Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Frozen Spinach is Not Always a Substitute for Fresh....and Other Tips

Imagine you once made the best breakfast smoothie that was a blend of non-fat yogurt, blueberries, orange juice and fresh spinach.  It was so delicious, that you wanted to make it again.  However, you didn't have any fresh spinach so you substituted with frozen spinach.  The result?  AWFUL!

This is a true story from a friend of mine.  Her experience is not an unlikely one.  Most people know some cooking basics, such as substituting margarine for butter, but healthy foods come with a slightly different set of rules.  

As such, I've started a list of "Considerations for Healthy Eating/Cooking":

1. Not everything will taste good in a smoothie.  Juicers and fancy blenders make it seem like any combination of something healthy can be successful mixed up into a frothy, yummy treat.  Alas, this is not true.  Luckily, there are about a billion recipes out there for smoothies to make your life easier (and some where you can sneak in foods like salmon...aka, The Bass-a-Matic).  Follow the recipe, and chances are that it will be delicious or at least, delicious to someone.  

2. Frozen spinach is a great substitute for fresh, so long as you're cooking with it.   Frozen spinach is fabulous to have on hand to throw in soups, sauces, with egg dishes, etc.  In these applications, fresh will work too.  But it doesn't work well the other way.  Frozen spinach is much more concentrated, so a cup of frozen spinach is equivalent to practically 3 times that of fresh.  I think this is why the smoothie my friend made was not very good...too much spinach relative to the other ingredients.

3.  Don't be afraid to use the salt shaker on healthy foods.  Salt and fat (especially butter) greatly improve most foods.  And here's the thing with a salt shaker...salting the top of a food does not get you into trouble with salt.  This is because very little salt is needed when it's directly on the food.  With each bite, the salt comes into direct contact with salt receptors on the tongue.   When the salt is mixed in the food (like soups or frozen entrees or cheese), it cannot directly contact the tongue which means food companies have to add a whole lot more to make the food taste salty.  Even people on a salt-restricted diet (due to high blood pressure or another condition) can enjoy adding salt to their healthy foods in moderation.

4.  Don't be afraid of fat with your healthy food!  Over the past 10 years, experts have slowly been increasing the recommendations for intake of fat.  Why?  Because as it turns out, fat is not the devil food that everyone thought it was.  Sure, some fats are bad (trans fats especially) and some are good (fats from fish and oils), and it still has more calories than protein or carbohydrate on a gram for gram basis.  But fat itself does not cause heart disease or cancer or diabetes.  Unhealthy diets and lifestyles do.  There is nothing unhealthy or wrong with adding olive oil to a salad or eating a full-fat yogurt with fruit.  And here's the thing...fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that require fat to be absorbed into the body.  I cringe whenever I see a woman eating a beautiful salad of vegetables with lemon juice or only balsamic vinegar.  A little oil will greatly improve the flavor and allow your body to harness all the disease-fighting compounds in those veggies.

5.  Healthy foods taste better when they are in season.  Forcing a fruit or vegetable to grow under less than ideal conditions or shipping them from another continent affects the quality of the food.  Some vegetables produce more bitter compounds, some fruits can develop thicker rinds and plants like tomatoes make fruit that are mealy and gritty.  January in Chicago is not the best time to make a tomato-cucumber salad and it's especially not the best time to introduce a lot of these seasonal-type foods to picky eaters.  If #s 3 and 4 above cannot help, then I say save those foods for a different time of year and enjoy what's fresh.