Yep, last month I quietly celebrated the three-year anniversary of switching my diet and regaining my health. It’s been a crazy ride, and I thought it was time to update you on some of my experiences over the years, and share some quick fundamentals that I’ve learned along the way.
1. Broth is king. Simply put, having a big store of of broth in the freezer is one of the most important things you can do to regain and maintain your health. Not only is it full of essential nutrients, it has an unlimited benefit in the kitchen – there’s a good reason that it’s one of the first things that chefs learn in culinary school. Have a bland, or dry hunk of meat? Whip up a quick broth gravy. Feeling under the weather? Drink some broth, make a broth-based soup, or cook some rice in a broth. Don’t like eating kale, chard, or greens? Simmer them in some broth; you’ll change your mind pretty quickly.
Making broth is as easy as throwing together some aromatic vegetables, herbs, and bones in a pot and simmering them for several hours. You can either buy bones from your local market, or use the bones leftover from meals, like in the ham photo above. Try making broth with any protein source – pork, beef, chicken, turkey, duck, fish, and shellfish – all are delicious and nutritious.
2. Always consider mise en place. Prep and arrange your ingredients before you start cooking; this will help you to keep a clear head when things start getting hairy while finishing a recipe. The picture above is from one of the recipes in my cookbook – Crawfish Étouffée – where the prep ends up taking more time than actually cooking the recipe. In this case, not having everything arranged ahead of time would be a disaster. Nearly every one of my kitchen mishaps is caused by inadequate preparation!
3. Fresh, quality ingredients > fancy recipes. The photo above is from one of my favorite meals this year, a bone-in ribeye from US Wellness Meats. I simply seasoned with salt and pepper, rested it for 30 minutes, and threw it on a hot grill.
This meal perfectly demonstrates that cooking doesn’t always have to be an involved, impressive affair. In fact, I’d say half of the meals we eat at our house wouldn’t even be considered “cooking” or blog-worthy (one of my favorite go-to meals is broth-cooked rice, sardines, and furikake!).
4. Don’t fear fruits. Unless you are attempting dramatic weight loss, fruit is your friend. Personally, I eat at least one or two servings of fruit a day, usually during breakfast (or a post-dinner treat). I tend to prefer berries over fruits; berries are packed with vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and have a generally lower sugar content than most other fruits. Cherries and kiwi aren’t bad either in terms of sugar compared to other fruits. Buy seasonally, locally, and grow your own if you have the time, climate, and inclination.
5. Make calculated “cheat meals”. I should start off by saying that I don’t really buy into the concept of “cheat meals”, wherein you eat whatever you want and try to rebound afterwards. Instead, we came up with a diet that allows us a few gray-area foods without falling completely off the bandwagon. We eat dairy in moderation, and tailor our rice and potato consumption to align with our bodies’ needs (around 150g/day for me, 100g/day for my wife and son); for us, this approach works – I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a single “cheat meal” since switching my diet, and it’s not due to any sort of steadfast resolve. We simply eat a diet that doesn’t feel like a diet. As I’ll explain in my book, I don’t consider foods like dairy, rice, and potatoes to be a “cheat”, as if they were in violation of a healthy diet. Instead, it’s more important to understand and figure out how these foods fit into your lifestyle.
We also have fun with our food from time to time. Check out this epic pizza my wife made using my gluten-free, grain-free pizza crust recipe. As you can imagine, our son Oliver was head over heels with this meal. Other times, we make things like gluten-free waffles or cheeseburgers on a gluten-free bun.
6. Eat out smartly. Over the years, we’ve scoured the menus of our local restaurants and have found items that fit within our dietary parameters (albeit sometimes loosely – sometimes it’s impossible to avoid added sugar or seed-derived oils). That way, if we are stuck out in town, or if we really aren’t in the mood to whip up dinner after a long work week, we have options that won’t wreak havoc on our bodies or our consciences. Favorites include our local Korean (pictured above is Bi Bim Bap and Kab Bi, both in my cookbook), Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and Mexican restaurants, who are very accommodating with our sometimes unusual requests (I always get extra tendon in my Pho!).
7. Home fermentation is healthy, cheap, and fun. How much does it cost for kombucha from your local health food store? Lemme guess – $3 to $5 per bottle, right? A couple years ago, I bought a kombucha starter online and started brewing my own; after the initial investment in a fermentation jar, it costs me about $1.50 per gallon brewed, most of the cost coming from the juice and fruit I use to flavor the kombucha during its second fermentation period. I plan on doing a full post on how I make my homebrews, so stay tuned – in the meantime, Jill Ciciarelli’s Fremented is an excellent book to get started.
Home fermentation doesn’t start and end with kombucha. Fermenting your own vegetables is a rewarding and healthful experience. We always have a jar of Kabees el Lift in our fridge, and I often eat it with my lunch. There are also some great fermented veggie recipes in my cookbook, including Kimchi and Dill Pickles.
8. Seafood. Always. It’s a tragedy that seafood isn’t appreciated as much in the United States as it could be. Seafood is quick to thaw, quick to cook, and consistently delicious. It’s also one of the most nutrient-dense foods out there, and cooking seafood at home is significantly cheaper than ordering it at a restaurant.
My advice is to always keep a bag of frozen shrimp and some flash-frozen fish filets in your freezer for those days that you forget to thaw out some meat – they thaw quickly under cool water. Secondly, keep cans of clams, sardines, and other small fish in your pantry, so you can add them to dishes or salads in a pinch. Lastly, anchovy paste and fish sauce can bring tremendous flavor to dishes and don’t often leave a fishy taste in your food – so use them as a seasoning, as you would salt and pepper.
9. Experiment with new vegetables, and be nice to vegetable eaters. Check out this Wikipedia list of culinary vegetables; pick a vegetable and figure out how to cook it. You never know, it might be your new favorite thing. Diversifying your vegetable intake will enrich your palate and possibly expose you to nutrients you aren’t getting in other vegetables.
One last note. Have you ever seen a Vegetarian or Vegan convert to an ancestrally-minded diet as the result of an argument with an omnivore? Me neither. People in the Paleo community are passionate about about how they’ve regained their health, just as much as the other camps. I usually tend to agree with Vegans and Vegetarians on a number of issues – the current agricultural and meat-processing methods used in America are terrible; whole foods are better than processed foods; sugar is best avoided – and I like to focus on these commonalities and let them draw their own conclusions. A dietary journey is often an individual journey. I’ve found that steering clear of full-on arguments is healthy for both camps; if anything, I point people to a source of scientific literature. This article does a good job of summarizing a majority of the health concerns that surround the ancestral health movement.