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Food issues

That’s just what they are. Remember when I said on the front page that I have no moral high ground? Well, I don’t. You’re watching me cook food I eat, so it needs to be food that fits into my requirements for healthy food. What follows is an explanation of what those requirements are for me. You may happen to have some of these same requirements, or you may not. I’m just explaining so that you know why you’re seeing me cook with the ingredients I’m using.

I apologize for even having to explain all this. This makes me sound like one of those weird food people you never want to have over who say (after you’ve made the salad) that green peppers, you know, cause them to swell up and die. (What? Who dies from peppers? OK, whatever, you think as you pick out the peppers, resentment swelling in your chest.) I don’t want to be one of those people but I probably am now. It’s just as well that you’re probably not going to invite me over to your house for dinner.

In this day and age, though, I find that so many people have some sort of food issue. The baby boomers are developing type 2 diabetes left and right, every kid under 15 seems to have some sort of life-threatening food allergy, and everyone in between is trying to lose weight with some sort of diet. Everyone seems to be ending up cooking for some health-related reason or another, so perhaps you’re ending up trying to figure out how to cook cheap, as I did, for reasons of health as much as money. If so, welcome, fellow traveler.

I gave up MSG years ago. I have been subject all my life to recurring headaches, which were diagnosed as not-migraines but which could be severe enough to cause vomiting just from the pain. Somewhere I read that MSG was linked to headaches. I gave up MSG – which is in almost every canned soup, which I used to love and which is great cheap food, as well as in my beloved Doritos, a snack food I used to live on – and voila, headaches down to maybe one a year. Crap. OK. I also learned to be careful of red wine and aged hard cheeses, but to be frank I haven’t given them up, and I still don’t have very many headaches. MSG makes me sick every time I eat it now and I’ve learned to be vigilant in avoiding it.

High fructose corn syrup I also gave up years ago on principle. It exists only to make cheap processed food sweeter and fresher longer. In exchange for those things it causes a whole host of health problems, including being linked to developing diabetes, of which I, as a lifelong fat person, am deathly afraid of developing. Gave it up. I read all the labels.

Ditto partially hydrogenated fats. I have a history of heart disease in my family and was appalled to find out how these can contribte to heart disease. Even if it’s not true, personally I think that health problems and manufactured foods go hand in hand. If I can’t make it in my kitchen, I probably don’t want to eat it. Goodbye, partially hydrogenated fats.

In winter of 2008 I was feeling bad pretty much all the time. I live in a second-floor walk up and there were days when I was so tired when I came home that I thought I might not make it up to the second floor. My head always felt like it was under pressure, maybe about to pop. I had a lot of other smaller symptoms too. If this was aging, I thought, this SUCKS. It didn’t seem reasonable to me that I would feel awful all the time just because I was over forty. I exercise regularly and that hadn’t changed; I still just felt terrible all the time. I finally went to the doctor, terrified that I had finally developed the dreaded diabetes. Nope… but my blood pressure was creeping up. I had always had borderline high blood pressure but had been able to control it with regular exercise; now it looked like that wasn’t going to do it any more.

I started doing research and very quickly stumbled across some books which changed my thinking about food relatively dramatically. I became convinced that I needed to control my eating of carbs and eliminate white flour and sugar from my diet. I did a lot of research into low-carb and Atkins cooking, but had no interest in most of the prepackaged food that those cooking sites used, especially Splenda, which was potentially linked to other health problems I wanted to avoid and which was clearly a chemically manufactured product that I had no particular interest in ingesting. I did switch to full-fat milk and cheese, which makes me feel fuller quicker and helps control cravings. But because I am concerned about the hormones in most farm-produced milk, if I am going to eat milkfat, I prefer to eat organic milkfat, and avoid the hormones (I am also very afraid of breast cancer, which has been linked to the hormones used in dairy cattle in the United States. I know, such a hypochondriac! But as a woman who has never breastfed a baby, I’m already at a higher risk for breast cancer – and I personally know two breast cancer survivors. I know it can happen to me.)

I knew I wasn’t going on a diet, I was changing the way I was going to eat for the rest of my life. Having been so afraid of diabetes all my life, I figured it was always just a matter of time before I had to give up sugar, and now that time had come. Why not give it up BEFORE my health had gotten to the point where I HAD to? This way I could eat it if I really wanted to but had to plan to get my fix of sweet foods without it.

I also had to figure out how to bake bread, because though I had been a good baker back in the days of my impecunious youth, every bread I knew how to bake used white flour, and I had no idea how to bake with wheat flour. White flour is highly processed and causes jumps in blood sugar which I was now going to try to avoid.

So that was it. I don’t eat Splenda and I do my own baking, primarily with white 100% whole wheat hard flour (for breads) and 100% whole wheat pastry flour (for other things). I learned that any bread sold in stores as "whole wheat" invariably contained at least a little white flour (unless it says "100% whole wheat" on the label, I guarantee you it has white flour in it – read the labels. Even "unbleached white flour" is white flour), so I went back to baking my own bread, about once a week. I developed sugar-free cookie and cake recipes using stevia, xylitol and erythritol. And I’m not going to show you basically any of those recipes, because they apply only to people who really need and want to eat that way, and not to the average cook. They don’t really have to do with learning to cook.

But for me. I don’t eat sugar, white flour, high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated fats, or MSG. (I do eat chocolate, pretty much every day – usually sweetened with maltitol, just because it’s an easy-to-find no-sugar chocolate, or a very dark chocolate with just a few grams of sugar per serving.) I cook with whole organic milk and cheese wherever possible. I joined a farm share a few years ago to get fresh organic produce (primarily to learn to cook and eat it, because I wanted more vegetables in my diet), and that’s where a lot of my produce comes from half the year. Those are just my food ways. I still eat too much take-out and don’t cook as much as I could or should, just like you. (My family came home from Thanksgiving-weekend-shopping and pigged out on fast-food french fries just last Saturday.) But if you see me cooking with "weird" ingredients in the videos or recipes, now you know why.

Oh, and my blood pressure’s fine. As are my cholesterol levels. My BP has dropped several points – and probably as you might have guessed, I’ve also dropped several dress sizes. (Yes, if you can believe it, as fat as I am in the videos – I used to be even fatter!) I want to be healthy, not thin, and that’s why I eat – and cook – the way I do.

Substitutions

For the most part, the only substitution you will ever have to care about to follow along on cookcheap.org is that of whole wheat flour for white flour.

Whole wheat flour has two major cooking differences from wheat flour: it absorbs more liquid, and it requires longer cooking. So if I’m using it, I usually end up adding a little more liquid to the recipe because otherwise the flour would be dry; and I tend to add a few minutes (on average five) to the cooking time of the recipe so that the flour cooks. This is part of the benefit of learning to actually cook. You can adjust the recipes to your own needs, if you decide to cook vegetarian or vegan, if you have a kid with an allergy, or if you avoid certain ingredients for health reasons.

Once again, you’re watching me cook food I eat myself. So you’ll see me cook with whole wheat flour. If you’re using white flour – which is cheaper and stays good in the pantry longer – you might need to add a little less liquid or cook the food for slightly less time. You can handle it. That’s what learning to cook is all about. The first time you make a recipe you might have to fuss a bit and figure out what your own adjustments are, either to make it "come out" right or for your own tastes. I have a stack of recipe printouts from the web with handwritten notes on how I do it. Eventually I’m sure you will too.

I still think it’s cheaper as well as healthier to cook your own food. I buy white 100% whole wheat flour (a white version that’s a little prettier to look at and a little better for bread baking) from the Trader Joe’s near me for $3 a 5-lb bag. I pay about $1.10 for three packets of yeast. I make a no-knead bread that uses half a packet of yeast per loaf. I can essentially make six filling, healthy, yummy loaves of bread for $4.10. Where else can you get that kind of a deal on bread?

So don’t use your special health requirements as a reason to pay too much for food. Balance your budget. Feed your family. Cook cheap.