Simple Gourmet: Fire-Roasted Peppers

by | Sep 28, 2008

Sometimes I feel I have an undeserved reputation for being a brilliant chef. Let there be no mistake, I most certainly am not. A true chef has years of training and a magic ability to turn the good into the sublime. I am proud to know several amazing San Francisco chefs, and I am the first to admit there is not a single thing I could teach any of them about taste or the culinary arts.

So how have I fooled people?

I will acknowledge I have a well-developed gustatory sense. I can tell delicious from ordinary even with a stuffy nose. In fact it was precisely my taste for exquisite food that forced me to learn a few tricks in the kitchen, since financial concerns make it impossible for me to eat at my favorite restaurants every night. To spare myself from accepting the mediocre (which is never okay), I had to learn to prepare my own great food.

In this quest I have discovered a few cardinal rules of food preparation. First, fresh, seasonal, high-quality ingredients are the cornerstone of any excellent dish. Logic dictates that your meal can only be as good as the ingredients from which it was made. They may cost a little extra (though not prohibitively so), but exceptional ingredients are more than worth the price, especially when compared to a night at the Slanted Door.

Second, meat is not needed in a meal if plants are utilized correctly. Ten years ago I would not have believed this, but today I live by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love high-quality meat, poultry and seafood with a passion. But I have learned that they are not necessary on most days to create delicious, satisfying dishes.

Third, most bad food is either overcooked or poorly (i.e., insufficiently) seasoned, or both. Great ingredients do not need much cooking and fresh herbs are a requirement if you want your food to have flavor.

Finally, over the past few years I have picked up several tips and tricks in the kitchen that invariably cause people (myself included) to marvel at my creations. These tricks, which I will feature in a new series called Simple Gourmet, are not extravagant recipes and sauces that baffle with their complexity. Rather, they are little hints to make a good meal great, and turn simple things like salad into something extraordinary. Unleash these tricks on your friends and family and they will literally be eating out of your hand.

Today’s lesson: Fire-Roasted Peppers

We are currently at the height of pepper season and this should make you very excited. Peppers are one of the most naturally rich and complexly flavored vegetable families on the planet. And nothing brings out the deep flavor of both sweet and spicy peppers like roasting them on an open flame.

For those of you with an electric stove, I apologize in advance. You do not have access to fire so you must roast your peppers in the oven, which requires significantly more time. I am afraid my method will be far less useful to you.

If you have a gas stove, turn it on low and simply lay your pepper on the burner (see pic). When the skin of the pepper becomes blackened, use tongs to turn it to another side. Continue to roast and turn the pepper until is blackened on all sides, about ten minutes. Be careful not to let the pepper catch fire or allow the skin to turn ashen white. You will find that words cannot describe the deep, sultry smell of a fire-roasted pepper as its flesh softens and its sugars caramelize.

When the pepper is finished roasting use tongs to move it to a plate or cutting board and allow it to cool, about five minutes. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, grab it by the stem and use the sharp side of a knife to gently scrape off the blackened skin. Do not worry if some small burnt pieces stick to the pepper. Resist the urge to rinse the pepper with water; doing so will remove many of the aromatic oils that give it its flavor.

Once the skin is removed slice open the pepper and cut out the seeds and stem. If you used a spicy pepper be especially careful to avoid touching the capsaicin-filled seeds. The oil can stick to your skin for hours and is easily transferred to other body parts such as your eyes. Use gloves if necessary.

You can then cut your roasted pepper into strips or squares. Try sprinkling them in salads or use as an accompaniment to vegetable and egg dishes for a rich, late-summer flavor. They also pair exceptionally well with goat cheese. Honestly though, the smell alone will keep you coming back for more.

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Farmers’ Market Update

by | Sep 27, 2008

Today was yet another beautiful day at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Not much has changed since last Saturday, however. One piece of good news is that last week I had thought peaches were on the decline, but today they were fantastic! It seems the autumn varieties are still on their game.

Today’s purchases:

  • Charentais melon
  • Emerald beaut pluots
  • Autumn flame peaches
  • Summer squash
  • Fresh eggs
  • Hot peppers
  • Padrones
  • Mediterranean cucumbers
  • Strawberries
  • Baby leeks
  • Wild arugula
  • Rainbow chard
  • Early girl tomatoes
  • Organic coffee
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New Study Says Weight Gain Occurs on Weekends

by | Sep 24, 2008

Do you ever find yourself on Monday wondering if you went a little overboard with the chips and dip over the weekend? And maybe even with those brownies at the party the weekend before? Oh yeah, and that “fourth meal” burrito from El Farolito Saturday night?

If you generally use weekends as an excuse to indulge a little, you are not alone. And according to a study published last month in Obesity, there is a good chance that weekend splurges are the reason you are gaining weight (or at least one reason it is so difficult to lose it).

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis wanted to understand how weekends affect weight fluctuations in free-living individuals under different weight loss plans. To address this, they split participants into three groups and followed them for one year. One group was put on a calorie-restricted diet and another was given an exercise regimen. Both the calorie restricted and exercise group interventions were designed to create similar calorie deficits – 16-20 percent of total baseline energy expenditure for each individual – so that the effects of weight loss induced by each method could be compared. The third group was not given any intervention.

Because one goal of the study was to observe free-living individuals (i.e., people at home and not in a clinic), researchers utilized a comprehensive battery of measurements to determine energy intake, physical activity, energy expenditure, body composition and body weight. For instance, participants were provided with a special scientific scale that was collected at the end of each recording period. Body weights were then double checked on a calibrated scale in a clinic on several of the weight recording days. Duel-energy X-ray absorptiometry was used to measure body composition (lean mass versus fat mass) on multiple occasions throughout the study. Food diaries were kept by the participants to record daily food intake, and they received detailed instructions on how to weigh, measure and record everything consumed. Physical activity was measured with both triaxial accelerometers and urine samples using the doubly labeled water method.

Detailed documentation of variables and outcome measures is critical in experiments where people’s activity is not controlled in a laboratory, because self-reporting—particularly when weight loss and eating are involved – is notoriously unreliable. Though the methods used here do not guarantee accurate measurements, the double and triple validation that the scientists performed throughout the study certainly minimizes sampling biases.

The first interesting observations were found when scientists took baseline measurements during the 2-4 weeks before the experimental interventions began. During this period body weight at baseline increased significantly on weekends and was followed by a non-significant trend of weight loss on weekdays. Unfortunately this resulted in an increase of 0.077 kilograms (0.17 pounds) per week.

This increase may not sound like much, but it amounts to about 4.0 kilograms (9 pounds) gained per year. The authors of the study suggest that this finding may be an artifact of the anticipation individuals feel when beginning a weight loss regimen, because on average people gain less than 1 kilogram per year. Regardless, the finding that weight gain occurs on weekends and not on weekdays is significant.

Also during baseline measurements the researchers found that calorie intake was highest on Saturdays, averaging about 200 calories more than weekdays. Physical activity during this time was lowest on Sundays and highest on Saturdays.

During the experimental interventions, the weekend affect on body weight was still evident. As expected, both the calorie restricted and exercise groups lost weight over the course of an average week. On weekends, however, the calorie-restricted group stopped losing weight and the exercise group actually gained weight. The control group did not have significant weight changes on weekdays compared to weekends.

Interestingly, during the experiment all three trial groups consumed significantly more calories on weekends than on weekdays. Those on calorie-restricted diets ate more on Saturdays, while those on the exercise regimen consumed more on both Saturdays and Sundays. The control group ate more only on Sundays.

In contrast, physical activity did not decrease on weekends during the experiment. In the exercise group physical activity remained constant relative to weekdays. The calorie-restricted group actually increased activity on both Saturday and Sunday. In the control group there was a trend toward more physical activity on weekends.

These findings suggest that weekend behavior has a tremendous impact on weight gain in average people and makes weight loss more difficult for those undergoing a calorie restricted or exercise program. Furthermore, the weekend calorie imbalance is primarily caused by increased eating rather than decreased physical activity.

This research is consistent with that of the National Weight Control Registry report in 2004, which suggests that people whose diets are more consistent from weekdays to weekends are more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off. It also agrees with two studies published in the International Journal of Obesity last month showing that human energy expenditure has not changed in America or Europe in the past 20 years and is still comparable to the amount spent by indigenous populations and even animals in the wild.

The bottom line is that while increased physical activity can aid in weight loss, excessive calorie consumption is the primary reason for weight gain in our time.

This story can also be found at Synapse.

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Surviving Asilomar

by | Sep 23, 2008

This past weekend was my program’s annual retreat at Asilomar conference grounds in Monterey, California. It goes without saying that healthy eating is tough on a retreat because you have very little control over your meals. Over the years I have learned a few tricks to minimize the damage during events like this.

First it is important to accept that the food is going to be awful no matter what. Every meal is bad, the meat is bad, the vegetables are bad, the dessert is bad; so if you are not going to enjoy it you may as well focus on eating as healthy as you can so that only your taste buds suffer, not your waistline.

For this reason I always request the vegetarian meal tickets, even though I am not vegetarian. I imagine this sounds a little crazy to some of you, but please hear me out. Generally the people running the kitchen are picky about giving out vegetarian meals, because they have a limited supply. So it is never a problem to get the regular meal, but you will have trouble getting a vegetarian meal unless you requested it. In other words, having a vegetarian ticket gives you two meal options rather than one. If the vegetarian dish looks gross, you can always fall back on the mystery meat.

That brings me to my next point. Mystery meat tastes bad. Bland vegetables taste bad. But bland vegetables are far better for you than mystery meat, and you have the added bonus of having at least a little bit of an idea what you are putting into your body. Vegetables are also much lower in calories and may even be higher in vitamins (but with vegetables of this quality it is hard to be sure). So the vegetarian dish may be gross, but it is unlikely to be grosser (and frequently it is a little better) than the meat option. The important difference is that in this case, vegetarian is a much smarter decision.

But unfortunately, relying on vegetarian meals is not usually enough to survive Asilomar. Picking through soggy vegetables can be rather unsatisfying and it is a good idea to bring some of your own food to supplement.

I always bring several pieces of fruit, nuts/trail mix and granola. It is also wise to bring your own supply of water. I snack on these throughout the day, whenever hungry. A handful of nuts before heading to the dining hall can curb your appetite, making the gross dessert less tempting after your unsatisfying meal (otherwise it is surprisingly difficult to pass up a slice of cake in front of you, even if you know it will not be good). Fruit, nuts and granola are also a good alternative to the powdered egg breakfast.

Finally, on trips like this I advise skipping dessert. Why bother? Save your indulgences for something that is worth it. Bring your own chocolate or eat fruit if you need something sweet after dinner.

As long as your trip is short, these guidelines can help you make it through without too much collateral damage. You may even lose a few pounds in the process.

I use these same strategies on long flights. I am going to go out on a limb here, but I think maybe airplane mystery meat is a little worse than it is at Asilomar.

What are your favorite tricks to surviving flights and conferences?

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Farmers’ Market Update

by | Sep 20, 2008


Things are changing fast folks! Just look at Capay Organics’ display of watermelon and pumpkin. Winter squash and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts will be dominating the market before you know it. But the summer is not over yet! Melons, stone fruits, figs, tomatoes and eggplants are still plentiful. Get it while the gettin’s good!

Today’s purchases:

  • Cranberry beans (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Brussels sprouts (Iacopi Farms)
  • Heirloom tomatoes (Ella Bella Farm)
  • Blackberries (Glashoff Farms)
  • Bosc pear (Frog Hollow)
  • Warren pear (Frog Hollow)
  • Emerald Beaut pluots (Frog Hollow)
  • Sweet “cheese” pepper (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Padrones (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Pain epi (Acme Bread)

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"Positive Eating" Takes the Nation By Storm!

by | Sep 17, 2008

Apparently the philosophy I subscribe to is called “positive eating” and today it is the subject of a New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope. If you read the article you will probably recognize more than a little similarity between her talking points and many of the posts here on Thought for Food. In other words, Team, it looks like we’re on to something!

Parker-Pope defines the term positive eating as “shunning deprivation diets and instead focusing on adding seasonal vegetables, nuts, berries and other healthful foods” to your plate. Indeed the term seems appropriate, since it highlights the necessity of focusing on adding foods to your diet rather than cutting foods out. Also, the word “positive” implies a healthy, happy relationship with food rather than a negative one where food is the enemy. Thus positive eating means you can both enjoy food and be healthy without sacrificing quality of life. The sad part is that this is news to so many of us.

There are several reasons I think positive eating is more effective (for both health and weight loss) than diets that require a strict adherence to acceptable and unacceptable foods and practices. First, although less healthy foods are not explicitly restricted in a positive eating model, your stomach can only fit so much food (you may snicker at this, but it is true), and if you are filling up with more vegetables and other foods with low energy-density then you will end up eating fewer calories. This principle is called Volumetrics, and it is a very effective means of weight loss.

Second, eating seasonal vegetables, whole grains and a variety of proteins and healthy fats is incredibly nourishing to your body. Subsequently you feel satisfied with less food and are unlikely to have as many cravings later. Deprivation diets, on the other hand, starve you of certain nutrients. Not only does this make your body and your metabolism work less efficiently, it is also a major cause of binging and overindulgence. This is why going on a diet is one of the best predictors of future weight gain: your metabolism slows down and you eat more once you go off the diet. Deprivation is a recipe for dieting disaster, save yourself the suffering and go to the farmers’ market instead.

Third, fresh and healthy food prepared simply tastes absolutely amazing. Most people would be astounded by how delicious a 10 minute meal can be if high-quality seasonal ingredients are the centerpiece. After learning just a few simple cooking tricks, the thought of eating cheap, processed, tasteless food is appalling. It just stops making sense to subject yourself to unhealthy food when it no longer tastes good to you.

Positive eating also offers a lot more flexibility than any specific diet. If you have a healthy relationship with food, you can skip the broccoli if you don’t like it and you can have your favorite indulgence without feeling guilty. For this reason, people are far more likely to adopt positive eating as a way of life rather than a temporary fix to meet some specific fitness goal. This is incredibly important because time and again research has shown that overall dietary pattern is a far better predictor of your long-term health than any single food or nutrient.

Finally, if you are practicing positive eating it is difficult not to get more involved in the food culture of your own community. Going to the farmers’ market puts you in direct contact with the farmers who grow the best food, and there is no better way to feel connected to your personal food chain (to borrow Michael Pollan’s term) and support your local economy. Feelings of community and being a part of something bigger will elevate the importance of food in your life (in the good way, to where it should be), ultimately making you even more committed to following the most healthy (and moral) way of eating.

Positive eating may seem like a foreign concept to many of you, but I suspect it is easier and more attainable than you might think. This blog is specifically designed to simplify and demystify healthy cooking and eating. Your questions and comments are always welcome.

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Health Nut

by | Sep 14, 2008

Some of you have probably noticed that I love pistachio nuts. I cook with them all the time and sing their praises whenever given the chance. For me this is kind of like cheering for the underdog. Pistachios tend to be overlooked because so many articles tout the benefits of walnuts and almonds that we almost forget there are other nuts out there.

I am happy to report that the latest issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has a research paper dedicated to uncovering the benefits of pistachios. In the study, participants were fed a heart-healthy diet and were given either no pistachios, one serving of pistachios per day, or two servings of pistachios per day for four weeks. Importantly, the total number of calories was kept the same in all diets, assuring that body mass index did not change over the course of the study. This is very important when measuring cholesterol levels because weight loss alone can affect blood lipids and is often a confounder in controlled-feeding studies.

Despite the fact that participants were already eating heart-healthy diets, pistachio consumption significantly lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in a dose-dependent matter (9% and 12% for one and two servings, respectively). This means that the more pistachios people ate the more benefit they received. Moreover, total cholesterol went down without a concomitant decrease in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This is encouraging because lowering HDL is an unwanted side effect of many LDL lowering interventions.

Other cardiovascular disease risk factors improved as well, including a decrease in apo B (possibly the best predictor of CVD risk).

Pistachios also contain more phytosterols, potassium, vitamin B-6, beta-carotene, lutein and protein than most other nuts.

Some of my favorite pistachio recipes are already posted on this site. What do you like to do with pistachios?

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Farmers’ Market Update: Indian Summer

by | Sep 13, 2008

Wikipedia says the term Indian summer is meaningless in San Francisco because the weather never changes, but we had a few really hot days recently so I am going to use it anyway. To me, Indian summer represents Summer’s final hurrah, the last weeks of September when fruit gets almost too sweet and the first hints of fall produce begin to appear. Indian summer is your last chance to take advantage of the bounties of summertime before you are reduced to canned tomatoes, frozen berries and distant memories of stone fruit and peppers.

Already we have seen the appearance of pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, grapes, artichokes, pears and pomegranates. More exotic fruits like Asian pears and Chinese dates (jujubees) can also be found. But personally I cannot yet bring myself to buy these items. I am still hungry for melons, eggplants and, of course, summer tomatoes. Alas, soon these beauties will be gone.

This week’s purchases:

  • Red beets (Chue’s)
  • Rosemary (Chue’s)
  • Chinese broccoli (Chue’s)
  • Summerset peaches (Frog Hollow)
  • Emerald beaut pluots (Frog Hollow)
  • Warren pears (Frog Hollow)
  • Flavor king pluots (Frog Hollow)
  • Assorted summer squash (Ella Bella Farms)
  • Ancho chilies (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Mediterranean cucumbers (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Assorted eggplants (Balakian Farms)
  • Dry-farmed early girl tomatoes (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Blackberries (Glashoff Farms)

Summer squash is so delicate it is best prepared as a simple saute with leeks, garlic and basil. Buying an assortment of squash (as pictured) makes for a more interesting dish and colorful presentation. Squash is delicious with parsley, thyme, cilantro and marjoram as well, if basil doesn’t strike your fancy.

Heat olive oil in a pan on medium heat until it swirls easily. Add both the leeks and squash to the pan and stir to cover in oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. After two or three minutes add minced garlic and herbs. Continue to saute until squash is brightly colored and tender, but not dull and mushy. Throw in a handful of spinach when you add the herbs for extra greens. Cook some hot peppers in the oil before adding the vegetables to add extra spice and flavor.

This dish is a fantastic accompaniment to eggs, brown rice and beans, fish or chicken. Garnish with slices of early girl tomatoes for an ideal Indian summer meal.

An extended version of this article is available at Synapse.

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¡Viva Slow Food Nation!

by | Sep 10, 2008

Over Labor Day weekend, San Francisco was host to Slow Food Nation (SFN), a fundamentally gastronomic event that bills itself as “the largest celebration of food in American history.” With attendance peaking at 60,000 (10,000 more than anticipated) over the course of a four-day festival, it is difficult to argue otherwise.

SFN is the first event of its kind in the United States, a subsidiary of Slow Food USA and part of the Slow Food movement. Slow Food was founded in Italy in the late 1980s by Carlo Petrini as a way of combating the encroachment of fast food upon traditional cuisines. As such, the movement is largely political, but is founded primarily upon the principle of gustatory pleasure. Slow Food has dubbed “eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.”

The weekend showcased this principle with literally dozens of activities ranging from political discussions in the Food for Thought speaker series to Taste Pavilions highlighting sustainable growing practices. SFN also hosted a Marketplace, the Slow Food Rocks music festival, Slow hikes, farm tours, Slow dinners, a potluck and the planting and harvesting of the SFN Victory Garden in front of San Franicsco’s City Hall, to name a few.

There is little doubt that SFN was an incredibly ambitious endeavor. For example, the Food for Thought seminar series at the Herbst Theater was designed as a sit-down conversation among sustainable food advocates and icons like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Wendell Berry. Taste Pavilions at Fort Mason allowed visitors to sample artisan cheese, bread, coffee, wine, charcuterie, spirits, honey, gelato and more from across the globe. The Green Kitchen offered simple cooking demonstrations by chefs from local powerhouse restaurants like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, as well as cooks from as far away as Ireland. Taste Workshops included lessons on how to pair chocolate with coffee and how to live the Slow Food lifestyle on a budget.

But for all that was offered, SFN critics hone in on the same condemnation that has plagued the movement from its inception: elitism. The San Francisco Chronicle’s very own blog on the event is a virtual disparagement forum with angry comments like, “Funny how all the limousine liberals won’t do anything about the homeless until faced with the possibility of having to eat among them.” Such comments are evidence that the Slow Food movement’s efforts have done little to assuage their image as a bunch of upper-class foodies with too much time and money on their hands.

At first glance, it is not difficult to see how this impression was formed. Tickets to SFN were not cheap, and were at times staggering. A charity dinner that kicked off the event set the tone at $500 per plate. Each individual Food for Thought session (there were seven) cost $20, Taste Pavilion tickets were $65 and Slow Food Rocks admission started at $69 per day. Indeed, taking part in all the activities would put a hefty dent in anyone’s wallet.

But to point at ticket prices and denounce the event as elitist is to miss the purpose of SFN. First, many of the events were free and even those that were ticketed had a student discount price or other sliding scale option. The prix-fixe Slow Dinners at local restaurants had a range of prices, some of which were as low as $22. Also, many of the dinners were specifically designed to raise money and the proceeds were donated to various causes. Does it count as elitist if it is charity?

Most important, however, was the tone of the dialogue at SFN, which clearly set the goal of extending the accessibility of Slow Food to all individuals across the globe. The Food for Thought sessions (with titles such as “The World Food Crisis” and “A New, Fair Food System”) were expressly designed to begin a discussion about how to responsibly extend the methods of Slow Food to fight global food-related issues that have come to dominate industrialized and even non-industrialized cultures.

Thus, the overarching purpose of SFN was not to elevate the palates of average consumers to appreciate fine wines and cheeses, but to teach that Slow Food is a way of thinking and a way of life that we are all capable of embracing. Perhaps the most telling hint as to the intentions of the SFN founders was from the tremendous effort put forth at each of the activities to have visitors sign the Food Declaration (fooddeclaration.org), a visionary statement to help correct 21st century food, farm and agriculture policy. The idea behind the declaration is that the basic tenets of our national food policy contribute substantially to the global food crisis and that these issues must be addressed on a countrywide level if the problems are to be resolved. Ultimately the petition will be presented to Congress.

Call it what you will, but an earnest participant at SFN would deem the event a triumph of political activism, culinary brilliance and community enrichment. But it is critical to remember that Slow Food is just beginning here in the United States and will be ineffective unless it is able to touch the lives of ordinary people. To accomplish real change, the movement needs to shift into the hands of community members who participate by making daily decisions that contribute to the health of themselves, their families and the environment.

If you are interested in making a difference, a great way to start is by voting with your fork and choosing local, organic and sustainable food.

This article can also be found in Synapse.

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Read This

by | Sep 10, 2008

For those of you who don’t know, Marion Nestle–nutritionist and food policy guru–has a new weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle. She is generally full of great advice, but I particularly like this week’s column where she comments on Michael Pollan’s philosophy to eat food, not nutrients. I encourage you all to read it.

It is also Marion Nestle’s birthday today. Happy birthday Marion!

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