Monday, January 11, 2010

Sweet Salad

UPDATE 1/13/10:  This salad is just as good without the figs!  I love the lemon-walnut oil dressing.  So simple, so good!  Give it a try!

Okay, I am off the crack.  I have been sugar free for over a week (minus whatever sugary sauce is on unagi and Japanese salad during my sushi cheat meal).  It has been hard.  I saw a great comparison of sugar to heroin--both come from a plant (sugar cane or beet/poppy), both are refined (molasses/opium), refined again (brown sugar/morphine), and a final time into pure, white crystals (white sugar/heroin).  They both have seriously addictive properties and alter your body--mentally and physically.  Seems extreme, but it isn't a bad comparison.  I have been cranky and craving sugar really badly.  So bad I even cried about it as my mind filled with "why me's" and tried to break me down.  But I have resisted.  I still have my fruit, but I am cutting back.  Today's fig salad was last week's indulgence and since I can't rule out its contribution to my tiredness and headaches by late afternoon (probably related to my sugar detox), I can't indulge on dried fruit as often.  It is candy, unfortunately.  Delicious, natural, healthy and even-better-than-sugar candy, but to my body it is candy nonetheless.

I definitely recommend this DELICIOUS salad.  It has helped curb my sugar appetite and has been a good segue food back into the lower glycemic living that is where I want to be.  Give it a try when you are craving a sweet salad with a lemony kick!

But first, let's talk ingredients: figs, walnuts, and lemons.  When I first laid my eyes upon figs, they scared me.  Outwardly they reminded me of pears, but butterfly when cut into gummy-looking flowers.  Exactly how do you eat them?  On my quest to boldly expand my culinary horizons, I bought dried figs. They looked safe.  Lovingly prepared by a motherly Turkish woman on the label and all tightly packed into a pretty disk-shape.  Safe.  At first nibble, I was sold.  When dried, they have such a sweetness, just like sugar, but with taste!  Reminded me of the fig newtons my grandfather always broke out when we came to visit as children.  I remember being slightly miffed that he didn't keep chocolate chips and oreos on hand for his grandchildren (what was he thinking?), but the "grown-up" fig newton cookies were pretty damn good.  I loved to eat the filling out of the cookie or eat the cookie without touching the filling.  Oh the games...  At least I was enjoying my food.  Too bad they were nowhere near healthy, "grown-up" or not...

Figs are my sugary treat when I am forgoing sugar (even honey and agave, they count as sugar too).  Figs are relatively high on the glycemic index (61) and glycemic load scales (16) (see my upcoming post for more details about those--I know, I know, I keep saying that, but I swear it is coming!  It is hard to whittle down such a huge topic to present it here).  Numbers over 50 for the glycemic index and over 10 for the load are considered high.  But that is to be expected when you dry a fruit to its sugary state.  The paleo diet doesn't recommend dried fruits for their candy-like nature, but when weaning off the sugar, to me at least, they are an acceptable crutch, in moderation (which I really have to remember!).  Figs are high in potassium, antioxidants, and fiber.  They have been studied in correlation with reduced bone density loss, and high fiber fruits such as figs have been correlated with reduced risk of breast cancer.  For more details on the health benefits of figs, check out this site.   When choosing dried varieties, try to avoid those containing sulfites, a chemical preservative to which some people are highly sensitive, especially those with asthma.  Go organic to make sure there aren't any sulfites used.  Some people also have an adverse reaction to oxalates found in some foods, including figs.  Oxalates are natural molecules in some fruits, nuts, and seeds that can form crystals with calcium and potentially harm the kidney and gallbladder.  The conditions requiring restriction of oxalate-containing foods are rare, as is overconsumption of oxalates.  Interestingly, oxalates usually move through the gut and are metabolized by your gut flora without incident.  However, when there are absorption issues from a damaged digestive tract, undigested oxalate can move out of the digestive tract and into the bloodstream, thus creating some problems when it crystalizes and gets lodged in tight places.  What is one cause of digestive tract damage leading to a "leaky gut"?  I will give you one guess.  More on oxalate issues here and at the low oxalate diet website.

Back to our ingredients.  Where were we?  Ah, yes, walnuts.  Walnuts pair superbly with figs.  They are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which account for their anti-inflammatory benefits, cardiovascular protection, and cognitive boost.  Walnuts contain antioxidants that inhibit cancer growth and promote immune function.  For more on the health benefits of walnuts, check out this site.  The Paleo Diet book by Loren Cordain advices us to eat walnuts because they are rich in monounsaturated fats which lower cholesterol, risk of heart disease, and risk of cancer.  They are also rich in polyunsaturated fats that also lower cholesterol.  Cordain recommends walnut oil second only to flaxseed oil* (and mustard seed oil, which is a hard to find oil in the US).  He promotes a balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids, trying to achieve a ratio of between 2-3 to 1.  Omega 6 is unhealthy in excess and accounts for too high a portion of our dietary omegas, coming from highly-concentrated sources like cereal grains, grain-fed meat, and vegetable oils.  Even on the paleo diet it is always a push-pull to keep omega 6 fatty acids low.  They are in nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and even lean, grassfed meat.  However, omega 3 is very beneficial as discussed above with its recovery boost and protective benefits.  So we are always trying to counterbalance the omega 6 in our diet by consuming more omega 3 in the form of fish oil, fatty fish, and nuts.  In general nuts have too high a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3, but walnuts are a good choice with a closer to ideal ratio of 4.2.  Read more about fatty acids and nuts on the paleo diet website.  Bottom line: walnuts are one of the best nuts to eat!

Finally, lemons.  Lemons are interesting when looking into acid-base balance, an important component of the paleo diet.  While they (and other citrus fruits) seem acidic, the body treats them as a base.  Why is this important?  Ideally, we want to balance the acids and bases in our diet because if we don't, the body has to compensate and pull what it needs from the body to balance it out.  Osteoporosis is a leaching of calcium, a base, from the bones.  Many of our foods are acids and only fruit and veggies are bases.   To quote Loren Cordain, paleo diet founder:
Bone health is substantially dependent on dietary acid/base balance.  All foods upon digestion ultimately must report to the kidney as either acid or base.  When the diet yields a net acid load (such as low-carb fad diets that restrict consumption of fruits and vegetables), the acid must be buffered by the alkaline stores of base in the body.  Calcium salts in the bones represent the largest store of alkaline base in the body and are depleted and eliminated in the urine when the diet produces a net acid load.  The highest acid-producing foods are hard cheeses, cereal grains, salted foods, meats, and legumes, whereas the only alkaline, base-producing foods are fruits and vegetables.  Because the average American diet is overloaded with grains, cheeses, salted processed foods, and fatty meats at the expense of fruits and vegetables, it produces a net acid load and promotes bone demineralization.  By replacing hard cheeses, cereal grains, and processed foods with plenty of green vegetables and fruits, the body comes back into acid/base balance which brings us also back into calcium balance.  The goal is to avoid a net acid load on your kidneys.
In addition to promoting bone demineralization, a net acid-producing diet also contributes to the following maladies and illnesses: calcium kidney stones, age-related muscle wasting, hypertension, stroke, asthma and exercise-induced asthma.
To read more from this article and check out the ratings of different foods, look here.  The bottom line: we are trying to load up on fruits and veggies to counterbalance the acidic load of meat and salt in our paleo diet.  When life gives you lemons, make salad dressing!

* Flaxseed oil intake is a topic under much debate.  Check out Mark's Daily Apple for some introductory information on the issues.  I will try to put together a post on the findings in the future!

Fig Salad with Lemon-Walnut Dressing
Crunchy greens and a sweet and tart dressing make this an elegant salad!

Prep time: less than 15 minutes

1 lemon
walnut oil
dried figs to taste (I buy the light skinned dried fig rounds from Turkey--they are superior to the mission figs I have tried, to me anyway)
greens of your choice  (I am partial to peppery baby arugula, which takes this salad to a whole 'nother level)

This is crazy simple: just plop your greens in a bowl (the more the better).  Tear up the dried figs into small pieces (say 4-8 per dried fig) and add to the bowl.  In another bowl or sealable container to store leftover dressing for another use, squeeze the lemon juice and add at least 1T of walnut oil.  Mix or swirl to incorporate.  Taste it and add more walnut oil as desired to balance the lemon's acidity.  Once you are happy, drizzle your dressing over your greens, as much as you feel necessary for equal coating and taste.  Toss to mix.  Finally, devour your tasty, sweet salad!

Serving Suggestions:
Since I always have meat when I have carbs (something I took from the Zone), I usually add meat to my salad, such as rotisserie chicken.  DELICIOUS!

Figs on FoodistaFigs

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