I recently took some time away in Colorado for a little getaway – one week by myself, and one week joined by my husband. For the first week, I made a priority to take care of myself - an intentional stretch of a few days without a schedule, computer, phone or any electronic intrusions of any kind. I also made it a priority to eat healthfully without spending a lot of time in the kitchen – since food of all ways - preparation, recipe creation, and teaching has become such a big part of my daily life.
So I planned ahead. I took with me 3 pounds of organic greens (baby greens mix, spinach and arugula) from my two CSA shares - Uptown Farmers and Burning River Farm. I brought two pints of MN grown cherry tomatoes and some MN grown hydroponic cucumbers; radishes from my CSA share; a head each of organic broccoli and cauliflower; and a variety of freshly cut herbs from the gardens of my mom in MN and my friend Austine in Denver. Planning was important because the nearest grocery store was a 45 minute drive each way from my cabin, and fresh, local vegetables wouldn’t be possible.
My non-cooking meal plan was simple: to have good ingredients on hand, prepare a few key items ahead of time that could be mixed or matched and seasoned to taste, to use different vinegars, oils, miso, tahini or yogurt to create a variety of salad dressings, and to have the rainbow of nutrients thought out in advance and available so that meals could be optimally balanced without needing to think about it when I was hungry.
Once I arrived at the cabin, I roasted a large sweet potato, cooked a pot of quinoa, soaked and cooked a pot of Colorado-grown borlotti beans (similar to a pinto bean), and cooked up a pot of lentils seasoned with onions, garlic and carrots. For lunch and dinner I ate big salads topped with a changing combination of all of my available ingredients: I never ate the same salad twice because I always varied the crunch and texture of the mix and I made micro-batches of different salad dressings.
My point is this: preparing healthful meals in minutes is possible with advance planning and cooking to minimize kitchen time and to avoid take out or packaged meals. Salads are a great option for minimalist eating this time of year because they fit with our natural inclination to eat lighter during warmer weather, they make the most of local and seasonal ingredients, and they supply our bodies with loads of Vitamin A and other nutrients. To use them as the backdrop for a meal ensures that we’re eating a nutritious, fiber-rich meal that can be adjusted to be a light or substantial summer main dish. In my case, I prepared a few items to have on hand, but a salad can be built around whatever is easy and available, such as leftover grilled meats or vegetables, baby new potatoes, or fresh sweet corn cut right off the cob.
I find the biggest key to a delicious and successful salad is homemade salad dressing: without additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and texture or flavor enhancers, salad dressing goes from being a nutritionally zero calorie bomb to being a healthy and flavorful key element of a delicious main-dish salad. We need healthy fat to be able to absorb and utilize the fat soluble Vitamin A-rich leafy greens and other vegetables and a good homemade dressing can provide just that, without all of the unwanted gunk.
Even if eating a main dish salad for every meal isn’t on your radar, it is certainly possible to enjoy a main dish salad a few times a week as a way to increase vegetables into the diet - and uncooked vegetables at that. In my case, they payoff was worth it. When it was all tallied I ended up with 10 days and 20 different salads: I felt great, I was able to throw together meals in a flash when I was hungry, I had plenty of energy for my 3 hour hikes and extra walks, and I lost a few pounds to boot.
Not bad for salad days.
Chop Salad with Creamy Basil Dressing
Dressing: (makes enough for several salads)
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 c. organic whole milk yogurt
1 cup of fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
generous grind of black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
Blend until green and smooth in blender or with immersion blender.
Salad for One:
2 cups of leafy greens or arugula
1/2 cup chopped cauliflower or broccoli
1/4 - 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans or black beans, drained
1/2 tablespoon raw sunflower seeds
1/2 tablespoon raw pumpkin seeds
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Our first CSA share showed up yesterday, delivered from Burning River Farm by farmer/owner Mike Noreen. What a bounty: bok choy, broccoli rabe, crispy-fresh head lettuces, baby kale, spinach, and a basket of herbs for planting so that we’ll have herbs later on this summer. Oh, those greens - they looked so good that I felt better just opening the box, even before I had eaten them.
Then, my mom arrived at my door with bags of freshly snipped leaf lettuces and just-picked asparagus. By now I’m feeling like a queen, with all of these riches of the new summer garden season arriving in my kitchen.
Shortly after the whirlwind of first-day CSA share pick-ups last night, my doorbell rang – it was my friend and neighbor Mary Jo holding in her hand a bunch of greens, wondering what they were and what she should do with them. This marks the other start to the summer garden and market season - shifting our way of eating away from the typical shopping list and grocery store options, to choosing what’s here, right now. Excitement can easily give way to feeling stymied or overwhelmed, though, when good intentions for opening the CSA box, buying arms full of veggies at the farmer’s market, or watching rows of Swisschard come up in the garden turn into vegetable panic.
But it’s not that hard. Eating fresh using the best vegetables of the moment actually takes less time – fresher food takes less work to make it taste good and vegetables cook more quickly because they are still plump and full of water from growing in the soil and not being shipped cross-country.
My advice to Mary Jo was to gently sauté the broccoli rabe with some olive oil and garlic and then throw in an egg or two to scramble, tossed with the greens. She reported back this morning that it was delicious.
So that’s the new bottom line, when we’re heading into this season of bounty and “of the moment” fresh foods. Quick is good. To use fresh greens after work but save time, rinse the greens, roll them gently in a kitchen towel and store them in a plastic bag – they’ll stay nice and crispy fresh, and won’t lose their moisture or nutrition to the dehydrating environment in the fridge. Take some out for lunches or dinner all week, and make a green smoothie with some of them in the morning.
Dinner can be quick as well. All greens taste good lightly steamed and served with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar or freshly-squeezed lemon juice, and some good salt and fresh pepper. Or sauté them with some garlic or maybe even some Texas sweet onions (also in season right now - delicious), add a little crumbled Wisconsin or Minnesota feta cheese and toss the whole thing with some whole wheat pasta for a more substantial weeknight dinner (see recipe below). Or, put steamed greens over some cooked sweet brown rice or wild rice and top with a Thai peanut sauce – coconut is slightly sweet and it makes a great pairing with the flavors of the greens. With all of these options, using a little fat from the eggs, olive oil, cheese, or coconut milk is key - dark leafy greens and fresh head lettuces are Vitamin A-rich, and we need a little good, healthy fat to help us unlock and absorb the available nutrients.
Try eating more salads, too. Salads should become more of the main story, at least a few times a week in the summer. A big pile of fresh greens can be topped with your favorite grilled mushrooms, fish, chicken or meat, as well as thinly sliced raw vegetables of every variety for extra crunch, flavor and nutrition. Keep the dressing light to let the flavors really sing in your mouth – drizzle with fresh olive oil and lemon or whip together a quick salad dressing. (Homemade is so much better than bottled, in every way – tastes better, doesn’t have all of those thickeners, stabilizers, modifiers, preservatives, and colorings, and it costs much, much less.)
The key is that if you want to eat well, then yes, it will take a little more time than dialing for take-out. But the rewards are literally life-giving. Instead of your poor little old body fighting inflammation and fatigue, you will be giving yourself energy and fuel from the original source. Real food. From the earth. Grown not by accident, but with purpose and a reason – and, incidently, chock full of things that we really, really need. Eat!
Fresh Greens and Feta with Whole Wheat Pasta
A painless way to eat your greens!
6 T olive oil
4 cups chopped Vidalia onions (or red or yellow onions)
7-8 cups mixed greens - kale, chard, collards, arugula, spinach, bok choy - washed, dried, cut off the stem and coarsely chopped
3/4 lb whole wheat bowtie pasta (I prefer the Bionaturae brand)
1/2 lb. good local feta (try Shepherds Way), crumbled
freshly ground pepper
crushed red pepper flakes
Set the pasta water on to boil.
Heat olive oil in a deep skillet dutch oven. Add onions and cook for 10 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until golden and sweet.
Add the chopped greens to the skillet, salt lightly, and stir until the greens begin to wilt. Cover and cook 5 minutes over medium-low heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente in salted water. When the pasta is just about done, remove the cover from the greens, turn it down to low and add the crumbled feta. Drain the pasta and add it to the greens mixture immediately, tossing to mix thoroughly.
Season with fresh pepper, red pepper flakes and salt if needed. Serve immediately.
I’m a big fan of knowing where my food comes from, as much as possible. There’s no better time to start planning on where to source food closest to home - either from a garden that is grown in your own backyard or a community garden, a pot of herbs on a patio or windowsill, or from a local CSA that delivers fresh vegetables weekly throughout the growing season.
There are so many ways to create a little patch of urban garden that will reward your family with green growing treats throughout the season. A section of turf can be turned into a bountiful kitchen garden; a wood box made from untreated lumber can be transformed into a raised bed garden; a big pot can grow a bumper crop of the most delicious cherry tomatoes right on your deck; and even a little trough of soil can sprout a nice variety of herbs to snip and use in salads or cooking throughout the season.
If a garden in your yard isn’t possible, then there may still be time to join a community garden. Your best bet is to find a community garden near you that is a little on the young side to find available space to grow. Gardening Matters is a website that runs a listserv with lots of information and all kinds of community gardening talk.
No time to garden? A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share is a wonderful way to become directly involved in a small farm by directly investing in the farm operations in return for a weekly share of vegetables throughout the season. A CSA might be one step removed from a backyard garden, but it still provides the share members with a close connection to the growing season. With weekly updates along with a box of vegetables, members are naturally partners and risk takers as the changing whims of weather and nature positively or negatively impact the produce grown on the farm. The reward is incredible – fresh off the farm vegetables, with a deeper understanding of what truly seasonal food means and how hard it is to be a farmer.
Even if there is only time to make a weekly trip to the farmers’ market, the benefits of eating vegetables grown as close to your back door as possible are huge. Less time spent out of the ground means fresher, more nutrient-packed and better tasting vegetables, which need nothing more than a little washing and light preparation to make their flavors sing.
I saw a reproduction of an old sign when I was shopping at the Traditional Foods Warehouse yesterday. It read:
1. Buy it with thought.
2. Cook it with care.
3. Serve just enough.
4. Save what will keep.
5. Eat what would spoil
6. Home grown is best.
Just about says it all, doesn’t it?
Spring-Summer Garden Salad with Herbs in a Bowl
1 clove garlic or 2 teaspoons minced garlic scapes
juice of 1/4 lemon, squeezed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
big pinch sea salt
2 - 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
2 big handfuls fresh salad greens, rinsed and spun dry - use any combination of arugula, baby greens, leaf lettuce
1 big handful fresh herbs - use any combination of basil, oregano, mint, tarragon and nasturtiums
In a big salad bowl, combine garlic, onion, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Whisk with a fork to combine. Let sit while you wash and spin-dry the lettuce and remove the herbs from their stems. Whisk the olive oil into the salad bowl ingredients until well-combined. Add pepper and salt to taste. Tear lettuce into the bowl and add the handful of fresh herbs. Using two forks or two big serving spoons, toss the salad greens with the dressing in the bowl until all the leaves are coated and glossy with oil. Taste a leaf and add more fresh pepper as desired. Garnish with a big handful of pansies or nasturtiums and serve.
If you’re the type of consumer who stands in front of an array of choices at the grocery store and wonders about making the best choice for your family, it’s possible that you may have thought about which egg to buy. There are so many choices besides medium, large and jumbo: you have to decide between white or brown, organic or free-range, Omega-3 eggs or pastured eggs.
So, does it matter? Yes and no. There is no difference between a white egg and brown, except which hen was laying it: different breeds of hens produce different colors of eggs. But the rest of it? Yes, of course it matters - but it also requires knowing something about the farm and how they produced the egg.
For eggs to be certified organic, the grains fed to hens must be certified organic, free of conventional pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones and antibiotics, plus the birds must have organically-raised bedding and have access to the outdoors, including fresh air and exercise. Free-range eggs means that hens can move about freely, and either live outdoors or have access to the outdoors, although there are no regulated standards for this access or their diet or supplements. Omega-3 eggs are eggs produced by hens whose food is supplemented with flax seed or fish oils.
The color of the yolk gives an indication of what the hen ate before she laid the egg. A hen fed a mostly wheat diet will have a pale yellow yolk, and a grain-fed diet high in corn or alfalfa will produce a darker yellow yolk, but a pastured hen who truly has access to forage outdoors will have a deep orange-yellow yolk in her egg.
So what do these differences really tell us? In many ways, getting to the bottom of it only makes things more confusing, because producers can comply with standards by adhering to the very loosest interpretation of the definitions. Take “access to the outdoors” for example. For some producers, compliance with that standard means having a small open window or door where the confined birds could conceivably get outside, although chances are small that it actually happen, or that the access to which the birds are allowed is anything more than a concrete pad.
There is one more category of eggs which is the gold standard for egg quality – pastured eggs. Hens on pasture have access to the outdoors to scratch and peck for food either as their complete diet or as a supplement to some grains depending on the time of year. There are plenty of studies that show that pastured eggs have a higher nutrition level and lower fat and cholesterol levels than eggs from grain-fed hens. Compared to conventional supermarket eggs, pastured eggs contain more Omega-3 fatty acids, higher Vitamin E and A, folic acid, B-12 and even more Vitamin D. (If you’re interested in reading the studies, visit www.eatwild.com for links and references.)
So how do you find a good egg? First, find a local source, preferably a farm with small production who can ensure the quality of egg that you’re looking for. Local food co-ops carry a variety of choices of for organic and truly free-range eggs from local egg producers who vary in the size of their facilities, including Larry Schultz and Harmony Valley. To find organic, pastured eggs, you have to search a little harder. I visit the Traditional Foods Warehouse to find one of my favorite local sources for eggs - Alvin Schlangen Family Farms. A visit to their site will tell you all about the way the Schlangen family raises their hens plus sources to find their eggs, including local co-ops and home delivery.
Local farmers markets are another great place to get fresh, local, pastured eggs – including duck and goose eggs – direct from the farmer. No mysteries there - you can ask the farmer all about how their hens are raised. Chances are the farmer will be more than happy to give you the answer.
As with most things food-related, there is one clear way to tell the difference: taste. An organic, pastured egg will taste far better than a watery, pale supermarket egg. An egg yolk is supposed to be orange, not pale yellow, and Mother Nature’s guide to how things are supposed to look is a pretty good bet for how things are supposed to be in the world. In this case, it's humanely-raised birds who have a daily routine to do what they love best - scratch and peck outside, looking for their food.
In the New York Times this week, it was reported that Nestlé was one of 17 companies that received letters of warning from the FDA about misleading food labeling. (See article here.)
It’s tiring isn’t it? Trying to keep up with who’s doing what and which claims are true and what to eat and what not to eat. Here’s the bottom line: nobody in the processed food industry is going to help you make the best decision for your eating habits.
Ultimately, a return to eating whole foods is the best direction you can take your eating plan. And when you simplify it down to whole foods, food isn’t really such a mystery. The printing on a bag of potatoes reads potatoes.
So what is a whole foods eating plan look like? Eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, that are minimally processed or altered from their original source. That means eating an apple instead of apple juice, roasted chicken instead of breaded chicken cutlets, or a bowl of rice instead of a handful of rice crackers.
When foods are “whole”, they have more of their nutrients intact, they have more fiber and they provide a broad array of phytonutrients full of beneficial compounds that are important for preventing disease, maintaining health and all-around wellness. Whole foods also contain healthy fats instead of dangerous trans-fats, and are naturally low in sodium and sugar.
To train yourself to eat more whole foods, start by shopping for the majority of your food from the perimeter of the grocery store. It is a good rule of thumb when it comes to a healthy diet to fill most of your shopping basket there with fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, fish, grass-fed, organic or free-range meats.
Eating a wide variety of whole grains in their whole form is another important step. By eating whole grains, you’re getting loads of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, plenty of fiber, plus the extra benefits, such as a feeling of satiety to help prevent overeating, and a long, slow burn of energy which is better for blood glucose and insulin levels after eating.
A perfect example of choosing whole foods vs. processed foods can happen at breakfast. Now that cereal box might say “Made With Whole Grains”, but a puffed, squeezed, extruded or sweetened nugget packed into a box is not exactly a whole food anymore, nor is it a good value, money-wise or food-wise. A better breakfast choice would be oatmeal made from regular oats – the kind you cook for 3-5 minutes, not the instant oatmeal sugary packs. Topping the oatmeal with some fruit like thawed frozen berries or sliced banana, plus raisins, nuts or seeds, a little whole milk plain yogurt, then sweetened with real maple syrup or honey would round out a very nutritious, whole foods breakfast that will keep you full until lunchtime instead of looking for a mid-morning snack.
We can avoid plenty of food-detective work by simply eating whole foods and moving away from processed and packaged foods. Eat whole fruits and vegetables. Eat more whole grains - try brown rice, quinoa, or wild rice – or try whole grain versions of current foods you eat, like breads or pastas. Throw some beans into that pot of chili for extra nutrition that you can’t get from a meat chili alone.
Instead of a frozen, baked pasta dinner, boil a pot of water and cook some whole grain spaghettini (skinny spaghetti). Top the pasta with tomato sauce and some steamed broccoli. Serve it with a salad, with a grated carrot that you prep while the pasta cooks, real cherry tomatoes (they only need rinsing), and drizzle with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon with salt and pepper. It can be that simple.
Crockpot Spicy Black Beans and Rice Soup
1 1/2 cups dried black beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 small onion, diced into 1/4” cubes
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small chipotle chile from canned chipotles in adobo sauce, minced - OR 1/2 teaspoon dried chipotle chile
2/3 cup short grain brown rice
1 bunch cilantro with stems, chopped
1 14.5 oz can organic fire-roasted tomatoes, chopped if whole, juice reserved
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
whole organic yogurt (for garnish)
grated organic cheddar cheese (for garnish)
salt and pepper to taste
In the bowl of a crockpot, combine the drained black beans, onion, garlic, chipotle chile, and rice with half of the cilantro and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Let cook on low for 6-8 hours or until you’re ready to eat. Stir in the canned, chopped tomatoes, remaining cilantro, smoked paprika, ground cumin, salt to taste, and let warm through. Garnish with yogurt and cheese as desired.
I have heard the term “eating organic” used in many different ways - both negative and positive. Used negatively, it is most often inserted in sentences that begin with “My family doesn’t like it when I cook organic food,” associating healthy preparations with organic ingredients. Used positively, it is connected with making choices about eating healthfully, keeping up with current information on organic standards, and preparing or perhaps growing one’s own food.
Taken literally, “eating organic” means to eat a diet that is natural, pesticide- and additive-free, which admittedly can be hard to do 100% of the time. Foods can be prepared at home or in a restaurant with organic ingredients, but it is misleading to think that “organic food” is a type of food that can somehow be judged by mistaking the source for its flavor.
So how does one “eat organic”? For many, moving towards eating organic foods may mean changing habits about not only what foods are eaten but also how they’re eaten. The shift may be eating more meals at home with foods prepared by scratch in order to connect the dots between making thoughtful choices about eating a wide variety of foods and incorporating healthful ingredients into balanced meals.
If your family already cooks at home, then eating organically may be as simple as exchanging conventional ingredients for organics in favorite recipes. Perhaps your favorite recipes aren’t all that healthy, though: there the challenge is to transition to preparing favorite tastes in a more healthful manner. Swapping out refined ingredients for whole grains, gathering new healthy recipes, or taking a cooking class (here I insert a shameless plug for the healthy cooking classes that I teach) are all ways to make the transition easier.
If cooking has not been a priority in your home, then the changes might be a little more intense: it definitely takes more time to shop, prepare and cook fresh foods than it does to pick up fast food or microwave a dinner. But the advantages of cooking for one’s diet are many, including eating higher quality and fresher foods that have a lower sodium content, healthier fats, and less sugar. If there are children at home to help with some of the preparations, there may be additional benefits. Kids are more likely to try a wider variety of foods if they have had a hand in making it.
No matter what the transition to eating more organics looks like in your home, there is one little change that everyone can make: eating a larger proportion of organic vegetables and fruits at every meal. These are the powerhouses of a good diet, keeping our hearts healthy, our bodies protected from environmental damage, holding cholesterol in check, and maintaining our weight at optimum levels. It can be as simple as adding a salad or steamed vegetables to the dinner plate, extra fruit in a bowl of oatmeal or a smoothie, or eating a piece of fruit as a snack.