“the croccoli” cracker with fresh ginger & roasted garlic

Maybe it’s the obligatory recovery period after the Christmas and New Year holiday that’s made me crave green stuff lately, even more than usual. But cold raw salads are not exactly compelling when the temperatures finally start feeling wintry.  I want huge platters of steamed green stuff slathered in some kind of goopy brown garlic sauce a la American Chinese food, in the excessive quantity only an American can appreciate.

Thus, the croccoli was born– a crunchy cracker not shy on nutty broccoli flavor, but matched with fresh ginger and some roasted garlic.

Broccoli is a “no-brainer” health food, packed with compounds found to fight cancer, and in combination particularly effective at detoxifying the body. Read more about that at one of my favorite no-frills nutrition sites, World’s Healthiest Foods.  The croccoli will be available at City Market, The Juice Laundry, and other select retail locations throughout the spring (May-June), and late fall.

ingredients: organic golden flax, locally grown broccoli, organic millet, organic raw sunflower seeds, filtered water, organic dates, Braggs raw apple cider vinegar,  roasted locally grown garlic, fresh ginger, himalayan pink salt

paleo zucchini mini muffins

Months ago, I swore to myself I would never again use coconut flour. In fact, I said it out loud, in the presence of others, more than once. Frustrated with weird, unreliable textures characterizing many a baked good I tried to make in the pursuit of nut-free paleo baked goods. If you read sites like Paleo Mom, Against All Grain, or other grain-free food blogs, then you probably know that coconut flour brands matter, as does the quantity and temperature of the eggs. Well, I couldn’t handle all the variables, knowing that coconut flour is very non-local (in fact, much of it comes precisely from the opposite end of the planet) or explaining to people why my muffins had the spongy texture of frittatas, and I back-burnered the challenge to make completely grain-free muffins that were primarily locally grown ingredients. But knowing how much kids love muffins, I set to work again, and think I’ve created the ideal morning treat that’s perfectly sized for little hands! By weight, the proportion of coconut flour to other ingredients is pretty small, and the eggs pack some quality protein, too. Applesauce and dried figs add a subtle sweetness, with no other added sugars.

Ingredients: local pastured eggs (Modesto Farm), zucchini (Little Hat Creek Farm), organic applesauce, organic coconut flour, organic dried currants, organic dried figs, coconut oil, tapioca flour, sea salt, vanilla extract, baking soda, cinnamon, fresh ginger, nutmeg

 

good neighbors & nutrient density

I’ve been so preoccupied in the last few weeks with a) scrambling to catch up with spring in our slacker vegetable garden and b) brainstorming logistics for my pilot subscription program this summer, that I’ve been lax with posting recipes on the site. Though most of my recent experiments in the kitchen have yielded success (flavor, toddler appeal, proper mouthfeel, etc.), others left me questioning myself not only as a baker, but as a competent adult: a crumbly fail of what I intended to be a chewy nutrient bar (not photographed because my hands were too coated in chia seeds, dehydrated kale, and tears to operate my phone’s camera); and a whole sheet of deliciously sweet quinoa beet crackers which ended up in the compost bin, charred and black, after I decided to “crisp them up” really quickly in the oven. Long story. In any case, I look forward to bringing my newer secret recipes to scale. After taking samples around to my favorite vendors at the farmers market, Caromont Farm is interested in replacing her Carr’s crackers with some of mine for her cheese samples. Baby steps!

As the streets of Baltimore (home to some of my closest family) erupted with misplaced frustration about persistent economic disparities, I came home Tuesday last week to find a surprise wedged between our screen and front door. A leaky red box of imported cocoa powder, aside an unopened box of Whole Foods’ 365 brand “Quack’n Bites.” The kind my kid recognizes inexplicably and steals from other kid’s snack bags as I sigh disapprovingly (is there a gene for brand recognition, somehow?). I hid the box in the darker part of the pantry until I could regift it again to someone more appreciative.

I didn’t need to ask who left these items, for two reasons. First, our next door neighbors had already made clear that they “don’t eat organic,” quick to bring over any cereal branded to vaguely convey health properties, whether or not they had an organic label. I was told, at one point, that they “don’t eat that healthy stuff, honey.”

They are kind, generous people living in a small one story concrete house, patient with a landlord that seems to ignore nearly every aspect of maintenance. They mow their grass with a regularity that puts us to shame. Raising their 5 year old grandson, they receive some public assistance (I think), and get food donations every once in a while. When deer season comes and they get lucky, you can bet our freezer gets stocked, too, especially if I’m willing to help process the bigger cuts. Reciprocation is impossible– when we still had chickens, they persistently refused offers of eggs. “We don’t eat them rich brown eggs.” I tried meekly to share some local apples once, and it was only (after my third attempt at persuasion) that the boss (mom) of the house finally conceded they might be good fried with pork chops. I considered it a huge success that they reluctantly accepted a pre-made meal of plain pasta with sauce and cheese this past weekend as a thank you for the cocoa and crackers. I felt like I was acting out some kind of sketch comedy, standing in their smoky doorway trying to “sell” something so plain and inoffensive. Secondly, I deduced the gifter because the boxes reeked of cigarette smoke, as anything would after 30 seconds or more of exposure to their interior atmosphere.

While our opaque recycling bin hides wine bottles, theirs hides cans of Mountain Dew. They shun organic for their own reasons, as I seemed to snub the Quackers for my own.

As days went by, the whole situation bugged me. I didn’t share a skepticism about organic foods, so what could I possibly have against innocuous goldfish crackers (even their overpriced organic equivalents)? Did I just resent major retailers’ lucrative attempts to “organic-wash” what was essentially junk food? Had I turned into a party-pooping, home-baking snob, or worse– a proselytizing (and hypocritical) dietary zealot? After all, red wine is about as empty in calories as Mountain Dew.

So I snuck into the pantry and looked more closely at ingredient and nutrition label:

  • 17+ ingredients (the top three by weight being white (organic) flour, vegetable oil, and natural cheddar cheese flavor)
  • 130 calories for a 68 cracker serving
  • 21 grams of carbohydrate (only 1 being dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar)
  • 2% each of daily values of Vitamin A, Calcium, and Iron
  • Despite a seal on the front (designed, I’m sure to cue the sensation of authenticity) which claimed inclusion of “Real Organic Cheddar Cheese,” said cheese came AFTER salt, by weight, on the list of ingredients, right before paprika

That pretty much validated my assumptions, though, in the poor Quack’n Bites’ defense, there were no added sugars. I guess I’m not the only party-pooper, though: Quack’n Bites earned a C grade on Fooducate, a rating web site on which “minimally processed, real foods with intrinsic nutrients will score better than processed foods that are poor in built-in nutrients.”

I compared the Quack’n Bites’ nutrition label with one of my newer kitchen inventions, for which I used my new best friend, Recipal. It generates nutrition labels for recipes (a function it performs much more expertly than a lot of the free versions out there, which I’ve also tried). It. is. awesome. And I swear they are not paying me to say so.

Curried Sweet Potato & Flax Crackers are one of my simpler recipes, grain-free and packed with baked organic sweet potatoes and golden flax seeds. First of all, even your toddler can probably pronounce the ingredients, and the vitamin content is much higher, with more protein and fats (mostly omega 3s), less sodium, and more than 50% fewer carbohydrates.  And, somehow, ten 1.5 inch square crackers have 20 fewer calories than the 68 Quack n’ Bites, though their serving weight is identical. This is a classic case of nutrient density, which is going to be the next drumbeat coming from dieticians, many of whom are advocating for a standardized “nutrient density score” to help people make better decisions about how to “spend” their calories. Ironically, Whole Foods has an Aggregated Nutrient Density Score (ANDI) on their web site (as does the CDC, and DrFuhrman.com, among others). Keep in mind that any “ranking” rubric is misleading, since EVERY food has some unique nutritional properties, and the less domesticated versions of crops tend to have more beneficial phytochemicals (as Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side explains in detail). Watercress scores more highly than sweet potatoes in CDC’s scoring, for example, but if I’m interested in getting more Vitamin A, you can bet I will opt for the latter. It depends on what nutrients that matter to you; and whether you trust pill vitamins to make up for the nutrients lacking on the plate.

Party-poopery aside, it comes down to this: I don’t resent empty calories (hey– we all have our vices), but I reserve the right to resent empty calories that are mass-produced, over-packaged, and branded to convey wholesomeness to busy parents who don’t have time to scrutinize nutrition labels in the store aisle. This reminder, after a week of aforementioned “ooopses” in the kitchen, is enough to keep me moving forward with a mission to make nutrient-dense snacks that are tasty enough for kids and grown-ups alike. When it comes to feeding children with developing brains– and with, like mine, an impatience for seated mealtime, I don’t want “cheese” crackers to be my only healthy option for food on the go. Until my guy is old enough to wield the power of consumer choice on his own, I will not let snack-time be wasted.

Spinach and the Season of Surprises

Spring in Charlottesville seems particularly blustery this year, with blown-over recycling bins along the streets evidence that March is (like a lion) still lurking around.  I celebrate the fact that the sidewalk in front of our house seems to get a lot of pedestrian traffic, but I can always gauge the level of recent wind by the variety of trash that makes its way among my poorly mulched columbines and irises. In the last week, our yard has accumulated a padded chair cushion, ice cream wrappers, and an empty blister-pack for something called “Stamina-Rx,” in addition to a motley array of fluttering detritus like plastic bags, which now adorn the ferns under our cypress tree. I guess I should be out there now, cleaning it up. Priorities, people! I’ve got priorities!

Meanwhile, we found morels growing in that same yard for the first time yesterday, and the seedlings started in our fluorescent-lit basement are making their way to permanent beds outside, the wind making them hardy, with (I hope) deeper roots. Deeper roots mean I can get away with forgetting to water them later in the season. And I will.

As a cheers to whatever-spring-epitomizes-to-you, I’m going to extend the trite “winds of change” metaphor a little more, because other surprises seem to emerge like crocuses, too.  For two years, my husband and I have done our darnedest to model good vegetable eating habits for Fionn, making all our dinners at least 50% salad by volume and telling him about all the colorful ingredients. Dorkily energetic offers of beet squares, carrot circles, broccoli with dip, etc. were all met with a shaken head and a snotty “nnnnnn-OH!” or, on good days, a taste rapidly followed by a spitting out, as if he had accidentally put a tea tree oil candle in his mouth. As I have written before, he sees even the typical toddler favorites like carrots and fresh peas with disdain, the irony of which seems to sting me personally, somehow.   Cramming a handful of kale salad in his four-compartment lunch container was an effort equivalent to filling the space with glittered-up dryer lint– it wasn’t meant to be consumed, but to be SEEN.  As expected, I would still see it there, untouched, when I picked him up from school. I continued sneaking greens into smoothies, muffins, crackers, and anything I could imagine. If I could only engineered a way to hide spinach inside a pistachio shell (his favorite nut), I would.

Knowing that context is everything, I began to question everything about my own behavior. Was my bad habit of getting up from the table to get the dressing I forgot, or wash my dishes when I was impatient for my husband to finish somehow priming Fionn to not take meals seriously? Certainly, Fionn has inherited my antsiness; at Friday’s preschool parent-teacher/meeting, his teachers said he is “special” as a kinesthetic learner, one who follows his own beat, who refuses to stand in a line, and delights in being a contrarian, even when the conventional wisdom makes more sense. Come to think of it, this sounds like me.

I hate the notion of “hiding” anything in food. I stubbornly want Fionn to identify vegetables in their raw state, and to enjoy them the way I do. Thus, the whole concept of good phyte foods navigates a fine line — incorporating (organic, locally grown) vegetables into the kinds of foods kids might otherwise nosh on willingly, while not “pretending” they aren’t even there. 

The good news, in our house, is that persistence is paying off.  Impatient for the opening of City Market yesterday, I had bought the first local spinach of the season at Integral Yoga a few days ago.  Out of the blue, Fionn accepted the usual offer and decided that he liked it. Quoth Fionn: “I like spinach.” Plain, raw leaves. Whoa. This was two hours after he plucked a turnip leaf from a garden and put it in his mouth without prompting. Before you get too excited about his valiance, you should know that the turnip was spit out on his chin, and wiped away with a grimace. Even so, I think our lame parental chorus of “Thank you for trying!” might be making headway. Here is a snippet from a New York Times article called “Six Food Mistakes Parents Make” that rings true despite it being written (gasp!) more than six years ago. This is Mistake #6:

Giving up too soon. Ms. Worobey said she has often heard parents say, “My kid would never eat that.” While it may be true right now, she noted that eating preferences often change. So parents should keep preparing a variety of healthful foods and putting them on the table, even if a child refuses to take a bite. In young children, it may take 10 or more attempts over several months to introduce a food…

Susan B. Roberts, a Tufts University nutritionist and co-author of the book “Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health,” suggested a “rule of 15” — putting a food on the table at least 15 times to see if a child will accept it. Once a food is accepted, parents should use “food bridges,” finding similarly colored or flavored foods to expand the variety of foods a child will eat. If a child likes pumpkin pie, for instance, try mashed sweet potatoes and then mashed carrots. If a child loves corn, try mixing in a few peas or carrots. Even if a child picks them out, the exposure to the new food is what counts.

“As parents, you’re going to make decisions as to what you want to serve,” Ms. Worobey said. “But then you just have to relax and realize children are different from day to day.”

So keep putting that spinach on the plate! Plant seeds and be patient! With the winds of change in the air, this might just be the time your little one will surprise you.

Put a Cape On It: A Book Review

Parenthood changes us. Big time. If we’ve grown sloppy in our own self-care, pregnancy is for many the much needed deep breath, conveniently long enough for transforming our bad habits into good ones. This is when resolutions to eat better might actually stick, because we know that soon, someone important will be watching. For a few anticipatory months, we have optimistic dreams of DIY everything: nursery room decorations, baby food, green body care, cloth diapers, and herbal non-toxic household cleaning solutions that might make us, well, Super Moms.

Inspired by the birth of my own (“one and done”) son, and my background working with farmers and farmers markets, I started good phyte foods with a keen awareness of the myth of the Super Mom. Sleep deprivation and occasional desperation are a math equation for compromise, and store bought processed foods start looking really good when what free time you have is used mootly sweeping behind your tireless tornado of a toddler. Who has energy to make everything from scratch, let alone ensure a diet with exactly the right macro and micronutrient ratios?

Those who judge books by their titles and covers (as I admittedly do) might be tempted to dismiss Ruth Yaron’s Super Baby Food as just about purée and gloopy oatmeal. In fact, it’s a reliable reference for just about everything related to rearing healthy kids – from nutrition to safety to encouraging resourceful, non-toxic play activities. In that sense, it makes a better go-to baby shower or 1st birthday gift than just about anything I can think of, other than a gift certificate for a 90 minute massage.

The book is a starting point for parents to “Choose Their Own Adventure” in building a green family. Making muffins, fruit leather, yogurt and nut butters is not your thing? How about making your own bibs, toys, or even just becoming an instant hero to other parents by memorizing the formula for calorie requirements based on age and body weight? Spoiler Alert: If your kiddo is between 1-3, your baby will need about 45 calories per pound of body weight, and between 50 and 79 grams of fat (p. 431-432).

Daily Servings and Portion Sizes Chart, p. 390
Daily Servings and Portion Sizes Chart, p. 390

This is why I love Super Baby Food. It’s startlingly comprehensive while being down-to-earth and unpretentious. There are no photos in the entire 600 pages (although you can find some on the Super Baby Food blog, if you are that addicted to food images). The recipes use humble phrases like “dump ingredients into…” and she stresses the importance of supporting local sustainable farming, food co-ops, and reusing or sharing programs. Yaron is a genuine home economist, not a glossy Martha Stewart. As I noticed after writing this paragraph, however, Martha herself did write an endorsement for the back cover.

The book includes more than 100 pages of toddler recipes, from hors d’oeuvres (basically cooked anything rolled into balls) to lasagna to muffins to sugar-free birthday cake frostings. I have tried a variety of these recipes, and love their simplicity, offering a reliable template to then experiment with different spices and herbs on your own. Check out my Mediterranean modification of her Millet Crackers (p. 509) to see what I mean about inspiring experimentation.

Fatty Acid Chart, p. 429
Fatty Acid Chart, p. 429

In most cases, Yaron follows a principle of nutrient density, which trumps any dogma of of gluten-free, paleo, nut-free, AIP-friendly, sugar-free, or any other myriad “X is bad” diets. Among today’s proliferation of all-or-nothing nutritional regimes, I find this refreshingly empowering. For me, as for Yaron, the bottom line is good ratios and diversity, with vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats as the cornerstones. She issues cautions about hidden sugars (see table) and preservatives, but doesn’t put a label or a halo on her point of view. Instead, she includes well-researched tables about portion sizes, targets for daily macronutrient quantities, nutritional profiles of nearly every vegetable, and all kinds of handy tips for anyone who agrees that homemade ANYTHING is best.

Finding Hidden Sugar Table, p. 418
Finding Hidden Sugar Table, p. 418

New in Super Baby Food’s third edition (I also have the 2nd edition) are a removal of any past recommendations to use plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and, thankfully, a removal of any suggestions to microwave, as it can destroy phytonutrients. Additionally, the book now discusses the issue of pesticide residue in foods, and updated its stance on allergens to no longer delay the introduction of common food allergens for infants that were not otherwise at high risk for allergies (since many food allergies are hereditary). This reflects a new stance that the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted in 2008, and reinforced by the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology in 2013, as mounting evidence indicated that late introduction of highly allergenic foods may actually boost allergic reaction in kids. See the U.S. News & World Report article How (and Why) to Introduce Allergens to Your Infant for more information on this point.

By now, you are probably no longer reading this review and are heading out to your local bookstore to buy your own copy of Super Baby Food, but I will close with a quote that has been helpful to me when I panicked about those times my son simply wouldn’t eat.

“I’ve heard on more than one occasion a mother say, ‘My baby won’t eat for me.’ That statement indicates that a power struggle has developed between mom and baby. For example, Baby does Mom a favor by eating, and punished her by not eating. How to prevent this? Do not over-react when your baby refuses to eat. And always keep mealtimes relaxed and pleasant.”

And, as I’ve learned by accident, not paying too much attention to the little one, and a little instrumental music in the background, both seem to result in a cleaner plate at the end of a meal. No fuss, no muss.

Yaron continues, “You can put baby in a high chair, but you can’t make him eat. Never force your baby to eat. When that little head turns or those lips close tight, it is time to put the food away. Never, never, never force a baby to eat; never make him finish the last spoonful in the bowl…Finishing that last bite will start your baby in the bad habit of eating when he is not hungry and throws off his self-regulating mechanism, which may lead to being overweight later in life.

“Some parents are so concerned about their baby’s lack of appetite that they may resort to shoving a spoonful of food into a baby’s open mouth when he is not paying attention, or forcing or manipulating food into their baby by some other means…If you find that you are resorting to such methods, give yourself an A for effort and for the fact that you care so much about your baby. But please stop…”

And, instead, use the leftovers to make some natural food coloring (p. 562) or fruit leather (p. 230), whip up some homemade play dough, and just go have some fun with your Super Baby.

Get recipes, updates, and inspirations from Ruth Yaron at www.superbabyfood.com, and stay tuned for modifications of her recipes at www.goodphytefoods.com.