Taking Stock of Vegetables

29 11 2010

Aromatic, flavorful stock ingredients

As we enter the seasonal blip that is the month between Thanksgiving and the big December holidays, things fly by. We also end up in the kitchen alot, even the people who don’t really like to cook. So, let me suggest one thing that will make your vegetarian cookery just a little bit better.

Learn to make stock.

Not the beef-bone kind, but the gentle, veggie kind. Unlike meat stocks, which can involve days of simmering and defatting, veggie stocks are best simmered for less than an hour. They are also a great way to use up all the celery tops, onion trims and carrot butts that seem to pile up this time of year.

Veggie stock is one of those ingredients that you might be able to get by without, but it makes alot of things better. According to Harold McGee, when we simmer vegetables in water, we break down their cell walls, releasing salts, sugars, acids, and savory amino acids, as well as aromatic molecules. He recommends cutting the veggies in small pieces, and sauteing them first, so the oil will act as a solvent to tease out the molecular magic. He also recommends the umami boosting mushroom and tomato, and keeping the water to veggie ratio a 1 to 1.5 or 2, so that you don’t dilute your veggie goodness.

I once had a job just making stocks and soups, and have made more gallons of the stuff than I could guess. And I can tell you where most cooks go wrong.

First off, I always save good trims for this. As long as your celery, carrot or onion is not rotten in spots, you can trim the dried up bits and use it. The rest can compost. Not only are you saving money and using stuff up, but you are extracting the last bit of nutrition from those veggie bits.

Second, the key thing is DO NOT BOIL. Over and over I wrote this in caps in my prep recipes, and over and over prep cooks boiled the heck out of the stock, thinking it would have more flavor. Sure, if you like the flavor of bitterness.

Third, don’t put any strong stuff in there, like cabbage or broccoli, unless you are making soups that work with those flavors. Stick to the aromatics of onion, carrot, celery, and garlic if you want. From there, you can stay basic, or start building flavors for certain uses. The umami rich mushroom is great for basic stock, or you can use lots of dried mushrooms for a really mushroomy base. If you want to add sweetness, sweet potatoes or apples can contribute. Parsley stems are all-purpose, but don’t go too heavy on herbs. If you are making something herby, a few stems of thyme or rosemary will harmonize. Bay leaf and peppercorns are always a good bet. If you are making an Asian soup, ginger and soy sauce will give it a good flavor.

Just chop some onion, carrot and celery, including the onion skins. Saute in a little olive oil until golden, then add 1.5 cups water for each cup of veggies. Add whatever else you want, and bring to a gentle simmer. 45 minutes uncovered, don’t boil, then strain. If it’s not as flavorful as you would like, boil it to reduce after straining. After reducing, salt to taste. There you have it. You can portion it out and freeze it, or just keep it in the fridge.

This all purpose stock is not just for soups, think of it as a little complexity and veggie-goodness that can infuse into all sorts of foods. Cook your grains with it, glaze your carrots with it, use it in gravy and sauces.

Have some stock in the bank, and you have a flavor secret on hand!

Food Allergies and Intolerances, On the Move?

15 11 2010


Great for you unless it's not.

Doesn’t it seem like food allergies are way more common these days? When I was a kid, nobody worried about serving peanut butter at school, and everybody lined up for milk. Now many schools are peanut free, and everybody knows someone who can’t tolerate dairy.

A new study confirms my impressions.

7.5 million people, or almost three in 100 people in the U.S., have a serious, life-threatening allergy to peanuts, dairy, eggs or shellfish. Children, men and African-Americans, have higher rates, according to a study done at the Johns Hopkins University and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

In the study, the most common allergy was to peanuts, with about 1.5 percent of people testing highly positive for the peanut antibodies, tiny proteins made by the body when exposed to the allergens. About 1 percent were allergic to shrimp, 0.4 percent were allergic to eggs and 0.2 percent were allergic to milk. About 1.3 percent were allergic to more than one food.

The study only looked at people with severe allergies to those four foods-so there are millions more who are suffering from less severe allergies and intolerances.

Researchers found that childhood food allergies are related to asthma, eczema and hay fever. They also found that children often outgrow dairy and egg allergies, but not peanut and shellfish allergies.

If you suspect that you are allergic or intolerant to something in your diet, go see an allergist for a test. This may show true allergies, but not many of the intolerances. If you are not found to be overtly allergic to any foods at an allergist, you may still suffer from food intolerances.

Intolerance is a blanket term for all the irritating, to figure out problems that can come from foods that just don’t agree with you. Some food intolerances are bafflingly delayed or masked, making it very difficult to pinpoint what is causing the problem. Skin, digestion, joints and even your mood can be improved by figuring out that a food is not tolerated by your particular system.

A tried and true method for finding out is a rotation or elimination diet. There are a number of books and websites dedicated to this diet. Finding a supportive doctor to guide you is best, but if you can’t afford it, you can try it on your own. Don’t embark on any new diet restrictions without a doctor’s supervision if you are ill, pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you know that you have serious allergies.

Basically, you start the diet by eliminating all commonly allergenic foods for 4-6 weeks. Keep a journal every day to record what you eat and how you feel. Then you can carefully rotate in the suspect foods every four days, and watch carefully for signs of any reaction. This is called a challenge.

Vegetarians can do this, and just eliminate dairy, eggs, peanuts, soy and gluten in the first stage, then rotate them in, if desired. Just disregard all the stuff about eating lamb and beef, and sub beans and non-gluten grains, non-dairy milks and lots of veggies.  Vegans are already avoiding many of the common allergens, but may find that soy, nuts, or wheat are bothering them.

As a private chef, I have cooked for people doing these rotations, and in a completely unscientific observation, it seemed to help, or at least clarify some things.

Hopefully, carefully eliminating and reintroducing common allergens will answer some questions for you.


Gluten Free Buckwheat Pancakes

The Vegetarian Way to Keep Winter Weight Gain at Bay

8 11 2010


Winter is here, and I for one am already working to avoid gaining what I call “hibernation weight”. There seems to be a double whammy that hits when the days are dark and the cold winds blow. We crave comfort food and hunker down to stay warm. Let this get out of control and you can add some unflattering insulation as winter takes its course. This is why we have to keep moving, hitting the gym or the trail or whatever we must to stay active. And we have to be vigilant about not falling into the comfort-me-with-cookies trap.

Yes, vegetarians have to watch out for weight gain, just like everybody else. In fact, some vegetarians can sabotage their efforts to be healthy with a couple of simple mistakes. I’ve never been a follower of the Atkin’s type regimen, but there is something to be learned from it.

You see, hunger can be a hormonal thing. Specifically, insulin, leptin and ghrelin. Insulin is the hormone that allows you to use the sugars you ingest for energy. If you are insulin resistant, which about 1/3 of the US population are, you are not able to burn the sugars properly and get the energy. This makes you hungry. The foods that trigger this the most are refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and sugar. If you don’t eat enough protein and fat along with your carbs, you will continually crave more carbs. Because of the insulin problem, you feel tired and hungry, and can’t lose weight.

Then there are the other two, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is your friend, the one that tells you you are full. Ghrelin is the one that sends the message to your brain to eat.

The good news, healthy eaters, is that eating adequate protein, good fats and nutritious foods helps balance all of this. So, as vegetarians, we just have to make sure our meals have some protein and fat alongside any carbs. It’s also way better to stick with whole grains. Keep those simple carbs to a minimum, and always eat them with protein and fat.

New research also shows that people who don’t get adequate sleep also get out of balance, and make more ghrelin and less leptin. Sleep deprivation makes you too tired to move but starved for junk food.

Lest we fall into old mythologies about vegetarians, let’s remember how easy it is to get your protein. A cup of oatmeal with a cup of soymilk is 13 gs. Starting the day with whole grains and a healthy helping of either dairy or non dairy milk, some nuts, some eggs, or if you have time, a tofu scramble, is easy to do. A protein-packed smoothie is easy, too.  This is the meal where you want to get those hormones off to a good start.

Lunch is easily protein-boosted with cheese, beans, tofu or tempeh, or even the generous amounts in quinoa, which has 9 grams protein in a cup, cooked. A cup of cooked navy beans has 16 g, 2 Tbs of peanut butter has 8g.

Dinner is usually built around protein, just 3 ounces of seitan in your stir fry adds 31 g, and 4 ounces of tofu has 11 g. A cup of cooked spinach has 5 g. There is a little protein in just about every whole food. The up-side of beans, nuts and seeds are that they contain many healthful fats, fiber, and antioxidants, as well as protein.

So, you certainly don’t have to eat meat to get enough protein. And you can have that lean, healthy vegetarian glow, as long as you don’t fall into the refined carb trap. Everybody can enjoy a little treat now and then, and as long as you are treating yourself, it’s better if it has some fat, too.

In fact, a dark chocolate bar with nuts is almost health food!
Peanut Butter Granola