotel)
  • 1 jar salsa
  • 1 packet of taco seasoning

Directions:

  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze. Thaw, then cook on low 8 hours.
  • Serve with rice or on tortillas along with shredded cheddar and sour cream.

Braised Peanut Chicken

Per bag:

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 cups baby carrots, chopped
  • 2 small zucchini, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 t grated lime peel plus 2 T lime juice
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp peanut butter

Directions:

  • Whisk together the last four ingredients.
  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze. Thaw, then cook on low 5-6 hours.
  • A few minutes before serving, stir in 1 can of coconut milk and 1 bag of frozen peas.
  • Add 1/2 tsp red curry paste before serving to make it spicy (optional).
  • Serve over rice, garnished with chopped peanuts and cilantro.

Orange Chicken

Per bag:

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed
  • 2 cups baby carrots, chopped
  • 2 cups bell peppers, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 8 oz frozen orange juice concentrate
  • salt and pepper

Directions:

  • Place all ingredients in bag and freeze. Thaw, then cook on low 8 hours.
  • Garnish with 1 can mandarin orange slices and 2 green onions, chopped.
  • Serve over rice, along with sauteed veggies.

SHOPPING LIST (makes two batches of each recipe):

Meats

  • Beef Stew Meat: 4 pounds
  • Smoked sausage: 2 pounds
  • Round steak: 3 pounds
  • Chicken breasts: 8 pounds

Veggies

  • Garlic: 2 heads
  • Onions: 10
  • Potatoes: 6
  • Carrots: 4 pounds baby
  • Celery: 1 bunch
  • Green peppers: 5
  • Red peppers: 5
  • Zucchini: 4 small
  • Limes: 2

Canned/Dry (You probably have some of this already!)

  • Flour
  • Brown sugar
  • Worcestershire
  • A1
  • Beef Broth: 1 quart
  • Chicken broth: 1 quart
  • Canned diced tomatoes: 4 14-oz cans
  • Rotel tomato/chili: 2 cans
  • Black beans: 2 cans
  • Salsa: large jar
  • Coconut milk: 2 cans
  • Red curry paste (optional)
  • Canned pineapple chunks: 2 20-oz cans
  • Bay leaves
  • Paprika
  • Garlic powder
  • Steak seasoning
  • Taco seasoning
  • Salt, pepper

Frozen

  • Frozen corn: 2 pounds
  • Frozen peas: 2 pounds
  • OJ concentrate: 2 containers

Other (including items needed later for serving)

  • Gallon-sized zip-top FREEZER bags, at least 12
  • Cheddar
  • Sour cream
  • Rice
  • Tortillas
  • Mandarin oranges: 2 cans
  • Peanuts
  • Cilantro
  • Green onions

Then you’re done!

The Best Part

I’m pretty much the only one in my house who eats leftovers, so consider that when calculating the time savings!  Three lunches ready to go!

I hope you enjoy!  Please leave me some comments to let me know how this worked for you!!

Have Your Bacon and Eat It Too!

As you were probably not aware, last Saturday was International Bacon Day.  Celebrated in the United States the Saturday before Labor Day, it is a day in which we can all shamelessly indulge in one of the most beloved foods known to man.

Americans love bacon.  Not only do we spend billions of dollars annually on the stuff, but we drop even more money on cookbooks dedicated to just bacon, we travel to bacon festivals, we enroll our loved ones (or ourselves!) into “Bacon of the Month” clubs, we buy bacon-bandaids and other bacon-themed items, and we drool over the latest chocolate-bacon concoctions.  I even know otherwise strict vegetarians who make an exception for bacon.

I, for one, planned to feast on “Pig Candy” in honor of International Bacon Day.  You cut a slab of bacon into thirds, wrap each third of a slice of bacon around a cocktail wiener, sprinkle the whole thing with brown sugar and bake it at 325’F until it is caramelized, and just about as golden brown and delicious as you can get.  Except I used sucanat, because, you know, sugar is bad for you!

Then, of course, there are the party-poopers who claim “bacon is pure evil” and avow never to touch the stuff, causing their wives to grieve over missing out on such an important holiday.  (Fortunately, I’m not talking about myself here; my husband got the Bacon of the Month club for his last birthday.)

However, that got me wondering – IS bacon pure evil?  It’s definitely a polarizing topic, from the people who wax poetic over it to those who want it to come with a Surgeon General’s warning.  There are the extreme low-carbers who have see nothing wrong with eating a pound a day, and those who plan never to taste the salty crispy goodness again for all their days.  Let’s have a brief look, shall we?

via Supahcute

Why We Love It So Much

I read the Little House on the Prairie books a lot as a kid, and one of the most memorable images I have from my repeated readings was the story of how they butchered the hog, and got all the meat packed down into salt to preserve it.  Later, we see Pa making a smoker out of a hollowed-out old tree to further preserve and flavor the meat.  While that may not lead to a product exactly like what we typically call bacon today, it’s definitely close.  Given its importance in sustaining our early American pioneers – and really, I’m sure the same goes for the hardscrabble peasants and farmers throughout history worldwide – through the long cold seasons where food would have been otherwise unavailable, we owe a debt of gratitude to the stuff.

Although we don’t need a whole lot of convincing to pay homage to it.  That is thanks in large part to our ancestors even further back.  As David A. Kessler, M.D. points out in his book, The End of Overeating, we are hardwired to crave sugar, fat and salt, and to eat them in vast quantities.  This worked well for our Neolithic ancestors, who rarely had access to those things and were well served to gorge on them when they could.  Now, of course, we have no shortage of those things and there are about 40,000 variations of the sugar-fat-salt trifecta in every supermarket in America.

Bacon has two of the three in spades, which is why we really really like it.  When you broil it with sugar or bake it into chocolate cupcakes – thereby adding in the sugar component – we really REALLY like it!

All That “Bad” Stuff

A few years ago, a study came out that said lard isn’t as bad as we’d made it out to be.  That was in the wake of discovering that all those lab-created Frankenfats, which were meant to be healthier, turned out to be far, far deadlier.  If lard isn’t bad, maybe bacon isn’t so bad either.

via Etsy

It’s Processed: First off, bacon passes my own personal Number One Rule of Food Goodforyouness: it is something my great, great grandmother would’ve recognized.  It is still created much the same way it was hundreds of years ago, and (arguably) hasn’t been adulterated by lab-created mutations, hybrids and chemicals.  That’s not to say it’s necessarily a health food, but it certainly doesn’t speak to me of evil.  It is cured and preserved according to centuries-old methods, not manipulated through advanced scientific techniques.

Fat: Bacon is high in fat.  Most people assume that means it will add to your body fat.  Research, however, has proven just the opposite.  Hormones are responsible for fat storage, and in his book Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes shows pretty clearly the insulin released thanks to carb consumption is what makes us fat.  (For more on this, check out my two-part summary of the book here.)  But wait, you say – they must be talking about heart-healthy unsaturated fats in those studies.  Nope, I say – even saturated fat is not linked to body fat accumulation, nor does it raise your risk of heart disease.  In fact, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute “spent $115 million on a huge, decade long clinical trial to test the idea that eating less saturated fat would curb heart disease, but not a single heart attack had been prevented.” (Taubes, p. 182)

The fat isn’t bad for you, and it can really help you eat less overall, because it is so satisfying and helps to slow down digestion!

Cholesterol: Bacon is also high in cholesterol, the leading cause of heart disease.  But there is a whole lot more to the story.  Yes, high cholesterol IN YOUR BODY leads to heart disease.  Do you get high cholesterol from eating foods high in cholesterol?  Nope. More than 70% of the fats in lard actually improve your own cholesterol profile (Taubes).

Nitrates and nitrites: Sodium nitrate is a naturally-occurring salt in many things you would never consider dangerous, including root vegetables like carrots and leafy greens like celery and spinach.  It has been added to pretty much all processed meats since the dawn of processing meats, because it is very effective at killing off bacteria and botulism and other nasty things.  The sodium nitrate in cured meats gradually converts to sodium nitrite; the sodium nitrate in produce converts to sodium nitrite in our digestive system.  So, in essence, both nitrates and nitrites are perfectly natural and have been consumed for millennia.

We are so scared of them because a flawed study showed they cause cancer; it has since been debunked.  A very small number of asthmatics do have adverse reactions to nitrates, but if you aren’t one of them, nitrates/nitrites pose no danger.

A final word on nitrates/nitrites.  Scan the prepackaged deli products at health food stores and you’ll see many “nitrate-free” products.  Stay away.  These actually have more nitrates, but since they come from celery juice and not from sodium nitrate salts it can be labeled that way.  And furthermore, anything that really is low in nitrates leaves you at a much greater risk for botulism poisoning.  I’ll take the nitrates, thank you.

Sodium: Bacon is high in sodium, for sure.  It’s the key part of the curing and preserving!  If you already have high blood pressure or another disease complicated by sodium intake, you should definitely go easy.  That’s not to say you can’t ever have it, though – just balance it out by having lower sodium throughout the rest of the day.

Because those with high blood pressure need to avoid sodium, there’s the incorrect assumption that salt causes high blood pressure.  There are no studies that bear that out, though.  Individuals with high blood pressure tend to be more sensitive to salt, but their high blood pressure is a result of other factors.  So, if you are a normal blood pressured person, fear not.

However, if you are still wary of that salt, there’s another easy fix.  In the body, sodium and potassium are partners.  If one of those minerals is significantly higher than the other, it can lead to some complications with cellular respiration.  That means if you’re going to eat something salty, just eat something high in potassium to keep the equilibrium.  High potassium foods include bananas, melons, dried apricots and orange juice – to name a few – all of which pair beautifully with a lovely plate o’ bacon.

CAFOs:  All right, game’s up.  This is about the only drawback to bacon.  For as much as meat works well for my body, I know that increased meat consumption is horrible for the planet.  Pigs aren’t as bad as cows, but Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) lead to all kinds of ecological problems.  On a lovely family farm you’d see a perfect circle of life: the pigs eat the farm scraps, and their manure fortifies the farmland.  In a CAFO, however, all the feed has to come from chemically fertilized fields, and the manure runs off to contaminate ground water.  The perfect circle is broken down into two very ugly half-circles of ecological doom.

For environmental reasons, I do give pause to gluttonous bacon consumption.  The best solution for that is to buy organic bacon from smaller farms.  Then, that problem is solved.  Though I must admit that I’d much rather have a thin crispy slice of cheap ole Oscar Meyer than any of that high-falutin’ thick-cut bacon.  But I’m also not eating a pound a day.  We barely go through a pound a month.

via The Novice Chef

Enjoying Bacon

Bacon primarily shows up at breakfast, but is perfectly at ease in a BLT on your lunch plate or wrapped around some roasted turkey breasts on your dinner table.  For that matter, bacon has even been hanging out at the dessert table more and more, like those chocolate bacon cupcakes (here’s another amazing looking recipe for them…and another!), or in gourmet chocolates like the Vosges Mo’s Bacon Bar.

While there is plenty of controversy over bacon, it all seems to come down to this: it’s delicious and it won’t hurt you.  And if you missed this year’s International Bacon Day, go ahead and hold your own belated celebration!

via Made With Bacon

 

Give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

– Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation)

Food of the Gods, Part 2

Last time, we peeked into the religious and cultural significance of theobroma cacao to the ancient people of Mesoamerica, and how the conquest of the Aztecs allowed it to be brought forth to the rest of the world.

Thanks, Aztecs

Now we’ll look beyond that into how some real smart cookies tweaked it into something that can make cookies.

Going Dutch

Many recipes today call for Dutch-processed cocoa rather than the plain ole Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa, for superior taste and richness.  For that, we have to thank a chemist named Coenraad J. van Houten and his aversion to the floating grease atop his hot chocolate.

Van Houten was quite the fan of the uplifting beverage, which during his time, was still made according to Aztec tradition from the chocolate liquor, albeit with some sweeteners thrown in.  Here’s your Vocabulary Lesson for Part 2: chocolate liquor is not alcoholic – that’d be chocolate liqueur – it’s a peanut-butter-like paste that results after the beans have been fermented, roasted, shelled and ground up.

So, to help alleviate the oil slick atop his mug, he took the chocolate liquor and put it through a hydraulic press to partially defat it, and then pulverized the remains into powder.  However, the hot chocolate that resulted from this first attempt was overly bitter and had a bland color.  So, being a chemist and all, he decided to throw some alkaline solution on the beans before grinding them to see what happened.  Since cacao is naturally acidic, treating it to a basic bath mellows out the acids and removes some of the bitterness.

Interestingly, modern taste testers consistently note a stronger chocolate flavor in recipes made with “Dutched cocoa” rather than standard cocoa powder (which is similarly defatted but not soaked in alkaline).  The bitter and acidic flavors in cocoa tend to overpower the palate, and so by removing them we can perceive and enjoy the complex flavor components that remain.

Natural cocoa (L) and Dutched cocoa (R)

Not Just Filled with Goo at Easter

Nearly 20 years after van Houten’s 1828 “invention” of a new and improved cocoa powder, an English pharmacist named Joseph Fry began tinkering with adding back in some of cocoa butter that’s removed during the processing.  In 1847, his company marketed the first molded chocolate bar.  His company later merged with Cadbury, to become the first major producer of chocolate candy.

Around the same time, a scientist named Daniel Peter was working on creating the first infant formula at the Swiss company Nestle.  Having already successfully separated the milk into solids – or milky flour – he created the world’s first milk chocolate.  He called it Gala, which translates to from the milk.

I think it’s lovely that these two founders of modern chocolate are still in business, still making tasty treats for us!

An Uncertain Future

From that point, industry and innovation took over on a massive scale.  The demand for chocolate candy became insatiable, and, much like the rest of our food system, methods to make it cheaper and faster took over.  Processors used lower-quality beans, more sugar, and more additives to create chocolate-like candies that one can hardly call chocolate – like those generic Easter eggs or chocolate coins.  Then, of course, we have things like “chocolaty chips” which don’t even have any real chocolate in them at all.

Unfortunately, we haven’t paid enough respect to the source of our addiction.  Small-scale cacao farmers make only about $2.50 a month.  Put another way, the bag of Hershey kisses you just bought costs more than the primary provider of that chocolate makes for four weeks of work.  As such, when their trees die off, farmers are replacing them with more lucrative crops and our supply is dwindling.

As of right now, cacao trees can only grow within 10 degrees of the equator, and growers just don’t have the incentive to keep growing them.  Unless scientists can figure out how to grow the trees in a more temperate climate, or unless fair trade practices are put into place to better support the farmers, we’re looking at $10 Hershey bars within 20 years.

Americans currently eat an average of a half pound of chocolate per month.  Given the dwindling supply, this demand cannot possibly keep up.

Chocolate production is a multibillion dollar industry (which makes the $30 annual salary of the farmers that much more appalling), and fortunately all the growth right now is in premium chocolates, like Scharffen Berger, Vosges, Ghirardelli, Godiva and many others.  These companies are much more dedicated to sustainability than mass-market producers.

This product has been a part of human history since nearly the beginning of human history, and it’s not going to stop.  However, real chocolate may soon become a rare delicacy for the wealthy or only on special occasions.  I mean, the ingredients list of today’s typical hot chocolate contains sugar, whey and corn syrup solids above cocoa, so clearly we’ve come a long way from the days of hot chocolate made from chocolate.  

Hopefully, understanding the cultural and historical significance of chocolate will help you appreciate it better, and to vote for better practices every time you buy some.  Look for fair-trade certified and organic chocolates, which will probably become more prevalent in the near future.  If you can’t find those, then at least go for the premium stuff.  Something so deeply steeped in our history deserves to be savored and respected.

Green & Black, leaders in Fair Trade Organic Chocolate

Food of the Gods, Part 1

Have you had your chocolate fix today?  Chances are pretty good that you will, we are pretty addicted to the stuff.  And while “chocolate” has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, it’s only in the last 150 years that it has come to be what we think of when we hear that delicious word.  Whether you dream of a cool and creamy chocolate mousse layer cake, the snappy bite of a bar of premium dark chocolate or even the waxy orb of a chocolate Easter egg, that’s certainly not how chocolate has been served for most of its existence.  And unfortunately, we may be too in love with it nowadays, and our addictions may be in serious jeopardy if we don’t make some changes.

A Tasty Vocabulary Lesson

There is some speculation that the word cocoa came from early English traders misspelling cacao, but there’s no solid proof.  Whatever the origin, however, each word now has a distinct meaning. When we’re talking about the plant or the beans, that’s called cacao.  Anything made from said beans is called chocolate, and the powdered form of the chocolate is called cocoa.  Got it?

Here’s a bit more etymological trivia: our word, chocolate, is linked to the Aztec word xocoatl, which is what they called the bitter coffee-like beverage they made from the cacao beans.  And lastly, the Latin name of the tree, Theobroma cacao translates to “food of the gods”.  Those guys sure can pick an apt name.

Latin-American Origins

Chocolate has been enjoyed for over 2000 years, though nothing like what we think of it.  Usually they drank it, as an unsweetened, bitter, frothy drink.  They would also combine the mashed up beans with spices, corn, or whatever else they had, and eat it as a porridge.  There’s some evidence that ancient Hondurans, around 1400 BC, even fermented the pulp from around the beans and made a lovely alcoholic concoction.  Foods made from the chocolate were considered to be a divine gift; they viewed it as an almost magical superfood.  Olmec warriors even drank the stuff for battles around 1000 BC, thinking it gave them advantage over their enemies.

Beyond imbuing its imbibers with improbable powers, the ancient Mesoamericans also build up their economies around the beans.  An artifact unearthed in Aztec ruins showed the exchange rate at the time: one bean could get you a tamale, and for 150 you could bring home a nice turkey hen.  But seller beware: counterfeiters would empty out the shells and fill them with dirt.  While it may seem quaint and primitive to barter with crops, the economic impact of chocolate continued far beyond the ancient world: soldiers in the Revolutionary War were paid in chocolate, and today it accounts for $4 billion a year just in the United States!

One final important role it played in the ancient world was in religious ceremonies.  Its consumption was fairly crucial in almost all ceremonies and rituals, from birth to marriage to death.  And not just natural deaths either – sacrifice victim who (for some unfathomable reason) weren’t feeling up to participating in the ritual dancing prior to their death were given chocolate – in a gourd splattered with blood from the previous victims – to “cheer them up”.  Now I like my chocolate but I’m not sure it’s that good.

Spreading Out

Hernando Cortez famously managed to conquer the Aztecs because their king, Montezuma, believed his light-colored Spanish skin was evidence that he was a god.  (Don’t worry, Montezuma gets his revenge).  Being that the Aztecs considered chocolate “food of the gods”, of course they treated him to a giant feast of it.

Cortez and his fellow invaders were unimpressed, though, calling it a “bitter drink for pigs”.  However, they must have enjoyed the euphoric after-effects, since they kept coming back for more, but sweeting it up with honey or sugar.  They then brought some back to Spain and introduced it to the Western world.

Chocolate houses, much like coffee houses, sprang up for the wealthy elite to hobnob and indulge in the drink they came to believe had nutritious, medicinal, and aphrodisiac qualities.  Casanova in particular was a fan, slugging down giant mugs of it prior to seducing his many lovers.  Hopefully he shared some with the ladies, too.

It wasn’t until the invention of the steam engine, as well as the work of a certain Dutch chemist, that chocolate began to reach the masses.  Next up, I’ll share chocolate’s more recent history…

Clean Eating 101

It seems like a joke that it’s been over four months since my last post, which was, in fact, a joke!  Part of the reason was that summer with two small kids happened in that time frame, but also, I burned out because the scope of each post was so huge.  Too much research, too much seriousness.  So I’ll still bring out the research projects from time to time, but I also want to ease up a bit and bring out a few lighter bits, too.

Back around Valentine’s Day, I wrote The Many Health Benefits of Chocolate.  While researching that, I came across so many interesting tidbits about the history of chocolate that a History of Chocolate posting is forthcoming.  But I’m going to ease back in to this blogging thing.

I’m currently working on a seven-week workshop class called “Clean Eating 101”.  Seems to me a good plan to blog about what I’ll be teaching.  Hey, it’s my class and my blog.  I can double-dip.

Get it? Dip?

Clean Eating

Many of the popular plans these days are fundamentally about clean eating.  Locavores are those people who only eat food grown within a hundred miles of home.  This pretty much excludes anything that comes from Frito Lay or a sugarcane.  Those returning to the caveman ways by eating Paleo aren’t eating chemically-enhanced Frankenfoods.  Even following Michael Pollan’s simple edict to only eat foods your grandmother could’ve eaten is going to cut out about 95% of the stuff you can buy in today’s megamarts.

In the simplest terms, “Clean Eating” is about eating simple, unprocessed, chemical-free, fresh, whole foods.  The Clean Eating magazine, in their Aug/Sept 2012 issue, defines it thusly:

  • Eat five to six times a day – three meals and two to three small snacks.  Include a lean protein, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a complex carbohydrate with each meal.  This keeps your body energized and burning calories efficiently all day long.
  • Drink at least two liters of water a day – preferably from a reusable canteen, not plastic; we’re friends of the environment here!  Limit your alcohol intake to one glass of antioxidant-rich red wine a day.
  • Get label savvy.  Clean foods contain just one or two ingredients.  Any product with a long ingredient list is human-made and not considered clean.
  • Avoid processed and refined foods such as white flour, sugar, bread and pasta.  Enjoy complex carbs such as whole grains instead.
  • Know thy enemies.  Steer clear of anything high in saturated and trans fats, anything fried or anything high in sugar.
  • Shop with a conscience.  Consume humanely raised and local meats.
  • Choose organic whenever possible.  If your budget limits you, make eggs, dairy, and the Dirty Dozen (ewg.org/foodnews) your organic priorities.
  • Consume healthy fats (essential fatty acids, or EFAs) every day.
  • Learn about portion sizes and work toward eating within them.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint.  Eat produce that is seasonal and local.  It is less taxing on your wallet and our environment.
  • Slow down and savor.  Never rush through a meal.  Food tastes best when savored. Enjoy every bite.
  • Take it to go.  Pack a cooler for work or outings so always have clean eats on the go.
  • Make it a family affair.  Food is a social glue that should be shared with loved ones.  Improve the quality of your family’s life along with your own.

Needs a celebrity endorsement

To Your Health

Despite the billions of dollars spent on advertising the health benefits of most food products, pretty much anything that spends billions of dollars on advertising is not healthy. When is the last time you saw a commercial for broccoli?

The list above is certainly not the last word in what clean eating is, but it’s a pretty good start.  You may disagree with some (I don’t like the first one very much), or be unable to follow some for financial or other reasons (organic meat is awfully spendy).  However, the health benefits to the philosophy are pretty undeniable.  Avoiding processed foods means your diet will center around nutrient-, fiber-, and antioxidant-rich whole foods.  You’ll avoid preservatives and additives that claim to be safe but may well be wreaking havoc on our collective health.  You’ll be drinking lots of fresh hydrating water, helping to aid digestion and flush out any toxins that do get in.  And you’ll be helping to see that your children’s children have a world in which they too will have fresh food to eat.

Baby Steps

There are entire blogs, books and (obviously) magazines dedicated to clean eating, and getting deep into the nitty gritty is outside the scope of my blog.  Plus, why reinvent the wheel?

These are my three basic ideas for easing your way into a clean eating lifestyle.

  1. Cook.  Sorry, you can’t eat clean unless you cook.  This will also take a good deal of planning beforehand and cleaning afterwards.  Deal with it.
  2. Beware products that claim to be healthy. Do you know the saying, “Thou doth protest too much”?  That idea that the more you say you didn’t do it, the less I believe that you didn’t.  That can be updated to read “Thou doth proclaim thy health benefits too much”.  Breakfast cereals that claim to be a good source of fiber are trying to distract you from the fact that they’re mostly quickly digesting sugars and refined grains, but they threw in a bit of roughage to give themselves a “health halo”.  Or think “sugar-free”; it usually reads like it’s a good thing, until you stop and realize they’ve just replaced the sugar with sweet-tasting undigestible chem lab creations.  The things that are truly healthy don’t need to bang you over the head with their wholesomeness.
  3. If man made it, don’t eat it.  This will automatically exclude most of the unhealthy junk that fills up most of the grocery store shelves that is unmistakably man-made, like margarine or anything neon-colored.  It goes beyond that, though, and you can take it as far as you’d like.  We’ve shaped our world to a frightening degree and you couldn’t possibly eat like your great grandmother.  Even basic crops have been altered by farming and selection techniques and are shadows of their former selves.  However, your DNA is closer to a chimpanzee’s than our wheat is to the wheat of 50 years ago, and that deserves attention.  Can you still consider it wheat?  I don’t, and chances are your digestive system doesn’t either.

If he doesn’t look human to you, your wheat isn’t wheat.

Clean Staples

If you visit ten different blogs on clean eating, you’ll find ten different lists of foods you absolutely must eat.  I try to eat clean, but I’m also realistic and know that people are primarily going to eat what’s familiar and convenient.  Therefore, my “Top Ten” list includes regular stuff that you can get in any ole grocery store and that doesn’t require a whole separate post to explain (like chia seeds).

  1. Fresh fruits and vegetables – these are pretty much the cornerstone of clean eating here, so be sure to always have some on hand.  Buy what’s cheap or featured at the grocery store.  Those tend to be the most in-season, and therefore the most nutrient-dense.  Keep fruits washed and ready-to-eat in a bowl on the counter or in the fridge.  Studies show that the more accessible the fruit is, the more likely you are to eat it.  Same goes for the veggies – wash and prep them as soon as you bring them home from the store, so that you’re more likely to use them and not just let them rot around your good intentions.
  2. Frozen fruits and vegetables – technically fresh is better, but “avoid out-of-season” produce trumps “eat fresh”.  If something’s not in season, buy it frozen.  If you’re going to eat strawberries in January, the ones that were packed in California at the height of our hemisphere’s season will have more vitamins and a much smaller carbon footprint than those picked prematurely and artificially ripened as they’re shipped halfway around the world.  And others, like peas, are always better frozen since the nutrients degrade so quickly when they’re left fresh.
  3. Omega-3 eggs – we’re not big fish eaters around here, so I made sure we get those healthy fats in our eggs.  Plus, the companies that make omega-3 eggs are going to be more environmentally conscious than those producing cheap eggs.
  4. Nuts – I put almond flour in anything I can, and those tasty cocoa roast almonds will take care of most chocolate cravings.
  5. Honey – while honey has the same amount of sucrose and fructose as table sugar by weight, it actually tastes sweeter so you need less of it.  Plus, it has all kinds of natural antioxidants and protective benefits.
  6. Quinoa – technically a seed, it’s the best option you’ve got in the grain world, and was the subject of my very first post to this blog.
  7. Organic chicken – yes, it’s more expensive.  But totally worth it.
  8. Greek yogurt – with double the protein of plain yogurt and a super-creamy texture, Greek yogurt makes a decadent breakfast (especially with honey and strawberries).  You can also use it in all kinds of recipes as a substitute for sour cream or just to add a rich dairy element.  Just buy it plain, please; all kinds of flavored Greek yogurts are hitting the market, and their sugar content rather invalidates the health benefits in the yogurt itself.
  9. Oatmeal – plain, old-fashioned oats are fine; go for steel-cut if you like, but the benefits aren’t worth it unless you prefer it.  Makes for a fantastic breakfast, especially mixed with #2 (frozen blueberries cool it down, make it a fun color, and taste great), #4 (a small scoop of almond flour makes it super creamy and adds a ton of protein and fiber), #5 and maybe some #10.
  10. Dried fruit – this one is more for the athletes amongst us, but can certainly go for everyone.  Carbohydrates are important for training and recovery, and the clean eating philosophy encourages complex carbohydrates.  As a society, we definitely place too much emphasis on grains as our primary carbohydrates.  So for you athletes, keep dried fruit around for carb loading, fueling and recovery.  Dried figs are my favorites – think Fig Newton without the fakey-cakey exterior.  And, for everyone else, dried fruits are integral in my favorite type of healthy sweet, the fruit and nut balls that are limited only by your imagination.  Caveat: read the labels and be sure what you are buying is ONLY dried fruit.  Many, especially dried berries and dried pineapple, have a ton of added sugar.

 

Ahh, see, this is my problem: this was supposed to be a SHORT post.  Guess I’m incapable.  Glad to be back!

 

Snowy Pure Superfood

In a surprising new study, researchers have discovered the amazing health benefits associated with an often criticized food product.  According to the team from the University of Illinois’ Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, for optimal health you just can’t get enough white flour.

Previously in this blog, I’ve discussed how lower carbohydrate diets seem to be healthier and more natural, but a responsible scientist must be willing to change his or her opinion when new evidence presents itself.

“Just as Steve Jobs revolutionized the world with iPods, farmers revolutionized our health by creating modern wheat strains,” says Jonathan Browning, head researcher for the team.  He described the long-term processes that have resulted in this critical commodity. Around fifty years ago, farmers began to tinker with the properties of wheat, to lead to a flours that could be more easily ground, create lighter breads, and avoid going rancid.  Due to unforeseen side effects, each new strain of wheat created multiplied the amount of genetic information in the wheat’s protein, known as gluten.  A number of sources have vilified this effect, blaming it for everything from the rise in Celiac disease to countless minor medical maladies.  However, the new research states that the newly-formed genetic information contained in these gluten proteins may contain the key to our long-lasting health and wellness.

While the wheat itself has been adapted to be far superior to the original eikhorn wheat our ancestors were used to, we now have advanced processing techniques that allow us further enhance the nutritious qualities of wheat.  Now, we are able to separate out the best parts of the wheat and allow us to condense all the benefits from wheat into a purified and wholesome form.  In its natural state, the wheat seed contains three parts: the germ, endosperm, and bran.  The germ and bran simply exist to protect the endosperm, so without modern techniques stripping them away, our ancestors were forced to endure a heavy, dense product prone to spoilage.  We are no longer bound to that fate.  Furthermore, researchers are now recognizing the many health-altering substances contained in germ and bran of the wheat kernel and questioning if those are really safe for us to be consuming, or should be discarded.  After all, this starchy endosperm must be the most important part of the wheat if two separate systems exist to protect it.

You can expect drastic shifts in your health by ditching the unnecessary parts of the wheat kernel and enjoying it in its very purest form, which has been developed by generations of farmers and millers.  By starting out your day with some of this superfood, you automatically start your day on a happy note.  Your bagel, pancakes or white bread will trigger chemical reactions in the brain associated with euphoria.  This reaction is why we often associate products made with this delightful powder to be so comforting, and now you can indulge in these foods safe in the knowledge that they will benefit your health.

For one thing, the amazing powers of premium white flour will digest quickly, leaving you free to enjoy more of it within a few short hours!  The researchers noted that the less time food spends in your stomach the better.  Long-term stomach damage can occur as a result of continually trying to break down the woody exterior of the wheat, which can so easily be stripped away.

The quick-digestion of white flour also gives your insulin system a good workout.  There’s no question that exercising your muscles or your brain leads to improvements in them.  Eating white flour regularly throughout the day will ensure that your insulin is continuously being called into action, and therefore will remain in optimal health.  The more chances your body has to use insulin, the lower your risk of developing diabetes.  You might even find your internal processes are exercising so hard you can even skip the gym!

Plenty of vitamins and minerals exist in this delicious food source as well, especially in the many foods made from it that are enriched and fortified.  All the vitamins and minerals available from the whole food can easily be added back in, in a purified and enhanced form.  You can meet all your dietary needs from a simple loaf of bread, provided it has met the stringent enrichment and fortification guidelines set forth by the USDA.  Vitamins and minerals have been studied extensively, and many have been shown to ward off heart disease, protect unborn babies, and reduce your risk of cancer, among countless other advantages.

Delicious, light and airy.  Easily digested and full of essential vitamins and minerals.  Stripped down from all the harsh armor that guards this important internal part of the wheat.  Why did it take a team of University researchers for us to understand its importance as a Superfood?

Oh, right.

Happy April Fools!

Grain-Free Banana Bread in a Mug

That black banana just didn’t want to get thrown away.  It was speaking to the edges of my consciousness, waiting for inspiration to strike.  I didn’t want to make regular banana bread.  First of all, I only had one; second of all, I didn’t want a big glutenicious loaf laying around.  Then I thought about all of Chocolate-Covered Katie’s healthy single-serve desserts.

And thus, my single-serve Grain-Free Banana Bread in a Mug was born:

  • 1 overripe banana
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup almond flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp honey*
  • dash salt
  • OPT: 1 tbsp chocolate chips, raisins, or pecans

* Substitute whatever sweetener you like; use brown sugar, white sugar, a packet of artificial sweetener, or just leave it out altogether.

In a small bowl, mash banana.  Crack egg into it, and stir until smooth and even.  Add in remaining ingredients and stir until combined.  Grease a mug with a quick dash of cooking spray, and carefully pour in the batter.  Pop in the microwave for three minutes on high.

I put it in a ginormous mug in case it expanded.  It did not, so a regular-sized mug would be fine!

This recipe is gluten-free and almost Paleo.  To make it Paleo-friendly, omit the sweetener (the overripe banana is already sweet!), grease the mug with a Paleo-friendly fat, and don’t opt for the chocolate.  It is made with all REAL food (if you opt for honey or another natural sweetener), nothing chemical or manufactured, so you can indulge with the peace of mind that it something your great grandmother would have recognized.

Not only would this make a great dessert, it makes a great breakfast too.  The banana gives it that sweet, comforting quality.  The almond flour adds a lot of healthy fats and fiber that help to really slow down its digestion and absorption.  Both the almond and egg contribute to the whopping 14 grams of protein in the single serving, which will also keep you full, strong and alert!

The Many Health Benefits of Chocolate

It was love at first astonished bite for the evil stepsister in the movie Ever After, when the prince shared with her a taste of the exotic new confection they just discovered.  Today, it is easily the most craved food item, with a significant amount of people claiming they can’t get through a day without it.  I speak of course of chocolate, that decadent, melty substance that seems to have become more of a requirement than a luxury.

We tend to attach a lot of guilt to indulging in chocolate.  However, that doesn’t need to be the case.  Of course, if your chocolate comes in the form of six-layer truffle cake or a giant turtle sundae, then yes, by all means, retain your guilt.  If, however, you savor moderate amounts of quality dark chocolate, then toss the guilt, because it truly is good for you!

Chocolate is good for your heart

Of all the claims chocolate can make for your health, the impact it can have in reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease is the most impressive and the most thoroughly studied.  A recently published study reviewed several other studies and trials, including over 100,000 subjects, looking at many factors to see if chocolate had a protective effect on the heart.  They found that across the board, no matter if the chocolate came from the oft-recommended dark chocolate, or if it came from cakes, cookies, drinks or even nutritional supplements, the groups that ate the highest amounts of chocolate had a 37% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduced risk of stroke.

That sounds like carte blanche to go out and dive open-mouthed into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.  Before you do, remember that’s the highest amount studied, with controls for other factors.  Whatever benefits chocolate has, it also has a lot of calories and fat, so overdoing it will lead to obesity which will only add significantly to your risks for those diseases.

One way that chocolate protects your heart is that the the phenols (plant chemicals) that come from the cacao plant help to lower blood pressure.  And it doesn’t take much: a 2007 German study found that 30 calories’ worth of dark chocolate – a bit bigger than the size of a single Hershey’s kiss – was very effective at making the subjects’ blood pressure drop.  While the white chocolate and milk chocolate groups had no changes in their blood pressure, the dark chocolate group had a drop of 3 points in their systolic and 2 points in their diastolic readings.  It may not be enough to cure major disease, but it is statistically significant.

Another major risk factor for heart disease is high cholesterol.  Chocolate can help that, too: it contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which will help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) by as much as 10%, according to some studies.  One type of flavonoid, called flavonols, also make the blood’s platelets less sticky and able to clot, thereby keeping the vessels clear and the blood flowing freely through them.

Chocolate is good for your insulin

Take a look in the candy aisle, and you’ll see no shortage of “sugar free” chocolates and chocolate candies endorsed by various diabetic organizations.  A small bit of the real thing will certainly be more satisfying and may actually provide some protection.  Some of the flavonoids in chocolate help to reduce insulin dependence, and can help the cells function normally and use the insulin more efficiently.  A nice rich square of dark chocolate also has a very low GI, so it won’t spike blood sugar levels.  I personally would rather have a small bit of the real thing as opposed to some sugar-free chocolate coated marshmallow Frankenfood.

Chocolate is good for your inflammation problems

Some inflammation is good – it’s needed for wounds to heal.  However, a whole bunch of bad diseases can result if your body’s inflammation goes haywire.  Allergies, asthma, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disorder and a whole host of other hypersensitivities are due to inflammation.  The component in your body responsible for all that is called C-reactive protein.  Eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate will significantly reduce the amount of that protein floating around, and so may provide improvements for any of those diseases that result from a faulty inflammation system.

Chocolate is good for your mood

Having a bad day drives many people to the Hershey’s kiss jar.  It is highly comforting, but there’s a lot more going on than just that it tastes good and makes us happy.  Well, first off, it does taste good and feels like a treat.  Eating chocolate stimulates your brain to create endorphins, the opiate-like brain chemicals associated with all pleasures from the runners high to falling in love.  In fact, chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical your brain releases when you are in love.  Furthermore, it contains serotonin, a powerful antidepressant brain chemical.  Beyond that, it contains small amounts of caffeine and caffeine-like chemicals to give you a bit of a stimulant boost.  It’s no wonder we are drawn to it when we’re stressed: it’s a bit of natural, comestible, easily obtainable Prozac.

Chocolate is good for your cardiovascular endurance

For awhile, it has been known that chocolate milk is a better drink for exercise recovery than commercial sports drinks.  However, that has less to do with anything from the chocolate itself, and more to do with chocolate milk having the perfect levels of protein, fats, sugars and electrolytes.  Sports drinks only have sugar and electrolytes.

New research looked at chocolate itself, and found that small amounts of chocolate before exercising can reduce fatigue and allow you to go further.  The mice in the study who were fed a purified form of the flavonol epicatechin were able to go about 50% further than the mice forced to exercise without it.  Even cooler, biopsies of their leg muscles showed the chocolate-group had formed new capillaries and mitochondria as a result!  The researchers suggest that a small 5 gram serving of dark chocolate, about half the size of a typical square, will help enhance  your workout.  This will only work with dark, since the processing for milk chocolate destroys the epicatechin.

Chocolate is good for your teeth…and your asthma…and your cold

One of those caffeine-like chemicals in chocolate is called theobromine.  It’s a versatile little molecule, which can help harden your tooth enamel and loosen up your asthma-clenched bronchioles.  Even non-asthmatic coughs can be helped by theobromine, as it suppresses the vagus nerve activity that gives you that annoying “tickle”.  Incidentally, it also helps with blood pressure, since it loosens up your blood vessels the same way it loosens up your bronchioles.

Chocolate is good for your antioxidant levels

Free radicals are nasty little buggers that run rampant in your body, wreaking havoc on your cells in a chain reaction like falling dominos.  Given enough time, they can damage enough cells and lead to cancer and cardiovascular disease.  Antioxidants are like little walls put in the path of the domino cascade.  So, anything with antioxidants can help stop cancers from forming.  Anything that comes from plants has antioxidants, the more richly colored the better.  As chocolate comes from the fruits of the Theobroma cacao tree, it has the same antioxidants found in dark vegetables.  One study showed that the blood antioxidant levels were increased by about 20% after eating dark chocolate.  This means it could be a powerful ally in the fight against cancer.

Chocolate is good for you

Just remember, when reading any research about the health benefits of chocolate, they’re talking about chocolate chocolate, so the higher concentration the better.  Dark chocolate contains way more cacao than milk chocolate, and white chocolate doesn’t even have any cacao.

Also, processing can destroy the flavonoids, and the more expensive the chocolate the more care was taken to process it so as to preserve the flavonoids.  Thus, you’ll get a lot more benefit from an ounce of, say, Sharffen Berger than of Hershey’s Special Dark.  Milk chocolate also requires far more processing, so that helps explain why studies always find it does not have the same benefits as dark.

The best chocolate for you is the kind that that has the least add-ins, too.  Marshmallows, nougat, caramel and creams only add sugar calories; 200 calories worth of cream-filled bon bons obviously has a lot less chocolate than 200 calories worth of a high-quality bar.  Add-ins such as nuts, spices, fruit bits, orange zest or chili are fine, since they add a lot of flavor and antioxidants of their own, without adding empty calories.

Through all of this, it must be said that chocolate is indeed a high-calorie, high-fat food.  One ounce of the 82% cacao Sharffen Berger, for instance, has 140 calories and 11 grams of fat.  However, of that fat, a third of it is the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil; another third is a fairly health-neutral fat, and the last third is a heart-unhealthy saturated fat you do need to look out for.  You won’t get into too much danger if you can limit yourself to just an ounce, a few times a week…and that is exactly the amount experts say is ideal to reap the benefits.  Any more than that will simply add to your overall calorie intake, thereby increasing your weight and adding to your risks of all the diseases chocolate could otherwise help you avoid.

The best ways to enjoy chocolate

While many studies have shown that dark chocolate is superior to milk chocolate in all manner of health claims, other studies have looked at eating dark chocolate while drinking milk.  While milk might seem like a natural companion to chocolate, it may negate a lot of the good, by blocking antioxidant absorption.  This could explain another reason why dark is better than milk; in addition to the lower percentage of cacao, the milk blocks whatever antioxidants and flavonoids are left after processing.

So, instead of drinking milk along with your chocolate, try pairing it with tea or wine.  Both can pair beautifully with chocolate, and both boast impressive amounts of their own antioxidants.

You can also up the antioxidant ante by eating it with fruit.  Melt some high quality dark chocolate in a double boiler or in 30-second microwave intervals, dunk in some strawberries, apples, orange wedges or whatever your heart desires.

Find a good source of dark chocolate chips, you’ll be able to eat them more slowly, or make a sweet and salty trail mix by tossing them with some healthy nuts.

My favorites

My first foray into the world of upscale chocolate was Vosges, which we discovered on vacation in Vegas.  Fortunately, there’s a Vosges shop in the B-Concourse at O’Hare Airport, a place my husband happens to pass with regularity.  Fortunately, the bars are also starting to appear at many stores, most notably at Whole Foods.  My favorite is the Red Fire, but all their chocolates are amazing, with unique ingredients ranging from bacon to pink peppercorns to goji berries.

My chocolate-loving friend sent me some Michel Cluziel for my (our) birthday.  These all have very unique and subtle flavors, since the cacao beans are harvested from a single location, that are influenced by the varying climates and whatever plants grown near the cacao trees.  Beyond that, though, this is easily the smoothest, velvetiest chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

If you need your chocolate fix now, Lindt and Ghirardelli are available pretty much everywhere and are very good.  They usually list the cacao content on the label, so look for higher percentages.

Chocolate is meant to be savored.  Observe the sheen.  Smell the aroma.  Listen for the snap as you bite off each tiny corner.  Let it melt slowly and coat your tongue.  If you’re really observant, maybe you’ll even feel the little squirt of endorphins in your brain.

All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.

– Charles M. Schultz

Ch-ch-ch-chia!

It’s the end of January.  If you’re like most Americans, your New Year’s Resolutions for the year have already become a laughable memory.  “I said I was gonna eat what for dinner?!  Bwaahaaahaa!!!”

The long nights and cold dreary days put many of us in a funk.  In desperation, we claw around to get our hands on the latest superfood, often without really knowing what it is or what its supposed to do.  “My husband’s coworker’s wife’s niece’s third-cousin said that her life changed when she tried that super berry newly discovered in the heart of the Bolivian rainforest!”

Some of the food and diet trends we’ve seen have been expensive but worthless, or even dangerous.  Some have their benefits vastly exaggerated or their potency highly overstated (during the hoodia craze, all the hoodia produced in the world could not have accounted for a fraction of what producers claimed was in their supplements).  While you look around for something to lighten your spirits (waistline) and actually do your body some good, you can look no further than your beloved childhood gardening experiments.

The Other Side of Chia

My mom loves to tell people the story of how she met the inventor of the Chia Pet while sipping cocoa in a Vail ski lodge.  She believed him, she says, because who would think to make that up?  (Admittedly, that logic didn’t work so well for Romy and Michelle when they claimed to have invented Post-Its at their high school reunion.)  Unfortunately, their conversation never got around what sparked that bizarre idea.  I don’t think chia seeds were too popular in the US in the 1970s, so I wonder how he came to think of combining them with a terra cotta ram.  I think if I were going to invent a ceramic growing pet I’d create it to grow something useful, like a Parsley Pony or a Basil Baboon.

In the last 40 years, the Chia Pet was has been an interesting product – they just keep making new versions (Chia Obama, anyone?) and somehow the company stays alive despite selling a product that seems more like a kitschy joke than something anyone really wants.  Although clearly people buy them, as the inventor still gets to enjoy pricey ski vacations.

Perhaps chia seeds would have an easier time coming into American kitchens as an actual edible product if people didn’t hear the word and immediately think of cheap commercials on late-night TV.  Still, despite the newness of this seed to the collective American consciousness, it has in fact been a staple since prehistoric times.

Like most of our “newly” discovered superfoods, chia seeds provided critically important nutrition to ancient people for thousands of years.  Central American natives cultivated them as far back as 3500 BC, and consumed them as a grain and as a beverage.  Beyond that, they used them as a base for body paint, and even as a medicine.  It was known to help with coughs, sore throats and fevers, or was made into a poultice for external wounds.  It was so valuable it was able to be used as currency in trade missions and as an offering in religious ceremonies.

Aztec warriors are said to have lived off of one tablespoon of chia seeds per day during their battles, an experiment I’m not keen to corroborate.  Thousands of years later, the natives of the American southwest also relied almost exclusively on chia seeds as both food and medicine during their forced marches.

In his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall tells us about the superhuman Tarahumara Indians, living in a remote area of Mexico known as Copper Canyon.  These amazing athletes regularly run ultramarathons like they were a walk in the park.  I can pretty safely guess the Tarahumara are not fueling with Gatorade, Gu, Chomps, Sport Beans, salt tabs, or any of the other products considered essential by American runners.  I bet you can figure out from context how they keep themselves going…  Anyone?

We rely on factory-made blends of essential this and unpronounceable that, when we could be chugging “chia fresca” and enjoying all the natural health benefits and restorative properties of this itty bitty little seed.  To live like the Aztecs or Tarahumara, simply stir a few teaspoons of chia seeds into a glass of water.  Wait 10-15 minutes, and the seeds will have absorbed about twelve times their weight in water, making it into a thin gel.  Sprinkle in some sweetener and a shot of fresh lemon or lime juice, and consider yourself fueled.

Gel

The gelling qualities of chia seeds have a number of positive side effects.  The Tarahumara consider chia seeds to be “the running food”, and with good reason.  The ability of the chia seeds to absorb twelve times their own weight makes them very useful for maintaining hydration.  As someone who has had the misfortune of running her two marathons in unseasonably hot 90’F temperatures, I imagine that would be of some importance to someone running a hundred miles across a Mexican desert.

Just like the chia seeds swell in a glass, research shows they will also swell in your stomach.  This is good for dieters, since that means you will feel a greater sense of fullness.  It is also good for diabetics; the gelling will help slow down carbohydrate digestion, thereby slowing the rate at which sugar enters the bloodstream.  This will keep blood sugar levels more stable and avoid dangerous insulin spikes.

Fat

A lot of blame for the so-called “Western diseases” (heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and even some kinds of cancer) goes to the types of fats we eat.  Fish, nuts, olives and seeds are high in the “good” omega-3 fatty acids.  Instead, we eat mostly omega-6 fatty acids, which are linked to all those diseases.  Our diet has about a 10:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, whereas prehistoric and indigenous diets are closer to 2:1.

Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3s.  In fact, chia seeds are the richest plant source of these fats, higher even than walnut and flax.  While there is no official recommended intake for omega-3, one ounce of chia seeds (about two tablespoons) has about 5000 mg, which is well beyond what the American Heart Association recommends for improving heart health.

Fiber

That same ounce of seeds has ELEVEN grams of fiber, which is about 40% of your recommended daily intake.  All that fiber will keep you full, keep you regular, and lower the risk for all those Western diseases.  Between the gelling properties and the fiber, chia seeds are more effective than those dangerous diet pills in terms of managing your hunger!

Protein

A one-ounce serving has a respectable 4 grams of protein, but what makes it special is that it is a complete protein.  In general, to find complete proteins you need meat, cheese, eggs, or other products made from animals.  Vegans may wish to pay special attention to chia, since along with quinoa, it is one of very few complete proteins to be grown from the soil.

Other good stuff

You’ll get 18% of your daily calcium and 27% of your daily phosphorous needs from a glass of chia fresca made with two tablespoons of chia seeds, making it very good for your bones.

Chia seeds are chock full of antioxidants to keep their own fats from turning rancid.  In you, these antioxidants will help squish free radicals and prevent cancerous cells from forming.

How to use them

The simplest way is to make chia fresca as described above.  However, while interesting, I will admit it is an odd texture and may not be for everyone

You can hide them in a smoothie, which has the added benefit of them not expanding until they reach your stomach, keeping you nice and full.

Add to salad dressings or simply sprinkle on a salad for a nice crunch.

Eat them with apples and peanut butter, as described in my millet post.

Make a pudding, such as this one from Whole Foods; it’s basically the same as chia fresca but with made with milk and sweetened, then topped with dried fruits and nuts.

Add to muffin, quick bread or pancake batter as is, or grind it up and substitute for a part of the flour in your baked goods.

Visit this website for more ideas; they have a pretty comprehensive list of 40 ways to use chia seeds, plus a number of recipes on the side.  My favorite is the chia apple pie filling, which can just be eaten as a chunky applesauce.  Add cinnamon, ground cloves, and nutmeg to make it really delicious!

Taste

Chia seeds have almost no taste of their own, so they’ll just taste like whatever they are with.  Their texture as a gel is definitely unique, but give it a try for the health benefits.  I’ll leave you with a comment from my six year old son:

“They only taste they have is crunchiness.” -Graham