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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Seaweed Secret: How to Boost Minerals (without milk!)

It makes sense that sea vegetables are so high in minerals: they're literally bathing in them. Minerals from the deep-sea floor are churned up and get absorbed into the cell walls. The outcome is an edible plant chock-full of precious minerals that we just can't live without.

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Most sea vegetables have a high concentration of calcium. While many people suffer from gas, bloating and false fat from the 'Got Milk?' campaign, regular consumption of seaweed could be the secret solution to boost calcium levels, without the ill effects from drinking too much milk. Since the minerals found in seaweed are in chelated and colloidal form (meaning that they have excellent bio-availability) absorption into the cells is quick and easy.

What About Sodium?

Since seaweeds are bathing in sea salt water, it's inherent that they have a high concentration of sodium. While it's true that sodium intake needs to be monitored for those who have kidney or heart disease, good quality sodium, preferably from a superior source like seaweed or unrefined sea salt, is essential.

Most sodium consumption comes from poor quality, refined white table salt that has had all other minerals leached out (with iodine put back in after refining). Refined white table salt is not a healthy option, and is the worst offender for over consumption of sodium in this country. According to the Mayo Clinic, 77 percent of all sodium in the US diet comes from packaged and prepared foods. By far, most commercial packaged food, with the exception to high quality, organic brands, is made with cheap, white table salt that is contributing to the ill health of our country.

Seaweed and good sea salt (Celtic and Himalayan are excellent choices) are a first-rate source for sodium, as they contain up to 85 other important minerals that are co-factors for sodium's absorption and how it is utilized in the body. Sodium is one of the electrolyte minerals that makes our nerves fire and furnishes us with energy. But... other important minerals need to be present in order for sodium to work properly in the body.

So What Do I Do With Them?

Don't feel self-conscious if you have never cooked with seaweed. Unless you come from an Asian or "experimental" family, most Westerners haven't. Although seaweed can be an acquired taste for the American palate, it won't take long to take pleasure in them. You can find many varieties in dried form in the Asian section of your local natural food store. Some are milder in flavor, making them good choices for newbies.

Wakame - This is the variety used in traditional miso soup. Wakame is a dark, green leafy vegetable when re-hydrated. It has a medium to strong seaweed flavor.

Hijiki and Arame - These look virtually identical, but hijiki tends to be milder in flavor, making a great choice for an unseasoned palate. When re-hydrated, they look like little, dark, slightly bulbous strips. Great tossed into salads.

Nori - This is seaweed that has been ground and dried into sheets, most commonly used for sushi. I use nori sheets as a quick, healthy wrap for anything I have in my fridge! Veggies and avocado are my favorites.

Kombu - These thick sheets have compounds that help eliminate gas, so they are great cooked into beans and grains. After cooked, they hardly have a taste and can be hidden in foods easily. I also make chips out of them: see recipe below.

Agar Agar - This processed seaweed product is used to replace gelatin. It's an excellent thickener and is used to make a healthy Jell-o dessert called kanten (see recipe below) or as a thickener in ice creams. Agar is high in dietary fiber.

Recipes from the Sea
Food photos by Jackson D. Carson

Seaweed Salad
Traditional Asian flavors bring this seaweed favorite to life.

Hijiki Caviar
This mock caviar uses seaweed to mimic the flavors of the sea.

Strawberry-Apple Kanten
Can Jell-o really be healthy? Indeed.

Seaweed Snack Chips
A perfectly healthy alternative for the "salty and crunchy" munchies...

Seaweed Salt Booster
Use this flavored salt to enhance any dish, and as a "booster food" to get a well-rounded dose of minerals.


1. Bauman College. Natural Chef Program Instructor Slides: Sea Vegetables. Penngrove: Bauman College. 2009.
2. Balch, Phyllis, CNC. Prescription for Dietary Wellness. New York: Avery. 2003.
3. Gusman, Jill. Vegetables from the Sea. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers. 2003.
4. Mayo Clinic. Sodium: Are You Getting Too Much? 2009.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Food and Feelings - Separating "feeding from feeling" to ease food cravings and heal your life

Working with emotions is not about starving them, or their associated cravings, out. It's not about having control over them either. Contrary to our fear of them and our need to either act them out neurotically or suppress them completely, emotions have a genuine purpose, especially when it comes to food cravings and over-eating.

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When working with food issues, emotions have to be considered. Mentally "deciding" to change repetitive behavior because we have told ourselves "I will never do that again" after a binge usually doesn't change the behavior. Two hours, two days, maybe two weeks later, the emotionality of the craving comes back... no matter how hard we "think it away".

And this is good... We don't want emotions to go away. Without them we'd never grow.

The Function of Feelings

Feelings are here to inform us about what is happening inside of us. Just as the sense of touch gives us information about our external surroundings, emotions are a guide to how we are responding to that stimulus. External stimuli may be a touch on your arm, news that you just got laid off, or the sight of chocolate cake on the buffet table. Emotion is your reaction to that stimulus. Depending upon the context of the stimuli or your social conditioning towards it, you'll experience various feelings in response to its presence.

Emotions are one of our best, most basic opportunities for growth. Once we learn to experience the full range of our emotions, we can use them to guide us toward the most appropriate, fitting actions. If we are constantly overriding our internal messages, decisions become confused, and our actions impaired. The result is a life un-lived by our truest selves.

When we resist our emotions, we go toward feeding instead of feeling. With every emotion that gets denied comes an empty hole (maybe a pothole, maybe a crevasse, maybe a crater) that needs to be filled. Since we aren't filling the hole with our own experience of the emotion, we tend to fill it with "something other", namely food (or sugar, caffeine, nicotine, sex, etc). When we resist emotions, we never get to see them for what they really are: our loyal, unfaltering teachers.

The Power of "Wisdom Emotions"

With a little sleuth work, our emotions can help us understand our deeper desires and lead us toward the people and things that can help us fulfill them. But we have to take out our magnifying glasses, because emotions, as elusive as they are, are not always what they seem on surface-level. The closer we get to the starting point, the more solutions we are able to find.

The starting point of emotion -- or Wisdom Emotions as I call them -- are the deep, core feelings that underlie all surface emotions. They often run well below our radar because they're quite hard to define. Wisdom Emotions are less like emotions, but more like an initial "sense" of an emotion. I often metaphorically refer to them as the deep sea: a dark, deep foreign place filled with the unknown.

From this deep space, feelings get processed and become more like waves crashing on the shore. They have a stronger presence and are easier to define. These "secondary emotions" can now be labeled as anger, anxiety, frustration, guilt, craving, etc. Since secondary emotions are much stronger and palpable, the primary Wisdom Emotions are often left out at sea.

We often react abruptly to emotion, responding the same way day-in and day-out in a pre-programmed way, like a robot. Meanwhile the underlying lesson goes unnoticed, and craving takes hold to fill the empty space inside.

Understanding Wisdom Emotions and What Arises From Them

Here's and example of a Wisdom Emotion that tends to go awry with emotional eaters: Emptiness. Emptiness is a deep inner sense, not quite an emotion, but a "feeling sense" within. Everyone has it. It's the feeling of deep, empty space. But just as soon as this flit of a feeling starts to swim to the surface, the mind labels it, and the subtle feeling of emptiness soon turns it into something more defined, more fixed.

Emptiness has an inherent quality of fear in it. When we don't understand something or someone, can't get a grasp on something, and nothing is going our way, the fear of emptiness -- the void, the unknown -- is lurking.

This "empty" feeling often arises into these secondary emotions:
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Insecurity
  • Confusion
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
The lesson from feeling empty - or any of the above secondary emotions -- often points us in the direction we least intuitively want to go: toward letting go. It is often a clue that we need to step back and settle the mind before doing anything. As the Buddhists would say, "Don't just do something, stand there". Or from another perspective: "Let go and let God". If we are always so over-consumed by the neurotic secondary emotions of feeling empty -- like feeling helpless, hopeless and insecure -- our decisions will be made out of fear and will lack the lustrous quality of a well-intentioned plan.

There are many more examples of Wisdom Emotions and the lessons we can learn from them; all of them cues that can help us make more informed choices about what we want (and don't want) and who we want to become (and not become). We can choose to utilize them for what they are, or resist them out of difficulty, discomfort and downright pain. But with that approach, the holes get filled with mere fluff and flotsam, leaving a hollow void that can only be sealed with the wisdom of our intuition, our emotions.


1. Koenig, Karen, LCSW, M.Ed. The Food and Feelings Workbook. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books. 2007.
2. Ray, Reginald A., PhD. Meditating with the Body: Emotions and the Body. Crestone, CO: 2007
3. Ray, Reginald A., PhD. Secret of the Vajra World. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc. 2001.
4. May, Michelle, MD. Am I Hungry? What to do When Diets Don't Work. Phoenix, AZ: Nourish Books, 2005.
5. Welwood, John. Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2000.
6. Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing. New York: Bantam Books. 1981.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No More Bottled Dressings!

There are a few good reasons to say bye-bye to bottled dressings (including sugar, preservatives and the fact that making your own is so easy) but number one in my book is the commercial use of unhealthy and over-consumed oils.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why every time I ate from the salad bar at Whole Foods I would walk away gassy and bloated. I hypothesized that it must have been the veggies. But why did I feel fine when I ate the same vegetables in a salad I made at home? The last thing I suspected was the oil, because I knew that Whole Foods was against "bad" fats.

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One day after lunch at my favorite restaurant, my nutrition mentor pointed out that he could tell the place used good oils. I prodded. "How do you know?"

He replied, "Cause the food went through clean". I started to put the pieces together: Unhealthy oils might be in more places than I previously expected.

For me, canola oil is the worst offender. It causes gas, bloating and pain in my gut. And it's everywhere. Canola oil is in bottled dressings and sauces, deli food, restaurant food, cereals, nut milks, breads and snack foods. Absurdly, I found it in almost every item in the Whole Foods Mediterranean antipasti bar, and on the shelf in Italian and Caesar dressings.

My biggest complaint about canola and other over-used oils (like soybean, corn and safflower) is how processed they are. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, canola is subjected to extreme processing, including caustic refining, bleaching and de-gumming, all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. Since canola contains high amounts of omega-3 fats, which go rancid quite easily, it also gets deodorized. In my opinion, any food that needs deodorant to "freshen up" is probably one to be avoided.

For more information on the history of canola oil, check out the article The Great Con-ola written by Sally Fallon and Dr. Mary Enig.

What Oil, Then?

All oils are delicate and will eventually go rancid. The refinement process for most oils forces them into a longer shelf life and deodorizes them so that consumers will not detect the rancidity. Since many Americans want a generic "no-taste" oil to meet all their cooking needs, another big reason why oils get refined is to dull out their distinctive flavors.

I always choose unrefined oils. Unrefined oils retain their natural flavors, aromas and colors, as well as nutritional values. I have a variety of unrefined oils to choose from instead of relying on one "all purpose" oil. I use the natural flavors of the oil to enhance my dishes, rather than act as a neutral substance to fill space. There are usually a couple of unrefined choices in the baking section at natural foods stores, but if you want a larger selection, try purchasing them online. Rejuvenative Foods (my favorite raw nut butter producer) makes several raw, organic varieties. Find them at Raw Oils.

Try a variety of oils (including combos) for your homemade dressings:
  • Almond
  • Avocado
  • Extra virgin olive (mild to robust in flavor, not "light")
  • Grapeseed
  • Hazelnut
  • Sesame (raw and toasted)
  • Sunflower
  • Walnut
For cooking, I use unrefined coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, ghee and butter for their higher smoking points.

The Balancing Act

A good salad dressing should enhance, not overpower, the salad. To fulfill this mission, it needs to have a nice balance of flavors, which occurs mostly from the oil to acid ratio. Other flavor enhancers are from the aromatics (garlic and shallots) herbs, spices and sweeteners.

The oil to acid ratio usually lies somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1, depending upon the desired brightness and the acid used. Acid brightens the flavors and oil balances them. Since citrus juices are milder than most vinegars, more citrus is usually needed to get the right balance. For example, a 2:1 ratio (2 parts fat to 1 part citrus) is commonly used for citrus dressings.

Vinegars tend to be brighter, punchier and stronger than citrus due to their fermentation process. When using vinegar in dressings, less of it is generally used to get the right balance. A 3:1 or even 4:1 ratio is more commonly seen when using vinegars in dressings.

When tasting a vinaigrette for balance (whatever acid you use) it should have a tang that pops off the spoon, with a reassuring sweetness at the end to calm the excitement. If you don't get that initial zing, it probably won't be bright enough when tossed into the greens. If there is too little sweetness to balance the acid, your dressing is probably too sour for most palates.

I know that people are trying to avoid sugar in all its forms. But to get a satisfying dressing that is balanced in flavor, some sweetness is desired to steady the intensity of the acid. We're talking a teaspoon here, and most people can handle this amount of sugar. Honey is an excellent choice, but I also use maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup and palm sugar in my dressings. If I'm cooking for a diabetic, I use a little liquid stevia extract.


This is a big word for the forced blending of two substances that don't naturally come together, like oil and vinegar. In order for the oil and vinegar to hold together without separating, the dressing needs to be emulsified. Emulsification makes the dressing creamier and more palatable.

Easy Two-Step Emulsification

1. Mix all the dressing ingredients except the oil in a small dish. This would include the acid, minced aromatics, fresh or dried herbs, salt and mustard, for example.

2. Now drizzle the oil into the dish in a slow steady stream, briskly whisking the other ingredients as you drizzle. Sometimes I even whisk in just a few little drops of the oil in to get the emulsification started.

The trick is to get some air! Emulsification won't work if you whisk or blend (as with a food processor) on a horizontal plane. The whisk has to lift up into the air and swoop down into the liquid. Most newbies miss this important law of physics.

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Creamy Dressings

Creamy dressings are some of my favorite dressings for both greens and slaws, and can even be used as sauces for meats, grains and veggies. I don't think I've ever made a "creamy" dressing that included cream or milk. I get the creamy consistency with nuts, nut butters and avocados. But yogurt and eggs make good creams too.

The same balancing principles apply for creamy dressings as do with vinaigrettes. You'll want some acid in there to make it stand out, aromatics for the specific flavor direction, sweetness to balance, and something salty to make it pop. Generally, you won't need to add oil, as the fats from the nuts will do. A food processor or blender comes in handy for pureeing.

Other Additions

You'll want your dressing to go in a certain flavor direction. Does it have Mediterranean flair? Or are you going for Asian or Thai? Are you serving and Indian meal and want to include a fresh salad? Your theme is going to decide what direction your dressing goes.

To try your hand at flavor direction, see my Improv Dressing Ideas, below.

Other flavor additions include:
  • Minced garlic
  • Minced ginger
  • Minced shallot
  • Fresh or dried herbs
  • Ground spices
  • Fresh or dried chilis
  • Mustard
  • Fresh or dried fruits
  • Wine
  • Raw or toasted chopped nuts or seeds

Orange-Fennel Salad Over Mache with Maple-Dijon Dressing
Bright, juicy and full of summer flavors, this salad makes a good accompaniment to lighter fare like grilled chicken or scampi. Two acids are used, lemon and white wine vinegar in an emulsion with extra virgin olive oil. Mache is a beautiful green with leaves that resemble large sunflower sprouts...

Improvisational Salad Dressings
Following a recipe is great, but learning to make dressings on the fly with what you already have in your pantry is a lifesaver. Applying the appropriate oil-to-acid ratios, try making your own vinaigrettes or creamy dressings by following these guidelines that I use with my Natural Chef students at Bauman College...

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Top Three Reasons Why Cruciferous Vegetables Are So Good for You

People ask me, "What products do you use on your skin? It glows." I reply, "A $2 bar of soap and some olive oil". Then of course I tell them that I eat more cruciferous vegetables than anyone I know. By the look on their faces, I think they would rather me recommend a $150 bottle of skin cream!

I can tell you right now that this will not be my most popular blog entry. My video on how to prepare cruciferous vegetables is probably my least viewed, but it's actually the one I'm most proud of. Why? 'Cause I know how important these vegetables are for everyone for optimal health.

I could probably give you ten reasons why eating a 'cruciferous a day' is good for you, but an easy acronym will help remind you of the top three:

A.I.D. Antioxidants. Immunity. Detoxification.

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Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that increase glutathione production in the body. Simply put, glutathione is an antioxidant. But it's not just your average, run-of-the-mill antioxidant. Glutathione is respectfully referred to as the "Mother of All Antioxidants". The liver relies on glutathione each and every day to process the by-products of metabolism, stress, poor diet, and exogenous toxic chemicals. All of these make up our total toxic load, and over time weigh heavy on the liver's capacity to stay above water. A deficiency in glutathione has been linked with chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, heart disease, chronic infections, autoimmune disease, liver disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer's, and to very ill patients suffering from almost every kind of disease (1).

Recycle SymbolGlutathione is so important because it recycles itself and synthesizes other antioxidants in the body to be utilized properly (2). In fact, well-known antioxidants like vitamin C and E wouldn't be able to work effectively without glutathione's natural capacity for synthesizing them. (3).

But just because our bodies produce and recycle our own glutathione doesn't mean that we don't need it from outside sources. Quite the contrary: Our total toxic load, as well as genetic factors, can leave the liver's capacity for high quality production of glutathione at risk. For all the antioxidants to be functioning optimally, glutathione synthesis needs be effective inside the body through the support of foods known to increase glutathione production.


Cruciferous vegetables can be called "food for the immune system". Immune cells rely on antioxidants and the liver's detoxifying function to quell the damaging affects of free radicals, but the body has many ways to prevent disease. One of which is through the help of certain compounds (like the ones in cruciferous vegetables) that have the potential to suppress the development of certain cancers by activating genes with the specific job of suppressing tumor growth in precancerous cells (4). With tumor-suppressor genes "switched on", abnormal cells are "switched off" before they have the opportunity to form into a cancerous tumor. Sulphoraphane is a key player in this process.


Cruciferous vegetables contain sulfur compounds. An optimal supply of sulfur-containing molecules is needed to detoxify many of the substances we encounter on a day-to-day basis (5). Sulfur is a "sticky" mineral that attracts toxins to it and holds them in place to be eliminated. It aids the liver's second stage in detoxification, which transforms the toxins from fat-soluble to water-soluble. This is a necessary process that allows the toxins to be disposed of properly through the urine. Without this, many of the toxins that have been released from their holding cells may become even more harmful than the original toxic substance (6). Again, glutathione is a major player (if not thee major player) in the liver's detoxification process. Because of its ability to detox the body in such a way, glutathione has yet another name: "The Master Detoxifier".

So Where Can I Get Me Some?

My rule of thumb is 'one a day'. This isn't really hard. Really. There are a handful of vegetables in the cruciferae family (referred to as cruciferae or brassica interchangeably). I have them memorized, and each time I'm at the market, I grab at least a few varieties:
  • Arugula
  • Bok Choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collards
  • Mustard Greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnips
  • Watercress
Like you, I prefer some over others. Kale, watercress and arugula are my staples, but since each of the above contain varying amounts of antioxidants, immune-boosters and detoxifiers, I try to incorporate each and every one of them into my diet as much as I possibly can.

As far as cooking goes, the Linus Pauling Institute through Oregon State University recommends to eat these precious vegetables raw most of the time. Cooking in liquid, even steaming, can leach out the healthful compounds and even inactivate some of them. This is my preference too; I like my cruciferae uncooked. Contrary to popular belief, cruciferous vegetables may be less gas-producing for many individuals if consumed in raw form.

'One a Day' Grab and Go Ideas

See my cruciferous recipes below, but here are three staple ideas of what to do with your plethora of cruciferae waiting in the fridge:

Smoothies: If you have a high-speed blender, greens of all kinds can easily be disguised inside a rich and sweet smoothie. I was making these before I had a Vita-Mix, so any blender will work, but expect a little more "chew" if you don't have a high-speed brand. Make sure you add enough sweetener (frozen berries, honey, stevia) and something to cream it up (avocados, coconut) so that it's a sweet, creamy experience you'll crave again and again.

Raw Slaws: I almost always have a Pyrex bowl of thinly sliced cabbage and other hearty vegetables mixed together undressed. I have one or two pre-made dressings ready to go in the fridge. I toss the cabbage in with some arugula or watercress and some protein and have a satisfying meal that's quick and easy.

Spinner Salads: I have three salad spinners full of different kinds of cruciferous greens in my fridge at all times. The greens are washed, chopped and ready to be made into crisp salads at the drop of a hat. I keep the delicate greens like watercress and arugula in a separate spinner, heartier varieties like kale and collards in another, and miscellaneous greens like mustard and kohlrabi greens in their own. Even tougher greens like kale can be made into a salad by massaging with olive oil and salt to break down the tough fibers (see Massaged Kale Salad below).


Arugula and Goat Cheese Salad with Apricot-Citrus Prawns
An elegant way to get your greens, orange and lemon coalesce with fresh apricots to top tender baby arugula and sauteed prawns. Soft goat cheese is blended with toasted pine nuts and dried apricots for a sweet, sour and nutty kick. Tempeh can easily substitute the prawns...

Broccoli CrunchBroccoli Crunch
Does anyone else here love Whole Foods' Broccoli Crunch as much as I? Broccoli, toasted cashews, turkey bacon and currants come together in this comforting salad with a crunch. My version is a little healthier than the original and it tastes pretty close to the real thing...

Massaged Kale Salad (and you don't even have to be certified in massage to make this!)
Brigitte Mars
Ready in an instant, this simple salad from my friend and colleague Brigitte Mars welcomes additions like avocado, sliced shiitakes, or any other vegetable you have in the fridge...

1. Hyman, Mark, MD. UltraWellness. Glutathione: The Mother of All Antioxidants. 2009.
2. Murray, Michael, ND. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2001.
3. The Glutathione Experts. What is Glutathione? Biochemistry and Metabolism. 2009.
4. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. LPI Research Newsletter. Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer Risk. 2009.
5. Hass, Elson, MD. Staying Healthy with Nutrition. New York: Celestial Arts. 2006.
6. Livers, Erin. Spring Cleanse and Rejuvenation Program: Stage II Liver Detoxification. 2008.
7. Perricone, Nicolas, MD. Daily Perricone. Boosting the Immune System with Cruciferous Vegetables. 2008.

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