Basic Foods

During the convenience-driven, newfangled-food frenzy of the past half-century, many nourishing essentials like bone broths, legumes, root vegetables, and sprouted grains all but disappeared from American plates. Now they’re coming back — and starting a contemporary legacy of their own.

Beets and Their Greens

For a while there, it looked like homemade mashed potatoes would become a lost art. After all, why on earth would you do all that scrubbing, peeling, boiling and mashing when you could just buy the dehydrated flakes in a box, add a little hot water and whip it all together with a fork in 30 seconds flat?

Well, if you’ve ever compared the flavor, texture and nutritional value of the box-derived mush to the real thing, you know the answer. Some tradeoffs, frankly, just aren’t worth it. And in recent years, we’ve been discovering that many of the swaps proffered by the newfangled-food marketplace weren’t such great deals after all.

From trans fats to refined flour, from frozen fish sticks to canned peas, from fat-free fats to low-carb carbs – it seems like every time the food industry giveth (in terms of speed, convenience and shelf life, for example) something equally or more important (like nutrition, flavor and satisfaction) gets taken away. That’s because the same processes that render many commercial foods fast, convenient, uniform, novel and cheap also tend to strip essential components from or add compromising ingredients to the mix.

But it’s not all the food industry’s fault. In our eagerness to streamline our lives and reduce the amount of time spent at the market and in the kitchen, we’ve done more than a little culinary compromising ourselves. We’ve done a lot more opening of cans and boxes, a lot less puttering with cutting boards and crock pots. More assembling, less real cooking. It’s made life easier, perhaps, but it’s also tended to make our meals less wholesome, our bodies less well nourished. And it’s sucked more than a little of the soul out of our kitchens.

In recent years, though, more consumers have been getting wise to the fact that when foods are premixed, prebaked, dehydrated, rehydrated, reflavored and otherwise overly messed with, they lose something in the translation. Many of these same consumers are realizing that all the diet foods and supplements in the world can’t make up for what’s lost when well-prepared whole foods start vanishing from our plates.

Some of these individuals are digging back into food history, retracing their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ steps to a time when substantial, deeply nourishing foods – traditional staples like homemade bone broths, root vegetables and sprouted grains – were daily sustenance, not lost arts. They’re relearning methods and reclaiming ingredients that were fading fast from modern kitchens.

Meanwhile, many of the world’s leading chefs, health experts and traditional-foods advocates are celebrating the return of delicious and nutritious dishes that were too long absent from North American tables.

Body-Building Broths

Broth is the original power drink and home remedy, used by athletes, nurses and grandmothers for centuries to restore strength, comfort sensitive stomachs and boost the body’s immunity. Many of us still reach for a bowl of soup when we feel a cold coming on, after a particularly hard day or when we’re feeling blue.

But is there anything more in that hot bowl of goodness than just flavor and steam? Modern research tells us that there is, and it comes down to two essential components: gelatin and minerals.

Broths are made by extracting flavor and nutrients from whole foods – primarily vegetables and animal parts – by cooking them for long periods in water. While vegetable broths contain plenty of water-soluble vitamins, bone-based broths have an added benefit: Making a broth from animal bones draws out minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, potassium and sulfur, as well as the protein collagen (which becomes gelatin once extracted). These minerals are stored in the broth in a form your body can easily absorb, explains nutrition researcher Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions (New Trends, 2000), which includes how-to chapters on the preparation of broths and stocks, as well as chapters on sprouted grains and many other traditional foods.

Once we understand what the minerals in broth do, it’s easy to understand the calming, regenerative effect of a bowl of soup. Both calcium and magnesium help our nerves conduct information properly, and calcium keeps our hormones and our moods in balance. Sodium, which regulates water in our bodies, and potassium, which promotes metabolism, both help our bodies adapt to stress.

Because of the way our food is grown and prepared these days, many of us don’t get all the minerals we need, says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, a leading nutritionist and author of more than a dozen nutrition-related books. “Minerals are important cofactors for enzymes that allow our bodies to make use of our food. I’d say they are as or even more important than vitamins,” Gittleman explains. “Minerals are especially important because so many of us are under stress. We also drink too much caffeine, which acts as a diuretic and leaches out those minerals.”

A properly prepared broth is an exceptionally rich source of essential minerals. But you won’t find that beneficial trove of minerals in a bouillon cube. Fallon refers to instant bouillons as “fake broths,” noting that they are mostly “just water and MSG (monosodium glutamate).”

The most healthful broths are homemade, bone-based stocks, made from whole-food ingredients and cooked slowly for a long period of time. Busy cooks do have an alternative, however: Gittleman recommends high-quality, organic commercial stock that’s low in sodium or sodium-free.

The best broths are also naturally rich in gelatin. A century ago, gelatin-rich broth was often prescribed to aid digestion, especially for people who had trouble digesting milk, wheat gluten and meats. We now know that one of the major amino acids in gelatin – glycine – helps stimulate stomach acids.

Another nutritional benefit of broth, according to Gabe Mirkin, MD, author of The Healthy Heart Miracle (HarperCollins, 2005), is that it is, calorically speaking, a low-density food. That means you can indulge in a big bowl of broth without worrying about how you’re going to burn it off: A cup of beef broth contains only about 20 calories.

Making broth at home does require some planning, but the prep time is generally just five or 10 minutes in the kitchen. The stove or slow cooker does most of the work. To make a nutrient-rich broth, you need a good selection of the bony and cartilaginous parts of the animal: ribs, necks, wings, backs and knuckles. These aren’t ingredients most modern cooks have lying around their kitchens. But if you’ve made a chicken dinner, it’s easy enough to throw the carcass or bones into a plastic bag and store them in the freezer until you are ready to make stock. You can also ask your butcher for beef, pork or lamb bones appropriate for making stock. The people behind the meat counter at a big-box grocery store may find your request a little unusual, but a neighborhood butcher will know exactly what you need.

Beyond bones and water, you’ll need a few more ingredients. The classic French flavor base, or mirepoix, calls for an onion, a carrot and a celery rib, all cut in half. You may also want to add a whole head of garlic, cut across the equator; a few peppercorns; allspice and whole cardamom pods; or even a turnip for flavor. Adding a splash of something acidic – vinegar, wine or lemon juice – helps draw the minerals from the bone.

Use enough cold water to cover everything and lightly simmer (never boil) for at least two hours. Or use an electric slow cooker. The keys to extracting the most flavor, in any case, are starting with fresh, cold water, avoiding a full boil, and cooking the long, slow way. Skim off the grayish scum that floats to the top in the first half hour or so of cooking. Don’t be surprised if it thickens a bit after cooking: A good, rich broth will set a little, like gelatin, when it cools.

You can keep broth in the refrigerator for up to four days or in the freezer for months. Freezing your broth flat in resealable plastic bags, using a variety of sizes, will save space and thawing time. Smaller portions of broth are also great to have on hand for braising meats and vegetables, cutting down the need for additional fats and cooking oils. You can also add broths to sauces, soups and other recipes for extra flavor and complexity.

Super Sprouted Grains

Sprouts, especially alfalfa and bean sprouts, became almost synonymous with nutrition consciousness in the 1970s. Then that fad passed, and in many people’s minds, sprouts became little more than a cheap sandwich filler. Today, though, health experts, bakers, raw foodists and athletes alike are increasingly enthusiastic about the nutritional benefits and culinary potential of edible, sprouted seeds.

Sprouts can be derived not only from alfalfa and beans, but also from nuts and many types of grains, including several (like wheat, barley, rye and buckwheat) that most of us typically eat in their more conventional milled-flour form. Once sprouted, a cup of these grains can contain as much as 25 percent of the recommended daily value for protein – complete proteins with all 10 essential amino acids – and high levels of vitamin A, B, C, E and K. Research has shown that sprouted grains contain more vitamins (especially B and C) than the grain seeds themselves, and that they are are also fine sources of calcium and magnesium.

Another benefit: The sprouting process accomplishes part of the work of digestion for you, according to Mirkin. Starches are converted to sugars, fats are used up as energy for growth, and proteins are broken down into amino acids.

As a result of all this activity, sprouted grains wind up being less calorie-dense than their unsprouted counterparts, explains Mirkin, “because the sprouting process consumes a significant portion of the calories.”

Sprouts are also rich in active enzymes, which may further assist with their digestibility. Mirkin says he often prescribes sprouted grains for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, not just because of the high fiber content, but also because they have been shown to contain certain fatty acids that protect the stomach lining.

People with gluten allergies also find that sprouting or soaking grains makes them more easily digestible, according to Gittleman. She designed what she calls a “fat-flush tortilla,” made entirely from sprouted grains and seeds. The sprouted grains give the tortilla “a delicious nutty flavor,” she says. “And unlike with regular tortillas, you can be really satisfied by eating just one.” The fat-flush tortillas are made by Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery (www.frenchmeadow.com), which also produces a number of yeast-free, sprouted-grain breads for national distribution.

“Sprouting the grains completely and using a yeast-free natural leavening process are both very important,” says Lynn Gordon, the bakery’s founder. “Both processes break down the complex carbohydrates and make the bread more digestible, so your body can absorb more of the nutrients.”

Another popular line of sprouted-grain products: Ezekiel 4:9 breads, tortillas, pastas and cereals made by Food For Life Baking Company in Corona, Calif. (www.food-for-life.com). These products contain the six grains – sprouted wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt – mentioned in the biblical passage that gives the breads their name. Not all of the Ezekiel 4:9 foods, however, are gluten-free.

Sprout choices in most grocery stores are generally limited to bean, alfalfa, and maybe radish or broccoli sprouts, so if you’re looking for variety you’ll most likely need to strike out on your own. Ready-to-sprout seeds are available from online merchants, like www.sproutpeople.com, and from many natural-food stores. Some grains can be sprouted in as little as a day using a simple glass jar with a mesh lid or cheesecloth cover. For tips on sprouting your own grains, visit www.tnr.fr/germina/germinaen.htm.

Sprouted grains can be added to just about any meal. You can steam a mix of nutty-flavored sprouts and eat it with fruit or honey as you would any hot cereal. Raw sprouts can be ground into hummus with lemon, garlic and tahini. They can be made into salads, mixed with carrot curls and julienned peppers, and dressed with soy and nuts. Sprouts will also stand up to quick stir-frying, but keep in mind that they are mostly water: Exposed to heat for an extended period of time, they tend to get limp and mushy.

Robust Root Vegetables

From potatoes to scallions to ginger, it’s hard to generalize about root vegetables. Yes, we dig them all out of the ground. But they come in an astonishing array of shapes, colors, sizes and flavors, and some of them, like parsley and celery root, are better known for their green, leafy tops. Yet one thing they have in common is this: As the roots (or in some cases, tubers) of growing plants, they are energy storehouses.

Roots are a diverse group nutritionally, too. Celery root (also known as celeriac) and parsnips are good sources of soluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar and helps control weight, while Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes) are high in iron. Beets, potatoes, rutabagas, salsify and turnips are all good sources of potassium.

“As the single best root vegetable, though, I’d probably nominate the sweet potato,” says John La Puma, MD, coauthor of The RealAge Diet (HarperCollins, 2002). “You can see how good it is. It’s bright orange inside, so you know it is a terrific source of beta carotene.” Beta carotene is an antioxidant, meaning that it bonds with unstable oxygen molecules, known as free radicals, in the body. Researchers have found close links between antioxidants and reduced cancer risks. Both sweet potatoes and carrots are packed with vitamin A in the form of beta carotene. In fact, a half cup of either vegetable, cooked, contains two to three times the recommended daily intake of the vitamin.

Other potential cancer-fighting root vegetables include turnips, radishes, rutabagas and horseradish – all cruciferous vegetables. A number of studies have suggested that cruciferous vegetables (the family also includes nonroots like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale and collard greens) may protect against cancer, particularly of the lung and digestive tract.

With some notable starchy exceptions (yep, the good old potato), root vegetables tend to be pretty low in calories. Beets, carrots, celery root, jicama, rutabagas, salsify, parsnips and turnips all have fewer than 50 calories per half cup. But in recent years, root vegetables have gotten a bad rap because they tend to rank high on the glycemic index (GI),?a measure of how quickly food is converted to blood sugar. While it’s true that potatoes and carrots rank above white bread on the glycemic index, it’s important to examine those numbers within a broader nutritional context, says La Puma.

“Root vegetables provide nutrients that are hard to get elsewhere,” he notes. “Parsnips are an excellent source of folate and contain beneficial, cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Beets are rich in potassium, choline, beta carotene and vitamin C. Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of the six mixed carotenoids used by the body.” La Puma advises cutting sugary processed foods from your diet, rather than root vegetables. “You shouldn’t worry about the sugars in root vegetables unless you’re insulin-resistant, have metabolic syndrome, or have diabetes or pre-diabetes.”

You can also moderate the glycemic impact of root-vegetable sugars by combining them with other foods, like nuts, that contain a small amount of protein and fat. These additional macronutrients will slow the absorption of sugars into the blood stream.

The good news about the naturally occurring sugars in root vegetables is that they taste great. To bring out even more flavor, try carmelizing or roasting them to create a tender brown crust. Toss chunks of veggies – say, a mix of parsnips, carrots and potatoes (and beets, if you don’t mind turning everything purple) with just a tiny bit of olive oil and a good deal of fresh rosemary or thyme – and roast them at 425 degrees for about an hour, turning them occasionally and making sure the chunks aren’t crowded in the pan. Sprinkle with coarse salt while vegetables are still hot. When winter weather has you craving creamy soups, try a root-vegetable purée. Use a hand blender to process a mix of boiled potatoes and parsnips right in their cooking liquid, adding broth until it reaches a soupy consistency.

You don’t even have to cook your root veggies to enjoy them. Jicama, kohlrabi and beets can be grated raw into salads or left overnight with some vinegar and seasonings to pickle slightly on their own. Grated raw celeriac (be sure to work quickly and dunk it in lemon water to prevent browning) mixed with mustard and mayo (or plain yogurt) is a classic French condiment known as celery rémoulade, to be served with cold meats. Some people even eat sweet potato “chips” – very thinly sliced raw sweet potato – served with dip or hummus.

Old Meets New

Happily, embracing traditional foods doesn’t mean you have to give up modern conveniences and pleasures. In many cases, having access to modern technology, such as blenders, crock pots and conventional ovens, makes the traditional cook’s job easier. Having access to a wide range of food choices lets you choose how and when you want to spend your time in the kitchen – and how you want to fuel your body on any given day.

But it’s important to recognize that many traditional foods simply cannot be replicated by modern food products and preparation methods. And both their flavors and their nutritional potential are too rich to let fall by the wayside.

Such realizations seem likely to inform the way we farm, shop, cook and dine in coming decades. In Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon puts it this way: “Technology can be a kind father, but only in partnership with his mothering, feminine partner – the nourishing traditions of our ancestors. These traditions require us to apply more wisdom to the way we produce and process our food and, yes, more time in the kitchen, but they give highly satisfying results – delicious meals, increased vitality, robust children and freedom from the chains of acute and chronic illness. The wise and loving marriage of modern invention with the sustaining, nurturing food folkways of our ancestors is the partnership that will transform the 21st century into the Golden Age.”

Tricia Cornell is the editor of Minnesota Parent and Minnesota Good Age magazines.

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