How Engineers Cook!
I usually start my blog with a beautiful picture of food. So this morning you are probably wondering why I have a picture of a piece of paper filled with numbers and food droppings. I thought it would be fun to explain to you how I develop recipes and calculate the nutritional information. If you have Excel on your computer, you can use this technique to develop your own healthful recipes at home.
As some of you know, I started my career as an electrical engineer and then spent 3 decades working in high tech. So when I traded my lap top for a sauce pan, I couldn't totally abandon my love of engineering tools. Especially the Excel spreadsheet!
My goal for recipes is that they be delicious, healthy, easy to make and nutritionally balanced. Sometimes I have to make a dish quite a few times before I get it just right. I'm currently writing my first cookbook so I'm taking this opportunity to fine tune and improve many of your favorites recipes from this blog.
The first pass recipe
I usually start with an ingredient that inspires me. In the case of the Thai Garden Stir Fry, pictured above, it was the head of cabbage and a zucchini that I had from my garden. Often I'm inspired by another recipe that I love but I want to make it vegan or more healthful. Sometimes the amounts of each vegetable I use happens to be the amount I have on hand. Seasoning will be whatever sounds good to me or whatever herbs I have available.
I cook up the initial recipe, carefully writing down amounts, times and temperatures and number or resulting servings. I take pictures and then feed it to my husband and anyone else who is around for feedback. I take a notepad to the dinner table and write down ideas to improve the dish while we are eating.
The spread sheet
I then list all the ingredients and their amounts on a spread sheet. The ingredients are on the left side and across the top I list the nutrients I'm interested in. I usually list: calories, g of total and saturated fat, mg of cholesterol, g of protein, g of carbs and g of fiber. If the recipe has nuts and seeds or other ingredients high in essential fatty acids, I list omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
I then fill in the spread sheet with nutritional information. I start with information from SELFNutritionData or Calorie count websites and if they don't have what I need, I use other resources on the internet, my text books or manufacturers information.
If the recipe has too many calories or fat, I look at the spreadsheet for the offending ingredient and either reduce it or substitute it. This is tricky because you don't want to ruin the flavor.
One of the things I pay a lot of attention to is the balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Since vegans do not eat fish, they depend on the conversion of ALA omega 3 fatty acid to DHA and EPA. This doesn't happen very efficiently (I actually recommend supplementing with an algae derived DHA and EPA). One of the things that effects this conversion is that vegans eat too much omega 6. So I try and keep my recipes high in omega 3 and try never to have more than a 4:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. You may notice that I use lots of flaxseed oil, flax, hemp and chia seeds, as well as English walnuts, all high in omega 3.
Adjust the ingredients
I take a copy of the first pass spread sheet to the kitchen and use it to make notes when I cook the dish a second time (hence the messy paper in the picture). I now adjust the ingredients to optimize the nutritional content of the recipe and incorporate the feedback from those who tasted the dish. Not exactly what Julia Child did but she wasn't an engineer.
Sometimes it works
Some of my dishes make it to the blog and some don't. But the important thing is it's fun experimenting with different vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and spices. And by creating a spread sheet and looking up the nutrients, you learn what's in the foods you are eating- good and bad. Give it a try!
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