Thursday, January 29, 2009

Salt Licked and School Lunch

If you already read yesterday's NY Times Dining section, you likely expected me to post this blog. Such a given, how could I not? The feature article of the section, "Throwing the Book at Salt," sheds light on the newest food-health campaign to hit the American public. Welcome to the war on salt and high-sodium diets waged by NYC's Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden. We've banned trans-fats from NYC menus, thank goodness, and we're onto something new. Hidden sodium in packaged, mass-produced food items is the culprit and has been on the chopping block with health professionals and nutritionists (myself included) for years. Similar to hidden sugar, sodium can be found lurking in any number of unsuspecting foods that you eat every day. The issue isn't likely the salt (hopefully a moderate amount) you're using to cook with or the dash of salt you're sprinkling over a meal, it's all the things we eat without realizing what exactly is in them. It's these items that contribute over 80% of our sodium intake. Here are a few crazy stats to consider: recent research found that by 2000, men were consuming 48% more sodium than they were in the 1970s and women, 69% more. Currently, the daily rec for sodium is 2,300 mg -- about 1 teaspoon of salt. Most Americans are consuming double that. Feel constantly bloated and parched...well, now you know why in part!
Where can you find excess salt? Anywhere and everywhere - even in healthful products like Kashi's Heart to Heart Honey Oat waffles (2 waffles contain 15% of your daily sodium rec). Your big red flags are going to be canned soups, many of which contain 1000mg or more of sodium per serving, frozen dinners, packaged snacks, canned tomato sauces, cold cuts and bottled dressings to name a few. Here's a few other shockers...
1 cup of Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains 17% of your daily rec and 1 Thomas's plain bagel has 20%. My favorite, 1 measley packet of fast food ketchup contains 5%. Ok, so it's only 5%, but who seriously uses only 1 packet!? Let's try 4-5 for most of us.
So Dr. Frieden is wanting food manufacturers to curb the amount of salt they add to food in hopes of lowering our overall consumption of sodium. Definitely an uphill battle, but something that definitely requires attention -- a diet high in sodium impacts high blood pressure and heart disease among other health issues.
What actually struck me most in the entire piece, was the last line: "Diet is an incredibly complicated business". An incredible statement, because it is indeed, but it really shouldn't be. What we eat, what comprises our "diet", was never intended to become all tangled up with business, mass food production, food lobbying and farm subsidies. Of course that's the natural outgrowth of capitalism and a growing population. When we eat real, basic, fresh food, whole ingredients...surprise, surprise, we're healthier and hopefully happier than ever. Just thought I'd throw in my two shakes of salt. What do you think?

photo credit: Tony Cenicola, The New York Times

Finally...a quick note on another NY Times report, actually a blog post, yesterday -- on how one of Obama's White House chefs, Sam Kass, is seeking to overhaul the School Lunch Program. Finally! Here's a quick excerpt from Tara Parker Pope's WELL blog post:

"In May, over a meal of locally-produced beef and barley soup, Mr. Kass lamented the sorry state of the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to schoolchildren. He noted that what gets served up to kids is influenced by government agricultural subsidies. As a result, he says, meals served to students are low in vegetables and disproportionately high in fat, additives, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. (He also links the high consumption of sugary foods and food additives to learning difficulties and attention deficit disorder, although the medical community remains divided on that issue.)"

Fingers and forks crossed people...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Food Fight in the White House

Though the inauguration is now a week behind us, the throw down that's been stirring in the White House kitchen is just starting to simmer down...and I'm not talking "Iron Chef". There's been quite a bit of chatter and chiding the past few months over how President Obama and his family would change the way the White House, and a good portion of the U.S., eats. Renown and pioneering chefs like Alice Waters, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Ruth Riechl and one of Obama's favorites, Rick Bayless, formed the 44th Prez's informal "kitchen cabinet" and have been urging a new focus on sustainable, organic, seasonal and local foods...along with a vegetable garden to be planted behind the White House. Incredible, reforming idea, but as it turns out, it's not so new. Former President Bush's executive White House chef Cristeta Comerford has been focusing on organic and seasonal foods for years and has been chosen to stay on as the Obama's main chef. Regardless of which chef is at the helm, I'm very hopeful that the Obamas' love for great food and for good health will have an impact on our society -- encouraging Americans, particularly children, to take a closer look at what we put on our plates. Yes, I realize I write on this topic often (citing the words and writings of Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Mark Bittman and the like), but if the political shift can take another turn towards fresh, wholesome food over the next 4 years, that'll be quite an accomplishment.
Photo credit: - by Whipped Bakeshop

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Soup's on

Baby, it's freaking cold outside! With temperatures in the teens and single digits this past week, I've been avoiding the elements as much as possible and have been cooking up some serious go-to comfort food when the weather's chilly. I have to say, these two soups are damn tasty -- they're wonderfully hearty, packed with nutrients and flavor and they're crazy simple and speedy to make when you're strapped for time and want a quick, cozy meal. Hope they warm you up a little.
This might be my favorite soup, or rather, stew of all time (excluding my mom's infamous split pea soup). I adapted this soup from my mom's old recipe. Basically I throw a ton of vegetables in along with kidney and white cannelini beans, tomatoes, a little vino and a good parmesan rind (the key to a richer flavor). The soup tends to get more 'stewy' after a day or two when all the flavors meld, that's when you know it's really ready to eat. Can't go wrong with a good, thick pot full of flavorful winter veggies!

1 small yellow onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 15 oz can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 oz can white cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
3-4 carrots, chopped
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
1-2 zucchini, chopped
1 small bunch kale or spinach *optional
2 baby red potatoes, cut into small chunks
1 28oz can whole tomatoes *(I'm a big fan of San Marzano)
16-24 oz low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock *depending on how big your pot is and how much you want to make
1 parmesan cheese rind
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup macaroni elbows
1/2 cup dry red wine or sherry
extra parmesan or pecorino romano cheese for grating

In a large stockpot, heat olive oil on medium-high, add garlic cloves and cook about 30 seconds. Add beans and mash just slightly, allow to cook about 2 minutes. Add in carrots through chicken stock and season with salt and pepper. Add in parmesan rind and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 45-50 minutes. Add in macaroni and wine and allow to cook another 10-15 minutes. Remove bay leaves and parmesan rind. Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino romano.

Tuscan White Bean Soup
I typically make this soup with seasonal winter greens like escarole or kale, but I decided to experiment this go-round, leaving the greens out and pureeing the soup in hopes of a thick, hearty finish. It was a great call, though I'm always up for a steaming bowl of old-school escarole and white bean soup. Try toasting up a garlic crouton or two to top off the soup, I think they'd make for the perfect finisher drizzled with a little of the chili oil and some shredded pecorino romano.

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cans white cannelini beans, rinsed and drained **if you've got the time, soak dried beans overnight and use instead of the canned ones, they're generally cheaper, creamier consistency and way tastier (and soaking them first helps ward off the unwelcome flatulence that often occupanies bean-heavy dishes). The soup make take longer to cook if using dried, soaked beans. Simmer with stock, adding additional stock if needed until beans are throughly cooked and then puree.
48 oz (1.5 quarts) low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 tsp salt (extra to taste) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 tsp red chili flakes *extra for serving
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese and extra for serving
chili-garlic oil for drizzling
In a heavy-bottomed large stockpot, heat olive oil and medium-high and saute garlic about 30 seconds. Add in beans, broth, salt, pepper, and red chili flakes. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for about 45-60 minutes until beans become soft. Add parmesan cheese to soup and puree in food processor in batches. Pour back into stockpot and serve hot. Drizzle with olive oil studded with red chili flakes and a bit of minced garlic (flavored oil can be made up to a week in advance). Sprinkle with extra parmesan or pecorino romano.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cleaning House for 2009...the Best Kitchen Staples

I just lost a lengthy we're expediting this go-round. Argh! Starting anew appears to be the theme today. This post is a smattering of bits, pieces and articles that I hope you'll find helpful as you continue to push through January in high-gear.
Many of you hear me talking (again and again) about stocking your kitchen with essentials -- 10-15 staples to always have around. Why? It'll make your life incredibly easier when you open the fridge at 9pm at night and realize there's nothing there and you're starving. Or when you're ready to saute up a nice bunch of winter greens and realize you've used up all your olive oil down to the last drop. One of my favorite food columnists, Mark Bittman of the New York Times, wrote a great article last week titled "Fresh Start for a New Year? Let's Begin in the Kitchen". In the article, Bittman, who's also the author of the new book, Food Matters, speaks about the value, taste, health benefit (and economic benefit) of kitchen staples like olive oil, dried beans, frozen peas and veggies, vinegar, fresh spices and nuts. Sound familiar? Bittman's essentials may be geared more specificially for cooking, but the general concept is the same. Definitenly worth a quick read. What are my own kitchen staples? Here are the top 10 in no specific order:

1. extra virgin olive oil (can't live without it. cooking, homemade salad dressings, you name it. i'm using a great Greek olive oil at the moment)
2. low-fat plain yogurt (one of my fave breakfasts, keeps me going all morning with some fruit and a handful of granola or nuts. my wintry combo of late has been banana, 5-6 chopped walnuts, and a dash of cinnamon or a teaspoon of maple syrup or apple butter. yum)
3. garlic (i love it. my breath unfortunately, does not)
4. eggs (perfect for a quick, satisfying weeknight meal or easy weekend breakfast)
5. 2% cottage cheese (call me weird, but i love the stuff. it's a super-satisfying snack or breakfast with banana slices...a genius combo introduced to me by my grandmother at the tender age of 1)
6. parmesan, pecorino romano and goat cheese (all are typically found in my fridge. a great way to add a ton of flavor to dishes, salads etc without a ton of calories or fat. i can use pecorino on virtually anything and goat cheese paired with a few wholegrain crackers makes a tasty snack)
7. canned/dried beans (i need to follow Bittman's lead and prepare my dried beans more frequently to save on time and space. cannelini, lentils, chickpeas, kidney and black beans...all great to keep around)
8. balsamic/sherry/champagne vinegars (as i mentioned above, i'm big on homemade salad dressings, the taste just doesn't compare. ideally the balsamic is a good quality, authentic brand from Modena. it's great for marinades and glazes for fish, poultry, meat etc.)
9. nuts and dried fruit (from pecans to walnuts to pine nuts, dried cherries to raisins, i'll use nuts and dried fruit to sprinkle over salads, side dishes, a quick trail-mix on the go)
10. low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth (if i can't make my own, pre-made broth is a good thing to have around for soups, stews, sauteing/braising veggies and chicken. i usually go with the cartons of broth for easy storage in the fridge once open)
11. Bonus points...fresh fruits and vegetables!!! - at least 3 different types of each can be found in my fridge or on my counter top at all times. golden beets, kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, clementines, grapefruits, Empire apples from the greenmarket and grapes in the mix this week)
Next up, since we're speaking of kitchen essentials and favorites, I thought it'd be worth mentioning the cookbook I happen to be reading at the moment. I ordered Tom Colicchio's cookbook, Think Like a Chef, a few weeks ago and it finally appeared in the mail over the weekend. Colicchio is the famed chef/judge on Bravo's Top Chef and owns Craft Restaurant in NYC. I'm a big fan (and it's not only because of his cleanly shaven head). It's a great cookbook that very much mirrors how I personally think about food and the process of creating a dish/recipe. The book takes you step by step through his thought process and hits on techniques first, building up to simple, seasonal recipes. Just the way I myself like to cook! Thanks Tom, this is definitely going to be a staple reference on my shelf!

Finally, on a random not-so-"nutritionist" side note, I was invited to dine at Peter Luger's steakhouse last night with a few friends. Though one might think the massive quantities of steak, Canadian bacon and creamed spinach are a nutritionist's worst nightmare, there's always a way to make the best of any situation and truly enjoy it, healthfully. I'm personally not a big steak eater and never have been since childhood, so why did I accept the invite? Peter Luger's is a long-standing NY institution, I'm always up for trying something new, and I always enjoy the company and conversation of good friends. I can confidently say, we had a pretty healthful meal in the grand scheme of things. Portions and balancing out your order is everything in such a steak-filled situation. I balanced out my meal with the mixed greens salad we ordered to start, fresh steamed broccoli, and some potatoes. Of course I had a few small pieces of steak and a few bites of the Canadian bacon (it's what they're known for, gotta try it). Not a lover of creamed spinach, I skipped over it so I could share in the wonderfulness that is Luger's hot fudge sundae. Umm...heaven and well worth the splurge of calories on a random Sunday evening. Don't worry, I practice what I preach, we shared the sundae.

above photo credit: Miles & Co.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 bite at a time

It's that time of year folks. Bring on the inevitable resolutions for 2009. Alot of us talk the talk each year for what...a few fleeting weeks? (myself included depending on the resolution). A conversation thread I caught on the Today Show yesterday morning got me thinking a bit though. Why do we feel obligated to force goals, intentions and resolutions upon ourselves right on January 1st each year? Who's to say you can't set goals for yourself mid-July? Sure, the fresh start of a new year serves as a good impetus to reflect and think about what you'd like to accomplish over the next 365 days, but I think the primary point of all of this, is to blaze a path when you're truly ready for it and can achieve whatever it is that much more successfully. There's nothing worse than setting a bar so unrealistically high it's absolutely unattainable. Personally, I'm a big fan of baby steps and mapping out how I can feasibly get from point A to point Z, how my goal or intention fits into my life...kind of like writing a biz plan (I know, I'm such a nerd). But it works and I don't feel guilty, pissed off, or down on myself if I start something and trail off days later. Whether it's eating more fruits and vegetables, cooking at home more to cuts costs and trim down a little, sleeping more soundly, or simply taking more time for yourself (probably the most challenging goal of all!) -- none of us are perfect, if we slip up a little, ok, not the end of the world...get right back up and back on the horse. The commentators on yesterday's show made a great point: pick a single word or phrase to describe the year ahead for you in order to better focus on your goals, like "strength", "spending smartly", "mindful eating" etc. Yes, a bit cheesy and hokey, but if it works for you, who cares.

So in the spirit of creating baby step intentions for the year, here a few of my own for 2009...

1. sleep more (falling asleep at my laptop at 12:30am is not productive!)
2. consider the environmental impact of my food choices more frequently (particularly around overfished seafood)
3. continue to purchase as much as possible from the greenmarket...fruits, veggies, eggs, meats/poultry/fish and more (it's nice putting a face to who's feeding you and it supports the local economy, agriculture and community...not to mention all the health benefits)
4. try to get home earlier at night to cook dinner more during the week (rather than scrambling to make something super-fast from whatever's in my fridge)
5. experiment with some new recipes using ingredients and exploring certain ethnic cuisines I haven't worked with before
6. run the NYC Marathon for charity next November *this might kill me, but it's something I've been wanting to do for a while now
7. spend more time writing (this goal actually HAS to get done thanks to some set deadlines. I won't go into detail, but we've got some pretty exciting projects on the horizon for 2009...more to come on that note, stay tuned!)
8. invest in some better cookware finally (specifically, I'm shooting for a good stainless steel pan or two like those by All-Clad and an iron skillet so heavy it could take off a toe or two if dropped...for $20 though it's a kitchen staple. An enameled cast iron pot from Le Creuset was my exciting purchase for 2008 and I'm a bit obsessed. It's amazing and with it's fiery red color, it looks damn sassy sitting on my stovetop)
9. take more time to focus on my *personal* life (I swear, Mom, I'm trying!)

What are your big intentions for the year ahead? Here's to a delicious 2009!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lookin FINE in '09!

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a glorious time ringing in 2009. May it be bright and much more financially sound than last. And most of all, may you experience many days of healthful-deliciousness this coming year. I kicked off NYE doing just that and cooked dinner for a few close friends--a nice, chill way to celebrate the evening without all the ball-dropping, cab-snatching chaos that envelops this city every freaking year. It was a small group, so I decided to just keep things simple and light with a hint of decadence, it being NYE and all. Not giving things too much thought prior to the day (not so typical of me, but the holidays have been a bit nutty), I ducked out of my warm apartment late afternoon and jetted over to Whole Foods and then down to Bleeker Street in the freezing cold weather. Why I thought it'd be a smart idea to run around the city for 2 hours in 20 degree weather, I have no clue, I'll do whatever it takes to come up with a decent meal I guess. Pushed onward by the blasting wind, I skirted over to Bleeker and hit up The Lobster Place (great lobsters at $11.99 per lb), Murray's Cheese Shop (a venerable standby), and Amy's Bread.
Here's the off-the-cuff menu I went with:
Cheese & cracker plate - drunken goat cheese and a warmed goat cheese w/rosemary bread & fig spread
Arugula salad w/blood orange, shaved pecorino romano and orange-balsamic vinaigrette
Lobster papardelle pasta w/roasted tomatoes
Vanilla bean ice cream w/warm sour cherries in red wine

I must say, for an impromptu dinner, it was darn tasty. I ended up making things a little easier on myself and bought a lobster that was already steamed. Next time, I'd tweak the recipe below and definitely would purchase a fresh, live lobster and cook it myself. I'd also probably swap the chili-garlic oil at the end for a dab or two of butter to bring out the richness in the lobster a little more. Not as heart-healthy, but NYE is a special occasion and all. Here's the pasta recipe, it's a keeper!

Lobster papardelle with roasted tomatoes
1 - 1 1/2 lb steamed lobster, remove meat from claws and tail, cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 package of papardelle ribbons/nests
1 Tbsp olive oil (addtl Tbsp for roasting tomatoes)
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pint grape tomatoes

1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
3 Tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp basil, julienned or chopped
1/3 cup parmesan cheese + extra for sprinkling
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ tsp red chili flakes (or to taste)
1-2 tsp chili-garlic oil for drizzling *or try 2 tsp butter at end
*I make a little ramekin of chili-garlic oil every few days just for flavoring/finishing. I like it spicy! Combine 1 *small* clove minced garlic, 1/8 tsp red chili flakes, a dash of salt and about 2-3 Tbsp olive oil. It should keep for 3-4 days.

Preheat oven to 325.
*Roasted tomatoes: Toss grape tomatoes with 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 clove garlic minced, salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 20-25 minutes until skin bursts.
*Pasta: Bring large pot of water to boil. Add pappardelle and cook 7 minutes until al dente. Drain.
*Sauteing lobster: Heat heavy, large pan or stockpot on medium with 1 Tbsp olive oil, 2 cloves minced garlic, onion and wine until alcohol cooks off a bit, about 2-3 minutes. Add pieces of cut tail and claws and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add in roasted tomatoes, red chili flakes, salt, pepper and parsley and cook for another 2-3 minutes, until meat is cooked through. Toss in pasta, parmesan, basil and chili oil/butter at last minute and toss to serve.