As the New Year approaches, I find myself with the sudden urge to reevaluate my kitchen. The holidays seem to lend itself to an accumulation of unwholesome food by way of gifts from co-workers, holiday parties, etc. What better way to usher in a virtuous 2014 than to purge those guilty items and create an organized pantry full of healthful ingredients now? Have these top ten essential ingredients on hand to create delicious meals and snacks that keep you on track with your New Year’s resolutions.
1. Chia Seeds
You may be hearing a lot about chia seeds recently, and for good reason. An ancient food of the Mayans and Aztecs who ate the seeds as a natural energy supplement, chia seeds are a rich source of fiber, protein, antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids. But wait, there’s more! Chia seeds do something very unusual. When they are placed in liquid, they absorb the liquid and form a gel. This gel is a great substitute for gelatin or other gluten-derived thickeners in puddings, smoothies, soups and sauces. It is also an excellent source of hydration for the body and a useful weapon in the weight loss arsenal by providing bulk and slowing digestion, keeping you feeling full. How to use these lovely little gems? Try soaking 2 tablespoons of chia seeds in 4 ounces of water for about 5 minutes to create a gel. Or grind up the seeds and use in a 3:1 ratio of water to ground seeds to replace eggs in baked goods. Of course, chia seeds can be eaten as is, and, unlike flax seeds, can be absorbed by the body in its whole form.
2. Vegetable Stock
Every pantry needs quality stock. There are several good, ready-made organic brands, or you can make your own. If you are juicing, you have a ready-made base in the pulp, and the varying vegetables in the pulp makes for interesting flavor combinations. Simply add water to the pulp (you can sauté it with a little olive oil first if you like) and simmer for 30 minutes. Viola! You now have the perfect liquid for creating a myriad of dishes, or drink the stock on its own for a vitamin-packed thirst quencher.
The coconut has become the workhorse of the kitchen these days, lending itself to use in several different forms (oil, fresh, dried, and water). Containing high levels of lauric acid, a saturated fat that increases HDL (or “good cholesterol”) levels, coconut oil is an excellent replacement for olive oil in sautéing. Fresh coconut meat is wonderful in smoothies and salads, and dried coconut adds depth to homemade granolas, or toasted as a crunchy topping on your morning oatmeal or favorite smart sweets. Coconut water is now a trendy elixir, seen prominently in the sports world due to its electrolyte composition that replenishes and re-hydrates the body post-workout. Drink it as is or use it in place of water when cooking healthy whole grains.
This is rather a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of algae species, most basically categorized as brown, green and red. Each kind has a different taste, but all contain valuable vitamins and minerals such as folate, calcium and magnesium. And for many of us who are consuming lower and lower amounts of iodized salt, seaweed is an excellent natural source of iodine, important to the health of the hormone-regulating thyroid gland. Ok so other than sushi, what can you do with it? Take the same sheets of nori that you would use to make sushi, brush with sesame oil and your choice of seeds and/ or seasonings. Bake in a 250 F/120 C oven for 15 minutes and you’ve got yourself a yummy snack. It’s also convenient to have a few bags of dried seaweed on hand. I throw chopped up pieces of it in soups, or rehydrate the dried seaweed in water and add it to smoothies. Mix several types of rehydrated seaweed and toss with sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds and rice wine vinegar to make an easy seaweed salad. Add sliced scallions, cucumbers and avocado to make an even more satisfying meal. Speaking of avocado…
Is there anything more delicious than creamy, buttery avocado? Besides the delicious taste, I am a big fan of any food that will keep me full for hours and take less than 1 minute to prepare. Simply cut in half, de-pit and scoop out the flesh, and you have got yourself a meal. Chock full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytosterols, the avocado is also a wonderful addition to salads, as a garnish on soups, mashed and spread on bread to replace mayonnaise, or pureed to make a creamy salad dressing. In addition, the oil of the avocado has a delicate flavor that is lovely drizzled on salads and is even an excellent moisturizer for the skin.
Everyone seems to be touting the merits of quinoa these days, but do you know about millet? Another high protein grain, millet is gluten-free and easily digestible. Just one cup of millet provides 25% of your daily value of magnesium and phosphorus, 20% of zinc and high amounts of B vitamins. Millet is also rich in antioxidants and has been shown in research to lower triglycerides. Like many grains, millet will take on a nutty flavor when toasted. Use millet as they do in Asia, as porridge for breakfast, or puree it with veggies to make a creamy mash. Cook toasted millet and toss with raw vegetables for a wholesome salad, or pulse it in the food processor to create ground flour that can add fiber and bulk to Smart Sweets.
No surprises here. Almonds have long been touted for their role in heart health, and new research associates almond eaters with a reduction in weight gain compared with people who didn’t eat the nut. Like coconut, almonds provide bang for your buck in terms of ways you can use them. Grind them to make almond flour or almond butter, express their milk for delicious almond milk in your smoothies, or eat them in their raw state. I love using whole almonds in granola or in salads, and chopped they are a surprisingly easy substitute for breadcrumbs. Almond oil provides a delicate flavoring when drizzled on salads and sautéed greens. With its low calories and high protein content, almond milk is a great substitution for cow’s milk. And while some people may consider almond butter an alternative for people with peanut allergies, I think it is even richer and creamier than its peanut rival. Ground almond flour is also a great gluten-free stand in for wheat flour.
8. Swiss Chard (Silverbeet)
You probably have heard all about the benefits of the superfood kale (Tuscan cabbage), but don’t discount this other leafy green. Within the same family as beets and spinach, chard contains potent levels of vitamins A, C and K, and is a rich source of iron, magnesium and calcium, which play an important role in bone structure and support. In addition, chard’s dark green leaves and colorful ribs and stem (hence the term rainbow chard), house a fantastic array of powerful phytochemicals which have been researched for their ability to maintain stable blood sugar levels within the body. Like many other leafy greens, chard has a slightly bitter taste that makes it well suited to a simple sauté in garlic and oil. No need to discard the ribs as you would some of the other leafy greens; chard ribs are bred to be an edible and delicious part of the plant. Trim off just the very hard, bottom portion of the stem and enjoy!
Don’t forget your spices! Not just for seasoning food, current research shows that spices contain powerful properties that can influence the body’s health. Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne pepper in particular have been researched recently. Turmeric contains chemical properties that reduce inflammation and its main component, curcumin, has been avidly studied for its ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Cinnamon, actually the inner layer of bark from several different species of trees, contains anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and has also been shown to reduce fasting blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. Ginger combats nausea and motion sickness and aids in digestion, while cayenne pepper improves circulation, decreases sinus congestion and boosts immunity. So go ahead and swirl the cinnamon and ginger into your morning oatmeal, add turmeric to your grains during cooking and admire the bracing nature of the cayenne pepper knowing that not only are you pleasing your palate, you are also providing your body with a natural defense system.
Legumes are an invaluable part of anyone’s diet. Vegetarians especially benefit from their hearty taste and high satiety factor, making them an effective meat replacer. And while I love all types of beans, I must admit I have a particular fondness for lentils because they require no soaking prior to cooking. How many times have I found myself making a recipe with beans and then remember that I forgot to soak them overnight? And with two hungry kids and a husband to feed, even the boiling method can take too much time. Enter lentils. Packed with protein and fiber, lentils are also one of the best dietary sources of folate. Folate is crucial to heart health, responsible for lowering levels of the blood vessel-damaging homocysteine. Lentils also contain high levels of iron and zinc, minerals that are often in low supply amongst vegetarians and menstruating women. Cooked lentils add a nutty flavor and interesting texture to salads, pasta and rice dishes, and purees, and yes, even desserts. Dessert without the guilt? Now that’s the way I want to ring in the New Year!