Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

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This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.

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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

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Healthy eating has been in a state of transformation now for the last couple of years. It’s hard to date exactly when the sea change started but we’ve gradually been moving away from low fat, restrictions, and deprivations.

During the 1990s healthy really was synonymous with low fat, restrictions, and deprivations. That was decade when restaurants stopped using the word because they quickly determined that labeling a new menu item heart healthy or low fat was the kiss of death.

Home cooks and creative chefs have probably never paid all that much attention to nutrition guidelines and, just between you and me, I never cooked low fat at home even though I did my nutrition studies during the 1990s. But mainstream Americans embraced carbohydrates and sugar and cut out the fat.

I knew things were happening in the academic community when I started seeing studies like these here and here and here.

And if I were asked to provide pivotal dates, I would cite the publication of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines because of the implicit acknowledgement that the sum may be greater than its individual parts.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.

Or perhaps the FDA decision to exercise enforcement discretion as the agency reviews labeling criteria for manufacturers who want to label their products healthy.

But when I see a statement like the one below from a restaurant consulting group suggesting deprivation and restriction need no longer be a necessary component of healthy eating, I begin to think 2018 may actually be the year when the pieces fall into place. Healthy Dining is a San Diego based restaurant consulting group. Here’s that quote from the CEO from a recent blog:

There’s a new trend in healthy eating and restaurant dining, and it is leaving behind restriction and deprivation in favor of savoring great meals at restaurants that support a healthy lifestyle.

So you may be wondering what all this has to do with my lovingly prepared and very tasty chicken tagine pictured above?

Well let me explain. Even by current liberalized criteria, my tagine is not technically healthy.  Despite using quality ingredients and significant amount of vegetables to compliment the chicken thighs, my cooking uses more olive olive than is currently recommended.

Since the 1990s when those draconian criteria were cast in regulatory concrete, many of my zealous colleagues have dutifully taken classic recipes like the one I used for the tagine and made adjustments to the proportions to restrict fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

Relief is in sight however. To their credit, the FDA has acknowledged the need to revise that criteria. And I say congratulations. Maybe a little late, but better late than never …

What will the new criteria look like?

Hopefully a better way to asses the food and nutrition values of a dish like the one pictured above. We need a scoring system that awards points for making half the plate vegetables plus positives like fiber and protein. Then we need that same scoring system to balance those positives against sodium and saturated fats.

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

 

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Since the first release of the Nutrition Facts Label, healthy has been a nutrient based construct. Recently, the FDA agreed to review and revise the regulatory criteria for healthy and the new regulatory requirements could be released as soon as this year.

When I posed a question to a group of dietitians asking them if healthy should be food based or nutrient based, to my surprise, my colleagues all favored food based. When I asked for examples however of a food based scoring system, no one volunteered.

So I decided to investigate and went out looking for scoring options. I found three. Then using one of my favorite recipes, I ran three sets of numbers. Here’s are the results using my home baked pumpkin pie pictured above.

NUTRIENTS

If you’ve ever tried to make sense out of a Nutrition Facts Label, you already know the label is not easy. Deconstruction is based on the belief that the best way to understand something is to break it into parts. This view of healthy assumes individual nutrients are what counts and the parts are more important than the whole. Deconstruction has dominated the healthy labeling conversation for the last 30 years.

Using a simplified format Facts Up Front , here’s what deconstruction looks like:

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The “get less” numbers for a modest piece of my pumpkin pie are 3.5 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams sodium, 22 grams sugars.

What do those numbers and percentages mean? As one astute observer shared with me “I have zero idea what the … label on the boxes means and generally ignore them … “

Making a decision based on a string of unconnected numbers with no context or big picture is hard, even for someone like me who understands nutrition. At best the process is confusing. At worst no one pays attention.

FOOD GROUPS

Food groups have been part of the healthy eating conversation since the USDA released farmer’s bulletin No. 149 in 1916. More recently, the USDA developed a scoring system to determine how compliant or non-compliant Americans are when it comes to following government guidelines.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores sample days, market baskets, or menu offerings at a fast food restaurant and, since it scores both food groups and nutrients, it’s a hybrid system. Unfortunately, the HEI is not helpful for my purposes.

Besides being kludgy and very complex, the system is not intended for scoring a single item like a pumpkin pie. And I’m still left making a decision based on grams of saturated fat and added sugars, along with 1/8 cup pumpkin and 1 ounce-equivalent whole wheat flour. No big picture. No synthesis. Still just a string of unrelated numbers.

HYBRID

I need a algorithm that gives me a single score based on both food groups and nutrients. Wishful thinking perhaps, but consider what just happened in France last year.

In October 2017, the French government officially sanctioned Nutri-Score, a hybrid system for front of package labeling. Originally developed out of the in the UK, Nutri-Score is now been adopted in France on a voluntary basis.

Nutri-Score is different from Facts Up Front and here’s how.

First, Nutri-Score is weight based using 100 grams instead of serving size. Second, food groups are included in the score. Third, positives are balanced against negatives to produce a single color coded grade. Now that’s what I call a simple, straightforward, and very cool scoring system.
76CA7999-F737-4E01-8AAF-7D25AC17882FSo I said to myself, maybe I can make a little algorithm modeled after the Nutri-Score. I gave it my best shot. And I succeeded. My home crafted quite delicious pumpkin pie did okay.

Using this algorithm, my pumpkin pie scored a “C plus” or “B minus” depending on ingredient amounts entered. Translating that grade into a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a food score of 6 or 7.

And I’m thrilled. I’ve put together a scoring system that works on a recipe basis. Here’s how it works. Identify negatives, nutrients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Then identify positives, food groups like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts plus nutrients like protein and fiber. Then balance negatives against positives to get a single food score.

METRICS

My ingredients are always carefully sourced and minimally processed. For the crust, I use whole wheat pastry flour and a grassfed whole milk yogurt / olive oil combination in place of butter. As for the pumpkin purée, I use a canned product with no fillers or flavor enhancers. Food score for my pie was helped by having a healthier fatty acid balance, a moderate amount of added sugars, protein from eggs and milk, and more fiber from the whole grain.

Guaranteed, it tastes just a good as it looks and if you’d like me to send you a copy of my recipe, please message me via LinkedIn or Facebook.

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Christmas Dinner 2017

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Pictured above is the center piece of my Christmas meal this year – a roasted rack of pork. You can see from the rib bones that the butcher has employed a presentation technique referred to as “Frenched” and the rack was roasted with the skin on. Those crusty squares you can see on the top are cracklings. They’re delicious. Almost as good as the tender juicy roasted pork.

A center piece needs to be carefully positioned with surroundings to be fully appreciated. Properly selected, the appetizer announces there’s more to come without being too filling or overwhelming. This year, I made an escarole salad with Forelle pear, walnuts, and Parmiggiano dressed with an apple-cider honey vinaigrette dressing. Cooling, refreshing, lightly salted and slightly sweet. A well positioned beginning for what is to come.

Moving on to the main course, let’s consider side dishes. This year, I selected winter greens and baked sweet potatoes. Rapini braised in olive oil and garlic is my dish of choice but not everyone has developed my taste for bitter greens so I always serve steamed green beans along side. I sliced the rack of pork between each rib bone, arranged the pieces on a serving plate with the sweet potato along side accompanied by the two bowls of greens. There was a moment of silent appreciation and then we dug in and I have to admit we did eat well.

To accompany the meal, we offered beer, apple cider, or a red Bordeaux.

The ending of a meal should never in my culinary opinion at least outshine the centerpiece. So I prepared an apple pudding, derived from one of my favorite French desserts – clafouti. And of course a dish of mandarin oranges from my beautiful California. No meal, even a celebration meal like Christmas, is complete for me without some seasonal fresh fruit at the end.

MEAL METRICS

The holliday season is a time for celebrations and my Christmas meal is my celebration of the season. From the beginning salad appetizer to ending piece of fruit, the meal clocks in just a little over 1400 calories.

Like all combination plates, a meal is a mixture of different foods some clearly more healthy than others.

The health promoting aspects of my meal are the abundance of vegetables and fruits (59% plant based by weight), good protein (74 grams), and beneficial fiber (71% Daily Value) from intact sources. On the not so healthy side, we note 21 grams saturated fats, 970 mg sodium, and 18 grams sugar.

Now what I would like to have is an algorithm that would balance the value of the healthy foods against the risks from the not so healthy components and seasonings. My thesis that is in the final analysis, the benefits outweigh the risks. Now I need to find my self algorithm that will do that kind of computation.

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Calorie Counting and Thanksgiving

photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons
photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons

Not sure how you feel about this one, but the folks I spend Thanksgiving with have absolutely no interest in counting the calories on their Thanksgiving plate. They want to gossip and tell jokes and watch football and relax and most of all enjoy the day. No politics. And no calories. Should yours truly even mention the word, I would be chastised, ostracized, shunned, and censored.

Now I love to talk about calories. I actually went back to school to study nutrition so I could learn how count calories on my Thanksgiving plate. I’ve subsequently learned the hard way however that talking about calories is not appreciated. Especially at Thanksgiving. But I do like to check for Thanksgiving calorie counts that circulate in the blogosphere around this time of the year.

Clearly aimed at the shock and awe effect, the highest count I’ve ever seen was 4500 calories. Having worked with clients diagnosed with eating disorders I know it’s physically impossible to fit that many calories into a normal sized stomach and to accomplish the goal requires purging. That many calories is possible over the course of a day. Professional swimmers or football players eat that much or more on a regular basis. But not at a single sitting.

The New York Times published a good read by Tara Parker Pope back in 2012 How Many Calories Do We Really Eat at Thanksgiving? She also questioned that shock and awe number and put together her own gluttonous Thanksgiving plate which she detailed in the link. Best she could do was about 2500 calories.

One of my favorite classics cookery books The Good Housekeeping All-American Cookbook was published in 1989. The book documents American cooking and American celebration meals. The date is crucial because calories were just beginning to appear in recipes but counting had not yet been politicized and calorie shaming was still in its infancy. The editors at GH just ran the numbers and shared results with us. Refreshingly honest and transparent. Adding up the calories for that gorgeous Thanksgiving spread, the number comes to just under 1900 calories.

EatingWell is one of my favorite food magazines. It’s written for readers who are as interested in good taste and they are in good health. The magazine ran a cover story in 2012 “A Simple Celebration” which qualifies as the most austere Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever seen in print – 1074 calories.

Calories aren’t so prominent for Thanksgiving 2017. Here’s a smattering of what just came up in a google search. Count your blessing, not your calories … Burning off that 1600 calorie meal … Forget the calories and add on flavor … Couldn’t find a single shock and awe sensational number this year.

Putting calories into perspective is a healthy move. I like counting because calories are my metric of choice for portions sizing. But shaming and sensationalizing are not healthy and I’m happy to see both going away. Accurately counting calories is not easy. Accurately assessing how much folks actually eat is not easy. And of course figuring out how what folks eat relates to their health is wicked hard. So this year I’m thankful to see less shock and awe calorie counting. It’s about time.

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I’m a realist when it comes to brocolli. Here’s why.

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That’s a good looking broccoli isn’t it? Actually I bought one of those beauties last week. I really like broccoli braised with garlic, a good California olive oil, and a couple of pinches of salt. I just cut off the flowerlets, peeled and sliced that thick stem, pulled out my sauté pan and voilá that’s how to turn good looking broccoli into delicious broccoli.

Being that it’s October, I would have picked up a local broccoli at my Wednesday farmers market. But this is a busy week for me, so I settled for conventional product. Pristine and lovely, not a worm or an aberrant insect to be seen.

Now the reason I know worms love broccoli just as much as I do is I have done battle.  You might say we’re in competition for the same delicious stuff. Us humans and the worms I mean.

Anyone who has grown broccoli knows worms can be a problem. And everyone agrees the no one wants to deal with a broccoli crawling with worms. Home gardeners face the same wormy issues as commercial growers. Whether you’re a home gardener committed to pesticide free or a commercial grower committed to efficiency and year round production, you got to do something. A home gardener might choose to check plants for infestation on a regular basis, pluck off any worms, and toss each one in a salt solution. A commercial grower has different options. Conventional growers use pesticides and organic growers use USDA approved non-synthetic pesticides.

With worms being a formidable enemy, however, somebody has to do something. Otherwise the worms would eat all the broccoli before we humans even have a chance.

I used to get romantic about broccoli. But I learned a harsh lesson during that first year I cooked in Garches, a lovely little suburban village on the western side of Paris. And I have looked at broccoli with a realistic eye ever since.

My friend Isabelle has a beautiful house and property in Garches and the first year I cooked there, she had an arrangement with a local gardener. He could grow whatever vegetables he wanted to and sell in return for making the garden available to us. And we ate marvelously well from that garden! Everything except brocolli.

Each day I would just go out and pick whatever I wanted. Broccoli came in that fall and I was there to pick some for supper. But I just picked broccoli once.

Being young and romantic I believed all that was natural was good. Now farmers know that when you grow broccoli, you have to deal with worms. But I grew up in the suburbs so how was I supposed to know?

The broccoli in Isabelle’s vegetable plot was completely natural and completely full of worms. So when I went out that October to get me some, I had my first encounter with what brocolli really looks like in it’s true natural state.

I want you to know I put up a valiant battle. I soaked the broccoli spears in salt and vinegar and the worms starting floating to the surface. But there were just too many. Those worms outnumbered and out gunned me. There were so many I gave up trying. The remains of that broccoli worms and all got dumped out back somewhere behind a bush.  I could not look at broccoli again for a long time.

Thankfully my taste for broccoli did return eventually but I lost my romanticism. The best broccoli won’t have a food label because it is sold fresh. And I’m more particular about locally grown than I am about organic versus conventional.

And I say God Bless whatever my farmer needs to so I don’t have to deal with any more worms!

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Are we just a nation of disabled eaters?

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I sure would like to think we’re not. But I listen to my colleagues talk about their own food fears and those their clients struggles with. Good foods. Bad foods. Cheat days. Calorie paranoia. And I’m very grateful that I already knew how to eat, and how to cook, before I studied nutrition.

If not, I too might be struggling, terrified of eating the wrong food, and burdened with food fears. I loved food before I became dietitian and I love food today. The difference is that today I know enough to break the rules and have confidence in my decisions. Let me share how I make a salad and how I adjust the rules to fit how I eat.

Salads are for summer. So I start with lots of healthy greens, vegetables, and legumes. Then I add a protein. And I finish with enough delicious vinaigrette dressing to make my zealous colleagues cringe and keep the folks at my table coming back for more. Fat. Salt. Acid. Works every time.

INGREDIENTS FOR 2

GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED OLIVE OIL – 60 grams or 4 1/2 tablespoons

SHERRY VINEGAR – 20 grams or 4 teaspoons

DIJON MUSTARD – to taste up to 1 teaspoon

SALT – 1.2 grams flake salt or 1/2 teaspoon (1/4 teaspoon table or most sea salt)

CANNELLONI CANNED OR HOME COOKED BEANS – 100 grams cannelloni beans or 2/3 cup

TOMATOES –  100 grams cherry tomatoes or a handful

CUCUMBER – 80 grams or 1 small

MIXED GREENS – 200 grams greens or 4 cups chopped – mesclun, endive, radicchio, red leaf, green leaf, romaine

HAAS AVOCADO – 100 grams or 1/2 whole

GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST – 170 grams or 6 ounces – other protein options are tonino, hard cooked eggs, feta cheese, salmon.

METHOD

Make dressing first by mixing olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt together in the bottom of a 2 liter salad bowl. Wash and dry greens. Wash and prep other vegetables. Cut up and add chicken pieces. Add legumes, tomatoes, greens, chicken, and avocado.  Mix just before serving.

Proportions are important. My ratio of dressing to everything else is about 9 to 1. In other words, 1 ounce dressing (2 tablespoons) to 9 ounces everything else that goes into the salad. These are weight based measures. Please don’t be concerned if you’ve never used a scale. Here’s your chance to develop your eye and manage your own taste preferences. You might find you like more dressing or less dressing than I do. Practice makes perfect and the more salads you make the better you’ll get at using your eye and tasting as you go.


NUTRITION

Nutrition Facts per serving: 560 calories, 41g fat, 19g carbohydrate, 32g protein, 470mg sodium.

And yes 41 grams of fat per serving is lots of fat and, trust me, some of my zealous colleagues are not happy because well over 50% calories in the salad come from fat. But here’s how I look at that percentages. What matters is best measured over the course of a day or even better over the course of a week. Olive oil and avocado are calorie dense; greens and vegetables are calorie un-dense. So of course most of the calories are going to come from fat.

Now let’s dig down a level and check out the ratio of unsaturated to saturated fatty acids. Most fatty acids are unsaturated from the olive oil and avocado. Those unsaturated fatty acids are what my more flexible colleagues refer to as “healthy” fats.

As for protein, my tule of thumb is about 25 grams per meal. So a serving of salad is a bit over. Note too that protein comes from mixed sources – chicken and plant.

Notice too, there’s not a lot of carbs and no refined carbohydrate. Just intact carbohydrates from the vegetables, some sugars from tomatoes, and 7 grams dietary fiber per serving. Now 7 grams may not sound like a lot, but think about that fiber like this. One serving puts 25% of the Daily Value on the plate.

Last word goes to potassium. The new label format will mandate potassium be listed as a line item. Note the sodium is 470mg per serving. Now compare that number with 1200mg potassium per serving. In other words, more than twice as much potassium as sodium. That’s a really good ratio.

Food Composition per 100 grams is only for NERDS like me: 10g fat, 4g carbohydrate, 9g protein, 77g water.

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Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Guaranteed these little beauties are easy to make and delicious to munch on. My version is adapted from Cuisinicity, a recipe website developed by Catherine Katz. Definitely worth the time to check out especially if you are looking for vegan / vegetarian options. Catherine is a lovely, creative, energetic cook who write recipes that work.

I got to know Catherine when I did some metric re-engineering on some of her recipes. She’s French and has many followers from Europe who appreciate metric measures. Catherine’s original version is made with agave syrup instead of maple syrup. I used maple syrup because that’s what I had on hand and the recipe worked just fine. Reading through the comments I can see other adapters used honey. So it’s really up to you.

When I bake, my preference is to use my digital scale because to my way of thinking it’s easier. Before I start, the oven gets set at 350 F. Next I put a medium sized mixing bowl on the scale and zero out. Now comes the fun. Weight out each of the 4 ingredients directly into the bowl zeroing out after each addition. No mess. No extra spoons or cups to wash. No waste.

  • 100 grams almond meal  | 2 2/3  cups
  • 80 grams canola oil | 6  tablespoons
  • 120 grams maple syrup |  6  tablespoons
  • 100 grams chocolate chips | 3/4  cup

Remove bowl to counter and mix thoroughly.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, form dough into 24 little balls, and press each one down to flatten out into a fat pancake. Mine bake them for about 17 minutes, longer than Catherine recommends, or until lightly browned. Then cool on a wire rack and store in an air tight container or freeze.

INGREDIENTS – I’m particular about ingredients and am willing to pay a higher price for more specific and detailed ingredient credentials. But that’s me and I’ll okay with other folks choosing other options because just making your own cookies is such a big step towards eating healthier.  One caveat. Almonds and real maple syrup are not inexpensive and these cookies will cost $11 to $12 dollars per pound.

• Ground almonds come in two forms. Actually it’s three forms if you count grinding them yourself. The major provider of ground almonds is Bob’s Red Mill and he makes two versions: almond meal and almond flour. The meal is made from almonds with the skins on whereas the flour is made with balanced skinless almonds. I prefer the whole meal but either type will work.

• Canola oil comes in two forms too. Conventional or nonGMO. I use the nonGMO version. Not because I have concerns about genetically engineered ingredients – I remain neutral in that volatile issue – but because the oil is expellor pressed. Conventional canola oil is heat processed and expellor processing is a gentler way to get the oil out of the rape seed. Consider price and choose the one that works best for you.

• Maple syrup comes from the north east mainly Québec, New York, and Vermont. I use New York State dark syrup because I live in New York and buy local when I have the choice.

• Chocolate chips are the easiest to source. My preference is bittersweet or the darkest chip I can find. The ones I use for these cookies are the 67% cocoa Whole Foods house brand.

NUTRITION – Healthy has a very specific meaning as per FDA regulations and up until recently there’s no way I could label them healthy. Things are beginning to change which is, in my opinion, a positive and long overdue move.

The nutrition tag reads as follows: 140 calories per cookie, 11 grams fat (1.2g saturated), 9g carbohydrate (2g dietary fiber, 6g added sugar), 3g protein. Recipe analyzed using Bob’s Red Mill almond meal.

• Fat Profile. Don’t be concerned when I share with you that 72% calories come from fat. That fat comes from almonds, canola oil, and chocolate chips. I still can’t label these cookies healthy but one of the changes recently introduced by the FDA allows me to talk about the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats. I won’t be able to calculate that ratio until Bob revises the nutrition facts label and lists mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, but I can tell looking at the total fat and the saturated fat that the ratio will be very favorable. In other words, most of those 11 grams fat will be coming from “healthy” unsaturated fats.

• Carbohydrate. Both added sugars and dietary fibers get counted as carbohydrates. Each cookie has 6 grams added sugars about half from maple syrup and the other half from chocolate chips. I used USDA bittersweet chocolate chip for my calculation which breaks out the added sugars. Each cookie also has 2g dietary fiber from the almonds because I used almond meal which includes skins.

• Protein. Well we all know we don’t eat cookies because we want protein. However nuts are a source of protein and these cookies are almost 50% almonds, so it’s not surprising that one cookie delivers 3 grams.

ALLERGENS – Tree Nuts

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Roasted Chickpeas

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Aren’t they beautiful? My first attempt at roasted chickpeas turned out extraordinarily well. I don’t use the term food addiction lightly, but these little beauties are about as close as I get to addictive eating.  I had to stop myself from demolishing the whole bowl in a single sitting one handful at a time.

The chickpeas need to be really dry before you start. I learned how important the drying step is the hard way through trial and error. This step is crucial to the success of the finished dish.

The first time I roasted chickpeas, they were thoroughly dried and tasted especially crunchy. Used my own home cooked chickpeas, drained them, and left them uncovered on a plate for 24 hours in the frig.  The second time I made it, didn’t have time for a thorough drying and the result was tasty but just nearly as crispy. The third time I made it, I used canned chickpeas and no amount of drying seemed to counter the slightly sodden soaked texture of the canned product. My take away is cook up your own chickpeas from dry and be super attentive to drying them out prior to roasting.

Here’s what you’ll need to make up your first bowl about 6 handfuls.

350 grams (2 generous cups) chickpeas, cooked and drained

15 grams (1 tablespoon) olive oil

2 tablespoons Za’atar

700 mg (1/4 teaspoon) salt or to taste

Spread chickpeas out on a flat surface and pat dry with paper towels. Let them air dry for at least an hour. Based on the three batches I made, the longer the drying process the better and overnight in the frig is best.

When you’re ready to roast, heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a pan with parchment paper and spread the chickpeas out evenly on a pan. Bake until crunchy, about 30 minutes, stirring or rotating every 10 minutes during the roasting process. While the chickpeas are roasting, add olive oil, spice/herb mixture, and salt to a bowl.  When chickpeas are completely roasted, pour them into the bowl and stir to distribute the oil, spices, herbs, and salt evenly.

My roasted chickpeas was inspired by a recipe from The New York Times Recipe Box, Melissa Clark’s Crunchy Roasted Az’atar Chickpeas which in turn was featured in Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, published in 2015.

BUY GOOD STUFF

• Home cooked chickpeas roast crunchier than canned. So I’m always throwing dry chickpeas in my bag

• My salt of choice is Diamond Chrystal Kosher Salt. Because it’s flaked, the salt sits light in the spoon. If you’re using either table salt of a coarse sea salt, reduce volume to 1/8th teaspoon.

• Sumac is a reddish purple powder ground the berries of the sumac plant and is used extensively in middle eastern cooking to add a tart acidic taste. It was a new discovery for me but I know we’re going to be friends for life. I love bitter. I love acid. And now I love sumac.

• Za’atar can be purchased from stores that specialize in Middle Eastern products. I just made my own using the following proportions: 4 teaspoons dry thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons whole sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon sumac.

Now for my Nerdy Nutrition Note. The recipe serves 6 and each one of those servings fits nicely in my hand. I’m not sure about you, but I tend to eat roasted chickpeas by the handful. Now that handful is about 120 calories. Along with those calories, I put 5 grams of predominantly unsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and chickpeas, about 16 grams carbohydrate 20% of which is fiber, and 5 grams of excellent plant based protein in my hand.

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My Search for Ceci Neri

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It all started because I love La Cucina Italiana. The food photography is breath takingly beautiful and my Italian is good enough to get through a recipe or short article.

Recently the online magazine had a little blurb on ceci neri / black chickpeas. Color was amazing. A beautiful deep dark shad of sepia. Destiny was calling. How could I resist?

So I googled black chickpeas and began my search. I discovered these little beauties were declared a heirloom vegetable recently and just in time too to keep them from disappearing forever. Asking around if anyone ever heard of a black chick pea, one of my Italian colleagues said yes she heard of them, even seen them in the market but never tried them. Another colleague, an ex-pat American living in Rome, replied she had also heard it them but thought black chickpeas were only used for animal feed.

One benefit of living in New York City is everything is for sale somewhere. And sure enough in the deepest darkest bowels of industrial Queens I found an Italian wholesale importer who was willing to sell me one kilo bag. I took a subway and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse and returned with my kilogram bag.

Once home, I poured out a third of the bag (350 grams), washed them, and started the soaking process. It takes a long time.  At least 48 hours to soak plus another 12 hours to cook.

Two days later the water was so black the chickpeas had disappeared from view. Usually I include soaking water when I cook, but this water looked ominous. What to do. A third colleague who runs a cooking school near Bari in the south of Italy came to my rescue via Facebook and confirmed that folks usually toss the soaking water.

Now for the cooking. Twelve hours requires starting pretty early so I started at 7am and finished off about 7pm using fresh clear water. Once soaked and hopefully cooked, my black chickpeas were actually sort of soft and strikingly beautiful. That deep dark intense sepia must be brimming full of phytonutrients but I wouldn’t know where to start to track down which ones.

Now what to do with them …

I tried them in a couple of different dishes and got nothing but complaints. Just between you and me, the taste was okay for my palate, more robust and earthy than the usual ones, but even after all that soaking and cooking, they were dense and still distinctly chewy.

The only preparation I could find that worked was hummus. I added lots and lots of tahini along with a good amount of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. All to taste. I used so much tahini in fact I lost track of how much so I couldn’t run my usual nutrition numbers.

The black chickpea hummus was edible, attractive, and acceptable to the folks at my table.

Waste not. Want not. I am committed to repurposing.

We ate lots and lots and lots and lots of black chickpea hummus.

Culinary excursions are always exciting. Sometimes you discover wonderful new foods you love and can’t live without. And sometimes you learn why you’re the only one out there chasing the illusion ceci neri.

 

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