On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Josey Baker’s Awesome Adventure Bread (gluten free!)

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I figured a gluten free recipe might be a nice balancing gesture after Erik’s gluten post of last Friday. We love our gluten intolerant friends, and want to feed them well.

We are also continuing our love affair with Josey Baker’s new book, Josey Baker Bread. While Erik is the Bread Master in our house, I step up to the oven sometimes, when I really want to try something.

One thing I really wanted out of this book was a loaf of what Baker calls “Adventure Bread” which by the photo looked to be trail mix in loaf form. Baker says he developed it in response to the many requests he received for gluten-free bread. Wisely, he decided that instead of trying to replicate real bread without gluten, he’d make something entirely different.

It works. It’s made of nuts, seeds and oats, moistened with oil and water and held together with chia and psyillium husks…

[Psyllium what? We'd never used psyllium seed husks before, but they are apparently used in gluten free baking to help bind ingredients--like chia, they are mucilaginous. We found them in the dietary supplement section of Whole Foods, for what it's worth. Be sure to get the husks, not powdered psyllium seed, which is a laxative.(!) ]

…No yeast. No grain other than oats. It is tasty and moist and sliceable. Better still, its easy to make! Seriously, it’s foolproof. If you have bread baking anxieties, just leave those behind. Making this “bread” is easier than making cookies.

In texture, Adventure Bread  could belong to that camp of dense Nordic/Germanic breads, like Vollkornbrot, but its nutty nature sets it apart. The only thing I don’t love about it is the pumpkin seeds–I don’t like their slippery texture so much in this context. Next time I may switch those out. I’m going camping this weekend, and am taking this “bread” with me. Now that I’ve baked it, I suspect I could take this bread and nothing else to eat, and I’d never be hungry.

Geek moment: You know how in the Lord of the Rings the Elves have a travel food called lembas? One bite will fill a man’s stomach, etc.?  When I cut the first slice of this loaf, I cut the slice in half and gave one piece to Erik. It was first thing in the morning, before breakfast. We both nibbled our halves thoughtfully, and then I said, “Well, I guess I don’t need breakfast.”  It’s that filling. It’s our lembas.

(N.B. Despite being tall and skinny, Erik has the stomach of a Hobbit and managed to eat our lembas bread and breakfast that morning. And second breakfast. And elevenses.)

legalos with lembas bread

The heartiness of this bread drove me to an Internet calorie calculator to figure out how many calories I might be downing with every slice. The loaf weighed about 2lbs, 11 oz./1230 g. (I have to guesstimate because we ate a slice before I weighed it.)

Adding up the calories for all the ingredients for one loaf,  I arrived at 4974 calories. As a comparison, a plain loaf of bread made with 500 g. of whole wheat flour has about 1667 calories.

Figuring out the number of calories per gram for the Adventure Loaf, and then weighing a 1/3″ slice of the bread, I arrived at a calculation of roughly 300 calories per slice. So yeah, lembas.

But this is good! This is healthy, efficient eating. Thing is, if you eat a slice of this stuff,  and you seriously are done with food for a while. It’s not like lesser foods which you just keep eating and eating, searching for satiation. Nor is it something your stomach will burn through in an hour or so, sending you back to the kitchen for more snacks. No siree. One slice of this and you’re good to go for a long time.

For the actual recipe, I’m going to direct you to davidlevoitz.com, because he got actual official permission from the publisher to reproduce the recipe–and as a bonus, there’s also a write up on Baker himself. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

Update after living with loaf for a few days: I second Baker’s recommendation to serve it thinly sliced and toasted, smeared with a little something sweet. It’s best that way. But I did just get back from a camping trip with the bread, and it’s fine un-toasted. It got a little damp in the cooler, and so lost some charm, but still fed me very well. It shows no sign of getting stale, or even knowing the meaning of “stale.”

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Gluten Intolerance . . . Is It All In Your Head?

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As a co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers I go to a lot of public events where someone will walk up to me and announce that they are gluten intolerant. Their stories of getting off bread have the flavor of a religious conversion. My defensive reaction (I help run a bread club, after all) smacks of religious zealotry.

We know with a great deal of certainty that gluten intolerance in the form of celiac disease effects slightly less than one percent of the population. That actually makes it one of the most common allergies disorders related to food. But a much larger percentage of people self-diagnose as gluten intolerant who do not have celiac disease. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, kicked the gluten intolerance self-diagnosis trend into overdrive with a 2011 study that showed a large percentage of the population (those without celiac disease) as having a problem with gluten.

Gibson decided to take another look at gluten intolerance and construct a much more rigorous study in which all the meals were provided to the subjects and all urine and feces were analyzed. An article at Real Clear Science summarizes the results:

Analyzing the data, Gibson found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. Reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas all increased over the baseline low-FODMAP diet. Even in the second experiment, when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, subjects reported a worsening of symptoms! The data clearly indicated that a nocebo effect, the same reaction that prompts some people to get sick from wind turbines and wireless internet, was at work here. Patients reported gastrointestinal distress without any apparent physical cause. Gluten wasn’t the culprit; the cause was likely psychological. Participants expected the diets to make them sick, and so they did. The finding led Gibson to the opposite conclusion of his 2011 research:

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

Nocebos, incidentally are placebos with a negative effect. If I tell you you are going to get sick there’s a good chance you will. All human beings are highly suggestible. How powerful are placebos/nocebos? A recent study showed that placebos/nocebos work even if you tell research subjects they are taking a placebo/nocebo.

What’s important to note about the nocebo effect is that it results in real physical ailments. Ioan P. Culianu, professor of divinity at the University of Chicago used to quip, when asked about the subject matter of his research (Renaissance magic and the occult), “It’s all in your head.” And then he would wink. His point? We don’t take seriously enough the life of the mind. We dismiss the placebo/nocebo effect as, “just being psychological.” And because it’s “psychological” it’s not “real.” We forget that what goes on in our heads has real world implications.

I think, many people are having a spiritual crisis as a reaction to their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the modern world and the industrial food system. This system is making us sick both physically and spiritually. This crisis is manifesting as non-celiac gluten intolerance and other real health problems. The placebo/nocebo effect was known to the Renaissance magicians that Culianu studied, such as Giordano Bruno. It’s known to all shamans and spiritual healers. It should be taken seriously.

Manipulation of feelings and emotions in realm of our minds (done everyday through advertising, by the way) can  be used for both good and bad. Bruno even wrote a treatise on the subject, De vinculis in genere (On bonding in general). But Bruno and other philosophers of his time took metaphysical matters seriously. In our modern world we value only the material, which is how our lack of awareness of the nocebo effect can get us into trouble. The only people truly aware of the power of the placebo/nocebo effect in Western culture are advertisers and they are largely black magicians. Advertisers harness the nocebo effect of our gluten fears, reinforce those feelings and then use them to sell us products we don’t need.

The nocebo effect raises some thorny questions. If I open a toxic waste dump that creates a psychological feeling of unease that in turn causes people to get sick am I a “psychological polluter?” Am I liable even if I don’t leak any toxic waste? Again, the illnesses are real and the people getting them aren’t crazy.

Back to gluten, there may still be a gastrointestinal problem with wheat, Gibson is careful to note. But he doesn’t think it’s gluten. Ever in defensive mode as a bread enthusiast, I have an unproven theory that the way we make bread may be contributing to the problem. Perhaps the pre-digestive power of sourdough cultures, ancient wheats and baking bread longer may have an effect on how our bodies process bread. But there’s no research yet to back up my idea.

As to the power of the mind, like sourdough it’s also about culture, but culture in the non-physical sense. On that note, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Thankfully we can harness the placebo effect to do a lot of good. That will have to be the subject of another post.

Josey Baker Bread: One Bread Book to Rule Them All

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I’ve been teaching bread baking for a few years now through both the Institute of Domestic Technology and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. When students ask what book they should get I have to hold up half a dozen. Not any more. Now I can send students to just one book: Josey Baker Bread.

The appropriately named Josey Baker (who used to work with another baker named Dave Miller–who mills his own flour, naturally) has written a perfect bread baking course in book form. Everything I’ve figured out about teaching how to bake is in here–start with a simple white bread, graduate to sourdough and then start baking with whole grain. Having trouble shaping a loaf? Bake in a loaf pan instead! Stretch and fold instead of kneading. Simulate a commercial bread oven by using a cast iron pot. And use a damn scale! There’s even the browned butter chocolate chip cookie trick I learned from a friend who owns a restaurant. Has Josey Baker wiretapped my phone?

The book is written in an amusing and breezy bro-speak. Here he is truth telling in the introduction to his scone recipe,

Most scones suck. Why do they suck? Because they’re dry as hell. Don’t act like you do’t know what I’m talking about! When was the last time you had a scone and didn’t say, “I don’t know, this is just a little dry for me.” Or maybe you haven’t even had a scone in a long time, because the last one you ate was so crappy. . . Are they healthy? No, they are not. But what the hell, exercise feels good, so eat as many as you want and then go ride your bike, baker.

darmmountainrye

My successful attempt at the Dark Mountain Rye recipe.

Speaking of healthy, I’ve been concentrating on the recipes in the sourdough-based whole grain section of the book. Like Baker, I believe that a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant might just be allergic to mass produced supermarket bread. Baker’s Dark Mountain Rye is an example of how whole grain bread should be made and it’s and easy to bake.

In addition to the conventional breads Baker covers, there’s an interesting method of baking pizza in a home oven, a gluten free loaf that I’m going to try and some simple pastries. I also like the flexibility Baker builds into the recipes. Many can either be baked in a loaf pan or shaped into a boule. And there’s always the option to retard the dough in the refrigerator to give more depth of flavor as well as flexibility in when to fire up the oven.

Josey Baker Bread will appeal to both beginners and experienced bakers. Finally the collective wisdom from the recent bread revolution is in one book. If you want healthy, good tasting bread in your household Josey Baker Bread is a great place to start.

From the Archives: Loquat Leather

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Judging from the reaction to Mrs. Homegrown’s post yesterday it looks like some folks have a loquat obsession. Welcome home brothers and sisters.

At the risk of tooting my own loquat horn and repeating an old blog post, Mrs. H neglected to mention my controversial 2012 loquat leather experiment and recipe. You’ve still got to de-seed the damn things but at least there’s no need to skin them. Plus it makes use of booze.

I’ll admit it’s not a thrilling fruit leather but it’s not too bad.

Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

My philosophy is simply that if one is going to go through the trouble of making fruit leather, preserves, pies etc., one should use outstanding fruit. The flavor tells in the end. After all, the starving times are not upon us. Even Erik can’t get super excited about this fruit leather–as I recall it tasted mostly of lemon and booze.

Then again, some people may have outstanding loquats–it sounds so from the comments on the last post. The ones we have access to just aren’t fantastic for preserving–too watery, too light. I just learned that there are over 800 cultivars of loquats, so there’s going to be lots of different loquat experiences.

Loquat season is here!

loquat tree

photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
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*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Lila Downs Video Showing Tortilla Making in Oaxaca

Gloria En la Huerta from the Los Angeles Bread Bakers sent me a link to this music video that shows tortilla making in Oaxaca. The song is “Palomo Del Comalito” (Dove of the Comalito) by Lila Downs. Note the huge corn tortillas, proof of the regional diversity of Mexican cuisine (and one of the many details I got wrong in my tortilla press post–thanks for the corrections Gloria).

Lyrics in English after the jump.

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Choosing the Perfect Tortilla Press

81oH3xJUE3L._SL1500_ When we moved into our house back in 1998, we used to frequent a neighborhood Mexican restaurant down the street. The decor in this place had accrued like barnacles over the many years it was in business: dusty paper flags, Dia de los Muertos trinkets, waiters with pompadours wearing toreador outfits, and mirrors, lots and lots of mirrors. When you had their stiff margaritas (the strongest in town) the room would spin. Combined with those mirrors, the effect was unintentionally psychedelic. The food? A commentator on a local blog that covered the restaurant’s recent closing described it as, “like ‘Taco Tuesday’ at an elementary school in Kansas.”

One of the many reasons the food at this place was substandard was the store bought tortillas they used. For some reasons, few Mexican restaurants here make their own tortillas. Tired of substandard Mexican fare, I resolved to make my own tortillas. Thus began Root Simple’s “Taco Tuesday.”

The first step was to find a tortilla press. I got a great tip from a library cookbook: get a cast iron tortilla press. Unlike the flimsy ones I found at our local market, a cast iron press will last several lifetimes. And their heft helps when it comes time to press the masa into discs. And I opted for the smaller, 6 1/2 inch press as small tortillas are used in authentic Mexican street food.

Making corn tortillas is much simpler than I expected. All you do is get masa harina (a limed corn flour), mix it roughly 50/50 with water and let the dough rest for a half hour to an hour. Next, you roll the masa into little 2 inch balls and press them between a plastic bag inserted into the tortilla press. The last step is to heat them on the stove for one minute on each side.

Making your own masa from scratch is much harder (I tried it once for tamales and found that it’s a job best outsourced). But you can bet I’ve bought my last supermarket corn tortilla. From now on they’ll be made in our own cast iron press.

Update: One of the members of the LA Bread Bakers, Gloria, put her vote in for the traditional wood press. Cooks Illustrated Magazine also recommends a wood press. Gloria also sent along the following video which shows how you can make your own wood tortilla press:

In the next edition of Taco Tuesday, I’ll describe what we’ve been serving in our tacos.

Food Preservation Disasters

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It’s ain’t 24/7 kittens and rainbows at the Root Simple compound. We do have our homesteading disasters. I was reminded of this after I emptied a box full of failed home preservation projects and contemplated a stinky trash can filled with a slurry of bad pickles and too-loose jams.

Of course you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet and, in the interest of learning from mistakes, I thought I’d review two lessons learned.

Not Using Tested Recipes
I vow to use tested recipes from trusted sources. Both for food safety reasons and culinary reasons, it’s a good idea to use trusted sources for home preservation projects. Some of the recipes I tried were from unfamiliar books and dubious websites. Some sources I’ve come to trust:

Between those two sources I’ve got just about all the recipes I need.

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One Ring to rule them all
When you’re done processing jars and they’ve cooled down, remove the screw bands. Why?

  • So you can clean underneath the band to prevent spoilage and bugs.
  • The screw band can create a false seal.
  • Leaving the screw bands on can cause corrosion.

That’s advice from our own blog and yet I failed, for some reason, to remove the bands on many of the jars I emptied. I found all three of the above problems as a result.

Have you had any epic food preservation disasters?

Non-GMO Versions of Grape Nuts and Cheerios Less Nutritious Than GMO Versions

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Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health professor Marion Nestle noted on her blog this week that the non-GMO versions of Cheerios and Grape Nuts are less nutritious than the GMO versions. Why? Nestle says,

It’s hard to find non-GMO vitamins (who knew?).  Vitamins, it seems are often produced from genetically engineered microorganisms, or from microbes growing in fermentation tanks that are fed a nutrient mix that contains ingredients from GM sugar beets or corn.

Not that the presence or absence of GMOs matters all that much from a nutritional perspective. Nestle noted, “Cheerios are essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.”

At the massive natural food expo, I attended earlier this month, I saw a lot of unhealthy foods with a “non-GMO” label. In the case of Cheerios and Grape Nuts, the “non-GMO” label is either a marketing gimmick or an attempt to start a voluntary labeling program to head off voter mandated efforts.

Here’s where you can help. I need to kick my Grape Nuts crack habit and find a healthier breakfast alternative. Any suggestions?

Note from Mrs. Homegrown:  This post took me by surprise. Erik has eaten Gravel Nuts–I mean, Grape Nuts–for breakfast since I’ve know him (and for who knows how long before that) and that, my friends, is a long, long time.  If we are what we eat, Erik must be half composed of Grape Nuts. I can hardly imagine this new era of breakfasts which lays before us! We are up to our elbows in eggs this time of year, so I’m going to back those of you who suggested egg breakfasts.