[I thought it would be fun to run a little series over here at DDD: I'll profile one one of my favorite foods, or a food that I've recently discovered and enjoyed, over several days. For this fifth edition, I'm focusing on cilantro. The series is presented on an occasional (and entirely arbitrary) basis, before I move on to the next lucky comestible. This is the first entry on cilantro.]
The other day, the HH and I were discussing the possibility of taking a short trip to Boston to visit my cousin CBC. “That would be so much fun,” I blurted out spontaneously, “I’ve got a couple of friends in Boston!” When he asked whom, I stammered, “Well, blog friends.”
Before I started blogging, I couldn’t have fathomed how one could consider a virtual (no pun intended) stranger to be a “friend.” Yet it’s true–I feel as if I’ve made friends in cities across the continent and even around the world through this l’il blog, and my contact with them is often more consistent and frequent than it is with my “local,” live friends.
Well, thanks to my blog reader, cookbook tester, and friend Courtney, I came home last week to a package that contained these:
Don’t you just love receiving gifts in the mail? The GardenSac bags (on which the card and brown rice are resting) are made from 100% cotton and can be used for any kind of shopping. And, as Courtney and I discussed, they’re terrific because the open weave allows you to easily see what’s inside. With most stores here in the Toronto area recently switching to “pay-for-plastic” policies (and some offer credit if you bring your own reusable bags), this is a perfect, and very timely, gift! And I don’t know how Courtney guessed, but I love wild rice. I’ve already made a wonderful Confetti Salad with it–which I’ll blog about anon. Thanks again, Courtney!
And as if last week wasn’t already great enough, I found out that I’ll be presenting two recipe demos from Sweet Freedom(one on Saturday and another on Sunday) at the upcoming Vegetarian Food Fair in September! Billing itself as “North America’s largest annual vegetarian festival,” and with stellar keynote speakers like Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (author of The Joy of Vegan Baking and The Vegan Table) and Brenda Davis (co-author of Becoming Vegetarian and Becoming Vegan), the Fair promises to be another spectacular event this year. It’s scheduled between September 11 and 13 at Toronto’s Harbourfront. Come on out and say “hi”!
Whew! And now, time for some zingy, spicy, nutritious and delectable food!
Having grown up on a farm, my dad must have felt a strong affinity for the earth, because even after working six days a week and keeping incredibly long hours, he always grew a garden in summer. Granted, it was a fairly small garden; still, growing up my sisters and I were regularly graced with fresh tomatoes in August, plus the occasional cucumber, red pepper, or propitious esculent each season.
One year, he decided to try out sunflowers. Why sunflowers? Beats me. Maybe he thought they were pretty (come to think of it, if their wallpaper choices are any indication, my parents did lean toward all things floral). I remember being astonished at how tall the stalks grew, capped with golden saucers that towered over my own eight year-old frame, and how the actual seeds filled the center of the scalloped disk, encased in their rigid black shells. When summer ended, we roasted the seeds in the oven, and my sisters and I continued to snack on them through Hallowe’en (at which point they were unceremoniously chucked in favor of candy, of course).
Remember the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman groaner, The Bucket List? Well, self-indulgent male menopausal buddy flicks aside, I’ve recently been thinking about my own version of the list, and activities that are most important to me in my lifetime. One of the items I’ve added to my personal bucket list is “grow a real garden.” Believe me, this is quite the proclamation coming from She Who Shrinks from Anything Insectoid. Also, a startling revelation from She Who Recoils at Anything Snakelike. Oh, and don’t forget a shocking assertion from She Who Guards Against Anything Even Remotely Germ-Infested or Bacteria-laden. Why, then, it makes perfect sense that I’d choose to spend my time on my knees on the dirt, digging into earth rife with microorganisms, the habitat of myriad insects and worms–and often visited by garter snakes.
I’m not sure what it is, but as I get older, I see what must have appealed to my dad about a garden. Nurturing the seeds, coaxing infant seedlings until they stretch sunward, ultimately unfurling in full bloom, just taps into my (otherwise untapped) maternal instinct somehow. (“And don’t forget having dogs, Mum! That taps into your maternal instincts, too, right? Hopefully the ‘you must feed your children’ maternal instincts.”)
Which brings me to this post’s Lucky Comestible: cilantro.
I determined early that my garden absolutely had to contain cilantro–lots and lots of cilantro. Now, I know that cilantro is one of those herbs one either loves or loathes. Like the ability to curl your tongue or whether or not your earlobes are detached, a penchant for cilantro appears to be genetically predetermined. Some people perceive it as “soapy and perfumey” while others can’t get enough. Having begun life in the former camp, I now find myself firmly entrenched in the latter.
Like so many herbs, cilantro (also known as Chinese Parsley) confers a plethora of health benefits besides the usual vitamins and minerals (though it’s no slouch in those areas, either–only 9 sprigs of the delicate plant provide almost one third of your daily Vitamin A, nine per cent of your daily Vitamin C, plus iron and calcium).
More importantly, the green pigment in cilantro represents chlorophyl, a powerful detoxifying agent and blood purifier. Cilantro is known to be a chelating herb, which means it draws heavy metals out of the system by encouraging the liver to produce bile so they’ll be excreted. In his monumental tome, Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Dr. Elson Haas includes a recipe for “Anti-Radiation Soup” that relies on the cleansing properties of cilantro to help flush the body of toxins produced due to radiation. I always have the soup after any necessary X-Rays (and, according to Haas, the soup was “shown to reduce radiation sickness after the Hiroshima bombing”).
If you’re one of those people who comes down on the “loathe” side of cilantro, I’d urge you to give it another try. You’ll find that the next few posts here at DDD will focus on this fragrant and fragile herb. Of course, you can always substitute parsley for some or all of the cilantro in these recipes– but why not live dangerously? That’s one more item you can check off your own bucket list.
Fresh & Spicy Cilantro Sauce (suitable for ACD all stages)
This sauce is perfect for summer with its brilliant shade of emerald and cool, tangy, tongue-tingling flavor. The tart lime juice melds beautifully with the smooth nut butter and fragrant cilantro here. And while we ate it spooned lightly over Jessy’s Brown Rice Veggie Burgers, it would be a perfect sauce for any meal-in-a-bowl of your choice, or even tossed with cold noodles for a zingy summer salad.
1 to 1-1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves and thin stems (depending on how much you like cilantro)
1/2 large jalapeno pepper (remove seeds for less heat)
juice of 2 limes
1-2 Tbsp (15-30 ml) water, if necessary to reach desired consistency
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp (15 ml) pumpkinseed butter; or use sunflower or almond butter (use raw butter for an all-raw version)
1 fresh green onion
pinch fine sea salt
Blend everything in a blender until it comes together in a smooth, light, vibrant green sauce (you may need to push down the sides of the blender a few times until everything is incorporated). Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes about 1/2 cup (120 ml). Will keep, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.
[Welcome to the new home of Diet, Dessert and Dogs! I'm still tweaking the format and layout of the blog, so please bear with me while I update some links, combine some page tabs, etc. It should all be up and running smoothly within the next week or so!]
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Coombs Family Farms, an organic farm in Vermont that specializes in “all things maple,” to see if I’d like to sample some of their syrup. Since maple syrup is a well-loved staple in my kitchen and many of my baked goods feature it as a key sweetener, I was delighted to accept their offer and eagerly awaited the package.
A few days later, I received this:
A bottle of their certified organic syrup, along with a maple-leaf shaped piece of maple candy!
Anyone who’s ever consumed real maple syrup can attest to its unique flavor–sweet, slightly smoky, with an appealing, earthy aroma. Made from the sap of maple trees, it’s naturally rich in minerals (per volume, higher in calcium than dairy milk!). The syrup is available for purchase in three grades of A (light, medium and dark) and one of B–each darker and more intensely flavored than the last. I was sent a bottle of grade B, an intense, soulful auburn that was so thick and deep it was nearly opaque. As soon as I removed the cap, the maple perfume escaped to envelop the room with that distinctive scent.
Now, I’ve enjoyed maple syrup for many years. Like pretty much everyone raised in Quebec–the heart of Canada’s maple country–I consider myself a maple aficionado, if not an expert. Maple syrup is ubiquitous in La Belle Province: you can find it on every checkered tablecloth in every greasy-spoon breakfast diner, cheerily lining the shelves in corner grocery stores, awaiting the call in every kitchen cupboard. When I was in grade school, each spring our class would make an annual trek up north for “sugaring off” parties, where freshly tapped, warmed maple syrup was poured over vast expanses of pristine snow to create a kind of maple taffy that we kids scrambled to scoop up with plastic spoons. I might even classify myself as a bit of a maple syrup snob, in fact, one who’d never even consider trying the artificially flavored stuff from that iconic slender-waisted bottle.
Still, despite my fine maple sensibilities, I’ve never really thought it essential to buy organic maple syrup. For one thing, the price is usually, shall we say, immoderate. In addition, I’ve always recalled a conversation I had with a student once in a sociology of food course I was teaching. She mentioned that her family owned a local maple tree farm. There was really no difference between organic and non-organic syrup, she explained, since most maple trees aren’t sprayed with pesticides anyway (unless infected by some vermin or another). I filed away that bit of information and continued to purchase my regular (non-organic) variety.
Well, let me tell you, that student got it wrong (luckily, she wasn’t writing a test at the time). Now that I’ve tasted the Coomb’s organic version, I’m not sure I can go back to my generic brand. Their syrup is outstanding, with a rich, deep amber color and more intense maple flavor than I’ve ever tasted. It’s perfectly sweet and subtly smoky, with a heightened maple essence that lingers gently on the palate, enduring like an unexpected compliment.
Seriously, I may not be able to tolerate my old brand any more. To heck with the price–I’ll just have to be more judicious in my use of it, I reckon. Or else use a bit less and savor every drop more. Or simply ignore the cost entirely (I suspect that a pawn shop may come into play at some point). Seriously, it’s that good.
My first taste of the syrup was straight, poured onto the Lemony Almond Pancakes I wrote about a few days ago (I wanted to sample the delicacy in its pure, unadulterated state before combining it with other ingredients). The flavors melded beautifully, the maple’s presence strong enough to match the zesty lemon while counterbalancing the slight sourness of it. The HH practically asked to drink the stuff straight out of the bottle (but I wouldn’t let him, of course, as I was saving it for my subsequent kitchen experiments). He did manage to polish off the maple candy in one sitting, however–I got barely a nibble!
With such a winning flavor, I opted to design a cookie that would really showcase the unique taste that is “maple.” I concocted these Maple Flax cookies (sorry, the two of you who are also on the ACD; these are NOT ACD-friendly–I created this recipe a couple of weeks ago). They are naturally gluten free (and even flour-free, in fact). In this case, the light, chewy texture was a natural outgrowth of my desire to minimize other ingredients in order to allow the natural maple to shine through. And you will most definitely taste it, with every chewy, sticky, sweet and maple-y bite.
Thanks again to everyone at Coombs Family Farms for allowing me to sample this extraordinary product. Now my only lament is that I can’t find any more of it here in Toronto!
They’re not quite Irish, but since they contain oats, I can claim a Celtic connection, anyway. . . Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!
P.S. It’s time for another Sweet Freedomgiveaway. . . stay tuned for details next post!
Maple Flax Cookies
Looking somewhat like oatmeal cookies, with a crunchy exterior and chewy center, these intesely maple-flavored treats will please everyone. Whole flax seeds add bulk, while the oatmeal and flax meal both contribute heart-healthy soluble fiber.
1/2 cup (60 g) whole old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant or quick cook)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) coconut oil, solid at room temperature*
3 Tbsp (45 ml) pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp (30 ml) Sucanat or other unrefined evaporated cane juice
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) pure vanilla extract
2 Tbsp (30 ml) finely ground flax seeds
3 Tbsp (45 ml) whole flax seeds
1/4 tsp (1 ml) baking soda
1/4 tsp (1 ml) baking powder
1/8 tsp (.5 ml) fine sea salt
Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, or spray with nonstick spray.
In the bowl of a mini food processor or coffee grinder, whir the oats until they resemble a coarse meal. Pour the meal into a small bowl and set aside.
To the unwashed processor bowl, add the coconut oil, maple syrup, Sucanat and ground flax seeds. Blend until combined well and smooth. Set aside while you measure the rest of the dry ingredients, or at least 2 minutes.
To the bowl of oats, add the whole flax seeds, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and mix to distribute everything. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir to create a sticky “dough”.
Using a melon baller or teaspoon, drop the mixture onto cookie sheet about 2 inches (5 cm) apart. Do not flatten the cookies (they will spread on their own).
Bake 10-13 minutes, until puffed and cracked on top and dry on the edges. Allow to cool completely before removing from sheet (they will firm up as they cool). Makes 8-10 cookies. May be frozen.
* If your room temperature is warm enough that the coconut oil melts, place it in the refrigerator for 10 minutes or so to firm up before using in this recipe.
I have a confession to make. I haven’t told you all about this yet because, quite frankly, I was afraid you’d reject me. Move that cursor elsewhere, and click. At best, roll your eyes. Maybe snort in disgust. Maybe gag, even.
But I’ve decided it’s time. I mean, really, what kind of lasting relationship can we have without full disclosure?
So I’m just going to come out and say it:
I love okra.
Are you running for the hills yet?
Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Okra? That polygonal pod that’s a staple in gumbo, and mostly reviled? That much-maligned member of the marrow family (but cocoa is in that family, too!) that most people reject without so much as a nibble? That pariah of the produce aisle that’s often referred to as gluey, viscous, slimy or mucilaginous–with seeds that remind you of those bowls of peeled grape “eyeballs” we all stuck our hands into at Halloween when we were kids?
Yep. That okra.
I adore okra’s long, lantern-shaped pods, the vibrant green skins with just a hint of fuzz and the wagon-wheel innards when you cut them across. I love the mild, slightly woodsy flavor and the pop of the seeds in your mouth. I could eat okra every day, and never tire of it.
I think it’s heartbreaking that okra gets such a bad rap. Okra is like the pimply nerd at school–the reject, the Carrie, the Napoleon Dynamite , the Ugly Betty. The last kid to be chosen for the baseball team. The scrawny kid on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face. The pink-and-too-frilly kid who takes her dad to the prom. The computer geek nobody wants to date so then he quits high school and starts some computer company run from his parents garage and redeems himself by becoming the richest guy in America. . . oh, wait. That would make him Bill Gates, wouldn’t it? And then he’d actually be much sought after, wouldn’t he? Well, heck! To my mind, that IS okra!
[A bit of spice, a bit of bite, a bit of lemon zest: an endearing combination.]
I think we should give okra the accolades it deserves. Let’s nurture its low self-esteem. Let’s compliment its grassy hue and lovely symmetry, tug its cute little tail at the narrow end and make it blush. Sure, it was born a green vegetable (already at a disadvantage compared to, say, watermelon). And then there’s the goo factor. But sometimes, with a recipe that takes our humble ingredient and pushes it to be its best, well, that little green lantern can really shine. That’s what I wish for my buddy, okra.
Besides, okra has much to offer us. Described by WholeHealthMD as having a taste that “falls somewhere between that of eggplant and asparagus,” it’s a good source of Vitamin C and several minerals; and the seeds offer up protein in every pod, along with 4 grams of both soluble (known to help keep cholesterol levels in check) and insoluble (great for regularity) fiber in a one-cup (240 ml) serving.
[Still slightly al dente in this photo; cook a bit longer if you're an okra neophyte.]
These are two of my favorite okra dishes, ones that we consume fairly regularly here in the DDD household. The first is another adaptation from my dog-eared copy of Flip Shelton’s Green, a Moroccan Spiced Okra-Quinoa Pilaf. I’ve made liberal changes to this one, including altering the base from rice to quinoa. The spices are subtle with a barely detectable undertone of lemon zest in the mix. Served sprinkled with chopped nuts, this pilaf is a meal in a bowl all on its own.
The second dish comes from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Indian Cooking Course by Manisha Kanani. Again, I’ve made a few alterations to the original, which asks you to dry-cook the okra on the stovetop; I’ve found that adding chopped tomatoes and allowing the tender pods to stew in the juices produces a more appealing taste and texture. Although a masala curry, this one isn’t the least bit spicy, yet is still rife with the flavors of tomato, cumin, coriander and fresh cilantro. It’s a perfect side dish for Indian food, of course, but we also enjoy this as an accompaniment to burgers or cooked grains.
So go ahead, give okra a try! Who knows? You may even like it. And don’t worry, the secret will be safe with me.
Subtle flavors of warming spices and comforting vegetables, this quinoa-based pilaf can be made with any favorite grain.
2 Tbsp (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced fine
2 medium carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) chili flakes
2 tsp (10 ml) ground ginger
2 tsp (10 ml) ground cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) ground coriander
1 cup (240 ml) dry quinoa
1/2 cup (120 ml) green or brown lentils
3-4 cups (720-960 ml) vegetable broth or stock
freshly grated zest of one lemon
4 ounces (100 g) okra, washed, trimmed and cut into pieces
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 cup (75 g) roughly chopped cashews or pistachios
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a large covered casserole dish.
In a large pot or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat; add onion, carrot, garlic, chili flakes, ginger, cumin and coriander. Stir until the vegetables start to soften and the spices are fragrant. Add the quinoa and lentils and cook for a few minutes more. Add the broth, lemon zest and okra and return to the boil. Remove from heat.
Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish, cover, and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the liquid is mostly absorbed. Sprinkle with the cilantro and nuts before serving. Makes 4 servings. May be frozen.
Anti-Candida Variation: omit the nuts, or use chopped almonds instead.
This is the perfect introduction to those wary of okra: keeping the pods whole prevents the juices from being released, and once the okra is cooked it’s not the least bit gooey inside. Be sure the pods are very soft and cooked through (the color will darken to an olive green) for best effect.
1 pound (450 g) okra or green beans, or a combination (washed and trimmed but not cut)
In a small bowl, combine the turmeric, chili powder, cumin, ground coriander, salt, agave, lemon juice and chopped cilantro (the mixture will still be fairly dry).
Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium heat and add the cumin and mustard seeds; fry for about 2 minutes, or until they begin to splutter and pop.
Add the spice mixture and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and okra and stir to coat well. Lower heat to simmer, cover, and cook until the okra is very tender and most of the moisture from the tomatoes has evaporated, 25-35 minutes. Garnish with more chopped cilantro if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Anti-Candida Variation: Use 3-5 drops of stevia in place of the agave or Sucanat.
Odd. . . my Google Reader seemed to be filling up at an alarming rate, sort of like the rising waterline in The Poseidon Adventure. Then I remembered: Not only is October the official World Vegetarian Month, it’s also the Vegan MOFO (Month of Food)! This is the 31-day period in which vegan food bloggers worldwide pledge to blog at least 20 days of the month about, well, vegan food. And blog they have!
Every now and again, I scroll through my photos and realize there are dozens of dishes I’ve cooked and photographed, but never blogged about. It may be that they were less than stellar in their final form, or that my woeful skill as a photographer resulted in a photo that, ahem, didn’t quite do the dish justice. More often than not, however, it’s just that I ran out of time and went on to blog about something else–and then, weeks (or, in some cases, months) later, I stumble upon the photos and rack my brains to remember what the heck it was. And so, here’s but a brief sampling of some of the things we’ve been sampling here in the DDD household.
As Heidi mentions in her post about this, this deceptively simple dish is incredibly addictive. I made it once to try it out, then repeated the venture three days in a row. Stupendous. (And this is one of those aforementioned cases in which the photographer is not up to par with the quality of the recipe!).
Hannah’s Crumb-Topped Brownies are everything you’ve heard they are, and more. As I mentioned a while back, I recently found myself with some soy yogurt in the house, so I finally had the means to try these out. They were superb–soft, gooey, and with a moist, almost custard-like texture that literally melted in the mouth. Even without the white sugar or flour, these were fabulous, and irresistibly decadent.
My favorite scrambled tofu recipe. With just a touch of curry paste, a hit of jalapeno, the requisite turmeric–this dish provides a spicy, juicy, eggy and convenient scramble. I could eat this every day (and I do, for about 3 days after I make it, since the HH will no longer indulge with me).
As Lucy mentioned in her original post about this condiment, it may be just a tad too pungent for some tastes on its own; but these taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it roasted with russett potatoes. Yes, it does sound quirky, and yes, it does resemble the habitat of plankton, but it is, nevertheless, uniquely appealing!
Rich. Chewy. Chocolatey. Totally indulgent. All that, even though I made my usual substitutions of Sucanat for sugar, spelt for regular flour, coconut oil for margarine, etc. The HH almost scalded his tongue eating four of these babies straight out of the oven. What are you waiting for? Go bake some, pronto!
And coming up. . . .got any coconut of your own?
I deliberately ended this list with these coconut cookies as a segue into my next post, which will introduce a new Lucky Comestible series–on coconut! I’d love to include any recipes you may have made featuring this ingredient as well. While I’m not quite ready for my own blog event, I will happily provide links to your posts at the end of each Lucky Comestible recipe in the series.
So feel free to send along those URLs for your coconut-based recipes (and I’m already planning to feature at least 2 of your recipes in the batch. . . but you’ll have to wait to see which ones!).
“Oh, Mum, talk about MoFo! You’re so cruel to keep us all waiting. . .especially when you’re cooking all those yummy coconut dishes just a few feet away. . . *sigh*. . . “
“Chaser, don’t you use such language! And don’t worry, when she’s done, we’ll get to polish off the extra coconut milk.”
[I thought it would be fun to run a little series over here at DDD: I'll profile one one of my favorite foods, or a food that I've recently discovered and enjoyed, over several days. For this third entry, I'm focusing on Avocados. The series is presented on an occasional (and entirely arbitrary) basis, before I move on to the next lucky comestible. ]
Some foods are just acquired tastes–sort of like scat, living in the suburbs, or Quentin Tarantino films. I know that avocados work that way for many people, but that wasn’t my experience. Like eggnog or chocolate, avocado was one food I knew intuitively that I’d like, even before that first buttery, golden slice ever slid across my tongue.
In my teens, I used to walk to high school each day with my friend Phil. We’d meet at her place (about halfway between my house and our school) where she’d usually invite me in for a breakfast bite. It was in her mother’s white and gold formica-clad kitchen that we learned to love coffee together (stage one: 1/2 cup coffee, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup cream and 5 sugars. Stage two: 4/5 cup coffee, 1/5 cup cream, 1 teaspoon sugar. Stage three: eliminate sugar. Stage four: Congratulations; you’re hooked for the next 30 years, until that ulcer/heart condition/high blood pressure diagnosis, and then you go back to “no coffee”.)
While at Phil’s place after school one day, her mother (who was born in Belgium, and was therefore very glamorous) introduced me to avocados. The rough, gravelly exterior, greenish black skin and ovoid shape all seemed very exotic to this apple-and-banana gal. But as soon as she cut the fruit open, removed the glossy pit, and proffered a halfmoon slice, I was forever hooked on the smooth, velvety texture and slightly nutty, slighty sweet flavor.
To me, avocados are a nearly perfect food. Technically a fruit (sometimes called the “alligator pear”), they are used more often as a vegetable, and almost always raw. A few years ago, though, I read a magazine article about authentic Mexican cuisine. I found out that, in addition to being tossed into pretty much every salad or salsa, the avocado is also used sometimes in that country in cold soups and even cakes. Wow, I thought, what a great idea! With the extra healthy fats (and monounsaturates can stand up to low heat pretty well) as well as the fiber, avocados would make a terrific egg substitute in baking!
So I started playing and came up with a few baked goods (and I promise to share later in the series) as well as a cold soup–perfect for summer (recipe to follow as well). If you feel like playing with avocado as an egg substitute, use it the way you would tofu (1/4 cup avocado purée = 1 egg). Or simply add about 2 tablespoons puréed avocado to any baked good for added moistness.
Whether your preference is the crinkly Haas or the smooth-skinned Fuerte variety, an avocado is ripe when it “gives” slightly to soft pressure with your thumb or finger (be sure to press at the top of the fruit to avoid bruising the flesh). Most avocados are sold before they’re ripe and require 2-5 days at room temperature before they’re ready to eat.
Once ripe, however, they don’t last long–a day or two at most–before they reach the overripe, slightly fermented, stage (you know an avocado is past its prime if it starts to smell a bit like wine). If you can’t consume them once ripe, they’ll keep another 2-3 days, unpeeled, in the refrigerator. When I find myself with an overabundance of ripe avocadoes, I simply peel, purée, and freeze in one-cup containers for later use (frozen pulp is perfect for future dips and spreads, those baking experiments, or even added to pasta sauces later on). Frozen avocado should keep up to five months.
Avocados are also incredibly healthful–they aren’t a staple of Mexican cuisine for nothing! Brimming with heart-healthy monounsaturated oils, they are a good source of fiber, potassium (great to counteract high blood pressure) and vitamin K, essential for blood and (of particular interest to those of us with osteopenia) bone strength. They also contain a good dose of lutein, an antioxidant found mostly in green leafy vegetables that’s been shown to contribute to eye health and even help reduce the effects of macular degeneration (a disease of the eyes in which central vision is slowly erased).
And today’s recipe? Well, guacamole is one of those iconic foods that regularly makes an appearance at end-of-semester pub bashes, summer Bar B Qs, surprise birthday parties, or work pot lucks; I simply couldn’t do a series on avocados without including this classsic dip.
The first time I tried guacamole, I was at an end-of-semester party thrown by my friend Carol, a legendary hostess known for her ability to draw crowds of disparate personalities who, for the course of an evening (and often into the wee hours of the morning), all got along over beer, wine, and literary discourse.
Carol and her husband always included their two children (then aged 9 and 11) in every social activity, so the kids would meander quite comfortably among the professors and graduate students, stopping every now and again to chat with the bearded hippie sucking back a Becks or the the raven haired T.A. in the inappropriate tank top who was hitting on our Drama professor. Completely unfazed, the children might stop for some corn chips and guacamole, then move on. Around 10:30 or 11:00, they’d wander upstairs to their bedrooms, where they’d doze entirely undisturbed by the din beneath them, like babies in the neonatal ward who can all sleep through their own wailing.
Carol’s guacamole that night was spectacular, and I knew I’d have to make it again. I clipped this recipe from an old Chatelaine magazine from the 1990s, and I’ve never even tried another since. I do realize that everyone and their hairstylist has a fabulous recipe for guacamole, but this really is the best one I’ve ever tasted. The unusual step of rinsing the onion (which removes any pungency that might linger on the palate hours later), elevates this version to one of the all-time best recipes I’ve ever made.
I used to think that guacamole required garlic to taste this delicious, but this recipe proved me wrong. The contrast between the chunky tomato and smooth, rich avocado is stellar. Add more cilantro if you’re a fan.
1/4 cup (60 ml.) finely chopped white onion, rinsed in a sieve under cold water
1 medium ripe (but still firm) tomato, diced small
2 tsp. (10 ml.) finely chopped jalapeno pepper, with seeds
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 ripe Haas avocados, pitted and peeled
1-2 (15-30) ml. freshly squeezed lime juice, or more to taste
Combine onion, tomato, cilantro, jalapeno and salt in a small bowl. In a large bowl, coarsely mash the avocado (a potato masher works well for this–you want a few chunks to remain). Add the onion mixture and lime juice and stir to mix well. Serve immediately with tortilla chips or raw vegetables, if desired. Or, just eat with a spoon.
Can be made ahead, covered, and refrigerated up to 4 hours; press plastic wrap against the top of the guacamole before refrigerating, to minimize oxidation. Makes about 2 cups (500 ml.).
I find it fascinating how certain ideas make the rounds in the world of food, blogging or otherwise. I’ve mentioned before about how it galls me that Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld has an over-hyped, over-acclaimed, skyrocketed-to-bestseller-status cookbook in print, all because she thought to add some vegetable purees to existing recipes (Oh. And because she’s Jerry. Seinfeld’s. Wife. Right.). No matter that others–writers, or, naturally, vegan chefs–have been doing this sort of thing for years (and even my little baking company has been selling carob muffins with hidden spinach in them since 2004–so there!).
[Note to readers: Please permit me this puerile rant. It's January 28th, it's been snowing and way below 0 degrees C for weeks over here, and there is no end to winter in sight. I am grumpy. I hate ice and snow. I have been consuming highly insalutary amounts of chocolate. But I assure you, this is just a rant. It will pass and I will be better tomorrow.]
Well, when I was asked a while ago by VegFamilymagazine to come up with a trio of chocolate desserts for Valentine’s Day, I decided to jump on this veggies-in-sweets bandwagon. Maybe MJS has dumped some veggies into regular recipes, all full of eggs, refined flours and white sugar. But has anyone seen vegan versions, and without wheat or refined sweeteners? Gotcha! And so I had my angle.
I had been working for some time on a brownie recipe
made with pureed white (navy) beans, and decided to include this in the VegFamily piece by stretching the original concept somewhat. Then, the other morning, I took a peek at Celine’s fabulous blog and–voila!–there is a recipe for Black Bean Brownies, based on a still-earlier version from Activist Mommy. See what I mean? It’s that 100th monkey effect (or, in this case, 100th black bean effect. And that’s not just a lot of hot air, either. Unless you eat too many, of course.).
Next up, I wanted to do something really decadent, and also really romantic. One of the most romantic desserts of all time is the Molten Chocolate Cake, so I was determined to re-create a healthier, vegetable-rich, vegan version.
First of all, regular molten chocolate cakes rely on lots of eggs, and the batter is only partially baked to ensure a soft, oozing, chocolatey centre. I solved this problem by including two mixtures: one for the cake, and one for the centre, then combining before baking. The result was a rich, gooey, warm and definitely decadent treat. Oh, and just for fun, it has hidden zucchini and spinach in it! I’m happy to say that the result was enthusiastically “HH Approved.” He’s even asked for them again, on the real Valentine’s Day.
I’ll be posting all three recipes on this blog after the article is published. If you’d like to check out the recipes before then, head on over to VegFamily once their February edition is up on the site.
[I thought it would be fun to start a little series over here at DDD: the series will profile one one of my favorite foods, or a food that I've recently discovered and enjoyed, over several days. For this first entry, I'll be focusing on Sweet Potatoes. The series will be presented on an occasional (and entirely arbitrary) basis, before I move on to the next lucky comestible. ]
Let’s just say that my mother was not an overly adventurous cook. She habitually repeated the same six or seven dishes over and over, with the occasional new recipe from Family Circle, my aunt, or someone in her Mah Jong group thrown in on occasion. So we were treated to salmon patties and potato boats (called “twice-baked potatoes” these days), hamburgers with mashed potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, or tuna salad over cucumber, tomato, and iceberg lettuce on a rotating basis.
Fresh fish? Forget it. Artichokes? Don’t make me gag. Fresh herbs? Bah! Who needs ‘em?! (Once, when I was visiting during March break, in a moment of temporary insanity I wondered aloud if we might purchase some dried oregano for the pantry. It was as if I’d taken a cup of steaming clam chowder and poured it over her bare feet. Actually, no. Clam chowder was too exotic for our house.)
So. When I finally discovered the beauty and gustatory appeal of sweet potatoes at a visit to a restaurant here in Toronto, it was truly a revelation. Allen’s (known primarily for its extensive selection of specialty scotches, come to think of it–how odd! What on earth was I doing there??) to this day still serves up a killer dish of sweet potato fries with mayonnaise. In my mother’s house, on the other hand, those off-color interlopers had never once been allowed to sully our doorstep (don’t forget, this was the woman whose entire repertoire of herbs and spices consisted of onion powder, paprika, and dill).
It wasn’t until years later that I finally began to cook the sweet spuds myself, and my next encounter with sweet potatoes, unfortunately, wasn’t all that auspicious. I had just been put on a very restricted diet by my naturopath and was feeling pretty resentful of all this crunchy-granola, health-foodie, good-for-you-five-to-ten-a-day foods. Sweet potatoes? Well, if I couldn’t have them after they’d been immersed in a vat of 400-degree, week-old restaurant fat for 20 minutes or so, then I didn’t want them at all! Besides, weren’t they only appealing to commune-living, hemp-smoking hippies (or–gasp!–Southerners)? I’d never actually tasted one without the benefit of hydrogenated enhancements (though I did suspect I’d enjoy Sweet Potato Pie, what with all the sugar, eggs, and cream they added to it).
Turns out sweet potatoes were my savior. During a period when I could eat NO sweeteners or fruits of any kind, sweet potatoes quickly became my favorite sweet treat. I ate them for breakfast (baked, with a dollop of almond butter–delicious–much better than they look in this photo!–seriously), lunch (raw, sliced, as a base for raw almond pate), or dinner (heavenly, spiced sweet potato “fries,” which were really baked). Later on, once I was allowed to broaden my diet, I began to experiment with sweet potatoes in baking, and created recipes for sweet potato muffins, mini loaves, pudding, pie, and several other sweet treats.
Besides being high in fibre, vitamin A (as beta carotene) and other minerals, sweet potatoes are also a good source of vitamin C, vitamin E and iron, and even contain a contribution of protein. According to Paul Pitchford in his phenomenal tome, Healing with Whole Foods, Traditional Chinese Medicine uses sweet potatoes for their cooling nature and to promote chi energy in the body; they are also useful to enhance functioning of the spleen and pancreas. And because they’re a source of phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogen), sweet potatoes can help mitigate those pesky symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. In addition, they are also alkalizing in the body, which is great if you tend to drink a lot of coffee, eat a lot of sugar, or prefer to discourage the growth of cancer cells in your body.
Best of all, sweet potatoes are low on the gylcemic index (the measurement of how food influences your blood sugar levels), registering at 54 (surprisingly, lower than white potatoes, with a score of 88-93), so they are a great food for type II diabetics or plumpers like me. And when baked, their natural sugars caramelize, producing the most ambrosial sweetness.
Though most North Americans consider the more orange-fleshed, moister vegetables to be yams, they are, in fact, just another type of sweet potato alongside the lighter-fleshed, dryer ones. (According to PCC Natural Markets, “true yams, which are which are grown in the tropics, are almost ivory in color, and are more starchy than sweet”).
Sweet potatoes have become a true staple in our home, and are definitely at the top of my list of favorite vegetables. With that in mind, I thought this would also be a good entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, the terrific event originated by Kalyn’s Kitchen and this week hosted by Anna at Anna’s Cool Finds.
Mini Sweet Potato and Chocolate Chip Muffins
I’ve previously posted another of my favorite sweet potato-based recipes, the Thanksgiving-themed Sweet Potato and Carrot Casserole. Today’s contribution is a mini-muffin using the sweet spud, as well as a sprinkling of chocolate chips. These are a great snack when baked as minis; you can also double the recipe and make a dozen regular-sized muffins.
1/2 cup Sucanat (unrefined evaporated cane juice)
1/3 cup sunflower oil or other light-tasting oil
2 tsp. finely ground flax seeds or flax meal
2 Tbsp. plain soy or rice milk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup pureed sweet potato (it should have the consistency of very watery mashed potatoes)
1 cup light spelt flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
2/3 cup dairy-free semisweet chocolate chips (minis are nice)
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Spray 18 mini muffin tins with nonstick spray.
In a large bowl, mix together the Sucanat, oil, flax, milk, vanilla and sweet potato. Allow to sit while you mix the dry ingredients, or for at least 2 minutes.
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, spices, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir to mix. Gently stir in the chocolate chips.
Using a small scoop or tablespoon, fill the muffin tins about 3/4 full. Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool completely and remove from tins. Makes about 18 mini muffins.
[This recipe will also appear in my upcoming cookbook, Sweet Freedom, along with more than 100 others, most of which are not featured on this blog. For more information, check the "Cookbook" button at right, or visit the cookbook blog.]
A few weeks ago when I hosted a pot luck dinner for some friends from my nutrition school days, I promised on this blog to post all the recipes from the evening. This napa cabbage salad was originally on the menu (but got usurped by Isa and Terry’s Caesar). Well, tonight we ate the salad with/for dinner, so I’m happy to finally present the recipe here.
Napa is one of those foods that seems to straddle two different types of vegetable: is it a lettuce (genus lactuca)? Is it a cabbage (genus brassica)?* What I love about it is its perma-crunch quality; even the next day, and even if you’ve thrown foresight to the winds and dressed the entire salad, the leftovers are still crisp. In fact, my HH remarked this evening that he prefers this salad on the second day, as the flavors mature! (I’ll try that next time I make a salad of mesclun greens, too: “Yes, that’s right Honey, it’s supposed to be limp and a bit slimy; that’s just what happens on the second day, after the flavors mature“).
After a long day of grocery shopping, errands, school work, and grumbling over the thermostat falling once again, I wasn’t feeling overly hungry (shocking, I know, but it does happen once in a while). I’d picked up some sliced turkey for my HH, and had the napa in mind for me. Turned out to be the perfect dinner for a six-foot one, 195-pound male carnivore and a five-foot four (and a half!), mumblemumbleunclearnumber-pound female vegetarian: turkey sandwich and napa salad for him; a big plate of napa salad for me. Mmm. Can’t wait for the mature leftovers, tomorrow.
Napa Cabbage Salad
This fabulous salad recipe was given to me by my friend Barbara, who got if from someone else (exactly whom, she can no longer remember). The two essential components, I’ve found, are the napa and the dressing; pretty much everything else can be adjusted or substituted. This is the type of salad that invites picking at it, right out of the salad bowl, once you’ve already finished what’s on your plate.
1 whole napa cabbage, washed, trimmed, and sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 cup cooked and shelled edamame (we were out, so I just used snap peas)
1 carrot, grated, if desired
1/4-1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 drops stevia (or you can use sugar, about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 very small onion, grated on the finest holes of your grater (it should almost liquefy)
1 clove garlic, crushed
Toss the cabbage, edamame, carrot (if desired), pine nuts, and sesame seeds in a large salad bowl.
In a smaller bowl, combine the dressing ingredients and whisk to mix well. Pour over salad and toss to coat. Makes about 6 servings.
*In case you’re wondering, it’s actually the same genus as regular cabbage, brassica.
Snacks: should we or shouldn’t we? The jury seems to be out on that one. Just this morning, as I plodded along on my trusty treadmill, I happened upon a brief TV interview with ND Penny Kendall-Reed hawking discussing her new book, The No-Crave Diet. One of the supposed myths that she busted was the idea that we should basically snack all day long ( what’s been referred to as “grazing” in recent years), and eat 4-6 smaller meals per day.
No, no, no, said Ms. Kendall-Reed, that theory has been thrown out the window! Recent science indicates that leptin, the fat-controlling hormone in our bodies, only begins to really work its magic about 5 hours after we’ve last eaten (and so, works best overnight). If we keep shoving food into our mouths every two to three hours, we undermine the function of leptin. So to really lose weight, she advised, don’t snack at all. Stick with 3 meals–that’s it.
Well, I’m not sure I could ever give up snacks entirely, but if I do snack, I’d prefer it to be something that isn’t going to cause my fat cells to multiply or my arteries to stiffen up. What better choice than trail mix? It’s the perfect snack for us North Americans: quick, portable, ostensibly healthy, it provides us with the twin hits of two favorite tastes, sweet and salty.
But don’t kid yourself that you’re eating a health food if you consume store-bought varieties. Often, these are roasted in unhealthy oils (the nuts), coated in unhealthy oils (the dried fruits) or sprinkled with flour (wheat can be nasty for some) or sugar (which is nasty for everyone). They may also contain additives, coloring, artificial flavorings, preservatives, or hydrogenated oils. By far, the best way to acquire trail mix is to make your own. And since it’s so easy to throw together, why not?
I thought it might be useful to run through the basic components and offer what would or wouldn’t work for a healthy trail mix. I’ll also include our own preferred mixture here at the DDD residence (“We particulary enjoy those cashews, Mum. But thanks for not giving us those raisins!“).
What Should I Include in a Basic Trail Mix?
The generic recipe is very simple: use any combination of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and cereals that you like.
Just keep in mind one essential rule: minimize or eliminate processing. In other words, for the optimal trail mix, it’s preferable to gather all your ingredients in their raw form, measure according to healthy percentages of protein and carbs (since the original purpose of trail mix was to provide a boost of energy while hiking—a high-exertion activity—it should contain a fair amount of protein and carbs for energy, or a high proportion of nuts and seeds), then dehydrate or cook the ingredients, as you wish.
My own basic trail mix recipe includes:
approximately 75% nuts and seeds (I use almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and Brazil nuts; pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds)
about 20% dried fruits (I use unsweetened dried cherries, dried cranberries, raisins, chopped dates and chopped figs)
and about 5% grains or cereals, if you wish (I tend not to worry about the cereal part).
The following guidelines may help you decide which ingredients to include in your own mix.
NUTS AND SEEDS:
In general, nuts are a wonderful and very nutritious food. They contain heart-healthy Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats, monounsaturated fats, antioxidant vitamin E, and they are also generally high in protein. Nuts arrive in their own natural packaging—their shells—which will help preserve and protect them as well until ready to use.
Because it’s more difficult to buy nuts with the shells still on and then shell them yourself before blending into a trail mix (that alone would provide enough exercise to earn the right to eat them all!), the second best choice is raw, natural nuts from a health food store.
Organic nuts, of course, would be preferable, but these are often quite expensive.
Choose unroasted, unsalted, raw, natural nuts for your mix. If you wish, you can roast them yourself, by laying them out on a rimmed cookie sheet and baking in a 350 F (180C) oven for about 10-15 minutes, until just starting to turn golden. If you do choose to add salt, use a natural sea salt with a full complement of minerals. Cool completely before adding to your mix.
Keep in mind that the oils in nuts and seeds are volatile; this means they are prone to rancidity if exposed to air, heat, or oxygen (which is why you don’t want to buy those pre-roasted ones). In order to preserve the integrity of the oils in your nuts and seeds, refrigerate (or freeze) raw nuts/seeds until you use them. This way, you’ll obtain the highest health benefits from your healthy snack.
Almonds. These are always at the top of my list, since they offer a high protein content, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, and a lower fat content than most other nuts. They are also the highest nut for calcium.
Pumpkin Seeds. Known to be high in zinc, pumpkin seeds can help boost immunity and have been shown to help prevent prostate problems. They’re also high in iron and other minerals. The phytosterols (plant sterols) in pumpkin seeds have also been shown to help reduce cholesterol.
Sesame Seeds. These tiny gems are a great source of calcium and the same type of phytosterols as in pumpkin seeds. Remember that they need to be chewed to crack the outer hull, as this exposes the healthy oils within and renders the seeds digestible by our digestive tract (otherwise, sesame seeds—like flax seeds—are not digested and pass whole through our systems. While they offer fibre in this manner, they won’t offer nutrients this way).
Walnuts. Filled with healthy Omega 3 oils, walnuts are good for brain function (and they look like little brains, don’t they?) and heart health. Slightly higher in fat (about 65%), they probably should be eaten in moderation.
Conventional (non-organic) peanuts. Even if you’re not allergic, peanuts can harbor aflatoxins, a highly toxic mold (supposedly more toxic than DDT!). Organic peanuts tend to be less problematic in this area.
Commercially prepared soy nuts. In general, though soybeans offer great protein and are also important for women in pre- and menopausal years, commercial varieties are often roasted in poor-quality oils, high in added fat, and, unless organic, genetically modified. Check preparation and ingredients carefully if buying soy nuts.
["Yum! Thanks for those cashews, Dad!"]
Fruits are not only a high-fibre, no-fat snack; they’re also an excellent source of vitamins, some minerals (especially dates, raisins, and figs), and they add the chewiness and sweetness that so many of us crave in a trail mix.
Apricots: These fruits offer a great source of vitamin A. The organic variety is naturally darker in color than conventional apricots, and much sweeter! If you’ve never tried organic dried apricots, I highly recommend them.
Blueberries/Cranberries: both these berries have been shown to help prevent urinary tract infections by inhibiting bacteria from clinging to the urinary tract. They’re also high in vitamins and antioxidants.
Cherries: tart, organic dried cherries provide pucker-power in a trail mix and offer vitamins A and C, as well as a source of calcium.
Goji Berries: A relatively new addition to the realm of dried fruit, Goji berries are delicious (not quite as sweet as raisins and a bit chewier), with an impressive nutritional profile including high levels of vitamin C (higher by weight than oranges), several vitamins and minerals, and an array of amino acids. I previously wrote about goji berries (among other things) in this post.
Raisins: a perennial favorite, raisins are a good source of iron and also contain other minerals and vitamin B. Don’t forget, however, that raisins can be poisonous to dogs! (“We appreciate that, Mum.”)
Figs: dried figs are known to be anti-parasitic and help keep the intestines in good shape. They also provide a great fruit source of calcium as well as potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and phosphorous, not to mention good fibre content! I’ve grown very fond of figs (it’s just platonic, silly) and will post some new recipes with them in the next week or so as well.
non-organic dried fruits, as they can be coated in wheat flour (to prevent sticking together), sugar and/or unhealthy oils (same reason as flour), and often contain sulfites (a preserving agent). For people concerned with maintaining the enzymes present in raw fruits, look for dried fruits that have been dehydrated at low temperatures (usually below 118 degrees F).
plain puffed cereals, such as brown rice (I use Erehwhon unsalted) or organic oat circles. Many gluten-free grains, such as quinoa or millet, are now also available puffed as well.
Avoid: many commercial cereals contain sugar, hydrogenated oils, flavors, and so on. Check labels to ensure healthy ingredients and no extra sweetener.
How Do I Store My Trail Mix and How Long Should I Keep It?
For maximum longevity, store your trail mix in sealed, opaque containers in the refrigerator and take out only as much as you’ll need at a time. This will keep both the nuts and seeds fresh as long as possible, usually about a month (though it likely won’t last that long). However, if you detect even the slightest trace of rancidity in the taste of your nuts or seeds, it’s always better to discard the mix.
Trail mix is a real staple in our house, as my HH adores nuts of all kinds (Including me. You DID see that one coming, didn’t you??). And making your own, besides being fun, provides a comforting sense that your snacks can provide at least some of the essential nutrients in your day. And what if Ms. Kendall-Reid is right, and we should forgo our daily snacks? Well, just toss that trail mix into a big bowl of organic baby greens, and you’ve got an instant meal (and no one’s prohibiting that just yet!).
What was I thinking, agreeing to post an entry a day for a whole month? True, I have really been enjoying the whole Holidailies event, but given the whirlwind of events that are generally going on this time of year, coupled with the fact that I’ve been fighting some kind of weird virus the past two weeks (hope it’s not some alien quinoa I ate, or something), and this whole idea of posting to a schedule seems insane.
And so, I’m going to chuck the schedule tonight and write about something else entirely, instead of the pre-planned “diet” post. True, the title of my blog includes this very word, AND it is so often foremost on my mind that I may as well have a “diet” tatoo emblazoned on my stomach (where, of course, no living soul will ever see it if I can help it). Still, I am, every so often, occupied with something other than diets. Like dessert. Or dogs, for example.
These days, when I make or bake desserts, I tend to use organic, natural, unrefined sweeteners. That wasn’t always the case. I grew up in a home with an immigrant father who’d been raised on a dairy farm and was quite accustomed to home-baked desserts (not to mention everything else made from scratch as well). As it turned out, my mother was a dessert lover herself (the ultimate cause of her death, I’d wager) and an excellent baker. So we always had homemade goodies in our house, and my sisters and I would come home from school to cookies, cakes, or whatever else my mom had whipped up.
Growing up in a house like that was both a blessing and a curse. I knew how to bake by the time I was six or seven, helping my mother and aunt (who was also a professional baker and happened to live right upstairs in the same duplex). On the other hand, all the females in my family have or had weight problems, and struggle with sugar addictions. (My father, in contrast, is now in his eighth decade, has never been overweight, and just doesn’t understand how it can happen. “If I feel my belt getting a bit tighter,” he says, “I just stop eating dessert for a couple of days, and I go back to my normal size.” There’s no point telling him that (a) he doesn’t have an eating disorder, so of course he just “stops eating dessert”; and (b) he’s male, so all he has to do is have one less sip of coffee a day, and he’ll probably drop 10 pounds in a week.
The curse part is being so attached to dessert that I’m unwilling–perhaps unable–to cut it out of my life entirely, despite the deleterious effects I witnessed growing up. Even when my naturopath put me on a rigid diet that excluded all sweeteners for two years (including all fruits for the first 3 months), I eventually found a way to make dessert. I’d grind nuts with fruit puree–once the fruit was allowed–along with carob and spelt flour, shape it into patties and bake it; my HH called them “Dust Cookies.”
So maybe I just need to accept that baking is something I’ll always do, like writing, or patting my dogs, or brushing my teeth every night. I can live with that, as long as I’m not harming my health in the process. And that’s where the alternative sweeteners come into play.
It’s true that all “real” sweeteners will be converted to glucose in the body, thereby raising blood sugar levels. But there’s a huge difference between the immediate BOOM of sugar (converted quickly) and something like agave nectar, (converted slowly, more like a whole fruit would be, allowing for a more even rise in blood sugar levels). The lower GI (glycemic index) of agave also supposedly makes it appropriate for diabetics (if only it had been available when my mother was younger!).
It was a huge challenge at first when I began to bake with alternative sweeteners (not to mention the shift from regular flour to mostly spelt flour, from using eggs to no eggs, from butter to vegetable oils, and myriad other small changes). Eventually, though, I learned how to substitute healthier (for the most part, liquid) sweeteners for the sugar.
I use a variety of natural sweeteners now, but agave is by far my favorite. Somewhat like honey with a lighter consistency, it has a delicate flavor that won’t overpower the other tastes in your dessert (so, for instance, while I will use maple syrup in baking, I opt for agave when I’m making something light, like a lemon cake or banana cupcake). It’s also less sticky than honey, so it won’t cling to the bottom of the jar when it’s almost empty (just invert and wait a few seconds, and every last drop makes its way out).
If you haven’t tried it and would like to, here are a few quick tips for converting your existing recipes:
Agave is about 1-1/2 times sweeter than regular sugar. So if you’re replacing sugar with agave syrup, you can start with 2/3 to 3/4 cup agave for each cup of sugar.
Since agave is a liquid sweetener, simply substituting one for one with sugar will alter the chemistry of the batter by adding more liquid. To compensate, either cut other liquids in the recipe (say if it calls for 1 cup milk) by about 25%. In other words, if the original recipe used 1 cup sugar and 1 cup milk, change that to 2/3-3/4 cup agave and 2/3-3/4 cup milk.
If the original recipe didn’t use much liquid, you can still compensate for the agave by increasing the flour. Add about 25% extra flour for each cup flour (in other words, if the original recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 1-1/4 to 1-1/3 cups with the agave).
Baked goods made with agave may be a little heavier than what you’re used to, so you might want to increase any leaveners. If the original recipe calls for 1 tsp. baking powder, I usually up it to 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 tsp.
Finally, agave browns faster than sugar (just as honey does), and so should be baked at a slightly lower temperature for best results. If the original recipe uses 350F, I will bake an agave-based recipe at 325F.
Baking with agave allows me to create sweets that I’m willing to eat (that is, things that are actually tasty), without causing terribly unhealthy swings in blood sugar levels. And I do believe that dessert can be part of an overall weight loss eating plan (see, I didn’t say “diet.”).