Low-Carb, Low-Fat and High-Protein Diets Equally Useless

by | Feb 27, 2009

A widely publicized study out this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that there is virtually no difference between low-carb, low-fat, high-carb or high-protein diets when it comes to weight loss. I don’t often like to toot my own horn, but if you read my post on Monday about the Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know (see point #10), then this was not news to you.

For several years now data has been accumulating that the relative composition of different macronutrients (fat, carbs, protein) in your diet has little to no effect on long-term weight loss. What makes this study stand out from the pack is how well it was designed.

The Study

This was the largest, longest run study of this kind ever conducted, including nearly 650 over weight individuals of diverse racial, socioeconomic, geographic and education backgrounds. The participants were highly motivated to lose weight and were given detailed instructions on why their assigned diet was considered an effective weight loss strategy (this was to remove bias caused by the media about popular diets).

For you carbophobes out there, the importance of dietary carbohydrates was addressed directly. The amount of carbohydrates in the different diets varied from 35% (very low) to 65% (very high). All participants, including those on the high-carb diet, were instructed to choose foods that had lower glycemic index. Carbohydrate composition had no significant effect on long-term weight loss.

All subjects received substantial behavioral therapy to help them meet their goals, and detailed measurements of health and weight loss were collected from each individual throughout the study. The participants were told to keep food journals and use online support provided, as well as weekly dietary counseling.

Importantly, all the diets resulted in similar calorie deficiencies to promote weight loss. Not surprisingly, after 6 months all the participants had lost a substantial amount of weight, but after 1 year had gained about half of it back. During the final year the subjects had more difficulty sticking to their assigned diets, particularly those assigned the most extreme regimens (very low-fat or high-protein).

Conclusions

Regardless of diet, all participants experienced similar, modest (5% body weight reduction), but clinically relevant weight loss that is mainly attributed to a reduction in calories.

Interestingly, the measure that best correlated with weight loss success was attendance at the dietary counseling sessions.

Since the study is over can we now assume that many of these participants have gone back to their old eating habits? I would bet yes.

What can we take away from this study?

You can lose weight on any diet, but for most people it is very difficult and not sustained. This is because cutting calories is very tough for most people.

This study also suggests that losing weight with standard diets is very difficult and, in most cases, only moderately helpful. It seems future research should focus on how to increase adherence to a lower calorie diet. Gaming the system by manipulating macronutrient composition doesn’t seem to be working.

Why you should focus on whole foods, not nutrients

Another thing we can take from this study is that if weight loss is your goal, calories are what count. (Some of my friends responded to this finding brilliantly: “DUH.”) The nice thing about a diet based primarily on vegetables is that lowering caloric intake is relatively easy. As long as some effort is made to achieve a balanced diet (enough plant protein and fats), satisfaction after a meal can be attained with far fewer calories.

Vegetables are very bulky, highly nutritious and have very few calories. It’s not easy to gain weight when you eat kale, beans and brown rice for dinner.

Like I explained a few weeks ago, since I have focused on health (rather than weight) and a vegetable-based (rather than macronutrient-based) diet, I have lost weight effortlessly. I am also less stressed about food in general, and have completely lost my old cravings for sugar and fat.

Best of all, I do not feel like I have given up anything whatsoever. In fact I would argue I have gained the freedom to eat what I want, whenever I want it. And the food I eat is much more satisfying and delicious. I guarantee you this tagine tasted better than any Atkins bar, rice cake or BigMac.

My life now is much more delicious.

Are you ready to give up diets and focus on health?

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Pea Greens With Carrots And Scrambled Eggs

by | Feb 25, 2009

peas and carrotsThis is exactly why I encourage you all to go to the farmers market. Last weekend I picked up these beautiful pea greens and carrots from Capay Organics and turned them into this magnificent Sunday brunch with scrambled eggs.

I would not necessarily have chosen to put carrots in this mix, but I had them in my fridge and they were so deliciously sweet I couldn’t resist. Besides, having peas and carrots together gave the whole dish a quaint, Forrest Gump-like feel that made me all cozy on this rainy weekend.

If you do not have pea greens, you can easily substitute spinach or any other green. Since the greens are the bulk of this dish, I would recommend you use the bunch, big-leafed spinach rather than bagged baby spinach to get the closest approximation. If you choose a thicker green like chard or kale, you will need to increase the cooking time for the greens. See these recipes for details: chard, kale.


Pea Greens With Carrots And Scrambled Eggs

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of pea greens or spinach
  • 2 sweet, fresh carrots
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 baby leek
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp water
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Crack 2 eggs in a large bowl and add 1 tbsp cool water (tap okay). Use a whisk or fork to beat the eggs until they are frothy. Don’t be lazy, do a good job!

Rinse your greens carefully, making sure no loose dirt is hidden between the leaves. Coarsely chop the leaves and remove the thickest parts of the stems. In my experience, the tendril part of the peas were quite woody, even though they looked thin and delicate. You probably want to remove the larger ones of these as well. If there are flowers in your pea greens, you can keep them to add color to the dish.

Mince
your garlic. Clean your leek and cut it into 0.5 inch pieces.

Peel your carrots and slice them into angled 0.25 inch slices. The angled cut increases the surface area for cooking.

Heat 1-2 tbsp olive oil in large skillet until it swirls easily in the pan. Add carrots and cook 2 minutes, turning occasionally. Add pea greens, sprinkle on sea salt and turn. Allow greens to cook and wilt for about 3 minutes until bright green, stirring occasionally.

Clear a space in the center of the pan and add garlic in single layer. Allow garlic to cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then stir in with the greens. Allow vegetables to cook another 2-3 minutes and remove from heat.

While vegetables are cooking, begin heating another pan on medium-high heat. When the vegetables are finished cooking, add 2-3 tbsp olive oil to the pan and swirl immediately. Add leeks and cook them until they begin to become translucent and just start to brown, about 90 seconds.

Distribute leeks evenly throughout the pan and gently pour eggs on top of them. Sprinkle sea salt and freshly ground pepper onto the eggs. After the eggs have sat in the pan 20-30 seconds, use an egg turner to slowly scrape the eggs away from the sides of the pan, tracing a circle around the edge (where it cooks faster) then into the center. Be sure that no part of the eggs are in contact with the pan for too long. You do not want the eggs to brown at all.

Be patient and move your hand slowly, but do not stop pushing around the eggs until they begin piling onto one side of the pan. Turn off heat immediately when this happens. The eggs will still be runny, but will continue cooking while the heat is off.

Even with heat off, do not allow one part of the eggs to stay in contact with the pan for too long. Move them to a plate as soon as possible.

Transfer vegetables to the plate and serve with a warmed chunk of baguette.

If you would like this to serve 2 instead of 1 person, increase the number of eggs to 4 or 5 and maybe add one more carrot. There will be enough greens to go around.

Have you ever cooked pea greens?

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Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know

by | Feb 23, 2009

winter vegetablesIn honor of the food issue this week at Synapse, I compiled a list of ten essential diet and nutrition facts you might not know:

  1. “Vitamins” are not the same as whole foods. Instant ramen and a multivitamin is not a healthy meal. There is no substitute for a diet of whole foods rich in vegetables, beans, grains and fish.
  2. A healthy diet can prevent or even reverse four out of the six leading causes of death in the US. Evidence indicates that diet is more important than genetics in the vast majority of heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes cases.
  3. The thinnest, healthiest people in the world eat “high carb” diets. But they definitely do not eat the processed, refined carbohydrates that flood Western culture. If you want to lose weight and live longer without disease, eat more vegetables and whole grains.
  4. You get plenty of calcium. Americans consume more calcium than most countries on earth, yet still sport some of the highest rates of osteoporosis. This debilitating disease is more likely caused by insufficient vitamin D, not enough exercise and/or too much protein. Also, excess calcium is linked to prostate cancer and milk to ovarian cancer. Calcium does not support weight loss either.
  5. “Fiber” is not the same as vegetables and grains. Fiber supplements do not offer the same benefits as fiber-filled foods, and do not help with weight loss or protect against disease.
  6. The best sources of protein are plants and fish. It is relatively easy to get complete protein (i.e., all the essential amino acids) from a diverse diet. Protein from red meat offers more risk than reward. (Yes, pork is red meat.)
  7. Fruits and vegetables protect your vision. Both cataracts and macular degeneration are strongly tied to diet.
  8. Fats from factories are dangerous. Processed oils and trans fats (not total dietary fat) are associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. Replacing them with natural oils could save your life.
  9. Fats from plants and fish are essential. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and memory loss. In moderation they can also aid in weight loss, since they increase the satiety you feel after a meal.
  10. You can lose weight on any short-term diet, but you will probably gain back more than you ultimately lose. This is often true even if you stay on the diet. Focusing on long-term health is the best strategy for sustained weight loss, but it requires patience.

What are other common myths about diet and nutrition?

UPDATE: For more information on the health value of oils from fish, please read my answer in the comments section.

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Farmers Market Update

by | Feb 21, 2009

pea greens
As I suspected a few weeks ago, spring is almost here. The hints are popping up all over the place at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Today I bought pea greens, the delicate green shoots and tendrils from a pea plant. They are beautiful, sweet and delicious (I’m thinking lunch tomorrow…). I’m always excited to see these little guys because they are a sure sign of the changing seasons.
white cherimoya
Asparagus, another hallmark of springtime, also made its debut today. The stalks were thick and had a brownish hint, so I didn’t buy any just yet. But it will only be a matter of weeks before the thin, brilliant green spears make their way into my meals.

The most prominent asparagus vendor at the market is Zuckerman’s, and they assured me their famous deep fried asparagus will be available soon. I also got an insiders tip today that Dirty Girl Produce is growing white asparagus for the first time, and it should be available in a couple weeks as well. Exciting!

Brokaw Nursery
has been featuring white cherimoyas for the past couple weeks, and I finally shelled out the $8.75 to get one today. I have not tried one before, so I will let you kwatercressnow what it’s like when it ripens–I was told to wait 3-4 days. The fruit is supposed to be very delicate, so I hope it was not damaged on its journey to my kitchen.

It is rare for me to have an agenda at the market, I usually just buy what looks the best and figure out what to do with it once I get home. Today, however, I was assigned to pick up vegetables for making sushi with my friends (someone else is on fish duty).

In addition to collecting ingredients for the sushi rolls (daikon and carrots), I want to try out this amazing looking miso soup recipe I found this week. I am skipping the noodles and tofu (we already have plenty of protein and carbs), but I bought some beautiful looking watercress and golden enoki mushrooms that should be wonderful additions to this dish.
golden enoki mushrooms
The last thing I will mention is that collard greens are my new favorite vegetable. It is peak season, so I highly recommend you go get yourself some!

Today’s purchases:

  • White cherimoya (Brokaw Nursery)
  • Golden enoki mushrooms (Faw West Fungi)
  • Daikon (Chue’s)
  • Carrots (Capay Organics)
  • Collard greens (Capay Organics)
  • Pea greens (Capay Organics)collard greens
  • Watercress (Four Sisters Farms)
  • Kiwi (Four Sisters Farms)
  • Navel oranges (Hamada Farms)
  • Clementines (Hamada Farms)
  • Meyer lemon (Hamada Farms)
  • Pink pomelo (Paredez Farms)
  • Broccoli shoots (Dirty Girl Produce)

Have you ever tried to roll sushi?

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Features & Feedback

by | Feb 20, 2009

I had a handful of great stories brewing for today’s post, but decided instead to take this opportunity to highlight some interesting things on this blog all you quick browsers and email subscribers may have missed. I also want to gather your feedback on features you would like to see on the new SummerTomato.com. That’s right, soon we will have a brand new name, a brand new look and a brand new website!

I want to start by thanking everyone who has participated in the great conversations we have been having this week in the Comments section of my posts. If you have never visited the comments, we often have very interesting discussions there and I frequently chime in to answer readers’ questions (and ask some of my own!).

Here are some examples of the questions we’ve addressed:

From Karin: I was enjoying a lovely meal of leeks and collard greens and was thinking about this cancer article, and it got me wondering. Should I have mixed in some spinach or something with these greens? I know variety is always better, but do you think it would have any measurable affect on cancer?

From Darya:

@Karin Good question about mixing greens. Yes, technically it might be slightly healthier to have more different kinds in one meal, but if you are eating them all in the same week it is just as good.

From a culinary perspective, spinach is a very delicate green while collards are very hearty. I wouldn’t recommend mixing those specifically. Kale or chard would be a better option, but you would have to work with a more complex flavor profile that might not taste as good. Worth an experiment though!

—–
From Matt: I believe, as Darya touched on above, adopting healthy eating (and exercising) habits now can really pay off in the future…I am at the point now that I don’t know why anyone would continue to eat poorly. I think depression, ignorance, and apathy only go so far…no one is forcing people to eat poorly except themselves.

From Darya:

@Matt I also find it difficult sometimes to understand the fatalistic attitude so many people have toward health. From talking to people though, I think a lot of it stems from the confusion and misinformation that gets filtered to the public about health.

Also, because fresh fruits and vegetables are old-fashioned and “health” food is usually thought of as powders and bars, it has a reputation for being bad tasting. To me this is the biggest irony of all. If I had to choose between my diet and the typical Western diet on taste alone, I would choose mine in a heartbeat (and probably thousands more!).

The myths surrounding the value and taste of healthy foods are what I’m trying to dispel here.

—–
From Greg: Interesting comments, but does anyone else agree that its only a matter of time before modern medicine does away with cancer and heart disease? I mean, people already get heart bypass surgery and cancer surgery, so doctor’s ability to treat this stuff is only gonna get better- I wonder if that influences people about whether they worry about cancer or not….

From Darya:

@Greg You would be blown away if you saw the data on how much more effective food is than “modern medicine” for both preventing and curing most of our chronic diseases. Check out the health books on my side bar.

It is hard for healthy people to comprehend how horrible it is to have debilitating disease for 1, 5, 10 years. You cannot enjoy your favorite activities, you are a burden on your loved ones, your mind is confused and basic functions are difficult. Medicine can do nothing about these things, but food can keep you sprightly into your 80s and 90s.

—–
From Peter:
I must admit, albeit embarrassingly, I am a bit lazy when it comes to food preparation. How much time do you usually spend on a typical dinner prep?

From Darya:

@Peter On week nights I try for under 15 min. I’m ridiculously busy and always starving after my workouts, so I have little patience for extravagance.

On weekends I might take a bit longer, for the foodie in me. My soups usually take 30-60 min, but that’s lunch all week.

—–
From Healthyliving: If I do buy stuff at the grocery store that is unhealthy, is it better to just throw it away? I go back and forth between eating it and throwing it away, even though I know that throwing it away would probably be the best thing to help me fit into my jeans…..

From Darya:

@Healthyliving Great question! When I have junk food I don’t want I just give it to my friends. Most of them will eat anything. Sharing those calories over many people makes them less bad for everyone!


Subscribe to comments

These were just a few examples of the great discussions we have had. If you are interested in this kind of direct feedback, I encourage you to visit our comments section occasionally and participate. If you would just like to listen passively, a good option for you might be “Subscribe to Comments”–there is a link on the sidebar for you to subscribe via your news reader. If you do not have a new reader, I highly recommend Google Reader. I use it to zip through dozens of blogs and news feeds everyday.

Quick Links

Another feature on the sidebar you may not have seen is the new Quick Links section. There I have posted links to my FoodFeed (more on this in a second) as well as links to the major topics featured on this blog:

These are to help you navigate the site better and find older articles. In reality, these buttons are the same as the “labels” links at the bottom of each post. This list is simply the most common labels. You can click labels from any location to find more articles on a particular topic.

SummerTomato.com will be structured by several categories similar to the Quick Link labels. Currently the categories are:

  • Basics – The basic tenets of healthy eating and weight loss
  • News – Health news stories and the latest research
  • Market – Farmers market updates so you know what fruits and vegetables are in season
  • Science – Analysis of the scientific research that is the basis of my recommendations
  • Recipes – An archive of all my recipes
  • Tips – Quick tips and tricks to make healthy living easier
  • Thought – Reflection and opinion on health, news and (when appropriate) politics

Articles at Summer Tomato may be linked into several categories depending on the topic, as well as subcategories for each topic (e.g. Market and Recipes will be further divided into seasons). There will also be labels/tags and a search box for very specific article searches. This structure is designed for easier navigation to subjects that interest you. If you have any suggestions for the navigation structure of the new site, now would be a great time to let me know!

FoodFeed

The other Quick Link I mentioned (“I’m eating…“) is my FoodFeed. You might remember that several months ago I announced that I would post everything I eat (TwEating) on Twitter. I did this to give people a better idea of what kind of foods constitute a healthy diet (and also prove to you that I’m not vegetarian!).

Though I have been TwEating for nearly 3 months, a few weeks in I became aware of a Twitter-related service called FoodFeed, where everyone is encouraged to post their meals. Since I learned of it, I’ve posted everything I have eaten there as well. Now it is possible to follow my meals without following all my Tweets.

I was already planning to show my streaming Twitter feed on SummerTomato.com. I think this is good because it will include both my TwEats as well as all the interesting health articles I read each day–I only post about a small fraction of them on my blog. But alternatively I could have a feed with only my TwEats via FoodFeed. Since this is really just for you guys, I would love to know which you would prefer.

Concluding thoughts

The reason I started this blog and am building a better one is because I want to help each of you eat and live healthier. From what I gather by listening to people, the biggest barriers to health are usually convenience and confusion about health/nutrition science. This is your chance to help me make SummerTomato.com as convenient and user-friendly as possible, so please take a minute and share your opinions.

Thanks for your feedback!

Having My Cake

by | Feb 18, 2009

This past week I mentioned a few times on Facebook that I was going out to eat. Once I mentioned something about meatballs, another time a burger and then fried chicken. The response from my friends was pretty uniform:

“YOU EAT MEAT?!?!”

I can understand the confusion. I spend pretty much all my free time trying to convince my readers that eating more vegetables, legumes and whole grains, while cutting back on red meat and refined carbohydrates will help you lose weight, keep your heart healthy and stave off cancer. My recipes almost never include meat or dairy and, it’s true, I don’t eat much of these things (at least not compared to most Americans).

But I do eat pork, beef, cheese and cake, and I love them!

What really distinguishes my eating habits from a typical Western diet is the quantity and quality of the unhealthy foods I eat, as well as the quantity and diversity of the healthy foods.

As I have explained before, taste is a huge factor in what I decide to consume. I do not eat gross foods just because they are supposed to be healthy, and I do not deprive myself of foods that I love. Instead I have learned to cook myself healthy food that tastes amazing–food I would be proud to serve to friends and chefs alike. My method is to get the best ingredients I can get my hands on, and that involves seasonal shopping every weekend at the farmers market.

I have a similar strategy for less healthy foods.

When I do choose to eat meat, cheese or dessert I do so with the understanding that these foods are treats I cannot take for granted. And because I know they are not indulgences I can (or want) to make very often, when the time comes I make sure that whatever I am eating is unquestionably worth it. In San Francisco this probably means I’ll be having the best ______ I’ve ever eaten in my life.

I never waste my health or time on cheap junk food.

Besides excellent food there are occasionally other circumstances that give me valid reasons to stray off course. For example, once in a while an experience justifies making an exception. In these cases it can be more important to spend quality time with friends or loved ones than it is to have a balanced meal. No one likes a food snob, so when faced with a situation like this I just eat whatever foods I like, relax and enjoy myself. If the food happens to be unhealthy, I make some effort to not eat too much of it.

The reason I do not stress about these situations is because the biggest impact on your health comes from how you choose to eat most of the time, not what you eat some of the time.

Look at any of my grocery lists or recipes and you know that my diet consists of abundant fresh vegetables, legumes, fish, grains and fruit. This is why my cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, iron, body fat and pretty much any other health measure you can think of are so impressive (my HDL is higher than my LDL!). But I do still eat eggs, poultry and cheese on occasion, and sometimes even bread, sugar and red meat.

Most importantly, everything I eat is absolutely delicious and there is no question in my mind I can sustain these habits indefinitely. I never feel deprived of anything. I always feel healthy and nourished. And with the changing seasons, my meals never get boring.

But trust me, if I am really feeling the burger at Absinthe I don’t hesitate to go get me one.

  • Do you think there is room in a healthy diet for indulgences?
  • Is there room for health in an indulgent diet?
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Cancer and Diet

by | Feb 16, 2009

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released their 2005 report on cancer statistics. The web-based report contains official federal government statistics for cancer incidence in 96% of the United States population and mortality statistics for 100%. This is the seventh time the CDC’s National Program of Cancer Registries and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program have combined registries to offer official federal statistics on cancer incidence and mortality for a single year.

Rates of cancer incidence are reported as the number of newly reported cases per 100,000 people. In 2005, the top four most common cancer diagnoses have not changed since 2000 and represent diseases strongly associated with lifestyle factors.

The number one diagnosed cancer in the US is prostate cancer (142.4), followed by breast (117.7), lung (67.7) and colorectal (48.3) cancers. The deadliest cancer is of the lung (52.8), while the mortality rates from prostate (24.7) and breast (24.0) cancer are nearly identical. Colorectal cancer is the fourth deadliest cancer (17.4).

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, with heart disease being the first. Though most of us associate heart disease with lifestyle factors, cancer is usually regarded more fatalistically as being random or due primarily to genetics. While genetics does play a factor in some cancer cases, vast amounts of epidemiological data indicate that lifestyle factors, particularly diet and smoking, can largely account for high cancer rates in affluent countries such as the US.

There is abundant evidence that diets high in animal products and refined carbohydrates, and low in vegetables contribute to cancers of the prostate, breast and colon. A similar dietary pattern is responsible for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. What is striking about cancer, however, is that there are no known drugs that stymie its development. Statins do not protect against cancer, nor do multivitamins.

The best diet to prevent all these diseases of affluence is a plant-based, whole foods diet.

Does fear of cancer impact your eating habits?

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Farmers Market Update: Valentine’s Day

by | Feb 14, 2009

purple-cauliflower

Today is Valentine’s Day and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market was an absolute zoo. The Food from the Heart event was offering $2-$6 tapas plates and wine tastings. The only thing I tried was the Scharffen Berger hot chocolate and fresh whipped cream. Mmmmm.

Despite the chaos, the vegetables were beautiful. I can’t get enough of the leafy greens right now. They smell so good when cooked in olive oil and are very inexpensive and healthy. Perfect food really.

I was excited to see cardoons today at Knoll Farms. Cardoons are a member of the artichoke and thistle family. I have only had them once at a fancy restaurant (I don’t remember which one), and my memory of the experience is vague. When buying them I was told they need to be boiled in an acidic liquid (water with salt and lemon) to preserve their color. They need to be cooked for approximately 45 minutes to make them tender and remove all the bitterness.

From the fruit world I purchased a Malaysian white guava. They looked interesting, so I figured I should try one. It was very fragrant and more mild in flavor than a traditional guava. Really delicious.

I tried a new egg vendor this week too. I didn’t realize I could get eggs from Happy Quail Farms, apparently it is a well kept secret. They were so colorful–like Easter eggs–I just had to buy them.

Today’s Purchases:

  • Cardoons (Knoll Farms)
  • Baby savoy cabbages (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Shallots (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Baby leeks (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Baby artichokes (Iacopi Farms)
  • Mixed eggs (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Bok choy with sprouts (Chue’s Farm)
  • Chinese broccoli (Chue’s Farm)
  • Collard greens (Capay Organics)
  • Clementines (Hamada Farms)
  • Cocktail grapefruit (Hamada Farms)
  • Meyer lemon (Hamada Farms)
  • Navel oranges (Hamada Farms)
  • Sweet limes (Bernard Ranches)
  • White Malaysian guava (Brokaw Nursery)

Happy Valentine’s Day!! What did you eat today?

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Fennel, Tomato and White Bean Soup

by | Feb 13, 2009

The fennel at the farmers market has been particularly beautiful lately. I bought one last week without having a real plan of what to do with it. When Sunday night rolled around and I realized I had not made my lunch soup yet, this recipe from Splendid Soups seemed like the way to go.

I made a few modifications to suit my needs. First, my corner store didn’t have any large white beans dry (I like to avoid canned beans–it’s a taste thing), so I used their small ones. They turned out well, and cooked a lot faster than the big kind. Also, this time of year I can’t help but put Meyer lemon juice in everything. It’s like sugar only better.

One other thing is that this recipe calls for 18 garlic cloves (that’s not a typo), which is essentially an entire bulb. I was taken aback by the number but decided to just follow the instructions. In retrospect it was a little too garlicy for me (stank up the fridge). Next time I might use 10-12 and see how that works. Up to you.

Fennel, Tomato and White Bean Soup

(5 large servings or 8 first course)

Ingredients:

  • 1 fennel bulb
  • 1 medium-sized sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 10-18 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 qt chicken broth
  • 1 bouquet garni (e.g. 2 sprigs marjoram, 1 sprig rosemary , several sprigs parsley, tied with string)
  • 1 cup white beans, cooked until tender (1 can cannellini beans okay)
  • 0.25 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • Juice of 0.5 Meyer lemon
  • Excellent olive oil
  • Fresh ground salt and pepper
  • Crusty bread or quinoa

If you are using dry beans and cooking them in a pressure cooker, you can put them on the stove first and they will be ready by the time this recipe calls for them. I soaked small white beans 1 hour before putting them in the pressure cooker 15 minutes. It takes another 10 minutes or so for the pressure cooker to re-pressurize.

Rinse and remove a few handfuls of the fuzzy greens from the fennel, coarsely chop and set aside. Cut fennel in half longways, cut off bottom, remove core and discard. Lay fennel cut side down, cut in half one more time longways and thinly slice.

Combine fennel, onion, garlic, broth and bouquet garni in 4 qt pot. Gently simmer about 15 min, until vegetables soften. Add tomatoes and simmer another 10 minutes.

Remove bouquet garni. Add beans and 0.5 cup of their cooking liquid. If using can beans, rinse them and do not add liquid. You can use more broth or water if you want your soup thinner. Add parsley, reserved fennel leaves and lemon juice. Adjust salt.

When serving, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with freshly ground sea salt and pepper. Fresh baked country bread is amazing with this recipe, but 0.25 cup of quinoa at the bottom of your bowl is a great alternative.

Let me know how it turns out!

UPDATE: One reader had a bad experience with the rosemary in this recipe. You might consider leaving it out or trying a different herb. Also, saffron is a nice addition to this recipe.

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What To Do With A Tasteless Tomato? Pasta Primavera!

by | Feb 11, 2009

It is no secret that I love summer tomatoes. A big, sweet brandywine in August with some olive oil and basil comes pretty close to my idea of perfect. So on Saturday I fell victim to one of the siren songs of late winter: the perfect looking, tasteless tomato.

I knew there was almost no chance of these tomatoes being good, but I told myself it was my duty to my readers to try all the produce at the market. So I bought one. But the truth is they looked beautiful and it had been months since I had a good market tomato–I wanted it so bad I couldn’t resist.

In my anticipation I sliced it open and took a bite first thing when I got home. Sure enough, it was flavorless. There was no way that I could eat this thing solo like I would have preferred, but I didn’t want to throw it away. Tasteless tomatoes aren’t any cheaper than good ones!

One great way to salvage a bad tomato is by cooking it up with a bunch of fresh vegetables, tossing it with olive oil and garlic and putting it on pasta. Voilà! Perfect late winter (early spring?) pasta primavera.

Late Winter Pasta Primavera

Ingredients:

  • Small head romanesco broccoli or cauliflower, rinsed and cut into bite-sized florets
  • 0.5 cup chickpeas
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 1 medium beefsteak tomato, diced into 0.5 inch cubes
  • 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 0.25 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 0.75 cup rigatoni or 0.5 cup penne pasta
  • Zest and juice of 0.5 Meyer lemon
  • 0.25 cup room temperature water
  • Excellent cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil

Boil 2 qts of water in a pot with 0.5 tsp salt and 1 tbsp olive oil. Add pasta and cook until al dente (about 12 minutes for rigatoni).

Sprinkle diced tomato with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, set aside.

While the water is heating up, add 1 tbsp of olive oil to a pan on medium heat until it swirls easily. Add shallot and cook until it becomes translucent, about 2 minutes. Add romanesco and stir. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and cover, 2 minutes. Remove lid, stir and add 0.25 cup water and cover again. Allow to steam 4-5 minutes, stirring once or twice.

When romanesco is brightly colored and becoming tender, add 1 more tbsp of olive oil and stir. Add chickpeas. After 2-3 minutes, clear a spot in the center of the pan and add garlic. When garlic becomes fragrant (about 30 seconds), mix it with the rest of the vegetables. Be careful not to damage the chickpeas.

Add raw tomatoes, chopped parsley and lemon zest (all) and juice (to taste). Mix. Turn off heat and let stand at least one minute. Tomatoes should subtly wilt.

Add strained pasta to the vegetables in your pan. Toss mixture and adjust salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Have you ever bought a horrible tomato because it looked so beautiful?

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