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5 Reasons I Still Like Fitbit Better Than Nike+ FuelBand

by | Mar 26, 2012

Last month Nike jumped into the high-tech pedometer game by introducing the Nike+ FuelBand. It’s a fun device, and a certain tech dude I know thinks it’s the coolest ever. But I’ve held off on sharing my opinion until I had a few weeks to play with the FuelBand, in order to avoid another early review debacle.

My overall sentiment is positive, and I think the social Facebook integration has A TON of potential. The most obvious comparison is to the failed Jawbone UP, and for the most part I think it is an improvement. The device display is beautiful, and the wireless sync definitely 1-ups the Up. The FuelBand doesn’t appear to break after a week either, which is a nice feature.

I’m disappointed that the device doesn’t have the buzz reminder feature that notifies you when you’ve been inactive for a set amount of time, which was my favorite feature of the Up. The FuelBand also doesn’t even pretend to help monitor your sleep, though I didn’t find that feature of the Up particularly useful since crawling into bed with a bulky plastic wristband isn’t exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.

All that said, you’re probably reading this just to know whether or not the FuelBand is worth buying over the only true competitor remaining on the market, the Fitbit.

5 Reasons I Still Like Fitbit Better Than Nike+ FuelBand

1. Battery life

I’m a tech geek and being plugged in is a way of life. Frequent charging doesn’t bother me too much, and I expect the cool colors and graphics of the FuelBand to eat a little more battery. But when I know I can get 2-3 weeks of life out of a 20-minute Fitbit charge, FuelBand’s 45-minute charge session for a measly 2 days of activity seems like less of a bargain.

I’ve heard some people get better battery life (a whopping 4 days!), but that hasn’t been my experience.

2. Comfort

The most immediately noticeable difference between FuelBand and Fitbit is how you wear it. Though the FuelBand bracelet is slightly more comfortable than the Jawbone Up, I wouldn’t exactly call it unnoticeable and it still makes putting on long sleeves (aka getting dressed in San Francisco) less than simple. Also, my skin has been pinched in the USB clasp more than once. Ouch!

Most ladies I know strap the Fitbit effortlessly to their undergarments and forget about it. Dudes can clip it to their belt or pockets on their jeans.

3. Style

Another problem with wearing a big plastic bracelet is wearing a big plastic bracelet. It’s not hideous, but it isn’t exactly chic either. Personally I prefer my pedometer to be a concealed healthstyle weapon.

4. Simplicity

The graphics are kinda cute, and the social part of the app is definitely cool, but introducing a bizarre new measurement unit seems pretty unnecessary. We already have steps and calories, why do we need NikeFuel? I know when I have gone to the gym, so giving me a number that will be predictably higher on gym days doesn’t add much. I suppose it makes it slightly easier to compare activity among friends, but I still think total steps is a more important number to track.

To be fair Fitbit added an extra number in their latest version—flights of stairs—but this unit actually makes sense to me and adds value beyond simple activity. And in case you’re wondering, no FuelBand doesn’t tell you flights climbed.

5. Price

The $150 price point isn’t crazy, but the Fitbit is about $82 on Amazon right now. That’s almost half the price.

What do you think of the Nike FuelBand?

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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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Top 10 iPhone Apps For Healthy Living

by | Feb 2, 2011

Photo by Gonzalo Baeza Hernández

Geeks, this one’s for you. Guest author David Harfield blogs at iphoneappcafe.com about iPhone apps and accessories, and also provides tips to get the most out of your iPhone.

Top 10 iPhone Apps For Healthy Living

by David Harfield

Healthy living and technology don’t often walk hand in hand. However, with the rise of the iPhone’s popularity, tech experts around the world are putting their cerebral skills to practical use for leading a healthy life. Here are the 10 best iPhone apps for healthy living.

1. Locavore

$2.99

For anyone who is serious about sourcing locally produced food, then Locavore is an essential purchase. Not only does it recommend local farmers markets depending on your location, it informs you of food that is in season or coming into season near you. Locavore provides links to Wikipedia sites that show you details of the fruit or vegetable that you are interested in as well as a link to Epicurious recipes that show you how to turn your healthy food into delicious meals. Also, the in-app updates from Twitter and Satisfaction mean you can trade information with other foodies and sway recipes and health food tips.

2. iFitness

$1.99

The iFitness app is essentially a pocket sized personal trainer, who only charges you a one off fee of $1.99 and never gives you a guilt trip for missing a training session. Offering comprehensive routines and exercise programs aimed at working out a particular muscle group, iFitness also provides a detailed diagram of the human body so that you can determine which area it is that you want to train. There are personalized exercises for various sports, such as the ‘Basketball Conditioning Routine’ that shows you a set of exercises aimed at improving the muscle groups to help make you an NBA contender. The routines can be done anywhere and everywhere, using anything from free weights to office chairs for the ‘Business Travel Workout’. By keeping a personalised log of your workouts as well as a BMI Calculator and weight monitor, this app is the ultimate workout buddy.

3. Fooducate

Free

This App is a true triumph of technology in the land of the supermarket. By using the Fooducate app, your iPhone is able to quickly scan the barcodes on food packaging, which gives you a detailed analysis of the nutritional content of the food, and enables you to make an informed decision as to whether to shove it in your shopping cart or your mouth. If the food contains trans fats, controversial food colourings or anything else that the manufacturers may want to keep hidden from you, then Fooducate will highlight it and let you know what you are about to put into your body. On top of this, Fooducate also provides preferable alternatives if the food you scan is not to the highest of standards. If you are a busy parent who doesn’t have the time to browse the local farmers markets and has to shop at the supermarket, then this is the app for you.

4. Whole Foods Market Recipes

Free

Whole Foods Market Recipes is a great app for those of you who like to experiment in the kitchen, while not compromising on the health and nutrition. It shows you where your nearest Whole Foods Market is, then allows you to search for recipes by ingredients or dietary types including gluten-free, vegetarian/vegan or low fat. All of the nutritional information are listed alongside the ingredients, all of which are natural and organic. The recipes include easy to follow cooking instructions that really do produce tasty meals. A nifty little function allows you to search for recipes based on what you already have in your fridge, meaning that you can build a meal around what you already have in the house.

5. Veg Out

$2.99

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream every day, the only problem is trying to find a decent veggie restaurant when you’re out and about. If you have felt this pain then Veg Out is the app for you. By utilizing Google Maps technology, Veg Out directs the hungry vegetarian to the nearest veggie eatery, all with user-rated star rankings, where their favorite meat-free dishes await.

6. Runkeeper Pro

Free

This is the ultimate running app, as it uses Google Maps to help plan routes on which you can put heel to the pavement and give your body a work out in the fresh air. Incredibly easy to use, Runkeeper Pro keeps track of how far you have run, your average speed, the current pace that you are running at and how many calories you have burned during your journey. You can use all the regular applications on your iPhone such as its iPod and camera functions without having to pause the app, meaning your jog around the block can be sound tracked and photo-documented. A great way to keep track of your personal running goals, Runkeeper Pro really is a valuable tool for any aspiring runners.

7. Good Food Near You

Free

Building on Veg Out’s idea of locating veggie-friendly restaurants in your surroundings, Good Food Near You takes things one step further and tells you what the healthiest menu option is in restaurants dotted around your proximity. It will tell you exactly how much fat is in the average burrito in your local Mexican takeaway, or the number of calories are awaiting you in that seafood special in the nearest Thai restaurant. This is probably not an app to take out on birthdays or special occasions, but can help you eat healthily when you’re on the go.

8. Yoga Trainer Pro

$1.99

For centuries yogis have been leading a healthy, spiritual lifestyle through this fascinating and all-encompassing form of exercise. From beginner poses to advanced sets of training, Yoga Trainer Pro teaches you a variety of stretches and breathing exercises that not only improve your overall fitness and health, but also allows you to practice yoga anytime, anywhere you want at a fraction of the price of yoga classes. The step-by-step guides include photos and voice alerts to talk you through each pose, letting you learn at your own pace. With popular yoga routines and techniques including Pranayama, Meditation and Astanga, this app will have you bending and breathing, but never breaking, in next to no time.

9. WaterWorks (not yet available in US)

$1.99

By setting your target amount of water intake for the day, WaterWorks reminds you how much H2O you have to ingest to meet your goal before the end of the day. Through consistent reminders to stay hydrated, this simple little app is a Godsend to those of us who live life on the go and often forget the simplest of tasks, like drinking enough water. You can set up your own water containers and their respective sizes, (in litres, gallons, ounces, etc), so that you know exactly how much water it is that you are drinking throughout the day.

10. Food Additives 2

$3.99

Food Additives 2, lets you know the lowdown on which additives are in your food and which are particularly detrimental to your health–whether you suffer from a long list of ailments or are as fit as a fiddle. By inputting the additive name or number that should be listed on the back of any food that you are buying from a supermarket or local shop, Food Additives 2 will show you the origin of the substance such as fish, animal, plant etc., its general use and functionality. It will also tell you any known or potential side effects that the additive may cause, the maximum or recommended daily intake and any dietary restrictions that the additive may fall under.

Well, there we have it guys, 10 iPhone Apps that actually help you lead a healthy life. Consider a few of these next time you’re squinting at a screen and trying to conquer the next level Angry Birds. Remember, these Apps will only work if you use them everyday, so no cheating and “forgetting” your iPhone charger!

What are your favorite healthy living apps?

To see Darya’s favorite apps follow her on Chomp

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How To Overcome Your Fear of Cooking

by | Jun 2, 2010
Moroccan Stew

Moroccan Stew

The biggest obstacle in trying to eat healthy is often the cooking process itself.

Our “convenience generation” grew up expecting our meals to come wrapped in plastic, and for the most part our parents were willing accomplices in the move away from real food.

When we are hungry we go to a restaurant or stay home and zap something in the microwave. Fast food is no longer a special occasion adventure to share with the family (I got to go to McDonald’s for my 10th birthday), it is now a part of our daily lives. Occasionally we might bake a pre-made lasagna or boil some water and mix it with powdered cheese, but we all know that’s not cooking. We’ve never really learned to cook.

Worsening the situation is the fact that we are left to fend for ourselves much longer than previous generations. Marriage and family are being postponed later and later for the sake of education and career, so there is no real incentive for us to create real, structured meals. We go off to college, eat horribly (I’m pretty sure I ate out every single meal for 4 years straight), then move on to our jobs or graduate studies with the same bad habits. If we’re lucky over the years we learn to spend a little more money and get slightly better fare, but in the end it is usually the same low-quality food.

This is a recipe for disaster.

As I explain in my free guide How to get started eating healthy, food prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients is the easiest, tastiest and most effective way to improve your health and body weight. You can’t expect to have good health if you continue eating processed convenience foods, no matter how much you try to skew your intake of macronutrients to reflect the latest diet trend.

I write frequently about the benefits of shopping at farmers markets, but for most people I talk to cooking is the ultimate barrier to healthy eating. Kitchens scare us (they certainly used to scare me), and farmers markets can be intimidating if you do not know your way around.

(Read: Top 10 Mistakes Made By Farmers Market Noobz)

There are many approaches to cooking, but certainly a degree of creativity and sense of adventure are required if you are going to experiment with seasonal vegetables. If you see something interesting at the farmers market but don’t believe you can cook it, you probably aren’t going to buy it. But you should.

Being comfortable in the kitchen is the key to making this whole process work, but you do not have to be a superchef with fancy knives to prepare a wonderful meal. You just need a few basic tools, a few basic techniques and some good, fresh ingredients.

If I could I would use these next paragraphs to outline the basics of cooking, but since I’m really not a chef I probably wouldn’t do a very good job of it.

Luckily, Mark Bittman (@Bittman) and Alice Waters (@chezpanisse) have already done this for us. Bittman offers his definitive guide to basic cooking, How To Cook Everything and its arguably more useful companion, How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. Waters argues that the best recipes are the ones we learn by heart, and explains how it’s done in her books In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart and The Art Of Simple Food.

These renowned chefs do an incredible job of breaking the cooking process down into its elements, starting with the equipment you need (not much) and very basic cooking techniques. They explain how to create simple recipes, but offers dozens of variations on each one, essentially teaching how to make yourself into an innovative, creative cook.

In other words, these books can teach you how to cook from the farmers market. Eureka!

There are an infinite number of ways to learn to cook, but you can’t go wrong by learning from the best.

For an electronic option, Drew Kime of How To Cook Like Your Grandmother put together a fantastic step-by-step guide of basic cooking techniques in layman’s language. I’ve read through it and it is absolutely awesome. Definitely check it out if cookbooks intimidate you. This one won’t.

What are your favorite guides for simple cooking?

Article was originally published June 17, 2009. It has since been updated.

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Grilled Fennel With Lemon Oil

by | May 24, 2010
Grilled Fennel

Grilled Fennel

This grilled fennel turned out absolutely amazing and was very simple to make. I got the idea from a dish I tried recently at a local restaurant, Pizzeria Delfina, but honestly did not believe my version would be anywhere near as awesome. To my surprise, it was pretty darn close. Needless to say I am super proud of myself for this one and I hope I can convince you to try it.

Fennel is a unique vegetable that looks like a cross between celery and an onion, but tastes like neither. The flavor resembles anise or black liquorish when raw (a taste I still really struggle with), but takes on a sweeter, more herbal flavor when cooked. I have always been a fan of cooked fennel, despite my aversion to raw preparations. But I had no idea how far this misunderstood vegetable could be elevated by throwing it on the grill.

Don’t have a grill, you say? Awesome, neither do I. Backyards aren’t exactly standard in city apartments. For this recipe I used an apartment-friendly alternative to an outdoor grill, the humble grill pan.

A grill pan is special because it features raised ridges that can leave those wonderful, coveted grill marks on your food. Grill marks not only give your food a lovely appearance, they also add a unique flavor because sugars and fats caramelize where they come in contact with the hot pan. This effect cannot be achieved in a standard fry pan and the grill pan is a delicious alternative for cooking meats, fish and most vegetables.

My favorite grill pan (also the favorite of Cook’s Illustrated) is only about $40, far cheaper than a traditional outdoor grill or indoor electric grill. You can buy it at Amazon.

Feel free to use which ever grilling method is easiest for you.

When picking out your fennel, I recommend using several baby fennel bulbs rather than one large one (they’re in season now). Baby fennel is more tender because it does not have a large, hard inner core like full-sized fennel. A tender center allows you to leave the bulb mostly intact on the grill, making it easier to turn and cook evenly.

I purchased Lisbon lemon olive oil from Stonehouse Olive Oil at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. You can find lemon oil at specialty grocery stores, and it is a wonderful ingredient for spring vegetable dishes. But if you prefer, you can make due with extra virgin olive oil and a meyer (or regular) lemon.

This is a side dish. I paired mine with asparagus ravioli and sorrel.

Grilled Fennel with Lemon Oil

Ingredients:

  • Fennel (~1 lb)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Lemon olive oil (or 1/2 Meyer lemon juice and zest)
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh Italian parsley, chopped

If you are using baby fennel, cut off the green stems and the very bottom of the root (but not so much that the layers have nothing to attach to). Then cut the fennel in half lengthwise, and then again into 4-6 bite-sized wedges.

The goal is to get your fennel into manageable chunks, which means (ideally) all the layers would still be attached at the bottom. This is much more difficult if you have removed the core. In my experiment (I made the mistake of buying large fennel) I removed the core on one half before cooking and left the other half with the core in while cooking. It was easier to get the fennel to cook evenly on the half where the core was still attached. You can remove the core after cooking if it is still tough.

If you are using a large fennel bulb simply trim off the stems, slice off the bottom and cut the bulb in half lengthwise. Cut each half into even-sized wedges, about 0.5 inch thick.

For an outdoor grill, simply brush your fennel wedges with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and grill until soft and tender, turning occasionally.

For a grill pan, heat the pan on medium high heat for 3-5 minutes. Lightly coat fennel in olive oil and sea salt (use a bowl and stir). When the pan is hot, add 1-2 tbsp olive oil and gently swirl it in the pan so it coats the surface. Place fennel in a single layer on the hot grill, lower the heat to medium and cook until translucent, tender and slightly browned, turning occasionally. For me this took about 10 minutes. I recommend using tongs with nylon headsto turn your fennel in the pan.

Your fennel should have grill marks and be caramelized in places. I suggest exercising patience and allowing fennel to become extremely tender, but you can choose your desired crunchiness. Remove the fastest cooking fennel pieces from the grill when they are done and place them in a bowl.

When all the fennel is finished cooking, drizzle it lightly with lemon oil (or juice and zest) and sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley. Adjust salt and zest if necessary.

Have you tried grilling fennel?
http://forms.aweber.com/form/30/split_210533730.htm

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World’s Worst iPad App?

by | Apr 7, 2010

With the launch of the iPad I was excited to review and recommend a few of the early release health apps for Summer Tomato readers. But after spending a few days browsing apps from the “health,” “diet,” and “food” categories it became clear such a post would be impossible.

At this point there is still nothing worthy to recommend.

So far there are only a handful of healthy eating apps, and by far the majority of them are calorie counters and rudimentary or overly complicated food journals. Some of them seem okay for what they are, but I couldn’t picture myself using them or recommending them to anyone looking to get healthy.

But my time searching wasn’t entirely wasted. In my quest it appears I may have stumbled upon the worst (aka funniest) iPad app in existence.

HealthCalc XL is supposed to be a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator and health assessment app. I’m not sure why you would need this on your iPad, but since it is free I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

So far, so good.

To calculate BMI the interface is pretty close to what you might expect. Since BMI is a ratio of height to weight, you can enter those fields. Unfortunately, however, the default measurement units are centimeters and kilograms, which isn’t particularly useful for most of us here in the U.S. You can switch over to feet and “lbf” (presumably that means pounds) if you wish, but this requires an extra step.

In addition to height and weight, HealthCalc XL asks for your age, gender and physical activity level. No standardization of what is considered “low,” “middle,” or “high” activity levels is provided.

Once you’ve entered this information you hit the “calc” button for a read-out of your “BMI,” “Ideal weight,” “recommended calory” (no, I did not mistype that), and an assessment of your health in the form of: “You are”

This is where the fun starts.

HealthCalc XL does not sugar coat your health assessment for you. And chances are it thinks you are carrying a few too many pounds.

Anything at the higher end of the normal BMI range (typically measured as between 18.5-24.9) HealthCalc XL considers “a little fat” (see top image). If your BMI creeps above 27, HealthCalc XL is sure to tell you “You are fat.”

And if your BMI is higher?

Whether you agree with HealthCalc XL’s assessment or not might be a point of debate if the BMI was calculated correctly. Unfortunately, it is not.

According to HealthCalc XL, a highly active 5’5″ woman weighing 100 “lbf” has a BMI of 19.4.

In reality this height and weight pair calculates to a BMI of 16.6 and is considered significantly underweight.

But HealthCalc XL considers her “standard.” This is more than wrong, it is dangerous. Young girls are the most prone to body images and incorrect BMI calculations can fuel eating disorders and other health problems.

At the end of the day, HealthCalc XL is both mean and incompetent. I hope it never applies for a service job in San Francisco.

Have you found any decent health apps yet for iPad?StumbleUpon.com

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How (And Why) To Cook And Freeze Large Batches Of Lentils

by | Mar 17, 2010
Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Healthy eating is important, but for most people (myself included) there are two factors that will almost always trump your best intentions to eat well: taste and time.

In the long run you will not win a battle of wills against your taste buds, and if you think about it you probably don’t even want to. If you hope to build long-term healthy eating habits I suggest focusing your efforts on making the food you cook at home taste as good or better than your default, less healthy alternatives.

Convenience is also a big factor in our daily food decisions. Time is one of our most precious resources, and although I recommend eating slowly I am a big advocate of cooking simply and quickly. In fact, one of the reasons I most often decide to cook at home is that making my own food is much quicker than visiting even the closest taqueria. It is also healthier and cheaper.

On a typical weeknight, I sit down to dinner 15-20 minutes after walking in the door. Granted, I usually cook for just myself, but doubling my recipes is fairly easily and doesn’t cost much in time.

This kind of efficiency does require a bit of planning, however. My meals are typically composed of a big pile of vegetables and either beans, lentils, eggs, fish, intact whole grains, or some combination of these. Half the battle is being sure these things are in your home when you need them.

My fridge is always stocked with fresh vegetables and herbs from my weekly farmers market trip. I also usually set aside a little time each week to cook a large batch of either beans or lentils, which are among my absolute favorite foods for adding substance, texture and a world of flavor to dishes.

I’ve written before about how I make beans using a pressure cooker, but today I want to focus on lentils. Lentils are smaller and more delicate than most beans. As a result, they cook faster and don’t require as much culinary foresight (beans require an overnight soak, while lentils do not).

There are many varieties of lentils. Some are more firm and keep their shape after cooking, making them ideal for adding to stir fries and salads. They can also be used as a substitute for or addition to grain dishes. Examples of firm lentils are French green, black beluga and the most common Spanish brown varieties.

Yellow, red and orange lentils are even smaller and more delicate, which causes them to fall apart and turn to liquid during cooking. These lentils are common ingredients in soups, stews and Indian food.

Because I frequently use lentils as a last minute addition to vegetable dishes to make them more substantial, I have worked to optimize the cooking and storage for a few of the firm varieties. My preference is for the French green and black beluga, but since black lentils are harder to find I performed my experiments exclusively on the green and brown varieties.

My goal was to find the optimal cooking time and the best freezing methods for lentils. Specifically I was hoping to find a convenient method of freezing individual servings that could be stored indefinitely and used within minutes at any time, similar to my method of freezing brown rice.

Traditionally I cook lentils on the stove top in a regular covered sauce pan, but this time I also tried the pressure cooker to see if it could reduce cooking time. In each of my experiments I used 1 cup of dry lentils and 6 cups of water with salt. I added the lentils to a pot of cold water and started my timer when the pot hit the flame.

When preparing lentils, always be sure to rinse them and check for small pebbles before cooking. I do this by slowly pouring my dry lentils into a fine mesh strainer (while checking for pebbles), then rinsing them under the faucet for 30 seconds or so.

A few things surprised me during my experiments. The first is that French green lentils have a much more robust, complex flavor than brown lentils, which have a more subtle flavor and creamier texture. Brown lentils also retained more water and didn’t hold their shape quite as well as the green lentils, and took substantially longer to cook. For these reasons, I strongly preferred the green lentils in my experiments, though I would happily use brown lentils in a hearty stew or as a bed for meat or poultry.

Additionally, because brown lentils didn’t hold their shape as well, I was unable to freeze them in individual plastic wrapped servings like rice. However this method worked wonderfully for green lentils.

As you might expect, my success at freezing lentils in plastic wrap depended on how much liquid I could remove from them before freezing.

For best results, strain lentils very well using a fine meshed strainer before wrapping in individual servings. Carefully place 1/2 cup of lentils in the center of a square of plastic. Fold two opposite edges over the lentils, twist the ends and tie them in a half knot at the top, trying to avoid folding plastic into the lentil ball. To use, run the frozen ball under warm (not hot) water until you can untie the knot. Place lentils in a bowl and microwave 2-3 minutes. Stir with a fork and use.

Both brown and green lentils also froze well in plastic tupper containers. If you know you will be using lentils regularly, you can split a batch you prepare into two or more containers, keep one in the fridge for use and freeze the others. When you are ready, transfer your frozen lentils from the freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use them. Alternatively you could freeze them in Pyrex or glass containers and simply microwave when you want to use them.

I was also curious if a pressure cooker could reduce the time necessary to prepare lentils. For beans a pressure cooker provides an obvious advantage, since on a stove top they can take hours to cook thoroughly. But lentils take only 30-40 min and do not require pre-soaking as beans do. Boiling lentils requires very little attention (make the rest of your food while they cook) and cleanup is easier, so I was curious if there would still be a time advantage using a pressure cooker.

I got different results for the different varieties. For green lentils the pressure cooker did not provide much of an advantage over regular boiling. I found the optimal pressure cooker time for green lentils to be 5-6 minutes, but it takes about 15 minutes for it to pressurize (could maybe be reduced with less water) and another 5 for depressurizing after cooking. Given the extra cleanup/hassle of using the pressure cooker over a sauce pan, the 35 minutes it took to boil the same amount of lentils feels like a better deal.

Another advantage of not using the pressure cooker for green lentils is it’s possible to check the texture as they cook. With the pressure cooker I found it was easy to undercook or overcook the lentils, and the time window was very narrow. This is not ideal if you want the lentils to keep their shape for freezing.

On the other hand, the time advantage gained by using a pressure cooker for the bigger brown lentils was substantial. Brown lentils cooked completely in 7-8 minutes in the pressure cooker, bringing the total cook time to under 30 minutes. However it took well over 45 minutes for them to soften up with boiling alone.

Though I didn’t test them in these experiments, my experience with red and yellow lentils is that they cook in a pressure cooker in about 4 minutes, much faster than simply boiling. This substantially cuts the amount of time it takes to cook with them.

Summary

French green lentils were my favorite for flavor, ease of cooking and storage. They are easiest to prepare by boiling with salt in a regular covered sauce pan for approximately 35 minutes. If well strained, they freeze beautifully in either individually wrapped balls or in a tupper. They can be kept 4-5 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Brown lentils take longer to cook and time is saved by using a pressure cooker. These lentils can be frozen, but do better in a large solid container than in individually wrapped servings.

Either variety stores well in the freezer and has the potential to substantially cut down on daily cooking times when prepared in large batches and used repeatedly.

Do you freeze lentils? Do you prefer to use a pressure cooker?

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31 Fun[ny] Things To Do With A Cast Iron Skillet

by | Feb 17, 2010
Kapani

Kapani

I recently acquired a cast iron skillet and have been dreamily brainstorming all the fun I get to have with it.

Obviously my first adventure had to be this Spanish tortilla recipe, which turned out awesome. But I also had visions of recreating my grandmother’s slow-cooked spaghetti sauce and being able to make perfect steaks in my BBQ-less apartment.

But I knew there had to be more I could do with such a big, heavy object–so I turned to the coolest people I know for suggestions:

castiron25

castiron6castiron26

I must admit, my favorite answers didn’t exactly involve food:

castiron1castiron2castiron3castiron5castiron8castiron9castiron14castiron27castiron10castiron7

But by far the most touching reply I received was a link to a Posterous post from @GregKnottLeMond. I encourage you to click over and read it, it’s short and sweet:

castiron24

The post describes how the adorable skillet bird above came to be:

For @SummerTomato ‘s Consideration

The creativity was not, of course, restricted to metallic critters and demolition:

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These blogs that specialize in cast iron cookware were also recommended:

Cooking In Cast Iron

Black Iron Blog

Derek on Cast Iron

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the collective inspiration! Here is my consolidated list of ideas:

  1. Clonk someone (@thescramble)
  2. Cure alcoholism (@mcnee)
  3. Bicep curls (@JeffACSH)
  4. Nut crackin’ (@RtReview)
  5. End a romance (@cookerguy)
  6. Fry chicken (@cookerguy)
  7. Break stuff (@cookerguy)
  8. Work on two-handed tennis backhand (@cookerguy)
  9. Fight zombies (@benhamill)
  10. Frame a picture (@omewan)
  11. Plant bonzai trees (@omewan)
  12. Stop burglars à la Home Alone (@leslieconn)
  13. Burn thermite (@mcnee)
  14. Hit John Mayer (@foodiemcbody)
  15. Make metal critters (@GregKnottLeMond)
  16. Deep dish pizza (@bob_koss)
  17. Squeeze paneer (@newtomato)
  18. Burgers (@thescramble)
  19. Steaks (@thescramble)
  20. Corn bread (@lonelygourmet)
  21. Spoon bread (?) (@virginiagriffey)
  22. Roast meats (@jameswcooper)
  23. Crustless pies (@blee27)
  24. Pancakes (@bob_koss)
  25. Sauté zucchini (@JeffACSH)
  26. Pineapple upside-down cake (@HeatherHAL)
  27. Hashbrowns (@arielmanx)
  28. Seared meat (@arielmanx)
  29. Spanish tortilla (@FBloggersUnite)
  30. Bibimbap (@annemai)
  31. Tarte tartin (@annemai)

What are your favorite things to do with a cast iron skillet?

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Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

by | Oct 14, 2009

podcastFor busy urbanites, audio resources are priceless. Here I’ve ranked the 10 Food and Health podcasts I can’t live without.

The amount of time I spend each day commuting, doing lab work, shopping, cooking, waiting for people and avoiding pointless conversations would be unbearably painful without my trusty headphones. Now instead of wasting all this time, I use it to learn about my favorite things: food and health.

Podcasts are wonderful audio resources, perfect for keeping up on foodie news and finding inspiration for new culinary adventures. (I’m also addicted to audiobooks from Audible.)

Great podcasts are defined by the personality of their host. Foodies are passionate people and the best hosts effortlessly broadcast their love of everything culinary through a medium that transmits neither taste nor smell. Amazing when you think about it.

These podcasts are truly inspiring and always leave me hungry for more.

ST_symbol_25x25 Tip! Set your iTunes settings to play back at 2x speed to cut your listening time in half. Videos only play at standard speed.

Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

Times listed are at standard play speed

1. KCRW’s Good Food

(1 hour)

KCRW Santa Monica has an amazing weekly podcast exploring all things food. Host Evan Kleiman shares stories and food narratives from around the country, while Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold explores the vibrant LA food scene. I especially like Laura Avery’s Market Report from the Santa Monica farmers market, a glimpse into what ingredients LA chefs are excited about through the seasons.

2. Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

(30 minutes video)

Though we were all devastated by the news of Gourmets closing, it hit me extra hard when I thought we might be losing their brilliant podcast as well. Luckily, Diary of a Foodie is scheduled to stay. If you love to travel and explore international cooking you will be instantly hooked on this utterly brilliant glimpse into native cuisines around the globe. But be warned, this podcast is a video and can make short time of your player’s battery.

3. APM: The Splendid Table

(50 minutes)

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is an enchanting radio personality with a seemingly limitless knowledge and appreciation for food. Some of the most fascinating bits of information come from her answering callers’ questions about interesting dishes they’ve discovered or what to do with a special ingredient.

4. Nutrition Diva

(5-10 minutes)

I have yet to find a nutrition expert on the internet I trust more than Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva. This quick and informative podcast is a fun and convenient supplement to her spectacular Nutrition Data blog.

5. The Restaurant Guys

(40 minutes)

Smart and irreverent, Mark Pascal and Francis Schott, tackle food issues big and small. The New Jersey based radio team has been described as “Car Talk for food.”

6. Munchcast

(30-60 minutes)

Though far from healthy, this junk food based podcast with San Francisco radio personality Cammy Blackstone and geek foodie Leo Laporte is both hilarious and informative, and definitely worth working into your listening schedule. Haven’t you ever wondered who invented the Jello shot?

7. The Minimalist

(3-5 minutes video)

I love Mark Bittman (New York Times) for many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to bridge the gap between culinary decadence and mostly-healthy delicacies. These short videos are perfect mini cooking lessons for urbanites on the go.

8. NPR: Food Podcast

(5-40 minutes)

National Public Radio has a knack for putting together quality radio shows, and NPR Food is no exception. Food stories from around the nation are interesting, informative and inspiring.

9. Epicurious

(3 minutes video)

Guest chefs and mixologists share their quick lessons on how to cook, shop, mix drinks and live like a foodie.

10. NPR: Your Health

(15-30 minutes)

Not exclusively food-related, but filled with useful health news and information.

What food and health podcasts do you love?

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For The Love of Food

by | Jun 19, 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.

The food safety bill finally passed this week, I found 2 fabulous (looking) soup recipes and Lifehacker shares the best tools for storing them.

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. I am also currently accepting guest posts for any healthy eating and exercise tips.

For The Love of Food

What great articles did you read or write this week? Leave your links in the comments.

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