Basil-Kale Pesto

summer garden

Mid September – the height of harvest season – and there’s a frost warning, a good two weeks earlier than usual.  We, and the garden, may wake up to 32 degrees tomorrow morning, which means I have a lot to do!  One of the vulnerable crops which will not survive a frigid night is basil.  So, pesto production it is.

fresh basil

One that will actually become tastier with a frost is kale.  With more than plenty of it to take us into early winter, I harvested some now as well to partner with the basil in the pesto.

kale

Basil-Kale Pesto (or substitute other fresh green leaves)

  • 2 cups fresh basil and kale leaves, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
  • 3 medium garlic cloves (or garlic scapes, earlier in the season)
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or a combination)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until you have a beautiful green paste.  You can adjust the flavor with salt and pepper, and the consistency with a bit more olive oil, if needed.

Fill small glass jars with pesto.  They’ll do well in the refrigerator for a week or so, and they’ll keep throughout the winter in the freezer.  Just be sure to give the pesto enough space in the jar to expand when it freezes. If you are a minimal pesto eater, you can freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes into plastic bags, and return to the freezer for use in soups and sauces when you need a shot of summery green.

Looking for a brighter, longer-lasting green? Then blanch* your basil leaves for a quick moment – no more than 5-6 seconds – before putting them into the food processor.

pesto toast

 

pesto toast close-up

 

* How to blanch? Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil (salted or not, as you wish) and fill a large bowl or a plugged-up sink with ice water. Once at a full boil, drop the basil leaves into the water, count to 5 seconds and remove them with a slotted spoon.  Drop them immediately into the ice water.  Continue on with pesto making instructions using this basil.  You’ll be treated to a brighter and lasting colored pesto.

 

 

Kids Cook Monday: Kale & Collard Chips

kaleAt a recent “Kids Cook Monday” cooking class, my daughter and I were joined by a room full of parent and child(ren) cooking teams. We had a great time and cooked a fabulous meal together.  At the end of the class, the tables in the back of the cooking classroom were pushed together, and were beautifully set by a group of children complete with improvised folded napkins, and the nineteen of us sat down to a nourishing meal of kale and collard chips, Pad Thai-inspired rice noodles with tofu and vegetables*, followed by a dessert of fried bananas with shaved chocolate and shredded coconut*.

Initiatives such as The Family Dinner Project and The Kids Cook Monday Campaign are actively promoting eating (and cooking) meals together as a family for a list of results which resemble a parent’s dream come true (from life-long healthy eating habits, to an expanded vocabulary, improved conversation skills, boosted self-esteem and better grades in school).  Studies have also shown that children are more likely to try new foods, expand their palate and choose healthier options when they have been involved in the growing, selection and/or preparation of a meal.

So today, we’re skipping the more familiar frozen peas and corn, and giving our young cooks large dark green kale and collard leaves to make an appetizer (fancy word for after school snack).  Some were familiar with kale chips, and all had the chance to build on the basic recipe and adapt it to other greens.

Collard greens photo thanks to Indiana Public Media

Vermont Maple-Mustard Kale/Collard Chips

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½  tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • ½  tablespoon maple syrup
  • ½ tablespoon mustard
  • 1 large bunch of fresh kale or collard greens
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • red pepper flakes (optional)

Kale

Basic Kale/Collard Chips

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 bunch greens
  • salt to taste

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚.
  2. Wash and dry green leaves with kitchen towel or a salad spinner.
  3. Cut or rip leaves into chip size pieces.
  4. Mix oil, vinegar, maple syrup and mustard in a large bowl.
  5. Add leaves to bowl and coat thoroughly (using hands works well).
  6. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper (not necessary but makes for an easy clean-up), and arrange leaves in a single layer.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and/or Parmesan or chili flakes.
  7. Bake in oven for 8-12 minutes, watching them closely since they go from perfect to burned quickly.

kale chip

Serving ideas:

  • in place of packaged chips
  • as a garnish on soups, such as potato-leek or squash soups
  • as a topping on mashed potatoes
  • grind several chips as a popcorn topping
  • create hors d’oeuvre in kale chips used as edible serving cups
  • experiment with any greens you have.

For additional recipes for green leafy vegetables, I recommend the following excellent vegetable cookbooks:

Deborah Madison’s new Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom, with over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes, and

Greens Glorious Greens: More than 140 Ways to Prepare All Those Great-Tasting, Super-Healthy, Beautiful Leafy Greens.

For more ideas, inspiration and multi-generational cooking tips, you’ll find plenty of food for thought on The Kids Cook Monday site.

If you would like to join us for our next “Kids Cook Monday” cooking class, click here for more information and to register.  Classes are held at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont.

* These recipes coming soon in the “Kids Cook Monday” series.

Have You Tried Acai? (Sambazon Review & Giveaway)

Sambazon

Have you tried the much touted acai berry? It has been raved about for its impressive nutritional profile and for its ability to encourage weight loss.  Despite the abundant positive press, I had yet to give it a try.  The Sambazon company offers a full line of acai juice drinks, smoothies and frozen fruit products all with non-GMO, USDA organic, vegan and gluten-free labels. From their website, I learned their drinks come in ten different flavors and blends.  I was only able to find the original flavor in my local health food store, but I imagine larger markets will carry a wider selection.

Although I enjoyed the drink, I found it too thick and too sweet for regular drinking, but when I used it as the base of a slushie, I loved it!  Beyond the product, what really impressed me, is the vision, mission and practices of the company. Sambazon, whose name comes from the Sustainable Management of the Brazilian AmAZON, is thoroughly dedicated to socially and ecologically sustainable development in the Brazilian rainforest while bringing acai nutrition to the rest of the world.  According to their literature, they support two million acres of Amazon Rainforest and over 10,000 family farmers with their berry harvesting and juice making operation.  Their products are certified Organic as well as Fair-Trade.

Sambazon juice (which is not exactly pure acai juice, but a juice drink consisting of acai puree, water, agave, lime juice, natural flavors, soy lecithin, citric acid, and fruit and vegetables juice for color) straight from the bottle was thicker than I would have liked.  I would love to see the juices packaged in glass, as I picked up on the plastic aroma when drinking out of the bottle, and would prefer to move away from plastic packaging whenever possible.  The Acai Original was much sweeter than I think is necessary (or enjoyable). I poured my next bottle over ice, to test it chilled and to see how it reacted to a little watering down. I liked it better. Still finding it thicker than I would like, I realized it was ideal smoothie/slushie/sorbet material. A chilled nutrient-dense tropical berry refresher can be the perfect companion on a hot and humid afternoon, of which, I imagine, there are many in Brazil.

Acai Slushie

Pineapple-Acai Slushie:

In a blender, such as a Vitamix, blend 1 banana, 1 bottle of Sambazon Acai Original, 1/2 teaspoon bee pollen, 5 tablespoons pineapple juice concentrate, 1 single package (or 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds and about 15 ice cubes. Add vitamin supplements, if you wish (I added 2,000 IU of vitamin D and 2 probiotic capsules).  Run the blender until all the ingredients are mixed and the ice cubes have turned to slush.  An incredibly nutrient-filled, tasty and refreshing beverage awaits you.

Acai is celebrated for its high concentration of antioxidants (particularly anthocyanin, which the deep purple color would suggest), fiber and essential fatty acids. The Tropical Plant Database finds acai to be nutritious, but not quite the standout we have been led to believe.  Acai contains up to 4% protein, 25% sugar and trace amounts of calcium, phosphorous, iron, sulphur, vitamins B1, A and E.
A bottle of Sambazon juice contains 10.5 fluid ounces. The serving size and corresponding nutrition facts, however, are for a serving size of 8 ounces.  Something to be aware of if you are checking the label for calorie or sugar counts.  Make sure to add roughly a third more to the numbers if you consume a bottle.

To visit Sambazon online, there’s the company website and their facebook page (including a $1.50 off coupon) and in California, there are now two Sambazon Cafes along the Pacific Coast Highway.  Built according to strict ecological design guidelines, the company’s commitment to doing business sustainably continues. Pull up a chair to a long table (made from reclaimed wood and metal), slide your spoon into a typical Amazonian “acai bowl” of fruit and granola, and allow the rush of nutrients and tropical flavors to sink in.

Or, bring the taste of Brazil to you!  Post a comment below, and one lucky winner (US residents only) will receive three free product vouchers (coupons) plus one of these beautiful wooden bowl and spoon sets (a $45 value). A random drawing will be held on June 30, 2013.

Have you tried acai?  Did you like it?  Any particular products or recipes you would recommend?

Sambazon bowl

Disclaimer: I received this product for free from the sponsor of the Moms Meet program, May Media Group LLC, who received it directly from the manufacturer.  As a Moms Meet Blogger, I agreed to use this product and post my opinion on my blog. My opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of May Media Group LLC or the manufacturer of the product.  For more information about Moms Meet, go to http://www.greenmomsmeet.com or join the social media conversation using #momsmeet.

So Long Salmon?

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  as reported by the Food Revolution Network:

“The FDA has been overwhelmed with more than a million comments and petition signers, many of them stressing massive health, environmental, and ethical concerns. Faced with such a deluge of response, the FDA decided this issue was hot enough that it warranted further examination, and has officially extended the comment period for another two months. “

This is an unusual opportunity to have your voice heard.  The public comment period has been extended until April 26, 2013. 

We spent Christmas Eve around a long dining room table at our friends’ house immersed in the abundance of a Seven Fishes Feast: seven courses of fish, followed by a dessert lasting until almost midnight is a marvelous way to welcome Christmas Day. I prepared the sides and helped serve the third course: smoked salmon (delicious, and highly nutritious, wild Alaskan salmon) with potato-celeriac-sunchoke mash, red and green cabbage slaw, and a caviar-creme fraiche dip.  While I was busy cooking, the FDA moved a step closer to approving genetically engineered salmon.

What we stand to gain from genetically modified (or GM) salmon is faster growing fish ready for market and consumption in about half the current time, as illustrated by the following image from Science Progress.

What we stand to lose includes unknown impacts to human health, wild ocean ecosystems and remaining wild salmon species.  Unlike existing GM foods (corn, soy and canola among the more common), against which there are plenty of objections, the genetic manipulation of a wild animal introduces new and additional concerns: the possible escape from farm enclosures and contamination of the wild population; untested health implications for the fish, oceanic ecosystems and human consumers; and the precedent for further manipulation of animals and other wild species.

Nevertheless, after a preliminary investigation, the FDA (the federal Food and Drug Administration) found GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts, to pose “no significant threat,” and moved it closer to full approval.

Senator Mark Begich (a Democrat from Alaska) called the FDA’s findings a joke, saying, “I will fight tooth and nail with my Alaska colleagues to make sure consumers have a clear choice when it comes to wild and sustainable versus lab-grown science projects… People want to know they are eating natural, healthy, wild salmon.” Republican Representative Don Young called the FDA’s decision “foolish and disturbing.”

The “finding of no significant impact” or FONSI focused only on environmental questions, since in 2010, the FDA had already declared Frankenfish “as safe as food from conventional salmon.” The full report on the human health impacts can be read here.  The environmental assessment, released on December 26, 2012, will be available for public comment for just 60 days.

Despite increasing public concern surrounding both the human health and ecological implications of genetically altering species, the Organic Consumers Association explains that “the FDA considers any genetically altered animal a “new animal drug” for approval purposes. That means the genetically modified animal – in this case a salmon intended as food for humans – is subjected to a less rigorous safety review than if it were classified as a food (for humans) additive.”

Unlike conventionally farmed salmon*, the GM fish would start as fertilized eggs in Canada. The all female population would then be transported to an inland tank facility in Panama where they would be grown to maturity, processed into filets and shipped to US markets.

As with other genetically modified foods, the US does not require any labeling, so when buying or ordering salmon, the consumer would not know if the fish is wild, conventionally farmed, or GM farmed. A poll conducted by Thompson Reuters and National Public Radio found that 93% of Americans would like all GM foods labeled and that only 35% would be willing to eat GM fish.

There are numerous ecological and healthy reasons to be concerned.  Monterey Bay Seafood WatchFood and Water Watch and Food Poisoning Bulletin are excellent resources for additional information about seafood safety.  To speak out against GM salmon, visit The Center for Food Safety’s GE Fish Campaign to sign petitions urging the FDA and Congress to stop genetically engineered fish.  You can also add your name to the Organic Consumers Association‘s petition against GM fish.

Interested in filling your freezer with freshly caught, wild Alaskan salmon? There are several online companies which sell directly to the consumer. I often order from Great Alaska Seafood (and recommend joining their mailing list to enjoy special pricing).

If approved, would you eat it?  Or would you avoid salmon all together, since it wouldn’t be labeled and wild sources may become contaminated?  Will the bagel with lox be lost?

* It is worth making the distinction between conventionally farmed and wild salmon.  While wild salmon feed mostly on highly nutritious krill, providing Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and other difficult to find antioxidants, and contributing to the fishes’ naturally vibrant pink color as well as heart, brain and anti-inflammatory benefits for the consumer, farmed salmon is feed everything from wild fish (sometimes more fish than it produces) to corn and soy (safe to assume of the GM variety), turning the fish an unappealing shade of grey, which is then corrected with red food coloring. Instead of containing the desired Omega-3 fatty acids, farmed salmon often contains more Omega-6s, which generally trigger inflammation. You may want to read this, if you eat farmed salmon.

Sharing Flu-free Tips (with Dr Susan Rubin)

Dr. Susan Rubin recently wrote a two part post about staying healthy despite what is being called a particularly bad flu season.  She has kindly allowed me to post them here (as one post).  I’ve added a few additional tips, just to make sure you have plenty of options.

The news media and the CDC are at it again. They are saying that this year is a bad one for the flu (here’s a map of current outbreak levels in the US). Hurry hurry, go and get your flu shot!  I’m not here to convince you one way or the other on flu shots, the choice is yours to make. (For a more international perspective on flu vaccination, see CNN article here). Shot or no shot, there is plenty you can do to help avoid the flu. More than washing your hands and sneezing into your elbow as the CDC keeps telling us to do.

Here are a few things that can be done for little or no cost.

SLEEP I consider sleep to be a nutrient that we need every day. Scientists have shown that sleep is when we grow and when we heal. Parents know this first hand with their kids. When you’re sick, you sleep! Well, why not make sure you get adequate sleep BEFORE you get sick? This is one reason I have a zero sleepover policy, I want my kids home to sleep in their own beds at a reasonable time. Regular sleep hours are shown to be helpful in boosting immunity, and also in better brain function: retaining what you learn. Make regular, restful sleep a priority in your home and you’ll have happier healthier kids to show for it.  

DARKNESS We are supposed to be in the dark in the winter. The more you can align with the rhythms of Mother Nature, they better off you’ll be health wise. Stay away from your computer and TV screens at night, turn down the lights, and get serious about getting to bed a little earlier. Start with 10 minutes earlier, build up to 30. It will make a huge difference in your energy level, your outlook on life and your resistance to illness.

SUGAR We all love sugar, and the holidays are full of it. Now that the holidays are behind us, it’s time to face the not so popular truth: refined sugar can deplete your immunity and can drain the body of much needed nutrients. I could show you all sorts of articles and studies to prove this point. The bottom line is, we all need to look at decreasing our consumption of refined sugar. Replace juices and other sugary drinks with water, preferably filtered, from the tap and you’ll be saving loads of money and helping the planet. Take a good long look at how much refined sugar you and your kids eat over the course of a day or a week. Get conscious and cut back on the white stuff!

GOOD BUGS One thing that many non-science people might not realize is that our bodies consist of all sorts of microorganisms living together in harmony. Bacterial cells outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 to 1. One group of bacteria that I’m particularly fond of is the Lactobacillis family of bacteria that lives in your gut. You can add to this happy family of bugs that helps your digestive and immune systems to work optimally by enjoying foods that naturally contain these beneficial bacteria. Miso soup, Kim Chee, Sauerkraut, Kefir and Yogurt come to mind. You can also take probiotic supplements. This is one thing I get my family going on when there is a flu bug going around. I think of it as a tonic, a small action taken once a day that will make a big difference over time.

DE-STRESS  You absolutely must find ways to decrease your stress level. This is a big ask in these trying times but it is essential.  Meditation, taking a regular walk, doing daily yoga, remembering to plant your feet on the ground and breathe. Reducing stress levels will help build up your resistance to illness and can also help you let go of unwanted weight.

LAUGH I heard a physician speak about this just last week when I was at a comedy show, of all places. Laughter lowers blood pressure, improves blood flow to the heart and other organs, and has shown to help improve resistance to disease. I set time aside every day for chuckles watching The Daily Show and Colbert Report.

GET OUTSIDE We weren’t meant to be indoor creatures. Acclimate to the colder weather by making an  extra effort to get outside a little every day. Talk a walk, go sit in the park, enjoy a little fresh air. This will help your body make gradual adjustments rather than be stressed by a sudden change.  Wear a scarf and protect your neck and upper back against the wind.

SOUP is a magical food during this time of year, it’s the best thing to be eating when its cold outside. I’m playing the soup for dinner game this month, I think you should too!  I have too many soup recipes to count on my blog page. You can browse through them by visiting my blog, www.DrSusanRubin.com/blog, on the lower right side of that page, you’ll find a list of categories. Simply click on SOUP and you’ll find pages and pages of recipes. Here are my top 3 soup recommendations full of warming herbs and spices:

1. Magical Miso Onion Soup this combination of onions, garlic and ginger will help fight off bug that might be coming your way. The miso helps support your gut flora which is also essential to good immunity.

2. Thai Chicken Soup the Asian spices in this soup, turmeric, garlic, chili pepper make it spicy but not too hot. Mung beans add crunch, peanuts and cilantro help to transport your taste buds to Southeast Asia.

3. Curried Squash Soup curry powder, turmeric, ginger and garlic combined with roasted winter squash make this soup very nourishing and digestible.

COOK Not everyone can afford to take a sick day when they’re not feeling well. This is one of the ways that colds and flu spread. If you cook for yourself, you won’t have to wonder whether your take out, your frozen processed packaged food or even your high-end restaurant food was made by someone who was sick.  If you make your own meals, you’ll know that the ingredients are good and you’ll be putting your own good energy into the food. There is nothing better than that. Cooking from scratch is the most effective investment of time and money you can make to ensure your own health.

IN YOUR KITCHEN Once in your kitchen cooking up flu protection for your family, let me (Deirdre, from Plan It Healthier) reiterate and highlight a few key ingredients for a preventive approach:

  • fresh water, drunk at room temperature or warm, or brewed as green or herbal tea
  • raw garlic
  • raw honey
  • onions (and other members of the allium family: leeks, chives, scallions, garlic etc.)
  • ginger (ideally fresh)
  • turmeric
  • elderberries
  • vitamin D (both from foods and supplements….or, if you can manage it, a vacation to the sun)
  • vitamin C (from vitamin-rich foods, including squeezing fresh lemon juice in water and/or tea and supplements)
  • vegetables – fresh, ideally organic vegetables with a good portion eaten raw
  • herbal teas (peppermint, chamomile, cat’s claw, mullein, elderflower, echinacea and more). An extensive list with particular applications and herbal tea recipes available from Mountain Rose Herbs, also a good place to order high quality herbs.

Be well!

Brush, Floss and Pull?

Empty coconut oil jar

Oil pulling, that is.  Since my husband’s last dentist appointment, I’ve noticed my coveted jar of coconut oil is almost empty!  I’ve been using coconut oil for cooking and baking (and sometimes for snacking) for several years.  A pure, unrefined, raw product, coconut oil is a nourishing real food with an impressive array of health benefits from skin care to improved immunity to heart health.

If the fact that coconut is a saturated oil has you avoiding it, know that the world of saturated fats consists of various molecule lengths.  The vast majority of the oils we consume (and with which the saturated fat health concerns are connected) are long-chain fatty acids (LCFA).  Coconut oil, however, contains mostly medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA).  MCFA do not contribute to cholesterol concerns and have been shown to protect against heart disease.

Coconut oil consists of 50% lauric acid, the highest concentration of any food. Lauric acid is an important type of fat, not found in many foods, with commonly needed anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal power.  In lesser amounts, it contains capric acid, also with antimicrobial properties, making coconut oil a valuable medicinal food.

Now, in addition to consuming it, my husband is swishing a tablespoon of coconut oil in his mouth for 15-20 minutes a day.  The new Ayurvedic dental hygienist suggested this for the antibacterial and detoxification benefits.  He claims his teeth are whiter and cleaner already.

Optimal Oil Pulling:

  1. Pick the same time everyday to work up to 20 minutes of “pulling” or swishing.
  2. Do not swallow the oil, and spit it out in the trash when you are done.
  3. Brush and floss your teeth afterwards to remove the toxins the oil pulled out.
  4. Scrape or brush your tongue to completed rid your mouth of any remaining toxins.
  5. Enjoy a super clean and healthy day!

Toothbrushes

coconut oil brushingI won’t be surprised to find Coconut Colgate and Coconut Crest in the drugstore in the near future, but like most “new” health findings, there is usually a long history of use in traditional cultures.  Throughout the tropics, coconuts have been used successfully for many culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Therefore, I’ve stocked up on organic, unrefined coconut oil and made room for a jar next to the toothbrushes as well as in the kitchen.

In addition to replacing your mouthwash with coconut oil, if you also like the idea of eating it, here is a very simple recipe to get more coconut in your life.

Coconut Toast: Spread coconut oil or coconut manna (a spread made from the whole coconut) as you would butter on a slice of toast and cover with unsweetened coconut flakes.  Add a sprinkling of cinnamon if this reminds you of cinnamon toast. There’s no need to sweeten, as coconut comes with a naturally sweet flavor.

Coconut Toast

Elderberry Muffins for Back-to-School

With school-age children heading back for another year, I suppose I should also be concerned about getting their hair cut, supplying them with new lunch boxes, backpacks, pencils, notebooks, and, of course, outfitting them in new school clothes, but I am much more interested in with what I will fill (last year’s, still mostly intact) lunch boxes.

Day one will include an elderberry muffin.  Elderberries are tiny berries exploding with nutritional power, rightly deserving the nickname “medicine chest.”  They are an unbeatable source of fiber, vitamin C and numerous powerful antioxidants, as well as a good source of vitamin A, vitamin B6, iron and potassium.  They are hanging heavy off their branches awaiting picking this time of year. And since their name suggests growing up and getting older, they are the perfect companion for the first day of a new school year.

Elderberry Muffins

  • 3 cups flour (divided between white and whole wheat as you like)
  • 1-2 tablespoons ground flaxseeds*
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2/3 cup raw honey
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 cup fresh elderberries

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚, and prepare muffin tins by greasing or filling with paper baking cups.
  2. Mix dry ingredients together.
  3. Cream together eggs, oil, honey and milk, and add to dry mixture.  Blend together, add lemon zest and gently fold in elderberries.
  4. Fill muffin tin and bake for 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into middle comes out clean.
  5. Allow to cool slightly, and serve with butter and/or elder-blue superjam, if you like, and remember to set some aside for lunch boxes.

Kombucha: My New Bubbly

On Mothers Day, I was blessed with another “daughter”: a perfectly slimy, thoroughly unappealing looking, squishy, whitish patty. She won’t be winning any beauty contests, but she is teaming with life, and healthy energy!  Earlier than I had expected, the “mother” kombucha “SCOBY” (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) from which I brewed my first batch, had already grown a mini version of herself.  I was delighted!

As a follow-up to a recent post about probiotics, here’s more about what has become one of my favorite food forms (well drink, actually) of naturally occurring probiotic bacteria: Kombucha.

When first introduced to the supposed elixir, it was described to me as an effervescent fermented tea made from a mushroom.  Though I am (for the most part) open-minded and eager to try new foods (particularly ones surrounded by information about their numerous health benefits), fermented mushroom tea was a stretch.  As it turns out, it is not made from a mushroom, but a “SCOBY” which resembles a mushroom (or rather a pancake, I think) in appearance.

Kombucha traces its history back to Russian as well as ancient Japan and China, often in a context of profound health and healing.  Although conclusive scientific studies have yet to be completed in the US, centuries of anecdotal evidence have convinced many to add this beverage to their diet, and some have used it as a successful healing therapy.

The drink’s naturally occurring bacteria serve to replenish our internal gut flora, which improves our digestion and boosts immunity. It contains glucuronic acid, which is effective in cleansing the body of toxins.  In addition, the tea provides a worthwhile amount of vitamin B complex, antioxidants and minerals.  It appeals to health-seekers, do-it-yourselfers, low-carb dieters and foodies in numbers large enough to have caught the attention of beverage makers such as Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and Celestial Seasonings (all of whom have leapt on board the kombucha train).  Being more of the DIY persuasion, I gave it a try.

How to make kombucha home-brew:

When the much anticipated SCOBY (which can be ordered online) arrives in the mail:

Brew strong black tea (ideally organic) with organic sugar:

Remove tea bags or leaves, add SCOBY and fill jar with additional cool water.  Allow to sit, covered with a cloth, in a warm place:

After one-two weeks, start to taste your brew.  It will continue to ferment (as the bacteria will continue to eat the sugar), making the flavor stronger and less sweet the longer you wait.

Save the SCOBY (which may already be growing a “daughter” so that you can start making twice as much) and serve your refreshing home brew.

Curious to know more? Various websites, such as kombucha camp, and these books can help.

Cheers!

Welcome Probiotics!

You’ve probably heard that yogurt contains healthy bacteria, and have perhaps been swayed by recent ad campaigns treading dangerously close to “tmi”  bathroom talk. You may have tried one of the highly processed, packaged, flavored and sweetened yogurt products in an effort to improve your digestive situation. While it is true that real yogurt (as well as other naturally fermented foods) made with active cultures offer the body unique nutrition called “probiotics,” it is also true that Dannon was sued over unsubstantiated health claims made in their advertisements for “Activia” yogurt-like products and has been quietly reimbursing costumers. So beware of wannabes.

With 100 trillion bacterial cells from 500 different species, your gut is a veritable microbial zoo teaming with critters, and that’s exactly the way you want it.  These bacteria, when healthy and plentiful, in turn keep you healthy, digesting well, crowding out “bad” bacteria, and may also help protect against more serious chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  According to this month’s issue of the Life Extension Foundation‘s magazine, your gut contains 70-80% of your body’s immune system, where probiotics work at the molecular level to keep you well.

Their biggest enemy? Antibiotics. Not only are we being prescribed the antis more and more often, but most of our animal foods come from CAFO factory farms where animals are pumped full of antibiotics, and so by extension, so are you when you eat the meat, milk and other animal foods from these sources.  The artificial sweetener aspartame and oral contraceptives both interfere with healthy gut bacteria, and genetically modified foods and chlorinated water very well may too.

A good way to repopulation your gut bacteria, is to frequently eat fermented foods – those  sometimes called “traditional” or “live” which contain natural forms of probiotics. A quick tour around the world of traditional fermented foods include Japanese miso, tamari and natto, German sauerkraut, Bulgarian yogurt, Russian kefir, Ethiopian injera bread, Korean kimchi, Indian lassi drinks, Salvadoran curtido, etc.  For more information and simple recipes for these traditional foods, I highly recommend Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Although probiotics have been receiving well deserved media attention only recently, they are by no means a new method of maintaining good health.

With the goal of a thriving community of probiotics in your gut, you have to be a good host. Keep them out of harm’s way (antibiotics) and nourish them with prebiotics.  Foods such as bananas, garlic, onions, raw honey, wheat, barley, and soybeans naturally contain prebiotics, or probiotic food. For additional support, or in times of therapeutic need (such as during and following a course of antibiotics), you may also want to consider a high quality probiotic and prebiotic supplement.

Since I’ve been focusing on probiotics, no meal feels quite complete without a generous scoop of kimchi or kraut.  A bowl of plain yogurt satisfies a snack or dessert desire, and when thirsty, I reach for kombucha (a fermented tea drink).  A few of my recent favorite “full of life” foods: kimchi in an avocado half; kimchi or kraut quesadilla; sourdough bread with cultured butter; yogurt with raw honey and ground flaxseeds, miso broth to sip and kombucha to drink. To satisfy my growing thirst, I ordered a SCOBY (a kombucha “mother”) and have started brewing my own kombucha).

Hungry for more?  Let me recommend these articles on probiotics:

And if you’re as hooked as I am, you’ll be happy to know this great looking new book is coming out next month: The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Katz with a foreword by Michael Pollan.

But first, my bowl of yogurt:

Vegetable Miso Soup with Tofu

You are probably familiar with miso soup as the light salty broth often served in sushi restaurants before the nori rolls. It has long been used in Asian cooking, primarily in Japan, as a highly nutritious flavoring made from fermented soybeans (sometimes in combination with rice, barley or wheat).  The process of fermentation increases the nutritional value with additional B vitamins, enzymes and probiotics.  It is easy to work with and should be a regular in every kitchen.

My first impression of miso was a memorable one.  I was a young teen and my parents had recently decided to follow the macrobiotic diet.  I came downstairs one night looking for a snack when I discovered an unfamiliar dark brown paste in the refrigerator which looked, to my tired and undiscerning eyes, remarkably like chocolate paste.  Ready to receive a spoonful of something akin to Nutella, my tongue jerked is horror when it tasted an outrageously salty tablespoon of miso!

Miso (along with other probiotic foods, discussed further here), is a healthy additional to any diet, and is essential during and after a course of antibiotics.  The immune system starts in the gut, so to be in good health, you’ve got to start there.  Full of “friendly” bacteria which aid in digestion as well as form the first line of defense against undesirable bugs, the gut and its bacterial staff need regular upkeep, and require a full restaffing after an antibacterial wave has washed through. As more and more people are prescribed frequent courses of antibiotics, the need for additional probiotics in our diet has increased.

In addition to probiotics, miso contains more available isoflavones (the nutrients credited with cancer prevention) than unfermented soy, as well as protein, antioxidants, vitamins B and K, and several minerals including zinc.

Vegetable Miso Soup with Tofu

This is a very flexible recipe.  You can easily substitute with vegetables you have, you can omit some or you can add noodles or rice to make it a complete meal.

Method:
  1. Warm oil in large soup pan. Sauté onions and leeks until soft.
  2. Add garlic, carrots, corn, daikon, mushrooms (and/or other vegetables you want to use) for a quick sauté. Add water and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Add tofu, seaweed and tamari and simmer another 2-3 minutes.
  4. Scoop 1/2 cup of broth out of soup pot and use it to dissolve miso paste to make a strong miso broth.
  5. With the heat under soup pot turned off, mix in miso broth. Adjust to taste with additional tamari and/or miso. Serve warm garnished with sliced scallions.
  6. If you need to reheat miso soup, keep the temperature just under a boil, since boiling miso will reduce its many health benefits.

* A note about soybeans and soybean products.  I strongly encourage purchasing organic soy.  Soy is a very commonly genetically modified crop, and the only way to be sure you are getting a real food is to select organic versions.