Kitchen Shrink: How Sweet it is! Some Sugar-free Baking Tips

"I enjoy reading your columns each week. I wondered if you would consider doing one on finding sugar substitutes for baking.

My 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed last year with Type 1 diabetes, and I would love to come up with more creative ways to bake." Signed: Beth Newton

When a lit match is tossed into a pile of dry, brittle straw, it ignites in a flash, and burns to ashes almost instantly, but a thick log thrown into a blazing fire burns slowly and steadily.

The former is a metaphor for eating refined sugars or simple carbohydrates, like cotton candy and white bread, which causes a spike in blood sugar levels, while walloping the pancreas.

The latter scenario occurs when eating complex carbs or sugar substitutes, such as whole-wheat pancakes drizzled in brown rice syrup, causing a gradual rise in blood glucose. The glycemic index is an indicator of the speed at which particular foods cause a boost in the blood sugar levels. High glycemic index foods like glucose (GI 100) should be swapped out for low GI sweeteners, like Stevia (GI), not only for diabetics, but the health-conscious smart eater. The sweet tooth denizens can easily satisfy their craving with such delightful choices as:

Stevia, an herb indigenous to South America is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so a little pinch will do you. This zero-calorie sweetener with no glycemic impact can be enjoyed by diabetes in such treats as dark chocolate fudge, dessert crepes, oatmeal raisin cookies and apple crisps.

Yacón syrup, an Incan culinary treasure from the Andes Mountains is derived from tuberous roots of the yacón plant. Low in calories and sugar levels, this diabetic-friendly sweetener has a mother lode of antioxidants with notes reminiscent of caramelized sugar making for divine baked apples, flans, quick breads and muffins, or an exotic topping for ice cream.

Sucanat, unlike refined sugar is dried, coarse unrefined cane juice containing natural trace minerals. Sucanat metabolizes at a slower rate than sugar, avoiding that sharp, sugar rush, while infusing desserts with nutty caramel nuances.

Honey, an immune-protective ancient food, has flavor ranges from orangey citrus to woodsy and caramel essences, imparting a moist texture to cakes, loaves and yeast rolls, and a gooeyness to baklava and nutty dessert bars.

Agave syrup, derived from the same plant used to manufacture tequila (I’ll drink to that!), has been revered for centuries by the Aztecs as a healing folk medicine. But today, agave has developed a notorious reputation as a high fructose sweetener. So read labels carefully and kibosh brands with high fructose levels (over 55 percent).

Coconut sugar is sap extracted from the coconut palm, reduced to granules, paste or block form. This tropical sweetener is high in nutrients and low on the glycemic index. Its rich caramelized color and flavor dial up everything from dessert bars to rice puddings. One word of warning, it’s loaded with calories. Use pulverized dried fruits, including dates, figs, raisins and cranberries or pureed apricots for a brown sugar alternative, giving a naturally sweet oomph to muffins, cakes, scones, biscotti and quick breads.

Brown rice syrup has the nutritional benefits of brown rice with the consistency of honey. A delicious condiment with butterscotch notes, drizzle liberally on breakfast delights and gelatos, or jazz up carrot and zucchini cakes.

Pure buttery maple syrup comes from the sap of sugar maple trees. This Canadian import contains a load of antioxidants, although its glycemic load is mid-range at 54, so use in moderation.

Applesauce can be swapped out for equal amounts of sugar. Use unsweetened jarred or made-from-scratch with less tart varieties, including Fujis or Galas. Applesauce adds moistness to cakes and muffins, and the right amount of sweetness to oatmeal bars and cookies.

A dash of immune-boosting cinnamon (which has been found to stabilize blood sugar levels) adds an exotic sweetness to everything from apple pies and crisps to granola bars and biscotti.

Puréed bananas, especially overly ripe ones are super sweet to swap out sugar altogether in quick breads and assorted baked goods.

Whip up a batch of rich, syrupy balsamic glaze to drizzle on fresh berries, angel food cake, dessert pizzas or anywhere you need a sweet fix without the sugar rush.

Recipe: Not too Sweet Balsamic Glaze

2 cups raspberry balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup honey, maple or brown rice syrup

Zest from one orange

In a small saucepan, blend ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Cool and store in a glass jar in the fridge.

Protect your bosom buddies: Breast Cancer Awareness month

Here is a lineup of foods found to be the best arsenal against breast cancer.

Cruciferous Cavalry

The invincible crucifers like broccoli, cauliflower, turnip greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, arugula, the heady cabbage, the pungent horseradish and its Asian cousin wasabi are packed with indole-3-carbinol, which has been found to fake out ravenous cancer cells by transforming estrogen (cancer’s food source) into a more diluted, less appetizing form.

Recent studies coming out of the Linus Pauling Institute have also shown that the phytochemical sulforaphane, contained in broccoli sprouts, a new super concentrated brassica, selectively seeks out and destroys the enemy without causing collateral damage to healthy cells.

If that’s not enough, research in the U.S., Sweden and China establishes a strong link to higher rates of breast cancer and low cruciferous consumption. So crucifer up with a hearty helping of braised red cabbage, boy choy stir-fry, tangy broccoli slaw, a kale and quinoa chopped salad, balsamic glazed Brussels, and a heap of broccoli sprouts in wraps and on sandwiches and salads. One tablespoon of the latter has as much sulforaphane as contained in a pound of broccoli!

Garlic Gladiators

Belovedly nicknamed “the stinky rose,” garlic, especially in its raw form is packed with allicin, a potent sulfur compound that acts as a mighty shield against viruses, bacteria, inflammation, breast cancer cells and perhaps even the occasional vampire.

Mushroom Militia

Formidable fungi, including Portobello, crimini, shiitake, maitake and reishi have a motherlode of immune boosting polysaccharides, along with lectin, a protein that keeps cancer cells at bay. Toss the mighty mushrooms into sauces, stews, soups, risottos, frittatas or sautéed with a splash of white wine and savory herbs as a topping for everything from pasta and burgers to grilled fish and chicken.

Omega-3 Heroes

Wild-caught, cold-water fish (please, no bottom feeders) with a goodly store of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are another defensive weapon against breast cancer. You can’t beat wild-caught salmon, sardines (with their Omega-3 and calcium-rich skin and bones intact), herring (pickled in wine, not cream) and anchovies. Seaweed and other oceanic veggies are also treasure-troves of nutrients, especially the fatty acid chlorophylone, to knock cancer cells off their feet.

Samurai Seeds

For those who don’t do fish, opt for seeds and nuts, another rich source of omega-3s. Flaxseed is well-known as an excellent omega protector of healthy breasts, containing high levels of lignans and anti-inflammatory compounds. Pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and chia seeds also make the cut, along with nuts, especially almonds and walnuts.

Folate Fighters

Studies have linked high folate levels to a reduced risk of breast cancer by nearly 50 percent. Dial up those folate-rich foods, including hearty lentils, black beans and kidneys, leafy greens, especially romaine lettuce and spinach, oranges and asparagus.

D-Day

Vitamin D-rich foods are some of the best weapons against breast cancer foes. So amp up your immune system with organic eggs, wild-caught mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring, kippers, roe, cod liver oil (if you can stomach it), organic butter and D3-fortified breakfast cereals. And don’t forget a 15-minute daily dose of the sun’s rays.

—FYI: La Jolla’s Brockton Villa will donate $1 to breast cancer research for each Berry Parfait “Pinked Out” purchased. Herringbone in La Jolla will pour Cashmere Red wine for the cause, donating proceeds to the Komen Foundation.

Sweet and Savory Brussels Sprouts Slaw

Ingredients

1 pound of Brussels sprouts, trimmed

1/3 cup toasted pumpkin seeds, chopped walnuts or pecans

1/3 cup dried cranberries or golden raisins

For the dressing –

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon dark honey

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

1/2 tablespoon horseradish mustard

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Method: Thinly slice Brussels sprouts with the shredding blade of a food processor or by hand. Toss in a large bowl with the seeds or nuts and dried fruit. In a small glass bowl, whisk dressing ingredients until well blended. Add to the shredded sprouts and toss well. Chill and serve.

Fall in love with one pot wonders

One pot dishes are not only hearty and scrumptious, but they are easy to prepare and save on clean up. Here’s an international sample of these wonder dishes that you can even make ahead of time and enjoy later.

Magical Moroccan One Pot

Tagines are savory slow-cooked Moroccan stews of chicken, lamb, beef or fish blended with vegetables, dried fruits, preserved lemons and exotic herbs and spices, including turmeric, saffron, ginger and coriander, simmered in cooking vessels that bear the same name.

The conical shape of the traditional ceramic or clay tagine (reminiscent of the Tin Man’s hat from “The Wizard of Oz”) allows heat to circulate evenly so all ingredients cook uniformly, while trapping the flavorful liquids inside. The shallow dish that fits below the coned dome is used for both cooking and serving.

This method not only requires Spartan amounts of water (ideal for regional droughts), but braises the meats and vegetables to a delicate tenderness. The tagine’s versatility allows it to be placed over hot coals or a gas or electric stovetop, using a diffuser for the latter two modes to evenly disburse the heat to prevent the pot from cracking. Authentic Moroccan tagine dishes are served on a bed of fluffy couscous.

Rustic Ragùs

These traditional Italian minced meat-based sauces are typically served over pasta. The carnivorous offerings range from chicken, duck, goose and offal (organ meats) to lamb, pork, veal and mutton, and are either braised separately or blended in pleasing combinations. Depending on the region and gustatory preferences, the meats are simmered in a broth, stock, wine, cream or tomato sauce for hours until it reduces down to a thick, wholesome stew.

Set It and Forget It

The iconic slow cooker of the 1970s is making a revival as a high-tech crockpot. A savior for working moms, busy singles or students, this culinary magic bullet lets an absentee cook put a substantial, shoestring, no-fuss meal on the table hours later. After prepping the meats and veggies, the crock-pot runs the show. Everything from chicken gumbos, cacciatores and vegetarian curries to lamb stews, Hungarian goulashes and turkey chilis can be started in the morning and warm and ready when you return from work or an outing, without tinkering around in a hot kitchen.

Fine Kettle of Fish

Through culinary serendipity, bouillabaisse was created by some fishermen of Marseille, France, concocting a stew with bony rockfish scraps that they were unable to sell to markets or eateries. It has evolved into a traditional Provençal mélange of sea treasures including, monkfish, turbot, European hake, mussels, crab, octopus and lobster.

These oceanic treats are simmered with leeks, onions, tomatoes and potatoes and a sprinkling of herbs de Provence creating a divine aromatic broth. Julia Child recommended serving the broth and fish separately with a side of grilled bread slathered with a savory rouille (an olive oil-based mayonnaise seasoned with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper).

The Sabbath Stew

Orthodox Jews, forbidden to cook from sunset on Friday until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday evening, created a traditional stew called cholent that simmers overnight. This hearty hot meal is ready to eat on the Sabbath for lunch after they return from the morning synagogue services.

Traditional cholent is a blend of beef or chicken with beans (kidney, navy, cranberry), barley, onions, garlic and potatoes dialed up with savory herbs and spices simmered in a chicken or beef broth. A vegetarian version includes a variety of beans and root vegetables simmered in a mushroom or vegetable broth. To paraphrase my Old World grandma, “Ess, ess, mein kind!

The Kitchen Shrink’s Robust Ragù

(Especially comforting over thick, al dente egg noodles.)

Ingredients

1 pound fresh ground lamb

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 celery rib, diced

8 ounces crimini mushrooms, quartered

1 handful fresh basil, chopped

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup strained or chopped tomatoes

Sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste

Method: In a heavy skillet, braise the lamb with the oil and vegetables until it is nicely browned. Add seasonings, tomato sauce and basil and blend well. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the liquids reduce down. If it is too thick, add some chicken or vegetable broth for your desired consistency, and heat through. Serve over your favorite pasta. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and garnish with fresh basil.

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