Thursday, August 27, 2009

Product Review: Nature's Path Organic

About a month and a half ago I received a marketing email - presumably sent to a wide range of gluten-free bloggers - from Nature's Path Organic. The subject line read: "Avoid gluten, not nutrients, with Nature's Path gluten-free offerings." The email went on to explain that many packaged GF foods, while gluten-free, are also nutrient deficient because of the extra processing that goes into making them taste (hopefully) like their gluten counterparts. It continued: " choosing gluten-free foods that are whole grain and organic, you and your readers can be assured you're getting the nutrients you need, including the fiber and B vitamins which are often missing, and avoiding not only gluten, but pesticides and chemicals too." You can guess what comes next: the pitch for the Nature's Path Organic line of GF products.

Normally, I'm wary of such emails, and of companies making such claims. The point at which the packaging (or marketing email, in this case) starts making health claims is the point at which I begin to wonder why such claims are necessary. After all, the fruits and veggies in the produce department don't go around with tiny billboards touting their various attributes. They just sit in their bins, fresh and (ideally) local and inherently nutritious.

The health claims we find on a wide range of packaged foods tend to shift with the times, and from my anecdotal observation in the supermarket over the last many months, I'd have to wager that "omega 3 fatty acids and DHA" are the claim du jour. Omega 3's are also known as the essential amino acids, and though they can be obtained from a variety of sources, they are most abundant in fish (especially oily, cold water fish). But disturbingly, at least to me, you see these omega 3 / DHA claims popping up on the boxes of foods that normally wouldn't have such nutritional components. They've been artifically added at some point during the manufacturing process. Which brings me to reason #1 why products make health claims: to tout the additives that make their food "healthier" than it would otherwise be on its own. (Calcium- and omega-3 fortified orange juice is an example that jumps immediately to mind.)

Of course, there are other, more innocuous reasons why products make health claims: for one, they might want to tout what's already in a product. Simply by explicitly mentioning an inherent health or nutrition attribute these products gain a marketing edge, and if you're really feeling kind, you might say that they also serve as a form of passive public education for consumers who might not already know, or who might not turn to the ingredients and nutrition labeling (or know how to read it if they did).

Lastly, there's the matter of Keeping up with the Jones's. As some companies begin to start making health claims, competitors (who might not normally be inclined to make such claims) are almost forced to follow suit...because if a consumer sees them side by side on a supermarket shelf, do you go with the plain old product, or the product with the mega nutrition and health benefits?

Which at long last brings me back around to Nature's Path Organic. This a company that I'd place more toward the "altruistic" end of the health claims spectrum. I've been a fan of their products since long before I ever received the marketing email one and a half months ago. As a company, they're committed to sustainability, the environment, and human health. All causes near and dear to yours truly. Their products are also organic, they have a dedicated gluten-free line of foods, and perhaps more than anything else, I was attracted by the sheer simplicity of their ingredients. For example, the Organic Corn Flakes contain nothing more than organic corn meal, organic juice concentrate, and sea salt. That's it. I've been eating both that cereal, and the Honey'd Corn Flakes for quite a while, and when visiting relatives in NY, I've tried some of the other Nature's Path Organic GF cereals that family has had on hand for me as an easy GF breakfast.

In the wake of that email from Nature's Path, I did request some additional product samples to round out my perspective on their GF line of foods. Sticking with the cereals, I tried the Whole O's, which look identical to a Cheerio. However, rather than being made from oats, as you might expect, they're made from organic corn and whole grain rice. Although they're a bit harder/crunchier than other similar cereals, the taste is still great. I also tried the Crispy Rice cereal, which are similar to, but not exactly like, Rice Krispies. They're made with organic whole grain rice, and are very tasty. Texturally, they're a tweener, residing somewhere between true crispy rice and puffed rice. Our almost-9-month old daughter, Marin, likes to munch on them, and Kelli made some into a delicious batch of rice cereal treats (we'd recommend mixing them with a "true" crispie rice such as Erewhon's GF version, to ensure a texture and flavor in line with what you'd expect from a rice cereal treat).

Lastly, I sampled two types of the EnviroKidz Organic Crispy Rice Bar: chocolate flavor, and peanut butter flavor. For me, both bars had the perfect consistency - not gooey, firm, but not too firm. The chocolate and peanut flavors, while apparent, weren't bold, smack-you-in-the-face strong. The flavors were more subtle. Nutritionally, the bars had just 7g of sugar each, which is about one third the amount of sugar you'd typically find in a serving of fruit on the bottom yogurt.

(Note: The company also makes a line of GF frozen waffles which I have not tried.)

My final assessment: on the spectrum of gluten-free specialty foods, the Nature's Path Organic line of cereals and rice cereal bars rates pretty highly...for taste, texture, nutrition, integrity of ingredients, and company ethic. The cereals in particular will maintain their place in my rotation of GF breakfast cereals in the pantry. Enjoy!

- Pete

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why didn't I think of that?

Thanks to a friend's Facebook status update, I was alerted to the fact that the fast food world is abuzz with news of KFC's Double Down sandwich. The sandwich features two slices of cheese, two strips of bacon, and KFC's special sauce. Then get this...instead of using bread for the bun, the sandwich is packed between two deep-fried chicken breasts! It's literally a meat sandwich - meat (bacon) sandwiched between two layers of...meat (chicken). Holy caloric caper Batman! Apparently, for now it's being field tested only in Nebraska and Rhode Island.

While I'm not generally a fan of fast food, think of the implications for the gluten-free community (please - PLEASE - sense the tongue in cheek sarcasm here). All these years, Kelli and I have been working to perfect our gluten-free breads, or wrapping a hamburger in leaf lettuce. And to think, KFC had the answer...use meat! This has the potential to take gluten-free/low carb/Atkins diet sandwiches to unbelievable extremes of protein (and calorie) overload.

Umm...thanks, but no thanks. And in the meantime, coming tomorrow on NGNP: a review of the Nature's Path Organic family of GF products. Until then!

- Pete

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Foto: Sorghum, In Situ

I spent the first three days of this week in Kansas on assignment visiting two nature preserves - one a native tallgrass prairie in eastern KS, and the other a restored prairie that was once a working ranch in western KS. Driving between the two, I passed acres upon acres of field crops...plenty of irrigated corn, some wheat and barley, as well as some hay. But there was another abundant crop that was previously unfamiliar to me: grain sorghum (also known as milo in some parts of the U.S.).

As gluten-free foodies, sorghum can be a staple of our flour used as a component in baking, as the base for GF beer, you name it. But how often do we make the connection to what this grain looks like in the field? Until I came face to face with it in Kansas, I certainly hadn't.

Sorghum is common in Africa, and today is cultivated worldwide, especially in North America, South America, and Australia (beyond its original African scope). Because it's a highly drought tolerant species, it grows especially well in places that are too dry for corn. That's why the United States' sorghum belt runs from Texas up into South Dakota...and straight through western Kansas where I saw it. (Kansas is in fact the top sorghum growing state in the nation.)

Depending on your source (such as the ag department at Purdue), anywhere from 7.7 to 18 million acres of sorghum are grown in the U.S. each year. There are five primary varieties, and while the field I photographed was young green sorghum, mature sorghum takes on beautiful colors ranging from golden tan to rusty red. According to the National Sorghum Producers, sorghum ranks as the fifth most important cereal crop in the world (behind rice, wheat, corn and barley). It's used to feed animals, it's used to make biofuels such as ethanol, and of course, it's used to feed people. As a side environmental benefit, according to the USDA (as well as a Nature Conservancy wildlife biologist I met with in Kansas), sorghum has the highest wildlife value of any monoculture field grain crop.

The next time you're sipping (or chugging) a RedBridge or baking with sorghum flour, hopefully you'll have just a little deeper appreciation for this great grain of the gluten-free world. I know I do.

- Pete

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Teachable Moments

Teachable moments are those occurences in daily life when we have an of-the-moment opportunity to seize a situation and impart a lesson or knowledge to someone else. President Obama recently brought the phrase onto the radar screen of the national lexicon when he attempted to pounce upon the race-infused debate about the Massachusetts cop and Harvard professor and make it his own teachable moment. (I'm not so sure this was the best example of a teachable moment, or how to take advantage of one...)

Within the gluten-free world, on the other hand, I'm often faced with teachable moments many times when dining out. My recent Xterra race in Nebraska was a perfect example. The post-race lunch on-site was BBQ provided by a local joint...pulled pork, sauce, potato chips, pickles, and fresh iced tea.

As I came to the front of the line, I asked to see the container for the BBQ sauce so I could read the ingredients. "It's BBQ sauce," the server told me. "Yes, I know," I replied politely. And here was my tailor-made teachable moment. I could have said, "I have Celiac Disease and I need to make sure the sauce doesn't have gluten in it." That, in turn, would likely have been followed up by one or both of two possible questions from the server: What is Celiac Disease? What is gluten? I then could have dutifully responded in kind, and I could claim my teachable moment victorious.

But I didn't seize the moment. Instead, I said, "I have a food allergy and need to make sure this food is safe to eat." Why did I take that route? Because sometimes I don't want to be an ambassador. Sometimes, I'm just a guy who's hungry and wants to eat. I want to find out if the food is safe for me to eat, and if the answer is yes, I just want to eat it. No complications or delays needed.

People don't bat an eyelash when you say "food allergy." It's a case of "enough said." They don't need the specifics. On the other hand, when you start dropping bombs like "Celiac Disease" and "gluten," which aren't necessarily household words in all parts of the country (yet), you can hear the record skip and the room go quiet. But not at Xterra BOLT in Nebraska. In response to my food allergy comment, the server simply said, "Oh yes, we don't want you to get sick or have a medical emergency." She handed me the bottle, I confirmed that the sauce was safe, I stepped out of line, and found a picnic table to eat my lunch.

But why not seize the teachable moment? Am I really so impatient at times? Sure, I was hungry and tired after the race, but surely I could have found the inner reserves to change my word choice and answer a probable question or two. There's more at work, though.

When it comes to teachable moments with Celiac Disease and gluten (and this applies to lots of other scenarios), there's a social reluctancy. I hesitate to say "social fear," which may be too strong a term. It's a social reluctancy of disrupting the flow. I'm reminded of a somewhat recent Visa commercial in which all the customers are rapidly swiping their credit cards, flawlessly executing their consumer purchases without disrupting the flow. Then a customer has the nerve (!) to pull out cash (cash! our primary form of currency!), and everything comes to a disruptive, jarring, screeching halt.

Standing in line for BBQ at that race, me and my teachable moment were that customer with cash. Behind me, a line of racers and spectators and volunteers stretched across the lawn, all waiting for their food. Who was I to disrupt this lunch line that moved through the BBQ serving stations with a speed and efficiency that would have made Henry Ford and his assembly line proud. As I neared the front of the line and the impending moment of opportunity loomed, I knew - maybe even dreaded, in some small way - that I'd be disrupting and slowing that smooth flow. So I balked at my teachable moment.

Yes, there are times when a man just wants to eat. But there are also times, for better or worse, when teachable moments aren't quite the right moment (ahem, beer on the White House lawn, anyone?). Maybe the shortcoming is mine - perhaps I need more patience, or greater willingness to be disruptive and seize the moment. Only by doing that will we one day reach a time and a threshold of awareness when teachable moments, at least in the world of CD and gluten, become a thing of the past.

- Pete

Race Recap: Xterra BOLT, NE

It feels like lately every other post is a race recap. It's not actually quite that bad, but it's getting close. That's because I'm deep in the midst of the summer race season, which is particularly intense this year (thanks to a book project I'm working on). I'm basically racing every two weeks - race, spend half a week recovering, a week resuming my training, a half a week tapering in advance of the next race, and then repeat the process.

My most recent competition took me to the Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska. (Read: 500-plus miles and 7-plus hours of driving to get there from Boulder, Colorado...) From a gluten-free nutrition standpoint, there were few surprises here - I stuck to my usual dietary plan as enumerated in previous posts. But I did have a comical moment the night before the race.

For my pre-race dinner, it turns out that there was an Outback Steakhouse less than two miles from the race packet pick up location in Lincoln. Having successfully eaten gluten-free there many times in the past, I decided that was my best bet for contamination-free dining. However, I can't remember the last time I ate at an Outback without Kelli. (She stayed behind in Colorado for this race...) Whenever we go to Outback, we share a meal: salad with tangy tomato dressing, garlic mashers, steamed veggies, and the Outback Special steak.

It had been a while since our last visit, and apparently Outback had modified its portion sizing since then. For the Outback Special steak, the server offered me the option of a 6oz, 8oz, or 11oz portion. Since it was just me dining solo, and since I knew that an "official" serving size of red meat is just 4oz, I opted for the smallest option: the 6oz steak. When my plate came out from the kitchen, I almost laughed out loud. Compared to typically monstrous restaurant-sized portions, the 6oz steak was comically tiny. It was a miniscule sliver of meat sitting on a giant white plate.

The chef in the kitchen must have felt bad about that juxtaposition because - and I say this without exaggeration - he literally filled the entire balance of the plate with my garlic mashers. We're talking more or less a dinner plate worth of potatoes. I don't know whether to openly admit or not that I polished off the whole thing...I mean, I had a raging hunger from the long drive, and I needed to carbo-load for the race, right?

As for the race itself, the season continues to get better. After an average to good swim in Branched Oak Lake, I cranked hard on the mountain bike, passing racers and moving up my position. I nabbed a few more spots on the run, and crossed the finish line in 5th place in my division (out of 20 starters and 18 finishers). Importantly, I scored some much needed points for the Xterra series, and I continue to grow stronger as a racer.

- Pete

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Foto: Country-Style Ribs with Homemade BBQ Sauce

The U.S. is often described as a melting pot. My family background (Belgian, Sicilian and Polish) is certainly a testament to that fact. One result is that much of the food we eat is borrowed (and often, Americanized) from other cultures' cuisines - think chicken pad thai, lasagna, croissants, and a very long list of others.

For me, though, one quintessentially American food is barbeque. Sure, other countries (especially in South America) do their own version of barbeque. But in the U.S., you find a variety of signature styles that vary by region, from Texas to Memphis to the Carolinas.

From a gluten-free foodie perspective, barbeque sauce is a mixed bag. There are some great sauces out there, but there also plenty of sauces that contain gluten (not to mention artificial sweeteners, chemicals and preservatives). This inspired us to create our own BBQ sauce from scratch and it's - how shall I say - tasty! Earlier this week we used it to marinade (and then baste while grilling) pork loin country-style ribs. Phenomenal. Here's how to make it:

1/3 - 1/2 cup ketchup
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
1/2 tbsp ground black pepper
1/2 - 1 tsp - 1 tbsp molasses (you can vary this quite a bit!)

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl. Enjoy!

(To make the country-style ribs, preheat a grill to medium to medium-low heat. (Because of the bone in ribs, it takes longer to cook through, plus country-style ribs are very thick with meat, so you want to grill "low and slow.") Marinade the ribs in the sauce, and baste regularly while grilling until done.)

- Pete

Monday, August 10, 2009

Recipe: Salsa Verde

Do you always drive the same way to work each morning, never deviating from your route? Do you always order the same dish at a certain restaurant, because it's your favorite? Do you always maintain the same morning routine (shower, shave, floss, brush, etc.)? We're all, to greater and lesser degrees, creatures of habit, myself included.

I used to think that was a bad thing. To me, habits were repetitive (no surprise there), monotonous, boring. As a result, I'd intentionally drive a different way to get somewhere, even if I had a "standard" route that would have been just as easy to take. Or I'd change up the routine in some way that would break the habit, if only for a day, and if only to prove to myself that I wasn't a total slave to my habits.

But habits can be - and often are - a very good thing. Think personal hygene, or proper form in a sport, or checking your blind spot before changing lanes while driving. I had this not so stunning revelation in rock climbing. There, Kelli and I religiously practice the same habits - no matter how routine, how easy or difficult, how dangerous or seemingly safe a given climb, we always do the same safety checks; always tie our figure eight knots the same way; always check out belays the same way; always rig our rappels the same way.

That's because in emergency situations (high stress scenarios) our minds revert back to habit, to reflex. We don't have time to think, or we're too flustered to think rationally, so we do what comes naturally, and what comes naturally are habits. "You play the way you practice," they say in sports. If we don't drill the right safety checks every time, if we don't make them habit, then when the going gets rough we might literally make a fatal error. A good habit can be a life saver in rock climbing.

But enough with the heavy stuff. This is a story about food habits, and about Chipotle in particular. No where when dining out am I a creature of habit more so than here. Although I've occasionally been known to change it up a bit, 9 times out of 10 my order is a slam dunk: burrito bowl, no beans, extra rice, barbacoa, a healthy dose of salsa verde, a bit of salsa rojo, and some lettuce.

The salsa verde (aka "green sauce" in English), in particular, is part of what makes the dish for me. The foundation of any salsa verde is tomatillo (pronounced toe-mah-TEE-yo). The literal Spanish translation means "small tomato." In Mexican cuisine, tomatillo refers specifically to the tomatillo, a relative of the tomato. The bright green fruit is contained within a characteristic paper-like husk, and imparts both wonderful green color and a slightly tart taste to recipes.

Inspired by Chipotle's salsa verde, I've been wanting to make our own version for a while. And when our supermarket recently began stocking some great looking tomatillos in the produce section, we knew it was time to strike while the iron was hot. Tomatillos are usually cooked before turning them into salsa - either by broiling them in a roasting pan in the oven, or by boiling them in water on the stovetop. I prefer to roast them on the grill to impart a little smoky flavor to the salsa.

Here's how to make our version of Salsa Verde:

5 tomatillos
1 jalapeno pepper, 1/2 of seeds removed
1/2 - 2/3 cup sweet yellow onion
1/3 - 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
juice of 1 lime
Dash each of salt, pepper, ground cumin

1. Remove the paper husks and stems from the tomatillos, and roast the bright green fruits directly on a grill grate over high heat. Periodically turn the tomatillos to get a little bit of char on each side.
2. Add the tomatillos and all remaining ingredients to a food processor. Pulse/blend just until pureed and well mixed.

Retain more seeds from the jalapeno for a spicier salsa, and discard more seeds for a milder salsa. Because the tomatillos were just roasted, the salsa will be warm. It can be served this way, or pop it in the refrigerator to chill the salsa (our preference). Enjoy!

- Pete

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Foto: Carnitas

In my post about the Xterra Mountain Cup race at Beaver Creek, I wrote about how my dinner the night before the race included carnitas. "Carnitas" literally means "little meats" in Spanish, and most often refers to some form of spicy shredded pork, which is how we like to make it. It's a versatile dish - you can use it as the filling for tacos (as I did before Xterra), in corn tamales, or simply over rice (as in the photo below).

Here's how to make it:

One 2-3 pound pork roast, quartered
1 onion, quartered
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
Salt and pepper

1. Place all the ingredients in a large pot, and fill with enough water to cover those ingredients, plus a few extra cups.
2. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and boil uncovered for two and a half hours, until the pork shreds easily.
3. Remove the pork from the broth, let cool a bit, and then shred. (I like to use two forks for the shredding.)
4. Blend the broth with an immersion blender.
5. Season the shredded pork with 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, and a dash each of salt and pepper. Toss to coat.
6. Pour some of the reserved broth over the meat. Stir and serve!

- Pete

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Race Recap: Redemption at the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, NY

Coming into transition at the end of the 40k bike at the 2009 Cayuga Lake Triathlon

The rumble of thunder woke me from my sleep around 5:30am on Sunday morning, August 2. My alarm was set to go off in a few minutes anyway, but all I could think was, Great, there goes the swim leg. Later that morning, I was racing in the Olympic distance Cayuga Lake Triathlon, outside of Ithaca, New York in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of the state. Kelli, Marin and I were in town for her dad's 70th birthday, which we celebrated the previous afternoon. With the race the same weekend, I couldn't resist giving it a go - after all, it was in Kelli's hometown, and our shared stomping grounds from our college days. I was also looking for redemption - after a somewhat disappointing race the Xterra Mountain Cup in Beaver Creek, Colorado, I was looking to get my summer racing back on track.

Unlike the Xterra race series, which is off-road, the Cayuga Lake Tri is a traditional on-road triathlon, with a 1.5k swim, 40k bike, and 10k run. Thankfully, the early clap of thunder never repeated itself, and at 8:00am, the race began as scheduled. (If lightning and thunder continued, race organizers would have been forced to cancel the swim and shift to a biathlon format, with only a bike and run.) I was in the first wave of swimmers - Men 30 to 49 - who set off into the water on an out-and-back swim.

Though the lightning and thunder stayed away, stormy weather clamped down over the race, and we swam into a headwind and rough, choppy waves. The strongest swimmers seemed unfazed by this fact, but most of us - including me - had a hard time finding our least for the first 750 meters until we could make a 180-degree turn around a giant yellow buoy and head for shore with the wind and waves at our back. I had hoped to do the swim in sub-28 minutes, improving upon my personal best time from the Beaver Creek race. Instead, I came out of the water in 34 minutes, a minute or two slower than my time at Buffalo Creek earlier this season. It wasn't what I hoped for, but it was a relatively small time deficit I knew I could make up for on the bike.

Biking is typically my strongest leg of the triathlon. I'm competent in three disciplines, but if you forced me to choose a forte, this is it. However, the overwhelming majority of my biking is on a mountain bike, even more so this year when I've been focusing almost exclusively on the Xterra races. What this meant was that I didn't have a good sense for how fast I could crank out the 40k on the hilly bike course that went up Cayuga Lake to Sheldrake Point and back down to Taughannock State Park.

I did know, on the other hand, that I had a great machine underneath me. Leading up to the race, I contacted Glenn Swan, an accomplished cyclist (read: multiple national and masters championships), uber-friendly guy, and super knowledgeable founder/owner of Swan Cycles (607.277.0495) in Ithaca. Glenn set me up with a Fuji Aloha TT/tri bike for the race, which was a joy to ride. This bike is FAST.

Coming out of the water a little later than I had wanted meant that I had a fair number of racers ahead of me when I began the bike. This, in many ways, is how I like to race - I can set my sights on someone ahead of me, reel them in, and pass them. Then, I set my sights on the next target. One by one, I ticked off riders and improved my position. By now, a cold, steady rain was falling. Other than the slick road conditions, which made us all wary on the course's few tight turns, these were good race conditions for me. I much prefer cold and wet to hot and sunny. In the intense heat, my body tends to shut down, as was painfully obvious at Beaver Creek.

Without a good gauge for just how fast I thought I'd ride, I conservatively estimated sub 1:30, and hoped for sub 1:15. Instead, I cranked out the bike leg of the race in 1:11, turning in the 5th fastest bike split for my age group, and the 32nd fastest bike split out of 191 racers overall. Sweet.

The 10k run was a gorgeous 2-lap route up to the base of Taughannock Falls - at 215 feet it's the tallest in New York State - and back to the finish area along the shores of Cayuga Lake. As I set out on the run, I suddenly heard a large crowd of people cheering my name. Much of the family in town for my father in law's birthday - brothers and sisters in law, nieces, nephews - came out to watch me race. It was just the motivational boost I needed. My legs were feeling heavy, probably because I had given so much on the bike.

When I came around for my second lap, they were all lined up alongside the corral, and I ran down the line giving high fives to everyone. Another lap later, and I was crossing the finish line. My total time was 2:41:38 - good enough for 6th in my age group, and 56/191 overall, just outside the top 25%. Amazingly in my age group, places 1 through 6 were separated by just 13.5 minutes, and places 4-6 by less than 6 minutes. If I could have given just a little more on the run - just 30 seconds or so per mile - or completely the swim just a smidgen faster, I could have been in contention for a podium finish in my age group.

All in all, it was a race defined by one word: redemption. My spirits are lifted, I'm feeling motivated, and I'm eagerly anticipating the next race, which is unbelievably less than two weeks away: the Xterra BOLT in Nebraska. The race season continues...

For a few extra pictures from the Cayuga Lake Triathlon, check out my website here.

- Pete