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Book Review: Practical Paleo (by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC)

Practical PaleoI bought Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo in March 2013, so I’m writing this review with more than seven months of experience with this book under my belt. After that much time, I can say confidently that this is one of the most useful books in my collection. At 416 pages, this is not a book that can easily be carried around, but in my kitchen it has become a go-to reference guide  for both health and cooking questions.

Health Information (4.5/5)

Although I most frequently use this book as a cookbook (it contains over 100 recipes), I didn’t originally buy it for the food. The first part of the book (124 pages) is devoted entirely to what Sanfilippo calls “The Why–Food and Your Body”. As a Certified Nutrition Consultant, Sanfilippo has lots of experience both learning about how food impacts health and advising clients on how to heal themselves with nutrition. This balance of knowledge and practical experience comes through in the easy-to-understand explanations in this first section, which range from “What is Paleo?” to “Your Digestive System.”

She gives basic information about how the body systems work and how food interacts with those systems. She also provides tips for how to tell if something is wrong and recommendations for how to deal with many issues. One of the most useful pages in the whole book is page 75: a “guide to: your poop!” On this page is a cartoon “poop pageant” which gives hilarious visual representations of what you might be seeing in the toilet. Beneath the cartoon is an explanation of each type (there are seven), what causes that kind of elimination, and tips for how to deal with any non-ideal types.

Beyond this sort of health information, Sanfilippo also supplies useful, practical tips for how to implement a paleo or real food lifestyle. As much as people may like to joke about paleo and “living like a caveman,” it is actually a lifestyle that is relatively easy to fit into modern North American society. By providing guides to grocery shopping, eating out, and travelling, Sanfilippo makes transitioning to real food even easier.

The only thing I’m not wild about in this section is the lack of detailed references. There are references for specific statistics and quotes, but largely the book relies on you to trust in Sanfilippo’s Nutrition Consultant certification. As an academic, I prefer to see clearer evidence that an author has done lots of research on these subjects. This is a book geared more towards a lay audience, however, so many the citation style used is acceptable in this case.

Recipes (5/5)

The recipe section in my copy of this book is covered in post-it notes: all of the recipes I love or want to try are marked. A large portion of the recipes are basic, everyday types of recipes like the “citrus & herb whole roasted chicken” (pg. 256), the “perfectly baked bacon” (pg. 236), and the “mashed faux-tatoes” (pg. 344), but many are more experimental like the “tomatillo shrimp cocktail” (pg. 312) and the “vanilla bean tahini truffles” (pg. 396). The recipes are divided into several sections: kitchen basics, which includes a recipe for bone broth as well as instructions on how to chop vegetables; breakfast; poultry; beef & bison; seafood; lamb; sides & salads; sauces & dips; and, finally, treats & sweets.

Many of the go-to meals in my kitchen come from this book. I love the “rainbow red cabbage salad” for a summer party or potluck because it is bright and colourful (from the cabbage, carrots, broccoli, and mango) and it is really easy to put together: no cooking required. Many of the vegetable side dishes like the “sautéed red cabbage with onions and apples” are also favourites.

What’s really great about each recipe is the information provided in the sidebars. On each page, it is noted whether a recipe contains nuts, eggs, nightshades, or FODMAPs (four common intolerances explained in the first section of the book) so that anyone looking to avoid those foods can have a quick-glance way of determining whether a certain recipe is OK. The sidebar also contains notes on possible substitutions for people avoiding one or more of those foods.

There are also suggested meal plans in the book that give specific suggestions for different health conditions (like autoimmune conditions, neurological health, and cancer recovery) and goals (like athletic performance and fat loss). I’m not a big fan of meal plans in general, so I can’t speak to their utility specifically. However, they do seem well put-together, and there are shopping lists for each of the meals plans that are accessible on Sanfilippo’s website.

Food Photography (5/5)

As much as I may love the recipes, the food photography in any cookbook is really what decides whether I use it or not. A cookbook with few or no pictures will remain on my shelf, largely untouched, but one that contains beautiful, colour-filled pictures will frequently be used. All of the pictures in Practical Paleo were taken by Bill Staley of The Food Lovers Kitchen and really the only way to describe them is as food porn. Each recipe contains at least one full-page, full-colour picture of the prepared dish, and some also contain process pictures to guide the reader through the preparation of the recipe itself.

Overall Layout & Appearance (4/5)

Just like the photos, the overall appearance of this book is excellent: the text is colourful and well-formatted (the author’s experience in graphic design is evident). Even in the health section, where the information could easily have been presented in a textbook-boring way, there are colourful cartoons and charts to keep the reader engaged.

The only real complaint I have about this book is how large it is. All of the information is very useful, but I often wish that it had been divided in two: a health book and a cookbook. It always seems awkward to me to pull a book off my cookbook shelf when I have a question about my digestive health. Also, with the book being so large, it is difficult to keep it propped open on the counter while I cook.

Overall, I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about nutrition and health in an accessible way or to anyone who just wants some really good recipes to use on an everyday basis. 

Meal Ideas: Liver and Onions

This post is part of the Meal Ideas series. Finding something to eat that is simultaneously affordable, quick to prepare, healthy, AND delicious can be next-to-impossible sometimes. In this section I post pictures of the food I make, links to recipes I love, and some tips for saving time and money while still cooking great-tasting healthy food.

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Grass-Fed Beef Liver and Onions with Mashed Rutabaga

It took me a long time to work up the courage to try making this meal for the first time. Like many people, I grew up with a socialized prejudice towards organ meat, especially liver. This was not helped by the fact that one of the only times I ever tried it  was in a restaurant where they’d overcooked it. (Yuck). When I started eating paleo and decided to seek out the most nutrient-dense foods, I discovered that grass-fed beef liver is one of the most powerful superfoods out there. It’s full of vitamins, including (but not limited to) iron, zinc, B12, folate, A, D, and K2. Still, I was hesitant to try it because all I could think of was that overcooked liver taste.

This is now one of my favourite go-to meals for several reasons. First for me, of course, is nutrient density, but believe me when I say that that would not be a good enough reason to put it on the table in my household. My non-paleo boyfriend couldn’t care less about nutrition and nutrient density, but he loves this meal — the first time I made it he asked if we could have it “every night”. This is for three reasons. First, it’s inexpensive: organ meat is some of the least expensive protein around, and I buy 1.5 lb bags of grass-fed beef liver from a local farmer for $3. That’s $2 per pound! Second, it’s quick to make, so it’s an excellent candidate for a quick weeknight dinner. Third, if cooked correctly, it tastes really good. The trick is to not overcook it.

The instructions below are just for liver and onions. I recommend having one other side vegetable as well, but the type of veggie is totally up to your own tastes. My favourites with this meal are Mashed Faux-Tatoes from Practical Paleo or mashed rutabaga because they are useful to soak up the liquid from the onions. Both of those suggestions take awhile (around 45 minutes with prep usually), so if you don’t have that time, I recommend just putting something like carrots or broccoli on the stove to steam while you prepare the liver and onions.

Ingredients

  • 3 large white or yellow onions
  • 2 Tbsp cooking fat, separated (I usually use bacon grease or tallow for this)
  • 1-1.5 lbs grass-fed beef liver, strips
  • red wine (or red wine vinegar), to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Tools

  • Large-bottomed pan (preferably stainless steel)

Method

  1. Slice onions thinly
  2. Melt 1 Tbsp cooking fat over medium-high heat
  3. Add onions to the pan; sauté until translucent (usually 15-20 minutes)
  4. When onions are done, remove from the pan
  5. Melt the second Tbsp of cooking fat in the pan
  6. Add strips of beef liver to the pan
  7. Cook for 60-90 seconds on each side (just until the outside is all browned — the inside should still be pink)
  8. Remove liver from the pan
  9. Add onions back to the pan and deglaze with a splash of wine or vinegar
  10. Sauté a few minutes longer (until all the tasty brown bit from the bottom of the pan have become part of the sauce)
  11. Add salt and pepper to taste
  12. Serve onions over liver and with a side of vegetables.