Green Tips

The great egg substitute

From time to time, I get this NEED to bake. It’s like a primal urge – and there’s really no stopping me. Deep down, there’s just something so satisfying about mushing things around in a bowl, putting them in an oven, then magically pulling out a tray of fragrant warm delicious comfort in less than an hour. Especially with the cool turn of fall nipping at our heels, I’ve got to admit: I’m looking at you, oven.

One thing I’m not so into, however, is comprising excellent energy, health, and the fit of my favorite jeans simply for the sake of being compliant to my flavor-fueled urges. So I cheat. I use a medley of tricks and sneaky substitutions to make my baked recipes something that are… dare I say… beneficial. One of my favorite baking facelifts is to replace eggs with “superseeds” like flax or chia, which are full of omega fats, fiber, protein and minerals. I swear: your muffins don’t know the difference.

The egg replacement formula:

2 Eggs = 1/3 cup water + 2 Tbsp ground flax seed powder or chia seed powder
Simply combine the water and the seeds, and wait for 15 minutes to form a thick gel.

Wanna see how it works? I made this little video with Navitas Naturals, my superfood company crush, who offers an organic sprouted flaxseed powder and sprouted chia seed powder.  Of course, using a coffee grinder to mill whole flaxseed or chia into a fine powder will work just as well.

Out with the cane, in with the palm sugar (with video)

When I need a sweet boost in recipes I’ll always turn to fruit or stevia first (whole natural foods = yay!), but when those foods simply can’t pull the weight, it’s palm sugar comes to the rescue. I teamed up with superfoods company Navitas Naturals a couple weeks ago — who offers organic palm sugar — and shot this fun Navitas-style video for their “Chef’s Notes” video series. In this video we discuss what makes palm sugar so easy to love, how to use it, and showcase my mini-recipe for Palm Sugar Limeade as well (it’s a winner). You can find Palm Sugar in natural food stores and also online.

Cheers to juice, plus a few favorite combos

As I attempted to use my time at the car repair station wisely by conducting an obsessively thorough purse clean-out, a man sitting across the waiting area struck up a conversation (much to his teenage son’s embarrassment, I should note).

“Can you believe what they put in these things?” he asked, pointing to his bottled iced tea. “All I wanted was some iced tea and I look at the can and there’s 56 grams of sugar in here.”

Cool. Yes. Glad you’re in the know.

“It’s so awful what they put in our foods these days. All this corn syrup, this sugar, in everything,” he continued.

Sure is.

“Even when you think you’re eating well you find out all this other stuff’s been hiding inside the ingredients.”

Well, the ingredients are always listed on the back of a package, but I hear ya.

“And then there’s all these people with diabetes and obesity… something’s gotta change. That’s why I . . . ”

Nice – bring it home, brother!

“That’s why I stopped drinking juice.”

Wait. What?

Whether it’s sugar, fat, carbs, protein, etc, we have a nasty habit of isolating food elements without looking at the big picture. Some people, such as my new iced tea friend, are afraid of juice because of reports claiming the sugar content in fruit juice is equivalent to soda. Unquestionably yes, juice — especially fruit juice — contains natural sugars, in particular fructose.

Yet it’s not really sugars per se that earn the Big Bad Wolf title as much as it’s those creepy empty calories that compose the food that sugars often reside in. Context is everything. In juice’s case, that “context” is a drink naturally filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients (it’s just a fruit/vegetable without the fiber). As far as the context of iced tea and soda go . . . cue the crickets.

Understanding nutrition can be very, very simple through the idea of nutrient density (the amount of “good stuff” you get per calorie). And because juice is essentially condensed nutrition (you can fit 3-4 servings of fruit or 5-6 servings of veggies in a glass), I’d unquestionably rank juice in the “premium fuel” department. General rules apply: fresh is best, veggies are better than fruit, green veggies are even better than that, and of course, with everything (say it with me): balance.

Here are a few potent juice combos I paricuarily love (you can juice them yourself at home or custom order at a juice bar):

Lean & Green: cucumber + celery + kale + spinach + lemon

Purify & Cleanse: beet + carrot + ginger + fennel + parsley

Restore & Rejuvenate:
orange + coconut water + wheatgrass

Sweet & Warming: apple + burdock root + ginger + cinnamon (just dash)

The Tao of Parsnips

I wish I had a brownie for every time I’ve been informed that eating naturally is simply too hard. While making fancy shmancy meals can be a fun project, uber delicious healthy food doesn’t have to be complicated. Some of my favorite “recipes” are not recipes at all. Take, for example, a fig. Bite into it and . . . whoa! All those little seeds and colors and textures are like whole universe of magnificent complexity tucked inside a shriveled-looking edible fruit package. Imagine if the fig didn’t exist, and some company “invented” the recipe for one: would the fig not be the most amazing “product?” So much of our food experience comes down to mindset.

There’s a style of Japanese brush painting called shodo – a form of calligraphy with an abstract offshoot that attempts to capture energy and kinetics through a few simple brush strokes. Whereas most styles of painting take days, months, even years to complete, shodo takes just a few calculated moments. A swish. A swash. Maybe one last accoutremental zing . . . and then, the decision to end. And within this philosophy of “less is more,” the biggest challenge becomes when to step away and recognize perfection in “just enough.” It’s an empowering judgment call – a kind of discipline in a way – embracing simplicity in this funny world of ours that is obsessed with faster, newer, hotter, and anything that begins with “now with more.”

Poor ol’ “less.”

In the realm of food — for the most part — modern cuisine teaches “just enough” is never enough. Our perfectly lovely foods are processed, packaged, mixed, mingled, extracted, added and bastardized until they’re pretty much unrecognizable. Then we process them again, add healthyish-looking colorings, artificial vitamins and preservatives, and reshape the result into forms that pass for food-like. I don’t think most people would be too impressed if I took a beautiful shodo painting, sprayed graffiti all over it until it turned grey, covered it in white-out to get to a white page again, and then drew a couple of lines mimicking the original painting in magic marker.

I find natural foods can take us back to a Tao-like state — appreciating beauty in simplicity. Take the humble parsnip: a wonderfully useful root vastly overshadowed by its more rotund cousin, the potato. While usually just reserved for an occasional hodgepodge-style stew or roasted medley of sorts, the parsnip offers a complex flavor functioning as a gorgeous balance between a potato, a carrot, and fennel . . . all rolled into one (aka a “recipe”). And it even contains more vitamins and minerals than many of its other root friends (especially potassium). What a guy.

Homemade parsnip fries utilize this idea of “ingredient economy.” Slow roasting them allows for a caramelization of their inherent sweetness, and a little coconut oil keeps them crisp on the outside and soft within. There are a billion ways to make this recipe fancier, but in pulling them out of the oven, I’m personally hard-pressed myself to add a thing. There’s simply no need. I find these parsnips perfect: Just. The way. They are.

Here’s the basic recipe for parsnip fries.

Is agave syrup good, bad, or just kinda tasty?

Light your torches, there’s a new witch hunt in the grocery store. The target? Agave syrup. After hitting the mainstream several years ago as the new “healthy sweetener of choice,” agave recently has been under fire with negative backlash all across the health-food spectrum, with many companies even considering pulling agave from their products due to the extent of customer concern.

But is agave really that bad? Can it be compared to high fructose corn syrup? Should we go out of our way to avoid it? Let’s take a look.

What happened with agave?
It really wasn’t all that long ago that many people were just beginning to fall in love with agave – using it often in the place of cane sugar, corn syrup and honey for its intense and clean-tasting sweetness. Agave’s brief history in the North American marketplace has relied upon being marketed as a “raw healthy sweetener.” This sweet syrup extracted from the agave cactus proved especially valuable to the diabetic community, who embraced agave’s low glycemic index.  Then, suddenly, agave was everywhere – in recipes, in drinks, in packaged foods, in restaurants, and of course, in desserts. Between a solid stamp of approval from the health food community, and a new excuse to get simply get some sugary goodness on, the mantra of healthy sweet food became “no sugar . . . just agave.”

So when the story broke that agave was actually not healthy at all and was actually comparable to corn syrup, it’s no wonder there was a strong outrage. After all, agave was sold to us as a “healthy sweetener,” and we were paying a premium price tag to enjoy its benefits. Health advocate Dr. Mercola released this adamant and influential article,  which was posted and reposted in just about every health-oriented nook and cranny. Suddenly agave was the bad guy, leaving consumers feel betrayed . . . and confused.

Is agave really worse than high fructose corn syrup?
Most of us understand that high fructose corn syrup is something we should avoid entirely.  And it’s true that both syrups have very high levels of fructose (the type of sugar that is primarily found in fruit), making the comparison understandable. But high fructose corn syrup is really quite bad – it’s a (mostly) genetically modified, highly processed product that often contains mercury. In comparison, agave is much a less processed product (depending on the source), not to mention free of toxic mercury.  Plus, it’s also about twice as sweet as corn syrup – so even though ounce per ounce the fructose levels are the same, you can get away with using significantly less thereby reducing the total sugars.

Unfortunately, using half as much has not been in the game plan for most people. Initially influenced by that “healthy sweetener” tag, liberal use of agave became acceptable and even celebrated — we seemed to forget that at the end of the day, agave syrup is really just a highly concentrated liquid sugar. Clearly, agave was marked misleadingly as “healthy,” but at the same time many companies and individuals failed to use restraint when including it in foods. Sugars – fructose included – are not bad; we just don’t want an excess of them.

If there is one food philosophy that I connect with more than any other it is simply making better choices — which is where agave takes a seat in my kitchen. I find “better choice” agave exceptionally useful in some recipes because it is so efficiently sweet . . . but I avoid using it in large quantities, and try to get away with using as little as possible when formulating recipes. Often, I will use agave in conjunction with another healthier sweetener like stevia to help round out the sweetness, while allowing the other sweetener to do most of the legwork. For healthy culinary purposes, agave ranks amongst the lowest of the sweeteners. But that still doesn’t mean it’s bad — agave just has to be used more consciously then many of us have been accustomed to using it in the past.

Alternative useful sweeteners for a healthy kitchen:
There’s no need to be as obsessively dependent on agave as we’ve become, because let’s face it — there’s a treasure trove of other healthy sweeteners which each bring their own unique benefits to the table. Fresh or dried fruit is always a first option sweetener because it has nutrients and fiber that it brings along for the sweet ride. But fruit simply doesn’t “work” in every recipe, which is why we’re so lucky to have variety. Here’s a short list of some other sweeteners I find particularly useful in making healthy, natural recipes:

  • Stevia
  • Palm Sugar
  • Date Syrup/Sugar
  • Yacon Syrup/powder
  • Maple Syrup/Sugar
  • Jerusalem Artichoke Syrup

The Bottom Line
Agave is not what I would consider to be a “best choice” sweetener – that’s where fruit and stevia step in – but it is unquestionably still a “better choice” in comparison to refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup (which make up 99.9% of the sweetener choices that occur every day). As for the best choice in the pursuit of optimum health, perhaps simply maintaining a healthy perspective on the role of sugar in our diets is the most important and beneficial practice of all.

For further reading on why agave isn’t as bad as it seems, I highly recommend this detailed and well researched article: The “Agave Is Bad For You” Fallacy.

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