Saturday, July 25, 2009

Applied Nutrition: Homemade Dog Food

I think it’s time for an update on my development of a homemade dog food that satisfies both my inner nutritionist and my dog. Between my first post about dog food and now, I have tried a new recipe but it didn’t quite take with Maxie or with me. It was a little too labor intensive and I don’t think the raw veggies sat well in Maxie’s system. I returned to the diarrhea diet but continued to worry that she was getting too much carbohydrate from the sweet potato and russet potato in the recipe.

I finally consulted a holistic vet in the area who gave me a handout copied from The Whole Dog Journal called “Now We’re Cooking!” on preparing a cooked diet for pets. The vet also made some recommendations for altering my recipe to make it more suitable for everyday doggie dining.

The first thing I did was to add more protein, and cut back on the amount of sweet potato and potato. According to the handout at least half but preferably more of the diet should come from animal sources. I bumped up the amount of chicken in the recipe and added organ meats like chicken livers and hearts.

Then, to help bulk up the food a little without adding more starch or meat, I added chopped Swiss chard. I don’t want to use grains yet because I think Maxie is sensitive to grains, and because I’m seeing more and more recommendations to avoid or limit grains in pet food.

I am still putting a little bit of kibble (Spot’s Stew is my favorite) in the bottom of the bowl to provide some extra vitamins and minerals because I haven’t invested in a doggie multivitamin yet, or explored the different ways to supplement homemade food. I am convinced that there is a way to make homemade food without having to supplement, but I’m not sure that I’ve hit that perfect recipe yet.

However, I am supplementing with canned sardines that have no added salt, a large spoonful after each meal. She’s also getting about a tablespoon of homemade yogurt (made with whole raw milk) after every meal. The sardines are providing omega-3’s and calcium because they contain bones, and the yogurt is giving her more calcium and probiotics. I think she’s also getting calcium from the chicken because my recipe starts with chicken thighs on the bone and they stew for a good hour to an hour-and-a-half, long enough to leach some of the minerals from the bone. I also let it cool on the stovetop for a bit before pulling the thighs out for deboning and chopping, and this seems to pull more of the collagen out of the bones.

By the way, Maxie’s getting about 1 1/4 cups of this mixture over about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of kibble twice a day. She weighs about 33 pounds. As you can see from these photos of Maxie, she is maintaining her girlish figure and glossy coat while eating this food (her poops are looking good, too, but I'm not going to show you those).

Next steps: I’m planning to change up the chard for something else in the next batch, maybe some broccoli and squash, and would also like to try using beef or pork soon. I may also start breaking an egg over her dinner once or twice a week.

In the meantime, here’s my current recipe:

3 pounds chicken thighs (with bones)
3/4 pound russet potatoes, diced
1 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes, diced
4 cups water
1/2 pound chicken livers or hearts, or a mixture
1 bunch Swiss chard, chopped

Put chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes in a stockpot and add water.* Bring gently to a simmer (do not boil) and cook uncovered for about 1 hour and up to 1 1/2 hours. With 15 minutes left to cook, add organ meats and chard and cook for an additional 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 30 minutes, then pull out chicken thighs. Once chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones. Try to pull the cartilage off the ends of the bones, too, as this is a good source of collagen. Chop chicken into smaller pieces. Add chicken back to the stew and mix well.

Transfer stew to containers for storage. This stew will stay fresh in the refrigerator for 3-5 days, but I recommend packing it into containers that will hold about 3 days worth and putting the rest in the freezer.

* Resist adding more water, or you’ll end up with a very soupy dogfood. With this amount of water, not everything will be covered at first, but the veggies and chicken will start to break down after a little while and release some juices and as long as you stir it all up a couple of times within the first 15-20 minutes everything will eventually end up submerged and well-cooked.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nostalgia Smacks Me Upside the Head

I had a heavy encounter with nostalgia this afternoon. I was cleaning out my closet to make room for things I don’t use but that I’m not willing to give up yet, and I found a huge box labeled “PHOTO ALBUMS.” Knowing that opening the box would be a guaranteed time suck, I was just going to move it to the back corner of the closet when one of the flaps rasped open.

I had to take a quick peek inside. One thick gold-embossed album stood on its spine between two others, so that its pages were slightly fanned and I could just barely see the edges of the photos. I know my old photographs so well that I immediately recognized one of my favorite pictures just from seeing its edge. A friend and I are taking a picture of ourselves by holding the camera at arm’s length and putting our heads close together. We are laughing so hard that the photo is mostly teeth, lips and nostrils.

Naturally, I had to pull the album out, sit on the bed, and browse through my past. I marveled at how thin I was, how big and white my smile was, how young my skin looked, and then I had to laugh at the requisite heavy makeup and the ridiculous things I did with my hair (hey, it was the 80’s!).

Looking at this younger version of myself, I regretted having “let myself go” in the years since. (That phrase is so funny, as if I’d put my young self on a train and waved goodbye as she pulled out of the station. Of course the changes were more gradual than that.) I’m not the first to comment on how youth is wasted on the young, but it sure feels personal when I look at pictures of myself at age 20! What a twist it is on that theme for a nutritionist that when I looked my best, my diet was the worst (just like every college kid).

This summer I’m working as an assistant for kids’ cooking classes. These kids know so much more about food and cooking than I did at their age. They know what “whole foods” are, they know the difference between dried basil and oregano. They even love seaweed! They’re being raised in the same decade in which consciousness is being raised about the role of food in our health, from its impact on our bodies to the impact the food industry has on the environment and the sustainability and safety of our food supply.

Oh, this gives me hope. Hope that it won’t take the kids of this generation as much time as it took me to realize the importance of eating well. Hope that to them it will be second nature to account for the environmental costs of their food as well as the amount they pay at the store (or the farmers market). Hope that they’ll take such good care of themselves from a young age that when they get to midlife they’ll look back at their college photos and think, “I still look good!”

Monday, July 6, 2009

Herbally Yours

I first heard about herbal infusions and nettles in a class at Bastyr University called Therapeutic Whole Foods, taught by Jennifer Adler. During class, she drank regularly from a large Mason jar filled with a deep green liquid. After explaining to us that what she was drinking was an infusion of stinging nettles, she said something like, “Since I’m drinking water all day long I figure I might as well make it count.”

Wild plants are generally significantly higher in nutrients than domesticated plants. Nettles (Urtica dioica) in particular are high in iron, calcium, and magnesium, as well as a number of trace minerals and vitamins. They’re also about 10% protein, according to Susun Weed, an expert in herbal medicines. I’ve used freeze-dried nettles in capsules to successfully stop allergy attacks and to still my restless legs, so I knew they were potent and was intrigued by what they could do in an infusion.

In another class, we learned that nettles are one of the whole foods sources of compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is another. I promise to talk about inflammation in another post, but for now just know that nettles are anti-inflammatory – a beneficial thing for most Americans, who generally eat highly inflammatory diets and suffer from a number of diseases that have been linked to excessive inflammation in the body.

A few weeks after that first class, Jennifer had us taste an infusion of oatstraw (Avena sativa) and then talk about any effects we felt. Most people said they felt a calming effect almost instantly.

I started off my fall quarter that year with a daily regimen of 2-3 cups of an infusion made with both nettles and oatstraw, as well as an additional herb for flavor, such as lemon verbena or lemon balm. These other herbs have properties of their own, of course, but an expert herbalist reassured me that they were safe to use together in my infusions.

Jennifer’s recommendation to the class was to start with an infusion made with only one herb, known as a “simple,” in order to get a sense of the effect of that particular herb before trying another one. Though I didn’t follow that recommendation, I think it’s valid and worth doing.

Recently, I’ve been using rooibos to flavor my infusions and it's my favorite combination so far. Rooibos is an ancient herb that's become trendy in the U.S. as a substitute for coffee or black tea. It contains some antioxidants and has been used medicinally in South Africa for hay fever, asthma, eczema and heartburn. I find that the rooibos adds a slight anise flavor to the infusion and lends its red color to the liquid (as pictured below).

Now, before I tell you about the effects this preparation had on me, I want to emphasize that these effects are not necessarily reproducible. There are lots of factors in how we each react to different nutrients and plant compounds, including when and where the plant was grown and our body’s individual ability to metabolize these compounds.

I also need to voice the important disclaimer that I am NOT an expert in medicinal herbs. Before you make your own infusions, please find a reputable source of information on herbalism. Most vendors for medicinal herbs have a trained herbalist on staff who can answer your questions.

As for my personal experience with these infusions, it was very positive. Having experienced a summer-long bout of insomnia, I was excited to find within two or three days that I was again sleeping through the night. This effect has continued, along with a general increase in energy and a very welcome decrease in stress. However, I've found that if I drink the tea past early afternoon, I don’t sleep as well.

Nine months later, I’m noticing longer-term effects. Though my allergies haven't disappeared, this is the first spring in six years in which my eyes were not constantly itchy, hot and overly sensitive to light. There had been times over these past few years when I had to wear sunglasses indoors at night to function! An end to that discomfort is a very welcome thing. My ND agreed that this improvement in my allergies is likely due to the anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties of nettles.

How to make a cold herbal infusion:

Nettles, oatstraw, and lots of other herbs and medicinal plants are available through companies like Dandelion Botanical in Seattle. Find a source close to you geographically to keep shipping and environmental costs low and to ensure that at least some of the herbs come from your more immediate environment. And speaking of cost, these herbs are generally inexpensive, about $1 to $2 an ounce. Four ounces of each will get me through a few weeks of nourishing infusions.

I do a cold infusion, meaning that I steep the herbs overnight in cold water rather than pouring boiling water over them and allowing them to sit, which is the usual method. I learned last summer from a reputable source (at the time, she was the chair of the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr – here she is talking about the science behind some folk remedies) that a cold infusion has two advantages over a hot one. First, fewer of the tannins in the plant are released. Tannins are the compounds that lend bitterness to plants and make your mouth pucker. Second, more of the minerals are released from the plant with a cold infusion.

Added 8/16/09: Since writing this post, I've learned from a friend who is in the process of taking a course in herbal medicine-making at Bastyr that the tannins that are released with a hot infusion bind the minerals that are released, making them less available to us when we drink the infusion. So while the cold infusion does not necessarily release more minerals, fewer are available for absorption.

To make the infusion, I put about a quarter cup each of the dried nettles and oatstraw into a wide-mouth glass jar, with a little less than a quarter cup of whatever herb I’m using for flavor (or about one tablespoon of rooibos). Then I pour cold water over the herbs, put the lid on the jar, shake it gently to make sure all the herbs get wet, and let it sit overnight for about 8 hours.

The next morning I strain it through a fine-mesh strainer, put the strained tea back into the jar and drink it throughout the morning. You can also double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge for 3-5 days.

Making an herbal infusion is an easy and cost-effective way to add flavor and nutrients to your drinking water. Here are a few resources for initiating your own study of the wonderful healing properties of herbs:

Susun Weed Warning: Susun Weed is quite eccentric. She is also a renowned expert on herbalism and provides good advice about using herbs.

Rosemary Gladstar: Another renowned herbalist with a number of books on herbs and their uses.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Relish Your Hot Dog

My husband brought home this recipe for a relish made with Rainier cherries and Walla Walla onions from his coworker, David Albert. We had it on hot dogs last night (mine also had Dijon mustard on it, and the combination was fantastic). The relish was sweet and tangy, and a little smoky from the grilling – mmmm, the perfect accompaniment to a 4th of July hot dog. We thought it would also be delicious on salmon or pork chops. For vegetarians, how about putting it on a savory grilled portabella mushroom? Oh yeah!

A little more about the hot dogs we ate: 100% beef, no fillers, no nitrites, no MSG, no gluten. The company is located in Bellingham, WA and sources their beef from Oregon. Unfortunately, it appears that these hot dogs are only available in Washington and Oregon, but you may be able to find a similar product from your own local area.

As for the other ingredients, Rainier cherries are the ones with the swirled creamy yellow and blushing red skin. They’re sweeter than red cherries and are usually larger, making them a lot easier to pit! They're only harvested here in Washington in June and July, so now’s the time to try them.

Walla Walla onions are also a product for which Washington is famous, though they originated in Italy. The Walla Walla is a sweet onion, meaning it contains less sulfur and is therefore less pungent than other onions. This mildness makes it perfect for this Washington summer relish. It also has a higher water content and is therefore more susceptible to spoilage. The season for Walla Wallas is mid-June through September.

Here's how to make the relish:

The original recipe calls for smoking the onions, but my husband didn’t have a way to do that so he grilled them instead. He cut the onion into thick slices, salted them on both sides, then used one of our cast iron pans to grill them over medium-high heat until slightly charred and tender, several minutes on each side.

He chopped those up and added them to the pitted and chopped cherries. The ratio of onion to cherry is about one pound onion to a half pound of cherries (with pits). To finish it up, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and 1-3 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Let the whole mixture sit and macerate for at least 10 minutes and up to 1 hour.