Cooking for Nutritional Purpose

Cooking for fitness goals and cooking for enjoyment are two very different things. Those that have specific performance or body composition goals will, and should have more specific dietary guidelines. At this point, food is fuel, and sometimes will be hard to enjoy. It is generally understood and accepted that protein is the most important of the three macro-nutrients for body composition, maintenance and or improvement of strength, and lean muscle. However, where carbohydrates and fat (the two other macros) fall into place is a different story.

Some people believe that carbs are evil and the diet should be comprised of mostly protein and fat, with most carbs coming from non-starchy, fresh vegetables. For example, there is nothing particularly wrong with a meal that consists of a good quality piece of fish or meat and a heaping pile of fresh, seasonal vegetables tossed with a little bit of butter and fresh herbs. However, throw exercise like CrossFit, strength training, weightlifting, endurance training or pretty much any other form of activity that keeps the heart rate elevated or causes a physiological stressor; the body needs carbs.

The common American diet that’s unrelated to sports nutrition is typically higher in fat and sugar. Common foods, deserts and or snacks like granola bars, cookies, brownies, etc. taste good because of fat and sugar. However, there are ways to improve the nutritional profile of these foods, therefor turning an otherwise poor food choice into an optimal pre/post workout snack.

Quick-breads such as cakes, cookies, brownies, etc. are all the same. They contain the same basic ingredients; flour, sugar, fat, liquid/ eggs and baking soda/powder. The only difference is the percentage of dry ingredients : liquid : fat.  Of course, flavoring and additional ingredients as well. These basic ingredients can be manipulated though, to improve the nutritional profile by reducing the fat and sugar while still keeping the same relative flavor and texture.

Substitutions for fat in some of these recipes, in order to increase the carbohydrate and fiber content, can be starchy fruit and or vegetables. The high starch content will give a very similar, almost indiscernible mouth feel to the final product. For instance, try reducing or replacing the fat in a cookie with white bean paste or mashed plantain. Apple sauce or apple butter can be used to not only replace fat, but also reduce the need for as much added sugar. The same goes for sweet potatoes.

For people who really need to have those “sweets” or snack/ dessert-like foods, these are ways to avoid having too much sugar or fat in your diet that will screw up your macro-nutrient intake, at the same time providing an optimal source of pre/post workout energy. At this point, having knowledge of flavor pairings and compliments such as herbs and spices would be very useful because removing fat and sugar from an already very tasty food, is sometimes hard to make up for. In future posts, I will start to provide a resource for ingredients, herbs and spices that tend to work well together, as well as recipes.

Seasonal Winter Ingredients

Winter in New England can tend to get very long and just seem to drag on and on. The food scene may seem uninteresting to many, but there truly is quite a bit still available. Below is a non-comprehensive list of items that are seasonal to winter, and something that I had used in professional kitchens for assistance in writing seasonal menus. Note that many of these are also available in the fall as well, and some will even overlap into spring.

Beans, black/ pinto     Beets       Broccoli     Brussels Sprouts     Buckwheat     Cabbages, red, green,

savoy     Celery Root, celeriac    Chestnuts     Chicories; escarole, frisee, endive     Cod    Daikon Radish

Fennel     Horseradish     Collard Greens      Mustard Greens     Meyer Lemons    Kale       Kohlrabi  

Leeks      Lentils        Mache      Monkfish       Nuts/ nut oils      Oranges      Grapefruit     Citrus

Parsnips        Passion Fruit      Persimmons       Potatoes      Rabbit       Radicchio      Rutabega      

Salsify       Sunchokes     Winter Squash Star Fruit       Black Truffles       Turnips

To Brine, or Not To Brine…

Brining meats is something that many people don’t fully understand or just don’t do because of that reason. I just finished cooling the brine for the turkey in this post, so I figured I’d write a little note about why and how to do it. A brine is essentially a form of curing (with liquid) that at the most basic level, is a solution of salt and water. In order to impart more flavor though, it has evolved into more of an art by the addition of spices, herbs, and a sweetener.

The purpose of a brine essentially is to draw extra moisture out of the meat while at the same time, adding to or enhancing the natural flavor. Despite drawing moisture from the surface of the meat initially, brining also helps the meat retain moisture through the cooking process and creates a uniform texture following cooking as well. Without brining, meats can easily become dry. Most meats common for brining are pork, chicken, turkey and tongue, and then obviously cured/smoked meats and fish. When making a brine and testing to see if you’ve used the right proportions of salt to water, put a potato in. If it floats, nice job! If not, your brine needs more salt. A basic brine recipe is:

1 Gallon Water

2 Cups Kosher Salt

*1/2 – 3/4 Cup Sugar, Brown Sugar, Honey, or Maple Syrup (depending on desired sweetness)

Herbs & Spices; Rosemary, Bay Leaf, Thyme, Sage, Garlic, Peppercorn, Mustard Seed, Nutmeg, Ginger, Allspice, Cardamom, Clove, Star Anise, Fennel… The list goes on…

Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil to dissolve the salt. Cool completely before using.

*Note- When brining meats, you may have to use a plate or something similar, to weigh down whatever’s being brined to keep it completely submerged.

-Based on the meat being brined, use whatever herbs and spices would make sense for the flavor profile you are looking for. Keep it simple, less is more.

Seasonal Fall Ingredients

An elaboration off of a previous article regarding cooking with the Fall season, this post is to cover foods/ ingredients that are in season during this time of year. There are quite a few items, probably too many to list, so I will just focus on the more common items of the season and the ones that really signify; Fall in New England.

Apples            Arugula         Broccoli Rabe       Beets        Brussel Sprouts           Cauliflower       Cabbage    Chard

Celery Root    (Most) Wild mushrooms    Cranberries       Chestnuts     Chicories (Frisee)   Eggplant    Fennel    Figs

Grapes       Garlic        Game Meats      Horseradish/ Radishes      Kale     Kohlrabi       Leeks       Parsnips      Pears    

Persimmons      Peppers        Pumpkins      Rutabega/ Turnips      Radicchio   Winter Squash (Butternut, Acorn, etc.)

It’s important to know that seasonal ingredients will tend to overlap because many of them have more than just the one growing season and may have a second crop. Some have longer seasons than others. Most supermarkets will carry a lot of the above listed ingredients year round, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in season. Your best bet to remembering what is in season is going to your local farmer’s markets/ farm stands and supporting the small, local farmers.