Better Late than Never or How I Return to the Dormant Food Blog

I’m a month late and a dollar short, but it seems, somehow, important to note that I started this blog a full ten years ago. Yes, I haven’t posted here in more than three years, but, I have continued to write and occasionally post on my website, Healthier Kitchen, in the interim. 

It seems like a milestone and an opportunity for a little reflection. Having trained as a lawyer first, and having begun some food related work and training in the aughts, 2009 represents when I first saw myself as a someone working in food. Not quite professional at first, as I never monetized my blog, but when I look back at my posts, I have to give myself a little credit that I was very much ahead of the curve on the “healthier” trend and my posts about food policy still make sense today. 

Part of me feels frustrated that in ten years, I still haven’t found a way to properly make a living from my passion about healthier eating and food policy, but I continue to teach and write and advocate in as many ways as I can. I’m proud of the volunteer work that I do with Crossroads Community Food Network and the Montgomery County Food Council, and feel that I’m helping my local community in some small way. I keep learning more about the food system, both on the local and national level, and I keep trying to stretch and acquire new skills outside my comfort zone.


Perhaps the dissatisfaction I feel is that I had high hopes of turning what I was doing into a permanent position with an organization working in this space. That has proven to be depressingly hard to do, whether because of a lack of an appropriate degree, my age, or just a general failure for my skill set to match up well with an existing organization. I keep trying though, and networking, and freelancing in the meantime.

The freelance life agrees with me on many levels: I like the flexibility in schedule, I like the variety of different tasks and issues I work on, and I enjoy having time to continue to experiment with my own recipe development. However, I miss working as part of a team, which is one of the best parts about volunteering with not-for-profits.  It keeps me working with others who are also passionate about helping others and improving our local food system. 


In the near future, I plan to write about a new book, Pressure Cooker, which has nothing to do with the Instant Pot and everything to do with how hard it is to make dinner every evening. I have a lot of thoughts, have engaged with one of the authors online, and hope to pull my ideas together soon.

 If anyone is still reading this blog (truly, I have no idea if the email notices are still active at this point), please let me know what you’d like to hear, and what you think I could be writing about that would be helpful in feeding yourself and your loved ones. 

And, please weigh in on headnotes above recipes, communal cooking ideas, and if you think that the idea of people cooking at home is past its expiration date. I look forward to continued conversations on all these issues.

In the meantime, if you're so inclined, head over to the Jewish Food Experience and you can see my most recent piece for them about a favorite family dish for Passover...and some feelings. 

Red Lentils, How do I Love Thee?

I love to introduce people to red lentils. I love most beans and pulses, but red lentils are probably my favorite to prepare and one of my favorites to eat. Quick cooking, delicious, amenable to many flavor profiles, good for you, and economical to boot, red lentils are a perfect solution for a weeknight dinner.

These little salmon pink orbs can be prepared so many ways -- with roasted carrots, as a dal, in a Turkish style soup. Perhaps my favorite lately has been as an Italian style ragu, just sort of mimicking a Bolognese. I have served this dish to my family any number of times, and prepared it with many private clients and group classes. Even my middle school group loved this! 

I love this dish mostly because it tastes great, but also because it’s a terrific dish without any animal protein that still has a meaty feel for meat eaters and a familiar flavor for skeptics. It’s delicious served over pasta, brown rice, mashed potatoes or other root vegetables, even roasted spaghetti squash, topped with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, nutritional yeast, or faux parmesan. This recipe makes a lot, so freeze some for another meal! 

Red Lentil Ragu

By Wendy Nevett Bazil

(Serves 8 - 10)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 carrots, washed and diced (peeled if you like as well)

2 garlic cloves, minced

¼ - ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (I like Aleppo or Maras)

1 Tablespoon double concentrated tomato paste (or two Tablespoons regular)

2 cups red lentils

28 ounce can, or equivalent, low or no sodium whole San Marzano style tomatoes, crushed

4 cups water

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon each, dried oregano and thyme

Salt and pepper to taste – start with 2 teaspoons salt and a few grinds of pepper

1 bag baby spinach, washed or half a bag of frozen chopped spinach (optional)

Good quality aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, nutritional yeast or faux Parmesan

1. In a large, heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven set over medium heat, add the olive oil and the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Salt lightly and cook until the vegetables soften a little and the onions become translucent (about ten minutes or so).

2. Add the hot pepper flakes and tomato paste, mix well and let brown for a minute or two. Then add the lentils, the tomatoes, the water, the bay leaf, and the dried oregano and thyme. Add another pinch or two of salt, a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer for about 30 – 40 minutes, stirring occasionally so the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pot, and adding more water if the mixture starts to dry out. Taste for salt and pepper and spices, and add to your taste.

3. Remove the bay leaves. If you’d like to make a one pot meal, mix in a bag of washed baby spinach at this point. It will wilt in just a few minutes. If using frozen, let cook long enough for the spinach to cook in the sauce.

4. Serve over pasta, brown rice, mashed potatoes, or over roasted spaghetti squash. Top with some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, nutritional yeast, or faux Parmesan.


Here, served over whole wheat rotini

Here, served over whole wheat rotini

Healthier Granola Redux

Most days, breakfast around here is a bowl of plain non-fat Greek or Icelandic yogurt. As I discovered in my sugar experiment a while back, nonfat yogurt is one of the few food items where the stated serving size is actually larger than what I'd eyeball for myself! Yogurt is full of protein and due to the generous serving size, keeps you full and satisfied. In summer, I might add a small drizzle of honey and some fresh berries. In winter, I often use leftover homemade cranberry sauce or low sugar jam instead of the honey and berries. Other seasonal favorites are cut up mango or fuyu persimmon.

But one constant year round is that I like a little crunch on top of my yogurt. Sometimes I use a tablespoon or two of Trader Joe's Super Seed and Ancient Grain Blend which has no added sugar at all, other times, I use some hemp hearts. But sometimes, I go lighter on the sweetening in my yogurt and add in some homemade granola. 

Granola can be full of sugar and calories, so I both make my own and try to keep my serving to about a 1/4 cup. I base my recipe off of one from a Brooklyn shop that made the rounds years ago, was adapted by Melissa Clark of the New York Times, along with many other recipe writers. The combination of maple syrup, olive oil and just a touch of salt is pretty perfect. I've adapted this recipe many times and it’s very adaptable to your preferences. For those interested, by my dubious calculations, there’s about 1 teaspoon (4 grams) of added sugar per serving.

The recipe is pretty straightforward, requires only one big bowl, a large spoon and a baking pan or two.  I like to use half sheet pans with a lip, rather than a flat cookie sheet, so that contents do not spill out into the oven when I mix it.  I also like to line the pans with parchment paper.  This saves on cleanup and keeps the granola from sticking too much. You can get away with one pan, but it will cook a little more slowly and you won’t get clumps if that’s what you’re after.

I don't add dried fruit to this mix as the pieces tend to get hard.  In winter, when I don't have fresh berries or other fresh fruit around, I sometimes add dried fruit to my yogurt along with this granola. This recipe is very adaptable. Sometimes I add some uncooked quinoa to the mix, or some puffed brown rice cereal. You could add sesame or chia seeds if you like those. This version is my current favorite!

Maple and Olive Oil Granola

adapted from Nekisia Davis (with inspiration from Melissa Clark)

(makes a little more than 8 cups (about 33 1/4 cup servings)- I usually fill three quart sized jars or plastic containers with tight fitting lids and have a little extra to gift)

  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (I sometimes use a multigrain oatmeal mix for 1 of the cups)

  • 1 cup raw pepitas, hulled

  • 1 cup raw unsalted sunflower seeds, hulled

  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (these are large curls of coconut, not grated or shredded!)

  • 1 1/4 cup raw walnut and/or pecan pieces (rather than pay for the fancy halves, I use the already broken up baking bits)

  • 2 Tablespoons brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • scant teaspoon ground cardamom

  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (preferably Grade B)

  1. Heat oven to 325 degrees.

  2. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until well combined. If you use the same measuring cup for the olive oil and maple syrup, make sure to do the olive oil first—pro tip—the residual oil will keep the maple syrup from sticking in your cup! Spread mixture in an even layer on two parchment lined baking sheets with a rim (see above!). Place the pans in the hot oven, one pan on the top rack and one on the bottom. Bake about 15 minutes, then gently mix the granola a little. After mixing, if you like clumps, use the back of a large spoon to softly, but firmly press the granola down into the pans. If you like it your granola without clumps, then stir the granola well and don't tamp it down. When you replace the pans in the oven, put the one that was on the top rack onto the bottom and vice versa, and bake for about another 15 minutes. You want to make sure the liquid ingredients dry up and coat the solid ingredients and the granola looks a little brown but not burnt. After the second 15 minutes of cooking, remove the pans from the oven and let the granola sit undisturbed in the pans for about half an hour or more if you can. Once cool, sections of the granola should be almost like thin granola bars which you can break apart as you like. Either way, let cool completely and then put into airtight containers and use within about a month.

Meal Kit Delivery Services, Useful or Not?

I've read any number of blog posts and articles about the utility of Blue Apron and other meal delivery kit services. Many people love them and the articles I've read have generally been positive. Even the Grey Lady, the New York Times, has announced that it is getting into the meal kit delivery business. 

I've spent a bit of time trying to understand what the real benefits are, if any, to these services. My gut feeling  as a home cook and culinary instructor, was that they don't actually save enough time. I would question people who'd used them about what they liked, and why, and what they didn't like. I believe strongly that cooking at home is a skill that helps us all, and there are many ways to achieve that . For some, it's second nature. For others, it might mean a personal chef for weeknight dinners. For those who want or need to learn, there are resources from web based learning, cooking schools and private instructors like me. I was grappling with what this kind of service added to the mix. To really evaluate a thing, I figured I'd better try it out for myself! So, earlier this month, I joined Blue Apron for two weeks. 

The upshot was that while I found the delivery process convenient, the ingredients fresh, and the dinners tasty, my overall impression was that there wasn't enough time saving and that the food was not as good or as healthy as I could cook for myself in less time and for less money to really have a value added. In terms of health, I found the meals too heavy on the carbs and even the vegetarian meals could have contained more vegetables. And, as the food arrived on a Monday, I felt that these had to be cooked before the weekend, and so, felt locked in to cooking what they sent even if I'd had a late night working and really would have just preferred to make scrambled eggs and a salad that night. I think these meal kits feed into the perfectionism we feel about home cooked meals -- that to qualify as home cooking they have to be restaurant quality. I think the sweet spot for successful home cooking (taste, ease, cost, health), is larger than we think, with plenty of room for short cuts on weeknights still producing delicious meals that our families will love. 

To conduct a proper test, and in a departure from my usual adaptive method of using savory recipes as a guidepost only, I tried to use the kit as presented. I followed the recipes exactly and did not do any advance preparation. I had signed us up for the 2 person omnivore plan, which provided us three meals per week. The box arrived early in the day on Monday (they only guarantee a 9 pm delivery on Mondays, so its earlier arrival was a very pleasant surprise) so that I could make one of the dinners that very night. 

The week's meals arrived in one box with the recipe cards sitting on top, so the first task was to break down the ingredients into three piles on my counter, one for each recipe. I then put the perishable ingredients into the refrigerator in separate sections so that I wouldn't miss one when I went to cook that recipe. Then I did the same on a corner of the kitchen counter with the packaged items that didn't require refrigeration. One thing I did really like was that in each box I had a card called "from the farm" that featured a less common vegetable included in my kit.

I probably spent a half hour organizing the ingredients and then I was left with a box to recycle, as well as two enormous ice packs and a multitude of plastic bags and containers. Almost all the criticisms I've read of Blue Apron mention the amount of packaging so I won't go into it here, and I did recycle much of it, but found the instructions on what to do with the ice packs surprising and hard to envision doing. I also took a quick look at the expected preparation times for the three recipes to decide which I'd make on which night, depending on the estimated time and my schedule.

That night, I got out the ingredients and recipe card for the first recipe and took a glance at the clock. Each night that I cooked a Blue Apron meal, I took note of how long it took to prepare from the time I got out the ingredients, until the time I plated the dinner. For all but one, my time was within the range of the preparation time they provided. One took me longer. None took me less time and I cook for a living. All took between a 1/2 hour and an hour, which, in a vacuum, is not an unreasonable amount of time. 

But, while it's nice to make a recipe that seems more restaurant like and learn about some new ingredients, I found that some of the recipes made the work harder and slower than it needed to be and I found the recipes to be confusing at times, which meant I had to slow down and take time to figure out what they meant. In a couple of instances the first week, before I figured out their system, the photos didn't match up with what I thought I was reading and since I'm visual, I followed the pictures and later realized that the instruction wanted me to do something else. For example, in cooking potatoes and peas in the same pot, the photo shows them in a strainer in the pot together. Of course if I was cooking on my own, I might realize that peas and potatoes take different amounts of time to cook and put the potatoes in first, but on autopilot I put them in together as in the photo and later realized the instruction was to put the peas in after the potatoes had cooked for 6 - 8 minutes. Not a disaster, but it did make for less bright peas. 

The next night, I tried a vegetarian enchilada recipe, which was delicious, but took me one full hour and had me making a modified salsa verde (green enchilada sauce). In real life, this is not something I would do on a weeknight. Making a salsa like this is wonderful, but it's a project that I'd tackle on a weekend or a less busy day and make enough to freeze for another meal or two too. In fact, the lack of leftovers or economies of scale really bothered me. It's incredibly inefficient to make salsa verde in an individual serving and inefficient to make enchiladas for just one night and not enough for a second meal or at least a couple of lunches. The weirdest part of this recipe was the serving size. They provide four tortillas and the meal was for two people. When it came to plating, they advised using 2/3 of the baked enchiladas for the two plates. Seriously? 2/3 of 4? Why? If the reason was to keep the calorie count under some particular number, why not cut back on the very generous amount of cheese provided. I ended up serving P two of the enchiladas, and myself one, and then later ate another half and had the other half for a light lunch the next day. So, we both ate more than their suggested serving of 1 1/3 enchiladas, which might have been appropriate if served alongside a nice salad, but would have left us snacking all evening. 

I will say that we liked the General Tso's chicken, but it called for about 4 times as much cornstarch as needed for a home version and a whole lot of white rice and only a small portion of snow peas. If making this kind of meal at home, I'd probably have doubled the amount of vegetable and cut back the starch. 

I think my biggest complaint as a cooking teacher, is that these meals didn't really teach me methods and techniques that are applicable to many dishes and which would allow me to improvise with what I have on hand. They provide everything in a box, which isn't how we find our pantries day to day. There is much we can do to keep our pantries, refrigerators, and freezers ready to make weeknight meals, and simple skills we can learn so that we can quickly scan our supplies and figure out what to make. I felt that some of the time I was cooking a more complicated meal with Blue Apron I could have used more efficiently to make up my own meals and plan my shopping. 

Plus, while it's nice for family members to get to eat something different and prettily presented every night, it seemed like a big burden on the cook to make a completely different meal each night, with no crossover ingredients and nothing prepared ahead or packaged. To me, some of these were weekend dinners and not really weeknight friendly. 

For those of you who would like to exercise the cook on the fly muscle, here's an article by my friend, Christine, a chef and food writer, with some handy substitutions for common ingredients you might not have on hand.





I know I'm not much for providing dessert recipes. I figure there are many sources for that. But lately, we've been experimenting with a few "healthier" ideas that I thought I'd share with you.

The first is from Elizabeth at Sienna Wellness and is an approximation of a crumble. Elizabeth calls it Raw Peach Blackberry Cobbler. It was perfect both for dessert and for breakfast the next morning with yogurt. To me, it approximates the feel of a cobbler without all the butter and sugar (just a little maple syrup sweetener). To you, it might be a bowl of fruit with a little topping, but either way, it works! Right now, when peaches are drippy fresh and exploding, this is amazing. In fall, I could see doing this with apples and cranberries or persimmons.

Yesterday, Maddy tried out the Sweet Potato Brownies from Deliciously Ella. These are also gluten free and vegan but, I have to admit, less appealing for me than for her. She loves chocolate and a healthier approximation of a brownie is more interesting to her. She, on the other hand, disdains potato chips, so, to each her own.

I found these good, but tasting more of date and sweet potato than brownie. I think I'd add in some dark chocolate chips so that there is more chocolate flavor. The texture is nice and gooey, fudgy, so that parts works really well.


photo: Madeleine Bazil


Mussels for An Easy Summertime Dinner



There was a piece in yesterday’s New York Times Opinion section by Paul Greenberg who wrote American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. In it, he suggests that eating eating farmed oysters and mussels is both good for us and the environment. According to Greenberg, mussels filter gallons of water which helps fish and because mussels are filled with Omega-3’s (like tuna and salmon), eating them helps us. 

But the main reasons to eat mussels are that they taste great, are relatively inexpensive as seafood goes, and couldn’t be easier to prepare. I had made some mussels the night before reading Greenberg’s piece just because the omnivorous portion of the family loves them and on a hot summer day, it’s a great meal that doesn’t heat up the kitchen and goes well with a summery glass of dry rose.  

This barely even a recipe. I bought three pounds of mussels which could serve 4 as an entree with some side dishes with a little heft, or six as an appetizer, but which Paul and I polished off alone with just a little broccoli steamed alongside and a piece of really good bread.

I washed the mussels in a couple of changes of cool water and checked to see if any had wiry “beards” which needed to be pulled off. With farmed mussels, few have beards and even if you do find some, they are little. Fresh, live mussels should all close up in the cool water. Discard the ones that don't. This batch did give off some dirt and sand, so I rinsed them well.After that, the absolutely easiest method, is to saute a half an onion, or a large shallot, or even a few sliced spring onions (which is what I used this time) in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a pan or pot large enough to also hold the muscles, over medium heat for a few minutes and then add a clove or two of garlic and about a pinch of salt and a quarter teaspoon hot pepper (I like Aleppo). After about another two minutes, raise the heat and add about 1 cup of white or rose wine and let it gently boil for a few minutes to burn off the alcohol. Add in the cleaned mussels, lower the heat back to medium, make sure the liquid is still bubbling a little, cover the pot and let the liquid steam the mussels for about 10 minutes. 

If you want to get fancier you could add some celery in with the onion, or some diced tomatoes with the garlic. Herbs are always a great addition, and a few tablespoons of cream could go in once the alcohol in the wine has burned off. But these are just flourishes that while lovely, are not necessary if you want to keep things simple. 

I steamed some broccoli alongside, but you could easily throw it in the same pot with the mussels during the last five minutes or so of the cooking. Just keep the pieces of broccoli on the large size so they're easy to fish out when serving. 

Check inside the pot after about 10 minutes and make sure the shells have opened and that the mussels have plumped and solidified. At this point, if they have opened, toss the ones that stayed sealed tight. 

To serve, use a slotted spoon to place some of the mussels (and broccoli if you’ve cooked it all together) in individual bowls, then, when you can get at the broth and vegetables at the bottom, ladle some over each bowl. I reserved a little of the thinly sliced tops of the spring onion to toss on top before serving. Parsley would also work well here. 

Serve with great bread for dipping in the sauce. 


Musings on Cooking

A food friend posted this Adam Gopnick piece from the New Yorker a little while back on her Facebook. It's a few years old but still gets me thinking.

I love reading cookbooks even though I don't need more recipes. I get into how people combine ingredients and hope to see some different cooking methods.  Most of us who habitually read cookbooks, blogs, etc. are simply looking to see how other people have creatively done this. Or maybe, to learn about new ingredients. And sometimes, just to drool over food we will never create at home. But the ideas do percolate even after perusing a coffee table, chef-y cookbook that is purely aspirational.

But cookbooks do give the illusion of perfection. If you follow these 8, 10, 4, 25  steps correctly, you will achieve the perfect dinner and all will be good in your life. Perfect doesn't exist so don't even go there. But start somewhere and make like Nike. Just do it. Just try something new and see what happens.

Once we're comfortable with basic cooking skills, we can create meals from whatever we have in the kitchen.  I'm not talking about a crazy tv show challenge where chefs must make a meal out of coffee beans, grape jelly and squid, but typical weeknight dinners. If your pantry and refrigerator contain the right ingredients, cooking gets easier.

I think most people need to feel like they can do this with muscle memory, that they won't ruin a bag full of groceries, that there's no time to experiment. But, like with any muscle, it gets stronger with practice, and the duration and intensity of the exercise should be increased in small increments. You wouldn't run a marathon without training for months. Likewise, make small forays into the kitchen if you're not already cooking everyday. Make a one pot meal first: a pasta dish, a chicken dish, a soup. Serve a simple salad on the side. I read once that when taking up jogging as exercise that you should increase your distance by only 1/4 mile per week. Per week! 

Sweet Potato, Greens, and Beans

We woke to a 64 degree house this morning, and though it felt great for sleeping last night, I had to do some cool acrobatic moves in order to bundle up without actually removing myself fully from the blankets. Just last week I worried that I was too late planting lettuce and chard as DC had a tease of the heavy air of August, which seemed poised to roll right over us for the duration. Today, with a high of 55 or so, it feels like a soup night again. Now I'm worried that I was premature planting my warm weather seedlings!

All winter, I kept finding sweet potatoes in soup recipes. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post had a sweet potato broth based soup with collards and black eyed peas. And then there was the streamlined sweet potato and kale soup in the Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook, written by JuJu Harris of the Arcadia Mobile Market, a service run by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Alexandria. 

I had planned to make a hybrid of these soups for a class I was to teach in March, that ended up snowed out. I had some ingredients around that I didn't want to waste, and things went in a little bit different direction, but, inspired by the above recipes, I ended up with hearty vegetable soup for a snowy day.

This soup is perfect for this time of year as well. Go ahead and substitute any other bean you like for black eyed peas, or other greens for collards. Use turnips instead of rutabaga, or throw in a parsnip or two with the carrots. If you're OK with salt, and the soup seems bland when you taste it, throw in a splash of Worcestershire sauce. Add more hot pepper if that's your thing. Play with this and use whatever you have hanging around the vegetable bin.

Easy Sweet Potato, Greens, and Bean Soup

(inspired by Joe Yonan and JuJu Harris)

makes a big potful

1 small bunch collard greens rinsed and dried

1 onion, peeled

2 stalks celery, washed and ends slightly trimmed off

2 carrots, washed and ends slightly trimmed off

1 Tablespoon olive oil, more if pan looks dry

Sprinkle Aleppo or Maras pepper (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)

1 rutabaga, washed and peeled

2 small sweet potatoes, washed and peeled

1 Tablespoon tomato paste

4 cups broth or stock (I use vegetable to keep the soup vegetarian, but can be chicken or beef)

4 cups water

1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed in a colander

1 cup small pasta shape - shells or ditalini work well

salt and pepper

Cut out the thick center rib of the collard greens. Put the leafy areas to the side and dice up the ribs. Then cut the leaves into ribbons or thin strips. Reserve those separately from the diced up ribs.

Put a large soup pot over medium heat on your stove. Dice the onion, celery and carrot. Add a little olive oil to your pot and then the onion, celery, and carrot and the reserved diced collard ribs. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and the Aleppo or hot pepper. Mix from time to time and cook until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 8 or 10 minutes.

Dice the rutabaga and sweet potato as the other vegetables saute. Add them to the pot, give it a good stir, and let that cook for another five minutes or so.

Add in the tomato paste and another pinch of salt and grind of pepper. Let that cook while mixing for 2 or 3 minutes.

Add in the water and broth or stock, the ribboned collard leaves, another pinch of salt and grind of pepper, and bring to a boil.

Once the soup boils, lower heat to medium low and let it simmer (still bubbling, just not too hard) for about 10 minutes.

Throw in the beans and the pasta, mix gently, and cook for another ten minutes.

Test a piece of the pasta to see if it's done. You want it al dente -- just a little bite to it, not crunchy and not mushy. Check for salt and pepper.

Serve topped with a little grated parmesan cheese if you like.


Flawed Thinking in "The Joy of Cooking?" Study

While I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, this study, called The Joy of Cooking?, came out and caused a little stir in the home cooking world. In it, three sociologists argue that encouraging home cooking should not be a part of fixing our food system.

As you know, I am all about home cooking, so this got my attention.  I've read the study and many responses to it now, and I am not persuaded at all. While they raise some legitimate concerns about poverty, none of their arguments change my feeling that more home cooking is a worthwhile goal.  

My main problem with the study is the straw man they set up. They argue that people are frustrated by feeling the need to cook some "ideal foodie" three hour extravaganza and give examples of families attempting that.  They suggest that because Michael Pollan can seem a little elitist, that all proponents of home cooking (and presumably this would include Michelle Obama's Let's Move which has identified home cooking as a piece of the fix, and ME!) are pushing "ideal" as the standard.

This is not only ridiculous, but really wrongheaded, perpetuating the myth that unless we create a dinner party worthy masterpiece we’re not really cooking, that unless we have the time to achieve this "foodie ideal" (and they use the words "foodie" and  "ideal" repeatedly) that we might as well throw in the dishtowel. "Ideal"is dangerous thinking and should not be a standard in the food world any more than it should be in the body image arena.  As Megan McArdle says in her response to the study, "don't make the perfect the enemy of the adequate." 

Using reasonable shortcuts and some packaged items that are thoughtfully chosen we can make home cooking possible for many of us, even on those busy weekdays. We need to approach cooking from a place without guilt or judgment.  We are all doing the best we can with what we have - time, money, space, interest - and should feel good about whatever steps we can take to make our food just a little bit healthier.  This is not an all or nothing venture. 

The home cooking movement is just one strand of many needed to repair our food system and turn back the obesity epidemic and its resulting health ramifications. The authors describe some families living in severe poverty and their particular challenges to home cooking. There is no dispute that there is much work to be done to help such families with food access and poverty relief in general, as well as continued and increased access to healthier foods and teaching about them in schools. But, as government and community groups attempt to assuage these problems (and we should all be activists fighting for changes that help all families eat more healthfully) we should not discount the value of home cooking in the mix, when it is at all possible. 

Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. 


Granola for Breakfast

One of my favorite breakfasts is a bowl of plain yogurt with a small drizzle of honey, topped with fresh berries and a little granola

I particularly love this in summer when I don't have the same physical need of the warmth of a hot bowl of oatmeal that I do on a winter morning, and when I can enjoy the sweet local blueberries.  I will be sad when blueberry season ends. My local farm stands include farms from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania so I've been able to stretch my blueberry season by moving north as the summer progresses.

One of my best finds this year has been Icelandic yogurt which my daughter introduced me to.  I think it might be even thicker and richer than the Greek yogurt I love, and is also nonfat.  It's full of protein and tastes just a little less tangy than Greek. As I discovered in my sugar experiment a while back, nonfat yogurt is one of the few food items where the stated serving size is actually larger than what I'd eyeball for myself!

Granola can be full of fat and calories, so I both make my own and use only about a 1/4 cup serving. I like the crunch and the nuts with only a little sweetness.  Sometimes I sprinkle on a little bit of hemp hearts as well. I base my recipe off of one from a Brooklyn shop that has made the rounds and has even been adapted by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.  I've adapted it slightly differently, reducing the sugar and adding some spices like Clark does, but changing out the nuts a little.

The recipe is pretty straightforward, requires only one big bowl, a large spoon and a baking pan.  I like to use a half sheet pan with a lip, rather than a flat cookie sheet, so that oats do not spill out into the oven when I mix it.  I also like to line the pan with either tin foil (lightly sprayed with cooking spray) or parchment paper.  This saves on cleanup!

I don't add dried fruit to this mix as the pieces tend to get hard.  In winter, when I don't have fresh berries, I sometimes add dried blueberries to my yogurt along with this granola.

Maple and Olive Oil Granola

adapted from Nekisia Davis (and Melissa Clark)

(makes about 7 cups - I usually fill three quart sized jars or plastic containers with tight fitting lids)

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup raw pepitas, hulled
  • 1 cup raw sunflower seeds, hulled
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (these are large curls of coconut, not grated or shredded!)
  • 1 1/4 cup raw walnut pieces (rather than pay for the fancy halves, I use the already broken up baking bits)
    1/2 cup raw pecan pieces (rather than pay for the fancy halves, I use the already broken up baking bits)
  • 3/4 cup pure maple syrup (you can use a cheaper grade here but no Aunt Jemima!)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
    1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  1. Heat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until well combined. Spread mixture in an even layer on a lined (and sprayed) baking sheet with a rim. Bake about 45 minutes, mixing every 15 minutes.  You want to make sure the liquid ingredients dry up and coat the solid ingredients.  At the end of the 45 minutes, if you like large clumps of granola, let the granola sit undisturbed for about half an hour, then break apart.  If you like it without clumps, then stir the granola once again as you take the pan out of the oven. Either way, let cool and then put into airtight containers and use within about a month.

To be Organic or Not To Be Organic...

The Washington Post recently reported on Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center consideration of whether organic foods are worth the extra money.

For fruits and vegetables, they concluded that the priority to use organic is "high" to avoid pesticide residue.  They labeled beef and dairy "medium to high" priority for nutritional benefits (limited antibiotic use, more heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids especially with grass fed animals).  They also labeled poultry "medium to high" priority to avoid the antibiotics in regular chickens as well because organic chickens can not be fed what is called "poultry litter" which is a mix of chicken droppings, spilled feed and feathers.


Food for thought.

Irish Soda Bread

Maybe it was Maddy talking about making Irish scones with some friends who'd all spent some time in Dublin or maybe it was the bottle of farm fresh buttermilk that called out to me from the refrigerator shelf at the market or maybe it was the bag of locally ground wheat flour I recently purchased. I don't know.  But Irish soda bread has been on my mind for days, and today was finally the day.  Not too hot out, stuck in the house while the tree service chips the fallen limbs from my lovely maple, half gone now.

This is a pretty straightforward recipe adapted from Merrill Stubbs at food52. I've written about her recipe before, and linked to it directly, but over the last couple of years, I've made more changes so I thought I'd write about it again and add in my changes.

Serve it with a thin skimming of butter and a little smoked salmon, some lovely jam or a little fresh ricotta cheese.  It also complements cheddar beautifully.

Sometimes I make two smaller balls because I like the crusty outer shell.  If you'd like to do that, reduce the cooking time to 20 - 25 minutes or so, but check it after 20.

Someday I will play with the recipe a little more and try making it into scones.  Or maybe Maddy will!

Irish Soda Bread

(adapted a little from Merrill Stubbs at food52)

makes one 7 inch loaf

2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (you'll also need a little more for kneading and for the baking pan)
1/2 cup old fashioned or rolled oats
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 Tablespoons cold, unsalted butter (leave it in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk

Heat oven to 425 degrees and make sure that you use the middle rack of the oven and have room above for the bread to grow a little.

Sprinkle a little flour on the baking sheet.

Whisk the dry ingredients (flour, oats, wheat germ, baking soda, brown sugar, salt) together in a large bowl. Cut the butter into small chunks and add it to the dough.  Use your hands to mix it well into the dry ingredients, pressing the butter chunks into the flour mix until the dough looks like a coarse meal.

Make a well in the middle of the flour and add in the buttermilk and incorporate it a little at a time.  You should have a slightly wet ball of dough.

Lightly flour a surface and your hands and gently knead the ball of dough for a minute or two, incorporating a little more flour if it remains too wet. Shape into a ball and then gently flatten the top so that the diameter is about 7 inches.

Sprinkle the top of the dough with a little flour and with a sharp knife cut in about a half inch in an X shape in the center of the dough.

Bake about 30 minutes.  Check that it is nicely browned and that the area within the "X" is solid and not shaky or liquify. You can also tap the bottom of the bread to listen for a hollow sound.

Cool well on a rack before slicing.

Eating Well

Over the years, I've come up with some "healthier" truths that I use for my own eating and for cooking for my family and that inform my recipes here on the blog. As is obvious on the "pages" here, I'm not into extremes or completely omitting entire food groups, but I try to cover many bases of health while maintaining flavor and enjoyment. I favor a mixed/balanced approach, loosely based on the NIH created DASH diet and a love of Mediterranean cooking of all sorts, along with a little portion control and some exercise.

Many have provided rules for healthier eating that I like and adopt:

Of course, Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Marion Nestle (Nutritionist and Professor at NYU): "My guess: If you balance food intake with physical activity and are not overeating, the specific proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein won’t matter nearly as much."


"While the arguments about fat v. sugar go on and on:  Eat your veggies, vary the foods you eat, don’t gorge, and enjoy what you eat."

David Katz (Yale University Prevention Research Center): "A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominately plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention."

Now, Eating Well magazine has just come out with a list of 10 ways to cook healthier.  I'm linking it here, but please be warned that although I like the magazine itself, its online presence is quite annoyingly littered with pop ups and ads and forces you to see their list in slide show format rather than as one article, which I can not stand and seems to be the norm for these magazine lists.

But this list is pretty similar to what I've been saying here for years, though other than in my "Why I'm Here" piece, haven't set out so concretely and perhaps should have.  So here, with my usual caveat that I am not a doctor or nutritionist and don't even play one on tv, is my list of top things to do for eating healthier:

1.  Cook at home more than you eat out and balance them out against each other.  If you eat out most of your lunches, try to cook your dinners.  If you eat out several dinners a week, try to bring a healthier lunch and be conscious of what you're eating while out. The salt, sugar and fat in most restaurant meals is excessive and will add up quickly.

2.  Eat more vegetables and fruits.  Fill your plate with your vegetables and salad before you add your protein and grains.  Make two vegetables with dinner sometimes, instead of automatically making a starch. Vary the type and color of the vegetables you eat, and to the extent possible, try to eat them as seasonally and fresh as possible. If you buy fresh vegetables while they're locally in season, you don't need to add much to them to make them taste great. In winter, use frozen, which are usually frozen at the peak of freshness. Roasting and grilling can make lackluster vegetables taste great. Make a vegetable heavy dish, and serve it alongside a salad.

3.  Be mindful and enjoy what you're eating.  Enjoy a slice of artisan bread, a square of dark chocolate, a spear of just picked asparagus, a wedge of fabulous cheese, a slice of pizza, a glass of wine.  Choose some foods that make you happy and actually slow down and enjoy them.  You'll eat less that way, and enjoy them more. Yoni Freedhof, a weight management physician from Ottawa, and author of The Diet Fix, Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work suggests that rather than forbidding yourself any particular foods, that you be "thoughtfully reductive," asking yourself "is it worth the calories" and "What's the smallest amount that I need to be happy?" Consider keeping a food diary to help you be mindful of what you're eating.

4.  Be conscious of the added sodium and sugars in any processed foods you buy, and choose brands that have less.  Pinches of salt added to your own home cooking will rarely approach what is in packaged. Crackers and tomato sauces rarely need much added sugar.

5.  For day to day, use lower fat dairy and use the full fat items for where it will really matter to you (and then enjoy them mindfully).  Fat free Greek yogurt is creamy and delicious and higher in protein than regular yogurt. I like to cook with olive oil almost exclusively and use butter, buttermilk, full fat yogurt or labne, and creme fraiche in small doses where they will really add to flavor, texture and mouthfeel (aka enjoyment) of a dish.  I know there have been many studies on this that seem to dispute the idea of limiting fats, blaming all our societal problems on sugar, but the experts I respect indicate that moderation in both areas is useful. I fear that, longterm, limiting only sugars will turn out to be as harmful to us as limiting only fats proved to be.

6.  Choose whole grains over refined most of the time and be conscious of portions and glycemic load.  Other than occasional pasta nights with a traditional Italian sauce that really wants to be married to a semolina pasta, I like to use whole wheat or farro pasta.  Brown rice is easy to get used to and other whole grains such as farro, barley and bulgur are delicious. Quinoa, which is not even a grain but a seed and is filled with protein, is also good.

7.  Go for flavor.  Use spices, herbs, citrus juice and zest and seasonings (thought be cautious if they are high in sodium) to ramp up the flavor of foods without resorting only to salt.  If you like, use a little salt in your cooking unless you've been told not to by a medical professional or already have a medical issue requiring you to curtail salt (see above). Most of my recipes here use this approach. If you're used to lots of salt, start by cutting back a little at a time and you won't notice the difference so much.

8.  Buy the best quality ingredients you are able to and use your head to decide when it's worth it. I'm not saying to shop only at a gourmet shop (in fact, I rarely do), but buying grass fed, local, sustainable, pesticide free can cost more than most supermarket items.  Certainly, buying packaged items without added salt and sugar takes you into the higher price category.  However, if you're able to, pay your farmer and grocer now and, hopefully, avoid some medical problems later. While it's possible to follow these guidelines on a budget, it does require a little more planning and effort, but is still possible (and I'm happy to help you do so!).

9.  Be conscious of your portions of pretty much everything but vegetables and some fruits.  This is a hard one for me.  Not everyone has to limit their portions. Apparently, some people's bodies are programmed correctly and stop them eating at the right point.  For the rest of us, understand and be mindful of how much is actually enough.  Enough to be full, enough to be satisfied, enough to be happy.

 10.  Feel free to disregard my truths in favor of what you know works for you.

Thanks, food52!

Nothing like a James Ransom photo to make your food look amazing!

Just saw yesterday that food52 selected one of my recipes, for a Community Pick, the best part of which is that the recipe now sports a fabulous photo taken by Ransom - much better than anything I could hope to take. Very excited and thrilled for the nod!

It's still a little early for local corn in most places, but keep this group of Community Picks in your pocket for when it starts making its appearance.  My recipe is right up top, Sauteed Corn, Green Onions and Shitake Mushrooms. If you click either on the name of the recipe or the picture, you can click right through to the recipe on food52. Or, you can go directly to the recipe from here.

And while you're there, check out the other great corn recipes, including the two that are finalists this week!

Memorial Day Weekend Cooking Ideas

I guess it's pretty lazy and cheesy to repost my Memorial Day Weekend roundup from 2011, but really, all the recipes I wanted to put in this are already there!

So accept my apologies for the quick and easy approach and check out some ideas here.

Have a great weekend and take a moment out of the festivities to remember our fallen.

Healthier Veg

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its annual list of vegetables and fruits with the most and least pesticide residue. The list is based on pesticide residue testing data from the USDA and FDA. These federal agencies produce the data, but don't collate it for the consumer, so the EWG provides this service for us.

Organic produce can be expensive, so it's helpful to know which items are more likely to have high levels of pesticides.  That way, we can pick and choose which ones, if any, we prefer to buy organic.  In many cases, produce sold at farm stands, grown on small farms, is grown using organic principles and little or no pesticides even if not certified as organic.  It's worth asking.

As in the past, strawberries and apples are at the top of the list of high pesticide residue. If concerned about pesticides in your food, simply buy organic for those items, even if you don't buy everything organic. The EWG refers to the top 12 items as "the dirty dozen" and recommends purchasing those organic if possible.  For the last few years, they've also added two more items to watch out for: leafy greens such as kale and collards and hot peppers. While these don't meet their usual criteria for the dirty dozen, they do show pesticides that are highly toxic to humans.  They recommend that if you eat a lot of these items, to purchase organic.

Check Your Sugar

Here's a brief update to my last blog entry, Sugar, Sugar, now that I've seen the movie Fed Up! and had a chance to process some of my thoughts.

This movie is an important public service because all of us need the smack in the head about sugar. Even those of us, like me, who are hyper conscious of what we're  eating, can learn from this movie. I appreciated the very simplified (almost dumbed down) scientific explanation of our bodies on sugar.  It made the reason to limit sugar much more clear.  The stories of the morbidly obese teens and families featured are compelling and heartbreaking, bringing me to tears more than once. I'm glad Paul saw it with me and I will take both my grown kids to see it when they're in town.

The experts interviewed are highly respected doctors, nutritionists, scientists and journalists. They are people who have been fighting this fight for many years. People like Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dr. David Kessler, a former head of the FDA who wrote The End of Overeating, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, the list goes on.

There is no way one can leave this movie without feeling compelled to change their diet and perhaps, try to change the world. This is a documentary with a very clear agenda and it is very persuasive. I truly believe that the future of the health of a large portion of our population is at risk, so maybe extreme measures are called for, but in this case I think the science and the facts are so strong that they really are persuasive without the extra little film tricks used.

Clips of representatives of the food companies are cut and pasted to make them look ridiculous. In the one instance that I noticed of a live interview with an industry representative, she was back lit unflatteringly in contrast with how the experts on the side of limiting sugar were lit, the Q and A was clearly cut and pasted and her interview sounds like it was done by a drone, not Katie Couric (full disclosure: although I differ greatly from her politically, I know the woman interviewed and respect her intellect, hard work, and her general commitment to doing good for others).

The movie also is pretty harsh on Michelle Obama and the turn Let's Move took a couple of years back towards emphasis on getting kids moving and away from the food they are eating. Politics intervened there and caused her to tone down the push on food companies and their very powerful lobby. Recently, now that the President is in his second term, she has helped get the USDA to issue a new crackdown on marketing to children and pushed the FDA get a proposal for a better food label out of its backlog. These are good things and I wrote about them here. I don't know to what extent knowledge that this movie would come out influence the timing of the Let's Move announcements in March, or if they would have occurred regardless.

There is a greater good that can be achieved by this movie despite it's somewhat heavy hand.  As I wrote yesterday, we should all be more conscious of the sugar hidden in our everyday foods.  We know when we eat desserts that we are eating sugar, but the reminder that sugar, in some cases in great amounts, is found in groceries used for breakfast and dinner is an important one. The sugared coffee drinks and free refill super sized soft drinks (organic or not) at every fast food place are filled with so many teaspoons of sugar that omitting those alone could help a person's health immensely.

In the free market economy that we know and love in our country, corporations with shareholders can not be expected to behave ethically just because it's the right thing to do.  They will offer full sugared sodas in massive containers alongside no sugar added products.  They will replace added sugar with some other chemical or substance that can harm us in ways we don't yet even know.  They are not our buddies, Tony Tiger, Dora the Explorer and Ronald McDonald and all the charitable donations McDonalds makes in his name notwithstanding. They are in business to make money. Marion Nestle, who appears in the movie, while speaking at George Washington University (GWU) a few weeks ago, questioned whether corporations with shareholders can even take social responsibility.

So we have to urge our government, our representatives in Congress to stop bending to the food lobbies and require the companies to do so.  We might not be able to expect the big food companies to watch out for our youth and our health, but we should expect that of our elected officials. We should demand it. Companies should not be allowed to market their unhealthy sugared cereals and snack foods and yogurts directly to children, and most importantly, these items should not be available in our schools.

For many at-risk children (according to Nestle, 10% of US kids are food insecure), the food they eat at school represents the bulk of the food they eat for the day. Our school districts think we're helping them by filling their stomachs with something, but we're filling their stomachs with sugar in any and every form: Orange juice, sodas, sweetened milk drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, white carbs, syrup, sweetened ketchup, the list is endless. This is perhaps the most upsetting part of the movie. For some people, the sugar (and fat) excess will result in obesity.  For others, the ill effects of an unhealthy diet might not show on the outside, but can still be causing the body to be fat on the inside and still lead to diabetes and heart disease.

I recently saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain's CNN show, Parts Unknown, in which he visited a school in  Lyon, France, where a chef made the 350 kids a lunch that I would happily pay to eat in a restaurant.  Pureed pumpkin soup, fish and vegetables and a light fruit dessert for the equivalent of $1.50 per child.  Here, most of our schools have taken out the food production facilities in most schools and use large food company suppliers to deliver ready to heat foods like pizza and cheeseburgers with fries instead.  These should be once in a while foods, that kids are now eating daily. Even where there are healthier options, if pizza and cheeseburgers are also offered, the kids will rarely choose the healthier meal. In Fed Up! one cafeteria worker summed it up when she bemoaned that they had only sold 25 healthier options out of the 300 + that the sold. When they're offered side by side, it is the unusual kid who will take the healthy choice.

In her talk at GWU, Nestle provided a long list of reasons that obesity went up in the '80s.  Some, but not all, are sugar related.  One item that she mentioned is that the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has gone up 30 - 40 % since 1980. This provides a challenge for many people on a limited budget.  Fed Up argues that in addition to being healthier to cook at home, that it's also cheaper.  While I am a zealot for cooking at home more, I'm not sure that I can wholeheartedly agree with this premise.  It is true that it's healthier to cook at home, and it's true that if you want to eat healthier foods, it is cheaper to cook at home, but at this time, fruits and vegetables are still pricey when compared to fast food. This is also an area that we should be encouraging our lawmakers to change. We have subsidies written into our farm bill that provide financial incentives for production of corn and soy and very little assistance to those growing vegetables for human consumption.

I will hope that the other reasons for the epidemic of obesity don't get lost in the publicity about sugar. The fear of fats is partly what got us here in the first place.  We don't want to substitute one problem for another again. And despite the film's criticism of the First Lady and Let's Move's emphasis on exercise, I do think exercise is also big part of staying healthy both individually and as a population.

So, see the movie. Accept that on the spectrum between polemic and documentary it veers slightly south of even treatment, and take away from it some of its passion on the issue. Go home and read labels, quit soda and cook at home more.

In the movie, Michael Pollan says "cook real food." We need to do that and also help others to do so, and most importantly, make sure places like schools and hospitals do so too. Our health is much too important to outsource to big food.

Sugar, Sugar

Trust in a sales relationship is a funny thing. I remember feeling somewhat unsettled when Paul and I bought our first piece of real estate, back in the day before buyer's brokers. Although I knew in my head and had been told many times, that both realtors worked for the seller, it was really hard to comprehend that even the broker we'd hired to show us potential homes still owed her duty to the sellers she might never have met. If there was some horrible flaw in a property that she wasn't legally bound to tell us, she was not going to tell us. If a particular property was out of our budget, she was not going to dissuade us.  And though we had a pretty nice relationship with that first broker, and she brought us a lovely Portmeiron bowl as a closing gift, I had felt a certain tension throughout the process.  She didn't behave like the stereotypical used car salesman. She was pleasant in a motherly sort of way. So though trained as a lawyer and a skeptic by nature, I still found myself pulled in and had to remind myself to be wary.

In much the same way, our eyes should be open in our relationship to food companies. They are trying to sell us something, and will go to great lengths to do so. I've written before about instances in which the companies create formulations (called, in the real world, recipes) loaded with fat, sugar and salt, designed to hook us to purchase and eat too much. They also market unhealthy foods to children, sometimes inflate or invent health claims on labels, hire very powerful lobbyists to push their agendas with Congress and Federal agencies, and, generally, subtly and not-so-subtly persuade us to buy foods that taste good, but are not good for us.

Unlike with cigarettes, we do need food to live and can't just quit it.  So we have to understand the messages we and our children are hearing and what the companies are doing to keep existing customers, attract new customers and get all of us to buy more.  We need to wise up and see that these companies are not on our side, are not in the business of protecting us and get out those reading glasses and read labels for ourselves. This includes foods found at stores considered healthy such as Whole Foods, which despite its pledges to stick to certain types of healthier foods, still carries many that are loaded with added sugar and salt.

Most packaged foods have added salt and sugars even where it seems unlikely, such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, crackers and breads.  Some of this is a result of the low fat movement in the '80's.  Fat out, other additives in.  Reading the labels is crucial, and if the newly proposed nutrition facts label is approved by the FDA, sugars will be much more clearly identified in the future, with added sugars noted separately from naturally occurring sugars.

Sugar is the subject of the new movie Fed Up, a project spearheaded by Katie Couric and Laurie David. Once I've seen it today or tomorrow, I'll have a better idea of the exact position they take, but in a general sense, it appears to be a call to arms that the obesity epidemic is fueled by food producers and added sugar. In my mind, there are several reasons for the obesity epidemic and I'm not sure sugar is the only one, but it is a big one.  I'm curious to see how much they deal with in the movie.

In the meantime, I decided to do a little test.  Generally, labels identify sugars in grams.  I can't imagine that there are many of us who can visualize grams, so the bottom line is that 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. When reading nutrition facts labels on our packaged food products, it's important to remember that the sugar category includes the sugar that occurs naturally in certain foods, like milk and yogurt (lactose) as well as added sugars in the form of sugar, honey, syrup, agave, corn syrup, etc.

For my scientific example, I thought I'd use something I eat almost every day. My tub of plain (no added sweeteners) Greek yogurt has 9 grams of sugar in a one cup (8 ounce) serving.  That's the naturally occurring lactose. I measured out what seems to be a pretty hearty serving today and it was less than 3/4 cup (here is the one food whose packaging overestimates serving size!) so I'll round up to the 3/4 cup which is the equivalent of 6 ounces.

My 6 ounce serving contains 6.75 grams (3/4 of the 9 that a whole cup contains) of naturally occurring lactose or sugar.  I add about 1 teaspoon of honey to that.  That's about 5.5 more grams of sugars. Together, my breakfast yogurt has about 12.5 grams of sugar.  That's pretty close to the amount of sugar in the brands of individual cups of yogurt that I've been buying lately - I've been sticking to under 15 or 16 grams.

But I then checked labels on all the available brands of all the individual containers at my local organic market and found that the amount of sugar in the individual containers ranged from that 15 grams,  to as much as 29 grams for a 5.3 or 6 ounce container, with most falling in the mid twenties.

29 grams of sugar is over 7 teaspoons of sugar.  It's almost three tablespoons of sugar! Even if we subtract the yogurt's natural lactose, there are still 22.25 grams of sugar or a little over 5.5 teaspoons.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that one yogurt contains almost the entire daily recommended max of added sugars for a woman (6.5 teaspoons).

Most fast food places have nutritional info online. If there's an item you order often, you can take a look online and see what it contains.  For example, I checked and one of my favorite sweet treats, a Starbucks tall nonfat chai tea latte has 32 grams of sugar.  Given that a cup of skim milk contains 12 grams, that's about 20 grams, or 5 teaspoons, of added sugar.  I'm now back to a nonfat decaf latte for my occasional Starbucks stop. But if I do choose to have that chai latte, at least I know what's in it.

These companies are doing their job, mostly within the law, just like my realtor did hers. In response, we have to be more savvy and lobby the government to protect us better. These companies are not our friends, even though their commercials pull us in with their appealing marketing and even if we've used this product since childhood (hey ketchup, I'm talking to you!).  Coke might make those of us who grew up in the '70s think of holding hands and singing about peace and brotherhood on a mountaintop, but Coca-Cola is one of the major causes of the obesity epidemic we are currently facing in this country.

We should demand better for ourselves from the companies and from Congress and the Federal agencies charged with our food systems.  "Vote with your fork" if you can and help others who can't. Our food choices and our food systems are political and it's time we all recognize that.

Read the labels everyone, and cook at home!

Chinese Food at Home

I realize these green bits look a lot like avocado slices in the photo, but they are cucumber!  This is Kylie Kwong's Chicken with Cashews, a recipe that I have loved for years and forgot about until the other night. I've been trying lately, to be extra conscious of not wasting food.  This sometimes requires a last minute change of plans in order to avoid throwing out an about to go off cucumber or some rapidly desiccating scallions.  

I had thawed a small package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs with thoughts of crispy chicken dancing in my head and then the weather suddenly got unseasonably warm that day (and for only that day!) and I found said vegetables in need of saving.  

The Washington Post featured this recipe when Kwong's cookbook, Simple Chinese Cooking, came out in 2007. It's a great book, filled with recipes that, once you have a few basic staples of Asian cooking, are quite accessible. This one, in particular, is on the lighter side and tastes like you've ordered it in from the best new Chinese restaurant in town.  It is up there with monkeymom's Ma Po Tofu on food52! And, as the book title asserts, it is pretty simple. Have everything cut up and ready in advance for this one.  

I like to serve this with a little brown rice and another vegetable.  Steamed or roasted asparagus, broccoli or baby bok choi are all great.  With a vegetable side, this should serve well more than the 4 it recommends.  

Musings on Passover 2014

I found myself in tears the other day, in the crowded kosher supermarket, over a jar of cherry preserves.  Growing up, we bought a jar of Polaner's red cherry preserves (the other brands never tasted the same) every Passover.  What was left in the bottom of the jar at the end of the week usually remained uneaten, only to crystallize into unpleasant white icicles within a few weeks after the end of Passover.

This jar of sugary sweet mess was a favorite taste I shared with my mother and sister for many years as a Passover breakfast.  There is no explaining why that particular brand and flavor, not available, nor even desired, at other times of the year, was so incredibly delicious with cream cheese on matzo.

I bought those cherry preserves.  Though the past few years have found us experimenting with new traditions at Passover, this is one tradition that I won't change.   Not a creamy food lover, I'll spread my matzo like always, with a translucently thin film of Temp Tee cream cheese, then top it with the preserves.  For better or worse, I'll be back at the round white, vinyl tablecloth covered for Passover, kitchen table of my youth. Kodachrome.