FOOD WISE: Take steps to improve health with smarter food choices

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Rustic style flat bread with caramelized onions and goat cheese. Add ham for an option with meat. (Courtesy Photo)

Last week, we started a conversation about some of the health and nutrition aspects of food. I had just visited my eye doctor and was advised that I could get the same, if not better benefits to the health of my eyes by eating more kale rather than taking expensive “eye” vitamins.

We also talked about some of the main ways that we endanger our own health with the food choices we make. Just to refresh your memory, those poor choices include: Consuming too many calories, eating portions of food that are too large, lack of water intake, consuming the wrong kinds of foods – i.e. foods laden with chemicals, processed foods, foods containing “bad” fats, refined white sugar, not consuming enough of the right kinds of foods – i.e. fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, particularly ones with lots of fiber and waiting too long to eat between meals. You may notice an obvious connection about these factors. They are ones we typically associate with weight loss. However, great byproducts of adopting the proper choices is not only lower body mass, but also lower blood pressure and cholesterol, clearer, healthier and younger looking skin, greater mental clarity, more energy, less joint pain and a lowered opportunity for diseases like type II diabetes. Might be worth making six small changes, huh?

I like the idea of starting with one change and building from there. An easy place to start is drinking more water. You can easily make that change without incurring any extra expense. When I was first trying to adopt this habit in my life, I would trick myself into it. Make deals with myself. For example, I would tell myself that I couldn’t have a drink I wanted, like iced tea, until I drank three glasses of water. Then, another glass of tea after the next three waters. (Yes, I felt like I just needed to set up a sleeping cot in the bathroom for a while.) Once you get a handle on the first change, then you can tackle another and another, until your life and health is made over.

I bet I know what you’re thinking…. “%&*))@# that Chef Reneé.” I know, right? Being bad is more fun. The actress, Kirstie Alley, once said that she’d had a lot of fun getting fat but it was time to work her fat ass off. What? I didn’t say it, she did. Eating a big ‘ol bag of Cheetos with a Dr Pepper chaser is fun but if that’s part of your everyday life, you are hurting more than just your waistline.

So, here’s the thing…if we know what we should do then why do we most often keep making the wrong decisions over and over? What keeps us stuck? Habit. It’s the same thing that keeps my chickens coming back to their coop even when the door is open and they could go wherever they wanted. When it comes to food, habit is an unbelievably powerful urge. Our familiar foods give us comfort, reassurance, a sense of identity and community. Not to worry, though! There is plenty we can do to save ourselves and even reverse the damage we’ve done. Actually, it is not as difficult as one might imagine. In fact, it is amazing how quickly our miraculous bodies are capable of healing. We just have to have the courage to reverse the poor decisions we’ve been making.

You know, the Chinese have long believed in the therapeutic properties of food in the right combinations and proportions. They believe that foods are classified as yin, or cooling, yang, or heating, and neutral. Disease occurs when there’s an imbalance of the two and food plays a key role in maintaining that balance. Certainly, foods that have healing properties shouldn’t take the place of a doctor’s care, but we can take responsibility and control of our own health destiny through lifestyle changes. Proper, nutrient- dense, healing foods can prevent or forestall some diseases, or provide assistance to medications in treating others.

My own great-grandmother was a midwife and used various foods, spices and herbs in the treatment of ailments.  As a little girl, I remember the people in her town calling on her wisdom even more than the doctor.  In fact, many times even the doctor asked her advice. My mother used to tell me that when I was a baby, I developed thrush, which causes a painful white rash and bumps to break out in the mouth. My great-grandmother would take me outside and hold my mouth open so my tongue and the inside of my mouth were exposed to the sunlight. She said it would dry up the thrush. Guess what modern doctors have discovered helps to heal thrush? That’s right, vitamin D. What is a byproduct of exposure to the sun? You guessed it…vitamin D.

It’s kind of funny that we refer to these old ways of healing as old wives tales because many of them have proven to have truth to them.  We’ve come a long way to get back to the wisdom of our ancestors.  Traditionally, root doctors, midwives, medicine men, herbalists and mothers of sick children worked everyday healing miracles with common foods, plants and herbs.  Now modern medicine, which once scoffed at the notion of the curative power of food, proudly announces “new” conclusive findings linking food and eating habits with ailments and diseases. The good news is we can benefit from both of these worlds.

Of course, I’m not saying that if you eat this way or that, you’ll be automatically healed or never encounter any illness. Nor am I suggesting that you shouldn’t consult your physician about any health concerns you may have. On the contrary, consultation with your doctor is an important part of caring for your health. What I am saying is in a fight for our lives and health; we need everything possible on our side.  Obviously, there are healthy eaters who get sick and other lucky individuals with great genes who have terrible diets and never get sick.  We have better odds for overcoming illness when we eat consciously and make the best choices we can for ourselves.

One of the greatest pleasures I’ve had as a chef is to help design menus and recipes around the nutritional and health needs of my clients. For example, one client has cancer and we strive to include elements in her diet that will assist her body in this fight of a lifetime. We make sure that her diet includes lots of cancer-fighting foods such as; fish, seeds and nuts, cabbage, carrots, spinach, dried apricots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, figs, apples and turmeric. We also make sure she gets plenty of immunity-boosting foods, like kelp, to help build her body’s armor as she goes through chemo.

My grandson suffers from asthma. I find that by feeding him a diet rich with things like garlic, chilis, fish, shellfish and mustard, his symptoms are abated. If he is really having bronchial troubles, a small shot of coffee works almost as well as an inhaler as a bronchodilator. One of the best natural sore throat remedies (besides a hot toddy) that I’ve ever tried is one given to me by a Chinese restaurateur where I stopped for lunch one day, consisting of hot lemon water, as hot as can be stood, sweetened with a little sugar or simple syrup.

I could go on and on with examples of the healing properties of food, but I’ll leave you with a recipe for my favorite pizza. Don’t worry. It’s a pretty healthy option. The onions help raise good “HDL” cholesterol, lower bad “LDL” cholesterol and lower blood pressure. Plus, it’s delicious!

Chef Reneé is a classically trained, award winning chef and columnist. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens.

 Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza

(Pizza dough can be made ahead and kept in the freezer until ready to cook. Thaw completely before rolling out flat for baking.)

1 teaspoon white sugar

1 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees F)

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

olive oil, as needed

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 onions, thinly sliced

splash of sherry

2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

1. In a large bowl, dissolve sugar in warm water. Sprinkle yeast over the top, and let stand for about 10 minutes, until foamy.

2. Stir the olive oil and salt into the yeast mixture, then mix in the whole-wheat flour and 1 cup of the all-purpose flour until dough starts to come together. Tip dough out onto a surface floured with the remaining all-purpose flour, and knead until all of the flour has been absorbed, and the ball of dough becomes smooth, about 10 minutes. Place dough in an oiled bowl, and turn to coat the surface. Cover loosely with a towel, and let stand in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

3. Meanwhile, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add onions and lower heat so that onions are slowly cooking. As onions begin to dry add a couple tablespoons of water at a time and continue cooking. Add the sherry. continue cooking the onions until completely cooked through and caramelized. Set aside.

4. When the dough is doubled, tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and divide into 2 pieces for 2 thin crusts, or leave whole to make one thick crust. Form into a tight ball. Let rise for about 45 minutes, until doubled.

5. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Roll a ball of dough with a rolling pin until it will not stretch any further. Then, drape it over both of your fists, and gently pull the edges outward, while rotating the crust. When the circle has reached the desired size, place on a well-oiled pizza pan. Top pizza with a generous sprinkling of olive oil, then the cooked onions and then the goat cheese.

6. Bake for 16 to 20 minutes (depending on thickness) in the preheated oven, until the crust is crisp and golden at the edges, and cheese is melted on the top.