Thursday, January 28, 2010


"I thought I'd never have to say this but...did you wash that hammer before you used it?"

That was my friend Jim, eyeing my pesto-making methods warily one weeknight. We had decided to make homemade pesto. In the absence of a food processor, I resorted to cutting basil leaves into thin strips, then spreading them over a large cutting board and mashing them with a hammer. The result was messy. And tasty.

Hammer or food processor, pesto is a unique alternative to red or white sauce when cooking pasta, or making pizza. While it has a high fat content, most of that is from olive oil and pine nuts or walnuts.

The other benefit of eating pesto is that the olive oil is not heated, and thus retains all the complexities of its flavor. Many people are not familiar with its great taste, which comes from chemicals that evaporate in the high heat of sauteeing and frying (1).

A nice recipe for pesto can be found here. The ingredients are simple and from there it is a game of ratios. Increase and decrease amounts to suit your palate. I recommend using regular olive oil, not extra virgin, because it gives pesto a little bite. Toss with linguine noodles and chicken with no preservatives for a tasty dinner. Fresh noodles, found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, compliment pesto nicely. If you want some adventure, try these Luscious Oatmeal Dinner Rolls as a side.

A strange note: pesto made with a hammer, while not recommended for the faint of heart (basil brutality), tastes better than pesto made with a food processor. It may be because of (1) the manner in which the basil leaves are cut, (2) the quality of parmesan cheese used, (3) the quality or type (extra virgin or regular) of the olive oil used, (4) the well-known fact that food tastes better after hard work!


Disodium Phosphate

Gas station food is nearly all off limits since pledging to eat all-natural ingredients. But the other day, while harriedly filling at the pump and wishing energy could be dispensed this way for humans, I found some cheesy popcorn that claimed to be all-natural. Disodium phosphate, an ionic compound of Sodium (Na), Phosphorous (P), and Oxygen (O), was one of the ingredients.

Disodium phosphate is added to white cheese popcorn as a sequestering agent(2). The cheese flavor comes from an evaporated dairy product, and Disodium phosphate, as a sequestrant, stabilizes ions in this substance, inhibiting their reaction with other ingredients or the air (3).

Disodium phosphate is also marketed as a nutritional supplement. Rocky Mountain Wellness claims it supports liver and gallblader function by maintaining the balance between acidity and basicity in the body. Their marketed Disodium phosphate capsules also contain gelatin, stearic acid, water, and "colors." Hm. (1)

It seems Disodium phosphate does not have any immediate health hazards. However, its presence in my popcorn reinforces a persistent question on this food journey. Even with all-natural ingredients, how processed is too processed? Should I have saved $1.89 at the gas station, gone home, and popped some popcorn kernels tossed with oil and sea salt, and maybe eaten a piece of cheese? No preservatives, even natural ones, are needed for this snack. This would have taken time and energy, but would it have been better for my body, in the long run, than dehydrated dairy products and Disodium phosphate?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recipe 1: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Here is a hearty, wintry spaghetti and meatballs recipe.

For an all-natural recipe,
1) Use fresh Parmesan instead of canned, and
2) olive oil instead of bacon drippings.
3) If you're a stickler, make sure the wine you use doesn't contain sulfites.

Serve with a salad and whole grain pasta; make bread, if you're feeling adventurous.

Happy cooking!

Xanthan Gum

I have been examining many ingredient labels lately, and Xanthan gum is present in nearly all the processed foods I look at. This ingredient, which sounds like some sort of martian chicle, is a type of sugar that has been fermented with a bacteria species called Xanthomonas campestris .

The bacteria consumes and digests the sugar, creating a starchy byproduct. This substance is used to thicken foods or create a creamy texture in low-fat dairy foods. It is also a substitute for wheat gluten. (1)

Xanthan gum is naturally made, so in terms of my yearly commitment, it makes the cut. However, I wonder how the body digests and processes this type of ingredient. Most importantly, is it necessary? If I can have natural oil and vinegar salad dressing, is that better than a low-fat basalmic vinegarette that contains Xanthan gum?

To me, yes.