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This post-Christmas, pre-New Years time of year is when I start to yearn for superhero qualities.  A little more energy that lasts through a day of snowshoeing and a late night dinner party would be nice.  A jump-start that clears the morning fog after a few late night drinks would be greatly appreciated. While it is extremely tempting to swallow an Advil, gulp a cup of coffee and call it good, what the body really needs is a dose of good food filled with the nutrients needed to make energy, repair cells and power through the day.  The trick is getting the right nutrients for the circumstance.  It may feel like food is the last thing your body wants after all the gluttony but, in moderate amounts and from healthy sources, food is the nourishment your body needs to recover from the holiday indulgences.

Your body needs nutrients to energize, recover, rehydrate, relax and survive the holiday season healthy and happily.  The following are some of the best nutrients for your body this time of year.  Remember that natural whole food sources are always the best way to add them to your diet. (Supplements in pill form should only be administered by your naturopath to make sure you are not doing more harm than good.)

  • Thiamin: key for its metabolic role in the cellular production of energy.  Whole foods rich in thiamin, such as whole grains, spinach, cauliflower, nuts, legumes, and avocados can help with your energy production and muscle function to get you through a day of sledding, skiing, shopping, cooking or entertaining the family. Thiamin helps your body metabolize glucose for energy, convert carbohydrates into potential energy and assists in the production of important messengers for communication between your nerves and muscles.
  • Magnesium: a mineral involved in many energy-producing reactions in your body.  Magnesium is stored naturally in your body but drinking alcohol can greatly deplete your body’s stores.  Many of the fatigue and stress symptoms of a hangover are due, in part, depletion of magnesium from alcohol consumption.  Magnesium relaxes your muscles, calms the intestinal tract, helps metabolize protein and carbohydrates and helps release energy in the body.  Fatigue is one of the first and foremost symptoms of low magnesium levels and but be easily remedied by consuming magnesium rich whole foods and plenty of water.  Some of the best sources are leafy greens and dark green vegetables as well as nuts, seeds and legumes.

  • Vitamin C: in addition to its well known role in boosting immunity, vitamin C stimulates the adrenal glands where stress hormones are managed and helps your body regulate stress and energy balance.  Vitamin C can help relieve fatigue, sluggish metabolism, and inflammatory pain.  Stay healthy and balance your stresses with whole food sources such as citrus fruits, brussels sprouts, leafy greens, cabbage, and peppers.
  • Potassium: an electrolyte mineral that regulates the hydration and ph levels in your body.  Potassium will help re-hydrate your body efficiently after a late night or a day of hard exercise.  In addition, potassium is important in cellular energy metabolism, carbohydrate and glucose metabolism and for growth, re-generation and function of muscles.  With whole food sources of potassium, such as dark leafy greens, potatoes, bananas, apples, avocados and whole grains you can help refuel and rehydrate your body to for another active day with the family.

This post holiday smoothie is packed with the nutrients your body needs to recover and re-energize.   With many of the nutrients mentioned above, plus some protein, antioxidants and probiotics this smoothie will nourish and re-energize your whole body.

Post-Holiday Power Smoothie

1 C. chopped fresh kale

¼ cup almonds

¼ cup pomegranate juice (or blueberry/grape – no sugar added)

1 medium banana

1 tbsp. lemon juice

½ cup plain whole milk yogurt

Puree all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Drink immediately and enjoy your new-found well being!

Eat Less Sugar.  Need I say more?

Easier said than done this time of year, or any time of year for that matter.  Whether in refined carbohydrates, sauces, dressings, cured meats, cereal, chips, soda, candy or juice, sugar appears in all corners of the modern diet.

In the natural world sugar is usually only available seasonally in ripe fruits and some vegetables.  No wonder, as humans evolved in the wild, our bodies learned to treasure these sweet, energizing treats. However, the natural form sugar is not what we confront in the modern diet.  Originally sugar was only part of whole foods paired with fiber that filled up the stomach and triggered satiation before overindulging, nutrients that helped the body digest and make energy and beneficial minerals.  It is the processed and refined sugar we now add to more than half the foods we consume that is causing the sugar-induced chaos nationwide.

Sugar, in any refined form, can be detrimental to your body.  Throwing your blood sugar levels out of control and triggering harsh periods of extreme energy followed by lethargy that the body struggles to regulate.  In addition to the epidemic of diabetes and blood sugar related health issues, additional impacts of excess sugar on your body include; depressed ability to digest foods, increased fermentation (toxic buildup) in your gut, liver strain, adrenal fatigue, suppression of the immune system, overgrowth of yeast (Candida), hyper and hypo glycemia, stress, fatigue, weight gain and poor tissue (skin, nails, hair) health.

Fortunately, there are healthy alternatives out there that make eliminating sugar from your diet an easier feat.  With sugar alternatives that are less refined, more nutrient-packed and not as harsh on your blood sugar levels, you can make an energy rich granola bar for your day of sledding or a nutrient filled batch of cookies for your holiday party without sending your body into a sugar oblivion.

In all recipes I make that call for sugar I start by cutting the amount called for in half.  To eliminate the remaining sugar here are my favorite alternatives and a bit on why they are better than the real thing:

  • Pure Maple Syrup: for every 1 cup sugar, substitute 1/3 cup maple syrup and reduce other liquids in the recipe by 3 tablespoons.  High in potassium, manganese and zinc.
  • Brown Rice Syrup: For every 1 cup sugar, substitute 1 cup of brown rice syrup, ¼ teaspoon extra baking powder and decrease other liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup (some cookies get a bit crispier make with brown rice syrup so watch closely in the oven).  Contains magnesium, manganese, and zinc and is a complex carbohydrate so it burns slower and provides long-term energy.
  • Honey: For every cup of sugar, substitute 2/3 cup honey, ¼ teaspoon extra baking powder and decrease other liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup.  Bake 25 degrees lower than temperature called for.  Honey does affect blood sugar like white sugar does, but it also contains a lot of nutrients and anti-inflammatory/anti-allergy qualities.
  • Agave Nectar: for every 1 cup sugar, substitute ½ cup agave nectar and reduce other liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup.  Bake 25 degrees lower that temperature called for.  Agave Nectar is almost twice as sweet as sugar so you can use less, therefore consuming less calories in sugar.  Has only a minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.
  • Fruit and vegetable based baked goods: when baking with fruits and vegetables natural sugars take the place of added ones.  If you add any sugar at all add ½ the amount or less, you will be surprised how great the natural sweetness carries through.  The added fiber, nutrients, great texture and flavor from the whole fruits and vegetables are an extra bonus. Try pumpkin, zucchini, apple, squash, carrot, parsnip, beet or sweet potato.

Happy Holidays!  Get Baking!

Substituting for white flour in any recipe is one of the least forgiving but most important healthy changes you can make to your baked goods.  It may take some experimentation for you to get the texture and flavor adjusted when substituting whole grains but the change is definitely worth it.  Understanding the differences between refined and whole grains and how they impact your health is motivation in itself for you to make the transition.

There is a reason why most recipes call for refined white flour; it’s easy to use and makes a light textured product.  Refining removes the wheat bran and germ, and makes white flour shelf stable, but removes the majority of the vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants and leaves behind just the starch; a simple carbohydrate.  The problem with this is, in addition to the lack of nutrients, simple carbohydrates are immediately turned into sugar in your body and absorbed into your bloodstream causing your blood sugar level to spike drastically.

When your blood sugar rises your body sends out insulin to regulate, which triggers the storage of excess sugars as fat.  Since your body uses carbohydrates for energy, not for building structure or facilitating internal functions, unless you are very active after eating carbohydrates, you almost always have more sugar in your bloodstream than your body needs for energy.  Therefore, ingesting refined carbohydrates quickly and frequently results in added fat storage.

Unrefined whole grains, on the other hand, are accompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, fat and protein and are considered “complex carbohydrates”.  Complex carbohydrates require more time for your body to break down and absorb, which results in a slower release of sugar into the bloodstream.  This means that your body does not have to rush to do something with the sugars and you can use the prolonged release of them for sustained energy.  Your body will store less as fat because the excess is not presented all at once.

The vitamins E and B in whole grains are crucial because your body requires them for the process of carbohydrate digestion.  Fiber, protein, fat and antioxidants in whole grains are added benefits that assist in the slowed breakdown process, delay the spike in blood sugar, aid in digestion, nourish and re-build your cells and structure and help cleanse your body of harmful free radicals.

With all of this information in mind, don’t fret when confronted with a slice of baguette or piece of cake at your holiday cocktail party.  Infrequent indulgences in your favorite pastry or pasta dish are not what cause weight gain, blood sugar imbalances or nutrient deficiencies.  It is prolonged consumption of refined grains that will catch up with your health.  So, when you are at home and you have the power to decide exactly what you put in your baked goods or evening meal chose whole grains instead.

Start by substituting 1/3 to ½ of the amount of flour called for with whole wheat or other whole grains.  As I warned, it can be tricky to get the right flavor and texture at first. If your product is too dry or dense start by adding one egg or 2 tbsp of yogurt or applesauce to the batter and try again.  Banana bread, pumpkin muffins, zucchini bread, carrot cake, or other fruit/vegetable based pastries hold up to whole grain flours exceptionally well.

By all means don’t limit your substitutions to whole wheat flour, there are many other whole grains out there that are ground and sold as specialty flours or can be incorporated in their whole cooked form right into your holiday treats.  Quinoa, buckwheat, kamut, millet, spelt and teff are other great options.

Quinoa Banana Gingerbread

1 C. whole wheat flour

1 ½ C.  cooked quinoa

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

¾ tsp salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

½ tsp ground nutmeg

8 tbsp lard (or butter)

1/3 C. molasses

2 large eggs

3 ripe bananas

2/3 C. whole milk yogurt

1 C. pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix flour, quinoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices in medium bow.  In a standing mixer or with a handheld beater, beat together butter and molasses until fluffy.  Add in eggs, then bananas and beat until incorporated.  Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, alternating with yogurt until all is incorporated.  Stir in nuts if using.  Scoop batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until wooden tester inserted into the loaf comes out clean.  Cool bread in pan before turning it out.  Slice and serve.  Will keep well wrapped tightly for up to a week.

Now that you have the inspiration to cook with lard, several good reasons not to be afraid of it and a great local source to get it from, here is how to get started rendering and using it at home.  I too was a bit intimidated at the thought of rendering lard in my own kitchen, but it turned out to be much easier than I expected and, with a window open in the kitchen, the smell that I had been warned about was hardly noticeable.  This week I made an unbelievable batch of cinnamon sugar cookies with the rendered lard and have included the recipe to get you started.  Tis the season to do some healthy baking!

When you buy your lard, it will come in a large white mass, but don’t be intimidated.  Most sources will sell you lard by the pound and each pound will yield you about a pint.  If you are not ordering leaf lard from Full Circle’s green grocery, make sure you get it from a reliable source that has good quality, well raised and clean products.  Leaf lard is the best quality and most ideal for baking but fat back will work well too.

Cut the lard into small 1-inch pieces.  Put the pieces in a medium sized cast iron or heavy bottomed pot with ½ cup of water for every pound you are rendering.  The water will keep the fat from burning and sticking to the pot in the first stages of rendering.  Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently and making sure the lard does not cook too quickly.  The process is slow and cannot be rushed or you will end up with some porky tasting and awfully oxidized fat.

The fat will start to melt in about 40 minutes, at which point you may hear some crackling and popping, which is normal.  As the pieces of lard release their moisture they will begin to change color and look golden brown and fried.  Keep stirring regularly (every 10 minutes or so) for about and hour.  You can see when the lard is finished rendering when all moisture has been released and the remnants, called cracklings, have no clear or fatty look to them.  There will be a considerable amount of liquid in your pot and the cracklings will start to sink to the bottom.

Let cool slightly and then pour through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into a clan mason jar.  The liquid will be yellowish at this point but will become opaque and white as it continues to cool and harden.  Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months or in the freezer for up to a year.  In addition to baking, lard is excellent in savory cooking too.  Try cooking your eggs, meats or veggies in lard instead of oil.

Cinnamon Sugar Cookies

½ cup lard

½ stick (4tbsp) butter

1 cup sugar, plus more for rolling

1 large egg

1 tsp vanilla

2 c. flour

1 tsp cinnamon, plus more for rolling

2 tsp baking soda

¾ tsp salt

Cream lard, butter and sugar in a standing mixer or large bowl.  Add egg and mix until light and fluffy.  Add vanilla and mix until incorporated.  Sift flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl.  Add flour mixture to lard mixture and mix until a stiff dough forms.  Scoop dough into small ping pong sized balls and roll between palms until smooth.  Roll in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Space cookies 2 inches apart.  Flatten slightly with the bottom of a glass or the palm of your hand.  Bake for 15-18 minutes until slightly golden around the edges.   Let cool before serving.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Pack in colored cellophane bags or wrapped in plastic and tissue paper for a great Christmas gift!

When shopping through the green grocer this week I came across something I actually started fantasizing about; leaf lard.  Yes I had fantasies about lard, which you may judge me for now, but you will eat your words after trying a pie crust or sugar cookie made from the stuff.  Cooking with lard is somewhat of a long lost skill in a world scared of fat.  If you have been caught up in the no fat, low fat, reduced fat, unsaturated fat craze like so many of the rest of us, you may be wondering why, in a series on healthy baking substitutions, I am talking about lard, but hear me out; fats are not the enemy.  Fats, especially natural saturated ones like lard and butter, are one of the healthiest parts of your baked goods.

 

We, as a culture, are stuck in a fat free craze, but wonder why heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other serious diseases are taking our country by storm.  If what we have been taught to believe about saturated fats causing weight gain and heart disease is true, you would expect to see a correlation between increased animal fat consumption and the rise of such diseases, yet we avidly decrease animal fats in our diet and disease rates continue to increase.

In fact, natural saturated fats from animal sources are a crucial part of the diet.  Contrary to popular belief, saturated fats are not readily stored as fat in the body, they are the preferred source of energy.  The correlation between saturated fats and heart disease has been debunked, revealing instead that excess sugar and carbohydrates play the biggest role in artery clogging buildup.  The calories you get from fats are nutrient filled, long lasting and, when consumed, trigger satiation messages that prevent overeating.

 

Natural saturated fats from animal sources play an important role in the following:

  • Building cell membranes
  • Enhancing/strengthening the immune system
  • Absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
  • Protecting the liver from toxins
  • Protecting and cushioning all organs
  • Building bone strength by aiding in calcium absorption
  • Use of essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6)
  • Performing antimicrobial functions
  • Building skin and tissue health
  • Inflammatory response
  • Use of proteins

Saturated fats are digested slowly and are the most efficient source of energy for your body.  When paired with other foods, like butter on your morning toast, fats help your body maintain healthy blood sugar levels and keep you satiated and energized for a longer period of time before having to eat again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, back to the dreaminess of lard; don’t be afraid.  In your baked goods real lard helps you digest and use nutrients without a blood sugar spike and crash that causes your body to store more and crave sooner.  Once you render and use your first batch of lard you will never go back.  A little goes a long way and elevates your baked goods to a new level of divine.  Start out with a simple pie crust, I used a recipe that called for Crisco and substituted an equal amount of lard and it turned out to be the most tender and flaky crust I have ever eaten.  Cookies and breads for the holidays are another good bet.  The amount of lard will substitute in perfectly for the vegetable shortening or butter the recipe calls for.  The result will be similar to that long lost recipe your grandmother used to make but you have never been able to re-create.

Get great quality natural Leaf Lard from Full Circle’s green grocer this month!

Check back on Wednesday for rendering instructions and some great recipes!