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Monday, July 16, 2012

Soy it isn't so

Almost every time I teach a cooking or baking class, invariably a theme comes up: SOY.
Students usually want to know what my take is on this legume rich in protein, that has been elevated to amazing super healthy food status for some years, but that lately, has been falling out of grace in some groups. The issue has become a bit polemic and there's no streight answer. There's scientific research, rumors and urban myths about it. However, nothing is conclusive.
In earlier decades, soy became the wonder child of mother nature in the Western world (of course, it's been a staple in the East since ancient times). It became the symbol of health and eating tofu all the time, every day in every meal was the right thing to do.
Food manufacturers got the message and started processing it and turning it into everything (including profit): soy milk, hydrolyzed or isolated soy protein (the one people add to smoothies), vegan mayonnaise, margarine, oil, granola, flour, soy nut butter, supplements, condiments and additives. You can get "foods" that look like chicken and taste like chicken, but they are actually made out of soy, and the same goes for burgers, turkey, ice cream, cream cheese, chips and hot dogs, etc, etc... All these products promoted as vegan, perceived as healthy and targeted towards an audience that thought they were making a smart choice.

With the high protein diet craze booming, this versatile crop has been added into everything in a way that we don't even know it's there unless we carefully read the ingredient labels. Chances are that, even if you are not vegetarian or not even interested in eating soy, if you buy any processed food products these days in the middle aisles of the supermarket, it will certainly contain some sort of soy-derived ingredient. 
Soy has been claimed to help prevent certain kinds of cancer, alleviate menopause symptoms, and be beneficial for the heart. This plant is rich in phytonutrients (phytosterols in particular), complete protein and fiber and is low in fat.
However, recently, there have been some other studies that have linked the high consumption of soy with other forms of cancer, infertility and dementia. There's even a popular believe that men who eat lots of soy can get enlarged breasts due to the hormone-like effects of the phytochemicals present in soy. But don't buy your man a bra just yet...
To this day, there's no conclusive information about the consumption of soy, or if it's potential benefits and nutritional composition are more important than their supposed adverse effects. It's all very confusing. But I think it's important to state that often, the type of soy consumed and studied (as a fresh unprocessed product; in fermented form; or commercial, genetically modified soy forms of meat-like products) isn't specified, but generally grouped as "soy."
And here I think lays the most important issue: I don't personally think that a hot dog made out of hydrolyzed soy protein or a tablespoon of tofutti "cream cheese" (made with no cream nor cheese, but hydrogenated soy oil--trans-fats-- and hydrolyzed soy protein) can be compared with naturally fermented organic miso or fresh non-GMO edamame. The former ones are industrially processed products from which the main nutrients of the legume have been removed almost entirely and other mysterious additives and processes have been included in their recipes. The latter are traditional foods used for thousands of years in the Far East. They are processed, but not by industrial methods, but by natural means, mainly, fermentation by good fungi, bacteria and yeasts, that turn them into even more nutrient-dense products.
That's why, and this is my own opinion, I do believe that in MODERATION (aka: don't make these the only components of your diet), they are a great addition to home menus, without forgetting, that soybeans can be an amazing and natural source of umami, which can definitely make a dish more delicious:

- Miso is rich in protein, fiber, manganese and zinc and incredibly high in phytonutrients (both from the soybean and as a product of the fermentation process the legume goes through in order to be prepared). Despite being quite salty, miso is beneficial for the heart, and I don't see why we should avoid it, unless there's an allergy. Miso can act as a prebiotic and is quite delicious in many recipes. It comes in different varieties (with different degrees of pungency) and is very versatile and lasts for a long, long time in the fridge. It goes well in Asian dishes, but it's also a match made in heaven with tahini. My favorite is white miso, and you can spread it on toast, turn it into a salad dressing, flavor fish with it or even add a bit to your dessert.

Other forms of soybeans that keep their nutritional characteristics and even improve on them through natural and traditional processes are naturally fermented soy sauce (shoyu if it contains wheat, or tamari if it contains less or no wheat, so make sure it's states "gluten free" if that's an issue for you). Tofu (acid-coagulated whole soybean milk pressed into cakes, although it's not always fermented), tempeh (a traditional Indonesian product made of soybeans mixed with whole grains and that is then fermented by good bacteria) and edamame

Fermented products are fascinating and more and more research has been linking them to health benefits. The microbial process that takes place, breaks down the original components and turns them into nutrients that can be beneficial for the immune, digestive and cardiovascular systems. I'll soon post about fermentation to share more details without boring you to death! But in the meanwhile, and since it's time sensitive, let me tell you about edamame, which, although is not fermented, is in season:
As a fresh form (as opposed to dry) of the soybean, edamame is a delicious, fun and nutritious food that is fast and easy to prepare. However, for a while I have stopped purchasing it in frozen packages. Why?:
- Soy is one of the most genetically modified (GMO) crops. So I only buy ORGANIC SOY products (and that goes for soy sauce, miso, edamame, and tempeh), to guarantee no genetic engineering.
- I haven't found any prepackaged edamame that doesn't come from China, and in that country, unfortunately, the food laws, production and supervision are currently not trustworthy and I rather not take any risks, for more on that click here. Even if it's certified organic edamame, if it comes from China, I don't purchase it.
The good news, is that summer is edamame's season, so the legume can be purchased fresh and grown in American soil at farmer's markets (I just got some this week at Union Square). You can blanch the pods in boiling water for 2 minutes, rinse them with cold water and freeze them in plastic (BPA-free please) containers for the months to come. Or you can boil them fresh for 7 minutes and enjoy them sprinkled with some coarse sea salt right away. You'll see how buttery and flavorful they are!

Bottom line (my thoughts):
- Consume whole forms of soy, not industrially processed soy-derived products. Miso, tofu, edamame, tempeh, natto and naturally brewed soy sauce are great to keep around.
- All those products should be ORGANIC and NOT imported from China
- It's good to add those forms of soy into the diet, but remember to include a VARIETY of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes (fish, organic eggs and meats if you are not a vegetarian), grains, seeds, nuts and oils. Don't make soybeans your only source of protein, There's much more you can eat, even if you are vegan.
- Don't buy soy products just because they are sold packaged and labeled with a plethora of beneficial health claims.
-Purchase soy sauce that states "naturally brewed" and all-natural  (or "no artificial" ingredients) on its label, and make sure it doesn't list any "caramel" or other colorings in its ingredients, as those are hints of a soy sauce that hasn't been fermented.


Since I had gone to the farmer's market and had bags full of tempting fresh summer veggies, and a single sweet potato hidden in the dark, I decided to use them all at once, served over a bed of red rice. You can use this recipe as a marinade for roasted fish. It works amazingly, and it's really fast to put together.
I love the fact that it's like a Far-East meets the Middle-East recipe.
It makes a dish bursting with flavors, textures and most importantly, nutrients. It's a super dish!


2 1/2 pounds assorted vegetables (I used rainbow carrots, Japanese eggplant, sweet potato and zucchini)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses*
2 tablespoons coconut nectar or honey
2 heaping tablespoons organic white (sweet) miso paste
1 teaspoon sumac**, or to taste
red pepper flakes, to taste, optional

Preheat oven to 400F.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Wash vegetables and pat them dry. Peel the carrots and sweet potato.

Cut all vegetables in rough chunks (about 1/2-inch thick).

In a small bowl, whisk in olive oil, pomegranate molasses, coconut nectar, miso and half the sumac. Add 2 teaspoons of water (warm or at room temperature) and whisk until completely incorporated.

Place cut carrots, eggplants and sweet potato on the prepared sheet and sprinkle with the remaining sumac and drizzle on half of the dressing.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Add in zucchini to the sheet pan, and mix with a wooden spoon with the rest of the vegetables.

Bake for 10-12 minutes more.

Drizzle veggies with remaining dressing right after they come out of the oven.

Let cool for 2 minutes and eat warm or let cool.

Dish keeps well refrigerated for up to 2 days (serve it as a salad!)

Makes 4 servings (as a side dish)

*If you can't find pomegranate molasses, buy pomegranate juice concentrate in a health food store
**sumac is a sour spice. You can get it at the spice section in most supermarkets of specialty stores.


Again, a brainchild of my market's visit. This light dish can be a whole meal by itself. Feel free to substitute for other herbs. I just happened to have parsley and sunflower greens at hand. Although, if you can get hold of the golden flower's greens, I recommend you do so. They have a lovely crispy texture and are full of goodness.
This recipe is fresh, nicely textured and nutrient and umami-charged.

10 ounces edamame in shells
10 ounces baby potatoes (the tiniest you can find)
4-5 small radishes (I used French breakfast)
1 bunch (about 2 ounces) sunflower greens (or any other greens), washed
fresh herbs (I used about 2 tablespoons parsley), washed.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to roast the potatoes
3 teaspoons shoyu or tamari soy sauce, separated
1 lime, juiced
1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar
salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium sauce pan, bring 6 cups of water to a boil.

While water starts boiling, preheat oven to 400F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.

Wash and scrub the potatoes, pat them dry and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle them with 2 teaspoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon soy sauce.

Coat evenly and bake for about 25 minutes, until potatoes are done (easily pierced with a fork).

While potatoes are in the oven, rinse edamame very well (with several changes of water) and cook it in the boiling water for 7 minutes.

Once edamame is ready, drain and rinse with cold water, to stop cooking process.

When potatoes are ready, let them cool.

Shell the edamame, discard shells and place beans in a medium bowl.

Wash and scrub radishes and slice them as thin as you can. Add them to the bowl along with the edamame and place potatoes in there as well.

Add into bowl remaining olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, and vinegar. Mix with vegetables and taste for seasoning. Adjust by adding a bit of salt, pepper and maybe vinegar or soy sauce.

Incorporate greens and herbs and enjoy.

Serves 4

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