Since I am a diabetic who is trying (successfully, so far) to remain unmedicated, I do a lot of reading and keep a sharp eye out for new low-carb recipes. If you were cynical, you could call it a Quest for Bread. You might call it trying to have my cake and eat it, too. If you were truly cruel, you might ask me if I’ve tried exercising, because you’d heard that exercise was important for diabetics, too. But we’re not going to go there today.
Working in library administration, I get to see all the new books that come in before they even get to the libraries. It’s a huge perk. I am happy to see a lot of books coming out lately for people like me who are looking for alternatives to the average American diet, which is fairly carbtastic. There are many more low-carbohydrate resources out there than there were when Dr. Atkins was alive, and now there is a movement called the Paleo Diet that has opened up new avenues for low-carbers. At the same time, many Americans are discovering that the gluten in the massive amounts of wheat that they eat each day is making them sick. The cookbook writers have been busy cornering the gluten-free market as well, and some of these recipes can work for a low-carb diet, too. Since I’ve been working through what’s available for a couple of decades, I will try to sort through the different theories and present the good, the bad, and the crazy from all these plans, including one brand-new cookbook that was a surprise winner this week.
The first low-carbohydrate cookbook I purchased was Fran McCullough’s Low-Carb Cookbook, published in 1997. Ms. McCullough was a chef who wanted to bring some better food to the Atkins scene that was then filled with protein isolate and other chemical-sounding ingredients. It was good, although sometimes difficult and limited. These were pre-Splenda days, after all. The next one became a daily companion for a long time: Dana Carpender’s 500 Low-Carb Recipes. Although Ms. Carpender does use some Frankenfood ingredients, not all of the recipes do, and this hefty cookbook contains lots of family-friendly recipes from appetizers to desserts. Many of my most basic “substitution” recipes come from this cookbook, including ways to use cauliflower instead of rice, potatoes (“fauxtatoes”), and grits. These are really delicious recipes that I’ve used with company many times, and no one has been the wiser: pumpkin pie, shrimp and “grits,” and many more. Dana Carpender published several other cookbooks after that, and I own three more of them. My next favorite chef, though, was George Stella, who had a low-carb cooking show on the Food Network for a while. His two cookbooks, Livin’ Low-Carb and Eating Stella Style have great recipes, although the books themselves fell to pieces pretty quickly. The first one, Livin’ Low-Carb, relied too much on soy flour for baking, and I’m still skittish about the inconclusive research on whether soy disturbs the thyroid or contributes to breast cancer. I tend to go lightly on soy, although I have an awesome chocolate mousse recipe that uses soft tofu. No, really. It’s delicious. Anyhow, George Stella’s New York Style Cheesecake is the definition of perfect cheesecake. Other winners include cauliflower “mac” and cheese, baked (black soy) beans, and Anaheim Shrimp Scampi, which features asiago cheese and avocado.
After weeding through the low-carb cookbooks, trying to avoid the artificial ingredients and eat more real food, I read about the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet is usually low-carb, because the point of this diet is to eat the way our ancestors did. No, that does not mean that if your ancestors were Scottish, you should live on haggis. Go further back. The Paleo people believe that the human body was not created did not evolve to eat grains, because hunter-gatherers did not stay in one place long enough to plant, reap, thresh, etc. They believe that we should eat only what would have been available to us in prehistoric times. Considering the way we’ve bred wheat to contain ever more endosperm—and therefore carbohydrates and gluten—I think I can agree with them to a point. That being said, there seem to be some convenient inconsistencies here and there. For example, they seem to use a lot of coconut products. Everything but the squeal, as it were. They use coconut meat in all forms, coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut butter. When I think of coconut, I think of islands, but I looked it up, and you might see coconuts in some parts of the middle east that we might generously call Mesopotamia and northern Africa, where humans seem to have first shown up, no matter the origin story. On the other hand, I can’t imagine my ancestors in France, Ireland, and Scotland eating coconuts. They do allow maple syrup, though, which is surely not Mediterranean. Naturally, I substitute Splenda for all sweeteners, which would make a Paleo advocate shudder. There is some very sound science behind the Paleo movement, as our culture has become ridiculously addicted to foods made from grains, and the recipes can be used by celiac disease patients, diabetics (with caution on sweeteners and dried fruits, both of which are minimal in the recipes), and anyone interested in good health. Obviously, all of the recipes contain whole foods, since Twinkies were not available in the Paleolithic Era. The absence of dairy makes me sad, though, and I must confess to throwing some cheese into a couple of dishes. The movement started with scientific books and then branched out to cookbooks. I own the cookbook Paleo Comfort Foods, by Julie Sullivan Mayfield, and have made several good dishes from it, but if I were going to be serious about the Paleo diet and could only own one book, it would probably be the new Practical Paleo, by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC. This is an all-in-one guide to the theory, followed by recipes for the last two-thirds of the book. Ms. Sanfilippo goes through symptoms of grain intolerance, reasons to eat Paleo, how to shop Paleo and stock a Paleo pantry, and a great deal more wonderful information, presented in almost bullet-point fashion. There are two-page spreads of lists of food, tear-out guides to this and that, diagrams of intestines, and everything else one would desire. The recipes are well done, with pictures for each dish. The only drawback is the size: this huge book will break your arm if you’re not careful, so be sure to have a solid surface available.
After William Davis’ surprise hit, Wheat Belly, everyone discovered that they were gluten-intolerant. (“Surprise” because it reads like a textbook. Trust me. I love his message, but I couldn’t get through the book. However, this is what you hand to your scientific friends who scoff at your low-carb diet. Impeccable research.) This coordinates beautifully, of course, with the Paleo Diet movement, too, so the resources are getting plentiful for finely-tailored low-carb diets. Cookbooks for gluten-free recipes are enjoying their day in the sun at the moment, and many of them are excellent. The caution for diabetics is that gluten-free does not necessarily mean low-carb, since the next place to go is to other grains, particularly rice, but also quinoa, amaranth, and others. These grains have just as many or more carbohydrates as wheat, so you must be cautious. Happily, there have been some inroads into nut flours, since they are healthful and natural, besides being tastier than rice. Yes, I know, more fat and calories, but these will be treats, so don’t eat too much. Just this week, Peter Reinhart and Denene Wallace released the new cookbook, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking. I pulled it off the “new books” carts and leafed through it, expecting rice flour, but no, it only uses nut flours. It seems that Mr. Reinhart is a baker of some renown (who knew?) who has lots of regular baking cookbooks out. However, his wife was recently diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease (Let’s just pause here to consider the heartbreak of being diagnosed with Celiac’s when your husband is a baker.), and he wanted to try low-carb eating, so he developed recipes that take all of these things into account. He leaves it to you to use Splenda or stevia as your sweetener, since you can keep it completely natural with stevia. I don’t care for the taste, so I’m going with Splenda. I brought the book home, made the Pecan Sandies, and immediately bought the book on Amazon. Seriously, I almost never buy books anymore, since I can get almost anything I want at the library, but this book is great. No protein isolate. Real ingredients in the hands of a master baker. I’ve been looking for this book for a long time. More results to come!
So, that’s my roundup of old and new low-carbish resources. I hope it’s helpful to those of you with similar needs. Of course, if you are thin and healthy and have no digestive issues, have a cookie. Just not in front of me.