Homegrown Paleo

In Disney’s movie Frozen, Elsa famously asked Anna, ‘Do you wanna build a snowman?’ For me, better lyrics would be ‘Do you wanna build a farm?’ and my answer would be a resounding ‘YES!’ Ever since I read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve longed to build my own ‘Polyface’ farm. I dream of happy chickens laying eggs and pecking about their mobile pens, fat pigs (Mangalitsas, of course) foraging for acorns in the oak woods, sleek cows grazing in lush pastures, orchards and vines hanging with fruit, and colorful veggies and herbs in neat, tended rows in the garden. To me, it would be Eden itself, but it isn’t where my life is right now or may ever be.

Homegrown Paleo coverThat dream was rekindled with the arrival the other day of a review copy of The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Healthy Food by Diana Rodgers with Andrew Rodgers. This beautiful book is misnamed as a cookbook, although it is certainly that, with over 100 delicious gluten-free, farm-to-table recipes, arranged seasonally as the crops come in. The second title tells the bigger story — it is a complete guide to how to care for and manage livestock, keep bees, build coops and hutches, and grow your own paleo foods, whether you have a patio container garden or some land. She gives sustainable farm layouts suitable for as little as 1/8 acre or 1/4 acre, or 1/2 acre or a full acre. I have a full acre, actually a bit more, and don’t think it hasn’t got me to thinking about what I could do in my backyard!

The paleo recipes, alone, are worth the price of the book even if you have no ‘Green-Acres-is-the-place-to-be; farm-livin’-is-the-life-for-me!’ aspirations. But if, like me, you do have a just a touch of a ‘keep-Manhattan-just-give-me-that-countryside’ streak in you, you must get this book!

Primal Cravings

Among the many paleo cookbooks that have come out lately–and there have been dozens with the rise of interest in eating in sync with our ancient genome–one that I really like is Primal Cravings: Your Favorite Foods Made Paleo by Megan McCullough Keatley and Brandon Keatley.

Primal Cravings book cover recipes are good, solid nutritional takes on such beloved comfort foods as chicken noodle soup (made with zucchini noodles) and BLT’s made with a beautiful lattice of bacon in place of the bread. And on the subject of one of my favorite foods, there’s Bacon Ten Ways. (Ten!) With sections on meats and mains, sides and salads, snacks, sweets, and even breakfast options, it will be a worthy addition to the paleo or carb conscious reader’s cookbook shelf.

There are 125 recipes that are grain-free, gluten-free, dairy-optional, nutrient-dense to choose from along with cooking tips, shopping tips, and a short treatise on the paleo/primal philosophy that will be most helpful for newbies considering this lifestyle choice.

Some of the recipes (mostly the baked goods) do rely for decent mouth feel and sweetness on tapioca flour, maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, concentrated apple juice and other fairly carby–albeit gluten free and technically paleo–foods that for someone who really needs to follow a low-carb path to correct significant metabolic disruption might be too much.  The caveat, then, is that if you fall into that category, just put your common sense hat on and eschew those offerings until you get into better metabolic control. Those few aside, the lion’s share, far and away the majority of the recipes are perfectly suitable for the paleo practitioner and low-carb devotee alike. On my bookshelf, it’s a winner!

Practical Paleo

Seems there has been nothing short of a deluge of paleo diet books coming out lately and most of them are quite good, but one came across my desk that I think will prove exceedingly helpful to folks trying to adopt the paleo lifestyle in a modern world. It’s called Practical Paleo and the name says it all.

practical-paleo

Here’s why I think it stands out.

Back when we wrote Protein Power (in 1996) and Protein Power LifePlan (in 2000) we felt that we had laid out exactly why it is important to human health and fitness to follow a diet more in sync with our paleolithic biochemistry. And particularly with the LifePlan, we thought we’d presented a low-carb diet in a way that would allow people to individualize their levels of commitment to making the change from the high-everything-American-diet to one ever closer to the paleolithic ideal, by laying out not just the whys, but the hows in our three levels: Hedonist (only carb restriction), Dilettante (paleo-lite–ie, allowing alcohol, some non-gluten grains, organic dairy, and a little artificial sweetener), and Purist (true paleo low carb.)

We got mountains of letters (email and snail) singing the praises of these two books. People would invariably say ‘Now I understand! I’m convinced! I believe! So tell me what to eat!’ Oddly, we thought we had.

Granted, we didn’t offer specific meal plans in Protein Power; I resisted doing so for years, because treating thousands of patients taught me that one size rarely fits all where personal taste is concerned. I can’t tell you how many ‘I don’t like that’ and ‘I can’t eat that’ comments we’ve gotten over the years, when we worked to help patients devise meal plans for themselves in our practice. For instance, we had one patient years ago, who would eat no sources of protein except shrimp and egg whites.

Bowing to the requests for plans–although I still wanted to give people freedom of choice in what they ate–in the LifePlan, we presented mix and match meal suggestions. Here, the dieter was directed to combine a protein of choice with any of various bundles of fruits, veggies, and (depending on which level of commitment) grains that we had scaled in portion to add up to the recommended carbohydrate intakes for intervention (treatment level), transition, and maintenance living. But the letters kept coming requesting specific meals. Clearly there are many people who want to be taken by the hand and told step by step, meal by meal, what to eat, especially when becoming acquainted with a new way of doing something.

So, in response, in 2003, we wrote The 30-Day Low Carb Diet Solution, which was truly a few pages of science (just the merest gist) and 30 days worth of low carb breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and the recipes to cook them. (Heads up disclosure: the approach laid out in 30-DLCDS is not paleo. It’s purely and only low carb, which is a great step in the right direction of getting healthier, but not the non plus ultime diet for humans, since it contains neo foods as well.)

But as we have written so often over the last 15 or 20 years, our firm belief is that the closer you come to the paleo diet your ancestors thrived on, the better you’ll thrive. So, for those of you who have been considering going paleo, for those of you who are trying it but not sure about how to make it work for a family, for those who want the practical how-to-do-its, Practical Paleo offers that and more. Diane Sanfilippo gives you 30-day meal plans tailored to meet specific goals, whether you’re aiming for fat loss, to enhance athletic performance, adopt a squeaky clean paleo life style, or recover from illness. The book offers how-to instructions for making your own pro-biotic (fermented) foods, ghee, and bone broth; it includes tear out guides for shopping, and over 120 gluten-, grain-, legume-, dairy-, and refined sugar-free recipes.

All in all it’s a very good book. If I have a quibble with it, it is this: After a couple of decades of hands-on treatment of thousands of overweight and metabolically unbalanced patients (those with diabetes, fatty liver, and the other sequelae of insulin resistance) in our clinics, I firmly believe that the absolute number of carbohydrates–regardless of how ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome’ or ‘paleo’ they might seem–still matters in resolving these issues. Based on that I would argue with her inclusion of sweet potatoes for diabetics, because although there are some nice vitamins and minerals in there, 60 grams of carb at a sitting is still 60 grams of carb and while it might not cause much of a blip in the young and healthy and athletic, my experience is that it will derail blood sugar and insulin control in the metabolically challenged. I might be skeptical of including such concentrated sugar sources as black-strap molasses or pure maple syrup as acceptable sweeteners for folks trying not just to prevent but to turn around a metabolic Armageddon. But these are small points in a really good and helpful resource and one that will do a world of good for people who take it to heart. So give it a look. I think you’ll find it worthwhile.

Make Your Kid a Paleo Pal!

If you have adopted a paleo diet (or even a sensible, but less purist form of low carb eating) for yourself and marveled at the change in you, have you ever wondering if you should encourage your kids to adopt the same nutritional structure? The answer is: of course you should! If you can’t figure out know how to go about it, Sarah Fragaso’s new book Paleo Pals: Jimmy and the Carrot Rocket Shipmay be just the tool you need.

Written for kids as a super hero story (think Little Einsteins) this colorful book explains in kid lingo why (and how) to eat this way, and gets them invested in the process by involving them in both the selection and preparation of their own nutritious food. Kids–boys and girls–love to cook and even when they’re so small they need a stool to reach the counter, there are ways for them to help. To get the ball rolling, the book contains 10 or so easy and tasty paleo food recipes (i.e. without grains, dairy, or legumes) that will seem familiar to your kids — Paleo Pal Pancakes, Apple Sandwiches, Energizing Egg Mini ‘Muffins’– each with specific instructions for how even little kids can safely help.

I was fortunate enough to get two reviewer copies, one of which is going to my grandkids in Dallas and the other to my grandkids in Santa Barbara. I think it’s the perfect way to introduce kids to a healthy paleo lifestyle. After all, isn’t childhood a much better and more effective time to adopt good eating habits? Wiser by far to prevent the diseases of civilization by a lifetime of healthy eating than to be in the position of having to reverse or control them after a lifetime of damage!

Taste Like Green French Fries?

Heading into 2012 means shedding a few holiday pounds that Mike and I accumulated on the “experiment” (see his blog) we undertook. So for the next several weeks we will be trudging down the nutritional holy road of near-abstinence from carbs and total abstinence from that carbohydrate gateway drug, alcohol. It’s only day 5 and we’re already feeling a world better and lighter and sleeping more soundly. Normally, we’d have gotten with the program on January 2, but this year we didn’t get started in earnest until January 9, because of a big dinner party commitment we’d accepted down in LA (that included some very nice wines) that we didn’t want to miss out on.

But now that we’re committed to the journey, I’m busy looking for easy, savory recipes, particularly for acceptable side dishes, that will keep us on the path and still satisfy. And I ran across one in my clip file that is quite simply delicious. It appeared in a column by Lee Svitak Dean titled Flavors of Fall picked up from McClatchy a couple of years ago in our local daily bugle and I clipped it and put it away to try and then completely forgot about it. I tried it the other night and it is, to quote Rachael Ray, YUM-O. As Ms. Dean says, they taste like green french fries! Here it is:

ROASTED GREEN BEANS
From Come One Come All, by Lee Svitak Dean
Serves 6

Why is it that the concept of roasted beans sounds so foreign? These are wonderful, inspired by those served at 20.21, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. They remind me of green French fries. The beans can be roasted at whatever temperature your oven is already set, if you are cooking something else at the same time.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pound. fresh green beans, ends trimmed, if desired
Olive oil
Coarse salt
Freshly cracked pepper (tricolor peppercorns look particularly nice)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (see Note).

2. Toss in olive oil and place in baking dish. Roast in oven for 15 to 20 minutes or so, until the beans are cooked through. They will have shriveled slightly.

3. Remove from oven and sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

Paleo Recipes: Really Old Time Comfort Food

When you find yourself longing for a return to the ‘old ways’ of eating, you may be thinking about Granny’s Sunday pot roast. But if you really want to return to the old ways, Julie and Charles Mayfield’s Paleo Comfort Food is the ticket.

They’ve carefully crafted a guidebook to comfort food eating that harkens back, not to your old granny, but to your biochemical and physiologic roots: the paleo diet that we, as humans, were molded by the forces of several millennia of natural selection to thrive on, before the dawn of agriculture (by which I mean wheat and corn farming) when our human diet was primarily meat (meaning that which we could hunt or catch with a pointy stick and our wiles) supplemented by seasonal roots, shoots, nuts, and berries.

The book is a comprehensive tool for the paleo kitchen, offering recipes for appetizers, sauces and staples, soups and salads, side dishes, mains, and yes, desserts (afterall, as we’ve always said, even the paleo hunter stumbled into a honey tree from time to time.)

Mike and I love their Steak Roll (stuffed with onions, celery, mushrooms, leeks and spinach) but we put a sous vide twist on it so that we can have it reliably medium rare but still tender. And cooked sous vide, it’s something you can prep, roll, vacuum seal, and drop in the bath at 134F to cook all day while you’re at work or busy doing something fun. Then it’s just a quick sear in hot lard to put a golden crust on it and golly Bob howdy, that’s good eats!

Paleo Comfort Food is sure to become an indispensable go-to resource in any low-carber’s kitchen, whether devoutly paleo or not.

Essential Cookbooks on my Shelf

As I’ve mentioned in these pages many times, I have an extensive cookbook library that takes up several bookcases in our homes–duplicated in many cases, since we split our time between two houses. I’m not sure of the exact count, but it’s up there. Guests to our home often ask if I really use them all. The answer is that while I enjoy them all for different reasons, out of that huge collection, there are but a few that I just couldn’t live without. A handful that I would call must-haves any kitchen library. I often give one or more from this group as a gift to a newly married couple and have made sure my own children’s kitchens have them, for my own use when there as well as for their edification.

I thought I’d share them and my reasons for thinking them essential, since beautiful,useful books make great holiday gifts. I’m not including low-carb specific cookbooks, of which there are many I’d recommend, and I’m leaving our own cookbooks off the list purposely, since it goes without saying that I use those recipes often. What follows are the essential core of my collection, the ones with the splatter stains on them, the ones sporting the dozen sticky tags, the ones without which, I’d be lost as a goose!

MD’s Seven Essential Cookbooks

1. How to Cook Everything
Mark Bitman’s indispensable book is the first place I look to find a recipe for most everything I’d ever need to cook. Everything pretty much describes the contents. If there are gaps in this font of culinary how to, they’re few and far between. I don’t know how many copies of this one I’ve bought over the years, but it’s a lot. If a kitchen is to have only one cookbook, this one is it. The new edition just came out and my sweet husband bought me a copy to update my library. I love Mr. Bitman’s common sense cooking style; it jibes with my own way of doing things and it’s all delicious. I’ve never made anything out of it that hasn’t turned out well.

2. The Complete Meat Cookbook
Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly’s meaty masterwork contains exactly what the title implies. And there’s simply nobody who knows meat and how to make it delicious, flavorful, and succulent better than Bruce. Chock full of easy to follow techniques for how to select and prep; how best to season; which cooking method works best to get the most out each cut. Filled with tantalizing recipes for primarily beef and lamb. For more on pork, see below.

3. The Complete Book of Pork
Again, Bruce Aidells at work, promoting that meat about which he is most passionate…pork. We traveled with Bruce and his lovely wife (and noted chef/owner of Boulevard in San Francisco) Nancy Oakes. Throughout our travels in Campania, he nibbled and sniffed the fabulous food we shared and often would smile and quip, “I think there’s some sort of pork product in this.” He and Emeril Lagasse agree: pork fat rules!

4. The Complete Book of Poultry
From the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, the single most useful cookbook for making chicken, turkey, duck, game hen…you name the feathered friend…delectable.

5. Sauces
James Peterson tells all about that which can make or break a dish–the sauce. I attended a cooking demonstration he gave when this book came out at Cookworx in Santa Fe, NM. The basics are simple and the results so worth it in making a mundane piece of meat glorious.

6. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
This fabulous book from Deborah Madison will make that which accompanies the meat as good as the meat! When a vegetable gets into her hands, it just knows what to do.

7. Les Halles Cookbook
Anthony Bourdain at his Confidential best! It’s not just that the recipes in this book are wonderful; they are. It’s the writing, the wit, the humor, the personality of the author. Hard to imagine a laugh out loud cookbook, but here it is. That and the recipe for the best steak tartare ever!

May the joys of cooking good food for family and friends be an integral part of your holiday this year!

Heatlhy Strong Kids

About once a week I get a letter from someone asking if there is a good book on how to feed kids to keep them strong and healthy or to help them lose weight and get fit. There aren’t many and we even know of some good ones that couldn’t find a publishing home. With 1 in 3 kids overweight in this country, you’d think that a book about any program that addressed childhood obesity successfully would be a cinch to sell well. And yet, historically, they don’t sell strongly and thus the publishers’ lack of interest. Maybe it’s because the book’s buyer is the parent, but the actual target is the kid.

But just in time for the holidays and all those New Year’s Resolutions that follow them, there’s a good one to recommend that both encompasses modestly lower carb healthy eating habits for kids and an effective regimen of strength building:



Fred’s book is spot on about how to make kids stronger and fitter and though it’s not really a diet book, per se, it offers good information about how to feed kids right and offers a number of tasty, kid-friendly recipes. We highly recommend it. You can check it out here.

A caveat: We know from experience that weight loss in kids is tough. The job is made tougher still, because oftentimes, it’s not the kid who’s doing the eating who is concerned about weight, it’s the parent(s) who bring the child in demanding that he or she be ‘cured’. And I can tell you, without hesitation, that unless the child wants to make the change, it’s not going to happen. No matter the degree of sturm and drang the parents might bring to bear, a mandated ‘weight loss intervention’ will be an exercise in futility.

For that very reason, in our practice, we were always very careful in determining whether to accept teen, pre-teen, or adolescent patients for weight loss. We interviewed parent and child extensively and unless we could satisfy ourselves that it was actually the kid who wanted to make the change, we knew we would be wasting our time, their time, and somebody’s money to put an unwilling, uncommitted child on a dietary program. (The same is actually also true for adults.)

And kids have to be handled somewhat differently, to boot.

Just as rats aren’t merely furry little humans, kids aren’t merely cute little adults and nutritionally they can’t be treated as such. For instance, because they’re actively growing–building bones, muscles, hearts, and brains– kids need more grams of good quality protein per pound of lean body weight than adults do. Because they’re building brains, the need more essential fatty acids. Their fluid requirements may differ; they are more sensitive to intake of toxic contaminants in food. And while they obviously shouldn’t stuff themselves with empty calories, they should likewise not be put into a severe calorie, fat, or protein deficit. Ultra low fat diets, vegan regimens, or crash dieting, while not especially beneficial for adults can be particularly damaging to growing children.

For these reasons and a host of others, in our years in clinical practice we counseled the concerned parents of the overweight kids (who were honestly among both our most challenging and most rewarding patients) to make the issue more about what the child eats not how much. And to do it with a light and loving hand. We asked them to bear in mind that even if a child is overweight for a given height, that height is an increasing variable in childhood and our goal might be to simply keep their child from gaining any more weight and let the expected natural increase in height catch up.

For those of you who may be concerned about your child’s weight or fitness (and I know there are many of you judging by the letters) let me share with you the Cliff Notes version of the basic principles we taught the parents who brought their overweight kids to us. Following them can increase the likelihood of successfully helping an overweight child become leaner and fitter without making weight loss or diet the hot button issue it can sometimes become in the home.

Dr. Eades’ 7 Cardinal Rules for Parents for Feeding Kids Right

1. Clear out all the junk food. Make the chip or the sweet a treat, something rare and special, a dietary privilege not a daily right. If it’s not a whole ‘real’ food, not meat, fish, chicken, dairy, fruit or vegetable, then it’s probably junk. If it’s prepackaged, it’s probably junk. If its first ingredient is sugar, corn syrup, or white flour, it’s most assuredly junk. (Remember: Sweetened fruit juices and sweetened whole grain cereal products are no different from sodas…they’re junk, too.)

2. Stock the right kinds of foods in your home and make them what your whole family eats. Keep available meat, poultry, fish, eggs, protein powders for shakes; organic yogurt, milk and cheese; fresh whole fruits and low-starch vegetables; deli meats and nuts for snacking. The linear thinking of kids will demand that if good food is nutritious, then everybody in the household ought to be eating it. And if everybody isn’t, why should they? You can’t expect your overweight teen or child to eat differently than you or other family members do. Actions speak louder that words! Support them by example.

Tip: If you can’t get your child to eat low-starch vegetables, add baby food vegetables (green beans, squash, green peas, carrots, tomato puree) to hamburger meat for burgers, meat loaf, or chili. They’ll never notice. For other ideas, check out the kid friendly recipes in the Kid Stuff chapter in our Low Carb CookwoRx Cookook.)

3. Remember: a potato is NOT a vegetable. It’s a starchy tuber. Pasta, rice, and corn aren’t vegetables either! No matter what the school lunch program says. That’s not to say that a growing child, even an overweight one, can never have potato, bread, pasta, or grain products (although they’d get along just fine physiologically without them if they ate plenty of meat, fish, poultry, game, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables.) It just means that you ought to treat starches like sugars and let kids eat them sparingly.

4. Let your child eat all of the right kinds of foods he or she wants. Kids are growing; kids are hungry. If you feed the hunger with good, nutritious food, it’s not going to make them fat or fatter! One of the most important things you can do for your child is to create a healthy respect for and relationship with food. Humans ought to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.

5. Don’t make the family table a battleground. Serve quality, wholesome food, let your child eat it, eat it yourself, don’t criticize. Show how to eat by example and your child will follow that example. Granted not all the time. They will be exposed to every kind of awful, sugary, health-robbing kind of food stuff. They will sometimes eat it (just as you do) and so be it. But if you live by example at home, don’t preach, but rather quietly demonstrate by your choices, they’ll get the message.

6. Let your child indulge with vigor occasionally. Life without unbridled joy is not worth living. Show your child how to celebrate, how to feast, how to live. And let them understand that feasting isn’t day to day living; it’s infrequent; it’s a celebration. Remember pleasure is a nutrient, too.

7. Make clean, fresh water the go-to beverage in your household. While it’s fine in our opinion (though others may disagree) for kids to drink organic milk and the occasional glass or box of juice, water is a better choice to wash down the burger. It’s a sad truth in this country that soft drinks, filled with high fructose corn syrup, are the beverage of choice in adolescents, pre-teens, and teenagers and in amounts that are making them among the fattest kids on the planet.

Feed them right and help to make them strong. Show them the value of their strength and fitness. A strong healthy kid is likely to grow into a strong healthy adult. There’s simply no better way to do build strength than through a kid friendly Slow Burn work out. (Fortunately, it’s great for parents, too.)

The Awful Truth About Twinkies

A reader sent us a heads up on a just out Newsweek article by Anne Underwood, titled “Mmm Tasty Chemicals” about the upcoming publication of a sort of tell all book about America’s iconic junk food: the Twinkie.

The book, Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger avows right in the subtitle his stated mission to track to their origins each of the 39 ingredients (yes, 39) in a Twinkie.

The article itself is interesting, but the book promises to be much like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, an eye-opening, jaw-dropping expose of what’s in this junk food icon and why. Just the bits of revelation in the Amazon ‘jacket’ copy make me shudder at the thought of ever having put a Twinkie into my children’s lunch sacks, albeit done, as it was, before I had my brain transplant twenty plus years ago.

We’ve pre-ordered our copy and I can’t wait to dig into it.

As for digging into the star of the show, however, if it’s cream filled sponge cake I’m after, for my money, I’d rather stray on the real thing. Give me a piece of real homemade sponge cake stuffed with real cream filling–eggs, flour, sugar, vanilla, butter and cream–not some 39 component chemical chimera designed to taste like it was made of those real things, but to last, like a vampire, for all eternity. The carb cost would be about the same, but the thought not quite so horrific…or industrial.

Garum (Fish Sauce) The Ketchup of Antiquity

No doubt you’ve heard the recent news that has the archeological world all atwitter of the remains of a 1st Century Roman cargo ship, originally discovered in 2000, in shallow waters off the coast of Spain. News of a major shipwreck find always grabs my eye, because of a strong interest on my part (and a mild to moderate obsession on Mike’s part) with the romance of discovering and excavating a shipwreck.

Some of you may know (but most will not) that among his many skills, Mike is a certified SCUBA instructor; although he hasn’t instructed in many years, he holds instructor credentials for NAUI, PADI, and, the tough LA County Underwater Instructors Association (UICC class #19…a long time ago). When he decided to abandon engineering (his first career) for a new directon, he seriously considered two options: going into medicine (which he ultimately chose) versus buying a dive boat, becoming a salvage diver, and following his treasure hunting muse to try to uncover sunken riches.

Thus our keen interest in the article,which our local paper picked up with the headline:

Roman shipwreck, cargo promise historical insights

What could be more exciting? Imagine the riches aboard!

Then we noticed the tag-line of the article: First-century vessel carried prized fish sauce.

Say what? Fish sauce? Not gold, silver, bronze, or jewels? Nope. Fish sauce.

And prized is an understatement. This 100 foot long cargo vessel, with a capacity for about 400 tons of cargo carried hundreds of clay amphorae (two handled jars) of fish sauce. The citizenry of the far-flung Roman Empire of a couple of millenia ago loved the stuff and apparantly added it to or drizzled it on just about everything. It was the ketchup of antiquity.

In his fabulous recent book, Fish on Fridays, historian Brian Fagan waxes poetic on the topic of fish sauce.

We were fortunate enough to have attended Mr. Fagan’s lecture/reading/book signing of Fish on Fridays not long ago at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and gleefully came away with our signed first edition of his book, which is incredible. If you have any interest in historical accounts of events that read like really good fiction, take a look at virtually any of his books, but this one in particular, if food is your passion…or should I say ‘poisson’ is your passion? And if you ever get the opportunity to catch one of his presentations, don’t miss it.

On the subject of fish sauce or garum as the Romans knew it, he writes:

Garum: Roman Fish Sauce

Roman cooks placed great emphasis on sauces and flavors, but none was more ubiquitous than garum–fish sauce. The modern equivalent would be tomato ketchup or Tabasco sauce, utilitarian products used to enhance all manner of dishes, both lavish and prosaic…today’s global cuisine provides an equivalent to garum in readily available Asian fish sauces [such as nuoc-nam, nam-pla]. There were many garums (also known as liquamen) so there was no universal recipe, much depending on the catch at hand.

There were hundreds of recipes for garum, few of which survive, for each manufacturer–each fishing family–had its own favorite blend. The third-century writer Gargilious Martialis gives an example in his De medicine et virtue herbarum:

“Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a container, whose inside is sealed with pitch, with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs, possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others in a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat the layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.”

Sounds pretty wretched, until you realize that it’s not all that different from the concoction that is Worcestershire sauce, which uses anchovies instead of sardines, but that’s a technicality. We put that stuff on meat, poultry, fish, and in sauces without a blink. So how did the ancient Romans use their version of it?

For answers, I turned to my library of cookbooks.

Among my collection, I have a cookbook titled Dine As A Roman Emperor: How To Cook Ancient Roman Recipes Today that I picked up on one of our visits to the ruins of Pompeii. (A magical place; it you get a chance to see it, don’t miss it, either!) I first picked it up just out of curiosity about what the Romans feasted on back in the day, but ended up buying it because it has not only translations of the original simple instructions from Roman writings, but modern day adaptations of these fabulous recipes. While there are some dishes that simply don’t translate, and some ingredients that don’t even exist anymore, I found it interesting (and somewhat vindicating) that there was little pasta, not a ton of starchy stuff, lots of meats, poultry, fish, fresh veggies, fruits, nuts, and herbs. In fact, a great many of the recipes would seem right at home on any low-carber’s table with minimal adaptation.

And, more pertinent to this topic, from eggs to entrees, about every other one uses fish sauce.

The amazing diversity of dishes with fish sauce in the ingredients list gives us a hint into why the Romans needed to ship such large quantities of it around the empire. Just in this one cookbook, there’s fish sauce in:

A sauce for hard cooked eggs; nettle pie; baked lasagne; legume soup; polenta with meat sauce; fish soup; a sauce and grill marinade for chicken and pork chops; meat balls; roasted pork livers; liver pate; a brain flan; barbecued kidneys; fish pie; a vinaigrette dressing for cooked chard, turnips, leeks, winter squash, carrots or parsnips; chestnut puree; and, amazingly, a walnut flan that sounds incredible and that I think would make an exotic Thanksgiving savory side dish. So, for those with a bit of culinary curiosity, here’s how to do it. (Mike comments that if you’re really adventurous, you’ll whip out your trusty 36 quart amphora and make your own fish sauce!) Notwithstanding, here’s the recipe:

Walnut Flan
From Dining As Roman Emperor, by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti (with my comments)

Serves 6

3 cups milk (I’d use half and half, myself)
8 eggs
3 1/2 ounces pine nuts
3 1/2 ounces walnut meats (I think I’d coarsely chop them)
1 tablespoon honey (I’d omit it or substitute a packet of Stevia or Splenda)
3 tablespoons nuoc-nam* (fish sauce, available at Asian markets)

*if no fish sauce available, substitute 2 scant teaspoons salt and a generous amount of pepper

(According to the author) you will need a ring mold, 12 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep (or a bundt pan, one supposes or, for my money, it would seem even easier to use 6 ramekins or custard cups and make individual servings.)

1. Toast the pine nuts and walnut meats lightly in a skillet with a tiny quantity of olive oil.
2. Beat the eggs as for an omelet. In a separate bowl (I’m not sure why, though) combine the milk, the honey (or sweetener) and the nuoc-nam (or s&p) and stir well. Add the beaten eggs to the milk mixture. Strain through a sieve to remove any solids.
3. Add the pine nuts and walnut meats and pour the mixture into the ring mold. (The author doesn’t say to do it, but for my money, I’d butter the ring mold or custard cups well beforehand for easier release later.)
4. Set the mold (or cups) in a large lower (i.e., shallow) pan of boiling water and bake in a low oven (about 325 degrees, I would guess) for 1 hour and 15 minutes (less for the individual cups–see below).
5. Turn out the flan, sprinkle with plenty of pepper, cool slightly, but serve warm.

Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? It would even be delicious to add some sauteed wild mushrooms or a puree of sauteed mushrooms to the mixture.

And I would bet that it would be all the easier done in individual ramekins just as you would a dessert flan or creme brulee. You’d need to cut down the cooking time somewhat, probably to about 45 minutes or 1 hour and check it by the ‘jiggle method’ just as you would for any other custard–i.e., it should come out of the oven when it’s mostly set, but still jiggles just a tiny bit in the center when you tap the dish.

Now you’re all set for a Roman Holiday! Enjoy!