Thursday, August 01, 2013

Cookbook Reviews: The Feed Zone and Feed Zone Portables by Skratch Labs

(FTC disclosure: These cookbooks were purchased by me with my own money. The reviews are unsolicited, uncompensated, and completely my own opinion.  There are a couple of Amazon affiliate links at the end of the post, which are clearly marked, but most of the links go directly to the Skratch Labs website and are not affiliate links)

Grilled Chicken with Summer Orzo, plated with a small side salad

I found Skratch Labs through some online sleuthing when searching for a sports drink that wouldn't make me sick during my triathlon. I'm happy to report that their Sports Hydration was a big success.

I also ordered their two cookbooks, The Feed Zone Cookbook and Feed Zone Portables. I was curious to see what foods would be recommended for pre-race and recovery for endurance athletes. I was won over by their real-food approach. Most of the endurance sports "food" market is a glut of weird astronaut nutrition: Gummy shot blocks, candy-colored recovery drinks, packets of goo, bars that look and taste like cardboard mixed with twigs.  I can't stomach most of that stuff.  I don't think it is healthy either.

Summer Orzo in the mixing bowl
Most of the time, I do shorter workouts and events and might not need to specifically think about sports nutrition. But I want to start working up to longer distances again, and my husband is also a long-distance runner and coach of a cross-country team. I thought that the book might be a good resource for both of us. Plus, when I ordered, each cookbook came with some extra sports hydration mix, something I was going to want anyway.

On the surface, people who want to lose weight might not seem to have much in common with the professional cyclists who inspired this book. For one thing, cyclists in training might require three times as much food as the average person.

At the same time, though, cyclists do have to be careful to stay lean. They also need to maximize the nutrition they get from their meals.  Instead of accomplishing this through some kind of sports chemistry experiment, sports physiologist Allen Lim and Chef Biju Thomas fell back to the food they grew up with. Lim writes in his introduction that all his years of studying physiology were not helping him make practical meals the athletes would like, so, "like any good scientist, I called my mom." As a result, Lim writes, the cookbook features "recipes from India, where Biju is from, or from China and the Philippines, where my family is from." But both grew up in the United States, and were living in Europe, so there are plenty of other influences here too. There are tacos and burritos, frittatas and panini, a sandwich that looks like a Croque Madame, as well as waffles, pancakes, and hot breakfast grain dishes.

Biryani, one of my favorites so far
Because these recipes were designed for the needs of endurance athletes, they lean heavily on carbohydrates for energy, and there are definitely a few with calorie counts too high for the average weekend warrior. But the calories and other nutritional information are provided so that readers can adjust to fit their dietary needs. The après (after) recipes are designed for after a long workout, so some serving sizes might need to be cut in half to fit into a casual rider's diet. There are also hints on how cyclists make their own adjustments to fit their calorie needs: "At races, I normally recommend the riders eat their fruits and vegetables after they eat the main dish so that we fill them up first on the essential carbohydrates they'll need for the next day. In training, however, we often do the opposite so that the riders can watch their calories and maintain an ideal body weight.

The Feed Zone Cookbook has a lot to offer for active people. Most of the recipes are designed to be built from precooked parts -- rice and other grains can be prepared ahead, and so can much of the meat in the recipes. There are handy instructions in the back of the book for how to prep meats, pasta, and veggies ahead of time. Because many of these recipes were designed for cyclists, there are lots of options that are portable for eating on the go. The recipes are also highly nutritious. There are plenty of vegetables, minimal sugar, and not a lot of fat. None of the food is fake -- no engineered sugar substitutes or fat-free products. As I said, the authors give some suggestions on how to "build your plate" to make the recipes work for people with different energy needs.

Because the authors designed these recipes while feeding a team, most of them are designed for crowd appeal -- nothing seems too "out there." There aren't many difficult-to-find ingredients and the spice levels recommended make the food flavorful but not excessively spicy.  I think they could appeal to whole families. Because most of the recipes are quick to make, they can take the place of takeout on busy nights, and I guarantee that even the heavier après recipes are lighter than the average pizza or delivery option.

Roasted beet salad -- not exactly the way it's pictured in the book
Personally, these cookbooks are very appealing to me.  I love the big, full-color pictures for each recipe. I love the diverse influences and the fact that this food seems rooted in tradition -- the plates look like food from a great little sidewalk café, not from a lab. I love that this cookbook is helping me find ways for CSA produce like beets. Their roasted beet salad recipe reminded me that I actually liked roasted beets in salad, though I took the liberty of jazzing it up with balsamic reduction and some blueberries and goat cheese.  Everything I have made so far has been delicious and satisfying. The Biryani was so good that we have already made it twice, and it was enough for two meals each time. Because I'm not a professional cyclist, I have been trying to go a little lighter on carbs and more veggie-heavy on my other meals on the days that I sampled one of these recipes.

French Toast Cakes
The Feed Zone Portables book is more specialized and, for that reason, might not appeal to people who aren't trying to figure out foods they could eat on a bike or run.  I made a couple of the recipes -- both were variations on bread pudding. They helped me use up a loaf of crumbly millet bread that I had been given free at the health-food store. The French Toast Cakes are not super-sweet and would make a good packable breakfast. They are, as the name suggests, french toast baked in muffin tins.  They are good cold or warmed up.

Chocolate Cakes
The Chocolate Cakes were amazing. They were rich and, again, not super-sweet. Even though they don't look like it, they are another variation on bread pudding. I baked mine in mini muffin tins and treated them like a dessert item. I actually forgot to put the sugar in the recipe when I baked them, and sprinkled sugar on top instead. Since there were only 2 tablespoons of sugar in the whole recipe, this was probably fairly equivalent. I also added a pecan half on the top of each one since they reminded me of those two-bite brownies.  This would be a great treat to take to a potluck or make for a brunch.

Many of the other items, like mini-quiches and muffin-tin pies, would be good to bring to a party. They'd also be a lot better snacks to bring for kids' games and team practices than the typical cookies and chips. Jesse wanted this book to see if there were things he could make for cross-country team events, and I think a lot of these would work. The portables are really designed to be eaten during training, so as long as you have water available they could be slipped into a jacket pocket or into a bike bag to fuel a long training session.

I know some people who read this blog follow paleo-inspired plans. There probably isn't enough in these cookbooks that would work within their boundaries, though there are a few that use sweet potatoes as the base instead of grains or bread. Because different kinds of milks and bread can be used in most of the recipes, there are plenty that would work with a gluten-free or dairy-free diet. A pretty high percentage of the recipes contain eggs, so vegans might not find these books worth the money.  Obviously anyone who wants to avoid or strictly limit carbohydrates would want to look elsewhere.

(Amazon affiliate link)
(Amazon affiliate link)
I think that active people who are looking to fuel their training are the intended audience, especially those who are looking for an alternative to the highly-engineered "sports nutrition" products I mentioned earlier.  But I don't think you need to be a pro cyclist or a marathon runner to make these recipes work for you. You just have to use your head and your hunger to help you build your plate in the way that is best for your needs. The Feed Zone Cookbook is also designed to help people with minimal cooking skills learn to feed themselves better. They need to have mastered a few basics first, but someone who only knows how to boil rice or an egg and cook chicken on the grill could use the tips here to expand their repertoire.
The packaging on my books -- love the artwork!

There are a few recipes on the Skratch Labs blog to give you a preview, if you are interested. You can purchase both cookbooks through the Skratch Labs website, like I did. The books came nicely packaged and included some promotional items -- see the website for details and current offers.


You can also, of course, get The Feed Zone Cookbook and Feed Zone Portables through Amazon.com (affiliate links).


1 comment:

  1. I've been cooking peppers and onions in the skillet on the grill a lot lately. I'll have to add jalapenos next time. Yum. I like cooking bacon that way too, although hot fat + open flame adds a nice element of danger. I used to get flank steak, but my husband got me to try the carne asada cut from our local market, and I prefer it. Not sure if it's thin-cut flank or skirt (I'll have to ask), but it looks like this 

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07