IT’S CALLED A SALAD, WITH A DRESSING
Once upon a time, when by all accounts and my life experiences, people were healthier and happier than they are now, food and life was a lot simpler. I’m talking about my parents generation – those in their 90’s, many still living independently – though now needing help – and vibrant lives, those that lived simpler and less complicated lives. We hear often, that the young generation today is the first generation in a very long time considered to have a shorter life span than current generations, and that we are sicker and unhappier than ever. Somehow my mum, and those of her generation managed it all without the green smoothie or green smoothies with chia seeds. Now those of you that are familiar with my work, know that I tend to be interested in fundamentals – you can read more about those here (you will also find a fabulous rustic tart of greens recipe there, perfect for this time of the year). You will know that after 25 odd years in the ‘healthy’ food industry – which I prefer to call the ‘whole and natural foods’ industry – I am alarmed by the rapid escalation of fractionalisation that seems to be happening in the past few years. The green smoothie is a case in point. Honestly, I didn’t take much notice of it when it first appeared a few years ago, it just seemed silly and made no sense what so ever. But somehow, it’s become the poster child for ‘healthy’ eating, or ‘real, natural or whole food’. I’ve decided I’d like to weigh in on the discussion.
As always, I like to find the original source from whence things come – where did this belief that throwing lots of greens into a blender is a leading edge healthful thing to do? As it happens, from a book called Green For Life by Victoria Butenko. Now before I go on, I would like to point out that I believe we all have a path to follow and none of us have the right to question another’s path. I understand and respect this, but given this book is a treatise on the green smoothie, I think it’s worth noting a few things. The gist of it is this: the author and her family came to the US from Russia, where food was scarce and limited to mostly grains, dairy and some fruit. On settling in the United States, they were amazed at the variety and availability of food, they especially loved the convenience food and used a microwave often. Within 3 years, all of them were extremely unwell, doctors told them there were no cures for their diabetes, asthma, allergies, heart issues etcetera. So they looked elsewhere, and turned to raw food. Now I’m not going to go to deeply into this issue, but you cannot discuss the green smoothie without discussing raw food, but it would seem obvious to me that they could also have simply stopped eating highly processed food / junk food / and frequenting the microwave. However, a vegan, raw food (most likely because it was at least real) diet turned things around but after several years, they began to have problems such as a heavy feeling in the stomach, grey hair and simply no longer desiring some of the allowed foods. So, the author searched for what was missing (I’m assuming in the vegetable world only) and discovered that greens was the food group that offered everything humans needed, and they weren’t having enough. But how much did a human need to eat? For this answer, she looked for an animal that was close genetically to a human – with an approx.99.4% genetic match, enter the chimpanzee.
The author observed that humans had lost their natural way of eating – but rather than recognising the blindingly obvious problems with refined, processed and junk foods – instead considered that “it is logical to hypothesise that our diets are supposed to be 99.4% similar” (to the chimpanzee) and that understanding the chimpanzee eating habits may help us to better understand the human dietary needs? Seriously? The only thing that I can keep thinking is that we might share a lot of genetic material with a chimpanzee, yet in that difference we are most definitely not a chimpanzee. Given that the main argument here is that this is the ‘natural’ way to eat, we absolutely have to consider another blindingly obvious point – the fact that man climbed down from the trees, stood erect on two legs and developed a bigger brain. Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham (Catching Fire) (this is the guy that Michael Pollan talks about in his new book Cooked) holds the belief it was the discovery of fire, whereby cooked food enabled more and easier access to nutrient density, thus facilitating the evolution from a large to smaller gut and from a smaller to bigger brain. Others share the belief it was access to nutrient dense animal foods – notably the softer and nutrient dense bone marrow and brain that did the trick. Neither considered that it was an abundance of uncooked greens. Whilst we might share that large amount of DNA with the chimpanzee, we are yet, quite obviously not the same, and to say it is logical to hypothesise our diets should be 99.4% the same beggars belief.
At the very least, chimp and orangs have a larger colon to gut ratio, strong jaws and large teeth –perfect to chew and digest the large amount of fibrous fruits and tough high cellulose leaves (with stems) which along with fermentation in the colon, provides enough calories to support the animal. Humans have the opposite – a smaller colon to gut ratio, with a weaker jaw and smaller teeth – perfect for cooked foods, which require less energy to digest and softens the strong cellulose fiber. It was because of this absolute fact, that the greens had to be blended, otherwise they simply could not be broken down (and then because they were having so many green smoothies and not chewing – which is essential for our bone and jaw health, the author devised a rubber chewing device which you can buy from their website). Whilst certainly heat (fermentation, cooking) does destroy enzymes, denature protein and can destroy vitamin C and some heat sensitive minerals such as thiamine, it remains that cooking food provides incredible nutrient density and energy that is easily accessible – lightly cooked meat for example, makes it more easily digestible – it starts breaking down the protein molecules. Eating cooked foods has also been quite obviously, simply spectacularly successful – we did climb down from the trees and are now the leading animal (I know, we’re not looking that good right now, neither are the cultures that we’ve built, but that is another discussion). But cooking can also make some big differences to vegetables – it can soften and break down that fibrous cellulose, it helps to improve the digestibility of complex carbohydrate (especially the starch – cooked potato or sweet potato is more digestible cooked than raw) and it can break down some problematic aspects of raw foods – oxalic acid and goitrogens for example. Whilst I believe there is some hysteria around the internet in regards to oxalic acid, it does remain that it is problematic, especially if you have a less than optimal gut ecology.
I’d like to talk a bit more about that gut ecology. If you have a ‘delicate’ or troublesome digestive system (bloating, intolerance to gluten and dairy etcetera) you will most likely have a less than healthy gut ecology. This means you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria to do the many, many jobs they actually do – including most importantly, their intimate involvement in digesting food – in particular the full and proper digestion of gluten and dairy proteins, and oxalic acid. But, what those good bacteria can’t do however, no matter how much you will it (or blend it) is to be able to fully and appropriately digest some of those more complex carbohydrates (more than 1 or 2 sugars) that include cellulose, fibre and those known as FODMAPS. This is why, even when blended some of those carbohydrates are still tricky to digest. Unless a kale leaf is very, very young it is going to be difficult to digest, even when blended – it is far easier to digest when cooked, which is how the cultures that have most experience with it (such as the Italians) generally use it.
In the end, this seems to me a discussion on eating a balanced diet. All healthy human groups include raw food (where appropriate to the food) and understand the value of that life force. However, no healthy human groups solely eat raw food – this is the findings of many, including that same Richard Wrangham who postulated the theory that cooked food is responsible for our evolution from the apes, and as a biological anthropologist found no human group eats all their food raw, as did Weston Price many years before. Nowhere is this issue of balance more evident than in a discussion on cooked versus raw. I have always (as my parents generation before me) consumed raw foods – including the goitrogenic cabbage in my mum’s favourite coleslaw and we called it a salad – indeed we had a salad generally around 3 times a week, more in summer. We consumed raw, fresh seasonal fruits and called it an apple or pear, not a ‘raw food’, but we also ate all of those same foods we ate as salads and fresh fruit, cooked. We also consumed raw animal products meats (steak tartare), raw milk and raw eggs in raw milk (mum’s egg flip) but we also had them cooked. But perhaps of most importance, is that what and how we ate was all in the context of those fundamentals I spoke of earlier, that you can find here.
There is also much more to the issue of the green smoothie – promoted by the author as a time saving way to include these greens in your diet, and their nutritional value. I’d simply like to say that in regards to the issue of nutritional value, as much as you would like to think that you are getting all those minerals in that kale or dark leafy green, if you don’t have some fat soluble vitamins with it, you won’t and those minerals can’t do what you want them to do. Those fat soluble vitamins are A, D, K and E. And, if you think that the kale or dark leafy greens (or the chia seeds) are giving you Omega 3 EFA’s, well yes they are but in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acid, which has to go through many conversions to become the derivatives that really are essential – Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and especially Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). There are some foods that just happen to be especially rich in both ALL the fat soluble vitamins and those longer chain essential fatty acid derivatives EPA and DHA – they are ALL animal foods and are : all animal fats eg butter (ghee), egg yolks, offal (especially liver) and fish (including their eggs). This is why we consistently see raw vegetable and green salads traditionally paired with dressings such as mayonnaise based, or topped with soft cooked eggs, presented with lovely crunchy fatty bacon bits or strips of barely cooked liver. You might immediately recognise these pairings as classic, traditional and delicious French, Italian or European pairings. Yes, some land sources such as extra virgin olive oil do have vitamin E, but they don’t have the others.
When choosing vegetables to eat raw, it pays to bear in mind that nature tends to provide season appropriate foods – lighter, less carbohydrate dense and higher water content vegetables and fruits in summer. These all require less cooking – they are easy to eat and digest raw – and blended if that’s how you would like them. Yet, it gives us the almost opposite in the cooler months – these denser and more complex carbohydrate root vegetables, thicker and more cellulose dense leaves (cabbage, kale and collards) and fruits (apples, quince, pears ) provide us with more fuel to keep us warm, but will need cooking to make that goodness fully available. Yes you could blend those leaves up and break down the cellulose, but that is often not enough for some and I would also ask why? I simply don’t agree, because this is what I have seen, that is offers more (better) nutrition than when cooked. And, in regards to healing, there are many paths to the one door and I’ve seen a cooked food diet do the same thing – but this is a deeply complex area, with many other co factors and one for another day.
I think it is an incredibly admirable thing to be advocating eating greens, but extreme and unbalanced to believe the best way to do so is to blend them, raw, into a smoothie (mostly with lots of fruit). They have been eaten by all healthy cultures for generations, and they called it a salad. They knew which greens needed cooking to make them optimally digestible, and what to serve with them to make all their greeny goodness and mineral bounty more bio available. The tragedy of our time is that this traditional knowledge, which served it’s people well, has been undervalued and lost. There are some beautiful greens around right now and so many delicious ways to include them in your day – uncooked as salads, and cooked (that tart I suggested earlier is delicious). This was my morning tea yesterday…..
Autumn is a great time for the easily digested family of lettuce – here I’ve used one of my favourites, Buttercrunch. I’ve added microgreens from the garden, celery heart, pink lady apples and toasted walnuts for a bit more density. Can I say, microgreens are ridiculously easy to grow, nutrient rich with little carbohydrate development at such a young stage – kale is great in this format. To make the dressing I used equal amounts of mayonnaise and yoghurt (thus supplying some beneficial bacteria), lemon or lime juice to taste, a touch of honey to taste and a touch of a nice curry powder, with lots of fresh (and easily digestible) herbs – coriander which is now in season. This dressing will keep in the fridge for at least a week, and gives me the ability to put a salad together quickly. It would be delicious with lentils tossed through it also.
Superfoods are hot topics at the moment – yet, I think that sometimes in our distraction for the quick boost, or quick fix, it’s very easy to forget some very profound basics.
I’d like to make the case that real food grown in or raised on foods from nutrient rich soils are all super foods in their own right. Notice that I using the word as an adjective – a describing word. Run the 2 words together and it suggests a whole new category of food (one that is usually very expensive), almost a superhero food. All of these real foods, grown or raised on foods from nutrient rich soils, carry the vast store of the nutrients we require to survive and run these amazing cellular machines we call our body. Proteins, fats (even saturated), carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients are all found in abundance in real food. I think the obsession with superfoods is simply another manifestation of our fractionalised approach to food. What I’d love to see is more people eating good food (you can read in more depth about what I think makes food ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ here) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Actually, I’d love to see more people eat breakfast, lunch or dinner and not exist on snacks all day long. I’d love to see people actually stop to eat and not eat on the run or in a rush. I’d love to see people relax while they eat and perhaps have a companion to share the time with, chat and laugh a bit. I’d love to see people enjoying their food and not worrying about the fat, the carbs, the protein, the phytonutrients of it, their blood type or if it’s raw etc. In short, I’d love to see us eat how we used to, when we had a strong food culture within Australia and we cared about the food we gave our children, and ourselves.
How about we do this instead?
- Buy food grown in nutrient rich soil, without synthetic pesticides and sprays. This will be called lots of different things, but organic, bio dynamic are good places to start.
- Cook and eat this nutrient rich food every day (and eat some raw).
- Keep your food as close as possible to it’s natural state – with as little that is edible taken away and as little that is inedible (additives) added back.
- Eat a broad range of nutrient groups each day – don’t just eat carbohydrates.
But, if I had to choose a food that I think is most super – well, firstly, I would find it hard to choose between eggs (especially the yolks), animal bones and marrow, animal fat, fish and butterfat. And then I’d say, make bone stock, don’t leave your home without knowing you have a stash in the freezer. Bone stocks have been used by just about all traditional cultures for nourishment and healing – the original nature doctor, Dr Vogel describes it’s use in Europe for healing; in New York, Chicken soup is known as Jewish Penicillin (it’s because chicken fat contains Palmitoleic Acid – a powerful immune boosting monounsaturated fat) and throughout Asia, fish stock is the restorer of Chi – life force (it’s also a rich source of iodine). This is why it’s super:
- Bone stock is an incredibly rich source of minerals – especially calcium and trace elements pulled from bone, cartilage and vegetables as they cook, all in a bio – available form.
- Bone stock ‘spares’ protein. This means that your body can make better use of the protein it eats.
- Bone stocks also has the superhero gelatine – this enables food to be digested more easily and is also exceptionally healing to the gut – as is the fat (cooking your grain in a bone stock makes it so much more digestible).
- Bone stocks are great sources of glucosamine and chondroitin, used for healthy joints. In fact gelatine was the go to ‘superfood’ for healthy joints back in the 50’s.
- Bone stocks are the original frugal food, giving you a lot of nourishment (and ability to eat minimal expensive protein) for very little money.
Those ‘real’ stocks you see advertised on tv? I’ve never seen one all wibbly and wobbly from gelatine. I also find them shallow and harsh in flavour, and expensive. Bone stocks are so easy to make, simply requiring a lovely big pot – and when using bones, some acid (such as wine or vinegar) to help draw all the gelatine and minerals from the bone. You can’t muck them up and they freeze brilliantly. You can find a massive amount of information on the internet about stocks at many of the traditional food sites. If you google around you will be in undated.
I nearly forgot to tell you that this is a great time of the year to be making and liberally using chicken stock – boosting your immune system.
So, that soup above. Silky and shiny from the gelatine in the stock :) It’s a cupboard love corn chowder, using what my fridge and garden had. Oh, and did you notice I used kale ? From my notes above you might think I hate it – I don’t, I love it, but I love lots of other vegetables also. This is a wonderful way to use kale – serving it with fat (from the chicken stock) which will or help to ensure all those amazing minerals in kale are actually bio – available. And, you’ve cooked it, which breaks down the oxalic acid (kale is best cooked). Also when you look at my stock (up there in the pink jug) it’s not that golden – it was a cupboard love stock after all, but when you use chickens raised on lots of wonderful green pasture, the fat will be quite yellow, reflecting the beta-carotenes in the grass.
There’s a fabulous recipe for corn chowder in Coming Home to Eat (oooh, good news, it’s being re printed and should be available soon), but a quick version (let’s face it, that’s what we most often do). Before I start, just know you can add as much vegetable or stock as you like. Add some ghee, chicken fat, olive or coconut oil to the base of the pan, add diced potato (helps thicken it), I like pumpkin, leek or onion – you can see mine above, I also added a good handful of basil because I have tons. Pinch of salt. Cook over a gentle heat for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then (you are developing a flavour base). Add the stock, and the corn cob (you’ve cut the corn kernels off it to add later), cook gently (don’t boil madly) until those base vegetables are cooked. Add the lighter cooking vegetables – corn kernels, zucchini and kale. Cook for 8 – 10 minutes until they are just tender, add chopped basil. Taste and season as desired – I like a bit of fish sauce. If you would like (and I did) take some of the soup out and blend it (add it back) before adding the corn, etc. It makes a thicker broth.
BUILD A GOOD FOUNDATION
So, what fundamentally is wholefood? What makes food healthy? Is it the latest superfood (the must have goji berries or cacao), the latest dietary paradigm (currently raw or paleo) or is it more than that?These are the questions (and so many more) that I ask of the students in the Whole and Natural Foods Chef Training Program, and that I base my entire work around. My answers to these questions reflect the understandings I now have of food over my 20 + years in the “healthy” food industry and many influences over 58 odd years of living.
First of these influences was growing up in an inner suburban life in the late 50’s and early 60’s – fruit was eaten in season and was limited to what grew locally, nuts were from the almond tree in the backyard, as were figs (we survived without imported Brazil nuts). Stocks, Soups, Stews, Meat, eggs and simple seasonal vegetables were on the menu as was wheat. Chicken was rare. Everything was cooked from scratch, as there was no other option, fish and seafood were plentiful from the ocean and river. We ate a lot of cooked foods, with salads the year around. We had white sugar and white flour cakes and desserts. We grew up happy and healthy as did the previous generation. We played and adventured outside, we had BBQ in summer and picnics in winter, we ate as a family and often extended family. My mum is an exceptional cook.
My second influence was Macrobiotics, as most people of my age that have been in this industry as long as I have started here – there was no other place to start. From Macrobiotics I have been gifted my love of traditionally brewed soy sauces, rice wines such as mirin, sea vegetables and an understanding of balancing the energetic properties of food (and the universe). Later Ayurveda entered my life – this is the ancient 5000 year old wisdoms of a whole and healthy life from the Sanskrit and much of Chinese Medicine, Five Phase/Element Theory (and ultimately Macrobiotics) is taken from this. Finally, the work of Weston A Price, the American dentist who documented happy, healthy cultures thriving on a wide range of foods. There have been many other dalliances, but it is these that have influenced me most and formed my views on food that I now hold, and see working.
And, what I see is this – that humans thrive eating a wide range of foods (and I don’t mean daily) generally that the environment in which they live provides. Certainly Weston A Price documented happy, healthy cultures thriving on blood, offal and milk, whilst others thrived on the rye grains and spring butter, whilst others on fish and seafood. Many thrived without 3 fruit and 5 veg a day. They thrived without following a raw food or paleo diet and they ate what they had available. They didn’t call it a traditional diet – they called it food; they didn’t freak out eating grain in the places that it grew – but rather understood and respected it (whole and appropriately prepared) and gave thanks for it. That we are all individuals, and what might work for one may not suit another – a basic principle of Ayurveda – which is the paradigm I see working more consistently than just about anything else.
So, to the answers:
- Wholefood is that which is closest to it’s natural state with as little that is edible removed and as little that is inedible (additives etc) added to it. It is an understanding that the whole is always far, far greater than simply the sum of nutrient parts.
- That it is good enough to eat: that is, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides are not compatible with any part of a human system, but are designed to interrupt and kill living systems. You are a living system.
- That it should be real: that is the human body is evolved to eat a real strawberry, not a strawberry flavour made from chemicals. The body is a real thing and it does not compute with fake things.
- That it should match you – not your naturopath, dr or someone else: This is a fundamental Ayurvedic premise. Some will be fine with cold, raw food in winter others will suffer. Some do best with cooked vegetables, some with grain, some with no grain.
- That it should be delicious. Deliciousness, in ways i do not understand but absolutely know exist, allows food to be taken in and properly digested, absorbed and utilised by the body. Deliciousness is a nutrient in it’s own right. Deliciousness also includes not being so stressed out (from a too busy life), that you are unable to experience deliciousness in other walks of life.
- That the food you choose should be prepared appropriately to ensure compatibility with the human body: that is low fat milk, pasteurised milk, refined oils, fractionalised foods are not understood by the body. Some foods (such as beans or grains) require special preparation methods to ensure they are understood (digestible).
- That the human body requires fuel – the nutrients found in the food nature provides. On the whole you might get away with a little white flour and white sugar (also in it’s other guises – pasta, etc) – if you have enough of the other good stuff. But, better to have less refined (more whole) flours and sweeteners.
- That sweetness is not a dirty word: that is, a bit of wholesome sweetness, cake or dessert in a whole and balanced diet is not going to kill you. Eating a lot of shallow, nutrient deficient, refined, additive laden food will.
This is how you create your wholefood kitchen. To build a good foundation we have started in WNCTP with ghee and chicken (or animal bone) stock, but a vegetarian stock is still a powerful thing. Ghee is considered to be the most ‘satvic’ food by Ayurveda – the holiest in the sense that it “delivers enlightenment to the soul”. We can understand this knowledge now in it’s more scientific speak, as it is the fat that ensures all the vitamins and minerals are delivered and able to be utilised by the cell. Ghee will make anything taste better and add huge nourishment. In that butterfat lies the valuable fat soluble vitamins A, D and the X factor (now thought to be vitamin K2) – Weston A Price referred to these vitamins as activators because without them, minerals (no matter how many may be in those leafy green vegetables from the 5 vegetables serves a day) cannot be used by the body. I could write a whole lot here about your bones, teeth, nervous system, reproductive health, but it’s simple really – you need minerals for just about everything your body does – they are a part of the complex, miraculous thing that is your body. If you have not made ghee, please give it a try – you will love it.
Ghee is pure butterfat, with all the milk protein removed. Many people that find they cannot tolerate milk solids, are fine with ghee – this is a far more nourishing option than a margarine (which is not a food and has no place in your cupboard or fridge – even if it sounds lovely and has pictures of sunflower and other seeds all over it). All butter has a percentage of water and milk solids – when making ghee, you are evaporating off the water, and removing the milk solids, leaving pure butterfat.
There are many ways to make it, and I’ve been lucky enough this week for Rupinder to show me how she does hers – she does not skim the milk solids off as she goes, but leaves them to dry out on top until the end. Ghee will keep very well at room temperature – it is a saturated (thus stable to light, heat and oxygen) fat.
250 gm butter – I prefer unsalted
Stage 1: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat – you will clearly see what I describe as a ‘river’ of white flowing through the yellow fat. This is the water and milk solids.
Stage 2: Once melted, increase the heat to a gentle simmer. As the water evaporates, it will gurgle and spit a bit, and the top will be covered with a white foam. Take care not to have the heat too high. After some time you will notice that the water has evaporated off – it now looks more like yellow fat, with bits in it – these are the milk solids and they are also in the foam that gathers at the top of the butterfat. The time it takes for the water to evaporate off will be different – generally, commercial butters have a lot more water in them than organic ones. I skim the foam off the top as I go, but Rupinder showed me to just move it gently so you see how it’s going underneath the foam and leave it on top. As the water evaporates, the foam will look more dry.
Stage 3: Once I see the foam on top reducing and I have removed most of it (or it’s becoming more dry as in Rupinders method), check to see if any milk solids in the pot remain – some will have dropped to the bottom of the pan and be lightly browned. Remove from the top of stove and leave to cool. Skim off any remaining foam (if you haven’t already) and pour through muslin into a clean jar.
TAKE CARE TO DO THIS OVER A SLOW, GENTLE HEAT – IT SHOULD SMELL OF CARAMEL (which is really simply butter, sugar and cream) AND NOT TOO NUTTY.
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