Monday, February 28, 2011

Krill, the wonder food

Do you know about krill?  Before my trip to Antarctica, I guess I knew the word and sort of what it meant -- tiny fish that are eaten by whales, seals, etc.  But now that I have seen them in real life, I am terribly impressed by those little critters.

Krill are little shrimp-like sea creatures that constitute probably the largest animal species on the planet, by weight.  Supposedly huge populations of krill have been visible from space.  They eat plankton and in turn are eaten by all kinds of larger species.  It's not surprising that small- and medium-sized birds and animals eat these tasty seafood treats, but it is surprising that some of the biggest creatures in the world, whales, subsist on krill too.

Here are krill in the wild.  Actually, these krill have already been partially processed, by penguins.  On one of the rocky Antarctic beaches we visited, these krill were lying around in little piles.  One of the naturalists explained that this was a sign of good times for the gentoo penguins who were nesting on this beach.

They were apparently so well supplied with food that when they went into the ocean to catch krill for their chicks, they were able to fill their craws to overflowing.  As they returned to shore, the slightest bump on the tummy would cause the krill to be regurgitated out onto the beach.

If krill are such delicacies for birds and animals, it's no surprise that people might want in on the deal.  Krill are nutritious (almost half of their weight is protein) and the naturalists told us that there's nothing more delicious than a couple of handfuls fried up in a pan over a campfire.  But they have to be eaten quickly, because they will start to decompose in a couple of hours, and they have to be peeled because their skeletons are high in toxic fluorides.  So commercial fishing of krill is limited to fish food, for aquariums and aquaculture (fish farms).

Guess what -- krill are in danger, from global warming (because they eat the algae that live on the bottom of the pack ice, which is melting) and from rising acid levels in the ocean (because of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thanks to burning of fossil fuels).  We all know what happens when you start to mess with the most abundant and essential element in a food chain, and it looks like we're doing it again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

All-white meals -- a tale of two plates

I've written before about all-brown meals (or sometimes all-white meals) -- something the thinking cook strives to avoid.  But there's all-white and there's all-white.

Here's an all-white meal that I fixed the other night and saved from total invisibility on its white plate with a little parsley at the last minute.  Very nutritious, with fish, potatoes and parsnips.  If you closed your eyes while eating you would be so pleased at its variety and healthfulness.

By contrast, here's an all-white meal that people should be ashamed to be in the same room as.

The happy diner is my nephew Robbie, who had a good time eating off the buffet on our recent cruise, ignoring most of the lovely vegetables, since his parents didn't give him a hard time about his menu choices.  This struck him as a fine plate of food, and its whiteness was a plus, not a minus, for him.  Robbie's father suggests that when he turns 12 next week it would be a good time to start eating vegetables like a grown-up.

Maybe he would like parsnips or cauliflower; they would fit his favorite color scheme.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Diet fried green tomatoes

So who doesn't like fried green tomatoes the classic southern way, with a nice breaded crust that obviously came out ot a pan full of melted lard in the back room?  Except that I don't want to cook them in my back room.  Too much grease to deal with, and of course the caloric load is on the high side.

(I will digress.  I am perfectly willing to eat the occasional high-calorie treat, especially when the underlying food is a vegetable.  Broccoli with hollandaise, cauliflower with cheese sauce, fried zucchini, vegetable tempura, eggplant parmesan, all are wonderful, but you don't want to eat them that way every night unless you're a recovering anorexic.)

I have tried to fix green tomatoes with various kinds of breading and battering, and they all entailed a lot of work, a messy kitchen and coatings that often slipped off the tomatoes.  That's three strikes: a fattening food that is a pain to fix and doesn't even turn out perfect.

Here's my alternative.  Fry the tomatoes in bacon grease, over high heat at first to get them nice and brown, then over lower heat to make them tender.  You can't possibly get this wrong, because the tomatoes taste great whether you cook them almost to mush or leave them almost crisp. 

Then if you want a fancy finish, deglaze the pan with a little Marsala wine and cook it down a minute into a sauce.  It's nice if there's enough sauce to also go on the fish or whatever else is on your plate.  I suspect you'll never have the urge to fix green tomatoes with a breading again.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chili, the overachiever's version

So I was contemplating what could cook all day while I was away, and decided that chili would be a good choice.  And since the contemplation was occurring a full 38 hours before dinnertime, I decided to be an overachiever and for the first time in my life, make chili from dried kidney beans rather than canned.

Why did I have this brilliant idea?  Probably because I have been thinking about sodium, and how we get too much of it thanks to processed foods.  I can't tell you how many hundreds if not thousands of cans of beans I have opened and served in my lifetime, in chili or pasta or casseroles or whatever.  But since I started reading the nutrition labels more carefully, I have been appalled at how much sodium comes in those cans, even if you rinse the beans enthusiastically.

And since this pot of chili had to be started the day before anyway, and since it had to cook quietly by itself all day anyway, why not make it from dried beans?  It would even take less time to dump a bag of beans into a pot than to open four or five cans, rinse and drain them.  (You don't have to soak the beans first, no matter what it says on the back of the package; just put them in a pot of water and turn on the heat.)

The good news is that everything cooked beautifully while I was gone.  The bad news is that without the handy canned sodium, the chili was kind of blah, even though I had used more garlic and chili powder than I would have normally used. 

But we doctored it up at the table with sea salt and a little extra chili powder, and it tasted fine.  Will I use this method again?  Probably, when I think to start cooking the day before and if I have a bag of dried kidney beans on hand. 

By the way, in case you don't have a tried-and-true chili recipe, mine is highly improvisational but delicious.  It calls for a pound or so of ground beef, browned and broken up; two or three onions; and more beans than tomatoes.  Cook it all together for at least a couple of hours, the longer the better.  Of course the key ingredient is chili powder, and I order mine from Penzey's.  I like the regular blend rather than the hotter mixtures, because I think their heat tends to blot out the actual complex taste of the non-pepper ingredients.  I also add minced garlic, but you don't need that.  And in the last decade or so I have stopped using the spoonful of sugar that Ken's mother insisted was necessary.

PS -- Chili is always better with some cornbread on the side.  I use a small box of Jiffy mix and make it in a nine-inch-square pan, which gives you a cake no more than a half-inch thick.  I used to love it with honey but since I gave up sugar I eat it plain, and guess what -- it still tastes great. 

We would probably be surprised to discover that a lot of the discretionary calories in our diets that have become habit aren't all that necessary after all.  Ask yourself, as you're putting the honey on the table, or the sugar in the chili, or whatever fat or sugar trope you indulge in, whether you could go without tonight.  Or at least start eating the cornbread without the honey; you can get it out of the fridge later if you think you really need it.  I bet that half the time you won't.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Latecomer's squash

We all know that the best and easiest way to fix winter squash is to cut it in two, scoop out the seeds, and put it in the oven for an hour or so.  The sugars caramelize a little, and it needs no maple syrup, no brown sugar, no butter, no sticky pecans to make it sweet and delicious.

But what if you suddenly realize it's 6 p.m. and you forgot to put the squash in the oven and you really need to have dinner on the table way before 7?  Here's one solution.

I had a butternut squash, my favorite because of the nice long seedless neck.  I cut off the neck, sliced it in two down the axis and nuked it for five minutes (you would probably need less time; my microwave is 25 years old and doesn't put out as much power as anybody else's microwave). 

Meanwhile I melted a little bacon fat in a frying pan.  When the squash came out of the microwave, I sliced it a bit more than a quarter-inch thick and sauteed it over medium high heat, enough to put a brown crust on one side.  Total oops-to-serving time, 15 minutes.

There wasn't enough cooking time to give that fully caramelized oven flavor, but the bit of bacon grease did give a different richness.  I would do the same thing again even if time were not at a premium, except maybe I'd peel the squash after it came out of the microwave.  The rind doesn't taste bad, but it is pretty chewy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A good breakfast -- was Mom right?

How many times did your mom tell you to eat a good breakfast?  How many times did you tell that to your kids?  How many times have you heard that you should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a gentleman and dinner like a pauper?  How many times have they told you that if you want to lose weight, you should make sure to eat a good breakfast?

Well, maybe all those times were exercises in misinformation.

The New York Times reports that researchers in Germany studied a group of obese adults, plus a control group of normal-weight.  "For both groups," the story says, "a large breakfast simply added to the number of daily calories they consumed. Whether they ate a large breakfast, a small one or none at all, their nonbreakfast calorie intake remained the same."

So if you, like me, occasionally find yourself sitting there at 11:30 a.m. still nursing your tea, not having eaten yet, and maybe just starting to think about food -- don't feel guilty about that good breakfast you missed!!!  Wait for lunch, proceed normally, and feel smug about the calories you didn't eat.