Winning Chili

Awhile back I won a contest at Whole Foods for this chili.  Some of you have asked that I provide the recipe so here is the link to the recipe on the Whole Foods Market site.  I guess there's still enough chill in the air for one more chili dinner before it heats up around here!

Many thanks to all who voted!

Marion Nestle Says...

In her latest blog post, Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and of Sociology at New York University comments on some recent studies about saturated fat and heart disease. Her opinion is that these new studies really don't show anything new or change her thoughts on the issue.  

She says "Focusing on one or another nutrient—fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sugar—takes foods out of their caloric as well as dietary context."

"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."

So glad to hear an expert with this opinion!  

What a Week and Yes, a Recipe Too - White Beans and Greens!

The week before last was a banner one for healthier food policy. The week started off with First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing tighter new federal standards for marketing food to children.  On Thursday, she revealed proposed revisions to the "Nutrition Facts" label on packages of commercial products, which made it to this point in the review process in record time.  The changes are now open to comment for 90 days at the FDA. I think it will be very challenging for the food companies to object too strenuously to these changes, as the First Lady has achieved so much good will with these companies as well as with the press and the public with her health efforts. On Friday, Sam Kass capped the week off by announcing some healthier changes to WIC, the Department of Agriculture's supplemental nutrition program for "women, infants and children." These changes include an increase in benefits for fruits and vegetables and the allowance of yogurt and more whole grains.

What hard work and political finesse led up to last week's announcements! I suspect this was strategically planned to occur in the President's second term, but with enough time remaining to see these changes through.  A lesson that patience and timing (on top of a whole lot of hard work and forging connections) can be everything.

The proposal for the new Nutrition Facts label seems like a great boon for the savvy consumer.  I like that the calorie count will be in a larger font so I don't have to break out the reading glasses to see it.  I really like that information will be based on more realistic serving sizes, and not on arbitrarily created puny ones designed to trick us into underestimating how many calories we consume. Anyone who's read a label has seen instances where, for example,  a bag of chips that appears to be the amount one person would eat alongside a deli sandwich, reads 2 or even 2.5 "servings per container."  Seriously, I only know one person who could open that bag and eat only half the chips.

Another great new revision proposed will be the identification of added sugars.  We've had sugars on the label for years but added sugars would distinguish between the sugar that occurs naturally in the food from the sugar added to sweeten it.  For example, plain yogurt contains sugar, but sweetened yogurt contains that naturally occurring sugar plus however much sweetener a company adds.

I am a big fan of clear, usable information, but I do recognize that the public must still want to use the information.  I was surprised to read studies done recently that even where more markets were added to known food deserts, that people didn't change their eating habits, or that when calorie counts were added to the menus in chain restaurants, that people didn't change their orders.  My habits change when I read nutrition facts and calorie counts. For example, that really delicious quinoa and spelt scone at a European bakery chain - anyone else do a double take on that one? I even had a twitter conversation with someone I follow when she tweeted a photo of the menu with the shockingly high calorie count shown, but didn't identify the restaurant. I recognized it immediately because I'd had the same experience a few weeks earlier. Information is power, people!

So this recipe happened a couple of times lately, here in the healthier kitchen.  I came across this recipe in last month's Bon Appetit magazine, and even shared the link to it on Facebook because I was so excited about it. The dish has the flavor of the overnight cooked white beans one gets in Tuscany, but done in a more reasonable time frame and with the punch of healthy greens.  Yes, using dried beans makes everything take longer, but as long as you plan ahead and soak the beans the night before, this is a perfect weekend dish to make and enjoy all week. In fact, if you soak the beans tomorrow night, you can make this for the absurd cold snap forecast for Thursday.  I've streamlined the recipe a little so here is my adaptation.

Just make sure to soak the beans the night before!!

This makes a large amount of beans.  If you don't love them as much as I, try making a half batch.  If you do go for the full recipe, you can serve it the first time as a main dish or side dish to some other protein, and make a soup with the remainder.  To make the soup, add stock, either chicken or vegetable to the beans and greens to thin it out and throw in some already cooked tiny pasta shape.  Serve with the same drizzle of olive oil and shaving of Parmesan as usual.

White Beans and Greens

(adapted from Bon Appetit)

Serves 6 - 8

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 anchovy fillets, drained
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
scant 1/4 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
a few turns of freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes (if you don't have Aleppo, use 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes), more if you like heat
1 sprig rosemary
1 pound dried cannellini or gigante beans
1 pound kale, chard, spinach or mustard greens (or a mix!), cleaned and ribs and stems removed and coarsely chopped
4 cups arugula or watercress
juice of 1/2 lemon, more if it's particularly small or dry
Parmesan cheese to grate on top

1.  Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add in the anchovies and stir until they just start to dissolve.  Add the garlic and stir into the anchovies until they dissolve completely.

2.  Add onions into the pan, along with the salt and pepper.  Let cook until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the Aleppo pepper and stir again. Let cook another 2 or 3 minutes.

3.  Add the rosemary, beans, and 8 cups of water.  Raise heat on burner to let this come to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  This will cook for about 2 or 3 hours until the beans get soft and creamy.  You might need to add another cup or two of water if the pan contents start to look a little dry.

4.  With the back of a large spoon or with a potato masher, crush about 1/4 of the beans and mix well.  Add the greens and mix in and let cook until all the greens are wilted and incorporated.

4.  Add the lemon juice and stir.  If it's really thick and dry, add a splash more water.

5.  Top individual servings with a grating of Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good quality olive oil.  Serve with slices of a baguette or country Italian bread.

"Why Nutrition Is So Confusing"

Yesterday's New York Times included an opinion piece by Gary Taubes, a science writer who's written extensively on food and health, titled Why Nutrition Is So Confusing. He provides scary statistics about the increase of obesity and diabetes and asserts that the nutrition research community has failed to establish what actually causes them. At least he's doing something about that by helping found an initiative to provide for more research on this issue.  And, don't get me wrong, more research is a good thing.

But while I agree that figuring out how to eat right is surprisingly confusing (See f.n. 1- haha maybe you've never seen a footnote in a food blog before) and deserves much more well funded and thorough research, I'm not sure it matters whether it's sugar and white flour that's causing our ills or if it's saturated fat. Taubes is very focused on finding out which it is we Americans are eating too much of.

My guess as a non-expert, but intelligent and self-aware person who primarily cooks and eats at home, exercises, eats the right foods most of the time, limits saturated fats, white carbs and sodium and still grapples with weight, is that we are eating too much of everything.

For me, a person privileged enough to be able to buy whatever healthy food I desire, to still be grappling with maintaining a healthy weight means that I have to watch the amount of everything I eat, not just the bad stuff.  Though I definitely think that eating a selection of healthy foods, mostly cooked at home, is the way to go, even too much whole wheat pasta will pack on the pounds.  Other than, perhaps, kale, this is true for most foods (see f.n. 2 - and here, my friends, is your second footnote in a food blog!). I'm guessing this is true for some of you as well.

So then it is particularly galling to have this already really, really hard thing made even harder by restaurant chains where a single plate is delivered to the table towering with enough food for two and at fast food chains where the menus are replete with choices containing a day's worth of fat and calories and a week's worth of sugar and sodium.  I choose to avoid those places and cook at home more often with as few packaged items as possible. When I eat out, I choose places that share my food choices.

But I pay a premium for this.  Fresh vegetables, fish, and grass fed beef and milk, and healthier style restaurants are expensive and unhealthy packaged foods are not. When one shops with a limited budget, it can be challenging to pass up quantity, albeit unhealthy quantity.  When one is at the poverty line, the choice becomes even more Hobson-like. Many items in the grocery store are, much like the dishes at many chain restaurants, full of more fat, calories, sugar and sodium than we should eat in a day let alone in a single serving.

This is not just a matter of personal failings by all these people battling obesity and disease. We are being sabotaged in our efforts by restaurant and food corporations who try to deflect attention from what they're really doing by making donations to schools to renovate playgrounds or gymnasiums.  These corporations need to be forced to really partner in this fight, not just with their token donations, but by cutting out the extra sugar, fat, sodium and additives they add to junk food (and regular food for that matter) to make it so appealing to the kids who attend those schools. And by not targeting their advertising of that junk food directly to those same kids.  And by not insulting and endangering the families of those kids when they have a meal out at one of their establishments.

Willpower can only go so far, people, in the face of food-like substances that have been expressly designed by scientists to get us to eat more (f.n. 3 - yes, one more!) and are only going to make us sick if we do so. Let's demand better for ourselves and our communities.

f.n. 1  Five or six years ago I began reading all I could on food and health and concluded that it just wasn't clear, at least as far as avoidance of heart disease and diabetes, who to listen to.  Most experts advise the avoidance of saturated fats.  Others, including Taubes, believe that the culprits are sugars and processed white grains.  Most agree that we should eat less salt, but there's even some controversy on that.  Throw in the wild card diets gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo, and vegan and it's like the Tower of Babel out there. There's even some research indicating that the right way to eat might vary from person to person based upon stomach bacteria.

f.n. 2 This is just a mild exaggeration.  I am, of course, including other vegetables in the category of what we can eat in an unlimited way, but even here the discussion is complicated.  Some would argue that starchy vegetables should be limited as well as potatoes.

f.n. 3  Please see The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD.  It is quite shocking what games some corporations are playing with our tastebuds…and our health.

Food News

In the news today, the Senate joined the House in passing the Farm Bill and, as expected, cut $8 billion from SNAP benefits (what used to be called food stamps). This will affect about 850,000 poor families, many with small children, who will lose about $90 per month in benefits. It now awaits President Obama's signature which is expected to happen on Monday.  At least the SNAP cuts are less than what some House Republicans originally sought.

Also, in the spirit of positive thinking, there's this spin on the cold weather we've had this winter.

I'd also like to share this terrific find that I think will not only be a staple in my house but will help me lighten up some favorite recipes.  Labne.  I've made my own and written about it before, but I bought some at a Middle Eastern market recently and not only was it even more delicious than what I made, I had the packaging with the nutritional breakdown.

This could be just the thing when cream and full fat yogurt are called for in, say, an Indian recipe such as Tikka Masala or Makhini.  It is as rich and full bodied as creme fraiche with a fraction of the fat and calories.  And, it is much richer and thicker than yogurt.  I will be doing some serious experimenting with this theory!

Feb 8 update:  Signed, sealed, delivered…yesterday at MSU, President Obama signed the Farm Bill.

Winter Musings - It's Time to Move On

We are snow covered once again here in DC and encased in another veil of frigid polar air.  I am not a fan of severe cold, really who is, but I am probably less tolerant than most.  I want to hole up in a cocoon of blankets and fleece and drink cup after cup of tea.  Going any further afield than my front walk and driveway that need some occasional attention with a shovel, requires substantial effort on my part.

The upside to the cold and snow is that my burrowing yesterday left me with time to take care of what we used to call paperwork (which now is primarily computer work), reservations that needed to be made, forms that needed to be filled out and calls that needed to be made.  And, I had plenty of time left to let my thoughts meander a little.  I spent some time on my current project which is to figure out a new career path for myself.  Then, I found myself in the Galilee with Maddy, where she is currently volunteering at an organic and sustainable goat farm known for its cheeses as well as a quirky and lovely rustic restaurant.

Not to sound overly sappy, but it is immensely fulfilling to see my kids growing into the adults they want to be, maybe even were meant to be, the kernels of which have actually been apparent for years.  To see the boy who adored blocks pursuing architecture or the little girl who wrote her own story of Gwenhwyfar choosing to study English in the UK is so utterly perfect and fascinating and so essentially "them".  Where this will take them is an exciting unknown, but that is what they love.  They are becoming these people who, while influenced by Paul and me and our tastes and interests, are going their own ways and following their own paths and interests, maybe riffing a little off of what we've shared.

The hardest job we have as parents, I am coming to see, is not the diaper changes or plugging the outlets or making sure they are neither bullied nor bully or making sure they are happy.  At least for me, it is letting go of them and allowing them to make some really sucky choices amidst their sound, and sometimes even genius, choices and letting them flounder or fail and learn from the experience.  And trying to trust that I've been at least partially successful in helping them acquire the skills necessary for adulthood more often than freaking out that I haven't been.  Many phases of parenting have seemed overwhelming at the time, both physically and emotionally, but this phase is asking of me something well outside my comfort zone of control and planning. Thankfully, most of the physical work is now behind us, but the temperance and restraint which is now required is as unnatural and challenging to me as going out in the frigid cold.

Amidst this phase of letting go of them and watching them evolve and find their way, I am also trying to figure out my own next step, this time, for real, moving back out into the working world in some way.  This new path, I hope, will take me deeper into some manner of helping others have access to, cook and eat healthy foods.  So, when I realize that both kids have an interest in healthy food and cooking, I'm hopeful that maybe I can reproduce this petri dish outside my home.

I love that they are each connected to food in ways unique and appropriate for them.  I'm astonished that Maddy was drawn to experiment with the earth in the context of organic goat cheeses, and that Ted built a barbecue on his patio and experimented with cooking everything from meats and vegetables to pizza on it.  Before she left, Maddy was both exploring blogs and creating her own vegetarian and vegan recipes of all sorts.  Ted spent a semester in Italy with almost as much focus on the local food and wine available as on the art and architecture.

They do not only follow my lead with their food choices but stretch beyond, experimenting with their own tastes and taking me along with them to places I might not have explored otherwise.  They might not realize quite how much pleasure I take in this.  Indeed, I'm not even sure how either would respond to this knowledge as I don't think either is exploring food to forge a connection to me or to seek my approval, nor should they. So there I am on Maddy's Israeli hillside, away from this cold, seated on Turkish carpets on an outdoor patio, eating a meal of goat cheese and labne and salads made with vegetables grown on that land.

Habitant Pea Soup

I grew up eating my mother's split pea soup, so thick your spoon really could stand up in the pot, and filled with chunks of carrots. Because we were a kosher home, my mother used a turkey carcass to flavor the soup, instead of a ham bone. Sometimes she also added flanken and beef bones.  I loved that soup. In fact, that was usually what I requested for my first meal home during college vacations.

After making many different pea soups and making my mother's recipe from time to time, I realized that the turkey flavor could be overwhelming, and not quite smokey enough. Paul finally revealed that despite my love for my mother's soup, he just didn't like split pea soup at all. Eventually, I just stopped making it.

For the last few years, though, this kosher bred girl has purchased a local Virginia country ham for an extended family buffet the day after Thanksgiving. Paul really likes ham about once a year.  I freeze the leftovers in separate containers to be used later for another dinner or for a breakfast of ham and eggs. In one big bag, I save the hambone along with the smallest of the scraps to use in a soup on a cold winter day.  This year, I didn't host the buffet, but tried one of Trader Joe's little half uncured hams one day in December once the other meat eater arrived home.  The bone wasn't large, but it was enough to save for soup later on in the winter.

That bone didn't have long to wait.  This week's arctic vortex cold was the perfect impetus for pea soup. Plus, veggie girl is off gallivanting about in Israel right now, so I didn't have to come up with a side by side vegetarian version.  I made a riff on Quebec style Habitant Pea Soup which calls for yellow split peas and is a little thinner in consistency than the one I grew up with. Who knows if it's the ham over the turkey or the change in peas, but if Paul likes it too, it's all good.

On another subject entirely, after a wait of an extra couple of weeks due to a technical glitch over the holidays, I finally found out last week that my trout pate won the contest at food52!  Many thanks to all who voted!  I have to admit that although this is relatively small potatoes, I was pretty thrilled and tickled to finally win one of the contests!

Habitant Style Pea Soup

(adapted from Cooking Light magazine)

serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 medium sized carrots, diced
2 cups yellow split peas
4 cups homemade or no or low sodium added stock, can be beef or vegetable
4 cups water
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 leftover ham bone
4 -  6 ounces leftover ham, diced
salt and pepper to taste
creme fraiche for garnish

1.  Heat a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat and then add olive oil.  Add the onion, celery and carrot.  Add a pinch or two of salt and a few grinds of pepper and cook the vegetables until the onion begins to get translucent, about 5 - 10 minutes.

2.  Add the split peas, stock, water, bay leaf, thyme and ham bone to the pot.  Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer.  If there's a lot of foam on top skim a little off from time to time.

3.  Let the soup cook for about 1.5 to 2 hours, until the peas soften.  Turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to puree about 1/3 of the soup.  Stir well.

4.  Add in the diced ham and return soup to a simmer.  After about 10 minutes, taste for salt and, if needed add more and add some pepper.

5.  Add a small dollop of creme fraiche in the middle of each bowl as you serve.

Smoked Trout Pate - it's a Winner!

I'm really thrilled that one of my recipes was selected by food52 to be a finalist in their current contest!  This is my smoked trout pate, which I have shared

on the blog before

, and it's as easy as can be to make and surprisingly delicious to eat.  I often make this for large gatherings for these reasons.  I like to serve it with thinly sliced baguette, but little packaged toasts and mild crackers are good too.

I'd love if you checked out the contest and voted!!  There are lots of great recipes on the site if you've never been before and many great hors d'oeuvres to choose from!

I'm hoping this link below will take you right to the voting page, but do take a moment to explore.

Vegetarian Chili with a Little Something Extra

The other night I made my usual chili (without the corn), but did my little two pot dance wherein I produce an omnivorous dish and its vegetarian counterpart, side by side, on the same stove, at the same time!  I feel like I should add "with two hands tied behind my back,"  but that would not be true.

I browned some ground chicken thigh meat in a skillet and started my chili in a Dutch oven.  Once I had added everything except the meat (and vinegar, which is almost a garnish, added at the very end), I pulled out a smaller pot and ladled about one-third of the chili into it.  I then put the chicken into the mix in the bigger pot and added a little already cooked and frozen quinoa into Maddy's vegetarian version.  The spirit had moved me earlier in Mom's to buy some frozen butternut squash, an item I have never before purchased, and I added that to the pots proportionally, as well.  I let them simmer a little more just to let the chicken incorporate and the butternut squash thaw and warm.  Too long and the squash would just puree.

I feel certain that this sounds much more complicated than it is!  If you too have a mixed family, give it a whirl.

I made this again with ground turkey and decided that the combination of turkey and butternut squash is a perfect fall nod to Thanksgiving.  This is also the recipe that won in the Greater DC Whole Foods Market cooking contest for best chili.  You can link to the full recipe here!

Thanksgiving Post Mortem or What to Keep for Next Time

How is it possible that we have no photos from Thanksgiving?  No photos of food preparation, no photos of finished dishes, no photos of GORGEOUS dry brined and maple glazed turkey, and no photos of happy friends and family spending time together and feasting semi-healthfully.  Might be in part due the theft of Maddy's camera, but still, we all have iPhones!

I planned a vegetable heavy meal, with every dish vegetarian, except for the turkey.  We did not make any weird, faux turkey vegetarian product.  Maddy never liked turkey, anyway, and doesn't miss it.

This was the menu:

Hors D'oeuvres: cheeses, carrot sticks, olives and Marcona almonds, mini sweet potato latkes with both cranberry-apple and Fuji applesauces in a nod to Thanksgivukkah, smoked salmon canapés on cucumber slices with a (very) small dollop of creme fraiche and a little dill.

Seated dinner for 18: I thought the hors d'oeuvres selection was heavy enough that I opted to skip an appetizer course at the table.  That way we saved one plate which reduced dishwashing and meant we could dig right into the main event.  We had turkey, challah stuffing, green beans roasted with fennel and shallot, butternut squash and parsnip puree, cranberry sauce, roasted brussels sprouts, salad (thank you Karen), and store bought rolls.

For dessert, we had Paula's delicious brownies and sugar cookies, fresh fruit salad (thanks Wendy) and a crumb top apple pie from Jennycakes in Kensington.  The piece de resistance, though, was Maddy's vegan pumpkin pie.  Her crust was ground speculoos cookie with coconut oil and was stunning.