Monday, April 9, 2012

Grandma, Can I Have Some BHT?

Today's food disappointment comes in the form of Grandma Utz's Handcooked Potato Chips. I normally make a great deal of effort to stay away from the snack machines at work but sometimes the call of salty fried potatoes is too much to bear and I cave. Armed with a dollar bill and resolve to not get anything with artificial ingredients, I headed to the kitchen. The two items I normally have to choose between are Frito's Corn Chips (corn, oil salt), and Lay's Original Potato Chips (potatoes, oil, salt). I don't like corn chips all that much and the potato chips looked juuuust far enough back in their row to be left dangling instead of falling within reach. So I perused the display again and saw them: Grandma Utz's Handcooked Potato Chips. Perfect! These should be just like the others, except the ingredients should read: "thicker potatoes, oil, and salt". Not so.

"Whole fresh potatoes, sliced and cooked in lard, with salt added. TBHQ and BHT added to help protect flavor. This is a Gluten Free Food."

Now before you go patting yourself on the back, Grandma, be reminded that ALL POTATO CHIPS ARE GLUTEN FREE. Why? Because potatoes do not have gluten. Unless you are still eating those crazy Pringles which have added wheat (and between 8 and 11 other ingredients in the "Original" flavor alone),  you don't need to worry about potato chips and gluten sensitivity. So that last sentence, "This is a Gluten Free Food", does not, somehow, make up for the fact that Grandma has used two preservatives in these chips. Let's discuss.

TBHQ stands for something that I can't pronounce, Tertiary Butylhydroquinone, and is a controversial additive in dog food. That's right, safety groups are concerned about feeding TBHQ to our pets in their daily meals (pets who, mind you, are genetically designed to scavenge for their food and digest all manner of "leftovers" after actual predators have had their way). From the Natural News website: "Consuming high doses (between 1 and 4 grams) of TBHQ can cause nausea, delirium, collapse, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vomiting. There are also suggestions that it may lead to hyperactivity in children as well as asthma, rhinitis and dermatitis. It may also further aggravate ADHD symptoms and cause restlessness. Long term, high doses of TBHQ in laboratory animals have shown a tendency for them to develop cancerous precursors in their stomachs, as well as cause DNA damage to them. It is also suggested that it may be responsible for affecting estrogen levels in women."

Another tongue twister here, BHT is short for Butylated hydroxytoluene; it is most likely used in these chips to prevent the lard/fat from going rancid too quickly. BHT went out of fashion back in the 1970s due to health concerns - it may be toxic to both the nervous system and the liver.  Like many of our Grandma's, Ms. Utz must just be a little behind the times.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Thanks For Having Me, Oprah

Sometimes my mind wanders. This usually happens when I'm on a long solo run or driving. I'll find myself making a mental list of all the things that need to get done over the weekend or, if I'm really lucky, daydreaming about "making it" (doing what, I don't know) and how my first interview with Oprah will go. Driving to work from Master Gardener class a few weeks ago, I was wondering how I would respond when Oprah asked me why I felt gardening was such an important part of life. My daydream response hit just the right balance of emotion and reason and turned the whole country on to vegetable gardening.

While this is pretty unlikely to reach an Oprah-scale audience, I do want to say a few things about growing your own food. You aren't going to forever replace trips to the grocery store with a few square feet of vegetable plants, so you shouldn't expect to. Sometimes, other critters are going to get to your lovely cucumbers before you do. And it's probably not going to be cheaper. But guess what? It's fun. Watching plants grow and succeed under your care is rewarding. And it's really, really cool to pick something, rinse off the soil, and take a bite. 

Anyone can garden. Maybe your job sucks or you're unhappy with where you live or your health isn't the best. Guess what? Tomatoes don't care. If you set them in a sunny spot and water them, tomatoes will produce some of the most delicious fruit on the planet regardless of who you are or what you do. 

I grew up around a garden. My grandparents had a deep lot with a large, rectangular vegetable garden in the back. I don't have vivid memories of spending time there, but I do remember how exciting it was to walk to "the back" and see what was ripening. I remember green beans crawling up a simple leaning trellis and wondering how my grandmother knew when to pull potatoes out of the ground. A garden is such a special and peaceful place, and it doesn't take much to get started. 

Below are a couple of great resources for those of you in central Maryland if you are interested in learning more:

Home and Garden Information Center - You can call or email this group of horticultural experts with ANY plant question. They also have a lot of great (and free) publications on their website.
Grow It Eat it - All about growing your own vegetables. Great guides for beginners.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What We're Eating

Happy Leap Day everyone! Tonight we're having whole grain pasta with lots of crushed tomatoes (no salt added and they come in jars so no BPA added either!), olives, capers, and tuna (for me) topped with crusty parmesan.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Is The Microwave Our Enemy?

One of our lectures in the Master Gardener program was about vermicomposting, given by a woman who I would describe as lovely-in-a-quirky-way. For the unfamiliar, vermicomposting involves inviting several hundred worms into your home, feeding them your leftover kitchen scraps, and saving their poop (yes, I said poop) to use in your garden. It's not as messy as it sounds. Regular compost is to gold as vermicompost  is to platinum. I cannot wait to have the space to try this!

Throughout the course of her talk, she mentioned there are some foods the worms like better if they have been heated up. Someone asked whether you could use the microwave. Our speaker made a conjecture as to the answer followed by "but I don't have a microwave, so I don't know for sure."

Huh? No microwave?
"I know, I know", she said, "I'm the only person in America without a microwave."

While she's probably not the only person without one, she is certainly part of a dwindling population of folks who go microwave-less. These machines have worked their way into the foundations of our lives. Nary a new home is built without a shiny, state-of-the-art over the range microwave. The funny thing is, with all the technology that exists, they don't even work that well. When I microwave something, it has hot and cold spots unless I pull it out and manually stir; those rotating trays just don't cut it. And then there's the boredom factor. The slowest minute-and-forty-five seconds of my day is when I'm waiting for my leftovers to heat up at work. Even though standing at the stove and stirring my food takes a few minutes longer, the active participation makes the time go by much more quickly.

The Microwave Makes Eating Too Easy
Microwave ovens have gotten fancier as the years go by, and honestly, it's getting a little bit creepy. You used to have to listen to the time between pops of your microwave popcorn to decide if it was done, now you press one button and this machine knows when you've attained maximum popped kernels. It can tell when your chicken is defrosted and when your cup of water is hot.

Isn't that just a little too easy?  Huge companies have been built around the ease and convenience of "cooking" with your microwave, but what if everyone had to work for their food. You're more likely to savor and appreciate a meal you spent an hour working on. You'll save the extra for leftovers and you'll probably feel good because you had something fresh and full of nutrients. A microwavable meal is more likely to 1- have added salt (and you are probably already getting too much), 2- be inhaled rather than enjoyed, and 3- anything leftover is probably tossed into the trash.

But I Don't Have Time To Cook
Yes you do. Unless you are doing something extraordinary with your day like working two jobs to pay your rent, yes you do. It might take a little more planning and you might eat a bit later, but you can fit it in. For the most part, whether you cook or heat up a frozen prepared glob is a choice you are making like any other. Can you make time to watch TV or surf the internet? Then you can make time to cook.

Fine, I Can Cook. What About My Leftovers?
So you want to reheat your leftovers. If you're at work, you honestly may not have a choice between using the microwave and eating cold stir-fry. While I think there is no excuse for all offices not to have fully equipped kitchens, that just isn't the reality. So fine, microwave your leftovers.

If you're at home, on the other hand, there is no need to turn to the microwave. This is the one occasion I regularly use mine, but microwaves and toaster ovens tend to dry out foods (you know how you have to add a little water sometimes before microwaving?) or alter their texture. Pull out a pot and throw in your leftovers. Or try this method of steaming your food as an alternative.

Shared At: Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

An All-American Plate: Burger and Fries

While it's awesome and healthy to have goals in life, it's important to make sure they are realistic. If, for example, you find yourself writhing in misery every time you think about going into work, finding a new job is a good and realistic goal. If you are a crazy dog, it is reasonable to set your sights on becoming a normal, well-adjusted dog. If, however, you are an oak tree, it would not make sense to hope that someday you will sprout wings and turn into a bird. Likewise, if you are a veggie burger, embrace your veggie-ness and don't worry about your meaty cousins. You're better than that.

Most grocery store veggie burgers, relentless in their quest to remind us of a juicy beef patty, fall pretty short. They are generally made up of a lot of processed soy and wheat with a token onion or some corn thrown in for good measure. Let's look at the Grilled Vegetable Boca Burger


Note that the very first ingredient is water ("Boca Burgers: When You're Thirsty"), and the second is some processed soy thing. I'm also not sure why they needed to add caramel color since all the other stuff blended together is most definitely brown.

There are probably better brands of veggie burger available; I have read good reviews about Gardenburger varieties for those of you in a time crunch. However, for anyone who wants a truly fabulous homemade meal and has a couple of hours to enjoy their kitchen, these Cook's Illustrated inspired burg's are the way to go. 

Veggie Burgers
Makes 12; can be frozen for storage

3/4 cup dried brown lentils
2 tsp salt
3/4 cup uncooked brown rice
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
1 small leek, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick (this adds up to a whole lotta mushrooms)
1 cup raw unsalted cashews
1/3 cup full-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt
2 cups Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
ground black pepper

Get to cooking the lentils and rice. For the lentils, add 3 cups of water and a bit of salt and boil them until they are very soft and about to fall apart, about 25 minutes. At the same time, boil your rice with 1.5 cups of water until the water has been absorbed and the rice is soft.

When the lentils are done, spread them out on a tray under some paper towels to absorb the moisture and let them cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. When the rice is done, set it in a large bowl (you are going to end up adding everything else into this bowl) away from heat to also cool a bit. You want to get most of the moisture out of the lentils, so you may also need to pat them dry with paper towels.

While your lentils and rice are cooling, heat a bit of oil in a pan - we used our new big boy cast iron skillet - add the onion, celery, leek, and garlic. Cook about 10 minutes until it all begins to brown.  Spread them out on another tray under some paper towels to absorb moisture.

Using the same pan, add a bit more oil over high heat and throw in the 'shrooms. Cook the mushrooms until they are golden brown and have shrunk down considerably. Spread them out with the vegetable mixture and let it all cool off.

Next, you want to turn your cashews into a powder as best you can. You can use a food processor, magic bullet, coffee grinder (our choice), or just put them in a plastic baggie and smash them with something heavy. The method you choose may depend on what kind of day you've had.  Add the crushed cashews, the cooled lentils, the cooled veggie-mushroom mixture, and the yogurt into the large bowl of rice.  Mix it all together with your hands. Don't be afraid to get in there!

The idea for this next step is to blend/puree the mixture so it's nice and mushy. You can transfer part of it at a time into a blender or food processor but I think that creates more of a mess than necessary. We got out our immersion blender (is there anything it can't do??) and blended away.  Use it until everything looks pretty well mushed together. It should be kind of sticky and have a rough texture.

Add the panko one cup at a time and mix it together as you go. You might find you don't need as much as the recipe calls for to get a good burgery consistency, but 2 cups is a good gauge. Salt and pepper to taste.

Form patties out of this mixture. You should get 12, and since two people cannot eat 12 of anything in one sitting, you may want to freeze half of them. Cook or grill them up however you want! 

Sweet Potato Fries
Serves 2 hungry people who also have veggie burgers to eat

1 large sweet potato
2 Tbsp EVOO
freshly ground salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 450F.

You can use peeled or unpeeled potatoes depending upon your preference. We "roughly peeled" ours, meaning we left some skin on. I recommend that.

Cut up the sweet potatoes into sticks. Chop off the ends if they are small or pointy, as this will make for burnt fry ends. Cut the potato in half around the middle (width-wise not length-wise), slice each half into rings 3/4 inch thick, and slice up each ring into sticks each about 1/2 inch wide.

In a bowl, toss the potato sticks together with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Use the pepper generously! Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the sweet potato sticks on it gently. Be sure they are evenly spaced and not touching - this will affect cooking time, the amount of burning that goes on in your oven, and sogginess. Give them some room for goodness sakes! They will get smaller as they cook.

Put them in the oven for 13-15 minutes. You'll probably want to check them around 12 minutes to see how brown the underside is getting. When it starts to brown, it's time to flip the fries. Remove the baking sheet and flip each fry. You can do this by hand or perhaps with tongs, but beware they are hot. Put them back in the oven for about 10 more minutes, and try to keep an eye on them.

After their second round in the oven, the fries are done and ready to enjoy!

Shared on Fresh Bites Friday

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I Can Make Hummus As Well As Sabre And You Can Too!

Hummus isn't typically one of those products that needs to be homemade to avoid processed added crap. Even store bought varieties tend to use just a few normal real-food ingredients; the four components essential to hummus are chickpeas, sesame, lemon, and garlic. But it's fun to make yourself, of course less expensive, and it's nice to know you are capable of whipping up something so delicious.

This recipe was inspired by the folks at Cook's Illustrated. I've modified some ingredient amounts for taste and to make enough to snack on for a week.

What You Need
A blender or food processor
1 cup dried chickpeas
2 quarts water
1/4 tsp baking soda
10-11 Tbsp tahini
4 Tbsp the best extra virgin olive oil you are willing to pay for
6 Tbsp lemon juice
2-3 garlic cloves diced or pressed
3/4 tsp salt
1-2 pinches cayenne pepper
1/2 - 1 tsp ground cumin, depending on your preference

What To Do
First things first, get to soaking those chickpeas! Put your dried chickpeas in a bowl and cover them by several inches with water. Cover the bowl and set it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, you'll see your chickpeas have absorbed a lot of the water, but they won't be as soft or as large as the canned kind so it's time to cook them. Put your garbanzo babies into a pot along with about 2 quarts of water and the baking soda. Bring it all to a boil and let it go for an hour. You can test them by eating one, and they should be very soft after the hour is up.

When they are done, save 1/2 cup of the cooking water and drain off the rest. Let cool 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, you'll want to prepare you blender and two small bowls. Into the blender, throw the garlic (2 or 3 cloves depending on your personal preference), salt, cayenne, and cumin. Add lemon juice and the reserved cooking water into one of the bowls. Mix tahini and olive oil into the other.

Once your garbanzos are not longer piping hot, dump them into the blender and blend with the spices. You'll probably have to stop the blender a few times and scrape everything back down around the blades. It shouldn't take too long until you've got a thick paste. Add the lemon juice and water mixture slowly. If you're very brave you'll be able to do this with the lid of the blender completely off. Again, you'll probably have to stop and stir and few times, but try to blend this for about a minute. Finally, add the tahini/olive oil mixture in the same manner. Blend about another minute.

Move your hummus into a bowl and let it chill in the fridge. Hummus is one of those things that tastes even more delicious if it sits for an hour or two and the flavors are allowed to combine.

Serving Suggestion
Hummus is great with pita chips, as a sandwich or wrap spread, and as a vegetable dip. My favorite way to enjoy it is with fresh carrots, peeled and cut into sticks.

Shared At: The Healthy Home Economist

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why It's So Hard to Be Healthy At Work

Cameras aren't allowed in my place of employment, so you'll just have to trust me on this.

Over the past two weeks, the following snacks were available to everyone in the office, many on more than one occasion:

Peppermint Bark
Black bottom cupcakes
Gourmet cupcakes (you know, flavors like banana and peanut butter cup)
Rice Krispy treats
Chic Fil A nuggets

Being a software developer for a living comes with the requirement* of sitting on your butt all day, which is unhealthy enough all by itself. To top it off, I have to put on earmuff-hands to mute the excited squeals of "CUPCAKES!" and keep my pinching fingers at the ready to dull fried food scents as they waft by.

Thank goodness this company pays for half of a monthly gym membership to help us all burn off our sugar highs.

Wait. I don't belong to a gym.

I'm training to run a marathon and the entry costs $95, but I don't need a gym for that. I enjoy speed work and strength training... outside. I like to take yoga classes, but don't pay for them on a monthly basis. So I don't even reap the same benefits that the monthly-fee gymrats do, and no one even checks whether they use their membership.

So my challenge to companies large and small: quit providing crappy snack food (no snacks at all would be an improvement) and do what you can to subsidize all forms of healthy activities.

*Not actually a requirement anymore since they have modern workstations that let you stand up or walk slowly as you type (but this implies working for a forward-thinking company). Also, many people in the tech industry can telecommute which may make it easier to take an afternoon walk or whip up a fresh snack.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Relating Qwikster, Komen, and Factory Farms

It's happened again. A giant and powerful party reversed a landmark decision, and the only reason I can see is that the move was so unpopular. I'm talking about Komen, their recent decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and the reversal thereof.

Some other examples from the past few months:
  • Netflix and Qwikster
  • Bank of America and the $5 debit card fee 
  • SOPA, the anti-piracy bill that Wikipedia and other services protested with blackouts of their websites
  • Egypt's government
  • Donald Trump running for president (again) 
And now Susan G. Komen. 

I could be wrong; maybe these types of reversals, back-outs, and we-didn't-mean-it's have always happened without my noticing them. But it seems like the popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed news to spread like wildfire. Even to people like me, who otherwise would not have been paying attention. 

This is actually good. It means that it's easy to share information about decisions made by powerful corporations. If a bunch of us vehemently disagree with these decisions, especially those with questionable intentions like gaining money, power, or political foothold, we can actually do something about it. The bad news, however, is that the line drawn from "Decision" to "Money, Power, or Political Foothold" has to be fairly short for most of us to be vocal about it. The Komen decision was likely motivated by both politics and finances, although both organizations appear to be winning now since they are each receiving more funding than usual.

This business of being able to make a connection between cause and effect is probably why we aren't en masse protesting the treatment of pigs on most farms. It's why we aren't furious over corn subsidies which make corn syrup cheap and high fructose corn syrup even cheaper. And it's why we're all ho-hum about the chicken we buy, which has probably lived most of it's life in a poop-filled crate that *never* gets cleaned. Soda companies are clearly motivated by profit and not the well-being of their consumers, as are giant pig and chicken farms, but the line drawn from sick pig to sick person is too long to rouse suspicion. There are too many links in the chain between a lifetime of drinking soda and getting cancer.  Grocery store chickens are simply not covered in poop. 

Note that I am not claiming drinking soda equals getting cancer. That would be too easy, and if that were the case the Twitterverse would have squashed Big Soda faster than Qwikster. What is probably true though is that drinking soda can put a person on the path to other bad habits, like eating lots of processed foods which leads to feeling sluggish, and later, reduced physical activity. While individually perhaps not that harmful, these all add up to increase susceptibility to things like diabetes, weight gain, and (surprise) cancer. From "Each year, more than 572,000 Americans die of cancer; about one-third of these deaths are linked to poor diet, physical inactivity, and carrying too much weight." 

What about our consumption of those sad pigs and chickens? Bacon is delicious, and it's hard to care about how miserable your fried chicken was during it's lifetime. We as consumers never drive out to a Perdue farm for the weekend to see what we are eating (which Perdue is thrilled about, I'm sure). I suspect there is a link between consuming high amounts of factory farm meat, as many of us do, and getting sick later on, but unfortunately nobody can say for certain. It's a relief to know that we as Eaters have the power to change things if we desire, but until a revolt of factory farms goes "viral", they and their profits will continue to thrive.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What We're Eating

I love walking by cafes that have a chalkboard out front advertising their special dishes. Bonus if they've written up amusing titles and descriptions!

I've wanted something similar for my own kitchen, which Dan thoughtfully remembered over the holidays. Every week, we spend a little bit of time deciding what we'd like to eat, buy the stuff, and write it up on my new chalkboard.  I'll be taking a photo each week of our "chalkboard meals" and posting it here under the tag "cafe watchlight".

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Slower Plate: Roast Chicken and Chocolate Pot Du Creme

I am wishing for a slower pace of life.

I'm taking a class to become a certified Maryland Master Gardener. The group meets on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9am-12pm, so as you might expect it's comprised of lots of young people who work full-time.

Just kidding, I'm the only one.

The makeup of the rest of the class is approximately: stay-at-home moms (1), part-time worker (1), and recently retired (30). Everyone seems genuinely nice and certainly passionate about gardening. The problem is that on Wednesday at 12pm sharp, while I was stressed about getting to work as quickly as possible to accumulate the proper number of weekly hours without resorting to heroics like staying later than 6, the nice gentleman sitting in front of me had yet to rise out of his seat. In fact, he looked quite comfortable, and he said that since he retired he takes his time and does things at a leisurely pace. Some of that slow-down may be due to age, but I see it mainly as a conscious improvement in habits and lifestyle.

I am well aware that everyone in that room earned their retirement, probably working at far more demanding jobs than mine. But isn't it a shame that in life you have to wait until you are in your 50s or 60s to have the time to properly travel or care for a garden or cook truly wonderful meals? I do my best to sneak in bits of ambitious cooking (and traveling and gardening) here and there, but I am eagerly awaiting a day when life allows for more.

My latest "ambitious meal" was quite a feast! It included hearty crock-pot vegetarian minestrone soup, roasted (cage-free, organic, humanely raised, $17-but-so-worth-it) whole chicken, and for dessert? Chocolate pot du creme. For the roast chicken I followed Jamie Oliver's recipe strictly, and I cannot recommend it heartily enough. It was delicious. I'm sure Henry felt like the lucky dog he is when I shared a bit with him.

Without consciously slowing down a bit, it's unfortunately easy to end up eating something like this instead.

The chocolate pot du creme (that's "pot" pronounced as in Edgar Allan, not as in Pol) is what I truly wanted to share in this post. It's a dessert that's simple enough to make; it's rich and really leaves an impression with it's eater. I'm still thinking about a Belgian chocolate pot du creme I had two years ago at a restaurant. But it's another one of those fancies you wouldn't make unless you had all day to indulge your cooking whims.

For the Pot:
3/4 cup half and half
2.5 oz bittersweet chocolate (around 70% cacao, as close as you can get), chopped
1 Tbsp natural cane sugar
2 egg yolks
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
2 oven safe dishes/ramekins

For the homemade whipped cream topping (optional):
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp natural cane sugar

For the Pot:
Preheat your oven to 300F. Bring half-and-half barely to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add the chocolate and sugar. Stir this until the chocolate and sugar dissolve into the mixture.  Let stand 2 minutes.

In a medium bowl, stir together egg yolks, vanilla, cocoa powder, and salt. Gradually stir the half-and-half mixture into the yolk mixture, whisking as you combine them. Pour this chocolate mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a measuring cup for the smoothest result.

Place 2 ovenproof cups or ramekins in a shallow roasting pan and divide the chocolate mixture among them. Pour hot water into the pan so it reaches halfway up the sides of the cups.

Bake in the oven until the custards are almost set in the centers, about 30 minutes. They will firm as they cool. Carefully remove the cups from their hot water bath and let them cool completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.

For the topping:
This is nothing more than a tutorial on how to make your own whipped cream. You can look up plenty of other websites for directions if you don't like these.

You'll need a mixing bowl and some electric hand beaters. Put your mixing bowl in the freezer along with the beaters (not the part with the motor, just the removable beaters themselves) for at least 10 minutes. Once the equipment is cold, pour in the heavy cream. Beat it until "stiff peaks" are just about to form. You'll know it when you see it. Add in the sugar and continue beating until peaks do form. Do not overbeat. Cover this and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Shared At: Simple Lives ThursdayFull Plate Thursday, and Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Resolution Update

A Peaceful Plate's New Year's Resolution was to eat more meals (at least 4 per week, to be specific) at the dinner table rather than on the couch. It's time for an update!

As it turns out, Dan and I are in the camp of people who think New Year's Resolutions are silly. If you want to improve yourself or your life, there's no need to wait until some arbitrary day - just start. So we did. We've been sharing our time and food at the kitchen table since I posted about it in late December. I think it's one of the best ideas I've had!

Here are some positive effects we've noticed from eating at the table together:
  • In order to make the table more inviting, we've spruced it up a bit. The "tablecloth" of junk mail and newspapers is gone; we purchased placemats and chair cushions since we figured we'd be spending more time sitting there.  It's a nice place to eat!
  • When you sit on the couch to eat your dinner, you can pretty much have only one dish of food. You set it on a pillow in your lap and pray that it doesn't spill all over the floor. Not so at the table! Multiple dishes are welcomed. Enjoy wine, beer, and water if you want to. 
  • Partly because we like each other, and partly because it would be weird to silently stare at the other person, we talk to each other more. 
  • Henry associates us sitting on the couch with an urgent need to go outside and pee. The moment we would get comfortable on the couch with our food he would ask to go out. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing this is some kind of game that dogs find hilarious. So far, the game is not played with table-eaters.
Shared at Food Renegade.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Snappy Plate: The Ginger Kind

Two "smart eating" rules I think of often are: 1. Only eat sweets that you make, and 2. When you go out, always bring something to eat with you. These are perfectly sensible ideas. Sweets like candy are often harbingers of bad things, like unrecognizable variations of soy (lecithin?) or high fructose corn syrup. When you make treats, you probably won't use high fructose corn syrup mostly because you can't buy a jar of it at the store. You'll use an actual food like butter instead. To understand the second rule, imagine you're going out to the mall. It is quite likely that on your way in through Macy's, you will become temporarily blinded by perfume spritzes, make a wrong turn at the Forever 21, and wind up in the food court, dizzied by the scents of Chick-Fil-A and that Japanese stir-fry place.

With quick reflexes and a little bit of luck, you can whip out the snack you brought along and make an escape. This is why I do not go to the mall.

What, you might ask, is the point?  The point is this: Gingersnaps. I have a delicious recipe for these goodies that is fairly easy to follow and not terrible for your body (Rule #1). Dan and I gave them as a gift over the holidays after baking and eating an entire test batch, and they received rave reviews. Ladies, gingersnaps are easy to put into your purse to sneak into the mall, movies, or Broadway musical productions (Rule #2). If I were giving dating advice, I would mention that women who offer homemade cookies at just the right moment make men swoon. I would also mention that most men aren't worth the trouble. Choose your cookie offerees carefully.

The recipe is inspired by the Joy of Baking version with some modifications.

Ingredients (Makes 4 Dozen Cookies)
3/4 cup unsalted butter (if you use salted, omit the salt later in the recipe)
1/2 cup muscovado sugar
1/2 cup natural cane sugar
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups white whole wheat flour, King Arthur is a good brand
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 and 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 extra cup natural cane sugar

Put the butter and sugars into a mixing bowl and beat with your electric/hand mixer until they are light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Add the molasses, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add this to the butter mixture and mix until well combined. Cover and chill the batter for about 30 minutes until it's a little bit firm. I sometimes let it chill overnight if I don't have enough time in the same day; if you do this, just be sure to let the dough set out and soften some before baking.

Warning: If you are someone who likes to eat raw cookie dough, as I do, you are going to want to eat this. You are not going to want to make ANY cookies out of it. Remember though, that not only does this defeat the purpose of Rule #2, but if you sit and eat a bowl of dough which would normally produce 4 dozen cookies, you won't feel very good. I try to limit my dough-eating to the equivalent of 6 cookies. End Warning.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the reserved 1 cup of natural cane sugar in a small bowl. When the dough is properly chilly, roll it into 1 inch balls. Roll each ball of dough into the sugar, coating thoroughly. Place them onto a baking sheet spaced about 2 inches apart. Press the bottom of a glass onto each dough ball to flatten it slightly. They might stick a bit, but just peel the cookies off and return them to their baking sheet.

Bake for 12-15 minutes. The longer you bake them, the crunchier they will be. I usually bake them between 12-13 minutes and once they cool they are always properly crisp. They should feel dry and firm on top when you take them out of the oven. Cool them on a wire rack.

Shared on: Food Renegade and Real Food Whole Health

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cheddar Cheese Isn't Orange And Other Food Truths

Cheddar cheese isn't orange. In it's natural state it is actually a very pale yellow color. If you look at the ingredient list of most cheddar cheese, particularly the pre-shredded variety, you will see something (usually annatto - at least it's not artificial) added for color. Nobody is completely sure who decided cheddar cheese should be orange. Wikipedia posits that in the 16th century, cheeses of superior quality all appeared darker yellow or orange, so makers of poor-quality cheese began adding deep yellow annatto to spruce up their paltry products. Read on for 3 other weird things that companies do to their food products.

Everybody knows Americans don't get enough fiber in their diets, right? Rather than promoting eating foods that are actually full of fiber, like fruit, vegetables, beans, or oats, many companies add fiber into their otherwise fiberless foods. But they can't exactly transfer the fiber from a black bean into a piece of fried chicken with some Frankenstein-like mad scientist setup, so they get it from somewhere else: trees. Cellulose is an ingredient often added to processed foods to up their fiber content. Cellulose is wood pulp, and in addition to adding dietary fiber and texture to foods like Aunt Jemima's syrup, the McRib sandwich, some shredded cheeses, and Nestle's hot chocolate, it also makes a really good wallpaper paste.

You know that nice sheen that coats treats like chocolate covered raisins, jelly beans, or sprinkles? It usually shows up on food labels as "shellac" or "food glaze", and it's totally natural! It's made from secretions of the female lac bug, similar to a beetle. It's also used as primer, wood finish, and high gloss varnish. Yum.

Here we are talking about cheese again. A Peaceful Plate is nothing if not a cheese-hound. Let's say you were John Sargento (or Jane, as the case may be) and you wanted to make some parmesan cheese. What would you do? Well, you'd start by acquiring some milk. You would curdle the milk by adding some type of acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Then you, JohnJane, would slaughter an unweaned baby cow and take out the lining of it's fourth stomach because it has enzymes you can use to turn your curdled liquid milk into a solid cheese. Maybe you'd sell the rest of the calf as veal so all is not lost. Kidding, stay away from veal. The enzymes baby cows produce in their stomachs is called rennet on ingredient lists. It is becoming quite commonplace to see cheeses using vegetarian and synthetic sources of these coagulating enzymes (some plants and molds produce similar varieties), but if you care about what went into your cheese you'd better read the label.

Shared at: Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Beyond The Peel

Monday, January 9, 2012

What's Wrong With Bottled Water Part 1

There are few scenarios I can dream up where I wouldn't mind drinking bottled water. One involves me finishing a sweaty race during which I couldn't carry my own; in another, I'm in a third world refugee camp and there is no other parasite-free source available. There's one more, but I'll save that for the end of the post.

So what's wrong with bottled water?

1. It costs a lot! I haven't ever heard someone complain about the price of bottled water, but it's hundreds of times more expensive than what comes out of your faucet. Some brands are more expensive per gallon than gasoline (which eeeeverybody complains about). So you're paying - a lot - for a basic human right and one of the building blocks of life. And it might not actually be much better than what comes out of your sink. Brands Aquafina and Dasani (both owned by major soda companies which I wouldn't trust to make anything good for my body) clearly state on their websites that their product is purified public water. No bottled water company is required to list it's sources.
A shot from our trip to Patagonia last January. That's a glacier and some delicious glacier water running down the mountain. I did not see any bottled water companies there to collect it.
2. Plastic sucks. Making it is hard on the environment. It requires crude oil and a whole lot of processing. It doesn't always get recycled; tossing an empty bottle into the little blue bin isn't a guarantee.
3. "Bisphenol A" SUCKS. By now, most people have probably heard of BPA. It's an estrogen-like chemical that is used in many types of plastic; studies have found it leeching out of can linings, receipt paper, and plastic water bottles. It tends to come out more as the plastic breaks down, which happens as a result of time and heat. That explains why it's a bad idea to put plastic water bottles in the dishwasher or leave them in your car on a sunny day.  What problems might BPA contribute to? Learning disabilities, ADHD, and heart disease for you, and it may predispose your children to obesity - a 2009 study found higher rates of obesity in the offspring of lab animals with BPA exposure.

It's a good thing there are alternatives!

Lots of people like Brita (or similar) pitchers and sink attachments to filter water themselves. I think this is the best option for those who dislike the taste straight from the tap. You can also carry your own reusable BPA-free bottle, something that is relatively easy to find these days, filled with water in case of thirst. This requires just a tiny bit of thinking ahead on your part, but it's really simple to do and a great idea.

As I've mentioned, some people really hate the taste of their tap water. I think ours tastes fine, but I do realize the taste changes based upon where you live and how your water is treated. Stay tuned to A Peaceful Plate for Part 2, the third and final scenario in which I don't mind drinking bottled water: a blind taste test.

Shared at: The Healthy Home Economist.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How To Make Really Good Rice


It's plain. Starchy. Brown or white usually, but sometimes red, black, and purple. Goes with a lot of things. Often swept under meat or vegetables. About as exciting as, well, rice.

But guess what? For over half of the world's population, rice is a staple food. Twenty percent of the world's dietary energy supply comes from rice (wheat rings in at 19%). Rice has given us something like 12,000 years of it's time, so let's give it just a few minutes of ours.

How To Make Rice
Lots of people use a rice cooker. I've never understood that. To me, rice cookers are another one of those single-purpose gadgets like a strawberry huller or a banana slicer. It takes up much less drawer space to just eat around strawberry leaves.

To make a basic pot of rice, you need only three things: a pot, rice, and water - 1 part rice to 2 parts water. Put the rice and water in the pot and bring it to a boil. Simmer the mixture, fluff it (a fancy word for "stir") once in a while with a fork, and when there is no more water your rice is done.

How To Make Slightly Better Rice
There are a few simple things you can do improve upon this basic pot of rice.
1. Add a dollop of oil to the pot before you start to boil it. This gives your finished pot of rice a nice texture.
2. Use good rice. Forget about Uncle Ben and his 90-second plastic pouches. My favorite type of rice is Basmati, literally "the fragrant one". It's a long-grain rice that is used in a lot of Indian cooking. Basmati comes in brown and white varieties and I think both are equally tasty. White basmati takes about 20 minutes to cook, while the slightly more nutritious brown basmati takes 30-40 minutes.
3. Try boiling your rice in vegetable broth instead of water. The 2-to-1 rule still holds, and it's a tasty alternative!

How To Make Really Good Rice
Dan and I recently enjoyed this Pea, Potato, and Lentil Curry. Rather than making plain rice or even Slightly Better Rice to go along with it, I decided to try this Sidelicious recipe that sounded like it would come close to emulating the rice at our favorite Indian restaurant. As you may have guessed, the end result was Really Good Rice.
1.5 cups basmati rice (we used white, but I think brown would turn out just as good)
4 garlic cloves
1 yellow onion, diced
1-2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp. - 1 tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
2-3 cups vegetable broth (save veggie scraps to make your own!)

Heat the coconut oil in a pot that will be big enough for your rice. Add the onion and saute on medium heat until it's transparent, just a few minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for a few more minutes (4-5). To this, add the rice and cumin seed and fry it all together for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Next, add the turmeric and mix it in until everything is yellow. Add 2 cups of your broth.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then let it simmer with the lid of the pot on but tilted to allow steam to escape. Keep an eye on it, and give it a stir once in a while. If all of the liquid gets absorbed but your rice isn't soft enough, add a bit more until it is. For white basmati, it should take about 20 minutes; brown will take longer.

I think what really made this rice turn out well is that I made it about 2 hours before dinner (because that's when I had time) and we let it sit in the pot, lid on and burner off, until we were ready to eat it. Because of the spices in this recipe, I think this rice would be best eaten either by itself or with an Indian-inspired curry or masala. Our curry and rice combo turned out so well it's one of my new favorite dinners.

For more real food recipes and healthy lifestyle ideas, visit Real Food Wednesday.