Eat Clean. Live Loud.
Melissa Joulwan is a badass. A retired Texas Rollergirl, Mel J has a serious thing for friendly competition, the band Social Disortion and cooking up a storm. In 2008, she launched her blog, Clothes Make the Girl, which kinda started out as a lifestyle/style site and eventually became one of the most popular paleo and wellness pit stops on the Internet. Her cookbooks, Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat (an Amazon.com best seller for nearly three years!) & Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat are essential guides for anyone wanting to make healthy, delicious food… which is basically everyone. We talk to Mel J about what a paleo diet really means, changing your relationship with food and her favorite paleo-friendly substitutions.
AndrewZimmern.com: What role did food play in your growing up?
Melissa Joulwan: I think this best summarizes the place food played in my family: Our favorite breakfast topic was what we were going to have for dinner. My family is a mini melting pot. My dad’s side is Lebanese and Dutch; Mom’s heritage is Italian and Slovak. That means as soon as I could reach the stove, I was learning how to make Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves and Italian Meat Sauce. My grandfather owned one of those beautiful stainless steel diners from the fifties, and my dad ran The Country Squire Restaurant, a combination coffee shop, formal dining room, and motel. I learned my way around a spice rack at the same time I learned the alphabet. My family ate stuff like plantains that none of my friends had ever tried, and “international cuisine” was our home cooking.
My family is happiest together in the kitchen, one of us chopping parsley or mincing garlic, another one manning the stove, and all of us talking over each other, giving orders, and trash talking. There’s a feature of my cookbooks called “You Know How You Could Do That?” directly inspired by my family. When we eat in a restaurant, we try the food, then we say, “It’s really good, but… you know how you could do that?” After that, it’s a free-for-all of ideas that build on the chef’s starting point.
AZ.com: What exactly is a paleo diet? When and why did you decide to try it? What are the health benefits?
MJ: Generally speaking, the paleo diet is made up of nutrient-dense foods that began with dirt, rain, and sunshine. They come from the earth and would be recognizable as food by a person from any time in human history. At it’s most basic, it’s just real food: animal-based protein, vegetables, fruits, and natural fat sources.
There are many variations of paleo, and by building on those basic food groups, each person can really find the version that works best for them. Some people include grass-fed dairy and sweeteners like honey. I follow the guidelines of the Whole30 most of time, which means I say “no” to grains, legumes, soy, added sugar, dairy, vegetable oils, and alcohol about 95% of the time. I realize that makes me sound like I’m no fun at all, but I promise, I love food and I know how to have a good time.
To me, there are two primary health reasons to eat paleo: it helps regulate the blood sugar-insulin cycle and it reduces inflammation in the body. Both of which are important for maintaining good health and weight management, but are also essential for being happy, thinking clearly, sleeping soundly, and tackling life with energy.
But I should also admit that I originally started eating paleo for reasons of vanity: I really wanted to lose 15 pounds. Around that time, I also learned that I had a nodule on my thyroid. The risk of cancer was high, so the nodule was surgically removed, and the doctor hoped that the remaining smidgen of my thyroid would continue to function. It held on for a few months, but then conked out. It was terrible! Like constantly having a case of the blues. Eating paleo has helped me keep my body healthy while I work with my doctor to get my thyroid hormone levels back to optimal function.
AZ.com: You’re a food lover. What was it like to break-up with some of your non-paleo favorites? How has your relationship with food changed?
MJ: I love toast and popcorn to distraction, so there was definitely some mourning over those two favorites. And oddly enough, when I gave up dairy, it wasn’t cheese that caused the most heartache. It was adios to my standard breakfast of a bowl of blueberries with milk that nearly pushed me over the edge. Honestly, I was pretty resentful of all the changes at first, but after three days of no grains and no dairy, I felt like Superwoman, so I was convinced it was worth the annoyance of reading labels and being picky in restaurants.
My relationship with food has changed dramatically. I was an overweight kid and an obese young adult, and for too many years, food was the enemy. I was either dieting, which meant denying myself all pleasure at meals, or I was eating salty snacks and deep-fried things like it was my job. There was no healthy balance.
Now, I eat Whole30 style 95% of the time, and when I indulge in a treat, I savor every bite. There’s no guilt or shame or hurrying involved, and because I eat so clean, I don’t fall off the wagon when I have a treat. The way I eat now feels much more peaceful and natural than any other eating plan or “diet” that I’ve followed.
AZ.com: When people hear the words “paleo” or “caveman” diet, they immediately picture copious amounts of meat. What common misconceptions do people have about eating paleo?
MJ: That we’re all barefoot and wearing leopard-print loin cloths! Actually, there are two biggies: One is that paleo means a plate of ribs straight out of Fred Flintstone and the other is that paleo is an ultra-low carb diet. As I mentioned earlier, there are many flavors of paleo, but I don’t think anyone in the paleo community would argue that vegetables are a primary component of this way of eating. Animal protein is definitely recommended, but the amounts aren’t extreme; the idea is to eat an adequate amount of protein for your body size and activity level, along with plenty of plants and a moderate amount of high-quality fats like yummy marbling on a grass-fed steak, coconut oil, or — my favorite — rendered duck fat from a duckie that’s lived a happy, foraging life.
The question of how much carbohydrate to eat — in the form of vegetables, fruit, and starchy carbs like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, organic white potatoes, plantains, and yuca — is hotly debated. Again, it comes down to goals, health status, and activity level. For some people, very low carb makes them feel awesome; other people — like me! — feel better with a little bit more carb action. I adore plantains and crispy sweet potato fries, and when I eat about 1/2 cup to 1 cup per day, I feel happier, sleep better, and have more energy for workouts.
AZ.com: You’ve written two cookbooks, Well Fed & Well Fed 2. Where do you find inspiration for your recipes?
MJ: Back in the day, my favorite way to spend a Friday night was watching a movie on the couch with take-out food eaten straight from the container — Moo Shu Pork in one of those white, cardboard boxes, pepperoni pizza, pad thai. When I switched to paleo, being able to pick up the phone for dinner became a thing of the past, but I wanted to recreate that experience. Revamping traditional international recipes to be compliant with the paleo guidelines was a fun creative challenge, and it’s a hobby that turned into a career. Not bad, since I get to eat all of my experiments!
I really like what I refer to as “peasant food” — the kind of stuff grandmothers make for the people they love. I use old cookbooks and the internet as a sort of surrogate granny to research traditional recipes, then play around with them until they taste like comfort.
AZ.com: For those looking to dip their toe into the paleo end of the pool, what are your favorite substitutions for grains or other non-compliant foods?
MJ: The biggest bummer about paleo can definitely be giving up pasta and rice, but there are delicious vegetable substitutes. I would be a lying liar if I said they taste the same as the original, but they are excellent, delicious, healthy stand-ins that recreate the experience of pasta and rice. I can say, with 100 percent honesty, that after six years of paleo, I don’t miss the originals.
So… for noodles where a little sweetness is OK — like paleo pad thai or coconut curries — I like spaghetti squash. The trick is to roast it until it’s just al dente. Most instructions produce spaghetti squash that’s too mushy. My tricks are all shared in detail in this blog post.
For Italian-style noodles to place under spaghetti sauce or toss with pasta, I prefer zucchini noodles. The trick is to julienne the zucchini with a julienne peeler, then salt and sweat the noodles so they’re not watery when you cook and toss them with sauce. Here’s everything you need to know about zucchini noodles.
And as your readers already know, thanks to your paleo Creole Chicken recipe, cauliflower is a tasty stand-in for rice. Just grate the cauliflower in a food processor and — my latest trick — roast it in the oven.
Also good to know: coconut aminos are a soy-free and gluten-free substitute for soy sauce, and arrowroot powder is great for “breading meats” and thickening stews, sauces, and soups.
AZ.com: A common “complaint” from folks considering paleo is the amount of shopping and prep-time required. What are some of your best time-saving tips?
MJ: This is going to seem weird coming from a cookbook author, but you don’t need to follow recipes to eat well as a paleo person — and I recommend that when people are just getting started, they keep it as simple as possible. That’s why I encourage them to make Hot Plates, which are basically one-pan, sauté meals that follow this equation:
Protein + Veggies + Fat + Spices + Sauce = Happiness
With that in mind, cook a pile of protein — grilled chicken, ground beef browned with onions and garlic — and partially steam bushels of vegetables to store in the fridge until it’s time to eat. Then throw some coconut oil (or duck fat!) in a big skillet, add meat, veggies, and spices and stir-fry until hot and caramelized. That’s it! For example, you could sauté ground beef with sliced onions, red and green bell peppers, diced tomatoes, chili powder, and cumin, then when it’s hot, spritz with lime juice and top with sliced avocado. No recipe required!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
MJ: We’re in the midst of packing to move from Austin, Texas, to White River Junction, Vermont, so I’m keeping meals as simple as possible. We’re eating a lot of Hot Plates right now, too! My fridge is currently stocked with lots of grilled chicken and grilled pork chops, a double batch of Chocolate Chili, hard-boiled eggs, and steamed shrimp to make quick shrimp salad. We always have a ridiculous amount of vegetables; right now it’s Brussels sprouts, carrots, red bell peppers, jicama, snap peas, and cauliflower — all stuff that can be eaten raw or tossed with oil and vinegar to be eaten cold when I don’t want to rattle a pan. Every week, I make a batch of homemade mayo and Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup that I like to eat alongside my breakfast. (It’s an easy way to get extra veggies into my belly.) And there’s a big tub of duck fat, of course.
Get Melissa’s recipes for Chinese 5-Spice Pork Ribs and Kickass Ketchup.
About Melissa Joulwan
Melissa Joulwan is the author of the cookbooks Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat and Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat, and the blog The Clothes Make The Girl, where she writes about her triumphs and failures in the gym, in the kitchen, and in life.
After a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and food as the enemy, Melissa found the paleo diet in 2009 and has been happily following it ever since. That year, she also underwent a thyroidectomy. In the aftermath, she became particularly interested in how diet affects hormones, body composition, mood, and motivation. These days, Melissa’s workouts are just as likely to include yoga and meditation as lifting heavy things and sprinting to stay ahead of the stopwatch.
Well Fed 2 was named one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon.com and was a Washington Post best seller. Her first cookbook Well Fed appeared on the Wall Street Journal best sellers list, and she’s the author of the recipes in the New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. She writes a column for Paleo Magazine, is a Community Ambassador for Experience Life magazine, and has been a featured chef for U.S. Wellness Meats and Lava Lake Lamb, as well as an instructor at Whole Foods.
She has lived in San Francisco and Austin, Texas, now she’s on her way to Prague with an interim 2-year stop in Vermont. Her husband Dave is her favorite partner-in-crime, and their cat Smudge is the CEO of their publishing company.