Berry Bran Muffins and what to cook right now

A somewhat humorous discussion amongst some of the current and past students of my nutrition program last week was “What is Eleonora cooking right now?” Eleonora is my former cooking lab instructor, since we were required to take a few cooking courses during the program to really cement our ‘food as medicine’ approach to clinical nutrition practice.

While I consider myself an experienced cook, I never expected to learn a ton from these courses, but a day before that conversation emerged about Eleonora, a conversation with my childhood best friend brought realization that those simple courses cemented several cooking foundations that were otherwise learned haphazardly over time, or not at all.  

In that conversation with my friend, which not surprisingly went on as she was cooking dinner and subsequently asking for advice on the right temperature and amount of oil for roasting vegetables, she asked if I’d heard of a popular cookbook, Salt Fat Acid Heat. I explained that I was indeed familiar, but haven’t actually picked up the book. We learned those concepts in cooking lab, I explained.

What I got most from that conversation, however, wasn’t that I’ve picked up some culinary school concepts over time, or that I should give myself a pat on the shoulder, but that the conversation was so normal. Having not had a real conversation in months and going long stretches with much less since my friend’s life work is in ministry and she’s been abroad for most of the last decade, the ebbs and flows and even pauses to wait for another discussion on the other end of the line to begin and end were exactly as they would be between us—at any point in the last twenty and more years we’ve been close friends.

That maybe is a benefit to slowing down a little. We both all of a sudden were available for a conversation that as the years go, grows greater distance between each one.

The other thing, one of the students actually knew the answer to What is Eleonora Cooking?, since they were doing raw food lab last week. Eleonora is making and eating lots of sprouts. You know, just about the healthiest, most nutritious food on the planet.


When I was in her classes, I both loved and feared Eleonora. She has a brusque way about her, a heavy accent, and though you wouldn’t guess it, she was also a former Olympian. I suspect in some sort of track and field or gymnastics discipline, though I never did get that answer.

So in the midst of a global pandemic, my former Olympian-now nutritionist and cooking instructor is teaching the newest round of students about the benefits and how-tos of growing and eating sprouts. And my long-time friend and minister is not doing her work in visiting and being with people, but sewing masks and cooking roasted vegetables. And though many of us are attempting to keep some semblance of normalcy, we’re definitely not in normal times.

Instead of following in Eleonora’s food-steps and providing a guide on sprouts, or the best pot of beans, or the finer details on making gluten-free sourdough, today I offer you Berry Bran Muffins (but yes, I’m otherwise making and eating all three of those nutritious, gut-health and therefore immune boosting foods.)

Muffins are basically my go-to semi-nutritious baked good to make and experiment with, and though I know it’s common practice to eat them at breakfast, I much prefer them as dessert.

Because we all need as much cheer as possible right now, whether it’s in making something warm and delicious in the kitchen, finding funny videos, books, or movies to be entertained by, or in another creative project. I am lucky and grateful enough to still have a semi-normal routine –as much as one can in self-imposed isolation or quarantine or whatever you may call it when the wisest thing to do is to avoid everywhere except the open road or trail or neighborhood walkabout.

And I understand if where you’re located doesn’t quite have all the ingredients for these stocked on the shelf—or you’re not going back to the store for a while. That’s the thing about cooking, baking, and muffins in particular. The adventurous, creative part is in improvising when the way forward is not exactly as the recipe goes.

And yes, that’s a metaphor for life. I encourage you to have faith in yourself and the process.

Other things that held me up and gave me faith this week:
– A reminder of the Proverb of the Chinese Farmer
– The ever wise insight from Julie Piatt on taking care in the time of Coronavirus
The two words that will guide you (mine are faith and nature – which maybe explains a lot of what I share here and how I work)
This book I’m reading during the season of Lent along with daily reflections by Matthew Kelly
– Rebecca Altman’s Surrender + Magic mini-course (of meditations and finding peace)
– running, my normal routine and as if my scheduled April race is still happening as planned

Berry Bran Muffins, makes 6 standard size muffins
If using a store bought gluten-free flour mix, the one I’ve found most similar to mine is the Krusteaz Gluten-Free Flour. If using that or others, it is best to measure by weight, and omit xanthan gum from the recipe if your flour mix contains it. As much as possible, I avoid adding xanthan gum unless I believe a recipe really needs it–and after much testing, this one does because the batter is heavy on flavorful, but juicy berries.

1/2 cup / 50 g oat bran
1/2 cup / 120 mL non-dairy milk
2 Tbs. molasses
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup / 120 g gluten-free flour mix
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. xanthan gum
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
2 Tbs. / 28 g coconut oil
1/4 cup / 50 g sugar
3 Tbs. aquafaba (liquid from cooked or canned garbanzo beans) or 1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (choose your berry of choice or use a mix)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F / 180 degrees C., and prepare a standard six-cup muffin pan by wiping with oil and dusting with flour or using paper muffin liners.
  2. Stir the oat bran, milk, molasses, and vanilla together in a small bowl until combined. Then allow to sit for at least 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, in a smaller bowl, combine the dry ingredients including the flour, soda and baking powder, and spices. Set this bowl aside also.
  4. In a medium mixing bowl, stir and mix together the coconut oil and sugar until it is light and fluffy. This may take 3 to 5 minutes. Then add in the aquafaba or as an alternative, the egg. Mix well.
  5. Now add the flours, bran and milk mixture, and vinegar to the creamed sugar. Mix this just until all the ingredients are incorporated.
  6. Gently fold in the berries. If using frozen, you don’t need to pre-thaw them. Using a large scoop or spoon, divide the batter between the muffin cups. Bake until they become golden and a toothpick in the center comes out with just a few crumbs attached, about 25-30 minutes.
  7. Cool the muffins in the pan for about 5 minutes, then flip onto a wire rack and cool for at least 10 minutes before eating.

The best seasonal braised cabbage, kitchen morning mindfulness, and connecting to our food’s story.

When I wake in the morning, my tendency is to go towards some distraction immediately, whether it be reading emails on my phone, putting on a podcast to hear others talk at me, or perhaps even social media, though that’s much less my go-to than it was. When I am in the kitchen a little later cycling the dishes and making breakfast, my tendency is to reach for a distraction again.

Last year, I listened to a really impactful series of short podcast episodes on BBC’s Slow Radio about Benedictine Monks meditating on the nature of silence. One of the monks spoke about listening to the pauses in the everyday noise of our life, not filling it, but letting it be there, for it’s in the pauses that we hear guidance about our life (whether you’re religious or not, I’m guessing you have experienced this). So instead of filling the early hours with someone else talking, I’ve taken to letting my attention go to the moment and what I’m doing, walking this stack of bowls from the dishwasher to the cupboard, tracking back to the dishwasher, stacking the plates and walking them across the kitchen to the cupboard, pouring the boiling water over my first cup of tea, asking Alexa for a three minute timer, turning to the other counter, picking up the pear and knife, cutting the pear into haphazard pieces and scraping them into my oatmeal pot. Making my experience of the everyday morning hours, still technically dark outside, a fits and starts routine with less distractions from the outside world.

This kitchen meditation is important because it sets my whole day. My mind has a tendency to jump around, jump ahead, form conversations that will never happen, and turn unimportant moments and experiences into catastrophes, dreams and goals into hopeless pursuits. I’m not consistently mindful in the mornings, not able to have this presence always, nor do I carry it through for the rest of the day. But the daily practice lately is helpful. When I stack days on days of this practice, I notice I become more present for longer stretches elsewhere and thus my go-to mind chatter and on-too-much stress cascade is triggered less or bounces back a little quicker.

I have this Ayurvedic Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell, which I love for its easy meal inspiration and adaptability, but even more I love the introductory section, which makes up a good chunk of the book. Part of Kate’s introduction has a story about her yoga practice. She asks a long-time practitioner about the myth of mental calm through yoga and he tells her, “Do less physical monkey business and more concentration. Count your breaths.” She tells of not being particularly impressed with this advice, but then says, “When I practiced counting my breaths, I began to wonder – who is that counting and observing, and who is that telling me that I should be doing something else? So often, we identify with only the turbulent aspects of our minds, because they tend to be the loudest, and we are in the habit of joining their conversation. It takes patience and focus to stay tuned to the calm center, but it is possible. With practice, I stopped listening to the person arguing and began truly concentrating. It was in this state of focus that I finally found calm.”

Beyond this practice of paying attention, not engaging with the chattering, turbulent mind, is food, nutrition, and lifestyle. We have consistent research now backing up what the yogis and buddhas have known for centuries –that the mind and gut are connected. That there are energetic frequencies between the foods we consume and their effects on our mind and body. That the state of mind we prepare our food in has an affect on how we process it. That the symptoms we continually fall into, anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and on –they are symptoms, not problems, but symptoms of the body trying to get our attention.

As I’m writing this, it is the beginning of NEDA week –National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and as such it has been fairly routine for me to reflect on my own place in recovery annually. This week, it’s become apparent through my morning kitchen mindfulness practice that I’ve been connecting a little more into the beginning of my recovery, which began haphazardly about 13 years ago. What worked for me then, what really was my life raft out of my mental control and self-sabotage through food restriction was really connecting to my food community. I grew up on a ranch and our family had a garden growing up. Local food was really a way of life even if it was far from the romanticized version of farm life we all think of. As I found my way into nourishing instead of punishing my body, I needed that connection again, not to awareness of my mind’s tendencies–I wasn’t that far along and mindfulness wasn’t a thing that was ever brought up in therapy–but connection to my food. Who grew my carrot? What were the steps involved in getting that _____________(name that ingredient) to my store or farm stand and then to me?


Lately, I’ve been putting more emphasis on getting to my local Saturday market. It’s inconvenient to do so, I have to drive across town on a busy weekend at an inconvenient time of day, find a place to park, walk a few blocks, get cash ahead of time, deal with traffic back home, build the extra trip into my schedule, etc. But each time I do this, I’m reminded of the faces that feed us. The farmers themselves –often the farmer’s employees but still farmers—standing for hours on concrete in the middle of winter on cold, blistery, rainy days selling what we think of as ‘expensive food for the elite’ for mere dollars, and at the end of the day and year only making the farming business work because of a spouse or partner’s off-farm job or health insurance. If that sounds totally unglamorous, it was meant to—being aware of the reality of our thoughts or situations is rarely glamourous.

But when I see the hands that feed me and stay more connected to the origins of my food, I stay on the right side of my relationship to food in the recovery process. My relationship with my body is better, I care more for the livelihood of those that grew my food, I have more gratitude for our extremely happy and spoiled ‘ladies’ (hens) who provide the best eggs I’ve ever eaten, I translate that energy of good vibes into my presence in the kitchen and my emphasis on being in a state of calm and clear-mindedness, rather than cluttered, flustered, or not caring for myself well. Again–mostly. This takes practice. It’s certainly not my go-to mindset.

So much of each of our trajectories in this lifetime are like hiking up a slippery, icy mountain. We take a step towards improvement in whatever regard and then we slip back, sometimes giving up for a while before starting anew. As eating disorders and other mental health conditions become a little less stigmatized, or at least acknowledged, it’s important to remember that the glamorous recovery stories we read or hear, of healing through this or that process or someone else staying on the straight and narrow while we slip and slide up and down the same stretch of mountain, are not actually glamorous like they may appear. William’s ladies might lay golden, delicious, nourishing eggs, but there’s a lot of chicken manure in the process. The same goes for the beautiful food brought to the town square – freezing fingers and toes, big waterproof coveralls to wash off all the winter mud before it gets there are more the reality.  And have you ever picked vegetables for at least a day? I have. Once. For a day in the middle of a hot and humid July in Virginia as a community service project. It was back-breaking work. Truly uncomfortable and challenging. And there were giant spiders.

Connecting to the story of your food has a real way of anchoring in gratitude and mindfulness, whichever way that background story goes.

This National Eating Disorders Awareness week, if you’re inclined, I encourage you to try some sort of mindful connection, to the source of your food, or to the process of preparing it for yourself and/or family. Count your breaths. Tune into the process of preparing your food. Thank a farmer. And most especially, give yourself a big hug.

The Best Simple Braised Cabbage, serves about 4, if you’re lucky. ;)

Cabbage is one of my all-time favorite foods this time of year. I crave it every winter before all the new colorful fruits and vegetables start to appear again. Truthfully, I enjoy it just about every way, steamed simply with some salt and pepper is at the top of my list, then braised, roasted, boiled in a flavorful broth, or lastly shredded into some sort of raw salad creation–they’re all good. Cabbage cooked simply has a subtle natural sweetness that comes through and it’s just one of those still wintery-filling foods that walks the line between the green leaves of spring. At my local farmers market, all the different types of cabbage have been catching my eye lately. Use any type here, from bright red/purple, crinkly savoy, or your standard green variety.

a little splash of olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 medium cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup water

  • Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for about 8-10 minutes, or until tender and starting to turn golden brown.
  • Turn up the heat slightly and stir in the salt, apple cider vinegar, and sliced cabbage, along with the water. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender. Check and stir the cabbage a few times while cooking and add a little more water if begins to dry out or starts to stick.
  • Season with pepper, additional salt as needed, and then enjoy as a simple, tasty side dish.

Winter Tabbouleh and How Fiber Helps Support your Health — and Hunger

In the health, wellness, and fitness community, we often hear all about the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates). Yet, a nutrient that’s incredibly beneficial to our health is far less mentioned. That’s fiber.

Fiber is best known to keep you regular or prevent constipation, but there are many more benefits. In the athletic community, the one that comes to mind first is helping to relieve that ‘hungry all the time’ feeling that often comes with heavier training loads. Next is gut health, lowering disease risk, and helping to regulate the body’s use of sugars.

Dietary fiber consists of the non-digestible carbohydrates from components of plants. The human body does not make the types of enzymes needed to break the bonds in these fibers, so they pass through relatively intact.

Fiber is found in most plant foods, primarily vegetables and whole grains, as well as nuts, seeds, and fruit. There are two types of fiber— soluble and insoluble.  Both are beneficial to our health.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel-like consistency that slows down digestion. Ever had chia pudding or chia in a smoothie and felt full and satisfied for hours? That’s the soluble fiber at work.
Soluble fiber also helps slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream so blood sugar levels remain more stable. Food sources include chia, psyllium, flax and other seeds and nuts, oats and oat bran, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body. It is helpful for clearing out the buildup of undigested food and environmental and metabolic toxins in the digestive system as it moves through. Insoluble fiber also helps get the digestive system moving and eliminate any constipation. (Side note: constipation is not just having difficulty having a bowel movement. That’s the extreme. It also refers to spending more than just a couple minutes on the toilet, passing hard, dry, small pieces, failing to eliminate daily, and transit time beyond 12-24 hours.) Now that we’ve got that cleared up, insoluble fiber can be found in whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, brown rice, farro wheat, beans, and fruits and vegetables.

Fiber Nourishes Your Gut

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiome. They live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with you. This means you and they both benefit from them being there. Just like you, the microbes need to eat to live and grow, so they obtain nourishment from the food you eat. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through your large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as Butyrate.

A healthy gut microbiome can protect you against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria compete for space in the intestines, literally out-populating the bad bugs from taking hold. It can also help you absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. What’s more, Butyrate has also been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrowth of bad bacteria, having ample and diverse beneficial bacteria is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 80% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes into play here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods that are in your normal routine. Prolonged problems here are part of the pathophysiology of autoimmune diseases. 

Fiber Keeps You Feeling Full Longer – Read this again during your next heavy training cycle!

Because fiber is so difficult for your body to break down, it stays in your gastrointestinal tract longer compared to simple carbohydrates like table sugar. Having food in your system helps you feel full longer. This is partly why eating an apple is better than 100% apple juice (stripped of fiber), which is then better than apple-flavored juice (stripped of all nutrients). We even have studies showing that diets rich in high-fiber whole foods help reduce the perception of hunger. This is good information if you experience the “hungry all the time” feeling during heavy training cycles when you’re actually eating enough.

How much do we need?

Research has found that hunter-gathers ate a large quantity of fiber compared to modern humans, upwards of 100g of fiber per day. The average American has around 10-15g per day, and the US Dietary Reference Intake is around 25-38g of dietary fiber per day – which is well above that of the average person –but easily achieved by gradually increasing plant-foods in the daily routine. Can we consume too much? Yes, that is possible. Too much fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea (which is also caused by many other factors).

Caveats

Some therapeutic diets eliminate fiber-rich carbohydrates temporarily with the aim of improving long-term health and shifting the microbial population. For example, this is the purpose of the low FODMAP diet for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and the candida protocol. Individuals who try an extreme low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet also do so with the intention of improving health –often by way of improving the body’s response to sugars. But what’s commonly left out of the conversation is that all of these diets are meant to be temporary, because they all come with long-term negative health consequences such as eliminating all those beneficial bacteria that feed on fiber.

One more thing, we often hear the advice to reduce fiber in the days before a big athletic race, or eat ‘quick sugars’ in the few hours before athletic activity. This advice largely depends on the person, since just like we can train our bodies, we can also train our gut. Some of my best marathons were run after eating my routine high-fiber dinner and breakfast. I’ll delve more into this topic soon! 😊

Summary: Dietary fiber is an essential nutrient required for proper digestion of foods, proper functioning of the digestive tract, and for helping you feel full. A deficiency of fiber can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids, and elevated levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. Conversely, an excess of fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea. Individuals who increase their intake of fiber should do so gradually since this internal adjustment is going to adjust the populations of beneficial (and not so beneficial) microbial species in the lower GI –and thus might initially come with uncomfortable symptoms.

Now that we’ve got our daily dose of nutrition wisdom, let’s eat! William labeled me the queen of grain salads the other night after presenting this dish. It’s a seasonal variation on a plethora of other fiber rich tabbouleh-like grain salads in the recipe archives of this space –and one I’m really favoring right now for the bright colors, balance of slightly sweet and savory, and all in one dish for dinner. I routinely use millet or quinoa, but used both in this version. We had a stockpile of pumpkins in our house from last season’s harvest which I’ve by now mostly used up, but I noticed at our local farmers market last weekend that winter squash and pumpkins are still going strong—locally we tend to have them until mid to late March. If they’re less available near you, swap them out for some other seasonal vegetable – or leave out completely.


Winter Tabbouleh, serves 4-6
1 small pumpkin or winter squash (about 2 cups cubed)
1 cup millet or quinoa or a combination of both
2 cups water or vegetable broth
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup cilantro
½ cup mint
3 green onions
¼ cup walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
¼ cup goji berries
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1-2 handfuls spinach or other greens, optional
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Cook millet by combining with 2 cups of water or broth, along with the cinnamon, in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook until the liquid is completely absorbed, 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Place the squash cubes on a baking sheet with a little water. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the squash is soft. Alternatively, you can bake the squash whole until soft, then peel off the skin and chunk into pieces. This is my preferred quick-prep-ahead method lately.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the garbanzos, cilantro and mint, gojis, toasted walnuts, cooked squash and green onions. Then add the millet and spinach greens and give it all a good stir. Finish it off with the apple cider vinegar, honey, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.