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Why I Make Homemade Baby Food

by | Feb 1, 2010
Riley and Root Veggies

Riley and Root Veggies

Today I am honored and humbled to have longtime friend and colleague Jennifer Freese share her healthstyle transition from not-so-healthy scientist to thriving new mother.

Jennifer was blessed (cursed?) with the gift of proximity. She sat in the desk and worked at the lab bench directly adjacent to mine for four years at UCSF. As a result she saw firsthand how I gleefully integrate healthy living into my freakishly busy schedule.

Jennifer’s story is the perfect example of how small, gradual and customized changes can transform your life. She started shopping at the farmers market so she could bring fresh produce to make beautiful salads at work (I’m famous for this in the lab). She started jogging regularly, although she swore she could never be a runner. She even switched a few meals a week from red meat to fish, despite her Midwestern roots!

Last year Jennifer had her first child, and is now imparting her healthy lifestyle to her new daughter. I’m thrilled to have her share her story with you.

Homemade Healthstyle: Lessons In Making Baby Food

by Jennifer Freese

I was lucky enough to work with Darya in the Pleasure Lab for four years. It’s hard not to be influenced by her passion for food and a healthy lifestyle. Not just the book recommendations and exercise tips, but watching her effortlessly practice habits which to me seemed impossible. Seeing her live and eat changed how I think about food.

Darya taught me about healthy eating and how to really integrate it into my life. I now love shopping at my local farmers’ market almost every Saturday. I fill my plate with vegetables and eat whole grains I had never even heard of before. Since I do the grocery shopping and a majority of the cooking for the house, my husband has necessarily upgraded his healthstyle as well. And now I’m passing this lifestyle on to the newest member of our family, my daughter Riley.

When my daughter was a few months old we went over to a friend’s house for dinner. I was stunned to see my friend whip open the cabinet and presented her toddler with mac n’ cheese (pop off the top and serve), a handful of yogurt melts (freeze dried yogurt), a banana, and toddler formula.

It was the most highly processed, colorless meal I’d ever seen.

That evening, I thought about how easy it is to go from the jarred pureed baby foods to the now popular grab-and-go toddler foods to adult TV dinners and fast foods. I vowed that when my daughter started solid foods I would do things very differently. I’d already toyed with the idea of making my own baby foods, but it seemed like a lot of work. However, I decided that shaping her tastes early with fresh foods was worth the effort.

Learning to cook for a baby required some research and planning. There are many opinions on how to introduce solid foods to babies and as a scientist I was compelled to read up on all the theories. I am happy to say that Riley enjoys most of the foods I’ve presented to her. In hindsight I think all the time I spent deciding what should come first–pears or peas–wasn’t worth the worry.

Most of the recipes for first foods for babies are the same: steam the fruit or vegetable until very tender, blend and serve. My husband gave me a fantastic gift for my 1st Mother’s Day: the Beaba Babycook and the Cooking for Baby cookbook. The Babycook is a steamer/blender/defroster all in one that I use almost daily. The cookbook has given me recipe ideas beyond simple pureed foods, suggestions for tasty combinations and flavoring with spices and herbs.

Obviously making baby food takes more time than cracking open a jar. I have to plan ahead and make sure I’ve started steaming long before mealtime. Hungry babies do not wait patiently for dinner! I always make large quantities and put some in the fridge for the next few days and freeze the rest. I was surprised at how long it takes to measure out all those 2 oz portions. But once I make that time investment, my freezer is stocked and I have food ready to serve in the future.

Making my own baby food allows me to serve Riley a greater variety of foods and flavors. Roasted red peppers, cilantro and amaranth are not typical on the ingredients list of jarred baby foods. My hope is that this early exposure to a greater variety of foods will help her keep an open mind about food in the future (although I’m sure she’ll go through picky phases like all kids). For now she is growing and thriving and that tells me my time is well spent.

The affirmation that I was doing the right thing came on a camping trip when Riley was 8 months old. I brought some homemade food, but I also took along a few commercial jars. Yes, sometime convenience is really nice, especially in the woods without my Babycook!

It seemed like a good idea until I opened the jar of peas. Unlike my vibrantly colored homemade peas, these were gray and didn’t smell right. Not wanting to influence Riley I disguised my doubts and put a spoonful in her mouth. She completely rejected them.

Not only would she not eat the jarred peas, she wouldn’t eat fresh peas for two weeks. I guess they had lost her trust.

I have since tried some other jarred foods (now I sample everything before I give it to her) and truth is, they just don’t taste like their fresh counterparts. How can we expect a toddler to enjoy fresh green beans when all they’ve had is processed pureed green beans that taste nothing like the real thing?

My experience with Riley is that she enjoys what is served but is reluctant to accept change. I’d much rather she enjoy freshly prepared fruits and veggies and reject the processed food.

Don’t get me wrong though, we’re not only about healthy eating. For Riley’s first birthday I plan to stick an entire mini cake in front of her and let her go at it. But since I will make the cake myself, I feel better knowing every ingredient that is going in her mouth, on her face, in her hair, and on the floor!

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10 Selfish Reasons To Cook Alone

by | Jan 13, 2010

Photo by ReneS

For some people cooking alone is a chore rather than a treat, but those people don’t know what they’re missing.

If cooking for yourself seems like more hassle than it’s worth, it may be time to start thinking more selfishly about the whole business.

Eating is a deeply personal, private experience that stimulates all of your senses. We each have our own particular tastes, preferences and memories associated with different foods, and each of these can elicit an entire universe of physical and emotional responses.

When you cook for yourself, especially when you aren’t beholden to the desires of others, you have a perfect opportunity to indulge some of your favorite pleasures. Cook something fancy and high brow, enjoy a favorite childhood dish or just throw 12 odd flavors together and see what happens. You have the freedom to make what you want, exactly the way you like it.

We eat alone for different reasons at different times. Sometimes we are in a hurry. Sometimes family is out of town. Whatever the reason, taking the opportunity to cook for yourself is almost always the most interesting, convenient and pleasurable option.

I began this list on my own, but some of the points were inspired by a book I recently picked up, What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison. It is a quick read and a good source for more inspiration and recipes.

10 Selfish Reasons To Cook Alone

  1. Splurge. Buying exquisite ingredients to feed a crowd can be prohibitively expensive, but a single serving of white truffle can be had without breaking the bank. That is, so long as you prepare the rest of the meal yourself. If you adore Kobe beef or lobster tail, why not use a weekend alone to treat yourself to a fabulous dinner without going out?
  2. Indulge. Have you always wanted to try bacon on your oatmeal? Go for it, no one’s looking.
  3. Impress. Cooking someone a meal and sharing it can be one of the most intimate experiences on earth. Being alone is a great time to practice. Hone your cooking skills and show that special someone what a great catch you are. If you’re already spoken for, adding a few interesting meals to your repertoire is also a great way to impress your family and friends.
  4. Save. My favorite burrito at the place down the street costs about $6. At home I can make the exact same burrito for $2. Plus if I already have the ingredients around I can make it in a fraction of the time. How is that for thrift?
  5. Thrive. My personal favorite reason to cook for myself is that I have complete control over what goes in my food. Here in San Francisco, splurging and indulgence can be bought within a quarter mile in any direction. When I’m home I enjoy making healthy, nourishing food cooked exactly the way I like it.
  6. Improve. Don’t consider yourself a particularly good cook? The only way to get better is to practice. Trying out new things in the kitchen can be much less stressful when you’re alone, so take the opportunity of solitude to make mistakes without inspiring disappointment or ridicule.
  7. Hurry. If you cook regularly and have a decently stocked kitchen, you can make yourself a meal faster than most places can make one for you. Driving somewhere, waiting in line, ordering and waiting for your food may seem like the fastest option but it usually isn’t.
  8. Perfect. Is there a dish at your favorite restaurant that you wish you could recreate at home? Try it one day when you have some free time. You might not get it exactly right the first time, but you can probably get pretty good at it eventually.
  9. Relax. No one is home? The pressure is off! There’s no one to please but yourself. Cook at your leisure, make pancakes for dinner, break all the rules. When it’s just you there are no expectations.
  10. Experiment. Maybe you’ve always wished for a quick and easy dessert that doesn’t have any added sugar. Maybe you’re curious if lasagna can be made in a skillet instead of the oven (it can). Indulge your cooking curiosities when no one is looking and you have a little extra time to play around.

What do you love about cooking alone?

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Best of Summer Tomato 2009

by | Jan 1, 2010
Photo by ginnerobot

Photo by ginnerobot

Happy New Year!!!

I hope you had a happy and safe time yesterday and a wonderful 2009!

Thank you all for helping Summer Tomato grow, it has been a pleasure getting to know you the past 9 months.

Today I want to share some highlights from 2009. My greatest hope is that each of you find value in what I write here at Summer Tomato. These are the posts you “voted” for with your comments and retweets, thank you dearly for your support.

Best of Summer Tomato 2009

1. Better Than Pasta Subtitutes: Summer Squash Noodle Recipe

This recipe and video where I show how to easily make noodles out of zucchini in less than 5 minutes got featured on Lifehacker, making it the most popular post of 2009. It was delicious too 🙂

2. Should I Buy Whole Grain Pasta?

Distinguishing between real healthy food and fake “health food” is not as straight forward as it should be. Whole grain pasta is a perfect example.

3. Mindful Eating And Portion Control

A brilliant guest post by neuroscientist Jyoti Mishra Ramanathan about the importance of mindful eating and how a single grape can change your life.

4. Don’t Eat This, Don’t Eat That: Why Fast Food Is Never Healthy

Eating slightly-less-bad fast food is not a winning strategy for health. It also tastes disgusting. Treat yourself to a better life and learn to eat decent food.

5. 10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

Snake oil comes in many forms. Think you can trust the government or doctors for diet advice? Think again.

6. 10 Reasons To Never Eat Free Food

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to eat it. Learn to recognize real value and real cost when you see it.

7. How To Eat In Restaurants: Healthy advice from SF food critic Michael Bauer

Usually eating out makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight, but renowned San Francisco food critic Michael Bauer says otherwise. I learned his secret in an interview last summer.

8. How I Lost 20 Pounds In 9 Months Without Dieting

Losing 2 lbs a month may not seem like a huge success, but that is only because you are used to those pounds coming back. Would you feel the same if they stay off? This Summer Tomato success story is amazingly simple, and an impressive update is on its way….

9. Automatic Health: Lessons From Personal Finance

My favorite analogy for health and weight loss has always been finance. Why do people feel strongly enough to devote their lives to a secure financial future while ignoring their personal health? Does one really matter without the other? The principles are the same, and you can approach them in the same way.

10. How To Become A Slow Eater

How you eat can be just as important as what you eat. Learn to eat slowly and appreciate flavors and textures, your life will be better for it.

11. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!

Even if you don’t have time to make it to the gym, regular physical activity can be part of your life. Learn all about getting exercise without going to the gym by exercise physiologist and scientist, Travis Saunders.

12. Are You Eating In The Matrix?

Do you know what you are eating? Is it really food? This isn’t a joke, it is time to consider what is and isn’t food.

13. 30 Ways To Slow and Prevent Aging

I turned 30 in 2009, but am often mistaken as being younger than my 23-year-old brother. Woohoo! This year I spilled all my secrets.

14. Orthorexia, Bacon Worship And The Power of Food Culture

How is it that we live in a society where both obesity and anorexia are more prevalent than ever? The breakdown of food culture may be the cause, and may also point to the solution.

15. Learning To Love Foods You Don’t Like

Can you name one way you are a happier person because you hate Brussels sprouts? If you can, please email me. If you can’t, please read this article and consider expanding your palate (and your mind). Who knows, you might actually enjoy it….

Thanks again for all your contributions this year. I’ve learned as much from you all as you’ve learned from me. You guys rock!!

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A New Decade’s Resolution: Quit Dieting

by | Dec 30, 2009
Photo by melloveschallah

Photo by melloveschallah

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Rita Mae Brown


2010 marks the beginning of not just a new year, but a new decade. Rather than using this as an excuse to set and/or stick to diet resolutions of years past, consider setting an anti-resolution to stop the cycle:

Decide today to quit diets and never pick up another one.

For some people (my former self included) chronic dieting is a way of life. Structured diets help us feel secure and in control of our fate, while giving us something to strive for and accomplish.

In a twisted way, diets can be comforting and giving them up can be as difficult for some as quitting smoking.

But most people are not trying to stop dieting, they are trying to do it better. Dieting is usually seen as a positive ambition, a form of self-improvement.

But what if diets do more harm than good? What if they lower instead of raise your quality of life?

Weight loss and better health through food and exercise are wonderful aspirations, but contrary to popular wisdom they are not synonymous with dieting. If your goals are long-term and not for specific or imminent events, then dieting will never help you achieve them.

Healthy eating and regular exercise need to be your default, automatic behaviors and not a special case scenario; weight loss diets by definition are temporary–an exception, not the rule. This is another way of saying our daily, habitual behaviors are unhealthy and promote weight gain.

Typical diets address the symptom, but ignore the problem.

Most of us will sidestep this logic by convincing ourselves that once our desired weight loss is achieved through dieting (and that’s a big IF it is achieved) we will enter into a “maintenance stage.” But maintenance is only a theoretical purgatory that looks just like the original diet dressed up to be a little sexier.

The real test of a diet’s success is not weeks or months, but years and decades later. And since we never think of diets on these long time scales, most will fail eventually. This is an uphill battle of regular slip-ups and constant restriction.

How about a different strategy?

This decade instead of picking a diet with the goal of losing X number of pounds, decide on a list of healthy habits you want to adopt over the next several months and years that will help you reach your long-term health goals. Building habits may not result in the same quick results you’d experience on a traditional diet (though they can), but you will continue to see results for many months and the changes will be permanent.

Habits take approximately 4-6 weeks to form, and most people can only adopt 2-3 new habits simultaneously. Use your list to set up short-term behavioral goals throughout the year to gauge your progress.

To start, choose the habits that are easiest and most fun for you personally. Set an end date to examine your progress in 1-2 months. Write it in your calendar and set aside 15-30 minutes that day for the analysis. (e.g. By February 15, I will bring my own lunch to work at least 4 days a week).

Remember that habits can be either positive or negative, such as the proactive taking the stairs at least twice per day versus the reductive limiting dessert to once per week. A good strategy is to pair a negative habit with a positive one that can replace it. For instance, limit red meat to once per week pairs nicely with eat fish 3 times per week, particularly if you are accustomed to eating lots of protein.

Once you have successfully integrated a few new habits into your healthstyle, pick 1 or 2 more for the following months. Continue to add new habits, minimize bad ones and assess your progress at regular intervals. Start now, and don’t wait until next January to evaluate your results.

By the end of 2010 you should be able to adopt 5-10 new habits that will significantly improve your health both immediately and in decades to come. As your health improves, your goals may evolve to reflect new and possibly more advanced ambitions. This is good, it means you’re making progress.

Not everyone will have the same aspirations or be able to tolerate the same daily routines, so you should think carefully and set goals you think you can achieve. Whenever possible, try to write your goals in specific rather than general terms. For example, instead of writing eat more vegetables, write eat something green at both lunch and dinner.

Don’t get hung up on setting guidelines you can follow 100% of the time, the goal is to set routines you can achieve most of the time. Remember, exceptions are okay and an inevitable part of life. For this exercise we are focusing on what you do as habit. That is, your average meals where you have control over what you eat.

Here are just a few examples of healthy habits to get you started, but these are only meant as inspiration. Spend some time making your own list and assigning priority to each habit. If you have any questions or suggestions, please write them below in the comments.

Healthy habits for a new decade

  1. Make vegetables the centerpiece of dinner at least 5 days per week.
  2. Limit dessert to once per week or less.
  3. Replace soda with sparkling water during lunch.
  4. Do not eat from the bread basket at restaurants.
  5. Include legumes in at least 4 meals per week.
  6. Take the stairs to the office at least 4 times per week.
  7. Eat breakfast everyday.
  8. Do not eat foods with added sugar.
  9. Shop at the farmers market every weekend.
  10. Put down your fork between each bite of food.

What’s on your list?

You may also enjoy:

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Last Minute Foodie Gift Ideas

by | Dec 14, 2009
Photo by danesparza

Photo by danesparza

Sometimes the stars just do not align for getting your holiday shopping done early. I know I haven’t started mine yet. But there are still plenty of easy-to-find, yet super valuable gifts out there for your favorite foodies.

Personally I try to avoid giving gifts that require guessing someone else’s taste or style. Instead I rely on things that are either super useful, completely novel or just ridiculously cool.

At this stage of the game your best bets are things you can order online and have delivered in the next week, gift subscriptions, or books that you can find just about everywhere.

Here are some of the coolest tricks I have up my sleeve for 2009.

Last Minute Gift Ideas That Aren’t Lame

1. Artisan foods from FoodzieFoodzie_Facebook_Logo

Decadent food is one of the easiest ways to make someone happy. But Summer Tomato readers know that I do not take my indulgences lightly. If I’m going to eat something that isn’t healthy, I want it to be beyond awesome–the healthy food I eat is just too delicious to bother with anything less.

That’s why Foodzie is so cool. If you don’t live in San Francisco, New York or LA, finding high-end artisanal foods can be a challenge. But now thanks to Foodzie, anyone can have Bacon Jam or Single Malt Scotch Bars delivered to your doorstep. Just be sure to order in the next day or 2 or your orders won’t make it before Christmas without extra shipping costs.

2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0143038583&fc1[/amazon-product]

As you might imagine, I’ve read A LOT about nutrition and have tried almost every diet myself. One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in this research is that while the content of your diet is certainly important, how you think about and approach food is one of the most influential factors in your long-term health and happiness.

By far the best book I’ve read on food philosophy is Michael Pollan’s landmark work The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This book is remarkably well-written, meticulously researched and an overall pleasure to read. It is also the perfect gift for the curious yet unconvinced soon-to-be healthy eater.

If you are still looking for more, check out his practical guide for following these principles, In Defense of Food.

3. How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0764578650&fc1[/amazon-product]

For someone who has decided to start cooking but doesn’t know where to begin, this book has everything you need to know. Mark Bittman is the brilliant author of the New York Times food column, The Minimalist, that includes fantastic 2-3 minute cooking videos also available as a podcast.

Bittman demystifies the kitchen by explaining basic cooking concepts and fundamentals in this classic cookbook. There is even a vegetarian version for those who aren’t interested in the perfect roasted chicken.

4. Splendid Soups, by James Peterson[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0471391360&fc1[/amazon-product]

The only other cookbook I consider indispensable is Splendid Soups, by James Peterson. Soup is pretty close to perfect food, especially during these cold, stormy winter months. Soup is also perfect for dinner parties and potlucks, since it stays warm all night and doesn’t require a set “dinner time.”

I recently re-ordered this cookbook for myself (my last copy actually belonged to a former housemate) even though I have most of my favorite recipes memorized. I’ve benefited so tremendously from this book, I just feel better if it is always in my kitchen.

5. Cuisinart Hand Blender[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0006G3JRO&fc[/amazon-product]

This makes a great bundle gift with Splendid Soups, since a purée is often the last step in soup-making magic. Though it is possible to make a wonderful soup in a regular blender or food processor, it is exponentially easier if you have an immersion hand blender. You can also use an immersion blender for smoothies and other blended foods, like hummus.

The Cuisinart hand blender is especially awesome because it comes with attachments that transform it into either an electric beater or a mini chopping food processor as well.

For $50 this is some of the best value you can get out of a kitchen gadget.

6. Fagor Pressure cooker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B00023D9RG&fc1[/amazon-product]

My pressure cooker is the one special piece of cooking equipment that I cannot live without. The reason is that the first time I tasted beans made from scratch I knew I could never go back to canned. But beans are such an essential part of my healthstyle that the 1-4 hr cook time is a bit too inconvenient to be practical for real life.

Enter the pressure cooker. A pressure cooker cuts bean cooking time down to under half hour. It’s also great for grains and a ton of other foods. Fagor is the only brand I recommend bothering with. You don’t want to mess around with high-pressure cooking unless you are sure about your gear.

7. Audible membership

I rave about Audible every chance I get. If you’ve never heard of it, think Netflix but for audiobooks. While a monthly audiobook subscription isn’t for everyone, for those of us with commutes or jobs with extensive manual/technical (aka mindless) work, Audible is a godsend.

Though audio is still not my favorite way to “read,” it is perfect for those books in which I only have a passing curiosity. If I find a book I love (which happens often), I will buy a hard copy as well. Sometimes I listen to a book more than once. Rarely am I disinclined to finish one.

Audible is a great way to finally read all those food and health books you’ve been meaning to get to.

Have I mentioned I love Audible?

8. Zagat subscriptionzagat_twitter_bigger

Yelp is great if you want to find the best tailor near your house or need a place to get your pets groomed, but I never use Yelp for restaurant recommendations. There are very few people I trust in food taste, and in my experience Yelp reviews reflect the typical American appetite for cheap, big and cheesy. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

When I’m curious about the best Korean food in SF or if I’m traveling to a city I’m not familiar with Zagat is where I turn. I never hesitate to renew my subscription and recommend it to anyone looking for reviews by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

9. Bialetti stovetop espresso maker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0001WYDP0&fc1[/amazon-product]

I’m something of a coffee purist, and of all the home brew methods I’ve tried (most of them) the Bialetti stovetop espresso maker is my favorite. It’s relatively inexpensive and has the added charm of being a little old-school.

This is how everyone makes coffee at home in Italy.

10. CSA membership

Busy people have trouble finding the time to buy fresh fruits and vegetables every week. CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture brings fresh, seasonal produce to you. The idea behind a CSA is that you subscribe to a farm or collection of farms and pay a certain set price (varies by farm) for a box of their goods. For your fee you are provided with a week or two worth of fruits and vegetables of the season.

Buying someone a subscription to a CSA is a great way to encourage healthy eating and support local farmers. All CSAs are a little different, so you need to find ones in your area and contact them to work out the details. Most deliver to your house or a nearby pick up point and allow some filtering for your particular food preferences.

There are also meat and dairy CSAs, which you will become more interested in after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Visit Local Harvest to find CSAs in your area.

Good luck with your shopping and happy holidays!

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Farmers Market Update: Prepping for Asilomar

by | Sep 20, 2009
Hawaiian Apples

Hawaiian Apples

My goal at the farmers market today was to get everything I need to survive the next few days at the annual neuroscience department retreat at the Asilomar conference grounds in Monterey, CA. Last year they served us some of the most unspeakably disgusting food I’ve ever eaten in my life, and budget cuts forecast this year to be even worse.

Almost certainly I’ll be stuck eating fewer calories than usual, but I like to have a few of my own things to make sure I am at least somewhat nourished. For a complete rundown of what I’m bringing, watch the 3 minute video clip below.

How do you survive conferences and events that serve horrible food?

Since I also won’t be cooking dinners or making salads at work for the next few days, I didn’t buy my usual cornucopia of vegetables this week. But I certainly wanted to!

Peaches and Pomegranates

Peaches and Pomegranates



The seasons are changing before my eyes. Autumn fruits like pomegranates, pears, grapes and apples are downright abundant. You can also find pumpkins, carrots and beets, all wonderful for roasting in the fall. (Try this recipe for delicious roasted beets with mint and chevre).

I even found chestnuts at K & J Orchards!

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts



I learned today that Brussels sprout season is early this year (it usually starts in October-November). I decided to buy some since I know they will keep well until I return on Tuesday. They are really small right now, which is how you want them for the best taste. I used to hate Brussels sprouts, but have since learned the error of my ways.

Roasting Pimentos

Roasting Pimentos

Peppers and Eggplants

Peppers and Eggplants

The good news for those of us who adore summer produce is that most of it is still spectacular. Tomatoes, peaches, plums, zucchini, melon, peppers (oh the peppers!), eggplant, figs, okra and green beans are what I’m going to focus on for the next few weeks while they are still around.

Paw Paw Ice Cream

Paw Paw Ice Cream

Oh, and if you’re a fan of paw paws, Langier Ranches made up some paw paw ice cream you can get for only $1!

Today’s purchases:

What did you find at the farmers market this week?

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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: The Truly Special Occasions

by | Aug 5, 2009
Birthday Dinner

Birthday Dinner

Until now we have discussed how to eat in restaurants when our choices are being made for convenience or obligation. But on some rare occasions we go out to eat as a true celebration of life.

At these moments the only thing you should consider is enjoyment. That isn’t to say you should stuff yourself silly, but once in a lifetime occasions deserve your undivided attention. Diet and health should be the farthest things from your mind.

Unfortunately, defining these special moments can sometimes get a little tricky.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food), part two is Neighborhood Convenience, part three is Sit-Down Chains and part four is Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

The beautiful thing about special occasions is that you define them for yourself. A visit to the French Laundry is remarkable for anyone, but most of us don’t have the same childhood memories of the apple pie grandma makes from her tree every Thanksgiving. If you have the opportunity to experience rare food at a rare event, you should not deprive yourself of this treat.

But occasions like these happen three, maybe four times a year. And odd as it may seem, defining them is not always clear cut.

Take a look at your life. Chances are you have a rather large group of people who make up your extended family and close friends, all of which have annual birthdays, anniversaries and countless other events you will be invited to attend. You also have your own set of special food-related holidays like, well, all of them. Before you know it your “special” meals go from three or four times a year to three or four times a month.

Where do you draw the line?

Here it is important to make a distinction between special moments and special food. If you are honest with yourself about the quality of food in a given situation you will find that more often than not it is nothing to go nuts about. Your co-worker’s birthday at the Cheesecake Factory is special and important (sort of), but the food most definitely is not.

A specific food or meal can be special for any number or reasons. The exquisite quality and technical skills that you find in the world’s top restaurants can be the experience of a lifetime, like witnessing a rare piece of art. But personal memories and associations can also make foods special. These are the foods that are worthy of exceptions.

However, it is all too easy to get caught up in a moment and rationalize reasons to splurge when the food does not really justify such behavior. For example, food abundance like you find at a buffet or on a cruise ship can seem like something special, but it really isn’t. In fact, buffet-style all you can eat menus are a pretty good indication that the food being served is relatively cheap.

In these kinds of special occasions, shift your focus away from the food and onto your friends and family. If you are on vacation, enjoy your meals but focus more on actually doing all the fun activities you envisioned.

If you have trouble talking yourself out of a second pile of ribs, ask yourself when was the last time you made this kind of exception. If it was yesterday, this week or even this month, think twice before you eat and ask yourself if this meal is worth your quarterly splurge. Would you want this food on the menu if it were your last meal on earth? If not, put your fork down and talk to your friends instead.

Distinguishing between special moments and special food is critical, because only extraordinary food is worthy of making exceptions to your healthstyle. Learn to make these moments few and far between. If they occur more often, reexamine your criteria.

If you really like a restaurant but you go there all the time, is it really that special anymore?

Special occasions are what make life worth living and should not be skipped. Just be sure that when it comes to food, your choices are truly exceptional.

What are your exceptional foods?

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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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Healthy Tips For Real Life (series)

by | Jul 8, 2009
Quarter Pounder

Quarter Pounder

In my vow to stay home and eat healthy for the rest of the week, I’ve had a lot of time to think about all the places I’m not eating.

I’m not going out to meet a friend for one of San Francisco’s best burgers, for example. Nor am I going to another friend’s place to drink beer and play Rock Band.

Not today anyway.

I have many guiding principles for health here at Summer Tomato, but for me personally (and based on the emails I get, for many of you as well) the hardest part about upgrading your healthstyle is integrating it with your social life.

How many times have your best intentions to go home and cook a healthy dinner been derailed by an invitation to go out with work buddies or go to the movies? How often are your weekend’s best intentions ruined by birthday dinners and bar hopping?

That’s life. And it can make being healthy really difficult.

I always stress that the best way to combat these special occasions is to automate your health whenever possible. From my perspective, setting up your life so that healthy choices are your default–the path of least resistance–is your only chance at weathering the birthday cakes and holiday BBQs.

But it seems that for many of us these “special” occasions occur a little too frequently. A week rarely goes by that doesn’t offer an excuse to break our routine and indulge in something a little extra. And though this behavior is psychologically healthy and generally a good idea, too many exceptions can start to become the rule.

Not only do we sacrifice our health in these moments of celebration, we also begin chipping away at our good habits and before we know it they are gone.

Too many fun weekends and we give up on buying groceries and going to farmers markets for two, three or four weekends in a row. Then we go out more because we have no food at home (“Gotta eat somethin’!”), skip more workouts and the pounds start climbing back on.

Pretty soon your life is consumed with bad habits again, your jeans stop fitting right and you don’t even know what hit you.

So how do we deal with these events?

For me one important step in breaking this cycle has been to develop a clear understanding of how to navigate restaurants. Not all restaurants serve the same function. Some are simply cheap and convenient, while others are divine dining experiences to be remembered for a lifetime. And there are dozens of choices in between.

Over the next few weeks I will be describing each of the major restaurant categories and how to approach them to balance health and enjoyment. If you have any specific topic or issue you would like me to address in this series please send me an email and let me know.

(To continue following the How To Eat In Restaurants series, be sure to subscribe to Summer Tomato through email or your favorite news reader (RSS)–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

Today I will begin by describing the kind of restaurant you should never eat in: fast food chains.

Fast food restaurants are so unhealthy, evil and downright nasty tasting that there is really no good reason to eat in one for the rest of your life.

“Convenience!” They will shout.

But I don’t buy that argument. Wanna know what is inconvenient? Diabetes.

There is always a better option than fast food. If I find myself starving, behind schedule and in an unfamiliar neighborhood I do not consider pulling into a Wendy’s drive-thru and ordering a value meal. Instead I find a grocery store or local café. These places are just as ubiquitous, but instead of poison burgers I can get fresh food at reasonable prices. You’ve already given up on taste for this meal, there is no reason to give up on health too.

If you find yourself regularly eating in restaurants for “convenience” you still have some work to do toward upgrading your healthstyle. I am not in these situations very often because I plan ahead and make sure I always have something to eat.

The Summer Tomato guide can help you get started eating healthy.

The most important thing to remember about eating in restaurants is that you should save your indulgences for moments that are truly special. If you are desperate and just need some calories, eat the healthiest thing you can find. A bag of nuts, a piece of fruit, jerky or even a protein bar is a better option than a Quarter Pounder.

That burger in the photo looked exactly the same after sitting on my counter overnight as it did when I first bought it. Ick.

How often do you use “convenience” as an excuse to eat unhealthy?

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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Quick Fix: Mexican-style Quinoa Salad

by | May 18, 2009
Mexican-style Quinoa Salad

Mexican-style Quinoa Salad

Cinco de Mayo is one of my absolute favorite holidays. Half my family is Mexican, so I have memories of tacos and Coronas by the pool while basking in the first hints of summer sun. Good times!

Unfortunately this year I was too busy to even go out with friends for some real Mexican food (or at least San Francisco’s version of it). Instead I made a quick, healthy quinoa salad using Mexican herbs and spices to help me feel like I didn’t completely neglect my heritage.

You can find all these ingredients at your regular grocery store. I used arugula, but you can substitute spinach if you prefer. I also recommend being creative with your spices (jalepeño or cumin come to mind). If you have fresh salsa or pico de gallo around you can stir in a spoonful or two at the end to accentuate the Mexican flavor.

I recommend making extra so you have leftovers for lunch the next day!

Mexican-style Quinoa Salad

(serves 2-3)


  • 1 cup dry quinoa
  • Half bag of arugula or baby spinach
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 cup chopped red pepper
  • 1 spring onion or shallot
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, stems removed
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Lime
  • Tapatio or favorite Mexican hot sauce

Rinse and cook quinoa. Crush and mince your garlic. While your quinoa is boiling, halve your tomatoes and dice your onion and pepper. If using a spring onion, save some of the green onion slices for garnish. Remove the stems from your cilantro. Dice your avocado and sprinkle it with salt.

When your quinoa is finished cooking, heat a frying pan on medium high heat and add 2 tbsp olive oil. Add onions and red peppers and cook on medium high heat until caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn off heat and add quinoa, stirring to mix. Fold in arugula or spinach and season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

Transfer quinoa mixture to a large serving bowl and add avocado, tomatoes and cilantro. Squeeze in juice of half a lime and add a few dashes of Tapatio or Tabasco to taste. Gently stir, being careful not to mash the avocado chunks.

Adjust salt and spices. Garnish with green onion slices, extra cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime.

Do you try to recreate nostalgic moments with certain spices and flavors?

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10 Super Bowl Snacks That Aren’t All Bad

by | Jan 21, 2009

As much as I wish it weren’t true I know several people that consider the Super Bowl to be the biggest, most important holiday of the year. For most of us though, the Big Game is just another excuse to party.

The only problem is that at most Super Bowl parties, junk food runs the field.

If you have been following this blog you probably noticed that I am not the biggest fan of diets. But one thing I loathe even more than a regimented diet is diet food.

I mean, low-calorie egg rolls? What’s the point?

So I am not going to tell you to buy baked potato chips, unless of course you actually prefer them to the other kind. I am personally fond of Kettle Chips, but I eat them so rarely that if they are around and I feel like having a few I don’t worry about it. You shouldn’t stress out too much about things you enjoy.

On the other hand, you should clearly avoid putting down several bags of Kettle Chips (or anything else) on Super Bowl Sunday. But there are still a ton of delicious snacks you can enjoy during the game without doing too much damage to your health or physique.

Buy what you like, but try to choose most of your snacks from this healthy list:

  1. Tortilla chips – Despite my previous endorsement of fine potato chips, tortilla chips are probably a better option. They have slightly fewer calories, a little more fiber and, most importantly, have a better fat profile (more polyunsaturated and less saturated fats). These days you don’t have to worry as much about trans fat (hydrogenated oils) as you used to because it has been banned in several states, but it is worth checking the back of the bag to be sure.
  2. Salsa – As far as health goes, salsa is almost a perfect food. Tomatoes, onions, cilantro, limes and chilies are all great for you. Salsa is low in calories, has little to no fat or carbs and makes almost everything taste better. One way to improve store bought salsa is to use it as a base and add your own fresh tomatoes, onions and cilantro. It really makes a big difference.
  3. Guacamole – Although it is high in calories, this avocado-based dip is filled with monounsaturated fats that are both healthy and filling. Make your own to avoid all the extra weird ingredients added to the store bought kind. Just mash up some avocados, squeeze in some lime and season with sea salt and pepper. My secret is to add half a cup or so of the salsa I made—this is a tastier way to enhance the flavor than those mysterious powder mixes. If you finish making it and it is still bland, add more lime and/or salt. A small minced garlic clove can be a nice addition too.
  4. Cut vegetables – I am grossed out by those slimly little bullet-shaped carrots that come in a bag, but real fresh carrot sticks are fantastic. If you can, get your vegetables from the farmers market the day before. This time of year you can find carrots, celery, bell pepper, radishes and daikon. The flavors of market fresh veggies will astound you and elevate this otherwise boring snack food into something divine. What a difference a real vegetable makes!
  5. Nuts – Nuts are one of the easiest, healthiest snack foods out there. It doesn’t even really matter what kind you get, they all have their own benefits. As usual, I recommend going with premium quality if you are going to serve them solo. I am particularly impressed with the value of nuts from Trader Joe’s. They are about half the price of nuts everywhere else and taste even better.
  6. Tacos – If you are serving a meal to your guests then tacos are a great, healthy option. Grilled meats (or veggies) are pretty harmless in taco-sized quantities. Use the small little corn tortillas (keep them warm and soft by wrapping them in a clean towel and leaving them in a low temperature oven) and serve cut up tomatoes, onions, cilantro (pico di gallo) and hot sauce. Authentic Mexican tacos do not have cheese on them, so just skip it. Your friends will love you I promise.
  7. Fruit – Everyone loves a platter of fresh cut fruit. This time of year we have all kinds of citrus and apples to choose from. Kiwis are in season too if you are looking for something more exotic.
  8. Steamed artichoke – Artichokes are bursting with antioxidants, and serving them whole makes for a beautiful snack that a room full of people can enjoy. Cut off the top third of the leaves, trim the remaining pointy leaves with scissors, remove the stem and steam it upside down in a covered pot. After 20 minutes turn it with tongs so the leaves are pointing up. Drizzle with olive oil, Meyer lemon juice, chopped Italian parsley and sea salt, and steam for another 20 minutes or until the leaves are easy to remove. With this much flavor you don’t even need a dip.
  9. Hummus – This Middle Eastern dip is delicious and much healthier for you than your standard Super Bowl party fare. Serve it next to those cut up vegetables. My recipe is here.
  10. Cucumber water – Even if your guests are spending most of the day by the kegerator, it is in everyone’s best interest to stay hydrated. Slice up some cucumbers and add them to a pitcher of water for a simple and impressive refresher.

What are your favorite healthy Super Bowl snack foods?

UPDATE: This article is also available at Synapse.

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