Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sweets & Nutrition - Refined Sugar

After reading various allergy-free blogs, vegan blogs, and cookbooks, I've noticed many recipes which omit wheat, eggs, dairy, and other common allergens also include high amounts of refined sugar and chocolate in baked goods. While homemade is of course always better than processed food, I am re-thinking the use of refined sugar even in homemade cooking.

With the recent Valentine's Day holiday, my daughter brought home a few sweets from preschool - thankfully they save all the kids' treats and give them to the parents (so she didn't even know she had most of them). Earlier in the week she had a very small piece of chocolate from preschool that I allowed her to have - against my better judgment. In a relapse moment, I was feeling guilty for not letting my daughter have sugar & chocolate like other kids and I was disillusioned into the concept that kids should learn how to manage addictive foods early. I let her have the chocolate, and my daughter didn't take her nap and we dealt with tantrums all afternoon and the next day.

My husband says the argument about letting kids learn how to manage sugar is like teaching the budding alcoholic how to "hold his liquor." It simply doesn't make sense to give very addictive foods to very young children and expect them to learn how to handle it.

This issue really concerns me, as there was recently an article in the Washington Post that 50% of the high-fructose corn syrup on the market contains mercury. Many foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup are given to children.

My personal strategy is to avoid all processed, refined foods - especially those that contain high-fructose corn syrup (in the regular grocery store, this is difficult - easier at Whole Foods). In my own baking at home I have experimented with using refined white sugar - but cutting it in half - for a special occasion. If I know my kids are going to be around lots of processed foods like Twinkies (say, at a preschool party), then I'll bake with a small amount of refined sugar and make sure I can tempt my kids enough to only eat what I brought (this has been very successful lately, but I'm not sure how long it will last). For any treat we make at home, I use maple sugar, honey, brown rice syrup or molasses in place of sugar and carob in place of chocolate. When there are no outside influences, my kids seem more than fulfilled.

Yes, I realize that maple sugar, molasses, honey, etc. are still sugars and should be limited; yet I have to believe that they at least hold more nutritional value than refined white sugar and I think that they are much less addicting and tantrum-causing (I think kids tend crave natural sweeteners less than sugar and are usually fulfilled after eating a baked good made with them instead of wanting more).

I hope this post helps any parents out there to form your own opinions in the sugar debate, for at least spelling out my beliefs has helped me feel less guilty about throwing away my daughter's Valentine's Day candy. And I am confident my children can only be better without the candy. Now, whenever we see "treats" in the store that my daughter wants, I promise her we will go home and create our own. The learning from this is amazing - she remembers what the treat looks like, thinks about what we might use to re-create this treat, has a chance to measure and taste all the ingredients, mix everything up, and bake something herself. And she can add her own personal twist. It is creative, fun, a life-long learning experience, and best of all - much more nutritional.

"Chocolate Chip Muffins"...minus the chocolate, wheat, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts....

I use my basic muffin recipe for everything. This is a modification for a semi-sweet & healthy dessert.

I made a double batch, which makes two 6-cup large muffin tins full.

1 1/2 c. buckwheat flour
1/2 c. brown rice flour
1 c. teff flour
1 c. sorghum flour
2 T. aluminum-free baking powder
1 t. xanthan gum
3 t. Ener-G Egg Replacer mixed with 4 T. rice milk (or 2 eggs)
1 1/2 c. rice milk (or any other "milk")
1/2 c. honey and/or brown rice syrup mix
1/2 c. safflower oil
Vegan Carob Chips - I use Sunspire brand, which contain "malted barley & corn, palm kernel oil, carob powder, and soy lecithin)

Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together and add the carob chips. Put into slightly greased muffin tins and bake about 20-25 minutes on 375.

Frosting - I didn't measure very accurately, just blend it all together with an electric mixer
(about 1/4 - 1/2 c.) Spectrum Organic Palm Oil Shortening (or 365 at Whole Foods just came out with a cheaper version of palm oil that doesn't contain soy)
1 t. vanilla
2-4 T. rice milk (as needed to make the frosting smooth)
2 T. carob powder
about 1 1/2 c. organic powdered sugar - unrefined/unbleached if possible

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pressure Cooker

I remember my grandma and her big aluminum pressure cooker with the old-fashioned gauge on the top. She was always canning relish, tomatoes, or pickles.

As most grandmothers know, pressure cookers aren't just for canning. They cook foods like root vegetables and beans really fast and cook meat very tender.

After reading about pressure cookers on blogs like Fat-Free Vegan, and having several good friends say they use them, I decided to just check them out on Amazon. I found a great deal on a Presto 6-quart model, which is stainless steel. I try to avoid cooking on "non-stick" surfaces or aluminum. I even found a stainless steel rice cooker which I've been very happy with.

I soaked some great northern beans overnight in anticipation that my shipment would arrive. It did. The first thing I did was read the instructions and wash the pressure cooker. Then I spied a recipe for baked beans in the instruction book. It's been a long time since we had baked beans (and we live in Boston!) This recipe was the same as all the others - navy beans, water, molasses, catsup, ham, onion, brown sugar, dry mustard, and black pepper. However, I used my great northern beans, and instead of the catsup (allergic to tomatoes), I used a little sweet garlic-chili sauce from the Asian store. Though we don't usually eat pork, I bought a little nitrate-free ham from Whole Foods and I cut the amount of brown sugar by 2/3. I used pure blackstrap molasses.

I have to admit, I was a little fearful about the using the pressure cooker for the first time. In my mind I'm thinking: what if it boils dry? what if I didn't get the lid sealed on right and the entire thing blows up in my kitchen? is it ok that I made the substitutions?

The beans turned out very nicely. I was a little nervous that the instructions said to cook them for 35 minutes (doesn't count heat up and cool down time), since this was much longer than plain beans, which only take 3-5 minutes. The whole house smelled wonderful, like the smell of baked beans cooking for hours. They didn't turn out as thick, but they were tender and sweet with little chunks of ham.

I made some carrot soup in the pressure cooker tonight, and I made a huge batch. The cooker was 2/3 full. It took about 45 minutes total (about 20 minutes for heat up and cool down, and only 5 minutes at full pressure). The carrots were very tender, sweet and moist. I think that it took so long because I made such a huge batch, for smaller quantities of food the heat up/cool down time seems to go much faster.