Make the Most of Flavor Flours

IMG_0408What do teff, sorghum and buckwheat have in common? They are all non-wheat flours that along with whole and ancient grains, coconut flour and nut flours can be used to make delicious baked goods. And who better to teach us how to make the most of these flavor flours than Alice Medrich, a James Beard award-winning author who has won more cookbook-of-the-year awards and best in the dessert and baking category awards than any other author. Her newest book, Flavor Flours, is a great addition to anyone interested in upping their game in non-wheat baking. Come and cook with us!

Jessica gave me this book and I’ve been so thankful for it. Actually, my boys have been even more thrilled about it being so prolifically tested. When I initially leafed through the pages, I couldn’t stop visualizing all these wonderful creations. I have been baking with different flours – my GF sourdough is based on a variety of different whole grains, flours, starches and seeds – but in this book Mendrich succeeds in taking the specific characteristic of each flour to its advantage and making it a recipe’s “hero ingredient” instead of a wheat replacement.

It’s hard to pick a favorite flavor flour. I love teff and you all know about my infatuation with buckwheat. What I love about this book is that it gives detailed insights on how different flours react in recipes depending on how finely they have been milled and how they are being processed. It’s an intriguing book if you’d like to learn more about baking with non-wheat alternatives.

So far, we have baked delectable Bittersweet Teff Brownies, moist Dark and Spicy Pumpkin Loafs with buckwheat and a glorious Coconut Key Lime Tart. But there is so much more. There are Buckwheat Linzer Cookies, Simple Scones, Lemon Cream Roulade, Panforte Nero and Walnut and Buckwheat Crackers. And there are plenty of sponge, chiffon and layer cakes. For now, let’s start things simply with Medrich’s satisfying Banana Muffins with sorghum. Come and cook with us!

Banana Muffins with Sorghum

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Spring for Green

IMG_0349The change happens suddenly. One day you crave hearty food that warms your body and soul and the next day you wake up to Spring. In Northern California it has finally arrived. Well, maybe winter never really came. But that’s another story. Let’s just say that when we planned our menu for St.Patrick’s we opted for a pesto pasta. When the actual day finally rolled around, I suddenly found myself opting for a lighter, fresher and more season-appropriate meal featuring leafy greens, shoots and fresh herbs in a perfectly Green Avocado Quinoa salad – an instant classic. Come and cook with us!

When eating seasonally, the locally grown vegetables help you adapt to your surroundings by connecting you with the rhythm of the changing seasons. According to macro-biotic diet basics, vegetables can be either contractive or expansive. Winter vegetables, mainly contractive, include carrots, kale, collards, broccoli, parsnip, rutabaga and turnip. They usually do all right with frost, some tasting even sweeter afterwards. Baking or slow-roasting them gives us stamina and vitality during the winter. Expansive vegetables on the other hand, including leaf lettuce, corn, green beans, cucumber and summer squash have a high water content that enables them to thrive in the heat. We can stay cool by eating them in the warmer months.

So my body was telling me what it wanted to eat that night. Out with the pesto pasta – although it always is a delicious meal – and in with the avocado quinoa salad paired with yet another green dish of asparagus and pea soup. The dark green vegetables in the salad included mustard greens, dandelions, watercress, pea shoots, escarole, and parsley. At least one serving of these dark leafy greens daily will enrich our diet with vital cholorophyll, iron, calcium, vitamin C, Vitamin A and our oh-so-beloved fiber. And their slight bitterness wasn’t even an issue.

The fact that we topped the salad with a healthy serving of avocado and a drizzling of lemony garlic dressing made it even more delicious. The crunchiness reminded me of Spring without being too bulky and still delivering a nice amount of fiber. And the avocado balanced the flavor spectrum adding creaminess to the salad. This one is worth a try! Come and cook with us!

Green Avocado Quinoa Salad

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These are Gutsy Times

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Did you know that we have 10 times more single-celled bacteria floating around in us than human cells? And the majority of these bugs are located in the gut, specifically the large intestine. Given their multitude and enticing new research, let’s spend this week learning more about gut flora and how a healthy balance of microbes is closely linked to our digestion, our immune system and our brain function. While scientists are still in the early stages of exploring our gut microbiome, one thing is clear: never before have we known just how much we are what we eat. Come and learn more about your gut with us!

So far scientists have discovered more about the different species of bacteria we house than what role each strain plays on our health. What we know is that our gut is home to trillions of microbes and we feed them with what we eat. Some of the good critters are adept at colonizing the mucous layer of the gut thereby maintaining a tight gut barrier which helps keeping bad bacteria at bay. It is when this mucus layer is reduced that opportunistic microbes and toxins can get close to the gut lining, inciting inflammation.

This healthy gut lining also links microbes to our immune system, nudging it away from inflammatory disease and favorably calibrating it to stay away from overreaction. Independent researchers around the world have identified a select group of microbes that specializes in fermenting soluble fiber in legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits. This process creates by-products in the form of short-chain-fatty-acids called metabolites which reside in the mucus layer. From there, the metabolites exercise an anti-inflammatory effect by inducing regulatory T cells (also called Tregs) which in turn control aggressive aspects of the immune system preventing inflammatory diseases. Because these by-products are created when soluble fiber is fermented, one of the key takeaways of the research so far is to “feed your Tregs more fiber”.

The last enticing piece of research focuses on the link between gut bacteria and our brain and mental health. Both organs are connected through the vagus nerve and both manufacture the same neuro-chemicals including GABA, dopamine and serotonin. When used in the brain, all three are necessary to regulate our mood and behavior. It’s not exactly clear how the gut-made version makes it into the brain. But these neuro-chemicals also alter the stress hormones helping them to dial down. Last, but not least, a healthy gut also reduces inflammation which is now widely considered to be an underlying cause of depression.

So how do we get this favorable environment in our gut? Research has shown that a balanced diet for our healthy bacteria deep down in our digestive tracts consists most importantly of a variety of plant fiber. Ideally, more than 25 types of plants weekly – remember, we have to feed our Tregs more fiber. We also want to make sure we have plenty of good bugs, as unfriendly strains such as fungi and parasites can easily take over causing havoc in our gut – and our brains. Here are a few foods that are recommended to feed a happy gut:

  • Consume plenty of soluble fiber in the form of inulin: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, chicory, garlic, jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, parsnips.
  • Load up on helpful bacteria by eating fermented foods: kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh and yoghurt.
  • Add polyphenols which are a class of antioxidants that help reduce inflammation: apples, berries, cacao (70% dark chocolate or higher), citrus, flaxseed, green tea, herbs, red wine, spices (including ginger, rosemary and turmeric).
  • Select whole grains including amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa to balance blood sugars and limit inflammation.
  • Find healthy sources of protein needed along with good bacteria for the creation of those neuro-chemicals to balance the brain: beans, nuts, organic poultry, seeds, wild-caught sustainable fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies.
  • Eat the right fat considering that 60% of our brain is fat: avocados, coconut, wild-caught and sustainable fish, ghee, nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, chia, flax and hemp seeds), extra virgin olive oil.

This is a lot to digest, no pun intended, but it’s important to understand why certain foods are better for us than others. A great illustration of a healthy gut can be seen in  “Fiber Fermenters Keep us Healthy” recently published in Nature Magazine. If you want to learn more about your own bacteria, visit uBiome, an online service that lets you sequence your own microbiome or join The American Gut Project  if you want to contribute your microbiome to current research efforts.

We believe that great recipes lead us to cook more but understanding why a balanced diet helps us be healthier is hopefully a great inspiration, too. Come and cook with us!

PS: The magnificent picture of the intestine is courtesy of Giulia Enders’ German Book “Darm Mit Charme“.

Piha Minced Pies: Worthy of a Trip

_DSC0483There are dishes that I grew up with and those that I picked up along the way. Take minced beef pies. They are a family tradition in New Zealand, as well as England and Australia, and my husband would drive out of his way to a little beach-side village West of Auckland called Piha to fill up on his share of minced beef pies at the local General Store. My pies aren’t exactly the same as those, but they sure do the trick when you want to feed a crowd a hearty, nutritious and delicious meal. Come and cook with us! Continue reading

Bow to the Buchtel!

_DSC0507It’s not until I left Italy that I realized we take good food for granted. Not just in our homes, but everywhere we go. Even when skiing. To this day, the snow might be fluffier, the runs more thrilling and the crowds better behaving in the U.S., but nothing compares to the food you are served in the many high-altitude mountain huts when skiing in Italy. There were many favorite places we would pilgrimage to every weekend, but there was one that stood out. Ditching skis and poles behind, we climbed on board our neighbor’s jeep and drove along the snowy roads to a remote small family-run hut called Rauch Hütte. There was no question on what the kids would order. It was always the same: Buchteln. Translating this dish for what it is – apricot-jam-filled yeast dumplings – doesn’t do it justice at all. These plump, fluffy and buttery dumplings were the size of well-rolled snow balls, served over a bed of runny vanilla sauce and leaving you filled with buttery goodness. Who cared what the weather was, or how many people were queuing at the lift when we returned to the slopes. We were happy, stuffed and didn’t know that having Buchteln on Sundays when skiing would be one of the fondest memories we would carry with us thirty years later when living on the other side of the world. Come and Cook with us! Continue reading

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