Thursday, March 1, 2012

A healthier kind of processed meat

Today I want to show you delicious and healthy alternatives to industrially processed meats. For while it's all very well to talk about how we should swap unhealthy foods for healthier alternatives, many of us are so used to processed bacon, sausages and deli meats, many of us have no idea how we might be able to replicate these ourselves, in our humble kitchens and with limited culinary skills and time.

I'll offer a broad overview of four home-made alternatives to processed meat here, and will post the recipe for each of the four following preparations over the coming days.

Marinated "deli" chicken (watch video of me preparing these here)

Instead of buying those icky-sticky vacuum-packed slices of salt- and preservative-laden, artificially colored and flavored poultry, consider making this delicious, natural chickeny snack. You can slice the meat thinly and use it to fill sandwiches, or tortilla/salad wraps; slice it more thickly and scatter over a big salad; cube it and add it to risottos or soups; or, if you can't wait for it to chill, eat it hot, straight out of oven or pan.

What makes this healthy? The marinade is chock full of ingredients with cancer-protective properties: turmeric, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and zest, parsley, black pepper, mixed herbs and paprika powder, with not a single nitrite, sweetener or flavor enhancer in sight. In fact, the marinade is so tasty that you don't need much salt either. And by marinating the meat in this aromatic mixture, you not only imbue it with flavor, you also protect it from the carcinogens that are often created when meat is cooked (see my previous post).

Chicken breast (ideally from organic, pastured animals) is also an excellent source of high-quality protein; adding it to vegetable- or grain-based dishes can make these more filling, preventing blood-sugar swings and snack-attacks later in the day.

Vegetable-rich meatballs

I usually make a big batch of these, freeze them and defrost as and when I need them. Meatballs work well as a sandwich or wrap filling, lunchbox fillers or finger food for kids, on picnics or long journeys (transported in a cooler) and as a sausage-substitute alongside weekend breakfast eggs. Occasionally I dump a batch into a pot of tomato sauce for a speedy dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.

You can vary flavors by using different combinations of spices: for hints of Greece, add oregano, mint, garlic and a pinch of lemon zest; or go Lebanese with pine nuts and a pinch of cumin, coriander and cinnamon (ground lamb works great for both).

What makes these healthy? Start with top-quality grass-fed meat, whose praises I have already sung here. These meatballs are baked in a moderate oven rather than fried, grilled or barbecued, further reducing potentially damaging chemicals. Lastly, this is a great way to boost your intake of plant phytochemicals, because nearly half of these "meatballs" is actually not meat (and not breadcrumbs either), but fresh vegetables and herbs (meat-to-vegetable ratio of roughly 55:45) -- a great way of enticing vegetable-hating meat fiends to ingest those dreaded greens (and barely notice they're doing so).

Home-made beef jerky

There's nothing like chomping on a strip of lean, spicy dried meat when you're out hiking in the wild or stuck on a long car journey with no easy access to nutritious, satisfying food. My kids even take a strip or two to school or sporting event sometimes. High-quality protein eaten at regular intervals throughout the day can stave off cravings for sweet snacks and helps sustain energy. And because dried meat is a highly concentrated source of nutrients, little will go a long way.

What makes this healthy? First, we're avoiding the no-no's of most commercial jerky: excess sodium, sugar, artificial flavorings and preservatives. Conversely, the marinade used here brims with healthy ingredients: ginger, turmeric, pepper, lemon, red wine, raw cocoa powder, tomato paste, onions, garlic, cinnamon and apricots. Not only do these create a delicious bouquet of flavors, they also have a range of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties that may work together synergistically to protect us from disease. (Note: make sure you take all necessary precautions to avoid any food-borne pathogens surviving the drying procedure; see recipe on my Zest for Life blog for details.) 

Fresh marinated pork belly

In case you're confused: no, pork belly isn't a health food! I include it here because, for people who simply can't bear to give up bacon, this preparation is a healthier ternative to mass-produced bacon. Nonetheless, it should remain an occasional treat, carefully prepared and enjoyed in small quantities.

Marinated in lemon juice, garlic and spices, the meat slices can be frozen on a tray lined with baking parchment, transferred to a freezer bag and individually retrieved when needed. Slowly grilled or roasted at moderate temperature they make a tasty addition to an old-fashioned farmer's breakfast. They can also be cubed and added to vegetable stir-fries or egg-fried rice.

What makes this healthier? For one, the absence of nitrates, nitrites, excess salt, artificial flavourings and carcinogenic chemicals resulting from smoking. Moreover, meat from free-ranging pastured hogs tends to be less fatty than from their intensively farmed cousins because of the more active foraging they do. 

There is also some indication that marinating pork in acidic liquids like lemon juice or vinegar prior to cooking may make it less unhealthy (read more about this in the related blog post on my blog.) Always buy the very highest-quality pork you can find -- ideally, pastured in a meadow near you, from animals that haven't been treated with growth enhancing antibiotics or other drugs.

Of course, this is not to say that marinating or drying meat turns it into an anti-cancer superfood; certain meats and preparations are known to increase the risk of colorectal cancer, and there is no scientific evidence that the preparations described above will lower this. (Though if any cancer researchers out there are willing to test my recipes in their laboratory, I'd be delighted to assist them!)

However, what *is* known is that people eating ancestral diets like the Mediterranean -- which does contain meat, in moderate amounts and gently prepared -- have a lower incidence of cancer. And while this can be attributed to a variety of factors, I have a hunch that the absence from their diets of mass-produced junk meat may be one of them.

So if you're going to eat meat anyway, you'll probably reduce your cancer risk if you stick to the recommendations I have issued in this and previous posts: eat modest amounts of meat, buy the highest-quality meat you can afford, prepare it gently (by marinating, drying or gently baking or stewing it) and overwhelm it with a large variety of herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits.

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