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TCP Kitchen

Cooking and Eating Well

Worth digesting: Educator teaches that food closest to nature is best

When is a blueberry not a blueberry? In some processed foods, the answer is: when it’s a glob of artificially flavored, sugar-laden food starch and oil.

A recent report by the nonprofit Consumer Wellness Center found that some food companies routinely depicted cereals, muffins and other products as containing blueberries when in reality, there were none present or there were just small amounts far down the ingredients label.

The practice is legal because the labels of ingredients show there is little to no actual fruit in the product. But how many of you read the labels on foods you buy?

Reading labels is important—not just to determine calories, sodium and fat, but also to determine how many artificial flavors and colors go into food. The more artificial ingredients, the more processed and less nutritious the food.

I sat down recently with natural food chef and educator Amanda Love to talk about nutrition and food. The best way to reduce your consumption of processed food, she said, is to make meals yourself using wholesome, healthful ingredients. Love, an Austinite who teaches across the United States, is a strong proponent of nutritious cooking and eating.

“Good nutrition can make one feel satisfied, happy, nourished and full of energy, where a diet devoid of real nutrition can lead to disease, obesity, depression, low energy and an unproductive life,” she said.

Traditional foods and ones that are not factory processed are the most nutritious, she said.

“Generally, food that is closest to nature is best. Food that is man-made and further away from its natural state is less nutritious,” she explained. “If you want to know if something is good for you, ask yourself the question, ‘Were my great-grandparents eating this food?’ Basically, asking this question will lead to answering which foods are new to our modern food supply and which ones have been around for hundreds of years.”

The atmosphere in which food is eaten can also make a difference in one’s health, Love believes. Making eating a social event can go a long way toward improving eating habits and overall well-being.

“I feel part of why people overeat in general is because they eat alone, and so on a deeper level, they are still hungry,” Love said. “They are hungry for something deeper than just food. Eating a nourishing meal with good company usually proves to be much more satisfying than eating alone in front of the TV or in a fast-food restaurant. It fulfills our need for communion and connection with others. Sharing a meal is one of the most primal ways to do that.”

Even if one doesn’t have dining companions, a calm state of mind while eating can aid digestion and distribution of nutrients, she said.

“Our body should be in the parasympathetic nervous system mode while we eat. In this mode, our energy is more internal and centered in our digestive region,” said Love, who recommended taking a pre-meal walk or relaxing for a few minutes before dining. “When we eat with the TV on, eat while driving or talk about disturbing things at dinner, we are in the sympathetic mode, which is the fight-or-flight mode. Our energy is no longer centered in our digestive area, but is now in our extremities, in our brain and anywhere but our tummies.”

So how does a busy family, with all the activities and distractions of modern life, find time not only to eat together, but to cook nutritious meals? A good plan helps.

“Cook smarter, not harder,” Love said. “Taking a little time to menu plan can save you a lot of time and money in the long run. … If folks will take a little time to think through what meals they will eat during the week, jot it on the calendar, then come up with a shopping list for the items needed, that is a great first step.”

Think ahead at least to the next day’s meals and perform any time-saving steps you can, such as cleaning and chopping vegetables or putting the ingredients for a particular dish together.

“It may take you an extra 10 to 20 minutes the day before, but at least you will have a meal halfway made when you walk in the door hungry the next day,” Love said. “I am also a big believer in leftovers and using them for other meals. If you have extra time on your hands, make two casseroles and freeze one. Then next week, you will have dinner already taken care of for one night.”

It may seem like a given, but good nutrition begins by acquiring nutritious food.

Maria G. Boosalis, former director of clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, advises people to “shop the perimeter” at a grocery store. That is, spend more time along the edges where fresh items are usually situated.

“Processed foods and foods that are higher in sugar and fat like soda and chips tend to be placed in the middle aisles,” she notes. “By shopping the perimeter of the store, you can avoid some of those products altogether.”

You can find nutrient-dense foods available even in the smallest of grocery stores: whole grains, lean meats and fruits and vegetables. The money spent on these nutritious items, even when buying more expensive, organic foods, can be cheaper in the long run than the expense of medical intervention to fix health problems created by poor nutrition.

If you can’t find the products you want in your local grocery store, ask the store manager to stock them. Form a buying club with others who are interested in nutritious foods and split the costs or find farmers in your area who sell their produce. Also, through Internet sites such as and other online grocers, some products are just a click away.

Eating healthily doesn’t mean a boring diet of brown rice and chicken breast—you can have dessert, too. But there is even a way to make sweets more nutritious, Love said.

“The key is to eat quality sweets made with healthy sweeteners like unrefined cane sugar, or palm sugar (from coconuts), xylitol, stevia, maple syrup or raw honey,” she explained. “When eating sweet foods, it is best to balance it with a healthy fat so the sugar is not absorbed into the bloodstream so quickly. Ice cream made with full fat whole milk or heavy cream is much better for you than low fat or no fat ice cream for this reason.”

Love, who is also an advocate of locally produced food, teaches seminars that give students hands-on experience making wholesome, nutritious food. You can find a schedule of classes on her website.

She shared with me some recipes featuring vegetables that are at their freshest in the winter months. If available, use organic versions of ingredients, she advised.

Cream of Delicatta Squash Soup

1 medium- to large-sized delicatta or other variety winter squash
1 yellow onion
1 tablespoon butter
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger or 2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1/2 cup white wine, optional
1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk or 1 cup raw cream, raw milk or goat milk
1 teaspoon sea salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place squash in baking dish and bake for about 1 hour or until tender. While squash is baking, chop onion coarsely and sauté in medium-sized pot with butter on medium-low heat until caramelized. Add broth and heat until just simmering. Add spices and ginger. Once squash is tender, remove from oven and cool; slice in half and remove seeds. Cut squash into large chunks and place in pot (including skin). If desired, add wine and simmer two minutes. Puree soup in blender or with immersion blender until smooth. Add coconut milk or dairy of choice. Keep warm but do not bring to simmer once coconut milk or dairy is added. Add salt and additional spices to taste. Garnish with baked pumpkin or squash seeds.

Servings: 4. Serving size: 1/4 of soup. Per serving: 298 calories, 6.4 g protein, 22.9 g fat, 13.2 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 1,153 mg sodium, 3.4 g sugars, 7 mg cholesterol

Hardy greens such as Swiss chard, kale, collard, mustard or dandelion greens, or winter spinach are one of the most nutritious of vegetables. They are full of fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals.

Cool Season Steamed Greens

1 pound seasonal greens
1 to 2 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil
Umeboshi plum vinegar (you can get this sour, salty vinegar at health-food stores), apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to taste

Wash greens and cut out center stems. (You can cook stems; just add them to pot first and allow more cooking time.) Place three or more leaves on top of each other and slice in long, 1-inch strips. Slice once more lengthwise until all the greens are cut. Bring 1 inch of water to a boil in medium-sized pot and place steamer insert into pot. Once water has come to a boil, add greens and place lid on top. Steam for 1 to 2 minutes or until the greens are bright green and tender. When a fork or knife pokes through easily, the greens are ready. Remove from pot and place in bowl. Toss with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil and sour condiment of choice to taste.

Servings: 2. Serving size: 1 cup. Per serving: 256 calories, 8.8 g protein, 14.4 g fat, 27 g carbohydrates, 5.4 g dietary fiber, 115 mg sodium, 0.1 g sugars

Other ideas: Toss greens with butter, minced garlic and pine nuts; toss with sun-dried tomatoes, black olives and feta cheese; toss with organic raw cream, butter, white pepper and nutmeg.

Desserts, if eaten in moderation and made with healthy ingredients, are a sweet treat to be enjoyed on occasion. The best of the fall season is offered in this recipe with the rich flavor of sweet potatoes and the deep taste and wonderful texture of pecans.

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

1 cup sprouted flour, white spelt flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon plus dash salt, divided
1/3 cup cold butter
3 large eggs
1 cup cooked sweet potato, skin removed and pureed
1 cup cane sugar, divided
2/3 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
1/3 cup maple syrup1 tablespoon melted butter
1 cup pecan halves

Combine flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Cut cold butter into small pieces and cut into flour until mixture is the size of small peas. Gradually sprinkle in 3 to 3 1/2 tablespoons ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture holds together when gathered with fork. Press together in disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 20 minutes. Lightly beat two eggs in medium bowl. Stir in sweet potato puree, 1/2 cup sugar, half and half, spices and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Set aside. In separate bowl, beat remaining egg. Stir in maple syrup, 1/2 cup sugar, melted butter, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and dash salt. Mix well. Stir in pecans. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out pastry dough on a lightly floured surface to 11- to 12-inch circle. Transfer to 9- or 10-inch pie pan. Trim crust, allowing half-inch overhang. Fold under the edge and flute. Place on a baking sheet and pour in sweet potato mixture. Bake 25 minutes. Pour pecan mixture over sweet potato layer and spread evenly. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake another 20 minutes, or until filling is slightly puffed and knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on a rack. Serve within 4 hours or refrigerate, loosely covered, for up to 1 day. Delicious served with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Servings: 8. Serving size: 1 slice. Per serving: 435 calories, 6.8 g protein, 21.2 g fat, 27 g carbohydrates, 4 g dietary fiber, 121 mg sodium, 36 g sugars, 101 mg cholesterol

Cook’s Tip: If you don’t have the spices listed, substitute 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice.