Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The end of an era

After 8 years in the same office, my work group is moving. Has moved in fact, today is my last day at the old office tying up some loose ends. You may be asking yourself, what on earth does this have to do with a recipe blog? Well, I've been working in the middle of some of the best eats in LA. Within walking distance of my old office:

Groundwork Coffee
The Hungry Cat
Life Food Organics
Umami Burger
Cat & The Fiddle
The Mercantile
GO Burger
Caffe Etc.

My new office? Well there's a Zankou Chicken across the street. And umm... there's a 7-11, a Subway and some genuinely bad tacos & thai food. On Wednesdays, we can walk 4 blocks to a farmer's market, but not much else. For me, personally, this is probably good. All the more reason to pack my own healthy, delicious lunches.

But the foodie in me is a little sad. No more of my occasional treat lunches of fois gras brioche or raw oysters or duck fat french fries. No more of the amazing cherry chocolate scones tempting me when I refill my coffee (in fact, nowhere decent to refill my coffee). So today, I celebrated... no, I didn't go crazy. Those scones don't have the same hypnotic spell over me that they used to. But in all that foodie bliss, one thing stands out: Caffe Etc's brie-chicken panini on sourdough bread. Good god it's perfect. Just the right amount of gooey brie melting over thinly sliced chicken and accented with sharp green apples & a pinch of cranberry sauce. To. Die. For.

Brie & chicken panini

I had myself a pretty nice lunch today... And yes, I may well have a vertigo attack tomorrow. But for one last time, it was so worth it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Low Sodium Paleo

This is the first of a series of blog posts about why and how to eat low sodium paleo(ish). At this point I've become pretty comfortable with this approach to eating and I want to share some structured ideas on the topic. And I'm going to start with the big question...

Why eat a low sodium paleo diet?

You can go all over the internet and find arguments for eating paleo, or other variations on ancestral diets. Some good places to start are Whole9 or Mark's Daily Apple. But if you read deeper into some of these websites, you'll find some debate about whether the "conventional wisdom" on low salt diets is actually wisdom or just poppycock. (I love that word, poppycock!) Looking from the low sodium side of the fence, I'm going to lay out why (and why not) you might want to take a lower sodium approach to paleo(ish) eating.

1. You have a medical condition that can truly be helped by eating a lower sodium diet.
There's a bunch of these. Meniere's disease. Various kidney (renal) conditions. An aortic aneurysm. Yes, these are big high stakes diseases. If you have one of these issues, you want to limit your sodium. The details are different for each condition, but generally speaking these are conditions where the fluid balance in the body is out of whack and limiting sodium can either restore appropriate fluid levels, or reduce the strain on the kidneys as they try to balance fluids. Personally, I have Meniere's disease which is an inner ear disorder causing severe intermittent vertigo and restricting my sodium intake to 1000-1200mg a day keeps me mostly off medication (for now).

A note on renal diets: There are a lot of other dietary issues at play for people who have renal failure. I know some people need to restrict potassium, phosphorous or other minerals, or sometimes manage their protein intake. I still believe that a diet based around whole foods is ideal, but if you have renal disease and want to make changes in your diet, it's best to consult with a dietician who's familiar with your labs.

2. You have a medical condition that can cause renal or blood pressure issues downstream.
Diabetes is the big one here, uncontrolled diabetes can result in kidney failure. A reduced carbohydrate paleo(ish) diet may help a diabetic control blood sugar, but they're probably dealing with some level of diminished kidney function. It just makes sense to me, in this case, to moderately reduce sodium intake to reduce the load on the kidneys. A much rarer situation, that unfortunately runs in my family, is a structural heart issue that can raise the risk of aortic aneurysm. In this case, keeping sodium moderate can help keep blood pressure low, which consequently reduces the long term strain on the aorta. There are also autoimmune diseases (like lupus) that can result in renal damage, and I'm sure there are a number of other conditions that I don't even know about. If you're dealing with one of these issues but don't have frank kidney or heart problems, you should think about a moderate sodium intake, maybe around 2000mg... unless your doctor is already telling you to go very low sodium.

3. You are overweight, obese or have a binge eating disorder and you're working to reduce food reward.
Now we step away from people with clear medical indication for going low sodium and start talking about the general public. First of all, I don't believe that going paleo(ish) is only about getting lean, but for a lot of people that's where they're coming from. There are a lot of competing ideas (within and without the paleo-verse) about how and why people become overweight. One of those theories is the "food reward" hypothesis or the "hyperpalatability" hypothesis. Basically that many processed foods are engineered to be more stimulating to the brain than real whole foods found in nature. Proponents of this argument would include neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet and public health policy expert Dr. David Kessler. One of the specific factors in Kessler's hyperpalatability argument is salt (the other two are fat and sugar). Based on my experience with a low sodium diet (which I will go into later), I truly think that they're onto something here. I don't know that this is driving the obesity epidemic, but certainly hyperpalatable foods are sitting shotgun and handing the driver can after can of Red Bull.

If you're concerned about this, if you think this theory explains some issues you're having with food or your body, I really think you should consider a trial of low sodium paleo eating. Despite what many people think, it doesn't have to be bland or boring (as I'll demonstrate), but dropping the sodium in your diet may well decrease the stimulating effect food has on your brain. And when you modify your sugar or fat intake you need to make other adjustments to be sure you're getting sufficient calories and nutrition... when you drop salt to a low (but adequate) level, you don't need to make a lot of other adjustments. Here I think you'd want to aim somewhere in the 1500-2000mg range... but possibly as low as 1000mg.

Why NOT eat a low sodium paleo diet?

1. You don't have to.
As someone who really does need to watch my sodium, this makes it's own case. If you don't have any good need to watch your sodium, DON'T! It's easier and you can enjoy bacon, cold cuts, bleu cheese and thai food without worry. If you just go paleo(ish) and base your diet around real whole foods, you're probably going to drop your sodium intake to a reasonably healthy level. A recent CDC report indicates that the top 10 types of food that contribute the most sodium to the American diet include bread and rolls, pizza, sandwiches, pasta mixed dishes, meat mixed dishes, and savory snacks. All things you won't eat if you go paleo(ish). Yes, there are some higher sodium paleo foods like cold cuts, cured meats, and cheeses. But avoiding bread alone is going to drop your sodium intake substantially! Take out processed fast food and snack foods and it drops even further. As long as you're not eating an everyday diet of bacon for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch and thai curries for dinner, you're probably OK.

2. You get a lot of exercise in the hot sun.
If you're sweating out a lot of salt, you need to take in salt. I live in California and I love exploring our local desert wilderness. But desert hiking means I need to up my sodium a little bit, or I get dizzy and weak. If you work outside in the summer or are very active in the outdoors, your body has an increased need for sodium. Period. Even if you have a good reason to limit salt overall, you may want to bump up your intake when you're sweating out a lot of it. (Again, renal folks talk to a dietician on this one.)

3. You have really low blood pressure.
If you have postural hypotension (you get faint when standing up from a seated or lying position), or if you find yourself dizzy or lightheaded eating a diet of all whole foods, you might want to look at your sodium intake and intentionally add some salt. I've found that a really strict paleo(ish) eating plan can sometimes drop sodium too low for good health. Even for me, I sometimes need to salt my food, lest I drop below 800mg.

OK... next to come in the series... understanding salt & sodium: how much sodium is really in the foods you eat.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Artichoke with lemon marrow sauce

Artichokes are a major comfort food for me. I'm a native Californian and when I was little we used to drive up the 101 to visit my great aunt and uncle up in the Monterey area, driving through the artichoke growing region of the central coast. And every spring when artichokes came into season, and relatively cheap (since they were local) my mom and I would go nuts and have artichokes with dinner a couple times a week. The smell, the texture, the flavor, the rich creamy heart lurking under the thistle; artichokes are just amazing to me in every way. Then I went away to college and realized that not everyone grew up with this beautiful culinary thistle! If this is you, I'm here to hold your hand and introduce you to an amazing new vegetable!

For this recipe I branched out a little bit and made a bone marrow sauce based on the traditional flavors of gremolata. If you have some marrow bone handy, it's an interesting treat. But for an easier option you can never go wrong with good ol' mayo or clarified butter.

How to steam an artichoke

Beware! There are thorns at the ends of the individual leaves. If you're feeding children, you may want to use a sharp knife or scissors to trim off the leaf tips. Grown adults should be able to navigate the thorns, but if you're new to artichokes, stay sharp so they don't get you!

First, use a sharp knife to cut the stem off flush with the bottom-most leaves. Try to make the cut flat and perpendicular to the stem, so the artichoke sits on a flat base. Fill a large saucepan with 1-2" of water, and bring to a simmer. Put the artichokes in the pan, stem end down. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Remove with tongs and allow to cool.

Eat the artichoke by pulling off each leaf individually, dipping it in your sauce of choice, and then scraping the meat off the fleshy bottom 1/3 of the leaf with your teeth. As you get to the inner leaves you can bite the fleshy part clean off. When you get to the thinnest inner leaves, you'll need to scrape or cut out the thistle choke to get to the "heart" of the artichoke. Be sure to remove all of the thistle, it is sharp. Slice the heart into small chunks, dip and eat. The heart is the very best part! The California Artichoke Advisory Board has a nice graphic on the basics.

Lemon Marrow Sauce

serves 2

2 marrow bones, about 3" long
1 lemon
2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350. Roast the marrow bones in a small oven-safe dish for 20-30 minutes, until they just start to brown. While the bones are roasting, use a citrus zester to remove the very top outside layer of the lemon (don't get into the white pith). When the bones are done, scoop out the soft inner marrow, and chop into fine chunks. This will get fat all over your cutting board, don't worry about that. Scoop up the marrow into a serving dish, and sprinkle the lemon zest, parsley and salt over the fat covered part of your cutting board. Mince it all together so that the vegetables soak up some of that luscious marrow fat. Add the lemon-parsley mixture to the marrow. Juice your lemon, and whisk the lemon juice in with the rest of the ingredients. Serve and enjoy.

(As for the remaining bone, you can either use it as a garnish as I did in the photo, or just throw it in the freezer for the next time you make stock.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Curry paste!

Wow, here's a total holy grail for me. You know those curry "simmer sauces" that go for ridiculous prices in the supermarket? The ones with weird junky preservatives, added sugar and upwards of 400mg of sodium per serving?

Jamie Oliver has got your back. Yup. Homemade curry pastes, FIVE different variations, no weird additives. I'll be replacing the groundnut (peanut) oil with coconut oil, and cutting the salt in half. 1/4 teaspoon of salt has about 600mg of sodium, so if I divide a recipe into 3-4 servings that's less than 200mg per serving.

I assume that, like thai curry paste, these can be mixed into coconut milk to make a simmer sauce. I'll report back when I try it.


I found it! A piece of the artificial sweetener puzzle, that starts to explain where I think I went really wrong with my Diet Coke habit. It's from an article on slate.com about the power of habits.

You should read the whole thing, but the critical part for me is in the discussion of a lab monkey named Julio who got some yummy blackberry juice whenever he played a computer game correctly. The interesting part is right here:

"Previously, Julio had received juice as soon as he touched the lever. Now, sometimes, the juice didn’t arrive at all, even if Julio performed correctly. Or it would arrive after a slight delay. Or it would be watered down until it was only half as sweet.

When that happened, Julio would get angry or become mopey. And within Julio’s brain, Schultz watched a new pattern emerge: craving. When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression."

Ok, now imagine that your body is Julio. Your body is trained that when it tastes sweet, there is a quick rush of calories coming. "Trained" may not even be the right word, this is the law of your genes, the law of your biochemistry, the law that governs the biochemistry of our primate kin. Sweet = calorie rush. When you're growing up as a kid this law makes sense, you have a piece of fruit, or some milk, or a slice of birthday cake and the sweetness tells your body to expect some calories.

In my case, at 14, I became the lab experimenter. I started varying the input. Sometimes when I fed myself something sweet, it meant calories: fruit, juice, cake, ice cream. But sometimes, when I fed myself something sweet, it was diet soda and no calories. And sometimes, there was a mix. My taste buds would get LOT of sweet (blueberry pancakes with splenda sweetened coffee), but the actual calorie load was more moderate than the sweetness would indicate (just like the watered down blackberry juice). As I got older and started having binge eating issues the messages would get REALLY mixed up... a "meal" would be artificially sweetened yogurt and a diet red bull, but a few hours later my body would get fed 3 doughnuts. And just like Julio, my body got confused and angry by all this mixed up stimulus.

I honestly think it's going to take a lot longer than the 60ish days I've been off artificial sweeteners to truly heal my biochemistry on this. But deep down, I know it's right. Even eating some real sugar now and then is better than habitually and repeatedly teasing (bullying?) my poor body with fake sweets.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Food blogging vs. other blogging

I keep meaning to post a Whole30 wrap up with some more "deep thoughts" about what I gained. And a Meniere's Disease update. But I just do not have the time to sit down and pull it together. You other working moms know what it's like.

And that's pretty much how this turned into a full time recipe blog. Because whatever else I do, I always cook. Having the cleanest laundry on the block may not ever be a priority for me, but putting good food on the table ALWAYS is. And it takes far less time and energy for me to jot down a few notes about what I just threw in the crockpot, than it does to organize all those amazing insights I had on my drive to work 14 hours ago. :-P So hey... I'm glad y'all are here for the food, because that's the only thing I can blog about consistently.

I'm starting my round 2 of the Whole30 today. I learned a lot last time, but I had a couple of speedbumps... namely eggs and that awful food poisoning I got right at the end. I didn't eat ALL that different in the meantime, the biggest inclusion was full fat dairy. But I did have a few excursions into wine and chocolate. None of those seemed to really bother me, but a few corn chips wrecked my stomach for a few days. Apparently corn doesn't agree with me, who knew? This time I'm going to try the whole thing without eggs and be much more methodical about reintroducing things. I'll let you guys know how it goes. Or maybe I'll just post more food!

Perfect Pot Roast

Perfect Pot Roast
Originally uploaded by thatgirljj
Disclaimer time: I don't like pot roast. In fact, I don't like roasted or stewed beef much at all. I like my beef with a fire charred crust and an itty-bitty-bit rare in the middle. We're a BBQ family and that suits me just fine. Winter comes and I'd rather throw a chicken in the oven than fix up some beef.

But, I got to experimenting and I came up with a pretty darn good crockpot pot roast. "Pretty darn good pot roast" is a weak name for a recipe though, so I did a little more tweaking until I made it perfect. Here it is:

Perfect Pot Roast

2-4 pound grass-fed beef roast, suitable for slow cooking
1 leek (or substitute 1 small onion)
6 carrots
2 medium turnips
3 medium parsnips
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup very low sodium chicken or beef stock (or water)
1 6oz can tomato paste (no salt or sugar added, check label)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano
1/4-1/2 tsp sea salt
Dried mushrooms, 1-2 tablespoons finely chopped (optional)

Split the leek, rinse out any sand and thinly slice. Place in the bottom of your slow cooker. Peel the turnips. If you're using large parsnips (like bigger than your average carrot), then quarter them and cut out the cores. Cut all vegetables into roughly 1/2" chunks. At this point I had about 6 cups of root vegetables.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan. Brown the roast on all sides, if your roast has a fat layer on one side, start with the fat layer, so that some of it renders out into the pan. Take your roast out and place it in the slow cooker on top of the leeks. If you don't have much oil left in the pan, add another tablespoon of olive oil, then dump all the the root vegetables into the sauce pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the root vegetables are cooking, add to the slow cooker the balsamic vinegar, chicken or beef stock, tomato paste, pepper, oregano, salt and mushrooms. When the root vegetables are done on the stovetop, dump them into the slow cooker.

Cook for 30 minutes on high, and then 5.5-6 hours on low. Take out the pot roast and slice it to serve, alongside the vegetables. If you have leftovers this makes an awesome lunch for the rest of the week, cut the remaining meat into chunks and add it back into the veggies to make a thick stew.

Note about sodium and mushrooms: If you use the smaller amount of salt (1/4 tsp), you should really get your hands on some dried mushrooms. The umami flavor from the dried mushrooms really rounds out the flavor of the dish. Serving size will vary widely by the size of your roast, but with the 2 pound roast I usually get, I estimate it at about 260mg of sodium per serving.