Sunday, July 1, 2012

Our First Meat Pie

For some reason, I have wanted to make a meat pie for years. Something in my childhood imagination was fascinated by meat pies in historical fiction books, such as the Little House on the Prairie series. I also appreciate one-dish meals, especially for purposes of packing leftovers for lunch at work.

This recipe is still evolving. Something is needed to keep the meat holding together better, particularly when warm - I imagine this is generally accomplished with a gravy.

Beef Pie
Adapted from this version.
1 small or medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
1 sweet potato, diced
fat for sautéing: butter, coconut oil, lard, tallow, etc.
1 lb. ground beef
several tablespoons ketchup
seasoning: unrefined salt, freshly ground pepper, paprika, herbs, gluten free soy sauce, etc.
two pie crusts

Note: these are mere suggestions. Want to use a different tuber than the sweet potato? Add celery or broccoli and nix the carrots? Use a different mix of seasonings? Do!

Melt some healthy, moderately heat-stable fats in a skillet; I used a combination of grass-fed butter and cold-pressed coconut oil. Add onions, carrots, potatoes, and additional veggies of choice. Sauté over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes until everything is soft and the potato dices are cooked through. Place cooked veggies into a mixing bowl.

Now brown the ground beef in the same pan. Once done, dump in with the veggies. Add the ketchup, a teaspoon or more of unrefined salt, and other seasonings to taste. Mix well.

Dump the mixture into a pie pan lined with one pie crust. Place the second pie crust on top and seal the edges.

Bake at 350°F. Mine took a good 30 minutes. I recommend starting to check after 20-25 minutes; it is done when the crust is lightly browned.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Traveling Gluten Free and Homemade Jerky Recipes

Eating gluten free is so easy at home that I do not even have to think about it. We just do not buy any gluten-containing foods. No worries about cross-contamination. Until I step outside.

One of the downers about celiac disease is that it appears to be permanent. Mr. D and I wonder if we will ever be able to travel without my food being more hassle than it is worth. Yes, I hear that Italy is the best place in the world to eat gluten free, but the language barriers freak me out. If I cannot get waiters in the U.S. to understand what I mean by taking whatever steps are necessary to prevent cross-contamination, am I likely to fare better by presenting a card with instructions in their language to that effect? Plus, there are places other than Italy where we would like to visit eventually.

Theoretical woes aside, this is a very practical conundrum. What does one eat on a road trip? Some restaurants - mostly ones called Chipotle, where all the food is gluten free except the tortillas - are OK for a filling, tasty meal without being too expensive. Alas, along the 500 miles between our home and where I grew up and the rest of my family lives, there are no Chipotle locations to be found. Even if there were, snacks help make a long drive more bearable.

To drink, we enjoy bringing along a jug of kombucha or some chilled brewed herbal tea lightly sweetened with a touch of honey - it's like juice, but without the truckload of fructose to poison you along the way. It's most refreshing. Oh, and stainless steel bottles of well-iced water, because most snack foods are salty enough that you will want it!

Food just takes some thinking ahead, and this goes for any healthy or reasonably frugal food on the road.

Honestly, the most difficult part is getting enough healthy fats. Excellent ideas include starchy fruits (think bananas and berries), store-bought gluten free crackers, grass-fed whole milk cheese, and Mr. D's favorite, homemade grass-fed beef jerky. Avocados would be a fabulous snack, too.

Oh, did I say homemade jerky from grass-fed beef? Yep. Healthy jerky in any flavor you can manage to put together, and even $5/lb. ground beef will end up making fantastic jerky for less money, probably, than cruddy jerky. It was my husband who made the jerky for a recent weekend trip, and his ideas were so delicious I just had to share. He invented all four of the combinations suggested below.

for each pound of ground beef:
1 T. unrefined salt
1/2 t. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
lots of freshly ground black pepper

plus one of the following combinations, or invent your own:
- 2 T. gluten free soy sauce, 2 T. raw honey (warmed a little to facilitate mixing), a few pinches of ground cloves, and 1/4 t. ground cinnamon
- an additional 1/2 t. garlic powder, plus up to 1 T. each of dried rosemary, thyme, oregano, and basil; do not be shy with these!
- 1 1/2 T. gluten free soy sauce, even more black pepper, 1 t. paprika, and 1/2 t. red wine vinegar
- up to 1 T. ground cumin, 1 t. paprika, 1/4 t. mustard powder, and a little or a lot of chili powder

Mix ground beef and your flavor ingredients together thoroughly.

To make in a dehydrator: Spread no more than 1/4" thick on solid insert trays or parchment paper cut in the shape of your dehydrator trays. Using a dull utensil such as a butter knife, so as not to tear paper or damage trays, cut jerky into strips before it all hardens and becomes more difficult to cut. Dehydrate for at least six hours, but do check on it every hour after that and remove it as soon as it is not at all pink anymore but still soft. It will harden considerably as it cools.

To make in an oven: Spread no more than 1/4" thick on parchment paper or silicone baking sheets. Cut with a dull utensil. Put in the oven and turn it on to the lowest setting, ideally 150°F, and no greater than 200°. Check after 4-6 hours and take out while still soft.

Theoretically jerky does not need to be stored in the fridge, but I put it in there anyway just in case enough moisture might remain to make spoilage feasible. An airtight container is recommended as well.

While all of Mr. D's jerky was enjoyable, my favorite was definitely the version with Italian herbs that made the jerky taste like pizza. I was eating bite-size jerky atop crackers with bits of cheese, having what fun one can during a nine-hour drive. My least favorite was the cumin version, but I dislike almost anything spicy, and if you like spicy then you stand a good chance of enjoying it mightily.

What travel snacks do you like?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

White Rolls...for a Health Nut?

If you saw my pie crust recipe, it may have struck you as odd that a self-confessed nutrition geek is advocating the use of white rice flour. Does not everybody know that refined grains are empty calories? Don't those aware of the harmful effects of whole grains just turn to healthier processing techniques or leave grains behind?

Sure. However, rice is a bit of an exception. Soaking and sprouting don't help much to mitigate the damaging effects of brown rice, but on the other hand, rice is relatively low in anti-nutrients to begin with when compared to other grains. Refining brown rice into white actually does a pretty good job of removing anti-nutrients. Now, it's true that this also takes away most of what nutrients were there in the first place. I am not advocating that anybody rely on white rice as more than a source of clean-burning glucose, and exactly what role if any rice should play in your diet depends upon what else you eat, but it generally is healthier than brown rice because brown rice removes nutrients from your body.

Thus, we use white rice flour along with pure starches such as potato starch and tapioca starch/flour on a semi-regular basis. The primary objection to these seems to be the claim that because of their high glycemic index as individual ingredients, consuming them in any context will cause unhealthy blood sugar spikes. I have known people with severe blood sugar problems to refuse white rice but eat moderate helpings of brown rice, apparently unaware that the difference in glycemic index is only one point (56 vs. 55) and the glycemic index of brown rice is the same as that of a Snickers bar! No, I do not recommend that anybody chow down on pure flour as a snack, but who would? To the extent that glycemic index matters (and that extent is scientifically controversial), what matters is the meal you actually put into your mouth. A high-glycemic meal is sometimes more accurately termed a fat-deficient meal. So loading your dinner rolls with grass-fed butter, pâté, real cheese, or herb-infused olive oil is entirely different from chowing them down naked.

So yes, we do eat white rolls, and I do consider a warm roll with my soup a non-compromise health food. They go perfectly with many meals and, reheated in the toaster oven from the freezer, contribute to a quick snack.

2 t. active yeast
1 t. sugar
1 cup warm (not hot) water or milk
1 egg
2 T. honey
2 T. melted butter or coconut oil
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 1/2 t. guar gum or xanthan gum
1 t. unrefined salt
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
2/3 cup tapioca starch, potato starch, arrowroot starch, or non-GMO cornstarch
3/4 cup white rice flour
1/2 t. vinegar

In a mixing bowl, whisk yeast, sugar, and warm water or milk. Let sit for ten minutes or so to proof.

Whisk in egg, honey, and melted fat. Add dry ingredients, stirring between additions, and mix until thoroughly combined.

Scoop into silicone or paper-lined muffin cups. Let rise in a warm, moist place. Tip: Place unrisen rolls into a cool oven, place a wide baking pan at least 1" deep on the bottom rack, and pour boiling water into the pan right before you shut the oven door. This creates the ideal rise environment. With this technique, my rolls rise more than enough in 45 minutes.

Bake at 350
°F for 20 minutes.

These keep on the counter for about a day and freeze excellently.

Note: Mr. D made these the other day using coconut flour instead of tapioca starch and skipping the rise time. They were totally different but quite delicious!

This post is part of Monday Mania.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Homemade Fermented Ketchup

The recipe below marked a major shift in the way I thought about cooking. Now my default assumption is to make things from scratch, and if I am buying a prepackaged "ingredient", I question whether I might be able to make it myself while saving money and making a higher quality product. Usually the answer is that I can! Before, I didn't think about having options beyond store brand vs. name brand. Ketchup was always super-sugary and nutritionally negligible. Yes, I was one of those kids that liked ketchup on everything, even though I despised tomato sauce.

I made this first because it sounded interesting and I am always looking for more things to eat lacto-fermented/probiotic, but I was ruined after the first taste. Now I cannot go back to store ketchup. It tastes awful to me in comparison. Even friends who are put off by some of the unfamiliar things that I eat (such as organ meats) have begged for this recipe.

Have you ever had leftovers or homemade goodies spoil? One of the easy-to-overlook differences between homemade and pre-processed foods is that home cooks do not normally add preservatives. Sometimes we forget that real food spoils, sometimes quicker than we anticipate. Lacto-fermentation has been used for thousands of years by regular people in low-tech settings to preserve foods, so it comes as no surprise how easy and effective it is. Fermentation also enhances the nutrient content of many foods. The basic idea is to set up a good environment for lactobacilli to flourish, add some lactobacilli directly or wait for wild microorganisms to take advantage of the setting, and then these bacteria produce natural preservatives, chiefly lactic acid. Many people think of alcoholic fermentation when they hear about fermenting something, and it is the same basic idea but uses different organisms that thrive under different conditions. Lacto-fermentation (also sometimes called salt pickling) results in only teensy bits of alcohol production, if any - well under 1% - so have no fear that ketchup will give you a buzz.

One note with ingredients: It is tricky to get tomato paste that isn't packed in endocrine disruptors, and endocrine disruptors are undesirable, especially if you consume them regularly - which you do if your food touches nearly any kind of plastic! Even BPA-free containers typically contain other similar compounds, so a non-reactive container such as glass is a much better way to go. I want to make ketchup in the future by cooking down tomato sauce to a ketchup-y consistency since it is easy to find affordable tomato sauce in glass jars, but so far I have only used tomato paste.

The fish sauce, allspice, and cloves in the recipe are very important for getting that distinctive ketchup flavor. I have used only cloves and that works well, but it is worth adding the others.

Adapted from this recipe.
6 oz. tomato paste (the Bionaturae brand has tomato paste in glass jars)
1-2 T. liquid whey*
1 T. apple cider vinegar
2 T. blackstrap molasses
1 T. raw honey
1/2 t. unrefined salt
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. ground cloves
optional but encouraged: 2 T. fish sauce (made from anchovies and found in Asian markets - no, it isn't "fishy" or gross at all) and/or 1/8 t. ground allspice
any other seasonings you like: garlic powder, a little cayenne, a hint of mustard, etc.

Mix all ingredients together. Taste. If necessary, add more vinegar or sweetener and adjust the seasonings. Then add water gradually until the desired consistency is achieved; I end up adding about 1/3 cup.

Pour into a glass jar and screw on the lid. Leave out at room temperature for 2-4 days to allow the good microorganisms in the whey to ferment it slightly (which is not likely to change the taste in this recipe). Store in the refrigerator. I still have ketchup made from a huge batch last summer in my fridge right now - no mold, no grossness, and it still tastes great! I cannot guarantee that yours will last this long but I think you can expect at least a few months, unless you eat it before then.

*Whey: This is the probiotic "starter" to ferment your ketchup more easily and successfully. You can leave this out, but in that case I recommend refrigerating your ketchup immediately and using it up very quickly before it spoils. This is not powdered whey you can purchase but must be separated from yogurt or a similar probiotic dairy source. To obtain this, set some yogurt in a colander lined with a paper towel, thin dishcloth, or handkerchief. Place this over a bowl to collect the whey that drips out. Leave out for several hours or overnight. This should result in up to half the yogurt dripping out as whey, which will keep for several months in a lidded glass jar in the refrigerator, and the other half remaining in the colander and thickening to resemble cream cheese. This "cream cheese" is a good probiotic substitute for cream cheese, by the way, and lasts a couple of weeks if refrigerated.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Cornucopia of Ice Creams

Mr. D loves ice cream. I enjoy it mightily myself. In a great inrush of fantabulous kitchen equipment that preceded and followed our wedding, we got an ice cream maker. I had previously made my own pseudo-ice cream without a churn by whipping cream and folding in egg yolks, sweetener, and flavoring, such as honey, vanilla, and cinnamon oil. Freezing this results in an OK ice cream (that goes jaw-droppingly well with port, unexpectedly enough).

Ice cream from an ice cream maker is much better. I have figured out an ice cream base into which I insert various flavors, because hey, I prefer figuring out one fantastic wheel and using it each time to reinventing the wheel over and over again. Raw milk and cream work wonderfully, but I normally pull out a BPA-free can or two of coconut milk. The advantage of coconut milk is that the ice cream is scoopable right out of the freezer. Normally the water content of milk makes ice cream very icey and hard when frozen, requiring thawing before one can dig it out with a spoon. Store-bought ice cream gets around this by including antifreeze agents as industry-standard additives i.e. ones that do not have to be listed on the ingredient label. Alcohol is a good anti-freeze additive in homemade ice cream.

Ice Cream Base

1 14-oz. can coconut milk
1 cup cream and 1 cup whole milk

3-4 egg yolks
sweetener to taste, such as 1/4 cup raw honey
1-2 T. or more alcohol, optional but strongly recommended if using milk and cream for better frozen texture

- Select an alcohol that will not make a noticeable flavor difference, such as plain vodka, or choose something that will enhance and complement the ice cream.
- Note that vanilla extract is almost always in a strong alcohol base, so it definitely counts as adding alcohol.

Some flavor suggestions:
- grade B maple syrup as the sweetener
- 1 T. lime zest, 1-2 T. fresh lime juice, and rum as the alcohol (or use another citrus fruit)
- 1-2 cups peanut butter and a large handful of chopped chocolate
- 1 cup chopped or puréed fruit
- a few drops of peppermint or cinnamon oil
- whole cane sugar as the sweetener plus one cup very strong fresh coffee
- 1/2 t. almond extract, Frangelico as the alcohol, 2 T. cocoa, and 1 T. strong coffee

- chopped nuts and whole cane sugar


Thoroughly whisk together milk, egg yolks, sweetener, alcohol, and any flavor ingredients. Pour into ice cream maker and churn according to instructions. Easy-peasy.

Golly, now I'm hungry. Good thing the second combination on the list is sitting in my freezer!

What kind of ice cream do you like? What additional homemade flavors can you recommend for us?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kombucha! How I Gave Up Soda

I hear there are many health claims surrounding kombucha. It's definitely probiotic. It contains B vitamins - though I'm not sure how high the levels are. It contains cleansing acids, notably glucuronic acid that is used in our bodies to metabolize toxins (drugs, pollutants, bilirubinandrogensestrogensmineralocorticoidsglucocorticoidsfatty acid derivatives, retinoids, and bile acids, so sayeth Wikipedia). And it's probably claimed to cure everything from cancer to acne. I have no idea whether any of these purported facts are true.

What I do know is that I crave sweet, fizzy beverages from time to time, and most of you do, too. Sugary sodas are really bad for us. Artificially sweetened sodas are probably no better, and may even be worse. I know that drinking soda makes me feel cruddy later, but it's so tempting at times. Since I've been eating a diet with unrestricted healthy fats and little in the way of sugar (including unrefined sugars - they're sugar too, even if they are less bad than refined sugar), my sugar cravings have gone from a near-constant to the occasional desire, either postprandially or out of genuine hunger. All the same, I still want a gosh-darn sweet drink sometimes, and now I get to have it. Now I have, on average, just a few sips of soda per month.

The first time I tried kombucha I had to purchase a bottle at the store. It was...OK. The particular flavor does take a little getting used to, but it was fine. For about $4 I got something that was barely above mediocre to my palate. I decided to culture it myself, bought a bottle and left it in a mason jar in my college apartment until it formed a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts) culture, and coupled together this brewing setup.

Ready to be harvested!
That scoby I use to brew much tastier kombucha than its forbear, and for mere pennies a bottle. Refined sugar, teabags, and water are cheap. I just taste it after it has brewed for a typical amount of time - six days in my kitchen - and bottle it and store in the fridge. That means I control the sweet:sour ratio. Tweaking with the kinds of tea can yield further taste variations, but I have not found it necessary to venture there. Nor have I bothered to do secondary fermentation to make it a really fizzy drink and I only briefly was flavoring my kombucha. I like setups that I can put on at as close to autopilot as possible! Here's how I do it:

Really Easy Kombucha
3/4 cup refined white sugar (pure cane, to avoid GMO beet sugar, or else organic)
5 unflavored black teabags (e.g. Lipton)
1 unflavored green teabag (optional)*
two quarts filtered water
one scoby "mushroom" and some kombucha from a previous batch (if you live near me, let me know if you want enough to start with)

*Do feel free to experiment with tea combinations. Just always use at least half black tea because that's what the scoby needs to thrive, and it's also advised that you keep a "clean", non-experimented upon scoby aside in case you contaminate the guinea pig one.

Put filtered water on to boil. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Add teabags - I take off the strings and tags and just let them swim. Once the water boils for about a minute, turn off the heat. Let the tea steep for...I don't least ten minutes. I walk away or do other things in the kitchen when this is going on. You want this much stronger than you would brew it for a cup of tea. But do remove the bags after a while.

See how extra-dark this is? That's what to go for.
Let cool to lukewarm or room temperature. This is essential so you do not kill the living kombucha culture. If you touch the liquid and it feels as if it could burn you if you kept in it, it is too hot. The same temperature that starts to cook your finger cells starts to kill off typical bacteria and starts to denature enzymes and other heat-sensitive food components (about 117°F, if you are curious - that is why food heated above this temperature is no longer considered raw).

Pour the tepid liquid into a gallon-size glass container. Do not use plastic or metal. I like to use an old iced drink dispenser, as the spout makes harvesting a snap.

Aforementioned snap.
Stir in some kombucha from a previous batch. I generally use about a pint, but less is fine. I would not hesitate to use only 1/2-1 cup. Add your scoby. It may sink or float - it will probably eventually float, but it does not matter. Cover the top of the glass container with a paper towel or thin dishcloth and secure with a rubber band.

Ready to go!

Now put it away in a room temperature or somewhat warm place where it will not be disturbed and is not in any direct sunlight.

Notice how much lighter the finished kombucha is compared to the batch at the beginning of its brew. 

Our awkward utility closet off the kitchen.
There are a handful of variables involved in how long a batch will take. Ambient temperature, sugar concentration, how much starter kombucha was added, scoby thickness, etc. all make a difference.

Taste a little after five days. If there is any taste of tea left, it is not done. If it is too sweet, it is not done, but if it is too sour, it is overdone (just pour out 3/4 and start a new batch with the rest if that happens). It will get a little fizzy, too. My thick-scoby-ed, heavy on the starter kombucha, concentrated batch takes about six days pretty consistently and I dilute it 3:1 with a little water when I drink it. Your batch may take ten. It may take longer in the winter but brew rapidly in summer.

When it is done, harvest into glass containers and refrigerate. It keeps for a few weeks but can gradually become more sour. Open carefully in case it fizzes too much.

What if you do not have access to a scoby?
As mentioned above, I started my own culture with store-bought kombucha. To do this:

Purchase one of those $4 bottles from a health food store or grocery store. Pour it all into a very clean quart glass mason jar, cover with a cloth or paper napkin using a rubber band, and let sit motionless and untouched at room temperature, preferably in a slightly warm place but not in direct sunlight. Take a look every few days. Eventually a beige or tan "pancake" will form across the top of the kombucha. This is your scoby. This may take up to two weeks, methinks. Use the scoby and the (now quite sour and vinegary, I imagine) accompanying kombucha to start a batch. Scobys get thicker the longer a batch brews and a new one forms during each batch, so yours will not start anywhere near as thick as mine is in the picture.

General note on fermenting kombucha: It is very unlikely if you follow commonsensical kitchen cleaning practices, but it is always possible that your scoby could get contaminated by bad microorganisms. Kombucha is a fairly hardy culture and I have never had any issues, but do not foolishly consume something that looks, smells, or tastes "off" (moldy, etc.). Brown stringy things coming from the scoby are normal, as are smaller bits that tend to end up in your kombucha drink. Filter them out if you are grossed out - I just leave the last centimeter of my kombucha undrunk - but they are all harmless or beneficial.

Have you tried kombucha? Do you have any additional tips for kicking a soda habit?

This post is part of Hearth and Soul.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Basic Cooking: About Seafood

I think that eating seafood regularly is really important. Just as I strongly recommend regular liver consumption, shellfish or finfish (including roe) are on the menu at least once per week, and our favorite indulgent dinner is going out for sushi.

Why fish? First, let's get the mercury fears out of the way. Almost any fish you'd think of eating is safe. Essentially, fish isn't mercury and nothing else. It also contains selenium that protects against mercury. Real food is complicated and cool like that. Roe and shellfish are especially rich sources of cholesterol, which scares some people, but dietary cholesterol consumption has nothing to do with blood lipid profiles - and even there, it's much healthier to have cholesterol on the high side than to be deficient. You should avoid oxidized cholesterol (heat-damaged cholesterol), but that is unlikely to be a problem if you eat real food. Things like powdered eggs probably have lots of oxidized cholesterol, but then again, is it surprising that highly altered foods have been altered away from at least some of their goodness?

Anyway, on to the good stuff. Doubtless you have heard of the benefits of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids as well as the importance of cutting out oils high in omega-6 fats that destroy the benefits of omega-3s. These omega-3 fats are not found in any plant foods whatsoever and we are really bad at putting them together ourselves. No, flax and other alleged plant sources contain zero omega-3s, only precursors that can be converted into omega-3s in limited amounts under the right conditions in healthy adults. That's a lot of qualifiers! Omega-3 fatty acids are found in healthy animal products of all kinds, but they are by far the most abundant in seafood. Suffice it to say that we can only count on preformed omega-3s for...well, I hate to call basic health a "benefit", because that makes it sound as if it is an optional bonus instead of normative. Know that pregnant and lactating mothers as well as infants and children have additional needs for preformed omega-3s, especially DHA. They, along with cholesterol, are essentially what our brains are made of. Seafood not the only source of this brain food but it is the best.

Additionally, among the various seafoods are the best or among the best food sources of zinc (from oysters), iron (from clams), vitamin B12 (especially in shellfish), vitamin D (from roe and from oily fish like herring, sardines, and mackerel), iodine, and selenium. Sea-dwelling creatures have mineral content that land animals living on depleted soils do not. These are all in their absorbable forms in fish. Plant sources are, unfortunately, not well digested by humans for most of these. "Bacterial sources" of vitamin B12 are different from actual B12 and these analogues actually make B12 deficiency worse!

Picking out quality fishies without breaking the bank is tricky. I sympathize with those who limit fish to save money or only buy cheap species of fish that are not very nutritious - tilapia, I'm looking at you, here - but my personal view is that it is deeply unwise to skimp too much on your health. It is such a blessing to have good health that, having been chronically ill from undiagnosed celiac disease in the past, I refuse to take health for granted anymore. So I am a big believer in investing wisely in your health. It is easy to underestimate the cumulative impact of genuinely good nutrition. If you are reading this blog, you can probably afford to eat a healthy diet.

In the U.S., decent fish may be $8/lb. and your typical protein $3/lb., and that makes fish sound so expensive that you never buy it. Think about it, though. That's $1-2 more per serving, so if you keep it to once a week, that is fabulous deal if you pick a nutritional powerhouse! Back when I ate a typical American diet, I didn't think badly of spending $1.25 on a soda a few times per week, and many people are OK with $4 coffee confections on a regular basis. Get the idea? I can tell you that I spend less than $5/week per person on large helpings of great seafood. Bright orange frozen salmon from Trader Joe's and fresh shellfish from a local fishmonger are very manageable where I live once you compare prices and consistently stick to the best deals. Knowing local prices also means I stock up in the event of a genuine deal.

But which seafood do we shell out the extra cash for? All are not nutritionally equal! We have all heard that wild-caught seafood is the way to go. There is truth to this, but it's more complicated than simply farmed vs. wild. Farmed tilapia from China is definitely a no-go, but for some species, farmed is actually better! Plus, in some cases, we are fishing wild populations to extinction, and that's both bad for the environment and bad for us. The Monterey Bay Aquarium website is an excellent resource for information on clean and sustainable seafood sources.

Some of the top recommendations that look as if you can find them just by going to the grocery store:

  • wild Alaskan salmon
  • farmed oysters
  • farmed mussels
  • wild Pacific sardines (packed in olive oil or water, not seed oils!)
  • farmed Rainbow trout
Here is a chart for selecting sustainable alternatives to some poor choices. Health-wise, the above five are all great. For other specific seafoods, I look it up. For instance, domestic farmed channel catfish are environmentally responsible, but are they worth eating? Not to me. Under "Fats and Fatty Acids", we can see that there is more omega-6 than omega-3, so the benefits of the omega-3s are pretty much wiped out. Steamed clams, on the other hand, have more than ten times the omega-3s as omega-6s. They also have good mineral content, tons of real vitamin B12, and exceptional heme iron content.

We typically eat oysters, clams, and wild salmon on a regular basis of about one generous serving per person per week. For instance, we might have raw or steamed oysters one week, homemade clam chowder the next week, and a baked salmon filet the week after that, prepared as follows:

Simple Baked Fish
Good-quality filet(s) of fish, at refrigerator or room temperature
Butter or coconut oil
Seasonings: Fresh lemon juice and pepper are a great combination to start with. There are many great ways to season fish. Rosemary, paprika, mustard, Italian herbs...

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease the bottom of a glass, stoneware, or enameled baking dish with butter or coconut oil. Place the filet (skin side down, if it has the skin on it) in the dish.

Season as desired. If using lemon and pepper, cut a wedge of lemon and squeeze the juice atop the filet, then sprinkle with black papper. Bake until the middle is just barely done. Start with ten minutes in the oven and check every few minutes after that. The "secret" to cooking fish is to steer clear of overcooking.

Steamed Shellfish
Live clams, mussels, or oysters
Optional: lemon juice, herbs, and/or melted butter for serving

I first steamed fresh clams in my college apartment using a saucepan and a plate. If you think that is low-tech, my grandmother once steamed clams in a coffee maker in a hotel room on vacation! So here is my improvised way to steam shellfish, no special equipment needed:

Clean shellfish under running water. In a large saucepan or medium stockpot, put an inch or so of water over high heat. Arrange shellfish, hinge down, in one layer. Cover to trap steam (using a heat-resistant plate if you do not have a lidded pan). As the water boils, reduce heat to medium. Check every few minutes and remove shellfish as they open - these are done. Tongs are ideal but I have used spoons and an oven mitt.

It is a myth that ones that do not open are bad, so after all the rest are done, any stragglers should be pried open. If they are bad they will smell bad and you will know to throw them out, but I have always found them to be just fine. Many people express concern with shellfish and food poisoning. Always throw away any food that smells bad - our bodies are remarkably attuned to this - so do use common sense, keep things clean, not leave live shellfish sitting in the fridge for days before eating them, etc., but please do not get overly paranoid. To put it into perspective, you are about 47 times as likely to be killed by a medical error while at a hospital or doctor's office than just to get sick at all in a given year from eating shellfish.

What are your favorite ways to eat seafood?

This post is part of Hearth and Soul.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Original Recipe: Real Food Key Lime Pie

When a wonderful cousin of mine mentioned to me that I should do a version of key lime pie, I immediately knew she was right. Mr. D loves key lime pie and his birthday was just days away, the first in our married life. He told me last year that he'd be really happy with a food gift and I obliged. Now that our lives are entwined, it feels odd to purchase him a gift. He isn't the type to take note of something he would like and sit around not buying it indefinitely - that one would be me. If he finds something he wants and it's befitting the budget and all that, he just goes ahead and gets it! In contrast, I hem and haw about finding the absolute best version of what I seek and pondering how well I can do without it relative to its cost. And yes, I am a revenue management business analyst at my day job. However did you guess?

So instead we went shopping together on his birthday and he picked out his own gift and we got foods he liked that we don't ordinarily purchase, such as asparagus and mushrooms, and made a fantabulous steak dinner. And that's where my dessert aspirations come in.

When I began hunting down a key lime pie recipe, I did my usual search to get a sense of what typical recipes are. Meh. Sweetened condensed milk? We avoid most canned goods as part of minimizing BPA and other known and unknown harmful chemical exposures. This is why we try not to use plastic in the kitchen. We aren't Nazis about it, though. If the only way to have key lime pie is to open a can, then we'll just have it once in a while, and no worries. But...the thing about those kinds of ingredients is that they are rarely the original way something was made. There had to be a way around it.

Unfortunately, I eventually figured out that canned milk is the traditional, original way to make key lime pie. Who knew? This wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. I saw a recipe with a coconut milk base, which looked like a great idea, but I wanted a straight up key lime flavor for this one. So...I decided it was time to improvise. Mr. D was zesting and juicing a pound of itty bitty key limes. I inferred a few ideas and decided to risk making an experimental pie filling even though we were having guests and I wouldn't want to leave even the nicest guest hanging with no birthday pie to enjoy.

Thank goodness it worked just as I had hoped! My primary concern was that the pie would not set up firmly, so I thought I should make a thick pastry cream-type base and include gelatin. According to my husband, the pie would ideally be rather airy, so I folded in whipped egg whites. Most importantly, however, the key lime juice and zest made it taste right. Deciding that sour cream is thick and tangy and delicious, just like the pie should be, I incorporated that as well. I have been constitutionally incapable of not changing something about a recipe for several years, but only recently have I started creating entirely original concoctions. It's a lot of fun.

Yummy, delicious fun.
Real Food Key Lime Pie
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 t. powdered gelatin (1 envelope)
2 T. cornstarch, arrowroot powder, tapioca starch, or potato starch
1/2 cup plus 3 T. sugar of some kind*
3 eggs, separated
pinch of unrefined salt
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup key lime juice (but I won't tell if you use regular limes)
1 T. key lime zest (same as above)

In a 2-qt. saucepan, whisk together milk, gelatin, starch, and 1/2 cup sugar over medium heat. Bring to a bubble, stirring constantly until thickened, and continue stirring the thickened mixture as it cooks for several more minutes. Remove from heat to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks and sour cream together thoroughly with 1 T. sugar. Add about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly. The idea is not to let chunks of egg cook and get egg pieces in your pie. Yuck. Fortunately this is unlikely since the sour cream is already dispersed in the yolks.

Now add the yolk-sour cream mixture to the saucepan and whisk it thoroughly with the milk mixture. Turn the heat back on medium-low and cook a few more minutes, whisking the entire time. Turn off the heat and let cool again. Stir in key lime juice and zest.

To make a fluffy pie and if you don't mind a little undercooked egg white, whisk egg whites with a pinch of salt to soft peaks in a large mixing bowl. Add 2 T. sugar and whisk to stiff, glossy peaks. With a wide spatula, fold a large dollop of whites into the lime base in the saucepan to lighten. Pour the saucepan contents into the mixing bowl and gently but thoroughly fold it all together. If you prefer to leave this out, I bet you'll still have a fine pie.

Ready to pour
Immediately pour into a pre-baked pie crust. Refrigerate overnight to set. This was not quite set after dinner for dessert, having only been in for about two hours, but it was perfect the next day.

We ate this with strawberry ice cream and strawberry syrup that Mr. D made. However, this is great on its own.

*I personally think non-GMO white sugar is OK to use rarely and in small amounts, but a light coconut/palm sugar is encouraged! The strong taste of truly unrefined cane sugar would not work. I think a mild-flavored honey would do nicely, in which case I suggest using 1-2 T. less and adding it all in with the milk. I have not tested this but plan to the next time I make this pie.

Do you like key lime pie? How do you feel about improvising in the kitchen?

This post is part of Monday Mania, Real Food Wednesday, and Hearth and Soul.

Basic Cooking: Burgers and Mashed Potatoes

I was very fortunate to grow up in a family where everybody learns to cook. Not cook, as in, become a gourmet chef, but my siblings and I all know how to feed ourselves. We have experience in "normal" family cooking that includes chocolate chip cookies, breaded and fried walleye, baked chicken pieces, steamed broccoli, sautéed asparagus, baked potatoes...nothing terribly fancy, just knowing how to follow recipes and help out as part of the family. Naïvely I assumed that everybody acquired life skills from their parents like this, but then I went to college and witnessed many kids fumbling to take care of themselves. I understand that learning how to do laundry is not that fun, but cookies? I remember clamoring to help! These people have not experienced the smell of bread baking, for goodness' sake!

When I ask friends if they want me to blog about a particular topic, I repeatedly hear requests for basic, everyday recipes. I am happy to say that it takes little skill to prepare all of your food yourself. It does take more time than popping an expensive boxed meal into a microwave, but it really does not have to take much. I work full-time myself and I completely understand that on many days nobody has the time or energy to spend an hour or more in the kitchen. With basic planning, you do not need to. More on easy planning in another post.

A common meal in my kitchen is burgers with mashed potatoes and a green salad. In my world, burgers do not have buns - they are meat patties. It is much healthier to get your starch from potatoes or rice than store-bought buns. To reduce meal preparation time and effort, I make several pounds of burgers at a time and flash freeze them, bagged into one-meal portions. The day before we eat burgers I move a bag into the refrigerator to thaw. Similarly, I will make about 5 lbs. of mashed potatoes at a time so we can quickly reheat portions for a meal.

Keeping a few basic vegetables around to chop up for salad is not difficult - make including a salad with dinner your default and figure out how much produce to buy so you don't end up with anything rotting in the crisper drawer. Just never buy salad dressings at the store! They are pretty much all filled with horribly unhealthy and nasty-tasting vegetable oils (soybean, canola, cottonseed, safflower, corn), contain surprising amounts of sugar, and are ridiculously expensive when you consider how easy it is to make your own by shaking ingredients in a jar or stirring ingredients with a fork in a small bowl. Alternatively, use cold-pressed 100% extra virgin olive oil (domestic is strongly preferred since imports are often adulterated) and balsamic vinegar to taste.

There are many ways to make basic burgers and 'taters. Here are some quick and easy versions.

For each pound of ground beef, include 1 egg, 1 t. salt, and several shakes of ground pepper.
Additional spices are encouraged: onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, parsley, fennel seeds...

Put all ingredients in a mixing bowl. I am using three pounds of grass-fed beef.

Do not worry about getting spice amounts just right. Try an amount (measure some out if you prefer) and adjust it next time if there was too little or too much. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Divide into equal portions and flatten into patties. I use my handy-dandy large scoop to portion smallish burgers and we eat four or five between us. Cook over medium-low heat on a skillet until done to your liking; if you prefer rare ground beef, play it safe by using beef that has been frozen solid for 14 days first to kill any pathogens.

If you are just starting out with seasonings, I suggest first buying unrefined salt, black pepper, and one additional such as paprika or dried basil. Then get one more each time you go grocery shopping and build up your spice collection gradually so you do not have unfamiliar, unused jars lurking around. I do not find pre-mixed seasonings useful - who wants everything to taste the same? - but if you like them, go for it. To be honest, I started out intimidated by herbs and spices because they seemed difficult to use, but by trying one new one at a time and increasing amounts gradually, I found it was just a question of doing what I liked and trying ideas I saw in others' recipes to make everything more delicious.

Mashed Potatoes
Potatoes, any kind
Unrefined salt
Herbs, as desired; rosemary is lovely in white potatoes, garlic in sweet potatoes

Peel potatoes if you prefer; I never bother. Roughly chop potatoes into approximately equal sizes so they cook evenly. This way they cook much, much faster than plopping in whole potatoes. Cover with water and boil until tender and easily pierced with a fork.

Sweet potatoes floating in the pot
Drain potato pieces and return to the pot or put in a mixing bowl. Add butter and seasonings to taste and mash with a potato masher, wooden spoon, or even a fork. Don't worry if the texture is imperfect. Chunky potatoes are still delicious.

How did you learn to cook everyday foods? Do you have staple foods you learned or want to learn to make yourself?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gluten Free Pie Crust, Demystified

Gluten free baking is a hodgepodge of variations. Some things can be made fairly easily without gluten, while others rely so heavily on gluten for structure that adaptation is quite tricky. Luckily for pie lovers, the flakiness of pie crust makes adaptation relatively easy. I do not often make pies but there are times when pies become necessary, and buying 32 lbs. of strawberries is one of those times.

The basic pie crust method is pretty straightforward - cut fat into flour and add liquid to hold it together - but every baker seems to have his opinion on the best way to do it. I felt like a pastry ninja when I first made pie crust. Pie recipes are frequently really just pie filling recipes plus a line about using a pre-made crust, leaving my gluten free self at a loss. Can you even buy gluten free pie crusts? I guess you probably can in some places now, but let's be honest and point out that gluten free baked goods from the grocery store are typically expensive and taste mediocre. If you have not found an exception, or if you want to save still more money and gain still more flavor, then it is time to do it yourself.

I prefer using all butter for the fat, but only because I do not have any good lard, in which case I would use half lard, half butter. Cold-pressed, refined palm oil is also nice; the Spectrum brand is available in many grocery stores. Just please never use artificial shortening! Did you ever wonder why we invented Crisco last century? As a lard imitation! It is dirt cheap because it is made out of industrial waste oils like cottonseed and soybean oils. Please do not be duped by newer versions "free of trans fats". Fully hydrogenated oils are much less bad than partially hydrogenated, but at a serving size of 1 T. they can still contain about 4% incompletely hydrogenated oils without listing it on the label. Icky, especially when you consider that trans fats are not just bad for you in excess but simply bad in any quantity. Interesterified fats are another alternative to trans fats but no long-term studies have been done yet on their safety, to my knowledge, and apparently some preliminary results suggest they may be no better than trans fats. Perhaps this is in part because oils must still be put through processing that strips away nutrients and subjects highly reactive polyunsaturated fats to high temperatures. Just don't eat fake fats, mmkay? We keep discovering more bad things about them. Our bodies are not adapted to eating them, period, so why be a guinea pig and gamble with your family's health?

Eat fats that taste good and we know are healthy, meaning grass-fed butter, pastured lard, virgin or refined coconut oil, palm shortening, and perhaps grass-fed tallow (though that can have a strong flavor that would not work for many kinds of pie fillings). Yes, cold-pressed and unadulterated olive oil is good for you too, but it would not make good pie. Even cheapo store brand butter is completely fine to use if you cannot find grass-fed.

Basic Gluten Free Pie Crust
1/4 cup sweet rice flour aka glutinous rice flour or short-grain rice flour
1/2 cup coconut flour, quinoa flour, almond flour, or another tasty flour (or a combination)
3/4 cup white rice flour
1/4 t. salt
1 T. sugar (omit for savory pies)
10 T. frozen butter
1 egg
1/4 cup ice-cold water


Gently whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl until free of any lumps and uniform in color.

Grate frozen butter or cut into 40 or so pieces; a food processor is ideal for this. If you do it by hand, just be sure to re-chill if the butter gets soft and make sure it is very cold before proceeding.

Beat egg and cold water together in a small bowl.

If using a food processor: Add flour mixture and pulse several times to combine with butter. Add eggy water and pulse several more times to get a lump of dough, as shown here. Do not overmix! There should be pea-sized chunks of butter in the dough. Fat chunks that melt during baking is what makes the crust flaky. Dump everything back into the mixing bowl to press it all together.

If making by hand: Cut butter and flour together with a fork, pastry cutter, or by hand until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs and the biggest butter chunks are pea-sized. You may have to let the butter warm up a touch to be pliable; refrigerator rather than freezer temperature. Again, do not overmix or break the butter down too small. Re-chill if the butter gets soft enough that your fork smushes it instead of cutting it. Add eggy water and gently mix until just combined.

In either case, if the dough is definitely too dry, add 1 t. of water at a time until it just holds together, and if the dough is definitely too wet and sticky, add 1 t. of white rice flour until just barely not sticky. The picture you see above was just right without any additions once I pressed it all together.

At this point, you can wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until you want to use it. I am a big fan of making large batches so you need not do the same work so frequently. The dough does have to thaw gently on the counter for a while to be workable again before you roll it out.

Roll out dough between pieces of parchment paper until thin and at least 1" around bigger than your pie pan. Uncover one side, place pie pan facedown over the dough, and turn together to get the delicate dough into the pan. Gently press in place; if you get cracks, just press things together. There's no gluten so you can't overwork the dough :-). For a pre-baked crust, prick the bottom several times with a fork and bake at 350°F for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.

I made strawberry sour cream pie filling, substituting white rice flour for the wheat flour.

Nibble off bits of crust? Who, us?
Variations: try adding spices to complement your fillings, such as 1 t. cinnamon and a shake of ground cloves for a pumpkin pie crust or nutmeg and Italian herbs for a quiche crust.

Do you have any more tips for pie crust? What kinds of pie do you enjoy most?

This post is part of Real Food Wednesdays.