Monday, March 28, 2011

Ready to not eat

Having company over for drinks, and we grabbed a little bag of carrot sticks at the grocery for a healthy complement to the mixed nuts.  Fortunately the company said no, no, don't go to that trouble, we'll drink our wine without benefit of snacks.

I say fortunately, because here's what the carrot sticks looked like when I opened the package the next morning.  Yuk!

I usually don't buy vegetables that have been processed by somebody else.  I've noticed that sometimes the stuff has dried out, like these carrots.  It seems intuitive that a carrot will stay fresh and juicy longer if it's in one piece, that lettuce will start to wilt sooner if it's been torn into bite sizes, that broccoli will start to get limp when it's severed from its stalk.  And do the vitamins start escaping when the jailhouse door is cut open?

I also am suspicious that the stuff has been sufficiently washed, especially since the bagged spinach scare a couple of years ago.  We know that processed meat and eggs create more of a danger of food poisoning than individual eggs or a single steak, because the salmonella or e. coli from one bit of food can get mixed through a big batch and contaminate thousands of servings.  By the same token, I wonder whether washing 10,000 carrots in the same vat can simply slosh germ-laden water across lots and lots of little baggies worth of ready to eat.

Yet even with the best of intentions, we sometimes succumb to the lure of the instant salad or snack.  I remember buying lots of bagged salads one month when my dad was in the hospital and it was all I could do to get some kind of healthy dinner in front of my mother at the end of the day.  I do buy prepared guacamole sometimes instead of making my own from avocados that might not be ripe enough, or be nasty inside when I cut them open.  And nobody in my family has yet gotten sick from any of this stuff, so maybe I'm just being paranoid.

sorry, no guacamole tonight

I kind of worry about the people who buy these processed vegetables all the time.  Perhaps they're more likely to get a food-borne disease.  But even if they don't, think of the quality and the money they're trading away for convenience.  Will the kids grow up to think all carrots are dried up and white?

As you might have deduced by the presence of a knife in the photo above, I pulled out the most decrepit of the carrots and diced them up to go into the soup.  The rest of the bag became my lunch, and it was just fine, if a little less juicy than home-washed carrots.  But I will think twice before I buy one of those cute little baggies of cut vegetables again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kale, the soup cook's best friend

Kale is one of the most nutritious vegetables around, as you might surmise from its deep green color.  A cup of chopped kale gives you more than twice your daily target of Vitamin A, a third again your daily target of Vitamin C, almost seven times your target of Vitamin K.  It has fair amounts of calcium and iron, more than in most other vegetables, and hardly any calories.  And it's cheaper than spinach, escarole or other comparable greens.

I am not enamored of the strong taste of cooked kale, but I just love it served raw -- not on a plate or in a salad, but in soup.

I like to cut away the thick ribs, then chop the leaves and pile them into a soup bowl practically to the top. 

This bowl holds more than two cups of kale, and you might not think there would be much room for soup on top of it.  But the instant the hot liquid hits the kale, it wilts and shrinks, so I was able to put almost two cups of soup into the "full" bowl.

At first you have to eat just the plain soup, unless you've left more room in your bowl than I did.  But as soon as you have eaten a few mouthfuls, you'll be able to dredge up beautiful green stuff from the bottom of the dish. 

It tastes great, and is one of the easiest ways I know to add serious vegetable material to your diet.  And it's fun when your food changes color in mid-meal.

By the way, I mentioned spinach and escarole earlier.  They both make wonderful soup additives too.  I add spinach raw, exactly as I do kale, but escarole seems to like to be cooked, so I chop it up and add it to the soup ten minutes before serving. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Food processing -- good or bad?

I wrote the other day about my frustration with nutrition labels -- or more accurately, one of my frustrations -- because they don't use a uniform serving size.  In response to a comment, I said that the more I read nutrition labels, the less I want to buy what's inside the package, and that the healthiest and best food is that you make yourself.

... and yet... here's my cupboard! 

Food processing is a wonderful thing, and people have been taking advantage of it for thousands of years.  In a nutshell, it allows you to transcend the inherently short shelf life of food -- to keep your food past its natural spoil date.  Early food processing techniques included drying meat and fruits, turning milk into cheese and yogurt, fermenting vegetables into pickles and sauerkraut, preserving foods with spices and salt, transforming grains and grapes into beer and wine. 

In the olden days most food processing occurred at home.  Prehistoric peoples gorged on a killed animal, then dried the rest of the meat for future use.  After agriculture developed, people ground their grains into flour and made their own sausage and kraut.  After canning was invented (at the orders of Napoleon, who needed better sustenance to take his armies on longer and longer expeditions of attempted world conquest) people put up the fruits and vegetables from their summer gardens to eat in the winter.

Food processing was time-consuming, but without it you didn't make it through till next year. 

Many a housewife must have thought she died and went to heaven when commercially canned foods appeared.  Peas and corn and green beans at your fingertips, even if you didn't grow and can them yourself!  I remember canned vegetables as a mealtime staple (most of them weren't very good) and I clearly remember the excitement and wonder with which we embraced frozen foods after WW2.  Frozen corn and green beans still aren't half bad, even to palates jaded by year-round fresh vegetables from California, Mexico and Chile. 

On the whole, American nutrition improved vastly because of the wide variety of fruits and vegetables made available through commercial canning and freezing.  Yes, some people had gardens and ate well-balanced meals without benefit of processed food, but most people didn't.  How did you grow vegetables if you lived in an apartment, or if you were too feeble to dig in the garden?  Even if you had a house with a yard, vegetable gardening was an old-fashioned hobby not practiced by everybody.  Remember, they had to have a PR campaign to get people to plant Victory Gardens during the war because the practice had fallen out of favor.

In those post-war wonder years, however, food processing took a turn toward the dark side.  Not content with rescuing the American public from malnutrition, the food corporations looked for more and more products, more and more NEW, IMPROVED things to sell us.

Like TV dinners.  And you had to buy TV trays on which to eat your TV dinner in front of your TV.  My father did not consider TV dinners to be food, so they were served only to the kids on nights when he was out of town (that was a lot, so we ate a fair number of them).  (The best part was the compartmented aluminum tray, which prevented the juice from the corn from getting the fried chicken soggy.)  The food wasn't awful, but it was sure a step down from the chicken dinner that Mom made, even if Mom used canned corn.

In the fullness of time TV dinners begat frozen pizza and frozen tuna melt sandwiches and frozen sausage-and-egg muffins and a whole raft of combinations that surely do not deserve freezer space in the great supermarket of life.  Move out of the frozen food aisle, and you find products where you may not even understand the basic concept -- like Splenda with fiber.  Michael Pollan, the guru of sustainable food, calls them "edible foodlike substances."   Whatever they are, you know they're overprocessed, unhealthy, and really expensive. 

That's one dark side of food processing -- the infinite imagination of Big Food, supported by infinite advertising dollars to make you want to buy the strange things they produce.  The other dark side is the inherent chemical requirements of food preservation.  You need to add salt and BHT and sodium alginate and a lot of other things not found in your spice cabinet, lest the food get mushy and gray in its can or package.  That's not to say that Big Food doesn't add too much of this stuff, particularly salt, but even if you get your groceries from Little Nice Warm And Fuzzy Healthy Food, there have to be some additives.

I've been thinking more and more in recent years about the food I eat and serve, and have concluded that whenever possible, it's desirable to keep my food processing in my own kitchen.  Fortunately I have the time to cook from scratch, I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy the rewards of serving food to a hungry, unpicky and appreciative family. 

I also know that a lot of people are in different situations, and it's very difficult for them to approach food the way I do.  Cutting yourself loose from the sticky tendrils of Big Food is not an easy task.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nutrition labeling -- bring your calculator

In the midst of assembling grilled cheese sandwiches I finished up one package of sliced Swiss and had to open another.  I first noticed that the cheeses were different because the old one was packaged in a zip lock bag while the new one had to be cut open with a scissors.  In the course of decanting the new cheese into the perfectly usable old zip lock bag, I inspected the packages a bit more carefully. 

One was called "Swiss" and the other was called "aged Swiss," one was "sliced" and the other was "deli thin slices," and the pieces were different in size as well as thickness.

So I wondered if there was really any difference between the two besides cosmetic.  While I was waiting for the sandwiches to turn brown, I happened to look at the side-by-side nutrition labels -- and had to postpone my consideration until I used my calculator.

The "Swiss" was denominated in a serving size of one slice -- 38 grams.  It contained 140 calories, 90 calories from fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 35 mg of cholesterol, 11 grams of protein and 80 mg of sodium.

The "aged Swiss" was also denominated in a serving size of one slice, but since the slice was thinner and smaller, it was only 21 grams.  It contained 80 calories, 50 calories from fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 20 mg of cholesterol, 6 grams of protein and 45 mg of sodium.

Now suppose you were reading these labels in the grocery store instead of at home with your calculator.  Are they the same, except for the aging?  (Which can't be too substantial a difference -- one was aged "more than 60 days" and the other "more than 90.")  Which one should you buy?

Probably you can't tell the difference unless you're a savant who can do serious multiplication and division in your head.  My calculator informed me that the two varieties are virtually identical, nutritionally, and the tiny differences looked to me like rounding error because nutritional info is generally listed in whole numbers.

My inner paranoid shopper thinks that food processors may not deliberately determine package sizes to make the nutritional labels harder to compare, but they sure aren't going to be unhappy if that occurs.   My i.p.s. reminds me how somebody has often gone to great lengths to subvert the intent of unit pricing labels, which were supposed to eliminate the kind of arithmetical fog I just described.  How many times have you tried to compare product prices only to find one at 4.3 cents per ounce, one at 73 cents per pound, and another at 12.1 cents per teabag or whatever?

My i.p.s. wonders why food processors shouldn't be required to give us info not just per some arbitrary serving size but also per 100 grams?  That way no matter how thin you slice the cheese, it would be easy to compare different products.    

Squash redux

So about a week ago we bought an big acorn squash.  Its first appearance was the no-brainer, where you cut the squash in two, scrape out the seeds and bake it in a 400-425 degree oven for an hour.  What could be simpler?

But we only ate half of it.

A couple of days passed, and we had some leftover mashed potatoes in the fridge, plus that half squash, so I decided to kill two birds with one menu.  I added the squash to the spuds, mixed them together with a little milk, and came up with a pale yellowish mashed substance that tasted subtly of both its parents and nicely complemented the pork chops and brussels sprouts.

But this was like the eternal pot of soup -- after I combined the two leftover portions, we ended up with too much food for one meal.  Now I had a dish of yellowish stuff in the fridge.

The third reincarnation of the squash was to make it into a pancake, augmented by a sauteed onion and two eggs, fried up and topped with mozzarella cheese.  Arguably the best version of the squash -- but that just goes to prove that you can make anything more wonderful by melting cheese on top of it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Salad days

My father was in the Army in WW2 and like so many other soldiers, found some things to love about the service even though war was hell.  One of the things Dad loved was fresh salad, available every day in US mess halls and even served now and then in the war zone.  Best of all, most of his fellow soldiers didn’t like it, so he could have seconds and thirds.  As he was a picky eater who hated much of the stuff doled out as institutional food, the salad often constituted his entire meal.

So Dad came home from the war with an enduring passion for salad.  Every night we had one – iceberg lettuce with orange Kraft French dressing, sometimes with sliced green olives.  Sometimes we would fix leaf lettuce wilted under a dressing of hot bacon grease, but that’s as exotic as it got.
In the 1940s and 50s salad was not an everyday item on American menus, especially in the northern Midwest.  There was lettuce in the summer if you had a garden, and cabbage year round to make coleslaw.  But the concept of different greens and raw vegetables, not to mention different dressings, was decades away from catching on.

It wasn’t until many years later that I broadened my definition of salad to include different kinds of lettuce, different kinds of dressing, and different vegetable matter and garnishes.
One of the nicest developments in my culinary life came when my husband became vice-president in charge of salad.  He likes to wash all greens as soon as they enter the house, spin them dry, wrap them in a towel, put the towel in a plastic bag and stash it in the fridge.  They will keep for a week or more at perfect crispness, and fixing a salad every night is much easier when you can start with the greens all ready.

We always make a vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, plus half vinegar and half lemon juice.  A different kind of vinegar every night gives a little change, even when the lettuce is pretty much the same, coming as it does out of the same towel. 

We try for variety in the greens as well.  Belgian endive and radicchio come from the grocery.  Ken plants spring and fall crops of spinach and arugula, and this month he's started seeds for mache, a variety we've not tried before. 
We like the crunch of croutons, but find that the ones you buy in the salad aisle are too big and too aggressively seasoned, not to mention quite expensive.  Instead, we buy stuffing mix, which yields small bits of crunch with a more pleasant taste.  Additional ingredients that we like, but don’t use every night, include cucumbers, avocado, olives, artichoke hearts, jicama, cheese and pine nuts.

We fix large servings of salad for ourselves, served in our special big glass salad bowls, and must remember to fix less for company (unless the company is our sons, in which case we fix even more).  It’s the pole star in our dinner repertoire, always there, always good, always nutritious.