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