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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Healthy, Happy Passover

Spring is here, finally! It seems we've survived!!!

If you are Jewish, chances are the beginning of spring means that most of your current decisions are determined by Passover: you are either involved in a cleaning frenzy, food shopping like a maniac, if you are very organized, you've already started cooking, or if you are lucky, you are packing up your bags dreaming of Paradise, happily evading the whole process!

Regardless of what your plans are, this holiday can be an amazing opportunity to start tuning your body to the new season and cleanse yourself from the stress of winter (or, it can also be an opportunity to feel bloated and miserable and to stuff your face 24/7 for 1 week... We've all been there!).

Since I'm an eternal optimist (a quality I recently discovered buried deep, deep inside me) let's plan on making the best out of it. The holiday lasts 7 days, therefore, here are my seven tips and my favorite links for a healthy happy Passover:

1. "Eat [real] food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much." Michael Pollan's motto always works, and you can follow it either if you spend the 7-day long holiday in your own home, at someone else's or in a destination where the food is catered. Focus on the produce by filling 3/4 of your plate with vegetables and fruits (if you are going to the tropics or to a place famous for its agriculture, you have an extra reason to enjoy local--maybe even exotic--fresh produce) and 1/4 of a protein rich food (eggs, breakfast, meat, fish, nuts and seeds. And, make sure that as the rule suggests, you are eating REAL food. I'd say that it sounds like adopting (at least temporarily) a Paleo lifestyle might be the best way of dealing with the holiday...More on real food in the next tip.

2. Don't fake it. You can nowadays purchase lots of processed products that imply that "you won't even believe it's not chametz (forbidden grains during Passover)." I do admire the creativity and skills of food science to achieve amazing results at that. However, I try to stay away from those imitation foods. From "mustard" (which is not permissible) to cakes saturated with sugar, shortening and a plethora of additives, ice cream that is ice, creamy but no cream, and many more "non-food edibles." Stick to real food! Your body knows what to do with that, while it has no idea how to metabolize ingredients with names that your brain can't process. Read labels, and don't purchase anything that lists ingredients you wouldn't recognize as common food! Have you ever eaten sodium acid pyrophosphate? Well...then avoid the gluten free matzah ball mixes, just make your own using 3/4 almond flour and 1/4 potato starch to substitute the matzah meal!


3. It's JUST ONE WEEK! All the prep work, the hype and the restrictions seem for many people (including moi!) a daunting task, mainly an emotional one. You can eat amazing things during Passover. Yes, you can! Make a celebration of all the festive meals and focus on what you can eat, not on what you can't. Get creative, and cook. The new season brings really nice options, and remember, it's only seven days of your entire year! No toast, no pasta, no many other things...use the opportunity to try new ones instead! How about star fruit, or young coconut, Brazil nuts or Cornish hens...And...it will end sooner than you think!

4. Eat color. Vegetables, fruit, spices, herbs, nuts, many seeds. Many are allowed in Passover. They are full of flavor: they can add crunch, sweetness, tartness, heat, creaminess, etc, which makes your food not only palatable, but delicious. Remember that including all the colors of the rainbow in your meals gives you the amazing qualities of the different colored phytonutrients contained in them (plus many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and detoxing abilities). 

5. Enjoy it! Enjoy the change of pace and the better weather, enjoy children laughing or a good book (or both, if the children are laughing far from where you are reading), enjoy the company around you. And enjoy the food! Don't count calories, carbs or fat. Eat tasty, well prepared meals, and if you can, get in the kitchen yourself! Cooking has a special effect in the way we feel about the food we made! Just savor it all, slowly, consciously, joyously! And remember that there's plenty of dark chocolate certified kosher for Passover!

6. Quality rules. Don't feed your body junk! And I'm not suggesting you to ditch all treats. Just make sure the treat is worth it: made with good ingredients and with care. Preferably, not by a machine (see tip #2), but by another human being--or yourself. Enjoy it because it's delicious, not because it's there. Get the best food you can. You are worth it!


7. Keep it in perspective. The holiday is about slavery and freedom, so we might have to feel a bit of both to complete the purpose!

Favorite links: 

  • This is a lovely blueprint on how to keep Pesach food simple, delicious and healthful that my friend and awesomely amazing chef, instructor and author, Kim Kushner wrote in her blog:
http://kimkushner.com/blog/#sthash.tQD9ESkM.dpbs

  • If there's only one Passover thing you are making, make my grandmother's (actually, my great, great grandmother's) charoset. It's hands down, the very best:
http://ironyofbaking.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-third-plague.html

  • This blog is a great source of grain free recipes that are almost completely Passover friendly and health oriented:
http://againstallgrain.com/

  • Getting in the mood with Six13's Chozen (A Passover Tribute). Please don't blame me if you can't get it out of your head after watching!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwBuNtd4xAY 
Wherever this Passover finds you, I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday full of celebration for freedom and the company of your loved ones!

AZ

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The best oils to stock in your kitchen.

It seems we've officially ended the era of  Fatphobia. Saturated fats have been proven innocent from causing heart disease, and since our brain is 60% fat, we need to rethink our approach to it, so we can think better. This is a tremendous shift of the whole nutritional belief system of the last 30 decades, I know. And it's really hard to let go of all the non-fat, low-fat concepts we grew up with. With the exceptions of the "crazies," that will soon be turned into "visionaries" in the filed, the experts had told us that healthy eating meant skipping or minimizing many fatty animal products. The consequences on the way we eat and how we'll be eating in the time to come are just getting started, so expect to see many changes...

Saturated fats have been redeemed, but trans-fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils) are still and will be nasty and should be avoided at all costs! Trans fats are, as Harvard's Dr. Walter Willet calls them, "metabolic poison." They lower levels of good cholesterol and raise levels of bad cholesterol. Even if by now trans fats have such a bad rap and are not as abundant, they still hide in products, including many kosher foods such as macaroni 'n cheese and some packaged snacks. Make sure to read ingredient lists carefully, looking for --and avoiding-- "partially hydrogenated oil," even if a container states "trans-fat free."

Another change that I expect to see soon in the mainstream, is (besides the comeback of butter) processed seed and grain oils (often used in processed foods) to be found to be not really that great for us, but that will still take a couple of years...

In the meanwhile, since I don't mean to make things more confusing, I will stop telling you what to avoid and will recommend to stock your pantry with what I consider the foolproof oils, no matter if you are vegan or have joined the Paleo lifestyle, if you keep kosher or hallal. The four of them are decently available (in health food stores for sure), have many benefits, and are great for cooking and/or baking. Please note that these are my "multipurpose oils," and I will post about other specialty, "finishing oils" in another post. The quality of the oils you eat is very important, because our cell membranes are made mainly out of fat, so choose carefully. You don't want your cells to become stiff! Go the extra mile to ensure the quality of your oils! 

Another quick note: yes, we do need good quality fats, but please be aware that everything should be done in moderation, and usually a drizzle of the following oils is enough at every meal. I'm not advising you to just go crazy and finish a bar of Plugra butter during breakfast!

To avoid oils processed with chemical nastiness, always look for oils that are "EXPELLER PRESSED," which means they were obtained through mechanical methods.The best way of storing oils is away from the light, and preferably in tinted glass bottles. 

These are my fave oils:


  • Olive: Extra virgin olive oil (evoo) is full of health benefits, especially for the heart and cardiovascular system, and it contains plenty of antioxidants. It’s best for finishing dishes or making dressings and sauces that won’t be cooked, as it has a low smoke point (burns at a lower temperature, and when oils burn, they produce harmful compounds that should not be eaten nor smelled). Have fun tasting different extra virgin olive oils. They are a bit like wine, as they pick up different flavors, colors, scents and degrees of astringency depending on the terroir where the olives grew. Cold pressed virgin or filtered olive oil  (without any heating involved) is a better option for cooking than evoo, as it has a higher smoke point . Although I need to confess: I do use extra virgin for roasting and even baking at lower temperatures (below 300 F). Don't use evoo for frying!

  • Extra virgin (or virgin) coconut oil: a great substitute for butter or margarine. It’s the richest source of medium-chain fatty acids, which aid in the assimilation of fats. It’s also been found to promote brain health, boost immunity and help thyroid function. It is a powerful antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-viral food and one of the only food sources of lauric acid, which is a fat found in human breast milk. It’s solid at room temperature, doesn’t need refrigeration, and due to its high smoke point, it can be used for cooking, frying and baking. For a flavorless (but also less health benefits, than the unrefined form), use expeller pressed "refined" coconut oil (I like Spectrum brand refined coconut oil when I want a clean flavor).

  • Red Palm Oil: this might be the one you are not familiar with. It has a deep orange color (and will turn your food that hue) and it's a great cooking oil with very high concentrations of vitamins E and A (in the form of beta-carotene and tocotrienols and tocopherols). It has a slight peppery taste and it's been used traditionally in the cuisines of Africa and South America. It makes a great butter substitute, and has a very high smoke point, making it a very stable oil, even at high temperatures. Make sure you purchase red palm oil, which is extracted from the fruit of the palm, not from the kernel, which doesn't have the same health benefits.

  • Avocado oil: With free-radical fighting capabilities and a high content of phytonutrients, and a high smoke point, this is an amazing oil for cooking (or just eating raw). It helps fight heart disease and aging, and has a neutral taste. So this can be your new all-purpose oil. Costco just started carrying a really good one that is expeller pressed and way less expensive than the ones sold in other stores.
 
  
HEMP SEED PESTO
This recipe is a twist on the classic pesto, which uses pine nuts or other nuts. I substituted them for hemp seeds to add some variety, extra protein and good fats (as I just mentioned the importance of the quality of our fats!). Plus, people with nut allergies tend to be OK with these seeds (although always consult your doctor, if in doubt). You can use any of the oils mentioned above. The flavor will be different depending on which one you pick, but they are all deilcious! You can use this pesto to dress pasta, salad, as a dip, or to top chicken or fish, just as I did when roasting wild Alaskan salmon the other night. 
INGREDIENTS
1 bunch fresh basil, washed and patted dry
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup hulled hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) 
1/4 teaspoon unrefined salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive (or coconut, red palm or avocado) oil

Optional: add fresh lemon juice and zest, a pinch of cayenne, grated Parmesan cheese, or switch basil for parsley, arugula, Swiss chard, kale, etc. Anything green would go!

METHOD
In a food processor or a power blender, grind basil, garlic, hemp seeds and salt. 
Drizzle oil in and process or blend again until a paste is formed. You can make it coarser or more pureed depending on your taste.
Use, serve or store for up to 5 days covered in the fridge.