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8 Inspiring Places To Find Recipe Ideas

by | Apr 27, 2011
Foodie Inspiration

Foodie Inspiration

Healthy eating and cooking for yourself go hand in hand. If you have the resources it is possible to eat healthy while dining out, but restaurants that don’t use processed foods can be difficult to find and tend to be pricey. They also limit you to a handful of different dishes that can become monotonous if you rely on them for most of your meals.

But keeping your healthstyle interesting can be a challenge even if you cook for yourself. Although shopping in season inevitably rotates you through new ingredients over the course of the year, we can still slip into the pattern of making the same dishes over and over again. And while repetition can be easy and comforting, it can also be problematic.

Monotony and boredom are your enemies if you are trying to make healthy eating a way of life; junk food will be extra tempting simply because it’s more interesting than the same boring meal you’ve had 10 times before.

To keep yourself from getting in a cooking rut you must actively seek inspiration for new dishes and flavor combinations. This is true for both kitchen newbies and seasoned chefs, and it gets easier with practice. The more you learn to outsource your creativity and experiment, the better you get at finding meal ideas in your daily life.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. These are some places I often find new ideas, but you are only limited by your imagination.

8 Places To Cook Up Recipe Inspiration

1. Farmers markets

My number one source of inspiration is always the beautiful produce and other goodies I find each week at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Not only do I often find interesting new ingredients to experiment with, I also find familiar foods that look so fresh and delicious I can’t help but buy them and turn them into something wonderful.

If you are thinking about buying something but do not know how to cook it, ask the vendor for ideas or common preparations. I recommend you get anything that looks new and interesting, since most vegetables are relatively cheap and Google puts a universe of recipes at your fingertips.

2. Restaurants

Most major cities (San Francisco especially) are home to amazingly talented and innovative chefs of all different styles and flavors. Steal their ideas! If you have a memorable meal while out on the town, take mental notes on the flavors and textures that capture its essence. You don’t have to be able to recreate it exactly at home, but you can definitely borrow the concept, simplify it and adapt it to your own skills and needs.

For example, I was recently struck by a dish at a spectacular restaurant that was composed of beets with dill–a flavor combination I had never tried. The dish was technically complicated and I wouldn’t bother attempting to make it the same way, but later that week I did roast some beets and change up my usual recipe to include dill instead of mint (sans chèvre). Turned out fantastic.

3. Food blogs

The number of outstanding food blogs today on the interwebs is staggering, and I love to skim through them looking for wonderful recipe ideas. I can’t even begin to list all my favorite sites here, but I try to highlight at least one mouthwatering recipe each week in For The Love of Food posts.

4. Travel

Nothing inspires enthusiasm for new flavors and recipes like traveling to a different locale. Eating traditional cuisines–the way they are supposed to be made–is one of the most intimate and meaningful ways to engage with a culture. Learn a few of the cuisine’s basic ingredients and cooking techniques and you can bring a tiny bit of your experience home with you. Think of this process as a procedural photograph you can use to remember your trip.

Again, you don’t have to recreate dishes exactly the same way in your own kitchen. Sometimes just a single special ingredient can evoke an entire cultural experience.

5. Friends

We all have that friend who is an amazing cook (love you guys!). Not only does this person sometimes hook you up with delicious treats, chances are your foodie friend also loves to talk about food and cooking. This is a goldmine for new ideas and sometimes even a little help and guidance. Maintain a healthy, food-centric relationship with this person and watch the inspiration roll in.

(Hint: If you don’t have a friend like this come hang out with me on Twitter @summertomato)

6. Books

Cookbooks are wonderful but, to be honest, I rarely use them. The reason is that I’m usually too busy to bother lugging the giant things off the shelf and thumbing through them for something specific. I usually either wing it in the kitchen or search online for what I need.

Literature, however, can be a huge inspiration for me to try out new things in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie that I really started exploring Indian cooking. The Last Chinese Chef helped me learn to appreciate the depth of Chinese cuisine. And I cannot eat enough Spanish tapas when I’m reading Hemingway.

7. Podcasts and radio

I love Mondays because all my favorite food podcasts are waiting on my iPhone for me to listen to on my commute. Both entertaining and educational, foodie podcasts never fail to inspire me to try new foods and cooking methods. They also make me a better cook by describing tips and techniques I am unfamiliar with.

8. TV

Although I do not watch TV regularly, there was a time when I would catch a periodic episode of Top Chef or other foodie show. What I enjoyed most about these programs was the times they would explain the decision making process that goes into creating a dish. But even if culinary improvisation isn’t in your cards, you can at least borrow their ideas (just like at a restaurant) and make similar meals for yourself at home. The recipes used are often posted online.

You can also get meal ideas from TV dramas and sitcoms. Remember Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi? That’s where I first learned about mulligatawny.

Recipe inspiration can come from anywhere, but if you aren’t looking for it a stroke of genius may pass you by.

Where do you get your inspiration in the kitchen?StumbleUpon.com

Originally published February 24, 2010.

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Can You Live Longer By Cutting Calories?

by | Mar 30, 2011

Photo by Werwin15

Photo by Werwin15

The science of aging is among the most dynamic and provocative in modern biology. Over the past two decades we have seen a virtual explosion in research investigating the molecular and behavioral systems that control the aging process. But the more researchers uncover about the science of aging, the more questions emerge.

Dietary restriction has long been considered the most potent regulator of aging. Restricting food intake by any means induces a series of metabolic changes in organisms from yeast to primates that serve to extend life. Studies are currently underway to investigate the ability of dietary restriction to extend life in humans.

Several biological changes are known to occur upon the onset of dietary restriction including a decline in reproductive ability, increased stress resistance and a slowdown of some metabolic processes.

Insulin signaling was among the first molecular pathways to be identified in the regulation of aging, and offered a direct tie between diet and the aging process.  In 1998 UCSF scientist Cynthia Kenyon showed that removing an insulin receptor gene (daf-2) in worms could double their lifespan. Her lab later showed that removing another insulin signaling gene (daf-16) could extend life even longer. I spoke to Kenyon about the relationship between diet and aging for this article.

Blocking insulin signaling in these worms did not just prevent the worms from dying and allow them to age longer. Instead the aging process actually slows so that older worms continue to behave like young worms. Also, as these experiments were repeated in different animals, it was shown that lowering insulin signaling also helps protect animals from stress and diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Insulin is released as a direct response to glucose in the blood. This means that any time you eat a meal with carbohydrates, you are increasing your insulin signaling and likely accelerating aging. But this does not mean that you will live forever if you stop eating carbohydrates.

Interestingly, protein metabolism also contributes to accelerated aging, but through a different mechanism. Even more intriguing is that restricting protein increases lifespan to a greater extent than restricting sugar.

So is it simply calories that promote aging?

Probably not. For one thing, the effect of a calorie from protein is greater than a calorie from carbohydrate, making it unlikely that a calorie is the basic unit of impact. Second, there is evidence that calories are not required to accelerate aging.

Recent studies have shown that the mere act of smelling food can reduce lifespan. The mechanism for this effect is still unknown, but seems to be tied to respiration.

According to Kenyon it is clear that “sensory perception influences lifespan,” at least in worms and flies.

Thus it is likely that aging is controlled by the interaction of several pathways, including metabolism, respiration and stress. Importantly, however, lifespan seems to be dependent on a handful of specific pathways rather than global changes in cellular function or breakdown. The idea that aging is an inevitable function of time must be put aside given the evidence that it is controlled at a genetic and environmental level.

This makes sense when you think about it. Different organisms exhibit vastly different lifespans and rates of aging that are too great to be explained by some kind of universal cellular breakdown. A more parsimonious hypothesis is that organisms differ in specific genetic factors that, combined with environmental influences, regulate lifespan.

So how should we mortal humans react to these findings?

The genes linking diet and aging are highly conserved through evolution, indicating that there is a great chance human aging is sensitive to diet. Indeed, insulin-related genes have been found to be important in long-lived human populations. This suggests that the pathways discovered in worms and other organisms have similar functions in humans.

What is not clear is how much influence diet has on lifespan and to what extent we are able to manipulate it. It is already known that abnormal insulin activity in humans is linked to higher disease rates, especially “diseases of civilization” such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and cancer. And these diseases are clearly associated with diets rich in processed foods, especially refined carbohydrates.

The effect of protein consumption on lifespan in humans has yet to be investigated. Envisioning an experiment that would test the influence of smelling food on human aging is difficult to even imagine.

Although direct evidence is not available, there is good reason to suspect that a diet with low glycemic load may extend human lifespan. In November 2009, Kenyon’s lab reported that adding glucose to a worm’s normal diet shortens lifespan, but has no effect on the long-lived worms that lack insulin signaling genes daf-2 and daf-16. This discovery prompted Kenyon herself to adopt a low-carbohydrate diet.

Despite this there is still not sufficient evidence to recommend a calorie restricted diet for humans to extend life, largely because optimal nutrition levels for a given individual are unknown. However, most people would benefit vastly by eliminating processed foods and refined carbohydrates from their diets as much as possible.

Focusing on fresh, whole foods, enjoying an occasional glass of wine, avoiding smoking and getting regular exercise can add 14 years to the life of an average person. Maintain a healthy weight as well and your outlook gets even better.

Would you change your diet to be healthier and live longer?

Originally published February 3, 2010.

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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Advice from SF food critic Michael Bauer

by | Jul 7, 2010

by Misserion

a-dogs-dinner

Most of us take it as given that eating out makes us fat. Modern restaurants are famous for super-sized portions and customers with over-grown bellies.

But renowned San Francisco Chronicle food critic, Michael Bauer, recently took issue with this assumption. In his blog post Eat Healthy, Eat Out Bauer argues that rather than compromising his health, his daily restaurant habit keeps him healthier than the majority of American homebodies.

To find out more about his eating habits, I asked Bauer to share with Summer Tomato readers how he manages to stay healthy while eating out almost every single day.

(This post is part 4 of the series How To Healthy Eat In Restaurants, originally published July 27, 2009. The rest of the series includes Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food), Neighborhood Convenience, Sit-Down Chains and Truly Special Occasions.)

For a food critic, eating out is a way of life.

Bauer eats dinner in a restaurant every night of the week, always orders three courses and usually eats with a friend. He re-patronizes the same restaurants over and over until he has tried nearly everything on the menu–always with a cocktail and frequently with a glass of wine.

There is no escaping high-calorie and decadent food on his diet.

So how exactly does he keep himself healthy?

“Here, we’re blessed with great produce, which makes it easy to eat out and eat well.”

Without a doubt the Bay Area has fantastic farmers markets that make healthy eating a piece of cake, so to speak. But portions at restaurants can also be problematic.

Bauer is careful to distinguish between large chain restaurants and the independent establishments where he dines. High-end Bay Area restaurants show more restraint and offer more reasonable portions than places like Denny’s. This too comes from the difference in food quality.

“Many chains can’t afford to (or don’t) buy pristine seasonal products. Instead they rely on fat, sugar and salt to make foods palatable.”

Better ingredients mean smaller portions and balanced meals. But some of us still find ourselves overeating in restaurants, even here in San Francisco.

“In the Bay Area we love our fried chicken, pork belly and pate, but we also equally embrace vegetables and moderation, which is key.”

Moderation is the holy grail for eating what you want. But it is often easier said than done, especially at fabulous restaurants. Bauer has taught himself not to eat everything he is served, though he grew up in a household “where you clean your plate.”

He says this habit of portion control has evolved naturally over the course of his career, but when pressed further he confessed that his motivation for self-restraint does not always stem from a desire to be healthy. Instead it sits patiently in his home, anxiously awaiting his return.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I start to feel really guilty if I come home without something for my dog.”

Extra meat and other leftovers from Bauer’s meal never go to waste, nor do they add to his waistline. It seems his dog’s taste for high-end dining is Bauer’s biggest diet secret.

Sheba and Bella

Sheba and Bella

Those of us without pets can mimic this tactic by substituting children, roommates, family members, co-workers and even your-future-self-at-lunch-tomorrow as our own calorie-saving opt-outs. The point is to do something to prevent yourself from eating everything in one sitting. Practice moderation and you can eat whatever you like, it does not matter where you get your inspiration.

Bauer admits that small portions and high-quality ingredients are not the only things that keep him svelte. He skips breakfast (though this was muttered with a hint of shame) and only eats a light salad or soup at his desk for lunch.

“I’m also pretty religious about working out every morning on the treadmill. I set the goal of burning 500 calories.”

Having a fast metabolism doesn’t hurt either.

Overall Bauer finds his health by living a balanced life full of nutritious meals, reasonable portions, plenty of exercise and an affectionate relationship with what sounds like the best-fed dog in the city.

Do your pets help you upgrade your healthstyle?

Michael Bauer is the executive food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. Read his blog Michael Bauer and follow him on Twitter @michaelbauer1

Also see the commentary in The New York Times Well blog by Tara Parker-Pope.

Correction: This post was changed to correct an error. Bauer normally eats dinner with a companion, not by himself.

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions

// ]]>

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Cooking Up Inspiration: Daniel Patterson of Coi

by | Mar 1, 2010
Photo by Robb North

Photo by Robb North

Finding inspiration to cook something new at home is not always easy, but with a little practice you can learn to pick up recipe ideas from common things in your everyday life.

Daniel Patterson, chef/owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Coi restaurant, elevates this concept of finding inspiration from daily life to an art form. I asked Patterson about the thought process that goes into creating dishes for the menu at Coi, and how a regular home cook may try to use these principles to inspire his or her own cooking.

At Coi, every dish has an organizing idea. Patterson strives to connect the eater to a particular concept, which may integrate culture and nature, or people and place.

“The idea is so important to me. Cooking is a form of communication.”

A recent addition to the menu at Coi is a dish that Patterson explained as a “foodscape,” evocative of a certain place at a certain time, with a particular feeling. He wanted to capture the essence of late fall into winter in a rural place, when the rains have come and the fields are green. It was intended to evoke the feeling of an older world, where there may be the smell of things like hay, barn and pasture.

To convey this feeling Patterson used hay to flavor the dish, which he recently described in detail in San Francisco Magazine.

Cooking things in hay is a traditional practice. Typically in Europe, big cuts of meat will be roasted in hay, which accomplishes two things: it insulates to preserve heat, and it imparts flavor.

Lamb is something that was traditionally cooked in hay. Patterson wanted to work within this tradition, but reinvent the idea for modern Bay Area diners. Instead of lamb or other meat, Patterson used the hay to flavor carrots, which are extraordinary here locally.

“We look at how things are done traditionally, but bring them into our reality and make them vivid for contemporary palettes.”

Integrating old-world cooking techniques and re-imagining them as contemporary dishes imparts both emotional depth and energy to foods.

But such innovation need not be limited to 4-star kitchens. A home cook can also borrow from cultural traditions and reinvent recipes to reflect ingredient availability and personal preferences.

According to Patterson, you can find inspiration by reading cookbooks and going to markets. “Have curiosity, that is the most important thing.”

Local ingredients are the easiest way to begin. “Cook greens simply with a little rice wine vinegar then think, ‘What would go with that?’ Maybe chicken. Then continue on from there.”

In this way, Patterson says cooking should be intuitive. Yet he acknowledges that we are not starting with the same level of knowledge about food as our ancestors did.

“We need to rebuild our connection to cooking. No one knows what things should taste like anymore. We’re starting disadvantaged compared to our ancestors in the tradition of cooking.”

But as long as we start with simple, fresh ingredients it is possible to learn a few techniques or preparations that can be the foundation for several dishes. Once we have these down we can add complexity and build upon the things we’ve learned.

“Go get any kind of greens. Cook until tender, chop them up, throw them on pasta with some lemon zest and chili flakes, then you’ve created a template that you can use any time you see greens.”

Patterson thinks it is possible for us to reestablish our connection to food culture and give the next generation the advantage most of us never had.

“People cooking with their kids is the best thing they can do. This will be our salvation. My kid will have no taste memory of an industrial food product. Then when he’s older those foods won’t resonate, won’t taste like food.”

The possibility that a new generation of children could grow up without dependence on industrial foods is, of course, Jamie Oliver’s now famous TED Prize wish. That we are now able to even have this discussion, which was probably not possible even 15 years ago, is an inspiration in itself.

What inspires you to cook?

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Learning To Eat Less: How Understanding Your Brain Can Make You Healthier

by | Sep 16, 2009

the-end-of-overeatingIn a nation where obesity and health loom large in our public dialog, there is no escaping the simple fact that we eat too much.

On average Americans consume 500 more calories per day than we did in 1970 (more than we ever have), mostly in the form of refined and processed foods. This corresponds with a 25-30 pound increase in body weight and obesity rates near 30%.

Debates rage over the specifics of what is causing our weight and health problems, but it seems clear enough that the critical element is the amount of food we choose to put in our mouths.

But does everything we eat represent a true choice?

In his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler examines the role of the brain in eating behavior and the mechanisms involved in what he calls conditioned hypereating.

According to his findings specific combinations of sugar, fat and salt hijack the reward pathways of our brain and force us to behave more like food addicts than hungry organisms. This leads to a cycle of conditioned hypereating that makes the habit harder to break with each repeated episode.

But whether or not we are addicted to food is a point of debate. In my interview with Kessler, he made clear he does not use the word addiction for fear of oversimplifying conditioned hypereating. Our relationship with food is more complicated than it is with something like alcohol or tobacco because a human can live without cigarettes, but food is vital to survival.

When pressed to describe the neural differences between addiction and conditioned hypereating, however, Kessler conceded, “The fundamental circuits are the same.”

For this reason, treatment of conditioned hypereating can draw from the success of substance abuse treatments. These tactics involve cognitive and behavioral therapies we can use to train ourselves to override our instincts and adopt new behaviors in response to stimulus cues.

For conditioned and compulsive behavior, cognitive strategies are necessary because intuitive inclinations and “listening to your body” do more harm than good. If your body is telling you to have a cigarette, this does not mean it is in your best interest to do so.

At the FDA Kessler was instrumental in the fight to regulate tobacco, and now he believes some of the same lessons can be applied to the treatment of overeating.

“What took me a decade to understand is you need to change the valence of the stimulus.”

The positive emotional reaction associated with indulgent foods is at the center of our motivation to seek them out. Twenty years ago cigarettes had tremendous allure. But the FDA was successful at demonizing the tobacco industry, and the public no longer sees smoking as glamorous and attractive.

And smoking rates have plummeted.

Changing a conditioned behavior requires a fundamental shift in how we think about a stimulus. In conditioned hypereating the stimulus is food, which makes the task especially difficult, but not impossible.

To break the cycle of conditioned hypereating we must redirect our automatic response to the kinds of foods that cause us to overeat. Kessler calls these hyperpalatable foods, which are loaded with layers upon layers of sugar, fat and salt. The goal is to replace our automatic responses to these foods with different, equally enjoyable actions that are not detrimental to our health and do not reinforce compulsive behavior.

I asked Kessler what is the first step in controlling our eating habits and overcoming conditioned hypereating.

“I can tell you the last step. Change your relationship with food. If sugar, fat and salt are your friends, you will lose. You have to get to the point where that is not what you want.”

The End of Overeating outlines the four basic steps of habit reversal: awareness, competing actions, competing thoughts and support.

But Kessler believes the critical step is fundamentally changing the way we view what we eat, cooling down our emotional response to hyperpalatable foods. In essence, we must train ourselves to stop wanting what we believe we want.

According to the book, the first step in this transformation is becoming aware of the power food holds over us, which requires understanding how our brains work. We must recognize that when we are tempted to indulge, the urge is not generated internally but is a reaction to a cue that makes us respond automatically. You may think you are hungry, but really you are just reacting to an emotionally charged stimulus that tells you to eat.

Once you recognize a cue for what it is you have a brief moment to decide not to take the bait. To successfully divert yourself to another course of action you must have a plan ready in advance that allows you to do something completely different.

Considering alternative activities and the reasons you might prefer them can help you tremendously at this point of decision. Rather than focusing on the positive emotions you will experience by giving in to your desire for hyperpalatable foods, also remember the negative emotions that follow if you give in and the positive aspects of the alternative action.

For instance, it may help to remember that every time you get cued and give in, you are strengthening the neural circuitry that compels you to this behavior in the first place. If you even briefly entertain the possibility of indulging, you create a state of ambivalence that leads to torment, obsession and cravings. However, when you successfully divert your attention to another rewarding activity you have made a small step toward cooling down the positive valence of the food.

It is the state of mental torment and ambivalence that increases the positive emotional charge of a food, building and strengthening the neural reward circuitry that causes conditioned overeating. This may be one of the reasons dieting almost always results in long-term weight gain, since constant deprivation makes hyperpalatable foods more difficult to resist and creates severe anxiety.

Mentally, the best strategy to overcome conditioned hypereating is to develop new, positive associations with food that are independent of palatability–something you care more about than the fleeting reward of overeating. Kessler says this is a deeply personal process and must reflect an individual’s own set of values. For example, it helps some people to become vegetarian, while others value organics or local food. These decisions remove virtually all hyperpalatable food from the lives of people who choose these paths.

It also helps to develop aversions to hyperpalatable foods. Some may learn to demonize “Big Food,” while others turn away after educating themselves about health concerns. Developing a more sophisticated culinary palate can help make hyperpalatable foods less palatable. Kessler himself developed an aversion to over-sized portions, which he now sees as repulsive piles of sugar, fat and salt.

Developing positive associations with healthier foods while demonizing the hyperpalatable foods we have been conditioned to crave can fundamentally change your emotional response to stimulus cues. As you learn to recognize your brain’s response to cues, you can override conditioned behavior by consciously deciding to take alternative actions because you want to.

You will never win an internal battle with yourself. Instead use what you know about the brain’s reward system and give up trying to summon willpower to resolve the torment of conflicting desires. Reprogram your habits by closely examining your relationship with hyperpalatable food and begin making deliberate decisions that are consistent with your goals, breaking the cycle of conditioned overeating.

To read more about conditioned hypereating and habit reversal read The End of Overeating, by Dr. David Kessler.

Have you read The End of Overeating? Have you overcome conditioned hypereating?


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