How To Alter Recipes

Low fat, sugar-free, meatless, gluten-free, low carb, dairy-free, no sodium, allergen-free, no alcohol… many people are trying to fill special dietary requirements for health issues and weight loss. If you are in charge of meal preparation for such diets, it might seem like you have to learn to cook all over again. Must you throw away all your old favorite recipes? Maybe not. Of course, 5-layer chocolate truffle cake with mocha whipped cream filling and buttercream frosting might have to be retired upon a diabetes diagnosis (unless you're Paula Dean!), but it's often possible to use alternate ingredients to make old standards still part of your favorite meals… and not feel "deprived" by the dietary restrictions.

I learned to cook when I was about 12 years old, with my mother's instructions on how to start dinner cooking before she came home from work. By the time I left home at age 20, I had a pretty good repertoire of meals, desserts, entertainment foods, and breads. I liked cooking from scratch, but didn't much relate what I cooked and ate to nutrition and health. Then in the early 1990s, when I began to educate myself about how diet could be used to build a healthier immune system and avoid health problems, I truly struggled with how to cook they way I was accustomed to. My goals were not too lofty:
  • healthy ingredients
  • good taste
  • nutritional balance
  • satisfying
I had to learn about nourishing foods, experiment with replacing ingredients, not be discouraged by failures, and be open to creative alternatives. Fortunately, my husband Rick is an adventurous eater, and always very open minded to trying new dishes. He is also a very honest critic, so there is never any question when I produce a failure!

Just a note about "prepared" foods for special diets… I've found that food manufacturers often remove one "evil" ingredient and replace it with other "evils" (and/or chemical non-foods), often in the attempt to mimic the taste of the original. Compare a block of regular cream cheese with a nonfat cream cheese, and you'll see a much longer ingredient list on the latter, sometimes with added sodium and sweeteners. I recently looked at Frontier brand Vegetable Flavored Broth Powder as an alternative to meat stock, and the first ingredient is "corn syrup solids," which is a sweetener processed from corn which I avoid, and it also included yeast extract - a taste enhancer - which, for some people, causes the same toxic effects and allergic reactions as MSG (monosodium glutamate). And, if you think you should deal with diabetes by using artificially sweetened "sugar-free" products, google-up "Artificial Sweetener Disease" (or search for "ASD" on http://www.naturalnews.com) and what you read might change your thinking. The bottom line for me is to use as few prepared foods as possible, cooking from scratch with whole foods.

When learning how to cook from scratch for special diets, start with some of your simpler recipes. For an example of a recipe which can be altered for many restrictions, let's look at a Shrimp Bisque I recently made. First is the recipe as I made it (it is very yummy), and below it are notes about my specific ingredients, suggestions for how to substitute for a few different dietary restrictions, and tips on how to change the flavor of the soup even if you don't have dietary restrictions.

1 lb. shrimp (not peeled)
1 c white wine
4 cups broth
2 bay leaves
1 T fresh thyme leaves or 1-1/2 t dried thyme
2 T oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 T tomato paste
4 T flour
1 cup milk
1 t hot chili powder
1/2 t salt
grated parmesan cheese

In a large pot, bring wine, broth, bay leaves, and thyme to a boil. Wash the shrimp and add to the pot. Remove from heat and let it sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Put another pot or bowl under a strainer and pour the liquid off the shrimp, reserving the broth and discarding the bay leaves. Run cool water over the shrimp to stop the cooking and peel the shrimp, discarding the peels and cut the shrimp into smaller pieces.

In the oil, sauté the onion, carrots, and celery until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Ladle about 1 cup of the reserved broth into a cup and slowing mix in the flour. Add this mixture and the tomato paste to the vegetables and mix. Pour in the broth/flour mixture, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Add the milk, chili powder, salt, and shrimp, and cook for 5 more minutes. Ladle into a bowl and sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on top.

INGREDIENTS I USED: (NOTE: you can read more about ingredients which appear below in red, in the ingredients column in the right column of the blog)
  • I used USA Gulf Shrimp, hand carried by my sweet friend Pam from the Florida Panhandle, frozen in water in zipper bags. Seafood shops label country of origin (if not, ask), so please buy only USA products... wild caught whenever possible
  • For the broth, I used organic, free range, low sodium chicken broth, sold in 32 oz aseptic boxes. You could also use seafood stock, vegetable broth, or a water and bouillon mixture
  • I didn't have any white wine open, so I used unsweetened apple juice
  • I used safflower oil
  • My onion, carrots, and celery were organic
  • For such a small quantity of tomato paste, I like the type which comes in a tube like toothpaste and is refrigerated after opening
  • For the flour, I used my own home-ground whole wheat flour
  • For the milk, I used organic nonfat milk
  • For the hot chili powder, I used my own ground dehydrated jalapeno powder, which is very hot. Of course, this can be omitted if you don't like spicy foods, and you can just flavor to taste with black pepper.
  • My choice for salt is Real Salt
  • I didn't have grated parmesan, so I used grated romano cheese

  1. LOW FAT - instead of using oil, saute the vegetables in about 1/4 c of the reserved broth, and either omit the milk (the flour makes the soup thick) or use fat-free milk.
  2. GLUTEN-FREE - The flour can be omitted, which will make the soup a little less thick but not change the taste, or gluten-free flour such as sweet rice or sorghum flour can be substituted. You might try ground flaxseeds will thicken the soup base to your liking, while adding good omega 3's to your diet.
  3. DAIRY-FREE - Eliminate the milk and parmesan cheese, or try soy or almond milk and soy cheese.
  4. LOW SODIUM - Use no-sodium broth and don't add the salt. You could pump up the flavor with your favorite salt-free herb blend, like Mrs. Dash, or add some lemony herbs like lemon thyme, which would accept the shrimp flavor nicely.
  5. NO ALCOHOL - The white wine in this recipe imparts a mild flavor, but can be eliminated. I substituted with unsweetened apple juice, but you could also just add 1 c of water in place of the wine.
  6. SHELLFISH ALLERGY - Use fish instead of shrimp, something with good flavor, like salmon. Do not do the initial boiling of the broth, and eliminate the bay leaves. Or make Chicken Bisque, with boneless breasts!
  7. VEGAN (no animal products) - Instead of shrimp, use a strong-flavored vegetable as the "star" of your soup, such as fennel, sweet potato, or winter squash. Use vegetable broth or vegetable juice for the 4 cups of broth. Eliminate the milk or use soy or almond milk. Garnish with freshly grown sprouts or toasted nuts in place of the grated cheese.

If you don't need any substitutions for your diet, or if any of your dietary changes leave the soup tasting bland, here are suggestions for altering the flavor:
  • Use tomato or vegetable juice in place of the broth
  • Use coconut oil for the fat, add 1 T fresh lime juice (eliminate the milk or it might curdle from the citrus juice), 1 T chopped fresh cilantro, and a garnish of toasted peanuts - for a southeast Asian flavor
  • Use different vegetables in the saute mix: tomatoes, peppers, garlic, asparagus, okra (which will thicken the soup), chopped spinach
Experiment, and let me know how you do!


January in the Vegetable Garden

This week we return to 10 hours of daylight in Zone 7, and my new garden seeds will be arriving tomorrow. So my thoughts are on gardening 2012! Meanwhile, I am still harvesting fresh veggies from the garden daily. Our winter continues to be mild, with regular rainfall. I actually transplanted some of those tiny celeriac seedlings from the cold frame to the garden a few days before Christmas, and they are growing fine. I bought a big ugly celeriac root at the supermarket and tried planting it too - no sign of life yet though. Earlier this month the mercury fell to about 15 degrees for two nights and we had a light snow cover; I didn't bother to cover the brussels sprouts and they survived - I harvested some, halved them, and sauteed them with onions and tamari soy sauce one day last week… they tasted excellent! I've been picking and using fennel as a raw veggie dipper with homemade dips (cut like celery stalks), as well as sliced thin in a salad with apples, toasted almonds, and my Caesar dressing. I love the fennel seeds I saved last summer too - they are a great addition, whole, to my morning granola, and I've also ground them and added to biscotti recipes. A few beets are still in the ground from last summer, probably big and woody now, and they continue to provide fresh leaves for harvest. Many wild plants are growing well this winter too; the white clover we seeded as a ground cover has established itself in a healthy patch just off the front steps, and I use the fresh leaves in our green smoothies. My crocuses have begun to flower and daffodils are several inches out of the ground, so spring is just around the corner here.

More of my gardening time is spent indoors this month, as I plan what I'll be growing. Here are the basic lessons which my 2011 garden taught me:
  • Don't grow plants which attract bugs and succumb to disease
I am surrendering to some of my bug battles, and simply not planting many of the vegetables most attractive to them. This means I will not grow squash-family plants, since I got little or no harvest last year, due to squash bugs. No zucchini, no butternut squash, no melons. I will try one new heirloom "pumpkin" called Cushaw (which is an edible winter squash) which is described as resistant to squash bugs. I am also planning to grow a gherkin instead of cucumbers, for fresh eating. I am not planting calendula, which is a very pretty edible and medicinal "pot marigold" - even the ones which reseeded themselves in late fall grew full of little bug holes in the leaves. The amaranth I tried to grow also succumbed to bug attacks, so that's off my grow list too, as well as oriental greens such as chinese cabbage, tat soi, pak choy and others I've tried. I now know that fall/winter is the best time for my cabbage family favorites, like brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens, and, fortunately, their pests are not around in the cooler seasons, so that's when I will grow them from now on.

A solution to tomato blight still escapes me, so here is the 2012 tomato plan:
  1. Plant "blight resistant" varieties only (I've found and purchased seeds for two heirloom varieties, Legend and Old Brooks Red)
  2. Plant the tomato plants outside the vegetable garden this year
  3. Try ground cinnamon on the ground around the plants as an anti-fungal (a tip from gardener friend John)
  4. Don't start the tomatoes outdoors as early - makes them more susceptible to "early" blight
  5. Clean all the tomato cages and garden tools, so fungus residue from last year is destroyed
  •  Don't grow plants with little yield
The only snap beans I intend to grow are my favorite Blue Lake Bush beans. I planted yellow wax beans at the same time, and the yellow beans took forever to mature, with very sparse production. Meantime I was harvesting the green beans continually, and the Blue Lakes are great raw, cooked and frozen. The "bush" nature of this heirloom means it doesn't need trellising, since the plants only grow about 18-24" tall and stand upright on their own.
  • Don't grow plants which take up too much space, when smaller comparable varieties taste as good
The Thai "long beans" were an interesting novelty, and tasted ok, but their long vines overtook and spilled out of one corner of the garden. Yes, I only needed about 2 beans to make a side dish for two, but they took a long time to mature. And the flowers attracted too many little biting bees. Fortunately, I used up the whole envelope of seeds.
  • Grow plants with a longer harvesting season
I was disappointed with my sweet peppers last summer - even though I started the plants very early and grew one in a red plastic Kozy Koat, I didn't start harvesting any for a long long time. So this year I'm growing some described as early, and also described as "dwarf" which should result in quicker harvesting.

  • Don't grow too many of one vegetable
If I grow any jalapenos or eggplants this year, I know that one plant of each is enough. I have a large supply of dried and powdered jalapenos, so I only need some to use fresh, in salsa and other dishes. I prefer eggplant used fresh also, and one eggplant at a time is all I need to harvest; one plant will give me a supply over many weeks. I will again limit my planting of basil, since I still have lots of frozen pesto. I am going to try "lime basil" as well as a large-leaf variety.
  • Grow more edible greens in the hottest part of the growing season
Since we've adopted a routine of daily green smoothies, I've loved having cool weather greens to harvest. Now I want to be sure to have a variety of greens to harvest in warm weather, when spinach and many lettuces will not grow well. The "heat tolerant" edible greens I look forward to planting this year include: two variaties of edible Japanese chrysanthemums; leaves of black garbanzo beans (I can harvest the pods and beans too); two spinach-tasting plants which are not true spinaches: "strawberry spinach" which is related to lamb's quarters, and "red malabar spinach" which is a heat loving vine of greenery; and a bronze lettuce. Some of these are for fresh and cooked recipes - you'll be hearing more about how they taste later this year.
  • Try new plants
I am adding okra to my garden this year. I've ordered seeds for a dwarf variety - only 3 feet tall! As you can tell, this is normally a very tall plant. It grows well here in the south, seemingly with no pests or diseases, and I've developed a taste for it. My friends Bill and Julie grill the whole pods (with a little coating of oil) until crunchy and eat them like french fries, and they are yummy this way. I am also planting more herbs, including lovage (celery flavor), stevia (so I can dry the leaves again, for a great natural sweetener), shiso (a red leaf, used to color pickled Japanese ginger), dock, and cilantro (a hot-weather cilantro).

Start planning your garden for 2012, even if it's just a pot of herbs on your porch!


A Kid in a Candy Shop

I stood in the center of the windowless little shop, turning in a circle to absorb the sight of floor-to-ceiling shelves, packed with glass jars. The air was filled with sweet fragrance, such a mingling of flavors that none stood out distinctively. I was amazed at the variety of offerings, every jar with something different, labeled with its name, ingredients, and origin. But, unlike the proverbial "kid," I was not in a candy shop. My experience was in a fabulous tea shop, in the town of Basel on the German border, with my Swiss friend Claudia. The teas in the shop were from all corners of the world - opening my eyes to the vast number of varieties, blends and flavors.

I am a tea fanatic, and I drink hot and chilled tea several times a day, year round. Here in the south, "sweet tea" is sort of the default drink - black tea with sugar, iced. But my choices of tea rarely includes black tea, and I find little need for sweeteners when the brew has no bitterness. I always have a half-gallon jar of herbal tea in the fridge, which I brew from a mixture of 6 tea bags - usually 5 fruity herbal teas along with one red tea bag (more info on red tea below). We drink it iced, enjoying the natural sweetness, and sometimes mix it with unflavored seltzer for a sort of homemade soda.

Here's a sampling of the many flavors and brands of tea bags which I enjoy year-round, hot and iced
The health advantages of GREEN TEA have been touted for several years, although I think we get more benefit from drinking it than from having it as a shampoo ingredient! I recently learned that green tea is the source of an amino acid, L-theanine, used to treat anxiety and stress. Green, black, oolong, and white teas all come from leaves of the same shrub, Camellia sinensis, but processing is different to attain different levels of oxidation. Each contains some level of natural caffeine, but less than coffee when compared cup by cup. HERBAL TEA does not use black or green tea as an ingredient, but relies on blends of other non-tea plant materials, and is naturally caffeine-free. Herbal teas are made not only from leaves (like mint), but also from flowers (like hibiscus), fruit (like cherries), herbs (like lavender), spices (like cinnamon), natural flavorings (like vanilla beans), or roasted roots (like chicory). RED TEA or ROOIBOS was introduced to me by my Swiss friend Claudia many years before I ever saw it sold in the US; it is now more common, but many don't know what it is. Rooibos is an Afrikaans word for "red bush", the common name of a plant from South Africa. It is a totally different plant than that used to harvest black and green tea. Its needle-like leaves have been used for  generations in South Africa for teas, but only in recent years in other parts of the world. Red bush processing produces a reddish-brown color. Nutritionally, rooibos is caffeine-free, high in antioxidants, and is reported to be healthful against allergies, asthma and skin problems.

Fresh and dried plant materials which can be brewed for tea.
Many blends traditionally made with black tea, such as Earl Grey tea (with the added oil from the rind of bergamot oranges giving it a distinctive taste) and Chai tea are now blended with green tea, or with caffeine-free plant materials. Blends such as these were developed long ago in India, China, and Southeast Asian countries, combining the native tea leaves with native herbs and spices; Chai blends include cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and even black peppercorns. My standard morning beverage is either Earl Grey Green (Bigelow brand) or Green Chai (Stash brand). Traditionally, Chai tea is served with milk and honey, so some blends include sweeteners.  Beware of Chai teas sold in fancy cafes and in aseptic boxes - they are commonly very highly sweetened. My lunch is accompanied by Good Earth brand Green Tea, a mild tasting blend of green tea, lemongrass, rose petals and peppermint. At night, I enjoy Yogi brand Chai Rooibos, with the benefits of red tea and naturally sweetened with stevia leaves. One of my favorite herbal tea bags is Tazo brand Wild Sweet Orange, which is a blend of lemongrass, blackberry leaves, rose hips, spearmint leaves, orange peel, hibiscus flowers, rose petals, ginger root, licorice root and other flavorings.

I can't write about teas without mentioning MEDICINAL TEAS. Studies  show that populations with higher black, green and oolong tea consumption have a reduced risk of gastrointestinal, pancreatic, bladder, prostate, ovarian, uterine and breast cancer. Green tea is particularly rich in a polyphenol which laboratory studies show to inhibit cancer cell formation, proliferation, invasiveness, and metastasis - and it causes cancer cell death. Many are familiar with herbal chamomile tea, made from a white daisy-like aster plant, which is commonly used to help with sleep. Ginger root tea is wonderful for digestive discomforts, including motion sickness, as well as being my favorite remedy for sore throats (mixed with honey and lemon juice for their medicinal benefits too). When I did a post about air-dehydrating, many asked me why I dehydrated corn silk. Corn silk tea is an excellent medicinal remedy for kidney-related problems. It is brewed from fresh or dried corn silk, and has a very mild flavor. Yerba Mate is a traditional herbal beverage from South America, considered to have anti-cancer effects, boost the immune system, induce mental clarity, and support weight loss. There are teas for no matter what ails you, and loads of info online and in books. Learn more about healing teas from a respected herbal tea company Traditional Medicinals.

My prized antique silver tea strainer with saucer comes from England and is perfect for loose teas, like the chai blend shown.

Back in that wondrous German tea shop, they sold some tea bags, but most of the jars held blends of loose tea ingredients, sold by weight. Loose teas are often brewed by spooning them into a filtering container, such as a tea ball, and steeping them in hot water. Traditional "high tea" in Britain usually includes china pots of brewed loose tea, poured into the tea cups through a lovely silver strainer placed on top of the cup which looks and acts like a tiny colander to capture the steeped plant materials. For those who live near me, there is a nice tea vendor on Kingston Pike in Knoxville which I visited a few years ago. They are also a lunch and tea-time restaurant and art gallery (wow, so many of my favorite things!): Tea At The Gallery.

Like other prepared foods, teas vary in quality and price. Cultivation, growing location, harvesting, processing, and packaging are just some varying factors. Organic, natural ingredients are my preference, even though the cost is usually higher. For medicinal herbal teas, pharmacopoeial grade ingredients are important for effectiveness. Beware of artificial flavorings… I still don't comprehend an ingredient on a holiday tea offering from Celestial Seasonings brand, listed as "natural sugar cookie flavor!" I am a fan of their teas, but this left me feeling very curious and suspicious.

Various types of strainers for filtering brewed loose teas

It's not difficult to brew tasty teas from homegrown plant materials, which I do with mints, lemon balm, passion vine leaves, fennel, and lemon grass. As my knowledge of plants increases, I look forward to growing, wild-harvesting, and brewing my own plant materials for herbal and medicinal teas, including licorice root, dandelion, clover, anise hyssop, tulsi, dandelion, and others. I'll be reporting on my progress. If you have a favorite tea, let me know. In the meantime, brew yourself a satisfying mug of hot tea.