For The Love of Food

by | Jun 5, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week learn the best ways to prevent cancer, why Michelle Obama should talk more about cooking and the reason heating oil is not dangerous. Also, catch Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. on The Colbert Report.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form.

For The Love of Food

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For The Love of Food

by | May 29, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

I’m pleased to announce that I did another guest post, this time over at TwiTip about Twitter and the value of food tweets. I also found some divine homemade pizza recipes, great advice for choosing (and not choosing) smart seafood and an urban legend debunking session. Oh, and I call B.S. on Men’s Health for pretending slightly-less-fattening fast food is “healthy.”

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form.

For The Love of Food

What links did I miss? Share your faves of the week in the comments.

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Is Organic Food Really Better?

by | Mar 23, 2009

organic artichokesIt seems all the nation is abuzz with organic fever. The number of farmers markets has increased dramatically in the past several years, sales of organic products have more than doubled and even the new First Family has jumped on the organic bandwagon.

But in uncertain economic times, some people are asking if the higher cost of organic foods is worth the benefit. And when it comes down to it, what benefit are we really talking about anyway?

When discussing organic food, most people are referring to food that complies with and has been accepted as “Certified Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA’s Organic Standards were set in 2002, twelve years after the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

In order for a food to become Certified Organic, the grower of the food must be inspected for compliance with the USDA’s “Organic Standards” by an accredited state or private agency. Generally this means the foods are free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and have not been irradiated or genetically modified in any way.

There is extensive evidence that adults and children who eat exclusively organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies. How these pesticides can affect your long-term health is not clear, but they are unlikely to make you healthier and may in fact have lasting, negative consequences. If pesticides are a concern to you, organic is certainly a better option.

Beyond pesticides, the benefit of organic foods becomes a little murky. As recently pointed out by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, organic certification offers no guarantee that foods are either better for you or for the planet.

But that is not to say that how food is grown is not important. Soil quality is in fact one of the most significant determinants of the nutrient value of foods. Another important factor is the genetic make up (the strain and variety) of plants being grown. That is, ice burg lettuce will add little value to your diet whether it is organic or not.

But as Bittman points out, the reason Certified Organics “fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers” is because Organic Standards make no mention of how far food may travel from soil to sale, nor do they promise anything about a food’s safety or nutrition. In other words, organic food is not local food.

It is generally accepted that the farther food travels to reach your plate, the less nutrients it has and the bigger its carbon footprint. Slapping a Certified Organic sticker on it does not change this fact. Better than buying Certified Organic is shopping at smaller, local farms that may or may not have the resources to comply with costly organic regulations.

But these subtle distinctions are largely irrelevant to most American’s who consume little, if any, fresh vegetables and fruits. At a certain point, arguing about the costs and benefits of organic produce is of little value. For most Americans, the first step in eating healthier is to focus on freshness.

That being said, there are many good reasons to avoid big agriculture whenever possible, organic or not. Whole Foods organic peanuts were not immune from the recent Salmonella outbreak. Large processing plants come with their own unique set of risks in food production.

Local produce is also better if money is your biggest concern. The fuel cost of shipping organic asparagus from Chile to San Francisco is substantial, as is the price of becoming a Certified Organic grower. For these reasons, locally grown but non-organic foods are less likely to carry the hefty price tag that most of us associate with Certified Organic.

Do you buy organic produce?

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North African Couscous With Beans and Cauliflower

by | Mar 16, 2009

Moroccan cauliflower stewA little over a month ago I published a recipe for a warming Moroccan vegetable tagine. As would be expected from a tagine, the recipe (modified from Mark Bittman’s blog Bitten) contained dried fruit and was spiced almost like a dessert (with cloves and cinnamon) but with a rich, savory undertone.

Last week I tried a thinner, spicier variety of North African soup. Again from the New York Times, this stew was loaded with beans and vegetables and is served on a bed of spiced couscous. More brothy than the tagine, this recipe packs a unique heat that gives it a completely different feel from its richer, sweeter counterpart.

Since North African cuisine is unfamiliar to most Americans, it is my pleasure to showcase its delicious versatility.

I changed the recipe slightly from the original version, mainly in the interest of time. Personally I have no patience for beans to cook, so I used a pressure cooker then added the beans to the soup later rather than cooking them in the broth itself (which takes hours). To replace the bean soaking water that the recipe calls for, I substitute 1 qt chicken (or vegetable or beef) stock and some of the bean cooking liquid. In my opinion, this change does not have a big impact on the flavor. It may even improve it.

Also, after following the original recipe I thought the soup tasted a little dull. I rescued it with the juice of a Meyer lemon, which really highlighted the depth of spice and flavor in the dish.

I made my harissa from a powdered mix I bought a few weeks ago from Tierra Vegetables at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. They told me it is the one used at Chez Panisse (when on the menu). I know, I’m spoiled rotten.

I will provide a recipe here for making your own. If you have a blender or food processor, the recipe is not terribly difficult to follow. You will make more than you need for one soup, but you can freeze the rest indefinitely. It is a wonderful spicy sauce that is great on meats or in stews. I realize that making harissa is a little intimidating, but it is amazingly delicious and is definitely worth the extra work. It really isn’t that hard either.

Alternatively, Whole Foods and other specialty stores often carry pre-made harissa.

North African Couscous With Beans and Cauliflower

Harissa:

  • 6 dried ancho chilies
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed and minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 0.25 – 0.5 cup olive oil

Gently rinse chilies or wipe off dust with a damp cloth. Remove and discard the seeds and tops of the chilies and soak them in hot water for half an hour. Discard the soaking water, cut up the chilies and place them in a blender with all other ingredients except the olive oil. Blend into a smooth paste. Remove the paste from the blender and slowly mix olive oil into the mixture. DO NOT overwork the olive oil, it can become very bitter if you are not careful with it.

Stew Ingredients:

  • 1 large cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
  • 2 cups dried white beans, soaked in 2 qts water overnight
  • 1 qt chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds (or 0.5 tsp ground)
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds (or 0.5 tsp ground)
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds (or 1 tsp ground)
  • 2 tbsp harissa (recipe above)
  • Meyer lemon juice to taste (half lemon)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 cups couscous (whole grain is slightly better)
  • 0.5 cube chicken bouillon
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Kosher or sea salt to taste

Put beans in a pressure cooker and follow the instructions for cooking the kind of beans you are using. In the meantime if you are grinding your own spices, toast them lightly for a few minutes on a skillet then grind them into a fine powder in a spice grinder. Set aside. (You can use these same spices to add to the harissa, just double the amount then split it in half.)


In a large soup pot, heat olive oil and add onion. Cook, stirring regularly until the onions are tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ground spices and 0.5 tsp salt. Cook and stir spices until fragrant, about 1 minute, then add the stock, 1 extra qt of water, the harissa and tomato paste (I recommend the kind in a tube, which keeps indefinitely once you open it). Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Remove 0.5 cup of broth and set aside.

Add cauliflower florets to the simmering broth and cook, partially covered for 20 minutes. Your beans should be done by the time the cauliflower is tender. While the stew is simmering, follow the instructions on your box of couscous and substitute the broth you reserved for 0.5 cup of water, also adding the half bouillon cube.

There is something of an art to getting couscous to cook right. I usually end up adding slightly more dry couscous than the box calls for using the given amount of water. After boiling the liquid and removing it from heat, if when you add the dry couscous to the pot you cannot see individual grains under the liquid surface, then I would add slightly more couscous until you can just see it, like pebbles in shallow water. I know this is vague, but I always have to eyeball it to get it right. It’s not the end of the world if you’re off a little, since this is going into a soup anyway.

Also be careful while your couscous is steaming. Steam it (covered) exactly 5 minutes then fluff it immediately with a fork (be gentle with the grains). Over-cooking or over-watering your couscous will make it clumpy and gummy–not ideal.

When your simmering cauliflower is tender, add all the beans and 1 qt of their cooking liquid. Return the pot to a simmer and add lemon juice, salt and adjust harissa as desired. You may need to add the juice of the entire lemon. It should be bright and spicy. Stir in peas, parsley and simmer 5 more minutes.

To serve, scoop a large spoonful of couscous into the bottom of a bowl and a generous portion of the stew on top. Garnish with additional parsley and harissa.

I am very interested in your experiences with making or buying harissa. Any suggestions or recommendations are appreciated.

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Michelle Obama Brings Healthy Eating to the White House

by | Mar 13, 2009

Michelle ObamaYou can agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s stimulus package, but despite our nation’s economic troubles Michelle Obama is doing everything right.

Quick question: When you voters stepped into the booth on November 4, 2008, how many of you considered the impact of the White House kitchen on American eating values? (Please vote in our sidebar)

* chirp * chirp *

That is what I figured.

I know it was a concern to me, but I am painfully aware of the status food gets on the American political scene and did not expect much to come of it. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind I maintained a hope that Michael Pollan’s landmark letter to the future president elect, Farmer In Chief, would become a campaign trail talking point. I was not surprised that it didn’t, however.

Unimaginably strong powers are involved in supporting the American “standard of living” that for some reason involves consuming twice as many calories as we should (that’s a conservative estimate of how much we are overeating). If you are curious, ask yourself why dairy (light blue) gets nearly 25% of the USDA pyramid calorie allowance when most of the data suggests we should be largely avoiding milk in our diets.

Wishful thinking aside, there was not much talk of food during the campaign. Maybe one or two articles I came across mentioned something about Michelle Obama being interested in organic food (or that folks from Iowa have a distaste for arugula), but nothing ever led me to believe there was any commitment by the Obamas to change the eating habits of Americans.

I could never have imagined that within weeks of being in the White House, the First Lady would openly assert herself as an advocate of healthy, fresh and local foods. According to this inspiring article published recently in the New York Times,

“[Mrs. Obama] has praised community vegetable gardens, opened up her own kitchen to show off the White House chefs’ prowess with vegetables and told stories about feeding less fattening foods to her daughters.”

What better way to encourage Americans to adopt healthy eating patterns than holding the First Family up as a shining example?

Even more amazing is that she directly addresses the common misconception that fresh, healthy foods are a privilege only available to the wealthy. She has praised community vegetable gardens and helped organize efforts to get fresh food donations into homeless shelters.

She has also taken this opportunity to show parents it is critical for children to get proper nutrition through healthy foods. She explains how important it is to make vegetables appealing to kids, so that they are more likely to eat them.

“And when you’re dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they’re fresh and local and delicious.”

The wonderful thing is, there is no question that the Obama’s eating habits are attainable by all families. They are not making sacrifices when it comes to foods they enjoy. Though she spends a good amount of time praising the talents of the White House chefs to make healthy meals she proudly says,

“They can also make a mean batch of French fries when you want it done.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Michelle. If you need any more evidence that she is on to something, just take a look at her!

What do you think of the First Lady’s approach to food and health?

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Healthy Lunch: Moroccan Vegetable Tagine

by | Feb 6, 2009

If you really want to be healthy, you need to find a way to prepare most of your meals yourself. Eating out is fun and if you are careful you can avoid too much damage, but when you find yourself at restaurants multiple times per week chances are you will have a lot of trouble maintaining a healthy weight.

For many people, lunch on weekdays (at work) is one of the hardest meals to make healthy because bringing your own food requires planning and preparation, which is difficult on a busy schedule. There can also be powerful social pressures at the office to do what everyone else is doing, and that usually means hitting up the local restaurants.

I have combated this lunch issue with delicious food and a little planning. During the summer I make seasonal, fresh salads that are the envy of everyone at the office (aka lab). But since tomatoes and my other favorite salad treats are not available in the winter, I have been on a quest to find the perfect cold weather lunch.

Soup has been the winning ticket so far. The chicken chard soup I posted a few weeks ago was satisfying, delectable and lasted me the entire week. This past week I made red lentil Indian style soup following a recipe from Splendid Soups, my favorite soup cookbook (sorry, no post on this one).

This week I modified Mark Bittman’s Moroccan tagine recipe, skipping the chicken and adding some beautiful romanesco broccoli instead. A tagine is a thick and hearty Moroccan stew made with spices, chickpeas and dried fruit.

Normally a tagine is served with spiced couscous, but I didn’t have any so I used red quinoa I found at my corner market, Valencia Farmers Market (24th Street and Valencia). At first I was really mad at myself for forgetting I was out of couscous, but the red Inca quinoa was amazing and in the future I may actually prefer it for a lunch recipe like this.

Quinoa is substantially healthier than couscous, which is not whole grain.

Bittman’s recipe was quick and easy because I made the chickpeas the day before in my pressure cooker. It was simple and perfect for my lunch this week.

But if you want a tagine that is the real deal (harissa and all), I recommend the recipe from Splendid Soups.

Moroccan Vegetable Tagine

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium head romanesco (or cauliflower)
  • 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 28-oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
  • 3 cups chickpeas, cooked (or 2 cans, drained and rinsed)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 0.5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 0.5 tsp ground black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 0.5 cup diced dried apricots (or golden raisins or dates)
  • 0.25 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Bittman adds half a vanilla bean and cautions not to use extract. I didn’t have a vanilla bean so I just left it out. Also it appears I forgot to add the parsley. Feel free to use it as a garnish, I’m sure it would be a nice addition.

Saute onions in 2 tbsp of olive oil until tender and soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and spices and stir until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add romanesco pieces, salt and continue to saute for another 5 minutes.

Add tomatoes, chickpeas and dried fruit and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer. Taste and adjust salt. You can add 0.5 cup of water if necessary, but keep in mind a tagine should not be very fluid. Cover and allow to simmer 30 minutes, or until romanesco is tender. Stir occasionally.

While the tagine is simmering, rinse and cook quinoa according to the instructions on the box (takes 15 minutes). You can also toast your almonds during this time if you haven’t already. I tried to toast mine on a cookie sheet in the oven, but forgot about them (as usual) and they burnt. I toasted a new batch in a non-stick pan on the stove. Toast nuts on medium-low heat without oil, turning occasionally for about 5 minutes. If you prefer to use the oven, set a timer!

To serve scoop half a cup of cooked quinoa into a bowl and cover generously with tagine. Tagine is very hearty, so an additional side dish is probably not necessary. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve immediately.

This recipe has fed me 1 delicious meal per day for 4 days.

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UPDATE: Cheese-filled Bacon Blanket And Meat Cake

by | Jan 29, 2009

UPDATE: New York Times embraces the bacon blanket!

I saw this story a few days ago, but it is now the most emailed story in the New York Times Dining section so I have no choice but to update this post.

Apparently someone decided to take the bacon blanket to new heights by filling it not with cheese, but with more pork. (This pic is their work, not mine).

Is this the most brilliant stroke of genius of 2009?

This writer says yes.

———–

Here’s my original post:


I know I usually post wonderful, healthy recipes for you guys but sometimes it is just as valuable to see the opposite.

They call it a “Bacon and Cheese Roll,” but I think the name sells this creation short by not specifying that they actually weaved bacon slices together to form a bacon blanket.

Impressive.
Part of me believes this could actually kill you on the spot.
I mean, I love bacon and I love cheese, but I look at this and think only one thing:
Why?
And because there is no limit to the perversity of some imaginations, here is a three layer meat cake for your viewing pleasure. (Click the link to fresh99 for the recipe).
Let it be known that the frosting is mashed potatoes and the filling is ketchup and worcestershire sauce.
I can understand a nice steak every now and then, but a slice of meat cake?
Once again I have to ask…. Why?
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Secretary of Food?

by | Dec 11, 2008

An article by Nicholas Kristof today in the New York Times calls on president-elect Barack Obama to rename the Secretary of Agriculture cabinet position, suggesting the new title “Secretary of Food.”

The US Department of Agriculture was originally set up at a time when over one third of Americans were involved in farming. Now less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. Kristof makes the case that the US needs to completely restructure the way government intervenes in food policy, reflecting the new issues that confront our nation.

Changing the title of Secretary of Agriculture to Secretary of Food (in essence, changing the name of the entire agency) would imply that government interest would be for consumers and food supply rather than for industrial agriculture.

Through government subsidies, health standards, farming practices and nutrition guidelines USDA policy has a tremendous impact on how Americans eat, in terms of both quality and quantity. This is particularly important because data on how America’s eating habits are affecting the health of our citizens and climate are staggering.

Currently, USDA policies are profoundly influenced by industrial agriculture lobbyists resulting in a collection of preposterous rules and regulations aimed to boost agriculture at the expense of, well, everything else.

One of my favorite examples of this is the USDA food pyramid. That milk represents nearly 25% of your recommended daily intake (of anything) is absolutely ridiculous and a perfect example of the strong influence of the dairy industry. From a nutrition science perspective, it is impossible to see how such recommendations are in the best interest of American eaters (aka you and me). The economy is important, but our health is equally if not more important.

Whether you agree with Kristof’s argument or not, it is good to be aware of what is at stake when you think about US agriculture and food policy.

On a related topic, Michael Pollan sat down with Bill Moyers recently to discuss his article “Farmer in Chief.” The interview is available for viewing on the PBS website.

Do you trust the current USDA to set food policy?

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Are You Bean Careful?

by | Dec 3, 2008

Yesterday I mentioned that if you are going to use dried beans for cooking you should pick them over for pebbles before using them. Today I want to show you that I’m not kidding.

For my apartment’s last Soup Night I decided to make a recipe I found in the New York Times. The recipe was for Andean Bean Stew With Winter Squash and Quinoa, and it called for a pound of dried pinto beans. Since I was cooking for 20 people I doubled the recipe and bought a full 2 lbs of dried beans.

That’s a lot of beans, folks.

Because of the huge volume I had to be extra careful when looking for pebbles. To pick through beans I like to lay them out on a large cookie sheet, as shown. You can sort through a smaller amount of beans on a solid-colored plate or even in a clear bag on the counter.

As you can see from the top picture, 2 lbs of beans from the bulk bin at Whole Foods yielded 4 not-so-small pebbles.

Finding these little guys didn’t take more than a minute or two, and I guarantee you my guests appreciated the extra effort.

Let this be your warning. I do not wish to send you into shark-filled waters if you happened to be inclined to go buy dried beans this weekend. The last thing I need is a bunch of angry emails from your dentists!

Lentils are known to harbor pebbles as well, so searching for small rocks is a good habit to cultivate with all dried legumes.

The Soup
On the food front, the recipe turned out absolutely amazing! Since doubling the recipe required two whole winter squash anyway, I chose one large butternut squash and one kabocha squash. Both were delicious, but I was particularly fond of the kabocha (just look at that color!). It was denser, but the texture was creamier and the flavor more sweet and nutty than the butternut.

Peeling the kabocha was no easy task, however. I always just use a vegetable peeler for butternut, but on the kabocha the skin was so tough this was not an option. Instead I boiled it whole for 3 minutes on each side (it floats) and took the skin off with a pairing knife. Alright, I admit I had a boy do the peeling.

Does anyone have an easier way to peel a kabocha?

The Andean stew was very hearty, but our guests were not shy about finishing every last drop. I highly recommend it, particularly for a cold winter weekend.

This picture was taken after the quinoa was added but before it finished cooking.

Don’t forget to bean careful!

UPDATE: I have since learned that a kabocha does not need peeling. If it is cooked through the skin is soft and edible. My new favorite trick is to cut one in half, scoop out the seeds and roast it face down for 40 minutes. Mmmm.

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Quinoa: Did You Know?

by | Nov 17, 2008

Quinoa is a seed plant common to the Andes of South America. Because it is not a grass, quinoa is not technically a cereal grain. For nutritional purposes, however, quinoa is considered a “whole grain” and is a fantastic alternative to rice.

Quinoa is rich in dietary fiber, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. But what makes quinoa stand out nutritionally is its protein content. Unlike most grains, quinoa contains a high percentage of the amino acid lysine, making it a complete protein.

A complete protein is a food that contains all essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein.

If you are vegetarian, acquiring all the necessary amino acids from your diet is more difficult than if you eat meat occasionally, because plant proteins are usually deficient in one amino acid or another. For grains, the missing molecule is usually lysine. Quinoa’s high lysine content makes it a nutritional powerhouse for a grain, whether you are vegetarian or not.

Quinoa can be found at many grocery stores (e.g. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and frequently comes in a box. At some stores (e.g. Whole Foods) it can also be found in bulk.

Quinoa is much faster to prepare than other whole grains. As the New York Times recommends, I like to prepare it the same way I make rice. But it needs to be monitored more carefully, since it cooks much quicker. 10 minutes boiling should be sufficient.

I have not been able to find the red quinoa shown in the article. Let me know if you find it!

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