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.)