Friday, March 28, 2014

A blog with a new focus

Nearly four years ago I started this blog called A Passion for Flavor. I imagined it would be fun to do - that I would tinker with for a while but eventually grow tired of it - but here I am, still typing away! 

Obviously, it's been a lot more fun than I had originally realized. Finding things to write about has been at times difficult, yet at other times the ideas just rolled out of me. The inspiration for subject matter was usually just about whatever I fancied at the moment or had talked about with a friend or family member, or an idea I had seen on a cooking show.

But now I'm going to switch things up a bit and take this blog in a new direction, mostly because I can no longer put off addressing an issue that urgently needs my attention. 

It's not an easy thing to talk about, but for nearly the past decade, if not longer, I've had digestive trouble. And unfortunately, things haven't improved much over the years. In fact, they have worsened. Years ago a gastroenterologist took me through the usual battery of tests and found nothing visibly wrong. I heard "you have a "functional" problem." This basically left me without any explanation for my suffering. I left his office thinking perhaps it was all in my head.

But my problems remained and over time I tried all sorts of things on my own: eating this or that thing that was recommended, omitting other things that could aggravate problems but never entirely, drinking peppermint tea (good for an upset stomach), then not drinking peppermint tea (bad for heartburn), drinking fennel tea and ginger tea for digestion, and black tea instead of coffee, cutting carbohydrates, taking apple cider vinegar, probiotics, drinking kefir and eating plain yogurt, drinking bone broth for more minerals, taking hydrochloric acid, pepsin, bromelain, papaya enzymes, digestive enzymes, digestive bitters, homeopathic remedies prescribed by a naturopath, and eventually just taking Pepto-Bismol and Alka Seltzer Gold when flare-ups reared their ugly head and I was frustrated and in a lot of pain. My medicine cabinet is chock full of bottles. And yet, despite all the reading, consulting, pill-popping and witches brews concocted, I suffer more now than ever before.

I had always tried to just ignore my symptoms in the hope that they would just one day go away on their own. This hasn't worked very well for me and clearly a different approach was becoming necessary. We've all heard the saying about the definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." 

I started tackling the issue again. Reading, reading and doing ever more reading. And one day I found something that spoke to me. When a doctor tells you it's "functional", more often than not you have IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). As I read about this, the symptoms totally described me. The gas, the bloating, the distention, the worrying about making it to the bathroom in time, the stomach cramping. Sometimes I feel ok, but I have no idea why. What did I leave out to create a friendlier digestive environment?

While not as debilitating as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis or IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease) that all can cause lasting and permanent damage to the digestive system, IBS can still negatively impact your day-to-day life and cause a lot of discomfort.

So, how will this affect the Blog, you ask? I am adopting a new eating plan, one developed for people suffering from IBS. I'll go into more of that next week, but for now, know that while there will still be fruits and vegetables and meats and fish and nuts discussed here, some of all of those things will not appear in my recipes.

The reason why is because this eating plan eliminates the foods that have been shown to cause IBS symptoms. After a period of time in which the digestive system is allowed time to calm down (about 6-8 weeks), one reintroduces one of the eliminated foods per week and logs the results. It makes sense to me that only in this way can I begin to learn what's causing the problem. Unfortunately, no doctor knows what my system can handle and what it can't. No one, despite their best intentions, can tell me what to do to save me the time and effort required. It is really a matter of self-experimentation.

So, will you want to stick around and go with me in this new direction? I'm not sure. But I certainly hope so because I will still be eating, and cooking, and making recipes and wanting to share them with you. And if you suffer from any digestive discomfort, either occasionally, or daily like me, I hope you'll possibly get something out of what I write about. Perhaps you'll learn something new, or reconsider something you're doing that might not be ideal for your digestive health. 

Not much really will change, except that the focus won't just be having a passion for flavor, but having a passion for digestive wellness. Maybe this is what I'm meant to do with this blog: to share my experience. 

So, my hope is you'll hang out with me a little longer. Or maybe because of this, discover me for the first time, or perhaps share me with someone you know who is also suffering from unexplained digestive trouble.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sweet Potato vs. Yam

Are Sweet Potatoes the same thing as Yams?
In the United States, most tubers sold as yams are actually members of the sweet potato family. Your Garnets, your Jewels, the “yams” with the rich orange flesh and reddish-brown exterior, are, botanically, sweet potatoes. In fact, it’s quite likely that the vast majority of people have never tasted a true yam. The reason for this discrepancy is simple marketing: back in the mid-20th century, when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced into the United States, they were labeled “yams” to avoid confusion with the common white-fleshed sweet potato Americans were already enjoying. “Yam” was derived either from the Spanish “name” or Portuguese “inhame,” both of which come from the Wolof word “nyam,” which means “to sample” or “to taste.” Another African language uses “yamyam” for “to chew,” which should give you some idea of the starchy tuber’s importance in local diets – as well as the level of mastication required for its consumption.
Sweet potatoes are native to South America, where they were domesticated at least 5000 years ago. They’re also common in Polynesia, and radio carbon dating of sweet potato remains in the Cook Islands places them at 1000 AD, with most researchers figuring they date back to at least 700 AD. The Peruvian Quechua word for sweet potato is kumar, while it’s called the remarkably similar kumara in Polynesia, prompting speculation that early South American voyagers actually introduced the tuber to the South Pacific. At any rate, they’re delicious, they’re eaten everywhere, and they have a lengthy tradition of being consumed by healthy people.
Real yams hail from the Dioscorea family of perennial herbaceous vines and include dozens of varieties, some of which grow to over eight feet long and weigh nearly two hundred pounds. 
Anyway, since most of us will be coming across sweet potatoes either disguised as yams or labeled correctly, let’s direct our attention to the various properties of the different sweet potato varieties.
The Classic Sweet Potato
This is probably what most of us picture when we think of a sweet potato - light, tan skin, slightly yellow interior. Creamy, and slightly sweet. Basic sweet potatoes are strong sources of beta-carotene, manganese, and copper and a good amount of fiber.
Orange-fleshed, red/brown/orange skinned sweet potato masquerading as a yam. They're even more common than the standard sweet potato, sweeter with a bit more water content. 
The Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato
White-skinned, with a brilliant purple interior that becomes velvety smooth and incredibly sweet when baked. The purple pigment is due to the vast numbers of anthocyanins - the very same beneficial antioxidant pigments that provide blueberries their brilliant color and health benefits. Several studies show potential benefits to purple sweet potato anthocyanins: suppression of mouse brain inflammation, alleviation of brain aging, reduction in cognitive deficits, inflammation and oxidative damage in aging mouse brains, potential suppression of neurodegenerative cell death, as in Alzheimer's, as well as protection against acetaminophen-induced liver damage in mice.
Wow! I don't know about you, but I'm really interested in the Okinawan!
As we all know, foods aren’t just their macronutrient composition. Micronutrient matters as well, and it’s also important to see the food as exactly that: whole food, a package deal. You might, for example, suppose that starchy sweet potatoes are absolutely horrible for patients with diabetes. But sweet potatoes aren’t just starch; caiapo, an extract of the standard sweet potato, was given to type 2 diabetics. After five months, they displayed greater glucose control. Another study on diabetic patients had similar results. It’s important to note that these were using non-caloric extracts, as opposed to actual sweet potatoes, but another study found that actual sweet potatoes were beneficial to diabetic rats. Things might be different for diabetics eating actual sweet potatoes (starch included), but I think it’s pretty clear that healthy people can eat them freely.

There are thousands of varieties of sweet potatoes and yams. It would be
impossible to document them all, and foolish to try. Just know this: they are healthy, tasty, safe sources of starch that people have been eating for a long, long time. If you’re trying to lose weight, keeping your intake low is probably best. But these starchy tubers are a welcome addition only every once and awhile - in moderation when they are added. I especially love sweet potato fries.

Friday, March 14, 2014

What I'm drinking these days

You know, I really like beer. I mean, hell, I'm German. Why wouldn't I?! It's funny: I remember a time when I would tell other women I liked beer and they would wrinkle up their noses at me, thinking me not very lady-like. Stupid. They apparently didn't know what they were missing.

But I don't drink it any more, and now I miss it. A lot. It's one of those things that I like very much, but it doesn't like me. The yeast, the gluten, I don't know what the issue is exactly. It just creates an inhospitable environment in my system.....well, let's just leave it at that, shall we?

Apple cider at work, fermenting
I was lamenting this sad fact not long ago at work and my co-worker told me I should try cider. Apple cider? Can't get much of a buzz from that! No, hard cider. Like apple cider, but with alcohol. I was intrigued. I had never tried it. Or so I thought.

Naturally, I had to research it.

Cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from fruit juice, most commonly and traditionally apple juice, but also from peaches, pears or berries. Cider varies in alcohol content from as low as 1.2% to 8.5% or more in traditional English ciders. In some regions, cider may be called "apple wine". Cider may be made from any variety of apple, but certain cultivars grown solely for use in cider as known as cider apples. The beverage is very popular in the U.K., which has the highest per capita consumption of it in the world. Cider is also popular in other European countries such as Ireland, and in the French regions of Brittany and Normandy. In Poland, which is the largest producer of apples in Europe, cider is just recently gaining popularity. Argentina is also a cider-producing and drinking country, as well as Australia. In Spain (especially in the Basque Country), and in Germany, in my family's neck of the woods, the Rhineland, and in Hesse (Frankfurt area). In fact, the Germans call it Appelwein and I had had it as a youngster.

The first recorded reference to cider is in Ancient Roman literature resulting from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC. Clearly the Brits were making it a long, long time ago. In America, during colonial times, apple cider was consumed as the main beverage with meals because water was often considered unsafe for drinking!!

My co-worker suggested I try the cider from Angry Orchard. It was his favorite. A few months ago I was at a sports bar for dinner and they had it on their menu so I gave it a try. I loved it. Crisp, only slightly sweet (because of the fruit) but not really. It was like a soft apple juice, slightly carbonated, a little alcoholic, and super refreshing. Best of all, no lingering gut problems. 

My sister likes one from the U.K. called Strongbow. I found it at BevMo and will try it next.

If you're looking for a nice way to unwind after a busy work week, or a vigorous bike ride, or it's hot out and you need a way to cool off, give a nice glass of cider a try. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good it is.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The right way to slow cook

What is it about the slow cooker lately? Clearly, its convenience and ability to produce easy one-pot meals makes it a great, inexpensive item for every kitchen. I must admit that for the longest time, I thought of the slow cooker as a sort of relic - a throwback to a time when American cuisine was unadventurous and unexciting - and mine sat in the far reaches of a kitchen shelf for the longest time. But these days I am seeing every cooking website and magazine imaginable boasting their favorite slow cooker recipes! What's going on? It seems the slow cooker has come back.

And you know what, that's fine by me, because last year I actually got mine out again and started using it. There is a trick though, to ensuring that these one-pot meals turn out with a maximum of flavor.

Be forewarned: though you may think slow cooking is as easy as piling everything into the cooker and turning it on, that's not the best way to achieve the most flavor out of the foods that go into it. To do that, go one step further by browning the meat and vegetables in a saute pan before putting them in. The carmelization that comes from browning on the stovetop cannot be achieved in the slow cooker, and that is what adds so much flavor to the dish.

If you have a slow cooker and you are only cooking out of the recipe guide that came with it, you are missing out. I have yet to find a recipe in there that really stands out (although you usually can't go wrong with your basic chili). I found a lovely cookbook called "The Gourmet Slow Cooker" by Lynn Alley, from which I have many numerous recipes, and I've enjoyed nearly every one I've tried. If you need some inspiration for your slow cooker, I highly recommend it.

I have 3 favorites from the book that I wanted to share with you: Baked Eggplant, Greek Bean Soup, and Provencal Chicken Stew. It's the Baked Eggplant that I plan to make again this weekend that prompted this post. I serve it along with numerous "mezze" (Middle Eastern appetizers or nibbles). I will scoop up the eggplant with sliced veggies, and have feta cheese, kalamata olives, roasted peppers handy. If you eat bread, warmed pita is perfect, or crackers. It's all vegetarian, fantastically flavored, and makes for a light supper.

Baked Eggplant

1/2 cup olive oil
2 large or 3 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into cubes
3 cloves garlic, pressed
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves for garnish (optional)
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled, for garnish (1 scant cup)

Pour 1/4 cup of the olive oil into the slow cooker and rotate to coat the bottom. Add the eggplant and the remaining oil and toss lightly. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours or on low for about 5 hours, until the eggplant is quite mushy. Stir 2-3 times during cooking.

Add the garlic, lemon juice, and salt to taste, and stir well to break up any large chunks of eggplant (sometimes I puree it if I want a smoother texture, especially if I'm going to be using it as a dip). Transfer to a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the herbs and feta. Serve warm or at room temperature. Scoop up with pita bread or pita chips.

Greek Bean Soup

2 cups dried white beans
6-8 cups water or chicken stock
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
Leaves from 2 sprigs oregano, coarsely chopped
1 cup packed spinach leaves, young dandelion greens, or arugula
1 Tbsp. salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Rinse and sort the beans. Place them in the slow cooker and add enough of the water/stock to cover. Cover and cook on high for about 2 hours, until the beans begin to soften. Or, better yet, soak the beans with water to cover overnight, the drain, rinse, and transfer to the slow cooker. Add the water/stock to cover.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and saute, stirring frequently, for 10 min. or until lightly browned. Add the vegetables and ham bone to the beans in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until the beans are tender. (At this point, you can puree some of the beans for a thicker consistency if you like).

A few minutes before serving, stir in the tomatoes, oregano, spinach, and salt. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Provencal Chicken Stew

3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 chicken, cut into serving pieces and skinned
1/4 olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine (sometimes I use red, if I already have that open)
1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper

For garnish:
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 cup kalamata olives

Combine the 3/4 cup flour and salt in a resealable bag. Add chicken to the bag, several pieces at a time, and shake to coat completely.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add oil. Add chicken and cook, turning once, for 8-10 min. until browned on all sides. Using tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain, then arrange in the slow cooker.

Set the saute pan over the heat again and add the onions and 2 Tbsp flour. Saute, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic and stir 2-3 min. Add the wine and stir to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Increase to high heat and add the tomatoes and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes until some of the tomato liquid has evaporated.

Pour the onion mixture over the chicken in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 3-8 hours, until chicken is tender. At 3-4 hours, the chicken will still be firm and hold its shape. At 6-8 hours, the meat will be falling off the bone.

Divide the chicken among dinner plates and garnish with the parsley, basil and olives.

A word about slow cooking safety.
"When cooking large pieces of meat, remember that they will take some time to come to temperature.  Browning the meat in a saute pan before slow cooking can jump-start the heating process and kill any bacteria on the surface of the meat. Don't fill the insert of the slow cooker more than 2/3 full or the food near the top will take too long to cook. Place those ingredients that take longer to cook, such as larger pieces of meat, carrots or potatoes, near the bottom."
And these bits of information I found on wikipedia.
"Cheaper cuts of meat with connective tissue and lean muscle fibre are suitable for stewing, and tastier than stews using expensive cuts, as long slow cooking will soften the connective tissue without toughening the muscle."
"Raw kidney beans, and some other beans, contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which is destroyed by boiling for at least ten minutes, but not by the lower temperatures of a slow cooker, so dry beans must be boiled prior to slow cooking to avoid poisoning. Even a few beans can be toxic, and beans can be as much as five times more toxic if cooked at 175°F (80°C) than if eaten raw, so adequate pre-boiling is vital. Cases of poisoning by slow-cooked beans have been published in the UK, poisoning has occurred in the US but has not been formally reported."
Some websites highlighting their favorite slow cooker recipes:, and Food

If you have a favorite slow cooker recipe you'd like to share, please do!

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