Get to Know It: Chickpea Flour

Socca, an unleavened pancake made from chickpea flour and water.

Chickpeas are an ingredient we know and love. They’re satiating and a great source of plant-based protein. And, like most legumes, they provide an excellent canvas for flavor. You can really dress them up in any way you like.

We eat them chilled in our summer bean salads, warm in our winter stews. Pureed in our hummus, fried in our falafel. We love to roast them to crispy, baked perfection. To munch on them as a snack, to include them in our kitchen sink salads. Basically, we love to consume chickpeas pretty much any way, at pretty much any time.

But how often do you find yourself cooking with chickpea flour? If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably not too often.

Chickpea flourtraditionally made by grinding raw chickpeasis gluten free and nutrient dense. Like whole chickpeas, it’s a fantastic source of protein, and one that doesn’t come with an ominous use-by date. It has a really nice flavor and a rather dense texture, so it holds up well during cooking and tastes delicious once it’s done.

You can use chickpea flour in many ways, most of which are easy, fast, healthy and economical. Read: this is an ingredient worth getting to know.

Not sure where to begin? I can’t think of a better way to break the ice than by making socca.

Socca, native to France, is an unleavened pancake that can be made from equal parts chickpea flour and water. The process will seem friendly to even the most novice cooks. It requires little more than whisking flour and water, heating a lightly oiled pan and cooking a pancake. Isn’t that lovely?

But there’s room for adventure, too.

For instance, you could amp up your socca with egg a la this genius recipe for “cromlet”, a chickpea-omelette hybrid developed at Bon Appetit and beloved by the team here at WWE.

Or perhaps you’d like to use it as a gluten and dairy free roux in your next vegan sauce, as Lindsey Love, a fellow chickpea flour evangelist, suggests.

Love also wrote this recipe for za’tar spiced chickpea crackers, which look to be delicious, healthful and minimalist all at once. They consist of little more than chickpea flour, olive oil and water.

Other intriguing uses: pizza, wraps, baking (it’s a trustworthy binder) and soups, to name a few.

But don’t let me get carried away. If you’re new to chickpea flour, how about a simple, anything-goes, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants Salad Socca? The guidelines are straightforward:

Purchase some chickpea flour (also called garbanzo or gram flour), then head to the farmer’s market and fill your tote with spring produce. Make your way home. Make a salad, then make socca, then top the socca with the salad. Easy, right?

A salad of baby greens, fennel and cucumber.

Below, a bit of inspiration: a recipe for a Salad Socca of my own creation. Let me know what you think of yours. Happy cooking!

 

Salad Socca

1 cup yogurt

1 tablespoon tahini

1 garlic clove, peeled and pressed

1 lemon, juiced and zested

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups baby greens

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 small cucumber, thinly sliced

Olive oil to taste

½ teaspoon sumac (optional)

1 cup chickpea flour

1 cup water

 

In a small bowl, combine yogurt, tahini, garlic, half of the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Separately, combine greens, fennel and cucumber. Toss well with olive oil, remaining lemon juice, some lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste. Optionally, sprinkle with sumac.

In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup chickpea flour, 1 cup water and a healthy three-finger pinch of salt. Whisk until smooth.

Heat a medium (10-in or so) skillet, then add 1 tablespoon olive oil, or enough to lightly coat surface.

Pour socca batter into skillet and let cook, undisturbed, until golden brown on bottom. It will fill the entire skillet. Flip and repeat on other side.

Once done, top socca with a generous serving of tahini-yogurt. Using the back of a spoon or spatula, spread mixture to evenly coat. Using your hands, top with fennel and cucumber salad. Enjoy.

The Green Goddess

Green goddess dressing.

I’ve known about green goddess dressing for a while now, but I have to admit that up until recently, its ingredients were somewhat of a mystery to me. Herbs, of course, and something creamy, for sure. But was that greek yogurt, or was it buttermilk? Avocado, or just green herbs? A hint of anchovy, or am I just making things up?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear “green goddess” notions of healthy grain bowls, sunny weather and glowing skin come to mind. New Californian cooking. As far as I’m concerned, it sounds like quintessential health food branding. Right?

While many recipes proved my theory correct, featuring fresh, healthful ingredients like herbs, avocado, greek yogurt and lemon, I was surprised to learn that a wholesome green goddess recipe is something of a reformed party girl.

The green goddess got its start in 1920s New York, when a broadway show of the same name premiered and gained popularity. Following its rise, a chef at The Palace Hotel in San Francisco invented a green dressing in its honor.

A green goddess with cilantro, greek yogurt, avocado and lime.

And the original recipe had absolutely nothing to do with health. Think mayonnaise, sour cream, anchovies, tarragon and chives. Delicious? Definitely. Wholesome? Not so much.

That said, this recipe – now nearly a century old – is far from obsolete. Many contemporary green goddesses have decadent, old-school vibes, requesting a heavy hand with rich dairy and classic French herbs.

Personally, I prefer a green goddess with greek yogurt and lots of citrus. To me, these versions are cleaner and brighter.

But that’s what’s great about the green goddess. She’s a chameleon. You can really make this dressing your own. Craving something avocado-forward? Go for it. Need to finish that buttermilk before it goes bad? Use it. Want to make anchovies your star? Sounds great. Forgot them at the grocery store? It will still be delicious!

I suggest preparing a batch of green goddess on Sunday evening to get you through the start of your work week. It’s versatile, so making it doesn’t require committing to one specific dinner idea. You can dress your salads with it, marinate your proteins in it, use it to amp up your grain bowls, or even let it guest star on taco night.

Below, you’ll find a few renditions I know and like. If you’re going to marinate a protein, I suggest following this recipe by Melissa Clark. Otherwise, simply use the ideas below to spark your creativity. After all, that’s what the green goddess is all about.

Green Goddess I

Combine parsley, basil, greek yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and zest, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Blend until smooth.

Green Goddess II

Combine parsley, mint, basil, cilantro, sour cream, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Blend until smooth.

Adapted ever so slightly from Mina Stone’s recipe in Cooking For Artists (p 33).

Green Goddess III

Combine tarragon, chives, greek yogurt, anchovies*, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Blend until smooth.

*I suggest using 1-2 anchovies. If using, be sure to season less aggressively; anchovies add a lot of salt!

Green Goddess IV

Combine cilantro, avocado, greek yogurt, garlic, lime juice and zest, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.

The thing about carbs

What We Eat: Whole Grain Salad

The thing about carbohydrates is not all carbohydrates are created equal. (Not all proteins or fats are created equal either, but let’s save that for another blog post.) Carbs come in every variety, from very healthful to very not. That’s why any diet that banishes them entirely will, yes, cut out a good amount of junk food. But it will also lead you to miss out on lots of important nutrients (honestly, the details of which don’t matter), and unnecessarily eliminate foods that are truly enjoyable. So let’s break them down…

What foods contain carbohydrates?

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole Grains
  • Legumes (aka beans and nuts)
  • Dairy (this one surprises people sometimes but lactose is a carb)
  • And every food derived from the above (e.g. juice, sugar derived from the sugar cane plant and all other caloric sweeteners, potato chips, breakfast cereals, snack foods like crackers and cookies, breads from white to whole wheat, pastas, etc.)

“Complex” carbs versus “simple” carbs

We’re often told to choose “complex” carbs (carbs that have three or more sugar units strung together) and to abstain from “simple” carbs (carbs made up of only one or two sugar units). But let me give you an example of why this blanket recommendation doesn’t work. White bread, made up of starch, is technically a “complex” carb. Apples, made up of glucose and fructose, are technically “simple” carbs. Few would argue that white bread is a healthier choice than an apple. It’s not.

White bread is made with white flour. White flour is made by removing the healthiest components of a wheat berry (the fiber and nutrient-filled bran and germ). What is left (the energy-filled endosperm) is then ground into a fine dust. Essentially, even before we take our first bite of toast, a great percentage of our bodies’ digestion has already been completed by outside processing. So the “complex” carbs in white bread are very readily absorbed and quickly converted into sugar in our blood streams (what doctor’s call blood sugar or blood glucose).

An apple is made from, well, an apple. When we eat it, besides the obvious fact that our teeth have more work to do to ready it for swallowing, our GI tracts also have to work harder to separate the “simple” carbs from the fiber, water and other nutrients packaged with them. This, among other reasons, leads to slower absorption and conversion of the “simple” carbs of the apple into blood sugar. Rest assured, our bodies will absorb all of the good stuff, it just takes more time. More time is a good thing.

Why it matters whether our blood sugar increases quickly versus overtime

Blood sugar is what fuels the activity of our bodies’ cells, but it can’t get into them without some help. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, acts as a key to open up cell doors and let blood sugar in. Because our bodies don’t like a ton of sugar hanging out in our blood stream, a surge in it from foods (like white bread) leads the pancreas to release a corresponding surge in insulin. All of the sugar is quickly ushered out of our blood stream and into our cells. Before you know it, the highway that is our blood stream is free of sugar. This wouldn’t seem like a bad thing, but our bodies actually prefer there to be a little blood sugar traffic. If there is no blood sugar available to cells, what would happen if all of a sudden our bodies needed more energy? What if we were attacked by a bear or something?! So, low blood sugar triggers additional hormonal responses in our bodies – hormones that make us hungry. This explains why most of us feel starved only a few hours after having a muffin for breakfast.

Alternatively, when we eat foods (like apples) that are full of nutrients (like fiber) that take longer to break down, our blood sugar rises slowly and steadily overtime. Correspondingly, our pancreas releases insulin slowly and overtime. There is a steady flow of light blood sugar traffic in our blood stream. When insulin moves some blood sugar into our cells, a little more blood sugar merges onto the highway from our GI tract to replace it. This translates to our blood sugar rising and falling slowly and overtime. Why is this so great? Our bodies tell us that they are satisfied for longer.

A better way to think about carbs

So, here is a clearer carb recommendation: Eat carbohydrate foods that have undergone as little processing as possible the majority of the time –

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole Grains
  • Legumes (aka beans and nuts)
  • Low fat milk and yogurt

– and the ones made by processing them –

  • Juice, even smoothies
  • All sugars from white to agave to honey
  • Traditional snack foods like potato chips, pretzels, crackers
  • Bakes goods like cookies, cakes, doughnuts
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Breads from white to whole wheat
  • Pastas and white rice
  • Etc.

– less often. The former are like time-release energy/fullness pills and the latter are like fast-acting energy/hunger-inducing pills. Maybe this means you choose to do an 80/20 split, or 90/10, that’s all up to you. The good news is there’s no good reason to give up carbohydrates.

Nutrient and Caloric Density: Cracking the nutrition code for good

If I had the eyes and ears of the world and only 10 minutes to share the most important concepts in nutrition, I would attempt to explain nutrient and caloric density. Horrible, horrible names but very, very important ideas. The good news is that the devil is NOT in the details. A broad understanding is all you need to answer most nutrition-related questions.

Before we get into it, I bet these concepts are things you already get intuitively. Let’s see:

Question 1: Both the five Starbursts and medium banana below are about 100 calories. Of these two, which do you think is the healthier choice? Why?

What We Eat: Starbursts v BananaAnswer 1: If you guessed the banana (duh), you’d be right. Clearly, there is way more good stuff (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc.) per calorie in the fruit than in the fruit candy. This is what is termed “nutrient density.”

Question 2: You’re trying to watch your waistline. Would one-cup granola or one-cup oatmeal be the better breakfast choice? Why?

What We Eat: Oatmeal v Granola

Answer 2: Guess oatmeal? Ding, ding, ding! Considering the same volume of oatmeal has about a third of the calories of granola, you could fill your tummy equally without letting out your belt loop. This is what is termed “caloric density.”

So, Nutrient Density = the amount of good stuff  (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc.) in a specific food per the amount of calories it provides.

  • High nutrient density = lots of good stuff per calorie (aka “superfoods”)
  • Low nutrient density = little good stuff per calorie (aka “empty calories”)

And, Caloric Density = the amount of calories in a specific volume/weight of food.

  • High caloric density = lots of calories for small amount of food (bummer)
  • Low caloric density = few calories for a large amount of food (great!)

For optimal nutrition, the goal is to eat as many foods packed with vitamins, minerals, etc. for the fewest amount of calories. That means eating more of the foods at the top of this table, and less of the foods at the bottom.

What We Eat: Nutrient Density Table

In light of out waistlines, the goal is to eat foods that provide the least amount of calories for the greatest amount of volume. In general, the more water and/or fiber a food contains, the lower the caloric density, and the more fat it provides, the higher the caloric density.

What We Eat: Caloric Density Table
Based on University of Wisconsin handout – https://www.uwgb.edu/pearsond/NUT_SCI_300site/Handouts-300/EnergyDensity.gif

There is a lot of crossover between nutrient and caloric density. Most important to note: vegetables and fruits are at the top of both lists explaining why they should account for half of everything we eat and refined grains/sweets are at the bottom of both lists explaining why they should be all but eliminated. When we do decide to include foods low in nutrient density or high in caloric density, they should be consumed sparingly as special treats or to enhance healthier foods. Here are some examples:

  • Adding a crumble of feta cheese over a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion (pairing a low nutrient density/high caloric density food, cheese, with high nutrient density/low caloric density food, vegetables)
  • Swapping half of your pasta with sautéed vegetables (swapping a low nutrient density/medium caloric density food, pasta, for high nutrient density/low caloric density food, vegetables, allowing you to keep the volume but greatly increase the nutrients and decrease the calories)
  • Pairing a quarter cup of nuts along with your apple (pairing a medium nutrient density/high caloric density food with a high nutrient density/low caloric density food)

What you shouldn’t do is pair low nutrient density/high caloric density foods together. That’s why, say, having cheese and crackers before dinner on a nightly basis is not the best habit to get in. They both have little nutritional value and a TON of calories for so little volume. Instead, why not snack on cut up veggies with a judicious amount of hummus?

Want to see how this should play out on your plate day-to-day?

Healthy Eating Plate
Those geniuses from Harvard think of everything.

So now, tell me and be honest, do you get it? Let me know because I am practicing for when I have those 10 minutes of the whole world’s attention.

Breaking Down Breakfast: My 4 go-to’s

What We Eat: Breakfast 6

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Oh sorry, I just fell asleep for a second. You? But in all seriousness, while I know that starting a blog post with a boring sentence like that breaks rule #1 of captivating an audience, hear me out:

I freakin’ love breakfast. Although it typically provides just 17% of our day’s total calories, it accounts for a much higher proportion of important vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D and potassium. The bulk of the research shows that eating breakfast daily is important for weight maintenance too, not to mention mood and mental stamina. So what does this dietitian eat to keep herself fueled and satisfied until lunchtime? Here are my personal go-to’s – quick, balanced and good.

What We Eat: Breakfast 4

  • #1. ¾ cup cooked whole grain + ¾ cup plain low fat Greek yogurt + fruit (unlimited) + 2 tablespoons toasted nuts (typically an almond/pecan mix) + sprinkling of cinnamon.

Truth be told, I eat this about 90% of the time and never get tired of it. In fact, right now I’m feeling sad that I’ll have to wait a whopping 16 hours until my next breakfast. Luckily research shows that limiting variety (within limits of course) can be a waist-friendly way to control portions. I prepare the grains and toast the nuts in bulk once or twice a week (Sundays or weekday nights after dinner) so I can make quick work of morning prep. To keep things interesting I switch up the grains – oatmeal, yes, but also farro, barley, quinoa, brown rice, etc. Seriously, try this ASAP.

(Note: I use cinnamon in breakfasts 1-3 because it adds the illusion of sweetness without actually adding any sugar.)

  • #2. 1-2 slices whole grain bread (the grainier the better) + 2 tablespoons peanut butter + ½ cup plain low fat Greek yogurt + sliced banana and/or strawberries + sprinkling of cinnamon

I pretend this is breakfast banana shortcake – bread toasted, everything else heaped on top, consumed with a fork and knife. Okay, so maybe I use a wee bit more than 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (not a safe item for me to keep in house), which is why I typically have this when visiting my parents or parents-in-law (or anyone else’s home that I can sniff out peanut butter…trust me, I’ll find it).

  • #3. 1-1 ½ cups cereal + 1 cup low fat milk + 2 tablespoons toasted nuts + fruit (unlimited) + cinnamon

All breakfast cereal is not created equal. I chose varieties with more than 5 grams of fiber and less than 4 grams of sugar per serving (equivalent to 1 tsp). I also mix high- and low-calorie options so I get the belly-filling benefits of the former and the bulk of the latter. Some of my favorites:

– Nature’s Path Heritage Flakes (3/4 cup serving contains 120 calories, 5 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar)

– Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Cereal, Original (1/2 cup serving contains 190 calories, 6 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar)

– Cheerios (1 cup serving contains 100 calories, 3 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar) Note: I only add this for bulk. Cheerios alone would never keep me satisfied until lunch.

What We Eat: Breakfast 5

  • #4. 1-2 slices whole grain toast (the grainier the better) + 1-2 eggs prepared anyway + ½ sliced avocado + sliced tomatoes + judicious drizzle of olive oil + fruit on the side

Of all the options listed, this is probably the one I have for breakfast the least, but not because I don’t LOVE it. Instead, it’s because eggs are a go-to protein source for me at lunch or dinner and I don’t want to overdo it. If you lean towards the savory, an egg breakfast is an incredibly healthy choice, and I find more filling than many of the other options. And don’t skip the yolk – it provides nearly half the protein and the majority of the rest of good vitamins and minerals found in eggs. Yes, it also houses most of the cholesterol, but research shows that dietary cholesterol is not nearly as big of a contributing factor to your body’s cholesterol as saturated fat.

What’s in your breakfast rotation? As long as it’s got belly filling fiber from fruits/vegetables and/or whole grains and a little protein from dairy/eggs/nuts/legumes/animal protein/etc. to make the fullness last, you’re nailing it!