Some dietary ideas concerning the stone age …

I’ve been struggling with health issues.  Some of you who correspond with me know about my battle with the health care system over a badly broken arm early in 2011.

This medieval-themed restaurant in southern Czech Republic serves up plenty of meat grilled on this open wood fire in the middle of the restaurant.

Some others of you have been privy to my discussions concerning a sudden (and, alarming) weight gain during the past two years.  After several blind alleys and needless, frustrating conversations concerning “women of your age”… with medical professionals I finally was referred to and met with a naturopathic doctor.   She looked over my daily routines (which were pretty healthy): organic, whole foods, low sodium, low-fat, and near vegetarian.  I walked about 3 miles a day, study tai chi, and lift weights.  This all seemed to indicate that lifestyle issues were not the culprit.  She immediately ordered blood work and other comprehensive testing.  Three weeks later, I received the worst of news: higher than reasonable cholesterol, blood sugar high, and my thyroid was, apparently, throwing off far more thyroxine than it should be.  After a few more tests, she ruled out diabetes (thank the Gods!) but found that my adrenal system was not functioning normally.

We talked and created a plan: a change of diet and exercise which evolved into entering a study utilizing the “paleo-” or “caveman diet”. You may have seen reports recently in the media and maybe even have reviewed the research being conducted at the University of California at San Francisco.  While actual weight loss is – painfully – slow, however, four months into the regimen, my blood work has improved to the point of be a minor sensation at the clinic!  I am, it seems, better-than-normal.  My belt buckle has moved a notch in a good way as well.

Caveman cuisine is all the rage. Way back in the day, it was just what everybody ate. Now it’s called the Paleolithic diet. Devotees dine on lean meat. They consume a cornucopia’s worth of fruits and vegetables. They eschew grains and dairy products. They chew on raw nuts, but forego legumes such as beans and peanuts. May 3, 2010 By Jeffrey Norris

It’s an easy regimen to follow: eliminate all processed foods, eschew legumes, flours, dairy, and grains.  Don’t cook things a lot (never overcook!), don’t bother with frozen or canned foods (thus lowering your grocery bill), and always buy sustainable and organically farmed foods (for all those other important reasons as well).  It was surprisingly easy for me to do this on daily basis: I have a milk allergy, so I shouldn’t be indulging in cheeses and yoghurts anyway.  I don’t – in general – particularly like legumes (fresh peas and green beans it seems, are exempt).   I admit to missing some things like savory risottos or that “quick meal” of good pasta or rice with roasted vegetables, or having some crunchy artisan bread to dip into my soup or to sop up sauces.  I really miss the various ways of preparing chicken and rice, especially on cold, rainy evenings.  Having said all of that, I can’t deny that I seem to be surviving – thriving, actually – without these as a daily diet.  My stamina has increased: those 3 miles a day has increased to 4 – more when the weather is good – and, while those steep East Bay Hills are still a challenge, they are getting easier (or less steep…) .  In July, once the cast was off my wrist and the physical therapist OK’d it, I also added two or three days a week of 20 minutes on a stationary bike and a regular hike once a week.

I could continue this posting with all kinds of information gleaned from the UCSF study and all kinds  of statistics form other studies –but– I would be writing outside of my field of expertise and I am a passionate cook, not a medical doctor.  Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience.  Suffice to say that the paleo-diet is low is salt, higher in potassium, lower in polyunsaturated fat, and less acidic.  Apparently, according to the preliminary results, the paleo-diet, coupled with a fairly strenuous and supervised exercise program, has great potential in treating both Type II diabetes and heart disease without relying primarily on pharmaceuticals.  It’s also easy and feels good.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever eaten so well!

Going onto this regimen did not mean giving up all the things I like, forever, or even religiously, it just means that bowl of paella, cup of crème brûlée, or a slice of pie on Yule, or a plate of pasta on a special night out is just that: a treat saved for a special occasion.  Otherwise, everything I like is still on the menu: loads and creates of (organic!) berries, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds (including wild rice), tea, even coffee (the beans are from a tree, and not a legume!) and, oh yes! chocolate!  I also can have all the smoked salmon (and, other fish), crustaceans, lean meats, shellfish, and poultry that I want.  (The scent of barbecue, of course, will bring out the cave-woman in me.  Every time!)

As a culinary artist and a foodie, this meant changing styles and applying techniques to bring out flavors in creative new ways.  I approached the pantry with my new regimen in hand and with a sense of challenge, pulled out the pots and pans.   I wasn’t, as I had first feared, a daunting task: for years I had adopted the “basic Mediterranean” diet of lots of fresh vegetables and simple, well-cooked meals.  With one addition: with the increase in eating raw fruits and vegetables there is a lot of chopping, slicing, and dicing involved.

Other wise, lightly roasting,  grilling, and saute are my most recommended methods for bringing out the richest flavors in vegetables.  After that, lightly steaming and fire grilling will add interest to your paleo-plate.

Our ancestors cooked everything over a wood or charcoal fire.  In 2012, there are a  lot of reasons to save the grill for special occasions, the most important is eliminating particulate matter in urban smog-prone areas.  If you are lucky enough to live where this is not an issue, get out the tongs and line that fire pit because you have the greatest tool for adding flavor to any dish readily at hand.  For the next few posts, I will share the “fruits” of my explorations.   Beginning with:

Mediterranean Fish

Preheat oven to 450

  • 1 or 2 thick steaks of any good flavored fish will do: cod (black, true, arctic), hake, haddock, sturgeon – I like to put in the favorites of my dinner partner(s).  Have your fish monger remove the skin & the bones. (For a pretty good guide to purchasing sustainable, healthy fish, go here: http://www.montereyfish.com/pages/nav/sustainability.html)  For health and environmental reasons avoid the largest long-lived predatory ocean fish, such as swordfish, marlin, large tuna, and sharks and all farmed fish.  Fish-consumption advisories for recreational fisheries can be found at www.epa.gov/mercury/advisories.htm.
  • About 4, very fresh, tomatoes quartered or otherwise cut into bites sized pieces.( or 15 to 20 whole cherry tomatoes).  Place into a bowl and salt & pepper to taste.  Set aside.
  • one while onion, thinly sliced
  • one fennel bulb, also thinly sliced
  • On large or two small clove of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry and the juice of one lemon
  • pinch saffron (I use Persian saffron)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Fill a baking glass or stoneware baking dish or a Spanish cazuela with 1 1/2 inch of a good flavored, buttery olive oil.   Add the saffron, garlic, the onions and the fennel. Salt to taste.  Place in a hot oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until the oil is sizzling-ly hot and the onions and fennel are soft(er). The vegetables don’t need to be fully cooked, but they do need to be soft.  Let cool briefly, add in the lemon juice and the sherry.  Set aside.

Add in the fish by placing gently onto the vegetables, spoon the oil over the fish.  Spoon the tomatoes over all.  (Don’t over load with tomatoes, just enough is just right.)  Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake for about 5 or 10 more minutes, but don’t  over cook the fish.  Garnish with a few chopped fennel fronds and parsley.  Serve in bowls.  There is lots of golden glorious “juices” flavored with saffron and braised tomatoes to spoon over the fish.  (Save the left over juices for braising vegetables in  next time you have fish.)  For a tasty variation, add some copper prawns (shelled or butterflied) or a little smoked or kippered fish during the last 10 minutes of cooking. 

You can make this recipe over a fire, but don’t use a glass baking dish and watch it closely to avoid overcooking the fish.  Buon appitito!

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