The Teacup Chronicles

Month: September, 2009

Wheat and Dairy: A lesson about terrain and tradition

I’ve heard just about every health ailment in existence attributed to the evils of gluten and dairy. The argument is, that because of the relatively recent introduction of grass family plants and dairy into the human diet, we are evolutionarily ill-equipped to digest these foods, and they pass through the digestive tract without getting properly broken down. The undigested food particles cause inflammation in our guts, and overtime, this inflammation alerts the immune system, which becomes reactive to the undigested proteins (such as gluten). The big problem arises from the fact that gluten and other proteins found in grass family plants as well as those found in dairy products, can resemble signaling proteins (those that identify cells as self) found on our own cells – potentially confusing the immune system into reacting and attacking self. This is believed by many in the health field to be the spark behind many if not all allergic and auto-immune reactions,  from seasonal allergies and eczema to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Now I certainly agree that this process likely does contribute to many inflammatory and hyper-sensitivity reactions in the body. But, I don’t believe that the fault lies with the foods themselves, but rather in the way these foods are currently cultivated and prepared in our modern culture. Ever since Louis Pasteur, we have been obsessed with identifying the germ, the food, the chemical that is responsible  for the problem. Certainly there is some good reasoning behind this obsession, and many medical advances have been made on the basis of this paradigm. But, as Louis is said to have proclaimed on his death bed – “It’s the terrain, not the germ!.” So it is with wheat and dairy.  Before we incriminate these foods, we aught to consider the the role of the terrain in why they have become so problematic.

Lack of Diversity:

When I went to Italy a few years back, I got the great pleasure of visiting the heirloom grain and bean museum created by Nicola Di Novella. There were no less than 19 varieties of wheat and that is just wheat! There were many varieties of spelt, kamut and grains I had never even heard of before such as emmer and einkorn. But today, instead of being exposed to a wide variety of grass family grains in our diets – each with slightly different nutritional profiles and protein compositions – we eat the same grain, and mostly the same variety of that grain – day in and day out. The same goes for dairy cattle – what once was a wide pool of genetic diversity (over 800 varieties) has been narrowed to a small selection of high-producing breeds (5 varieties). The human body, like most things in life,  is not designed for monotony – but for variety and diversity. Exposing it to the same thing over and over again sets us up for reactivity, not to mention poor nutrition.

Poor Quality Foods:

Herbalist Rebecca Hartman, of the Herbwife’s Kitchen blog, says, ” most people feel better when they eliminate wheat and dairy from their diets because most wheat and dairy products people eat are just plain bad food.” I couldn’t agree more. Conventional dairy is one of the most horrible foods at the store  – the product of cows crammed together, standing in their own feces,  fed grains that they can’t digest and which make them sick (if they aren’t already), jacked up on antibiotics and growth hormones to make up for the lack of vitality and health caused by their diet and living conditions. Sounds lovely. Not surprisingly, the milk from such cows just happens to be loaded with pro-inflammatory fatty acids. As for milk from those cows feasting leisurely on the grass?  It’s just brimming with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids shown to prevent numerous diseases. Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?

Wheat products are no better. Bleached and stripped of all their nutrition (and flavor), they come to us in shiny packages with food additives, artificial flavorings and bad fats. Even the whole wheat bread usually has white flour as the first ingredient (cleverly disguised as “wheat flour”). White flour  behaves  just like sugar in the body – with none of the nutrients and fiber to orchestrate it’s proper metabolism and entry into the bloodstream, it rapidly spikes blood sugar levels and upsets balance. More and more research is now coming to light showing that escalating rates of heart disease and obesity correlate more with the advent of refined flour products into our diets than they do with those horrible “villains” – saturated fat and cholesterol.

So, if you eat conventional dairy and white flour for breakfast, lunch and dinner, of course you will feel bad. But it isn’t something inherent to the food that makes you feel that way – rather it reflects the lack of vitality and nutrition that comes from the way these foods are cultivated and processed. What you are feeling is poor terrain!

Loss of Traditional Wisdom

The biggest crisis in our modern food culture is the separation of food from the traditions on how to prepare and eat it. Wheat and dairy are perfect examples. In almost every culture that has existed on this planet, grains and dairy products have been fermented – not only to help preserve the foods and prevent contamination with harmful bacteria, but to enhance digestibility. Now isn’t that an interesting concept? The apparent problem with these foods is their lack of digestibility right? So perhaps, the problem really lies in the loss of traditional preparation methods that made these foods edible and nutritious.

Dairy, for instance, contains the sugar lactose – which many people lack the enzyme to break down into usable monosaccharide components.  This is commonly referred to as lactose intolerance – and causes such symptoms as diarrhea and gastrointestinal cramping (it’s worth noting that cultures with little or no traditional use of dairy – such as the Japanese – have the highest incidence of lactose intolerance). Now, what happens when dairy is cultured and made into yogurt, kefir, buttermilk or cheese? Bacteria convert the sugar lactose into lactic acid, and break down many of the difficult to digest proteins such as casein. Furthermore -the bacteria that accomplish this beautiful transaction have shown to be highly beneficial to our digestive tracts – helping us breakdown and absorb certain nutrients and promoting healthy intestinal ecology (keeping away the harmful bacteria) as well as modulating immune activity!

So I need to pause and make a point here – the problem with dairy and wheat, as I stated above, is poor digestibility leading to inflammation and immune reactivity, right? Culturing your foods not only makes these foods more digestible but supports and modulates normal immune activity. Brilliant!

Wheat, rye, barley and oats – the gluten containing grains – have been present in the human diet since the advent of grain agriculture in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East (about 10,000 – 13,000 years ago). One of the main ways these grains were prepared was sprouting or partial germination Why? The bran and germ of these seeds contain phytic acid, which interferes with mineral absorption,  as well as enzyme inhibitors which inhibit the ability of our digestive enzymes to breakdown proteins and complex carbohydrates into their absorbable components (basically – the seed wants to make it through our digestive tract undigested, so that it can be deposited somewhere and grow).  Sprouting the grains neutralizes such compounds, increases Vitamin C and B vitamin content and converts starch molecules into easier to digest sugars. In Ireland and Scotland, where oats and barley were staples, these grains were typically soaked for 1-3 days before being made into delicious gruels. The Scots would even pour oatmeal gruel into a special drawer in the kitchen, where it would ferment until it was ready to use.

The other traditional method of grain preparation was pro-longed fermentation with wild yeasts. Pure yeasts were not commercially available until the 1870s – before this, wild fermentation using a biodiverse concoction of yeast, lactobacilli and other beneficial bacteria was the norm. Because wild yeast is slower acting than commercial yeast – and because grains typically had less gluten than they do today (the protein  responsible for elasticity and rising properties of bread), dough had to ferment over a period of days in order to rise. During this time, proteins (such as gluten) were broken down, B vitamin levels increased, and a delicious and complex flavored bread was created.

Now, when I first read that bacteria and yeast in sourdough breads possessed the ability to breakdown gluten – I was highly skeptical. But I did some research, and sure enough it’s true. If you want to read more, read this or this. It seems that the bacteria are the shining stars here – possessing proteolytic (the ability to break down proteins) properties that yeast all by itself just doesn’t have – so sourdough is the thing!

To sum this all up,  it seems the real problem here is the accelerated haste of modern life, with no time for the slowness of the traditional wisdom that turns “toxic” foods into nourishing ones.

So, if you want to eat bread and dairy, eat them in ways that embrace diversity, vitality and traditional wisdom. Follow these guidelines:

  • Eat dairy from cows that ate grass with plenty of room to roam, preferably raw (go here to find out where to get raw milk in your state) or cultured
  • Eat cultured dairy on a daily basis, and culture it yourself!
  • Soak your grains overnight before you cook them, adding a little vinegar, yogurt or whey to speed up the process of germination
  • Eat only sourdough or sprouted grain bread – make it yourself if you can!
  • Soak flour for baked goods overnight in yogurt to help breakdown the gluten and improve digestibility (see Nourishing Traditions for recipes) or purchase sprouted grain flours to bake with

Keep your eye out in the coming days for some soaked-whole grain recipes and cultured dairy recipes.

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A Time for Apples, Squash and Gratitude

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“O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe;
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruit and flowers.
–  William Blake

There is something about the autumn which brings a great stillness to my spirit – as though I am returning home to myself from some long arduous journey,  ready to put my feet up next to the fire and settle in.  I find that my pace slows, my thoughts wander and life loses a bit of its normal urgency. And though I know that bare branches and the chill of winter are just round the bend, the glorious splendor of autumn seems such a feast for my senses to last me an entire lifetime, let alone the winter, and all I want to do is bask in it.

IMG_2724Autumn is the time of when the sun dwindles away and we enter the dark half of the year – life retreats into the womb of the earth and our energy too is harnessed inwards to a time of reflection and contemplation. Just as the trees shed their leaves to survive the harshness of winter, we too must let go of what has outlived it’s usefulness. But more importantly, we must come to find that which does nourish and sustain us – to recognize those things we require on a deep and spiritual level to survive. Making a list of all that you are grateful for is a perfect way to embrace the autumn. I find that simply by realizing and honoring what serves me, I automatically let go of that which does not.

IMG_2753Autumn is also the time to align your body to the change of season. The air is growing colder and drier, and if we fail to adjust our diet and habits properly, our body will do the same. Now is the time, before the frost falls heavy and the air grows permantly cold, to prepare your body for what lies ahead. Here’s what to do:

  1. Favor warm, moistening cooking methods such as roasting, baking, steaming and stewing – now is not the time for salad and smoothies but for soups, stews, and casseroles.
  2. Choose warm, moistening foods such as whole grains (brown rice, barley, oats, millet, quinoa), root vegetables, squashes, stewed fruits, spiced meats and small amounts of fermented foods and beverages to help digest all the heavy fall and winter foods.
  3. Get out the warming spices – ginger, cayenne, cinnamon,  cloves, etc – and add them to everything you eat and drink. Chai is the perfect daily drink.
  4. Eat what the earth around you is providing – the plants are more wise and generous than we credit them for, and they tend to provide us with the nutrients we need when we need them. Squash and carrots, for example, are loaded with carotenoids that help our eyes to adjust to the diminishing light and bolster our immune systems.
  5. Eat more fat! Keeping warm and moist in the winter requires that we consume more of this essential nutrient – as traditional cultures and all mammals rightly know. Fat not only helps to insulate us against the bitter cold of winter, but helps our cells to retain moisture and stay supple. Choosing the right type of fat is important – favor good quality fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and other cold water fish; pasture raised meat, eggs and dairy; walnuts, and flax seeds. Don’t be bashful about it either – omega 3’s help to reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol ratios, and reduce the risk of numerous diseases including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Your body and your skin will thank you for that extra slab of pasture raised butter!
  6. Dress appropriately – wearing a hat and scarf on a cool day is nothing to be embarrassed about. Keeping your body warm helps to protect you from illness – what they call pernicious external forces in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In my mind, you are helping to protect your body from the stress of adapting to an extreme temperature change.
  7. Supplement with Vitamin D as the sunlight fades. This sunshine vitamin is necessary for numerous physiological processes from  immune function and bone strength to mood regulation – and most of us are deficient! Start with 2000 IU per day, or better yet – have your levels tested.
  8. Lock moisture in with a daily oil massage. Sesame oil is good for dry skin, and coconut is best for red and irritated skin. In Ayurveda, the 4,000 year old medical system of India, oil massage is considered essential to a balanced, healthy life.
  9. Get moving! It’s tempting to stay snuggled inside when the temperatures drop, but exercise will keep your blood moving and your body healthy. Good blood flow is essential for keeping your fingers and toes warm, your muscles relaxed, and your skin radiant and beautiful.
  10. Lastly, go with the flow of autumn and not against it. Autumn is a time to slow down and move inwards – and people tend to get sick in the fall when they fight this movement. Take some time each day to attune yourself with that rhythm – go for a walk and savor the autumn leaves, take time to breath and be present with yourself. Never under estimate the immense power in being still!

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May you have a happy, warm and deeply gratifying autumn! Savor it while it lasts…

Rose Hip Butter

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This past weekend, my sweetheart and I hopped in the car and drove to the beautiful Maine coast for a few days away. Along with the ocean, lobsters and blueberry pie, I think what I love most about Maine is the rugosa rose bushes that grow so plentifully along the coast. They produce the most deliciously fragrant blossoms and the largest, sweetest hips of any rose I have known. So of course, before bidding Maine adieu, we spent one deeply gratifying morning plucking big rosy hips and fuchsia petals with warm sand under our toes and the expanse of the ocean shimmering beyond.

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Rose hips are a much overlooked medicine and culinary delight. While they may pale in comparison to the ethereal glamorousness of the flowers, they do possess an earthy  wholesomeness that is just as enchanting in its own way. Sweet, tangy and almost spicy – they are reminiscent of a cranberry in flavor, and shine out nutritionally with loads of vitamin C, flavanoids, carotenoids and pectin. I use them often in teas to boost immune function, aid in convalescence from stomach ailments, and support recovery from connective tissue injuries. They also make a pleasant cooling summer tea combined with hibiscus flowers.

But what I love them for most is their deliciousness! While there are lots of equally yummy things to do with rose hips – jams, jellies, syrups  – I have found rose hip butter to be my favorite. Creamy, sweet and tangy – it is such a comforting treat spread on warm bread or scones. I just love it – especially combined with the sweetness of fresh autumn apples and the warmth of fresh ginger. I have to admit that I also tend to choose this recipe because it saves the tedious work of scraping out the seeds and endless collection of irritating hairs from the inside of each hip. Here’s how I make it:

IMG_2653Rose Hip Butter with Apple and Ginger

Start by removing the stems and scraggly green ends from each hip. Discard any that are overly blemished or show signs of bug infestation. Place the rest in a large stock pot. Do not use aluminum or iron pans as they strip vitamin C.

For every quart of rose hips, add 2 large apples or 3 smaller ones. Chop them roughly – you don’t need to worry about removing the seeds or cores. Add to the pot with the hips.

Add 4-10 slices of fresh ginger root, adjusting for your spice preference.

Add enough water to the hips, apples and ginger to cover by an inch or two. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until the hips are softened and falling apart. You can speed this process along by mashing gently with a potato masher from time to time. Add more water if necessary.

IMG_2656 Once everything is sufficiently mushy and broken down, turn of the heat and let cool slightly. Then, run the mixture through a food mill, chinois sieve, or champion juicer to separate out the seeds and hairs from the mixture. You should have a thin, apple sauce like concoction that has a very tart flavor at this point.

Measure the amount of liquid you have. For every cup, add 1/2 cup sugar to the blend (rapadura is a nice choice). Return to a clean pan with wide, thick bottom. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. After about 10 minutes, start checking the consistency by spooning a little onto a cold plate. When the butter is thick and smooth and won’t run when you tilt the plate, turn off the heat and let cool.

IMG_2662While the butter is cooling, sterilize your jars by boiling in a hot water bath for 10  minutes or so. Immediately pour the butter into the jars when you remove them from the water, and then cap tightly and return to the hot water bath for an additional 10 minutes to create a vacuum seal.

Store your butter in a cool, dark place until you use it. I love it on soda bread hot out of the oven with a steaming mug of hot apple cider. But I trust you’ll find your own favorite use.

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