If you read my in depth post on the paleo diet, then you already know it isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Long story short, a.) it overemphasizes animal foods b.) whole grains and legumes are perfectly nutritious, and they were consumed by paleolithic man and c.) it ignores this little thing called evolution.
Still, I think a plant-based version of the paleo diet can be quite healthy. Although I find the whole craze a bit annoying at times, there are a few things I appreciate about it. Paleo has enlightened many people to the dangers of processed food and the nutritional benefits of following a diet rooted in whole foods. More people are thinking of quality in choosing animal foods, looking grassfed, local and organic options. Personally, I’ve quite enjoyed reading paleo food blogs and learning all sorts of creative, tasty and nutritious substitutions for non-paleo ingredients, especially grains.
At supper club on Sunday, someone who was reading Grain Brain asked me my thoughts on the great grain debate. Glance at my recipe index and you’ll quickly see I’m not anti-grain. Whole grains are high in fiber, rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and there is a wealth of scientific evidence showing their health benefits. Refined grains on the other hand, like white rice and foods made with white flour, ought to be put in the same category of danger as added sugar.
That said, I think the average American would benefit from cutting back on grains, both refined and whole. The old school food guide pyramid placed grains at the base, where vegetables should have been. Even though the pyramid was (thankfully) phased out, most people still plan meals centered around grains, not vegetables, even those who follow an unprocessed diet. Consider this pretty typical day of eating: a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich on whole grain bread for lunch and a plate of whole grain pasta with vegetables for dinner. On their own, none of these meals are unhealthy per say, but overall, grains are the star, not vegetables.
Also, while whole grain flours are nutritious, they’re not the same as intact whole grains, like brown rice or oats. Whole grain flours may not raise blood glucose like added sugars or refined grains, but comparatively, they have more of a glycemic effect and the intact grain should be emphasized.
Lately I’ve noticed myself getting a little heavy handed on grains. Don’t you worry, I won’t be starting a grain-free diet anytime soon. But for the sake of variety and sneaking in some veg, I’ve been experimenting with more grain substitutes and the paleo food blogs have given me a wealth of material to work with. Here are some of my favorites:
Pasta // Try using a spiralizer (I want!) or mandolin to julienne raw vegetables into “noodles.” Although zucchini noodles (zoodles if you will) are most popular, summer squash, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and cucumbers all make a great noodle substitute. If you prefer not to break out any fancy equipment, simply bake or microwave a spaghetti squash. Check out the Asian food aisle for tofu noodles and kelp noodles.
Cereal // I’ve seen all sorts of homemade cereals made using nut meals which look pretty fantastic, but the whole point of cereal is that it’s supposed to be quick and easy. Puffed quinoa and amaranth are great options – both are grain-like seeds. Coconut flakes can stand in for grains in both cold and warm cereals. Chia seeds may be the ultimate, making a cold, creamy breakfast pudding that can be made in advance for a grab and go meal.
Bread // There are dozens of recipes for paleo sandwich bread using ingredients like nut butter, eggs, and coconut flour, but why not try veggies in lieu of bread. Grilled rounds of eggplant or roasted sweet potato rounds make the perfect delivery vehicle for crostini toppings. Grilled portabello mushrooms may not taste much like a hamburger bun (really, nothing like it), but they kind of look like them and would lighten the carb load of a bean burger.
Tortillas // Leafy greens, like collards or chard, are fantastic stand in for tortilla wraps. Plus, the sturdy greens won’t wilt during the day. I like to fill mine with a bean spread, avocado and plenty of raw veggies for a vegan lunch. For tacos, try romaine lettuce leaves, which are kinda sorta shaped like a taco shell. You can even make tortillas out of cauliflower or flax seeds!
Rice // Sure, you could do a grain-like seed, like quinoa or amaranth. But here’s where the worlds most versatile vegetable comes in – cauliflower! Simply pulse raw florets in a food processor until they form a rice-like consistency, then steam or saute in olive oil with your choice of seasonings.
Try it in…
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ cup sriracha
- ¼ cup lime juice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Cauliflower Rice:
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 5 ounces baby spinach, chopped
- Other ingredients:
- 16 ounces extra-firm tofu, pressed
- 2 avocados, peeled, pit removed, sliced
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- First, make the sauce. Whisk all the ingredients together in a small pot and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Simmer 2 minutes until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to use.
- Next, bake the tofu. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes. Spread on an oiled baking sheet, spray with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and place in the oven. Bake 8 minutes, flip and bake 8 minutes more until golden brown with a slightly crispy exterior. Remove from oven and set aside.
- As the tofu bakes, make the cauliflower rice. Place the cauliflower florets in a food processor and pulse until they form a rice-like consistency. Heat oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook 4-5 minutes until onion is translucent. Add cauliflower, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring freqently to prevent burning, about 10-12 minutes total, until tender and lightly browned. Add spinach and stir to combine. Cook another couple of minutes until the spinach has wilted.
- Divide cauliflower rice between four bowls. Top with tofu and drizzle with sauce. Serve with sliced avocado.