The Whole Story on Whole Wheat Flour

I’m a bit of Jane-come-lately to the whole wheat flour party. While I’ve always enjoyed the heartiness of a great loaf of whole wheat bread, other baked goods made with whole wheat flour always brought to mind hockey pucks rather than delicate treats. But, thanks to better availability of all kinds of specialty flours, including different types of whole wheat flours, those old assumptions are falling by the wayside.

whole-wheat-flourOf course, there’s a nutritional advantage to using whole wheat flour. It’s a whole grain, because the flour is milled for the entire wheat kernel and includes:

  • The bran, a source of fiber, B vitamins, minerals and protein
  • The germ, which is also high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fats. Because whole wheat flours have some fat in them, they can turn rancid; store them in the freezer.
  • The endosperm, which is the white, starchy portion of the kernel. Refined white flours–like all-purpose, bread flour, pastry flour or cake flour–are milled from the endosperm and have been stripped of the nutrient-rich bran and germ.

These days, you’ll find a range of whole wheat flours at health food stores (especially in the bulk bins) and even at your local supermarket. To learn more about the differences between these flours, I talked to Suzanne Cote, a spokeswoman for King Arthur Flour. Here are the different types you’ll find:

Whole wheat flour. This is milled from hard red spring wheat, which gives it a characteristic dark color and assertive flavor (some call it nutty, others find it bitter). It’s a  “strong” flour, meaning it’s high in protein. That gives baked goods structure, which is great for a hearty whole wheat bread but can make more delicate items like muffins or cookies tough.

White whole wheat flour. Milled from hard white spring wheat, this flour has a creamier color, softer texture and milder flavor than regular whole wheat flour. Yet, “the fiber and nutrition are very similar,” says Cote. It’s also a high-protein flour, so it’s a good candidate for breads and doughs. It has become my go-to whole wheat flour, and I love using it in pizza dough.

Whole wheat pastry flour. Sometimes also called graham flour (which refers to the grind), this is made from soft white winter wheat, so it has less protein than regular or white whole wheat flour. Use this for tender baked goods, including cookies, muffins, brownies and snack cakes.

But you don’t have to banish all-purpose flour from your kitchen. “Depending on what your application is, you can play with different wheat flours” says Cote. “There’s nothing wrong with blending.”

If you’re adapting an existing recipe, start by substituting a whole wheat flour for one-quarter to three-quarters of all-purpose, Cote suggests.

“The thing to remember about whole wheat flour is that it’s a really thirsty flour compared to all-purpose,” she adds. If your batter or dough looks a bit dry, add a little more liquid.

Armed with this knowledge, I’m happy to use whole wheat flour in a lot more baked goods. Is it ideal for everything? No. You’d still want to use highly refined cake flour, for example, to make a lighter-than-air angel food cake. But for everyday baking–cookies, quick breads and these muffins–I’ll turn to whole wheat.

Blackberry-Ginger Muffins with Hazelnut Streusel

Bake a batch of these muffins on the weekend, and you’ll have no excuse for skipping breakfast during the week. Whole wheat pastry flour is milled from a soft white winter wheat that makes it a great go-to flour for everyday baking (try it in Lia’s Thin and Chewy Oatmeal-Flax Cookies). It yields whole wheat muffins and other baked goods with a nice, tender texture. As with any muffin batter, whisk the dry and wet ingredients together until just combined. Don’t overmix, or your muffins will be tough. You can substitute different berries for the blackberries, or even use frozen berries.


Think of Food as Food

Several years ago I was interviewing the highly-respected Greek nutrition scientist Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou. She had studied thousands of Greeks over a span of several decades in order to understand the nutritional effects of a Mediterranean diet (defined by an abundance of healthy oils, whole grains, vegetables and legumes) on long-term health. “So just how healthy is olive oil?” I asked, eager to codify the benefits of each food group for the article I was writing.

food as food“Olive oil is an essential part of what makes the Mediterranean diet healthy,” she answered. But as I scribbled notes and scanned studies, she continued on. “If we look at one nutrient at a time, though, we miss the way they interact. It’s a cocktail of everything that makes this type of diet so good.”

As I tried to deconstruct food into its building blocks, Dr. Trichopoulou kept bringing them back into context, talking about how tasty greens are when sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a squeeze of lemon, or how Greeks like to snack on simmered beans. “It’s much more effective to look at the health of your whole lifestyle rather than individual foods.”

That interview changed the way I thought of healthy eating. Yet amid the constant barrage of diet and nutrition advice here in America I sometimes find myself slipping back into that old reductive view of food. Avocados and olive oil cease to be really tasty things and instead turn into “good sources of monounsaturated fats” (with a tinge of guilt because, well, they’re fats). Tomatoes morph from luscious little orbs into things that are “packed with lycopene,” and whole grain bread goes from being a textural marvel to being “heart healthy.”

While it’s important to understand the impact that certain food groups and nutrients have on our bodies–and we have and will continue looking at them from several different angles on –what Dr. Trichopoulou taught me is that it’s even more important to carry that information back up to 35,000 feet and remember that, ultimately, if your plate is full of things that didn’t come out of a box or container it’s probably a healthy meal.

Most important of all, though, is to remember to think of food as food.

Body. Soul. Planet. Part 1

As practically everyone in the Western world knows, today the blockbuster book Eat Pray Love hits theaters with Julia Roberts center screen. Like the book’s author Elizabeth Gilbert, we all have our journeys, and we all have our epiphanies along the way. Here are some postcards from mine that led me here. Now. Nourished. This is Part 1 of 3.


Whoosh, writing this was tough. My journey to being nourished started with, quite frankly, a whole lot of pain. These are moments in time from the five years that turned my life upside down.

June, 1994

I’m sitting at my desk at work in Manhattan trying not to wince while my knees throb so palpably I can almost here a thRUM, thRUM, thRUM coming from them. I try to stay focused on the screen in front of me and not freak out at the little voice in my head that says, “Oh my God, if you feel like this at 23, just think how much you’ll be hurting at 40 … 50 … 65!”

Most mornings I have trouble twisting the cap off the toothpaste.

I feel ancient and fragile and frail and … fat. Not obese, but fat like an overstuffed-cushion-straining-the-seams fat. With all this pain and the discomfort of too much me, I feel like I’m somewhere—in someone’s body—I’m not meant to be.

My doctors don’t know what the hell to make of me. I’ve had blood tests and MRIs, been shuttled from specialist to specialist and given cortisone shots in both my shoulders and hips, and they still don’t know what’s wrong with me.

July, 1997

It’s a summer day in San Francisco and I’m bundled in my woolies at the office of my new rheumatologist. I’ve been Christopher’s wife just three months. I’m away from friends and family and everything I’ve known, and now, based on what my doctor has just told me, I have a new title, too.

Lupus patient.

Part of me is petrified by what he’s saying; I have a disease that, if not kept in check, may kill me. As my doctor tells me how important it is that I “adopt a healthy lifestyle,” the little voice inside me howls, “HOOOWWW?”

Part of me, though, is relieved, too. The pain I’ve been feeling all these years finally has a name. There’s something we can do about it, medication he can prescribe.

So I do as he says and start taking pills, stay out of the sun and try to get a grip on my new reality.

December, 1997

It’s just days before Christmas, and Christopher and I are packing for a trip to Paris. I am busting out excited. After coping with the lupus diagnosis and adjusting to the drugs, I’m ready for something good.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s my doctor. “I got your pap test back and I have some news.” I gulp. “It has come back irregular. Highly irregular.”

“What does that mean?” I ask, feeling my legs turn to jelly.

“We’ll have to do more tests to find out what it means for sure, so let’s have you come back in.”

“But I’m leaving tomorrow for Paris.”

Silence. “Oh. Well, that’s fine. This can wait a few weeks.”

“You’re sure I shouldn’t be worried?”

“No, no. Don’t be worried. Just go enjoy your trip and we’ll get you in for more tests when you get back.”

It’s strange to look back and have such incredibly dichotomous memories of that trip. In the photos, I’m beaming—I’m with my beloved husband who has never been to France, in my old stomping grounds from when I was a student at the Sorbonne, in a city I adore.

But I also remember a deep, gnawing, unabating terror that’s invisible in the photographs. I was convinced that this would be the last trip Christopher and I would ever take together. As we sipped café au laits and nibbled on croissants, I already felt too much of a burden to my new groom to share these new woes.

So I kept them to myself.

December, 1998

It has been a year since that phone call from my doctor and I’m lying on the pullout couch with a pillow over my stomach. My mom and Christopher are taking turns keeping our puppy at bay. Instinctively, he wants to care for me after my hysterectomy.

Month after month of various tests turned up absolutely nothing until, a few weeks ago, I’d asked my gynecologist to take another look at the original results before closing the case. She’d called back two days later with a grave note to her voice.

“I hate to say this, Lia, but the previous lab misdiagnosed. You don’t have what we’ve been looking for all year.”

“Well that’s good.”

“You have something much worse.”

Forget jelly knees. I just collapsed. “What does that mean?”

“You have adenocarcinoma in situ, and they’re highly unpredictable, pre-cancerous cells. I’m going to set you up with an oncologist to get a second opinion, but I think you and Christopher need to talk about whether or not you want to have children. If you want to have a child, you need to do it now—and it will still be risky. Otherwise, I’d like to schedule you for a hysterectomy next week.”

I’m in such deep shock that I don’t feel anything. The cloud cushions me, in fact, until Christopher gets my call, hops on a plane in Maryland, walks through our door and holds me. Then I fall apart.

To this day, every time a new doctor looks at my chart their eyes pop and then they look at me and tell me how incredibly lucky I am that someone caught the diagnosis. That I’m lucky to be here, sitting across from them, alive.

December, 1999

It’s two days before the turn of the Millennium, and Christopher and I drive into Tahoe. All the cars have skis on their roof racks; we have beach chairs.

The week before, we’d put everything we owned into storage (or into the back of our truck, which now sports a nifty two-level storage system and chili pepper drapes thanks to Christopher) and moved out of our apartment. We’ve decided to take a life sabbatical and drive to Costa Rica.

The decision, like most huge life decisions, was long in coming and then made in an instant. Christopher was miserable with his job and questioning … everything. What was happiness? What did we really need? What are we here for?

And I didn’t have any stomach left for wasting time with things that sucked the life out of us. I was tired of baby showers (which were a regular occurrence for my friends back then) turning into pity parties … and then having to grapple with the guilt accompanying the admission that I didn’t even really want to be a mom. I was tired of feeling tired from the lupus. Truth be told, I was pissed at my body.

We were on a bike ride in the Marin Headlands one day in April fantasizing about chucking it all and driving to Costa Rica and I just stopped and got off, right by the estuary, and said, “let’s do it. Let’s just say right now that we’ll just figure out a way to make it happen and do it.”

Eight months later we’re in Tahoe in the dead of winter with no home and beach chairs on our truck.

Click here for Part 2: Soul. My soulful awakening around food happened during a year abroad in Europe. The reverberations, though, lasted decades.

Sautéed Wheat Berries with Shrimp, Zucchini and Gremolata

This wheat berries recipe sort of sums up everything NOURISH Evolution stands for. The zucchini comes fresh from our garden (if you don’t have one of your own, you’ll likely be able to find zucchini that someone else has grown this time of year). The wheat berries are a relatively new whole grain discovery for me, full of flavor and hearty texture that’s so good for me my whole body goes ‘mmmm.’ The shrimp are caught wild or farmed sustainably here in the U.S. This is truly a dish to nourish body, soul, and planet.



Hatch Chiles!

I was trolling through the market last week, when a big display of Hatch chiles caught my eye. Of course, I greedily filled a bag with these spicy puppies, which are only in season for about month.

If you’ve ever found yourself in New Mexico, gobbling that state’s signature green sauce, you’ve eaten Hatch chiles.

The green chiles come from the dinky town of Hatch, N.M., and are a key ingredient in the area’s cuisine. The Hatch is prized for its meaty texture and subtle heat. It grows to about 6 inches and looks just like its descendant, the California Anaheim, but boasts much more complex flavor. Hatch chiles are a seasonal bargain–about $2 a pound, which is a whole lot of flavor for very little cash.

But here’s the thing about the Hatch: It has a fleeting season, harvested from late-July to (maybe) early-September, which contributes to its mystique. If you don’t stock up now, you’ll have to wait until next year’s harvest. All over New Mexico and the Southwest, people will buy 10, 20, 30 pounds or more and have them roasted. Then they freeze the chiles to use throughout the year.

“Although the roastings are most popular in all of the Southwest, there will be Hatch chile roastings through the U.S., including the Midwest, East Coast, and West Coast,” says Robert Schueller, of the produce distribution company Melissa’s.The company is on a bit of a mission to spread the Hatch love across America.

You can roast them yourself, too. Just arrange whole chiles on a foil-lined pan and broil for 15 minutes or until the skins are blackened (don’t forget to turn them halfway through). Toss ’em in a paper bag and seal; let them stand for 15 minutes so the steam can loosen their skins. Cool to room temperature, and then wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and freeze. You can thaw and peel the chiles as you need them. They’d be a great addition to Kurt’s Iowa City Chili.

The folks at Melissa’s even like to add Hatch chiles to chocolate chip cookies. If you’re feeling adventuresome, substitute a couple of chopped roasted chilies for candied bacon in our Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Bacon.

You just know I’m going try that…

Favorite Quick Summer Dishes

Summer always seems to imply a certain amount of leisureliness. Multicourse dinners that linger as twilight shimmers its way into dusk. Weekend picnics that morph from lunch right into supper.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

Sometimes work keeps you until well after the sun sets. Sometimes kiddos babble or fuss until you can barely pull together your thoughts, much less a full-blown meal. It just so happens that both of those scenarios came into play the other day, which prompted me to pull together a list of my lickety-split, go-to dishes.

Here are eight of our favorites that come together in 20 minutes or less.

Grilled Fish in Parchment with Cherry Tomatoes and Corn
Flaky white fish are tough to grill, but that doesn’t mean they need to be left out of the summer repertoire. Here’s how …

Open-Faced Tomato Avocado Sandwich
This sandwich embodies all sorts of nutritional virtues: whole grains, healthy fats and fresh vegetables. But really it does even more than that . . . it exemplifies how enjoyable even the simplest fresh food can be.

Obscenely Good Eggplant-Ricotta Tartine
This sandwich should come with a rating–and not because it’s topless (tartine is the French word for open-faced sandwich), but because it’s that good.

Honey-Roasted Fig Tartine with Prosciutto
Drizzling figs with honey and popping them under the broiler gives them an impromptu jammy quality; especially good paired with gooey cheese and crisp prosciutto.

Alberto’s Grilled Marinated Asparagus

Use this asparagus–easy and addictive–as part of an antipasto dish, tossed with pasta, or simply for snacking on out of hand.

Mississippi Caviar with Black-Eyed Peas & Cider Vinaigrette
This zesty, summery dish comes together in a flash when you use steamed, ready-to-eat black-eyed peas and precooked brown rice. A perfect summer salad or side.

Big City Souvlaki
When I lived on Corfu, souvlaki meant skewered cubes of grilled, marinated pork. But on a trip through Athens seeking out the best street food and mezedhes, we found this lamb version to be utterly addictive; moist and tender with just the right amount of spice.

Asian Pesto
I first developed this recipe out of desperation with an abundance of end-of-the-season Asian basil (it freezes wonderfully). Now it’s one of our summer staples … especially now that Noemi loves being in on the action.

What’s your go-to summertime supper that helps you unwind at the end of a hot, crazy day? Let us know!

Fresh … The Movie

There are some familiar faces in this movie to be sure: Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, for instance, and the ubiquitous Michael Pollan. There are the horrifying images (and reality) of feedlots and mass-produced … you name it. But there are also uplifting stories of people–farmers, business people, policy makers–who are taking a stand and getting creative to change things. One person I’m particularly interested in learning more about is Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, who’s empowering urban communities across the country to feed themselves through farming/gardening.

You can find FRESH screenings across the US. Or you can host your own. Anyone in Sonoma County interested? I’d love to see the whole shebang.

In the meantime, you can watch trailers and snippets here.

(Almost) Traditional Spanish Paella

Perhaps no dish conjures up more images of Spain than paella. Steeped in history and distinctive spices, to prepare this dish is to summon the soul of Spain and the spirit of her people.

For the uninitiated, paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”) is kind of a rice casserole, traditionally prepared in a special kind of pan (from which it takes its name) over an open fire. And it’s prepared by men.

Food carries a very strong cultural imperative in Spain, and customs are not swept away merely for the sake of political correctness. Throughout Spain, there are exclusive all-male clubs dedicated entirely to cooking and to the pleasures of the table.

Paella has at least 400 years of history, and its origins are in the province of Valencia, on the southeast coast. There, they grow the medium-grain Valencia rice that absorbs flavors wonderfully and is the key to the dish. The first paellas were made by peasants, using their native rice and whatever was available–often snails, onions, and that curious import from the New World, the tomato.

Since then paella has evolved into an enormous variety of dishes in every region of Spain, as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Many use saffron, but not all, and the countless combinations of ingredients include all manner of shellfish, game, fowl, mushrooms, and finfish.

The traditional method, using the wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed paella pan, cooks slowly over a well-regulated fire. Where Americans might have a clambake, Spanish families have beach cookouts where paella is made amid plenty of wine-fueled arguments about the right way to do it. Controlling the fire, stirring enough but not too much, when to add which ingredients so they cook completely without overcooking; all this is debated throughout the process because every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella. This method takes practice and patience, but is quite rewarding for all who partake.

Now for those who are looking for a shortcut, here’s a simpler method that cooks the rice and the seafood/chicken/chorizo mixture separately so it doesn’t require the constant attention of the traditional method. Breaking with tradition is not a sin of which I am often guilty, but I have to admit that this does produce quite a tasty dish … even if I would be shunned by my fellow male chefs in Spain.

Kurt’s Easy Paella

Starchy, medium-grain rice is the key here. Choose Valencia, Bomba or Calasparra if you can, though arborio is a good, easy-to-find substitute. The chorizo should be the dry-cured, smoked Spanish variety, not the spicier fresh Mexican type. Use a good sherry (never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink), and look for pimentón in specialty shops – it is sometimes called smoked paprika. If you want a richer-tasting paella, stir in a little cold butter after adding the peas.

1/4 cup Spanish olive oil, divided
2 onions, diced
2 cups chopped fresh tomato (about 3-4 medium)
2 cloves garlic, minced, divided
2 pinches saffron threads
3 cups Valencia rice (arborio is a good substitute)
4 cups  chicken stock, boiling
4 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds mussels, washed and debearded
1-1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled (tail left on), split and deveined
1/2 bone-in chicken, cut up (breast halved, leg, thigh, wing)
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, chopped
1/2 cup Oloroso or Amontillado sherry
1 cup fresh peas or thawed frozen peas
1 tablespoon pimentón (smoked paprika)
1/2 cup fresh herbs, chopped (parsley, oregano, rosemary & basil)
6-8 lemon wedges

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion, tomato, 1 tablespoon garlic and saffron, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes or until tender but not browned. Add the rice and stir constantly for 2-3 minutes more. Add the boiling stock, boiling water, and salt. Cover, reduce heat, and cook 25 minutes or until the rice is tender.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a saute pan. Sauté remaining 1 tablespoon garlic, mussels, shrimp, chicken, and sausage until the mussels open (depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in batches). Deglaze the pan with sherry (add sherry to pan, scraping to loosen any browned bits, and cook until sherry reduces by half). Stir in the peas and pimenton.

Place rice in a serving dish or platter and top with shellfish/meat mixture. Be sure to evenly distribute the liquid over the rice.

Sprinkle with pimentón and fresh herbs. Garnish with herb sprigs and lemon wedges.

Serves 12