I’ll begin with a confession – adopting a raw food diet is not for me! So why write about it? Well, I know there are many high-profile proponents of this style of eating so I wanted to understand it better in case clients ask about it. And since I learned some things, I thought you might like to also!

The raw food diet basically means eating foods that have not been cooked or at least not heated over ~115°F. There is no *one* raw food “diet” – the ways of following vary among adherents. Even the maximum temperature that foods can be warmed to without being considered ‘cooked’ varies. There are those who eat 100% raw food and those who eat 60-85% raw, with the remainder of their diet cooked foods. Raw meat (think sushi, sashimi, steak tartare, and some cured meats), raw (unpasteurized) dairy, and raw eggs are included by some raw foodists; many avoid these foods altogether. Some eat soaked or sprouted grains and others stick to only vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. All of the plans I read about exclude processed foods, refined flours and sugars, all or most vegetable oils, and coffee. Most stress using organic produce as much as possible. One person writing on being ‘fully raw’ stated one should not eat vinegars, salt, oils, or spices, and should limit good fats like avocados and nuts, and frozen or dehydrated fruits and veggies.

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this eating style? Proponents believe that cooking destroys vital nutrients and enzymes in food, and even causes toxicity in the food, so they believe raw food has more nutrients. They believe a raw food diet helps with weight control, and that it will help new followers lose weight. It’s thought eating raw fruits and veggies can reduce acidity in the body and help alkalize it. And there are claims that raw food is easier to digest and moves through the digestive system more quickly than cooked food. Some writers made other claims about protection from other diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It is said people eating raw have more energy, better skin, and lower blood pressure. Disadvantages include the difficulty of eating out, whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant; the additional prep time needed to make a meal – more chopping, blending, sprouting, dehydrating, etc.; limitations on what can be eaten; it is more difficult to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need in the right proportions; increased risk of food borne illness and pathogens from commercially sold produce; and a follower must understand how raw differs from cooked in foods like broccoli and cauliflower, which contain compounds called goitrogens. Goitrogens may block thyroid function but are deactivated by heat, so eating lots of raw cruciferous veggies could lead to thyroid problems.

As with most health topics on the web, this one has believers and deniers, wild claims for and arguments against. I saw a whole lot of claims with no explanation of their basis in fact. I read an article of how eating this way nearly killed someone. Well-known doctors speak up for it and others speak against it. Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda both promote cooked rather than raw foods. My take? I think the general guidelines for a raw diet are good, in that they include a lot of vegetables and fruits, little or no animal protein, no processed ‘junk’ food, and no refined sugars or flours. They promote organic, whole foods. Raw or cooked, eating this way is way better than the typical western diet. The plans seem flexible so they allow people who want to call themselves “raw foodies” can eat mostly raw but maybe include some lightly cooked food. And for those who do want some cooked foods, the recommendations are for light, gentle cooking – not fried or grilled to a blackened state. I question the claims of easier digestion, and this is one claim that was made without any citations of studies to back it up; in fact, articles weighing pros and cons were more likely to offer explanations of how this is not true. Claims of enzyme and vitamin loss from cooking were perhaps over-stated. Produce loses much of its nutrition the longer it waits past harvest and certainly cooking can add to that loss. Many cooking methods do not appreciably destroy nutrients, and even enhance some nutrients. A few articles stated that cooking makes food acidic, but this is not always true; also, our body determines our blood PH from many factors and constantly regulates it, and food does not change that. However, reducing some naturally acidic foods like meat, cheese and some grains is good for you, just not for your PH balance.

This way of eating is not for me because while I eat a fair amount of raw vegetables and fruits, I also like steamed veggies, hot soups, casseroles. And bread and pasta. I think the human race made giant strides in evolution because we learned to cook food, and those strides wouldn’t have happened if cooking destroyed nutrition. Many diseases that have become common in western, developed nations are due to poor eating habits, over-processed foods stripped of nutrition, and over- or under-consumption of foods due to ever changing food guidelines.

What do you think? Would you want to eat this way, or do you already?

Today I want to dive into Michael Pollan’s famous quote of “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” On the surface it is pretty simple, and I do like simple! But as I listened to some videos of Michael discussing food topics I realized I may not fully understand the depth of its wisdom.

Eat food. Sounds easy.  But by this he means actual food, not food processed into something else that resembles food but is very far removed from its origin. Would someone from 100 years ago recognize the food? “Food” means it is not full of hydrolyzed protein, mono-glycerides, natural flavoring, saccharine, etc. We should seek food items grown the way nature meant, not by using industrial methods that strip the earth of nutrients, pollute the ground and water with pesticides, degrade the lives of animals in feedlots and factory farms, and give cause for deforestation. “Pasteurized processed cheese food” is not food in the context of this quote, for instance. We should eat corn – fresh off the cob or frozen, or as cornmeal, perhaps – grown by a real farmer, not by a corporate conglomerate, and not turned into one of the hundreds of ingredients you would not suspect are derived from corn. Choose meat as close to how it came from the animal, like a steak or chicken breast and not the ground up bits mixed with cellulose to produce ‘lunchmeat’ or ‘chicken’ nuggets. Yogurt is milk cultured with specific strains of bacteria, that’s all – not necessary to include added sugar, fruit, gelatin, probiotics, and more. Oats are easy to cook – there’s no need to process oats to death so they can come in a little envelope with “real and artificial flavorings” added.

Mostly plants. Meaning the edible parts of vegetables, fruits, grains, mushrooms, and even flowers. Simply prepared fresh vegetables are most delightful. Eat whole grains like brown rice, farro, and wheat berries rather than grains ground into flour; although whole grain flour is more nutritious than bleached white flour it still impacts blood sugar and insulin levels. Enjoy all of the apple or an orange and not just the juice that can be extracted. Edible flowers add color and flavor to a lovely fresh salad. These foods provide us with almost all the nutrients we need for health, and with the variety of colors and textures to be found they are satisfying for our aesthetic taste buds as well. There are so many different plant foods and so many ways to combine them into delightful dishes, I think it would take a lot of years of cooking meals to ever repeat the same dish if you didn’t want to! Pollan stresses that humans are omnivores and some of us will not find satisfaction with a strictly plant-based diet. Yet if western cultures ate more plant foods and less animal foods, we’d have better health, our land would have better health, and the world would see less environmental damage.

Not too much. Don’t eat until you are stuffed, stop before you feel full. Many cultures, where food scarcity is not a problem, teach their young to eat only until they are 2/3 full or 4/5 full or until they no longer have hunger. Be mindful of portion size; many of us were taught to clean our plates, so when we overload it to start with, we are set up to overeat. Don’t feed your boredom, anxiety, or depression by mindlessly snacking or eating when you aren’t even hungry. Sit at a table when you eat and pay attention to what you are eating – you will derive more satisfaction from the meal and become more aware of how much you eat. It will help you learn when to say when. Consider sharing an entrée with your companion at restaurants, especially those whose portion sizes are large. Eventually they may get the idea of reducing portions to normal size. By eating this way, you not only help your own health, you help reduce food waste.

So, sound and simple advice. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Common sense, really. No need to count calories, fat grams, carbs. No need to worry about the next bad-for-you-food story, because you are eating a moderate amount of a variety of foods and skipping controversial additives. You are eating a balance of fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Add water and exercise and you’ll be in the pink!

Considering that this time of year many people are doing or thinking about doing a ‘cleanse’ I thought I’d write about a ‘cleanse’ for pantry and fridge. After all, if you continue to have less-than-healthy food products around, the cleansing of you won’t have long lasting effects! I have a friend who dislikes using the word ‘clean’ when talking about food – he says he expects all the food he eats is clean, meaning not dirty. Of course, in the world of better eating/good nutrition ‘clean’ means something else and he knows that. I get his point but haven’t found a better word to describe what is meant. So I want to talk about cleaning your food choices up. Cleansing your kitchen may mean replacing some food with better choices, removing some altogether, and adding in some new items. It many also mean switching food storage containers to avoid certain elements.

So what is ‘clean’ food? Generally it means food as close to its origins as possible, optimally organically grown. Minimal processing, few added ingredients of unknown purpose. Raw, plain nuts rather than those covered with questionable flavor coatings. Applesauce made from apples, period; no need for sugar, salt, preservatives. Pure sea salt, not highly-refined salt with anti-caking additives and stripped of trace minerals.

Let’s start in the pantry. Because I like to cook my pantry has a lot of basic ingredients –nuts & seeds, various grains and beans, flour, cocoa, honey, oils, vinegars. Not too much in the way of prepared foods but a few things. If you are like me, there are products you grew up with, that your mom trusted to feed you and that you buy for your family. A certain peanut butter, specific saltines, a particular soup brand. Maybe you buy it just because of its history in your family, maybe you tried some other brands and they never lived up to the one. Even so, chances are the formulation of that tried-and-true brand is not the same as it was when you were 10. I know I have been disappointed when returning to an old favorite only to find it was very changed, or my tastes had outgrown it. Well, products can change and your tastes change too. So let’s look at what you have. Does the peanut butter contain palm or peanut oil? Sugar? Why? Don’t peanuts produce oil; is there a need to add oil? Why would sugar be added – to feed our addiction to sweet? Heck, you’re gonna put jelly on the sandwich anyway. (Just kidding, of course!) Look for a brand that is made from peanuts, maybe with salt. Personally I prefer it unsalted, but if you are more accustomed to salt in your peanut butter, go ahead and get that one. You can always ease into unsalted peanut butter. How about the salsa? (Yes, I know fresh, homemade is better, but it’s not always tomato season.) Is there sugar added to the salsa? Again, why? Isn’t salsa supposed to be spicy? The tomatoes have naturally occurring sugar; adding sugar just feeds the craving for sweet things, and increases the sugar load in your day. I just noticed the tomato soup I have in my pantry has added sugar! Had not looked at the list carefully, but guess I’ll re-think this brand in the future. At least it doesn’t have: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Potassium Chloride, Flavoring, or Monopotassium Phosphate like a common national brand. Do you buy canned tuna or salmon? Hopefully you buy it packed in water not oil. Fish has its own oil, doesn’t need vegetable oil for flavor or stability. Again, I like it without added salt but that can be hard to find. Do you make your own pasta? No? Neither do I! What’s in the packaged pasta you buy? More than the durum wheat or grain it’s made from, and water? That’s really all pasta needs. I grew up with what I think is an iconic saltine cracker – crumbled in tomato soup, buttered with chili, smeared with peanut butter. That brand at least has unbleached flour although it is enriched, meaning the wheat is stripped of the bran and germ so has to have nutrients added. Yet they use soybean oil (GMO?) and cottonseed oil. I never buy products using cottonseed oil as it is not a food crop so who knows what it was sprayed with? Have chips? Some are better than others as far as being clean; taste obviously is too subjective for me to make any claims on it. But if the chips you buy are made from corn or contain soy or canola, even as oil (“… and/or vegetable oil”), be sure they are organic chips to avoid genetically engineered ingredients. Whole grains or potatoes, oil, salt and maybe sugar – all that’s needed for tasty chips. Obviously your pantry may have more items than these few, but hopefully you get the idea of what to watch for. So take an hour or so to review what you have and which may need swapping for a better choice.

Turning to the refrigerator, what’s hiding in there? Mine is packed pretty full but I keep a pretty good mental inventory. Mostly right now, a few days after market day, it’s got a lot of produce. This I have to monitor carefully so it doesn’t spoil on me.  What’s the rest? Condiments, almond milk, soy creamer, white wine, and some jelly, among other things. What am I looking for in these products? For starters, I avoid carrageenan, which is prevalent in non-dairy products like plant milks and creamers. I don’t understand the need for sugar in most condiments, but confess that the ketchup and the barbeque sauce I have both have sugar added. I recall not finding a single offering of ketchup without sugar when I last looked, and do not feel like making my own! I do skip those that still use high fructose corn syrup, and would always stay away from any with artificial sweeteners.  See ‘Sweet Addictions’ for more on why. Currently there are no pickles in our fridge because I am on a quest for good tasting, well-made pickles with basic pickle ingredients – cucumbers, vinegar, spices. Some brands have so many preservatives, which is what I thought the process of pickling did – preserve foods. Why add chemical preservatives? If you buy cheese, be sure to get real cheese and not “processed cheese food”; if you buy non-dairy varieties watch for carrageenan and non-organic soy and corn (starch).

Last thing to think about, in both pantry and fridge, is the containers foods come in or that you use to store foods. Use glass bowls or jars to store extras or leftovers, or use stainless steel. Avoid canned foods unless the can is labeled ‘BPA-free’. Some companies have moved away from BPA linings in canned foods, which were put in to protect the food from corrosion on the metal can and extend its shelf life. While some claim there is little or no risk to humans from BPA, many studies point to it being an endocrine disruptor and possible cause of cancer. Not worth the risk when there are products without the risk. Avoid buying foods in plastic containers, especially numbers 3, 6, and 7. Avoid re-using plastic water bottles – invest in a stainless steel bottle you can refill as needed. Throw out your old plastic bowls that melted in the microwave and are flaking, and don’t heat food in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave. Also be careful of storing or cooking food in aluminum foil. I know, I know, we’ve all done it. But it can leach aluminum into the food, especially acidic foods or those cooked at high temperatures, and too much aluminum in our bodies is considered a health risk.

I am not telling you to throw away what you currently have on hand, but as you need replacements, keep this in mind. It could mean having raw ingredients on hand to make your own spaghetti sauce for instance, or being more discriminating when buying ready-made. Read the labels, and if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, look it up. You may need to move on to a different choice. Even if you aren’t doing a ‘cleanse’ of your food intake, cleaning up what you keep around the house will help you stay healthier.

Hydroponics, Aquaponics, Vertical farming. What are they? Can these methods of growing produce be deemed “organic”? The USDA’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) met recently and this was one question they considered but tabled for later review. I don’t know about you, but I have been confused by these terms and I’ve also read some claims about these methods and wondered what was true and what was marketing material. Are these methods of growing produce going to save the world from starvation? Is the produce really organic, as some producers claim? Are they really better for us and the earth than field farming? Is the vitamin and mineral content of plants grown without soil is as good as field grown crops? So I decided I needed to learn more about them. I’ll start with some definitions and then talk about pros and cons. Note that my research was focused on produce grown commercially, not home gardening.

  • Hydroponic growing is probably the best known to most of us. It’s been in commercial use for a long time, and you no doubt have eaten produce grown this way many times. (You know those tomatoes and strawberries you eat in January?) “Hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture, the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Terrestrial plants may be grown with only their roots exposed to the mineral solution, or the roots may be supported by an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel.” [1]
  • Aquaponics is a newer method and from what I could find, not widely commercialized. It “is the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in.” [2]
  • Vertical farming is the newest method to get widespread attention although it has been around a while too. It “is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container. The modern ideas of vertical farming use indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where all environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases…) and fertigation.” [3] Vertical growing uses generally the same setup as hydroponics but in stacked trays.

Generally speaking, they are all based on the same principles. Provide a base for the seeds and seedlings, feed them nutrients, and provide light. They differ in the type of containers and different ways of providing nutrients and light, and even within the same category of method there may be differences in practice. These methods share some advantages over farming in dirt.

  • They use less water.
  • They are less likely to need pesticides.
  • It is possible to grow plants all year round, not just in warmer months.
  • Produce can be grown closer to the urban market, so less transportation costs, pollution, and time.
  • Plants grow faster and can be sold/delivered the same day as harvest.
  • Since all three methods can be operated indoors, production is less subject to weather events.
  • All these methods take less space than ground farming proportionate to yield.

But there are also negatives to these methods.

  • Primary is the high electrical usage to power grow lights, fans, pumps, and heating or cooling systems. To grow enough food using these methods to feed the populations adherents claim they can would take far more power than is generated today.
  • There’s a limit to what kinds of plants will grow in these setups; for instance root vegetables will not grow in these methods and producing large quantities of grain would require extremely large systems, so claims of being able to feed cities via these systems are overblown.
  • Hydroponics and vertical systems are not growing plants just in water; they need nutrient inputs which may not be organic and not better than synthetic fertilizers used on fields.
  • In aquaculture the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants but the fish still have to be fed, and most fish meal is made from ocean fish, which may have high levels of mercury or other contaminants.
  • The cost of produce grown this way puts it out of reach of many people it is intended to feed.
  • In hydroponic farming, periodic replacement of the solution results in large amounts of fertilizer-rich water to dispose of that can promote algal growth and be a threat to aquatic ecosystems.
  • Some people find that the flavor of crops raised without soil is watered down or less prominent than in soil grown crops.

Proponents of these methods claim their produce is organic because they don’t (usually) use pesticides. But that is not the only definition of “organic”. Cornucopia, staunch defenders of the organic label, state “Language in the Organic Foods Production Act and the current federal regulations clearly indicate that good soil stewardship is a prerequisite to qualify for organic certification. In 2010 the NOSB reinforced the soil prerequisite by passing recommendations that reiterated the prohibition of hydroponic certification. The National Organic Program never acted on these recommendations. Since then, an industry-friendly USDA has allowed some of the largest certifiers, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), to certify hydroponically produced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and berries at an alarming rate.” [4] This is very controversial, when one certifier would allow the label and another would not.

Vertical farming, or gardening as some refer to it, also gets a knock from opponents for its even more vast need of power for lights than the other methods. Since the trays of plants are stacked atop each other there is no chance of all the plants getting natural light even if the roof is clear and there are large windows, so all the plants need plenty of artificial life to grow. Is creating the amount of additional power that would be needed for large-scale operations the best thing for the environment? Some people claim solar or wind power could help, but the plants grown in these methods need continuous light so in areas where the sun or wind is inconsistent this would not help.

One of the arguments for soilless growing is that the world is running out of arable land. This is not quite true. Worldwide there is more than enough arable land to grow the crops needed to feed the world. But too much land has been devastated by poor management – overgrazing, too many chemicals, poor irrigation management, and modern agricultural practices. “(B)ecause agricultural land is often degraded and almost useless, producers keep on moving to more productive land. Globally, the land used and abandoned in the last 50 years may be equal to the amount of land used today.” [5] Another issue is confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), with thousands or tens of thousands of cattle or hogs confined to lots. These animals are fed grains which require vast acreage, dedicated to feeding animals which we will eat. If humans were to reduce meat consumption and not expect the price of meat at the grocery to be less than the price of tomatoes, land managers could restore all the land needed for growing food crops. The question of nutritional comparison is inconclusive – some studies find more nutrition in soil crops and some studies report more from soilless crops – there have been few objective studies done.

In conclusion, I do not think huge soilless operations are the answer to world hunger. Better management of what we already have is a more viable option, with soilless-grown produce supplementing field output. These methods also need continuous improvement to reduce the need for electricity and get prices to a level that less affluent people can afford. Finally, I could not consider these methods organic. I feel there is a symbiotic relationship between soil and plants that provides an overall better environment, and that is a big part of what “organic” means for me. How do you feel about this?

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroponics

[2] https://www.theaquaponicsource.com/what-is-aquaponics/?v=70f73ee5133f

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming

[4] https://www.cornucopia.org/2016/11/corporate-interests-nosb-wash-hands-organic-soil/?utm_source=eNews&utm_medium=email&utm_content=11.26.16&utm_campaign=HydroMORE

[5] Carey C., Oettli D. (2006) Determining links between agricultural crop expansion and deforestation. A report prepared for the WWF Forest Conversion Initiative.

I just got back from a visit “home” – to St. Louis where I had spent most of my life. It was mostly chilly, cloudy, and rainy. Brrrrr! But we had left cloudy days here in Arizona and returned to cloudy days, with cool temperatures. So I am feeling like I need soup and chili and other hot dishes. Not to mention my hostess and sister-in-law mentioned making some ham and bean soup… So here are a few recipes for soups we like in cool/cold weather.

Chili
I used to use ground beef in chili but mostly don’t anymore. You can certainly add some to your version of this, in addition to or in place of the grains. Also, I like a fair amount of spice but have been called wimpy, so adjust the spices according to your palate. Cornbread goes nicely with this!

About 2 cups cooked farro or barley or wheat berries
About 2 cups cooked beans (navy, black, pinto, cranberry, or combination)
1 15 oz. can fire roasted, diced tomatoes
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 medium-large onion
1-2 T. chili powder
½ – 1 t. crushed dried red chilies
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the grains according to directions for the type you choose, but not quite as long – they should be par-cooked. Cook the beans the same way – according to type but remove from heat and drain when they are still quite firm. These will cook more in the chili mix.
Chop the onion and saute in water or bit of oil until softened. Stir in the spices and cook ~ one minute. Add the tomatoes with the juices. Add the grains and beans. Stir to combine, bring to a good simmer, then reduce the heat for a slow simmer. Cook about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir several times and check liquid level – if it’s getting too dry add a bit of water or if too wet for your taste turn the heat up a bit.

 

Juan’s Chicken Soup
I may have shared this one before. It’s a spicy soup, so if you are shy of heat you may want to skip it or tone it down with less Rotel style tomatoes. Quick to make, yummy to eat!

2 boneless chicken breasts without skin or 2-3 boneless chicken thighs without skin
4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
2 10 oz. cans Rotel® tomatoes with green chilies
½ large onion, chopped
1 medium green or red bell pepper, chopped
4-5 oz. frozen sliced okra
1 T. Worchestershire® sauce
½ c. brown rice
Put all ingredients into large pot. Bring to a boil, stir. Turn heat to low and simmer 45 minutes (to cook rice). Simmer at least 30 if not adding rice. Remove chicken and cut into chunks then stir back in to the soup.

 

Ham & Bean Soup
What better use for the ham bone left from a holiday dinner? Soup! This is a classic and there are probably hundreds of ways to make it. But here is mine. I use a crock pot, start this in the morning, and it’s ready by dinner time.

1 pound split peas or small white beans
Large onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
Hot water
Ham bone, we prefer it with some meat still on
Black pepper
Salt*

If you use split peas, no need to soak. If you are using small white beans, you may want to refer to this page on how to cook them. (I have always soaked dried beans so have not tried not soaking them for this recipe. So I would soak them overnight and probably use the soaking water in the next steps.)
Put the peas/beans in the crock pot and add hot water to cover them about 2 inches. Add the ham bone and onion, bay leaves, and pepper. Stir. *Salt – I do not add salt until the soup is nearly done. Ham can have quite a bit of salt in it, so I prefer to let it flavor the soup and add salt if needed at the end.
Turn the crock pot on high to get it heated, if you have time before dashing off to work; then turn to low. If not, just start it on low. Stir a few times during the day, if you can. Check the peas/beans for doneness after 8-9 hours, they should be ready. Remove the ham bone and cut off any meat that didn’t fall off and add it back to the soup. Taste for salt, stir well, enjoy!

 

Coconut Curry Kale and Sweet Potato Soup
My variation of one I found in Vegetarian Times magazine. This soup has a lot going on! Don’t worry that it is hard just because there are a lot of ingredients.

Large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 medium head bok choy, chopped, and leafy parts separated from white parts
1 t. chili powder
1 t. curry powder
~ 1 t. cinnamon
~ 1 t. cumin
< 1 t. cayenne pepper, to taste
4-6 cups vegetable broth
1 14 oz. can coconut milk
1 14 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup dried lentils
1 large sweet potato, diced
~ ½ bunch kale, stemmed and chopped
Arrowroot powder or organic cornstarch, optional
Salt and black pepper to taste

Put ingredients onion through lentils into a large pot, using 4 cups broth and only the white parts of bok choy. Stir to blend. Bring to low boil then reduce heat to low simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to check liquid level; add more broth if the soup is too thick. The lentils should be tender by now.
Add the diced sweet potato and cook 15 minutes more or until potato is tender. Add the kale and the bok choy leaves and cook another 8-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If the soup is too brothy, you can mix about 2 T. cornstarch or arrowroot into a little water and add to the soup, bring the heat up and stir until broth thickens a bit.

20160927_fam-farmIf you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am a big fan of farmers’ markets. I often post pictures of my Saturday morning market haul. About 80% of the food I buy comes from the market! Why? I like to support local growers. I like that the produce didn’t travel hundreds of miles and is fresher than the stores’ produce. I like the community atmosphere of the market. I like the variety of food and people I find there. Even though some produce costs more than at the nearest grocery, I think the value offsets the cost. I thought it was great to see new markets opening up, creating more chances for shoppers to ‘buy local’. Yet all that said it seems lately I have noticed an increase in reselling – the vendor buys non-local produce at wholesale and resells it at the market. (Some markets prohibit this but not the ones near me.) It made me wonder why – is it because the AZ growing season was at its most quiet or is something else going on? Then I came across an article in Edible Baja Arizona written by Debbie Weingarten.* It shed light on why I might be seeing more non-local produce, but even more it opened my eyes to the disconnect I think the majority of us have. That is: the disconnect between how food we eat magically appears in the stores and markets and what it takes for small producers to grow it.

In this article, Debbie highlights the stories of several small farm families that gave up their farms because, while they were good farmers with high productivity, they could not sustainably make a stable living. The usual things were tried – diversity of products, CSAs, farmers’ markets, and more. All those farmers’ markets I was so happy to see – well, they have to be staffed and supplied each week, and that means lots of extra time each week. Some years were profitable but many more were not, and the constant worry and concern adds non-financial costs. Most of us like to romanticize family farms, visualizing bucolic settings of old-fashioned house and barn, lush fields, happy cattle, and apple-cheeked kids hugging their 4H pigs. Yet these small farmers have the same responsibilities that we non-farmers have – mortgages, saving for college, making ends meet – on top of making the farm successful and all that entails. Why is it so hard to grow food and make a living at it?

Let’s define “small family farm.” First, a farm is defined by USDA as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or could have been sold in a year. Small family farms are those that gross less than $350,000 per year, which includes sale of product, any subsidies (more on this later), and other farm related income. Then this group is further divided into farms where the owner is retired or has an occupation other than farming, and those farms where the owner’s only occupation is farming. Then there are mid-size and large-scale family farms, owned by the operator and other family but where gross farm income exceeds $350,000 a year. [Note this is gross farm income, not what they live on! The cost of inputs has to be taken from the gross income, and those costs can be huge. As well, the gross income fluctuates from year to year with market conditions, weather events, and so forth.] The vendors I meet certainly fall into this category of small family farms. Just under half of these farms have annual gross farm income under $10,000. So while you may come across a report of median farm household income exceeding that of non-farm households (in 2014, latest I could find) be careful! This reflects ALL family farm households, some of which have over a million dollars of gross farm income annually.

Subsidies. Every time the US Congress takes on the budget, especially when they have to renew the Farm Bill, people start talking about the subsidies farmers get, “free money for doin’ nothing” people will say or make claims that farmers are rich because “look at the size of the subsidies” (expected to be ~$10 billion in the 2016-2017 payment year). However, most of that money goes to mega-corporate farms, certainly not to the small producers I try to support: “Since 1995, 75 percent of federal subsidies have gone to 10 percent of farms, the same consolidated group of commodity crop growers who will continue to eat up a disproportionate share of the subsidy pie under the new system, too.” and “While some family farms receive subsidies, they disproportionately benefit corporate mega-farms, which are able to buy more land and dominate the market. As the Heritage Foundation has noted, about 75% of larger farms collect subsidies compared with 24% of relatively smaller farms. The massive amount of money that goes to larger farms, in turn, increases demands (and prices) for land and other resources small farmers need.” Now, there are many, many detractors of crop subsidies and many supporters. And there are good reasons to have subsidies in place. But like so many well-intended programs, this one is no longer doing the good it was meant to do, and the people you think ought to be getting help are not; the crops which are better for our health and just as susceptible to natural events are not being supported at all. Too much of the money goes to corn and soy that is not even used to feed people but instead goes to industrial uses. Subsidizing crops is a way bigger subject than I will go into further, but my point is – small producers are not getting any of this assistance. Check out Environmental Working Group’s site for more info on who gets how much: https://farm.ewg.org/

Again, if you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am very opposed to genetic engineering (GE) of food crops. You will also know I am a firm supported of local businesses and would rather pay a bit more buying from a local shop than ordering from Amazon. These are just two more reasons I write this post. I want to encourage each of you to think about who is supported by your purchases. Sure, the clerks at Walmart have jobs because people shop there and retailers haven’t figured out how to totally get away from humans at the checkouts or stocking shelves. But is your purchase there really keeping that store open? What if you spent that money at a local store or the farmers’ market? How much more would your purchase support – consider you pay the producer for the product, covering his cost and hopefully some profit; owner pays local taxes (real estate, sales, business, excise) because she lives here too, so that helps your community; owner may provide jobs for one or many people as his business stabilizes and grows and he can support his family; said family shops here too, maybe at your business, thus continuing the circle. Then too small producers are less likely to use GE seed and the attendant pesticides because 1) they likely can’t afford the inputs, and 2) they listen to their consumers better. So consider how you might shift your purchasing, especially of food, to support local growers. We need them.

For an excellent book on how small farmers can positively impact water conservation and global warming, read Water In Plain Sight by Judith D. Schwartz.

 

* Weingarten, Debbie. “Quitting Season.” Edible Baja Arizona. July/August 2015. 120-136. Print.

20160913_soySoy foods have proponents and opponents, supporters and detractors. Much controversy about soy, maybe even more than whether coffee/eggs/meat are good for you or not! Let’s examine some of the chatter.

Soy grows as beans in pods, like peas. Perhaps you’ve seen these beans and pods and know them as edamame. It is a species of legume yet is not classified as a pulse but as an oilseed plant, as it is grown more for its oil than for using the beans as food. Soybeans are a good source of fiber, protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, copper, manganese, and phosphorus, among other nutrients. Concerns include the amount of phytates and phytoestrogens, and that over 90% of US soybeans are said to be genetically engineered and heavily sprayed with pesticides.

First, I am not an opponent of soy, but I am an opponent of the extracts taken from soy, often using hexane and other chemicals, and used in many prepared foods and protein powders. Much of the disagreement over soy’s safety as a food stems from the beans being broken down into components, removed from the whole, and added to many foods. This may lead to consuming too much of one component of soy without its other components for balance. Not good for any food. I favor foods made from the whole bean, like tofu, miso, tempeh, and edamame.

Claims for the health benefits and the health detriments are often made by people who do not really understand the results of the studies and research or are simply regurgitating information they read. One needs to pay special attention to the date of an article, its source, how well the author seems to grasp the science, and was the study on animals or humans. Is the article from 1999 or 2015? A lot is learned over the years, and what was thought to be true in 1999 may have been corrected since. Is the source of the article a well-known soy opponent, like the Weston A. Price Foundation, or is it from a soy food manufacturer? Certainly these two may have different interpretations of the same studies. Is the author a scientist or a school psychologist with knowledge of personal finance (from an actual bio on one article)? How well does the latter understand the terms and measurements and conclusions being referenced? Finally, although many studies are performed on animals, human beings do not always metabolize nutrients the same as rats or guinea pigs and the studies often include amounts that are not feasible for a human diet. Both sides can be pretty convincing, and research for this post had my head spinning a bit!

One of the biggest concerns about eating soy foods is that of the isoflavones, which are sources of phytoestrogens in our diet. It was believed these phytoestrogens could cause cancerous tumors, especially breast cancer, to grow, the way estrogen in hormone replacement therapy did. The other concerns about the phytoestrogens in soy were around men’s and boys’ sexuality – that the effects would make boys grow breasts and men lose virility or fertility. However, phytoestrogens are not the same as the human estrogen hormone and do not have the same effects on our bodies. The association between soy and cancer growth is not supported by all of the research; in fact, there are indications that soy helps prevent certain cancers and most women who have had cancer are no longer told to avoid soy. And further studies on men’s health found that normal consumption of soy did not affect testosterone or estrogen (yes, men have some estrogen, just like women have some testosterone) levels, nor sperm and semen levels.

Phytates are another concern among those who avoid soy. Phytate is the salt form of phytic acid and occurs in edible seeds like nuts, grains, and legumes; also in some roots and tubers. People have read that phytates bind to certain minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium) and make those minerals unavailable to our bodies. However, this binding only occurs during the meal where the phytates are also being consumed and is not an ongoing stripping of minerals. Only people whose primary foods are grains and legumes need be concerned about possible mineral deficiency. As well, certain ways of preparing the food, like soaking or fermenting, reduce the phytate levels significantly. Therefore, unless one is eating only soy and other phytic acid foods for every meal and never soaking or fermenting those foods, the concern over phytates is way overblown.

A lot of health benefits have been attributed to soy foods also: reduced cardiovascular problems, weight loss, diabetes control, reduction of menopausal symptoms, and cancer prevention. Not all of these claims are borne out by actual studies, and of course results will vary from person to person. It is hard too to definitely state that soy is the savior or the blame, as we are individuals with many variables that affect outcomes.

All in all, I do not feel one should avoid all soy, all the time. Soy foods can be a part of a healthy diet. Strive for organic, whole soy foods as one part of a varied diet. Avoid non-organic soy due to concerns about genetic modification and pesticides. Also avoid isolated soybean derivatives found in highly processed foods and protein powders. In the USA we are able to vary our food choices to get a good mix, and soy can be a good part of that.

Image courtesy of SOMMAI at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

20160816_salads

This week I’d like to share some of my favorite salad recipes. We eat a lot of main dish salads, at least three each week, sometimes five. Yep, it’s a lot of washing and chopping but so worth the effort! Since we eat so many salads, I am always looking for new ideas and generally work in a new salad every week. But we have some ol’ favorites that keep showing up. I aim for lots of color, a balance of textures, and flavors that pop in every bite. Oh, and solid nutrition too! For the base of the salads I usually have leaf lettuce on hand; I’ve re-discovered the delight of iceberg; cabbage makes a good addition to some salads; kale, arugula, and other leafy greens mix well with the others. Many people like romaine but it’s not my fav. I keep bell peppers, celery, green onions, carrots, and grape or cherry tomatoes around so I can always toss together an all-veg salad. Other vegetables that don’t keep as well, like avocado and cucumbers, get used first if I have bought them. Cooked grains such as quinoa, farro, and brown rice often make it in, as do beans, especially black beans and chickpeas. Nuts and seeds add interest and nutrition. Most of the time I make the dressing too – so easy and so much better than bottled – but we do have a bottled dressing or two around. When I buy bottled dressing, of course I start with reading the ingredients and make sure it uses non-GMO corn or canola oil; if the list is too long and full of things I don’t recognize, back on the shelf it goes.

 

Quinoa-Spinach Salad

1/2 c. quinoa, uncooked

4 c. ‘baby’ spinach

1 avocado, cubed

1/2 c. dried cranberries

1/2 c. corn, steamed or roasted and cooled

1/3 c. pepitas

1/4 c. almond slivers

1 handful basil, chopped

Small handful mint, chopped

4 T. organic canola oil

3 T. apple cider vinegar

1-2 T. honey

Ground black pepper

Prepare:

Rinse the raw quinoa in a fine sieve, drain. Bring 1 c. clean water or mild stock to a boil, add quinoa and stir. When water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover pan and cook 15 minutes. Let stand until cool.

Gently mix the cooked quinoa with the next eight ingredients. Combine the oil, cider vinegar, honey, and black pepper to taste. This should result in a mild vinaigrette, slightly sweet. Adjust to your taste. Pour just enough of this onto the salad to lightly dress it, toss well. The rest can be saved in a jar in the refrigerator for several weeks.

Serves 2.

Adapted from the Inca Salad at http://www.otrocafe.com/

 

Curry Chicken Salad

One of our most favorite.

Ingredients:

Farro – 1/4 c. dry per serving (brown rice also works well in this recipe)

Cubed, cooked chicken – about 1/2 c. per serving (cubed, baked tofu can be used here)

Mayonnaise (I use Just Mayo)

Curry powder

Mango Chutney

Torn lettuce- plateful per serving

‘Baby’ spinach – handful per serving

Shredded carrot – one small carrot per serving

Sliced celery – 1/2 to 1 stalk per serving

Dried cranberries – ¼ c. per serving

Slivered almonds – 2-3 T. per serving

First, cook the farro in twice the amount of water as farro. I do rinse the grains before cooking, and then cook much like rice. Boil the (salted) water, add the grains, return to boil, cover, and reduce heat to low, cook about 40-45 minutes. Let cool.

Meanwhile, mix curry powder to taste into mayonnaise. Use 1/4 to 1/3 c. mayo per serving, and start with 1/2 t. curry per serving. You can add more as you prefer. Also stir in 1-2 T. chutney. The ‘dressing’ should be thick, not liquid. This mixture is best prepared while the farro cooks so it has time to blend; hold in refrigerator. When ready to assemble the salads, stir in the cooked chicken or tofu.

Now, assemble the salad. First mix the torn lettuce and spinach leaves together, then put a layer of the mix on each plate. Put about a half cup of cooked farro on top of each. Scatter an even portion of shredded carrot, sliced celery, cranberries, and almonds on each plate. Top with a portion of the chicken in the curry-mayo.  

 

Thai Noodle Salad

Don’t be daunted by a seemingly long list of ingredients – it’s really pretty simple!

Ingredients

    Rice stick noodles

    1/3 cup unsalted crunchy peanut butter

    1/2 cup milk (almond milk is good)

    <1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

    1 clove garlic, minced

    3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

    3 tablespoons soy sauce

    1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

    1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

    1/2 cucumber, julienned

    1-2 cups fresh bean sprouts

    1 carrot, grated

    2-3 green onions, thinly sliced   

    1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

    Lettuce

    1/2 cup chopped peanuts

    1/2 red bell pepper, julienned (opt.)

    Scallops or small shrimp (opt.)

Directions

    Cook the stick noodles according to package. Drain and rinse the noodles under cold running water and let cool.

    Whisk the peanut butter, milk, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl until well blended.

    In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce, cooled noodles, cucumber, sprouts, carrot, green onions and cilantro, and bell pepper if using. Wisk the peanut butter dressing and pour it over the salad. Stir until well coated and garnish with the roasted and chopped peanuts. Serve chilled or room temperature.

    If adding scallops or shrimp, cook until done in small amount of water in skillet. Cool. Add to salad with vegetables, and then add dressing.

 

Smoked Salmon Salad

This is a really easy salad, quick to put together but very satisfying. A piece of garlic toast is a good accompaniment, if one is needed.

Ingredients

    2 tablespoons mayonnaise

    1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar

    1 teaspoon lemon juice

    1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

    1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

    1/2 teaspoon dried dill

    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

    6 cups mixed salad greens

    1/2 small cucumber, halved, seeded and thinly sliced

    12 small cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

    4 ounces smoked salmon, cut into small pieces

Preparation   

    Combine mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, dill, and pepper in a lidded jar. Shake well to mix.

    Put the salad greens, cucumber, and tomatoes in a large bowl; pour dressing over; toss gently to coat.

    Divide the salad between 2 plates. Top with smoked salmon.

2 servings

Modified from http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/smoked_salmon_salad_ni_oise.html

 

New favorite simple dressing

2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Pinch salt

Ground black pepper to taste

Combine in jar, shake well to blend.