Easy and Delicious Coconut Pork Stew

Melissa Clark is one of my favorite cookbook authors—I find her recipes well researched, easy-to-follow and consistently delicious. But the depth and complexity of flavor in her Coconut Pork Stew with Garam Masala make this recipe, hands down, the most delicious dish I’ve ever made.

And it wasn’t even difficult. (To be fair, two elements require day-before preparation, so planning is required. But making a list is about as complicated as this recipe gets.)

I decided to make this recipe because I found the enveloping NYT article, Pork Stew Gets A Chile Kick intriguing, and I like Indian flavors and coconut curries. Plus, an east coast March ‘blizzard’ was in the forecast, so I knew we’d be house-bound and I’d have a good three hours in the afternoon to let this bake. So off I went to ask the butcher to cube and trim two-and-a-half pounds of ‘pork butt’ (which I’d never heard of before) and collect the rest of the ingredients.

Normally, I reject recipes which require day-before prep and/or browning the meat first (too much of a hassle), but because I’d watched Ms. Clark’s video, I knew the day-before prep was simple and the browning step wasn’t fussy—just toss the cubes into the pot and let them ‘get golden’ for about 5 minutes.

Along that same vein, there’s not even much to chop or mince in this recipe—especially if you use fresh, already-diced onions. Which I always do. That said, in my view the chopped cilantro garnish is absolutely not optional as it adds a lot to the dish.

My only concern with this dish was nutritional. This recipe calls for coconut oil, which has a lot of saturated fat, a lo-co no-go. For information on why, in general, you should avoid coconut oil, read The Cleveland Clinic’s Olive Oil vs Coconut Oil: Which Is Heart-Healthier?

That said, if you omit the garlic-coconut oil topping (which doesn’t add a lot to the dish, IMHO, and is another pan to clean!) this recipe really doesn’t have THAT much coconut oil and thus, is not so terrible, lo-co wise. (And certainly better than Shake Shack or fast food!) Always good to serve with a salad or green vegetable: as you can see, I steamed green beans.

I followed this recipe exactly and have no edits at all: it’s easy to follow and the steps make sense. My only quibble is that Ms. Clark suggests the yellow split peas are the dish’s starch. For me (and other commenters on her recipe page) the split peas were just not enough. I served it with basmati rice (yes, a better choice would be brown rice but I didn’t have that on my shopping list as it was not in the recipe. LOL.)

I also love that the NYT recipes now – finally! – have nutritional information. Without rice, the nutritional analysis proffered on the recipe page indicates 19 grams of saturated fat. When I uploaded this recipe into ‘My Fitness Pal’ and included about 3/4 cup of basmati rice, I got a whopping 24 grams of saturated fat, 118% of daily allowance! Not good.

But omitting the garlic-coconut oil drizzle brings that to a still-high-but-more-reasonable 15 grams of saturated fat or 73% of daily allowance.

So if this recipe sounds appealing (and believe me, the complexity and depth of flavor are ‘restaurant-quality’ which is not something I can usually easily deliver!) just make sure you’re not overdoing it with other high-saturated-fat dishes that day!

If you prefer, download a PDF of the Coconut Pork Stew With Garam Masala recipe.


Creamer vs Creamer vs Creamer

Several years ago, lured by labels with lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, I ditched traditional Half & Half for soy creamer in my 2-cups-a-day hazelnut coffee habit.

It might not have been the right decision.

Or it might have been the right decision – but only for one particular soy creamer brand.

In reading the many articles about how even though the FDA has banned trans fats in the American food supply, they are lurking in many foods.  In fact, coffee creamers are one key culprit: non-dairy creamers (and other foods) can be labeled as containing 0g trans fat PER SERVING when in fact if you eat more than 1 serving (very likely) you will be consuming real amounts of trans fats.  This happens because, as Prevention author Caroline Praderio explains,

“Manufacturers are allowed to say a food contains no trans fat if each serving has 0.5 g or less. But eat more than one serving size of, say, chips—and really, who sticks to nine measly chips?—and you could be eating 2 g or more of trans fat in no time, which is over the limit for good health, according to the World Health Organization.”

Articles like this abound:

This propelled me to reconsider my Half & Half versus Soy Creamer decision. I compared the nutritional labels for Land O Lakes Half & Half and compared them with the two soy creamers I purchase: Silk Soy Creamer and Trader Joe’s Soy Creamer.  While I was not surprised to find that the soy creamers both delivered significantly less saturated fat per serving (a lo-co plus), there was a big difference between the two soy creamers.

This shocked me.

The chart below shows the nutritional values per serving pulled directly from the product label this morning (website or actual label) and to the right of that I’ve included what a 3 TB serving of each delivers.  Both soy creamers had dramatically less cholesterol and saturated fat.  But Silk Soy Creamer has 1.5 grams of saturated fat in a 3 TB serving while Trader Joe’s Soy Creamer has zero.


Why the difference?  A quick comparison of ingredient listings shows the reason:  Silk Soy Creamer uses PALM OIL while Trader Joe’s uses CANOLA OIL:

Silk Soy Creamer Ingredients: Soymilk (Filtered Water, Whole Soybeans), Palm Oil, Cane Sugar, Maltodextrin (from Corn), Soy Lecithin, Potassium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Tapioca Starch, Carrageenan, Natural Flavor.

Trader Joe’s Soy Creamer Ingredients: Organic soybase (filtered water, whole organic soybeans), expeller pressed organic canola oil, organic cane sugar, organic maltodextrin (from corn), potassium phosphate, soy lecithin, natural flavors, carageenan, sodium citrate, organic tapioca starch.

Palm oil is not considered a heart-healthy oil. In NPR’s Palm Oil In The Food Supply: What You Should Know, Allison Aubrey explains, “There are environmental concerns about how palm oil is produced. And what’s more, from a health perspective, palm oil is high in saturated fat.”

Ah. So the fact that Silk Soy Creamer uses Palm Oil, which is a SATURATED FAT explains why a 3 TB serving of Silk Soy Creamers has 1.5g of saturated fat, versus the 0g of saturated fat from Trader Joe’s Soy Creamer – which uses Canola Oil, a more heart-healthy oil according to many (though not Dr. Andrew Weill, but that’s another story).

While I’m shocked by this huge difference in what I thought were comparable products, I now know to pay more attention to the specific ingredient listings rather than assume a product like a soy creamer is healthier than full fat half & half, and that all soy creamers are equivalent.

To that end, I searched for a handy tool for what oils are more heart-healthy – as I can’t ever seem to remember which are the oils to use and which are the oils to avoid (just this week I stood perplexed in the grocery store wondering which is the most heart-healthy oil for popping corn and left with nothing.)

The Cleveland Clinic obliged with an article, Heart-Healthy Cooking: Oils 101 which confirmed the goal of AVOIDING PALM OIL and where I learned that I should have purchased canola oil for corn popping (I also learned that I need to bring reading glasses to the grocery store to read my iPhone). This article is wildly helpful, actually, with oils by smoke point and information on how to store and use oils.

In fact, on the Heart-Healthy Cooking Oils page, there’s an infographic where you can download a very handy tool with best oils for:


  • Browning, Searing and Pan-Frying: almond, sunflower, canola, and olive
  • Stir-Frying, Baking and Oven Cooking: canola, grapeseed, and peanut
  • Sauteeing and Sauce Making: olive, walnut, and sesame
  • Dressing, Dips and Marinades: olive, toasted sesame, flaxseed, walnut, and avocado
  • Best All Around: extra virgin olive oil

You can click on the graphic to download the handy PDF or by clicking on this graphic in the Cleveland Clinic article.

In th end, I guess I’m happy that I switched to soy creamer as I still believe it best to avoid full-fat dairy in my quest to keep my cholesterol down via a healthy diet and exercise.

But now I need to choose only Trader Joe’s Soy Creamer so I can avoid palm oil. Oh, and bring my reading glasses to the grocery store in case Trader Joe’s is out of soy creamer.


What’s Your Recovery Heart Rate?

Charts and tables explaining how to calculate a target heart rate for exercise abound. In fact there’s so much information it can be downright confusing (hence my blog post, How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal.)

But there’s very little information about another interesting heart rate goal: Recovery Heart Rate.

Which is unfortunate because it’s a pretty useful measure.  Lots of people have trouble starting and staying with an exercise program, and Recovery Heart Rate actually shows your progress – which could be very motivating.  In their online article, What You Should Know About Your Heart Rate or Pulse, NEMAhealth.org explains, “One way to determine if you are reaping the benefits from exercise is to calculate your Recovery Heart Rate, a measure of how quickly you return to your resting heart rate after a workout.”

And it’s easy to do.  The article goes on to explain that to calculate recovery heart rate, follow these steps: 

1. Take your pulse ten seconds immediately after you have finished exercising. Write down the number.

2. One minute later, take your pulse again and write it down.

3. Subtract the number for the second pulse check from the number for the first pulse check. This number is your Recovery Heart Rate. The greater the number, the better shape you are in!

Simple, right?

Yes.  Except for the fact that in some articles, the directions are to take your pulse/note heart rate on your heart rate monitor 1 minute post exercising, while other articles say 2 minutes.


I don’t love that ambiguity.  But I can deal with it because there’s a bigger problem, IMHO.  For me, the larger issue is that I… um… want a goal.  I want to know how much my heart rate SHOULD go down (after 1 minute….and/or 2 minutes) to indicate that I am: a) pretty fit, and  b) getting fitter with increased exercise.

I don’t feel like that’s a lot to ask.  And yet, it is.  Because nowhere could I find a target.

What I did find is a study the American Heart Association published in 2001 that showed that if your recovery heart rate is <=18 beats lower than it was when exercising, that is indicative of poor heart health (and, um, predictive of higher death rate. Not kidding.)

Then I read Heart Rate Recovery Can Be Improved with Exercise from The Cleveland Clinic, which said after 2 minutes, heart rate must go down at least 12 beats per minute to be in good heart health.

Um – those don’t jive.

The conclusion: if you have cardiac issues, your cardiologist will know what to do about this 18 beats after 1 minute vs 12 beats after 2 minutes conundrum.  If your Recovery Heart Rate after 1 or 2 minutes is in the 12-18 beat range, you should probably check in with a cardiologist.

Which brings me to the other end of the spectrum.  The question I’m wondering about is this: if you are already exercising to keep your cholesterol in check, how can you use Heart Rate Recovery to gauge progress?

On a site called EnduranceCorner, Dr. Larry Cresswell states that a drop in heart rate of 15-20 beats per minute is ‘normal’  (and less than 12 would be ‘unfavorable.’)  And WebMD’s Researchers Find Heart Rate Worth a Thousand Words also posits that a ‘normal’ heart rate recovery is a decrease in beats of 15-25 beats after one minute.

Absent any other way to set a goal, I’ve decided to set my own personal goal of a drop of at least 25  beats, 1 minute after stopping after exercising at my maximum heart rate level.  It’s really easy to do this in a spin class – I try to ramp my heart rate up to my (personal) max of 154-ish during a song… then after that song ends, I note the time and heart rate on my heart rate monitor, then sit and pedal slowly (and gulp water) and watch my heart rate after 30 seconds and 1 minute.

The thirty seconds part I just made up.  It just keeps me occupied.  Interestingly, my heart rate remains kind of near the max even after 30 seconds.  But this week – after several weeks of intense spin training for my upcoming European bike trip (!) – I noticed that  my resting heart rate after 1 minute was consistently 30 beats less than maximum.  And that’s a pretty big improvement vs the typical 20-25 it had been when I was spinning just once a week.

Now that’s the kind of progress I need to keep spinning twice or three times a week.

That, and the fact that in just a few weeks, I’ll be spending 5 days in a row riding up the rolling hills of Croatia!


Learning About Cholesterol

It’s been rather a long while since I wrote about the importance of finding reputable online resources for learning about cholesterol. You can permanently locate links to educational resources on my Resources/Info Links page, but I thought it might be helpful to discuss in a post.


Well, quite frankly it’s because when discussing high cholesterol and heart disease risk, many doctors – who speak daily, probably, about cholesterol – rush through the conversation and use unfamiliar terms. On the receiving end it can feel like a tornado rather than a give and take discussion of personal cholesterol results and the resulting medical goals.

Plus, you’re going to google cholesterol anyway, you know you are.

Which is good, actually, because the more you know about cholesterol and heart disease risk – and treatment alternatives — the more committed you are likely to be to your cholesterol management program. Well, maybe. (My commitment waxes and wanes.) At the very least, researching online will enable you to create a list of questions to ask your doctor at a follow up appointment.

And researching should help you question whether prescription medication is absolutely necessary for your personal cholesterol management plan. Which is a vital step many seem to skip.

Truth be told, cholesterol-lowering statin medication is absolutely justified for many, many people – and these meds have undoubtedly saved many lives. But if high cholesterol is your only risk factor, you should question the validity of statin meds for you individual case. Have a discussion about the pros and cons with your doctor. And to do that well, you need knowledge.

But you don’t want to search just anywhere on the web. Some sites – such as WedMD — are largely funded by big pharmaceutical companies so you’ll want to know their slant. To help ensure you are gleaning information from reputable, unbiased sites, here are a few to check out.

An excellent source is the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) which I recently wrote about in my post, September is National Cholesterol Education Month. This site has a great deal of useful information, though it’s layout makes it difficult to navigate. See my post for specific links to the useful sections of this site – including an online calculator for heart disease risk.

For an excellent overview about cholesterol, a visit to the American Heart Association – Cholesterol Overview site is a great place to start. This site explains that cholesterol itself is not ‘bad’ and that it is created both by our bodies and from the foods we eat. Scrolling through this article you’ll find an explanation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, and there’s even an animation if you really want to get a visual of what cholesterol is and how it works in your body.

The Mayo Clinic is one of my favorite sites for unbiased, well-explained information about cholesterol and heart disease risk. (Go ahead. Color me geeky.) It is vital to truly understand your personal heart disease risk; the Mayo Clinic’s High Cholesterol Risk Factors page explains that there are seven conditions which, when combined with high cholesterol, elevate heart disease risk.

Test results are a big factor in risk assessment, and it’s pretty likely that your doctor zoomed through your personal lipid panel test results and what they mean. To learn more about why the goal for ‘total cholesterol’ is at or under 200 mg/dL, what triglycerides are, and what those HDL and LDL numbers really mean, visit the Mayo Clinic’s incredibly useful High Cholesterol Tests and Diagnosis page. This page is an excellent reference that explains the targets for each key cholesterol measure – and relates them to heart disease risk level. In my humble opinion, this page is one of the most useful online resources available.

Finally, if you want to avoid statin medication by lowering cholesterol through diet and lifestyle, you’ll want a good nutritional resource. For that, the Cleveland Clinic’s Nutrition-Cholesterol Guidelines is a terrific resource that explains what’s good and bad about things like the different kinds of fats, dietary cholesterol, protein, carbohydrates, and plant sterols. Even better, it gives a daily target for each. Best of all (major geek alert), there’s a handy chart that summarizes the key info all in one place. Make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page to see this useful chart.

And OK, I lied a minute ago. In my humble opinion, the Cleveland Clinic’s nutrition-cholesterol guidelines page is one of the most useful online resources available.

Let’s make it a tie. I vote that the Mayo Clinic’s High Cholesterol Tests and Diagnosis page wins for explaining test results and targets, and the Cleveland Clinic’s Nutrition-Cholesterol Guidelines page wins for showing how to combat high cholesterol, nutrition-wise.

Beyond these there are, of course, many other great online sources for information about cholesterol and heart disease risk. And your doctor is potentially the best resource of all. That said, the more you know, the better questions you can ask your doctor — and that will go a long way to ensure the program you and your doctor devise is the best possible course for you.