Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sugar Alcohols

Okay, so I know there is a lot of heat in the natural foods community over the proper place of sugar alcohols in a natural-foods diet. One camp says they are pure poison and should be categorized with aspartame as diabolical monsters of modern science; the other camp says they are healthy and natural, safe for diabetics, and as close as folks avoiding sugars can get to the real thing.

Now, in my personal experience, I've experienced far more intestinal distress with products off the shelf containing maltitol than I have with baked goods I make at home with a mixture of xylitol and stevia (depending on my mood, I often add Splenda, and this is a vice of mine I admit only reluctantly. I want to kick the habit, and I'm working toward it! But I digress.). Most (if not all) of the commercially available "No Sugar Added" or "Low-Carb" goods contain quantities of maltitol and/or isomalt, and whether its directly those two things, or those combined with the other conditioners/texturizers they add (inulin, maltodextrin, glycerin, etc) that hurts me, hurt me it does! Yikes.

Based on some reading I've done recently (here are a couple of the highlights: a broad overview on erythritol and an interesting side-by-side comparison of erythritol vs. xylitol in particular, and their digestive side effects), I've concluded that I'd like to give erythritol a chance, and hopefully replace xylitol completely. I'm awfully confused about it though. Its obvious to me that I should avoid aspartame and saccharin, and cut down on sucralose. But I know that I can't totally give up sweets, and stevia, although it is wonderful, does not fill the bill by itself. It is too bitter, too herbal, and lacks the mellow roundness and mouthfeel I seek in my baked goods and treats. By itself, it is great in liquids (such as salad dressings, teas and other drinks, etc), but I am not satisfied with stevia as a baking product without augmentation.

My concerns about xylitol are mainly the production process; even the most committed-to-natural manufacturers cannot deny the many steps it takes to process xylitol from the natural source, and several of these steps make me wince. Xylitol has a long history of use, starting in Finland nearly a century ago, and holds a great reputation among dentists (as my daughter found out when she was chatting with her dentist last week about the brownies we made at home the night before), but these facts alone are not enough to make me trust it fully. Erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream differently than other sugar alcohols, and only about 10% of it makes it to the lower intestine (which I surmise is why it has a better track record for digestive symptoms than the other sugar alcohols). There's a rather thick lab report on erythritol's safety here. Just the fact that erythritol is produced by fermenting sugar and merely dehydrated, rather than subjected to a bath in hydrochloric acid (among other unsavory processes) like xylitol makes me feel more comfortable with it. I use guar and xanthan gums pretty regularly, which are similarly produced. Yes, I know they are made from sugar. Yes, I know they are artificial. And perhaps, if I wasn't already sick, I would be using sugars in their unadulterated, naturally-occurring forms, like raw honey, evaporated cane juice, and etc. I use these natural sugars in cooking for family and my kids, who are not trying to manage diabetes through diet. Maybe someday I'll be willing to make the step and give up artificial sweeteners altogether, but for now I'm not, and it seems like erythritol could be a better choice of the lesser evils for me.

I'll let you know how it works out in baked goods; I have never been overly satisfied with xylitol's performance. To get things sweet enough, they turn out almost chemically harsh; a similar effect, in my opinion, to saccharin. Erythritol is supposed to be only 70% as sweet as sugar, so we'll see how that works out. When you are eating only natural foods, even plain oatmeal starts to taste sweet! I ordered some today, so all recipes for sweet baked goods are on hold till I've had a chance to try out this new ingredient. Awesome pricing on both erythritol and xylitol at Emerald Forest (and no, I'm not being paid to endorse them.) and free shipping on orders over $30. :)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Savory Tomato-Basil Muffins

Adapted from Rose Elliot's Sun-Dried Tomato Cottage Cheese Muffins, found in the wonderful cookbook, Vegetarian Supercook. These muffins had very little flour to begin with, and are largely based on almond flour. I use Bob's Red Mill Almond Meal (which you can get through the manufacturer, but I found it much more affordable on Amazon -- between the Subscribe & Save discount, and the free shipping, it was a very good deal) in this recipe, and for any recipes calling for almond flour, unless I specify otherwise. I have found it nearly impossible to get a fine fluffy flour out of my tiny food processor, without ending up with almond butter, so buying the flour pre-ground is a good thing for me.

I have been craving crusty breads with fancy toppings lately (and we'll revisit this topic when I cover Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip, coming up soon), and one of my favorites is sun-dried tomato and pesto torte, with cream cheese. I enjoyed it for the first time in the car on the way home from Trader Joe's when I was 14 or so, and I have loved it ever since. Its pricey to make, so its a rare treat. These muffins are a fun celebration of that flavor combination, especially when spread with a little cream cheese! Makes my kitchen smell like a pizzeria while they're baking.

Removing the flour changed the texture on these muffins considerably. The new texture is heavy, almost quiche-like, but with a denser, more satisfying texture. And who doesn't love portable quiche? They are very filling, chock-full of calcium and protein; one muffin makes a decent breakfast (or second breakfast!) alongside a good cappuccino. They can be frozen and reheated in the microwave on one's way out the door for a quick breakfast, too. Bellissimo!

Savory Tomato-Basil Quiche Muffins
(adapted from Vegetarian Supercook )
  • 3/4 c. Parmesan cheese, shredded or grated
  • 1/4 c. whey protein isolate (I recommend Bob's Red Mill, as there is nothing else added, just protein)
  • 1 T. coconut flour
  • 1 c. finely ground almond flour
  • 1 t. baking powder (aluminum-free)
  • 1/2 t. sea salt
  • 1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper (fine grind; I use a mortar and pestle)
  • 1 c. plain cottage cheese
  • 1/4 c. sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, pureed in a food processor
  • 1/4 c. fresh basil, chopped finely (I threw mine in the processor for a quick whirl)
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 400F. Combine the first seven ingredients in a medium bowl. In a seperate bowl, combine the wet ingredients. Add wet to dry; mix well to combine. Grease 12-muffin tin; non-stick spray will work in a pinch, preferably olive oil. Fill cups nearly full, and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until set in the center. These will brown quickly, because of the whey protein, so watch them carefully toward the end of cooking time.

Makes 12 mini-quiche muffins.

Garlic Ranch Dressing

I dunno about you, but this summer I've been making myself crazy trying to find a ranch dressing that has neither high fructose corn syrup nor partially hydrogenated oils in it. I like my ranch light and California-style, thin-ish (not thick/gloopy like a tartar sauce), with a good buttermilk tang to it. Its okay if I can detect the flavor of mayonnaise, but if its going to be a greasy GLOP of nothing much more than mayonnaise on my salad, it shouldn't be labeled ranch dressing! That texture is okay for dips, but I want something entirely more... fresh on my salads! The only commercially available stuff I've been at all happy with has topped $5/bottle, and still has sweeteners in it, which are entirely unnecessary in my opinion. I simply can't afford to pay that much money when we are going through so much dressing: between the four of us in the summer, we're using a bottle a week!

Well, a revolutionary idea struck me, and I was flabbergasted that I hadn't considered it before in all the years I've been cooking-- why not make one myself? I don't have a clue why this had never occurred to me! I make many other kinds of salad dressings from scratch, but somehow ranch always seemed like something you purchase prepared, like mustard or something. Odd, I know. So, I set out to look for recipes, and I found many. I fiddled with a few, achieving varying degrees of success; this is the one I've liked best. I'm making this every week now, and the whole family likes it. My favorite way to eat this so far has been with steak salad and fresh, sweet tomatoes. Yum!

The secret to this recipe is the freshness of the ingredients; I would not advise making it with dried herbs or dried garlic. It is at its best when used within a day or two, and the garlic flavor seems strongest the day after it is made. It keeps about five days in the fridge before the herbs get icky and the flavor profile changes.

Garlic Ranch Dressing

(adapted most notably from this recipe ~
  • 4 sm. cloves fresh garlic (or about 1 1/2 T. minced)
  • 1/4 c. packed celery leaves
  • 1 stalk green onion (1/4 c. chopped)
  • 1/4 c. fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • juice from one small lemon (abt. 2 T.)
  • 3/4 t. fine freshly ground black pepper

  • 3/4 c. quality mayonnaise (no HFCS, I use Trader Joe's when I can get it)
  • 1/2 c. cultured buttermilk

Put the first seven ingredients into the food processor and blend till pulverized and minced finely. Add mayo and buttermilk, scrape sides, and pulse again to combine. Store in a glass container (unless you plan on only ever using your plastic container of choice for this purpose, because it will smell of garlic for all eternity afterwards) in the fridge with a tight-fitting lid for up to a week. Makes about 12oz or so.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Looking ahead...

I'm working on pulling out some of my favorite recipes from over the past year, remaking them, and photographing the results. I'm compiling a list right now of the ones I'd like to post, and here's a partial list of what you can look forward to seeing here over the next few weeks:
Watch this space for updates! There are also several things I'll be working on for the upcoming holidays, recrafting to fit my special list of needs (tasty, nourishing, fresh, low-carbohydrate) as well as please the palates of guests who many not share my enthusiasm for healthy cooking: I'd like your input as I work towards a More-Perfect Pie Crust!


We're all looking for ways to tighten our purse strings on some level or another, and for those of us who have already been living on a budget, with minimal-to-no 'extraneous' costs and services to cut in lean times (Anyone else feel a little frustrated when the how-to columns tell you to cut out your daily latte or cancel your premium cable subscription to save some money when you've only been drinking what you brew at home and getting movies from your local library for years now? *sigh*), the place we look to cut is almost always the most flexible one: Our grocery budget.

I don't know about you, but my bills aren't going to shrink a whole lot more. I don't use my heater unless it falls below 50F in my house, I don't even HAVE long distance phone service so I can't cut back, I don't go out to eat often (less than once a month, for the most part), I don't buy new clothes. I already buy the cheapest brands of paper goods (and use coupons when I can!) and economize on the toiletries, stretching the better brands (Tom's of Maine and similar green products) as long as I can and only purchasing when on sale from the lowest bidder.

So what's a girl to do? I want to know what you are doing, too! Maybe between us, if we put our heads together, we can come up with ways the other hasn't thought of yet to ease the strain a little more and not give up on eating whole, fresh foods in favor of their much cheaper, undead counterparts.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be posting not only recipes, but also a record of things I'm doing in our house to cut down on grocery costs while still eating healthfully and tastefully. I invite you to share your own links, blog posts, and ideas in the comments!

Italian for 'salad.' ;)

What do you serve, when dinner is ready, and you find, at the last minute, that you do not have the romaine you thought you had? When the salad was a large percentage of the meal you thought you were about to serve, and the crisper is bare? You scrounge, and you slice, and you chiffonade some basil-- and voila. My husband said of this salad: "It eats like a man." And so it did.

Insalata Caprese, Impromptu

  • Two fresh tomatoes, sliced thinly.
    (The ones pictured were local peak-season heirlooms, and they were luscious!)
  • 4 oz. mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly.
  • 8 large basil leaves, rolled and sliced into narrow ribbons.
  • Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling.
  • Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling.
  • Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Arrange tomatoes on serving plate. Slip sliced mozzarella between tomato slices. Drizzle generously with oil and vinegar; garnish with basil; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish.

Hobbiton Hankerings.

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold [as hobbits do], it would be a merrier world."

"Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated then a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools... They are quick of hearing and sharp-eyed, and though they are inclined to be fat and do not hurry unnecessarily, they are nonetheless nimble and deft in their movements... In the days of their peace and prosperity they were a merry folk... they had long and skillful fingers and could make many other useful and comely things. Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them). They were hospitable and delighted in parties, and in presents, which they gave away freely and eagerly accepted."

Excerpt from "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien

With a fine and merry heart, I face my kitchen each day, bent on crafting ever-improving tasties to tempt the palate, delight the senses, and comfort the soul. I love cooking, and eating, and sharing, but with one caveat: I've learned in recent years that leaving out as much of the simple starches as I can allows me to more freely enjoy these pursuits, that I might more ably stay "inclined to be fat" rather than decidedly portly. Therefore, you'll find as you read over these recipes that as I lean toward hearty, pleasing, and rich, I lean away from foods that are processed or have a large impact on blood sugar, such as grains and simple sugars. I strive to maintain a balance of healthy and minimally processed, with a firm belief that the closer a thing on my plate is to the way it sprung out of the ground, the better! There are so many joys and secrets of cooking well that my great-grandparents and their forebears knew, that have been lost to fire and sword. One of my chief aims is to find them out again, pass them on to others, and to my children. I hope you enjoy your stay-- won't you join me for a cup of tea and some nut-bread?

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.

~The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
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