Brazilians know moqueca, a fish stew redolent with sweet peppers, lime, garlic and cilantro, in two forms: the very native Moqueca capixaba from the southern state of Espirito Santo and Moqueca baiana from Bahia, part of the knob of Brazil that juts farthest into the Atlantic. Reflecting the African shores across the ocean, Moqueca baiana includes shrimp and sometimes crab, and is finished with coconut milk.
Diana Rogers, a certified nutritional therapist and passionate advocate of the Paleo diet, hails this African-shaded moqueca as a wonderful example of the nutrient-dense recipes in her Paleo recipe box.
Formerly the "farm family" at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, Rogers and her husband have transplanted their two children to The Clark Farm in Carlisle, where, on 22 acres, they raise organic chickens, pigs, sheep and ducks, and will begin a community-supported agriculture program next year.
Rogers also runs a private nutrition practice called Radiance Nutrition; "My mission is to help you rejuvenate your health through optimal nutrition, blood sugar regulation, and digestive support," she says. The Paleo Diet is the template by which she practices.
Theoretically based on the protein and vegetable-packed dinners from which homo sapiens evolved, the Paleo Diet is rich with grass-fed meats, eggs, avocados, coconut milk, even bacon and lard from pasture-raised animals, sweet potatoes and carrots.
The diet is loosely based on early man, the coconuts representing the kind of omega-3 fatty acids scrounge-able 20,000 years ago. The Paleo approach excludes the more recent additions to our evolutionary timeline (Wheat was first domesticated in Turkey circa 9,000 BC, considered recent for Paleo advocates.) — grains, beans, and sugar, all of which spike blood sugar levels and cause inflammation, processes linked to diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
Rogers claims this nutritional approach provides a big bang of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids in each Paleo portion. The diet is also low in omega-6 fatty acids, the bad guys associated with pro-thrombotic, pro-inflammatory and pro-constrictive processes which cause stroke, cancer and heart disease. Consuming high levels of omega-6 fatty acids has been associated with breast cancer in post-menopausal women and prostate cancer in men. Vegetable oils — canola, corn, soy and safflower — are significant sources.
Rogers says the Paleo diet largely reflects foods we evolved to digest without stressing our bodies. Easily digestible nutrients are easy to access. The science gets dense here, but much of the Paleo thinking is based on avoiding something advocates call "anti-nutrients," colloquially known as toxins. Apparently seeds — and wheat grains are seeds, as are rice, barley and rye — have an outer coating intended by nature to guarantee the seed makes it through our digestive tract intact, thus able to relocate back in the soil and propagate.
Coated with "anti-nutrients," or toxins, the seed protects itself from our hungry digestive enzymes. The lucky host gets a good dose of toxins from that portion of seeds, and thus feels fairly crummy for a while — bloated, cramping, yucky. Hello, gluten-free muffins! — or so one would think.
Years ago, Rogers discovered she had celiac disease, and went on a gluten-free diet, consuming all the gluten-free breads and pasta she could find in the specialty stores. But, she says, she was hungry all the time, and still felt "digestive distress." Reading Rob Wolff's "The Paleo Solution" sent her full-time to a diet rich on pasture-raised meats; she has a gorgeous stew repertoire: Chinese Pork with Ginger and Chard, Loaded Chicken Soup, Seafood Stew with Fennel, and lots of creative pancakes, including sweet potato and a coconut crepe.
About the pasture-raised thing: A grain-fed animal, Rogers says, is a receptacle for all those omega-6 fatty acids we should be avoiding. To dine on a grass-fed steer or acorn-fed pig is to benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids the animal enjoyed in its lifetime. I asked Rogers what to do if pasture-raised meats simply weren't available or in the budget; eat pasta? She recommended choosing industrially produced chicken, but avoiding the skin; omega-6 fatty acids tend to pool in the fat.
Again, Rogers stresses the nutrient density of the Paleo diet. At a simplest level, compare it with a Standard American Diet: a very loose 2,000 calorie day of a bagel and cream cheese breakfast, a Caesar salad and low-fat brownie for lunch, and spaghetti primavera for dinner; and a loose 2,000 calorie Paleo day: spinach omelet breakfast, a wild salmon and greens salad for lunch, and beef stew with carrots, sweet potatoes and a side of sauerkraut (a little probiotic) for dinner.
The Paleo nutrients stack up pretty high. Very basically, just by substituting tummy-irritating wheat with sweet potatoes can up the weekly vitamin A and C intake significantly.
While everyone need not burn their bread and grill hamburgers for breakfast, there are some compelling ideas to consider in the Paleo approach. Back to Moqueca: the fish is briefly marinated in garlic and lime, added to a great pile of softened peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, and finished like a Thai soup with coconut milk.
At the very least, think of this wildly flavorful stew as a great favor to take home as a guest at the Paleo party.
1/3 cup lime juice (the juice of about 3 limes)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
11/2 pound sea bass, cod, or other firm white fish cut into 1-inch pieces
11/2 pound shrimp
2 tablespoons coconut or palm oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion
2 cups chopped red pepper
1 cup minced green onions (or substitute 2 tablespoons chopped chives)
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 cups diced tomato (about 2 large tomatoes)
3 teaspoons tomato paste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 can (14 ounces) fish or seafood stock
1 cup chicken stock
1 can coconut milk (full fat)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more if you like it hot)
1. Combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Add the coconut oil or palm oil to a dutch oven and add the onion. Cook until soft.
3. Add the pepper, green onions, garlic and bay leaf. Saute for approximately 10 minutes or until vegetables are softened.
4. Add tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for another five minutes.
5. Add the chicken and fish stock along with the cilantro and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes.
6. Finally, add the coconut milk and red pepper and fish. Cook for about three minutes.
Adjust for salt and pepper and serve.
Recipe courtesy of Diana Rogers, Radiance Nutrition, 2012.
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Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.