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".