Caves, clubs, coconut aminos

Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories convinced me I'd be better off with a lot less sugar and flour in my life. His 1200 dense but readable pages set out the history of nutritional research – research that shows that fat isn't as bad for you as you've probably heard, and simple carbohydrates are a whole lot worse.

I don't much photograph my food, so have a cave painting instead

Why would that be? If you read up on low carb, you'll soon run into someone saying that "for most of human history, we didn't eat refined flour and sugar; our diet changed, but we haven't evolved to adapt to our new food environment." We might live in highrises, but inside we're still cavemen.

But Marlene Zuk's Paleofantasy convinced me that the evolutionary justification for low carb is sabretoothed hogwash. Humans, she says, have indeed continued to evolve since the stone age. She dismisses a variety of back-to-the-cave schemes in hilarious detail — most of the chapters can be summed up as "our ancestors did X in a variety of ways, and research has shown that genes related to X have changed since then." (Note that this doesn't mean that Zuk's disproved the research that Taubes cites — if there's evidence showing, for example, that consumption of flour and sugar is linked to "diseases of civilization", that still shows a link between the diet and the resulting health problems, even if that link can't be blamed on human evolution grinding to a halt after the stone age.)

The evolutionary argument is frequently put for ward for low carb, but it's also the entire justification for the paleo diet, which eliminates anything cavemen didn't have – dairy, for example, and soy.

Practical matters

I have not been able to find a good low-carb cookbook –too many low-carb recipes rely on gimmicky ingredients like xanthan gum to imitate starchy dishes. But when a friend recommended Melissa Joulwan's paleo cookbook Well Fed, I was delighted to see that none of the recipes used flour or sugar. They're not necessarily low carb – you'll see sweet potato and sugary fruit juice in the ingredients – but most of them are, and many more could be.

I didn't work through Well Fed as systematically as I have other cookbooks, since several recipes call for a gas grill (a gas grill!) – but I've made at least one variant (and sometimes many more) of every entrée that didn't need to be grilled, at least one variant of every sauce or spice blend, and about two-thirds of the veggie sides.

Whatever, cave dudes

I didn't follow Joulwan's recipes to the letter, either. Well Fed eschews soy and peanuts – the cavemen didn't have them! – and uses coconut oil where a more typical cookbook would use olive oil. Since I didn't care about whether some hypothetical Ogg the Trilobyte Basher could figure out how to eat a peanut, I sometimes substituted soy sauce when Well Fed called for coconut aminos1, and sugar-free peanut butter for sunflower seed or almond butter. When my jar of coconut oil ran out, I switched to olive oil. (The coconut oil also made every dish taste lightly of coconut, which isn't unpleasant, but was occasionally an odd contrast with the rest of the flavors.)

Many of the recipes first appeared on Joulwan's blog – I've linked to them even though they sometimes differ from the versions in the cookbook (which are what I actually tried).

One formula, a dozen sauces

Joulwan suggests doing most of your cooking in a single evening, and assembling quick hot plates or salads with pre-cooked meats and vegetables on most weeknights. Well Fed suggests forty specific combinations of precooked meat and vegetables with spices or sauces.

I made quite a few of her suggested hot plates, and even more of my own. The combinations that include sauces are great, but the ones that just sprinkle spices onto the meat and veggies get samey fast, even if you're using Moroccan ras el hanout one night and Chinese five-spice powder the next.

The Thai-style sunshine sauce is especially tasty in the quick hot plates – it calls for sunflower butter, and not only did I go through a jar of it in the course of a few months, I also went on to make it with almond butter and wicked anti-paleo peanut butter. (Just look for a peanut butter without sugar. Or cane syrup. Or evaporated cane juice. Or any of the other 999 names of sugar.)

Joulwan dreamed up a terrific cornstarch-free stir fry sauce, too.

Substitutes for substitutes

Specialized cuisines – vegan, low-fat, low-carb – often look for substitutes for common ingredients, and they're generally pretty disappointing; with the exception of tofu dogs, they don't usually have the taste or texture of what they're replacing, and they just remind you of what you're not eating.

Well Fed has its share of substitutions – but (for the most part), while they don't taste quite like what they replace, they have a good texture and a flavor that complements the rest of the dish. Joulwan's steamed spaghetti squash isn't a slimy mass of strings, and is a great noodle replacement in her pad thai. Like her zucchini noodles, they won't fool anyone into thinking they're eating a bowl of pasta, but they're a satisfying dish that you can pile sauces and toppings on. They work in the same niche as pasta.

Similarly, the jicama hash and jicama "potato" salad aren't identical their equivalents. The jicama is still firm even after bubbling in the crockpot overnight, and has its own distinctive flavor — but it combines well with all the things potatoes are good with.

Joulwan does share the low-carb community's delusion that cauliflower can be substituted for, well, anything. Her various cauliflower rice recipes aren't bad, but its cabbagy taste isn't quite as neutral as rice. The BBQ pork fried "rice" with cauliflower has a nice texture but it's more of a way to stretch a small amount of meat with finely-chopped veggies than imitation rice; the combination is tasty, and it'd be good if you're in the mood for Chinese, but maybe not if you specifically want fried rice.

Would totally make again

Well Fed has a lot of tasty recipes – I was especially happy to find so many that can conveniently be made on weeknights or for a quick lunch.

Well Fed is a small cookbook, but there are far more recipes here than you might think; some recipes have as many as a dozen variants. The four tuna salads, for example, are all have distinctly different flavors. (The Waldorf tuna salad includes pecans, but the other three, I found, benefit from a little minced celery to add crunch.)

No cauliflower rice in the maki rolls, thank God – just typical sushi fillings rolled directly into the nori. Unsurprisingly, these taste great with soy sauce and wasabi. Watch out, though – without the rice, the avocado lubricates the fillings and they're prone to squirting out. Keep in mind when you cut the rolls that every piece is one bite whether you like it or not.

The cumin-tomato sauce the Moroccan meatballs are stewed in is so flavorful that you can get away with substituting beef for lamb in the meatballs. Joulwan suggests breaking an egg to cook in the hot sauce, which turns out a lot like a meatier shakshouka meatballs. It's a worthwhile invention (and suggests that anything that's good in shakshouka would also be good here).

I don't remember if I ever cooked lamb before I got the Game of Thrones cookbook. All these years, I've been missing out on dishes like homemade rogan josh, with its fiery spices that complement the distinctive flavor of the lamb. In contrast, the Czech meatballs are less spicy, but what spice is there gives them a distinctly Eastern European flavor.

I held off making the citrus carnitas because Joulwan said they "could supersede bacon as your favorite use of pig", and I was afraid that a merely okay dish would feel like a huge disappointment. But these are absolutely good enough to make again and again (I already have). The spice level felt too low for me, though; doubling it is too much, but I haven't yet found just the right proportions. The ingredients are fine – it's just all a bit mild. (Oh, and I can't consistently keep the pork from falling apart at the end.)

WOW, does the char siu have a lot of steps – cover the pork, uncover it, turn up the heat, baste it, put your left leg in, your left leg out, and wait a while at every interval. It is worth it but this is not a weeknight dish.

The salmon à l'afrique du nord (shouldn't that be "saumon"?), with its Moroccan spices, and the country captain chicken, with its raisins and bacon, both complement the flavors of their respective meats without smothering them.

OK, might as well

I could see making some of the other Well Fed recipes again if I found a key ingredient on sale, or had leftovers to use up, but I don't think I'd be excited about making them again.

The machacado with eggs looked delicious in the pictures, but was bland on the plate – perhaps because none of the nearby Mexican groceries carried carne seca?

I've made three variants of the Scotch eggs as packed lunches for conventions. The crumbled pork rinds do give them a crisply bread-crumb-like crunch … when they're right out of the oven, but they go soggy in packed lunches, so I gave up on them. They're a nice alternative to grabbing a restaurant lunch on the road, but at home, I'd just as soon make something else.

I had to make the pork recipes a couple of times to have enough left over for egg foo yong, only to decide I'd just as soon have the leftovers. The shepherd's pie, cottage pie, etc. (and be not fooled: historically the terms were interchangeable, and the beef vs. lamb distinction is a modern invention), with mashed cauliflower on top of ground beef, was perfectly fine – once again, the mashed cauliflower won't be mistaken for mashed potato, but it's a pleasant contrast in texture and flavor to the ground meat and veggies below. (I was out of carrots and used apples instead.)

Nah

The meat and spinach muffins couldn't be separated from the muffin cups they were baked in. What a mess.

Money well spent

Well Fed isn't specifically a low carb cookbook, but there are lots of good low carb recipes here, from simple, fast one-pot main dishes to more elaborate company fare. I expect I'll be cooking from it for a long time to come.

1. Actual conversation in my kitchen:

"Do cavemen have soy sauce?"

"No, they have coconut aminos. It's more expensive."

"But we have soy sauce, right?"

"Fucking A"

(back to article)

2. As in the spicy Mexican chocolate sauce for meat, not as in sauce made of moles. (back to article)

Written on October 18, 2015