June 30, 2011

If you are what you eat...

...and I like bitter leafy greens, does that mean I'm bitter?

Of the five primary tastes (sweet, salty, sour, savory and bitter), it's pretty much a no-brainer that bitter is the least favorite of the lot. Bitter is a taste most commonly encountered in coffee, unsweetened cocoa and certain vegetables. Most modern lettuces, cucumbers, eggplants and the standard cabbage have had bitterness bred out of them long ago, according to Harold McGee, but the bitterness remains in vegetables such as radicchio, chicory, endive, escarole and certain members of the cabbage family. Oh, and dandelion greens.

Dandelion greens, a.k.a. my new vegetable love. They were a standard offering in my Full Circle box a few weeks ago, and since they were on my "to try" list, I left them in my order instead of substituting an alternate selection. Full Circle offered the recommendation to serve them dressed in a warm vinaigrette to reduce some of the bitterness. I did just that, making a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard and salt and pepper. I gently heated it a bit and a small saucepan and tossed it with the greens. Delish!

(A note on Dijon mustard: We recently started buying the Trader Joe's brand, and it is a kick in the pants! It made us realize that Grey Poupon, our previous Dijon-of-choice, has been "dumbed down" since it was bought by whichever mega food conglomerate took it over.)

I've since prepared dandelion greens with a cold (well, room-temp, really) vinaigrette and enjoyed the bitter taste, but that made them too bitter for Jeff's palate, so I'll go back to warm vinaigrettes when I'm not dining solo. They are an acquired taste and tend to be more popular in parts of Europe (such as Italy) and the American South (where they love their collard greens, too...yum!).  

This is really something I've enjoyed about getting my weekly box o' fruit and veg delivered to my doorstep: The slight element of the unexpected. That plus variety. I'm getting a lot more variety now that I'm not buying my produce at Costco, and it's truly been a pleasure. 

I'm not sure how I acquired this new taste for dandelion greens, but it seems to follow in the progression of my evolving appreciation for greens that are more "complicated" than standard salad greens: First the peppery bite of arugula, then the heartiness of the many varieties of kale, then  the pungent kick of mustard greens, and finally the appealing bitterness of dandelion greens. I participated in a Full Circle focus group a few evenings ago and took home three bunches of beautiful Tuscan kale (sample produce that they couldn't turn around and sell, so it was up for grabs). No one even tried to fight me for it. I guess not everyone loves dark leafy greens like I do!

Speaking of greens, I made a great tabbouleh recipe last weekend that was a hit with my tiny household and our houseguests. I have a tried-and-true tabbouleh recipe that I've been making for years (it came from the long-defunct Kitchen Gardener magazine...I cried some "bitter" tears when that publication folded, I'll tell ya). This recipe, from Saveur magazine uses far more parsley and far less bulgur, which is more authentic, as it happens. And more like a parsley salad, less like a grain dish. For those gluten-free folks, you could substitute quinoa for the bulgur. I've made quite a few quinoa tabboulehs in my day, and while not technically authentic, they were quite good.

Tabbouleh
Makes 3 cups

Ingredients:
3 tbsp. bulgur wheat
1⁄2 medium white onion, chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more
1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
1 lb. medium tomatoes, cored, seeded,
and finely chopped
3 cups minced flat-leaf parsley
1⁄2 cup finely chopped mint leaves
7 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
5 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  1. Put bulgur into a small bowl; cover with 1⁄2 cup warm water. Let soften for 10 minutes; drain bulgur; set aside.
  2. Put the onions on a cutting board and sprinkle them with 1 tsp. salt and the allspice. Finely chop the onions.
  3. Transfer onions and reserved bulgur to a large bowl along with the tomatoes, parsley, mint, oil, and lemon juice. Stir to combine and season with salt. Serve at room temperature.

June 29, 2011

Food and health...a disconnect?

Yesterday I "attended" a webinar put on by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on "Industrial food animal production and the high-meat American diet: Health and environmental consequences." It was one of many preliminary events leading up to Food Day on October 24. Food Day is sponsored by CSPI, in partnership with too many organizations to count.

The Food Day tagline is "It's Time To Eat Real, America!" (Yeah!) The primary goals are to:
  1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting healthy foods.
  2. Support sustainable farms and cut subsidies to big agribusiness.
  3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger.
  4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms,
  5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids.
One of the webinar speakers was Robert S. Lawrence, a professor of public health and medicine at Johns Hopkins University and founder of the Center For A Livable Future. He said a lot of very interesting things, but one bit in particular that sent me scrambling for a pen and paper was this quote from Wendell Berry, whose recent book, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food, is on my hold list at the library:
"There is no connection between food and health. People are fed by a food industry which pays no attention to health and are healed by a health industry that pays no attention to food."
Oh, my goodness. Has this man been inside my head? Seriously. It excites me to no end to have someone take the very problems that are driving me to study public health nutrition and phrase them so succinctly and eloquently. Mr. Berry, you're my hero.

A few other statistics also stood out:

One. Humans take a combined 3 million pounds of antibiotics each year. The state of Iowa uses that same amount in farm animals (mostly from factory farms) each year. The state of North Carolina uses MORE than that in its farm animals each year. And people wonder why there are so many nasty strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria making us sick or, worse, killing us.

Two. People in this country eat an average of 220 pounds of meat each year, per person. That means some people eat less, others eat more. We love our meat (as the five years worth of Christmas cards from our beef people on the door of our basement freezer testifies), but the combined total of the quarter-steer and half-pig we get is less than 200 pounds...and that's for both of us. At most, we each eat a half-pound of meat a week from Whole Foods or a restaurant, so that's an additional 26 pounds each per year. Total per person in our household: Less than 120 pounds per year. If we ate more than that, you know what we probably would be eating less of by default? Vegetables and fruits. Aye, there's the rub.

I believe that CSPI will make the audio and slides from the webinar available soon. When they do, I'll share the links. And tomorrow's post will be lighter, I swear. With a recipe!

June 28, 2011

Food Fight


The ongoing debate on whether or not junk food and/or ads that promote it should be regulated is a difficult issue for me. On the one hand, I am not in favor of certain measures that smack of "nanny state." On the other hand...
  • I do support some measures, like seatbelt laws and laws restricting use of cell phones while driving (the latter mostly because as a pedestrian I've been nearly killed too many times to count by distracted drivers).
  • We humans have a innate drive for sweet and salty tastes that can be, and has been, easily exploited.
  • Advertising can exert a powerful influence on us, whether we realized it or not. Study after study has confirmed this, and food manufacturers would not spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising if it didn't work.
  • Children are innocent and not yet worldly-wise, and so are even more susceptible to the billions and billions of dollars in advertising that are directly targeted to them.
  • There is an established precedent that people are far more likely to adopt certain healthy habits (seatbelts, installing child-safety guards on windows of high-rise apartment buildings) when they are mandated by law (and not so much when they are simply promoted through public health campaigns).
For me, the debate about restricting junk food advertising is less murky. Limiting advertising doesn't restrict access to these foods or take away anyone's choice to eat these foods or not. What it does do is reduce the triggers that can prompt people to reach for (or drive to the store to buy) these foods. Are you really choosing to eat a food if you don't want it until you happen to see an ad for it.

The debate about restricting junk food itself is more problematic. How would you define junk food? To me, it smacks a bit of obscenity laws ("I'll know it when I see it.") Most people would agree that cheap mass-market potato chips are junk food, but what about an "upscale" organic brand? Is a cellophane-wrapped snack cake from a convenience store junk food? What about a chocolate cake from Whole Foods? French fries from a fast food chain with millions of outposts around the world? French fries served with a gourmet, lamb burger at a French bistro? Yeah, talk about a big gray area.

It's been said by many people more knowledgeable than I that the place we are at right now in the discussion about the role of junk food, fast food and other highly processed high-calorie-low-nutrient foods in the epidemics of obesity and chronic disease that are plaguing our country (and other countries that have adopted our Western-style diet) is very similar to the place we were in half a century ago in the discussion about the role of cigarettes in lung cancer and other diseases. This debate is not clear-cut, either. I mean, cigarettes and tobacco are absolutely non-essential and have been clearly linked to disease. Food, in general, is essential, even if junk food isn't. Trouble is, it's a bit trickier to establish cause-and-effect between crappy food and disease, because people who eat a lot of crappy food may be more likely to not exercise, which has its own associations with disease.

I don't think too many people will argue that obesity and chronic diseases aren't problems, and that eating junk food probably isn't the best thing for us to do, and that, yes, those things may be somehow related. But what to do, what to do? In case you missed this video story on the New York Times website a few months ago, it provides some food for thought about the scope of the childhood obesity problem, the role junk food plays, and what some parents are doing about it.

June 27, 2011

Accept no substitutes

So I spent the weekend pondering the pros and cons of substituting a "healthier" food for a similar "unhealthy" food. For example:
  • Tofurkey instead of real turkey.
  • Gluten-free bread or pasta instead of "regular" bread or pasta.
  • Organic potato chips (or baked potato chips) instead of regular potato chips.
  • "Natural" soda with sugar instead of soda with high-fructose corn syrup.
It's no secret that change can be a difficult thing, and that's no different when you're changing your diet, either by choice or necessity. So I think there is a natural tendency when giving up a familiar (and perhaps favorite) food in the name of health to try to swap it out for a healthier version. If that sounds familiar, I would ask yourself this question: "Is that the best I can do?"

There are way, way healthier foods than tofurky, gluten-free bread, "healthy" potato chips and sugary beverages. Yes, if you are used to meat-centric meals, sandwiches and vending-machine type snacks, it can be hard to give those up. But when you do, you open yourself up to a whole wide world of healthy eating that is virtually limitless in its potential for delicious meals.

I eat very little bread. Not because I don't like good, quality bread, but rather, because I like it too much! That, plus the fact that when it comes to foods made from grains, there are healthier options than bread. For example, I love the occasional slice of toast, French toast or homemade pancakes or muffins, but oatmeal is superior, healthwise (and just as tasty, in my book).

Little bread means few sandwiches, which I know are a lunch mainstay for many. These days, I eat lunch at home every day, which gives me lots of options. But you won't find me toting sandwiches this fall when I start brown-bagging it again. I expect my mainstays will be grain-bean-veggie salads, veggies with hummus or green salads with some kind of protein (beans, leftover meat, etc.). All of those are very portable and packable. Hardboiled eggs, fresh fruit and homemade trail mix (dried fruit, nuts and coconut) will round things out. To drink? Water. Always.

I eat many meatless meals, but you won't find a slab of soy on my plate, surrounded by side dishes. When I do eat soy (usually in the form of tempeh), it's one component of a veggie-rich dish. 

I see nothing wrong with reaching for a healthier substitute food while transitioning to a healthier way of eating. It can be a way of elevating the quality of your food that gives you a sense of familiarity and continuity. But if you are aspiring to move toward a diet that will help you be optimally healthy, then those transition foods are not going to get you there. Why? One reason is that while they are healthier, they are still heavily processed and often end up taking the place of even healthier foods. The other is that it can hold you in an outdated mindset about what meals and snacks are supposed to look like. Exploring the world of healthier eating can be a fantastic, delicious adventure. Don't limit yourself. 

June 25, 2011

Links I Like

Happy first Saturday of Summer! I've got lots of gardening, cooking, baking and reading on my weekend agenda. I'm trying a few new recipes that I hope will be worthy of sharing next week. Until then, enjoy these links (a few meaty, the others fun) and have a great weekend!

  • For me, growing as many of my own vegetables as I can is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. I like to know where my food comes from, and that's extra easy when my food comes from my own backyard. So I was awed and inspired by these mind-blowing photos of the top 5 urban farms in New York City. So much fresh, beautiful produce right in a uber-densely populated urban area! It makes me realize I need to do more than I already am with my quasi-urban backyard plot!
  • Great article about "Why the Body Mass Index is Pretty Stupid" and the crazy madness we can put ourselves through when striving to reach an "ideal" weight. It makes some good points about something I absolutely believe: There is no one healthy diet and no one "right" way to lose weight. Also some good discussion about eating intuitively vs. keeping a food journal.
  • Put down the potato chips. Put them DOWN! A new study from researchers at Harvard University has found that when it comes to keeping your weight in a healthy range, the quality of the food you eat might matter more than the calories themselves. Eating potato chips and soda is associated with weight gain, while eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and yogurt was associated with a trimmer waistline.
  • Are "big box" grocery stores the solution to the food desert problem? Perhaps not. Read this article, then discuss amongst yourselves.
  • Finally, an article about my "CSA with benefits" purveyor, Full Circle Farm. Whoo-hoo!

June 24, 2011

Digestion begins in the mind

This week's lesson out of The Slow Down Diet was about "The Metabolic Power of Awareness." In other words, pay attention to your food while you are eating it. Seems simple enough, but apparently it's not, because most of us don't do it. Or maybe we think it's too simple, and that's why we insist on multitasking during meals and snacks by adding other activities: Watching TV, driving, reading, working, walking, texting, etc.

Studies show that our digestion decreases when we're distracted, so it's better for our bodies to be aware of the food we're putting in our mouth. When we eat mindlessly (which is easy to do when you're multitasking), you're more likely to eat more food without noticing how much you've eaten, or whether you're even still hungry. So paying attention is better for your waistline, too.

Jeff and I rarely eat in front of the television, mostly because we don't watch much TV to begin with. But we run about 50-50 when it comes to carrying our dinner to the couch during our Saturday movie night. What I read in this chapter persuaded me to put and end to that pastime, stat.
I'll admit, I enjoyed paying more attention to my food this week. Even a simple bowl of oatmeal is more interesting when you really notice the shreds of coconut contrast with the texture of the grains, and how the dollop of almond butter melts into the crevices on the warm surface. And really, since I make a point of preparing delicious, healthy food with quality ingredients, why shouldn't I be paying attention so I can fully enjoy my meals? On the flip side, if I was eating crap, paying attention to my food might make me more aware of that fact, possibly grossing me out and making me change my ways!

The hardest part of this week was not reading while I eat. I admit, when dining solo I love nothing more than settling in with good food and a good book or magazine. I was good, though, caving only once when I made the mistake of leaving a cookbook right next to me on the table during lunch. I don't know that I'll continue to eat all my solo meals book-free, but I will at least make a point of pausing several times during the meal to focus all my attention on the food.

I like the idea of eating as meditation. Just as meditating on an object, a word, or your breath can focus and calm your mind, I see no reason why focusing on a meal can't serve the same purpose. In the middle of a hectic day, or at the end of it, taking the time to breath deeply and eat slowly with awareness can be calming and nourishing for both body and mind.

June 23, 2011

Mad kitchen skillz

So my summer Molecular Gastronomy class started this week. Our primary "textbooks" are Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (which was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame this year) and Herve This' Kitchen Mysteries. Delightful to read, and delightful that they didn't cost upwards of $100 a pop!

Fun fact: You can use metal in the microwave! Surprised? So was I! Here's what Mr. McGee has to say on the matter:
Metal foil and utensils can be put in the microwave oven with moist foods without causing problems, provided they're reasonably large and kept some distance from the walls and each other to prevent arcing. Fine metallic decoration on china will spark and suffer damage.
I'm not sure I'm going to try this anytime soon, but still...interesting.

The fact that people are all over the map in their cooking skills has been on my mind a lot anyway, but even more so since digging into my reading for this class. How do people who didn't learn kitchen skills from their parents, and don't have money to pay for cooking classes, learn to cook. I don't think watching the Food Network is the answer, especially since most of those shows choose their recipes for visual appeal and at least a touch of decadence. Healthy food is not the norm...and doesn't make for the best escapist TV diversion, I'm guessing.

So imagine my delight as I was cruising for photos on Jamie Oliver's website the other day when I came across Jamie's Home Cooking Skills. It was developed to help kids (pre-teens and teens, I'm guessing) learn to cook, so all you grown-ups who could learn a thing or two? I think you could easily learn a thing or two? The website is insane, with how-to skill videos, how-to recipe videos, step-by-step photos. I mean, he covers  everything. Everything! Cooking with herbs, how to carve a chicken, the difference between a simmer and a boil, how to set up your kitchen (shown below). Heck, I'm going to be studying some of these videos, because I'm sure I have a hole or two in my skill set, somewhere.

Yep, mad kitchen skillz...that's what we all could use more of. Enjoy!

June 22, 2011

Tough love in the Summertime

It's finally summer. At least according to the calendar (any Seattlite worth his or her salt knows that summer doesn't really start until July 5). All I can say about Spring 2011 is this: Good riddance!

This spring was horrible, and I felt its effects acutely. There are few things worse than getting to early February, feeling tired of winter yet heartened by the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel (light = spring weather), only to find that there is no light after all. Not in March. Not in April. Not in May. June hasn't been so hot, either. If I had a dollar for every time I uttered the words "I am SO tired of wearing wool," my grad school tuition would be paid for.

The cool, gray weather, combined with my shift to full-time telecommuting (ending the visual and social stimulation that I used to get from going downtown a few days a week), and the post-grad-school-acceptance letdown (all that buildup, then the happy dance...then months of waiting before classes start!) really did a number on my motivation.

That's the funny thing about motivation. Sometimes you have a fire lit under you, and sometimes it's just smoldering ashes...if that. But when you make a commitment to live a healthy lifestyle, you've made a commitment. That means you don't get to eat pizza and cookies everyday just because you're feeling blah and bored and starchy carbs seem like just the thing to cheer you up!

I powered through spring without too much complaining or too much backsliding, but summer could not come soon enough, I'll tell you. I went for a walk today at lunch and, for the first time in 2011, it was warm enough to wear a tank top. And I broke a sweat without even trying. Glory, hallelujah! According to local weather guru Cliff Mass, our summer is supposed to be "normal." Normal = glorious, because that's what our normal Seattle summers are. Not too hot, not too cold, but juuuust right. You can call me Goldilocks.

We all struggle sometimes with doing the right thing, nutritionwise or otherwise. So what do you do when you find yourself behaving in ways that are at odds with what you know is best for you...or fear you are in immediate danger of doing so? What you don't do is start in with the self-flagellation ("What is WRONG with me? Why am I such a failure?"). No, you go with a little tough love. You behave toward yourself like a firm but loving parent who sets guidelines and boundaries because they love their child and want them to be healthy and well. The type of guidelines and boundaries (can you see that I'm sort of avoiding the word "rules"?) that might feel so unfair in the moment, but further down the road seem very, very wise.

Admit it, if you stick to your chosen nutrition-and-activity path, and are rewarded with weight loss (or maintenance), and maybe improvement in your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels (if they needed improving), then you are going to be very glad that you tough loved yourself. You know it's true.

So, when you're doing your best to live a healthy life (especially if you have lived an unhealthy life previously), I think it's helpful to know that motivation will wax and wane, and that you need to have a plan for dealing with those times where motivation won't carry you through the rough patches. It takes work...just like life.

On a lighter note, let me just say this: Polenta + fried eggs + garlic-sauteed greens = Delicious (and nutritious!). Jeff had a little issue with eggs for dinner, but I firmly but lovingly (tough love!) informed him that eggs are an "anytime food," especially when you have four spoiled fluffy egg producers in the backyard! 
The photo doesn't do the greens justice, or the tasty, easy little veggie dish I made as a second side. Courgettes aux Olives (aka Zucchini with Olives) is from the delightful cookbook Chocolate and Zucchini by the delightful Clotilde Dusoulier, who has a blog of the same name.
I've followed C&Z for years...Clotilde is really one of the food blog pioneers, and you haven't checked her out, you really ought to. This recipe reminds me a bit of ratatouille, which I love so much that I made it too many times last summer and got a bit sick of it. I'll welcome it back into the fold later this summer! (Ironically, Clotilde suggests that this little zucchini dish would be nice served over polenta, which I didn't even notice until after we'd eaten!)

Courgettes aux Olives
Serves 4 as a side

Ingredients:
1.5 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
12 black Greek olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and chopped
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 pounds zucchini, trimmed and thinly sliced
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or a mix of dried rosemary, basil, oregano and thyme)
1/3 cup dry white wine
  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add three of the olives (reserve the others) and cook for a minute, until fragrant. 
  2. Add the onion and garlic and cook for 4 minutes, until softened, stirring regularly to avoid coloring. 
  3. Add the zucchini, sprinkle with salt, pepper and herbes de Provence, and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add the white wine and the reserved olives, and stir again. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes, until most of the juices have evaporated. Serve hot, at room temperature, or cold.


June 21, 2011

Ode to vegetables

How do I love vegetables? Let me count the ways...

OK, no counting, but I do love veggies. And I'm sure the foundation for this veggie-love came from the fact that my mother started feeding them to me before the time that I can remember. And she did it in a way that didn't scar me for life:
  • She let me eat my salad with my fingers when I was very young, since I had trouble maneuvering lettuce onto a fork (I also ate it dressingless until I figured out the fork thing). 
  • I loved broccoli, but hated the texture of the cooked florets, so she always traded me her stems for my florets. 
  • I didn't warm to tomatoes for years, but she still had me try one occasionally, just to see. 
  • I loathed green bell peppers (I still am not crazy about them), so when she made stuffed peppers for dinner, she let me pass on the peppers and instead baked me a little ramekin of the stuffing.
  • She made radish roses. What's funner to eat than that?
  • She made sweet potatoes, baked and served in the skin with a bit of butter (no marshmallows...those were for s'mores only). I loved them then, and they are still a dietary staple today.
  • Mushrooms! She loved them, and so did I, from the get-go (my father told me once that he refused to eat mushrooms until after he met my mom).
  • She had at least a small backyard veggie garden everywhere we lived (and her mother had one of the best veggie gardens EVER). I think even a picky eater could benefit from seeing that veggies don't just come from the supermarket.
So envision, if you will, how badly I gnashed my teeth when I read about a pair of Seattle-area siblings (ages 11 and 12) who were being encouraged to "try" salad and "taste" broccoli. (The article, "Parents stand between kids and junk food," is part of the package of articles that I mentioned yesterday.) Now, I'm not passing judgement, because we're all at where we are at, and I applaud any effort a parent makes to improve their family's diet. Besides, better late than never. But it's probably no surprise that if kids start out eating processed junk, vegetables (and fruit to a lesser degree) are going to be a harder and harder sell as the months and years tick by.

Are you watching Food Revolution? Two episodes ago, Jamie set out to help a single dad and his two sons learn to cook simple, healthy food for themselves. They had been eating fast food meals eight or nine times a week. To help them appreciate the magnitude of crap they were "fueling" their bodies with, Jamie's team filled their house with a year's worth of this food. Below, the "before" picture.
This scene is NOT pretty. However, in last week's episode, dad + sons surprised Jamie by filling the house FULL of gorgeous, colorful veggies (not to mention the veggie and herb plants they started growing out front in containers). So pretty, and it made me drool. And they were so proud of the beautiful, healthy meals they were making, I actually shed tears. I wish I could find a photo of it, but alas, no. Needless to say, the above photo makes me feel a touch queasy.

With summer actually on the horizon here in Seattle, with all the promise of backyard veggies and farmers' markets full-to-bursting, I'm perusing my cookbook shelves and pulling out volumes that particularly celebrate the vegetable. When it comes to garden-fresh produce and healthy food for all, one of the first people who comes to mind is Alice Waters, naturally. I think the title of this book says it all:
When you buy the best quality whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods that you can afford, then prepare them simply, you can eat well (and by well I mean deliciously and nutritiously) without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Allegedly, Alice Waters once served a perfect peach for dessert to Julia child and Julia said to her, “Alice, that’s not cooking, it’s shopping.”

Finally, I'll leave you with one method of getting your veggies that I absolutely do NOT endorse:

June 20, 2011

The real reason we don't eat our veggies

I wasn't intending to continue writing about affordable nutrition this week, but the subject refuses to die in my head, so I'm going to try to wrap it up today (for now).

There was a good set of articles in The Seattle Times a week ago looking at childhood obesity as it affects the population (generally) and some local families (specifically). In "State still seeks winning strategy against childhood obesity," affordable healthy food was mentioned as part of the equation (not surprisingly). As one of my future professors, Adam Drewnowski, put it "Obesity in America is an economic issue." This is about more than just money: People living in poverty are short on more than money...they also are short on time and education.

It doesn't help that junk food is cheap and available wherever you look, healthy food...not as much. However, the article also references a recent year-long USDA and Institute of Medicine (IOM) study looking at access to healthy food. They concluded that better access to produce and other healthy food (i.e., elimination of "food deserts") is unlikely to make much difference in obesity rates.
"The supply of healthy food will not suddenly induce people to buy and eat such food over less-healthy options," the IOM report concluded. 
After all, even those with the best access aren't eating their vegetables. Most of us get about half of what's recommended, research shows.
The reason for this is both intuitive and well-studied. Eating decisions are driven by taste. Then cost, Drewnowski says. Then convenience. "Health," he says, "is last."
It may be that abundant access to unhealthy food is a bigger problem than limited access to healthy food. Especially if people don't know what to do with healthy food, or perceive healthy food as being much more expensive, or think they don't have time to prepare healthy food.

One topic of conversation in my graduate program advising meeting on Friday was the undergraduate food studies class that the University of Washington started offering a few years ago. Turns out students are starving (pun intended) for classes like this. There is this phenomenal lack of understanding about where our food comes from and how to prepare it. Did today's young adults learn nothing about cooking when they were growing up? I'm guessing not. I think the problem began with the rise in convenience foods during the 1950s, and the accompanying marketing campaigns telling women that they shouldn't have to work so hard in the kitchen. Then women began entering the workforce, but were still responsible for feeding the family. So they leaned on convenience foods even harder. And if they weren't fully using their own cooking skills, why would they pass them on to their daughters...or their sons!

And so here we are, with a growing rate of obesity and other chronic diseases. If a genie gave me three wishes to bestow on every nation battling these health epidemics, this is what I would choose:
  1. The understanding that healthy food does not have to be expensive.
  2. The insight that healthy food does not have to be difficult or time-consuming to prepare.
  3. The motivation to choose healthy foods most of the time, even if unhealthy food beckons.
On that note, here is a healthy, delicious, easy, affordable recipe! You can't toss a wooden spoon without hitting a recipe for baked oatmeal somewhere. I've already posted one tasty recipe, and yesterday I finally got around to making Heidi Swanson's take on this yummy, healthy, affordable breakfast concoction. Since I've already posted a few recipes from her newest book, Super Natural Every Day, I normally would not post this one (I feel funny about "giving away" more than a few recipes from any single book, unless I made significant adjustments to it), but this recipe has already spread far and wide, on food blog galore and in Whole Living Magazine.

I made the recipe exactly as-is (with blueberries, naturally), except I left out the sweetener, and topped it with unsweetened shredded coconut and a dab of almond butter. It was delicious. It has a wetter, more oatmeal-like consistency than the other recipe, especially if you serve it right away (when I packed up the leftovers, it had firmed up...but then oatmeal cooked in a pot does the same thing). I wouldn't hesitate to make this for company, with some maple syrup or brown sugar on the side for those who have a sweeter tooth than I do.
Baked Oatmeal
Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus more for coating baking dish
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup walnuts or almonds, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup fine-grain natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
2 cups milk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 ripe bananas, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 1/2 cups huckleberries, blueberries, or mixed berries
Maple syrup, for drizzling
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish.
  2. Combine the oats, half the nuts, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, whisk the milk, egg, half the butter, and the vanilla.
  3. Arrange bananas in a single layer on the bottom of the coated baking dish. Sprinkle with two-thirds of the berries, then cover with the oat mixture. Slowly drizzle milk mixture over the oats. Gently tap dish on a work surface to distribute liquid. Scatter remaining berries and nuts across the top.
  4. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the oat mixture has set. Let cool slightly. Drizzle with remaining melted butter and maple syrup.

June 18, 2011

Links I Like

Happy Saturday! This is the first Saturday in more than two months that I haven't had to rise and shine at the crack of dawn for a microbiology class. So instead, I'm rising and shining and going for a nice long walk. A lovely breakfast will follow, after which gardening, yoga, a bit of cooking and a good movie ("Winter's Bone") are on the agenda. I hope you have something nice planned for your weekend! For those of you wondering what's been going on (or not going on) on the farm blog, I will be doing some serious updating this weekend. Promise! In the meantime, here are some lovely links for your enjoyment and edification:
  • "Is All Saturated Fat the Same?" is a really excellent, even-handed article pointing out the flaws in allowing the dietary pendulum to swing too far one direction or the other with regards to macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). A voice of sanity in the crazy universe of "nutritional wisdom."
  • I have no intention of paring down my cookbook collection (I think I'm up to 180 volumes) anytime in the foreseeable future, but this "Recipe for paring cookbook collection" resonated with me nevertheless. And if you happen to feel the need to lighten your cookbook load, it is a very good "recipe" indeed.
  • Can you imagine losing 7 billion pounds in 10 years! What a mega-diet that would be! "Can We End Obesity Within A Decade?" lays out some excellent point on the current obesity epidemic, and what it may take to turn it around.
  • I wrote a bit this week about how to put a healthy meal on the table when time is in short supply. What I didn't touch on was how some people THINK they have no time, but really they're wasting their available time on the boob tube. Talk about a recipe for disastrous health results: lots of sedentary TV watching + lots of no-effort processed food meals. It makes my arteries clog a little just thinking about it...
  • How much is that tomato in the window? More than you think...and they don't even taste all that good. I don't think I ever buy Florida tomatoes, but after reading Mark Bittman's Opinionator on "The True Cost of Tomatoes," you can bet I'll be making SURE that I don't!

June 17, 2011

Think quality, not quantity

 
This week's chapter in my "summer school" reading was about elevating the quality of your food, as in "No matter what food you eat, choose the highest quality version of that food." The purpose of this is to get away from obsessing about what to eat in terms of carbs/fat/protein and the like.

What does it mean to elevate the quality of what you eat? Let's use the example of someone who's eating a poor diet, high in processed foods. Elevating quality might mean:
  • Moving from fried chicken to rotisserie chicken to chicken cooked at home to organic chicken cooked at home. 
  • Moving from sugary boxed cereal to non-sugary boxed cereal to sweetened oatmeal to oatmeal sweetened only with fruit.
  • Moving from cheap grocery store bakery cake to a decent cake from a real bakery or (better and less expensive) homemade cake.
  • Moving from white bread to whole wheat bread to sprouted grain bread to less bread and more actual whole grains.
You get the idea.

As I've said more than once, everything in life exists on a continuum. At this very moment, you eating habits are at a point somewhere on a continuum. Whether you move toward the healthier end or the less-healthy end is up to you. But why shouldn't each of us try to be a little bit better every day, in every way? Why shouldn't we strive for quality over quantity, in all areas of life? Do you want to move forward, or move backwards?

Improving the quality of your diet one step at a time, getting better and better all the time, can feel less painful than trying to go from a crappy processed food diet to a perfect whole foods diet in one fell swoop (I say that facetiously, because there is no such thing as a perfect diet, not for all people, in any case).
So, I've been talking about eating affordably, not wasting food, and emphasizing technique over recipes if you're pinched for time. In keeping with that theme, I thought I'd share my loose dinner menu plan for the next several nights (including last night):
  • Thursday: Grilled chicken breasts, roasted cauliflower, fava beans (blanched then sauteed) with basil/arugula pesto, green salad with vinaigrette (pictured above).
  • Friday: Dinner out at Whole Foods (combined with small shopping trip for BLUEBERRIES et al).
  • Saturday: Beef roast, red dandelion greens with warm vinaigrette, roasted sweet potatoes, roasted rhubarb on lemon shortbread.
  • Sunday: Barbecued pork spareribs, cole slaw, baked beans (from can), kale chips.
  • Monday: Polenta with poached eggs, sauteed rapini with garlic, green salad with vinaigrette.
  • Tuesday: Grilled pork chops or beef burgers, sauteed Swiss chard, roasted sweet potatoes.
  • Wednesday: Dinner at a local (one neighborhood over) restaurant (with a Groupon), coupled with a trip to the farmers' market across the street from the restaurant.
You'll notice that I don't have specific recipes listed, per se. I've divvied up the fresh produce in my fridge, pulled out some meat from the freezer, and filled in with grains from the pantry.

What about meals the rest of the day?

Breakfast pretty much rotates between oatmeal (with half a banana, a bit of dried fruit, chia seeds, cinnamon, vanilla, flax seed, wheat germ and shredded unsweetened coconut), overnight oats (much the same, except the oats sit overnight in yogurt or kefir), scrambled eggs with veggies and a side of fruit, or plain yogurt with fruit and nuts.
Lunch is almost always a salad with some type of protein and healthy fat, and often a piece of fruit. If there aren't any suitable leftovers to toss on top, I'll open a can of tuna or layer on some beans or hummus and feta. Yesterday's lunch (enjoyed on the patio...it was finally warm enough!) was a green salad topped with leftovers from a Super Natural Every Day recipe, which involved broccoli, tempeh, sprouted beans, cilantro, lemon zest, olive oil and soy sauce. I added some avocado for the healthy fat part.

Snacks rotate between fruit and raw nuts, plain yogurt and fruit, or veggie and hummus. I make my daily choices partially based on what I'm in the mood for and how hungry I am, but also on if there is fruit that needs to get used soon, and on what my activity level is (I eat more grain-based carbs on days I run/walk AND lift weights, less on days I walk and do a long yoga session).

You'll notice the lack of processed foods. The baked beans will come from the can, and yes the tempeh, polenta and yogurt are technically processed, but it's a far, far cry from frozen pizzas, packaged snack foods and sugary cereals. It's all quality, all delicious, and none of it expensive.

One last thing: Nice Washington Post article the other day ("Read it, grow it, eat it: Garden to table books") that may provide some inspiration for your local and seasonal eating. I promptly put the first two on hold at the library (I'm already waiting for Kurt Timmermeister's book to come in), but the library didn't have the others. Boo-hoo!

June 16, 2011

Blue(berry) skies ahead!

I'm so excited! Whole Foods has organic blueberries on Sale FRIDAY ONLY for $1.99 a pint. Jeff and I are sooooo stocking up. You see, I wait for events like this. No matter how much I might be craving blueberries, I won't buy them when they are twice that price (or more). I'll go with another, less expensive fruit and bide my time. It's so worth it.

My weekly Full Circle box was filled with good things yesterday. Organic nectarines, pluots, apples, oranges, a green cabbage, spring onions, spinach, baby lettuces, radishes, mushrooms, chard and red dandelion greens. I substituted the last two for the avocados and tomatoes that were supposed to be in the box. I'm sort of avoiding tomatoes at the moment because later this summer I will have more tomatoes than I can eat coming out of my own garden...and they'll taste even better if I wait.

As for the avocados? That's one item I rarely buy organic. When you are trying to spend your grocery dollars smartly, and want to buy organic foods but can't afford to buy everything organic, then you should focus on those foods where organic makes a BIG difference. A good place to start is with the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" lists. Avocados are #4 on the clean list (less pesticide use). On the other hand, non-organic apples, nectarines and leafy greens are among the most pesticide-laden crops. I love my dark leafy greens (they are among the very best, most nutritious, most health-promoting foods you can put in your mouth), so I'm willing to pay more to buy organic, during those times when I don't have my own supply coming out of my own organic garden.

What about meat? Yes, organic is very important with any fat-containing food (meat, dairy, eggs, oils) because pesticides and other toxins can accumulate in fat. But I have a small caveat. When I'm buying these foods in a shop, I absolutely go organic. However, the 1/4 beef and the 1/2 pig we buy each year are not certified organic. Instead, they are local. I know how impossible the national organic standards can be for small farmers (especially if they lease land or have other farmers' land directly butting up to theirs). I know the people who raise my meat. I talk to them at least a few times a year. I know they care for their animals, and that those animals are able to express their pig and cow/steer natures during their lifetime. To me, that trumps certified organic meat from a farm I will never see and a rancher I will never talk to.

(As I said a few days ago, if you eat meat and can get your paws on a freestanding freezer and can lay out the money to buy a share of a steer, pig, lamb or goat, then you should do it. I know it can seem scary to pay for a year's worth of meat all at once, but the price per pound ends up being a bargain.)

For healthy affordable food, going local (which often means going seasonal) can be good for your wallet, your waistline and your community. It's summer...get yourself to a farmer's market! It's a heck of a lot more fun than shopping in a supermarket under bad lighting. And lest you think that farmers' markets are more expensive, let me knock that idea out of your heads with this article. Besides, you should always shop smartly wherever you buy your food. There are many fruit and veggie options, and some will be more expensive than others.

Before I forget, I was digging through all the bookmarks I had on affordable nutrition, and found a few goodies to share:
  • A New York Times "Well" blog article from 2008, "Money Is Tight, And Junk Food Beckons." It digs deeper into the issues of food budget limitations ($1 a day) and time issues (working two jobs) than I have this week. Really, really worth a read.
  • Now, this article is so up my alley. "Five Make-Ahead Musts." Yes, yes, yes! Read it, then live it! This is exactly the type of thing I'll be doing more diligently come fall.
  • And finally, "Healthy Food Costs More--A Myth?" which puts forth the idea that healthy food doesn't necessarily cost more, but most people have trouble spotting the truly more nutritious foods in the first place.

June 15, 2011

Affordable healthy meals...in a flash!

Yesterday I talked about some of the techniques I use (or have used) to eat healthfully and affordably. But what do you do when you have limits on your time and your wallet? I'll tell you what you don't do. You don't rely on the crutch of fast food and super-processed food from the grocery store (if it's a meal in a box or bag, it's probably not healthy).

First, fast food isn't necessarily as economical as it appears to be. Second, fast food comes with hidden costs.

Every time you opt for the crappy processed meal, you are taking a withdrawal against your future good health. Every time you put together a simple, healthy, homemade meal, you are making a deposit toward your future good health. Do you want to be healthy when you get older? Do you want your kids to grow up healthy? Of course you do, so let's move on.

I know what it is to be time-crunched (I've been going to school and working full time for two years). I also place an absolute priority on preparing three healthy meals plus snacks for myself every day. Here are a few things I've learned:
  1. Don't reinvent the wheel. If you are crunched for time, it is not the time to try to cook from an unfamiliar recipe. Nothing is worse than looking back and forth between a recipe and your pots, pans, cutting board, or whatever. If you are a less-than-confident cook, this situation becomes even messier. Either rely on a handful of basic recipes you've made so many times you have them memorized, or...
  2. ...don't use a recipe at all. Can you grill, roast or saute a piece of meat (or tofu or tempeh)? Can you grill, roast, saute or steam some veggies? Can you toss a salad? Can you cook rice or pasta? Can you heat up a can of beans? Do you know how to open a spice canister, bottle of soy sauce or jar of salsa? Can you squeeze a lemon or lime? Those are basic techniques, not recipes. If you can do those things, you can make a meal in no time at all with your eyes closed (OK...don't really try it with your eyes closed). If you don't know how to do those things, then learn how. It's not hard. Just take it one skill at a time, nice and slow. You can do it.
  3. Choose flavors you savor. When you dine out, what kind of food do you love? Burgers? Mexican? Italian? Thai? Chinese? Indian? BBQ? Come up with a few ways to recreate those flavors simply and healthfully at home. Grill your own burgers and make oven fries and a tossed salad. Heat up some beans and layer them over cooked rice or heated tortillas, then top with salsa, grated cheese, sour cream and shredded lettuce or cabbage. Make a quick stirfry with meat or tofu and tons of veggies, then season with some dark sesame oil and soy sauce.
  4. Cook ahead. Why just roast or grill enough meat for one meal, when you can make enough for a second meal? I've had great luck with baking several boneless, skinless chicken breasts (bought on sale) at a time, then wrapping them tightly and freezing them to be defrosted for a future meal. I simply line a baking sheet with foil, put a wire cooling rack on top, put the chicken breasts on the rack and sprinkle them with whatever seasoning strikes my fancy (Cajun, herbes de Provence, curry). Roast a whole huge pan of veggies...they taste great cold on salads, chopped and scrambled with eggs, or heated up with tomorrow's dinner. Cooking rice? Cook extra (you can even freeze it). When you have more time (weekends, vacations) make big batches of soup, chili or stew and freeze some in appropriate-sized portions (single, double or family-size).
  5. Shop smart. When you keep a well-stocked pantry (and ideally a free-standing freezer), you can spend less time shopping and use that precious time to quickly cook a meal. When you are using basic, healthy foods (veggies, fruits, beans, grains, pastas, eggs, meat, poultry, fish or meat alternatives) and keep your larder stocked, you always have the makings of a good, quick meal. Always.
  6. Multitask. I often choose to roast meat and veggies instead of sauteing because it makes for a bit less cleanup (no stovetop spatters) and I don't have to monitor the proceedings quite as closely (no stirring or flipping needed). That means I can do some dishes, toss a salad, cut up veggies for snacks, do advance prep for tomorrow's breakfast or lunch, etc. (As an added bonus, I find that roasted veggies are way more flavorful than steamed veggies...this could be helpful if you are trying to train yourself, or your kids, to enjoy more veggies without resorting to layers of sauce or cheese.)
Hmmm...that's it for now. I admit that lately I have been doing a lot of  real, full-fledged cooking from actual recipes, many of them new to me. But I have used my time-saving methods a lot in the last few years, and I will be refining and enhancing them later this summer as I gear up to start grad school (while still continuing to work). So look for many more tips on quick, healthy meals in the not-too-distant future!

June 14, 2011

10 tips for affordable nutrition

I'm fortunate in that I don't have to worry too much about my grocery budget, in part because we so seldom eat in restaurants, instead funneling that money into the ingredients for delicious, healthy home-cooked meals. But while I don't mind spending money on nutritious, high-quality food (both to please my palate AND to invest in my current and future good health), I don't like wasting money, either. I like to get the healthiest possible food at the best possible price. Here are 10 tips that I lean on heavily to accomplish that goal:
  1. Shop sales. This may seem like a "duh" tip, but a lot of people fall in the trap of going to the store with the mindset of "I want this and this and that and that," and then they find out that "this" and "that" cost a lot more than they expected. If you like to plan specific recipes, then you need to sit down with the store ads when planning your menu. If you have good, basic cooking skills but not a lot of time, it can be easier to go to the store and buy the cuts of meat or the varieties of produce that are on sale. I do this all the time. If Whole Foods is having a screaming deal on pork shoulder or chicken breasts, then guess what's going to be on my menu? If asparagus is priced out of sight, then guess what won't be on my menu, even if I'm craving it. I can wait.
  2. Shop in season. Yes, asparagus can be expensive even in season, but your best bets of getting the best deals on fresh produce is when its on sale or in season. And when it's in season, it's more likely to go on sale. When Whole foods had 16-ounce cartons of organic strawberries on sale for 99 cents for ONE DAY ONLY last month, Jeff bought two huge grocery bags full. We ate some fresh, and froze the rest. Per pound, that was less expensive than decent pre-frozen berries.
  3. Eat less meat. I'm a carnivore, it's true, but if I had trouble affording meat, or quality meat, specifically, I would move closer to a vegetarian diet in a heartbeat. When meat is in a meal, dishes like chili with LOTS of beans, stews or stirfries with LOTS of veggies and spaghetti sauces with LOTS of tomatoes can stretch out a smaller amount of meat with less-expensive ingredients. It's good for you, too!
  4. Go frozen. I'm a big fan of fresh veggies and fruits, but really, there's nothing wrong with frozen. It's even easier to stock up on sales (freezer space permitting) when you don't have to worry about it going limp or getting moldy.
  5. Keep a well-stocked pantry. Shop for items like whole grains, dried or canned beans, canned tomatoes and other non-perishables when they are on sale. Then you can shop your pantry instead of needing to run to the store for every little thing...at whatever price it's selling for at the moment. No pantry? Use any available space. Under the stairs, in the coat closet, under your bed.
  6. Buy a freezer. This is an example of spending money to save money AND an example of investing in your health. If at all possible, having a stand-alone freezer gives you so many options, especially if you eat meat. We enjoy the most fabulous grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork (pork isn't grass-fed, really) year round because we buy annual shares (1/4 of a beeve, 1/2 of a pig) from local farmers. And the price per pound is waaaaaay less than what you would pay for the same quality beef in a store. Heck, it's less than what you would pay for most cuts of inferior industrial meat. We also use our freezer space to stock up on sale Whole Foods strawberries, extra produce from our garden, berries that we gather from U-pick farms in the summer, even organic in-season fruit (like peaches) from Costco. We also are able to create our own healthy, economical freezer meals from extra portions of soups, stews, chilis, tomato- and meat-based pasta sauces, and so on. When we roast a chicken or turkey, the carcass gets boiled for stock, which we freeze for later. Bread freezes well, too.
  7. Eat less. Seriously. If you know you could stand to lose some pounds, reducing your portion sizes can help get you there while reducing the amount of food you need to buy.
  8. Don't overbuy. This was one of my problems when I did most of my produce shopping at Costco. Yes, their prices are good (as is probably the case at other price clubs), but we had a lot more waste than we do now that we get most of our fresh items from our weekly Full Circle CSA box and supplemental forays to Whole Foods or a farmer's market. And we are saving money.
  9. Eat what you do buy. Don't go shopping for more fresh food unless you've surveyed your fridge for food that needs to get used up. And while a well-stocked pantry is a fabulous thing, be realistic about how many cans or jars of any one thing you need to have on hand. "Non-perishables" do perish, eventually.
  10. Don't spend on beverages. Water is the best beverage you can drink. From the tap, filtered if need be. Stay away from soda. It's not good for you, and money spent on soda is money you could be spending on healthy food. One of my favorite bits from "Food, Inc." is when Joel Salatin mentions how he encounters people who complain about a carton of organic eggs from pastured chickens costing $3...while they're drinking a can of soda that cost 75 cents. A dozen quality eggs = several quality breakfasts. While you're at it, skip the $5 (or more) lattes and switch to drip coffee or Americanos. I'm serious...don't call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" and then spend $5 or $6 on a calorie-laden coffee drink every morning. Do you know what I could buy for $5? I could buy two gorgeous organic chicken breasts, or five pounds of organic strawberries on sale, or several heaping helpings of lentils and whole grains from the bulk bins. I should mention that I own quite a large chunk of stock in a certain global coffee company with a green-and-white logo, so when I come right out and say "stop buying expensive coffee drinks if you think you don't have enough money to buy healthy food," you can be sure that I mean it. Invest that money in your health!
Tomorrow, I'll talk about what to do when money and time are tight, and why, even in those difficult circumstances, it's worth it to find a way to put simple, healthy meals on your table.

June 13, 2011

Affordable Nutrition: A Recipe

This week, I'll be talking about eating healthfully and affordably. It's a subject near and dear to my heart! My first few years out of college, I worked as a reporter at tiny weekly newspapers, for about what the current federal minimum wage is. I had a small rent, a small car payment, small credit card payment, small student loan payment...and a small food budget.

My total food budget was about $30 a week. From what I remember, I included things like toilet paper and dish soap in this budget, but when I occasionally ate out I drew from my limited entertainment budget.

I was mostly vegetarian at that time, mostly because beans are a lot cheaper than meat! I made some misguided nutritional decisions back then (like eating too many veggie sandwiches on cheap white flour Kaiser rolls from the supermarket bakery), but on the whole the meals I shopped for and cooked were pretty nutritious, and tasty, too. I remember a lot of bean tostadas, hearty salads, homemade soups and vegetarian stews. 

Below is one of my favorites, a recipe that stayed in heavy rotation for a good while even after Jeff and I moved in together, combined incomes, and moved up a notch careerwise and incomewise. It's adapted from one of my early cookbook acquisitions, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. It is tasty, hearty and healthy. It's easy to prepare, quick to cook, and is particularly frugal if you make a point of stocking up on canned goods when they are on sale. And I'm pleasant to discover that it's still a great recipe, even after all these years!

Red, Gold, Black and Green Chili
Serves 4-6 generously

Ingredients:
1/2 cup bulgur
1/2 cup hot water
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 generous teaspoon ground cumin
1 generous teaspoon ground chili powder
1 tablespoon Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 green bell peppers, chopped
2 cups fresh or frozen cut corn
1 14-ounce can black beans, drained (or 1.5 cups cooked from scratch)
1 14-ounce can kidney beans, drained (or 1.5 cups cooked from scratch)
salt to taste
grated cheddar or jack cheese (optional)
chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

  1. Place bulgur, hot water and about a cup of juice from the canned tomatoes in a small sauce pan. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Saute the onions, garlic, cumin, chili powder and Tabasco (or cayenne). When the onions are soft, stir in the green bell peppers and saute for 2 to 3 minutes more. Add the diced tomatoes, the corn and the beans to the pan, stir to combine, and heat thoroughly on low heat. 
  3. Taste the bulgur. When it is cooked but still chewy, add it to the pan with its liquid. Cover and simmer for a few minutes for the flavors to meld. Add salt to taste.
  4. Serve plain or topped with grated cheese and cilantro.

June 11, 2011

Links I Like

Happy Weekend! On Monday, I'm starting a weeklong series on healthy, affordable eating. In the meantime, here are some links to tide you over:
  • I make it a point to support small farmers when making my food purchasing decisions as often as possible. Last week's New York Times presents even more reasons why that's a good thing to do.
  • What does the obesity epidemic mean in terms of health care costs? Apparently, people with obesity are living about as long as anyone else, only they're living with a greater number of costly chronic diseases like diabetes. One researcher says that when it comes to health, "being obese is roughly equivalent to being aged by 20 years." Yikes!
  • The government's involvement in advising Americans how to eat reaches back to waaaaay before MyPlate, MyPyramid and even the Basic 4 Food Groups. Read or listen to this fun NPR story.
  • Speaking of MyPlate, here's a rebuttal as only Stephen Colbert can do it: Hilariously, and deliciously. (A real pie chart, anyone?)
  • Last, but not least, here's a whole slew of reasons to put down that soda and drink a glass of water. Water: The Wonder Beverage! (You can go here to view a larger version of the graphic.)

June 10, 2011

Summer School: Week 1 recap

I've finished Week 1 of my Slow and Simple Summer School. This week's focus in The Slow Down Diet was relaxation. In practical terms, this meant taking a little more time for meals, and avoiding eating while being stressed or mentally overloaded. Some breathing exercises were included in the to-dos.

I'd slipped into the habit of eating breakfast and lunch at my desk, so this week I stopped doing that. I made sure I was relaxed before eating (taking some deep breaths if I felt I needed it). It was nice, actually, and even though I didn't make special efforts to focus on every bite, the fact that I was in a nice state of mind and slowing down my pace of eating did have the side effect of making me notice and enjoy my food more. Which is a good thing, since I buy and prepare healthy, delicious, quality food...I should be enjoying it to the fullest!

Through this week's exercises, I realized that when I'm stressed and busy, I don't feel hungry and I don't eat. On the other hand, when I'm stressed and bored (a nasty combination), I want to reach for comforting, sweet or salty foods. Awareness has to come before change, so I do value this insight.

I got a surprise lesson on what eating while stressed does to digestion when, halfway through lunch yesterday, I had to step outside to deal with an extremely rude person making a commotion outside. My adrenaline was flowing, and my stomach temporarily shut down. When I got back inside, I took several deep breaths before I let myself continue eating. Yeah, eating while stressed is not a good idea. I could not have asked for a more crystalline example. 

Next week's lesson is on food quality. I don't think I'll have a lot to learn there, necessarily, but I'm open to what the chapter has to say, of course. We had a perfect, high-quality dinner last night: organic chicken breasts and asparagus, grilled and topped with leftover arugula-basil pesto; a roasted Roma tomato, basil and mozzarella salad; and hummus. The produce and the chicken came from Wednesday's Full Circle box.
Speaking of food quality, I know I'm a little late to the party on this (so unlike me!), but I'm at this very moment watching "Food, Inc." (look at me, multitasking!). If you have not seen this film yet, get your hands on a copy and watch it immediately!

June 9, 2011

Less is more

Do you know what is amazing about the inside of my refrigerator? You can see through to the back of it! I assure you this never happened in my Costco-shopping days of yore (unless we were about ready to leave on vacation, or something). That baby was always packed to the gills.

When we decided to transition from weekly Costco excursions to weekly CSA boxes from Full Circle, we got a little nervous that we might, gulp, run out of fresh fruits and vegetables. That has not happened! Jeff usually picks up a few things at the Whole Foods right next to his office, but we've been doing great with Full Circle. And I have to say it, I really like the feeling of using up fresh food in a timelier fashion. No more chomping down bigger portions of fruits and veggies than we might normally, just so it doesn't "go bad." And we have much less waste than we used to. That's good, with the global overpopulation and all.

When I'm not faced with the pressure of using up week-old produce, I can look forward to the new produce that arrives on my doorstep every Wednesday. Last night, we grilled pork chops from our pig-in-the-freezer, along with half of the bunch of asparagus I ordered as an extra item in our box. I made an arugula-basil pesto (inspired by this recipe) and served it over the chops and the asparagus. 

On the side was a big kale salad with tahini dressing. I've had a similar salad twice at a Whole Foods in Portland, and loved it. Accordingly, I was on the hunt for a good tahini dressing recipe, and found it as I was continuing on my little nostalgia trip through some of my first volumes in my cookbook library. Thanks to Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, I found exactly what I needed. This is really an excellent cookbook, and I'm quite excited to discover it again with new, more adventurous eyes. Back in the day, I'm afraid, I never would have tackled something with an exotic ingredient like tahini!

Be warned if you use it on kale...you have to toss and toss and toss the salad some more. When I make kale salad with olive and sesame oil, I'll actually massage the oil into the kale rather than toss it, but it seemed strange to do the same with a creamy dressing. It would actually be best to make the salad a bit before you plan to serve it, again, unlike regular lettuce salads, which you usually toss right before serving. This was a big hit, and it will be on regular rotation in my house! I've included the full recipe below, although I did cut it in half when I made it.

Tahini Dressing
Yields 3.5 cups

Ingredients:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup other vegetable oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup tahini
1 cup water
  1. Put all ingredients except the water in a blender or food processor; blend or process until smooth.
  2. Gradually add water and mix until you have a thick, creamy dressing.
  3. Dressing will keep several weeks if refrigerated and tightly sealed.