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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dried Fruit: Dos and Don'ts

We all need more produce in our diets, but sometimes access to fresh fruit isn’t always an option.  Picture a lunch sack shoved into the bottom of a backpack and you’ll quickly see why fresh grapes, nectarines or kiwi may end up as a soggy pulp by the time lunchtime rolls around.  One possible solution – dried fruit. 

Nutrition & Convenience:
When fresh fruit is out of season, or you need a good car snack, or something that won’t mold in your pantry, try dried fruit. Dried fruit contains all the nutrition of regular fruit minus the water.  So they are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber that keep our digestion healthy, help us fend off colds and overall prevent disease. 

When choosing a dried fruit, watch out for 2 things:
  1.       Added sugar.  Read that ingredient list to make sure there is only one item – the fruit.  Fruit is nature’s dessert and doesn’t need to be soaked in sugary syrups before drying.  Avoid choosing dried fruits that contain added sugars.
  2.      Serving size.  Since the water is taken out, a serving of dried fruit is much smaller than a serving of fresh fruit.  Always plan to drink plenty of water to round out your snack of dried fruit and help provide the fullness you’d get from eating regular fruit. 

Drying your own:
Best of all, dried fruit is a great way to avoid wasting fruit that goes begging from your fruit bowl or your refrigerator drawer.  My favorite is dried pineapple from canned pineapple slices and dried grapefruit from fresh, sliced grapefruit.
Some great dryable fruits include:
  •         Berries
  •         Pineapple
  •        Grapes
  •        Plums
  •        Kiwi
  •       Mango
  •       Apples
  •        Peaches
  •        Nectarines
  •        Apricots
  •        Grapefruit
  •        Oranges

3 steps to delicious dried fruit:
  1. Wash your fruit 
  2. Slice uniformly and if needed dip your fruit in a lemon juice & water mixture to prevent browning  
  3. Dry on a baking rack in your oven, set to the lowest setting, or use a food dehydrator.  
*To prevent sticking, lightly spray the dehydrator tray or baking rack with cooking spray. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Optimizing Oils: Cooking Oils 101

If you’ve been baffled by the serious diversity in the oil section of your grocery store, you’re not alone.  More and more specialty oils are available and it seems like there is always some new hype regarding one type or another.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t require a degree in food science to navigate cooking oils successfully and healthfully. 

Why oil?
Our bodies do need a certain amount of fat to maintain healthy skin, hormone levels and help with the metabolism and storage of certain vitamins.  Oils from nuts, seeds and vegetables contain mono and polyunsaturated fats and provide a healthier source of fat to protect against heart disease than saturated (solid) fat sources.  There are 2 main issues to consider when choosing a cooking oil:

Darker oils have stronger flavors (olive, sesame) and can impart the flavor of the oil’s source. 
Sesame oil adds great flavor to Asian and Indian style recipes.
Nut oils such as walnut and peanut oils add a certain nuttiness that works great for dressings or other dishes that are enhanced by a nut undertone.
Extra virgin olive oil is darker in color and has a tangier, fruitier flavor that makes it ideal for dressings or dipping bread. 

Smoke Point
Whether you are sautéing or frying, if high heat is involved, you’ll want to pay attention to the smoke point.  Smoke point is the temperature at which the oil’s chemical structure starts to break down, it will start to smoke and have an acrid taste.  Generally the lighter the color of the oil, the higher the smoke point, but some are higher than others.

Low smoke points – should only use in sauces, dressings, dips etc.

  • ·      Walnut
  • ·      Flaxseed
  • ·      Dark Sesame
  • ·      Unrefined Coconut
Moderate smoke points  - 400 degrees F (works for most cooking, sautéing and baking)

  • ·      Canola
  • ·      Extra Virgin Olive
High Smoke Points – best for frying or flash-frying

  • ·      Peanut
  • ·      Grapeseed
  • ·      Light Sesame
  • ·      Light Olive
  • ·      Vegetable
Regardless of the current hype on oils,  the safest, healthiest take on the subject is moderation and variety.  When I see that someone has a variety of cooking oils in their pantry, that is generally a sign of good health.  It indicates a greater variety of home-cooked meals in their diet.  And moderation reminds us that a little goes a long way, so whether you like coconut oil or olive or canola, the salient point is that oils play a minor role in your diet, making the type you choose less critical.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pantry Quiz: Does your pantry make the grade?

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I am often asked what a healthy pantry should look like.  For a full, personalized answer you can always have a "pantry makeover" (see Pricing & Services page).  But for my short answer, here are some questions you can use to assess the healthfulness of your pantry.

  1. Do I find a lot of expired, or past-date foods?  (The obvious answer is for food safety reasons, but also, if you are rotating through your pantry foods and staples regularly, it is a sign that you cook and eat at home often which is a major sign of good nutrition.)
  2. Do I have 3 or more types of cooking oils?  (Canola for baking, olive oil for dressings and pestos, and a seed or nut oil for ethnic dishes or special sauces)
  3. Do I have at least 2 types of legumes" (Dry or canned, dried beans and lentils are nutritional powerhouses and are a great source of protein, fiber, folate and iron.  Just be sure to rinse your canned beans to reduce the sodium.)
  4. Do I have a couple types of whole grain pasta? (Choose pasta with decent amounts of fiber - 5 grams per serving - and have a couple different shapes on hand to increase the variety of your cuisine.)
  5. Do I have low-sodium canned vegetables?  (Fresh may be ideal, but not always workable.  Rinse your canned vegetables to reduce the sodium, and take advantage of the convenience of shelf-stable veggies.  Tomatoes in particular are a wonderful source of lycopene and other beneficial nutrients.)
  6. Do I have reduced fat mayonnaise and salad dressings?  (Full-fat versions contain so many calories, fat-free are far from acceptable substitutes for for taste or nutrition, but reduced-fat versions are a great, middle-of-the-road choice.)
  7. Do I have at least 2 types of vinegars? (The greater variety, the greater the chance that you are cooking a variety of delicious and healthful foods.)
  8. Do I have at least 2 whole grains? (Quinoa and barley for example, or oat and brown rice - whole grains provide so much more nutrition than refined versions.)
  9. Do I stock healthy breakfast cereal choices?  (This is a blogpost unto itself, but shoot for higher fiber and lower sugar.)
  10. Do I have a variety of lower-sodium condiments and spices? (Mustards, reduced sodium soy sauce, worchestershire sauce, chili paste, garlic, pesto and a variety of spices lend themselves to delicious, home-cooked food that will happily keep you out of the drive through or the convenience-food aisle of the store.)
Notice the emphasis on variety - the more varied your pantry, the more likely it is you are chef in your own kitchen.  Nothing can substitute for the healthful benefits of that!
For more detailed pantry information, or if you have specific questions on the state of your pantry and fridge, feel free to schedule a pantry makeover (see Pricing & Services).