Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Changing Our Palate

Golden roasted garlicky Brussels sprouts, olive oil, a dash of cracked pepper and sea salt…mmm. My mouth is watering, yours? If your anything like much of the population, there’s a good chance that you’d rather put a fork in your eye than into a serving of these glorious green globes. Not to worry, I’m not here to preach about the numerous benefits of cruciferous vegetables but rather to provide insight as to why taste preferences vary and why some might shutter at the idea of eating any vegetable aside from a French fry (yes-French fries are considered a vegetable by some, but that’s a can of worms for another time) while others bask in the splendor of delicately braised kale or the earthy sweetness of luscious beets (I might be talking about me here).

It turns out that our taste preferences are influenced by genetics and environment. Genes that code for taste have been identified and explain why some people are more sensitive to bitter foods, like Brussels sprouts. However, studies show that children and mothers with the same taste genes have different experiences of bitterness. This has lead researchers to propose that bitter sensitivity is heightened in childhood and dulls over time,. These same children also showed greater preference for sweetness, which does not come as a surprise evolutionarily speaking.

The inherent response to reject bitter plants was important in protecting our caveman ancestors from consuming poisonous foods. In nature edible plants are often sweet (think wild berries), and were safer choices. The tendency towards sweetness was functional at one time to avoid bitter, poisonous plants but has now gotten us into trouble. Sugar is ubiquitous in the food system, and more often is consumed in processed items rather than what nature had intended.

Is it possible that our sugar laden environment has over-ridden the inherent gradual acceptance of bitter foods, like many vegetables? When our palate is conditioned to expect sweetness, unsweetened foods may well be refused, especially by growing children, which is why infants should be introduced to vegetables first rather than fruits. Salt, too, has played an important role in human history but is now over consumed, often unknowingly in processed items, and this over consumption corresponds to various health concerns.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans* pull in the reigns on sugar and salt. Stricter recommendations have been made in hopes of dramatically reducing intake to help manage weight, diabetes, hypertension, and many more related illnesses. However, a common question is: how will people accept and adapt to eating a diet that is so, well, bland? Thinking about all of the variety and flavors that real, whole foods, herbs, spices offer opens up infinite possibilities in the kitchen, but for those conditioned to highly sweet or salty foods, the answer to this question is simply this: like any habit or lifestyle change, it will take time, exploring new foods and flavors, and reprogramming our taste buds. 

So, if you’ve sworn off certain foods because you didn’t like them 10 or 20 years ago, be adventurous and give them another shot! There’s a good chance you might surprise yourself; life might just be a little more savory with a few more Brussels sprouts.    

*Generally, I’m not a huge advocate of nutrition recommendations propagated by the government (HHS + USDA), as I do not believe they have our best interest in mind (6-11 servings of grains/d!), but it’s a no brainer that we do need to dramatically decrease intake of sugar and salt from processed food-like items. Plus, the Dietary Guidelines have far reaching effects for many
populations, which is why I referred to them above.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Do You Pack (and USE) Running Shoes When Traveling?

Traveling can definitely throw a wrench into one's health/nutrition/fitness routines, in fact routines tend to go out the window when dealing with changing situations. This is especially true when a) your travels include flying to your destination and you don't have the car to toss anything and everything into, b) changing time zones (jet lag seems to be a valid excuse for anyone no matter the direction traveled), and c) trying to squeeze in as many activities (work or play) into the day as possible. Plus, people often prescribe to the "I'm on vacation, and I deserve to relax and splurge."

While I do not disagree with this statement, my thoughts are that we all deserve to be healthy and vibrant, too, especially when on vacation or traveling for business. These times can be draining, and maintaining a nutritious diet (which does not necessitate deprivation) and maximizing physical activity are two ways to keep your energy levels buzzing to make the most of your trip! Of course, you know this if you include a healthful diet and exercise program in your day-to-day life--that why you do it!

In my experience it's might be better to loosen up, relinquish some "rules," and simply resolve to getting back on track once home. I know that I've found myself in the position of being on vacation and stressing over when I'm going to fit in a run or will there be something on the menu that jives with my dietary preferences and considerations? I worry about getting home after being gone for a week and losing all of the fitness that I've worked so hard to build. After all, I'm getting so old--my body doesn't adapt the way it did 10 years ago when I was playing college soccer! I'm getting better about these rules, but nutrition and fitness are values close to my heart and a large part of who I am, which I cannot leave at home; those values travel with me, but I can be flexible.  

Instead of obsessing, make healthy choices when you can. Utilize the fitness center in your hotel, go for a run/walk outside to explore the place you're visiting, hike the stairs to your hotel room, don't skip meals, shoot for balance: lean meats, fish if you're on a coast, lots of greens/veggies, and be prepared with healthful snacks like nuts, fruit, hard boiled eggs, string cheese. These all travel well, and the proper combination will fuel you for whatever your travel itinerary may be. Most importantly, just because you're traveling and perhaps feel a bit out on sync, you can choose how to mitigate the situation to make the most of your trip and your health!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kicking Back with Coffee

Good Morning Joe! I’ve come to the conclusion that sipping on my morning coffee gives me a sense of comfort and pleasure that I truly value and that this outweighs my concern potential negative effects on my health. Now, I am a big fan of the axiom, “everything in moderation,” so I drink a cup or two in the morning and am ready to move on with my day. All of those potent antioxidants bound up in the roasted aroma! It just may be the best part of waking up (except for snuggling, of course:).   
Like all nutrition topics, the debate about coffee’s effect on health will likely be forever that—a debate. However, a good deal of research shows that moderate coffee consumption may even confer some health benefits. Studies show that regular java drinkers tend to have a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, gallstones, Parkinson’s disease, and colon cancer. To an extent, coffee has also been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent neural degeneration responsible for aging and brain disorders, but do remember that once you cross your personal caffeine threshold, that perk can morph into jitters or even feelings of anxiety. No bueno for a clear head.
While some studies have found an association between coffee consumption and decreased cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease and stroke, it should be noted that caffeine is a stimulant and can increase heart rate and blood pressure, thus people with fibrillation may want to consider decaf.
Coffee has also shown improvement of endurance performance in long-duration physical activities. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that caffeine is a bronchodilator, lessening airway resistance and allowing for greater oxygen intake. Studies have shown that even small amounts of caffeine can improve lung function for up to four hours. More O2 in leads to better distribution to muscles for sustained performance, but before downing a triple Americano for your next trail run, remember to assess your GI sensitivity so you aren't desperately searching for a bush and some broad-leafed greenery! 
While research about coffee’s effect on women’s health has been largely inconclusive, many women find relief from fibrocyctic breast when they switch to decaf or eliminate it altogether. During pregnancy caffeine clearance from mom’s blood slows, and some observational studies have noted high caffeine intake may cause growth restriction, reduced birth weight, preterm labor or stillbirth. Baby can also suffer withdrawal symptoms if mom was really serious about her coffee drinking--eight or more cups per day! Talk about a cranky kid! No worries ladies, a couple cups a day in early pregnancy has shown no effect on birth weight, preterm births or growth restriction.

An important factor that I consider as a dietitian is whether the benign cup of coffee becomes a vehicle for less than desirable additives. I understand the need to cut through the tanic bitterness, but when I start thinking about all of the “crap” that might be hidden in a caramel macchiato or sugar-free snickerdoodle I start to wince. Ever (try to) read the ingredients on a flavored Coffee-mate bottle (here's a good summary: http://www.livestrong.com/article/402395-ingredients-in-coffee-mate/)? This is not just a calorie thing; it is an empty calorie, highly refined sugar and “other” chemicals thing. This is where health concerns really enter the picture!

Consider this: wean yourself from those sugar/chemical-laden drinks (can you really even taste the coffee?) and try a splash of plain cream and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. Similarly, when brewing coffee at home, you can sprinkle these aromatics in with your grounds prior to brewing for a simple, clean version of flavored coffee. No cinnamon “flavoring” here, just real ingredients, delicious taste.

*Note: As always, choose organic and fair trade when you can. Coffee growing and harvesting is well known to be high in pesticides and many companies take advantage of the farmers that labor those luscious beans.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hey Hey Souffle aka "Soufflicious"

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_V7MLFm3H8BU/TGXtomiy_tI/AAAAAAAAXtg/dDWin4vJT7s/s1600/eggs1.jpgIt's a bit of a coincidence that the last post I wrote was about an egg and now, my first post in over six months, I am writing about eggs once again. Inspiration much? Actually it really is just a coincidence and a boost in confidence from a couple of terrific friends. My life is now drastically different than it was at the time I last wrote; I graduated with my master's degree in nutrition, moved back to the land of rainbows and gumdrops in CO, had the most beautiful farm-to-table wedding, went on a mountain biking honeymoon road trip, and have been working full time as an unpaid dietetic intern in a school district for the last three months. I have simply had to just live life and have been unable afford myself the time to write. Really I should be doing about five other things right now, but I've had it with moments of inspiration and glints of creativity washing over me and then quickly flitting away untouched.

In exchange for use of our wedding pictures, my friends at Fox Fire Farms gave me a couple dozen gorgeous pastured eggs. Some people get excited to shop for new clothes or go out on the town. I get excited about fresh eggs, knowing exactly where they came from and who tended to them. Since our bartering transaction I have been day dreaming about the many possibilities in which I could showcase these beauties. Some will be hard boiled, some scrambled, and some cooked perfectly over medium in a smidge of butter. I wanted to get fancy though, really prove my capabilities in the kitchen. Souffle. It had to be a souffle, a savory one and I would make it for dinner.

Working in school food services, I feel like some days a bit of my soul is sucked away. Dramatic, yes, but with each "Rib-BQ" served, my spirit breaks a little more. I find refuge at home in my cozy kitchen where I create whatever my heart desires and my values in good wholesome food are restored. Today was one of those days, and after a chilly evening run, I warmed up in front of the oven to prepare my souffle.

If you've never had farm fresh eggs, well, really there is no comparison to store bought mass produced eggs. The yolks are like nothing you've ever seen or tasted before, bright balls of orange and a silky texture more alluring than sinking into a freshly fluffed feather bed. The rich flavor is remarkable. Not only that, these eggs are nutritionally superior to store bought eggs, containing significantly more of vitamins A, D, E, beta carotene and omega-3 fatty acids. And guess where all of this goodness lies? That luscious yolk!

 To compliment the souffle I decided on something simple: roasted (homegrown) delicata squash and sauteed chard. The simplicity of these items allowed me to focus on  the souffle to make sure it fluffed to light, airy perfection. I couldn't help but stand at the oven, continuously peeking in at the risen gold crust. Proudly, I pulled it out of its safe home in the oven, admired it, and promptly dug in, making sure to serve it up before losing any volume. Smooth pillows of egg were contrasted by soft bits of cauliflower, aromatic parsley, and creamy jack cheese. I slowly savored each bite and enjoyed the sweet, salty, buttery-ness of the squash. Full belly of delicious nutritious food = content. "Rib-BQ's" ain't got nothin' on me!

Creamy Cauliflower Souffle 
This incredibly fluffy egg dish will impress any guest for brunch or can be whipped up for a simple, cozy dinner. Using local pastured eggs will yield a beautiful golden souffle and truly enhance appreciation for the simple yet wonderful egg.

Prep Time: 20-25 minutes   Bake Time: 30-35 minutes    Yield: 4 servings

1 1/4 cups finely chopped cauliflower florets
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 stick unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup shredded jack cheese
6 large pastured eggs, separated
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 2 qt souffle dish. 

Place cauliflower, parsley in a large bowl and set aside. Melt butter in medium pot. Slowly sprinkle  flour in, whisking continuously. While whisking pour milk in a little at a time until well incorporated. Heat until sauce has thickened and has a smooth consistency. Remove from heat.

Whisk yolks and slowly add to sauce making sure not to scramble. Stir in cheese, salt and pepper. Pour over cauliflower and parsley. Vigorously whisk egg whites until foamy, stiff peaks form. Spoon whites into yolk mixture and gently fold in one spoonful at a time until well incorporated and fluffy. Carefully spoon into souffle dish. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Humpty Dumpty

My body wanted protein when I returned home from yoga yesterday afternoon. There are those days when I simply feel as though my muscles need something more substantial than fruits, veggies, tofu, and beans to rebuild after a vigorous activity. I've become picky about the animal products I consume in the last couple of years now privy to, not only the nutritional difference between conventional meat/poultry/eggs/fish and their grass fed/free range/wild caught counterparts, but also understanding the environmental impact and considering the quality of life the animals were afforded. As with any product expense increases as quality improves, making animal proteins a rarity in my diet.

For these reasons, which could be many more posts in and of themselves, as well as the fact that I cook for one, I typically prepare vegetarian dishes. However, I'm careful to balance these meals with healthy fats, like avocado, olive oil or nuts and seeds, a source of protein, such as legumes, tempeh or tofu, and a high fiber whole grain or starch, like, quinoa or sweet potatoes. These foods always befriend the veggie delights that manifest from under my knife. With so much variety to be had, and the cooperation of herbs and spices lending a hand, there is an endless assortment of marriages between all of these very basic yet nourishing whole foods.  

As I said before, some days I just need more. This is when I turn to trusty staples in my pantry or fridge, like wild caught canned salmon or tuna or free range eggs. Ahh the egg, once demonized as being an artery clogging cholesterol bomb, has persisted as a friendly, and extraordinarily versatile, companion to nearly any meal. The egg waved his white flag of surrender insisting he had come in peace simply to serve us with essential nutrients and various culinary properties. His resume is extensive including, but not limited to, experience in emulsifying, thickening, binding and foaming. Better yet the egg works well as a part of a team in baked goods, sauces, souffles, and salads, but he can also be a leader and command attention when acting alone, scrambled, over easy, poached or hard boiled. Any time of day, for a meal or a snack, the egg will happily serve.

Luckily I had a hard boiled little guy ready and waiting for lunch. Having decided on something savory yet light, I threw together this wonderfully simple and satisfying egg salad, perfect for cracker dipping and companion to the rainbow of veggies that made up my beet filled salad.  

Energizing Egg Salad for One

Clean, modest ingredients combine for a creamy, fluffy spin on egg salad. Delightfully different and well balanced, heart healthy fats and perfect proteins join forces to create a fresh tangy boost of energy. Enjoy over green salad, as an open face sandwich or dunk you favorite crackers.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Serves: 1

1/4 avocado, mashed
1-2 tablespoons pickle juice
1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
1 hard boiled egg, chopped
Fresh cracked pepper

Combine avocado, pickle juice and cilantro. Mix to desired smooth consistency. Fold in chopped egg. Season with pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Original recipe, Marissa Barneck, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Nose Knows

This past Sunday was magnificent in Seattle, brilliantly luminous and sublime. The skin on my arms thanked me for finally letting them out of confinement to bask in the sun's glory. An afternoon run elevated my buoyancy to a whole new level. This runner's high was a synergistic culmination of the blood and endorphins briskly pumping through my body and my reflections along the way. Typically I can lose myself in lack of thought when I run. This run was different; I couldn't contain all of the thoughts popping into my head. The generating factor to this stream of cognition was smell. Around ever corner of my hilly eight miles was a novel scent that invariably pleased me.

The raw aroma of fresh cut grass transported me back to playing outside as my dad pushed the lawn mower back and forth, taking extra care to keep straight lines. A sickly sweet bouquet of the many blooming flowers landscaped to perfection throughout the neighborhoods reminded me of the arrangement I once put together for my mom on mother's day. Now, delicate to the touch, these dried beauties live on in her bedroom. Distinct from all other blossoms, lilacs emanated their romantic fragrance before a bush was anywhere in sight. Exuberance propelled my legs without effort as I traveled through neighborhoods. Evidence of the dinner hour was also in the air, and sounds of chatter and laughter rang out from backyards. Grills were blazing and the smoky flavor of meat was abound, filling my nostrils, causing my salivary gland to go into overdrive.

I felt keenly tuned into my olfactory sense and began to think about what life might be like if I were unable to see. Blind to the visual cues that spring had arrived, how would I know? Upon experiencing so many smells in the past hour, I realized that they would be a vital factor in distinguishing this renewed time of year. Scent would also play a significant role in preparing and eating foods. The saying goes "we eat with our eyes," so what happens when we are unable to see the food in front of us? With this new found appreciation for my sniffer I decided to experiment with my dinner. I trekked up the last sharp hill to my house, enjoyed a few more moments outside, then went in to assemble dinner: a simple, yet lovely asparagus risotto.

I pulled out what I had on hand and began to assemble, allowing my nose to guide the seasonings added. Keeping it clean and uncomplicated was key. A light citrus-herb blend would yield a meal reflective of the radiant day. Coincidentally, I had just discovered lemon balm growing in the front yard when I returned from my run. Closing my eyes with my face in the pot I inhaled deeply to analyze whether or not I needed more of anything. Garlicky, salty, tangy, peppery, herby enough? I swore to taste only the end product. Once the last squeeze of lemon juice went in along with chopped parsley and lemon balm, my nose told me, and my belly, that it was time. Having released its starchy goodness the rice was now luscious and velvety; shocks of color from the sweet potatoes and asparagus made for an alluring landscape. I scooped myself a bowlful, topped it with chopped almonds, and ate each bite with intention, breathing in the flavors. Turns out, my nose knows its way around the kitchen!      

Lemon Herb Asparagus Risotto

This basic risotto can be modified in many ways based on the herbs you happen to have in the house. Aromatic basil or rosemary could be substituted and the fresh integrity of this savory spring time dish would be maintained. Dried herbs can be used, too, but remember to use about half as much as fresh! Happy Spring!  

Preparation Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4-5

1 tablespoon fat (butter, olive oil)
1 medium onion,1/2" cubes
1 small sweet potato, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup arborio rice
4 cups broth/stock (chicken, vegetable)
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1" pieces
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon balm, minced
salt and pepper to taste
chopped almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, etc.

Heat oil in pot over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of salt. Saute 5-6 minutes till translucent. Add sweet potato. Cook 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and stir till fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add rice and stir for 2-3 minutes to toast. Add 1/2 cup of stock and stir continuously until absorbed. Continue this process, adding 1/2 cup at a time, until all 4 cups of liquid have been absorbed. Be sure to continue stirring throughout cooking; this is what draws the starch out of the rice to create the creaminess.

Turn heat to low. Now fold in asparagus and cover pot for 2-3 minutes or until asparagus is bright green in color. Finally, add lemon juice and herbs. Some people like more or less herby so add based on your preference. Similarly, add salt and pepper to your taste. Stir one final time and serve. Garnish with chopped nuts if desired. Enjoy!

Original Recipe, Marissa Barneck, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

Finding Your Groove

The name of this blog did not come easily to me. I was tormented for days, actually weeks, as words and phrases ruminated in my head the way a tempting aroma wafts throughout the house enticing you to spoil your dinner by succumbing to the medley of flavors. I was careful not to sink my teeth in to the potential titles prematurely, for I feared the aftertaste would become bitter, leaving me regrettably unsatisfied.

Since food is a focal point of this blog, it is a necessary component in my attempt-to-be-clever title. It just so happens that the flamboyant, yet humble, beet makes my heart pitter-patter. Truthfully, I am a little in love with beets (sorry Baird). Like a school girl crush, I feel my cheeks glow rosy and face light up when I talk about my affair with beets. My infatuation with the bulbous fuchsia beauty and her slender emerald leaves surpasses all tests of cooking techniques and flavor enhancement; however, I am most fond of the earthy sweetness she yields in her most natural state, raw or steamed, no adulteration required. We will be life-long lovers.   

When incorporating healthy changes into one's life, habits can be incredibly challenging to break and to make. Often it can take a person an entire month to develop a novel pattern in living, but once this is achieved a new level of comfort and wellness can be found. This notion of developing a new "groove" in order to live a healthier life takes shape in various and sundry ways depending on the individual. Not only does groove mean "a fixed routine," according to dictionary.com, but also "an enjoyable time or experience," "to appreciate and enjoy," "to take great pleasure in," and "to please immensely." These are the words to take with you when you contemplate initiating change in your life.

Like my beloved beet nestled into the lush soil, the confidence to find your own new groove to a healthier life may lie just under the surface. It might take a bit of digging, but your energy to make positive change can be found in the root of your desire to live a long, happy life.

What's one thing you could alter to enhance your health (and what's keeping you from moving forward)?