Sunday, October 25, 2009

Follow Me at DIY

For a little while I’ll be blogging over at DIY only. Come read about my dietetic internship and catch a glimpse into the fascinating world of dietetics.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Good for Your Heart, Makes You Fart

Remember the charming little song, “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you fart.”? Well, what the song says is true, and that’s why it's still around and still funny.

I’ve recently come across a great source for dried chickpeas, hence the subject of beans, and so I’ve been cooking with a lot of chickpeas recently. The source, incidentally, is the bulk bin at PCC Edmonds and the reason these chickpeas are so great is that they plump up into fat, tender morsels when I soak and cook them. I wouldn’t be so impressed if I’d had the same experience with other dried chickpeas – usually they turn out smaller, and even after soaking and proper cooking the skin is still a little tough, and the inside can be mealy. This may happen with dried beans if they are old and past their prime, so either the bulk bins at PCC have a high turnover (which I don’t doubt, considering the locals’ dedication to PCC) or they’ve recently bought a particularly fresh batch of dried chickpeas.

A little about the nutritional value of chickpeas for those who want to know. For lots of great information about chickpeas, visit the World’s Healthiest Foods. Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are a type of legume. Legumes are famously high in fiber, and it’s the fiber that is the cause of the gas-producing aspect of beans, but that’s a fair trade-off in my opinion. Fiber is, by definition, the indigestible carbohydrates in food, but these carbs are literally grist for the mill for the bacteria in the colon. The bacteria ferment the carbs and produce carbon dioxide and hydrogen as byproducts. There’s nothing harmful about this gas, though it can be uncomfortable for some people, or embarrassing in social situations.

Fermentation of fiber in the colon also produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). Besides fueling the cells that line the intestines, SCFAs help keep blood sugar levels stable and contribute to a healthy immune system. The fiber content is also the reason beans have a reputation for being heart-healthy. The soluble fiber in beans has the ability to soak up cholesterol and fatty acids and carry them out of the body, bypassing absorption.

Legumes are an inexpensive and plant-based source of protein, which is why they are a staple for vegetarians and are prominently featured in traditional foodways all over the world. Chickpeas in particular have been cultivated for about 9,000 years in southwest Asia. When I want to cut back on my grocery bill for the week, I make sure to plan a couple of meals based on legumes. Right now, I’ve got lentil soup in the fridge (from the recipe in the Moosewood cookbook), some cooked chickpeas waiting to become hummus, and leftovers of this Greek-style dish of roasted garbanzo beans, redolent of fennel and caramelized shallots.

Roasted Garbanzo Beans with Swiss Chard

Makes 6 servings


Garbanzo Beans:
1 3/4 cups dried garbanzo beans (equivalent to 12 ounces dried beans, or 5 1/2 cups cooked beans), soaked overnight in twice the volume of water
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2-4 large shallots, peeled and sliced
3 small bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
3 small bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 shallots, sliced
2 bunches Swiss chard, center stems cut out and chopped, leaves coarsely torn
1/2 cup chicken broth

Optional: Lemon


To cook chickpeas:
Discard soaking water. Place chickpeas in a pot with water (about three cups of water per cup of beans) and bring to a boil. Adding a couple of bay leaves at this point really infuses the beans with flavor. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender, about one hour (may take longer depending on age of chickpeas). When chickpeas are done, salt water generously (the water should taste like seawater) and allow them to cool in salted water.

Garbanzo beans:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine first five ingredients in 9 x 13-inch glass baking dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour oil over and stir; cover dish with foil. Roast until garlic is tender, about 35-40 minutes. Remove foil, turn oven to 450 degrees F and cook for 5-10 minutes more, or until shallots and garlic become slightly brown and caramelized.

Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add garlic, bay leaves, and shallots. Saute about 5 minutes, or until shallots are tender. Add chopped chard stems, sprinkle with a little salt, and sauté about 5 minutes. Add chard leaves to pot, sprinkle with salt to taste and cover. Cook until chard wilts and volume is reduced by half, about 2-3 minutes. Add broth. Cover and cook until chard is tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Discard bay leaves from garbanzo beans and chard. Add garbanzo beans to the chard mixture and toss over medium heat until warmed through, moistening with more oil or chicken broth if needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

I always serve this over brown rice and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice. Next time I make it, I think I’ll try adding lemon zest to the chard. I'll have more chickpea recipes up soon, like Chickpea Leek Soup!

Adapted from a recipe by Michael Psilakis, Bon Appetit, January 2008

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Involuted Inflorescence of the Syconium

Breakfast this morning: homemade granola topped with homemade yogurt flavored with vanilla and maple syrup, and chopped fresh figs. The whole combination is tangy, sweet, crunchy and creamy. The popping of the fig seeds between my teeth is one of my favorite food textures.

Figs are an interesting food. My brother tried to freak me out many years ago as I was eating a fresh fig by telling me that wasps lay their eggs in figs. I did not freak out, I’m proud to say, but filed the information away for later research. Many years later, I’m finally getting around to looking it up. This task is a heck of a lot easier with the Internet. And yes, it’s true… there’s a type of wasp called a fig wasp that is believed to have coevolved with the fig species so that the fig and the wasp cannot reproduce without each other! Amazing. More about this in a minute.

The so-called fig fruit is not actually a fruit. It’s a syconium, defined as a fleshy stem containing multiple flowers. Furthermore, the syconium is an involuted inflorescence, an inside-out cluster of flowers. Cut open the fig and the lines you see extending from the outer edge to the inside are the flowers, each with a seed at the end. Again, amazing.

As I was saying, several species of small wasps are intimately involved with figs. The wasps pollinate the figs by crawling into them through the ostiole, the small hole at the base of the fig, and laying their eggs inside. The species of wasp is specific to the species of fig and therefore a specific region, so that you can’t just grow any old fig in your yard and expect it to bear viable fruit. You have to have the right kind of wasp living nearby.

Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever found wasp larvae in my figs. Could it be that I just wouldn’t know them if I saw them or tasted them? I found this explanation on Wikipedia: “In figs of this sort [the sort that wasps pollinate], the crunchy bits in the fruit contain both seeds and wasps. However, there are several commercial and ornamental varieties of fig that are self-fertile and do not require pollination; these varieties are not visited by fig wasps.” I take that to mean that the types of figs sold as food are generally from self-pollinating species and I don’t have to worry about finding wasp eggs in them. Good to know.

As for their nutritional value, figs are a good source of fiber, potassium and manganese. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods, they’re also a fruit source of calcium, though you’d have to eat a lot of figs (about 8 medium figs) to get only 79 mg of calcium. Still, the more of these nutrients you get from your food, the less you need to get from supplements. And there are countless other nutrients supplied by whole plant foods, some of which haven’t even been discovered yet, let alone studied for their biochemical roles, that are believed to act synergistically with vitamins and minerals to help increase their absorption and facilitate their functioning in our bodies.

Figs are in season in the Pacific Northwest from July to September. This means you only have another month to get a hold of some wasp-free figs from your local farmers market. Enjoy them on salads, grilled and served with fish or pork, stewed along with your morning oatmeal, or just cut in half and smeared with a little goat cheese. Yes, I’ll say it one more time… amazing!

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Goods on Cocoa Nibs

My stats software tells me that there are a number of people out there looking for information on cocoa nibs. Given the name of this blog, I guess it behooves me to devote a little time to the subject.

First, why did I choose Cocoa Nibs as the title of my blog? Chocolate is one of my favorite foods. I am prepared to admit that I am obsessed with chocolate. I eat it every day of my life. And its ability to stimulate and satisfy in small amounts made it the perfect symbol for what I hoped to achieve with my blog.

Cocoa nibs -- or cacao nibs -- are bits of roasted cocoa beans. They're the whole foods version of chocolate! They have not been sweetened or otherwise processed, so they’re bitter and a little grainy, a little crunchy. Cocoa nibs are often used these days as accents for salads and baked goods, but most cocoa nibs go on to become chocolate liquor (cocoa nibs ground into a paste), which is then made into chocolate by adding cocoa butter, sugar, and sometimes vanilla and lecithin. Cocoa nibs can also be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

As for the nutritional content and benefits thereof, cocoa is very high in antioxidants. Research at Cornell University showed that cocoa powder has more antioxidants than red wine and green tea. Flavonoids are one type of antioxidant that is especially abundant in chocolate. Flavonoids have some nice effects on the heart and the circulatory system, including the ability to improve the flexibility of the walls of the blood vessels, and anti-clotting effects in the blood.

Chocolate also contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that has been shown to be “cholesterol-neutral,” meaning that it neither lowers HDL levels (this is the good cholesterol) in the blood, nor does it raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) or total cholesterol levels.

Antioxidants, flavonoids, and stearic acid are highest in the darkest chocolate. Adding milk to chocolate not only dilutes the amount of beneficial compounds, it adds saturated fat and cholesterol that does affect blood levels. Most chocolate manufacturers are now putting the chocolate percentage on product labels, making it easier to identify and buy the chocolate with the most added benefits.

I agree with Dr. Weil’s advice to eat one ounce of dark chocolate (he recommends at least 70%) several times a week. And remember that though chocolate may be good for you, overindulging in it can lead to weight gain, just like anything else!

As for cocoa nibs, they have all the great benefits of chocolate without the added fat and sugar, and the additional processing. There are many recipes floating around on the Internet, so cruise around a little and find one that strikes your fancy. Here are some to get you started:

Chocolate and Cacao Nib Cookies
Cacao Nib Almond Sticks
Ribeye Steaks with Cocoa Nibs Spice Rub

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Au Naturel

We have a three-foot wide strip of earth at the edge of our patio, just like each ground-level apartment in our complex. Some of our neighbors have been ambitious and have planted flowering plants in these tiny patio gardens, others are attempting to grow vegetables, bless their green thumbs, in pots set on top of the soil, and some have just let the gardening crew keep it raked clean of any plant life at all.

We chose the third option for the first six months of our residency here, but soon noticed that between the gardening crew’s visits little bits of plant life would appear, mostly dense patches of moss since we don’t get much direct sun on this side of the building. Did you know that moss comes in about twenty shades of green?

It was my husband’s idea to ask the landscapers to leave our plot of ground alone and let nature take over. The moss quickly spread to every corner of the garden, despite a close call when one un-informed worker took his rake to the moss just when it was really taking hold.

The ferns and the grasses have recently arrived. Now our garden looks like the forest floor – moist dark soil teeming with bug life, plants randomly and beautifully arranged. Our cat peruses the menu of grasses for her afternoon snack, and the dog… well, she’s content just to gaze upon the garden from the sun-warmed concrete.

The beauty of this random garden causes me to wonder how many other things in our lives would benefit from being left alone, or au naturel, a French term meaning “in a natural state.”

My mind turns automatically to food – that is my profession and my passion, after all. I love making elaborate dishes with complex flavors that take hours to prepare, but just this afternoon I had a salad for lunch that was just greens, cucumber, tomato, red pepper and avocado. It was utterly satisfying. I remember not too long ago savoring a raw, unsalted almond. If you’re paying attention, complex flavors can be found in the simplest of foods.

The summer is a good time to go au naturel with food because fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant. It’s an exercise in developing the senses since foods that haven’t been salted, spiced or sugared have more subtle flavors. Plus, the closer you are to the natural form of the food the closer you are to a whole foods diet, and that’s good for all of us.

The itsy bitsy flower at the bottom right measures about 3mm.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Applied Nutrition: Homemade Dog Food

I think it’s time for an update on my development of a homemade dog food that satisfies both my inner nutritionist and my dog. Between my first post about dog food and now, I have tried a new recipe but it didn’t quite take with Maxie or with me. It was a little too labor intensive and I don’t think the raw veggies sat well in Maxie’s system. I returned to the diarrhea diet but continued to worry that she was getting too much carbohydrate from the sweet potato and russet potato in the recipe.

I finally consulted a holistic vet in the area who gave me a handout copied from The Whole Dog Journal called “Now We’re Cooking!” on preparing a cooked diet for pets. The vet also made some recommendations for altering my recipe to make it more suitable for everyday doggie dining.

The first thing I did was to add more protein, and cut back on the amount of sweet potato and potato. According to the handout at least half but preferably more of the diet should come from animal sources. I bumped up the amount of chicken in the recipe and added organ meats like chicken livers and hearts.

Then, to help bulk up the food a little without adding more starch or meat, I added chopped Swiss chard. I don’t want to use grains yet because I think Maxie is sensitive to grains, and because I’m seeing more and more recommendations to avoid or limit grains in pet food.

I am still putting a little bit of kibble (Spot’s Stew is my favorite) in the bottom of the bowl to provide some extra vitamins and minerals because I haven’t invested in a doggie multivitamin yet, or explored the different ways to supplement homemade food. I am convinced that there is a way to make homemade food without having to supplement, but I’m not sure that I’ve hit that perfect recipe yet.

However, I am supplementing with canned sardines that have no added salt, a large spoonful after each meal. She’s also getting about a tablespoon of homemade yogurt (made with whole raw milk) after every meal. The sardines are providing omega-3’s and calcium because they contain bones, and the yogurt is giving her more calcium and probiotics. I think she’s also getting calcium from the chicken because my recipe starts with chicken thighs on the bone and they stew for a good hour to an hour-and-a-half, long enough to leach some of the minerals from the bone. I also let it cool on the stovetop for a bit before pulling the thighs out for deboning and chopping, and this seems to pull more of the collagen out of the bones.

By the way, Maxie’s getting about 1 1/4 cups of this mixture over about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of kibble twice a day. She weighs about 33 pounds. As you can see from these photos of Maxie, she is maintaining her girlish figure and glossy coat while eating this food (her poops are looking good, too, but I'm not going to show you those).

Next steps: I’m planning to change up the chard for something else in the next batch, maybe some broccoli and squash, and would also like to try using beef or pork soon. I may also start breaking an egg over her dinner once or twice a week.

In the meantime, here’s my current recipe:

3 pounds chicken thighs (with bones)
3/4 pound russet potatoes, diced
1 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes, diced
4 cups water
1/2 pound chicken livers or hearts, or a mixture
1 bunch Swiss chard, chopped

Put chicken, potatoes and sweet potatoes in a stockpot and add water.* Bring gently to a simmer (do not boil) and cook uncovered for about 1 hour and up to 1 1/2 hours. With 15 minutes left to cook, add organ meats and chard and cook for an additional 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 30 minutes, then pull out chicken thighs. Once chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones. Try to pull the cartilage off the ends of the bones, too, as this is a good source of collagen. Chop chicken into smaller pieces. Add chicken back to the stew and mix well.

Transfer stew to containers for storage. This stew will stay fresh in the refrigerator for 3-5 days, but I recommend packing it into containers that will hold about 3 days worth and putting the rest in the freezer.

* Resist adding more water, or you’ll end up with a very soupy dogfood. With this amount of water, not everything will be covered at first, but the veggies and chicken will start to break down after a little while and release some juices and as long as you stir it all up a couple of times within the first 15-20 minutes everything will eventually end up submerged and well-cooked.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nostalgia Smacks Me Upside the Head

I had a heavy encounter with nostalgia this afternoon. I was cleaning out my closet to make room for things I don’t use but that I’m not willing to give up yet, and I found a huge box labeled “PHOTO ALBUMS.” Knowing that opening the box would be a guaranteed time suck, I was just going to move it to the back corner of the closet when one of the flaps rasped open.

I had to take a quick peek inside. One thick gold-embossed album stood on its spine between two others, so that its pages were slightly fanned and I could just barely see the edges of the photos. I know my old photographs so well that I immediately recognized one of my favorite pictures just from seeing its edge. A friend and I are taking a picture of ourselves by holding the camera at arm’s length and putting our heads close together. We are laughing so hard that the photo is mostly teeth, lips and nostrils.

Naturally, I had to pull the album out, sit on the bed, and browse through my past. I marveled at how thin I was, how big and white my smile was, how young my skin looked, and then I had to laugh at the requisite heavy makeup and the ridiculous things I did with my hair (hey, it was the 80’s!).

Looking at this younger version of myself, I regretted having “let myself go” in the years since. (That phrase is so funny, as if I’d put my young self on a train and waved goodbye as she pulled out of the station. Of course the changes were more gradual than that.) I’m not the first to comment on how youth is wasted on the young, but it sure feels personal when I look at pictures of myself at age 20! What a twist it is on that theme for a nutritionist that when I looked my best, my diet was the worst (just like every college kid).

This summer I’m working as an assistant for kids’ cooking classes. These kids know so much more about food and cooking than I did at their age. They know what “whole foods” are, they know the difference between dried basil and oregano. They even love seaweed! They’re being raised in the same decade in which consciousness is being raised about the role of food in our health, from its impact on our bodies to the impact the food industry has on the environment and the sustainability and safety of our food supply.

Oh, this gives me hope. Hope that it won’t take the kids of this generation as much time as it took me to realize the importance of eating well. Hope that to them it will be second nature to account for the environmental costs of their food as well as the amount they pay at the store (or the farmers market). Hope that they’ll take such good care of themselves from a young age that when they get to midlife they’ll look back at their college photos and think, “I still look good!”

Monday, July 6, 2009

Herbally Yours

I first heard about herbal infusions and nettles in a class at Bastyr University called Therapeutic Whole Foods, taught by Jennifer Adler. During class, she drank regularly from a large Mason jar filled with a deep green liquid. After explaining to us that what she was drinking was an infusion of stinging nettles, she said something like, “Since I’m drinking water all day long I figure I might as well make it count.”

Wild plants are generally significantly higher in nutrients than domesticated plants. Nettles (Urtica dioica) in particular are high in iron, calcium, and magnesium, as well as a number of trace minerals and vitamins. They’re also about 10% protein, according to Susun Weed, an expert in herbal medicines. I’ve used freeze-dried nettles in capsules to successfully stop allergy attacks and to still my restless legs, so I knew they were potent and was intrigued by what they could do in an infusion.

In another class, we learned that nettles are one of the whole foods sources of compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is another. I promise to talk about inflammation in another post, but for now just know that nettles are anti-inflammatory – a beneficial thing for most Americans, who generally eat highly inflammatory diets and suffer from a number of diseases that have been linked to excessive inflammation in the body.

A few weeks after that first class, Jennifer had us taste an infusion of oatstraw (Avena sativa) and then talk about any effects we felt. Most people said they felt a calming effect almost instantly.

I started off my fall quarter that year with a daily regimen of 2-3 cups of an infusion made with both nettles and oatstraw, as well as an additional herb for flavor, such as lemon verbena or lemon balm. These other herbs have properties of their own, of course, but an expert herbalist reassured me that they were safe to use together in my infusions.

Jennifer’s recommendation to the class was to start with an infusion made with only one herb, known as a “simple,” in order to get a sense of the effect of that particular herb before trying another one. Though I didn’t follow that recommendation, I think it’s valid and worth doing.

Recently, I’ve been using rooibos to flavor my infusions and it's my favorite combination so far. Rooibos is an ancient herb that's become trendy in the U.S. as a substitute for coffee or black tea. It contains some antioxidants and has been used medicinally in South Africa for hay fever, asthma, eczema and heartburn. I find that the rooibos adds a slight anise flavor to the infusion and lends its red color to the liquid (as pictured below).

Now, before I tell you about the effects this preparation had on me, I want to emphasize that these effects are not necessarily reproducible. There are lots of factors in how we each react to different nutrients and plant compounds, including when and where the plant was grown and our body’s individual ability to metabolize these compounds.

I also need to voice the important disclaimer that I am NOT an expert in medicinal herbs. Before you make your own infusions, please find a reputable source of information on herbalism. Most vendors for medicinal herbs have a trained herbalist on staff who can answer your questions.

As for my personal experience with these infusions, it was very positive. Having experienced a summer-long bout of insomnia, I was excited to find within two or three days that I was again sleeping through the night. This effect has continued, along with a general increase in energy and a very welcome decrease in stress. However, I've found that if I drink the tea past early afternoon, I don’t sleep as well.

Nine months later, I’m noticing longer-term effects. Though my allergies haven't disappeared, this is the first spring in six years in which my eyes were not constantly itchy, hot and overly sensitive to light. There had been times over these past few years when I had to wear sunglasses indoors at night to function! An end to that discomfort is a very welcome thing. My ND agreed that this improvement in my allergies is likely due to the anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties of nettles.

How to make a cold herbal infusion:

Nettles, oatstraw, and lots of other herbs and medicinal plants are available through companies like Dandelion Botanical in Seattle. Find a source close to you geographically to keep shipping and environmental costs low and to ensure that at least some of the herbs come from your more immediate environment. And speaking of cost, these herbs are generally inexpensive, about $1 to $2 an ounce. Four ounces of each will get me through a few weeks of nourishing infusions.

I do a cold infusion, meaning that I steep the herbs overnight in cold water rather than pouring boiling water over them and allowing them to sit, which is the usual method. I learned last summer from a reputable source (at the time, she was the chair of the Department of Botanical Medicine at Bastyr – here she is talking about the science behind some folk remedies) that a cold infusion has two advantages over a hot one. First, fewer of the tannins in the plant are released. Tannins are the compounds that lend bitterness to plants and make your mouth pucker. Second, more of the minerals are released from the plant with a cold infusion.

Added 8/16/09: Since writing this post, I've learned from a friend who is in the process of taking a course in herbal medicine-making at Bastyr that the tannins that are released with a hot infusion bind the minerals that are released, making them less available to us when we drink the infusion. So while the cold infusion does not necessarily release more minerals, fewer are available for absorption.

To make the infusion, I put about a quarter cup each of the dried nettles and oatstraw into a wide-mouth glass jar, with a little less than a quarter cup of whatever herb I’m using for flavor (or about one tablespoon of rooibos). Then I pour cold water over the herbs, put the lid on the jar, shake it gently to make sure all the herbs get wet, and let it sit overnight for about 8 hours.

The next morning I strain it through a fine-mesh strainer, put the strained tea back into the jar and drink it throughout the morning. You can also double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge for 3-5 days.

Making an herbal infusion is an easy and cost-effective way to add flavor and nutrients to your drinking water. Here are a few resources for initiating your own study of the wonderful healing properties of herbs:

Susun Weed Warning: Susun Weed is quite eccentric. She is also a renowned expert on herbalism and provides good advice about using herbs.

Rosemary Gladstar: Another renowned herbalist with a number of books on herbs and their uses.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Relish Your Hot Dog

My husband brought home this recipe for a relish made with Rainier cherries and Walla Walla onions from his coworker, David Albert. We had it on hot dogs last night (mine also had Dijon mustard on it, and the combination was fantastic). The relish was sweet and tangy, and a little smoky from the grilling – mmmm, the perfect accompaniment to a 4th of July hot dog. We thought it would also be delicious on salmon or pork chops. For vegetarians, how about putting it on a savory grilled portabella mushroom? Oh yeah!

A little more about the hot dogs we ate: 100% beef, no fillers, no nitrites, no MSG, no gluten. The company is located in Bellingham, WA and sources their beef from Oregon. Unfortunately, it appears that these hot dogs are only available in Washington and Oregon, but you may be able to find a similar product from your own local area.

As for the other ingredients, Rainier cherries are the ones with the swirled creamy yellow and blushing red skin. They’re sweeter than red cherries and are usually larger, making them a lot easier to pit! They're only harvested here in Washington in June and July, so now’s the time to try them.

Walla Walla onions are also a product for which Washington is famous, though they originated in Italy. The Walla Walla is a sweet onion, meaning it contains less sulfur and is therefore less pungent than other onions. This mildness makes it perfect for this Washington summer relish. It also has a higher water content and is therefore more susceptible to spoilage. The season for Walla Wallas is mid-June through September.

Here's how to make the relish:

The original recipe calls for smoking the onions, but my husband didn’t have a way to do that so he grilled them instead. He cut the onion into thick slices, salted them on both sides, then used one of our cast iron pans to grill them over medium-high heat until slightly charred and tender, several minutes on each side.

He chopped those up and added them to the pitted and chopped cherries. The ratio of onion to cherry is about one pound onion to a half pound of cherries (with pits). To finish it up, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and 1-3 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Let the whole mixture sit and macerate for at least 10 minutes and up to 1 hour.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Braised Kidneys à la Gladys

I promised to post this recipe as soon as I could get my husband to collaborate with me on writing it down. For this nostalgia-inducing dish we used beef kidneys from Skagit River Ranch. Since my husband’s childhood memory of this dish included rice and buttered peas, that’s how we served it, except we used brown rice because we’re nutrition nerds. My favorite brown rice is Lundberg’s short grain brown rice.

1 beef kidney (about 1 pound)
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1-2 tablespoons butter
½ cup thinly sliced onions
½ cup beef stock
½ cup red wine

Prepare the kidneys by slicing them in half and removing the white membrane (small scissors are useful for this chore). Cut the kidneys into bite-size chunks.

This next step is not necessary (my husband’s mother never did this) but can be done to alleviate some of the strong odor and flavor of beef kidneys. Put the sliced kidneys in a colander in the sink. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Remove from heat, add 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and stir. Pour the acidulated water over the kidneys, one cup at a time, shaking the colander well between each rinsing. Rinse under cold water and allow to drain.

Pat the kidney pieces dry or too much flour will stick to the meat. Season with salt and pepper. Dredge the kidney pieces in the flour.

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the kidney pieces in the butter quickly – just enough to brown the outside, about 2 minutes. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.

In the drippings, sauté the onions over medium-low heat until tender, about 5-7 minutes. Add the meat back into the pan, along with the stock and wine and simmer for about 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning if necessary and serve.

Serves 4.

Check out the Joy of Cooking or The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating for more recipes using organ meats.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Other White Milk

Creamy, frothy, delicately sweet. Inexpensive and simple to make. A great alternative to cow’s milk if you have a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy.

Homemade almond milk is new in my life (thanks to my friend Theresa) and I’m pretty excited about it. In fact, I was prepared to talk about it extensively in this post, but found that MANY others have already posted recipes and information about making your own almond milk… instead, I’ll just give you my recipe and photos in case you haven’t seen all those other blogs!

A few notes first:

Add more water to make a thinner milk. I saw one recipe that called for twice the amount of water than the recipe below. Part of the art of cooking is in finding ways to adapt recipes to your particular tastes and cooking needs. I prefer a richer, creamier milk so I use the recipe below.

As you can see in the photo below, I used a strainer instead of cheesecloth to strain my almond milk. This particular strainer is called a chinois and has a particularly fine mesh. I believe you could also use a thin cotton kitchen towel placed in a coarse strainer if you don't have a chinois or cheesecloth.

Someone asked me what should be done with the ground almond that is left over and I wondered if it could be used to make a homemade face mask or exfoliating cream. Anyone have any ideas?

Rich Vanilla Almond Milk

1 cup almonds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon maple syrup

Soak the almonds for 4-8 hours in 2 cups of water. Discard water.

Blend almonds and 3 cups water until smooth and milky white. Strain through a strainer lined with cheese cloth and discard solids. Add vanilla and almond extracts, and maple syrup and mix.

Adapted from The Natural Gourmet, by Annemarie Colbin

Friday, June 19, 2009

A New Good Book on Whole Foods

New Good Food, by Margaret M. Wittenberg (Ten Speed Press, 2007)

New Good Food is an encyclopedia of whole foods (not Whole Foods™, but the kinds of foods that are unprocessed and unrefined and in their natural form). There are a number of these books out there, and this is an especially good one. New Good Food would be a great resource for anyone interested in health and nutrition, even for those of us who are trained in this stuff.

The author has a great background in food, from owning and running a natural foods store in the late 70’s to working for Whole Foods in almost every capacity (cashier through store manager, and currently global vice president). Most tellingly, she was the Whole Foods rep (the only representative from the retail industry, might I add) who sat on the USDA National Organic Standards Board when the standards were being created, and was awarded the Rachel Carson Award for her work in organic agriculture, sustainability and the environment.

Some features of this book that I liked:

• Detailed descriptions of both common and exotic foods including nutrition information, methods of preparation and storage, information about common processing methods for the food, and some history of the food

• A chart of peak seasons for fruits and vegetables, arranged by color

• Flours at a Glance chart giving details about gluten content, flavor, and texture for each flour (click on the picture to get a gander at this chart)

• Whole chapters devoted to sweeteners, oils and seasonings

• A guide for selecting culinary oils based on smoke point and cooking method

• A really comprehensive bibliography including books, articles and reports for further study (for us nutrition nerds!)

Oh, and Marion Nestle says this book is "an extraordinarily comprehensive guide to foods, ingredients, and their handling." If you can't trust Marion, who can you trust?

You may be able to find the older version of this book at your local library. This would be a great way to check out the book before buying it.

Disclaimer: My husband is an employee of Whole Foods, but I was not coerced in any way to write about this book, nor am I being compensated for recommending it!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Serving Size Me

So about serving sizes (to follow up on my recent post)… Between figuring out what a “serving” of a particular food actually is, and then figuring out how many servings of each type of food you need a day (this depends on your daily calorie requirements, and there are lots of online sources that will help you figure this out – here’s one) a person just has too much to do before they can sit down to eat!

As a nutrition student in the process of formulating a philosophy of nutrition that I can comfortably convey to patients, I don’t consider serving size to be the most important thing in terms of healthy eating.*

Here are two things I think are far more important:

Eating mindfully will help you recognize when you’re full, develop a sense of how much food you need a day, and establish a stronger connection with your food. I recently wrote a short article that gives some tips for eating mindfully. Mindless Eating is a great book documenting some entertaining research (yes, I said entertaining and research in the same sentence) on what happens when people eat mindlessly.

Eating a variety of whole foods ensures maximum nutrients and minimal processing. Each fruit, vegetable and grain contains a unique combination of nutrients that fulfills a different aspect of our body's needs. We evolved as omnivores to take advantage of a wide variety of foods so satisfy your omnivorous nature by giving your body something new every week.

Eating whole foods also provides the opportunity to be more involved in food preparation, since preparing whole foods sometimes requires more work. Being more involved connects right back to the concept of eating mindfully. It’s a beautiful closed circle. The only problem with whole foods is that they often cost more than processed foods (more on this juicy topic later).

Of course, these things require commitment and work. I myself am committed to the concepts but have only completed about half the work. But we just keep plugging away, don’t we?

* Some people really do need to know about serving sizes and how to interpret them nutritionally, such as a person with diabetes who needs to know about the grams of carbs per serving. Looking at serving size when comparing two products is also useful.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

More About How Paying More Pays Off

Look at this – a can of tuna that gives you 2800 mg of omega-3’s in one 3-ounce serving! I would have to take six capsules of my ultra concentrated omega-3 supplement to get that much. So here’s the catch: this 6-ounce can costs about $6.50.

It may seem ridiculous to pay that much for a can of tuna, especially if the words “can of tuna” evoke memories of Charlie the Tuna, Wonder Bread, and Best Foods mayo. But even Starkist is charging a premium (almost $5.00 for 6.4 ounces) for solid white albacore tuna. However, Starkist doesn’t even list the omega-3 content in its canned tuna in the nutrition info for its solid white albacore. No info provided = nothing good to say (usually).

What’s makes Henry & Lisa’s different? Henry & Lisa’s and other gourmet purveyors of canned fish cook their fish only once in the can so that all the good stuff stays with the fish. Commercial canneries cook the fish twice, once in bulk, then again in the can. Some of the natural juices and fats in the fish are lost in the first round of cooking, including fatty acids like omega-3s.

The fishing and storage practices these companies use (i.e., flash freezing) may also ensure better quality of the fish in the first place. Henry & Lisa’s has a lot of other great things going for it, including sustainable fishing practices, and third-party testing for mercury and PCBs. Though it wasn’t my intention with this post to market this particular product, it turned out that it’s a great product! Nice how that worked.

I love sussing out the details that justify my commitment to high quality food. This tuna was incredible on top of the nicoise salad we had last night, and half of the can was enough to feed both of us. That adds up to only $1.60 for each of us for our protein source for the meal. That’s a pretty great deal, especially considering I didn’t have to take my omega-3 supplement.

Read more about canned tuna and omega-3s: World’s Healthiest Foods.

Added 6/7/09: I noticed that Henry & Lisa's tuna is in New Hampshire even though the fish is caught in the Pacific Northwest, so I emailed the company to ask about this egregiously unecological practice... Are they really shipping the fish to New Hampshire and then shipping it back to Seattle? I'll post the answer when I get it.

Added 6/15/09: Here's how Henry & Lisa's responded: "Our office in New Hampshire is just a marketing and distribution office. The product is shipped out of Washington state to it’s final destination." I'm glad I was mistaken and we can continue to buy their product!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hypocrisy Now

Last week on my shift at the Bastyr teaching clinic I counseled a patient about mindful eating. I was explaining the effects on appetite and digestion of watching TV while eating, when I was stopped short by the realization that I do this very thing myself.

Though I have self-righteously convinced myself that my husband and I don’t watch TV because we don’t have cable, we do subscribe to Netflix and watch movies or television shows almost every night with our dinner plates in our laps. Oh, the hypocrisy!

Does this make me a bad counselor? I don’t know. I’ve been considering this question for some time, at least since I signed up for that first biology class with the distant hope of enrolling in a nutrition program. Do I always have to walk my talk? After all, I have the same book knowledge as a nutritionist who eats dinner at the table every night. I can explain the concepts to a client just as well as she can. I understand the potential consequences and can just as passionately hold forth on the subject, even if I go home that very night and park my own butt on the couch for dinner.

What if being subject to the same temptations as my client – craving some mindless entertainment, not wanting to think up conversation topics after a long day – gives me more insight into the challenges she faces and a greater ability to support her as she tries to make changes? This is probably just a lame justification for my own bad behavior, but honestly, I can’t imagine trying to clear that dining room table of books and papers and dog toys and keys every night for dinner.

Besides, I practice mindful eating in other ways. I express gratitude for my food before I eat it and thank my husband for preparing it for me when he cooks. I eat slowly and listen to my stomach when it tells me I’ve eaten enough (yes, even when I’m sitting in front of the television I can hear the messages my stomach is sending because I’ve trained myself to listen).

Ah well, I suppose these are the challenges of becoming an “expert” in something. I still have the year of my internship to shape my philosophy of nutrition and learn how to incorporate it into my own lifestyle.

In the meantime, what do you think? Please comment! Don't be afraid to call me a hypocrite to my face.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Naturally Sweet

Last week in class I played a game of Nutrition Jeopardy and won an apple for correctly answering the question, “What is a serving size of fruit?” My answer was “One apple.” **

The real answer is more complicated since not all fruits come conveniently packaged as a single serving. Even apples vary widely in size – when I worked as a cashier at Whole Foods a few summers ago, I sold a woman an apple that weighed a half-pound (and cost an arm and a leg because it was a local, organic Honeycrisp).

According to, a serving of fruit could be anything from a whole piece of fruit (one apple), to a wedge of melon, to 3/4 cup of fruit juice. I have so many problems with this system!!! I’ve already pointed out the wide variations in size for whole fruits like apples. And just what is meant by a “wedge” of melon? It could be anything from a sliver to a quarter melon. And are they referring to 100% fruit juice, or juice sweetened with high fructose corn syrup?

Anyway, I’m digressing here from my original subject of apples, so I’ll write about serving size in another blog post.

Back to my apple prize… I noticed this morning that it had a little rotten spot on its otherwise rosy shoulder. I’d better do something with that today, I thought. I also had half of a Gala apple in the fridge that needed to get eaten. I’d been thinking about making homemade applesauce from a recipe in Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, so I pulled out the cookbook and checked my pantry for the other ingredients.

I had no cinnamon sticks, but ground cinnamon would do, and I would use pear cider instead of the apple juice/cider called for in the recipe. Lastly, I wanted to try making the applesauce without added sugar, so I replaced the sugar with 1/2 cup of golden raisins (thinking that golden raisins would not color the applesauce).

If I’d read the recipe more carefully, I would have seen that Cynthia intended the sugar as a optional ingredient to be used only if the apples weren’t sweet enough. I should have started with a smaller amount of raisins. The final product was definitely too sweet but otherwise intensely apple-y and just tart enough to make me smile. In the recipe posted here, I reduced the raisins to 1/3 cup, but you could opt out on the raisins altogether or go with even less (or none).

One last note: After the 15-minute simmer time, I continued to simmer the mixture uncovered for an additional 10 minutes and ended up with something more the consistency of apple butter, which was delicious on my morning toast! For a juicier applesauce consistency, definitely stick with the recipe.

No Added Sugar Homemade Applesauce

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Makes about 2 cups

2 cups sliced apples
1/3 cup pear cider (can use apple juice or cider)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup golden raisins

Put all ingredients into a medium pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, until fruit is tender and the liquid has reduced by at least one half, about 15 minutes.

Allow mixture to cool slightly, then puree in a blender or mash with a potato masher, depending on the consistency you want. Serve and enjoy!

** This was a project some classmates had put together as an educational tool, and is neither a reflection of the level of education I'm receiving nor of the extent of my nutrition knowledge as I near my graduation!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trying Something New

Last night my husband made me one of his favorite childhood dishes. He had to call his mom to remind himself how to make it. I’m a little reluctant to say what it is, so let me lead up to it slowly.

We went to the U District farmers market a few weeks back, getting there nice and early to beat the crowds out at one specific stall: Skagit River Ranch. The line was already three deep at 9:00 am (that’s when the market opens), so we shuffled into fourth place, bleary-eyed (we’re both night owls) and waited our turn.

First, a little about Skagit River Ranch. It’s a farm in northwestern Washington where the cows graze on pasture, and the chickens roam freely, scratching bugs out of the dirt and plucking fly pupae from the cow patties, all as nature intended. The farm is also certified organic, which is not always affordable for these small, family-owned farms.

We had come to the market today to pick up some dog food. Skagit sells a mix of ground beef and organ meats that gives our little Maxie lots of the nutrients she would get if she were hunting in the wild for her food instead of eating out of a plastic bowl on a little plastic mat embossed with doggie pawprints.

Well… they had forgotten to pack the dog food in their coolers that morning, so we started looking around. That’s when my husband spotted the kidney. Oh boy! His eyes glowed with nostalgia and he promised me I would love it, so we brought the kidney home and put it in the freezer.

My mom used to make liver and onions, which I liked well enough, so I’m not a stranger to organ meats. She also made giblet gravy from the little chicken organs packed in tiny bags and stuffed inside the cavity of whole chickens we bought for roasting. My favorites were the gizzard and the heart.

And I believe in not wasting food, which includes the offal from animals that are killed predominantly (at least in this country) for their muscle meat. Most people aren't aware that organ meats like liver, kidney and tripe are lower in fat than muscle meat and a much more concentrated source of vitamins and minerals. They can also be more economical than the common cuts of beef. Carnivores in the wild will eat the organs of a fresh kill first in case they're disturbed and can't finish their meal. This is a survival tactic we might do well to mimic.

The kidney, though? It’s the organ that filters the blood and manufactures urine. It’s made up mostly of capillaries and thousands, maybe millions, of microscopic filtering apparatus called glomeruli – doesn’t that sound appetizing? I think I’ve looked at too many pictures of the kidney in my science textbooks to think of it as food.

No matter, my husband was going to make me braised kidney with rice and buttered peas. And I have to say that it was really succulent, earthy and satisfying. It tasted like liver, but milder and sweeter. And it was a kidney from a happy, 100% grass-fed cow so I felt confident that it was a healthy organ. I told my husband I would happily eat kidney again.

If I get around to it, I’ll post his recipe for those of you who are carnivores and have access to 100% grass-fed beef kidney. DO try this at home!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies, Lesson 2

Here they are, as promised.

I made these ones following the recipe from Chocolate & Zucchini, which is a simplified version of the NYTimes cookie that I blogged about last month. Again, too thick and cakey. The only change I made to Clotilde's version is that I used Ghirardelli 60% dark chocolate chips instead of the very expensive chocolate fevre (disks) recommended in the recipe.

Still no clue about why the cookies aren’t coming out right. They look good, if a bit plump and dry where they should have flattened and gone all chewy, and the flavor is close to what I’m aiming for. What’s strange is that I made the NYTimes cookie several times in Mesa, AZ for my brother and his family at Christmas and they were just as advertised – a little crispy at the edges, chewy in the center.

I checked these recipes against the good ol’ Nestle Toll House recipe (the great-great grandmother of these gourmet recipes) and the ratio of flour and sugar to butter is about twice the Toll House recipe. This may explain why they aren't spreading out when they bake.

Another difference is that the ratio of chocolate to dough is astoundingly decadent, so much so that I’ve still never used the full amount of chocolate called for in the newer recipes. I would think more chocolate chips would mean more gooey-ness, but maybe their bulk is just keeping the dough from flattening.

Hmmm. So many factors to consider, and not a baker's bone in my body to help me make sense of them.

My brother says he can see the problem with my cookies, but is daring me to figure it out for myself. Will I continue to rack my brain, looking for answers within (or in my food science textbook)? Or will I give up and bring the Toll House recipe back into the fold? Stay tuned for more cookie drama...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Well Said

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors of both fiction and non-fiction. I just came across this quote in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which beautifully and concisely highlights the problem with compromising on the quality of food, which was also the subject of my recent post, Food is Life.

Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food – in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement.

It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. The majority of Americans buy bottled drink water, for example, even though water runs from the faucets at home for a fraction of the cost, and government quality standards are stricter for tap water than for bottled.

I agree -- let's get our priorities straight!

Please also avail yourselves of these witty posts that raise interesting questions from Jon Carroll at

Food is good, and yet - it costs money
The local joints

Saturday, May 9, 2009

All That Romaines...

I dropped my husband off at the airport this morning. I always feel a little wistful and heartsick when I drive away from an airport, having left someone behind, even if they’re off to somewhere exciting. So on my way home I planned a heart-healing dinner. Caesar salad is comfort food for me, especially when served with Lemon-Thyme Marinated Chicken.

This recipe for Caesar salad dressing was passed on to me by Gina, a waitress who worked with my husband many years ago at Pete’s Breakfast House in Ventura, CA. It’s creamy, tangy, garlicky, anchovy-ey and not for the faint-hearted (to continue the heart theme, I guess). It is notably similar to the original Caesar dressing.

And this salad turns out to be not just heart-healing for me, but heart-healthy as well. Though the three eggs and one and one-half cups of oil might make a dietitian wince at first glance, that’s not all in one serving. The oil is extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil so it’s full of monounsaturated fats, and the eggs have everything going for them that eggs possibly could – they’re local and organic, from free-roaming chickens fed with flax seeds so that their eggs are fortified with omega-3’s.

The romaine lettuce itself contains five nutrients that are good for the heart: folic acid, vitamin C, beta-carotene, fiber and potassium. Two cups of chopped romaine also contain half your daily requirement for vitamin A, so don’t be stingy with the serving size!

Caesar Salad Dressing

Makes about 4 cups of dressing, which is enough in my experience to dress 3 chopped hearts of romaine, 3-4 times, serving 2-3 people each time. The dressing stays good in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.

1 tin anchovies packed in olive oil, minced
5-8 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 eggs
1-2 cups extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil
2 heads romaine lettuce, or 3 hearts of romaine

Parmesan cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
Croutons (optional)

Combine first six ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well-combined. At this point I allow the mixture to sit for 10-15 minutes to mellow the garlic and allow the flavors to blend a little before adding the eggs and oil.

Add the eggs and pulse a few times to blend well with other ingredients.

Now start adding the olive oil in a very slow stream while the food processor is running. The slower the oil is added, especially at first, the better the emulsification and the thicker and creamier the dressing will be. It will also separate less as it sits in the refrigerator. After at least one-half cup of oil has been added, you can start pouring it a little faster, but be patient.

Eventually, you should be able to hear the sound of the food processor change as the mixture thickens up. Check it after one cup oil has been added to see how you like the texture. Keep adding oil until it’s the consistency and flavor you desire. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I sometimes end up using up to two cups of oil because I like the dressing thick enough to coat the lettuce leaves. The size and freshness of the eggs, as well as the size of the lemon, will influence how much oil is needed.

Now all that remains to be done is to dress the lettuce. The original Caesar dressing was served on whole leaves of romaine lettuce, and diners picked them up at the stem end to nibble away at them like Bugs Bunny on a carrot. Try it this way, or chop the lettuce. Garnish with grated parmesan cheese, fresh ground black pepper and croutons.


Lemon-Thyme Marinated Chicken

This is the recipe I use for livening up a chicken breast to go on a Caesar salad, or on my favorite quinoa and roasted vegetable salad. For these recipes I use boneless, skinless breasts and pound them to an even thickness, so that they will grill quickly and evenly in a stove-top grill pan. This marinade also works well with bone-in, skin-on breast, thighs, or even on a whole chicken, if you prefer it roasted.

Juice of 1 lemon
2-3 cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 tablespoons extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Put lemon juice into a small ceramic or glass container. Add enough salt to the lemon juice that it tastes slightly oversalted (another option is to salt the chicken).

Smash the garlic cloves with the side of a large chef’s knife, and add the pieces to the lemon juice along with the thyme. Allow the garlic and thyme to sit covered in the lemon juice for at least 10 minutes. In my opinion, salting the lemon juice (instead of the chicken that’s added later) helps to pull the flavor out of the garlic and thyme in this step.

Meanwhile, pound out the chicken breasts until they are of even thickness. I use the side of a large rolling pin to pound the chicken, and I place the chicken between a flexible plastic cutting board and a regular plastic cutting board to prevent chicken juice from getting on my rolling pin. If you didn’t salt the lemon juice, salt the chicken on both sides now.

Add the olive oil to the lemon juice mixture and stir to emulsify. Add the chicken breast to the mixture, making sure to coat the chicken, then cover with a lid or plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to overnight.

Before grilling, drain the chicken breasts a little. Too much liquid clinging to the chicken will prevent it from browning up. Heat the grill pan over medium-high heat, add the chicken breast and lower heat to medium-low. Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the breast. Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.

Original recipe by Carol White, 2009.

I hope to have a picture here of the grilled chicken later on this evening! (Added 5/11/09 by Carol: Sorry! I forgot to get a photo of the chicken.)

COMING UP NEXT: Caesar Salad (on which to put your Lemon-Thyme Chicken!)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

It’s fun to exaggerate as a form of expression. I do it all the time. When I say, “this ice cream is the best ever,” or “that movie was awesome,” I feel more passionate, more involved in life, happier and more satisfied. This is partly because when I was younger I was very shy and had extreme difficulty (no exaggeration) expressing myself. Being able to say what I feel is AWESOME!

There’s a burger joint in Cloverdale, California, that lies at the intersection of the 101 and the 126. Next to the building there used to be a sign (imagine one of those huge billboards from the side of the freeway, but down at car- and eye-level) that said in three-foot-high letters, “World Famous Hamburgers.” See a sign for the restaurant here (not the same sign obviously). Is it possible that these burgers are really famous the world over?

Though I don’t think there’s much harm in using a bigger-than-life word or phrase to express a positive feeling or market a product, there are some words we might consider more carefully before we use them.

I used to say “I’m starving!” as a way of emphasizing how much I was looking forward to a meal, until one day I thought about what that word really means. I realized how many people in the world could truthfully say they were starving, so I stopped using it out of respect.

Another hugely overused word: “hate.” I say it all the time – “I hate people who don’t use their blinkers,” or “I hate that actress.” Is it really hate I’m feeling, or just dislike or envy? Am I feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, or annoyed because something goes against my beliefs? When I use the word “hate,” my husband says, “Why you always hatin’ on everything?” (He doesn’t really speak like that, he just likes to use vernacular that he’s picked up from his coworkers.) He reminds me that words are powerful and that I should be careful with those especially strong words like “hate” that paint the world in black and white.

I’m going to start looking out for more of these words, words that have been used so often that they’ve lost their original meaning, and I’m going to try to restore some of that meaning for myself by using them more carefully. Let me know if you think of one I can add to my list …

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Food is Life

I have to unlock my car from the passenger side. Several years ago someone tried to jimmy the lock completely out of the driver’s side door, but was interrupted and ran away, or gave up before the job was finished. The lock remained loosely in place until one day about a year ago when I tried to put the key in it and the whole thing just fell out of the mortise and into the door’s hollow interior.

Today I was unlocking said passenger-side door in the parking lot of an upscale market, a bag of groceries in my free hand, and I wondered why I hadn’t fixed the lock yet. Well, I thought to myself, I just don’t have any extra money right now (being on a student’s budget) and even if I had it, the lock would be low on the list of ways to spend the money.

I set the bag of groceries on the front seat, and the incongruity of the (relatively) expensive groceries in my old car – 289,000 miles, cracked windshield, non-functioning door lock, missing front left hubcap – could only have been lost on me if I was trying not to notice it. For the record, my husband usually does the shopping, which is why I hadn’t made the connection earlier. Anyway, this got me thinking about my priorities, and made me wonder why I’m willing to spend a substantial percentage of my family’s income on food while my car falls apart before my eyes, not to mention the extra burden I’m placing on myself in terms of student loans.

Some people, if they had access to our financial statements, might consider the amount of money my husband and I spend on food to be above our means. Why not take advantage of the great deals on food products at Costco or Target or WalMart, especially if it means having to take out less in student loans? Why not buy processed food or junk food, which only costs about $1.76 per 1,000 calories compared to $18.16 per 1,000 calories for more nutritious foods (according to a 2007 study discussed here)?

For some, especially those on a limited budget like me, the choice between cheap food and expensive food seems like a no-brainer (go for the deal! save money now!), but for me the no-brainer is that food is fuel, food is health, food is life.

I consider the food I eat to be part of my health insurance plan. I believe in the concept of food as medicine, especially in prevention of disease and decrepitude. In my philosophy of nutrition, healthy food means whole, unprocessed food, which is available in most regular grocery stores at reasonable prices, but I also want organic produce, and organic, pasture-raised animal products, and on top of that I’d prefer food grown or raised on farms that are within a day’s drive of my home. So I pay extra at a grocery store that doesn’t have to designate a special area for “natural” foods, and I shell out the money to belong to a CSA so that I can support my local farmers and get the freshest produce.

I’ll take my cue from European countries, in which citizens spend more on their food than they do on health care, rather than the U.S. where that trend is reversed. Even if it means taking out more in student loans, I’d rather spend my money on high-quality organic food now than on doctors and drugs in my old age. I’ll gladly pay the interest on those loans, knowing that I’ll be collecting the dividends for many years after my loans are paid off.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Two-Hour Meal

There's a little joke between me and my husband that no matter what he's cooking, it takes at least two hours to cook it. Actually, it's my joke, and he doesn't think it's all that funny.

Ned is a leisurely cook, rinsing veggies, peeling garlic, putting an edge on his knife, all in good time. In the midst of slicing garlic, he might remember that he meant to do some laundry, so he leaves the garlic on the cutting board and runs off to the laundry room. After getting a load started, he might return to the cutting board, OR he might decide to put on some music -- that's another of his talents, providing a soundtrack for our lives, but it can take a surprising amount of time for him to pick out the right CD.

At some point he returns to the kitchen, picks up the knife, and recommences slicing. Eventually, amidst a hundred other distractions, it does all come together, dinner is served, and I am finally happy and well-fed... about two hours later. Almost without fail. (Tonight, we're already going on an hour and ten minutes at 7:55pm.)

On the other hand, when I cook it's all about getting the job done. Efficiency. Precision. Eating before 8:00 pm. I cook like I'm on a deadline. I often get an adrenaline rush. Don't get me wrong; I love to cook, but I didn't realize until now what a "task" I make of it, almost a race. Who am I racing against? (Ned just called out, "Dinner's in a few minutes." It's 8:05 pm.)

Can you guess which of us is healthier? Which one of us has sounder sleep and a saner relationship with food? Maybe I should stop joking about the two-hour meal and start paying attention. Maybe Ned could teach me to make meal preparation a peaceful pasttime rather than a sprint for the finish line. (Ahh, dinner is ready. It's 8:15. Tonight's time: 1 1/2 hours.)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Romance with Food

My first date with my husband was at the Sizzler. I think I chose the Sizzler because 1) it was a lunch date and I was coming from work and it was the nearest restaurant I could think of because 2) I was nervous, but mostly 3) I wasn’t very sophisticated food-wise. When I was younger, Sizzler seemed like a nice place to eat, not quite Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus (which was the pinnacle of quality for me), but it was a treat for my family and something I looked forward to.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Ned was far more sophisticated than I in a culinary sense, but apparently was enamored enough not to guffaw out loud at my restaurant choice. In the end, the quality of the restaurant didn’t matter. We were both so nervous that we just drank coffee and water and talked.

I remember about 20 minutes in, we discovered that we both knew and loved the same obscure singer/songwriter, Maria McKee. This kind of clinched it for me, because I had a passion for this musician that I thought no one could understand, but Ned did. Not only did he understand, he matched my enthusiasm.

Though there was no food involved, this is still one of my favorite food memories. Perhaps it's a favorite because it came at the start of 19 years of food memories with my husband. Some were extravagant – the most excessive was at Farallon in San Francisco, and soooo worth it – but we have also enjoyed many simple meals at home, just the two of us.

Here’s one of the simplest recipes for two from our 19 years together:

Zuppa Pavese
Serves 2

2 slices firm country-style bread
2 cups chicken broth (preferably homemade)
2 eggs
Grated Parmesan cheese
Italian parsley, chopped

Bring chicken broth to a boil and salt to taste. Toast and butter the bread, and place butter-side-up in bowls. When broth is ready, break an egg onto each slice of bread and pour the boiling broth over it. Garnish with parmesan and parsley.

Adapted from a recipe by Lorenza de’ Medici in The Best of Italy: the Beautiful Cookbook (Collins, 1994).

This is obviously a light dinner, so supplement it with a salad. If you want more control over the done-ness of your eggs, poach them in the chicken broth first, spoon them carefully onto the bread, and pour the broth into the bowl.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Interspecies Cuisine

The other day I ate dogfood for lunch. Don't be horrified. It was homemade dogfood, a version of a recipe for doggie diarrhea I'd found in a book by a holistic vet. For this miracle diarrhea cure, you cook chicken thighs, diced sweet potato, and diced potato in just enough water to cover everything, for about an hour. This cure has worked almost overnight on our dog, Maxie, more times than I can count.

So I was curious to see if this remedy would work for humans too. And it did... But that's really beside the point. My point is this -- and I have several friends and colleagues who agree with me -- why should my beloved dog eat corn starch and chicken meal out of a can when my husband and I feast on healthy, homemade, whole foods-based meals?

Several years ago, after we lost a second dog to major health problems at a relatively young age, I began to experiment with making our own dog food. Unfortunately, this was short-lived because of the time and effort (and freezer space) involved in producing freshly-made dog food in bulk. And this was about the time that a number of companies began producing higher quality pet foods, so we easily fell off the bandwagon for the sake of convenience.

My interest in the subject was renewed when Maxie began to have chronic diarrhea that defied the vet's diagnostic skills, and could not be resolved by changing her canned food to a different brand or flavor of canned food. Besides her health, I was a little concerned about our carpet and getting back the deposit on the apartment when we moved out. Dr. Goldstein, the aforementioned holistic vet, referred in his book, The Nature of Animal Healing, to the aforementioned diarrhea remedy. It worked on Maxie, and now she's hooked.

However, because I don't think she can subsist on chicken, sweet potato and potato alone, we are now experimenting with a different recipe, one developed by a fellow nutrition student at Bastyr for her own dog. I will find out if Laine (pronounced ly-na) is willing to let me publish it here...

In the meantime, if I'm ever stumped over what to have for lunch, I can always have what Maxie's having.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

One-Pot is Hot

Delicious one-pot meals are at the top of my list of most useful recipes, especially for a busy student. This Chicken Tomatillo Stew is a favorite in our family, adapted from a recipe by Rick Bayless, originally featured in Eating Well magazine in the Feb/Mar 2005 issue. The original recipe is unfortunately not available on the Eating Well website, but I found it here.

This stew is so simple to put together that the complexity of the flavors in the finished dish comes as something of a surprise. Prepping is just a matter of slicing up the onions, potatoes and tomatillos, and layering all the ingredients in a Dutch oven. Then the dish is baked long enough to release all the natural juices from the ingredients, creating a rich and tangy broth in the bottom of the pot.

It can be served simply, in a bowl garnished with cilantro, or do as we do in our household and add a lime wedge and diced avocado and serve with warm corn tortillas.

In my version of the recipe, I use bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. There are several reasons for this -- they're cheaper than boneless, skinless thighs, and the bone keeps the meat from cooking too quickly and drying out (it probably adds flavor as well). Of course, this means it has to be cooked a little longer, but not much. Leaving the skin on adds fat to the dish, which is otherwise virtually absent, meaning deeper flavor and silkier mouth-feel. If you don't want the fat, just take the skin off yourself.

I also use two or three fresh jalapenos instead of pickled jalapenos and leave them whole during the cooking because I want the flavor but not all the heat. Lastly, I use two onions instead of just one, just because the stewed onion is so luscious.

Here is my version of the recipe:

Chicken & Tomatillo Stew

Makes 6 servings
Preparation time: 20 minutes | Time to completion: 2 hours

2 medium white onions, sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
3-4 medium red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
2-3 fresh jalapenos
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves (leave some for garnish)
1 1/4 pounds tomatillos (about 12-16 medium)
Salt to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. In a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, layer ingredients in the order they appear above, starting with the onion. Lightly salt each layer.
3. Bake, covered, for one hour. Remove lid and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes to reduce juices and brown chicken.
4. Serve garnished with cilantro.


Never heard of a tomatillo? It comes in a papery, pale green husk, and inside the husk is a plum-size fruit that looks like a green tomato. They can be found at most grocery stores in the produce section.