I hear people complain that diabetes-friendlier recipes are bland, but I think they often aren’t really getting at the real problem. The reason, in my opinion, that so many diabetes-friendlier recipes are bland is that they lack fresh vegetables and other whole foods as ingredients. Let’s face it, food that comes from cans, boxes, and freezer bags isn’t going to have a lot of flavor – at least unless you add fat and sodium.
This is the main reason I was so thrilled when I came across Jackie Newgent’s The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. Finally, I’d found a cookbook that takes into account the needs of a person living with diabetes, by offering lots of the healthiest, lowest-carb food out there: fresh veggies.
I should preface all of this by explaining that I came into diabetes as a mostly vegetarian. Before my husband was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes almost three years ago, we ate meat twice a week, max. I was a vegetarian throughout my 20s, and even when I added meat back into my diet, I never properly learned to prepare it. For a typical dinner, we ate carbs and vegetables, usually with cheese.
Newgent’s book helped us work through the difficult transition of figuring out how to keep vegetables front and center, but paired with a healthy meat or other protein, and lowering the carb count. Her philosophy for this American Diabetes Association-endorsed cookbook is one I wholeheartedly support: simple, fresh ingredients are not only healthy, but they taste good too. Who’s to argue?
An old favorite in the kitchen
Recently, I took the cookbook for a test drive and made Free-Range Garlic Chicken Scampi with Arugula. This dish is a favorite in my household, but for the purpose of writing this review, I decided to follow the recipe as closely as possible and really pay attention to the substitutions and shortcuts I make. It turns out there weren’t a lot of cheats, which in my mind is a sign of a cookbook that’s not overly complicated.
The recipe, which serves four, calls for 14 oz. of free-range boneless, skinless chicken breast. I had some leftover roasted chicken on hand that I decided to use. I don’t think Newgent would mind. She says in the introduction to “love your leftovers.”
Newgent encourages readers to buy organic or sustainably raised products when possible. But if you can’t afford the higher price tag of free-range chicken or organic produce, that’s just fine too. Everything will still taste good as long as you use fresh ingredients.
I cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and added the olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. (I confess, I didn’t use fresh lemon juice, as the recipe calls for.) When I sliced the green onion, I even remembered to separate out the whites (which get cooked with the chicken) and the greens (which get added fresh at the end).
Because I wasn’t starting with raw meat, I put the chicken mixture in the oven just long enough to heat everything up.
Meanwhile, my kitchen assistant (otherwise known as my five-year-old daughter, who loves this dish) was busy. We’ve adopted the British word for arugula, “rocket,” because what kid wouldn’t want a dinner that involves rockets? When I told her I was making “Chicken Rocket Pasta,” she was happy to come help rinse arugula, grate cheese, and fetch supplies.
As soon I put the chicken in the oven, I dropped the pasta into the water boiling on the stove. Just a quick note on pasta: Newgent calls for whole-wheat pasta, which hasn’t been popular at my house. Instead, we use a pasta made with white flour plus legume flour, which I find at my local grocery store. I’m no RD, but this higher-protein pasta doesn’t seem to cause my husband’s blood glucose levels to spike the way white pasta does. The kids love it too.
When the pasta is done, the instructions call for pouring off the water, tossing the pasta with a little butter, and then mixing in the chicken, arugula, and green onion. I love how the arugula gets just a little wilted on contact with the hot chicken and pasta. The heat makes the arugula more tender, and softens its peppery bite just a tad.
Finally, Newgent says that adding freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top is optional. Not in my house! I take her cue, though, by not mixing any cheese into the pot. If we grate cheese on top – rather than mixing it into the whole pot of pasta – we don’t use nearly as much.
The big picture
I’ve been using recipes from The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook on a regular basis for the last couple years, and I don’t have a lot of complaints. It covers every meal of the day plus snacks, with sections on breakfast, sandwiches, soups, salads, entrees, and sides, plus desserts and drinks (even pomegranate martinis!).
Each recipe has full nutritional information, including exchanges as well as grams of carbs. There are serving tips and prep-ahead ideas sprinkled throughout. The cookbook doesn’t have as many vegetarian options as I’d like, but it definitely contains more than most diabetes cookbooks. The vegetarian recipes incorporate proteins that include eggs, beans, nuts, tofu, and tempeh.
Tempeh aside, I wouldn’t describe the ingredients as even remotely fussy. I can get nearly everything from any well-stocked grocery store, and you don’t need a kitchen set up with triple-flanged doohickeys from a fancy kitchen store for prep. As I mentioned, organic ingredients are nice, but not necessary. (Read more tips about navigating the grocery store.)
That said, there are definitely some places where I take shortcuts or make other substitutions. For instance, another favorite recipe – Creole-Style Red Beans and Rice – calls for a freshly seeded and diced tomato. Let me just go on the record and say that I am way too lazy to ever take the seeds out of a tomato. For one thing, why would you want to? For another, who has the time? When tomatoes aren’t in season, I always make the recipe with a can of diced tomatoes, and the dish is still fantastic.
Also, I quit cooking rice. We don’t buy it any more because even brown rice causes my husband’s blood glucose levels to spike. We’ve found that any recipe that is supposed to be served with rice can be served instead with quinoa (a fast-cooking grain with a higher protein level). That substitution goes for the recipes in this book too.
Still, I think my swaps fit within the ethos of the book. Newgent includes a whole section about diabetes-friendly substitutions and baking tips – things like using non-stick pans instead of oil, or substituting yogurt for sour cream. In my mind, tips like these set apart a good cookbook from a great one, because you can learn not only how to prepare a recipe, but how to incorporate changes into your everyday diet.
I especially appreciate Newgent’s focus on eating seasonal produce. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little vegetable-obsessed. In my family, we’re long-time members of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group, where we pay a local farmer in advance of the growing season in exchange for a weekly “share” of whatever he harvests from June through November. Newgent includes a section in the back about what’s in season, suggests meal plans based on time of year, and emphasizes that eating seasonally is a great way to stretch your grocery dollars. You can read more about eating locally here.
One other thing I should mention: Newgent doesn’t rely on artificial sweeteners. The cookbook occasionally incorporates natural sweeteners such as honey or (for the desserts) a little sugar. For the most part, though, she relies on just plain good ingredients for flavor. Are you sensing a theme?
My only real gripe about the cookbook is that it’s hard to navigate the table of contents and index. The sections have cutesy names – such as “bowlful” instead of “soup.” And the index is organized around ingredients only in a very general way. If you’re trying to find the recipe for, say, Spinach Orzo Salad, you’ll have to find the salads section, and then look under “B”, for baby spinach.
Still, I think that’s a pretty small complaint for a cookbook with so many tasty, healthy recipes. And at this point, the book pretty much falls open to my favorite recipes anyway.
Sarah Scalet blogs about diabetes and local foods at Eiei-oh! You can also follow her on Twitter at @sscalet. Scalet is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience