My mother has taken several trips around Japan, visiting many ordinary people and not just the tourist destinations. She says she’s often been served an interesting food and asked what it is, only to get the reply, “We Eat This.” Translation: “We don’t know enough English and you don’t know enough Japanese for us to explain exactly what this is, but it’s good to eat. Try it!”
I sometimes feel that way about several foods that have become common ingredients in my meals, which average Americans don’t eat. I love them all and would like to share the joy! Almost all of these foods have been mentioned and briefly explained somewhere in The Earthling’s Handbook already, but until this Works-for-Me Wednesday there hasn’t been a handy reference page to explain them.
Sorghum syrup is my favorite nutritional discovery ever! (Thanks, Ben, for giving me that first jar!) It is very, very sweet, but also, just one ounce contains 21% of the Daily Value of manganese, plus significant Vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus, and potassium. It has a milder flavor than blackstrap molasses, which is similarly nutritious, but it does have a slightly bitter taste if you eat it plain; that’s the iron. It’s not so noticeable when mixed into things.
Sorghum syrup is now my favorite coffee sweetener–just dunk a chopstick into the jar and stir it into the coffee. It’s delicious on Grape-Nuts cereal and in oatmeal. Use it to sweeten Pumpkin Cornbread, Raisin Bran Bread, oatmeal cookies, and other baked goods. If cooked fruit needs added sweetening, sorghum blends with the fruit sugars better than refined sugar does, especially with apples, pears, and rhubarb. A small amount of sorghum (like a half-teaspoon) gives a richer flavor to spaghetti sauce or chili, reducing the “sharp” taste of the onions and peppers.
I’ve been unable to find sorghum syrup in stores in Pittsburgh,so I order a 10-pound jar from Maasdam Sorghum Mills and pour it into smaller jars.
Check out this detailed information on sorghum syrup from Kitchen Stewardship!
Nutritional yeast flakes are tiny bright-yellow flakes that dissolve in any kind of oil to create a rich, yummy condiment. The taste is unique but similar to cheese. Nutritional yeast is a complete protein, it’s high in many minerals, and most brands are fortified with B vitamins, which are scarce in vegetarian foods. Here’s a nutritional profile (scroll down; I am not endorsing those particular flakes as I’ve never tried that brand). We buy ours from the bulk section of the food co-op; the price looks high, but the stuff is so lightweight that it actually costs just pennies per serving.
I know “nutritional yeast flakes” sound like something people would eat in the horrible future when there are no other foods, but they’re so tasty! Sprinkle them on buttered/olive-oiled toast (especially delicious with tomato), potatoes, winter squash, or popcorn. Mix them with olive oil for a delicious pasta/vegetable sauce. Add them to casseroles like Honey Baked Lentils and Potato-Turnip Thing to improve the flavor, color, and nutrition. Mix them into the olive oil for roasting vegetables. Use them in American Beanwich for extra yum.
Tofu is a versatile form of soy protein that soaks up whatever flavor you put on it. It’s a food many Americans fear, possibly because it doesn’t taste or feel anything like meat, or possibly because they’ve been eating it plain and don’t like its bland flavor. Try Tangy Honey-Apricot Tofu, Zucchini Tofu, Spicy Peanut Sauce, or Ten-Minute Tofu for better flavor, or substitute tofu for meat in any highly seasoned stir-fry recipe. Tofu-Soba Supper and Japanese Udon Noodle Soup and Fried Rice are versatile approaches to using tofu as your main protein in a meal. Check out this thrifty recipe for not-so-fresh tofu!
Tofu is high in minerals and in soy isoflavones that may be good for your heart and/or reduce premenstrual and menopausal symptoms. (The research is still pretty new.) I buy only organic tofu because most of the non-organic soy sold in the United States these days is genetically modified, and I’m creeped out by that.
My general approach to tofu is to drain it as thoroughly as possible (pour off the water from the package, then wrap it in a clean cloth towel and squish it), cut it into chunks, and place it directly into a tasty sauce. If it can marinate for a while to really soak up the sauce, that’s best; I like the flavor to go almost all the way through. Baking or simmering helps to make the sauce stick to the outside of the tofu. Much of the tofu in restaurants is not cooked this way but is coated with flour or cornstarch and deep-fried in oil; some people like that, but I don’t! At best, it creates a surface that keeps out the sauce, so the middle of the tofu chunk tastes like plain old soybean mush. Often, fried tofu chunks are like tough sponges soaked with oil–bleah!
Some people are saying it’s unhealthy to eat soy, or unfermented soy, or processed soy foods such as tofu. Here’s an article with lots of details about the claims and the facts. Here’s another one. My conclusion is that eating lots of soy is a bad idea, particularly highly-processed soy foods (like fake chicken nuggets, fake cheese, and soymilk–tofu is less far removed from natural soybeans), but in moderation it’s pretty good, for people who aren’t allergic to it. We eat only one to two pounds of tofu a month in our house, and we usually combine it with other foods (for instance, in a stir-fry) so that we aren’t eating a whole lot in one meal.
Lentils are better-known than these other foods, but I feel they aren’t getting nearly the attention they deserve! Personally, I was barely aware of lentils until about six years ago, when I bought some on sale and learned to make several varieties of Lentil Rice. Then we discovered Honey Baked Lentils, and lentils became a food we must keep in stock at all times! They cook pretty quickly, unlike other dry beans. They’re nutritious–high in iron, fiber, and protein–and they can be ground up into a great baby food. (Our son was anemic as a baby and needed high-iron foods.) They’re inexpensive. They can be flavored lots of different ways.
There are two main kinds of lentils: the green or brown ones about 1/4 inch wide, and the very tiny red ones. We like both. Green lentils usually are less expensive per pound, and they work well in many recipes, like Green Ribbon Lentils. Red lentils are better for recipes where you want a more fluffy texture or shorter cooking time; they make Apricot Lentil Soup creamy with no blending! Try them in Masoor Dal and Coconut Curry, too.
Flax seed is high in protein, fiber, and essential fatty acids and has a notable amount of calcium, iron, and magnesium. We grind it in the blender and sprinkle a tablespoon or so on a bowl of cereal. I like the nutty flavor; the texture takes some getting used to. We previously tried flax seed oil, but because it’s not supposed to be heated to high temperatures we didn’t find any use for it except on oatmeal (tasty) . . . so it was hard to use up a whole bottle.
There’s been some controversy over whether the omega-3s in plants such as flax have all the benefits of the omega-3s in fish. All I can tell you is that I personally did not notice any reduction in migraines from eating flax regularly, but I have gotten some relief from taking fish oil capsules every day and from taking extra fish oil during a migraine.
Seaweed sprinkles are my favorite seasoning for rice or potatoes. Asian grocery stores have a variety of these sprinkles, made from nori seaweed mixed with other ingredients; my favorite kind is called norigomi furikake (spelling varies) and also contains sesame seeds. It adds a lot of protein (for its weight) and minerals, as well as great taste. (If you are vegan, do not buy seaweed sprinkles that contain bonito fish flakes or dried egg. Some brands contain monosodium glutamate, so if you are sensitive to it, be sure to read the label.) Nori can help you avoid that horrible “crash” feeling after eating too much sugar.
I’ve also tried dulse, a purplish-red seaweed available in flakes in the bulk section of the co-op. I don’t like it as well as nori as a main flavor, but it blends into complex, strong-flavored foods like spaghetti sauce and Honey Baked Lentils. It’s supposed to be very nutritious.
Hemp protein powder adds protein, fiber, essential fatty acids, a little iron, and pleasant nutty flavor to baked goods such as Raisin Bran Bread. Nope, it’s not dope. It blends right into smoothies and pesto. You can stir it into oatmeal, yogurt, and such if you don’t mind the dark green color. This food is not a staple in our household because of the price, but we get a canister when it goes on sale at the food co-op or health-food store. Keep it tightly sealed in the freezer if you will be using it slowly.
Rooibos, pronounced “roy boss,” also called red tea, is a caffeine-free dried plant that makes a tasty beverage to drink hot or cold. I like it with honey and just a little milk. It’s thought to help calm muscle spasms, and I do find it helps when I have a bad headache. We buy it in bulk at the food co-op and use a fine-mesh tea strainer (the leaves are very small) to make tea. UPDATE: I wrote a longer article all about rooibos!
Please feel free to post links to other recipes for these ingredients!