a crunchy transition

Back in 2015, when good phyte foods just began the transition from a dream to something vaguely resembling a business, crackers were a fundamental part of the mission.  They allowed us to be creative with flavors using different vegetables and herbs in season, giving us an array of products with different phytonutrient profiles, and a satisfying, thin crunch that might — just MIGHT — become a more nutritious alternative to gold fish crackers for the kids we watched growing around us. We experimented again and again with combinations of various organic seeds, trying to achieve the perfect, lasting crunch (meaning one that would not be victim to Virginia summer humidity) while maximizing protein and healthy fats. We consulted with food scientist at Virginia Tech, whose immense knowledge crushed our high hopes of achieving a completely grain-free cracker, as she advised that a low-fat grain was needed in sufficient quantity to compensate for the natural oils in flax and pumpkin seeds. 

So, we set forth on a path to create a suite of different flavors rotating through the seasons, using a standard formula of three organic seeds, including millet. We even tried a couple shorter-lived flavors like spinach & tarragon, and I rocked out in the kitchen with my grandmother Margaret’s rolling pin day two or three afternoons a week. Once the labels were approved by Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS), we even developed some wholesale accounts. 

The problem, however, is that these crackers are a true labor of love. Once the dough is made (a seed-grinding and vegetable-blending process that takes about an hour from start to finish), the ensuing rolling, baking, and cooling could take four to five hours per batch, yielding somewhere between 18 and 20 bags. Inevitably, we lose up to 10% to over-cooking, which made my husband happy, since those were the only ones he got to eat. Such a time consuming product would be fine if we could charge $9 per bag (a price point that makes me cringe, even with the knowledge that certified organic seeds and quality local vegetables are not cheap). Pricing aside, we have no interest in specializing in crackers if it means all our kitchen time is consumed with their production, at the expense of things like granola, or bars, which are actually more in demand by our customers. Try as we might, there seemed no way to streamline the process in a home kitchen context without cutting corners on the quality. But wait.

Along comes 2018, and the diversification into fresh salads changes everything. In the quest to create a substantial crouton that was vegan, grain-free, and flavorful, the proton was born. Shortly after Erin Kath was hired as our first employee, we set to developing a formula for a whole-seed, protein-rich cracker that was substantial enough to be doused with dressing and not wilt like a petunia. The other requirement: it could NOT compete for oven time. Thankfully, when our kitchen underwent some renovations last summer, I created a space on the counter specifically measured to accommodate our dehydrator, which had previously been relegated to the (relatively clean but also relatively far away) basement. 

Though we are no means “finished” with tweaking the proton, we have (I think?) successfuly recreated at least three of our original cracker flavors in this new format. Now, we combine the vegetables, herbs, and spices with a heartier array of five high quality (still organic) seeds, including hemp and chia. This gives them a nutritional boost and makes them accessible to folks on a grain-free diet. 

Thus, this fall we are winding down production of our traditional crackers, and will only be making a few for our existing retail partners like The Juice Laundry, until we can get the labels finalized and approved for our protons.  We welcome any feedback you may have during this process, including the flavors you’d like to see, or places you’d like to be able to buy protons in the future. Email us with your comments at goodphytefoods(at)gmail.com.

Thanks for your support, ideas, and understanding as we continue to towards true sustainability as a mission-driven business. You are, and always will be, the most important ingredient.  That sounds like a horror film, but you know what I mean… 

 

 

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.

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.

Cinnamon Currant Squares

shhhh…. the secret ingredients are zucchini and carrots! Actually, you can sub greens like spinach for the zucchini, or get creative with whatever the seasons have to offer. Add a tad of honey if you prefer them a little sweeter.

Cinnamon Currant Squares
Yields 19
The secret ingredients in these slightly sweet, grain- and nut-free crackers are zucchini and carrots, and you would never know it!
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189 calories
20 g
0 g
11 g
5 g
1 g
66 g
134 g
11 g
0 g
9 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
66g
Yields
19
Amount Per Serving
Calories 189
Calories from Fat 94
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 11g
17%
Saturated Fat 1g
6%
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 7g
Monounsaturated Fat 2g
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 134mg
6%
Total Carbohydrates 20g
7%
Dietary Fiber 6g
25%
Sugars 11g
Protein 5g
Vitamin A
22%
Vitamin C
4%
Calcium
5%
Iron
9%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Ingredients
  1. 2 cup sunflower Seeds
  2. 1 cup pepitas
  3. 1 cup ground Flax seed
  4. 1 cup purreed zucchini or spinach
  5. 2 medium carrots
  6. 1 cup chopped apple
  7. 1 cup dried currants
  8. 5 dates
  9. 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  10. 1 teaspoons ground ginger
  11. 1/2 cup water
  12. 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  13. 1 teaspoons salt
Instructions
  1. Soak pitted dates in 1/2 cup water and set aside.
  2. Place sunflower seeds in food processor and process until finely chopped. Place in a large bowl.
  3. Place pepitas in food processor and finely chop before adding to the bowl, along with the ground flax. Stir to combine.
  4. Process carrots, apple, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon, and ginger in food processor until you get a puree. Add zucchini/greens puree and mix.
  5. In a blender, blend dates the water until liquefied. Add the date puree to the carrot and apple mixture, stirring.
  6. Stir wet ingredients into dry and mix well. Stir in currants.
  7. Spread 1/4 inch thick on non-stick dehydrator tray. Dehydrate for 1 hour at 145, reduce heat and continue to dehydrate at 116 for two more hours. Flip mixture onto screen, cut into squares of your preferred size (I use 2" by 2"), peel off non-stick sheet and continue to dehydrate for about 8-10 more hours or until dry but not hard. The squares will be slightly soft.
Notes
  1. Makes about 76 2" by 2" crackers. 19 four cracker servings.
  2. Nutrition information: A good source of Vitamin E, Thiamin, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin K and Manganese. Estimated glycemic load: 6.
beta
calories
189
fat
11g
protein
5g
carbs
20g
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