Recipe Hack: Paleo Dongpo Pork (soy-free, nut-free, legume-free)

dongpo2My friend Kim is basically a superhero. A talented journalist and blogger, mum to four boys and spectacular cook, the food photos she posts on social media never fail to get my mouth watering. A couple of weeks ago she posted a photo that had me wiping drool off my phone screen: jewel-like cubes of pork belly slow-simmered in Asian seasonings until they were sticky and caramelized. She called it Dongpo Pork and posted the recipe on her blog not long after.

I had four pounds of pork belly in my freezer just waiting to be turned into such a delicacy, but there was one small problem: the original recipe is very soy-heavy, and my husband and kids all are allergic to soy. Other problems, on the night I decided I HAD TO MAKE THIS THING RIGHT NOW and didn’t want to take the time to run out to the store first: I had no idea what Shaoxing wine was, I had no peanut oil in the house, ditto Chinese tea of any kind, tritto yellow rock sugar (or any “normal” sugar for that matter).

But no matter! When pork belly needs to happen, PORK BELLY NEEDS TO HAPPEN, PEOPLE. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to make it work with a million substitutions. Below is my hacked version of Kim’s amazing original recipe. For what it’s worth, my version is soy-free, nut-free and completely paleo, though I did serve it over rice. And it was delicious! We literally fought over the leftovers, which never happens in my house. Awesome stuff!

Paleo Dongpo Pork

  • 4 lbs. pork belly
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 cup coconut aminos
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup mirin
  • 5 Tbs. coconut palm sugar (it’s what I had)
  • 2 cups brewed black tea (I used a chai spiced tea because again, it’s what I had)
  • 1 thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced and bruised
  • 8 green onions, cut into thirds or fourths

Place the pork in a large pot or dutch oven, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Remove pork and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Cut pork into 1.5-inch cubes (more or less). Wipe out the dutch oven, add the olive oil and brown the pork in batches over medium-high heat, setting aside afterward.

Carefully wipe out the dutch oven again. Add the coconut aminos, molasses, mirin, coconut sugar and tea and bring to a boil. Add the ginger and onions.

Add the pork and enough water to cover, if needed. Bring it back up to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for around 3 hours or until the pork is tender (make sure all the pork is covered with liquid during the cooking process or, as per Kim, it may dry out).

Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Bring the sauce back to a gentle boil and reduce to a thick glaze (this took about 30 minutes for me).

Pour glaze over pork and serve with rice, cauliflower rice, vegetable noodles or just on its own!

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Recipe Hack: Paleo Dongpo Pork (soy-free, nut-free, legume-free)

Permission to deviate from the norm this holiday season

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The holidays can be stressful for health-conscious individuals. Beginning with Halloween and continuing through Thanksgiving and the December holidays, each occasion has its food temptations. Many of these can be emotionally fraught as well; no amount of explaining that you’re trying to lose weight, avoid dairy or cut back on sugar is going to remove the sting of you refusing your mother-in-law’s famous pumpkin gingerbread cheesecake.

People tend to do one of two things when it comes to facing all this holiday temptation: become overly rigid and filled with anxiety at holiday gatherings where food is involved, or go completely off-plan and eat whatever comes in range for a couple of months regardless of how it makes them feel physically.

I’d like to suggest a middle path: giving yourself permission to deviate from the norm. What does that mean? Well, it depends on what your “norm” happens to be.

If your norm is to become rigid, refuse even a bite of your mother-in-law’s pumpkin cheesecake, joylessly turn your nose up at the plethora of holiday delicacies before you while virtuously nibbling on a carrot stick and giving yourself an ulcer over the constant refusal to try “just a bite”, my advice to you is: relax! If the food on offer won’t actually kill you or make you incredibly sick (i.e., in the absence of food allergies or extreme food sensitivities), is there any real harm in taking just a bite of your mother-in-law’s pride and joy pumpkin cheesecake or your niece’s famous sticky toffee pudding? Can you fill your plate with foods that fit more closely with how you eat on a daily basis (maybe make/bring these dishes yourself) and take little tastes of a few other dishes in which the cooks have a lot of emotional investment?

In a perfect world, everyone important to you would understand why you eat the way you do and respect that, or at the very least they’d have no emotional attachment to how you eat. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Most of us live in a world full of people who express love through food. I’m not suggesting you completely abandon your convictions, insert a noodle where your spine used to be and capitulate to every individual culinary whim in a gathering of two-dozen friends and family, I’m just suggesting you weigh the cost of taking that bite against the cost of not taking that bite and make the decision that works for you, not just in terms of your diet, but in terms of your relationships and your anxiety level. If giving yourself permission to loosen the reins just a tiny bit (again, while not compromising your overall health) helps you sail through holiday gatherings with less anxiety, by all means, do that. It’s okay.

If your norm is to go wild, throw your usual eating pattern out the window and indulge in mass quantities of sugar and trans fats for six or eight weeks until you’re completely kugel-wasted and physically miserable, I’d like to suggest a similar approach to the above: relax! It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You don’t have to eat an entire plate of kugel. You can have just a bite or two and make your grandmother happy. If leftovers get sent home with you, you don’t have to eat them! You can give yourself permission to set aside a small taste to enjoy later and then throw the rest away.

That’s right: you can throw leftovers away. You don’t have to eat them. I know the idea of that makes many people uncomfortable, especially those of us who were raised with the spectre of starving children in developing countries. To our parents and grandparents, throwing away food was the basest of sin (not to be confused with the bassist of sin, which of course is Geezer Butler). But here’s the thing: if the item you’re throwing away is a nutrient-deficient amalgamation of stripped/milled grains, sugar, oxidized fats, chemicals, and other ingredients that do not support health in you or anyone else, does it really count as food?

When you cut coupons or helpful articles out of the newspaper (this is a thing we oldsters used to do before smart phones, just go with me here), do you feel any qualms about chucking the rest of the paper into the recycling bin? No. You got what you wanted out of it, and you don’t need the rest of it. The newspaper can’t feel pain or rejection. The same is true of all that edible stuff we collectively refer to as “food”. If you look forward all year to your grandmother’s kugel, your mother-in-law’s pumpkin gingerbread cheesecake or the peanut butter nougats your son discards from his Halloween candy stash, if the taste of those foods are integral to your holiday experience, if family bonds will be damaged by your refusal to eat them, if a taste or two won’t actually make you sick, then have a taste and throw the rest away. You got what you wanted from it, whether it be warm fuzzies on your part or the part of someone you love, and you don’t need the rest. Make a donation to a hunger relief agency for every container you toss, if that helps you part with it, but get rid of it. Keeping and eating it won’t do you or anyone else any good.

If you’re having trouble deciding which holiday dishes to fill up on and which to taste and toss, ask yourself: will my health be better served if I eat more of this? If not, taste it and toss the rest away.

Most of all, give yourself a break this holiday season. Look after your health. Eat more of what makes you feel good, and eat less of what makes you feel bad. Give yourself permission to break out of old patterns and settle into new ones that better support your health, both physically and emotionally. That will allow you to greet the new year with a renewed commitment to your own well-being rather than greeting it with an extra 20 pounds and a handful of damaged relationships.

Permission to deviate from the norm this holiday season

Should you take a cheat day?

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As a nutrition and wellness coach, when I say I don’t believe in cheat days I immediately paint myself as a hard-nosed, toe-the-line, no-deviation-from-the-script ascetic. But that’s actually the opposite of my philosophy. Let me explain.

In case you’re not familiar with the concept of cheat days, the idea is that when you’re following a restrictive diet, you get a day off every week or so to eat whatever you want as a sort of reward for sticking with the diet the rest of the time. The more restrictive the diet, the more hog-wild cheat days tend to be, often ending in gastrointestinal distress and feelings of guilt and regret. “I was doing so well, but I totally blew it on my cheat day! OMG, why did I eat that?!”

One of the reasons I don’t believe in cheat days is that I don’t believe in restrictive diets, either. I don’t believe in starvation or deprivation. That’s not how you heal the body.

The reason we need food to live is that we break down everything that enters our digestive systems into smaller bits that our bodies need to function. We use food to build and repair tissue, synthesize vitamins and hormones, remove toxins, keep our organs functioning — pretty much everything the body needs to do, it needs food in order to do it. Food isn’t just there to fill up our stomachs and keep us from feeling hunger. Food literally builds our bodies.

Different foods work for different people because we’re all so unique, inside and out. Your genetics, the composition of your gut microbiome, your external environment and whatever toxins and irritants exist there — all of these things affect how your individual body breaks down food and what it does with those smaller parts.

A large part of my coaching practice is helping people figure out what foods work for their individual bodies. What foods support health for you? What foods make you feel and look amazing? What foods give you glowing skin, boundless energy, sound sleep, balanced moods, untroubled digestion, painless movement throughout your day? Conversely, which foods make you feel awful? Which foods cause skin rashes and breakouts, digestive distress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue?

It takes a while to figure all this out. But once you have figured it out, and provided you’ve done it by enjoying an abundance of clean protein, healthy fats and whole-food carbs in proportions that work for your body (not starving yourself, in other words), my hope for you is that you’ll choose to eat in a health-supporting way most of the time. Notice I didn’t say all the time. There may be situations in which you make an informed choice to eat a food that you know will make you feel bad because you’re willing to deal with the consequences of that. And that is a valid choice because you’re the boss of you and you get to make those decisions, guilt-free.*

(* Caveat: When you know a food makes you feel bad and you choose to consume it more than once a week or so, or if you feel compelled to set aside an entire day to binge on foods that you know make you feel lousy, there’s something going on there that needs to be addressed. The best-case scenario is that you’re not including enough calories and fat in your diet so that you feel deprived and deserving of a food “reward”. Worse-case, it’s about you feeling that, for some reason, you deserve to feel bad. Or at the very least, you don’t deserve to feel good. And it might be a good idea to examine why you feel that way.)

Barring an allergy or some other medical condition like diabetes or celiac, there are no good or bad foods. There are foods that make you feel good and foods that make you feel bad. There’s no such thing as “cheating” when you’re eating this way. There’s no stress over worrying whether a particular food is vegan or paleo or low-carb or detox-approved or otherwise on your “diet”. Everything you put into your mouth is a choice, or in some cases an experiment: how will this food make me feel? The answer to that question matters more than any diet dogma.

Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t cheat yourself.

Should you take a cheat day?

Do you need a detox?

11705-a-beautiful-woman-holding-a-glass-of-juice-pvI’m sure you’ve seen them around: “cleanse” and “detox” programs promising to jump-start your health and weight-loss journey in anywhere from three to 30 days. Some involve juices, smoothies or shakes, some involve supplement pills, powders and specially packaged “foods”. Nearly all of them promise big results, fast. But do you need a cleanse or detox in order to kick off your journey to health and wellness?

In a word: no.

I am not at all a fan of cleanse and detox programs and don’t include them as part of my health coaching practice. Here’s why:

  1. They’re often deficient in calories, protein and/or fat — all things your body desperately needs to stay healthy and strong.
  2. They don’t actually do anything to reduce whatever toxic load you might be carrying (your liver and kidneys detoxify your body all day, every day).
  3. They’re expensive.
  4. They don’t produce lasting results.
  5. They’re often an excuse for people to eat junk when not on the program.
  6. They shock the body and actually can do more harm than good.

If you drink nothing but grapefruit juice, or lemon juice and cayenne pepper mixed with water, or kale and cucumber smoothies for an entire week, then yes, you’re going to lose some weight. You’re taking in about half the calories and way less than half the protein and fat your body needs to function, so obviously you’re going to shed some pounds (most of it water and sometimes muscle depending on the length of the program).

But what then? What do you do when the cleanse or detox is over? How do you eat moving forward? And how long do you think you’ll keep that weight off once the detox has ended?

Instead of embarking on a seven-day starvation regimen of flavored water and/or synthetic vitamins, what if instead you start TODAY eating just a bit less refined sugar, refined flour and factory-made food and eating just a bit more fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and clean protein? And then tomorrow, you cut back even more on the refined/processed stuff and load up a bit more on the fresh/clean stuff?

Do that every day and instead of sending your body into metabolic shock, causing it to break down muscle and throw your hormones out of whack, you’ll be building sustainable nutrition habits that lead to slow, steady hormone balance, tissue repair and weight loss. You’ll learn what foods work for your body, what foods don’t, what foods you truly enjoy and what foods you can give yourself permission to stop eating. Your relationship with food will change. No longer will it be a source of reward, punishment, guilt or shame; instead it will be what it’s meant to be — an extremely enjoyable way of keeping your body running in tip-top shape, feeling strong and energetic and free from pain and illness.

Those are results that last a lifetime, and that beats the heck out of losing and gaining the same 10 pounds (at $10 or more per pound, in the case of some cleanses) over and over AND OVER again!

Do you need a detox?

Raspberry lemonade echinacea gummies

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Late spring allergies/cold got you down? With gut-healing gelatin, immunity-building echinacea and a hit of natural vitamin C, these bright little stevia-sweetened bites are good for what ails you!

3/4 cup (6 oz.) brewed echinacea tea (I like this one)
3.5 Tbs grass-fed gelatin powder (I like this one)
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh raspberries (if using frozen, be sure to thaw first)
20 – 30 drops liquid stevia

Gently re-heat tea to just below boiling if needed and whisk in gelatin until dissolved. Pulse lemon juice and raspberries in a blender or food processor until raspberries have liquified, then push through a mesh strainer (discarding seeds and pulp) into a small bowl. Add stevia to taste. Add gelatin mixture and whisk until blended. Pour into molds or a glass dish and chill for at least 1 hour or until set. Then unmold, cut into cubes and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Raspberry lemonade echinacea gummies

What does “whole grain” really mean?

17400-various-breads-and-grains-pvCan you spot the whole grain in this photo?

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what constitutes a “whole grain”. I’m not sure why as it’s really pretty simple. A whole grain not only contains the inner germ, the middle endosperm layer and the outer bran, it’s also … well, whole. You can see it with your eyes. You can feel it with your hands. It looks like a grain. It has defined edges.

A lot of processed foods like to splash “Made with 100% whole grain!” all over their packaging but if the grain has been milled into flour to make that product, it’s no longer a whole grain. It’s flour. The cell walls have been broken, the fats have been oxidized and a lot of the nutrient content has been lost. You’re no longer getting the benefits, however small, of consuming whole grains.

As far as those benefits go, whole grains do contain fiber, B vitamins, small amounts of protein and some healthy fats. But the truth is, if you’re eating a variety of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seafood, nuts and meats, particularly organ meats, you’re already getting everything that whole grains have to offer from a nutritional standpoint. And you’re getting far fewer insulin-spiking carbohydrates.

Whole grains do add a nutty flavor and chewy texture to meals, and they also can help stretch higher quality ingredients over a greater number of servings. Just keep in mind that the nutritional content compared to the foods listed above is relatively low and that the carbohydrate content is quite high.

If you do choose to eat whole grains, I highly recommend eating TRULY whole grains and entirely avoiding products made from grain flour. The Whole Grains Council has a handy guide to cooking a huge variety of grains in their whole, unprocessed form. It’s also a good idea to soak, ferment and/or sprout your grains before cooking to aid digestion.

And if you choose not to include grains in your diet? As long as you’re eating a variety of fresh, unprocessed plant and animal foods, you’re not missing a thing.

What does “whole grain” really mean?

The importance of ritual

16316-a-young-woman-stretching-before-exercise-pvHuman beings are creatures of habit. No matter how spontaneous and full of surprises some of us may like our lives to be, we all have touchstones that ground us, bring us back to ourselves and give us a sense of belonging. Beginning and ending the day with routines and rituals can be a great way to manage anxiety, disconnect from the hamster wheel in your brain and remind yourself that you are part of something immense, beautiful and important.

Here are some ideas for morning and evening rituals. You can chose one or all or come up with your own ideas to bookend your day with a sense of purpose, peace and gratitude.

MORNING

Focus on the physical. Instead of jolting awake with a sense of urgency over your impending to-do list, take a moment first thing upon waking to focus instead on physical sensations. The weight of your body on the mattress, the feel of the sheets/blanket against your skin, the gentle rise and fall of your breath, the light coming in the window, birdsong or traffic from outside — focusing on these sensations instead of the story in your head about all you have to do for the next 16 hours can bring a sense of calm. You may notice things about your environment that you never noticed before.

Feed your soul. Whether the Bible, the Tao Te Ching or simply a favorite poem, inspirational words followed by prayer, meditation or contemplation can create a sacred space in which to begin your day and remind you that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are part of all the tremendous beauty in the world.

Move gently. Sun salutations, gentle stretches, a stroll around the yard while the dog performs his/her own morning ritual — all of these things can help to gently wake the body and get it ready to perform. Whether you’re facing an hour-long commute or you intend to knock out a five-mile jog before the kids wake up, beginning with gentle movements will help prepare your body for what’s to come.

Warm your belly. Before reaching for that cup of coffee or tea, try priming your body for digestion with a cup of warm water and lemon, ginger, mint or other herbs. In addition to refreshing the mouth and warming the belly, this will gently awaken your tastebuds, get saliva production started and alert your digestive enzymes that nourishment is at hand.

Cleanse mindfully. Many cultures and spiritual practices use cleansing rituals to prepare for important ceremonies. You can do a mini version of this every day. Brush your hair and give yourself a gentle scalp massage with the pads of your fingertips before shampooing, use a dry-brush technique on your body before showering, rub a bit of coconut oil into your skin after bathing to soften and seal in moisture. So often we feel disconnected from our bodies because we believe they’ve let us down, or we’ve let them down. Mindfully and gently cleansing yourself can help you reconnect with your amazing vessel and learn to treat it with kindness, appreciation and gratitude.

Let the music play. As you transition from gentle waking to the more active part of your day, music can be a terrific mood-setting and productivity tool. Fire up your own motivational playlist or use one from a streaming service such as Songza, Spotify, Pandora or Amazon Prime Music. Sing, dance and get your body moving and your mind ready to Do. This. Thing.

EVENING

Block it out. While turning off electronics completely at least an hour or two before retiring is a great idea, it can lead to anxiety and feelings of isolation for many people. At the very least, take measures to keep blue light from computer, tablet and phone screens from interfering with your body’s attempts to move into sleep mode by installing an app that blocks blue light. An app called f.lux is a great option for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone and iPad. Android tablets and phones can use Twilight. These apps are highly customizable and use your geographical location to begin dimming and warming the light from your screen as the sun sets.

Write it down. All those things you’re keeping in your head, all those tasks that went unfinished today and will have to be completed tomorrow, all that correspondence that needs to be tackled at the start of your workday — Write. It. Down. Put it on paper and get it out of your head. If those thoughts drift back in while you’re winding down for the day, remind yourself that it’s all written out for you to deal with tomorrow. It will keep until then. If thoughts of the day ahead wake you during the night, keep a small notebook and pen near your bedside and write these thoughts down as they come. Once they’re on paper, let them pass from your mind. If you can’t let go of the nagging thought that you’ve forgotten something, write THAT down: “I think I’ve forgotten something.” The very act of getting that down on paper will either jog your memory or give you a sense of having acknowledged it so that you can clear your mind for relaxation and sleep.

Reverse it. A simple way to ritually close out your day is to do your morning routine/ritual in reverse. Soothing music, a gentle soak in epsom salts and lavender oil to relax your body (or other mindful bodycare rituals such as a gentle oil cleanse to remove makeup, a foot and leg massage with coconut oil, etc.), a cup of relaxing herbal tea (at least two hours before bedtime if your bladder wakes you during the night), extremely gentle stretches or yoga poses (savasana, anyone?) to relax your muscles, devotional readings, meditations and/or prayers of gratitude, and finally relaxing into the physical sensations of the nighttime world and your cozy bed — your weight on the mattress and pillow, the sheets against your skin, the warmth of your breath through your nostrils, the lullaby of owls and crickets or the murmur of tires on asphalt.

Give yourself over to whatever morning and evening rituals work for you. You may find that you sleep better at night and are more productive during the day knowing that you have these comforting touchstones to return to at every sunrise and sunset!

The importance of ritual