It's in the bag

Jun. 03, 2014 @ 10:25 AM

If our house ever caught fire, after I made sure Petey, The Kid, and our pooch Riker were safe, I’d go after a few material things.
I’d grab my computer, my awesome gray suede boots, and a very special bag.
It’s not a Kate Spade, a Burberry, or even a Birkin bag.  This bag may not be as pretty as any of those dream purses, but its versatility can’t be beat. It’s actually a plastic bag that I keep in the fridge.
This bag contains a combo of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. I’m constantly dipping into it, adding it to all kinds of things. 
My current bag has dried cherries and cranberries, salted peanuts and cashews, and pumpkin seeds. It’s crunchy, chewy, sweet and salty. 
The best dried fruits are just fruit with water removed. The vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants remain the same. They’re also a great source of fiber and iron, and complex carbohydrates. Unlike candy and soda, complex carbs take longer to digest; thus no crash, and they keep you feeling fuller longer.
Beware though: some dried fruit is better for you than others. You want to check the label; some are loaded with added sugar. 
Peanuts and tree nuts pack a serious nutritional wallop as well. They contain fiber, and good fat. It’s monounsaturated, which is great for heart health.  Nuts are packed with protein, too. They are one of the highest sources of plant-based protein.
Seeds are funny little things.  Believe it or not, for their size, they are one of the healthiest foods on the planet. (Don’t think so?  Ever run into a bird at a doctor’s office?) Think of them as a super-concentrated plant. A healthy plant won’t grow from a seed that has been over-handled, so the very best and healthiest type of seed to eat is a raw, unprocessed one.
Some particularly healthy and edible seeds are pumpkin, hemp, sesame, sunflower, pomegranate, and chia seeds. Chia seeds have the added benefit of swelling when placed in moist foods.  Then they aren’t quite so crunchy, they will be chewier instead.
Unlike seeds, roasting nuts is actually a good idea. Any harmful bacteria are eliminated, as well as phytic acid.  Phytic acid is a chemical naturally found in nuts to keep them from sprouting. When ingested it will prevent you from absorbing some of the nutrients.  And an overabundance of phytic acid can lead to nutritional deficiencies.  Roasting also heightens the flavor of the natural nut oils. 
It’s best to roast your own nuts. When you buy them pre-roasted, you’re giving up control to the manufacturer. Sugars and oils may have been added, which in high enough amounts practically negates the healthiness.
And it’s simple to do. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and put the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet (that way they won’t roll all over the oven and your kitchen).  Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly golden and fragrant. 
Because of all the natural sugars and fats in your homemade nut mix, the calories will add up. One third cup is a good serving size.
But once you have it, you can use it a gillion different ways. Toss it in hot cereal or salads. Use it to jazz up rice and cous-cous. Use it to make a yogurt parfait. Put a scoop in a zip top bag along with a tablespoon of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate chips or cocoa nibs, and you have a satisfying snack on the go. 
It can also replace store-bought granola bars. To make your own, mix 1 cup nut mix with 1 1/2 cups rolled oats, 2 cups air-popped popcorn, 1/3 cup honey, a drizzle of vegetable oil, and one egg white. Press into a greased 9x9 pan, sprinkle with a touch of salt, bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes, and slice into bars while still warm.
It can also be crazy entertaining.  If you’re out and faced with hungry, cranky kids, whip out a sack, and in your best James Brown, sing, “Mama’s got a brand new bag!”  You’ll be faced with stunned silence, followed by mortification. And isn’t embarrassing your kids one of the very best things about being a parent?
Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is