March 2009 Issue
Better known as a fast-sprouting holiday fad than a nutritious dietary grain, chia’s healthful benefits are bringing it into the culinary spotlight.
The pumpkin-walnut muffins look like any other homemade muffins, a dozen or so little round breads in yellow and blue paper cups, the faint, spicy scent of cinnamon wafting from the open plastic container in which they’ve been stored. But for Cleveland Clinic Administrative Executive Chef Jim Perko, they represent a whole new world of culinary exploration. The muffins contain chia, a staple grain of Peru and Costa Rica that once sustained Aztec warriors during conquests and southwestern U.S. Indians on treks to trade with California tribes.
Like most people, Perko had always assumed the tiny brownish-gray seeds were good for little more than sprouting fluffy green growths on Chia Pets, the clay animal figures that appear in drug and discount stores every holiday season.
It wasn’t until his boss, Chief Wellness Officer Dr. Michael Roizen — better known as the co-author of the best-selling “YOU” series of self-maintenance books — gave him the muffin recipe that he discovered the nutty-tasting seeds were actually grown for human consumption, a stock item in health food stores such as GNC and on various Internet Web sites.
“I’m just starting to learn how to work with this,” Perko enthuses, referring to the one-pound plastic jar of chia seeds sitting on the kitchen table in Roizen’s suburban Cleveland home. “It has really great culinary properties. Because it holds water, you can add moisture and cut back on fat.”
Roizen’s interest in chia was piqued four years ago, while he was researching YOU: On a Diet. He learned that chia is high in fiber as well as magnesium, which helps dilate arteries and lower blood pressure. It’s also rich in potassium, which plays an important role in the conduction of electrical impulses in nerve, muscle and heart tissues. More importantly, it is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, “good” fats that reduce triglyceride levels in the blood, make platelets less likely to stick together and form clots and even improve the function of message-sending neurotransmitters in the brain. Roizen says an Internet search yielded a recipe for whole-wheat pumpkin-walnut muffins that called for a tablespoon of ground chia seed — not much, but enough to serve as an introduction to the average American’s diet.
Roizen replaced the butter with heart-healthy canola oil and the sugar with agave nectar, a sweet, sticky juice from the same tropical plant used to make tequila. “It bakes fine — many sugar substitutes do not — and [provides] much more sweetness per calorie than sugar,” he explains. He and co-author Dr. Mehmet Oz included the recipe in their 2008 book, YOU: Being Beautiful, and whipped up a batch for Oprah Winfrey to sample during an appearance on her popular syndicated talk show last year.
“They were actually a big hit,” Roizen says.
Perko, however, was less than impressed when he tried out the recipe late last summer, after Roizen expressed a desire to add the muffins to the Clinic’s cafeteria menu. “The muffins were dry,” Perko explains.
Perko began his tinkering with the recipe by adding moisture to the batter in the form of 1/4 cup water, which he already had discovered the chia could absorb and hold, and a freshly grated Fuji apple that, along with an additional 1/4 cup of walnuts, imparted more texture. The chef, a vegan, also left out the two egg whites — the chia, he learned, gave the muffins “stability.” He cut the apple in half and reduced the agave nectar from 1/2 cup to 1/4 cup after Roizen complained the result was “too sweet and too wet.” When Perko makes the muffins for himself, he keeps the agave nectar at 1/4 cup but uses the full amount of apple.
Perko’s most recent experiments with chia have involved soups. He found that adding two tablespoons of chia to six quarts of vegan vegetable soup added a sorely missed thickness. He points to a small plastic container filled with a gelatinous substance in which a number of chia seeds are suspended — the result of mixing one part chia seeds with five parts water. “If you make a beef soup [or] chicken soup with animal bones, they do two things: Besides the flavor, they add viscosity to the broth because there is gelatin in the bones,” he says. “When you’re making a vegan soup, you don’t necessarily have that attribute.” Chia also added body to a vegetarian chili made with a base of V8-brand vegetable juice.
Perko plans to try chia’s thickening properties in other dishes. “Instead of adding a slurry (a mixture flour and water used as a thickener in dishes), I think that chia might work.” He also sees it serving as a binding agent in everything from his turkey loaves to salad dressings. Those looking for an even simpler way to incorporate chia into their daily meals can add it to a “blender blaster,” Roizen’s version of a smoothie (Roizen notes that unlike the flaxseed often added to such beverages, chia doesn’t need to be refrigerated after grinding). But Perko is content to continue his testing.
“I want to play with it more!” he says.