Friday, September 29

Rumplestiltskin: Flax's Fairy Tale

I remember third grade. Becky had long hair so she got to be the girl in our school play, and I consoled myself that it was my recent haircut that dropped me to the role of Rumplestiltskin, the male magical dwarf-entity that saves the weeping young maid from losing her head (literally) by spinning all the king's flax into gold. To my credit, my final "angrily stomping into collapse" when she outsmarted me was so convincing that teachers rushed the stage to see if I was hurt. Which kind of stole my thunder I admit. But I digress.

Until a short time ago, I'd never even heard of flax except in that fairy tale. I wasn't even certain what it was. Some kind of plant. Which apparently in the old days, when there were fairies and kingdoms and spinning wheels were common, could be spun into thread -- and in one improbable instance, gold.


The lowcarb world for the last several years has been in the throes of an internet-driven experimental evolution that would make any inventor -- and the staunchest capitalist -- darn proud. Wow, it's a different world today than it used to be.

In January 2001 when I first tried lowcarb, the options for "food that wasn't meat or dairy" were severely limited. I was running the tech side of a small corp with an IT product and working 100 hours a week at least, and a single mom, so with all that available time for cooking... that means none... I lived on microwaved cheese over pepperoni. Pitiful, I know. It worked. But I knew it wasn't a workable long-term eating plan, which I hoped to have time and readiness for 'someday soon'.

There were other ideas, of course. If you wandered into a lowcarb forum, you could find about 1,742 ways to eat with pork rinds. In pancakes, even! Leery but willing to be brave, I tried it.

I decided I'd rather die.

But that was before the advent of the ready availability of a ton of products that are specific to the lowcarb eating lifestyle. Some just got more popular and available, such as DaVinci's zillion flavors of sugarfree syrups. Some were brand new.

Sucralose can't be sold in the US as a sweetener except by Splenda, which finally (thankfully) the market did the hula around (ever the entrepreneurial spirit!) by presenting several products that are "sweetened BY" the stuff -- such as the syrups; such as Fiberfit; such as Sweetzfree. They are "not sweeteners, of course..." -- of course. They are just (in the case of Fiberfit) 8x sweeter than sugar -- or more -- and can be substituted for it. How convenient! Thank you. I will happily testify that I use those products only as flavor syrups and fiber supplements, guys---call on me anytime.

Forms of sugar common to the food industry were made available in retail to consumers finally. Erythritol, Isomalt, and Acesulfame-K (that is found combined with Isomalt in the product Diabetisweet) were suddenly as near as Netrition.com. The first two provided the bulk and qualities of sugar. Polydextrose provided bulk if you were going to be using a high intensity liquid sweetener instead. No longer stuck with putting up with Splenda's carb-laden "filler" material, the whole world of desserts opened up to lowcarbers in a new way.

No longer did a devout LCer have to sadly do without anything remotely sweet -- or fall off the wagon entirely when a chocolate craving hit. Now they could make their own desserts and bring 'em to the party, or have them before or after. LC was now a workable plan even for those who couldn't live without the occasional dessert.

And no more culinary wallflowers! -- every LCer became an ad-hoc chef, experimenting with revamping high-carb products into low-carb alternatives, or creating whole new ideas, and sharing with their LC buddies online, who would further experiment with variations and flavors and ingredients. (For great examples of this fabulous principle in action, check out the Deep Dish Quiche Pizza and Mock Danish threads in the lowcarber forum.)

Much was helped too by the contribution of LC's favorite real gourmet chef, Karen Barnaby, whose food is sometimes too gourmet-complicated for cooking clutzes like me, but sometimes (like Cauli-flied 'Rice') a total savior... and she certainly has made it possible to have a classy dinner with guests, with food everyone will love, and still be lowcarb.

A variety of ingredients that were pretty low in carbs found their way into kitchen labs everywhere. Unsweetened coconut got real popular -- there are at least a hundred desserts, cookies, breadishes and more using the stuff. Hard cheeses like parmesan bloomed into new ideas, like as a sort of crunchy coating for the Munchy Parmey Chicken Chunks.

But it just got better. Wheat flour's carbs got you down? Wheat Protein Isolate 5000 became available, using the protein of the wheat for a flour with superlow carbs and a ton of protein. Vital Wheat Gluten can be added if needed. Almond "meal" became a standard, in part thanks to retailers like Bob's Red Mill that sold every 'farm-related' product you might want, and of course any cook with a coffee grinder could make their own almond meal. It didn't rise, of course---but it bulked up beautifully, and dense bread was a damn site better than no bread at all. I feel that almond flour was the "idea catalyst" for an explosion of "experimental" use of any product that could possibly be ground into meal that had a fairly low number of carbs.

And the star of flax was BORN!


Flax seed, 'golden' or brown, can be milled into a meal. It provides a great 'bulk' without any bad taste. And a lot of fiber. And with a few ingredients common to lowcarb kitchen experiments, can make the difference between "making bread in the microwave in 3 minutes" vs. looking mournfully at that egg salad and wishing it had a piece of toast underneath it. You can add flavors, sweeteners or savory spice, and have a dense but not overly heavy bread for anything from cinnamon french toast to caraway-seed sandwich bread. (Great spices at penzeys.com and great extracts at spicebarn.com by the way!)

Is it like "normal" high-carb bread, that is soft-risen inside and thin-crunchy outside? Not really. But since that crap's gonna kill me anyway, I'm not complaining -- flaxbread tastes a darn site better than some "healthy" breads I've had in my life and it's actually good, made well.

Thanks to WPI5K, almond meal, flax meal, and other alternatives -- including some "bake mixes" that do for lowcarb what bisquick did for our mom's generation (such as CarbSmart's line or CarbQuick), you can create a somewhat different but darn good version of pie crust or cobbler-topping or waffles in the morning.

Flax seed has begun to be used in more and more recipes you'll find in the online lowcarb world. It's extremely lowcarb. How else can you get a workable and pretty tasty "breadish" as I call it---any product bread-like---with about 2 carbs and 10g protein per slice? Who's yer friend baby if it ain't flax seed?! Philly cheesesteak doesn't need a fork anymore. My thick garlic cheese spread finally became a workable food again. Chopped chicken in pesto, toaster-oven'd with a little cheese and hot peppers on top, is back on my to-die-for food list. Yay!

The expansion of ingredient-level foods over the last few years has made the lowcarb lifestyle possible even for people who can't or won't live solely on meats and eggs and a few fibrous veggies and fruits for the rest of their lives. And for those who worship all things bread-ish but can't take the gluten without asthma-like effects, flax seed has none of that. Yee. Haw.

The use of a lot of versatile vegetables that nobody'd bothered experimenting with before has opened many doors as well. You might not believe me that cauliflower--which I despise on its own--makes something similar to chicken-fried-rice that is so good, every time I've made it for (non-LC) friends they eat theirs and all my leftovers too and rave. Didja know zucchini, prepared a special way, ends up making a helluva pie filling that is a heck of a twin to apple pie? Come on, whodathunkit?! Cauli mixes into a great mashed potato-like or even cheesy twice-baked potato-like food that even high-carb folks will love and often not even know the difference if you don't tell them.

One of the most interesting things about the lowcarb food-world developments is that often, it is not so much that a given product is a "replacement" for high-carb (despite the 'mock' naming of many dishes), as that it is simply a new dish of its own, similar-to or usable-as things we know, but worth the spotlight as its own good stuff without comparison.

One thing I think the LC world really needs to focus on is re-naming a lot of their stuff to match what it IS and not what it was originally developed to replace the craved-taste-of. For example, "mock chicken fried rice" or "mock apple pie" should just be "chicken fried cauli" or "zucchini pie". I dare anybody to taste the stuff and complain. As long as LCers make it seem like their food choices are just "fakes" of high-carb stuff, rather than awesome foods on their own, there is going to be some psychology in how folks perceive the options. It should just be different food. Which tastes great!


But thanks to a versatile breadish I tried today, right now my hero is FLAX SEED... flax meal... O let me adore thee, flax!

As so many people grow smaller, the profits for suppliers of low-carb ingredients grow larger. I bet the sudden interest from the low-carb (and diabetic) world has taken the flax growers and sellers by happy surprise. That new cash crop is probably like a genuine fairy tale for 'em: finally, they're spinning flax into gold!

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1 comment:

Jim Purdy said...

Fascinating article! I'm not very fond of most food substitutes, but I do like some of the reported digestive benefits of polydextrose, a prebiotic that supposedly helps good digestive bacteria.

Oh, and inulin, another prebiotic.

Uh, and stevia, especially when it is combined with inulin.

Well, heck, bring 'em all on. I'll just give all those gut bacteria a big old feast.