Friday, September 23, 2011

Top Ten Guide To Creating A Healthier Kitchen

Last Spring, a fellow blogger graciously asked me to guest blog on the topic of creating a healthier kitchen. Since its content is helpful for the goal setting nature common to the changing of seasons, I have reposted the article below.

What goes on in the home kitchen is truly the foundation of personal health. My friend Kelly likes to say, “What we eat in private shows in public.” Now, as we are all sheepishly picturing the large bowl of ice cream we made-out with last night before bed, this phrase can go the other way as well. When we treat ourselves to satisfying food that nurtures us and keeps us healthy, this shows too.

I like to approach this topic by leaving guilt at the door. In my practice as a Personal Health and Nutrition Coach, I have seen how culturally acceptable it has become to beat yourself up in hopes of becoming the person you desire. To be honest, I have never witnessed a more counter productive way to create healthy change. Guess what? It’s okay to like your thighs. Yes, your thighs as they are right at the moment, not your thighs six months from now. Let’s get real for a sec: aren’t you glad you have them?

The kitchen is a powerful place, as the home cook is a powerful person. The moment we begin cooking more for ourselves at home, we take the reigns. Regardless of where you live, or however many options there are in your city for eating out, a home cooked meal trumps all. Here’s why: the ingredients used in restaurants need to meet many goals before nourishing your health. Restaurants are businesses, kept in business by turning cheap product into something that tastes good to the unsuspecting eater. Same is true for packaged products. “Cheez Its” are not sitting on the shelf to keep you feeling your best. They are there because they are convenient, crunchy, salty and thus can turn a profit.

By contrast, the ingredients we choose to stock our home pantry can be chosen with greater things in mind.

Following is a top ten guide to help you transform your kitchen into an oasis where healthy meals are born. When I say healthy, I am not suggesting you eat soy noodles and steamed broccoli three nights a week. No. I encourage you to eat foods that satisfy you. That speak to who you are. That are colorful. Honor your heritage. Make your family draw in a deep breath when they walk into the house.

You can begin by nixing the nutritionally faulty fat-free trend. Use high quality olive oil and butter. Explore new foods. Have fun. Include the family. This is the beginning of a true love affair with flavor, sitting down to savor, and leaving the table feeling fulfilled in every sense of the word.

1. Put It In A Ball Jar:

This may seem strange as the number one suggestion, yet storing most of my pantry items in half gallon ball jars encourages me to buy in bulk. Packaged items such as crackers, chips, cereals and cookies essentially are not food, they are just crunchy filler. By foregoing these items and their nutritionally empty profiles, you can make space for whole grains, dried beans, nuts, a variety of flours, seeds and spices. Storing food in jars also helps you see what you have at a glance while keeping the shelves organized.

2. What Goes In Your Cart Goes In Your Mouth:

As mentioned before, packaged items represent quick and easy nibbling. If such convenience items are in the house, they will get eaten, regardless of all the promising you’ve made to abstain. If an item goes into the grocery cart, it will eventually make it into your mouth. This brings me to my next tip. . .

3. Make A Grocery List and Stick To It:

Before shopping for groceries, make a list to help keep you on track with your intentions. It is a good idea to think about what items you want in your home, write them down and stick to it. Grocery store marketing is a slick device designed to encourage impulse buying. A list will help guide you beyond these hurdles.

4. Eat Before You Shop:

As with making a list, shopping on a full stomach will help you make wiser choices. I remember when I was a little girl grocery shopping with my Aunt one day after church. We were both hungry, and somehow came home with a whole chocolate cake amongst our other items. Had we taken the time to eat lunch before cruising through the aisles, that cake wouldn’t have made it into our cart.

5. Linger In The Produce Section:

It is so easy for us to fall into the habit of buying the same produce week after week. Carrots, celery, onions, etc. Yet, as the seasons change so does variety. It is wise to think about what is fresh and locally available. Take time to explore new foods, this will help you grow as a cook.

6. Find Your local Farmer’s Market:

Farmer’s markets are the key to reclaiming your health. Locally and seasonally grown/produced foods are far superior to anything you can find in the grocery store. Granted, not all foods found at all farmer’s markets mean they are healthy, but the chances are greater. Get to know your local producers. They will become the backbone of your health. Knowing who grows your food will create more meaning and community behind the meals you prepare. Fresher food means more flavor too, making your job in the kitchen almost effortless.

You can find your local market with a simple google search. Bring cash (not all vendors are set up to accept credit cards) and canvas bags to haul your tasty loot.

7. Enjoy The Process:

Cooking can be a chore for some and a creative outlet for others. Whichever category you fall under, we’ve all got to eat. Try reshaping the way you look at cooking. Turn on some music, maybe sip a little wine and enjoy yourself. The more you do, the better your food will taste.

8. Invest In A Good Knife:

Part of enjoying the cooking process is having the right tools to make the job successful. Contrary to what many may think, one good kitchen knife is all you need to begin. I highly recommend Global, Wusthof, or Henckel brands.

9. Stock Up On Fermented Foods

Almost every culture across the globe historically enjoyed a variety of fermented foods from kim chi to sauerkraut. Fermented foods are not only some of the most nutrient packed foods out there, they are wonderful accompaniments to home cooked meals. Look for locally made fermented items such as lacto-fermented pickles, kraut, miso, or kefir. You will learn to crave the briny, sour taste of such beneficial foods.

10. Quality Is Key:

I often hear how expensive organic or high quality foods tend to be. Here is the thing: organic foods or foods produced using ethical/quality methods are not expensive, it’s that the rest of the food out there is artificially cheap. The food industry has done an excellent job filling foods with chemicals, fillers and colorings which make the final product unrealistically inexpensive, and very dangerous to our health. Remember, most products are sold to make a profit, not to help us maintain our health.

By investing in high quality food, we are single handedly doing the most to invest in our long term health. Cheap processed food makes us feel cheap and processed. Eating this way will land us in the doctor’s office where we will have to pay for medical care. So think of it this way: you can spend your dollar on flavorful food or pills. It’s that simple.

Bonus tip:

11. Turn Off The Food Network.

I love Top Chef as much as the next person but this is not real life. Home cooks need not be discouraged by flashy food challenges and glossy editing. Real cooking is messy. It has mistakes. Rice will occasionally burn. It’s okay. Go easy on yourself.

Cooking shows can inspire, but they can also make us feel under qualified to cook. Cooking is for anyone and everyone. For kids, for elders and everybody in between.

Make your kitchen a place where you want to be. Spend time there and watch your health transform.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, September 17, 2011


This bowl of freshly harvested blueberries will be the last of the season. I polish them off with a pang of sadness as the pregnancy of late summer comes to a close. Though I get a little bummed watching another season come to pass, this is a time to recognize abundance.
Apple trees are raining their ripe fruit on fading grasses, persimmons are begining to blush, paw paws generously offer their tropical-like flesh to mountain passers-by, and concord grapes have never tasted so sweet, bursting from their sour skins with nothing more than a whisper of encouragement. Oh, and then there are the pears, their antiqued skins barely holding back ample juice suspended in supple flesh. It is the grand finale before the end of the show.
In the blink of an eye, the unharvested gifts will be teaming with winged insects, looking for a good drunk in the warmth of late afternoon sun. Then the worms, ants, and potato bugs will take their turn, leaving sweet smelling decay to season the ground for the next year of growth.
Breaking bread this time of year becomes a meditation on the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As sweet as it tastes, it always makes me feel a little blue. There is something special about pleasures that are made all the more so simply because they are fleeting.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Benne Seed Cookies

My mother-in-law grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, naturally taking advantage of the nearby Charleston beaches for every vacation. She raised her family doing the same, exposing her sons to Sullivan's Island every summer throughout their boyhood.
Since moving to the mountains of North Carolina, my husband and I have followed suite, enjoying a relatively short drive to one of my favorite cities of all time.

Charleston itself is a city all too easy to fall in love with: great restaurants, salt-air, massive history captured in the grand architecture, live oaks sprinkled everywhere, incredible fresh sea food, all surrounded by some of my favorite beaches.

Also a professional bookworm, my mother-in-law recently handed me Pat Conroy's South of Broad, a book which takes place in the heart of Charleston. Within the first few pages, the notorious junior league cookbook: Charleston Receipts is mentioned with sovereign affection. The main character refers to his favorite go-to recipe for benne seed cookies.
After finishing the book, I pulled my copy of Charleston Receipts from the shelf (a gift also given to me by my mother-in-law).

As is reads at the top of the recipe's page; "According to legend among descendants of negro slaves along the coast of Charleston, benne is a good luck plant for those who eat thereof or plant in their gardens. It was originally brought in by the slaves from West Africa to this Coastal region."

The benne seed (or sesame seed) cookies lived up to my expectations. Yes, they are sweet and undoubtedly apt to break even the most resistant Weight Watchers dieter, but I have a soft spot for the occasional "dirty" cookie as much as I do for regional tradition and history. If that's wrong. . . I don't want to be right.

Benne Seed Cookies from Charleston Receipts:
*3/4 cup butter, softened
*1 1/2 cups brown sugar
*2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 cup high quality AP flour
1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds (you can toast them stirring often in a cast iron skillet over med heat, allow to cool)
*1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugar together and mix with other ingredients, in the order given. Drop with a teaspoon on parchment paper lined baking sheet leaving space for cookies to spread. Bake at 325 for 25 minutes. Makes 7 dozen. Can be stored in an airtight container and frozen.
Cookies will be crunchy.