Friday, December 24, 2010


Some people like sausage, some like scrapple, those often delicious, often intimidating mixtures of unidentifiable ingredients where you're probably better off not knowing exactly what you're eating.  I love mincemeat, which in England just means (hamburger) but in the US means a sweet melange that is most often found in pies.

When I was a kid I remember mince pie as standard fare (i.e. you could buy it at the store if you didn't feel like baking) although maybe my memory is wrong.  Today it seems to be an exotic relic prepared and eaten only by aficionados.  Of which I am one.

I hadn't baked a mince pie in many years for one reason or another -- too rich, too many desserts on the menu already, people wanted pumpkin, etc.  But as I was taking requests for Thanksgiving dinner my son mentioned mince pie and that seemed like a wonderful idea.  My husband, who loves to poke around in the back of cupboards and remind me of all the goodies I bought ten years ago and haven't served yet, found not one but two little boxes of mincemeat and delivered them with a flourish.  "These are probably so old we can't eat them any more," he announced, in terms that were guaranteed to make me take up the challenge.

So how old were they?  I don't know.  They looked a little beat-up, as might be expected from having been in the back of the cupboard for a decade.  They didn't use the nutritional labeling format we're familiar with now, so several years at the very least.  I know they were less than 18 years old, because the label said copyright 1992.   But I thought mincemeat is probably similar to fruitcake (which I also love) in that its mystery ingredients probably include some industrial-strength preservative.  I forged ahead. 

The Thanksgiving pie was wonderful, and nobody died from old age or botulism, so yesterday I pulled out the second box of mincemeat and made another pie for Christmas.

If you didn't love mincemeat in advance, you would never proceed past the opened box (much like the old story marveling about the first person to eat an oyster).  It reveals a cellophane-wrapped brick of dark brown composite that smells glorious but resists arrest. 

I don't recall the texture of a fresh box of mincemeat, but the texture of my box was dense and a bit sticky.  The package said to "finely crumble" the stuff but I used a fork and plenty of elbow grease to break it into bits, then added water and brought it to a boil.

You could make a pie with just mincemeat (although that would require more than the single package I had left) but I have always added apples to cut the richness just a bit.  This pie required two big apples to fill it snugly.  I didn't bother mixing, just layered the apples and mincemeat.

Now comes the part where I channel my grandmothers -- the official way to trim piecrusts is to heft the pie in your left hand and wield the knife with your right, cutting downward as you twirl the pie around.  Yesterday I opted to seal the crusts by pressing them together with the tines of a fork, but meanwhile I was watching the movie of my grandmother pinching the crust into raised zigzags with her elegant fingertips.  And finally you must cut a flowing tree shape into the top crust so the steam, and a bit of juice, can escape.

I had a tiny sliver of pie last night, which along with the sliver I ate at Thanksgiving constitute the only desserts I have eaten in almost two years.  They were both worth the wait!!

Merry Christmas to everyone -- may your goose be fat, your pudding full of plums and your mincemeat pies delicious, now and in the new year.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My other favorite homemade condiment

My husband loves really hot mustard, hotter than he has ever been able to find in a store. Fortunately it’s easy to make our own – and wow, it’s really hot!

Start by buying “Regular Canadian Mustard Powder (medium)” from Penzey’s.  Or you may be able to get Colman's Mustard powder at your supermarket, which is almost as hot as Penzey's.  For ordinary hot mustard you could reconstitute this with vinegar, wine or water. But that’s not hot enough for Ken, so we reconstitute it with a concoction we call hot vinegar.

Hot vinegar is made not on the stove but by putting hot peppers into a glass jar and covering them with plain white vinegar, then putting them on a dark shelf at room temperature. A couple of weeks (or years) later the vinegar has become infused with lots of pepper heat. After you pour off some for a batch of mustard, add more plain vinegar; you may be able to keep the same peppers producing heat for several batches.

To make the mustard, put powder in a pint mason jar to fill it a little more than halfway. Pour in hot vinegar (hot refers only to the flavor; do this at room temperature) and stir it, adding more vinegar as the powder dissolves to a paste. It’s important to get all the powder incorporated into a uniform slurry and not lurking in dry pockets at the bottom of the jar. Lift the jar and peek at the bottom to make sure there are no dry areas; you can use a chopstick to get into the corners and mix everything.  I think from this photo that I have one of these pockets at the bottom of my jar, and I will go stir it up right now.

Reconstituted mustard will thicken up as it sits in the fridge after mixing, so you want the slurry to be more liquid than the finished mustard. If it gets too thick, stir in a little more vinegar or white wine. I haven’t tried this, but if you’re a fan of sweet mustard you could stir in some honey or brown sugar.

Make sure to store the mustard in glass. It’s better to use a plastic cap than a regular metal Mason jar lid, because the mustard fumes will eventually rust the metal.  And make sure you don't rub your eyes until you've scrubbed all the pepper/mustard off your hands.

This much mustard in one bite (the part on the bread, not on the knife) is about as much as I can take without having steam come out my ears. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sodium in a can -- bean division

Sometimes I think reading the nutrition labels in the grocery -- or worse yet, in your pantry -- is a sure route to depression.  So many foods that seem healthy are full of things you'd rather not eat, and sodium is probably the worst and most ubiquitous.

In fairness, some of that is inherent in the process.  Salt retards the growth of microbes, so adding it to preserved foods is one way to cut spoilage, extend shelf life and maintain quality.  Food scientists call this the "multiple hurdle" strategy -- salt, plus refrigeration, plus chemicals, plus various other techniques or additives each reduce the likelihood of your food going bad.  In addition, salt in the hot liquid required for canning improves the consistency of vegetables.  Unfortunately, food processors tend to use considerably more salt than they strictly need for quality, because they know that salt makes things taste better.

Of course you can always buy the raw ingredients and cook your own, but that certainly removes much of the appeal of having those canned goods on the shelf ready for the last-minute meal.  I have always kept canned beans on my staples list, great for making chili and adding to pasta and soups.  But since I've gotten on my kick of checking sodium content, those beans suddenly look a lot less appetizing.

The good news is that you may be able to find equivalent products with far less sodium.  At the grocery I found that among the canned Great Northern beans, you can buy Bush's Best with 460 mg of sodium or Kroger Private Selection organic with 125 mg.  Among the kidney beans, Kroger has 440 mg, Bush's Best has 260 mg, and Kroger Private Selection organic has 120 mg.

So I'm going to keep buying canned beans, but sorry, Duke, it won't be Bush's Best.  And I'm going to be sure to get rid of the canning liquid.  You can reduce the sodium by 36% if you simply drain the beans, and by an additional 5% if you rinse them for ten seconds in running water.

Meanwhile, we visited our favorite ethnic grocery yesterday and loaded up on Goya dried beans.  (Dried beans, of course, have zero sodium.)  Goya has varieties not found in the ordinary supermarket and the quality is excellent.  I'm particularly enamored of Goya's canellini, which cook up rich and creamy.  The last time I made them, instead of adding a teaspoon of salt, or a tablespoon of Penzey's Galena Street seasoning, as I would normally do when cooking bean soup, I simply added a lot of black pepper and garlic.  At the table we used a pinch of sea salt but a lot less than would have been there in my regular cooking method.  (It may be time to change my regular cooking method!)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comfort food

Every grandparent worth her salt enters into some kind of conspiracy with the kid that leaves the parents out of the loop.  In my case, it was funny that I had the same conspiracy with both my grandmothers.  I don't remember how it started, but probably one grandmother started it, the other heard about it and thought it was a great idea, and the rest was history.

The conspiracy had to do with sauerkraut.

Both my parents were picky eaters and it turned out that both of them loathed sauerkraut.  I know they both had to eat plenty of it in their good German childhoods, but by the time I came along they had put it behind them with a vengeance, announcing that not only did they not like the stuff, it stank up the house.  So when it transpired that I loved sauerkraut, both my grandmothers were thrilled.  Not only did it give them a way to coddle their little darling, it was a way to figuratively smack their own ingrate children in the face.

The conspiracy would begin when a grandmother knew I was about to visit.  Somebody would have gone down in the cellar and brought up a jar of home-canned kraut, then hidden it under a towel in the kitchen.  The instant my parents left the house, the car not even out of the driveway, the kraut was out of the jar and on the stove, stinking up the house.  If life was really smiling on me, there might be mashed potatoes to go with it.

Since then, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes have been my ultimate comfort food.  For 18 years, my office was across the street from an old-style cafeteria, which had been in the basement of a downtown office building since 1920 or thereabouts.  All the ladies who served the food had also been there since 1920, I think, as had the tables, the chairs, the dishes and the little board with the white plastic letters spelling out the daily specials.  Nor had the menu changed since 1920 -- lots of vegetables, old-fashioned meat, three or four kinds of homemade pie, and mashed potatoes every day.

And at least once a week, maybe twice, there was sauerkraut.  Sometimes it came with pork roast, in which case I was in heaven.  Other times it came with sausage, in which case I just ordered the kraut and mashed potatoes.  How many lousy, rotten days at the office were made a whole lot better with that for lunch? 

These days, I've retired from that job and the cafeteria has closed.  When I need comfort food I have to make it myself.  And Dad was right, it sure stinks up the house.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sorry, Mom doesn't approve

As a mom myself, I am always alert to advertisements that take my name in vain.  Such as the flyer we got in the mail last week from McDonald's, announcing that "Mom Would Approve" the breakfast sandwiches pictured, and pushed with coupons on the back of the flyer.

Well, not this mom. 

I don't want my kids or anybody else eating a sausage biscuit with egg, 500 calories, 58% of them from fat, and 1080 mg of sodium (that's more than 2/3 of the daily maximum for healthy diets).  Or a sausage McMuffin with egg, 450 calories, 53% of them from fat, and 930 mg of sodium.  Or a sausage egg and cheese McGriddle, 560 calories, 50% of them from fat, and 1290 mg of sodium.

What surprised me on my calculator-armed visit to the McDonald's nutrition website was that the huge sodium dose from those two breakfasts does not come from the sausage patty, which I would have expected from highly seasoned cured meat.  That has only 310 mg of sodium -- but the biscuit alone has 680!  The egg McMuffin has 850 mg of sodium, while adding sausage adds only 80 mg more.

Suppose you need a sugar jolt in the morning and order a deluxe warm cinnamon roll.  That gives you 590 calories, but only 36% of them come from fat.  Does that make you feel healthy?  It shouldn't, because that roll contains 36 grams of sugar -- almost as much as a 12-ounce can of industrial-strength Coke.  (And how many of those cinnamon roll eaters are washing them down with a large industrial-strength Coke?)

You can hit the junk food trifecta -- fat, sugar and sodium -- by ordering hotcakes and sausage.  Even without your Coke chaser, that will deliver 770 calories, 39% of them from fat, 930 mg of sodium and 45 grams of sugar.

Maybe you'd like a McCafe hot chocolate, featured in the coupons, with your sausage biscuit.  If you order the large, it'll bring 460 calories, 35% of them from fat, and 54 grams of sugar. 

In the name of moms everywhere, I take offense at being used to endorse breakfasts that are tasty, convenient, cheap, and a one-way ticket to a cardiac bypass, if diabetes doesn't get you first.  But it isn't just McDonald's that wants us to do the wrong thing.  Our whole food system socializes us to want fats and sweets for breakfast -- and has even brainwashed us into thinking that's a nutritious way to start the day.

I've been thinking a lot lately about breakfast, and what we really should be eating for good nutrition.  Not sure I have the answer yet, but I know it isn't McGriddles breakfast sandwiches.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vegetables in the news

You can often find the same subject on page one and the op-ed page of the New York Times on the same day, provided it's an important one like war, terrorism, financial crisis or politics.  But you don't often find it when the subject is a vegetable.

In today's newspaper, however, sweet potatoes hit the daily double.  On the front page, we learn that we're having a record harvest this year in the US, that sweet potatoes are being served at White House state dinners and appearing on 40% more restaurant menus than last year.  The bad news is that the engine of growth is the sweet potato fry, perhaps tying with sweet-potato-marshmallow casserole and sweet-potato pie for least nutritious preparation of a fabulously nutritious vegetable.

But the good news is that even if you fry it, the sweet potato is strong medicine for what ails you.  They're great for diabetics because they contain complex carbohydrates that don't raise blood sugar the way refined sugars and grains do.  And they're great for nutrition in general, rich in vitamins A and C, beta carotene and fiber. 

roasted sweet potatoes, with a little paprika sprinkled on for pep

The Center for Science in the Public Interest rated all vegetables on a complicated scale where points were awarded for vitamins and other good nutrients and deducted for fat, sodium, sugars and other bad nutrients.  The sweet potato scored 184, with nothing else within 100 points of it!  (The next three were white potato, spinach and kale.)  If you like to count calories, say about 130 for a medium baked sweet potato.

What I like about sweet potatoes is that unlike white potatoes, I'm delighted to eat them absolutely plain -- no butter, no salt, no gravy necessary.  I usually just bake them about an hour in a 400-degree oven, alone or alongside the chicken breasts.  They're also great cut into chunks, tossed with a little olive oil and roasted at 425 degrees for maybe a half hour.  Roasted vegetables, of course, can include both kinds of potatoes, winter squash, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, broccoli, cauliflower, onion and garlic, especially nice for a crowd, as everybody can choose what they like and leave behind what they don't.

On the op-ed page of the Times, we learn that plant scientists are developing new varieties of sweet potatoes to be grown in Africa, providing far more nutrients than the indigenous sweet potato, popular but vitamin-poor.  Some think that the sweet potato may be a key to overcoming malnutrition on that struggling continent.

So on this Thanksgiving night, I'm thankful for sweet potatoes and resolve to serve them more often.  Not only are they nutritious, they're beautiful, vanquishing the all-white meal in a millisecond.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good gravy!

I am amused to see, in antique stores or the back of other people's kitchen cabinets, gravy boats that might hold two cups, overflowing.  In my family the official gravy container is our cat pitcher, a wedding present, that will hold eight and a half cups if it really has to, and isn't at all happy with less than five or six.

Many people besides those in my family, I suspect, love gravy but may be intimidated by making it.  If you're one of them, listen up.  Making good gravy does get a lot of dishes dirty, but it's not difficult.

The starting place, of course, is the roasting pan in which you have made a turkey.  The more good brown drippings in the bottom, the better your gravy will be, so I put the turkey neck, extracted from the top cavity, onto the rack alongside the bird for even more juice.  When the turkey is finished, remove it from the oven, remove it from the pan, set it aside (wrapped in foil and towels to keep warm, or turned over to your helper for carving) and take the pan back to the stove.

Put a cup or so of hot water into the pan and scrape all the browned bits free.  I use a plastic spoon with a straight edge for good leverage.  Don't worry about the strange congealed globs of unappetizing mystery protein; stir them in too.  They will give up their good essence but bow out long before showtime.  If the browned bits seem to be resisting arrest, you may want to put the pan over a burner and heat it up a little to speed the process, or add more water. 

Eventually, when the pan is clean, decant the liquid through a sieve into a clean pitcher or bowl.  Press all the liquid out of the debris in the sieve, then pitch the debris.  You're left with a pitcher of brown turkey juice, with fat beginning to rise to the top. 

Contemplate how much liquid you have in the pitcher, compared to how much gravy you would like to end up with.  There's almost certainly not enough, so add more.  You could add chicken or vegetable broth from a can, or even plain water, but my favorite additive is found in the back of my fridge, the little mason jars of juices from baked chickens of the past.

Every time I fix a couple of chicken breasts in the oven, I deglaze the baking pan with hot water and scrape up all the good brown bits, just as described above.  Again, I strain the juices through a sieve into a mason jar and stash it in the refrigerator.  Usually the juice gets used within the next week to moisten pasta or risotto, or to add to a soup.  But as a turkey holiday approaches, I save it to add to my gravy.

Yesterday I had three little jars of chicken juice saved up, which went into the pitcher.  I ended up with six cups of juice.

A general rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of flour and one tablespoon of fat will thicken one cup of meat juice.  Keep that same ratio of flour and fat, but add more or less meat juice to make a thinner or thicker gravy. 

In a time-free world, you could stick your pitcher of turkey juice in the refrigerator, come back three hours later, lift the risen and congealed fat off the top, measure six tablespoons and discard the rest.  But in the real world, the turkey is waiting on the counter, the guests are going wild with the delicious smells, and you need to get that gravy going NOW.  So you don't have time to let the fat and juice separate themselves for accurate measurement.  Not to worry.  This is home cooking, not a cookbook testing laboratory.

Spoon off several tablespoons of liquid from the top layer of the pitcher, capturing as much fat and as little juice as possible.  Put it in a clean saucepan, large enough to hold all the liquid in your pitcher.  Add as many tablespoons of flour as you have cups of liquid, more or less.  Do not agonize; you can always add more flour later if you need to.

Cook the flour and the fat a few minutes over medium/high heat to make a roux.  Stir with a whisk.  This is a stage when you must devote your full attention to the gravy, so have your helpers do other tasks if needed. 

Then you can turn down the heat to medium and start to incorporate a little more liquid, whisking hard.  After all the lumps have been stirred down into a smooth soup, you can add the rest of the liquid from your pitcher, in two batches.  Keep whisking -- lumpy gravy is a cliche that you want to avoid.

After a couple of minutes, when the gravy has gotten hot again and is starting to bubble, you can stop whisking long enough to taste (probably needs a touch of salt) and to gauge the texture.  If it's too thick, add a little hot water.  If it's too thin, you'll need a little more flour. 

Here's how to do that without getting lumps.  Pull a half-cup or so of the gravy out of your pan and put it back into your empty pitcher.  Add another tablespoon of flour and whisk till it's smooth and totally incorporated.  Then pour back into the pan and whisk it in.  Whisk some more on general principles, making sure no colonies of thick gravy have collected in the corners of the pan.  Then decant into your serving boat or pitcher. 

If you haven't managed to delegate last-minute tasks like mashing the potatoes, cap the gravy pitcher with foil and cover with towels, or stick it back in the oven if the heat has been off a while.  It will stay warm while you finish your cooking and serving.

Finally, pour gravy over everything in sight!  Somehow, I missed the meat before I took this picture, but remedied the situation immediately with another ladleful.  There was plenty to go around.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Early Thanksgiving

My son leaves on Monday for Europe so we had to celebrate Thanksgiving early.  While all the rest of you were having an ordinary Friday, we were baking pies, making cranberry-orange relish and roasting a turkey.

Many years ago I went through a phase of hating Thansgiving, at least the preparation of a big dinner. 
As a kid I remember nothing much about Thanksgiving; we didn't cook a big dinner and might as likely have spaghetti as a roast chicken.  When I got married and my husband informed me that the most important part of a holiday was A Big Feast, I didn't much like the idea. 

As often as I could get away with it, I announced that my favorite way to chow down, since we apparently had to do so, was in a restaurant.  Coming up with the restaurant, however, was easier said than done; it was always crowded, expensive and frazzled; and the food was never that great.  But we did avoid cooking and doing dishes.

Finally one year I decided this was stupid -- if people wanted a big turkey dinner I might as well make it at home, so I could get the kind of stuffing and gravy I liked (as far as I'm concerned, you don't have to serve anything else to make Thanksgiving official, except maybe some cranberry-orange relish).  And since then I have learned that making a turkey dinner is one of the easiest things a cook can do.

The tricky part is buying the turkey far enough in advance that it thaws.  Although I do recall one Thanksgiving morning when I awoke and realized the turkey was still in the freezer.  I put it in the microwave, hit auto-defrost-18.00 and a l-o-n-g time later it was ready to go in the oven, with no hard feelings.  Miraculously, the metal clamp that held the bird's ankles crossed, which I forgot about till it came out of the microwave, didn't arc out and start a fire!

What you must realize is that no matter when the turkey gets done, you take it out of the oven, wrap it in foil and then in a whole lot of big towels to stay warm, and put it aside until everything else is done.  Take your time with the gravy and potatoes and vegetables; the turkey will still be there when it's time for dinner.  If one of your helpers is feeling particularly ambitious, he could start carving and put the slices onto a hot platter, thus speeding the eventual serving of plates.

You must also realize that the most important part of the dinner is the gravy.  If the gravy is good, and there's plenty of it, people won't notice other areas that might not be 100%.  Since those of you whose sons aren't going to Europe are probably not going to fix your big dinner till next week, I'll write up my gravy tutorial and post it in plenty of time for you to make magnificent gravy in case you don't already know how to do so.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Risotto 101

Many years ago I read about an exotic Italian dish called risotto, and decided it was something I could make at home.  The cookbooks said to use arborio rice but I couldn't find it in my supermarket, so I used plain old long grain white rice.  Otherwise I followed the recipe, starting with toasting the rice in butter, then adding broth and hot water as the dish cooked over high heat.  The dish tasted great -- a big step up from the plain white rice of my childhood -- and became our regular preparation when rice was on the menu.

I can't remember how many years this went on before I ate risotto in a restaurant in New York, made with arborio rice and no doubt including other fancy ingredients.  I realized this was a different animal entirely from the faux risotto at home.  Eventually arborio rice made it to stores in the sticks, and I switched my preparation to the official version.  At the same time, risotto switched from a side carbo to the entree.

Best of all, I realized that just like pasta and soup, risotto could be the vehicle for infinite permutations of whatever was hanging around the refrigerator, which you may have realized by now is my favorite genre of cooking.  It's great for absorbing vegetables, anywhere from a couple of stray leaves of arugula to a big bunch of broccoli.  A little meat, whether it's leftovers or something new, goes a long way toward pepping up a dish of risotto, and of course the parmesan cheese grated in at the last minute adds protein as well as flavor.

Today's risotto, with radicchio, butternut squash and leftover chicken

As with pasta and soup, imagination is the key ingredient in fixing risotto.  Whatever you have around is probably going to work as an additive.  Some of my favorites:

-- Winter squash makes a classic Italian risotto.  If you have leftovers, just put the cooked squash into the skillet and mash it up a bit with your spoon; it will practically dissolve in cooking and turn the rice orange (beautiful!).  If you're starting from scratch, you can cut the raw squash into thin bite-size pieces, no more than 1/8 inch thick, which will retain their shape.

-- Another classic is radicchio.  In Italy, the words trevisano or trevigiana on a menu indicate the presence of radicchio, after Treviso, the city where farmers developed a technique to blanch the leaves and make the plant prettier and less bitter.  In Milan, the rice capital of Italy, I ate risotto trevisano con gamberi, with shrimp -- a magnificent combination that is easy to do at home.  But even without shrimp, radicchio makes a fine risotto.

-- Summer vegetables can all go in risotto, but you have to be careful not to overcook them, particularly zucchini.  I often saute the zucchini first, then take it out of the pan and let it rest on a plate until the rice is almost done.  It goes back into the skillet only long enough to warm it through and meld the flavors.

-- Olives add color as well as a concentrated flavor kick. 

I'm partial to risotto with mostly vegetables, but a cookbook check will reveal many ways to up the meat content for heartier versions.  Clams, squid, fish and of course shrimp are classics.  Sausage, pork, chicken and veal show up in various combinations with vegetables.

If you don't have risotto in your home repertoire, here's the quick technique recap. 

Risotto has the reputation of being tricky, difficult, beyond the scope of the beginner or hesitant cook.  But that rep is undeserved.  The tricky part consists solely of the fact that for 20 minutes you have to stand there, watch and stir.  You won't be able to do anything else during this time period, but so what? 

Make the rest of your menu beforehand, or put your helper in charge of the last 20 minutes worth of cooking other things.  Pare, chop or slice in advance whatever ingredients you're going to put in the risotto, place them right by the stove, and figure out whether they need to cook for 20 minutes (in which case, add them as soon as you add the liquid) or less (in which case, add them later in the cooking process). 

Maybe you want to saute your ingredient first, rather than just add it to a pan of liquid, but don't want it to cook the whole 20 minutes.  If so, saute it in the skillet, unload it onto a plate, and add it back to the risotto at the appropriate time.

Get a big skillet so your rice will cook in a wide, shallow layer.  Decide what kind of liquid you're going to use and have it at hand, can or bottle opened, ready to pour.  I always use about a half-cup of wine and a can of chicken broth, but you could also use other kinds of broth or vegetable juice.  When the moment comes to add liquid, you want it NOW, lest your rice burn.

Put a generous serving of olive oil in the skillet and get it hot.  Dump in as much arborio rice as you would normally use in other rice preparations.  I have a little measuring cup that came with my rice cooker, and one measure (it's probably about 3/4 cup) is what I would use to serve two of us.  The same quantity of rice serves two of us in risotto.

The rice is starting to turn brown -- time to add the liquid.

Stir the rice in the hot skillet and watch very carefully as the grains begin to toast and turn opaque white, then begin to get brown.  A few seconds after I add the rice I also add finely minced garlic and keep stirring so it doesn't burn either.  When the rice looks like it's starting to brown, pour in about a half-cup of liquid.  It will sizzle furiously and begin to cook away. Don't let the pan dry out; add some more liquid a half-cup at a time and keep stirring.  You want the rice to cook in liquid over high heat the whole time. 

Bubbling away, with only enough liquid to cover. 

Italian cooks will heat up a pan of broth and keep it at a simmer on a separate burner, adding it a bit at a time to the skillet with the rice.  I'm not quite that finicky; I add broth straight from the can but in small enough doses that the rice mixture never stops bubbling away.  And after I use up my can of broth, which isn't enough, I add hot water from my electric kettle.

Adding raw sliced squash

So when is it done?  The rice grains should be al dente, not soft.  And the whole preparation should be almost soupy, not so you need to eat it with a spoon but so it has a definite sauce-like quality.  The arborio rice sheds starch as it cooks and makes the liquid creamy.  But you do have to make sure the liquid doesn't cook away.  I find that when the rice is almost done and I issue the two-minute warning for people to get to the table, it's a good idea to add a half-cup of hot water and stir that around to make sure the risotto isn't dry.

You can grate parmesan cheese into the risotto in the pan and stir it around to melt, or you can let people cheese their own plates at the table.  A big grind of black pepper is usually pretty good too.  Mangia!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Caramelize your troubles away

So what do you do when your fresh tomato tastes more like styrofoam than tomato?  Or when your  apple has a mushy texture?  Or when your red pepper is bland and insipid?

Sometimes you know from the start that the produce is going to be underwhelming, such as when you buy supermarket tomatoes in winter.  Often the sinking feeling comes when it's too late to do much about the situation -- you've already sliced the pepper, or bit into the apple.  But you aren't so disappointed as to throw the food away.

This is the moment for the frying pan!  Whatever meager, pathetic juices and flavor that vegetable or fruit may have can be maximized by heat and some oil or butter.  After everything caramelizes, you'll have a concoction far more delicious than you ever dreamed could emanate from such a sorry beginning.

For tomatoes, slice or quarter them and put them into a hot skillet with olive oil, then cook on high heat a couple of minutes longer than you think is wise.  (Put a spatter guard over the skillet to keep the stove clean.)  The tomatoes will get really brown, and maybe even borderline charred, but that's OK.  Turn them and do the same to the other side. 

If the tomatoes give off so much juice that they're starting to stew rather than saute, pour it off into a cup and set it aside.  Finally, all the edges have been nicely browned and the tomato has gotten very soft.  At this point deglaze the pan with a little marsala wine or sherry and turn the heat down while the wine reduces to a rich reddish-brown sauce.

The tomatoes can be served as a side dish, or stashed in the fridge for a future pasta, risotto or soup.  If there's extra juice in the cup on the side, it can be added back or saved to be a cooking liquid.

I like this cooking method so much that I'll buy tomatoes from the supermarket all year, knowing they won't be fit to eat raw, but knowing that they'll cook down to a delicious ingredient.  It's also possible to cook a large quantity of tomatoes with olive oil in a pan in a hot oven, for instance if you are the lucky recipient of a windfall from the garden.

For peppers, either red or green, saute them in olive oil over high heat until they're browned on all sides, maybe even hitting the borderline of charred.  If the pieces are large, use the spatula to push the curved parts down flat against the pan.  I like my cooked peppers limp, so I'll turn the heat down and let them keep cooking on the back burner for a while, but you might like to take yours off the heat while they're still on the crispy side.

You can also cook peppers under the broiler (you don't need to use oil this way, although they're delicious served with a bit of olive oil drizzled on top) or if you have a gas stove, you can toast them over the flame like a marshmallow (never having had a gas stove, I cannot testify to this method but I have read about it many times).  With either method, cook until the skin chars (if it chars too much, you can peel it off).

Cooked peppers can be served as a side dish or saved to go into a sandwich or onto a pizza.  I usually think they're too assertive to make good soup vegetables, but love them in pastas and risotto.

For apples or pears, saute them in a skillet with butter, getting all sides brown (but not brown/burned as with tomatoes and peppers). You can eat them at this point, or turn the heat down, cover the pan, and let them cook a while, maybe add a bit of orange juice, water, or wine if you want a fancy dessert.  A little nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger on top makes it special.

Of course, you can always turn disappointing apples into applesauce, but this is a nice alternative and works nicely when you have only one or two pieces of dud fruit instead of a bagful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Soup du jour

Last night's dinner -- bean soup with cauliflower and canned diced tomato -- looks a lot like the bean soup behind the title of this blog, doesn't it?  But it's different!

Soup du jour is one of my favorite meals. The plan can begin from scratch with a favorite ingredient, or emanate from leftovers or vegetables that should probably have been eaten two days ago. I tend to make up the plan as I go, but these basic concepts underlie my efforts:

-  Always start with chopping and browning an onion or two.  There is no kind of soup that won't benefit from that flavor, and it makes the kitchen smell great.  If you're running late on fixing dinner, the smell will make people think the situation is under control, even if it's not.

-  After you’ve browned the onion, garlic and other ingredients but before you start adding liquids, deglaze the pot with a little wine (fortified wines like marsala, vermouth or sherry are particularly nice). Stir around a little to dissolve all the good brown stuff on the bottom of the pan, then add the rest of the wet ingredients.

-  Always have a lot of chicken broth on hand. I’m happy with Kroger canned. Strangely enough, their “low fat” variety has less sodium than the “low sodium” variety, in addition to lower fat. Add chicken broth to anything that needs more liquid at the last minute.

-  Life is easier if you have one or two default seasonings that can go into most varieties of soup. My favorite is Penzey’s Galena Street Seasoning, a mix of salt, sugar, black pepper, paprika, nutmeg, sage, cayenne and red pepper. Ordinarily I shy away from any seasoning mix that includes salt, but you do need salt in most soups, especially those containing beans. Less than a tablespoon of Galena Street is usually all the seasoning you need for a small-to-medium pot of soup; you know it will have enough salt, enough heat, and enough flavor oomph without pesky blending and tasting.

-  Keep some dry, canned or frozen ingredients that you can add to soup at the last minute if your pot looks a little skimpy or somebody new shows up for dinner. For instance, diced tomatoes, various kind of beans, tiny pastas, olives, chicken broth. I don't usually have frozen vegetables on hand but a handful of corn, peas or edamame would do nicely too. Bacon, ham, pepperoni (turkey pepperoni if you’re feeling healthful) or other cured meats can hang around the fridge for a while and add both bulk and flavor.

-  Yesterday’s leftovers can become today’s soup. Start with onion, of course. Cut the leftovers into bite-sized pieces and throw them into the pot. You’ll probably need to add liquid (chicken broth, wine, tomato juice, milk, whatever). I also keep canned cream soups on hand (cream of onion or celery is a good all-purpose base; cream of shrimp is great for seafood or vegetable leftovers) as a base. If it still doesn’t look good enough to eat, add any of the things in the previous paragraph, or stick a small potato in the microwave for four minutes and dice it into the soup.

-  Sometimes it helps to put everything into the blender and make it smooth.  That also helps incorporate ingredients like cheese or tomato paste that might otherwise not be properly distributed throughout the soup.

-  Most soups improve with a grating of parmesan cheese at the table. And/or you can stir a spoonful of pesto into each bowl.

-  Many soups improve if you put finely shredded spinach or kale in the bottom of the bowl before you ladle in the hot soup. You can practically fill the bowl with greenery because it will shrivel to nothing in the hot liquid. It’s tasty, beautiful and nutritious.

-  Make bean soup in quantity, using at least a one-pound bag of beans.  It's no more work to cook up a huge batch than a small one, and after dinner you can freeze the rest in one-quart containers.  Then someday thaw out one quart of the soup and use it as a base for anything else you have on hand, like the half cauliflower languishing in my vegetable drawer last night.  It's surprising how many foods will play well with beans, and since the beans provide both bulk and protein, small quantities of leftovers will work just fine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How I met my friends the vegetables

When I was a kid I recall vegetables as being very limited and very tedious.  We had iceberg lettuce salads every night, with bright orange Kraft french dressing. Mom was an early adopter of frozen vegetables, of which we ate green beans, lima beans, peas and corn, and fresh corn on the cob in summer.  Canned peas as an ingredient in tuna salad (yuk) and canned beets.

We went through carrots by the truckload, because when people started whining "when is dinner?" Mom would issue peeled carrots to shut them up till the real food was served.  We also had lots of celery, with a stick of Velveeta cheese nestled inside the curve for special occasions.  When we visited my grandparents in springtime we had asparagus every day, because Grandpa had a big patch.  Everybody but Dad ate raw cucumbers and tomatoes, and we would all eat stewed tomatoes that my grandmother canned.

But I was truly amazed later in life to learn that God had created more than those ten or twelve vegetables. Starting with an almost-blank slate, I remember vividly my introductions to several new varieties.

The first time I ate an artichoke was in 1968 on a business trip to Washington DC.  The guy I was talking to, about the age of my father, apparently thought it would be a kindness to teach the cute young thing a little culture, so we both ordered artichokes and he showed me how to pluck the leaves and chew the meat out of each one.

The first time I ate eggplant was in March 1970, a month before we got engaged.  My mother was visiting and Ken and I were serious enough that he had to be introduced.  He took us to a fancy restaurant, now defunct, and both Mom and I ordered the eggplant casserole even though neither of us knew anything about eggplant.  We both loved it; I have always remembered that casserole as a good omen for the marriage as well as for the vegetable.

The first time I ate an avocado was about 1975, when my friend Gail returned from having spent a couple of years in exotic California and showed me how to slice it open and wham your knife blade into the pit, then twist a bit to remove it.

The first time I ate kale was about 20 years ago when I had the idea to stir raw shreds into a batch of mashed potatoes.  It tasted good and the next day I eagerly heated up the leftovers, being a mashed potato lover, only to discover that cooked kale doesn't taste at all like raw.  That was the first and last time I ever ate cooked kale, although raw has become a staple.

The first time I ate cauliflower was probably in the late 70s, having read in a cookbook that you should gently simmer it whole in a big pan of milk (that was the last time I ever used that recipe). 

The first time I ate edamame was in the 90s in a Japanese restaurant in Chicago around the corner from the apartment of a woman I worked with on many projects, and on the generous expense account of our employer.  But until 2006 I never knew that you could buy them frozen in a bag already out of the shell.

The first time I ate parsnips was about ten years ago, after my husband got onto a kick of revisiting his childhood dinner memories and brought a bag home from the grocery store.

The first time I ate escarole was in October 2000 in an Italian restaurant in New York.  We were there early, wanting to get in one last fine meal before we had to catch our flight home. A side vegetable arrived; we had no idea what it was and asked the waiter.  No doubt taking us for rubes who always eat dinner on the farm at 5:45 pm, he sneered when he told us.

The first time I ate brussels sprouts (now this is getting a little embarrassing) was about four years ago, at the Chinese buffet, surprised to find that it wasn't vile after all, as I had imagined it for decades.

I can't remember the details of where or when I met broccoli, lentils, sweet potatoes, bok choy, spinach, fresh limas and peas, zucchini, winter squash or any number of other vegetables that are now on our regular play list, except that all the meetings occurred well into my adulthood.  Many of those vegetables weren't available in my Midwest childhood, although I suspect most of this limited repertoire simply came about because my parents were not adventurous eaters.

Since I tend to be a picky eater myself -- but an adventurous picky eater, if you can imagine it -- I am really glad that I have managed to come so far since the frozen green beans.  When I was a kid we thought of dinner as meat and potatoes, with vegetables as a grim afterthought.  Now more and more I look at vegetables as the centerpiece.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Healthiest lunch of the day

What a luxury to have homegrown tomatoes in November!  Our tomato crop was a disaster, thanks to a terrible drought and our being away for a month, unable to water them.  My husband ripped the plants out at least a month ago.  But there's always some overachieving gardener whose tomato machine keeps cranking them out, and if you're really lucky, you go to that person's house one day when she's in deaccession mode.

I often make tomato sandwiches with beautiful, red, ripe tomatoes, but this one was so juicy I thought the toast would turn to mush before I finished eating.  So I used a fork instead.  The plate had a few empty spaces on it that cried to be filled with a complementary color.  Such a treat!  And I still have plenty left -- thanks, Marti!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sodium al pomodoro

In my recent reading about sodium I was reminded (no surprise) that most of our sodium comes from processed foods rather than salt added at home.  But then I read (surprise) that the five major culprits are soups, condiments, canned foods, prepared mixes and -- tomato sauce!

I phased out tomato sauce from my pantry this summer, simply because I think tomato products with more solids give better results, but reading this gave me a sudden paranoid anxiety about the other canned tomato varieties in my cupboard, of which there are many.

A fresh tomato has only 14 mg of sodium.  But thanks to the magic of industrial food processing, that's not what you get when it comes from a can. The sodium content varies greatly by type of tomato product, and also by brand.  I spent a few minutes checking labels at the store this afternoon and here's what I found among the diced tomatoes.  All serving sizes were 1/2 cup.

Kroger diced with no added salt -- 20 mg
Del Monte diced with no added salt -- 50 mg
Del Monte diced -- 200 mg
Kroger diced -- 220 mg
Hunt's diced fire roasted with garlic -- 240 mg
Hunt's diced with green pepper, celery and onion -- 280 mg
Hunt's diced with basil, garlic and oregano -- 300 mg
Hunt's diced fire roasted -- 310 mg
Kroger diced Italian style -- 330 mg
Kroger diced chili ready -- 480 mg
Red Gold diced with roasted garlic and onion -- 500 mg

I had not ever noticed tomatoes packed with no added salt, but I bought some today and unless they turn out to be awful, I think I'll use them exclusively.  I do like the fire roasted flavor but don't think it's worth the sodium price.

But these tomato products are nothing compared with sauce.  A half cup of Hunt's tomato sauce has 820 mg!!!!!!

I was surprised to find that tomato paste, which would seem to be almost as heavily processed as tomato sauce, could be had with relatively little sodium, if you read the labels carefully.  Here the serving size is 2 tablespoons.  You could multiply that by 4 to get a half cup serving to compare to the tomato sauce, but since tomato paste is more concentrated than tomato sauce, maybe we should multiply by 2 or 3.  Let's try 2.5:

Kroger tomato paste -- 20 mg (call it 50 mg to compare)
Kroger Private Selection Organic tomato paste -- 20 mg (compare at 50 mg)
Hunt's tomato paste -- 105 mg  (compare at 262 mg)
Kroger Italian style tomato paste -- 300 mg (compare at 750 mg)

Two easy conclusions:  first, there seems to be a lot more variation among brands in tomato paste than in diced tomatoes.  Second, if you want some smooth tomato product in your cooking, thin down a lower-sodium paste to the desired consistency rather than use sauce.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The product police -- packaging department

Do you ever get the feeling that food manufacturers would be just as happy if your food spills or goes stale before you eat it all?  If ever there was a good place for a zip lock bag, it's inside a box of breakfast cereal or frozen waffles.  But no, that might add a penny to the (already inflated) cost.

I needed a new box of grits last week and paranoid as always, checked the price on the shelf before buying.  Discovered that it was 15 cents cheaper to buy a rectangular box than a cardboard cylinder with the same quantity.  And since I hadn't thrown out my old cardboard cylinder yet, this morning I decanted the new grits into the old box.  Ha!  It isn't every day you get to outwit the product police!

So what do people do who buy the rectangular box of grits?  As you can see, the top was so enthusiastically glued down that I had to tear it open.  I guess if you didn't save your cardboard cylinder box you could decant into a mason jar.  Which might even be a better idea than saving your cylinder, because it would protect against little vermin.  (Ever found your flour or Bisquick infested?  I have.  No fun.)

Anyway, the grits were great on this chilly morning of the first frost, served up in my official grits bowl, a heavy pottery number that holds the heat for a while.  I like mine runny enough so it would be hard to eat them with a fork, with butter and a tiny pinch of sea salt with pepper.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Food in heaven

What do they eat in heaven?  Yesterday I contemplated this question while we attended an orchestra performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, which concludes with a vocal rendition of a very old German poem.  The poem talks about how heaven is superior to earth, and how great it's going to be once we get there.

This symphony is bad for people on an empty stomach, because the singer enumerates what's great about heaven, and turns out most of it has to do with food.  On the vegetable menu are all kinds of greens, asparagus, string beans; the fruits include apples, pears and grapes.  Angels bake the bread, and the wine is free.

But the best part of heaven is all the meat.  And to remind us of how life has changed, the best aspect of the meat is not how it tastes but its abundance.  Lambs and cows are butchered "without thought or concern."  If you want roebuck or rabbit, just walk down the street and one will come running to you; on a fast day, all kinds of fishes will happily show up for your dining pleasure -- carp, pike, trout, dried cod and fresh anchovies. 

We don't always remember how hard our ancestors had to work for their daily bread.  You did have to think twice before you killed a lamb -- how many lambs would you have left to grow up and keep your flock going?  Even though fish and game might have been plentiful, you still had to go get them, and in Germany the streams and fields might have been owned by the local nobility and thus off-limits to the peasants.

So no wonder the poet thought dinner would be the best time of the day in heaven.  Now, of course, our visions of heavenly food have to do less with being able to sit down at a full table than with avoiding diabetes and triple bypass from all the glorious food at our fingertips.

When I get to heaven, I'm going to eat pork chops, she-crab soup, mashed potatoes, Michigan perch, watermelon, and tuna on rye from a New York deli with a half-sour pickle on the side.  For breakfast, my sister's cinnamon rolls and for dessert, oatmeal cookie dough and coconut ice cream.  For snacks, white cheddar cheese popcorn and a whole can of Durkee's onion rings eaten with a spoon.

What about you?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All-brown meals

Professional chefs think about presentation just as much as they do about ingredients and processes, which is a big reason why the food at a restaurant seems so much more delicious than the food at home.  By contrast, cooks like me tend to think about presentation as the plates are being dished out, and usually along the lines of "oh rats, this looks terrible, why didn't I cut up a carrot and put it alongside."

When my kids were at home and the daily meal was a daily event/chore, I would bring those plates to the table and announce ruefully "sorry, it's another one of Mom's Famous All-Brown Meals."  Last week this came up in conversation and I asked my son, now the official chef in his own family, what he remembered about Mom's Famous All-Brown Meals.  He said he remembered that they tasted just fine.  That's why I love him so much.

A variant, of course, was one of Mom's Famous All-White Meals -- such as chicken breast, mashed potatoes and cauliflower with a side of italian bread ("oh rats, this looks terrible, why didn't I buy broccoli instead"). 

Now that I have taken to buying whole wheat pasta, it's way too easy to whip out an all-brown meal if I don't plan ahead.  Quick, which plate do you want?

zucchetta, leftover chicken, parsley

eggplant, red pepper, parsley

eggplant, celery, olives, leftover pork

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My favorite homemade condiment...

…would have to be semi-pesto. I am fortunate that my husband the gardener grows basil, and in a good year we have enough that I can process and freeze enough to hold us through the winter in addition to many batches of pesto for immediate consumption.

To make pesto, of course, you combine basil, nuts (classically, pine nuts, but walnuts are fine too), garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil -– classically, with a mortar and pestle, but the Cuisinart is my utensil of choice. To serve on pasta or vegetables, thin the pesto down with some of the hot cooking water.

What I call semi-pesto omits all the ingredients that might go rancid, leaving only the basil and the olive oil. I process this down to a puree, pack it into half-cup tupperwares, make a nice smooth surface and pour a little more olive oil on top to seal it. Most of it goes into the freezer, where it will keep for years, and one pack at a time stays in the fridge to be used a spoonful at a time.

Here are some of the ways to use semi-pesto to add flavor:
  • Stir into soup or any tomato-based sauce.
  • Add to omelet or quiche.
  • Add to mayonnaise or butter, to use on bread, vegetables, fish, etc.
  • Spread on bread instead of butter.
  • Combine with cream cheese or ricotta for a dip or spread.
  • Add to salad dressing.
And of course, you can add the garlic, nuts and cheese to make full pesto.  If you don't have enough for your dinner, augment with parsley.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


One of the joys of autumn is the apple harvest.  Recently I was blessed with a huge bag of apples given to me by somebody who grows them on his farm, fresh from the trees, unpesticided, and delicious (and I don't mean Red Delicious, which aren't).

We ate one or two but I had the urge for applesauce.  The hard part of the job, of course, is not the cooking but the cutting.  Surprisingly, I only discovered the efficient way to cut and core apples within the last couple of years.  As a kid, I was taught to slice the apple into quarters from pole to pole, then cut out a triangular wedge from each quarter to remove the seeds and core.  That was neat but time-consuming, requiring eleven cuts per apple, eight of them fairly small and fiddly. 

Can't remember where I learned this better method.  Instead of slicing through the poles, you move the knife a half inch out from the center and slice top to bottom, missing the core entirely.  Then you rotate the apple and do it three more times.  You end up with four asymmetrical slices of apple plus a square core section that you throw away.  You do lose a little of the meat, but it's a small price to pay for the speed of the processing.

I cut the cored apples into chunks, not so much to get bite-size bits (it will end up as sauce anyway) as to cut the peel into small sections that won't choke you in the finished product.  I put everything into a big soup pot, add a half cup of water, cover the pot and put it all on to cook for a half hour or so on low heat.  The water keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom of the pot in the beginning, but after a few minutes enough juice is produced that you don't need to worry about it any more.

I also like to add some spice, such as cinnamon, ginger or cardamom, but never sugar.  Fresh ginger is particularly nice, grated, but it's OK to use it ground from the bottle. 

The best applesauce I ever made came about because I got involved in some engrossing task outside smell range of the kitchen and totally forgot about my pot on the stove.   When I finally remembered and ran back to check on the sauce, it was within a hair of burning but hadn't actually crossed the line.  Instead, it had caramelized and cooked down to a thick, dark brown concoction that was almost like apple butter.  It was so rich that I served it in tiny dishes instead of hearty bowls.  Since then I've tried to duplicate the process but have never gotten close to the glory of that accident.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I coulda hadda V-8

Responding to my recent post on stealth sodium, Joan mentioned tomato juice, listed as an ingredient in tomato sauce, and said parenthetically, "does that contain sodium?"

Well, Joan, is the Pope Catholic? 

I was both dismayed and outraged to check the sodium content of two cans of tomato juice that I found on my premises.  Dismayed, because the single-serving can of Campbell's tomato juice that I keep in the fridge contains 980 mg of sodium -- two-thirds of your daily quota right there.  Outraged, because comparing the two cans of juice -- different sizes, different brands -- was impossible without my calculator.



What I found in my own kitchen was the 11.5-ounce can of Campbell's and a 46-ounce can of Kroger's.  Both listed the same ingredients: water, tomato paste, salt and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). 

For many years I have been buying Kroger or some other relatively cheap brand of tomato juice for making gazpacho, and the more expensive Campbell's, in single-serving cans, to drink.  I always thought cheap tomato juice was blah, not fit to drink unless doctored it up with a schluck of worcestershire sauce.  I would use the cheaper juice for bloody marys, where it was doctored not only with worcestershire but tabasco, lemon, pepper and vodka, and after the first sip who even noticed the quality of the underlying juice. 

But I would pop for the more expensive Campbell's if I wanted to drink it straight -- for instance at the office on those days when lunch never happened (I kept a couple of cans in the communal fridge), or on the road when I needed a refreshing drink and preferred something healthier than Coke.  Not all roadside stops carry juice, but it happened often enough that I always looked.  That prejudice carried over into my retirement, and I still buy Campbell's in single-serving cans as a snack that seems more nutritious than a lot of alternatives.

When I tried to compare the expensive, delicious Campbell's with the cheaper, less tasty Kroger's, it took a few math skills.  Campbell's shows the serving size as "1 can"-- 11.5 ounces -- while Kroger's shows it as "8 ounces."  

Have you ever gotten the suspicion that food manufacturers, required to provide nutrition info on the labels, or grocery stores, encouraged to supply unit pricing info on the shelves, don't really want to do it?  How many times have you tried to compare products in the store and found that one shows unit price per ounce, another shows unit price per pound, and another shows unit price per square inch or something else difficult or impossible to compare to the others? 

At first glance, I thought the Campbell's was way saltier than the Kroger's, but after I hauled out my trusty calculator I found they were virtually identical.  By converting the Campbell's to an 8-ounce serving, I found the sodium was 686 mg in Campbell's and 680 mg in Kroger.  The calories were practically the same too. 

As a kid I never drank tomato juice -- we were a V-8 family.  In adulthood V-8 began to strike me as sludgy and over-engineered, and I switched to plain tomato juice.  But a brief visit to Campbell's website makes me wonder if I should reconsider that decision.  Eight ounces of V-8 has only 420 mg of sodium, and there's a product called Low Sodium V-8 with only 140 mg!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Stealth sodium

Other than a visceral understanding that too much sodium is bad for you, until very recently I didn't know very much about the specifics, and I can't really say why I suddenly got hungry for a little more info.  Decided I needed a research project to learn more about the basics, and then to look a little more closely at how much sodium we eat and whether I should make some changes to my shopping and cooking habits.

The first thing I realized, after a while on Google, is that there's no simple rule for how much sodium is too much.  While the Food and Drug Administration has detailed guidelines on how much Vitamin C and many other nutrients you need, they are remarkably silent on the subject of sodium.  Being a political paranoid, I am willing to believe that the processed food industry has bought sufficient presence in the decision-making circles of the nutrition establishment that you are unlikely to see any rigorous guidance on this subject from the government any time soon.

First, to orient you, a teaspoon of salt has 2300 mg of sodium.

You need to have 500 mg of sodium every day for your body to work properly, but not a whole lot more.  The Committee on Dietary Allowances of the National Academy of Sciences, which I believe to be a relatively trustworthy body, has set the "Estimated Safe and Adequate Daily Intake" as between 1100 and 3300 mg a day.  But the very fact that this "estimate" covers such a huge range makes you a little suspicious. 

The American Heart Association promotes the "DASH diet" -- which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- with a much clearer recommendation: eat less than 1500 mg of sodium per day.  I feel a little more confident with this figure, simply because it's an actual figure rather than a wide range, and decided that this will be my general guideline/target as I assess my own sodium consumption.

Whatever target you set, it's clear that most Americans are way, way over the top -- on average, somewhere between 2300 and 6900 mg per day.  (Again, the wide range makes you suspicious that somebody doesn't really want to find out how bad the situation is.)

In general, 75% of that sodium comes from processed foods.  The major sources: soups, condiments, canned foods, prepared mixes, salty junk food and tomato sauce.  I was taken aback to see that last item -- can we possibly eat enough tomato sauce to rank up there with every other variety of canned food put together?  But then I realized that people eat lots of pizza, lots of pasta, lots of Manwich, and maybe that does really add up (or maybe there's just one helluva lot of sodium in the stuff).

I think that my household is probably on the low end of the sodium spectrum, at least when we eat at home.  We eat mostly fresh vegetables rather than canned, don't add salt to any food except for beans and bean soups, buy low sodium products when we have a choice, and generally make meals from scratch rather than buying commercially prepared food.
I don't want to become obsessive about sodium.  Both of us maintain our blood pressure in the acceptable range, and I enjoy the occasional bag of junk food as much as the next person.  But I can keep track of that and keep my potato chip intake to a reasonable level.  I'm also aware that when we eat out we may be getting more salt than I would ever cook with at home.  What annoys me is the stealth sodium -- the stuff that sneaks in when I think we're eating healthy food.

So I decided to pay attention to sodium in my own kitchen for a while and see what I find.

Just to start, here's my snack from yesterday, 2 TB of red pepper hummus (120 mg) and 17 wheat thin crackers (180 mg).  That doesn't sound too bad (although I didn't do the obvious exercise of adding up everything else I ate that day).  I'll continue to keep my eyes open and see what I discover.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More food porn from Japan

Don't you just love looking at pictures of strange and gorgeous food?  For me, a pile of fruit and vegetables is far more beautiful than a cake.  Here's more porn from the food department of Takashimaya, the big department store in Kyoto.  This area takes up almost the entire basement of the huge store, with ready-to-eat food as well as fruits, vegetables and fish to take home. 

Many vegetables packed in what looks like sand but I assume is salt, to pickle them to some degree.

Lots of smoked fish in various sizes.

Gobo in Japanese, burdock root in English -- it's a relative of the carrot.  I've always loved "kimpira gobo" in my Japanese restaurant at home, a concoction that resembles grated, sauteed carrot.  My friend Zuki tells me that in her family gobo was "peasant food" -- maybe that's why I couldn't find any to eat while I was in Japan, but here's the raw material.

I have no idea what this stuff is, but it costs about six dollars a package -- must be pretty special!