I’ve compiled a list of some of the more *uncommon* ingredients that frequent my dishes. Whether you already share my love for these items or it’s all new to you, enjoy browsing for descriptions, common uses, and nutritional benefits.
Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, and I will update as I blog.
Agave nectar: A sweetener that comes from the blue agave cactus, agave nectar is comprised of mainly fructose (with trace minerals), making it an excellent slow-release carbohydrate; unlike sugar, agave will not cause a high followed by an imminent crash. Agave has a honey-like consistency and a sweet taste. I use it for baking, some salad dressings, and other instances that call for a sweetener. I also like to drizzle it on my morning oats. Mmmmm.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Made from fermented apples, apple cider vinegar is considered a healthy vinegar (as opposed to white vinegar). It contains malic acid, which aids in digestion, and is packed full of potassium and enzymes. When digested, apple cider vinegar becomes alkaline-forming (which is crucial to maintaining an optimal pH balance, thus optimal health). I use it in salad dressings, dips (such as my Spinach-Artichoke dip), and sauces (try my Green Goddess Hot Sauce).
Blackstrap Molasses: A type of molasses (which is the concentrated liquid byproduct of the sugar cane refining process), blackstrap molasses is a thick syrup with a strong, bittersweet flavor. An excellent source of iron (vital for energy, particularly critical for women and runners), calcium, copper, manganese, potassium, and magnesium, blackstrap molasses is very good for you. I use it to make granola (Blackstrap Molasses-Maple Granola) and am always on the lookout for new ways to incorporate it into my diet.
Carob powder and chips: Carob powder comes from the carob tree (by drying, roasting, and grinding the carob pod once the beans are removed) and–with its sweet, richly-flavored taste–is often used in lieu of cocoa powder. Unlike chocolate, carob contains no caffeine nor other stimulants and is a great source of calcium. It also contains potassium and riboflavin. Carob chips are a yummy, sweet, chocolate-like treat made from carob powder (SunSpire Vegan Carob Chips ingredients: malted corn and barley, palm kernel oil, carob powder, and soy lecithin). They are often used as a replacement for chocolate in desserts. I love carob not as a substitute for chocolate–because it tastes quite different to me–but all on its own. I usually add it to trail mixes, baked goods such as cookies, or sprinkled atop desserts. I’ve used carob powder in my Carob-Almond Chia Seed Pudding.
Chia Seeds: A member of the mint family originating in Mexico, chia seeds are nutrient-rich seeds high in essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and numerous vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, niacin, zinc, and boron (which aids calcium absorption). And unlike flaxseeds, there’s no need to grind them to access these nutrients. They are also very high in protein as well as soluble fiber (which controls insulin levels, prolongs energy, and makes the body feel full) and insoluble fiber (which aids in digestion). Because these seeds swell in size when added to water, they are filling and help keep you hydrated. The seeds also slow the conversion of carbohydrates to sugar in your body, helping to stabilize blood sugar, increase endurance, and create the optimal environment to absorb other nutrients. With the addition of nondairy milk, chia seeds make a delicious pudding (recipe here). I also add chia seeds to my oats and sprinkle it atop meals. Because of the way it gels up, these seeds also make a fabulous egg replacement in baked goods (2 tsp chia mixed with 2 Tbs water).
Coconut oil: Made by pressing the meat of the coconut, this healthy oil is great for cooking because it can be heated to high temperatures without becoming a trans fat and is nearly tasteless. It is also rich in medium-chain triglycerides, making it a unique form of saturated fat in that it’s easily digestible and immediately converted into energy by the liver (as opposed to being stored in cells). Like butter, coconut oil is solid at room temperature (and thus sometimes referred to as “cocount butter”). I use coconut oil for some cooking and baking (try it some cookie dough balls).
Coconut water: Considered to be “nature’s gatorade,” coconut water (the cloudy liquid inside a coconut) has a delicious, mildly sweet, nutty flavor and a plethora of electrolytes, vitamins, and minerals–far too many to name. In fact, coconut water is ideal for hydration in that it is naturally isotonic (or has the same electrolyte make-up of the human plasma). It has a far lower sugar and sodium content as well as more potassium, calcium, and choride than most sports drinks without all the artificial nonsense. I love to drink coconut water after a workout or on a hot day. I also may or may not be known to re-hydrate with coconut water after a night of boozing.
Ezekiel 4:9 bread: Sprouted bread, such as Ezekiel 4:9, is made from 100% organically-grown sprouted whole grains, such as wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. The combination forms a complete protein, and the sprouting process increases the availability and digestibility of the nutrients. High in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, this bread also happens to be delicious. Try this breakfast.
Flaxseed: A nutrient-rich seed containing very high levels of omega-3, an essential fatty acid (one the body cannot produce on its own), flaxseed is supremely beneficial. Omega-3 plays a role in reducing inflammation and well as metabolizing/burning fat efficiently. Flaxseed is also high in potassium, and contains soluble fiber (which controls insulin levels, prolongs energy, and makes the body feel full) and insoluble fiber (which aids in digestion). I put flaxseed in my morning oats, smoothies, granola, sprinkled on salads, and more. It can also be used as an egg substitute in recipes for baked goods (1 egg= 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed + 3 tablespoons of warm water). Not too shabby!
**A word about prep: Be sure to buy whole flaxseeds (as opposed to flaxseed meal which has less nutritional benefits), then grind them in a coffee grinder so your body can utilize their nutritional benefits (otherwise the whole seeds pass through your system undigested). Store in a jar/container in the fridge.**
Hemp: Who says there’s no plant-based source that is a complete protein? Containing all 20 amino acids, including the essential amino acids we need to obtain through diet, hemp is a nutrient-rich source of whole protein, helping with muscle and tissue regeneration and fat metabolism. As a raw, whole food, hemp is easily digested and absorbed. Hemp is alkaline-forming (critical for one’s pH balance), boosts one’s immune system, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains a plethora of vitamins, minerals (such as iron), healthy fats (balanced in the optimal ratio for our bodies), antioxidants, fiber, and chlorophyll (a nutrition powerhouse itself). I put hemp in my morning oats, smoothies, granola, energy bars, and more. I also drink hemp milk. I’ve never tried hemp protein powder, though I’m sure it would be a great addition to any smoothie or recipe.
Millet: Technically a seed (and the most common ingredient in bird feeders), millet is a gluten-free “grain.” Slightly alkalizing and very easy for the body to digest, millet is high in iron, B vitamins, (heart-healthy) magnesium, and the essential amino acid tryptophan. Millet is made up of small, round balls and, cooked, has a similar fluffy texture to rice (for a more creamy consistency, cook a bit longer). I use millet as a delicious, nutritious grain for my meals. You can replace rice, couscous, or quinoa with millet in your favorite recipes (try my Moroccan-Millet Stuffed Butternut Squash). Though I’ve never worked with it, millet flour can add nutritional diversity to recipes, too.
Nutritional yeast: A single-cell fungus grown on molasses (which admittedly does not sound very appetizing), nutritional yeast is a yummy seasoning of sorts. Not active like yeast, “nooch” (as it is commonly referred to) is high in B vitamins and is one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin B12, making it a great addition to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Because nutritional yeast melts and has a slightly cheesy flavor, it is often use in vegan “cheese” sauces or creamy sauces in general. Beyond making sauces, I sprinkle nooch on veggies, salads, and other recipes (Spinach-Artichoke Dip, risotto, cookie dough balls).
Peanut flour: Peanut flour has the protein and flavor of peanut butter, but without the fat. Like peanuts, it is also rich in nutrients, such as niacin, folate, magnesium, vitamin E, manganese, and phosphorus. It’s a great gluten-free flour option for baking (such as in my Peanut Butter Pancakes). I also put peanut flour in my oats for extra protein and flavor (I heart Peanut Butter Cup Overnight Oats). It can be used to make a savory peanut sauce, too.
Quinoa: A pseudograin (grain-like seed which is gluten-free and alkaline-forming), quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean Mountain regions of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia for over 5,000 years. It has a light, fluffy texture and is an excellent source of protein. It is also high in iron, lysine, potassium, and B vitamins. Before working with quinoa, you do need to rinse it (to remove remnants of the bitter resin saponi). Alternatively, if you’re like me and have a difficult time rinsing the little buggers, you can buy quinoa that does not require rinsing (see box pictured). I enjoy quinoa as a grain with my meals (often for a protein kick), atop salads, and in various recipes (examples include Tofu and Spinach in a Lemon-Caper Sauce and Vanilla-Pomegranate Breakfast Quinoa).
Spelt: An ancient grain, spelt is rich in B vitamins (essential for energy) and high in protein. It does contain some gluten, making spelt flour great for binding together other nut/seed flours in baked goods. It has a slightly nutty flavor. I’ve only worked with the flour before (check out my Lemon Poppy Seed Scones), though I’m sure the grain itself would be delicious as well.
Stevia: Native to Paraguay, stevia is an herb about 30 times sweeter than sugar. Because it contains no carbohydrates, it has no effect on the body’s insulin levels. In fact, it has been shown to help equalize blood sugar levels raised by other sugars/starches. It’s a whole food–and a great alternative to sugar and other sweeteners. I use stevia to sweeten my oats (check out this combo). It can also be used to sweeten Baker’s chocolate as seen here.
Ume Plum Vinegar: Not an actual vinegar but rather a brine, ume plum vinegar is a byproduct of the umeboshi plum, a sour, salty, pickled plum that is pressed with shiso leaves–and is incredibly alkalizing (critical for regulating the body’s pH level). These plums are also great for digestion. Ume plum vinegar, though not as nutritionally beneficial as the plum itself, is alkalizing upon digestion–and very tasty when added to salad dressings, veggies, and other recipes. Ume plum vinegar is quite salty, though, so keep that in mind as you cook.
Brazier, Brendan. Thrive: The Vegan Nutrion Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and LIfe.
Silverstone, Alicia. The Kind Diet.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a nutritionist nor a doctor; what works for my body may not be right for yours. So please take my ideas and/or suggestions with a grain of (sea) salt!